‘Yeah, sure, you know I’m good for that,’ I say lazily. ‘I love a bit of decorating. My fee is dinner, for as many days as it takes us to finish all the rooms you want to do, right?’

Sam laughs.

‘Yeah sure. Cheap at half the price.’

I look at him. It’s been a while since I’ve really looked at him this closely. Maybe as long as a year. We didn’t see each other at Christmas. He was away, visiting his brother Michael in Dublin, so I’d had to do without his company for once. Although that isn’t quite true, as I’d been giving him a bit of a wide berth for a while before that. Since he’d started going out with Alyssa last summer. I’d liked her, the couple of times I’d met her, but I wasn’t sure she felt the same about me. Maybe she wasn’t the sort of girlfriend who appreciated her new boyfriend having a female best friend? Is that too many friends for one sentence? Definitely one too many for Alyssa, anyway.

Back to Sam. He’s getting his hair cut in a different way these days. Shorter at the back, but still long and a bit unruly on top. And hasn’t shaved for a couple of days at least. And just generally looks older now. Less like the teenager I still remember him as in my mind.


‘If you’re going to be cheeky, you can do it all yourself,’ I warn him.

‘Don’t be like that,’ he laughs again, and pushes his plate away. ‘I’m stuffed. You?’

‘Uh, yeah. That was my plate you just polished off, remember?’

He doesn’t even try to look embarrassed.

‘Got anything you need to do this evening?’

I give some consideration to the reading I should do for college, the skirt I said I’d alter for my sister, and the backlog of ‘The Bridge’ I keep promising myself I’ll watch.

‘Not a thing.’

‘Huh. Want to come and see the latest Tarantino with me, then? It’s on up the road.’

‘Yeah, ok. What time’s it start?’

‘We’ve got time to walk there. Want to?’

This is typical of him, the way he doesn’t ever get into the detail of anything, just makes it irresistibly simple.


‘Slow it down, Sam, you know I can’t keep up,’ I complain, as he strides down the high street.

‘Short arse,’ is what he says, but he does slacken off a little bit, letting me catch up with him.

‘When do you want to paint the flat, then? Only I’ve got some time this week and early next, and then I’m starting back at the warehouse to earn some money to pour into the gaping black hole of my student debt.’

‘Ok. How about we make a start the day after tomorrow, as Alyssa’s coming over tomorrow sometime?’

‘Course. Do we need to buy the paint or have you already done that?’

I’m pretty sure I know the answer already, and he confirms it by shaking his head.

‘Not exactly. I need you to work out how much I need to buy.’

I smile.

‘Same old Sam,’ and duck away from his hand as he bats it at the side of my head.

‘What can I say, Cora? There are just some things I can’t do without you.’

‘Aw,’ I say, mockingly.

Although I can’t deny it’s nice to hear him say it.

I’ve loved the cinema since I can remember, ever since my dad had first taken me on the weekends he had visiting rights, and then it was one of the things me and Sam had loved to do together as soon as we were old enough to go out on our own. Luckily, we share eclectic tastes and almost nothing is out of bounds. Not even romcoms. In fact, I suspect Sam of liking them more than I do.

Taking our seats, he sighs and stretches out his long legs in front of him.

‘Brilliant. I haven’t been to the cinema for ages.’

This surprises me. Maybe Alyssa hates films?

‘Haven’t you?’


Back in the day, we’d have fought an energetic battle over whose arm got the lion’s share of the armrest between our seats, but I suppose that was when we were just kids, before touching got complicated. I glance across at his profile, quickly, stealing another look at him, trying to work out what feels different about him today.

The film is beautifully shot and completely violent. I’m enthralled. It’s not until half-way through I realise his forearm is touching mine. Huh. Whether it’s that, or the over-zealous air conditioning, my skin breaks out in goose bumps and I shudder.

‘Cold?’ he whispers into my ear.

And he’s pulling his sweatshirt off, pushing it over to me and watching me until I pull it over my head and down my body. It smells of him.

‘Thanks,’ I smile at him in the dark.

I’ve missed this.



My phone dings. It’s Sam. I pick it up from the dining table where I’m doing a bit of college work.

‘Pick you up 8.30 for fun and games in B&Q.’

I smile.

‘Course,’ I text back.

He doesn’t need to say where. We live in the same block of flights. Grew up here. My mum and sister still live here, of course, where Sam’s taken over the lease on his mum’s flat since she had to move into the care home earlier in the year. That’s why he needs the decorating done. He’s got a tenant moving into the second bedroom, to help him with the rent.

