After you, p.19
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       After You, p.19

         Part #2 of Me Before You series by Jojo Moyes
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  being in the thick of Columbia Road, with its gaudy displays of blooms and its slow-moving crowds of shoppers. Marc told us repeatedly that it was important to go through the motions of being happy. I fixed my face into a smile, frightened Samir when I bought myself an apple (“Are you on drugs, man?”), and headed off into a sea of flowers.

  I bought myself a coffee at a little coffee shop and watched the market through its steamed window, ignoring the fact that I was the only person in there on my own. I walked the length of the sodden market, breathed in the damp and heady scents of the lilies, admired the folded secrets of the peonies and roses, glass beads of rain still dotting their surfaces, and bought myself a bunch of dahlias, and the whole time I felt as if I were acting, a figure in an advert: Single city girl living the London dream.

  I walked home, cradling my dahlias in one arm, doing my best not to limp, all the while trying to stop the words Oh, who do you think you’re kidding? that popped repeatedly into my head.

  • • •

  The evening stretched and sagged, as lonely evenings do. I finished cleaning the flat, pulled cigarette butts out of the toilet cistern, watched some television, washed my uniform. I ran a bath full of bubbles and climbed out of it after five minutes, afraid to be alone with my thoughts. I could not call my mother or my sister; I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up the pretense of happiness with them.

  Finally, I reached into my bedside table and pulled out the letter, the one Will had arranged for me to receive in Paris, back when I was still full of hope. I unfolded its well-worn creases gently. There were times, that first year, when I would read it nightly, trying to bring him to life beside me. These days I rationed myself, told myself I didn’t need to see it; I was afraid it would lose its talismanic power, the words becoming meaningless. Well, I needed them now.

  The computer text, as dear to me as if he had been able to write it by hand, some residual trace of his energy still in those laser-printed words.

  You’re going to feel uncomfortable in your new world for a bit. It always does feel strange to be knocked out of your comfort zone . . . There is a hunger in you, Clark. A fearlessness. You just buried it, like most people do.

  Just live well. Just live.

  I read the words of a man who had once believed in me, and I put my head on my knees and finally I sobbed.

  • • •

  The phone rang, too loud, too close to my head, sending me lurching upright. I scrambled for it, noting the time: 2 a.m. The familiar, reflexive fear. “Lily?”

  “What? Lou?”

  Nathan’s familiar, deep drawl rolled across the phone line.

  “It’s two a.m., Nathan.”

  “Aw, man. I always mess up the time difference. Sorry. Want me to hang up?”

  I pushed myself upright, rubbing at my face. “No. No. . . . It’s good to hear from you.” I flicked on the bedside light. “How are you?”

  “Good! I’m back in New York.”

  “Great.”

  “Yeah. It was great to see the olds and all, but after a couple of weeks I was itching to get back here. This city is epic.”

  I forced a smile, in case he could hear it. “That’s great, Nathan. I’m glad for you.”

  “You still happy at that pub of yours?”

  “It’s fine.”

  “You don’t . . . want to do something else?”

  “Well, you know when things are bad, and you tell yourself stuff like, ‘Oh, it could be worse. I could be the person who cleans the poop out of the dog-poop bins?’ Well, right now I’d rather be the person who picks up the poop out of the dog-poop bins.”

  “Then I’ve got a proposition for you.”

  “I get that a lot from customers, Nathan. And the answer is always no.”

  “Ha. Well. There’s a job opening out here, working for this family I live with. And you were the first person I thought of.”

  Mr. Gopnik’s wife, he explained, was not a typical Wall Street wife. She didn’t do the whole “shopping and lunches” thing; she was a Polish émigré, prone to mild depression. She was lonely, and the help—a Guatemalan woman—wouldn’t say two words to her.

  What Mr. Gopnik wanted was someone he could trust to keep his wife company and help with the children, to be an extra pair of hands when they traveled. “He wants a sort of girl Friday to the family. Someone cheerful and trustworthy. And someone who is not going to go blabbing about their private life.”

  “Does he know—”

  “I told him about Will at our first meeting, but he’d already done background. He wasn’t put off. Far from it. He said he was impressed that we’d followed Will’s wishes and never sold our stories.” Nathan paused. “I’ve worked it out. At this level, Lou, people value trust and discretion over anything else. I mean obviously you can’t be an idiot, and have to do your job well, but, yeah, that’s basically what matters.”

  My mind was whirling, an out-of-control waltzer at a fairground. I held the phone in front of me and put it back to my ear. “Is this . . . Am I actually still asleep?”

