Tom was leaning on the piano bench, about to saw a plank of wood. Holding my sheet music, wondering when the study-cum-workshop would revert to being a practice room once more, I watched him hold up the sawed-off piece against a drawing marked with measurements.
‘Never mind,’ I quickly said when he noticed me in the doorway. I wasn’t going to force him to immediately dismantle his makeshift workshop.
‘I thought I’d make a cupboard. For all your boxes,’ he explained. ‘I didn’t realise how many of them were stacked up in the attic.’
‘There’s no need. I’ll probably be in New York in a couple of months.’ I refrained from adding that I would never be coming back, at least not to his house.
‘I’ll be done in a minute.’ Tom either didn’t hear or chose not to hear my New York remark. He had consistently avoided any discussion of my future plans which, at times, suited me, but at other times absolutely infuriated me. I took it as a complete lack of interest in what I wanted to do with my life.
‘Oh, I almost forgot,’ said Tom, looking up from his sawing. ‘You’ve got some mail.’
I walked towards the little table in the hallway where the post was usually left. My heart started to beat faster as I nervously picked up the letter addressed to me. There was a recognisable logo on the envelope; I knew this letter was about my funding application. After staring at the letter for a few minutes, my palms growing sweatier, I suddenly found the courage to open it. I frantically tore at the paper, not bothering to open it along the envelope flap line. As I unfolded the letter, I was unable to read calmly. Only odd words and sentence chunks jumped at me, swimming before my eyes.
‘Budget cuts’, ‘funding for the arts’ and ‘your application was denied’ were the three things I picked up on straight away. With a sinking feeling I scanned to the very bottom of the letter.
‘But we wish you the very best of luck for the future.’ What hypocrites! I thought, wanting to scream in frustration. If they were that concerned about my future, then why the hell had they not given me a bursary?
‘Everything okay?’ I hadn’t heard Tom approach.
‘Hmm? Oh, yeah, fine.’ I quickly folded the letter and tucked it into my jeans pocket, hoping my disappointment didn’t show. ‘I’m just going out to get some air,’ I said as I opened the front door, realising that even this was out of character for me. Normally I would leave the house without accounting for my whereabouts to Tom. I just hoped he wouldn’t read into this and start questioning me.
Once I was outside, I realised I didn’t have any idea where I was going, so I just wandered off, taking whichever road took my fancy. Completely directionless. Just like my life seemed to be at the moment, I thought, feeling really down on myself. I had counted so much on that scholarship! And both Mum and Ed had told me I’d be a shoo-in for it.
I reached a road I didn’t recognise and stopped, for fear of getting completely lost. I looked around. It was not all that late. The sun was just setting, emanating a deep, burnt red sprawl over the horizon. Its beauty, though, was lost on me. I kicked a stone dejectedly. Then I spotted another stone, slightly bigger, and kicked it, but I used too much force and ended up stubbing my little toe. It appeared that even taking a simple evening walk was proving disastrous. Maybe it was best if I just returned to the house and had an early night. That way nothing else could happen to me. Nothing bad, at least, I reasoned.
In the morning, I discovered I didn’t feel any better. My very own private little cloud was still hovering over me. I realised I needed to tell someone how I was feeling or I’d go nuts. And the only person I could talk to was Amy. I padded downstairs, intending to just have a coffee. I was too downbeat to make myself any breakfast. It would take all my will just to get the coffee-maker on the go. I hoped no one would be in the kitchen, as I was in no mood to face either Tom or Mike.
To my dismay, Mike was already there. We occasionally had breakfast at the same time, but you wouldn’t call it actually having breakfast together. We’d each quickly grab our own breakfast, eating it in a hurry and in silence, as Mike always had earphones plugged in, using the shield of hip-hop and R&B to avoid talking to me. That morning, though, Mike took his earphones out as soon as I walked in. While this was unusual, preoccupied as I was, I didn’t dwell on it. As I filled my mug with the coffee, I turned to find a plate of toast laid out on the table for me. Not only that, but the toast had even been buttered and covered in a thin layer of blueberry jam, just the way I liked it. Surprised, I looked over at Mike, who was pretending to be engrossed in his bowl of Rice Krispies. At that moment, in spite of all the misery I was in, I felt touched.
‘Mike,’ I tried to get his attention.
‘Yo, gotta fly, H,’ Mike quickly excused himself, as though dreading any mushy girly stuff on my part.