I sit back, stretch my arms and squeeze my eyes shut. Alice will be back soon, and I won’t get much more of this reading done once that happens, as she’ll be prancing about our bedroom telling me all about her latest crush, her friends’ latest crushes, and what everyone is saying about everyone else’s latest crush.


I’m sitting on the metal fence by his car, swinging my legs and regarding the children’s playground in the common space between all the flats. That’s where we first met, me and Sam. I was seven. He was eight, nearly nine. We’d just moved in. Mum brought me and my sister down here to play with the other kids. My sister – Alice – well, she was straight in there. Not a shy bone in her. But I’d stood with my back pressed into mum’s legs until Sam had walked up to me and asked me my name.

I don’t remember it, but mum said it was that first day he’d pulled out a length of the rope that was wound around his waist and had proceeded to tie it around mine. She’d been astonished at how I’d let him, and not only that, but how happily I’d skipped off with him. Every time he came to call for me that year, he’d done the same. Tied one end of his rope around my waist.

Weird huh?

We both get a bit wigged out if our mums try to tease us about it these days, and we never mention it to each other, ever. But it did happen. There’s evidence – photos of us tied together like that, crooked smiles on our faces.

‘Hey. Think you can still drive?’

I only just manage to catch the car keys he’s chucked in my direction.

‘Ha ha!’

I think he’s joking, but when he opens the passenger door, I realise with surprise that he isn’t.


‘Sure. You could probably do with the practice.’

‘Hilarious,’ I say, but get in anyway, yanking the seat forwards to give me a chance of reaching the pedals.

‘Can you remember where to put them?’ he’s gesturing at the keys.

It’s an old joke, but one that obviously still works for him, as he’s chuckling away to himself.

He taught me to drive. Probably one of the hardest things we went through, as I turned out to be a recalcitrant and stubborn pupil, but he didn’t give up on me, and I passed. Second time, admittedly. His running commentary on my driving prowess is relentless from the moment I stick the keys in the ignition, but I rise above it, even if I am a bit nervous. Once we arrive, I even manage a decent job of reversing into a parking space.

‘There you go. That wasn’t so bad, was it?’ he’s smiling at me.

I blow my cheeks out.

‘You need to keep your hand in, C, that’s all.’

And I’m surprised when he rubs my forearm. Not teasing me.


‘Ok, Sam, ok. So, run me through what we’re buying here.’

‘And there I was, thinking the painter-decorator’s daughter was going to have it all worked out for me already.’

I tut at him.


I’m just finishing off the second coat on the bedroom ceiling, my arm aching from a day of painting, when I hear Sam clattering around in the kitchen. I hope that means he’s starting on dinner, because I’m starving.

‘Cora, dinner in half an hour, alright?’

‘Yeah. Sounds good. I’ve almost finished this ceiling.’

I listen to the sounds coming from the kitchen; Sam humming to himself. He loves cooking. Doesn’t follow the recipe, obviously, but seems to have a feel for what’s going to work. I’m useless at it. But I am good at decorating, where he’s still at apprentice level. We’re opposites.

I’m just wrapping the paint roller up in plastic when he’s tapping the top of my head.

‘Wha – bloody hell, don’t do that, Sam. I didn’t know you were there!’

‘Sorry. Wanted to know if you wanted a beer or anything?’

I stand up. Catch a weird look crossing his face, but it’s gone before I can work out what it was.

‘Yeah. I’ll have a beer, thanks.’

I watch his back as he walks out of the room. And shrug. What was that look? I shrug again, turn back to push the window wider, thinking it’s lucky for us the weather is so warm. It’ll dry the paint out nice and quickly.

‘Hey, I reckon we’ll be able to paint both bedrooms and the living room if this weather holds out, you know.’

He starts, as if I’ve surprised him, now.

‘What’s with you, so jumpy?’ I tease.

He just frowns and hands me a beer. We raise our bottles and take a swig.

‘Thanks for doing this, Cora,’ he says, all serious.

‘Hey, you knew I would?’

‘I know. But still – I appreciate it. This is your summer holiday, after all.’

I roll my eyes at him.

‘What’s for dinner? It smells great.’

‘Sit your skinny bum down, and I’ll dish it up.’

We eat, enjoying the food, the beer, and the light June night.

He tells me stories from his work that make me laugh, and tells me a little more about his plans to go into business with Sanjeev, a friend we were both at school with. It’s something to do with search engines. I haven’t a clue, but I let him babble on about it, enjoying his enthusiasm, and that he still wants to tell me all about it.

