When Charlie heads off for two weeks of big game spotting, you escort him as far as Paddington for the Heathrow Express. This is in marked contrast to your behaviour the last time you were together, when you would barely raise a single eye lid to acknowledge his departure whether he was leaving for a day at work or a week away. Charlie is touched by your gesture. Little does he know you have plans for the day which would take you close to Paddington anyway. You and Alice are going to go on a vintage spree at Alfie’s Antique Market, just off the Edgware Road. So it’s not big deal to leave 40 minutes before her so you can go via Paddington and play the devoted girlfriend.

‘That was very sweet of you, going to the station with Charlie this morning,’ she says over greasy tea in Alfie’s cafe.

‘Well, since I’m not gong on the actual trip... You know I think he would have really liked me to go with him, shown myself to be willing to compromise and take an interest in his shit. So the least I can do is put him on the Heathrow Express. I want to look supportive, don’t I?’

‘Be supportive, you mean.’

‘What?’

‘You want to be supportive, not just look supportive.’

‘Right, yes,’ you nod, not really fussed about the distinction. ‘Anyway, enough about me. Come on, let’s talk about Jamie.’

Alice puts her head in her hands, and mutters, ‘Do we have to?’

‘Yes we do,’ you answer, sternly. ‘I thought you had decided to knock it on the head. So what happened yesterday?’

Raising her head, Alice sighs. ‘I know, I know. It’s just, well, he texted, and I was just sitting around, bored, so I thought... tch, where’s the harm? One more time isn’t going to make any difference. It’s got to end anyway.’

‘That’s just it, you know it’s got to end at some point. So why put off the inevitable? No good can come of it, Alicious, you know that.’

‘I know,’ she nods. ‘And if I met someone, I’d stop seeing him tomorrow. But since I’m so unbelievably single – still! – I might as well at least get laid once in a while.’

‘See, that’s a classic Catch 22. I just don’t think you will meet someone while you’re still shagging the married builder.’

‘Can we call him Jamie please? I prefer it.’

‘We can call him Father Christmas if you like but my point is still the same. Your head’s just not in the right place to be meeting someone new – you don’t have your eyes peeled, you don’t want it enough.’

‘You sound like Tyra... To be America’s Next Top Model, you have to want it.’ In her best Tyra Banks impression, she continues, ‘Do you want it enough?

‘Alice! Don’t change the subject. What are you going to do?’

‘I’m going to prove you wrong, first of all. I’m going to go out with my eyes peeled and pull some body else. It’ll sweeten the pill. Then I’ll tell Jamie I can’t see him anymore.’

‘Haven’t you told him that already? Like, several times?’

‘I have, yes, I promise you I have. But he’s never really bought into it. Especially since he’s always known I wasn’t seeing anyone else. So you see if I shag someone else, I think I can be more convincing.’

Now it’s your turn to do the Tyra act. ‘Make him believe it – tell the story with your eyes.’

You congratulate Alice on her good intentions, and make plans for a night out. With Charlie out of town you don’t have to consult anyone about your Saturday night out. What’s more, you can really let your hair down.

Hey babe, missing me yet? It’s beautiful here, incredible scenery. You’d love it. Sending you a picture of a hyena. Wish you were here x x x The accompanying image is a blurry shot of some scrubland with a smudge, which you assume is a hyena, in the foreground. It’s hard to get a really good photo of a rare animal on a camera phone. You hope he didn’t forget to pack his good camera.

You are missing Charlie a bit. Well, you’re missing the sex. And you think of him when something trivial comes up which you would normally call him about. That’s okay, since Alice is still there for everyday mundanities. And it’s been nice reacquainting yourself with the diagonal sleeping position. This Saturday night will be more fun with Charlie out of town. While he’s away you get to enjoy the fun and freedom of being on your own again – with the safety of knowing when he comes home you’ll get some good affectionate loving and the bedrock of a regular Saturday night date.

During the week the texts go from photos wildlife to pure animal instinct. You enjoy the text sex for the most part, not least because you can do other stuff at the same time. You’re a busy girl, and you can’t always just drop everything to satisfy Charlie. So you work him up into a frenzy – sitting alone in his tent, savouring every moment – while you’re grabbing a sandwich, or watching You’ve Been Framed with Alice and Simon. Very efficient.

