Main After You

After You

Language: english
ISBN 10: 0525426590
ISBN 13: 9780525426592
File: EPUB, 795 KB
Download (epub, 795 KB)

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* * *





AFTER YOU





Contents


CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

CHAPTER THIRTY

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

FOLLOW PENGUIN





For my grandmother, Betty McKee





CHAPTER ONE


The big man at the end of the bar is sweating. He holds his head low over his double Scotch, but every few minutes he glances up and out, behind him, towards the door. A fine sheen of perspiration glistens under the strip-lights. He lets out a long, shaky breath, disguised as a sigh, and turns back to his drink.

‘Hey. Excuse me?’

I look up from polishing glasses.

‘Can I get another one here?’

I want to tell him it’s really not a good idea, it won’t help, it might even put him over the limit. But he’s a big guy and it’s fifteen minutes till closing time and, according to company guidelines, I have no reason to tell him no, so I walk over, take his glass and hold it up to the optic. He nods at the bottle. ‘Double,’ he says, and slides a fat hand down his damp face.

‘That’ll be seven pounds twenty, please.’

It’s a quarter to eleven on a Tuesday night and the Shamrock and Clover, East City Airport’s Irish-themed pub, which is as Irish as Mahatma Gandhi, is winding down for the night. The bar closes ten minutes after the last plane takes off, and right now it’s just me, an intense young man with a laptop, the cackling women at table two and the man nursing a double Jameson’s waiting for either the SC107 to Stockholm or the DB224 to Munich – the latter has been delayed for forty minutes.

I’ve been on since midday, as Carly has a stomach-ache and went home. I don’t mind. I never mind staying late. Humming softly to Celtic Pipes of the Emerald Isle, Vol. III, I walk over and collect the glasses from the two women, who are peering intently at some video footage on a phone. They laugh the easy laugh of the well lubricated.

‘My granddaughter. Five days old,’ says the blonde woman, as I reach over the table for her glass.

‘Lovely.’ I smile. All babies look like currant buns to me.

‘She lives in Sweden. I’ve never been. But I have to go and see my first grandchild, don’t I?’

‘We’re wetting the baby’s head.’ They burst out laughing again. ‘Join us in a toast? Go on, take a load off for five minutes. We’ll never finish this bottle in time.’

‘Oops! Here we go. Come on, Dor.’ Alerted by a screen, they gather up their belongings, and perhaps it’s only me who notices a slight stagger as they brace themselves for the walk towards security. I place their glasses on the bar, scan the room for anything else that needs washing.

‘You never tempted, then?’ The smaller woman has turned back for her scarf.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘To just walk down there, at the end of a shift. Hop on a plane. I would.’ She laughs again. ‘Every bloody day.’

I smile, the kind of professional smile that might convey anything at all, and turn back towards the bar.

Around me the concession stores are closing up for the night, steel shutters clattering down over the overpriced handbags and emergency-gift Toblerones. The lights flicker off at gates three, five, eleven, the last of the day’s travellers winking their way into the night sky. Violet, the Congolese cleaner, pushes her trolley towards me, her walk a slow sway, her rubber-soled shoes squeaking on the shiny Marmoleum. ‘Evening, darling.’

‘Evening, Violet.’

‘You shouldn’t be here this late, sweetheart. You should be home with your loved ones.’

She says exactly the same thing to me every night. ‘Not long now.’ I respond with these exact words every night. Satisfied, she nods and continues on her way.

Intense Young Laptop Man and Sweaty Scotch Drinker have gone. I finish stacking the glasses, and cash up, checking twice until the till roll matches what is in the drawer. I note everything in the ledger, check the pumps, jot down what we need to reorder. It is then that I notice the big man’s coat is still over his bar stool. I walk over, and glance up at the monitor. The flight to Munich would be just boarding, if I felt inclined to run his coat down to him. I look again, then walk slowly to the Gents.

‘Hello? Anyone in here?’

The voice that emerges is strangled, bears a faint edge of hysteria. I push the door.

The Scotch Drinker is bent low over the sinks, splashing his face. His skin is chalk-white. ‘Are they calling my flight?’

‘It’s only just gone up. You’ve probably got a few minutes.’ I make to leave, but something stops me. The man is staring at me, his eyes two tight little buttons of anxiety. ‘I can’t do it.’ He grabs a paper towel and pats at his face. ‘I can’t get on the plane.’

I wait.

‘I’m meant to be travelling over to meet my new boss, and I can’t. I haven’t had the guts to tell him I’m scared of flying.’ He shakes his head. ‘Not scared. Terrified.’

I let the door close behind me. ‘What’s your new job?’

He blinks. ‘Uh … car parts. I’m the new Senior Regional Manager, bracket Spares close bracket, for Hunt Motors.’

‘Sounds like a big job,’ I say. ‘You have … brackets.’

‘I’ve been working for it a long time.’ He swallows hard. ‘Which is why I don’t want to die in a ball of flame. I really don’t want to die in an airborne ball of flame.’

I am tempted to point out that it wouldn’t actually be an airborne ball of flame, more a rapidly descending one, but suspect it wouldn’t really help. He splashes his face again and I hand him another paper towel.

‘Thank you.’ He lets out a shaky breath, and straightens, attempting to pull himself together. ‘I bet you never saw a grown man behave like an idiot before, huh?’

‘About four times a day.’

His tiny eyes widen.

‘About four times a day I have to fish someone out of the men’s loos. And it’s usually down to fear of flying.’

He blinks at me.

‘But, you know, like I say to everyone else, no planes have ever gone down from this airport.’

His neck shoots back in his collar. ‘Really?’

‘Not one.’

‘Not even … a little crash on the runway?’

I shrug. ‘It’s actually pretty boring here. People fly off, go to where they’re going, come back again a few days later.’ I lean against the door to prop it open. These lavatories never smell any better by the evening. ‘And anyway, personally, I think there are worse things that can happen to you.’

‘Well. I suppose that’s true.’ He considers this, looks sideways at me. ‘Four a day, uh?’

‘Sometimes more. Now, if you wouldn’t mind, I really have to get back. It’s not good for me to be seen coming out of the men’s loos too often.’

He smiles, and for a minute I can see how he might be in other circumstances. A naturally ebullient man. A cheerful man. A man at the top of his game of continentally manufactured car parts. ‘You know, I think I hear them calling your flight.’

‘You reckon I’ll be okay?’

‘You’ll be okay. It’s a very safe airline. And it’s just a couple of hours out of your life. Look, the SK491 landed five minutes ago. As you walk to your departure gate, you’ll see the air stewards and stewardesses coming through on their way home and you’ll see them all chatting and laughing. For them, getting on these flights is pretty much like getting on a bus. Some of them do it two, three, four times a day. And they’re not stupid. If it wasn’t safe, they wouldn’t get on, would they?’

‘Like getting on a bus,’ he repeats.

‘Probably an awful lot safer.’

‘Well, that’s for sure.’ He raises his eyebrows. ‘Lot of idiots on the road.’

I nod.

He straightens his tie. ‘And it’s a big job.’

‘Shame to miss out on it, for such a small thing. You’ll be fine once you get used to being up there again.’

‘Maybe I will. Thank you …’

‘Louisa,’ I say.

‘Thank you, Louisa. You’re a very kind girl.’ He looks at me speculatively. ‘I don’t suppose … you’d … like to go for a drink some time?’

‘I think I hear them calling your flight, sir,’ I say, and I open the door to allow him to pass through.

He nods, to cover his embarrassment, makes a fuss of patting his pockets. ‘Right. Sure. Well … off I go, then.’

‘Enjoy those brackets.’

It’s two minutes after he has left that I discover he has been sick all over cubicle three.

I arrive home at a quarter past one and let myself into the silent flat. I change into my pyjama bottoms and a hooded sweatshirt, then open the fridge, pull out a bottle of white and pour a glass. It is lip-pursingly sour. I study the label and realize I must have opened it the previous night, then forgotten to put the top on the bottle, and decide it’s never a good idea to think about these things too hard. I slump into a chair with it.

On the mantelpiece there are two cards. One is from my parents, wishing me a happy birthday. That ‘best wishes’ from Mum is as piercing as any stab wound. The other is from my sister, suggesting she and Thom come down for the weekend. It is six months old. Two voicemails on my phone, one from the dentist. One not.

Hi, Louisa. It’s Jared here. We met in the Dirty Duck? Well, we hooked up [muffled, awkward laugh]. It was just … you know … I enjoyed it. Thought maybe we could do it again? You’ve got my digits …

When there is nothing left in the bottle, I consider buying another, but I don’t want to go out again. I don’t want Samir at the twenty-four-hour grocery to make one of his jokes about my endless bottles of Pinot Grigio. I don’t want to have to talk to anyone. I am suddenly bone-weary, but it is the kind of head-buzzing exhaustion that tells me if I go to bed I won’t sleep. I think briefly about Jared and that he had oddly shaped fingernails. Am I bothered about oddly shaped fingernails? I stare at the bare walls of the living room and realize suddenly that what I actually need is air. I really need air. I open the hall window and climb unsteadily up the fire escape until I am on the roof.

The first time I came up, nine months previously, the estate agent showed me how the previous tenants had made a small terrace garden up there, dotting around a few lead planters and a small bench. ‘It’s not officially yours, obviously,’ he’d said, ‘but yours is the only flat with direct access to it. I think it’s pretty nice. You could even have a party up here!’ I had gazed at him, wondering if I really looked like the kind of person who held parties.

The plants have long since withered and died. I am apparently not very good at looking after things. Now I stand on the roof, staring out at London’s winking darkness below. Around me a million people are living, breathing, eating, arguing. A million lives completely divorced from mine. It is a strange sort of peace.

The sodium lights glitter as the sounds of the city filter up into the night air, engines revving, doors slamming. Several miles south, the distant brutalist thump of a police helicopter, its beam scanning the dark for some vanished miscreant in a local park. Somewhere in the distance a siren. Always a siren. ‘Won’t take much to make this feel like home,’ the estate agent had said. I had almost laughed. The city feels as alien to me as it always has. But, then, everywhere does, these days.

I hesitate, then take a step out onto the parapet, my arms lifted out to the side, a slightly drunken tightrope walker. One foot in front of the other, edging along the concrete, the breeze making the hairs on my outstretched arms prickle. When I first moved down here, when it all hit me hardest, I would sometimes dare myself to walk from one end to the other of my block. When I reached the other end I would laugh into the night air. You see? I’m here – staying alive – right out on the edge. I’m doing what you told me!

It has become a secret habit, me, the city skyline, the comfort of the dark, the anonymity, and the knowledge that up here nobody knows who I am. I lift my head, feeling the night breezes, hearing laughter below, the muffled smash of a bottle breaking, the traffic snaking up towards the city, seeing the endless red stream of tail-lights, an automotive blood supply. Only the hours between three and five a.m. are relatively peaceful, the drunks having collapsed into bed, the restaurant chefs having peeled off their whites, the pubs having barred their doors. The silence of those hours is interrupted only sporadically, by the night tankers, the opening up of the Jewish bakery along the street, the soft thump of the newspaper delivery vans dropping their paper bales. I know the subtlest movements of the city because I no longer sleep.

Somewhere down there a lock-in is going on in the White Horse, full of hipsters and East-Enders, and a couple are arguing outside, and across the city the general hospital is picking up the pieces of the sick and the injured and those who have just about scraped through another day. Up here is just the air, the dark and somewhere the FedEx freight flight from LHR to Beijing, and countless travellers, like Mr Scotch Drinker, on their way to somewhere new.

