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After You / Ďîńëĺ ňĺá˙ (by Jojo Moyes, 2015) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě

After You / Ďîńëĺ ňĺá˙ (by Jojo Moyes, 2015) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě

After You / Ďîńëĺ ňĺá˙ (by Jojo Moyes, 2015) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě

Čäňč âďĺđĺä ďî ćčçíč ńëîćíî. Ëóčçŕ íĺâĺđî˙ňíî ňîńęóĺň ďî Óčëü˙ěó. Îí ěîňčâčđîâŕë ĺĺ čçěĺíčňüń˙ č íŕ÷ŕňü íîâóţ ńňđŕíčöó ńâîĺé ęíčăč áűňč˙. Îíŕ đĺřŕĺňń˙ íŕ ďĺđĺĺçä čç đîäčňĺëüńęîăî äîěŕ â řóěíűé Ëîíäîí. Č ńíîâŕ îíŕ âűáčđŕĺň â ęŕ÷ĺńňâĺ ěĺńňŕ đŕáîňű ęŕôĺřęó, ÷ňî đŕńďîëîćĺíŕ â ŕýđîďîđňó. Îäčíî÷ĺńňâî íĺ îňďóńęŕĺň ĺĺ ńĺđäöĺ. Îíŕ ďîńĺůŕĺň ęóđńű ďńčőîëîăč÷ĺńęîé ďîääĺđćęč č ďîíĺěíîăó âîçâđŕůŕĺňń˙ ę ćčçíč. Ďđîáëĺńęč óńďĺőîâ âîçíčęŕţň ďîńëĺ çíŕęîěńňâŕ ń Ńýěîě, âîäčňĺëĺě ńęîđîé ďîěîůč. Îäíŕćäű íî÷üţ îíŕ ďîäíčěŕĺňń˙ íŕ ęđűřó âűńîęîăî çäŕíč˙, ÷ňîáű ďîáűňü â ňčřčíĺ íŕĺäčíĺ ń ńîáîé. Îíŕ ďŕäŕĺň č ďîëó÷ŕĺň ěíîăî÷čńëĺííűĺ ňđŕâěű. Ńýě âîâđĺě˙ ďđčáűâŕĺň íŕ ěĺńňî č óâîçčň ĺĺ â áîëüíčöó. Ďîńëĺ äëčňĺëüíîăî ęóđńŕ ëĺ÷ĺíč˙ îíŕ íŕ÷číŕĺň ďîíĺěíîăó ďîďđŕâë˙ňüń˙. Ńęîđî ę Ëóčçĺ ˙âë˙ĺňń˙ Ëčëč, äî÷ü ďîęîéíîăî Óčëü˙ěŕ. Äĺâî÷ęŕ đŕńńďđŕřčâŕĺň îá îňöĺ, ń ęîňîđűě íčęîăäŕ íĺ ďîääĺđćčâŕëŕ ęîíňŕęňŕ č ńĺňóĺň íŕ ćčçíü ń ěŕňĺđüţ č îň÷čěîě.  ńĺđäöĺ Ëóčçű ďđîáóćäŕţňń˙ ÷óâńňâŕ ę Ńýěó. Ęîăäŕ ďđĺäńňŕâë˙ĺňń˙ âîçěîćíîńňü óĺőŕňü â řňŕňű, îíŕ çŕäóěűâŕĺňń˙, ńňîčň ëč ĺé íŕäĺ˙ňüń˙ íŕ ĺăî ëţáîâü čëč ëó÷řĺ áűëî áű ďîęčíóňü ńňđŕíó.

Đĺéňčíă:
Ďđîńěîňđîâ: 2 006
Íŕçâŕíčĺ:
After You / Ďîńëĺ ňĺá˙ (by Jojo Moyes, 2015) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě
Ăîä âűďóńęŕ ŕóäčîęíčăč:
2015
Ŕâňîđ:
Jojo Moyes
Čńďîëíčňĺëü:
Anna Acton
ßçűę:
ŕíăëčéńęčé
Ćŕíđ:
ëţáîâíűé đîěŕí, äđŕěŕ
Óđîâĺíü ńëîćíîńňč:
upper-intermediate
Äëčňĺëüíîńňü ŕóäčî:
11:09:15
Áčňđĺéň ŕóäčî:
64 kbps
Ôîđěŕň:
mp3, pdf, doc

Ńëóřŕňü îíëŕéí After You / Ďîńëĺ ňĺá˙ ŕóäčîęíčăó íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě ˙çűęĺ:

Ńęŕ÷ŕňü ňĺęńň ęíčăč â ôîđěŕňĺ .doc (Word) ďî ďđ˙ěîé ńńűëęĺ jojo_moyes_-_after_you.doc [2,01 Mb] (cęŕ÷čâŕíčé: 57) .
Ńęŕ÷ŕňü ňĺęńň ęíčăč â ôîđěŕňĺ .pdf ďî ďđ˙ěîé ńńűëęĺ  jojo_moyes_-_after_you.pdf [17,83 Mb] (cęŕ÷čâŕíčé: 77) .
Ńęŕ÷ŕňü audiobook (MP3) áĺńďëŕňíî ń ôŕéëîîáěĺííčęŕ.


×čňŕňü ęíčăó íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě îíëŕéí:

(×ňîáű ďĺđĺâîäčňü ńëîâŕ íŕ đóńńęčé ˙çűę č äîáŕâë˙ňü â ńëîâŕđü äë˙ čçó÷ĺíč˙, ůĺëęŕĺě ěűřęîé íŕ íóćíîĺ ńëîâî).


1 T he big man at the end of the bar is sweating. He holds his head low over his double scotch and every few minutes he glances up and out behind him toward the door, and 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 that it’s really not a good idea, that it won’t help. That 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 and 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 is a quarter to eleven on a Tuesday night, and the Shamrock and Clover, East City Airport’s Irish-themed pub that 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 is just me, the intense young man with the laptop, the two cackling women at table 2, and the man nursing a double Jameson’s waiting on SC107 to Stockholm and DB224 to Munich, the latter of which has been delayed for forty minutes. I have been on since midday, as Carly had a stomachache and went home. I didn’t mind. I never mind staying late. Humming softly to the sounds of 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 laughs of the well lubricated. “My granddaughter. Five days old,” says the blond 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 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 toward 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 toward 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 3, 5, and 11, the last of the day’s travelers winking their way into the night sky. Violet, the Congolese cleaner, pushes her trolley toward 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 to make sure the till roll matches what is in the till. 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 and then walk slowly over to the Gents. “Hello? Anyone in here?” The voice that emerges is strangled and bears a faint edge of hysteria. I push open 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. He shakes his head. “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 traveling over to meet my new boss, and I can’t. And 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 another shaky breath and straightens up, 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 shake my head. “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, huh?” “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, 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.” “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 sometime?” “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 takes two minutes after he has left for me to discover he has been sick all over cubicle 3. • • • I arrive home at a quarter past one and let myself into the silent flat. I change out of my clothes and into my pajama bottoms and a hooded sweatshirt, then open the fridge, pulling out a bottle of white, and pouring a glass. It is lip-pursingly sour. I study the label and realize I must have opened it the previous night then forgotten to stopper the bottle, and then decide it’s never a good idea to think about these things too hard and I slump down in the chair with it. On the mantelpiece 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 voice mails are 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 one, but I don’t want to go out again. I don’t want Samir at the Mini Mart grocers 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 that if I go to bed I won’t sleep. I think briefly about Jared and the fact 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’d come up, nine months earlier, the estate agent showed me how the previous tenants had made a small terrace garden, 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 rev, doors slam. From several miles south comes 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 wails. Always a siren. “Won’t take much to make this feel like home,” the real 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 first hit me hardest, I would sometimes dare myself to walk from one end of my block to the other. When I reached the other end I would laugh into the night air. You see? I am here—staying alive—right out on the edge. I am doing what you told me! It has become a secret habit: me, the city skyline, the comfort of the dark, and the anonymity and the knowledge that up here nobody knows who I am. I lift my head, feel the night breezes, hear the sound of laughter below and the muffled smash of a bottle breaking, see the traffic snaking up toward the city, the endless red stream of taillights, an automotive blood supply. It is always busy here, above the noise and chaos. Only the hours between 3 to 5 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 taking place 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 barely scraped through another day. Up here is just the air and the dark and somewhere the FedEx freight flight from LHR to Beijing, and countless travelers, 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, this 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 on 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. 2 hat’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 move 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 were 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, shining a thin torch abruptly in my eyes and gazing at me with detached interest as if I were 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 onto 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 toward his colleague. Time slips, I tilt with it. I have fallen off a roof? My face is cold and I realize distantly that I have started 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 is tapping something into his phone, before turning to adjust the drip above my head. The pain has lessened—morphine?—but with consciousness comes a growing terror. It is a giant airbag 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 toward my face. He smells of lemons and has missed a bit when shaving. “You okay there?” “Ang I—” He 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 am suddenly panicked in case he decides to let go. “Just hang 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?” “Paralyzed?” He 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. He 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 paralyzed.” “Oh, thang Gog,” I hear my voice, as if from afar. My eyes brim with tears. “Please don leggo og me,” 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. •• • Afterward they tell me I fell two floors of the five, bursting through an awning, breaking my fall on a top-of-the-line, outsized, canvas-and-wicker-effect, waterproof-cushioned sun lounger on the balcony of Mr. Antony Gardiner, a copyright lawyer and neighbor I have never met. My hip smashes into two pieces and two of my ribs and my collarbone snap straight through. I break two fingers on my left hand, and a metatarsal, which pokes through the skin of my foot and causes 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 is the bright lights of an operating theater 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. Hahahahaha. 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 color of her hair, I think distantly. And then: Oh. It’s my mother. My mother doesn’t talk to me anymore. “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 does not seem to require an answer. All I have to do is lie there. My mother dabs at her eyes, and then 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 over 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. Her words tail off. 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 earlier, but I have not seen him in person for the eighteen months since I left my hometown. 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 actually looked 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 mustache, and that’s pretty much what you look like. Actually”—he peers closer at my face—“now that 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 ol’ 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 how his eyes have grown a little watery. How his smile is 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, come 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 hoodlum 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 has brought homemade food to the hospital ever since the day we all stared at my lunch and, despite five whole minutes of intense speculation couldn’t work out what it actually was. “And in plastic trays, Bernard. Like a prison.” She prodded it sadly with a fork, then sniffed the residue. She now arrives daily with enormous sandwiches—thick slices of ham or cheese in white bloomer bread—and 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 my 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 Keith 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 slow and horrible deaths, 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-story 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 is amazing how quickly you become institutionalized. I wake, accept the ministrations of a handful of people whose faces 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 fastfood outlets. “That one-legged man from the cardio ward, Bernard. Sitting down there stuffing his face with cheeseburgers 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 the 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 is yet to be convinced. • • • On the Friday after the final operation to pin 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 sulfurous smell floods the room as soon as she opens the bag. My father mouths an apology, waving his hand in front of his nose. “The nurses’ll be blaming me, Josie,” he says, closing the door of my room. “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 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 are examining X-rays, or the way the nurses cover their mouths when they’re talking about someone who has just died nearby. “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 had a tough night at work, and 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 just 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 surveys 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 go 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 anymore. • • • 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 by 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 appears, how tired, how twee. Even the castle looks smaller, perched on top of the hill. 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 neighbors, 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 actually been standing by the window for the past half hour. Dad puts one of my bags on the step and then comes back to help me out, hoisting the other over his shoulder. I place my cane carefully on the paving stones, and I 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 backward?” “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 arm under my armpit and turns briefly to glare at the neighbors, 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 is hard to laugh and walk at the same time. Thomas runs to hug me so that I have to stop and put a hand out 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 is 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. 3 L ooking 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 favored 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 at night and listen 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 woke up laughing, or crying. I felt everything more intensely, 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 were seeing it all through his eyes, hearing 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 abruptly 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 travelers: 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 had wanted. I had to take some comfort, at least, in that. Didn’t I? 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 started 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 I had bought in haste but that didn’t quite fit me after all. I handed in my notice and went traveling 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, and had difficulty making 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 name on a list that I needed to check off. I spent the last week on a beach in Greece that reminded me too much of a beach I had been on with Will only months 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 figure out 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 portfolio of work to show them and they rebuffed me politely. The course I had originally won after Will died was 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 realized that, despite everything I had been through, I was still unqualified for any of the kinds of jobs I might actually 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 me. It was the excuse to move that I needed. He helped me negotiate a deal on a scarily overpriced two-bedroom flat on the edge of the Square Mile—a neighborhood I chose largely because I remembered Will once talking about the wine bar on the corner and it made me feel a bit closer to him—and there was enough money left over with which to furnish it. Then six weeks later I came back to England, got a job at the Shamrock and Clover, slept with a man called Phil whom 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 extrastrength 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, marveling at its never-ending advertisements for loan companies and stairlifts, and its preoccupation with minor celebrities whom the better 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 did not talk about anything that might upset this delicate equilibrium. I would watch whatever celebrity news that daytime television served 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 That Could Be Found 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 did not think beyond each mealtime, beyond the basic challenges of getting dressed and brushing my teeth and completing whatever tiny tasks my mother set me (“You know, love, when I’m out, if you could sort out your washing, I’ll do it with my coloreds”). But like a creeping tide, the outside world steadily insisted on intruding. I heard the neighbors 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 for two weeks before I realized that Mum and Dad no longer went to their social club. “Isn’t it Tuesday?” I asked 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 on 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 anymore,” said Mum, not looking at me 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 disclosure 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 that Patrick jogged past our house when I realized 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 girl with a blond ponytail and clad in matching blue Lycra so tight I could pretty much figure out what she’d had for breakfast. They looked like two Olympians missing a bobsled. 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 again. Patrick was saying something loudly about carb loading, and this time the girl flicked a suspicious gaze toward 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 practice sprints,” Patrick was saying loudly. “Tell you what, you go to the fourth lamppost and back and I’ll time you. Two-minute intervals. Go!” Granddad looked at me, and then 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 fixed his eyes 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 from 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’d loved. “Keep going!” he yelled, looking up from his 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 yes, you were. Don’t look at me like that—I could hardly lie to the woman.” She nodded toward 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 push-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 were 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 . . . I’m surprised to see you back. I thought you were off to conquer the big wide world!” His fianc?e, who was doing push-ups beside him, looked up and then back down at the pavement. It might have been my imagination, but her buttocks may 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 fianc?e.” 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 colors.” 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 toward 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. “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 fauxapologetic 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 up 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 toward his told me this was one particular part of Patrick’s history that he had not yet gotten around to sharing. He stared at me, two pinpricks of color 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 . . . the . . . firmest bride around.” I turned and walked slowly back inside. I closed the door, resting against it, my heart thumping, until I could be sure that they had both finally jogged on. “Arse,” said Granddad as I limped back into the living room, and then again, glancing dismissively at the window: “Arse.” He chuckled. I stared at him. And then, 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 that 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.” “Treen, I just fell off a building. I’m recuperating.” “And before that you were wafting around traveling. And then you were working in a bar until you knew what you wanted to do. You’ll have to sort out your head at some point. If you’re not going back to school, then 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 London flat. Mum and Dad can’t support you forever.” “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 paid all your bills, I worked out that you’ve got about fifteen hundred pounds left, 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 that it was annoying, there was also 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 out 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 and sat beside me on the sofa to watch television and didn’t even take the Mickey out of me. Treen was the only one who treated me like she always had. “You know what I’m going to say, don’t you?” I turned over 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 Treen 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 rinds and then eating them on a slow walk home again. 