After you, p.14
After You, p.14Part #2 of Me Before You series by Jojo Moyes
before you deal with that wanker.”
Sam adjusted his collar. His face had become dangerously still.
And just as I realized I was holding my breath, the policeman was there, between them. Donna’s hand was on Sam’s sleeve and she was steering him away, back toward the young lad on the curb. The policeman muttered something into his radio, his hand on the drunk’s shoulder. Something about the uniform seemed to defeat him. But the boy suddenly swung round and spat on Sam’s jacket. “Fuck you.”
There was a brief, shocked silence. Sam stiffened.
“Sam! Sam! Come on, give me a hand, yes? I need you.” Donna propelled him forward. When I caught sight of Sam’s face, his eyes glittered as cold and hard as diamonds.
“Come on,” said Donna, as they loaded the semicomatose lad into the back of the truck. “Let’s get out of here.”
• • •
He drove silently, Lily and I wedged into the front seat beside him. Donna cleaned the back of his jacket as he stared ahead of him, his stubbly jaw jutting.
“Could be worse,” Donna said cheerfully. “I had one throw up in my hair last month. And the little monster did it on purpose. Shoved his fingers down the back of his throat and ran up behind me, just because I wouldn’t take him home, like I was some kind of bloody minicab.”
She stood up and motioned for the energy drink she kept in the front. “It’s a waste of resources. When you think what we could be doing, instead of scooping up a load of little . . .” She took a swig, then looked down at the barely conscious young boy. “I don’t know. You have to wonder what goes on in their heads.”
“Not much,” said Sam.
“Yeah. Well, we have to keep this one on a tight leash,” Donna patted Sam’s shoulder. “He got a caution last year.”
Sam glanced sideways at me, suddenly sheepish. “We went to pick up a girl from the top of Commercial Street. Face smashed to a pulp. Domestic. As I went to lift her onto the gurney, her boyfriend came flying out of the pub and went for her again. Couldn’t help myself.”
“You took a swing at him?”
“More than one,” Donna scoffed.
“Yeah. Well. It wasn’t a good time.”
Donna shifted to grimace at me. “So, this one can’t afford to get into trouble again. Or he’s out of the service.”
“Thanks,” I said, as he let us out. “For the lift, I mean.”
“Couldn’t leave you in that open-air asylum,” he said.
His eyes briefly met mine. Then Donna shut the door and they were gone, heading for the hospital with their battered human cargo.
“You totally fancy him,” said Lily, as we watched the ambulance disappear. I had forgotten she was even there.
I sighed as I reached into my pockets for the keys. “He’s a shagger.”
“So? I would totally shag that,” Lily said, as I opened the door to let her in. “I mean, if I was old. And a bit desperate. Like you.”
“I don’t think I’m ready for a relationship, Lily.”
She was walking behind me, so there was no way I could actually prove it, but I swear I could feel her pulling faces at me the whole way up the stairs.
I wrote to Mrs. Traynor. I didn’t tell her about Lily, just that I hoped she was well, that I was back from my travels and would be in her area in a few weeks with a friend, and would like to say hello if possible. I sent it first class, and felt oddly excited as it plopped into the postbox.
Dad had told me over the phone that she had left Granta House within weeks of Will’s death. He said the estate workers had been shocked, but I thought back to the time I had spotted Mr. Traynor out with Della, the woman he was now about to have a baby with, and wondered how many genuinely had been. There were few secrets in a small town.
“She took it all terrible hard,” Dad said. “And once she was gone your redheaded woman there was in like Flynn. She saw her chance, all right. Nice auld fella, own hair, big castle, he’s not going to be single for long, eh? Speaking of which, Lou. You—you wouldn’t have a word with your mother about her armpits, would you? She’s going to be after plaiting it if she lets it all grow any longer.”
I kept thinking about Mrs. Traynor, trying to imagine how she would react to the news about Lily. I remembered the joy and disbelief on Mr. Traynor’s face at their first meeting. Would Lily help to heal her pain a little? Sometimes I watched Lily laughing at something on television, or simply gazing steadily out of the window lost in thought, and I saw Will so clearly in her features—the precise angles of her nose, those almost Slavic cheekbones—that I forgot to breathe. (At this point she would usually grumble, “Stop staring at me like a weirdo, Louisa. You’re freaking me out.”)
Lily had come to stay for two weeks. Tanya Houghton-Miller had called to say they were off on a family holiday to Tuscany and that Lily didn’t want to go with them. “Frankly, the way she is behaving right now, as far as I’m concerned, that’s fine. She is exhausting me.”
