“I STILL think you’re nuts, Daniel.” My brother-in-law, Josh, leaned across the pub table where I sat with him and Alice, my sister, on this early Friday evening and grinned at me. His voice was full of fond but definite amusement. “And I’ll buy the next pint to celebrate your ‘OMG! I’m nearly thirty’ identity crisis.”
I frowned at him over the top of my glass as I drained the last inch of beer. “Thanks for your support and understanding,” I said dryly. “All I did was tell you both I’ll be away for a week or so, on holiday. That’s what people do in July, isn’t it?”
My social get-together with the family was turning into an interrogation that reminded me of being back at school. That was what came from having two professional teachers staring at me over the table.
Alice, however, looked more worried than teasing. “But what do I tell Eric when he asks where you’ve gone?”
We all fell silent for an awkward moment. The background noise continued on around us. Our local pub in Surbiton, The Grove, picked up a lot of local trade, being so close to London and on a good rail link for commuters. I could hear the distant Indie Hits of the 80s soundtrack, the laughter at other tables, the calls among the kitchen staff as the pub grub was served.
As usual, it was up to me to lighten the mood. I loved my sis and her husband, but there were times they forgot I was well over twenty-one and independent of their care. “I’m travelling around England, looking up some of the kids from my school days, not hiking to the Amazon. I’m sure I’ll catch up with Eric when I get back.”
“And if he asks when that’ll be?”
“Ali, he’s not going to ask. Eric and I aren’t dating anymore, remember? We’re just friends.”
“You’re not a student any longer, Daniel. You can afford a decent, scheduled package holiday. Why would you want to sit on trains and buses for hours at a time, without any idea where you’re going or how long you’ll be? Most people get that kind of travel bug out of their system in their gap year, then settle down to a job and a home.”
Like me and Josh, she wanted to say; I could almost see the words itching on the end of her tongue.
She added, “You could always go to Eric’s time-share in Spain if you want a break from London.”
“With Eric, of course,” Josh added with a mischievous twist to his smile.
Alice frowned at him. “Josh, we all need stability in our life, and Eric is very steady.”
“Yes, he is,” I said. “Like your dining room furniture.”
There was another sudden pause, but then, thankfully, she burst out laughing. “So you’re seeking adventure, is that it? Recapturing your youth?”
“Maybe youths,” Josh said and winked at me.
“You’re like Scott of the Antarctic,” Alice continued.
“You do realise there are no coffee franchises in the Antarctic?” Josh murmured.
I shook my head, smiling at them both. “I told you, it’s nothing that dramatic. And I’m entitled to choose how to spend my own summer holidays, aren’t I? I thought we were meeting up for a relaxed drink after work, not a q and a on my life choices.”
I didn’t mean to sound sharp, but maybe something sneaked through in my tone, because Josh held his hands up as if in surrender and Alice patted me on the shoulder. “Sorry, Daniel. I know I get carried away. But it’s only because I love you and want the best for you.”
“As long as the best is steady?”
“I’ve just been worried about all this… well.” She looked upset again.
“What?” I asked.
“All this new stuff you’re doing.”
She made it sound like I was smashing down the Vatican and putting up a Tesco Metro. “Ali, I’m just enjoying being single again. I’ve joined a book club. I’m swimming regularly and I’m learning more about social media. And so I’ve decided to look up some old mates, that’s all. I enjoyed the summer course Mum and Dad booked for me at the Scorching Summer Sports Club, and I’d like to know what happened to the boys I met there that year.”
I sighed to myself. I knew how adrift Alice had been when our parents died. She’d had a lot of panic attacks about losing me as well. I didn’t know why this proposed trip disturbed her so much—I’d taken a couple of weeks away on holiday before, and she’d never complained.
I put down my pint and slid my arm around her shoulders. “It’s time I found some adventure.”
“You couldn’t do that with Eric?” Her voice was still slightly hopeful.
“No.” Never in a million years, I thought, remembering the gradual slide into listlessness and boredom in our five-year relationship. The parting had been mutual and amicable, but it was still a wrench, and I was determined to keep myself distracted from nostalgic regrets. “Maybe I’m not ready to settle yet. There are plenty of things out there in the world to do first.”
“Or maybe plenty of old mates,” Alice said tartly. “When are you leaving?”
“Tomorrow.” I glanced at my watch. “I’m meeting a man here tonight, who reckons he has an address for the first part of my investigation.”
