‘Well fuck a duck, if it isn’t me ol’ mucker, Isaac.’
I turned on the wide, crowded pavement of New York, to see Ricky grinning at me. I’d known he was in America, as, although I was no longer friends with Esme on Facebook, she’d tagged Ricky with all their mutual updates, of which one was: In New York with Ricky, wedding shopping.
I’d texted him immediately, hoping we’d have chance for a catch-up.
‘Ricky,’ I said, as a strong gust of wind almost blew us into the road, and a roll of thunder rumbled in the distance.
He glanced up at the ominous grey sky, as spots of rain began to fall. ‘Looks like there’s a storm’s brewing,’ he said.
We edged through the shoppers and tourists, many shooting their umbrellas up, and made our way to the shelter of a shop awning.
‘You’re looking good, mate,’ I said. He was slimmer, clean shaven, smart, although his eyes looked dull, cradled by dark circles, as if he hadn’t slept for a week.
‘Cheers,’ he said, giving me a playful punch. ‘I love you too, bruv. How’s Down Under treating you? Did you bump into my Auntie Janet? She lives in Melbourne.’
I shook my head, and smiled, unsure if he was joking.
‘No seriously, mate,’ he said, confirming he was. ‘How are you?’
‘Getting there – you know,’ I said, thoughts of my dad creeping in.
‘Mum’s doing OK.’
‘Good to hear,’ he said. ‘Can’t believe we’re both in New York at the same time – talk about coincidence.’
I refused to believe it was.
‘Remember how New York was once top of my bucket list?’ he went on, a tone of regret in his voice, as though The Big Apple hadn’t lived up to his expectations. ‘Shame I’m here wedding shopping.’ He paused, before throwing me another punch. ‘So you’re meeting up with Tilly later, then?’ he said.
I’d told him about Tilly, but only that we were good friends.
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘about 5.30.’
He stared at me with inquiring eyes. ‘Long way to come to meet up with a friend,’ he said. ‘Is there something you’re not telling me?’
I smiled, contemplating saying, I’m in love with her, and I’ve come over to convince her that Phototime is real. The only hiccup being, she thinks her dad killed her mum. But I knew Ricky’s brain would melt if I did, so instead I said, ‘Of course not,’ and added, in a poor effort to change the subject, ‘It’s so good to see you, mate. You look great.’
‘Yeah, you said. Stop, or I’ll think you fancy me.’
‘You know I do,’ I said, with a laugh.
He looked down at his smart trousers, and open-necked polo shirt with a cricket logo on the breast pocket. ‘Esme won’t let me wear what I want. She bans me from eating crap, and I’m only allowed to drink 5 units of alcohol a week,’ he said. ‘And she makes me run six miles a day - six bloody miles a day, Isaac.’ His voice rose in volume. ‘I didn’t even know a normal human being could do that. I used to get knackered bending to do up my trainers.’ He paused. ‘To be honest, Esme’s a bit of a control freak.’
I know. ‘And you’re OK with that?’
He shrugged. ‘I don’t know anymore. It’s like I’m this lump of Playdough that Esme is moulding into someone she wants me to be. I don’t blame her. I’m not exactly the mutt’s nuts. I’m pretty useless, in fact.’
‘You’re not useless, Ricky,’ I said, reaching inside my head for some of his endearing qualities, so I could prove my point. ‘You’re a good friend, witty, fun, an animal lover, and great at your job when you’re not getting warnings.’ I felt like I was selling him to the highest bidder.
‘Oh, yeah,’ he said, as though I’d triggered a thought. ‘Olivia got done for sexual harassment, by the way.’
I smiled. Olivia was so far from who I’d become over the past months, I couldn’t even raise a cheer.
‘And Esme doesn’t get my sense of humour. She’s always telling me to tone it down. “Shut up, Ricky, you’re embarrassing me,”’ he said, in a high-pitched voice, waggling his head.
‘Maybe your humour is a bit too laddish for her,’ I said, unsure why I was defending a woman I couldn’t stand. In fact, I was beginning to wonder if I’d made a mistake getting them back together. Maybe I’d been right letting her strop off that day, when she thought he’d been smoking weed.
‘Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we were here on our own?’ he said. ‘I had thought when I came to New York for the first time it would be with you - a time for beerskis and fun.’
‘And you’re not having fun with Edith?’