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 anyway. 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 and watched the toddlers and their parents feeding the fat ducks, and the teenagers smoking and yelling and whacking each other in the helpless combat of early courtship. We took a stroll over to the bookies 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 in 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 up 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 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, my hands rigid in my pockets. “You know poor Josie Clark is still mortified. She takes 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 oh fat at the checkout girl. 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, like I might faint. They might have still 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 back 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 them even a degree differently. My mother had told me that being there with Will at the end would affect the rest of my life, and I had thought she meant me, psychologically. I 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 what I now discovered is that it wasn’t just me. I had become that person and in a digital age I would be that person forever. It was in that faint swivel of heads when you walked through a busy street—“Is that—?” Even if I managed to wipe the whole thing from my memory, I would never be allowed to disassociate from Will’s death. My name would always be tied to his. People would form judgments 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, bagged up everything that had ever made me distinctive, and stuffed those bags into the back of my wardrobe. I adopted Treena’s uniform of jeans and a generic tee. 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 part of the story that hadn’t made it into print. 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 and put on my sunglasses and then I 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 I sat down in the corner with the archived files of the local papers. It wasn’t hard to locate August 2009. I took a breath, then I opened them halfway, and flicked through the headlines. LOCAL MAN ENDS HIS LIFE AT SWISS CLINIC Traynor Family Asks 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 center for assisted suicide. Mr. Traynor was left quadriplegic after a traffic accident in 2007. He apparently traveled to the clinic with his family and his caregiver, 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, that 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, and let out a breath. 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. Behind me, the librarian and a colleague were discussing, sotto voce, 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 but tend bar in two different countries and feel sorry for myself. And now, after four weeks back in the house I grew 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 here 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, her finger wagging, was scolding him 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 mustache. “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 barreled his way 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 better get out of here right now. Because I swear when your granddaddy 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 colored 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 the sound of Thomas 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 the ink 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 mustache, 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 realized 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, blueberrycolored man could muster. “But if you go back to that flat, Louisa, you go on one condition . . .” 4 M y 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, mustachioed 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 leukemia 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 smelled of damp, imperfectly ventilated church halls and poor-quality teabags. It smelled of meals for one and stale cigarettes, smoked hunched against the cold. It smelled of spritzed hair and armpits, little practical victories against a morass of despair. That smell alone told me I did not belong here, 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 nodded and gave me a reassuring smile. We know, it said. We have 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 like 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 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 looked 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 afterward. 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 tie, the kind of man who considers himself undressed without one. “I think that would have been a marvelous 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-colored 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 began to gather my belongings, wondering whether I should announce my leaving, or whether it would be simpler to just run. And then Marc turned to me and smiled expectantly. I looked 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 biscuits.” “Just tell us the bare bones of it, if you like. Don’t worry. You’re among friends.” They were all looking, waiting. I realized 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 around the room. “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, it’d just come back as something else, wouldn’t it?” “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 here. We have all pledged that these stories go no farther 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 hadn’t planned 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? We heard you had an accident. 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-gray 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.” He thrust out a hand. 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, wondering what kind of bars he had actually managed. “Nice to meet you.” “You’re the one who has 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 centimeters back in my collar. “I am 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 have 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 cuff links 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 off toward the stockroom, Carly leaned over from the coffee machine and smiled sweetly in his direction. “Utter, utter bell end,” 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, inspected 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 with 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 Panpipes 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 for the fact that 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 with reps, the other half on the phone to the head office, bleating about “footfall” and “spend per head.” We were encouraged to upsell the disgusting dry-roasted peanuts 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 was evidently thought up by someone who believed that across Dublin, right this minute, businesswomen and checkout girls were pirouetting their way across their workplaces dressed in embroidered tabards, knee-high socks, and lace-up dancing shoes, all in glittering emerald green. With accompanying curly 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 hats?” “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 colors.” 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. Too hot, I shrugged off my jacket, feeling suddenly that having laid myself bare in front of a room full of strangers, being seen in a faux Irish dancer uniform that 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 a room next door. Oh, yes, my Jilly used to do that all the time. I can’t delete my brother’s voice mail message. I have a little listen to his voice when I feel like I’m going to forget what he sounds 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 caregiver for someone for six months. I 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 reexamining your sadness all the time anyway? It was like picking away 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 car keys, telling myself it had at least meant that I didn’t have 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 toward my Lurex skirt. “Nice threads, by the way. It’s a good look for a grief counseling session.” He stopped briefly to retie a shoelace. I stopped with him. I hesitated, then said, “I’m sorry about your mum.” He looked down, his face somber. “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—” He looked up and grinned. “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 the side of 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 bookbag-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 just might have once 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 kept staring at me, and I felt myself slowly start to color 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 felt myself almost buckle 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 counseling group 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.” He shook his head. “It’s good to see you. We don’t often get to see what happens afterward.” “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, turned away, and raised a paddle-sized hand. Afterward, I didn’t know what made me do it. “Hey.” He looked back toward me. “It’s Sam, actually.” “Sam. I didn’t jump.” “Okay.” “No. Really. I mean, I know you’ve just seen me coming from a griefcounseling 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 again, Louisa.” He pulled on a helmet and Jake climbed onto the bike behind him. I found myself watching as they pulled out of the car park. And because I was still watching I just 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. 5 Ilived 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 boarding 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 these 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 by name except for Samir, who ran the Mini Mart, and the woman in the bagel bakery, who smiled at me 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 everything 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 the Kebab Korner. I was no longer disturbed by the periodic whump whump whump of the police helicopter overhead. I could survive. Besides, I knew, better than anyone, that there were worse things that 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 in New York, working for a middle-aged Wall Street CEO with a four-story townhouse, and a muscular condition. Calling him during 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, putting 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 all 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 started to laugh. 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. Nothing phased Nathan. “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 unsavory, 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 backup.” “Oh, and I went to the grief-counseling 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 that 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. “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 12, 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 you 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 the person was 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 peephole. She was looking down at her feet, so I could only make out long chestnut hair and 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 here long enough to know not to open my door to strangers. In this area of town it was not unusual to get the odd junkie ringing bells speculatively in 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 whiz 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 just 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 said. “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 who 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 were 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 toward the chair on which I sat. My breathing was still unbalanced, as I tried to make any kind of sense at all out of what she 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 stood behind the kitchen counter and shook my head at her. “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 like the rest of my family does every time I even mention his name.” 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 and vaguely caramel coloring. 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 center 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 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 just leave it alone.” I sipped my water. I had never wanted a glass of wine more. “So what did you do?” She shrugged, 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 suddenly suspicious, as if I were 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 up and start pawing through them. I knew one of them 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 at night, and I’m not sure this is the time to start. Where do you live?” “St. John’s Wood.” “Well. Uh. I think 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 turned to face the window, flicked the ash out with a practiced finger. “Strictly speaking, I’m . . . 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 into 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 better 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 all over 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 had believed? Had he actually possessed the ability simply to airbrush an entire daughter out of his conscience? When I realized my thoughts were chasing each other in circles, I grabbed my laptop. I 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 defense. It was dated two years ago. Boarding school. She said she was meant to be at boarding school. But it still didn’t mean she was any relation of Will’s, 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 was on a Facebook thread dated some eighteen months ago, for alumni of Durham University, on which several women, all of whose names seemed to end in “ella”—Estella, Fenella, Arabella—were discussing Will’s death. I couldn’t believe it when I heard it on the news. Him of all people! RIP Will. Nobody gets through life unscathed. You know Rory Appleton died in the Turks and Caicos, in a speed-boating accident? Didn’t he do Geography? Red hair? No, PPE. I’m sure I snogged Rory at the Freshers Ball. Enormous tongue. I’m not being funny, Fenella. That’s rather bad taste. The poor man is dead. Wasn’t Will Traynor the one who went out with Tanya Miller for the whole of the third year? I don’t see how it’s in poor taste to mention that I may have kissed someone just because they then went on to pass away. I’m not saying you have to rewrite history. It’s just his wife might be reading this, and she might not want to know that her beloved stuck his tongue in the face of some girl on Facebook. I’m sure she knows his tongue was enormous. I mean, she married him. Rory Appleton got married? Here’s the link. Tanya married some banker. I always thought she and Will would get married when we were at uni. They were so gorgeous. I clicked on the link, which showed a picture of a reed-thin blond woman with an artfully tousled chignon smiling as she stood on the steps of a registry office with an older dark-haired man. A short distance away, at the edge of the picture, a young girl in a white tulle dress was scowling. She bore a definite resemblance to the Lily Houghton-Miller I had met. But the image was seven years old, and in truth it could have portrayed any grumpy young bridesmaid with long midbrown hair. I reread the thread, and closed my laptop. What should I do? If she really was Will’s daughter, should I call the school? I was pretty sure there were rules about strangers who tried to contact teenage girls. And what if this really was some elaborate scam? Will had died a wealthy man. It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that somebody could think up an intricate scheme by which to leach money from his family. When Dad’s mate Chalky died of a heart attack, seventeen people had turned up at the wake telling his wife he owed them betting money. I would steer clear, I decided. There was too much potential for pain and disruption if I got this wrong. But when I went to bed it was Lily’s voice I heard, echoing in the silent flat. Will Traynor was my father. 