‘Phew!’ Ivy shuffles into the seat opposite Andrew, who looks up and smiles. ‘Made it,’ she says.
After high-fiving him across the table, she turns her gaze to the platform outside. She pulls a hair band from her wrist, stretches it over her fingers, and then waits with her hand poised in the air. A few minutes pass before the announcer welcomes them aboard the train and thanks them for availing their service. The train tugs out of St Pancras and Ivy wipes strands of hair sticky with sweat away from her hairline; scoops it all up, twists and shapes until she has crowned herself. She watches Andrew pull out his phone and knows he is double-checking everything: the destination on the tickets, Preston, the address of the estate agents, the time and date of the appointment. She nudges him, ‘Hey, d’you remember our first date? Just before my 25th?’
Andrew gently bats her hand away then breaks into a smile. ‘Oi, that was five years ago. Cut me some slack, yeah?’
‘I know but it still cracks me up. You got so worked up about planning and making sure everything was perfect. It takes a special kind of chaotic individual to then end up on the wrong day!’
‘And what did I tell you when I failed to come up with an excuse? “Organisation–“’
They both recite the next part in unison, ‘“Isn’t really my bag.”’ Leaning back, they laugh for a whole minute.
Ivy sees Andrew’s eyes take in the countryside rushing past, and she knows he is about to share something with her.
‘This is how I like to see it, the countryside,’ Andrew says, not moving his gaze. ‘Active. Like when I got properly into jogging as a teenager, in the school holidays, y’know? Like, how my thighs burning kind of aligned with the heat of the sunset.’
‘And that lyric you wrote,’ Ivy prompts him, ‘about how whatever kind of day you’d had, amazing or crap, blissful or frustrating, it ended just the same. And wondering whether someone else out there felt that way too.’
‘Oh, man, I can’t wait to get back into all that,’ Andrew says. ‘It’s all ahead of us, isn’t it, the country.’
‘Waiting to be jogged through and written about,’ Ivy adds. ‘How you feeling about leaving your mates, now?’
Ivy regrets the question as soon as she asks it, aware that it might just set him spiralling down for the rest of the journey. But she’s asked it now.
‘Okay, I think,’ He says. ‘Don’t know what I’m going to do without our Friday night jamming sessions, though.’
Andrew continues, ‘Red wine, board games and rubbish attempts at playing the blues. It’s a total cure-all.’
Ivy nods. She doesn’t know about ‘cure-all’ but she knows it’s stopped him from calling helplines at 3 in the morning. It was after a dream, he had told her, flashing back to a fight he’d had on a night out a few years ago. In the dream, and in the memory, he couldn’t seem to stop hitting the guy and his friends had to prise them apart and drag him home. He told her all about it in detail, how he woke up seeing the blood spray like it was there in front of him and felt like a child and the monster under the bed, both at once. The six free counselling sessions were good, but he couldn’t afford to continue them, so wine, games and tunes became the replacement.
They are reaching the Midlands and Ivy’s eyes follow piles of dirt and a scruffy yellow digger peeking out from behind a stretched-out billboard at a distance. People with gleaming white, distinctly un-English smiles hold up mugs of tea to advertise ‘award-winning living’ in a new housing development. She digs through her bag, pulls out a set of earphones and offers one to Andrew. He doesn’t notice so she kicks him lightly. He winks, takes the earphone and kicks her back, his converse leaving a smudge on her knee. She scrubs it off and sticks her tongue out at him.
After five years she still likes to steal glances of him when he’s not looking, taking him in all by herself; his roman nose, full cheeks and lips with the daintiest cupid’s bow that blew her crush on Marcus Mumford out of the water when they first met. The creases under his eyes have deepened over the last few months. She hasn’t pointed it out, knowing he won’t find them as lovely as she does, so comfortingly inevitable. This is one of two things she is still figuring out how to tell him, cautiously and without ringing in uncalled bells.
They change trains at Birmingham and once they’re settled into their new seats, Ivy’s thoughts turn to her own best friend.
‘What d’you think Olivia is doing right now?’
‘Probably dyeing her hair, again.’
