Read Part One here.
Her phone rang. Yanni’s number.
‘Carla?’ Not Yanni’s voice.
It took two train stations for Carla to respond. The phone line was still open.
‘Is it really…’
Now she could hear Yanni on the other end, talking excitedly. ‘It’s really him, Carla. When’s your train coming in?’
‘Good. I’ll pick you up.’
Yanni met her on the platform.
‘It’s really him, Carla,’ he repeated as he ushered her into a very old Nissan Micra.
‘Where is he?’
‘Where is your place?’ Carla realised she’d never asked him where he lived before.
‘Above the pub on the high street. I work there, so the commute’s not too bad…’ they were both really too anxious for humour to work, but they both appreciated his effort.
‘Is he… is he…’
‘See for yourself.’
Yanni’s flat was actually a bedsit, full of band posters and pride flags and half-strung guitars. And sitting on a beaten-up old armchair, standing up when she walked in—
For a minute, all Carla could hear was a hum from the high street and the ticking of a clock hidden somewhere in the room. James hadn’t changed a bit. Same large glasses, same grubby trainers, same dark eyes and buzzed scalp. Carla sank down onto the nearest available space, a pile of blankets that looked suspiciously like Yanni’s bed. Acutely sensing that Carla was on the verge of a breakdown, Yanni went for the kettle, then changed his mind and went for the door.
‘Won’t be a sec, I’m just going to get something alcoholic.’
Once Yanni was out of the room, Carla found herself looking anywhere but James. She counted four guitars, six books on the supernatural and a frying pan that needed to be put out of its misery. When she had the nerve to look back at James, he was cleaning his glasses. As usual, he missed the most obvious smudge on the lens.
Carla was suddenly afraid, and angry, but she wasn’t sure who she was angry at.
‘How do I actually know you’re you?’
They knew each other too well for James to think she was joking. He sat back down. ‘You first got into magic because you read a book about ley lines. Your mum pushed you into taking ballet as an extracurricular when you were seven so you sprained your own ankle to get out of it. You always wanted to go into graphic design. Last time I saw you, which was about… twelve hours ago, you were wearing a giant fleece that smelt like a dead sheep and hiking boots with the red laces I got you for Secret Santa.’
‘Those… those laces were pink.’
Carla dug into her handbag. Tied to her keys, the only place she could think to put them without it looking odd, were a set of faded, frayed, pomegranate-coloured shoelaces.
James blinked. ‘I got you those last week.’
‘You got me them five Christmases ago.’
Except for the clock, the room was completely silent again, although Carla fancied that if she listened hard enough, she might hear the cogs in James’s brain turning.
‘It’s really been six years.’
‘Was Yanni taking the piss? Did Donald Trump really get elected president?’
‘Yep. What’s the last thing you remember?’
‘Us. In the copse. You doing your incantating thing. A branched creaked like it was going to fall down, so I hurried to the other side of the clearing. When I turned around, you were gone, so I wandered around for a bit. Before I knew it it was light, so I walked back into town. Walked into Yanni on the high street. I nearly got hit by an electric car. Those things are really quiet.’
Carla’s brain felt like it did when she worked out her tax return. ‘You’ve… you’ve lost six years.’
‘I think I’ve skipped six years.’
‘You’re remarkably calm about this.’
‘That’s probably because last night I was in a clearing with you doing some magic. It hasn’t sunk in yet. You’ve, um, you’ve had six years to think about it.’ He cleaned his glasses again.
It dawned on Carla that she had never really grasped quite how much she had missed him. She missed having a best friend to text and she missed having someone to watch bad TV with and she missed their shared obsession with the supernatural. She missed him, too, his wry sense of humour and depressing practical streak and unfathomable love of strawberry laces.
Before she could say anything, Yanni returned with three fancy glasses and a bottle of brandy. ‘Brandy’s good for shock, right? Also no one really drinks it so no one will notice I’ve borrowed it.’
James looked at the glass Yanni was offering him. ‘I’m underage.’
‘Shit. So you are. I’ll have yours.’
James turned his attention back to Carla.
‘So. How… are you?’
‘Oh, you know.’
He studied her. ‘You look older.’
‘You know what I mean! Grown up. Ish.’
James pulled a face. ‘Old.’