‘Eighteen months. Eighteen whole months. So when is it going to be enough?’ I say, into the darkness. And there it is – I can feel it boiling up again, the unexpected anger. I take two steps along, glancing down at my feet. ‘Because this doesn’t feel like living. It doesn’t feel like anything.’

Two steps. Two more. I will go as far as the corner tonight.

‘You didn’t give me a bloody life, did you? Not really. You just smashed up my old one. Smashed it into little pieces. What am I meant to do with what’s left? When is it going to feel –’ I stretch out my arms, feeling the cool night air against my skin, and realize I am crying again. ‘Fuck you, Will,’ I whisper. ‘Fuck you for leaving me.’

Grief wells up again, like a sudden tide, intense, overwhelming. And just as I feel myself sinking into it, a voice says, from the shadows, ‘I don’t think you should stand there.’

I half turn, and catch a flash of a small pale face on the fire escape, dark eyes wide open. In shock, my foot slips on the parapet, my weight suddenly the wrong side of the drop. My heart lurches, a split second before my body follows. And then, like a nightmare, I am weightless, in the abyss of the night air, my legs flailing above my head as I hear the shriek that may be my own –

Crunch

And then all is black.





CHAPTER TWO


‘What’s your name, sweetheart?’

A brace around my neck.

A hand feeling around my head, gently, swiftly.

I am alive. This is actually quite surprising.

‘That’s it. Open your eyes. Look at me, now. Look at me. Can you tell me your name?’

I want to speak, to open my mouth, but my voice emerges muffled and nonsensical. I think I have bitten my tongue. There is blood in my mouth, warm and tasting of iron. I cannot move.

‘We’re going to put you onto a spinal board, okay? You may be a bit uncomfortable for a minute, but I’m going to give you some morphine to make the pain a bit easier.’ The man’s voice is calm, level, as if it is the most normal thing in the world to be lying broken on concrete, staring up at the dark sky. I want to laugh. I want to tell him how ridiculous it is that I am here. But nothing seems to work as it should.

The man’s face disappears from view. A woman in a neon jacket, her dark curly hair tied back in a ponytail, looms over me and shines a thin torch abruptly in my eyes, gazing at me with the same detached interest as if I was a specimen, not a person.

‘Do we need to bag her?’

I want to speak but I’m distracted by the pain in my legs. Jesus, I say, but I’m not sure if I say it aloud.

‘Multiple fractures. Pupils normal and reactive. BP ninety over sixty. She’s lucky she hit that awning. What are the odds of landing on a daybed, eh? … I don’t like that bruising, though.’ Cold air on my midriff, the light touch of warm fingers. ‘Internal bleeding?’

‘Do we need a second team?’

‘Can you step back, please, sir? Right back?’

Another man’s voice: ‘I came outside for a smoke, and she dropped on to my bloody balcony. She nearly bloody landed on me.’

‘Well, there you go – it’s your lucky day. She didn’t.’

‘I got the shock of my life. You don’t expect people to just drop out of the bloody sky. Look at my chair. That was eight hundred pounds from the Conran Shop … Do you think I can claim for it?’

A brief silence.

‘You can do what you want, sir. Tell you what, you could charge her for cleaning the blood off your balcony while you’re at it. How about that?’

The first man’s eyes slide towards his colleague. Time slips, I tilt with it. I’ve fallen off a roof? My face is cold and I realize distantly that I’m starting to shake.

‘She’s going into shock, Sam.’

A van door slides open somewhere below. And then the board beneath me moves and briefly the pain the pain the pain – Everything turns black.

A siren and a swirl of blue. Always a siren in London. We are moving. Neon slides across the interior of the ambulance, hiccups and repeats, illuminating the unexpectedly packed interior, the man in the green uniform, who is tapping something into his phone, before turning to adjust the drip above my head. The pain has lessened – morphine? – but with consciousness comes growing terror. A giant airbag is inflating slowly inside me, steadily blocking out everything else. Oh, no. Oh, no.

‘Egcuse nge?’

It takes two goes for the man, his arm braced against the back of the cab, to hear me. He turns and stoops towards my face. He smells of lemons and he has missed a bit when shaving. ‘You okay there?’

‘Ang I –’

The man leans down. ‘Sorry. Hard to hear over the siren. We’ll be at the hospital soon.’ He places a hand on mine. It is dry and warm and reassuring. I’m suddenly panicked in case he decides to let go. ‘Just hang on in there. What’s our ETA, Donna?’

I can’t say the words. My tongue fills my mouth. My thoughts are muddled, overlapping. Did I move my arms when they picked me up? I lifted my right hand, didn’t I?

‘Ang I garalysed?’ It emerges as a whisper.

‘What?’ He drops his ear to somewhere near my mouth.

‘Garalysed? Ang I garalysed?’

‘Paralysed?’ The man hesitates, his eyes on mine, then turns and looks down at my legs. ‘Can you wiggle your toes?’

I try to remember how to move my feet. It seems to require several more leaps of concentration than it used to. The man reaches down and lightly touches my toe, as if to remind me where they are. ‘Try again. There you go.’

Pain shoots up both my legs. A gasp, possibly a sob. Mine.

‘You’re all right. Pain is good. I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think there’s any spinal injury. You’ve done your hip, and a few other bits besides.’

His eyes are on mine. Kind eyes. He seems to understand how much I need convincing. I feel his hand close on mine. I have never needed a human touch more.

‘Really. I’m pretty sure you’re not paralysed.’

‘Oh, thang Gog.’ I hear my voice, as if from afar. My eyes brim with tears. ‘Please don’ leggo ogme,’ I whisper.

He moves his face closer. ‘I am not letting go of you.’

I want to speak, but his face blurs, and I am gone again.

Afterwards they tell me I fell two floors of the five, busting through an awning, breaking my fall on a top-of-the-range outsized canvas and wicker-effect waterproof-cushioned sun-lounger on the balcony of Mr Antony Gardiner, a copyright lawyer, and neighbour I have never met. My hip smashed into two pieces and two of my ribs and my collarbone snapped straight through. I broke two fingers on my left hand, and a metatarsal, which poked through the skin of my foot and caused one of the medical students to faint. My X-rays are a source of some fascination.

I keep hearing the voice of the paramedic who treated me: You never know what will happen when you fall from a great height. I am apparently very lucky. They tell me this and wait, smiling, as if I should respond with a huge grin, or perhaps a little tap dance. I don’t feel lucky. I don’t feel anything. I doze and wake, and sometimes the view above me is the bright lights of an operating theatre, and then it is a quiet, still room. A nurse’s face. Snatches of conversation.

Did you see the mess the old woman on D4 made? That’s some end of a shift, eh?

You work up at the Princess Elizabeth, right? You can tell them we know how to run an ER. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.

You just rest now, Louisa. We’re taking care of everything. Just rest now.

The morphine makes me sleepy. They up my dose and it’s a welcome cold trickle of oblivion.

I open my eyes to find my mother at the end of my bed.

‘She’s awake. Bernard, she’s awake. Do we need to get the nurse?’

She’s changed the colour of her hair, I think distantly. And then: Oh. It’s my mother. My mother doesn’t talk to me any more.

‘Oh, thank God. Thank God.’ My mother reaches up and touches the crucifix around her neck. It reminds me of someone but I cannot think who. She leans forward and lightly strokes my cheek. For some reason this makes my eyes fill immediately with tears. ‘Oh, my little girl.’ She is leaning over me, as if to shelter me from further damage. I smell her perfume, as familiar as my own. ‘Oh, Lou.’ She mops my tears with a tissue. ‘I got the fright of my life when they called. Are you in pain? Do you need anything? Are you comfortable? What can I get you?’

She talks so fast that I cannot answer.

‘We came as soon as they said. Treena’s looking after Granddad. He sends his love. Well, he sort of made that noise, you know, but we all know what he means. Oh, love, how on earth did you get yourself into this mess? What on earth were you thinking?’

She doesn’t seem to require an answer. All I have to do is lie here.

My mother dabs at her eyes, and again at mine. ‘You’re still my daughter. And … and I couldn’t bear it if something happened to you and we weren’t … you know.’

‘Ngung –’ I swallow the words. My tongue feels ridiculous. I sound drunk. ‘I ngever wanged –’

‘I know. But you made it so hard for me, Lou. I couldn’t –’

‘Not now, love, eh?’ Dad touches her shoulder.

She looks away into the middle distance, and takes my hand. ‘When we got the call. Oh. I thought – I didn’t know –’ She is sniffing again, her handkerchief pressed to her lips. ‘Thank God she’s okay, Bernard.’

‘Of course she is. Made of rubber, this one, eh?’

Dad looms over me. We had last spoken on the telephone two months previously, but I haven’t seen him in person for the eighteen months since I left my home town. He looks enormous and familiar, and desperately, desperately tired.

‘Shorry,’ I whisper. I can’t think what else to say.

‘Don’t be daft. We’re just glad you’re okay. Even if you do look like you’ve done six rounds with Mike Tyson. Have you seen yourself in a mirror since you got here?’

I shake my head.

‘Maybe … I might just hold off a bit longer. You know Terry Nicholls, that time he went right over his handlebars by the mini-mart? Well, take off the moustache, and that’s pretty much what you look like. Actually,’ he peers closer at my face, ‘now you mention it …’

‘Bernard.’

‘We’ll bring you some tweezers tomorrow. Anyway, the next time you decide you want flying lessons, let’s head down the ole airstrip, yes? Jumping and flapping your arms is plainly not working for you.’

I try to smile.

They both bend over me. Their faces are strained, anxious. My parents.

‘She’s got thin, Bernard. Don’t you think she’s got thin?’

Dad leans closer, and then I see his eyes are a little watery, his smile a bit wobblier than usual. ‘Ah … she looks beautiful, love. Believe me. You look bloody beautiful.’ He squeezes my hand, then lifts it to his mouth and kisses it. My dad has never done anything like that to me in my whole life.

It is then that I realize they thought I was going to die and a sob bursts unannounced from my chest. I shut my eyes against the hot tears and feel his large, wood-roughened palm around mine.

‘We’re here, sweetheart. It’s all right now. It’s all going to be okay.’

They make the fifty-mile journey every day for two weeks, catching the early train down, and then after that, every few days. Dad gets special dispensation from work, because Mum won’t travel by herself. There are, after all, all sorts in London. This is said more than once and always accompanied by a furtive glance behind her, as if a knife-wielding hood is even now sneaking into the ward. Treena is staying over to keep an eye on Granddad. There is an edge to the way Mum says it that makes me think this might not be my sister’s first choice of arrangements.

Mum brings homemade food, and has done so since the day we all stared at my lunch and, despite five minutes of intense speculation, couldn’t work out what it was. ‘And in plastic trays, Bernard. Like a prison.’ She prodded it sadly with a fork, then sniffed it. Since then she has arrived with enormous sandwiches, thick slices of ham or cheese in white bloomer bread, homemade soups in flasks. ‘Food you can recognize,’ and feeds me like a baby. My tongue slowly returns to its normal size. Apparently I’d almost bitten through it when I landed. It’s not unusual, they tell me.