“Now you sound more like Poirot than Scott of the Antarctic,” Josh said with a grin.
Alice looked worried again. She wasn’t usually so jittery. “Meeting up with some stranger… it could be dangerous.”
“Ali, we’re in a busy pub with plenty of people around—”
“We can stay longer, can’t we, Josh? We’ll keep Daniel company.” She turned to me with her bravest smile: it was so obvious she wasn’t looking forward to me leaving. “We’ll help you plan the trip, Daniel. And tomorrow? Well, I can drive you wherever you want to go.”
But, to my relief, Josh was already standing, shrugging on his jacket. “No way, honey. I still have exam papers to mark, and you’re expecting that call from the decorators, remember?”
“Ali,” I said softly, “it’s not a stranger. He’s called Nathan Carson, and he was a kid at the summer club too. Well, he’s an adult now, of course. I found him online, and we’ve chatted a few times already. We weren’t particular friends, but he told me he had an old family address book lying around, and at least one of the SSSC families should be in it.”
Those school days were twelve years in the past, and I wondered how Nathan would look nowadays. I remembered a short, skinny kid with horrible acne, two left feet when it came to football, and hair that frizzed out in the rain. But he was the only one who’d responded to my search so far.
“So he wasn’t actually one of your Gang of Four?” Alice picked up her bag from the floor and joined Josh. She caught my look of surprise and smiled. “You talked a lot about them that year. There were four of you who were football mad and hung out together at the club. You always had a tale to tell when you came home each day, even if it was about mischief and the trouble you’d been in. I suppose that was expected of sixteen-year-old boys. But I was sorry you didn’t get to go back there the next year….”
Her voice trailed off and she looked suddenly sad. That had been the year our parents were in the car crash, when I was just seventeen, Alice barely nineteen. Grieving and confused, we’d moved to Hampshire to live with family friends for a few years, at least until Alice finished university, got a teaching job and a flat, and we could move back to London together.
Nothing had been the same since that year; there’d been a lot of things we never returned to. But Alice and I had made our independent way at last. Eventually I got a good job as well, and my own small place, and we stayed close.
“I’m fine.” I stood to give her a quick hug. “And looking forward to getting started on my quest.” To make her smile, I put air quotes around the word.
The pub door opened and I looked around to see who’d entered. A single man, looking around for someone. I turned, a welcome smile ready on my face.
“Is that him?” Alice hissed in a stage whisper people must have heard miles away.
The man looked our way, nodded in acknowledgement to me, and started over to our table.
What the hell?
“Daniel? What’s the matter?” Josh frowned at me, then back at the man.
My welcome smile remained in place, but it wasn’t quite as ready.
The man paused a couple of feet away. He looked at each of us in turn, then back to me. His cheeks flushed. “I’m not the person you expected, am I?”
“I’m… well. Not really. You’re not Nathan Carson, are you?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Daniel?” Beside me, Alice was almost vibrating with concern and curiosity.
I held out my hand to the newcomer. “Daniel Cross. But you were looking for me, weren’t you?”
He nodded and shook my hand. “Yes. I’m Nick Carson. I’m so sorry I startled you. I’m Nathan’s older brother.”
I was still trying to unravel this. “Nathan’s meant to be meeting me here. I mean… is he on his way?”
“No.” Nick grimaced. “Shit. This is awkward, isn’t it?”
I sneaked a better look at him. I’d realised at once he wasn’t spotty, skinny Nathan, even though I’d tried to extrapolate what Nathan would look like now. There hadn’t been much to go on, as his Facebook profile didn’t have personal pictures on it, but this man—Nick Carson—was taller and much better-looking than I could ever have imagined poor Nathan. Nick was leaner than me, with short, well-styled hair—no frizz in sight—and clean-shaven. His clothes were smart casual—a polo shirt, fitted jeans, and Converse Hi-Tops. I’d wanted a pair of them myself a couple of years ago, but Eric persuaded me they weren’t for “old farts like us.” Yes, and that was one of the reasons why we were no longer together, even if I’d chickened out of buying the Converse at the time.
“Can someone explain what’s going on?” Josh asked. The pub was filling up with evening punters who jostled us as people wriggled their way to the bar. “We need to get going, but Alice will explode if she isn’t updated before we go.”
I introduced Alice and Josh quickly, and we all sat back down at our table.