Yanni was saying something about brandy, but Carla wasn’t listening. She was thinking about how angry she had been that James’s parents were so quick to write off as having run away, how scared she was that they might think to ask questions she couldn’t answer. How frustrated when it became clear they didn’t want to ask anything. She remembered the frantic searches in the days after he disappeared, praying he had wandered home and caught a cold and the bad weather, or dropped his phone in a ditch. The slow ebbing away of hope until she couldn’t bear to stay in Bishop’s Creek any longer.
She drained her glass.
They met in a café in Covent Garden, for old times’ sake, even though they were all about to board the train back to Bishop’s Creek. Yanni and James had come down together, to stay in her front room for a few days now school was finished. Carla housed a suspicion they were together together, but she wasn’t going to say anything until they did.
James had been obsessed with taking pictures since he discovered the improvements in camera phone technology, so Carla and Yanni left him to eyeball tourists while they found a table.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said to Yanni once they were sat down.
‘For what? Leaving the thermostat on so it was one hundred degrees in your living room last night?’
‘For being so rude to you all these years. For insisting we keep away from each other. I shouldn’t have pushed you away. And you can have my old books on the occult.’
‘I got the impression you’d burnt or shredded them.’
‘They’re in my mum’s loft.’
‘Thanks.’ Yanni looked like he might regret what he was going to say next, but ploughed on. ‘You know… You can stop looking over your shoulder now. He’s back. He sleeps on my sofa. You can relax.’
‘I know. Old habits die hard.’
‘That reminds me. How are the apparitions?’
‘Better,’ Carla admitted. ‘Although part of me misses them.’
A minute later, James joined them in a flurry of snowflakes. Carla wondered if she’d ever stop being surprised to see him.
‘How are A Levels?’ Carla asked after he had shown them fourteen perfectly captured shots of tourists. They’d seen each other a lot since the day James returned, but since September he’d been too busy with school to talk much.
‘They’ve changed the system.’ James winced. ‘I’m thinking of doing some travelling after I go to college. Catch up on some of the time I missed.’
‘How’s your mum doing?’
‘Honestly, it’s like I was never away. She has decided I was taken by the Devil. I never thought I’d say this but thank God for devout Christians. She accepted me back without a question. I don’t think she realises that although I was gone six whole years, I never actually aged. I think she thinks I went off to join a cult or something.’
‘What about your siblings?’
‘Younger ones don’t remember me, older ones assumed I’d joined a gang and been stabbed to death. Their concern was touching. My dad was glad to see me back, though. Not glad enough to offer me a place to stay, although that might be because someone’s girlfriend is staying in my old bed.’
‘So what is it really like, staying with Yanni?’
Yanni rolled his eyes. ‘Excellent.’
James grinned. ‘It’s fantastic. I’m learning loads about obscure sixties music.’
‘Not sure how he’s smarter than me when I’m six years older.’
‘How old are you?’ Carla wondered.
‘Officially, I was twenty-four in August. Unofficially, I was eighteen.’
‘You were always an old soul,’ Carla mused.
‘We still need to throw you an eighteenth-and-twenty-first party,’ Yanni insisted. ‘Carl, we thought we’d wait until you’re home.’
‘Let’s do it at new year,’ James suggested. ‘Before you come back to the big smoke to conquer the graphic design universe.’ Carla smiled. Big smoke. He was such a weirdo.
Yanni raised his glass. ‘A toast, please, ladies and gentlemen.’
‘A toast?’ Carla asked. ‘To whom?’
‘To us,’ Yanni said confidently. ‘To James being thrown through time like a stray tennis ball, which brought the three of us together in a mind-bending and roundabout way.’
They clinked glasses.
‘I want to go back to the copse.’ Carla announced.
Yanni and James looked at each other.
‘Why?’ James asked after a moment.
‘I want to know what caused your time lapse. Why were you thrown through time like a stray tennis ball? Also…’ Carla looked at her lemonade. ‘Until you came back, I didn’t realise how screwed up the whole situation was. If I’d been thinking clearly, I might have figured out that you were lost in time and looked forward to seeing you again, instead of… running away.’
‘I don’t one blame you,’ James said. ‘I think you’ve both done pretty well to stay sane.’
‘Sane-ish,’ Carla said.
‘Ish,’ Yanni agreed. ‘Come on then. Let’s get the train back to our supernatural rural idyll. First one to be catapulted into 2035 buys me a flying car!’
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