I have two operations to pin my hip, and my left foot and left arm are in plaster up to the joints. Keith, one of the porters, asks if he can sign my casts – apparently it’s bad luck to have them virgin white – and promptly writes a comment so filthy that Eveline, the Filipina nurse, has to put a plaster on it before the consultant comes around. When he pushes me to X-ray, or to the pharmacy, he tells me the gossip from around the hospital. I could do without hearing about the patients who die slowly and horribly, of which there seem to be an endless number, but it keeps him happy. I sometimes wonder what he tells people about me. I am the girl who fell off a five-storey building and lived. In hospital status, this apparently puts me some way above the compacted bowel in C ward, or That Daft Bint Who Accidentally Took Her Thumb Off with Pruning Shears.

It’s amazing how quickly you become institutionalized. I wake, accept the ministrations of a handful of people I now recognize, try to say the right thing to the consultants, and wait for my parents to arrive. My parents keep busy with small tasks in my room, and become uncharacteristically deferential in the face of the doctors. Dad apologizes repeatedly for my inability to bounce, until Mum kicks him, quite hard, in the ankle.

After the rounds are finished, Mum usually has a walk around the concourse shops downstairs and returns exclaiming in hushed tones at the number of fast-food outlets. ‘That one-legged man from the cardio ward, Bernard. Sitting down there stuffing his face with cheeseburger and chips, like you wouldn’t believe.’

Dad sits and reads the local paper in the chair at the end of my bed. The first week he keeps checking it for reports of my accident. I try to tell him that in this part of the city even double murders barely merit a News In Brief, but in Stortfold the previous week the local paper’s front page ran with ‘Supermarket Trolleys Left in Wrong Area of Car Park’. The week before that it was ‘Schoolboys Sad at State of Duck Pond’ so he has yet to be convinced.

On the Friday after the final operation on my hip, my mother brings a dressing-gown that is one size too big for me, and a large brown-paper bag of egg sandwiches. I don’t have to ask what they are: the sulphurous smell floods the room as soon as she opens her bag. My father wafts his hand in front of his nose. ‘The nurses’ll be blaming me, Josie,’ he says, opening and closing my door.

‘Eggs will build her up. She’s too thin. And, besides, you can’t talk. You were blaming the dog for your awful smells two years after he’d actually died.’

‘Just keeping the romance alive, love.’

Mum lowers her voice: ‘Treena says her last fellow put the blankets over her head when he broke wind. Can you imagine!’

Dad turns to me. ‘When I do it, your mother won’t even stay in the same postcode.’

There is tension in the air, even as they laugh. I can feel it. When your whole world shrinks to four walls, you become acutely attuned to slight variations in atmosphere. It’s in the way consultants turn away slightly when they’re examining X-rays or the nurses cover their mouths when they’re talking about someone nearby who has just died.

‘What?’ I say. ‘What is it?’

They look awkwardly at each other.

‘So …’ Mum sits on the end of my bed. ‘The doctor said … the consultant said … it’s not clear how you fell.’

I bite into an egg sandwich. I can pick things up with my left hand now. ‘Oh, that. I got distracted.’

‘While walking around a roof.’

I chew for a minute.

‘Is there any chance you were sleepwalking, sweetheart?’

‘Dad – I’ve never sleepwalked in my life.’

‘Yes, you have. There was that time when you were thirteen and you sleepwalked downstairs and ate half of Treena’s birthday cake.’

‘Um. I may not have actually been asleep.’

‘And there’s your blood-alcohol level. They said … you had drunk … an awful lot.’

‘I’d had a tough night at work. I had a drink or two and I just went up on the roof to get some air. And then I got distracted by a voice.’

‘You heard a voice.’

‘I was standing on the top – looking out. I do it sometimes. And there was this girl’s voice behind me and it gave me a shock and I lost my footing.’

‘A girl?’

‘I only really heard her voice.’

Dad leans forward. ‘You’re sure it was an actual girl? Not an imaginary –’

‘It’s my hip that’s mashed up, Dad, not my brain.’

‘They did say it was a girl who called the ambulance.’ Mum touches Dad’s arm.

‘So you’re saying it really was an accident,’ he says.

I stop eating. They look away from each other guiltily.

‘What? You … you think I jumped off?’

‘We’re not saying anything.’ Dad scratches his head. ‘It’s just – well – things had all gone so wrong since … and we hadn’t seen you for so long … and we were a bit surprised that you’d be up walking on the roof of a building in the wee small hours. You used to be afraid of heights.’

‘I used to be engaged to a man who thought it was normal to calculate how many calories he’d burned while he slept. Jesus. This is why you’ve been so nice to me? You think I tried to kill myself?’

‘It’s just he was asking us all sorts …’

‘Who was asking what?’

‘The psychiatrist bloke. They just want to make sure you’re okay, love. We know things have been all – well, you know – since –’

‘Psychiatrist?’

‘They’re putting you on the waiting list to see someone. To talk, you know. And we’ve had a long chat with the doctors and you’re coming home with us. Just while you recover. You can’t stay by yourself in that flat of yours. It’s –’

‘You’ve been in my flat?’

‘Well, we had to fetch your things.’

There is a long silence. I think of them standing in my doorway, my mother’s hands tight on her bag as she surveyed the unwashed bed-linen, the empty wine bottles lined up in a row on the mantelpiece, the solitary half-bar of Fruit and Nut in the fridge. I picture them shaking their heads, looking at each other. Are you sure we’ve got the right place, Bernard?

‘Right now you need to be with your family. Just till you’re back on your feet.’

I want to say I’ll be fine in my flat, no matter what they think of it. I want to do my job and come home and not think until my next shift. I want to say I can’t come back to Stortfold and be that girl again, the one who. I don’t want to have to feel the weight of my mother’s carefully disguised disapproval, of my father’s cheerful determination that it’s all okay, everything is just fine, as if saying it enough times will actually make it okay. I don’t want to pass Will’s house every day, to think about what I was part of, the thing that will always be there.

But I don’t say any of it. Because suddenly I’m tired and everything hurts and I just can’t fight any more.

Dad brings me home two weeks later in his work van. There is only room for two in the front, so Mum has stayed behind to prepare the house, and as the motorway speeds beneath us, I find my stomach tightening nervously.

The cheerful streets of my hometown feel foreign to me now. I look at them with a distant, analytical eye, noting how small everything looks, how tired, how twee. I realize this is how Will must have seen it when he first came home after his accident, and push the thought away. As we drive down our street, I find myself sinking slightly in my seat. I don’t want to make polite conversation with neighbours, to explain myself. I don’t want to be judged for what I did.

‘You okay?’ Dad turns, as if he guesses something of what’s going through my head.

‘Fine.’

‘Good girl.’ He puts a hand briefly on my shoulder.

Mum is already at the door as we pull up. I suspect she has been standing by the window for the past half-hour. Dad puts one of my bags on the step, then comes back to help me out, hoisting the other over his shoulder.

I place my cane carefully on the paving stones, and feel the twitching of curtains behind me as I make my way slowly up the path. Look who it is, I can hear them whispering. What do you think she’s done now?

Dad steers me forward, watching my feet carefully, as if they might suddenly shoot out and go somewhere they shouldn’t. ‘Okay there?’ he keeps saying. ‘Not too fast now.’

I can see Granddad hovering behind Mum in the hall, wearing his checked shirt and his good blue jumper. Nothing has changed. The wallpaper is the same. The hall carpet is the same, the lines in the worn pile visible from where Mum must have vacuumed that morning. I can see my old blue anorak hanging on the hook. Eighteen months. I feel as if I have been away for a decade.

‘Don’t rush her,’ Mum says, her hands pressed together. ‘You’re going too fast, Bernard.’

‘She’s hardly flipping Mo Farah. If she goes any slower we’ll be moonwalking.’

‘Watch those steps. Should you stand behind her, Bernard, coming up the steps? You know, in case she falls backwards?’

‘I know where the steps are,’ I say, through gritted teeth. ‘I only lived here for twenty-six years.’

‘Watch she doesn’t catch herself on that lip there, Bernard. You don’t want her to smash the other hip.’

Oh, God, I think. Is this what it was like for you, Will? Every single day?

And then my sister is in the doorway, pushing past Mum. ‘Oh, for God’s sake, Mum. Come on, Hopalong. You’re turning us into a freaking sideshow.’

Treena wedges her shoulder under my armpit and turns briefly to glare out at the neighbours, her eyebrows raised as if to say, Really? I can almost hear the swishing of curtains as they close.

‘Bunch of bloody rubberneckers. Anyway, hurry up. I promised Thomas he could see your scars before I take him to youth club. God, how much weight have you lost? Your boobs must look like two tangerines in a pair of socks.’

It’s hard to laugh and walk at the same time. Thomas runs to hug me so that I have to stop and put a hand against the wall to keep my balance as we collide. ‘Did they really cut you open and put you back together?’ he says. His head comes up to my chest. He’s missing four front teeth. ‘Grandpa says they probably put you back together all the wrong way. And God only knows how we’ll tell the difference.’

‘Bernard!’

‘I was joking.’

‘Louisa.’ Granddad’s voice is thick and hesitant. He reaches forward unsteadily and hugs me and I hug him back. He pulls away, his old hands gripping my arms surprisingly tightly, and frowns at me, a mock anger.

‘I know, Daddy. I know. But she’s home now,’ says Mum.

‘You’re back in your old room,’ says Dad. ‘I’m afraid we redecorated with Transformers wallpaper for Thom. You don’t mind the odd Autobot and Predacon, right?’

‘I had worms in my bottom,’ says Thomas. ‘Mum says I’m not to talk about it outside the house. Or put my fingers up my –’

‘Oh, good Lord,’ says Mum.

‘Welcome home, Lou,’ says Dad, and promptly drops my bag on my foot.





CHAPTER THREE


Looking back, for the first nine months after Will’s death I was in a kind of daze. I went straight to Paris and simply didn’t go home, giddy with freedom, with the appetites that Will had stirred in me. I got a job at a bar favoured by expats where they didn’t mind my terrible French, and I grew better at it. I rented a tiny attic room in the 16th, above a Middle Eastern restaurant, and I would lie awake, listening to the sound of the late drinkers and the early-morning deliveries, and every day I felt like I was living someone else’s life.

Those early months, it was as if I had lost a layer of skin – I felt everything more intensely. I woke up laughing, or crying, saw everything as if a filter had been removed. I ate new foods, walked strange streets, spoke to people in a language that wasn’t mine. Sometimes I felt haunted by him, as if I was seeing it all through his eyes, heard his voice in my ear.

What do you think of that, then, Clark?

I told you you’d love this.

Eat it! Try it! Go on!

I felt lost without our daily routines. It took weeks for my hands not to feel useless without daily contact with his body: the soft shirt I would button, the warm, motionless hands I would wash gently, the silky hair I could still feel between my fingers. I missed his voice, his abrupt, hard-earned laugh, the feel of his lips against my fingers, the way his eyelids would lower when he was about to drop off to sleep. My mother, still aghast at what I had been part of, had told me that while she loved me, she could not reconcile this Louisa with the daughter she had raised, so with the loss of my family, as well as the man I had loved, every thread that had linked me to who I was had been cut. I felt as if I had simply floated off, untethered, to some unknown universe.

So I acted out a new life. I made casual, arm’s-length friendships with other travellers: young English students on gap years, Americans retracing the steps of literary heroes, certain that they would never return to the Midwest, wealthy young bankers, day-trippers, a constantly changing cast that drifted in and through and past; escapees from other lives. I smiled and I chatted and I worked, and I told myself I was doing what he wanted. That there had to be comfort, at least, in that.