6 S orry. My alarm didn’t go off.” I rushed past Richard and hung my coat on the peg, pulling my synthetic skirt down over my thighs. “Three quarters of an hour late. This is not acceptable.” It was 8:30 a.m. We were, I noted, the only two people in the bar. Carly had left; she hadn’t even bothered telling Richard to his face. She simply sent a text message telling him she would return the sodding uniform at the end of the week, and that as she was owed two weeks sodding holiday pay she was taking her sodding notice in lieu. If she had bothered to read the employment handbook, he had fumed, she would have known that taking notice in lieu of holiday was completely unacceptable. It was there in Section 3, as clear as day, if she had cared to look. And the sodding language was simply unnecessary. He was now to go through the due processes to find a replacement. Which meant that until due processes were completed it was just me. And Richard. “I’m sorry. Something . . . came up at home.” I had woken with a start at seven thirty, unable for several minutes to recall what country I was in or what my name was, and had lain on my bed, unable to move, while I mulled over the previous evening’s events. “A good worker doesn’t bring their home life to the workplace with them,” Richard intoned, as he pushed past me with his clipboard. I watched him go, wondering if he even had a home life. He never seemed to spend any time there. “Yeah. Well. A good employer doesn’t make his employee wear a uniform Stringfellow’s would have rejected as tacky,” I muttered, as I tapped my code into the till, pulling the hem of my Lurex skirt down with my free hand. He turned swiftly and walked back across the bar. “What did you say?” “Nothing.” “Yes, you did.” “I said I’ll remember that for next time. Thank you very much for reminding me.” I smiled sweetly at him. He looked at me for several seconds longer than was comfortable for either of us. And then he said: “The cleaner is off sick again. You’ll need to do the Gents before you start on the bar.” His gaze was steady, daring me to say something. I reminded myself that I could not afford to lose this job. I swallowed. “Right.” “Oh, and cubicle three’s a bit of a mess.” “Jolly good,” I said. He turned on his highly polished heel and walked back into the office. I sent mental voodoo arrows into the back of his head the whole way. • • • “This week’s Moving On Circle is about guilt. Survivor’s guilt, guilt that we didn’t do enough. . . . It’s often these emotions that keep us from moving forward.” Marc waited as we handed around the biscuit tin, and then leaned forward on his plastic chair, his hands clasped in front of him. He ignored the low rumbling of discontent that there were no bourbon creams. “I used to get ever so impatient with Jilly,” Fred said into the silence. “When she had the dementia, I mean. She would put dirty plates back in the kitchen cupboards and I would find them days later and . . . I’m ashamed to say I did shout at her a couple of times.” He wiped at an eye. “She was such a houseproud woman, before. That was the worst thing.” “You lived with Jilly’s dementia a long time, Fred. You’d have to have been superhuman not to find it a strain.” “Dirty plates would drive me mad,” said Daphne. “I think I would have shouted something terrible.” “But it wasn’t her fault, was it?” Fred straightened on his chair. “I think about those plates a lot. I wish I could go back. I’d wash them up without saying a word. Just give her a nice cuddle instead.” “I find myself fantasizing about men on the tube,” said Natasha. “Sometimes when I’m riding up on the escalator, I exchange a look with some random man going down. And then before I’ve even got to platform 2 I’ve started building whole relationships between us, in my head. You know, where he runs back up the escalator because he just knows there is something magical between us, and we stand there, gazing at each other amid the crowds of commuters on the Piccadilly line and then we go for a drink, and before you know it, we are—” “Sounds like a Richard Curtis movie,” said William. “I like Richard Curtis movies,” said Sunil. “Especially that one about the actress and the man in his pants.” “Shepherd’s Bush,” said Daphne. There was a short pause. “I think it’s Notting Hill, Daphne,” Marc said. “I preferred Daphne’s version. What?” said William, snorting. “We’re not allowed to laugh now?” “So in my head we’re getting married,” said Natasha. “And then when we’re standing at the altar, I think, What am I doing? Olaf only died three years ago and I’m fantasizing about other men.” Marc leaned back in his chair. “You don’t think that’s natural, after three years by yourself? To fantasize about other relationships?” “But if I had really loved Olaf, surely I wouldn’t think about anyone else?” “It’s not the Victorian age,” said William. “You don’t have to wear widow’s weeds till you’re ancient.” “If it was me who’d died, I would hate the thought of Olaf falling in love with someone else.” “You wouldn’t know,” said William. “You’d be dead.” “What about you, Louisa?” Marc had noticed my silence. “Do you suffer feelings of guilt?” “Can we . . . can we do someone else?” “I’m Catholic,” said Daphne. “I feel guilty about everything. It’s the nuns, you know.” “What do you find difficult about this subject, Louisa?” I took a swig of coffee. I felt everyone’s eyes on me. Come on, I told myself. I swallowed. “That I couldn’t stop him,” I said. “Sometimes I think if I had been smarter, or . . . handled things differently . . . or just been more—I don’t know. More anything.” “You feel guilty about Bill’s death because you feel you could have stopped him?” I pulled at a loose thread. When it came away in my hand it seemed to loosen something in my brain. “Also that I’m living a life that is so much less than the one I promised him I’d live. And guilt over the fact that he basically paid for my flat when my sister will probably never be able to afford one of her own. And guilt that I don’t even really like living in it because it doesn’t feel like mine and it feels wrong to make it nice because all I associate it with is the fact that W— Bill is dead and somehow I benefitted from that.” There was a short silence. “You shouldn’t feel guilty about property,” said Daphne. “I wish someone would leave me a flat,” said Sunil. “But that’s just a fairy-tale ending, isn’t it? Man dies, everyone learns something, moves on, creates something wonderful out of his death.” I was speaking without thinking now. “I’ve done none of those things. I’ve basically just failed at all of it.” “My dad cries nearly every time he shags someone who isn’t my mum,” Jake blurted out, twisting his hands together. He stared out from under his fringe. “He charms women into sleeping with him, and then afterward he gets off on being sad about it. It’s like as long as he feels guilty about it afterward then it’s okay.” “You think he uses his guilt as a crutch.” “I just think either you have sex and feel glad that you’re having all the sex —” “I wouldn’t feel guilty about having all the sex,” said Fred. “Or you treat women like human beings and make sure you don’t have anything to feel guilty about. Or don’t even sleep with anyone, and treasure Mum’s memory until you’re actually ready to move on.” His voice broke on the word treasure and his jaw grew taut. By then we were used to the sudden stiffening of expressions, and an unspoken group courtesy meant that we each looked away until any potential tears subsided. Marc’s voice was gentle. “Have you told your father how you feel, Jake?” “We don’t talk about Mum. He’s fine as long as, you know, we don’t actually mention her.” “That’s quite a burden for you to carry alone.” “Yeah. Well . . . that’s why I’m here, isn’t it?” There was a short silence. “Have a biscuit, Jake darling,” said Daphne, and we passed the tin back around the circle, vaguely reassured, in some way nobody could quite define, when Jake finally took one. I kept thinking about Lily. I barely registered Sunil’s tale of weeping in the baked-goods section of the supermarket, and just about raised a sympathetic expression for Fred’s solitary marking of Jilly’s birthday with a bunch of foil balloons. For days now the whole episode with Lily had now taken on the tenor of a dream, vivid and surreal. How could Will have had a daughter? • • • “You look happy.” Jake’s father was leaning against his motorbike as I walked across the car park of the church hall. I stopped in front of him. “It’s a grief-counseling session. I’m hardly going to come out tap dancing.” “Fair point.” “It’s not what you think. I mean, it’s not me,” I said. “It’s . . . to do with a teenager.” He tipped his head backward, spying Jake behind me. “Oh. Right. Well, you have my sympathies there. You look young to have a teenager, if you don’t mind my saying.” “Oh. No. Not mine! It’s . . . complicated.” “I’d love to give you advice. But I don’t have a clue.” He stepped forward and enveloped Jake in a hug, which the boy tolerated glumly. “You all right, young man?” “Fine.” “Fine,” Sam said, glancing sideways at me. “There you go. Universal response of all teenagers to everything. War, famine, lottery wins, global fame. It’s all fine.” “You didn’t need to pick me up. I’m going to Jools’s.” “You want a lift?” “She lives, like, there. In that block.” Jake pointed. “I think I can manage that by myself.” Sam’s expression remained even. “So, maybe text me next time? Save me coming here and waiting?” Jake shrugged and walked off, his backpack slung over his shoulder. We watched him go in silence. “I’ll see you later, yes, Jake?” Jake lifted a hand without looking back. “Okay,” I said. “So now I feel a tiny bit better.” Sam gave the slightest shake of his head. He watched his son go, as if, even now, he couldn’t bear to just leave him. “Some days he feels it harder than others.” And then he turned to look at me. “You want to grab a coffee or something, Louisa? Just so I don’t have to feel like the world’s biggest loser? It is Louisa, right?” I thought of what Jake had said in that evening’s session. On Friday Dad brought home this psycho blonde called Mags who is obsessed with him. When he was in the shower she kept asking me if he talked about her when she wasn’t there. The compulsive shagger. But he was nice enough and he had helped put me back together in the ambulance, and the alternative was another night at home wondering what had been going on in Lily Houghton-Miller’s head. “If we can talk about anything but teenagers.” “Can we talk about your outfit?” I looked down at my green Lurex skirt and my Irish dancing shoes. “Absolutely not.” “It was worth a try,” he said, and climbed onto his motorbike. • • • We sat outside at a near-empty bar a short distance from my flat. He drank black coffee, and I ordered a fruit juice. I had time to study him surreptitiously now that I wasn’t dodging cars in a car park, or lying strapped onto a hospital gurney. His features were coarser than Will’s. His nose held a telltale ridge, and his eyes crinkled in a way that suggested there was almost no human behavior he had not seen and, perhaps, been slightly amused by. He was tall and broad, and yet he moved with a kind of gentle economy, as if he had absorbed the effort of not damaging things just from his size. He was evidently more comfortable with listening than talking, or perhaps it was just that it was unsettling to be on my own with a man after so much time, because I found that I was gabbling. I talked about my job at the bar, making him laugh about Richard Percival and the horrors of my outfit, and how strange it had been to live briefly at home again, and my father’s bad jokes, and Granddad and his doughnuts, and my nephew’s unorthodox use of a blue marker pen. But I was conscious as I spoke, as so often happened these days, of how much I didn’t say: about Will, about the surreal thing that had happened to me the previous evening, about me. With Will I had never had to consider what I said; talking to him was as effortless as breathing. Now I was good at not really saying anything about myself at all. He just sat and nodded, watched the traffic go by and sipped at his coffee, as if it were perfectly normal for him to be passing the time with a feverishly chatting stranger in a green Lurex miniskirt. “So, how’s the hip?” he asked, when finally I ground to a halt. “Not bad. I’d quite like to stop limping, though.” “You’ll get there, if you keep up the physio.” For a moment, I could hear that voice from the back of the ambulance. Calm, unfazed, reassuring. “The other injuries?” I peered down at myself, as if I could see through what I was wearing. “Well, other than the fact that I look like someone’s drawn all over bits of me with a particularly vivid red pen, not bad.” Sam nodded. “You were lucky. That was quite a fall.” And there it was again. The sick lurch in my stomach. The air beneath my feet. You never know what will happen when you fall from a great height. “I wasn’t trying to—” “You said.” “But I’m not sure anyone believes me.” We exchanged an awkward smile and for a minute I wondered if he didn’t either. “So . . . do you pick up many people who fall off the tops of buildings?” He shook his head, gazed out across the road. “I just pick up the pieces. I’m glad that in your case the pieces fitted back together.” We sat in silence for a while longer. I kept thinking about things I should say, but I was so out of practice at spending time alone with a man—while sober, at least—that I kept losing my nerve, my mouth opening and closing like a goldfish’s. “So you want to tell me about the teenager?” Sam said. It was a relief to explain it to someone. I told him about the late-night knock at the door and our bizarre meeting and what I had found on Facebook, and how she had run away before I’d had a chance to work out what on earth to do. “Whoa,” he said when I’d finished. “That’s . . .” He gave a little shake of his head. “You think she is who she says she is?” “She does look a bit like him. But I don’t honestly know. Am I looking for signs? Am I seeing what I want to see? It’s possible. I spend half my time thinking how amazing that there’s something of him left behind, and the other half wondering if I’m being a complete sucker. And then there is this whole extra layer of stuff in the middle—like, if this is his daughter, then how is it fair that he never even got to meet her? And how are his parents supposed to cope with it? And what if meeting her would actually have changed his mind? What if that would actually have been the thing that convinced him . . .” My voice tailed off. Sam leaned back in his chair, his brow furrowed. I could feel him studying me, perhaps reassessing what Will had meant to me. “I don’t know what to do,” I said. “I don’t know whether to seek her out, or whether I should just leave well enough alone.” He looked out at the city street, thinking. And then he said, “Well, what would he have done?” And just like that, I faltered. I gazed up at that big man with his direct gaze, his two-day stubble, and his kind, capable hands. And all my thoughts evaporated. “You okay?” I took a deep gulp of my drink, trying to hide what I felt was written clearly on my face. Suddenly, for no reason I could work out, I wanted to cry. It was too much. That odd, unbalancing night. The fact that Will had loomed up again, ever present in every conversation. I could see his face suddenly, that sardonic eyebrow raised, as if to say What on earth are you up to now, Clark? “Just . . . a long day. Actually, would you mind if I—” Sam pushed his chair back, stood up. “No. No, you go. Sorry. I didn’t think —” “This has been really nice. It’s just—” “No problem. A long day. And the whole grief thing. I get it. No, no—don’t worry,” he said, as I reached for my purse. “Really. I can stand you an orange juice.” I think I might have run to my car, in spite of my limp. I felt his eyes on me the whole way. • • • I pulled up in the car park and let out a breath I felt I’d been holding all the way from the bar. I glanced over at the Mini Mart, then back at my flat, and decided that I didn’t want to be sensible. I wanted wine, several large glasses of it, until I could persuade myself to stop looking backward. Or maybe not look at anything at all. My hip ached as I climbed out of the car. Since Richard had arrived, it hurt constantly; the physio at the hospital told me not to spend too much time on my feet. But the thought of saying as much to Richard filled me with dread. I see. So you work in a bar but you want to be allowed to sit down all day, is that it? That milk-fed, preparing-for-middle-management face; that carefully nondescript haircut. That air of weary superiority, even though he was barely two years older than me. I closed my eyes, and tried to make the knot of anxiety in my stomach disappear. “Just this please,” I said, placing a bottle of cold sauvignon blanc on the counter. “Party, is it?” “What?” “Fancy dress. You going as— Don’t tell me.” Samir stroked his chin. “Snow White.” “Sure,” I said. “You want to be careful with that. Empty calories, innit? You want to drink vodka. That’s a clean drink. Maybe a bit of lemon. That’s what I tell Ginny, across the road. You know she’s a lap dancer, right? They got to watch their figures.” “Dietary advice. Nice.” “It’s like all this stuff about sugar. You got to watch the sugar. No point buying the low-fat stuff if it’s full of sugar, right? There’s your empty calories. Right there. And them chemical sugars are the worst. They stick to your gut.” He rang up the wine, handed me my change. “What’s that you’re eating, Samir?” “Smoky Bacon Pot Noodle. It’s good, man.” I was lost in thought—somewhere in the dark crevasse between my sore pelvis, existential job-related despair, and a weird, sudden craving for a Smoky Bacon Pot Noodle—when I saw her. She was in the doorway of my block, sitting on the ground, her arms wrapped around her knees. I took my change from Samir, and half walked, half ran across the road. “Lily?” She looked up slowly. Her voice was slurred, her eyes bloodshot, as if she had been crying. “Nobody would let me in. I rang all the bells but nobody would let me in.” I wrestled the key into the door and propped it open with my bag, crouching down beside her. “What happened?” “I just want to go to sleep,” she said, rubbing at her eyes. “I’m so, so tired. I wanted to get a taxi home but I haven’t got any money.” I caught the sour whiff of alcohol. “Are you drunk?” “I don’t know.” She blinked at me, tilting her head. I wondered then if it was just alcohol. “If I’m not, you’ve totally turned into a leprechaun.” She patted her pockets. “Oh, look. Look what I’ve got!” She held up a halfsmoked roll-up that even I could smell was not just tobacco. “Let’s have a smoke, Lily,” she said. “Oh, no. You’re Louisa. I’m Lily.” She giggled and, clumsily pulling a lighter from her pocket, promptly tried to light the wrong end. “Okay, you. Time to go home.” I took it from her hand and, ignoring her vague protests, squashed it firmly under my foot. “I’ll call you a taxi.” “But I don’t—” “Lily!” I glanced up. A young man stood across the street, his hands in his jeans pockets, watching us steadily. Lily looked up at him and then away. “Who is that?” I said. She stared at her feet. “Lily. Come here.” His voice held the surety of possession. He stood, legs slightly apart, as if even at that distance, he expected her to obey him. Something made me instantly uneasy. Nobody moved. “Is that your boyfriend? Do you want to talk to him?” I asked quietly. The first time she spoke I couldn’t make out what she said. I had to lean closer and ask her to repeat herself. “Make him go away.” She closed her eyes and turned her face toward the door. “Please.” He began to walk across the street toward us. I stood and tried to make my voice sound as authoritative as possible. “You can go now, thanks. Lily’s coming inside with me.” He stopped halfway across the road. I held his gaze. “You can speak to her some other time. Okay?” I had my hand on the buzzer, and now muttered at some imaginary, muscular, short-tempered, boyfriend. “Yeah. Do you want to come down and give me a hand, Dave? Thanks.” The young man’s expression suggested this was not the last of it. Then he turned, pulled his phone from his pocket, and began a low, urgent conversation with someone as he walked away, ignoring the beeping taxi that had to swerve around him, and casting us only the briefest of backward looks. I sighed, a little more shakily than I’d expected, put my hands under her armpits, and with not very much elegance and a fair amount of muffled swearing, managed to haul Lily Houghton-Miller into the lobby. • • • That night she slept at my flat. I couldn’t think what else to do with her. She was sick twice in my bathroom, batting me away when I tried to hold her hair up for her. She refused to give me a home phone number, or maybe couldn’t remember it, and her mobile phone was pin locked. I cleaned her up, helped her into a pair of my jogging bottoms and a T-shirt, and led her into the living room. “You tidied up!” she said, with a little exclamation, as if I had done it just for her. I made her drink a glass of water and put her on the sofa in recovery position, even though I was pretty sure by then that there was nothing left inside her to come out. As I lifted her head and placed it on the pillow, she opened her eyes, as if recognizing me properly for the first time. “Sorry,” she said, so quietly that for a moment I couldn’t be entirely sure that that was what she had said at all, and her eyes brimmed briefly with tears. I covered her with a blanket and watched her as she fell asleep—her pale face, the blue shadows under her eyes, the eyebrows that followed the same curve that Will’s had, the same faint sprinkling of freckles. Almost as an afterthought, I locked the flat door and brought the keys into my bedroom with me, tucking them under my pillow to stop her stealing anything, or simply to stop her leaving, I wasn’t sure. I lay awake, my mind still busy with the sound of the sirens and the airport and the faces of the grieving in the church hall and the hard, knowing stare of the young man across the road and the knowledge that I had someone who was essentially a stranger sleeping under my roof. And all the while a voice kept saying: What on earth are you doing? But what else could I have done? Finally, some time after the birds started singing, and the bakery van unloaded its morning delivery downstairs, my thoughts slowed, and stilled, and I fell asleep. 