Preferring my new nickname ‘H’ to Mozart or Beethoven, I smiled as I watched him dash out of the kitchen, as though chased by a pack of dogs. I reckoned this was his way of saying thank you for the other day at the police station. As I started to eat the toast, grateful for the unexpected breakfast, I was also touched by the thoughtfulness of the gesture. It showed that Mike was far more observant than he let on, as I’d never imagined him to have noticed what I ate in the mornings. Yet here I had evidence that he had watched me much more closely than I’d given him credit. Once again, I was reminded how deceiving appearances could be.
Pouring myself a second cup of coffee into a travel mug, I left the house, feeling a bit more human. Instead of taking my usual train to school, I caught a bus and headed over to Amy’s studio. Walking into her studio, I hung back, not wanting to interrupt Steve while he tended to the same customer I’d seen in the studio the other day. His body language was subdued as he handed over the altered jacket for the woman to try on.
‘It’s perfect!’ she exclaimed as though not expecting such craftsmanship.
‘Perfection is our motto,’ Steve said in a deadpan voice. ‘Perfect alterations for everyone.’
As the customer passed me I gave Steve a little wave.
‘Hey you, shouldn’t you be at rehearsals?’ he asked. I was mildly surprised that Steve would be so aware of my schedule.
‘Is Amy around?’ It was true that I was supposed to be at school, but the last thing I felt like doing was explaining to Steve why I was playing truant. Amy was the one I wanted to confide in first.
‘She was upstairs a while ago.’
‘Oh…’ I looked around the studio. ‘D’you mind if I wait for her here?’
‘You alright, hon?’ Steve looked at me closer.
‘Sort of,’ I replied. ‘I just have a lot on my mind.’ Since Mum had become ill I had perfected the art of being evasive without making the other person think I was purposely concealing something. The secret was to admit feeling a certain way, as though you were sharing your thoughts, when in fact the statement remained fairly vague and could cover any number of circumstances. So it couldn’t count as lying.
‘Tell me about it. I haven’t been able to sleep since Christian and I split up.’
I nodded sympathetically, plopping down on the chair beside Steve’s work table. I was beginning to have second thoughts about waiting for Amy to divulge my upsetting news. I really needed to tell someone.
‘I finally got an answer on that school…’
I was interrupted by Amy rushing in, holding up an open envelope and waving it excitedly.
‘You will never, in a million years, guess what this is!’
‘If it’s another bill, I’m delighted to report that I have just earned us the grand sum of five pounds, which I’m sure will more than cover it,’ Steve commented sarcastically.
Amy shook her head. ‘Guaranteed to stop your moping.’
‘We’ve won the lottery.’ But his tone indicated he believed no such thing.
‘Nearly! Only better!’ Amy pulled the letter from the envelope and stuck it under Steve’s nose. ‘There – London Fashion Week has the pleasure of inviting Amy Tan, a “promising young designer”…’
Steve grabbed the letter, reading it. His entire demeanour changed dramatically. His shoulders straightened, his eyes flashed and he looked peppy again.
‘But that’s… that means…’ Steve was stuttering, too emotional to complete a sentence.
‘I’ve been invited to present a collection at London Fashion Week!’ Amy repeated, as though she was still unable to believe it herself and had to keep saying it over and over for it to sink in.
‘Oh my God, that’s brilliant!’ I was genuinely thrilled for Amy. ‘So you applied after all.’
She nodded, chuffed. ‘We got in!’
‘I told you, didn’t I?’ I smiled. ‘That’s fantastic news.’
‘Someone thinks I’ve got promise!’ Amy wandered around the studio happily. ‘This could be my big break. It could be an opportunity to find investors, pay our bills, save the studio - and, most importantly, pay for the best assistant designer on the planet.’
‘Eat your heart out, Christian,’ Steve smiled.
Amy took Steve’s hands into hers. ‘I could be on the path to launching my own brand.’
‘That’s always been the plan, babe!’ Steve said. ‘It’s been your dream from day one.’
‘Well done, Amy,’ I said. ‘I’m really pleased for you.’
‘Hey, wait a minute,’ Amy turned her attention to me. ‘I’ve been so caught up in the good news that I didn’t even ask you what you’re doing here at this random hour. Shouldn’t you be at the academy or at home, arguing with your dad or something?’
‘Oh, yeah,’ I answered, no longer wanting to tell her the real reason. It would have been selfish of me to ruin the celebratory atmosphere. ‘I was just passing. I had a longer break than usual. But actually, I better be getting back. See you guys!’
I turned at the door and caught Steve’s puzzled look as he glanced at Amy.