‘No, no, not yet. She’s doing it a different colour for every month of her pregnancy, remember. She’s got a few weeks left of hot pink.’
‘Oh right, yep. Crazy. Remind me why?’
‘It’s kind of a spiritual thing, I think. About the transience of life, how it’s always changing but she always stays rooted. Literally, she lets her dark roots show every time.’
‘Cool. I see. Alright, if she’s not dyeing her hair, she’s probably…in the local market trying to recreate her regular Sainsbury’s shop, realising that life in the tiny Greek village of Evangelismos is not quite the same as Clapham.’
Ivy smiles. ‘True. I’m so pleased for her though. And the house looks gorgeous.’
‘The little you could see with that awful connection. God I can’t wait to change Broadband.’
‘Yawn. Alright, Dad.’
‘Speaking of, how is the old man?’ He asked, sparing a glance at Ivy.
‘He’s alright, I called them both the other day, they’re all settled in now. I’m still secretly mad at him, though.’
‘Because I was literally just about to ask him about being a guarantor for our mortgage, when he announced they were going back to Sweden. I know it’s not deliberate but that was some spooky, annoying timing.’
‘Grumpy-guts. You know, you should think of how lucky you are, you have family you can visit in Sweden.’
Ivy rolls her eyes and pulls out her compact mirror. She begins dabbing light brown concealer around her eyes, nose and mouth.
‘I still don’t know why you bother with that stuff,’ Andrew says. ‘You look beautiful as you are.’
‘It’s my one thing, OK? I just feel like it looks weird. Light brown skin, light eyes, and then big blobs of dark in all these nooks and crannies at make it look like I’ve smashed my face into a chocolate cake. I’d rather it’s all even, nice and smooth, y’know?’
‘Try being me,’ Ivy retorts. She picks up the newspaper on the seat next to her and sets it on the table. ‘Look.’
Flipping to the third page, she finds a headline wondering what Meghan Markle’s ‘exotic’ blood will do to ‘the Royal pedigree.’
Andrew looks at the page but says nothing. ‘How’s Mum?’
‘Oh God, don’t. She’s lost it. She keeps calling me telling me to check everything; if I’ve packed my birth certificate, if I have copies of my ID, and all that nonsense.’
‘This Windrush stuff. She reckons we’re all going to get shipped off back to Trinidad. “Never mind the fact that you were born in Central Middlesex Hospital and your Granny has been a vertebra in the backbone of the NHS since her early twenties,” she says.’
‘Do you think it’s true?’
‘Who knows. Maybe for some people. I don’t necessarily indulge, but we’ve done everything right, legitimately. We should be fine.’
Ivy is struck by a memory. A family holiday in the Peak District: her and her parents reached the top of the summit after a stomach-dropping scramble. Ivy, age 12, wiped the dribble of blood from her ankle and then looked up to see the valleys unfold themselves before her like a dropped roll of fabric, appley-green velvet draping over rough-harvested corduroy and edged with silver piping from a river. Her parents stood on either side of her, taking her hands and raising them up as they looked about.
The train comes to a stop. A piece of graffiti catches Ivy’s eye. It says, ‘Eat the rich.’
‘Hey,’ she points it out to Andrew, ‘It’s just like being back in London!’
Andrew laughs. A sign looms, announcing their destination. Preston. They gather their things and bundle off the train onto the platform. The midday warmth hits them slowly. They pause for a second, link arms and begin their walk through town, not stopping to admire the architecture, the sweet buildings or the way the hills and dales seem to hold the city so close. It seems to Ivy like the last six months of planning have all come rushing forward, propelling them to Martin & Co. Estate Agents.
She thinks of Andrew’s battle with his scummy landlord as the ancient plumbing in his flat went from dodgy to hazardous to perilous. She looks back on her freelancing mission, agonising over which font best represented her, Ivy Markham, Marketing Consultant, sitting up late with a calculator and her conscience deciding how much she could charge her clients. She remembers the day they looked at house prices in the Home Counties and their stomachs dropped, their dreams sank. The day they decided to make a run for it. All of it brings her forward to today. This moment, standing under the air con in a clean, bright room, in front of a young and nervy receptionist who is telling them that unfortunately they have missed their appointment.