7 Icould smell coffee. It took me several seconds to consider why that aroma might be wafting through my flat and when the answer registered I sat bolt upright and leaped out of bed, hauling my hoodie over my head. She was sitting cross-legged on the sofa, smoking, using my one good mug as an ashtray. The television was on—some manic children’s show, full of brightly clad kids making clever faces—and two Styrofoam cups sat on the mantelpiece. “Oh, hi. That one on the right’s yours,” she said, turning briefly toward me. “I didn’t know what you liked so I got you an Americano.” I blinked, wrinkling my nose against the cigarette smoke. I crossed the room and opened a window. I looked at the clock. “Is that the time?” “Yeah. The coffee might be a bit cold. Didn’t know whether to wake you.” “It’s my day off,” I said, reaching for the coffee. It was warm enough. I took a slug gratefully. Then I stared at the cup. “Hang on. How did you get these? I locked the front door.” “I went down the fire escape,” she said. “I didn’t have any money so I told the guy at the bakery whose flat it was and he said you could bring him the money later. Oh, and you also owe him for two bagels with smoked salmon and cream cheese.” “I do?” I wanted to be cross, but I was suddenly really hungry. She followed my gaze. “Oh. I ate those.” She blew a smoke ring into the center of the room. “You didn’t have anything much in your fridge. You really do need to sort this place out.” The Lily of this morning was such a different character from the girl I had picked off the street last night that it was hard to believe they were the same person. I walked back into the bedroom to get dressed, listening to her watching television, padding into the kitchen to fetch herself a drink. “Hey, thingy . . . Louise. Could you lend me some money?” she called out. “If it’s to get off your face again, no.” She walked into my bedroom without knocking. I pulled my sweatshirt up to my chest. “And can I stay tonight?” “I need to talk to your mum, Lily.” “What for?” “I need to know a little bit more about what’s actually going on here.” She stood in the doorway. “So you don’t believe me.” I gestured to her to turn around, so I could finish putting on my bra. “I do believe you. But that’s the deal. You want something from me, I need to know a bit more about you first.” Just as I pulled my T-shirt over my head, she turned back again. “Suit yourself. I need to pick up some more clothes anyway.” “Why? Where have you been staying?” She walked away from me, as if she hadn’t heard, lifting an arm to sniff her armpit. “Can I use your shower? I absolutely reek.” • • • An hour later, we drove to St. John’s Wood. I was exhausted, both by the night’s events and the strange energy Lily gave off beside me. She fidgeted constantly, smoked endless cigarettes, then sat in a silence so loaded I could almost feel the weight of her thoughts. “So . . . who was he? That guy last night?” I kept my face to the front, my voice neutral. “Just someone.” “You told me he was your boyfriend.” “Then that’s who he was.” Her voice had hardened, her face closed. As we drew nearer to her parents’ house, she crossed her arms in front of her, bringing her knees up to her chin, her gaze set and defiant, as if already in silent battle. I had wondered if she had been telling me the truth about St. John’s Wood, but she gestured to a wide, tree-lined street, and told me to take the third left, and we were suddenly in the kind of road that diplomats or expat American bankers live in, the kind of road that nobody ever seems to go in or out of. I pulled the car up, gazing out of the window at the tall white stucco buildings, the carefully trimmed yew hedging, and immaculate window boxes. “You live here?” She slammed the passenger door behind her so hard that my little car rattled. “I don’t live here. They live here.” • • • She let herself in and I followed, awkwardly, feeling like an intruder. We were in a spacious, high-ceilinged hallway, with parquet flooring and a huge gilt mirror on the wall, on which a slew of white invitation cards jostled for space in its frame. A vase of beautifully arranged flowers sat on a small antique table. The air was scented with their perfume. From upstairs came the sound of some kind of commotion, possibly children’s voices; it was hard to tell. “My half brothers,” Lily said dismissively, and walked through to the kitchen, apparently expecting me to follow. I stood and stared; it was an enormous kitchen in modernist gray, with an endless mushroom-colored polished-concrete worktop. Everything in it screamed money, from the Dualit toaster to the coffeemaker that was large and complicated enough not to be out of place in a Milanese caf?. Lily opened the fridge and scanned it, finally pulling out a container of fresh pineapple pieces that she started to eat with her fingers. “Lily?” A voice from upstairs, urgent, female. “Lily, is that you?” The sound of footsteps racing downstairs. Lily rolled her eyes. A blond woman appeared in the kitchen doorway. She stared at me, then at Lily, who was dropping a piece of pineapple languidly into her mouth. She walked over and snatched the container from her hands. “Where the hell have you been? The school is beside themselves. Daddy was out driving around the neighborhood. We thought you’d been murdered! Where were you?” “He’s not my dad.” “Don’t get smart with me, young lady. You can’t just walk back in here like nothing’s happened! Do you have any idea of the trouble you’ve caused? I was up with your brother half the night, and then I couldn’t sleep for worrying about what had happened to you. I’ve had to cancel our trip to Granny Houghton’s because we didn’t know where you were.” Lily stared at her coolly. “I don’t know why you bothered. You don’t usually care where I am.” The woman stiffened with rage. She was thin, the kind of thin that comes with fad diets or compulsive exercise; her hair was expensively cut and colored so that it looked neither, and she was wearing what I assumed were designer jeans. But her face, tanned as it was, betrayed her; she looked exhausted. She spun around to look at me. “Is it you she’s been staying with?” “Well, yes, but—” She looked me up and down and apparently decided she was not enamored of what she saw. “Do you know the trouble you’re causing? Do you have any idea how old she is? What the hell do you want with a girl that young anyway? You must be, what, thirty?” “Actually, I—” “Is this what it’s about?” she asked her daughter. “Are you having a relationship with this woman?” “Oh, Mum, shut up.” Lily had picked up the pineapple again and was fishing around in it with her forefinger. “It’s not what you think. She hasn’t caused any of it.” She lowered the last piece of pineapple into her mouth, pausing to chew, perhaps for dramatic effect, before she spoke again. “She’s the woman who used to look after my dad. My real dad.” • • • Tanya Houghton-Miller sat back in the endless cushions of her cream-colored sofa and stirred her coffee. I perched on the edge of the sofa opposite, gazing at the oversized Diptyque candles and the artfully placed Interiors magazines. I was slightly afraid that if I sat back as she had, my coffee would tip into my lap. “How did you meet my daughter?” she said wearily. Her wedding finger sported two of the biggest diamonds I’d ever seen. “I didn’t, really. She turned up at my flat. I had no idea who she was.” She digested that for a minute. “And you used to look after Will Traynor.” “Yes. Until he died.” There was a brief pause as we both studied the ceiling—something had just crashed above our heads. “My sons.” She sighed. “They have some behavioral issues.” “Are they from your . . . ?” “They’re not Will’s, if that’s what you’re asking.” We sat there in silence. Or as near to silence as it could get when you could hear furious screaming upstairs. There was another thud, followed by an ominous silence. “Mrs. Houghton-Miller,” I said. “Is it true? Is Lily Will’s daughter?” She raised her chin slightly. “Yes.” I felt suddenly shaky and put my coffee cup on the table. “I don’t understand. I don’t understand how—” “It’s quite simple. Will and I were together during the last year of uni. I was totally in love with him, of course. Everyone was. Although I should say it wasn’t all one-way traffic, you know?” She raised a small smile and waited, as if expecting me to say something. But I couldn’t. How could Will not have told me that he had a daughter? After everything we had been through? Tanya drawled on. “Anyway. We were, you know, the golden couple of our group. Balls, punting, weekends away, you know the drill. Will and I—well, we were everywhere.” She told the story as if it were still fresh to her, as if it were something she had gone over and over in her head. “And then at our Founders’ Ball, I had to leave to help my friend Liza, who had got herself into a bit of a mess, and when I came back, Will was gone. No idea where he was. So I waited there for ages, and all the cars came and took everyone home, and finally a girl I didn’t even know very well came up to me and told me that Will had gone off with a girl called Stephanie Loudon. You won’t know her. But she’d had her eye on him forever. At first I didn’t believe it, but I drove to her house anyway, and sat outside, and sure enough, at 5 a.m. he came out and they stood there kissing on the doorstep like they couldn’t care who saw. And when I got out of the car and confronted him, he didn’t even have the grace to be ashamed. He just said there was no point in us getting emotional as we were never going to last beyond college anyway. “And then, of course, college finished, which was something of a relief, to be honest, because who wants to be the girl Will Traynor dumped? But it was so hard to get over, because it had ended so abruptly, you know? Then after we left and he started to work in the City I wrote to him asking if we could at least meet for a drink so I could work out what on earth had gone wrong. Because as far as I was concerned we had been really happy, you know? And he just got his secretary to send this—this card, saying she was very sorry but Will’s diary was absolutely full and he didn’t have time right now but he wished me all the best. ‘All the best.’” She grimaced. I winced internally. Much as I wanted to discount her story, this version of Will held a horrible ring of truth. Will himself had looked back at his earlier life with utter clarity, had confessed how badly he had treated women when he was younger. (His exact words were, “I was a complete arse.”) Tanya was still talking. “And then, about two months later, I discovered I was pregnant. And it was already awfully late because my periods had always been erratic and I hadn’t realized I’d already missed the first two. So I decided to go ahead and have Lily. But—” And here she lifted her chin again, as if braced to defend herself. “There was no point in telling him. Not after everything he’d said and done.” My coffee had gone cold. “No point in telling him?” “He’d as good as said he didn’t want anything to do with me. He would have acted as if I’d done it deliberately, to trap him or something.” I think my mouth might have been hanging open. I made an effort to close it. “But you—you don’t think he had the right to know, Mrs. Houghton-Miller? You don’t think he might have wanted to meet his child? Regardless of what had happened between the two of you?” She put down her cup. “She’s sixteen,” I said. “She would have been fourteen, fifteen when he died. That’s an awful long—” “And by that time she had Francis. He was her father. And he has been very good to her. We were a family. Are a family.” “I don’t understand—” “Will didn’t deserve to know her.” The words settled in the air between us. “He was an arsehole, okay? Will Traynor was a selfish arsehole.” She pushed a strand of hair back from her face. “Obviously I didn’t know what had happened to him. That came as a complete shock. But I can’t honestly say it would have made a difference.” It took me a moment to find my voice. “It would have made every difference. To him.” She looked at me sharply. “Will killed himself,” I said, and my voice cracked a little. “Will ended his life because he couldn’t see any reason to go on. If he’d known he had a daughter—” She stood up. “Oh, no. You don’t pin that on me, Miss Whoever-you-are. I am not going to be made to feel responsible for that man’s suicide. You think my life isn’t complicated enough? Don’t you dare come here judging me. If you’d had to cope with half of what I cope with . . . No. Will Traynor was a horrible man.” “Will Traynor was the finest man I ever knew.” She let her gaze run up and down me. “Yes. Well, I can imagine that’s probably true.” We stared at each other and I thought I had never been filled with such an instant dislike for someone. I had stood up to leave when a voice broke into the silence. “So my dad really didn’t know about me.” Lily was standing very still in the doorway. Just for a moment, Tanya Houghton-Miller blanched. Then she recovered herself. “I was saving you from hurt, Lily. I knew Will very well, and I was not prepared to put either of us through the humiliation of trying to persuade him to be part of a relationship he wouldn’t have wanted.” She smoothed her hair. “And you really must stop this awful eavesdropping habit. You’re likely to get quite the wrong end of the stick.” I couldn’t listen to any more. I walked to the door as a boy began shouting upstairs. A plastic truck flew down the stairs and crashed into pieces somewhere below. An anxious face—Filipina?—gazed down at me over the banister. I began to walk down the front stairs. “Where are you going?” Lily asked. “I’m sorry, Lily. We’ll—perhaps we’ll talk some other time.” “But you’ve hardly told me anything about my dad.” “He wasn’t your father,” Tanya Houghton-Miller said. “Francis has done more for you since you were little than Will ever would have done—” “Francis is not my DAD,” Lily roared. Another crash from upstairs, and a woman’s voice, shouting in a language I didn’t understand. A toy machine-gun sent tinny blasts into the air. Tanya put her hands to her head. “I can’t cope with this. I simply can’t cope.” Lily caught up with me at the door. “Can I stay with you?” “What?” “At your flat? I can’t stay here.” “Lily, I don’t think—” “Just for tonight. Please.” “Oh, be my guest,” Tanya said. “Have her stay with you for a day or two. She’s just delightful company.” She waved a sarcastic hand. “Polite, helpful, loving. A dream to have around!” Her face hardened. “Let’s see how that works out. You know she drinks? And smokes in the house? And that she was suspended from school? She’s told you all this, has she?” Lily seemed almost bored, as if she had heard this a million times before. “She didn’t even bother turning up for her exams. We’ve done everything possible for her. Counselors, the best schools, private tutors. Francis has treated her as if she were his own. And she just throws it all back in our faces. My husband is having a very difficult time at the bank right now, and the boys have their issues, and she doesn’t give us an inch. She never has.” “How would you even know? I’ve been with nannies half my life. When the boys were born, you sent me to boarding school.” “I couldn’t cope with all of you! I did what I could!” “You did what you wanted, which was to start your perfect family all over again, without me.” Lily turned back to me. “Please? Just for a bit? I promise I won’t get under your feet at all. I’ll be really helpful.” I should have said no. I knew I should. But I was so angry with that woman. And just for a moment I felt as if I had to stand in for Will, to do the thing that he couldn’t do. “Fine,” I said, as a large Lego creation whistled past my ear and smashed into tiny colored pieces by my feet. “Grab your things. I’ll be waiting outside.” • • • The rest of the day was a blur. We moved the boxes out of the spare room, stacking them in my bedroom, and made the room hers, or at least less of a storage area, putting up the blind I had never quite got around to fixing and moving in a lamp and my spare bedside table. I bought a camp bed, and we carried it up the stairs together, along with a hanging rail for her few things, and a new duvet and pillow cases. She seemed to like having a purpose, and was completely unfazed at the idea of moving in with somebody she hardly knew. I watched her arranging her few belongings in the spare room that evening and felt oddly sad. How unhappy did a girl have to be to want to leave all that luxury for a box room with a camp bed and a wobbly clothes rail? I cooked pasta, conscious of the strangeness of having someone to cook for, and we watched television together. At half past eight her phone went off and she asked for a piece of paper and a pen. “Here,” she said, scribbling on it. “This is my mum’s mobile number. She wants your phone number and address. In case of emergencies.” I wondered fleetingly how often she thought Lily was going to stay. At ten, exhausted, I told her I was turning in. She was still watching television, sitting cross-legged on the sofa and messaging someone on her little laptop. “Don’t stay up too late, okay?” It sounded fake on my lips, like someone pretending to be an adult. Her eyes were still glued to the television. “Lily?” She looked up, as if she’d only just noticed I was in the room. “Oh, yeah, I meant to tell you. I was there.” “Where?” “On the roof. When you fell. It was me who called the ambulance.” I saw her face suddenly, those big eyes, that face, pale in the darkness. “But . . . but what were you doing up there?” “I found your address. After everyone at home had gone nutso, I just wanted to work out who you were before I tried to talk to you. I saw I could get up there by the fire escape and I saw your light was on. I was just waiting, really. But when you came up and started messing about on the edge I suddenly thought if I said anything I’d freak you out.” “Which you did.” “Yeah. I didn’t mean to do that. I actually thought I’d killed you.” She laughed, nervously. We sat there for a minute. “Everyone thinks I tried to jump.” Her face swiveled toward me. “Really?” “Yeah.” She thought about this. “Because of what happened to my dad?” “Yes.” “Do you miss him?” “Every single day.” She was silent. Eventually she said, “So when is your next day off?” “Sunday. Why?” I said, dragging my thoughts back. “Can we go to your home town?” “You want to go to Stortfold?” “I want to see where he lived.” 