The feeling rose up inside me like a wave, hot and heady in its passion. It scared me. I felt my pulse tapping at my skin, a tiny hammer, furious and afraid. I laughed to shake it off, and the sound was too loud in the muted bar. It rang out across the gleaming heads of the clientele, arched eyebrows turning, mouths closing elegantly. The sound died quickly, sucked into the heavy red carpet of the large room. My high heels dug into the back of my ankles, the patent leather squeaked against the other shoe.
I felt so out of place here, and a dim flush seeped upwards toward my hairline. The angry blotches of red skin would be quivering on my chest soon, a telltale sign that I was drunk, or flustered or worst of all – both. Avery swept her eyes across my shining brow, the patches on my chest, and then her gaze came to rest on my shaking bottom lip. She smiled at me quietly, surreptitiously, and snaked her palm into my own. Her hand was warm and dry, and it calmed me a little. I watched my thighs, and listened idly to the chatter.
‘Well I’m not sure what you’re going to do with all of those anyway,’ Millie was saying blithely. ‘You’ll never find anywhere to put them.’
The ladies tittered and rustled, and it was a minute before I realised that their collective eyes were on me, waiting for my input. I looked around at them, suddenly hyper conscious of my over-waxed eyebrows and thick bronzer. It was Charlotte’s pitying gaze that did it.
‘Well I don’t know,’ I said brazenly, flipping my hair across my shoulder. ‘With a husband like yours, I hear that anything is possible.’ My chin was high as I gazed down the barrel of the room at Chelsea, daring her to argue, to deny it. The rumours had gone around like Chlamydia in Hamilton, wildfire through the women in our circle, but never – no never! – mentioned in Chelsea’s presence, and definitely not directly to her. What did it concern her that her husband had a warehouse full of stolen car parts and laundered money. I was sick to the back teeth with it. With the deceit, the hidden agenda.
It was Avery who saved the situation.
‘Okay,’ she said lightly, drawing the word out as though waving a verbal white flag. ‘Enough for you I think Zoey.’ She moved my soda water lightly away from me on the table, the joke failing to raise a smile with anyone. I felt ashamed suddenly, and I watched Chelsea’s face, ashen but smiling, her eyes overbright. I was the only one to notice the tremble of her lower lip, and I felt bad.
Lunch ended shortly afterwards. Despite Avery’s cheerful banter she could not achieve the upbeat vibe that had reigned easily before I had spoken. We said our goodbyes, Chelsea turning her face so as not to meet my eye, and left.
‘For God’s sake Zoey!’ Avery scolded as we marched down the road outside Friars. It was cold and grey, and leaves skittered across the road, loud and metallic against the tar seal. ‘What did you say that for?’ She turned to look at me, stopping abruptly on the pavement. A woman with a pram almost walked into her, and peered carefully into our faces as she navigated around us. Avery’s dark hair tumbled around her pale face, and the concern across her brow almost hurt to look at.
‘Sorry,’ I mumbled at the ground. ‘I don’t know why.’ I felt chastised and horrible, almost defiant against it. I felt exactly like I did when I was a little girl and I pulled a chair out graciously for a boy in my class, jerking it a the last second so that he landed heavily on his tailbone, and regretting it immediately as he started to cry.