  “It’s not an easy ride. It’s long hours and a lot of work. But I’ll tell you, mate. I’m having the best time.”

  I pushed my hand through my hair. I thought about the bar, with its huffing businessmen and Richard’s gimlet stare. I thought about the flat, its walls closing in on me every evening. “I don’t know. This is . . . I mean it all seems—”

  “It’s a green card, Lou.” Nathan’s voice dropped. “It’s your board and lodging. It’s New York. Listen. This is a man who gets stuff done. Work hard and he’ll look after you. He’s smart, and he’s fair. Get out here, show him what you’re worth, and you could end up with opportunities you wouldn’t believe. Seriously. Don’t think of this as a nanny job. Think of it as a gateway.”

  “I don’t know. . . .”

  “Some fella you don’t want to leave?”

  I hesitated. “No. But so much has gone on . . . I’ve not been . . .” It seemed an awful lot to explain at two o’clock in the morning.

  “I know you were knocked by what happened. We all were. But you’ve got to move on.”

  “Don’t say it’s what he would have wanted.”

  “Okay,” he said. We both listened as he said it silently.

  I tried to gather my thoughts. “Would I have to go to New York for an interview?”

  “They’re in the Hamptons for the summer, so he’s looking for someone to start in September. Basically, in six weeks. If you say you’re interested, he’ll interview you on Skype, sort out the paperwork to get you over, and then we go from there. There will be other candidates. It’s too good a position. But Mr. G. trusts me, Lou. If I say someone’s a good bet, they’re in with a chance. So shall I throw your hat in the ring? Yes? It is a yes, right?”

  I spoke almost before I could think. “Uh . . . yes. Yes.”

  “Great! E-mail me if you’ve got questions. I’ll send you some pics.”

  “Nathan?”

  “Gotta go, Lou. The old man has just buzzed me.”

  “Thank you. Thanks for thinking of me.”

  There was a slight pause before he responded. “No one I’d rather work with, mate.”

  • • •

  I couldn’t sleep after he rang off, wondering whether I had imagined the whole conversation, my mind humming with the enormity of what might lie in front of me if I hadn’t. At four, I sat up and e-mailed Nathan a handful of questions, and the answers came straight back.

  The family is okay. The rich are never normal (!) but these are good people. Minimal drama.

  You’d have your own room and bathroom. We’d share a kitchen with the housekeeper. She’s all right. Bit older. Keeps herself to herself.

  Hours regular. Eight—at worst ten—a day. You get time off in lieu. You might want to learn a bit of Polish!

  I finally fell asleep as it grew light, my mind full of Manhattan duplexes and bustling streets. And when I woke up, there was an e
-mail waiting for me. It read:

  Dear Ms. Clark,

  Nathan tells me you might be interested in coming to work in our household. Would you be available for a Skype interview Tuesday evening at 5 p.m. GMT (midday EST)?

  Yours sincerely,

  Leonard M. Gopnik

  • • •

  I stared at it for a full twenty minutes, proof that I hadn’t dreamed the whole thing. And then I got up and showered, made myself a strong mug of coffee, and typed my reply. It wouldn’t hurt to have the interview, I told myself. I wouldn’t get the job, if there were lots of highly professional New York candidates. But it was good practice, if nothing else. And it would make me feel as if I were finally doing something, moving forward.

  Before I left for work, I took Will’s letter carefully from the bedside table. I pressed my lips to it, then folded it carefully and put it back in the drawer.

  Thank you, I told him silently.

  • • •

  It was a slightly thinned-out version of the Moving On Circle that week. Natasha was on holiday, as was Jake, for which I was mostly relieved, and a tiny bit put out in a way I couldn’t reconcile. The evening’s topic was “If I could turn back time,” which meant that William and Sunil hummed or whistled the Cher song unconsciously at intervals for the entire hour and a half.

  I listened to Fred wishing he had spent less time at work, then Sunil wishing that he’d got to know his brother better (“You just think they’re always going to be there, you know? And then one day they’re not.”), and I wondered if my coming here tonight really had been worth it.

  There had been a couple of times when I’d thought the group might actually be helping. But for an awful lot of the time I was sitting among people I felt I had nothing in common with, droning on for the few hours they had company. I felt grumpy and tired, my hip ached on the hard plastic chair, and I thought I might have got just as much enlightenment about my mental state if I’d been watching EastEnders. Plus the biscuits were rubbish.

  Leanne, a single mother, was talking about how she and her older sister had argued about a pair of tracksuit bottoms two days before her sister had died. “I accused her of taking them, because she was always nicking my stuff. She said she hadn’t, but then she always said she hadn’t.”