Winter loosened its grip and the spring was beautiful. Then almost overnight I woke up one morning and realized I had fallen out of love with the city. Or, at least, I didn’t feel Parisian enough to stay. The stories of the expats began to sound wearyingly similar, the Parisians to seem unfriendly – or, at least, I noticed, several times a day, the myriad ways in which I would never quite fit in. The city, compelling as it was, felt like a glamorous couture dress that I had bought in haste but didn’t quite fit me after all. I handed in my notice and went travelling around Europe.

No two months had ever left me feeling more inadequate. I was lonely almost all the time. I hated not knowing where I was going to sleep each night, was permanently anxious about train timetables and currency, found it difficult to make friends when I didn’t trust anyone I met. And what could I say about myself, anyway? When people asked me, I could give them only the most cursory details. All the stuff that was important or interesting about me was what I couldn’t share. Without someone to talk to, every sight I saw – whether it was the Trevi Fountain or a canal in Amsterdam – felt simply like a box I’d needed to tick on a list. I spent the last week on a beach in Greece that reminded me too much of a beach I had been on with Will not too long before, and finally, after a week of sitting on the sand fending off bronzed men, who all seemed to be called Dmitri, and trying to tell myself I was actually having a good time, I gave up and returned to Paris. Mostly because that was the first time it had occurred to me that I had nowhere else to go.

For two weeks I slept on the sofa of a girl I’d worked with at the bar, while I tried to decide what to do next. Recalling a conversation I’d had with Will about careers, I wrote to several colleges about fashion courses, but I had no history of work to show them and they rebuffed me politely. The place on the course I had originally won after Will died had been awarded to someone else because I had failed to defer. I could apply again next year, the administrator said, in the tones of someone who knew I wouldn’t.

I looked online at jobs websites and saw that, despite everything I had been through, I was still unqualified for the kind of jobs I might be interested in doing. And then by chance, just as I was wondering what to do next, Michael Lawler, Will’s lawyer, rang me and suggested it was time to do something with the money Will had left. It was the excuse to move that I needed. He helped me negotiate a price on a scarily expensive two-bedroomed flat on the edge of the Square Mile, which I bought largely because I remembered Will once talking about the wine bar on the corner, which made me feel a bit closer to him; there was a little left over with which to furnish it. Six weeks later I came back to England, got a job at the Shamrock and Clover, slept with a man called Phil I would never see again, and waited to feel as if I had really started living.

Nine months on I was still waiting.

I didn’t go out much that first week home. I was sore, and grew tired quickly, so it was easy to lie in bed and doze, wiped out by extra-strength painkillers, and tell myself that letting my body recover was all that mattered. In a weird way, being back in our little family house suited me: it was the first place I had managed to sleep more than four hours at a stretch since I had left; it was small enough that I could always reach out for a wall to support myself. Mum fed me, Granddad kept me company (Treena had gone back to college, taking Thom with her), and I watched a lot of daytime television, marvelling at its never-ending advertisements for loan companies and stair lifts, and its preoccupations with minor celebrities that the best part of a year abroad had left me unable to recognize. It was like being in a little cocoon, one that, admittedly, had a whacking great elephant squatting in its corner.

We didn’t talk about anything that might upset this delicate equilibrium. I would watch whatever celebrity news daytime television threw up and then say, at supper, ‘Well, what about that Shayna West, then, eh?’ And Mum and Dad would leap on the topic gratefully, remarking that she was a trollop or had nice hair or that she was no better than she should be. We covered Bargains In Your Attic (‘I always wonder what that Victorian planter of your mother’s would have been worth … ugly old thing.’) and Ideal Homes in the Country (‘I wouldn’t wash a dog in that bathroom’). I didn’t think beyond each mealtime, beyond the basic challenges of getting dressed, brushing my teeth and completing whatever tiny tasks my mother set me (‘You know, love, when I’m out, if you could sort your washing, I’ll do it with my coloureds’).

But, like a creeping tide, the outside world insisted steadily on intruding. I heard the neighbours asking questions of my mother as she hung out the washing. Your Lou home, then, is she? And Mum’s uncharacteristically curt response: She is. I found myself avoiding the rooms in the house from which I could see the castle. But I knew it was there, the people in it living, breathing links to Will. Sometimes I wondered what had happened to them; while in Paris I had been forwarded a letter from Mrs Traynor, thanking me formally for everything I had done for her son. ‘I am conscious that you did everything you could.’ But that was it. That family had gone from being my whole life to a ghostly remnant of a time I wouldn’t allow myself to remember. Now, as our street sat moored in the shadow of the castle for several hours every evening, I felt the Traynors’ presence like a rebuke.

I’d been there two weeks before I realized that Mum and Dad no longer went to their social club. ‘Isn’t it Tuesday?’ I said, on the third week, as we sat around the dinner table. ‘Shouldn’t you be gone by now?’

They glanced at each other. ‘Ah, no. We’re fine here,’ Dad said, chewing a piece of his pork chop.

‘I’m fine by myself, honestly,’ I told them. ‘I’m much better now. And I’m quite happy watching television.’ I secretly longed to sit, unobserved, with nobody else in the room. I had barely been left alone for more than half an hour at a time since I’d come home. ‘Really. Go out and enjoy yourselves. Don’t mind me.’

‘We … we don’t really go to the club any more,’ said Mum, as she sliced through a potato.

‘People … they had a lot to say. About what went on.’ Dad shrugged. ‘In the end it was easier just to stay out of it.’ The silence that followed this lasted a full six minutes.

And there were other, more concrete, reminders of the life I had left behind. Ones that wore skin-tight running pants with special wicking properties.

It was on the fourth morning Patrick jogged past our house that I thought it might be more than coincidence. I had heard his voice the first day and limped blearily to the window, peering through the blind. And there he was below me, stretching out his hamstrings while talking to a blonde girl with a ponytail; she was clad in matching blue Lycra so tight I could pretty much work out what she’d had for breakfast. They looked like two Olympians missing a bobsleigh.

I stood back from the window in case he looked up and saw me, and within a minute, they were gone again, jogging down the road, backs erect, legs pumping, like a pair of glossy turquoise carriage ponies.

Two days later I was getting dressed when I heard them. Patrick was saying something loudly about carb-loading, and this time the girl flicked a suspicious glance towards my house, as if she were wondering why they had stopped in exactly the same place twice.

On the third day I was in the front room with Granddad when they arrived. ‘We should practise sprints,’ Patrick was saying loudly. ‘Tell you what, you go to the third lamppost and back and I’ll time you. Two-minute intervals. Go!’

Granddad rolled his eyes meaningfully.

‘Has he been doing this the whole time I’ve been back?’

Granddad’s eyes rolled pretty much into the back of his head.

I watched through the net curtains as Patrick stood, eyes fixed on his stopwatch, his best side presented to my window. He was wearing a black fleece zip-up top and matching Lycra shorts, and as he stood, a few feet the other side of the curtain, I was able to gaze at him, quietly amazed that this was someone I had been sure, for so long, I loved.

‘Keep going!’ he yelled, looking up from the stopwatch. And, like an obedient gun dog, the girl touched the lamppost beside him and bolted away again. ‘Forty-two point three eight seconds,’ he said approvingly, when she returned, panting. ‘I reckon you could shave another point five of a second off that.’

‘That’s for your benefit,’ said my mother, who had walked in bearing two mugs.

‘I did wonder.’

‘His mother asked me in the supermarket were you back and I said you were. Don’t look at me like that – I could hardly lie to the woman.’ She nodded towards the window. ‘That one’s had her boobs done. They’re the talk of Stortfold. Apparently you could rest two cups of tea on them.’ She stood beside me for a moment. ‘You know they’re engaged?’

I waited for the pang, but it was so mild it could have been wind. ‘They look … well suited.’

My mother stood there for a moment, watching him. ‘He’s not a bad sort, Lou. You just … changed.’ She handed me a mug and turned away.

Finally, on the morning he stopped to do press-ups on the pavement outside the house, I opened the front door and stepped out. I leaned against the porch, my arms folded across my chest, watching until he looked up. ‘I wouldn’t stop there for too long. Next door’s dog is a bit partial to that bit of pavement.’

‘Lou!’ he exclaimed, as if I was the very last person he expected to see standing outside my own house, which he had visited several times a week for the seven years we had been together. ‘Well … I’m surprised to see you back. I thought you were off to conquer the big wide world!’

His fiancée, who was doing press-ups beside him, looked up, then back down at the pavement. It might have been my imagination, but her buttocks might have clenched even more tightly. Up, down, she bobbed furiously. Up and down. I found myself worrying slightly for the welfare of her new bosom.

He bounced to his feet. ‘This is Caroline, my fiancée.’ He kept his eyes on me, perhaps waiting for some kind of reaction. ‘We’re training for the next Ironman. We’ve done two together already.’

‘How … romantic,’ I said.

‘Well, Caroline and I feel it’s good to do things together,’ he said.

‘So I see,’ I replied. ‘And his and hers turquoise Lycra!’

‘Oh. Yeah. Team colour.’

There was a short silence.

I gave a little air punch. ‘Go, team!’

Caroline sprang to her feet and began to stretch out her thigh muscles, folding her leg behind her like a stork. She nodded towards me, the least civility she could reasonably get away with.

‘You’ve lost weight,’ he said.

‘Yeah, well. A saline-drip diet will do that to you.’

‘I heard you had an … accident.’ He cocked his head sideways, sympathetically.

‘News travels fast.’

‘Still. I’m glad you’re okay.’ He sniffed, looked down the road. ‘It must have been hard for you this past year. You know. Doing what you did and all.’

And there it was. I tried to keep control of my breathing. Caroline resolutely refused to look at me, extending her leg in a hamstring stretch. Then, ‘Anyway … congratulations on the marriage.’

He surveyed his future wife proudly, lost in admiration of her sinewy leg. ‘Well, it’s like they say – you just know when you know.’ He gave me a faux-apologetic smile. And that was what finished me off.

‘I’m sure you did. And I guess you’ve got plenty put aside to pay for the wedding – they’re not cheap, are they?’

They both looked at me.

‘What with selling my story to the newspapers. What did they pay you, Pat? A couple of thousand? Treena never could find out the exact figure. Still, Will’s death should be good for a few matching Lycra onesies, right?’

The way Caroline’s face shot towards his told me this was one particular part of Patrick’s history that he had not yet got round to sharing.

He stared at me, two pinpricks of colour bleeding onto his face. ‘That was nothing to do with me.’

‘Of course not. Nice to see you, anyway, Pat. Good luck with the wedding, Caroline! I’m sure you’ll be the … firmest bride around.’ I turned and walked slowly back inside. I closed the door, resting against it, heart thumping, until I could be sure that they had finally jogged on.

‘Arse,’ said Granddad, as I limped back into the living room. And again, glancing dismissively at the window: ‘Arse.’ Then he chuckled.

I stared at him. And, completely unexpectedly, I found I had started to laugh, for the first time in as long as I could remember.

‘So did you decide what you’re going to do? When you’re better?’

I was lying on my bed. Treena was calling from college, while she waited for Thomas to come out of his football club. I stared up at the ceiling, on which Thomas had stuck a whole galaxy of Day-glo stickers, which, apparently, nobody could remove without bringing half the ceiling with them. ‘Not really.’

‘You’ve got to do something. You can’t sit around here on your backside for all eternity.’

‘I won’t sit on my backside. Besides, my hip still hurts. The physio said I’m better off lying down.’