‘Why are you smiling like that?’ he asks.

‘Uh – I just like it when you’re so full of plans. It’s cute.’

‘Cute?’ he pushes back from the table and down his chair, his thigh glancing against mine under the table. ‘You know blokes hate that word, C. It’s demeaning.’

‘Is it?’

We’ve had this discussion before. But it’s like a well-worn jumper – familiar and comforting; a reason to be happy.

‘Yeah. Cute is for puppies, kittens, baby chicks and baby humans.’

‘Blokes can’t be cute?’

‘Yeah, sure they can. But if they’re cute, they can’t be sexy.’

‘And blokes want to be sexy?’

‘Uh – duh. Yes.’

‘Not cute?’

‘No! Cute is not sexy. That’s the truth.’

I laugh out loud, he looks so – what? What is that look on his face? I open my mouth to frame the question, but he’s getting up from the table, gathering the plates.

‘I’ll do the washing up,’ I call after his receding back.

‘Nope. That’s not necessary. I’ve got this.’

I follow him into the little kitchen.

‘Are you sure?’

He touches my shoulder, his hand lying heavy and warm on me.

‘Yeah, I’m sure. Step away from the sink, lady,’ he says, doing an impression of a megaphone at me.

‘Right. Well – in that case I think I’ll head off now, Sam, do a bit more reading before it gets too late.’

‘Oh, ok.’

Does he look a bit crestfallen?

‘What time tomorrow, then, boss?’

He smiles at that.

‘Eight too early?’

‘Not if there’s bacon sandwiches for breakfast, it isn’t.’

‘You always did drive a hard bargain with me, Cora.’

‘Ha ha, Sam.’

He follows me to his door, touches my shoulder again, and the way he’s standing there, I practically have to push him out of the way to get past him.


‘What’s up with you?’


‘Nope. Not buying it. You’re hiding something.’

Alice may be my younger sister, but she’s somehow always in charge of our conversations. I sigh and turn on my side to look at her. She’s lying on her bed, and I’m lying on mine. It’s like old times.

‘Cora, you’ve been lying there staring at the ceiling for the last hour. What’s up?’

‘I don’t really know.’

‘What does that mean?’

She’s sharp as a tack and tenacious as a cockroach, my baby sister. It’s not that I don’t love her. I do. But sometimes, I wish she’d cut me some slack. Like now. Because I don’t know why I can’t think of anything else except the look on Sam’s face this evening. I’m genuinely trying to work out what it meant.

‘The silent treatment ain’t working for me. Come on, spit it out, girl.’

I pull a face at her.

‘Ok. So I’ll drag it out of you then.’

Yep. Tenacious.

‘Let me see. You’ve spent all day in Sam’s flat, helping him re-decorate.’

She turns her head to look at me, and smiles.

I try to keep my face straight. If I can’t work out what was happening with Sam today, there is no way I’m ready to talk to Alice about it.

‘As I see it, we have options.’

She holds up her hand, fingers splayed.

‘One,’ she declares, wiggling a finger at me.

‘You finally declared your undying love for him, and not a moment too soon. Two,’ waggling two fingers at me now, ‘he summoned all his courage and finally got around to declaring his undying love for you. Three; you turned him down, although why is a mystery. Four; he turned you down, which would be totally inexplicable. Five; you got it together over the stepladder and it was fantastic but –,’

‘STOP. Alice, please stop.’

Maybe there was something in the tone of my voice, because she actually stops dead and sits up.

‘Wait a minute – have I hit a nerve?’

I reckon she’s as surprised as I am. It’s not as though she hasn’t been through this exact same routine with me before. She’s always teased me about Sam. But I’ve never risen to it. Until now.


And now I sit up.

‘I don’t know, Alice. I don’t know what was going on today. But something was definitely a little bit off with him today.’

‘How so?’

‘I can’t put my finger on it. He just seemed – odd.’

‘Oh my god, you two drive me mad. Are you seriously never going to get it together?’

I tut at her, but she’s having none of it.

‘Why not? You’ve been in love with each other ever since I can remember.’

‘No, we have not.’

‘Uh. Yes, you have. And you’re both back to being single, aren’t you, so what’s the problem?’

‘No, Sam’s with Alyssa.’

‘No, he’s not. They broke up a few months ago.’

‘What? No. She was round his flat yesterday.’

She snorts and shakes her head.

‘Are you sure? They split up before Easter.’