  Marc waited. I wondered if I had any painkillers in my handbag.

  “And then, you know, she got hit by the bus and the next time I got to see her was at the morgue. And when I was looking for dark clothes to wear to her funeral, you know what was in my wardrobe?”

  “The tracksuit bottoms,” said Fred.

  “It’s difficult when things are unresolved,” said Marc. “Sometimes for our own sanity we just have to look at the bigger picture.”

  “You can love someone and also call them a prat for nicking your tracksuit bottoms,” said William.

  That day I didn’t want to speak. I was only there because I couldn’t face the silence of my little flat. I had a sudden, sneaking suspicion I could easily become one of those people who so crave human contact that they talk inappropriately to other passengers on trains, or spend ten minutes picking things from the shop so that they can chat to the assistant. I was so busy wondering whether discussing my new physio support bandage with Samir at the Mini Mart was symptomatic that I tuned out Daphne wishing she’d just come back from work an hour earlier that day, and when I tuned back in found that she had dissolved, quietly, into tears.

  “Daphne?”

  “I’m sorry, everyone. But I’ve spent so long thinking in ‘if onlys.’ If only I hadn’t stopped off for a chat with the lady at the flower stall. If only I’d left that stupid accounts book and come home from work earlier. If only I’d just got back in time . . . maybe I could have persuaded him not to do what he did. Maybe I could have done one thing that persuaded him life was worth living.”

  Marc leaned forward with the box of tissues, and I took them and placed it gently on Daphne’s lap.

  “Had Alan tried to end his life before, Daphne?”

  She nodded and blew her nose. “Oh, yes. Several times. He used to get what we called ‘the blues’ from quite a young age. And I didn’t like to leave him when they came on because it was like . . . it was like he couldn’t hear you. Didn’t matter what you said. So quite often I would call in sick just to stay with him and jolly him along, you know? Make his favorite sandwiches. Sit with him on the sofa. Anything, really, just to let him know I was there. I always think that’s why I never got a promotion at work when all the other girls did. I had to keep taking time off, you see.”

  “Depression can be very hard. And not just on the sufferer.”

  “Was he on medication?”

  “Oh, no. But, then, it wasn’t . . . you know . . . chemical.”

  “Are you sure? I mean depression was often underdiagnosed back in—”

  Daphne lifted her head. “He was a homosexual.” She said the word as if it were five full, clearly defined syllables, and looked directly at us, a little flushed, as if daring us to say anything in return. “I’ve never told anyone that. But he was a homosexual, and I think he was sad because he was a homosexual. And he was ever such a good man and he wouldn’t have wanted to hurt me, so he wouldn’t have . . . you know . . . gone off and done things. He would have felt I’d be shamed.”

  “What makes you think he was gay, Daphne?”

  “I found things when I was looking for one of his ties. Those magazines. Men doing things to other men. In his drawer. I don’t suppose you would have those magazines if you weren’t.”

  Fred stiffened slightly. “Certainly not,” he said.

  “I never mentioned them,” said Daphne. “I just tucked them back where I found them. But it all started to click into place. He was never very keen on that side of things. But I thought I was lucky, you see, because I wasn’t either. It’s the nuns. They made you feel dirty for just about everything. So when I married a nice man who wasn’t jumping on top of me every five minutes, I thought I was the luckiest woman on earth. I mean, I would have liked children. That would have been nice. But . . .” She sighed. “We never really talked about such things. You didn’t in those days. Now . . . I wish we had. Looking back, I keep thinking, What a waste.”

  “You think if you’d talked honestly, it might have made a difference?”

  “Well, times are different now, aren’t they? It’s fine to be homosexual. My dry cleaner is and he talks about his boyfriend to every Tom, Dick, and Harry that walks in. I would have been sad to lose my husband, but if he was unhappy because of being trapped, then I would have let him go. I would have done. I never wanted to trap anyone. I only wanted him to be a bit happier.”

  Her face crumpled, and I put my arm around her. Her hair smelled of lacquer and lamb stew.

  “There, there, old girl,” said Fred, and stood up to pat her on the shoulder a little awkwardly. “I’m sure he knew you only ever wanted the best for him.”

  “Do you think so, Fred?” Her voice was tremulous.

  Fred nodded firmly. “Oh, yes. And you’re quite right. Things were different back then. You’re not to blame.”

  “You’ve been very brave sharing that story, Daphne. Thank you.” Marc smiled sympathetically. “And I have huge admiration for you picking yourself up and moving on. Sometimes just getting through each day requires almost superhuman strength.”