‘Mum and Dad are wondering what you’re going to do. There are no jobs in Stortfold.’

‘I do know that.’

‘But you’re drifting. You don’t seem to be interested in anything.’

‘Treen, I just fell off a building. I’m recuperating.’

‘And before that you were wafting around travelling. And then you were working in a bar until you knew what you wanted to do. You’ll have to sort your head out at some point. If you’re not going back to school, you have to figure out what it is you’re actually going to do with your life.

‘I’m just saying. Anyway, if you’re going to stay in Stortfold, you need to rent out that flat. Mum and Dad can’t support you for ever.’

‘This from the woman who has been supported by the Bank of Mum and Dad for the past eight years.’

‘I’m in full-time education. That’s different. So, anyway, I went through your bank statements while you were in hospital, and after I’d paid all your bills, I worked out you’ve got about fifteen hundred pounds left over, including statutory sick pay. By the way, what the hell were all those transatlantic phone calls? They cost you a fortune.’

‘None of your business.’

‘So, I made you a list of estate agents in the area who do rentals. And then I thought maybe we could take another look at college applications. Someone might have dropped out of that course you wanted.’

‘Treen. You’re making me tired.’

‘No point hanging around. You’ll feel better once you’ve got some focus.’

For all it was annoying, there was something reassuring about my sister nagging at me. Nobody else dared to. It was as if my parents still believed there was something very wrong at the heart of me, and that I must be treated with kid gloves. Mum laid my washing, neatly folded, on the end of my bed and cooked me three meals a day, and when I caught her watching me she would smile, an awkward half-smile, which covered everything we didn’t want to say to each other. Dad took me to my physio appointments, sat beside me on the sofa to watch television and didn’t even take the mickey out of me. Treena was the only one who treated me like she always had.

‘You know what I’m going to say, don’t you?’

I turned onto my side, wincing.

‘I do. And don’t.’

‘Well, you know what Will would have said. You had a deal. You can’t back out of it.’

‘Okay. That’s it, Treen. We’re done with this conversation.’

‘Fine. Thom’s just coming out of the changing rooms. See you Friday!’ she said, as if we had just been talking about music, or where she was going on holiday, or soap.

And I was left staring at the ceiling.

You had a deal.

Yeah. And look how that turned out.

For all Treena moaned at me, in the weeks that had passed since I’d come home I had made some progress. I’d stopped using the cane, which had made me feel around eighty-nine years old, and which I had managed to leave behind in almost every place I’d visited since coming home. Most mornings I took Granddad for a walk around the park, at Mum’s request. The doctor had instructed him to take daily exercise but when she had followed him one day she had found he was simply walking to the corner shop to buy a bumper pack of pork scratchings and eating them on a slow walk home.

We walked slowly, both of us with a limp and neither of us with any real place to be.

Mum kept suggesting we do the grounds of the castle ‘for a change of scene’, but I ignored her, and as the gate shut behind us each morning Granddad nodded firmly in the direction of the park. It wasn’t just because this way was shorter, or closer to the betting shop. I think he knew I didn’t want to go back there. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t sure I would ever be ready.

We did two slow circuits of the duck pond, and sat on a bench in the watery spring sunshine to watch the toddlers and their parents feeding the fat ducks, and the teenagers smoking, yelling and whacking each other; the helpless combat of early courtship. We took a stroll over to the bookie’s so Granddad could lose three pounds on an each-way bet on a horse called Wag The Dog. Then, as he crumpled up his betting slip and threw it into the bin, I said I’d buy him a jam doughnut from the supermarket.

‘Oh fat,’ he said, as we stood in the bakery section.

I frowned at him.

‘Oh fat,’ he said, pointing at our doughnuts, and laughed.

‘Oh. Yup. That’s what we’ll tell Mum. Low-fat doughnuts.’

Mum said his new medication made him giggly. I had decided there were worse things that could happen to you.

Granddad was still giggling at his own joke as we queued at the checkout. I kept my head down, digging in my pockets for change. I was thinking about whether I would help Dad with the garden that weekend. So it took me a minute to grasp what was being said in whispers behind me.

‘It’s the guilt. They say she tried to jump off a block of flats.’

‘Well, you would, wouldn’t you? I know I couldn’t live with myself.’

‘I’m surprised she can show her face around here.’

I stood very still.

‘You know, poor Josie Clark is still mortified. She goes to confession every single week, and you know that woman is as blameless as a line of clean laundry.’

Granddad was pointing at the doughnuts and mouthing at the checkout girl: ‘Oh fat.’

She smiled politely. ‘Eighty-six pence, please.’

‘The Traynors have never been the same.’

‘Well, it destroyed them, didn’t it?’

‘Eighty-six pence, please.’

It took me several seconds to register that the checkout girl was looking at me, waiting. I pulled a handful of coins from my pocket. My fingers fumbled as I tried to sort through them.

‘You’d think Josie wouldn’t dare leave her in sole charge of her granddaddy, wouldn’t you?’

‘You don’t think she’d …’

‘Well, you don’t know. She’s done it the once, after all …’

My cheeks were flaming. My money clattered onto the counter. Granddad was still repeating, ‘OH FAT. OH FAT,’ at the bemused checkout girl, waiting for her to get the joke. I pulled at his sleeve. ‘Come on, Granddad, we have to go.’

‘Oh fat,’ he insisted, again.

‘Right,’ she said, and smiled kindly.

‘Please, Granddad.’ I felt hot and dizzy, as if I might faint. They might still have been talking but my ears were ringing so loudly I couldn’t tell.

‘Bye-bye,’ he said.

‘Bye then,’ said the girl.

‘Nice,’ said Granddad, as we emerged into the sunlight. Then, looking at me: ‘Why you crying?’

So here is the thing about being involved in a catastrophic, life-changing event. You think it’s just the catastrophic life-changing event that you’re going to have to deal with: the flashbacks, the sleepless nights, the endless running over events in your head, asking yourself if you had done the right thing, said the things you should have said, whether you could have changed things, had you done it even a degree differently.

My mother had told me that being with Will at the end would affect the rest of my life, and I had thought she meant me, psychologically. I’d thought she meant the guilt I would have to learn to get over, the grief, the insomnia, the weird, inappropriate bursts of anger, the endless internal dialogue with someone who wasn’t even there. But now I saw it wasn’t just me: in a digital age, I would be that person for ever. Even if I managed to wipe the whole thing from my memory, I would never be allowed to disassociate myself from Will’s death. My name would be tied to his for as long as there were pixels and a screen. People would form judgements about me, based on the most cursory knowledge – or sometimes no knowledge at all – and there was nothing I could do about it.

I cut my hair into a bob. I changed the way I dressed, bagging up everything that had ever made me distinctive and stuffing it into the back of my wardrobe. I adopted Treena’s uniform of jeans and a generic T-shirt. Now, when I read newspaper stories about the bank teller who had stolen a fortune, the woman who had killed her child, the sibling who had disappeared, I found myself not shuddering in horror, as I once might have, but wondering instead at the story that hadn’t made it into black and white.

What I felt with them was a weird kinship. I was tainted. The world around me knew it. Worse, I had started to know it too.

I tucked what remained of my dark hair into a beanie, put my sunglasses on, and walked to the library, doing everything I could not to let my limp show, even though it made my jaw ache with concentration.

I made my way past the singing-toddler group in the children’s corner, and the silent genealogy enthusiasts trying to confirm that, yes, they were distantly connected to King Richard III, and sat down in the corner with the files of local papers. It wasn’t hard to locate August 2009. I took a breath, then opened them halfway and flicked through the headlines.

Local Man Ends His Life at Swiss Clinic

Traynor Family Ask for Privacy at ‘Difficult Time’

The 35-year-old son of Steven Traynor, custodian of Stortfold Castle, has ended his life at Dignitas, the controversial centre for assisted suicide. Mr Traynor was left quadriplegic after a traffic accident in 2007. He apparently travelled to the clinic with his family and his carer, Louisa Clark, 27, also from Stortfold.

Police are investigating the circumstances surrounding the death. Sources say they have not ruled out the possibility that a prosecution may arise.

Louisa Clark’s parents, Bernard and Josephine Clark, of Renfrew Road, refused to comment.

Camilla Traynor, a Justice of the Peace, is understood to have stood down from the bench following her son’s suicide. A local source said her position, given the actions of the family, had become ‘untenable’.



And then there it was, Will’s face, looking out from the grainy newspaper photograph. That slightly sardonic smile, the direct gaze. I felt, briefly, winded.

Mr Traynor’s death ends a successful career in the City, where he was known as a ruthless asset stripper, but also as someone with a sure eye for a corporate bargain. His colleagues yesterday lined up to pay tribute to a man they described as



I closed the newspaper. When I could be sure that I had got my face under control, I looked up. Around me the library hummed with quiet industry. The toddlers kept singing, their reedy voices chaotic and meandering, their mothers clapping fondly around them. The librarian behind me was discussing sotto voce, with a colleague, the best way to make Thai curry. The man beside me ran his finger down an ancient electoral roll, murmuring, ‘Fisher, Fitzgibbon, Fitzwilliam …’

I had done nothing. It was more than eighteen months and I had done nothing, bar sell drinks in two different countries and feel sorry for myself. And now, after four weeks back in the house I’d grown up in, I could feel Stortfold reaching out to suck me in, to reassure me that I could be fine here. It would be all right. There might be no great adventures, sure, and a bit of discomfort as people adjusted to my presence again, but there were worse things, right, than to be with your family, loved and secure? Safe?

I looked down at the pile of newspapers in front of me. The most recent front-page headline read:

ROW OVER DISABLED PARKING SPACE IN FRONT OF POST OFFICE



I thought back to Dad, sitting on my hospital bed, looking in vain for a report of an extraordinary accident.

I failed you, Will. I failed you in every way possible.

You could hear the shouting all the way up the street when I finally arrived home. As I opened the door my ears were filled with the sound of Thomas wailing. My sister was scolding him, her finger wagging, in the corner of the living room. Mum was leaning over Granddad with a washing-up bowl of water and a scouring pad, while Granddad politely batted her away.

‘What’s going on?’

Mum moved to the side and I saw Granddad’s face clearly for the first time. He was sporting a new set of jet black eyebrows and a thick black slightly uneven moustache.

‘Permanent pen,’ said Mum. ‘From now on nobody is to leave Granddad napping in the same room as Thomas.’

‘You have to stop drawing on things,’ Treena was yelling. ‘Paper only, okay? Not walls. Not faces. Not Mrs Reynolds’s dog. Not my pants.’

‘I was doing you days of the week!’

‘I don’t need days-of-the-week pants!’ she shouted. ‘And if I did I would spell Wednesday correctly!’

‘Don’t scold him, Treen,’ said Mum, leaning back to see if she’d had any effect. ‘It could be a lot worse.’

In our little house, Dad’s footsteps coming down the stairs sounded like a particularly emphatic roll of thunder. He barrelled into the front room, his shoulders hunched in frustration, his hair standing up on one side. ‘Can’t a man get a nap in his own house on his day off? This place is like a ruddy madhouse.’

We all stopped and stared at him.

‘What? What did I say?’

‘Bernard –’

‘Ah, come on. Our Lou doesn’t think I mean her –’

‘Oh, my sweet Lord.’ Mum’s hand flew to her face.