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ He screwed up his nose. ‘Well no, not really. I do love her though. At least, I think I do.’ He screwed up his face. ‘Things were good between us at first. But now we’re here looking at wedding dresses and everything else to do with our bloody wedding. I’m not even sure I want to get married.’ He lifted up a rather posh carrier-bag. ‘In here, Isaac, I’ve got samples of wedding cake. Stupid if you ask me. We won’t be getting our cake from New York, for Christ’s sake. Well I’m pretty sure we won’t, as at the moment I can’t afford a Victoria sponge from Sainsbury’s.’
‘So where’s Enid now?’
‘At the hotel reading.’ He rocked on his heels, and I noticed he’d given up correcting her name. ‘She likes reading.’
‘Has she read Great Expectations?’
‘What the f…?’
‘I’ve read it,’ I cut in, with far too much pride. ‘It’s a bit long-winded and heavily descriptive, but it’s a great novel.’ I knew I was only saying the words to impress my dad, as though he could hear me.
‘Long winded? Heavily descriptive? Who are you and what have done with my friend?’ Ricky sighed. ‘OK, I’ll tell Esme about the book.’ He rolled his eyes as though he couldn’t quite believe I’d let myself stoop so low. ‘Although she’s more into Bride’s Magazine at the moment.’
The rain was heavy now, and a man’s umbrella pinged inside out in the wind and jabbed me. ‘Sorry,’ he said, and hurried on his way.
Ricky laughed. ‘What the hell are we doing standing out here in the rain?’ he said, as a droplet of water trickled down my collar and made me shudder. ‘Time to get the bevvies in, methinks.’ He nodded towards a trendy looking bar, where the people in the window-seats looked like cut-outs of supermodels.
I had two hours before meeting Tilly at her shop. ‘Indeed,’ I said. ‘Lead the way, kind sir.’
As we entered through revolving doors, Ricky got out his phone and began texting. ‘I’ll tell Esme there’s been a delay at the cake shop.’
‘Don’t tell her I’m with you,’ I said, although I wasn’t sure why. I think I was a little afraid of Esme, to tell the truth, and by the looks of things so was Ricky.
‘I’d better tell her. She’ll know, anyway.’
‘How? How will she know?’
‘Because she knows everything, Isaac,’ he said in a playful whisper. ‘I’m pretty sure she’s part psychic, part demon.’
‘Well then, surely she’ll know you’ve been drinking, when you get back.’
‘Aha, you have a point there, my man.’ He looked at his phone. ‘I’ll tell her they’re giving us free lager because of the hold up, and it would be rude to refuse.’
Inside was dimly lit, and stools lined a long bar where several people sat with drinks, and bar staff wearing long red aprons were mixing cocktails. Billy Joel’s ‘My Life’, sang from speakers. My eyes skittered round the room - couples mostly, eating, drinking, or talking intimately.
Ricky necked two shots in as many minutes, and then downed a pint of lager in one.
‘Well that’s your units for this week,’ I said, but he didn’t seem to hear.
‘It’s a themed wedding.’ He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. ‘What’s that all about?’
I shrugged. I never had Esme down for a themed wedding type of person. But I’d read on the internet that weddings can change a woman. Turn them into bridezillas. The website I’d come across was written by a man who’d never got over being made to wear tights and feathers at his Swan Lake themed wedding. He’d run away to South Africa shortly after the ceremony.
‘First it was going to be a shabby shit wedding,’ Ricky went on, one elbow on the bar, his hand on his forehead.
‘Shabby chic, I think.’ How the hell do I know that?
‘That’s the one.’ He leaned forward and ordered another lager. ‘My mum can’t get her head round it, bless her. Said she was eight months pregnant with me when she got married, so the closest she got to a themed wedding was Humpty Dumpty.’ He sighed again. ‘Anyway, I asked Esme why we couldn’t just have a colour theme; told her she’d look good in red. She’s got this little lacy number…’
‘Please,’ I said, covering my ears. The thought of Esme in something sexy was enough to make my brain explode.
‘So she said we’d have a colour theme too, and she’d already decided on yellow.’
‘Yes, yellow. Then she got the strop, saying I never give any input, which wasn’t strictly true because I’d thought of red, and I’d also suggested a rock theme.’
‘Cool,’ I said, nodding my approval, and taking a sip of my drink.