‘Well she was there with him yesterday, so maybe they got back together?’

Alice sighs.

‘Shame if they are. It should be you and Sam. It’s obvious.’

‘I don’t think so.’

Memories of the times his body has been in contact with mine today march across my mind just then.

‘You know, for the first person in our family to go to university, you’re really not that bright.’

I fling my pillow at her.

‘Please shut up.’

And I pull the other pillow over my head.


His front door is ajar, the smell of bacon luring me in.


He swings his head to where I’m standing behind him.

‘Hey! I didn’t hear you come in,’ he says, sounding a bit croaky.

‘Sorry. Didn’t mean to sneak up on you. But your front door was open.’

He nods, turning back to the cooker. And now I come to look at him more closely, he looks a bit rough too.

‘Are you alright? You look a bit peaky?’

‘Mm. Didn’t sleep brilliantly, and woke up late.’ He rubs his hair. ‘Actually, if you wouldn’t mind taking care of things in here for a minute I’d like to get in the shower?’

‘Oh, I see how it is. I have to make my own breakfast, huh,’ I smile at him, teasing him.

He flashes me a smile of his own. But he does look a bit tired.

‘Hey, is everything alright? It’s not Mary, is it?’

‘No. No, mum’s fine. It’s nothing like that. I probably just need a shower to set me right.’

And with that he leaves me to the bacon. I put the pan in the oven on a lower heat, to keep it warm until he’s finished, and cut the bread into slices. I know my way around his kitchen. For one thing, it’s exactly the same as ours, because all these flats are built to the same layout. And for another, this is where Sam’s mum used to teach us to cook. Sam was always the better pupil than me – for cooking, anyway.

I think about how he’s living here on his own now that his mum’s gone into residential care. He was a late baby. Mary must have been in her early forties when she had him. It was the final straw for the marriage and Sam’s never really known his dad. His two older brothers had left home by the time me, mum and Alice moved into these flats, and I hardly know them. Once Sam had taken to tying us up together, Mary had taken me on as the little sister Sam didn’t have, showing us both how to cook and sew and grow things in pots on the windowsills.

She’s had a series of strokes lately. That’s why she’s had to go into a care home. I haven’t seen her for over a year, and I suddenly and rightly feel very guilty about that.

‘I thought you’d have already eaten?’

He’s back, wearing different clothes to earlier, his hair wet and dripping down his neck.

‘I was waiting for you to get through your beauty routine and pretty yourself up.’

We both carry the food to the table, sit down to assemble our own sandwiches. He has brown sauce. I have red.

‘Bacon is the reason I’ll never be able to go vegetarian,’ I say, my mouth full.

‘I hear you.’

‘Is everything ok, Sam? Aside from lack of sleep, I mean?’


But I know him well, and I’m not convinced.

‘Are you sure? How is Mary?’

‘Mum’s ok, actually. Not bad. It’s better for her being in the care home than here. And it has nice gardens which she really likes, as you can imagine.’

‘I’d like to see her. How often do you go?’

‘I was thinking about driving out there tomorrow. Or Sunday. Except Sundays is usually when Sean and his kids go to see her. Do you want to come with me? She’d love to see you. She’s always asking after you.’

‘I’d love to. Yeah, let’s do that, so long as we’re making good progress with the decorating.’

‘Slave driver.’

‘You know it.’

‘You want any more of this?’ He points to the remaining bacon.

I shake my head and watch him fold it into a slice of bread. He eats twice as much as me. Probably because he’s twice the size of me. He shot up when he was thirteen, sending Mary into despair at how quickly he needed new clothes and shoes. That’s really when our mums got friendly – when my mum had taken Mary to one of the clothing swaps she used to organise for our church, and Mary’d been able to find jeans and trainers for Sam she could afford to buy. After that, they’d become fast friends – the Irish Catholic mammy and the Jamaican matriarch. Funny pair, they were.

‘So what is it? You’re not yourself, somehow. Is everything ok with Alyssa?’

I’ve surprised him. We don’t really talk to each other about boyfriend/girlfriend stuff. It’s been out of bounds, somehow. But I’m curious. And maybe a little high from the bacon. Whatever. The question’s out there now, and I wait for him to finish his mouthful.

‘Yeah, it’s fine. But we broke up, you know.’

‘No. I didn’t know.’

He shrugs.

‘Sorry to bring it up. I just assumed you were still together.’

I feel bad now. He’s chewing on the inside of his mouth – a sure sign he’s not happy.