After you, p.16
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       After You, p.16
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         Part #2 of Me Before You series by Jojo Moyes

  His eyebrows shot up. “That’s—uh—seductive.”

  “You’re not going to cry afterward, are you?”

  He blinked. “Uh . . . no.”

  “And just so you know, I’m not some weird obsessive. I’m not going to follow you around afterward. Or ask Jake to tell me things about you while you’re in the shower.”

  “That’s . . . that’s good to know too.”

  And once we had established the ground rules, I flipped over so that I was on top of him and kissed him until I had forgotten everything we had just talked about.

  • • •

  An hour and a half later I was lying on my back and gazing dazedly up at the low ceiling. My skin buzzed, my bones hummed, I ached in places I hadn’t known I could ache, yet I was possessed with an extraordinary sense of peace, as if the core of me had simply melted and settled into a new shape. I wasn’t sure I would ever get up again.

  You never know what will happen, when you fall from a great height.

  That surely wasn’t me, I colored as I thought back to even twenty minutes earlier. Did I really—and did I . . . My thoughts chased themselves in hot circles. I had never had sex like that. Not in seven years with Patrick. It was like comparing a cheese sandwich with . . . what? An enormous steak? I giggled involuntarily and clamped a hand over my mouth. I felt utterly unlike myself.

  Sam had dozed off beside me and I turned my head to look at him. Oh, my God, I thought, marveling at the planes of his face, his lips, the way it was impossible to look at him and not want to touch him. I wondered whether I should move my face a little bit closer and maybe move my hand or maybe my mouth so that I could—

  “Hey,” he said softly, his eyes slanted with sleep.

  . . . and then it hit me.

  Oh, God. I’ve become one of them.

  • • •

  We dressed in near silence. Sam offered to make me tea, but I said I should probably get back as I needed to check whether Lily was home. “Her family being on holiday and all.” I tugged my fingers through my now-matted hair.

  “Sure. Oh. You want to go now?”

  “Yes . . . please.”

  I fetched my clothes from the bathroom, feeling self-conscious and suddenly sober. I couldn’t let him see how unbalanced I was. Every bit of me was focused on trying to redistance myself and it made me awkward. When I came out he was dressed and tidying up the last of the supper things. I tried not to look at him. It was easier that way.

  “Could I borrow these clothes to go home? Mine are still damp.”

  “Sure. Just . . . whatever.” He rifled in a drawer and held out a plastic bag.

  I took it and we stood there in the dark space.

  “It was a . . . nice evening.”

  “Nice.” He looked at me as if he were trying to work something out. “Okay.”

  • • •

  As we rode through the damp night, I tried not to rest my cheek against his back. He insisted on lending me a leather jacket, although I had insisted I’d be fine. A few miles in, the air was cold and I was glad of it. We made it back to my flat by a quarter past eleven, although I had to check when I saw the clock. I felt like I’d lived several lifetimes since he’d picked me up.

  I dismounted from the bike and started to take off his jacket. But he pushed down his kickstand with his heel. “It’s late. Let me at least see you upstairs.”

  I hesitated. “Okay. If you wait I can give you back your clothes.”

  I tried to sound insouciant. He looked at me strangely. Then he gave a shrug that could have meant yes, or whatever, I wasn’t sure, and followed me to the door.

  • • •

  We emerged from the stairwell to the sound of music thumping down the hallway. I knew immediately where it was coming from. I limped briskly down the corridor, then paused outside the flat and opened the door slowly. Lily stood in the middle of the hall, gazing into the mirror, cigarette in one hand, a glass of wine in the other. She was wearing a yellow flowered dress I had bought from a vintage boutique, back in the days when I cared about what I wore. I stared—and it’s possible that when I registered what else she was wearing I stumbled, as I felt Sam reach for my arm.

  “Nice leathers, Louisa!”

  Lily pointed her toe. She was wearing my green glittery shoes. “Why don’t you ever wear these? You have all these crazy outfits, and yet you just wear like, jeans and T-shirts and stuff every day. Sooo boring!”

  She walked back into my room and emerged a minute later, holding up a gold seventies lamé jumpsuit I used to pair with brown boots. “I mean, look at this! I have total and utter jumpsuit envy right now.”

