After you, p.20
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       After You, p.20
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         Part #2 of Me Before You series by Jojo Moyes

  “Um, well, I traveled a bit, Europe mostly, which was . . . interesting. It’s good to travel. And get a perspective. Obviously.” I tried to smile. “And I’m now working at an airport but it’s not really—” As I spoke, the door opened behind me and a woman walked in, pulling a wheelie case. I shifted my computer, hoping Mr. Gopnik couldn’t hear the sound of her entering the cubicle. “It’s not really what I want to be doing long term.” Please don’t wee noisily, I begged her silently.

  Mr. Gopnik asked me a few questions about my current responsibilities and salary level. I tried to disregard the sound of flushing and kept my gaze straight ahead, ignoring the woman who emerged.

  “And what do you want—” As Mr. Gopnik began to speak, she reached past me and started up the hand dryer, which let out a deafening roar. He frowned at the sound.

  “Hold on one moment please, Mr. Gopnik.” I put my thumb over what I hoped was the microphone. “I’m sorry,” I shouted at the woman. “You can’t use that. It’s . . . broken.”

  She turned toward me, rubbing perfectly manicured fingers, and then back toward the machine. “No, it’s not.”

  “It is. It overheats.”

  “Where’s the out-of-order sign then?”

  “Burned off. Suddenly. Awful, dangerous thing.”

  She fixed me, and then the hand dryer, with a suspicious look and then she removed her hands from under it, took her case, and walked out. I wedged the chair against the door to stop anyone else from coming in, tilting my laptop again so that Mr. Gopnik could see me. “I’m so sorry. I’m having to do this at work and it’s a little . . .”

  He was studying his paperwork. “Nathan tells me you had an accident recently.”

  I swallowed. “I did. But I’m much better. I’m completely fine. Well, fine except I walk with a slight limp.”

  “Happens to the best of us,” he said, with a small smile. I smiled back. Someone tried the door. I moved so that my weight was against it.

  “So what was the hardest part?” Mr. Gopnik asked.

  “I’m sorry?”

  “Of working for William Traynor. It sounds like quite a challenge.”

  I hesitated. The room was suddenly very quiet. “Letting him go,” I said. And found myself unexpectedly biting back tears.

  Leonard Gopnik gazed at me from several thousand miles away. I fought the urge to wipe my eyes. “My secretary will be in touch, Miss Clark. Thank you for your time.”

  And then, with a nod, his face stilled and the screen went blank and I was left staring at it, contemplating the fact that I had blown it, yet again.

  • • •

  That night, on the way home, I decided not to think about the interview. Instead I repeated Marc’s words in my head, like a mantra. I totted up the things that Lily had done, the uninvited guests, the theft, the drugs, the endless late nights, the borrowing of my things, and ran them through the prism of my group’s counsel. Lily was chaos, disorder, a girl who took and gave nothing in return. She was young, and biologically related to Will, but that didn’t mean I had to assume total responsibility for her or put up with the turmoil she left in her wake.

  I felt a little better. I did. I reminded myself of something else Marc had said: that no journey out of grief was straightforward. There would be good days and bad days. Today was just a bad day, a kink in the road, to be traversed and survived.

  I let myself into the flat, and dropped my bag, suddenly grateful for the small pleasure of a home that was just as I’d left it. I would allow some time to pass, I told myself, and then I would text her, and I would make sure our future visits were structured. I would focus my energies on getting a new job. I would think about myself for a change. I would let myself heal. I had to stop at that point, because I was a little worried that I was starting to sound like Tanya Houghton-Miller.

  I glanced over at the fire escape. Step one would be getting back up on that stupid roof. I would climb up there by myself without having an actual panic attack and I would sit there for a full half hour and breathe the air and stop letting a part of my own home have such a ridiculous hold on my imagination.

  I took off my uniform and put on shorts and, just for confidence, Will’s lightweight cashmere jumper, the one I had taken from his house after he died, comforted by the soft feel of it against my skin. I walked down the corridor and opened the window wide. It was just two short flights of iron steps. And then I would be up there.

  “Nothing will happen,” I said aloud and took a deep breath. My legs felt curiously hollow as I climbed out onto the fire escape, but I told myself firmly that it was just a feeling, the echo of an anxiety. I could overcome it, just as I would overcome everything else. I heard Will’s voice in my ear.

  C’mon, Clark. One step at a time.