8 Ididn’t tell Dad we were coming. I wasn’t entirely sure how to have that conversation. We pulled up outside our house and I sat for a minute, conscious, as she peered out of the window, of the small, rather weary appearance of my parents’ house in comparison with her own. She had suggested we bring flowers when I told her my mother would insist we stay for lunch, and got cross when I suggested petrol station carnations, even though they were for someone she’d never met. I had driven to the supermarket on the other side of Stortfold, where she had chosen a huge hand-tied bouquet of freesias, peonies, and ranunculus. Which I had paid for. “Stay here a minute,” I said, as she started to climb out. “I’m going to explain before you come in.” “But—” “Trust me,” I said. “They’re going to need a minute.” I walked up the little garden path and knocked on the door. I could hear the television in the living room, and pictured Granddad there, watching the racing, his mouth working silently along with the horses’ legs. The sights and sounds of home. I thought of the months I had kept away, no longer sure I was even welcome, of how I had refused to allow myself to think of how it felt to walk up this path, to smell the fabric-conditioned scent of my mother’s embrace, to hear my father’s distant bellow of laughter. Dad opened the door, and his eyebrows shot up. “Lou! We weren’t expecting you! . . . Were we expecting you?” He stepped forward and enveloped me in a big hug. I realized I liked having my family back again. “Hi, Dad.” He waited on the step, arm outstretched. The smell of roast chicken wafted down the corridor. “You coming in, then, or are we going to have a picnic out on the front step?” “I need to tell you something first.” “You lost your job.” “No, I did not lose my—” “You got another tattoo.” I stared at him. “You knew about the tattoo?” “I’m your father. I’ve known about every bloody thing you and your sister have done since you were three years old.” He leaned forward. “Your mother would never let me have one.” “No, Dad, I don’t have another tattoo.” I took a breath. “I . . . I have Will’s daughter.” Dad stood very still. Mum appeared behind him, with her apron on. “Lou!” She caught the look on his face. “What? What’s wrong?” “She says she has Will’s daughter.” “She has Will’s what?” Mum squawked. Dad had gone quite white. He reached behind him for the radiator and clutched it. “What?” I asked, anxious. “What’s the matter?” “You—you’re not telling me you harvested his . . . you know . . . his little fellas?” I pulled a face. “She’s in the car. She’s sixteen years old.” “Oh, thank God. Oh, Josie, thank God . . . These days, you’re so . . . I never know what—” He composed himself. “Will’s daughter, you say? You never said he—” “I didn’t know. Nobody knew.” Mum peered around him to my car, where Lily was trying to act as if she didn’t know she was being talked about. “Well, you’d better bring her in,” said Mum, her hand to her neck. “It’s a decent-sized chicken. It will do all of us if I add a few more potatoes.” She shook her head in amazement. “Will’s daughter. Well, goodness, Lou. You’re certainly full of surprises.” She waved at Lily, who waved back tentatively. “Come on in, love!” Dad lifted a hand in greeting, then murmured quietly. “Does Mr. Traynor know?” “Not yet.” Dad rubbed his chest. “Is there anything else?” “Anything else what?” “Anything else you need to tell me. You know, apart from jumping off buildings and bringing home long-lost children. You’re not joining the circus, or adopting a kid from Kazakhstan or something?” “I promise I am doing none of the above. Yet.” “Well, thank the Lord for that. What’s the time? I think I’m ready for a drink.” • • • “So where do you go to school, Lily?” “It’s a small boarding school in Shropshire. No one’s ever heard of it. It’s mostly posh retards and distant members of the Moldavian royal family.” We had crammed ourselves around the dining table in the front room, the seven of us knee to knee, and six of us praying that nobody needed the loo, which would necessitate everyone getting up and moving the table six inches toward the sofa. “Boarding school, eh? Tuck shops and midnight feasts and all that? I bet that’s a gas.” “Not really. They shut the tuck shop last year because half the girls had eating disorders and were making themselves sick on Snickers bars.” “Lily’s mother lives in St. John’s Wood,” I said. “She’s staying with me for a couple of days while she . . . while she gets to know a bit about the other side of her family.” Mum said, “The Traynors have lived here for generations.” “Really?” Lily looked up. “Do you know them?” Mum froze. “Well, not as such . . .” “What’s their house like?” Mum’s face closed. “You’d be better off asking Lou about that sort of thing. She’s the one who spent . . . all the time there.” Lily waited. Dad said, “I work with Mr. Traynor, who is responsible for the running of the estate.” “Granddad!” exclaimed Granddad, and laughed. Lily glanced at him and then back at me. I smiled, although even the mention of Mr. Traynor’s name made me feel oddly unbalanced. “That’s right, Daddy,” said Mum. “He’d be Lily’s granddad. Just like you. Now who wants some more potatoes?” “Granddad.” Lily repeated the words quietly, clearly pleased. “We’ll ring them and . . . tell them,” I said. “And if you like we can drive past their house when we leave. Just so you can see a bit of it.” My sister sat silently throughout this exchange. Lily had been placed next to Thom, possibly in an attempt to get him to behave better, although the risk of him starting a conversation related to intestinal parasites was still quite high. Treena watched Lily. She was more suspicious than my parents, who had just accepted everything I’d told them. She had hauled me upstairs while Dad was showing Lily the garden and asked all the questions that had flown wildly around my head, like a trapped pigeon in a closed room. How did I know she was who she said? What did she want? And then, finally, Why on earth would her own mother want her to come and live with you? “So how long is she staying?” she said at the table, while Dad was telling Lily about working with green oak. “We haven’t really discussed it.” She pulled the kind of face at me that told me simultaneously that I was an eejit, and also that this was no surprise to her whatsoever. “She’s been with me for two nights, Treen. And she’s only young.” “My point exactly. What do you know about looking after children?” “She’s hardly a child.” “She’s worse than a child. Teenagers are basically toddlers with hormones— old enough to want to do stuff without having any of the common sense. She could get into all sorts of trouble. I can’t believe you’re actually doing this.” I handed her the gravy boat. “Hello, Lou. Well done on keeping your job in a tough market. Congratulations on getting over your terrible accident. It’s really lovely to see you.” She passed me back the salt and muttered under her breath. “You know, you won’t be able to cope with this, as well as . . .” “As well as what?” “Your depression.” “I don’t have depression,” I hissed. “I’m not depressed, Treena. For crying out loud, I did not throw myself off a building.” “You haven’t been yourself for ages. Not since the whole Will thing.” “What do I have to do to convince you? I’m holding down a job. I’m doing my physio to get my hip straight and going to a flipping grief counseling group to get my mind straight. I think I’m doing pretty well, okay?” The whole table was now listening to me. “In fact—here’s the thing. Oh, yes. Lily was there. She saw me fall. It turns out she was the one who called the ambulance.” Every member of my family looked at me. “You see, it’s true. She saw me fall. I didn’t jump. Lily, I was just telling my sister. You were there when I fell, weren’t you? See? I told you all I heard a girl’s voice. I wasn’t going mad. She actually saw the whole thing. I slipped, right?” Lily looked up from her plate, still chewing. She had barely stopped eating since we sat down. “Yup. She totally wasn’t trying to kill herself.” Mum and Dad exchanged a glance. My mother sighed, crossed herself discreetly, and smiled. My sister lifted her eyebrows, the closest I was going to get to an apology. I felt, briefly, elated. “Yeah. She was just shouting at the sky.” Lily lifted her fork. “And really, really pissed.” There was a brief silence. “Oh,” said Dad. “Well, that’s—” “That’s . . . good,” said Mum. “This chicken’s great,” said Lily. “Can I have some more?” • • • We stayed until late afternoon, partly because every time I got up to leave, Mum kept pressing more food on us, and partly because having other people to chat to Lily made the whole situation seem a little less weird and intense. Dad and I moved out to the back garden and the two deck chairs that had somehow failed to rot during another winter (although it was wisest to stay almost completely still once you were in them, just in case). “You know your sister has been reading The Female Eunuch? And some old shite called The Women’s Bedroom or something. She says your mother is a classic example of oppressed womanhood, and the fact that your mother disagrees shows how oppressed she is. She’s trying to tell her I should be doing the cooking and cleaning and making out I’m some fecking caveman. But if I dare to say anything back she keeps telling me to ‘check my privilege.’ Check my privilege! I told her I’d be happy to check it if I knew where the hell your mother had put it.” “Mum seems fine to me,” I said. I took a swig of my tea, feeling a faintly guilty pang as I realized that the sounds I could hear were actually Mum washing up. He looked sideways at me. “She hasn’t shaved her legs in three weeks. Three weeks, Lou! If I’m really honest it gives me the heebie-jeebies when they touch me. I’ve been on the sofa for the last two nights. I don’t know, Lou. Why are people never happy just to let things be anymore? Your mum was happy, I’m happy. We know what our roles are. I’m the one with hairy legs. She’s the one who fits the rubber gloves. Simple.” Down in the garden, Lily was teaching Thom to make birdcalls using a thick blade of grass. He held it up between his thumbs, but it’s possible that his four missing teeth hampered any sound production, as all that emerged was a raspberry and a light shower of saliva. We sat in companionable silence for a while, listening to the squawks of the birdcalls, Granddad whistling, and next door’s dog yelping to be let in. I felt happy to be home. “So how is Mr. Traynor?” I asked. “Ah, he’s grand. You know he’s going to be a daddy again?” I turned carefully in my chair. “Really?” “Not with Mrs. Traynor. She moved out straight after . . . you know. This is with the redheaded girl, I forget her name.” “Della,” I said, remembering suddenly. “That’s the one. They seem to have known each other quite a while, but I think the whole, you know, having a baby thing was a bit of a surprise to the both of them.” Dad cracked open another beer. “He’s cheerful enough. I suppose it’s nice for him to have a new son or daughter on the way. Something to focus on.” Some part of me wanted to judge him. But I could too easily imagine the need to create something good out of what had happened, the desire to climb back out, by whatever means. They’re only still together because of me, Will had told me, more than once. “What do you think he’ll make of Lily?” I asked. “I have no idea, love.” Dad thought for a bit. “I think he’ll be happy. It’s like he’s getting a bit of his son back, isn’t it?” “What do you think Mrs. Traynor will think?” “I don’t know, love. I have no idea where she even lives these days.” “Lily’s . . . quite a handful.” Dad burst out laughing. “You don’t say! You and Treena drove your mother and me half demented for years with your late nights and your boyfriends and your heartbreaks. It’s about time you had some of it coming back your way.” He took a swig of his beer and chuckled again. “It’s good news, love. I’m glad you won’t be on your own in that empty old flat of yours.” Thom’s grass let out a squawk. His face lit up and he thrust his blade skyward. We raised our thumbs in salute. “Dad.” He turned to me. “You know I’m fine, right?” “Yes, love.” He gave me a gentle shoulder bump. “But you know, it’s my job to worry. I’ll be worrying till I’m too old to get out of my chair.” He looked down at it. “Mind you, that might be sooner than I’d like.” We left shortly before five. In the rearview mirror Treena was the only one of the family not waving. She stood there, her arms crossed over her chest, her head moving slowly from side to side as she watched us go. • • • When we got home, Lily disappeared up onto the roof. I hadn’t been up there since the accident. I’d told myself the spring weather had made it pointless to try; that the fire escape would be slippery because of the rain, that the sight of all those pots of dead plants would make me feel guilty, but, really, I was afraid. Even thinking about heading up there again made my heart thump harder; it took nothing for me to recall that sense of the world disappearing from beneath me, like a rug pulled from under my feet. I watched her climb out of the landing window and shouted up that she should come down in twenty minutes. When twenty-five had gone by, I began to get anxious. I called out of the window but only the sound of the traffic came back to me. At thirty-five minutes I found myself, swearing under my breath, climbing out of the hall window onto the fire escape. It was a warm summer evening and the rooftop asphalt radiated heat. Below us the sounds of the city spelled out a lazy Sunday in slow-moving traffic, windows down, music blaring, youths hanging out on street corners, the distant char-grilled smells of barbecues on other rooftops. Lily sat on an upturned plant pot, looking out over the City. I stood with my back to the water tank, trying not to feel a reflexive panic whenever she leaned toward the edge. It had been a mistake to go up there. I felt the asphalt listing gently underneath my feet, like the deck of a ship. I made my way unsteadily to the rusting iron seat, lowering myself into it. My body knew exactly how it felt to stand on that ledge; how the infinitesimal difference between the solid business of living and the lurch that would end everything could be measured in the smallest of measurements, in grams, in millimeters, in degrees, and that knowledge made the hairs on my arms prickle and a fine sweat seep through the skin on the back of my neck. “Can you come down, Lily?” “All your plants have died.” She picked at the dead leaves of a desiccated shrub. “Yes. Well. I haven’t been up here for months.” “You shouldn’t let plants die. It’s cruel.” I looked at her sharply, to see if she was joking, but she didn’t seem to be. She stooped, breaking off a twig and examining the dried-up center. Then she looked out at the city below. “How did you meet my dad?” I reached for the corner of the water tank, trying to stop my legs from shaking. “I just applied for a job looking after him. And I got it.” “Even though you weren’t medically trained.” “Yes.” She considered this, flicked the dead stem away into the air, then got up, walked to the far end of the terrace, and stood, her hands on her hips, legs braced, a skinny Amazon warrior. “He was handsome, wasn’t he?” The roof was swaying under me. I needed to go downstairs. “I can’t do this up here, Lily.” “Are you really frightened?” “I’d just really rather we went down. Please.” She tilted her head and watched me, as if trying to work out whether to do as I asked. She took a step toward the wall and put her foot up speculatively, as if to jump onto the edge, just long enough to make me break out into a spontaneous sweat. Then she turned to me, grinned, put her cigarette between her teeth, and walked back across the roof toward the fire escape. “You won’t fall off again, silly. Nobody’s that unlucky.” “Yeah. Well, right now, I don’t really want to test the odds.” Some minutes later, when I could make my legs obey my brain, we went down the two flights of iron steps. We stopped outside my window when I realized I was shaking too much to climb through and I sat down on the step. Lily rolled her eyes, waiting. Then, when she grasped that I couldn’t move, she sat down on the step beside me. We were only perhaps ten feet lower than we had been, but with my hallway visible through the window, and a rail on each side, I began to breathe normally again. “You know what you need,” she said, and held up her roll-up. “Are you seriously telling me to get stoned? Four floors up? You know I just fell off a roof?” “It’ll help you relax.” And then, when I didn’t take it, “Oh, come on. What, are you seriously the straightest person in the whole of London?” “I’m not from London.” Afterward, I couldn’t believe I had been manipulated by a sixteen-year-old. But Lily was like the cool girl in class, the one you found yourself trying to impress. Before she could say anything else, I took it from her and had a tentative drag on it, trying not to cough when it hit the back of my throat. “Anyway, you’re sixteen,” I muttered. “You shouldn’t be doing this. And where is someone like you getting this stuff?” Lily peered over the edge of the railing. “Did you fancy him?” “Fancy who? Your dad? Not at first.” “Because he was in a wheelchair.” Because he was doing an impression of Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot and it scared the bejesus out of me, I wanted to say, but it would have taken too much explaining. “No. The wheelchair was the least important thing about him. No, I didn’t fancy him because. . . . he was very angry. And a bit intimidating. And those two things made him quite hard to fancy.” “Do I look like him? I Googled him but I can’t tell.” “A bit. Your coloring is the same. Maybe your eyes.” “My mum said he was really handsome and that was what made him such an arsehole. One of the things. Whenever I’m getting on her nerves now she tells me I’m just like him. Oh God, you’re just like Will Traynor.” She always calls him Will Traynor, though. Not ‘your father.’ She’s determined to make out like Fuckface is my dad, even though he is patently not. It’s like she thinks she can just make a family by insisting that we are one.” I took another drag. I could feel myself getting woozy. Apart from one night at a house party in Paris, it had been years since I’d had a joint. “You know, I think I’d enjoy this more if there wasn’t a small possibility of me falling off this fire escape.” She took it from me. “Jeez, Louise. You need to have some fun.” She inhaled deeply and leaned her head back. “So did he tell you about how he was feeling? Like the real stuff?” She inhaled again and handed it back to me. She seemed totally unaffected. “Yes.” “Did you argue?” “Quite a lot. But we laughed a lot, too.” “Did he fancy you?” “Fancy me? . . . I don’t know if fancy is the right word.” My mouth worked silently around words I couldn’t find. How could I explain to this girl what Will and I had been to each other, the way I felt that no person in the world had ever understood me like he did or ever would again? How could she understand that losing him was like having a hole shot straight through me, a painful, constant reminder, an absence I could never fill? She stared at me. “He did! My dad fancied you!” She started to giggle. And it was such a ridiculous thing to say, such a useless word to describe what Will and I had been to each other, that in spite of myself I giggled too. “My dad had the hots for you. How mad is that?” She gasped. “Oh, my God! In a different universe, you could have been MY STEPMUM.” We gazed at each other in mock horror and somehow this fact swelled between us until a bubble of merriment lodged in my chest. I began to laugh, the kind of laugh that verges on hysteria, that makes your stomach hurt, where the mere act of looking at someone sets you off again. “Did you have sex?” And that killed it. “Okay. This conversation has now got weird.” Lily pulled a face. “Your whole relationship sounds weird.” “It wasn’t at all. It . . . it . . .” It was suddenly too much: the rooftop, the questions, the joint, the memories of Will. We seemed to be conjuring him out of the air between us: his smile, his skin, the feel of his face against mine, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. I let my head fall slightly between my knees. Breathe, I told myself. “Louisa?” “What?” “Did he always plan to go to . . . that place? Dignitas?” I nodded. I repeated the word to myself, trying to quell my rising sense of panic. In. Out. Just breathe. “Did you try to change his mind?” “Will was . . . stubborn.” “Did you argue about it?” I swallowed. “Right up until the last day.” The last day. Why had I said that? I closed my eyes. When I finally opened them again, she was watching me. “Were you with him when he died?” Our eyes locked. The young are terrifying, I thought. They are without boundaries. They fear nothing. I could see the next question forming on her lips, the faint searching in her gaze. But perhaps she was not as brave as I’d thought. Finally she dropped her gaze. “So when are you going to tell his parents about me?” My head lurched. “This week. I’ll call this week.” She nodded, turned her face away so that I couldn’t see her expression. I watched as she inhaled again. And then, abruptly, she dropped the joint through the bars of the fire-escape steps, stood up, and climbed inside without a backward look. I waited until my legs felt as if they could support me again, then followed her through the window. 