 

Maybe it was the effect of all those steamy texts. Maybe it was the pineapple and basil cocktail you started your evening with. Whatever. Due to some lapse in concentration, you find yourself kissing a tall, bearded man you just met. For a moment you enjoy getting to know his lips and tongue, finding out what it’s like to kiss a man with a beard. Turns out it’s kinda nice. Then you remember yourself, and pull away.

‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that,’ you stammer.

‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that...’ he smiles.

‘No, I mean, I’m seeing someone. I’m sorry.’ And with an apologetic smile, you walk quickly away in search of Alice.

You find here where you left her, in the queue at the bar. It’s six deep and she’s about half way in.

‘Where’ve you been?’

Your guilty smile says it all.

‘What? Who? Did you snog or just flirt?’

‘Beardy guy in the gorilla t-shirt at four o’clock. And yes, I did.’

‘Nice... very nice. But, oooh, hang on a second, don’t you have a boyfriend?’

‘I know, I know, it was a bit naughty. But it’s nice to know I’ve still got the old magic, eh?’

‘A bit naughty? Sarah! You’ve only been back with Charlie for five minutes. And I think the Australian adventure proved you’ve still got the old magic as far as snogging random guys you’ve no intention of seeing again goes.’

‘Alright already! Look, there’s a gap at the bar.’

You jostle your way in and scowl at Alice as you wait for service. She’s not normally so bloody pious. Like she said, you’ve only been back with Charlie five minutes, it’s hardly serious. It’s borderline dating, at best. And you’ve only just got used to being single. No wonder you’re confused.

Alice is finally served, and grins triumphantly as she orders shots to accompany your beers. You’re celebrating being served.

‘Hey,’ you say, ‘It was only a snog.’

‘I’ll drink to that,’ she says, and tilts her head back to neck the vodka.

Working your way through your beers you muse on the nature of men, and the merits of single life. Alice doesn’t really blame you for snogging The Beard. Being single suited you, it’s no wonder you lapse into that sort of behaviour when Charlie’s not around. Not that she’s saying you’re destined to be unfaithful, but just that it’s going to take you a bit of time to get used to the restrictions of being Charlie’s girlfriend again. You try not to think of them as restrictions, you tell her, but privileges.

The appearance of The Beard silences your giggles.

‘Hey,’ he says to you, with a wink. Then he turns to Alice, and says, ‘I’m Gerry.’

‘Alice,’ she replies.

‘I wanted to give your friend my number,’ he continues, looking straight at Alice.

She gives you a mischievous grin. ‘What, Sarah?’

‘That’s right, Sarah. In case she needs a shoulder to cry on when she breaks up with her boyfriend, and you’re not around.’

‘That’s really sweet of you. But I’m pretty sure I can look after her.’

‘Hey! Don’t mind me.’ You pout, and fish your phone out of your pocket. ‘Listen, you can give me your number, but I promise you I’m not going to need a shoulder to cry on. My boyfriend’s coming home at the weekend and I can’t wait!’

It would be convincing if you didn’t say it with such a coquettish smile, twirling your hair and looking Gerry up and down. As he keys his number into your phone his beard is illuminated by the screen, and you think it’s a very manly look. But you’re still definitely not going to call him.

 

Not only did this Gerry say that you were going to break up with your boyfriend, but Alice didn’t correct him. Were they right? The way you had flirted with Gerry, when you got talking to him at first, was not the behaviour of someone guy’s girlfriend. No wonder he thought you were ripe for the kissing. And it’s not the first time Alice has said that she thinks you have more fun when you’re single. She only thinks that because she doesn’t appreciate the merits of Saturday nights in with a DVD and a bottle of wine, you usually retort.

Over the next beer you put some effort into convincing Alice that you have no intention of calling The Beard. And that you really are looking forward to seeing Charlie again. In the end she agrees, as much to shut you up as because you’ve really won her over.

‘Let’s make these our last,’ she says.