Andrew turns to Ivy. ‘I must’ve written it wrong. I could’ve sworn they said two on the phone.’
Ivy ignores him and steps forward. ‘Is there no other time we can have?’
‘We’re booked up for the rest of the day. You can try again tomorrow, if you come early we’ll see if we can squeeze you in somewhere?’
‘OK, that would be great, thanks.’ Ivy turns on her heel and walks out of the building. She presses her head against the wall outside.
‘Thank you. Sorry about that, thanks for your time. Thank you,’ she hears Andrew garble to the receptionist, then rush out after Ivy.
‘Are you alright?’
Ivy is silent.
‘Please don’t do this. Talk to me.’
‘I’m not doing anything,’ Ivy says.
‘You’re going all…into yourself.’ He pauses. ‘It feels like you’re giving me the silent treatment.’
‘I’m just thinking.’
‘What are you thinking?’
‘You’re upset with me.’
She opens her eyes and turns to him.
‘Stop. Just stop, you’re making me feel like a bitch.’
‘Sorry. Look, we can do what she says, get a hotel, come back in the morning and try again.’
‘And if we don’t? Do we try the next day, and the next, stay for the whole week, you miss work? Get fired? We live in a B & B?’
‘No. Jesus. I’m trying to find a solution.’
‘What does OK mean?’
Ivy’s head snaps up, with a sharpness that even she did not expect. ‘Why don’t you just say you didn’t want to do this, Andy?’
‘Woah, where’s that come from?’
‘You’ve not exactly taken an active role. I’m the one who’s been doing back and forth with the bank, listening to lectures on loans until my ears bleed, I’m the one who can recite the contents of Zoopla in my sleep.’
‘I tried, today,’ Andrew says.
‘Right, and how’s that worked out?’ Ivy pauses then touches her lips with the tips of her fingers. ‘Sorry. I’m tired.’
‘Me too. Let’s stop for a minute. Please.’ He steps towards her with his arms out but she takes his hands and stops him. ‘I need a walk. Some air.’
Ivy starts walking back the way they came before he can argue. Andrew catches up to her but she increases her pace slightly, letting him know that she wants him to stay back. They walk like this until her determined steps take them out of the town centre, past the station, across a bridge and to the edge of a field dotted with oak trees. From the sound of his footsteps Ivy can tell that Andrew has let the distance between them grow too wide, and he now has to jog to catch up with her. Ivy finds a tree, the biggest and oldest looking one, leans against it, then sinks to the ground. She is panting.
‘Are you alright?’ Andrew asks, peering into her flushed face. ‘What’s going on?’ he asks.
Ivy looks up through the leaves above them, turning tropical-frog fluorescent as they filter the sunshine. When her breath has steadied she asks, ‘Do you love me?’
She repeats the question.
‘I love you so much… it’s stupid. Why are you asking me this?’
‘Do you want to spend your life with me?’
‘Of course I do.’ He sits up. ‘Do you want to get married? Is that it?’
She sits up too and says, ‘I’m pregnant.’
Immediately, he springs over to her and wraps her in his arms, she squeezes him back tightly. He laughs, little-boy giggles, then looks at her for reassurance. Ivy nods and smiles back, she has no words now, she has delivered her message. The Gabriel to her own Mary. He covers her with kisses, then stops and glances down to her stomach. ‘Am I hurting it?’
She shakes her head but he rolls off her anyway, back onto his back, on the soft, yielding grass. When his hand snakes across the grass towards her she takes it. There is something unfamiliar there. A thick, sheeny young oak leaf has spiralled into his hand and stuck to his palm, the slice of green now wedged between them.
‘We are so alone,’ Andrew says.
‘I know,’ Ivy replies.
Natasha Derczynski is a writer and healthcare assistant living and working in Berkshire, England. She studied English Literature with Creative Writing BA and Creative Writing: The Novel MA at Brunel University London, completing her first dissertation under the supervision of Man Booker prize winner Bernardine Evaristo. She writes experimental short fiction investigating feminism, sexuality, modern dating, grief, art, and her British-Polish heritage and family history.