9 Icalled on Tuesday lunchtime, when a joint one-day strike by French and German air traffic control had left the bar almost empty. I waited until Richard had disappeared to the wholesalers, then stood out on the concourse, outside the last Ladies before security, and searched my phone for the number I had never been able to delete. The phone rang three, four times, and just for a moment I was filled with the overwhelming urge to press END CALL. But then a man’s voice answered, his vowels clipped, familiar. “Hello?” “Mr. Traynor? It—it’s Lou.” “Lou?” “Louisa Clark.” A short silence. I could hear his memories thudding down onto him along with the simple fact of my name and felt oddly guilty. The last time I had seen him had been at Will’s graveside, a prematurely aged man, repeatedly straightening his shoulders as he struggled under the weight of his grief. “Louisa. Well . . . goodness. This is— How are you?” I shifted to allow Violet to sway past with her trolley. She gave me a knowing smile, adjusting her purple turban with her free hand. I noticed she had little Union Jacks painted on her fingernails. “I’m very well, thank you. And how are you?” “Oh—you know. Actually I’m very well too. Circumstances have changed a little since we last saw each other, but it’s all . . . you know . . .” That temporary and uncharacteristic loss of bonhomie almost caused me to falter. I took a deep breath. “Mr. Traynor, I’m ringing because I really need to talk to you about something.” “I thought Michael Lawler had sorted out all the financial matters.” The tenor of his voice altered just slightly. “It’s not to do with money.” I closed my eyes. “Mr. Traynor, I had a visitor a short time ago and it’s someone I think you need to meet.” A woman bumped into my legs with her wheeled case and mouthed an apology. I lifted my foot and turned away. “Okay. There’s no simple way of doing this, so I’m just going to say it. Will had a daughter, and she turned up on my doorstep, and she’s desperate to meet you.” A long silence this time. “Mr. Traynor?” “I’m sorry. Can you repeat what you just said?” “Will had a daughter. He didn’t know about her. The mother is an old girlfriend of his, from university, who took it upon herself not to tell him. He had a daughter and she tracked me down and she really wants to meet you. She’s sixteen. Her name is Lily.” “Lily?” “Yes. I’ve spoken to her mother and she seems genuine. A woman called Miller. Tanya Miller.” “I—I don’t remember her. But Will did have an awful lot of girlfriends.” Another long silence. When he spoke again his voice cracked slightly. “Will had . . . a daughter?” “Yes. Your granddaughter.” “You—you really think she is his daughter?” “I’ve met her mother, and heard what she had to say, and yes, I really think she is.” “Oh. Oh, my.” I could hear a voice in the background. “Steven? Steven? Are you all right?” Another silence. “Mr. Traynor?” “I’m so sorry. It’s just—I’m a little . . .” I put my hand to my head. “It’s a huge shock. I know. I’m sorry. I couldn’t think of the best way to tell you. I didn’t want to just turn up at your house in case . . .” “No. No, don’t be sorry. It’s good news. Extraordinary news. A granddaughter.” “What’s going on? Why are you sitting down like that?” The voice in the background sounded concerned. I heard a hand go over the receiver, then, “I’m fine, darling. Really. I—I’ll explain everything in a minute.” More muffled conversation. And then back to me, his voice suddenly uncertain. “Louisa?” “Yes?” “You’re absolutely sure? I mean, this is just so—” “As sure as I can be, Mr. Traynor. I’m happy to explain more to you, but she’s sixteen and she’s full of life and she’s . . . well, she’s just very keen to find out about the family she never knew she had.” “Oh, my goodness. Oh, my . . . Louisa?” “I’m still here.” When he spoke again I found my eyes had filled unexpectedly with tears. “How do I meet her? How do we go about meeting . . . Lily?” • • • We drove up the following Saturday. Lily was afraid to go alone, but wouldn’t say as much. She just told me it was better if I explained everything to Mr. Traynor because “Old people were better at talking to each other.” We drove in silence. I felt almost sick with nerves at having to enter the Traynor house again, not that I could explain it to the passenger beside me. Lily said nothing. Did he believe you? Yes, I’d said. I think he did. Although she might be wise to have a blood test, just to reassure everyone. Did he actually ask to meet me, or did you suggest it? I couldn’t remember. My brain had set up a kind of static buzz just speaking to him again. What if I’m not what he’s expecting? I wasn’t sure he was expecting anything. He’d only just discovered he had a grandchild. Lily had turned up on Friday night, even though I hadn’t expected her until Saturday morning, saying that she’d had a massive row with her mother and that Fuckface Francis had told her she had some growing up to do. She sniffed. “This from a man who thinks it’s normal to have a whole room devoted to a train set.” I had told her she was welcome to stay as long as (a) I could get confirmation from her mother that she always knew where she was; (b) she didn’t drink; and (c) she didn’t smoke in my flat. Which meant that while I was in the bath she simply walked across the road to Samir’s shop and chatted to him for the length of time it took to smoke two cigarettes, but it seemed churlish to argue. Tanya Houghton-Miller wailed on for almost twenty minutes about the impossibility of everything, told me four times I would end up sending Lily home within fortyeight hours, and only got off the phone when a child started screaming in the background. I listened to Lily clattering around in my little kitchen, and to music I didn’t understand vibrating the few bits of furniture in my living room. Okay, Will, I told him silently. If this was your idea of pushing me into a whole new life you certainly nailed it this time. •• • That morning, I walked into the spare room to wake Lily and found her already awake, her arms curled around her legs, smoking by my open window. An array of clothes was tossed around on the bed, as if she had tried on a dozen outfits and found them all wanting. She glared at me as if daring me to say anything. I had a sudden image of Will, turning from the window in his wheelchair, his gaze furious and pained, and just for a moment it took my breath away. “We leave in half an hour,” I said. •• • We reached the outskirts of town shortly before eleven. Summer had brought the tourists flocking back to the narrow streets of Stortfold like clumps of earthbound, gaudily colored swallows, clutching guide books and ice creams, weaving their way aimlessly past the caf?s and seasonal shops full of castleimprinted coasters and calendars that would be swiftly placed in drawers at home and rarely looked at again. I drove slowly past the castle in the long queue of National Trust traffic, wondering at the PAC-a-MACs, anoraks, and sunhats that seemed to stay the same every year. This year was the five-hundredth anniversary of the castle, and everywhere we looked there were posters advertising events linked to it: morris dancers, hog roasts, village fetes. I drove up to the front of the house, grateful, suddenly, that we weren’t facing the annex where I had spent so much time with Will. We sat in the car for a moment and listened to the engine ticking down. Lily, I noticed, had bitten away nearly all of her nails. “You okay?” She shrugged. “Shall we go in, then?” She stared at her feet. “What if he doesn’t like me?” “Why wouldn’t he?” “Nobody else does.” I closed the door. “I’m sure that’s not true.” “Nobody at school likes me. My parents can’t wait to get rid of me.” She bit savagely at the corner of a remaining thumbnail. “What kind of mother lets her daughter go and live at the moldy old flat of someone they don’t even know?” I took a deep breath. “Mr. Traynor’s a nice man. And I wouldn’t have brought you here if I thought it wouldn’t go well.” “If he doesn’t like me, can we just leave? Like, really quickly?” “Of course.” “I’ll know. Just from how he looks at me.” “We’ll skid out on two wheels if necessary.” She smiled then, a small, reluctant grin. “Okay,” I said, trying not to show her that I was almost as nervous as she was. “Let’s do it.” • • • I stood on the step, watching Lily so that I wouldn’t think too hard about where I was. The door opened slowly, and there he stood, still in the same cornflower blue shirt I remembered from two summers ago, but a newer, shorter haircut, perhaps a vain attempt to combat the aging effects of extreme grief. He opened his mouth as if he wanted to say something to me but had forgotten what it was, and then he looked at Lily and stared, and his eyes widened just a little. “Lily?” She nodded. He gazed at her intently. Nobody moved. And then his mouth compressed, and tears filled his eyes, and he stepped forward and swept her into his arms. “Oh, my dear. Oh, my goodness. Oh, it’s so very good to meet you. Oh, my goodness.” His gray head came down to rest against hers. I wondered, briefly, if she would pull back; Lily was not someone who encouraged physical contact. But as I watched, her hands crept out and she reached around his waist and clutched his shirt, her knuckles whitening and her eyes closing as she let herself be held by him. They stood like that for what seemed an eternity, the old man and his granddaughter, not moving from the front step. He leaned back, and there were tears running down his face. “Let me look at you. Let me look.” She glanced over at me, embarrassed and pleased at the same time. “Yes. Yes, I can see it. Look at you! Look at you!” His face swung toward mine. “She looks like him, doesn’t she?” I nodded. She was staring at him too, searching, perhaps, for traces of her father. When she looked down, they were still holding each other’s hands. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized I was crying. It was the naked relief on Mr. Traynor’s battered old face, the joy of something he had thought lost and partially recaptured, the sheer unexpected happiness of both of them in finding each other. And as she smiled back at him—a slow, sweet smile of recognition— my nervousness, and any doubts I’d had about Lily Houghton-Miller were banished. • • • It had been less than two years, but Granta House had changed significantly since I had last been there. Gone were the enormous antique cabinets, the trinket boxes on highly polished mahogany tables, the heavy drapes. It took the waddling figure of Della Layton to indicate why that might be. There were still a few glowing pieces of antique furniture, yes, but everything else was white or brightly colored—new sunshine-yellow Sanderson curtains and pale rugs on the old wood floors, modern prints in unmolded frames. She moved toward us slowly and her smile was faintly guarded, like something she had forced herself to wear. I found myself moving back involuntarily as she approached; there was something oddly shocking about such a very pregnant woman—the sheer bulk of her, the almost obscene curve of her stomach. “Hello. You must be Louisa. How lovely to meet you.” Her lustrous red hair was pinned up in a clip, a pale blue linen shirt rolled up around slightly swollen wrists. I couldn’t help noticing the enormous diamond engagement ring cutting into her wedding finger, and wondered with a vague pang what the last months had been like for Mrs. Traynor. “Congratulations,” I said, nodding toward her belly. I wanted to say something else, but I could never work out whether it was appropriate to say a heavily pregnant woman was “large,” “not large,” “neat,” “blooming,” or any of the other euphemisms people seemed to use to disguise what they wanted to say, which was essentially along the lines of bloody hell. “Thank you. It was a bit of a surprise, but a very welcome one.” Her gaze slid away from me. She was watching Mr. Traynor and Lily. He still had one of her hands encased in hers, patting it for emphasis, and was telling her about the house, how it had been passed through the family for so many generations. “Would everyone like tea?” she asked. And then, again, “Steven? Tea?” “Lovely, darling. Thank you. Lily, do you drink tea?” “Could I have juice, please? Or some water?” Lily smiled. “I’ll help you,” I said to Della. Mr. Traynor had begun to point out ancestors in the portraits on the wall, his hand at Lily’s elbow, remarking on the similarity of her nose to this one, or the color of her hair to that one over there. Della watched them for a moment, and I thought I noticed something close to dismay flicker across her features. She caught me looking, and smiled briskly, as if embarrassed to have her feelings so nakedly on display. “That would be lovely. Thank you.” • • • We moved around each other in the kitchen, fetching milk, sugar, a teapot, exchanging polite queries about biscuits. I stooped to get the cups out of the cupboard when Della couldn’t comfortably reach that low, and placed them on the kitchen worktop. New cups, I noticed. A modern, geometrical design, instead of the worn, delicately painted porcelain featuring wild herbs and flowers with Latin names that her predecessor had favored. All traces of Mrs. Traynor’s thirty-eight-year tenure here seemed to have been swiftly and ruthlessly erased. “The house looks . . . nice. Different,” I said. “Yes. Well, Steven lost a lot of his furniture in the divorce. So we had to change the look a bit.” She reached for the tea caddy. “He lost things that had been in his family for generations. Of course she took everything she could.” She flashed me a look, as if assessing whether she could consider me an ally. “I haven’t spoken to Mrs. . . . Camilla since Will . . .” I said, feeling oddly disloyal. “So. Steven said this girl just turned up on your doorstep.” Her smile was small and fixed. “Yes. It was a . . . surprise. But I’ve met Lily’s mother, and she . . . well, she was obviously close to Will for some time.” Della stood up and put her hand on the small of her back, then turned back to the kettle. Mum had said she headed a small solicitors’ practice in the next town. You’ve got to wonder about a woman who hasn’t been married by thirty, she had said sniffily, and then, after a quick look in my direction, Forty. I meant forty. “What do you think she wants?” “I’m sorry?” “What do you think she wants? The girl?” I could hear Lily in the hall, asking questions, childish and interested, and I felt oddly protective. “I don’t think she wants anything. She just discovered she had a father she hadn’t known about, and wants to get to know his family. Her family.” Della warmed and emptied the teapot, measured out the tea leaves (loose, I noted, just as Mrs. Traynor would have had). She poured the boiling water slowly, careful not to splash herself. “I have loved Steven for a very long time. He—he—has had a very hard time this last year or so. It would be . . .” She didn’t look at me as she spoke. “It would be very difficult for him if Lily were to complicate his life at this point.” “I don’t think Lily wants to complicate either of your lives,” I said carefully. “But I do think she has a right to know her own grandfather.” “Of course,” she said smoothly, that automatic smile back in place. I realized, in that instant, that I had failed some internal test, and also that I didn’t care. And then with a final murmured check of the tray, Della picked it up and, accepting my offer to bring the cake and the teapot, carried it through to the drawing room. • • • “And how are you, Louisa?” Mr. Traynor leaned back in his easy chair, a broad smile breaking his saggy features. He had talked to Lily almost constantly throughout tea, asking questions about her mother, where she lived, what she was studying (she didn’t tell him about the problems at school), whether she preferred fruitcake or chocolate (“Chocolate? Me too!”), liked ginger (no), and cricket (not really —“Well, we’ll have to do something about that!”). He seemed reassured by her, by her likeness to his son. At that point, he probably wouldn’t have cared if she had announced that her mother was a Brazilian lap dancer. I watched him sneaking looks at Lily when she was talking, studying her in profile, as if perhaps he could see Will there too. Other times I caught a flicker of melancholy in his expression. I suspected that he was thinking what I had thought: this new, unexpected grief that his son would never know her. Then he would almost visibly pull himself together, forcing himself a little more upright, a ready smile back upon his face. He had walked her around the grounds for half an hour, exclaiming when they returned that Lily had found her way out of the maze “on your first go! It must be a genetic thing.” Lily had smiled as broadly as if she had won a prize. “And Louisa? What is happening in your life?” “I’m fine, thank you.” “Are you still working as a . . . caregiver?” “No. I—I went traveling for a bit, and now I’m working at an airport.” “Oh! Good! British Airways, I hope?” I felt my cheeks color. “Management, is it?” “I work in a bar. At the airport.” He hesitated, just a fraction of a second, and nodded, firmly. “People always need bars. Especially at airports. I always have a double whisky before I get on a plane, don’t I, darling?” “Yes, you do,” replied Della. “And I suppose it must be rather interesting watching everyone fly off every day. Exciting.” “I have other things in the pipeline.” “Of course you do. Good. Good . . .” There was a short silence. “So when is the baby due?” I said, to shift everybody’s attention away from me. “Next month,” said Della, her hands proudly resting on the swell of her belly. “It’s a girl.” “How lovely. What are you going to call her?” They exchanged the glances that parents-to-be do when they have chosen a name but don’t want to tell anyone. “Oh . . . we don’t know.” “Feels most odd. To be a father again, at