  I grasped the rails tightly with both hands and began to make my way up. I didn’t look down. I didn’t let myself think about what height I was at, or how the faint breeze in my ears recalled an earlier time gone wrong, or the recurring pain in my hip that never seemed to go away. I thought about Sam, and the fury that invoked made me push on. I didn’t have to be the victim, the person to whom things just happened.

  I told myself these things and made it up the second flight of steps just as my legs began to shake. I climbed inelegantly over the roof’s low wall, afraid that they would give way under me, and dropped onto my hands and knees. I felt weak and clammy. I stayed on all fours, my eyes shut, while I let myself absorb the fact that I was on the roof. I had made it. I was in control of my destiny. I would stay here for as long as it took to feel normal.

  I sat back on my heels, reaching for the solidity of the wall around me, and leaned back, taking a long, deep breath. It felt okay. Nothing was moving. I had done it. And then I opened my eyes and my breath stopped in my chest.

  The rooftop was a riot of blooms. The dead pots I had neglected for months were filled with scarlet and purple flowers, spilling over the edges like little fountains of color. Two new planters mushroomed with clouds of tiny blue petals and a Japanese maple sat in an ornamental pot beside one of the benches, its leaves shivering delicately in the breeze.

  In the sunny corner by the south wall two grow bags sat by the water tank, with little red cherry tomatoes dangling from their stalks, and another lay on the asphalt with small frilly green leaves emerging from the center. I began to walk slowly toward them, breathing in the scent of jasmine, and then stopped and sat down, my hand grasping the iron bench. I sank onto a cushion that I recognized from my living room.

  I stared in disbelief at the little oasis of calm and beauty that had been created from my barren rooftop. I remembered Lily snapping the dead twig from a pot and informing me in all seriousness that it was a crime to let your plants die, her casual observation in Mrs. Traynor’s garden: “David Austin roses.” And then I remembered little unexplained bits of soil in my hallway.

  And I sank my head into my hands.

  17

  I texted Lily twice. The first time was to thank her for what she had done to my rooftop.

  It’s so gorgeous. I wish you had told me.

  A day later, I texted to say I was sorry that things had become so tricky between us, and that if she ever wanted to talk more about Will I would do my best to answer any questions. I added that I hoped she would go and see Mr. Traynor and the new baby, as I knew as well as most that it was important to stay in touch with your family.

  She didn’t reply. I wasn’t entirely surprised.

  For the next two days I found myself returning to the rooftop like someone worrying a loose tooth. I watered the plants, feeling a creeping, residual guilt. I walked around the glowing blooms, imagining her stolen hours up here, how she must have carried bags of compost and terra-cotta pots up the fire escape in the hours I was at work. But every time I thought back to how we had been together, I still went around in circles. What could I have done? I couldn’t make the Traynors accept her in the way she needed to be accepted. I could
n’t make her happier. And the one person who might have been able to was gone.

  • • •

  There was a motorbike parked outside my block. I locked the car and limped across the road to get a carton of milk after my shift, exhausted. It was spitting, and I put my head down against the rain. When I looked up, I saw a familiar uniform standing at the entrance to my block, and my heart lurched.

  I walked back across the road straight past him, fumbling in my bag for my keys. Why did fingers always turn into cocktail sausages at moments of stress?

  “Louisa.”

  The keys refused to appear. I rifled through my bag a second time, dropping a comb, bits of tissue, loose change, and cursing. I patted my pockets, trying to work out where they might be.

  “Louisa.”

  And then, with a sickening drop of my stomach, I remembered where they were: in the pocket of the jeans I had changed out of just before leaving for work. Oh, great.

  “Really? You’re just going to ignore me? This is how we’re doing this?”

  I took a deep breath, and turned to him, straightening my shoulders a little. “Sam.”

  He looked tired too, his chin grayed with stubble. Probably just off a shift. It was unwise to notice these things. I focused on a point a little left of his shoulder.

  “Can we talk?”

  “I’m not sure there’s any point.”

  “No point?”

  “I got the message, okay? I’m not even sure why you’re here.”

  “I’m here because I’ve just finished a crappy sixteen-hour shift and I dropped Donna off up the road and I thought I might as well just try to see you and work out what the hell happened with us. Because I sure don’t have a clue.”

  “Really?”

  “Really.”

  We glared at each other. Why had I not seen before how abrasive he was? How unpleasant? I couldn’t understand how I had been so blinded by lust for this man when every part of me now wanted to walk away from him. I made one last futile search for my keys and fought the urge to kick the door.