  “Get them off,” I said, when I could speak.

  “What?”

  “Those tights. Get them off.” My voice emerged strangled and unrecognizable.

  Lily looked down at the black and yellow tights. “No, seriously, though, you have some proper vintage gear in there. Biba, DVF. That purple Chanel-type thing. Do you know what this stuff is worth?”

  “Get them off.”

  Perhaps registering my sudden rigidity, Sam began to propel me forward. “Look, why don’t we go through to the living room and—”

  “I’m not moving until she takes those tights off.”

  Lily pulled a face. “Jesus. No need to have a baby about it.”

  I watched, vibrating with anger, as Lily began to peel down my bumblebee tights, kicking at them when they wouldn’t slide off her feet.

  “Don’t rip them!”

  “They’re just a pair of tights.”

  “They are not just a pair of tights. They were . . . a gift.”

  “Still a pair of tights,” she muttered.

  She finally got them off, leaving them in a black and yellow heap on the floor. In the other room I could hear the clatter of hangers as the rest of my clothes were presumably being hastily replaced. A moment later, Lily reappeared in the living room. In her bra and knickers. She waited until she could be sure she had our attention, then pulled a short dress slowly and ostentatiously over her head, wiggling as it went over her slim, pale hips. Then she smiled at me sweetly.

  “I’m going clubbing. Don’t wait up. Nice to see you again, Mr.—”

  “Fielding,” said Sam.

  “Mr. Fielding.” She smiled at me. A smile that wasn’t a smile at all. And with a slam of the door, she was gone.

  I let out a shaky breath, then walked over and retrieved the tights. I sat down on the sofa and straightened them out, smoothing them until I could be sure there were no snags or cigarette burns.

  Sam sat down beside me. “You okay?” he said.

  “I know you must think I’m crazy,” I said, eventually. “But they were a—”

  “You don’t have to explain.”

  “I was a different person. They meant that—I was—he gave . . .” My voice was choked.

  We sat there for a moment in the silent flat. I knew I should say something but I was lost for words and there was an enormous lump in my throat.

  I took Sam’s jacket off and held it out to him. “It’s fine,” I said finally. “You don’t have to stay.”

  I felt his eyes on me, but didn’t raise mine from the floor.

  “I’ll leave you to it then.”

  And then, before I could say anything else, he was gone.

  14

  I was late to the Moving On Circle that week. Having left me a coffee, perhaps in lieu of an apology, Lily had subsequently spilled green paint on the hall floor, left a tub of ice cream to melt on the kitchen counter, taken my door keys, with my car key attached, because she couldn’t find her own, and borrowed my wig for a night out without asking. I had recovered it from the floor of her bedroom. When I put it on, I looked as if an Old English sheepdog were doing something unmentionable to my head.

  By the time I reached the church hall, everyone else was sitting down. Natasha moved obligingly so that I could take the plastic chair beside her.

  “
Tonight we are talking about signs that we might be moving on,” said Marc, who was holding a mug of tea. “These don’t have to be huge things—new relationships, or throwing out clothes, or whatever. Just small things that make us see there may be a way through grief. It’s surprising how many of these signs go unnoticed, or we refuse to acknowledge them because we feel guilty for moving forward.”

  “I joined a dating website,” said Fred. “It’s called May to December.”

  There was a low hum of surprise and approval.

  “That’s very encouraging, Fred.” Marc sipped his tea. “What are you hoping to get from it? Some company? I remember you said you particularly missed having someone to go for a walk with on Sunday afternoons. Down by the duck pond, wasn’t it, where you and your wife used to go?”

  “Oh, no. It’s for Internet sex.”

  Marc spluttered. There was a brief pause while someone handed him a tissue to mop the tea off his trousers.

  “Internet sex. That’s what they’re all doing, isn’t it? I’ve joined three sites,” Fred said. He held up his hand, counting them off on his fingers. “May to December, that’s for young women who like older men, Sugar-Papas—that’s for young women who like older men with money, and . . . um . . . Hot Studs.” He paused. “They weren’t specific.”

  There was a short silence.

  “It’s nice to be optimistic, Fred,” said Natasha.

  “How about you, Louisa?”

  “Um . . .” I hesitated, given Jake was in front of me, and then thought: What the hell. “Well, I actually went on a date this weekend.”