my age. Can’t quite imagine it all. You know, changing nappies, that sort of thing.” He glanced at Della, then added, reassuringly, “It’s marvelous, though. I’m a very lucky man. We’re both very lucky, aren’t we, Della?” She smiled at him. “I’m sure,” I said. “How’s Georgina?” Perhaps only I would have noticed how Mr. Traynor’s expression changed, just a degree. “Oh, she’s fine. Still in Australia, you know.” “Right.” “She did come over a few months ago . . . but she spent most of her time with her mother. She was very busy.” “Of course.” “I think she’s got a boyfriend. I’m sure someone told me she had a boyfriend. So that’s . . . that’s nice.” Della’s hand reached across and touched his. “Who’s Georgina?” Lily was eating a biscuit. “Will’s younger sister,” said Mr. Traynor, turning to her. “Your aunt! Yes! In fact, she looked a little like you when she was your age.” “Can I see a picture?” “I’ll find you one.” Mr. Traynor rubbed the side of his face. “I’m trying to remember where we put that graduation photo.” “Your study,” said Della. “Stay there, darling. I’ll get it. Good for me to keep moving.” She levered herself off the sofa and walked heavily out of the room. Lily insisted on going with her. “I want to see the rest of the photographs. I want to see who I look like.” Mr. Traynor watched them go, still smiling. We sat and sipped our tea in silence. He turned to me. “Have you spoken to her yet? . . . Camilla?” “I don’t know where she lives. I was going to ask you for her details. I know Lily wants to meet her too.” “She’s had a difficult time of it. George says so, anyway. We haven’t really spoken. It’s all a bit complicated because of . . .” He nodded toward the door and let out an almost imperceptible sigh. “Would you like to tell her? About Lily?” “Oh, no. Oh . . . No. I—I’m not sure she’d really want . . .” He ran a hand over his brow. “Probably better if you do it.” He copied out the address and phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to me. “It’s some distance away,” he noted, and smiled apologetically. “Think she wanted a fresh start. Give her my best, won’t you? It’s odd . . . to finally have a grandchild, in these circumstances.” He lowered his voice. “Funnily enough, Camilla is the only person who could really understand how I’m feeling right now.” If he had been anybody else I might have hugged him just then, but we were English and he had once been my boss of sorts, so we simply smiled awkwardly at each other. And possibly wished we were somewhere else. Mr. Traynor straightened in his chair. “Still. I’m a lucky man. A new start, at my age. Not sure I really deserve it.” “I’m not sure happiness is a matter of what you deserve.” “And you? I . . . I know you were very fond of Will . . .” “He’s a hard act to follow.” I was conscious of the sudden lump in my throat. When it cleared, Mr. Traynor was still looking at me. “My son was all about living, Louisa. I don’t need to tell you that.” “That’s the thing, though, isn’t it?” He waited. “He was just better at it than the rest of us.” “You’ll get there, Louisa. We all get there. In our own ways.” He touched my elbow, his expression soft. Della, arriving back into the living room, began to move the tea tray, stacking the cups so ostentatiously that it could only have been a signal. “We’d better get going,” I said to Lily, standing as she came in, holding out the framed photograph. “She does look like me, doesn’t she? Do you think our eyes are a bit the same? Do you think she’d want to speak to me? Is she on e-mail?” “I’m sure she will,” said Mr. Traynor. “But if you don’t mind, Lily, I’ll speak to her myself first. It’s quite big news for us all to digest. Best give her a few days to get used to it.” “Okay. So when can I come and stay?” To my right, I heard the clatter of Della almost dropping a cup. She stooped slightly, righting it on the tray. “Stay?” Mr. Traynor bent forward, as if he weren’t sure he’d heard her correctly. “Well. You’re my grandfather. I thought maybe I could come and stay for the rest of the summer? Get to know you. We’ve got so much to catch up on, haven’t we?” Her face was alight with anticipation. Mr. Traynor looked toward Della, whose expression halted whatever he might have been about to say. “It would be lovely to have you at some point,” Della said, holding the tray in front of her, “but we have other things going on just now.” “It’s Della’s first child, you see. I think she’d like—” “I just need a little time by myself with Steven. And the baby.” “I could help. I’m really good with babies,” Lily said. “I used to look after my brothers all the time when they were babies. And they were awful. Really horrible babies. They screamed, like, all the time.” Mr. Traynor looked at Della. “I’m sure you’ll be simply brilliant, Lily darling,” he said. “It’s just that right now is not a very good time.” “But you’ve got loads of room. I can just stay in one of the guest rooms. You won’t even know I’m here. I’ll be really helpful with nappies and stuff and I could babysit so you could still go out. I could just . . .” Lily tailed off. She glanced from one to the other, waiting. “Lily . . .” I said, hovering uncomfortably near the door. “You don’t want me here.” Mr. Traynor stepped forward, made as if to put a hand on her shoulder. “Lily, darling. That’s not—” She ducked away. “You like the idea of having a granddaughter, but you don’t actually want me in your life. You just . . . you just want a visitor.” “It’s just the timing, Lily,” said Della calmly. “It’s just—well, I waited a long time for Steven—your grandfather, and this time with our baby is very precious to us.” “And I’m not.” “That’s not it at all.” Mr. Traynor moved toward her again. She batted him off. “Oh, God, you’re all the same. You and your perfect little families, all closed off. Nobody has any room for me.” “Oh, come on now. Let’s not be dramatic about—” Della began. “Get lost,” Lily spat. And as Della shrank back, and Mr. Traynor’s eyes widened in shock, she ran, and I left them in the silent drawing room to race after her. 10 Ie-mailed Nathan. The answer came back: Lou, have you started on strong meds? WTAF? I sent him a second e-mail, filling in a little more detail, and his normal equanimity seemed to return. Well, the old dog. Still had some surprises for us, eh? I didn’t hear from Lily for two days. Half of me was concerned, the other a tiny bit relieved just to have a brief interlude of calm. I wondered if once she was free of any fairy-tale ideas about Will’s family she might be more inclined to build bridges with her own. I wondered whether Mr. Traynor would call her directly to smooth things over. I wondered where Lily was and whether her absence involved the young man who had stood and watched her in my doorway. There had been something about him—about Lily’s evasiveness when I asked about him—that had stayed with me. I had thought a lot about Sam, regretting my rapid exit. With hindsight, it had all seemed a bit overemotional and weird, running away from him like that. I must have seemed the exact person I kept protesting I wasn’t. I resolved that the next time I saw him outside the Moving On Circle I would react very calmly, perhaps say hello with an enigmatic, non-depressed-person smile. Work sagged and dragged. A new girl had started: Vera, a stern Lithuanian, who completed all the bar’s tasks with the kind of peculiar half smile of someone contemplating the fact that she had actually planted a dirty bomb nearby. She called all men “filthy, filthy beasts” when out of earshot of Richard. He in turn had begun giving morning “motivational” chats, after which we all had to pump the air with our fists, jump up, and shout “YEAH!,” which always dislodged my curly wig; then he would roll his eyes like it was somehow a failure indicative of my personality and not a built-in hazard of wearing a nylon hairpiece that didn’t actually stick to my head. Vera’s wig stayed immobile on hers. I wondered whether it was too afraid to fall off. One night when I got home I did an Internet search on teenagers’ problems, trying to work out whether I could help repair the damage of the weekend. There was quite a lot on hormones and breakouts but nothing on what to do when you had introduced a sixteen-year-old you had just met to her dead biological quadriplegic father’s surviving family. At half past ten I gave up, gazed around at the bedroom in which half my clothes were still stored in boxes, promised myself that this would be the week I’d do something about it, and finally, having reassured myself that I totally would, fell asleep. • • • I was woken at half past two in the morning by the sound of someone trying to force my front door. I stumbled out of bed and grabbed a mop, then put my face to the peephole, my heart thumping. “I’m calling the police!” I yelled. “What do you want?” “It’s Lily. Duh.” She fell through the door as I opened it, half laughing, reeking of cigarettes, her mascara smeared around her eyes. I wrapped my dressing gown around me and locked the door behind her. “Jesus, Lily. It’s the middle of the night.” “Do you want to go dancing? I thought we could go dancing. I love dancing. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I do like dancing but that’s not why I’m here. Mum wouldn’t let me in. They’ve changed the locks. Can you believe it?” I was tempted to answer that just at that moment, with my alarm clock set for 6 a.m., funnily enough, I could. Lily bumped heavily against the wall. “She wouldn’t even open the stupid door. Just shouted through the letterbox at me. Like I was some kind of . . . vagrant. So . . . I thought I’d stay here. Or we could go dancing . . .” She swayed past me and headed for the iHome, where she turned up the music to a deafening volume. I raced toward it to turn it down, but she grabbed my hand. “Let’s dance, Louisa! You need to bust some moves! You’re so sad all the time! Cut loose! C’mon!” I wrenched my hand away and rushed to the volume button, just in time for the first thumps of outrage to land from downstairs. When I turned around, Lily had disappeared into the spare room, where she teetered and finally collapsed, facedown, on the camp bed. “Oh, my God. This bed is soooooo rubbish.” “Lily? . . . Lily? You can’t just come in here and—oh, for God’s sake.” “Just for a minute,” came the muffled answer. “Literally a stopover. And then I’m going dancing. We’re going dancing.” “Lily, I have work tomorrow morning.” “I love you, Louisa. Did I tell you that? I really do love you. You’re the only one who . . .” “You can’t just collapse here like—” “Mmph . . . disco nap . . .” She didn’t move. I touched her shoulder. “Lily . . . Lily?” She let out a small snore. I sighed, waited a few minutes, then carefully removed her tatty pumps, and the contents of her pocket (cigarettes, mobile phone, a crumpled fiver), which I took into my room. I propped her onto her side in the recovery position, and then finally, wide awake at 3 a.m. and knowing that I would probably not sleep for fear she would choke, sat on the chair, watching her. Lily’s face was peaceful. The wary scowl, and the manic, overeager smile had stilled into something unearthly and beautiful, her hair fanned around her shoulders. Maddening as her behavior was, I couldn’t be angry. I kept recalling the hurt on her face that Sunday. Lily was my polar opposite. She didn’t nurse a hurt, or contain it. She lashed out, got drunk, did God knows what to try to make herself forget. She was more like her father than I’d thought. What would you have made of this, Will? I asked him silently. But just as I had struggled to help him, I didn’t know what to do for her. I didn’t know how to make it better. I thought of my sister’s words: you won’t be able to cope, you know. And just for a few still, predawn moments, I hated her for being right. • • • We developed a routine of sorts, in which Lily would turn up to see me every few days. I was never certain which Lily I would find at my door: manically cheerful Lily, demanding that we go out and eat at this restaurant or look at the totally gorgeous cat outside on the wall downstairs or dance in the living room to some band she’d just discovered; or subdued, wary Lily, who would nod a silent greeting on her way in, then lie on my sofa and watch television. Sometimes she would ask random questions about Will—what programs did he like? (He barely watched television; he preferred films.) Did he have a favorite fruit? (Seedless grapes. Red ones.) When was the last time I saw him laugh? (He didn’t laugh much, but his smile . . . I could picture it now, a rare flash of even white teeth, his eyes wrinkling with pleasure.) I was never sure whether she found my answers satisfactory. And then, every ten days or so, there was drunk Lily, or worse (I was never sure), who would hammer on my door in the small hours, ignoring my protests about time and lost sleep, stumble past me with mascara-smudged cheeks and missing shoes, and pass out on the little camp bed, refusing to wake when I left in the morning. She seemed to have no hobbies, and few friends. She would talk to anyone in the street, asking favors with the unembarrassed insouciance of a feral kid. But she wouldn’t answer the phone at home and seemed to expect everyone she met to dislike her. Given that most private schools had finished for the summer, I asked her where she was when she wasn’t at my flat or visiting her mother, and after a brief pause, she said “Martin’s.” When I asked if he was her boyfriend, she pulled the universal teenage face in response to an adult who had said something not just spectacularly stupid but revolting too. Sometimes she would be angry, at others, rude. But I could never refuse her. Chaotic as her behavior was, I got the feeling my flat was a safe haven. I found myself searching for clues: examining her phone for messages (pin locked), her pockets for drugs (none, apart from that one joint), and once, ten minutes after she had come in, tearstained and drunk, staring down at the car that sat outside my block and sat on its horn intermittently for the better part of three quarters of an hour, until one of my neighbors went downstairs and thumped on his window so hard that he had finally driven off. “You know, I’m not judging, but it’s not a good idea to get so drunk that you don’t know what you’re doing, Lily,” I said one morning, as I made us both coffee. Lily spent so much time with me now that I’d had to adjust the way I lived: shopping for two, picking up mess that wasn’t my own, making a full pot of tea and not just a mug, remembering to lock the bathroom door to avoid shrieks of Oh, my God. Gross! “You are totally judging. That’s exactly what saying ‘it’s not a good idea’ means.” “I’m serious.” “Do I tell you how to live your life? Do I tell you that this flat is depressing, and you dress like someone who has lost the will to live, apart from when you’re being a gammy-legged porno pixie? Do I? Do I? No. I don’t say anything, so just leave me alone.” I wanted to tell her then. I wanted to tell her what had happened to me nine years earlier, on a night when I had drunk too much, and how my sister had led me home, shoeless and crying silently, in the early hours. But she would no doubt greet it with the same childish scorn with which she greeted most of my revelations, and it was a conversation I had only ever managed to have with one person. And he wasn’t here anymore. “It’s also not fair to wake me up in the middle of the night. I have to get up early for work.” “So give me a key. Then I won’t wake you up, will I?” She blasted me with that winning smile. It was rare and dazzling and enough like Will’s that I found myself giving the key to her. Even as I handed it over, I knew what my sister would say. • • • I spoke to Mr. Traynor twice during that time. He was anxious to know Lily was well, had started to worry about what she was going to do with her life. “I mean, she’s plainly a bright girl. It’s not a good idea for her to drop out of school at sixteen. Do her parents not have anything to say about it?” “They don’t seem to speak very much.” “Should I speak to them? Do you think she needs a university fund? I have to say, things are a tad tighter than they were since the divorce, but Will left a fair bit. So I thought that might be . . . an appropriate use for it.” He lowered his voice. “It might be wise, though, for us not to mention anything to Della just now. I don’t want her getting the wrong idea.” I resisted the urge to ask what the right idea might be. “Louisa, do you think you could persuade Lily to come back? I keep thinking about her. I’d like us all to try again. I know Della would love to get to know her better too.” I remembered Della’s expression as we had tiptoed around each other in the kitchen, and wondered whether Mr. Traynor was willfully blind or just an eternal optimist. “I’ll try,” I promised. • • • There is a peculiar sort of silence in a flat when you are on your own in a city on a hot summer weekend. I was on the early shift, finished at four, and arrived home by five, exhausted, and secretly grateful that for a few brief hours I had my home to myself. I showered, ate some toast, took a look online to see if there were any jobs that either paid more than the minimum wage or were not zerohour contracts, and then sat in the living room with all the windows open to encourage a breeze, listening to the sounds of the city filtering in on the warm air. Most of the time, I was reasonably content with my life. I had been to enough group sessions now to know that it was important to be grateful for simple pleasures. I was healthy. I had my family again. I was working. If I hadn’t made peace with Will’s death, I did at least feel like I might be crawling out from under its shadow. And yet. On evenings like this, when the streets below were filled with couples strolling, and laughing people spilled out of pubs, already planning meals, nights out, trips to clubs, something ached inside me, something primal telling me that I was in the wrong place, that I was missing something. These were the moments when I felt most left behind. I tidied up a little, washed my uniform, and then, just as I was sinking into a kind of quiet melancholy, my buzzer sounded. Lily tended to use it only in the small hours of the morning, or when she had forgotten she now owned a key. And as she so kindly pointed out, I had no other friends. Or at least none that were likely to come to my home. I stood and picked up the entry phone wearily, expecting a request for directions from a UPS driver, or some misdirected Hawaiian pizza, but instead I heard a man’s voice. “Louisa?” “Who is this?” I said, though I knew immediately who it was. “Sam. Ambulance Sam. I was just passing by on the way home from work, and I just . . . Well, you left in such a hurry the other night, I thought I’d make sure you were okay.” “A fortnight later? I could have been eaten by cats by now.” “I’m guessing you weren’t.” “I don’t have a cat.” A short silence. “But I’m fine, Ambulance Sam. Thanks.” “Great . . . That’s good to hear.” I shifted, so I could see him through the grainy black and white of the little entry video screen. He was wearing a biker jacket instead of his paramedics uniform, and had one hand resting against the wall. He took his hand off the wall and turned to face the road. I saw him let out a breath, and that small motion that prompted me to speak. “So . . . what are you up to?” “Not much. Trying and failing to chat someone up through an entry phone, mostly.” My laugh was too quick. Too loud. “I gave up on that ages ago,” I