It was a crisp evening in Angel. The kind where the sky is that deep, dark blue, clear and limitless. The kind you never get. The kind where anything is possible.
From the doorstep of the Regency town house, we could hear the party already in full force. I let Sera ring the bell. I stood with my arms folded, giving her a look out of the corner of my eye. It was yet another way for me to show her that I didn’t want to be there, that I wished I’d gone straight home after work.
“Half an hour, tops, then I’m out,” I said.
Through the living-room window, I caught snippets of chatter and wondered if I could make it home in time to order sushi from the new place I’d found. That, and only that, would redeem the night.
“Twenty minutes,” Sera promised me. She was lying, which she knew I knew. She also knew I wasn’t in the mood to pass the time with a group of strangers whose default topic of conversation would be either work or how they spent their time when not at work in order to forget about work. She knew because I’d told her three times: once in the staffroom when she’d asked me to go with her in the first place, again in a voice message, and for a third time on the way there.
“Watch me though. Twenty minutes gonna be too much for dese people!” She spoke in the voice we both had a habit of slipping back into when it was just the two of us. The one we’d used during our rude-girl phase as fourteen-year-olds. Sera began to dance to the beat, winding her waist like she wasn’t really on a doorstep in the middle of a residential street at all but on a stage being watched by adoring fans, proving to me she was in the mood and there was nothing anyone could do about it. She stopped abruptly when the door was answered by a random reveler who let us in without bothering to ask who we were. Sera kissed her teeth and closed the door behind us, muttering that this was London and people shouldn’t just be letting anyone and everyone in like that. As soon as we were inside, I could see her pulling a large bottle of rum out of her tiny bag like she was Mary Poppins. Then she morphed seamlessly into her alter ego, Rum-Punch-Stiltskin, a name I’d christened her with in a haze of daiquiris, Jean Harlows, and mojitos on our graduation trip to Ibiza where I’d spent most of the week trying to forget that I’d only managed to achieve a 2:1 while Sera had got a first.
Turning round to look at me from the end of the corridor in that cavernous house, she gave me the same mischievous lip curl she’d been giving me since we were kids, and hollered, “You know you love me, Lay Lay!” before being sucked into the vortex of a party she never had any intention of leaving. F***, I thought, wondering how many people were staring at me at that exact moment, on my lonesome. I seriously considered heading straight back out through the front door leaving Sera to it. I could probably even get away with blaming it on Leon breaking things off with me abruptly three days ago, despite, in truth, not being that bothered. After six dates and zero sexual chemistry, plus quite a lot of thought on my part about the many changes I’d make to his personality, whatever we were doing had barely got off the ground.
I scanned the rooms leading off the hallway trying to decide where to hide and scroll. I chose to bypass the living room full of people shouting into each other’s faces over the playlist and opted for the more sedate open-plan kitchen with its expensive-looking bifold doors leading out into a garden featuring strung lights with exposed elements, a fire pit, an underwhelming water feature and a willow tree, wondering who in the hell could afford a house share as swanky as this one.
I made myself a drink, purposefully ignoring house-party etiquette by finishing off the Bombay Sapphire and claiming the last remaining chilled can of Fever Tree tonic without replacing them with anything because I’d arrived empty-handed. I inspected the nibbles on offer but then remembered to save room for my late-night sushi feast, which I intended to eat in my kimono in front of Valeria, the Spanish version of Sex and the City I’d discovered on Netflix. I felt almost nauseous knowing there were unseen episodes I could be watching and maki rolls I could be eating, instead of standing on my own in a stranger’s kitchen trying not to catch other strangers’ eyes and thinking about how I could begin reclaiming my time as soon as humanly possible.
I nestled my lower back against the edge of the island. No sooner had I positioned myself with just the right amount of nonchalance in the angle of my lean, my elbow both propping me up and facilitating my browse, than I was interrupted. He was someone I’d describe with a phrase I reserve for only exceptional-looking individuals and use indiscriminately for men and women: He was quite, quite beautiful. Obviously tipsy but no less attractive for it. There was something stylish about him too. Not smart or particularly well groomed—but there was an effortlessness about the way he looked, the way he carried himself, that struck me as the epitome of good styling in a man. He wore a striped crew-neck jumper that he’d ruched up at the sleeves to reveal toned forearms, a Casio watch circa 1987, and a freckle on his left wrist. He was only a few inches taller than me—I’d put him at about five eight. The care and attention he’d paid to his clothes hadn’t quite made it down to his feet. His Diadora trainers were so battered it looked like he’d lived in them for years. His hair was mousy brown, longish on top, shorter on the sides, but not so short that I couldn’t make out a few silvery tones beginning to creep through before their time.
He asked me if I minded. I didn’t know what he meant at first but then he pointed to a bottle of Grey Goose like it was mine so I shrugged and told him to go ahead. I could feel him looking at me as he chose a mixer, as he poured them one by one and replaced the caps on both bottles. And I could still feel his gaze—not creepy, just noticeable—after someone else at the party, who clearly wanted him to join her out in the garden for a cigarette, had come and gone, giving up on him and leaving him there staring at me staring at my phone. I took a sip from my emptying glass. He raised his in my direction, performing a sort of air toast that felt old-fashioned and an inappropriate thing to do at that kind of gathering, so far from a bar or dining table.
“Courtesy of the birthday girl,” he said. “Cheers.”
“Yeah. To What’s-Her-Name.” I mimicked his extended arm, miming the toast and stopping short of any meeting of actual glassware. I noticed him smirking but assumed it had nothing to do with me.
“What’s-Her-Name,” he agreed.
We stood in silence playing footsie with our eyes for a few moments then I reached for my phone again. But before I could load BBC News, he asked, “What’s yours?”
I chose to reveal no more than the first syllable, telling him, “Lay. Yeah, Lay’s fine,” thinking that it would send the message that I wasn’t really in the mood for making small talk, even if he was fit AF.
“Fine if it’s your name, yeah,” he said, and I instantly felt stupid for not just saying Layla. My name is Layla. Like the song. So, while I tried to think of a way to rectify the situation, I smiled a smile I saw go right through him, as though it were a bright light hitting his retina at the optician’s.
“Well, if you must know, my name is Layla McKinnon.” And then I waited. Half wondering if he’d be impressed when really I just sounded like I was at school calling the register.
“Really? That’s my name.”
“Layla? F*** off.”
“No. I’m obviously not called Layla. I meant McKinnon. I’m Andy. McKinnon.”
I suddenly felt the innermost part of my left ear begin to tingle, a sensation that spread along my jawline and into my lips. I didn’t know what it meant but hoped it wasn’t the warning signs I used to get before a migraine.
Part of me wanted to tell him to f*** off again. It would have been easy enough to have pretended to need the loo, to have walked off, leaving him standing there, to have forgotten about him and the encounter altogether. It’d just be one of the weird things that happened at a party I could barely remember. But at the same time, I felt temporarily immobilized. As though what was happening between us was a marker of some kind, something I might look back on and recognize as a moment of change. An awkward silence began to creep in and the only way I could think to put a stop to it was to knock back the rest of my drink and tell him I needed to look for my friend, the one I’d arrived with, who was the person who actually knew someone who knew What’s-Her-Name, as she’d probably be wondering where I was, even though she’d abandoned me at the door and was dead to me.
“Stay for another drink,” he said.
“I think you’ve had enough,” I shot back without missing a beat.
Copyright © 2024 by Phoebe McIntosh. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.