My sister had started to push Thomas out of the room. ‘Oh, boy,’ she hissed. ‘Thomas, you’d better get out of here right now. Because I swear when your grandpa gets hold of you –’

‘What?’ Dad frowned. ‘What’s the matter?’

Granddad barked a laugh. He held up a shaking finger.

It was almost magnificent. Thomas had coloured in the whole of Dad’s face with blue marker pen. His eyes emerged like two gooseberries from a sea of cobalt blue. ‘What?’

Thomas’s voice, as he disappeared down the corridor, was a wail of protest. ‘We were watching Avatar! He said he wouldn’t mind being an avatar!’

Dad’s eyes widened. He strode to the mirror over the mantelpiece.

There was a brief silence. ‘Oh, my God.’

‘Bernard, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.’

‘He’s turned me bloody blue, Josie. I think I’m entitled to take the Lord’s name to Butlins in a flipping wheelbarrow. Is this permanent pen? THOMMO? IS THIS PERMANENT PEN?’

‘We’ll get it off, Dad.’ My sister closed the door to the garden behind her. Beyond it you could just make out Thomas’s wailing.

‘I’m meant to be overseeing the new fencing at the castle tomorrow. I have contractors coming. How the hell am I meant to deal with contractors if I’m blue?’ Dad spat on his hand and started to rub at his face. The faintest smudging appeared, but mostly seemed to spread onto his palm. ‘It’s not coming off. Josie, it’s not coming off!’

Mum shifted her attention from Granddad and set about Dad with the scouring pad. ‘Just stay still, Bernard. I’m doing what I can.’

Treena went for her laptop bag. ‘I’ll go on the internet. I’m sure there’s something. Toothpaste or nail-polish remover or bleach or –’

‘You are not putting bleach on my ruddy face!’ Dad roared. Granddad, with his new pirate moustache, sat giggling in the corner of the room.

I began to edge past them.

Mum was holding Dad’s face with her left hand as she scrubbed. She turned, as if she’d only just seen me. ‘Lou! I didn’t ask – are you okay, love? Did you have a nice walk?’ Everyone stopped abruptly to smile at me; a smile that said, Everything’s okay here, Lou. You don’t have to worry. I hated that smile.

‘Fine.’

It was the answer they all wanted. Mum turned to Dad. ‘That’s grand. Isn’t it grand, Bernard?’

‘It is. Great news.’

‘If you sort out your whites, love, I’ll pop them in the wash with Daddy’s later.’

‘Actually,’ I said, ‘don’t bother. I’ve been thinking. It’s time for me to go home.’

Nobody spoke. Mum glanced at Dad. Granddad let out another little giggle and clamped his hand over his mouth.

‘Fair enough,’ said Dad, with as much dignity as a middle-aged, blueberry-coloured man could muster. ‘But if you go back to that flat, Louisa, you go on one condition …’





CHAPTER FOUR


‘My name is Natasha and I lost my husband to cancer three years ago.’

On a humid Monday night, the members of the Moving On Circle sat in a ring of orange office chairs in the Pentecostal Church Hall, alongside Marc, the leader, a tall, moustachioed man, whose whole being exuded a kind of exhausted melancholy, and one empty chair.

‘I’m Fred. My wife, Jilly, died in September. She was seventy-four.’

‘Sunil. My twin brother died of leukaemia two years ago.’

‘William. Dead father, six months ago. All a bit ridiculous, frankly, as we never really got on when he was alive. I keep asking myself why I’m here.’

There was a peculiar scent to grief. It smelt of damp, imperfectly ventilated church halls and poor-quality teabags. It smelt of meals for one and stale cigarettes, smoked hunched against the cold. It smelt of spritzed hair and armpits, little practical victories against a morass of despair. That smell alone told me I did not belong there, whatever I had promised Dad.

I felt like a fraud. Plus they all looked so … sad.

I shifted uneasily in my seat, and Marc caught me. He gave me a reassuring smile. We know, it said. We’ve been here before.

I bet you haven’t, I responded silently.

‘Sorry. Sorry I’m late.’ The door opened, letting in a blast of warm air, and the empty chair was taken by a mop-headed teenager, who folded his limbs into place as if they were always somehow too long for the space they were in.

‘Jake. You missed last week. Everything okay?’

‘Sorry. Dad messed up at work and he couldn’t get me here.’

‘Don’t worry. It’s good you made it. You know where the drinks are.’

The boy glanced around the room from under his long fringe, hesitating slightly when his gaze landed on my glittery green skirt. I pulled my bag onto my lap in an attempt to hide it and he looked away.

‘Hello, dear. I’m Daphne. My husband took his own life. I don’t think it was the nagging!’ The woman’s half-laugh seemed to leak pain. She patted her carefully set hair and peered down awkwardly at her knees. ‘We were happy. We were.’

The boy’s hands were tucked under his thighs. ‘Jake. Mum. Two years ago. I’ve been coming here for the past year because my dad can’t deal with it, and I needed someone to talk to.’

‘How is your dad this week, Jake?’ said Marc.

‘Not bad. I mean, he brought a woman home last Friday night but, like, he didn’t sit on the sofa and cry afterwards. So that’s something.’

‘Jake’s father is handling his own grief in his own way,’ Marc said in my direction.

‘Shagging,’ said Jake. ‘Mostly shagging.’

‘I wish I was younger,’ said Fred, wistfully. He was wearing a collar and tie, the kind of man who considers himself undressed without one. ‘I think that would have been a marvellous way to handle Jilly dying.’

‘My cousin picked up a man at my aunt’s funeral,’ said a woman in the corner who might have been called Leanne; I couldn’t remember. She was small and round and had a thick fringe of chocolate-coloured hair.

‘Actually during the funeral?’

‘She said they went to a Travelodge after the sandwiches.’ She shrugged. ‘It’s the heightened emotions, apparently.’

I was in the wrong place. I could see that now. Surreptitiously, I gathered my belongings, wondering whether I should announce my leaving or whether it would be simpler just to run.

Then Marc turned to me expectantly.

I stared blankly at him.

He raised his eyebrows.

‘Oh. Me? Actually, I was just leaving. I think I’ve … I mean, I don’t think I’m –’

‘Oh, everyone wants to leave on their first day, dear.’

‘I wanted to leave on my second and third too.’

‘That’s the biscuits. I keep telling Marc we should have better ones.’

‘Just tell us the bare bones of it, if you like. Don’t worry. You’re among friends.’

They were all waiting. I couldn’t run. I hunched back into my seat. ‘Um. Okay. Well, my name’s Louisa and the man I … I loved … died at thirty-five.’

There were a few nods of sympathy.

‘Too young. When did this happen, Louisa?’

‘Twenty months ago. And a week. And two days.’

‘Three years, two weeks and two days.’ Natasha smiled at me from across the room.

There was a low murmur of commiseration. Daphne, beside me, reached out a plump, beringed hand and patted my leg.

‘We’ve had many discussions in this room about the particular difficulties when someone dies young,’ said Marc. ‘How long were you together?’

‘Uh. We … well … a little less than six months.’

A few barely hidden looks of surprise.

‘That’s – quite brief,’ a voice said.

‘I’m sure Louisa’s pain is just as valid,’ said Marc, smoothly. ‘And how did he pass, Louisa?’

‘Pass what?’

‘Die,’ said Fred, helpfully.

‘Oh. He – uh – he took his own life.’

‘That must have been a great shock.’

‘Not really. I knew he was planning it.’

There is a peculiar sort of silence, it turns out, when you tell a room full of people who think they know everything there is to know about the death of a loved one that they don’t.

I took a breath. ‘He knew he wanted to do it before I met him. I tried to change his mind and I couldn’t. So I went along with it, because I loved him, and it seemed to make sense at the time. And now it makes a lot less sense. Which is why I’m here.’

‘Death never makes sense,’ said Daphne.

‘Unless you’re Buddhist,’ said Natasha. ‘I keep trying to think Buddhist thoughts but I’m worried that Olaf is going to come back as a mouse or something and I’m going to poison him.’ She sighed. ‘I have to put poison down. We have a terrible mouse problem in our block.’

‘You’ll never get rid of them. They’re like fleas,’ said Sunil. ‘For every one you see, there are hundreds of them behind the scenes.’

‘You might want to think about what you’re doing, Natasha, love,’ said Daphne. ‘There could be hundreds of little Olafs running around. My Alan could be one of them. You could actually be poisoning the both of them.’

‘Well,’ said Fred, ‘if it’s Buddhist, he’d just come back as something else, wouldn’t he?’

‘But what if it’s a fly or something and Natasha kills that too?’

‘I’d hate to come back as a fly,’ said William. ‘Horrible black hairy things.’ He shuddered.

‘I’m not, like, some mass murderer,’ said Natasha. ‘You’re making it sound like I’m out there slaughtering everyone’s reincarnated husbands.’

‘Well, that mouse might be someone’s husband. Even if it isn’t Olaf.’

‘I think we should try to steer this session back on track,’ said Marc, rubbing his temple. ‘Louisa, it’s brave of you to come and tell your story. Why don’t you tell us a bit more about how you and – what was his name? – how you met. You’re in a circle of trust. We’ve all pledged that our stories go no further than these walls.’

It was at this point that I happened to catch Jake’s eye. He glanced at Daphne, then at me, and shook his head subtly.

‘I met him at work,’ I said. ‘And his name was … Bill.’

Despite what I had promised Dad, I wasn’t planning to attend the Moving On Circle. But my return to work had been so awful that by the time the day ended I hadn’t been able to face going home to an empty flat.

‘You’re back!’ Carly had placed the cup of coffee on the bar, taken the businessman’s change, and hugged me, all while dropping the coins into the correct sections of the till drawer, in one fluid motion. ‘What the hell happened? Tim just told us you had an accident. And then he left so I wasn’t even sure you were coming back.’

‘Long story.’ I stared at her. ‘Uh … what are you wearing?’

Nine o’clock on Monday morning and the airport had been a blue-grey blur of men charging laptops, staring into iPhones, reading the City pages or talking discreetly into handsets about market share. Carly caught the eye of someone on the other side of the till. ‘Yeah. Well, things have changed since you’ve been gone.’

I turned to see a businessman standing on the wrong side of the bar. I blinked at him and put my bag down. ‘Um – if you’d like to wait there, I’ll serve you –’

‘You must be Louise.’ His handshake was emphatic and without warmth. ‘I’m the new bar manager. Richard Percival.’ I took in his slick hair, his suit, his pale blue shirt, and wondered what kind of bars he had actually managed.

‘Nice to meet you.’

‘You’re the one who’s been off for two months.’

‘Well. Yes. I –’

He walked along the optics, scanning each bottle. ‘I just want you to know that I’m not a fan of people taking endless sick leave.’

My neck shifted a few centimetres back in my collar.

‘I’m just laying down a marker, Louise. I’m not one of those managers who turn a blind eye. I know that in many companies time off is pretty much considered a staff perk. But not in companies where I work.’

‘Believe me, I’ve not thought of the last nine weeks as a perk.’

He examined the underside of a tap, and rubbed at it meditatively with his thumb.

I took a breath before I spoke. ‘I fell off a building. Perhaps I could show you my surgery scars. So, you know, you can be reassured that I’m unlikely to want to do it again.’

He stared at me. ‘There’s no need to be sarcastic. I’m not saying you’re about to have other accidents, but your sick leave is, pro rata, at an unusually high level for someone who has worked for this company a relatively short time. That’s all I wanted to point out. That it has been noted.’

He wore cufflinks with racing cars on them.