‘Exactly, my friend: guitars, Kiss face paint - the works. Anyway, I cocked things up even more by getting a bit sarcastic and suggesting a Hansel and Gretel theme: gingerbread house cake, crumbs leading to the bar, her mother the wicked witch.’
‘I know, I know. It was meant to be a joke. Her mum’s actually OK when she’s sober. So that’s why we’re here in New York. I’m making it up to her. Damage control, if you will.’
‘So has she decided on a final theme?’
‘Harry Potter.’ He sighed. ‘I’m not into Harry Potter, to be honest. I haven’t even seen the films.’ He slammed down his beer, and thrust his head into his hands. ‘But apparently I’ve got to be Ron Weasley, whoever he is, and she’s going to be Hermione. And, by the way, you’re my best man…’
‘I’m your best man?’ I pointed at myself.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Will you be my best man, Isaac?’ he said on a monotone.
‘Absolutely. Love to.’
‘Don’t tell Esme I’ve asked you. I need to square it with her first. She doesn’t want you there. No offence.’
There was a silence between us as we sipped our drinks, and Ricky opened up the posh carrier-bag and pulled out a cake sample. He lifted the lid of the tiny box, and shoved the cake into his mouth. ‘Mmm,’ he said. ‘Not bad. Stacking crepes with sherbet ganache, apparently, who’d have thought it?’ He was beginning to slur his words. Esme would kill me.
‘Should you be doing that?’ I said, clearly at that moment more afraid of Esme than he was.
‘Anyway,’ he said through the cake, as though I hadn’t spoken. ‘Esme was looking at the retro weddings in her magazine before I left to get the cake, so maybe that’s a bit better than a Harry Potter wedding.’ He took out another box and ate another cake sample, washing it down with more lager.
‘She told me we can never have a dog,’ he went on, looking as though he might cry. ‘She said they ruin the furniture, smell, and eat their own faeces. I told her Tilly has never eaten her own crap, but she wouldn’t listen.’
‘Your mum’s spaniel?’ I said to clarify.
‘Exactly,’ he said.
There was a long silence as we drank, and Ricky ate another piece of cake. The bar was filling up now, people laughing, chatting. ‘You do love Esme, don’t you?’ I said, my attention back on my friend.
He shrugged, his eyes tired and watery. ‘I suppose so,’ he said. ‘Well, I did before she started to control me and make me into something I’m not.’
I felt she’d done that from the off, but kept quiet. And to be fair, weaning him off of dope had been a good thing.
‘If she doesn’t like who I am, why are we together?’
‘I have no idea, mate.’
‘Anyway, what is love?’
‘I’m sure you’d know if you were in it,’ I said, knowing how I felt about Tilly. ‘Maybe you need to talk to Esme; try to make her understand how you feel.’
‘I’ve tried, Isaac,’ he said. ‘Many, many, many, many times. She just won’t listen.’
An hour later, we rolled out of the bar.
I felt a bit light headed, but Ricky was clearly in a far worse state than me. ‘Shall I walk you back to your hotel?’ I said.
‘No, no, no, no, no. I’ll be fine. It’s just round the corner.’
I pulled my phone from my pocket. ‘Hey, let’s take a selfie,’ I said ‘Our time in New York together.’ And we grinned into my mobile.
‘Put it on Facebook, mate, or Instagram,’ he said with a laugh – staggering away. ‘But make sure you hide it from Esme.’
The wind was stronger now, gusts sweeping the pavements, rain falling in heavy sheets.
‘Feels like a hurricane’s brewing,’ he said. ‘Better go before I turn into Dorothy. I hated that green wizard.’
‘That was a tornado, Ricky, and as it turned out it never was a wizard. It was a little man dressed in green.’
‘Shut the fuck up,’ he said playfully, raising his hand. ‘To think I was too afraid to watch that film all the way through, because of a little man dressed in green.’
‘See you, Ricky,’ I said, as a gust of wind pulled me into the road, and a yellow taxi swerved to miss me, the driver honking the horn. ‘Wait!’ I called, as Ricky ambled down the road, his arm still raised. ‘You’ve left the cake samples in the bar.’
He stuck his other arm in the air. ‘I actually don’t care anymore, Isaac,’ he yelled. ‘This is my life.’ And with that, he turned the corner.