said. “It makes buying them a drink really, really hard.” I saw him laugh. I looked around at my silent flat. And I spoke before I could think. “Stay there. I’ll come down.” • • • I was going to bring my car, but when he held out a spare motorbike helmet, it seemed prissy to insist on my own transport. I stuffed my keys into my pocket and stood waiting for him to motion me aboard. “You’re a paramedic. And you ride a motorbike.” “I know. But as vices go she’s pretty much the only one I have left.” He grinned wolfishly. Something inside me lurched unexpectedly. “You don’t feel safe with me?” There was no appropriate answer to that question. I held his gaze and climbed onto the back. I figured if he did anything dangerous he had the skills to patch me up again afterward. “So what do I do?” I said, as I pulled the helmet over my head. “I’ve never been on one of these before.” “Hold on to those handlebars on the seat, and just move with the bike. Don’t brace against me. If you’re not happy tap me on the shoulder and I’ll stop.” “Where are we going?” “You any good at interior decorating?” “Hopeless. Why?” He fired up the ignition. “I thought I’d show you my new house.” And then we were in the traffic, weaving in and out of the cars and lorries, following signs to the motorway. I had to shut my eyes, press myself against his back and hope that he couldn’t hear me squeal. • • • We went out to the very edge of the city, a place where the gardens grew larger, then morphed into fields, and houses had names instead of numbers. We came through a village that wasn’t quite separate from the one before it, and Sam slowed the bike at a field gate and finally cut the engine, motioning for me to climb off. I removed the helmet, my heart still thumping in my ears, and tried to lift my sweaty hair from my head with fingers that were still stiff from gripping the pillion handles. Sam opened the gate and ushered me through. Half the field was grassland, the other an irregular mess of concrete blocks. In the corner beyond the building work, sheltered by a high hedge, stood a railway carriage and, beside it, a chicken run in which several birds stopped to look expectantly toward us. “My house.” “Nice!” I glanced around. “Um . . . where is it?” Sam set off down the field. “There. That’s the foundation. Took me the better part of three months to get that down.” “You live here?” “Yup.” I stared at the concrete slabs. When I looked at him, something in his expression made me bite back what I was going to say. I rubbed at my head. “So . . . are you going to stand there all evening? Or are you going to give me a guided tour?” Bathed in the evening sun, and surrounded by the scents of grass and lavender and the lazy hum of the bees, we walked slowly from one slab to another, Sam pointing out where the windows and doors would be. “This is the bathroom.” “Bit drafty.” “Yeah. I need to do something about that. Watch out. That’s not actually a doorway. You just walked into the shower.” He stepped over a pile of concrete blocks onto another large gray slab, holding out his hand so that I could step safely over them too. “And here’s the living room. So if you look through that window there,” he held his fingers in a square, “you get the views of the open countryside.” I looked out at the shimmering landscape below. It felt as if we were a million miles away from the city, not ten. I took a deep breath, enjoying the unexpectedness of it all. “It’s nice, but I think your sofa’s in the wrong place,” I said. “You need two. One here, and maybe one there. And I’m guessing you have a window here?” “Oh, yes. Got to be dual aspect.” “Hmm. Plus you totally need to rethink your storage.” The crazy thing was, within a few minutes of our walking and talking, I could actually see the house. I followed the line of Sam’s hands as he gestured toward invisible fireplaces, summoned staircases out of his imagination, drew lines across invisible ceilings. I could see its overheight windows, the banisters that a friend of his would carve out of aged oak. “It’s going to be lovely,” I said, when we had conjured the last en suite. “In about ten years. But, yup, I hope so.” I gazed around the field, taking in the vegetable patch, the chicken run, the birdsong. “I have to tell you, this is not what I expected. You aren’t tempted to, you know, get builders in?” “I probably will, eventually. But I like doing it. It’s good for the soul, building a house.” He shrugged. “When you spend all day patching up stab wounds and overconfident cyclists and the wives whose husbands have used them as punching bags and the kids with chronic asthma from the damp . . .” “. . . and the daft women who fall off rooftops.” “Those too—” He gestured toward the concrete mixer, the piles of bricks. “I do this so I can live with that. Beer?” He climbed into the railway carriage, motioning for me to join him. It was no longer a railway carriage inside. It had a small, immaculately laid out kitchen area, and an L-shaped upholstered seat at the end, though it still carried the faint smell of beeswax and tweedy passengers. “I don’t like mobile homes,” he said, as if in explanation. He gestured to the seat. “Sit,” then pulled a cold beer from the fridge, cracking it open and handing me the bottle. He set a kettle on the stove for himself. “You’re not drinking?” He shook his head. “I found after a couple of years on the job that I’d come home and have a drink to relax. And then it was two. And then I found I couldn’t relax until I’d had those two, or maybe three.” He opened a caddy, dropped a teabag into the mug. “And then I . . . I lost someone close to me, and I decided that either I stopped or I would never stop drinking again.” He didn’t look at me while he said this, just moved around the railway carriage, a bulky, yet oddly graceful presence within its narrow walls. “I do have the odd beer, but not tonight. I’m driving you home later.” Comments like that took the weirdness out of sitting in a railway carriage cum residence with a man I didn’t really know. How could you maintain a reserve with someone who had tended your broken, partially unclothed body? How could you feel anxious around a man who had already told you of his plan to take you home again? It was as if the manner of our first meeting had removed the normal, awkward obstacles of getting to know someone. He had seen me in my underwear. Hell, he had seen under my actual skin. It meant I felt at ease around Sam in a way I didn’t with anyone else anymore. While he was making tea, I gazed around me at the little space. It reminded me of the Gypsy caravans I had read about in childhood, where everything had a place, and there was order in a confined space. It was homey, but austere, and unmistakably male. It smelled agreeably of sun-warmed wood, of soap and bacon. A fresh start, I guessed. I wondered what had happened to his and Jake’s old home. “So . . . um . . . what does Jake think of it?” He sat down at the other end of the bench with his mug of tea. “He thought I was mad at first. Now he quite likes it. He does the animals when I’m on shift. In return I’ve promised to teach him to drive around the field once he turns seventeen.” He lifted his mug. “God help me.” I raised my beer in return. Perhaps it was the unexpected pleasure of being out on a warm Friday evening with a man who held your eye as he spoke and had the kind of hair you slightly wanted to ruffle with your fingers, or maybe it was just the second beer, but I finally started to enjoy myself. It got stuffy in the carriage, so we moved outside onto two fold-up chairs, and I watched the chickens peck around in the grass, which was oddly restful, and listened to Sam’s tales of obese patients who required four teams to lift them out of their homes, and young gang members who tried to attack each other even as they were being stitched up in the back of his rig. As we talked, I found myself sneaking looks at him; at the way his hands held his mug, at his unexpected smiles, which caused three perfect lines to span out from the corner of each eye as if they had been drawn with fine-pointed precision. He told me about his parents: his father a retired fireman, his mother a nightclub singer who had given up her career for her children. (“I think it’s why your outfit spoke to me. I’m comfortable with glitter.”) He didn’t mention his late wife by name, but observed that his mother worried about the ongoing lack of a feminine influence in Jake’s life. “She comes and scoops him up once a month and takes him back to Cardiff so she and her sisters can coo over him and feed him up and make sure he has enough socks.” He rested his elbows on his knees. “He moans about going, but he secretly loves it.” He went quiet for a while after that. I told him about Lily’s return, and he winced at my tale of her meeting with the Traynors. I told him about her moodiness, and her erratic behavior, and he nodded, as if this were all to be expected. When I told him about Lily’s mother he shook his head. “Just because they’re wealthy doesn’t make them better parents,” he said. “If she was on benefits, that mother would probably get a little visit from social services.” He lifted his mug to me. “It’s a great thing you’re doing, Louisa Clark.” “I’m not sure I’m doing it very well.” “Nobody ever feels they’re doing well with teenagers,” he said. “I think that’s kind of the point of them.” It was hard to reconcile this Sam, at ease in his home, with his chickens, with the sobbing, skirt-chasing version that we heard about in the Moving On Circle. But then I knew better than anyone how the persona you chose to present to the world could be very different from what was really inside. I knew how grief could make you behave in ways you couldn’t even begin to understand. “I love your railway carriage,” I said. “And your invisible house.” “Then I hope you’ll come again,” he said. The compulsive shagger. If this was how he picked up women, I thought, a little wistfully, then, boy, he was good. It was a potent mix: the gentlemanly, grieving father, the rare smiles, the way he could scoop up a hen one-handed and the hen actually looked happy about it. I would not allow myself to become one of the psycho girlfriends, I told myself repeatedly. But there was a sneaking pleasure to be had in just flirting gently with a handsome man. It was nice to feel something other than anxiety, or mute fury, the twin emotions that seemed to make up so much of my daily life. The only other encounters I’d had with the opposite sex in the past eighteen months had been fueled by alcohol and ended with a taxi and tears of self-loathing in the shower. What do you think, Will? Is this okay? It had grown darker, and we watched as the chickens clucked their way indignantly into their coop. “I get the feeling, Louisa Clark, that when you’re talking to me, there’s a whole other conversation going on somewhere else.” I wanted to come back with a smart answer. But he was right, and there was nothing I could say. “You and I. We’re both skirting around something.” “You’re very direct.” “And now I’ve made you uncomfortable.” “No.” I glanced over at him. “Well, maybe, a little.” Behind us, a crow lifted noisily into the sky, its flapping wings sending vibrations through the still air. I fought the urge to smooth my hair and instead took a last swig of my beer. “Okay. Well. Here’s a real question. How long do you think it takes to get over someone dying? Someone you really loved, I mean.” I’m not entirely sure why I asked him. It was almost cruelly direct, given his circumstances. Perhaps I was afraid that the compulsive shagger was about to come out to play. Sam’s eyes widened just a little. “Whoa. Well”—he looked down at his mug, and then out at the shadowy fields—“I’m not sure you ever do.” “That’s cheery.” “No. Really. I’ve thought about it a lot. You learn to live with it, with them. Because they do stay with you, even if they’re not living, breathing people anymore. It’s not the same crushing grief you felt at first, the kind that swamps you and makes you want to cry in the wrong places and get irrationally angry with all the idiots who are still alive when the person you love is dead. It’s just something you learn to accommodate. Like adapting around a hole. I don’t know. It’s like you become . . . a doughnut instead of a bun.” There was such sadness in his face, I felt suddenly guilty. “A doughnut.” “Stupid analogy,” he said with a half smile. “I didn’t mean to—” He shook his head. He looked at the grass between his feet then sideways at me. “C’mon. Let’s get you home.” We walked across the field to his bike. It had finally cooled off, and I crossed my arms over my chest. He saw, and handed me his jacket, insisting when I said I was okay. It was pleasingly heavy, and potently male. I tried not to inhale. “Do you pick up all your patients like this?” “Only the live ones.” I laughed. It came out of me unexpectedly, louder than I had intended. “We’re not really supposed to ask patients out on dates.” He held out the spare helmet. “But I figure you’re not my patient anymore.” I took it. “And this isn’t really a date.” “It isn’t?” He gave a small, philosophical nod as I climbed aboard. “Okay.” 11 J ake wasn’t there when I arrived at the Moving On Circle that week. As Daphne discussed her inability to open jars without a man in her kitchen, and Sunil talked of the problems of dividing up his brother’s few belongings among his remaining siblings, I found myself waiting for the heavy red doors to open at the end of the church hall. I told myself that it was his welfare I was concerned about; that he needed to be able to express his discomfort at his father’s behavior in a safe place. I told myself firmly that it was not Sam I was hoping to see, leaning against his bike, waiting. “What are the small things that you find trip you up, Louisa?” Perhaps Jake had finished with the group, I thought. Perhaps he had decided he didn’t need it anymore. People did drop out, everyone said. And that would be it. I would never see either of them again. “Louisa? The daily things? There must be something.” I kept thinking about that field, the neat confines of the railway carriage, the way Sam had strolled down the field with a hen under one arm, like he was carrying a precious parcel. The feathers on her chest had been as soft as a whisper. Daphne nudged me. “We were discussing the small things in day-to-day life that force you to contemplate loss,” said Marc. “I miss sex,” said Natasha. “That’s not a small thing,” replied William. “You didn’t know my husband,” said Natasha, and snorted a laugh. “Not really. That’s a terrible joke to make. I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me.” “It’s good to joke,” said Marc encouragingly. “Olaf was perfectly well endowed. Very well endowed, in fact.” Natasha’s eyes flickered around us. When nobody spoke she held up her hands, a foot apart, and nodded emphatically. “We were very happy.” There was a short silence. “Good,” said Marc. “That’s nice to hear.” “I don’t want anyone thinking . . . I mean, that’s not what I want people thinking when they think of my husband. That he had a tiny—” “I’m sure nobody thinks that about your husband.” “I will, if you keep going on about it,” said William. “I don’t want you thinking about my husband’s penis,” said Natasha. “In fact, I forbid you to think about my husband’s penis.” “Stop going on about it then!” said William. “Can we not talk about penises?” said Daphne. “It makes me go a bit peculiar. The nuns used to smack us with rulers if we even used the word undercarriage.” Marc’s voice was now tinged with desperation. “Can we steer the conversation away from—back to symbols of loss. Louisa, you were about to tell us which were the small things that brought your loss home to you?” I sat there, trying to ignore Natasha holding up her hands again, silently measuring some unlikely invisible length. “I think I miss having someone to discuss things with,” I said carefully. There was a murmur of agreement. “I mean, I’m not one of those people who has a massive circle of friends. I was with my last boyfriend for ages and we . . . we didn’t really go out much. And then there was . . . Bill. We just used to talk all the time. About music and people and things we’d done and wanted to do, and I never worried about whether I was going to say the wrong thing or offend someone, because he just ‘got’ me, you know? And now I’ve moved to London and I’m sort of on my own apart from my family, and talking to them is always . . . tricky.” “Word,” said Sunil. “And now there’s something going on that I’d just really like to chat to him about. I talk to him in my head, but it isn’t the same. I miss having that . . . ability to just go, ‘Hey, what do you think of this?’ And knowing that whatever he said was probably going to be the right thing.” The group was silent for a minute. “You can talk to us, Louisa,” said Marc. “It’s . . . complicated.” “It’s always complicated,” said Leanne. I looked at their faces, kind and expectant, and completely unlikely to understand anything I told them. Not really understand it. Daphne adjusted her silk scarf. “What Louisa needs is another young man to talk to. Of course she does. You’re young and pretty. You’ll find someone else,” she said. “And you, Natasha. Get back out there. It’s too late for me, but you two shouldn’t be sitting in this dingy old hall—Sorry, Marc, but they shouldn’t. You should be out dancing, having a laugh.” Natasha and I exchanged a look. Clearly, she wanted to go out dancing about as much as I did. I thought about Ambulance Sam and pushed the thought away. “And if you ever do want another penis,” William said. “I’m sure I could pencil in a—” “Okay, everyone. Let’s move on to wills,” said Marc. “Anyone surprised by what turned up?” • • • I got home, exhausted, at a quarter past nine, to find Lily lying on the sofa in front of the television in her pajamas. I dropped my bag. “How long have you been here?” “Since breakfast.” “Are you okay?” “Mm.” Her face held a pallor that spoke of either illness or exhaustion. “Not feeling well?” She didn’t look up. She was eating popcorn out of a bowl and lazily scooped her fingers around the bottom of it, looking for crumbs. “I just didn’t feel like doing anything today.” Lily’s phone beeped. She stared listlessly at the message that came through, and then pushed it away from her under a sofa cushion. “Everything really okay?” I asked, after a minute. “Fine.” She didn’t look fine. “Anything I can help with?” “I said I was fine.” She did not look at me as she spoke. • • • Lily spent that night at the flat. The following day, just as I was leaving for work, Mr. Traynor rang and asked to speak to her. She was stretched across the sofa and looked blankly up at me when I told her who was on the phone, then finally, reluctantly, held out a hand for the receiver. I stood there as she listened to him speak. I couldn’t hear his words, but I could hear his tone: kind, reassuring, emollient. When he finished, she left a faint pause, and then said, “Okay. Fine.” “So are you going to see him again?” I asked, as she handed back the phone. “He wants to come to London to see me.” “Well, that’s nice.” “But he can’t be too far away from her just now in case she goes into labor.” “Do you want me to take you back there to see him?” “No.” She tucked her knees up underneath her chin, reached out for the remote control, and flicked through the channels. “Do you want to talk about it?” I said, after a minute. But she did not look up from the television, and after a minute or two, I realized the conv