‘Message received, Mr Percival.’ I said. ‘I’ll do my best to avoid further near-fatal accidents.’

‘You’ll need a uniform. If you give me five minutes I’ll get one out of the stockroom. What size are you? Twelve? Fourteen?’

I stared at him. ‘Ten.’

He raised an eyebrow. I raised one back. As he walked to his office, Carly leaned over from the coffee machine and smiled sweetly in his direction. ‘Utter, utter bellend,’ she said, from the side of her mouth.

She wasn’t wrong. From the moment I returned, Richard Percival was, in the words of my father, all over me like a bad suit. He measured my measures, checked every corner of the bar for molecular peanut crumbs, was in and out of the loos checking on hygiene and wouldn’t let us leave until he had stood over us cashing up and ensuring each till roll matched takings to the last penny.

I no longer had time to chat to the customers, to look up departure times, hand over lost passports, contemplate the planes we could see taking off through the great glass window. I didn’t even have time to be irritated by Celtic Pan Pipes, Vol. III. If a customer was left waiting to be served for more than ten seconds Richard would magically appear from his office, sighing ostentatiously, then apologize loudly and repeatedly because they had been kept waiting so long. Carly and I, usually busy with other customers, would exchange secret glances of resignation and contempt.

He spent half the day meeting reps, the rest on the phone to Head Office, bleating about Footfall and Spend Per Head. We were encouraged to upsell with every transaction, and taken to one side for a talking-to if we forgot. All that was bad enough.

But then there was the uniform.

Carly came into the Ladies as I was finishing getting changed and stood beside me in front of the mirror. ‘We look like a pair of eejits,’ she said.

Not content with dark skirts and white shirts, some marketing genius high up the corporate ladder had decided that the atmosphere of the Shamrock and Clover chain would benefit from genuine Irish clothing. This genuine Irish clothing had evidently been thought up by someone who believed that across Dublin, right this minute, businesswomen and checkout girls were pirouetting across their workplaces dressed in embroidered tabards, knee-high socks and laced-up dancing shoes, all in glittering emerald green. With accompanying ringlet wigs.

‘Jesus. If my boyfriend saw me dressed like this he’d dump me.’ Carly lit a cigarette, and climbed up on the sink to disable the smoke alarm on the ceiling. ‘Mind you, he’d probably want to do me first. The perv.’

‘What do the men have to wear?’ I pulled my short skirt out at the sides and eyed Carly’s lighter nervously, wondering how flammable I was.

‘Look outside. There’s only Richard. And he has to wear that shirt with a green logo. The poor thing.’

‘That’s it? No pixie shoes? Or little leprechaun hat?’

‘Surprise, surprise. It’s only us girls who have to work looking like porno Munchkins.’

‘I look like Dolly Parton: The Early Years in this wig.’

‘Grab a red one. Lucky us, we have a choice of three colours.’

From somewhere outside we could hear Richard calling. My stomach had begun to clench reflexively when I heard his voice.

‘Anyway, I’m not staying. I’m going to Riverdance my way out of this place and into another job,’ Carly said. ‘He can stick his bloody shamrocks up his tight little corporate arse.’ She had given what I could only describe as a sarcastic skip, and left the Ladies. I spent the rest of the day getting little electric shocks from the static.

The Moving On Circle ended at half past nine. I walked out into the humid summer evening, exhausted by the twin trials of work and the evening’s events. I took off my jacket, too hot, feeling suddenly that, having laid myself bare in front of a room full of strangers, being seen in a faux-Irish dancer uniform, which was, in truth, ever so slightly too small, didn’t really make much difference.

I hadn’t been able to talk about Will – not the way they talked, as if their loved ones were still part of their lives, perhaps in the next room.

– Oh yes, my Jilly used to do that all the time.

– I can’t delete my brother’s voicemail message. I have a little listen to his voice when I feel like I’m going to forget what he sounded like.

– Sometimes I can hear him in the next room.

I could barely even say Will’s name. And listening to their tales of family relationships, of thirty-year marriages, shared houses, lives, children, I felt like a fraud. I had been a carer for someone for six months. I’d loved him, and watched him end his life. How could these strangers possibly understand what Will and I had been to each other during that time? How could I explain the way we had so swiftly understood each other, the shorthand jokes, the blunt truths and raw secrets? How could I convey the way those short months had changed the way I felt about everything? The way he had skewed my world so totally that it made no sense without him in it?

And when it came down to it, what was the point in re-examining your sadness all the time anyway? It was like picking at a wound and refusing to let it heal. I knew what I had been part of. I knew what my role was. What was the point in going over and over it?

I wouldn’t come next week, I knew now. I would find an excuse for Dad.

I walked slowly across the car park, rummaging in my bag for my keys, telling myself it had at least meant that I hadn’t had to spend another evening alone in front of my television, dreading the passing of the twelve hours until I had to return to work.

‘His name wasn’t really Bill, right?’

Jake fell into step alongside me.

‘Nope.’

‘Daphne’s like a one-woman broadcasting corporation. She means well, but your personal story will be all over her social club before you can say Rodent Reincarnation.’

‘Thanks for that.’

He grinned at me, and nodded towards my Lurex skirt. ‘Nice threads, by the way. It’s a good look for a grief-counselling session.’ He stopped briefly to retie a shoelace.

I stopped with him. I hesitated, then said: ‘I’m sorry about your mum.’

His face was sombre. ‘You can’t say that. It’s like prison – you can’t ask someone what they’re in for.’

‘Really? Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t –’

‘I’m joking. See you next week.’

A man leaning against a motorbike lifted a hand in greeting. He stepped forward as Jake crossed the car park and enveloped him in a bear hug, kissing his cheek. I stopped to watch, mostly because it was rare to see a man hug his son like that in public, once they were over satchel-carrying age.

‘How was it?’

‘Okay. The usual.’ Jake gestured to me. ‘Oh, this is … Louisa. She’s new.’

The man squinted at me. He was tall and broad-shouldered. A nose that might once have been broken gave him the faintly bruising appearance of a former boxer.

I nodded a polite greeting. ‘It was nice to meet you, Jake. Bye then.’ I lifted a hand, and began to make my way to my car. But as I passed the man he kept staring at me, and I felt myself colour under the intensity of his gaze. ‘You’re that girl,’ he said.

Oh, no, I thought, slowing suddenly. Not here too.

I stared at the ground for a moment and took a breath. Then I turned back to face them both. ‘Okay. As I’ve just made clear in the group, my friend made his own decisions. All I ever did was support them. Not that, if I’m honest, I really want to get into this right here and with a complete stranger.’

Jake’s father continued to squint at me. He lifted his hand to his head.

‘I understand that not everybody will get it. But that’s the way it was. I don’t feel I have to debate my choices. And I’m really tired and it’s been a bit of a day, and I think I’m going to go home now.’

He cocked his head to one side. And then he said, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’

I frowned.

‘The limp. I noticed you have a limp. You live near that massive new development, right? You’re the girl who fell off the roof. March. April.’

And suddenly I recognized him. ‘Oh – you were –’

‘The paramedic. We were the team who picked you up. I’d been wondering what happened to you.’

I almost buckled with relief. I let my gaze run over his face, his hair, his arms, suddenly recalling with Pavlovian accuracy his reassuring manner, the sound of the siren, the faint scent of lemons. And I let out a breath. ‘I’m good. Well. Not good exactly. I have a shot hip and a new boss who’s an utter arse and – you know – I’m at a grief-counselling club in a damp church hall with people who are just really, really …’

‘Sad,’ said Jake, helpfully.

‘The hip will get better. It’s plainly not hindering your dance career.’

My laugh emerged as a honk.

‘Oh. No. This is … The outfit is related to the boss who is an arse. Not my normal mode of dress. Anyway. Thank you. Wow …’ I put my hand to my head. ‘This is weird. You saved me.’

‘It’s good to see you. We don’t often get to see what happens afterwards.’

‘You did a great job. It was … Well, you were really kind. I remember that much.’

‘De nada.’

I stared at him.

‘De nada. Spanish. “It was nothing.” ’

‘Oh, okay, then. I take it all back. Thanks for nothing.’

He smiled and raised a paddle-sized hand.

Afterwards, I didn’t know what made me do it. ‘Hey.’

He looked back towards me. ‘It’s Sam, actually.’

‘Sam. I didn’t jump.’

‘Okay.’

‘No. Really. I mean, I know you’ve just seen me coming out of a grief-counselling group and everything but it’s – well, I just – I wouldn’t jump.’

He gave me a look that seemed to suggest he had seen and heard everything.

‘Good to know.’

We gazed at each other for a minute. Then he lifted his hand again. ‘Nice to see you, Louisa.’

He pulled on a helmet and Jake slid onto the bike behind him. I found myself watching as they pulled out of the car park. And because I was still watching I caught Jake’s exaggerated eye roll as he pulled on his own helmet. And then I remembered what he had said in the session.

The compulsive shagger.

‘Idiot,’ I told myself, and limped across the rest of the tarmac to where my car was boiling gently in the evening heat.





CHAPTER FIVE


I lived on the edge of the City. In case I was in any doubt, across the road stood a huge office-block-sized crater, surrounded by a developer’s hoarding, upon which was written: FARTHINGATE – WHERE THE CITY BEGINS. We existed at the exact point where the glossy glass temples to finance butted up against the grubby old brick and sash-windows of curry shops and twenty-four-hour grocers, of stripper pubs and minicab offices that resolutely refused to die. My block sat among those architectural refuseniks, a lead-stained, warehouse-style building staring at the steady onslaught of glass and steel and wondering how long it could survive, perhaps rescued by a hipster juice bar or pop-up retail experience. I knew nobody except Samir who ran the convenience store and the woman in the bagel bakery, who smiled at me in greeting but didn’t seem to speak any English.

Mostly this anonymity suited me. I had come here, after all, to escape my history, from feeling as if everyone knew every thing there was to know about me. And the City had begun to alter me. I had come to know my little corner of it, its rhythms and its danger points. I learned that if you gave money to the drunk at the bus station he would come and sit outside your flat for the next eight weeks; that if I had to walk through the estate at night it was wise to do it with my keys lodged between my fingers; that if I was walking out to get a late-night bottle of wine it was probably better not to glance at the group of young men huddled outside Kebab Korner. I was no longer disturbed by the persistent whump whump whump of the police helicopter overhead.

I could survive. Besides, I knew, more than anyone, that worse things could happen.

‘Hey.’

‘Hey, Lou. Can’t sleep again?’

‘It’s just gone ten o’clock here.’

‘So, what’s up?’

Nathan, Will’s former physio, had spent the last nine months working in New York for a middle-aged CEO with a Wall Street reputation, a four-storey townhouse and a muscular condition. Calling him in my sleepless small hours had become something of a habit. It was good to know there was someone who understood, out there in the dark, even if sometimes his news felt tinged with a series of small blows – everyone else has moved on. Everyone else has achieved something.

‘So how’s the Big Apple?’

‘Not bad?’ His Antipodean drawl made every answer a question.

I lay down on the sofa, pushing my feet up on the armrest. ‘Yeah. That doesn’t tell me a whole lot.’

‘Okay. Well, got a pay rise, so that was cool. Booked myself a flight home in a couple of weeks to see the olds. So that’ll be good. They’re over the moon because my sister’s having a baby. Oh, and I met a really fit bird in a bar down on Sixth Avenue and we were getting on real well so I asked her out, and when I told her what I did, she said sorry but she only went out with guys who wore suits to work.’ He laughed.