I pointed out that, given that Lily was barely at home, and Tanya had changed the locks to her front door, it would be pretty hard for Lily to exhaust anyone unless she was tapping at their window and singing a sad lament. There was a short silence.
“When you have your own children, Louisa, you might eventually have some idea what I’m talking about.” Oh, that trump card of all parents. How could I possibly understand?
She offered me money to cover Lily’s board and lodging while they were away. I took some pleasure in telling her I wouldn’t dream of taking it, even though having her stay with me was, frankly, costing me more than I had anticipated to have her there. Lily, it turned out, wasn’t satisfied with my beans-on-toast or cheese-sandwich suppers. She would ask for cash and then return with artisan bread, exotic fruit, Greek yogurt, organic chicken—the staples of a wealthy middle-class kitchen. I remembered Tanya’s house, the way Lily had stood by the oversized fridge and thoughtlessly dropped chunks of fresh pineapple into her mouth.
“By the way,” I said as she said her good-byes, “who is Martin?”
There was a short pause. “Martin is my former partner. Lily apparently insists on seeing him, even though she knows I don’t like it.”
“Could I have his number? I’d just like to make sure I know where she is. You know, while you’re gone.”
“Martin’s number? Why would I have Martin’s number?” she squawked, and the phone went dead.
• • •
Something had changed since I’d met Lily. It wasn’t just that I’d learned to accommodate the explosion of teenage-related mess in my near-empty flat. I had actually started to quite enjoy having Lily in my life, having someone to eat with, sit side by side with on the sofa commenting on whatever we happened to be watching on the television, keeping a poker face when she offered me some concoction she’d made. “Well, how should I know you have to cook the potatoes in a potato salad? It’s a salad, for God’s sake.”
At work I now listened to the fathers at the bar wishing their children good night as they flew off on business trips—You be good for Mummy now, Luke. . . . Did you? . . . You did? Aren’t you a clever boy!—and the custody arguments conducted in hissed telephone conversations—No, I did not say I could pick him up from school that day. I was always due in Barcelona . . . Yes, I was . . . No, no, you just don’t listen.
I couldn’t believe that you could give birth to someone, love them, nurture them, and by their sixteenth year, claim that they so exasperated you that you’d change the locks of your house against them. Sixteen was still not grown up, surely? For all her posturing, I could see the child in Lily. It was there in the excitements and sudden enthusiasms. It was there in the sulks and the trying on of different looks in front of my bathroom mirror and the abrupt, innocent sleep.
I thought of my sister and her uncomplicated love for Thom. I thought of my parents, encouraging, worrying about and supporting Treena and me, even though we were both well into adulthood. A
You should have been here, Will, I told him silently. It was you she really needed.
• • •
I booked a day’s holiday—an outrage according to Richard. (“You’ve only been back five weeks. I really don’t see why you need to disappear again.”) I smiled, curtsied in a grateful Irish-dancing-girl manner, and drove home later to find Lily painting one of the spare-room walls a particularly vivid shade of jade green. “You said you wanted it brightened up,” she said, as I stood with my mouth open. “Don’t worry. I paid for the paint myself.”
“Well”—I pulled off my wig and unlaced my shoes—“just make sure you’ve finished by this evening. Because I’ve got the day off tomorrow,” I said when I had changed back into my jeans. “And I’m going to show you some of the things your dad liked.”
She stopped, dripping jade paint onto the carpet.
• • •
We spent the day driving, our soundtrack a playlist on Lily’s iPod that provided one minute a heart-breaking dirge of love and loss, the next an eardrum-perforating raging anthem of hatred against all mankind. I mastered the art, while on the motorway, of mentally rising above the noise and focusing on the road, while Lily sat beside me, nodding in time to the beat and occasionally performing an impromptu drumroll on the dashboard. It was good, I thought, that she was enjoying herself. And who needed both eardrums to be working, anyway?
We started off in Stortfold, and took in the places where Will and I used to sit and eat, the picnic spots in the fields above the town, his favorite benches around the grounds of the castle, and Lily had the grace to try not to look bored. To be fair, it was quite hard to work up enthusiasm about a series of fields. So I sat down and told her how when I had first met him, Will had barely left the house, and how through a mixture of subterfuge and bloody-mindedness I had set about getting him out again. “You have to understand,” I said, “that your father hated to be dependent on anyone. And us going out didn’t just mean that he had to rely on someone else but also that he had to be seen relying on someone else.”
“Even if it was you.”
“Even if it was me.”
She was thoughtful for a moment. “I would hate people seeing me like that. I don’t even like people seeing me with wet hair.”
