I met Cara on our first day of school. She decided that she needed to make a nest for her dolly, and that the nest would be made out of my hair. So she scalped me, and somehow I ended up being the one in trouble for it. To this day, I’ve never worked out how she swung that.
We became best friends anyway, and every day after school right up until the day we left, we’d walk over to her family’s Italian restaurant in the West End and sit in a cosy corner doing our homework until Granny came to pick me up. I used to love it in there. It was always bustling and lively, even though there weren’t many customers in the afternoon. Cara’s big brothers and parents and aunts and uncles and cousins filled the place anyway. They yelled and laughed and cuddled each other with equal ferocity, and the warm air was always tinged with the smell of garlic and baking bread.
I’ve always been mildly terrified of Cara. I mean, she’s lovely, the best friend anyone could ask for, but she’s not backwards in telling you if she thinks you’ve made a mistake or your new haircut is horrendous. It was a bit of a relief when Solveig’s sweet gentleness rounded out our group. I’m no match for Cara alone, but somehow the three of us balance each other out.
Even so, my heart was pounding just a tiny bit as Solveig and I arrived at the restaurant – now run with an iron fist by Cara – and sure enough her face was like thunder when she clapped eyes on me.
“You’re not as tanned as I thought you’d be,” she announced, looking me up and down.
Why would I be tanned?
Solveig stepped in then, and gently suggested we all sit down before getting into it. Alessandro, Cara’s eldest, who’s gone from being a bespectacled wee boy to a gangly, surprisingly goth, teenager overnight, brought over a bottle of rosé and a jug of water.
“That’ll be for me then,” said Solveig glumly, pouring herself a glass. “Can I at least have some lemon?”
Cara rolled her eyes. “I had the odd glass of wine through all my pregnancies, and look at them –” On cue, Alessandro crossed his eyes and pretended to fall over, and Cara reached up to affectionately clip him round the ear. “See? Sense of humour and all. Right lady –” She abruptly switched gears, focussing on me and my heart leapt. “Where have you been?”
“I don’t know,” I replied simply, because what else could I say?
“We’ll try again. Why did you go to America?”
“I beg your pardon?”
Alessandro brought over a basket of steaming garlic bread, which Solveig laid into, muttering something about eating her own body weight in carbs. I took a piece too, but my throat had closed up and I couldn’t imagine swallowing.
“”Roddy saw you. At some petrol station in the middle of nowhere.”
Roddy? Why didn’t he say yesterday?
“I’ve got no idea what he’s talking about. Honestly Cara, I don’t.”
“So what, have you got amnesia or something?” Her voice was still hard, but she poured me a glass of wine then, so I knew she was thawing a bit. I shrugged.
“I don’t know. All I know is that as far as I’m concerned, I went up Ben Lomond last week and got attacked then came home the next day when the police found me.”
“They found you on the beach,” Solveig said.
I stared at her. She swallowed her mouthful of garlic bread. “I’m sorry, I thought you knew. Near Largs somewhere, that big park, whatever it’s called.”
I was on a boat. The night sky. Rising and falling on sea waves.
“Maybe you swam home from the States,” said Cara.
“That’s as likely as anything right now.” The States? What on earth would I be doing there? I went to New York once on a city break I won in a magazine contest, but other than that I don’t know when I’ve even met an American.
“Check your passport,” said Solveig. “If you went to America, there would be a stamp in it, wouldn’t there?”
My passport. Exactly. “I don’t have one. Do you not remember? The night the three of us went out – a couple of weeks ago as far as I’m concerned – I was all worried about my passport being expired because Craig would have a right go at me if I couldn’t go on our holiday after all?”
“Aye, that rings a bell,” said Cara, topping up our wine. “He always was a twat.”
“Do you think? Craig?”
She shrugs. “You could do better.”
Of all the mad things I’ve heard in the past few days, for just an instant, this one takes the biscuit. Do better than Craig? Funny, gorgeous Craig who put up with me and all my daft ways?
“How long was it before he met this new woman?” I blurted.
Cara mades a face. “Few months. He had the cheek to bring her here once, I nearly took both their heads off. Suppose it wasn’t strictly her fault, other than her shite taste in men. No offence.”
Just as I was digesting this, I heard the door open behind us, and felt a blast of chilly air as someone came in. Cara looked up and waved, as a young guy in a huge overcoat made his way through the restaurant and towards the kitchen. Cara quietly explained that she couldn’t quite work him out, but he seemed to be down on his luck. She’d found him sleeping in the restaurant’s doorway a few weeks back and had offered him meals in return for a bit of dishwashing and odd jobs.
“He’s American,” she hissed, just as he turned towards us.
“Miss Cara,” he began — then he caught sight of me and all the colour drained from his face.
I’ve read about that happening, but I’d never seen it in real life before, he looked like a ghost. Which frankly, was a bit of an overreaction. I know I was a bit beat up, but surely the sight of a few bruises and cuts aren’t all that shocking? I smiled, trying to convey ‘yeah okay, get over it’ but in fact a strange little sliver of nervousness was unfurling in my tummy.
“You okay there, Nate?” Cara asked, looking curiously from him back to me. “This is my friend –”
But before she even managed to finish her sentence, he bolted.