Nick ran a hand through his hair nervously. He was wearing a pleasant, woody cologne that tickled my senses. “You were looking for anyone who knew the Scorching Summer Sports Club, weren’t you? The kids who went there in the summer of 2004? Well, I didn’t, but my brother Nate did. I answered your post because I knew the SSSC name.”
“Is that any help to Daniel?” Alice leaned over the table towards him.
“I hope so.” To his credit, Nick didn’t flinch away from her scrutiny. “I remember the kids who were there too.”
“Wait.” My stomach gave a hideous flop. “I friended you on Facebook. We’ve been talking for weeks.”
He nodded again.
“But all the time I thought you were Nathan.” My voice came out in a squeak.
“Is that what they call catfishing?” Alice’s voice was shrill, but Josh hushed her. He looked shamelessly entertained by our conversation.
“God, no. Please don’t think that. I wasn’t pretending to be Nate!” Nick looked horrified. “I just wanted to help.”
“No, it was my mistake.” I sighed. “I saw the name N. Carson, Chessington, West London, and just assumed it was Nathan.” What kind of idiot was I?
Nick shrugged uncomfortably. “It’s happened all through our lives, especially as we’re barely two years apart in age and have the same initial. You know how it is.” There was high colour in his cheeks. I had to admit it was very attractive. “But Nate’s not on Facebook nowadays. And when you went into detail about wanting to find your friends, I realised at once you thought I was him. So I suggested we meet up. I thought a face-to-face explanation would be better than just shooting you down online.”
“Um, thanks,” I said, still feeling like the greatest berk that had ever lived. “Can I get you a drink? I mean, you’ve come all this way….”
“Not far at all,” he said. “Just a couple of miles. I’m freelance, and I’m currently working in Tolworth, so Surbiton’s local for me.”
“I’ll get the drinks,” Josh said. “Then Ali and I are off home.”
He took our order and set off at his most assertive. Josh was tall and broad, and he was always our best chance of getting a drink at a crowded bar. I was left sitting with Nick Carson and my sister.
Awkward? Yes indeedy.
I caught Nick’s gaze on me. Lovely dark eyes with crinkled laughter lines at the edges. His smile was very striking, though wary at the moment. For a brief second, I saw a resemblance to my memory of Nathan. But during that summer I spent at the SSSC, I didn’t remember ever thinking Nathan Carson was my type, even if he hadn’t claimed obnoxiously and vociferously how straight he was.
Alice leaned over to Nick again, eyes wide. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Carson.”
“No, it’s fine. Call me Nick, please.”
“Ali,” I said pointedly, “I can make my own apologies.”
She ignored me. “Since Daniel’s launched out into the social media world, there have been a few hiccups. Not that I’ve been poking my nose into his laptop, but I can’t help catching sight of things….”
I thought I saw a twitch at the corner of Nick’s mouth. Ali wasn’t going to quote anything scandalous from my browser history, was she?
“He went browsing somewhere called Pen Island. He got all kinds of pictures that had nothing to do with stationery.”
She was—and had.
“Athletic Men was the same,” she happily gabbled on. “No sports shoes in sight, except the pairs perched up on another man’s bare shoulders. And you remember that Wikipedia site you called up, Daniel, that had nothing at all to do with drinking tea?”
“Tea-bagging,” I muttered under my breath. “And that’s why my laptop has a password now.”
Now Nick was definitely smiling. And when he looked at me, there was the slight suggestion of a wink in solidarity. He understood what my dear sister was telling him about my preferences, didn’t he?
“I can’t believe I made such a mistake, chatting on to you like that,” I said to him, still mortified. “And, shit—” Alice’s foot kicked my ankle. “—I mean, sorry. I’ve been rambling on about the old days, harassing you for the addresses of our club mates. Well… mine.”
“I know. But it’s no problem. You thought I was Nathan, after all, and you’d been in the same football team. It was perfectly reasonable to think he may have kept in touch with the other kids who played.”
“It was perfectly nuts,” Josh muttered behind me. He put a couple of pints on the table, then swept Alice’s coat from the back of her chair. He pointedly held it out for her to put on. “Let’s get going, shall we?”
Ali glanced quickly between Nick and me.
“Things are fine,” I said wryly. “If he’s an axe murderer, I’ll call for help from the bar staff.”
Nick looked confused.
“Have a good time, Daniel. I hope it works out for you,” Josh said. He put a hand on my shoulder; he sounded genuine. “It’s a long time since any of us were sixteen, so I don’t know what you’ll find. But good luck.”