We visited the gallery where he had tried to explain to me the difference between “good” and “bad” modern art (I had to admit I still couldn’t tell), and she pulled a face at almost everything on its walls. We poked our heads into the wine merchant’s where he had made me taste different sorts of wine (“No, Lily, we are not doing a wine tasting today”), then walked to the tattoo shop where he had persuaded me to get my tattoo. She asked if I could lend her the money for one (I nearly wept with relief when the man told her no because she was under eighteen), then asked to see my little bumblebee. It was one of the few occasions when I felt I’d actually impressed her. She laughed out loud when I told her what he had chosen for himself: a Best Before date stenciled on his chest.
“You have the same god-awful sense of humor,” I said, and she tried not to look pleased.
It was then that the owner, overhearing our conversation, mentioned that he had a photograph. “I keep pictures of all of my tattoos,” he said from under a heavily waxed handlebar mustache. “I like to have a record. Just remind me of the date.”
We stood there silently as he flicked through his laminated binder. And there it was, from almost two years ago, a close-up of that black-and-white design, neatly inked onto Will’s caramel-colored skin. I stood and stared at the photograph, and for a moment its familiarity took my breath away. That little patterned block, the one I had washed with a soft cloth, which I had dried, rubbed sunscreen into, rested my face against. I would have reached out to touch it, but Lily got there first, her fingers with their bitten nails tracing gently over the image of her father’s skin.
“I think I’ll get one,” she said. “Like his, I mean. When I’m old enough.”
“So how is he?”
Lily and I turned. The tattooist was sitting on his tattooing chair, rubbing at a heavily colored forearm. “I remember him. We don’t get many quadriplegics in here.” He grinned. “He’s a bit of a character, isn’t he?”
A lump rose suddenly to my throat.
“He’s dead,” said Lily baldly. “My dad. He’s dead.”
The tattooist winced. “Sorry, sweetheart. I had no idea.”
“Can I keep this?” Lily had started to work the photograph of Will’s tattoo out of its plastic binder.
“Sure,” he said hurriedly. “If you want it, take it. Here, have the plastic cover as well. Case it rains.”
“Thank you,” she said, tucking it neatly under her arm, and as the man stuttered another apology, we walked out of the shop.
• • •
We had lunch—an all-day breakfast—silently in a café. Feeling the day’s mood start to leach away from us, I began to talk. I told Lily what I knew of Will’s romantic history, about his career, that he was the kind of man who made you long for his approval, whether just by doing something that impressed him or making him laugh at some stupid joke. I told her how he was when I met him, and how he had changed, softened, starting to find joy in small things, even if many of those small things seemed to involve making fun of me.
“Like I wasn’t very adventurous when it came to food. My mum basically has ten set meals which she’s rotated for the past twenty-five years. And none of them involve quinoa. Or lemongrass. Or guacamole. Your dad would eat anything.”
“And now you do too?”
“Actually, I still try guacamole every couple of months or so. For him, really.”
“You don’t like it?”
“It tastes okay, I suppose. I just can’t get past the fact that it looks like something you blow out of your nose.”
I told her about his previous girlfriend, and how we had gate-crashed her wedding dance, me sitting on Will’s lap as we turned his motorized wheelchair in circles on the dance floor. Lily snorted her drink through her nose. “Seriously? Her wedding?”
In the overheated confines of the little café, I conjured her father for her as best I could, and perhaps it was because we were away from all the complications of home, or because her parents were in a different country, or because, just for once, someone was telling her stories about him that were uncomplicated and funny, but she laughed, and asked questions, nodding often as if my answers had confirmed something she already believed. Yes, yes, he was like this. Yes, maybe I’m like that too.
And as we talked well into the afternoon, letting our cups of tea cool in front of us, and the weary waitress offered yet again to remove the last of the toast we had taken two hours to eat, I grasped something else: for the first time, I was recalling Will without sadness.
“What about you?”
“What about me?” I put the last crust in my mouth, eyeing the waitress, who looked as if this was her cue to come back again.
“What happened to you after Dad died? I mean, you seem to have done a lot more stuff when you were with him—even with him being stuck in a wheelchair—than you do now.”
The bread had turned claggy in my mouth. I struggled to swallow. Eventually, when the mouthful had gone down, I said, “I do things. I’ve just been busy. Working. I mean, when you’re on shifts, it’s hard to make plans.”
She raised her eyebrows a fraction, but she didn’t say anything.
“And my hip is still quite painful. I’m not really up to mountain climbing yet.”
Lily stirred her tea idly.
“My life is eventful. I mean, falling off a roof isn’t exactly humdrum. That’s quite a lot of excitement for one year!”