‘Really? It’s not that late, is it?’

‘It’s midnight and I feel like Cinderella.’

‘Alice, what’s wrong with you? Are you sickening for something?’

It doesn’t take much to persuade her to have another drink. You really want her to meet someone tonight. It doesn’t matter if nothing much comes of it, but she just needs to be reminded there’s life beyond the bloody builder. You’ve tried this treatment before and it hasn’t had a lasting effect, but this time you think she’s ready. So you make it your mission to get talking to all the hot guys in the room. As she banters with some suave grey haired guy in a white shirt, you consider your work almost done. You turn to his overweight mate to do the decent thing and distract him, feeling slightly martyred. Then, happily, you catch sight of a – by now familiar – beard passing his left shoulder.

Gerry catches your eye, and turns in his tracks, wearing a cautious smile.

‘Hi,’ you say, glad of a distraction from the silver fox’s fat mate. ‘I thought you’d gone.’

‘What, so you could go and break some other guy’s heart?’

You laugh. This guy is ridiculous. The fat mate takes a discreet step away.

‘Sorry. It’s the whisky talking. No, I just went onto the roof terrace for a smoke. We’re heading off soon though. Hey, I’m glad I bumped into you again. I wanted to ask you something.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Yeah. Have you broken up with your boyfriend yet?’

‘Tch! Stop it! I’m not about to break up with my boyfriend.’

‘What makes you so sure?’

‘What makes you so sure I will?’

‘I don’t know,’ says Gerry, lowering his voice as he moves closer. ‘Something in the way you kissed me...’

You shake your head and smile ruefully. That kiss. Not exactly Girlfriend of the Year material, was it? Poor Charlie, he’d be so upset.

‘Want me to remind you? Show you what I mean?’ Gerry suggests.

This time you only kiss Gerry back for a split second before, in a gesture which feels familiar, you pull back and walk away. Charlie deserves better. He’s a good man. You’ve just got itchy feet, you’re taking time to get used to your new status, that’s all. But you’re glad you’re back together with Charlie. Much better to give it another go than to always wonder what might have been.

‘Lion attacks tourists’ bellows the Metro’s headline. You’re reading it over someone’s pinstriped shoulder, strap-hanging on the tube. You immediately think of Charlie. The picture is of a lion and there’s an inset of the people involved but you can’t see their faces – just the top of their hair – over the pinstripes. Annoyingly he turns the paper over and reads the sport page.

It isn’t till Tottenham Court Road, when the tube carriage clears out a bit and you are able to secure your own copy of the Metro, that you can read the story. To your horror you realise it is Charlie. The jeep he was in was attacked by a crazed lion, and the guy he was with was actually killed. Charlie got off lightly according to the report, which said only that he was being treated for injuries.

You arrive at the office dazed, and in shock. You can’t believe it’s Charlie. But when you log on you see an email from his brother, saying he was shaken up but okay, and would be coming home as soon as they could move him. That doesn’t sound ‘okay’ to you, but you have to take his word for it. You send Charlie a concerned text and watch your phone anxiously for a reply.

‘Am okay thx babe. Bit woosy.’

You take that to mean that the painkillers he must be on have made him lightheaded. You’d probably have spelt it woozie yourself, but forgive him the lapse in judgement. He must have been terrified, and he’s in a really bad way. Poor Charlie.

Five days pass before Charlie is considered well enough to travel. Over that time he becomes a distant figure in your life, a cartoon image of a man in head-to-toe bandages sending morphine clouded texts from a whitewashed room in a Botswana hospital.

You are about to face the reality of it. He’s coming home today. His parents are going to pick him up, and you’ve been invited for Sunday lunch. You shudder at the thought, and chastise yourself for it. Mean girl! Poor lovely Charlie is coming home, and he needs you to be sweet and take care of him.

So, before we go any further, let me check. Are you really going to make a go of this? Because if you’re not, there’s no point launching into a dutiful nurse act.

One last decision to make:

 

If you are going to make a go of it, go to Chapter Seven III to face the consequences

If it's time to call it a day with Charlie, go to Chapter Seven XX to face the consequences