Right young lady, Sophie says. In response, Lucy favours us all with a beautiful smile, scrapes the last crumb of pie (or pud-pud, as she calls it) from her bowl and climbs down from her chair.
Night-night Uncle Pete, she says, and launches herself at me in a tiny ball of hugging limbs. I am forgiven, it seems.
Night-night Lucy Lou.
Soph watches from the doorway as Lucy plays at not letting me go, and she smiles too. Maybe I am forgiven there as well.
Eventually the little girl that I almost killed earlier in the evening detaches herself from me, kisses her daddy goodnight and is led off to bed.
Tom pushes his chair back from the table and pats his stomach in a parody of contentedness.
God, I’m stuffed.
Me too, I say, blowing out my cheeks for comic effect.
I take it you’re staying over tonight? We’ve already made the spare room up.
I think about driving home, and realise I’m probably close to if not over the limit, and that’s bad but not as bad as being at home alone, in my miserable house. Not as bad as a sleepless night in my tired old bed with its worn sheets and sagging mattress. Not as bad as a cold, miserable breakfast prepared in a kitchen littered with three days’ worth of unwashed cups and plates. And all the while waiting for a call or a text from Jenny.
Nice one, cheers, I say, thinking instead of Tom’s spare room which is, laughably, bigger than my bedroom at home. I think of the monstrous double bed it contains, the thick mattress and crisp white sheets. It is, as Craig might say, a no-brainer.
I’ll get that other bottle then, Tom says, standing up with a scrape of chair legs on tiled floor. He turns to head for the fridge but pauses, looks back towards me but doesn’t meet my eye.
Pete, about earlier.
What about it?
I know you find it hard to talk about... what happened. But regardless of Jenny or anyone else, you need to forgive yourself. Otherwise...
Otherwise what kind of life are you left with, mate?
A pause. A long pause, during which Tom absently runs his fingers back and forth across the back of his chair. Eventually he looks up and sees the conciliatory expression I have tried my best to adopt.
I know. You’re right, I know.
I’ll get that wine.
He is right, I do know that. But as he leaves the room I know that I have chosen the otherwise, have done since the moment the machines keeping Emma alive were turned off. And this is the kind of life I am left with.
Tom, Sophie and I spend the rest of the evening getting agreeably, well, if not drunk then at least tipsy. We channel-surf for a while, and end up watching an old film on one of the countless satellite movie channels that my host subscribes to. It stars a laughably young-looking Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep and seems to be about a couple of strangers who meet and fall in love despite both being married. It is ridiculous and schmaltzy in equal measure, and we all laugh heartily and make over-the-top aaahh noises at regular intervals. Even so, maybe it’s the wine or something, but I feel myself welling up a little when it looks like our hero and heroine will not get together, instead both choosing the sanctity of their married lives. I make sure Tom and Sophie aren’t looking, then quickly rub my eyes with the back of my hand, wondering what the hell is wrong with me. I have never been what you’d call a crying man – I didn’t even cry at Emma’s funeral.
Then – and I guess I should have seen this coming – the film ends with DeNiro and Streep getting together after all, and I feel angry, cheated even, by this blatantly tacked-on, feelgood ending. I want to shout No! Life’s not like that. But I remember I'm supposed to be moving on. Forgiving myself. Not choosing the otherwise.
I look across to the settee where Sophie is almost asleep, her head on Tom’s shoulder. He strokes her hair and mumbles something like c’mon you, bed. She stretches out, winces at a crick in her neck, and stands up.
That’s enough for me, she says. Night, Pete.
I stand up too.
We hug, briefly. She is very warm and smells so good. For an insane second, I almost kiss her neck, but then she is gone and Tom is clapping me on the shoulder.
Night, mate. Stay up as long as you like, just turn everything off before you go up.
No worries. I doubt I’ll be long myself. Night, mate.
I pour myself the last half-glass of wine, settle back down in the armchair, and channel-surf some more. I find one of the adult channels – it’s showing a free, unscrambled preview, so I mute the TV and watch as overly made-up plastic women allude to soft porn without actually doing anything. It is frustrating, and when the on-screen caption exhorts me to press the red button to subscribe now – see what you’re missing the remote is in my hand before I remember where I am and what I’m doing.
I choose the otherwise, and go to bed.