“But it’s hardly doing something, is it?”
We were silent for a moment. I took a breath, trying to q
“Hey,” I said, when I finally managed to swallow. “Did I tell you about the time I took your dad to the races?”
• • •
With immaculate timing, my car overheated on the motorway, forty miles from London. Lily was surprisingly sanguine about it. In fact, she was curious. “I’ve never been in a car that broke down. I didn’t know they even did that anymore.”
My jaw dropped at this statement (my dad would regularly pray loudly to his old van, promising her premium petrol, regular tire pressure checks, endless love, if she would make it back home again). Then she told me her parents traded in their Mercedes every year. Mostly, she added, because of the level of damage done to the leather interior by her half brothers.
We sat by the side of the motorway, waiting for the tow truck to arrive, and feeling the little car judder sporadically as the lorries rumbled past. Eventually, deciding it would be safer for us to be out of the car, we scrambled up the embankment at the side of the motorway and sat side by side on the grass, watching as the afternoon sun lost its heat and slid down the other side of the motorway bridge.
“So who is Martin?” I asked, when we had exhausted all breakdown-related conversation.
Lily plucked at the grass beside her. “Martin Steele? He’s the man I grew up with.”
“I thought that was Francis.”
“No. Fuckface only came into the picture when I was seven.”
“You know, Lily, you might want to stop calling him that.”
She gave me a sideways look. “Okay. You’re probably right.” She lay back on the grass and smiled sweetly. “I’ll call him Penisfeatures instead.”
“Let’s stick with Fuckface then. So how come you still visit him?”
“Martin? He wasn’t even my real dad. Mum got together with him while I was small. He’s a musician. Very creative. He used to read me stories and stuff and make up songs about me, that kind of thing. I just—” She tailed off.
“So what happened? Between him and your mum?”
Lily reached into her bag and pulled out a packet of cigarettes and lit one. She inhaled and let out a flute of smoke, almost dislocating her jawbone in the process. “I came home from school one day with the au pair and Mum just announced that he’d gone. She said they’d agreed he had to go because they weren’t getting on anymore.” She inhaled again. “Apparently he wasn’t interested in her personal growth or he didn’t share her vision of the future. Some bullshit. I think she just met Francis and knew Martin was never going to give her what she wanted.”
“Money. And a big house. And the chance to spend her day shopping and bitching to her friends and aligning her chakras or whatever. Francis earns a fortune doing private bank things in his private bank with all the other private bankers.” She turned to me. “So basically, one day Martin was my dad—I mean I called him Daddy right up until the day he left—and the next he wasn’t. He used to take me to nursery and primary school and everything—and then she decides she’s had enough of him, and I get home and he’s just . . . gone. It’s her house, so he’s gone. Just like that. And I’m not allowed to see him and I’m not even allowed to talk about him because I’m just dredging things up and being difficult. And obviously she is in so much pain and emotional distress.” Here Lily did a scarily good impression of Tanya’s voice. “And when I really did get mad at her, she told me there was no point getting so upset because he wasn’t even my real dad. So that was a nice way to find out.”
I stared at her.
“And the next thing, there’s Francis turning up at our door, all over-the-top bunches of flowers and so-called family days out, where I’m basically playing gooseberry and sent off with the nannies while they’re all over each other at some child-friendly luxury hotel. And then six months later she takes me to Pizza Express and I think it’s some treat for me and that maybe Martin is coming back, but she says she and Francis are getting married and it’s wonderful and he’s going to be the most wonderful daddy to me and I ‘must love him very much.’”
Lily blew a smoke ring up into the sky, watching as it swelled, wavered, and evaporated.
“And you didn’t.”
“I hated him.” She looked sideways at me. “You can tell, you know, when someone’s just putting up with you. Even if you’re little. He never wanted me, only my mother. I can sort of understand it—who wants another man’s kid hanging around? So when she had the twins they sent me away to boarding school. Bang. Job done.”
Her eyes had filled with tears and I wanted to reach out to her, but she had wrapped her arms around her knees and was staring straight ahead. We sat there in silence for a few minutes, watching the traffic start to build below us as the sun faded.
“I found him, you know.”
I faced her.
“Martin. When I was eleven. I heard my nanny telling another one that she wasn’t allowed to tell me he had come around. So I told her she had to tell me where he lived or I’d tell my mum she was stealing. I looked up the address and he lived about fifteen minutes’ walk from where we were. Pyecroft Road—do you know it?”
I shook my head. “Was he pleased to see you?”
After You by Jojo Moyes / Romance & Love / History & Fiction have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on102 votes