I found I was smiling. ‘So scrubs don’t count?’

‘Apparently not. Though she did say she might have changed her mind if I was an actual doctor.’ He laughed again. Nathan was made of equanimity. ‘It’s cool. Girls like that get all picky if you don’t take them to the right restaurants and stuff. Better to know sooner, right? How about you?’

I shrugged. ‘Getting there. Sort of.’

‘You still sleeping in his T-shirt?’

‘No. It stopped smelling of him. And it had started to get a bit unsavoury, if I’m honest. I washed it and I’ve packed it in tissue. But I’ve got his jumper for bad days.’

‘Good to have back-up.’

‘Oh, and I went to the grief-counselling group.’

‘How was it?’

‘Crap. I felt like a fraud.’

Nathan waited.

I shifted the pillow under my head. ‘Did I imagine it all, Nathan? Sometimes I think I’ve made what happened between Will and me so much bigger in my head. Like how can I have loved someone that much in such a short time? And all these things I think about the two of us – did we actually feel what I remember? The further we get from it, the more those six months just seems like this weird … dream.’

There was a tiny pause before Nathan responded. ‘You didn’t imagine it, mate.’

I rubbed my eyes. ‘Am I the only one? Still missing him?’

Another short silence.

‘Nah. He was a good bloke. The best.’

That was one of the things I liked about Nathan. He didn’t mind a lengthy phone silence. I finally sat up and blew my nose. ‘Anyway. I don’t think I’ll go back. I’m not sure it’s my thing.’

‘Give it a go, Lou. You can’t judge anything from one session.’

‘You sound like my dad.’

‘Well, he always was a sensible fella.’

I started at the sound of the doorbell. Nobody ever rang my doorbell, aside from Mrs Nellis in flat twelve, when the postman had accidentally swapped our mail. I doubted she was up at this hour. And I certainly was not in receipt of her Elizabethan Doll partwork magazine.

It rang again. A third time, shrill and insistent.

‘I’ve got to go. Someone’s at the door.’

‘Keep your pecker up, mate. You’ll be okay.’

I put the phone down and stood up warily. I had no friends nearby. I hadn’t worked out how you actually made them when you moved to a new area and spent most of your upright hours working. And if my parents had decided to stage an intervention and bring me back to Stortfold, they would have organized it between rush-hours as neither of them liked driving in the dark.

I waited, wondering if whoever it was would simply realize their mistake and go away. But it rang again, jarring and endless, as if they were now leaning against the bell.

I got up and walked to the door. ‘Who is it?’

‘I need to talk to you.’

A girl’s voice. I peered through the spy-hole. She was looking down at her feet, so I could only make out long chestnut hair, an oversized bomber jacket. She swayed slightly, rubbed at her nose. Drunk?

‘I think you have the wrong flat.’

‘Are you Louisa Clark?’

I paused. ‘How do you know my name?’

‘I need to talk to you. Can you just open the door?’

‘It’s almost half past ten at night.’

‘Yeah. That’s why I’d rather not be standing here in your corridor.’

I had lived there long enough to know not to open my door to strangers. In that area of town it was not unusual to get the odd junkie ringing bells speculatively in the hope of cash. But this was a well-spoken girl. And young. Too young to be one of the journalists who had briefly fixated on the story of the handsome former whizz-kid who had decided to end his life. Too young to be out this late? I angled my head, trying to see if there was anyone else in the corridor. It appeared to be empty. ‘Can you tell me what it’s about?’

‘Not out here, no.’

I opened the door to the length of the safety chain, so that we were eye to eye. ‘You’re going to have to give me more than that.’

She couldn’t have been more than sixteen, the dewy plumpness of youth still visible in her cheeks. Her hair long and lustrous. Long skinny legs in tight black jeans. Flicky eyeliner, in a pretty face. ‘So … who did you say you were?’ I asked.

‘Lily. Lily Houghton-Miller. Look,’ she said, and lifted her chin an inch, ‘I need to talk to you about my father.’

‘I think you have the wrong person. I don’t know anyone called Houghton-Miller. There must be another Louisa Clark you’ve confused me with.’

I made to shut the door, but she had wedged the toe of her shoe in it. I looked down at it, and slowly back up at her.

‘Not his name,’ she said, as though I was stupid. And when she spoke, her eyes were both fierce and searching. ‘His name is Will Traynor.’

Lily Houghton-Miller stood in the middle of my living room and surveyed me with the detached interest of a scientist gazing at a new variety of manure-based invertebrate. ‘Wow. What are you wearing?’

‘I – I work in an Irish pub.’

‘Pole dancing?’ Having apparently lost interest in me, she pivoted slowly, gazing at the room. ‘This is where you actually live? Where’s your furniture?’

‘I just moved in.’

‘One sofa, one television, two boxes of books?’ She nodded towards the chair on which I sat, my breathing still unbalanced, trying to make any kind of sense out of what she had just told me.

I stood up. ‘I’m going to get a drink. Would you like something?’

‘I’ll have a Coke. Unless you’ve got wine.’

‘How old are you?’

‘Why do you want to know?’

‘I don’t understand …’ I went behind the kitchen counter. ‘Will didn’t have children. I would have known.’ I frowned at her, suddenly suspicious. ‘Is this some kind of joke?’

‘A joke?’

‘Will and I talked … a lot. He would have told me.’

‘Yeah. Well, turns out he didn’t. And I need to talk about him to someone who is not going to totally freak out every time I even mention his name, like the rest of my family.’

She picked up the card from my mother and put it down again. ‘I’m hardly going to say it as a joke. I mean, yeah. My real dad, some sad bloke in a wheelchair. Like that’s funny.’

I handed her a glass of water. ‘But who … who is your family? I mean, who is your mother?’

‘Have you got any cigarettes?’ She had started pacing around the room, touching things, picking up the few belongings I had and putting them down. When I shook my head, she said, ‘My mother is called Tanya. Tanya Miller. She’s married to my stepdad, who is called Francis Stupid Fuckface Houghton.’

‘Nice name.’

She put down the water and pulled a packet of cigarettes from her bomber jacket and lit one. I was going to say she couldn’t smoke in my home, but I was too taken aback, so I simply walked over to the window and opened it.

I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I could maybe see little hints of Will. It was in her blue eyes, that vaguely caramel colouring. It was in the way she tilted her chin slightly before she spoke, her unblinking stare. Or was I seeing what I wanted to see? She gazed out of the window at the street below.

‘Lily, before we go on there’s something I need to –’

‘I know he’s dead,’ she said. She inhaled sharply and blew the smoke into the centre of the room. ‘I mean, that was how I found out. There was some documentary on television about assisted suicide and they mentioned his name and Mum totally freaked out for no reason and ran to the bathroom and Fuckface went after her so obviously I listened outside. And she was in total shock because she hadn’t even known that he’d ended up in a wheelchair. I heard the whole thing. I mean, it’s not like I didn’t know Fuckface wasn’t my real dad. It’s just that my mum only ever said my real dad was an asshole who didn’t want to know me.’

‘Will wasn’t an asshole.’

She shrugged. ‘He sounded like one. But, anyway, when I tried to ask her questions she just started totally flipping out and said that I knew everything about him that I needed to know and Fuckface Francis had been a better dad to me than Will Traynor ever would have been and I really should leave it alone.’

I sipped my water. I had never wanted a glass of wine more. ‘So what did you do?’

She took another drag of her cigarette. ‘I Googled him, of course. And I found you.’

I needed to be alone to digest what she had told me. It was too overwhelming. I didn’t know what to make of the spiky girl, who walked around my living room, making the air around her crackle.

‘So did he not say anything about me at all?’

I was staring at her shoes: ballerina pumps, heavily scuffed as if they had spent too much time shuffling around London streets. I felt as if I was being reeled in. ‘How old are you, Lily?’

‘Sixteen. Do I at least look like him? I saw a picture on Google images, but I was thinking maybe you had a photograph.’ She gazed around the living room. ‘Are all your photographs in boxes?’

She eyed the cardboard crates in the corner, and I wondered whether she would actually open them and start going through them. I was pretty sure the one she was about to go into contained Will’s jumper. And I felt a sudden panic. ‘Um. Lily. This is all … quite a lot to take in. And if you are who you say you are, then we – we do have a lot to discuss. But it’s nearly eleven o’clock, and I’m not sure this is the time to start. Where do you live?’

‘St John’s Wood.’

‘Well. Uh. Your parents are going to be wondering where you are. Why don’t I give you my number and we –’

‘I can’t go home.’ She faced the window, flicked the ash out with a practised finger. ‘Strictly speaking, I’m not even meant to be here. I’m meant to be at school. Weekly boarding. They’ll all be freaking out now because I’m not there.’ She pulled out her phone, as an afterthought, and grimaced at whatever she saw on its screen, then shoved it back in her pocket.

‘Well, I’m … not sure what I can do other than –’

‘I thought maybe I could stay here? Just tonight? And then you could tell me some more stuff about him?’

‘Stay here? No. No. I’m sorry, you can’t. I don’t know you.’

‘But you did know my dad. Did you say you think he didn’t actually know about me?’

‘You need to go home. Look, let’s call your parents. They can come and collect you. Let’s do that and I –’

She stared at me. ‘I thought you’d help me.’

‘I will help you, Lily. But this isn’t the way to –’

‘You don’t believe me, do you?’

‘I – I have no idea what to –’

‘You don’t want to help. You don’t want to do anything. What have you actually told me about my dad? Nothing. How have you actually helped? You haven’t. Thanks.’

‘Hold on! That’s not fair – we’ve only just –’

But the girl flicked her cigarette butt out of the window and turned to walk past me out of the room.

‘What? Where are you going?’

‘Oh, what do you care?’ she said, and before I could say anything more, the front door had slammed and she was gone.

I sat very still on my sofa, trying to digest what had just happened for the best part of an hour, Lily’s voice ringing in my ears. Had I heard her correctly? I went over and over what she had told me, trying to recall it through the buzz in my ears.

My father was Will Traynor.

Lily’s mother had apparently told her Will had not wanted anything to do with her. But surely he would have mentioned something to me. We had no secrets from each other. Weren’t we the two people who had managed to talk about everything? For a moment I wobbled: had Will not been as honest with me as I’d believed? Had he actually possessed the ability simply to airbrush an entire daughter out of his conscience?

My thoughts were chasing each other in circles. I grabbed my laptop, sat cross-legged on the sofa and typed ‘Lily Hawton Miller’ into a search engine, and when that came up with no results, I tried again with various spellings, settling on ‘Lily Houghton-Miller’, which brought up a number of hockey-fixture results posted by a school called Upton Tilton in Shropshire. I called up some of the images, and as I zoomed in, there she was, an unsmiling girl in a row of smiling hockey players. Lily Houghton-Miller played a brave, if unsuccessful defence. It was dated two years ago. Boarding-school. She’d said she was meant to be at boarding-school. But it still didn’t mean she was any relation of Will or, indeed, that her mother had been telling the truth about her parentage.

I altered the search to just the words ‘Houghton-Miller’, which brought up a short diary item about Francis and Tanya Houghton-Miller attending a banking dinner at the Savoy, and a planning application from the previous year for a wine cellar under a house in St John’s Wood.

I sat back, thinking, then did a search on ‘Tanya Miller’ and ‘William Traynor’. It turned up nothing. I tried again, using ‘Will Traynor’, and suddenly I