  There was a low woo-hoo! from other members of the group. I looked down a little sheepishly. I couldn’t even think about that night without color seeping into my face.

  “And how did it go?”

  “It was surprising.”

  “She shagged someone. She totally shagged someone,” said Natasha.

  “She’s got that glow,” said William.

  “Did he have moves?” said Fred. “Got any tips?”

  “And you managed to not think about Bill too much?”

  “Not enough to stop me . . . I just felt I wanted to do something that . . .” I shrugged. “. . . I just wanted to feel . . . alive.”

  There was a murmur of agreement at that word. It was what we all wanted, ultimately, to be freed from our grief. To be released from this underworld of the dead, half our hearts lost underground, or trapped in little porcelain urns. It felt good to have something positive to say for once.

  Marc nodded encouragingly. “I think it sounds very healthy.”

  I listened to Sunil say that he had started to listen to music again, and Natasha talk about how she had moved some of the pictures of her husband from the living room to her bedroom “so that I don’t end up talking about him every single time somebody comes over.” Daphne had stopped sniffing her husband’s shirts, furtively, in his wardrobe. “If I’m honest they didn’t really smell of him anymore anyway. I think it was just a habit I’d got into.”

  “And you, Jake?”

  He still looked miserable. “I go out more, I s’pose.”

  “Have you talked to your father about your feelings?”

  “No.”

  I tried not to look at him as he spoke. I felt oddly raw, not knowing what he knew.

  “I think he likes someone, though.”

  “More shagging?” said Fred.

  “No, I mean as in properly likes someone.”

  I could feel myself blushing. I tried rubbing at an invisible mark on my shoe in an attempt to hide my face.

  “What makes you think that, Jake?”

  “He started talking about her over breakfast the other day. He was saying that he thought he was going to stop the whole picking-up-random-women thing. That he had met someone and he might want to make a go of it with her.”

  I was glowing like a beacon. I couldn’t believe that nobody else in the room was able to see it.

  “So do you think he’s finally worked out that rebound relationships are not the way forward? Perhaps he just needed a few partners before he fell in love with someone again.”

  “He’s done a lot of rebounding,” said William. “Actual Space Hopper levels of rebounding.”

  “Jake? How does that make you feel?” said Marc.

  “A bit weird. I mean, I miss my mum, but I do think it’s probably good that he’s moving on.”

  I tried to imagine what Sam had said. Had he mentioned me by name? I could picture the two of them in the kitchen of the little railway carriage, having this earnest discussion over tea and toast. My cheeks were aflame. I wasn’t sure I wanted Sam to make assumptions about us so early on. I should have been clearer that it hadn’t meant we were in a relationship. It was too soon. And too soon to have Jake discussing us in public.

  “And have you met the woman?” said Natasha. “Do you like her?”

  Jake ducked his head for a moment, then rubbed at his face.

  “Yeah. That was the really crap bit.”

  I glanced up.

  “He asked her round for brunch on Sunday, and she was a total nightmare. She wore this super-tight top and she kept putting her arm around me like she knew me, and laughing too loudly, and then when my dad was in the garden she would look at me with these big round eyes and go ‘And how are you?’ with this really annoying head tilt.”

  “Oh, the head tilt,” said William, and there was a low murmur of agreement. Everyone knew the head tilt.

  “And when Dad was there she just giggled and flicked her hair all the time like she was trying to be a teenager even though she was plainly at least thirty.” He wrinkled his nose in disgust.

  “Thirty!” said Daphne, her gaze sliding sideways. “Imagine!”

  “I actually preferred the one who used to quiz me about what he was up to. At least she didn’t pretend to be my best friend.”

  I could barely hear the rest of what he said. A distant ringing had begun in my ears, drowning out all sound. How could I have been so stupid? I suddenly recalled Jake’s eye roll the first time he had watched Sam chatting me up. There was my warning, right there, and I had been stupid enough to ignore it.

  I felt hot and shaky. I couldn’t stay here. I couldn’t listen to any more. “Um . . . I just remembered . . . I have an appointment,” I mumbled, gathering my bag up and bolting from my seat. “Sorry.”

  “Everything all right, Louisa?” asked Marc.