  “So, are you at least going to give me a clue? I’m tired, Louisa, and I don’t like playing games.”

  “You don’t like playing games.” The words emerged in a bitter little laugh.

  He took a breath. “Okay. One thing. One thing and I’ll go. I just want to know why you won’t return my calls.”

  I looked at him in disbelief. “Because I’m many things, but I’m not a complete idiot. I mean I must have been—I saw the warning signs, and I ignored them—but basically, I haven’t returned your calls because you’re an utter, utter knob. Okay?”

  I stooped to pick up my things that had fallen on the ground, feeling my whole body heat rapidly, as if my internal thermostat had suddenly gone haywire. “Oh, you’re so good, you know? So bloody good. If it weren’t all so sick and pathetic I’d actually be quite impressed by you.” I straightened up, zipping my bag. “Look at Sam, the good father. So caring, so intuitive. And yet what’s really going on? You’re so busy shagging your way through half of London you don’t even notice that your own son is unhappy.”

  “My son.”

  “Yes! Because we actually listen to him, you see. I mean we’re not meant to tell outsiders what goes on in the group. And he won’t tell you because he’s a teenager. But he’s miserable, not just for the loss of his mum but because you’re busy swallowing your own grief by having an entire army of women traipse in and out of your bed.”

  I was shouting now, my words tumbling over each other, my hands waving. I could see Samir and his cousin staring at me through the window of the Mini Mart. I didn’t care. This might be the last time I ever got to say my piece.

  “And, yes, yes, I know, I was stupid enough to be one of those women. So for him, and from me, you’re a knob. And that’s why I don’t want to talk to you right now. Or ever, actually.”

  He rubbed at his hair. “Are we still talking about Jake?”

  “Of course I’m talking about Jake. How many other sons have you got?”

  “Jake isn’t my son.”

  I stared at him.

  “Jake is my sister’s son. Was,” he corrected himself. “He’s my nephew.”

  These words took several seconds to filter down into a form I could understand. Sam was gazing at me intently, his brow furrowed as if he, too, were trying to keep up.

  “But—but you pick him up. He lives with you.”

  “I pick him up on Mondays because his dad works shifts. And he stays with me sometimes, yes. He doesn’t live with me.”

  “Jake’s . . . not your son?”

  “I don’t have any children. That I’m aware of. Though the whole Lily thing does make you wonder.”

  I pictured him hugging Jake, mentally rewound half a dozen conversations. “But I saw him when we first met. And when you and I were talking he rolled his eyes, like . . .”

  Sam lowered his head.

  “Oh, God,” I said. My hand went to my mouth. “Those women . . .”

  “Not mine.”

  We stood there in the middle of the street. Samir was now in the doorway, watching. He had been joined by another of his cousins. To our left everyone at the bus stop turned away when they realized we knew they’d been watching us. Sam nodded at the door behind me. “Do you think we could talk about this indoors?”

  “Yes. Yes. Oh. No, I can’t,” I said. “I seem to have locked myself out.”

  “Spare key?”

  “In the flat.”

  He ran a hand over his face, then checked his watch. He was clearly drained, weary to the bone. I took a step backward into the doorway. “Look—go home and get some rest. We’ll talk tomorrow. I’m sorry.”

  The rain suddenly grew heavy, a summer dump, creating torrents in gutters and flooding the street. Across the road Samir and his cousins ducked back inside.

  Sam sighed. He looked up at the skies and then straight at me. “Hang on.”

  • • •

  Sam took a large screwdriver he had borrowed from Samir and followed me up the fire escape. Twice I slipped on the wet metal and his hand reached out to steady me. When it did, something hot and unexpected shot through me. When we reached my floor, he pushed the screwdriver deep into the hall window frame and started to lever upward. It gave gratifyingly swiftly.

  “There.” He wrenched it upward, supporting it with one hand, and turned to me, motioning me through, his expression faintly disapproving. “That was way too easy for a single girl living in this area.”

  “You look nothing like a single girl living in this area.”

  “I’m serious.”

  “I’m fine, Sam.”

  “You don’t see what I see. I want you to be safe.”

  I tried to smile, but my knees were trembling, my palms slippery on the iron rail. I made to step past him and staggered slightly.

  “You okay?”

  I nodded. He took my arm and half lifted, half helped me climb clumsily into my flat. I slumped down on the carpet by the window, waiting to feel normal again. I hadn’t slept properly for days and felt half dead, as if the fury and adrenaline that had sustained me had all leached away.

