The Trouble with Henry and Zoe is a story about love and the choices we make from the bestselling author of The Two of Us, Andy Jones.

The synopsis: The Trouble with Henry and Zoe

Henry and Zoe have more in common than they realise. For a start, they both have pasts they'd rather leave behind. After jilting his childhood sweetheart on the eve of their wedding in the small town where they both grew up, Henry runs away to London, planning to reinvent himself and start afresh.

Zoe has her own healing to do and so she plans to leave London, travel the world, and figure out just what it is she wants out of life. She doesn't know where she's going, but she is determined to go there alone.

If Henry and Zoe had met one year ago, perhaps things could have worked out differently. But that’s not the way it works; they meet seven months after their worlds have been turned upside down.

Read more: A day in the life of a not-so-superstar author

 

The trouble with Henry and Zoe

 

The excerpt: Zoe

An Unexpected Fumble

Zoe thinks maybe she should get out of bed. The kitchen sink is full of dishes, the carpets need a hoover, the bathroom needs cleaning. But she is tired, warm and enjoying the subsiding flush of an unexpected Saturday-morning fumble. Alex is a lark and Zoe an owl, and lately it seems that whenever one is in the mood the other is seven-eighths asleep. Besides this morning, she wonders how long it has been since they last made love. They’ve been living together for nine months now, and she would be surprised if they had made the bedsprings creak much more than half a dozen times in the last three. He had taken the initiative this morning, though, and when Zoe muttered something about being sleepy, he had kissed her ear and whispered, ‘You can keep your eyes closed.’ That had made her smile; his breath had tickled her ear and his hand, sliding up inside her t-shirt, had activated her nerve endings a little lower down. It had been nice.

He was a bit quick to the finish line, now that she thinks about it, but it was … it was nice. He had done that thing – the grappler, she called it – where he hooked his arm under her left leg. Normally Zoe wasn’t keen on the manoeuvre (aside from feeling a bit silly, she wasn’t that flexible and it could get quite painful down her hamstring), but Alex had been gentle this morning, and it felt somehow that … she’s not sure how to put it … like he meant it, she supposes. At least he hadn’t attempted the lockdown; last time he’d done that she’d had to turn her face into the pillow to smother her laughter. No, this morning was nice, and then – after a respectable interval with cuddling and nuzzling – he’d jumped out of bed and said he was going to the shops to get some ‘stuff’. ‘Go back to sleep,’ he’d said, ‘I’ll bring you breakfast in bed.’ And who is she to argue with that?

Sex, she thinks. Funny. Tremendous fun, but it doesn’t bear overthinking. Because if you think about it, isn’t the whole thing a bit daft? She knows Al’s routine almost by heart, the sequence of hands, lips, fingers across her body. Like a pilot preparing for take-off …

A part of her knows that once you start to scrutinize a thing, a person, the tiny flaws can begin to occlude the larger picture. Just like these walls, she thinks.

There is enough light in the room that Zoe can just make out the messy patches of darker paint showing through two coats of Morning Fog. Alex claims he can’t see the imperfections; says Zoe is imagining them. He insists on this with such conviction that Zoe wonders if he isn’t right. Focus on the positives, she says to herself.

And the positives are what? Alex is cool, handsome, has a nice if somewhat softer than when they met body, and he’s good (… or is he just okay?) in bed.

Zoe has slept with eleven men. Six boyfriends and a smattering of flings ranging from one to a few nights. She has never ranked these men and boys in terms of their bedroom prowess, but she knows without hesitation who tops the list. Ken Coleman, a third-year Maths student she dated for two terms in her second year. ‘Ken Wood’ someone – Vicky, more than likely – had nicknamed him. The worst, too, is a no brainer (Jacob Kentish, Philosophy, small penis, bad breath, funny noises), but the remaining nine are more difficult to order. As her mind begins sorting these men of its own accord, Zoe shies away from the exercise – what if Alex falls in the wrong half of the group? If he does, she certainly doesn’t want to confirm the fact. They share a mortgage now – the modern equivalent of marriage – so it doesn’t do to be making these schoolgirlish comparisons. Alex is a good lover: he is considerate most of the time, clean most of the time, and she has a pleasant little orgasm most of the time. Not the bone-marrow boiling, eye-crossing, narcotic wobblers she had at the hands of Ken, granted, but there’s only so much of that a girl can take.

Although – and this is a new thing – about a week before her period is due, she has found herself … craving is the best word she can think of … craving sex. Not lovemaking, but primal, vigorous sex. Zoe wonders if her body clock is sending out its stalk on a spring. She won’t be thirty for another eleven months, so it seems early. Maybe it’s because she and Alex have bought a house, set up a nest. Who told my bloody ovaries, she thinks.

 Zoe realizes she is holding her breath – a habit she seems to have developed some time in the last year. She catches herself doing it several times a day – sitting at her desk or lying in bed with her chest hitched and her lungs tight with held air. It’s comforting almost, but at the same time a little odd – having to remind yourself to … breaaathe. Stress, she imagines.

Is the idea of being a mother really that stressful? Or is it the idea of having a baby with Alex? Zoe shakes herself mentally. Exhales … breathes.

In the bright October sunlight, Zoe thinks again about how tender Alex had been this morning, and reminds herself to live in the now. She slides open her bedside drawer and fishes out the strip of contraceptive pills. She pops one into the palm of her hand and swallows it dry.

* * * * *

When she wakes again Zoe needs to pee. The house is cold and she has lost the afterglow of the unexpected fumble. The bathroom tiles will feel like the surface of a frozen lake on her bare feet, and she pulls the duvet close to preserve any residual warmth. Christmas is only two months away, and she thinks maybe she and Alex should buy each other slippers – cheap, practical and …

‘Good God almighty,’ she says out loud, ‘I’m turning into my mother.’

Still, slippers would be nice.

If she concentrates on something besides her bladder, Zoe thinks, maybe she can get ten more minutes in bed. Five at least. The boiler has obviously decided to go on strike again. It needs replacing, but there is little cash and less flow; so they’ll just have to cross their cold blue fingers that it has one more winter in its pipes before dying quietly or exploding.

Bad word choice, Zoe thinks, feeling a twinge in her bladder. She looks at the clock – 10.15 – and wonders how long she has been dozing. Ten minutes? An hour? She listens to the house and it is silent – no sounds of cooking, no boiling kettle. She calls Alex but he doesn’t answer, leading Zoe to believe she can’t have been sleeping for long. She throws back the duvet and tiptoes to the loo.

Looking at her dancing feet as she relieves herself, Zoe notices a constellation of dried splash marks on the tiles. Why is it, she wonders, men seem incapable of weeing inside the bowl? Or is she generalizing? Alex is the first man she’s lived with, so she has nothing to compare him to. Well, except for her father, but her parents have their own en suite and a cleaner who comes twice a week. Maybe Alex is just a splasher. It’s not as if the bowl isn’t big enough; surely an elephant could manage to pee in that thing without getting it all over the rim and on the tiles. She smiles at the image of an elephant taking a pee in her bathroom and thinks it might make a good premise for a kids’ picture book. Maybe she’ll tell her boss on Monday, see if one of their authors can do something with it. Or maybe she’ll do it herself – after all, how hard can it be to write eight hundred words about the bathroom antics of animals? She’ll call it The Loo at the Zoo; maybe spend an hour or two kicking it about this weekend.

The Trouble with Henry and Zoe is published by Simon & Schuster

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