  “Totally fine. Got to dash.” I ran for the door, my fake smile plastered on my face so tightly that it was painful.

  • • •

  He was there. Of course he was. He had just pulled up on the bike in the car park and was removing his helmet. I emerged from the church hall and stopped at the top of the steps, wondering if there was any way I could get to my car without passing him, but it was hopeless. The physical part of my brain registered the shape of him before the remaining synapses caught up: a flush of pleasure, the flash of memory of how his hands had felt on me. And then that blazing anger, the blood pulse of humiliation.

  “Hey,” he said, as he caught sight of me, his smile easy, his eyes crinkling with pleasure. The fecking charmer.

  I slowed my step just long enough for him to register the hurt on my face. I didn’t care. I felt like Lily suddenly. I was not going to internalize this. This had not been me climbing out of one person’s bed and straight into another’s.

  “Nice job, you utter, utter wanker,” I spat, then ran past him to my car before the choke in my voice could turn into an actual sob.

  • • •

  The week, as if in response to some unheard malign dog whistle, actually managed to go downhill from there. Richard grew ever pickier, complained that we didn’t smile enough and that our lack of “cheery bantz” with the customers was sending travelers along the way to the Wings in the Air Bar and Grill. The weather turned, sending the skies a gunmetal gray and delaying flights with tropical rainstorms, so the airport was filled
with bad-tempered passengers, and then, with immaculate timing, the baggage handlers went on strike. “What can you expect? Mercury is in retrograde,” said Vera savagely, and growled at a customer who asked for less froth on his cappuccino.

  At home, Lily arrived under her own dark cloud. She sat in my living room, glued to her mobile phone and whatever was on it seemed to give her no pleasure. She would stare out of the window, stony-faced, as her father had, as if she were just as trapped as he had been. I had tried to explain that the yellow and black tights were ones that Will had given me, that their significance was not in the color or the quality, but that they—

  “Yeah, yeah, tights. Whatever,” she said, not looking at me.

  For three nights I barely slept. I stared at my ceiling, fired by a cold fury that lodged in my chest and refused to go away. I was so angry with Sam. But I was angrier with myself. He texted twice, a maddeningly faux-innocent “??,” to which I didn’t trust myself to respond. I had done that classic thing that women do, of ignoring everything a man says or does, preferring to listen to their own insistent drumbeat: It will be different with me. I had kissed him. I had made the whole thing happen. So I had only myself to blame.

  I tried to tell myself I’d probably had a lucky escape. I told myself, with little internal exclamation marks, that it was better to find out now, rather than in six months’ time! I tried to view it through Marc’s eyes: it was good to have moved on! I could chalk this one up to experience! At least the sex was good! And then the stupid hot tears would leak out of my stupid eyes and I would screw them up and tell myself that this was what you got for letting anyone get close at all.

  • • •

  Depression, we had learned in the group, loves a vacuum. Far better to be doing, or at least planning. Sometimes the illusion of happiness could inadvertently create it. Sick of coming home to find Lily prostrate on my sofa every evening and just as sick of trying not to look irritated by it, on Friday night I told her that we would be headed to see Mrs. Traynor the following day.

  “But you said she didn’t reply to your letter.”

  “Maybe she didn’t get it. Whatever. At some point Mr. Traynor is going to tell his daughter about you, so we might as well go and see her before that happens.”

  She didn’t say anything. I took that as a tacit sign of agreement, and left her to it.

  That night I found myself going through the clothes that Lily had pulled out of the closet, clothes that I had ignored since leaving England for Paris two years previously. There had been no point in wearing them. I hadn’t felt like that person since Will died.

  Now, though, it felt important to put something on that was neither jeans nor a green Irish-dancing-girl outfit. I found a navy minidress I had once loved that seemed sober enough for a slightly formal visit, ironed it, and put it to one side. I told Lily we would be leaving at nine the following morning and I went to bed, thinking how exhausting it was to live with someone who believed that communicating with more than a grunt was a superhuman feat.

  Ten minutes after I had closed my door, a handwritten note was pushed under it.

  Dear Louisa

  I’m sorry I borrowed your clothes. And thanks for everything. I know I’m a pain sometimes.

  Sorry.

  Lily xxx

  PS You should totally wear those clothes though. They are WAY better than
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