  Sam climbed in and closed the window behind him, eyeing the broken lock on the top of the sash. The hall was dark, the thrumming of the rain muffled on the roof. As I watched, he rummaged around in his pocket until, among other detritus, he picked out a small nail. He took the screwdriver and used the handle to knock the nail in at an angle to stop anyone from opening it from outside. Then he walked heavily over to where I was sitting, and held out a hand.

  “Benefits of being a part-time house builder. There’s always a nail somewhere. C’mon,” he said. “If you sit there you’ll never get up.”

  I looked up at him, his hair flattened from the rain, his skin glistening in the hall light, and I let him pull me to my feet. I winced, and he saw.

  “Hip?”

  I nodded.

  He sighed. “I wish y
ou’d talk to me.” The skin under his eyes was mauve with exhaustion. There were two long scratches on the back of his left hand. I wondered what had happened the previous night. He disappeared into the kitchen and I heard running water. When he came back he was holding two pills and a cup. “I shouldn’t really be giving you these. But they’ll give you a pain-free night.”

  I took them gratefully. He watched me as I swallowed them.

  “Do you ever follow rules?”

  “When I think they’re sensible.” He took the cup from me. “So are we good, Louisa Clark?”

  I nodded.

  He let out a long breath. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

  Afterward, I wasn’t sure what made me do it. My hand reached out and took his. I felt his fingers close slowly around mine. “Don’t go. It’s late. And motorbikes are dangerous.”

  I took the screwdriver from his other hand and let it fall onto the carpet. He looked at me for the longest time, then slid a hand over his face. “I don’t think I’m good for much just now.”

  “Then I promise not to use you for sexual gratification.” I kept my eyes on his. “This time.”

  His smile was slow to come, but when it did, everything fell away from me, as if I had been carrying a weight I hadn’t known.

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

  He stepped over the screwdriver, and I led him silently toward my bedroom.

  • • •

  I lay in the dark in my little flat, my leg slung over the bulk of a sleeping man, his arm pinning me pleasurably beneath it, and gazed at his face.

  Fatal cardiac arrest, motorbike accident, suicidal teenager, and a gang-related stabbing on the Peabody Estate. Some shifts are just a bit . . .

  Sssh. It’s okay. Sleep.

  He had barely managed to get his uniform off. He had stripped to his T-shirt and shorts, kissed me, then closed his eyes and collapsed into a dead slumber. I had wondered whether I should cook him something, or tidy the flat so that when he woke I might look like someone who actually had a handle on life. But instead I undressed to my underwear and slid in next to him. For these few moments I just wanted to be beside him, my bare skin against his T-shirt, my breath mingling with his. I lay listening to his breathing, marveling at how someone could be so still. I studied the slight bump on the bridge of his nose, the variation in the shade of the bristles that shadowed his chin, the slight curl at the end of his dark, dark eyelashes. I ran through conversations that we’d had, putting them through a new filter, one that pitched him as a single man, an affectionate uncle, and I wanted to laugh with the idiocy of it all, and cringe at my mistake.

  I touched his face twice, lightly, breathing in the scent of his skin, the faint tang of antibacterial soap, the primal, sexual hint of male sweat, and the second time I did so I felt his hand tighten reflexively on my waist. I shifted onto my back and gazed out at the streetlights, feeling, for once, that I was not an alien in this city. And finally, I found myself drifting off . . .

  • • •

  His eyes open, on mine. A moment later he realizes where he is.

  “Hey.”

  A lurch into waking. The peculiar dreamlike state that suffuses the small hours. He is in my bed. His leg against mine. A smile, creeping across my face. “Hey yourself.”

  “What time is it?”

  I swivel to catch the digital readout of my alarm. “A quarter to five.” Time settles into order, the world, reluctantly, into something that makes sense. Outside, the sodium-lit dark of the street. The minicabs and night buses rumble past. Up here it is just him and me in the night and the warm bed and the sound of his breathing.

  “I can’t even remember getting here.” He looks off to the side, his face faintly lit by the streetlights, frowning. I watch as memories of the previous day land softly, a silent, mental Oh. Right.

  His head turns. His mouth, inches from mine. His breath, warm and sweet. “I missed you, Louisa Clark.”

  I want to tell him then. I want to tell him that I don’t know what I feel. I want him but I’m frightened to want him. I don’t want my happiness to be entirely dependent on somebody else’s, to be a hostage to fortunes I cannot control.

 
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