  When I looked down, Daphne was holding my hand. I felt her plump fingers intertwine with mine. I squeezed hers back. And before I could think I began to talk.

  “I’ve done something I wish I could change.”

  Half a dozen faces turned to me. “I met Will’s daughter. She sort of landed in my life out of the blue and I thought that was going to be my way of feeling better about his death but instead I just feel like—”

  They were staring. Fred was pulling a face.

  “What?”

  “Who’s Will?” said Fred.

  “You said his name was Bill.”

/>   I slumped a little in my chair. “Will is Bill. I felt weird about using his real name before.” There was a general release of breath around the room. Daphne patted my hand. “Don’t worry, dear. It’s just a name. Our last group we had a woman who invented the whole thing. Said she had a child who died from leukemia. Turned out she didn’t even have a goldfish.”

  “It’s okay, Louisa. You can talk to us.” Marc gave me his Special Empathetic Gaze. I gave him a small smile back, just to show him I had received and understood. And that Will was not a goldfish. What the hell? I thought. My life is no more mixed up than any of theirs.

  So I told them about Lily turning up and how I had thought I could fix her and bring about a reunion that would make everyone happy, and how I now felt stupid for my naivete. “I feel like I’ve let Will—everyone—down again,” I said. “And now she’s gone, and I keep asking myself what I could have done differently, but the real truth is I couldn’t cope. I wasn’t strong enough to take charge of it all and make it better.”

  “But your things! Your precious things got stolen!” Daphne’s other plump, damp hand clamped onto mine. “You had every right to be angry!”

  “Just because she doesn’t have a father doesn’t give her the excuse to behave like a brat,” said Sunil.

  “I think you were very nice to let her stay in the first place. I’m not sure I would have,” said Daphne.

  “What do you think her father might have done differently, Louisa?” Marc poured himself another mug of tea.

  I wished, suddenly, that we had something stronger. “I don’t know,” I said. “But he had this way of taking charge. Even when he couldn’t move his arms and legs you got the feeling he was capable. He would have stopped her doing stupid stuff. He would have got her straightened out somehow.”

  “Are you sure you’re not idealizing him? We do idealization in week eight,” said Fred. “I keep turning Jilly into a saint, don’t I, Marc? I forget that she used to leave her hold-ups hanging over the shower rail and it drove me absolutely potty.”

  “Her father might not have been able to do anything to help her at all. You have no idea. They might have loathed each other.”

  “She sounds like a complicated young woman,” said Marc. “And it’s possible that you gave her as many chances as you could. But . . . sometimes, Louisa, moving on means we do have to protect ourselves. And perhaps you understood that, deep down. If Lily simply brought chaos and negativity into your life, then for now, it’s possible you did the only thing you could.”

  “Oh, yes.” There were nods around the circle. “Be kind to yourself. You’re only human.” They were so sweet, smiling at me reassuringly, wanting me to feel better.

  I almost believed them.

  • • •

  On Tuesday I asked Vera if she could give me ten minutes. (I muttered something vague about women’s troubles, and she nodded as if to say women’s lives were nothing but trouble, and murmured that she would tell me later about her fibroids.) I ran to the quietest Ladies—the only place I could be sure Richard wouldn’t see me—with my laptop in my bag. I threw a shirt over the top of my uniform, balanced the laptop near the basins, and hooked into the thirty minutes’ free airport Wi-Fi, positioning myself carefully in front of the screen. Mr. Gopnik’s Skype call came in dead on five o’clock, just as I whipped off my ringletted Irish-dancing-girl wig.

  Even if I had seen nothing more of Leonard Gopnik than his pixilated face, I could have told you he was rich. He had beautifully cut salt-and-pepper hair, gazed out of the small screen with natural authority, and spoke without wasting a word. Well, there was that and the gilt-framed old master on the wall behind him.

  He asked nothing about my school record, my qualifications, my CV, or why I was conducting an interview beside a hand dryer. He looked down at some papers, then asked about my relationship with the Traynors.

  “Good! I mean I’m sure they would provide a reference. I’ve seen both of them recently, for . . . one reason or another. We get on well, despite the—the circumstances of . . .”

  “The circumstances of the end of your employment.” His voice was low, decisive. “Yes, Nathan has explained a lot about that situation. Quite a thing to be involved in.”

  “Yes. It was,” I said, after a short, awkward silence: “But I felt privileged. To be part of Will’s life.”

  He registered this. “What have you been doing since?”

 
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