After you, p.23
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       After You, p.23
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         Part #2 of Me Before You series by Jojo Moyes

  she was afraid to see him. When he’d started shouting at her and saying she was lying, she had started to cry.

  “Louisa’s chucked me out. My mum’s chucked me out. I don’t have anything.”

  People hurried past, their eyes averted. Nobody stopped. Nobody said anything, because a man shouting at a drunk girl in Soho on a Friday night was nothing out of the ordinary. Peter swore, and turned on his heel, as if he were leaving, except she knew he wouldn’t. And then the big black car had stopped in the middle of the street and reversed, its white lights glowing. The electric window hummed its way down. “Lily?”

  It took her a few seconds to recognize him. Mr. Garside. She recognized him from her stepfather’s business. His boss? A partner? He looked at her, and then at Peter. “Are you all right?”

  She glanced at Peter, then nodded.

  He didn’t believe her. She could tell. He had pulled over onto the side of the road, in front of Peter’s car, and walked over slowly in his dark suit. He had an air of authority, like nothing was going to faze him. She remembered, randomly, her mother talking about him having a helicopter. “Do you need a ride home, Lily?”

  Peter looked at her and lifted his hand with the phone in it, just an inch. Just so she knew. And she opened her mouth and it came out. “He has a bad picture of me on his phone and he’s threatening to show it to everyone and he wants money and I don’t have any left. I’ve given him what I can and I just don’t have anything left. Please help me.”

  Peter’s eyes widened. He hadn’t expected that. But she didn’t care what happened. She just felt desperate, and tired, and she didn’t want to carry all this by herself anymore.

  Mr. Garside regarded Peter for a moment. Peter stiffened his shoulders and straightened, as if he were considering whether to run for his car.

  “Is this true?” Mr. Garside said.

  “It’s not a crime to have pictures of girls on your phone.” Peter smirked, an act of bravado.

  “I’m well aware of that. It is, however, a crime to use them to extort money.” Mr. Garside’s voice was low and calm, as if it were perfectly reasonable to be discussing someone’s naked pictures in the middle of the street. He moved his hand to his inside pocket. “So what will it take to make you go away?”

  “What?”

  “Your phone. How much do you want for it?”

  Lily’s breath stopped in her throat. She looked from one man to the other. Peter was staring at him in disbelief.

  “I’m offering you cash for the phone. On the basis that this is the only copy of that photograph.”

  “I’m not selling my phone.”

  “Then I have to advise you, young man, that I’ll be contacting the police and identifying you through your car registration. And I have a lot of friends in the police force. Quite . . . important friends.” He smiled, a smile that wasn’t really a smile at all.

  Across the road a bunch of people spilled out of a restaurant, laughing. Peter looked at her and back at Mr. Garside. He lifted his chin. “Five grand.” Mr. Garside reached into his inside pocket. He smiled and shook his head.

  “I don’t think so.”

  He pulled out his wallet and counted out a bundle of notes. “I think this will do. It sounds as though you’ve already been amply rewarded. The phone, please?”

  It was as if Peter had been hypnotized. He hesitated for a moment, then handed Mr. Garside his phone. Just like that. Mr. Garside checked that the SIM card was in it, tucked it into his inside pocket, and opened the car door for Lily. “I think it’s time for you to leave, Lily.”

  She climbed in, like an obedient child, hearing the solid thunk of the car door as it closed behind her. And then they were off, gliding smoothly down the narrow street, leaving Peter shell-shocked—she could see him in the wing mirror—as if he, too, could not believe what had just happened.

  “Are you all right?” Mr. Garside didn’t look at her as he spoke.

  “Is . . . is that it?”

  He glanced sideways, then back at the road. “I think so, yes.”

  She couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t believe the thing that had hung over her for weeks could just be fixed just like that. She turned to him, suddenly anxious.

  “Please don’t tell my mum and Francis.”

  He frowned slightly, thinking. “If that’s what you want.”

  She let out a long, silent breath. “Thank you,” she said quietly.

  He patted her knee. “Nasty lad. You need to be careful with your friends, Lily.”

  He moved his hand back onto the automatic gearstick before she had even registered its presence.

  • • •

  He hadn’t batted an eyelash when she’d told him she had nowhere to stay. He had driven her to a hotel in Bayswater and spoken quietly to the receptionist, who had handed her a room key. She was relieved he hadn’t suggested taking her to his house; she didn’t want to explain herself to anyone else.

  “I’ll pick you up tomorrow when you’re sober,” he said, tucking his wallet into his jacket pocket.

  She had walked heavily up to room 311, lain down on the bed fully clothed, and slept for fourteen hours.

  • • •

  He called to say he would meet her for breakfast. She showered, took some clothes out of her rucksack, and ran an iron over them in the hope that she looked a little more presentable. She was not good at ironing—Lena had done that sort of thing.

  When she came downstairs to the restaurant he was already sitting there, reading a paper, a half-drunk cup of coffee in front of him. He was older than she remembered, his hair thinning on top, a faint crepiness to the skin of his neck; the last time she had seen him had been at a company event at the races, where Francis had drunk too much and her mother had hissed at him furiously whenever nobody else was about, and Mr. Garside, catching it, had raised his eyebrows at Lily as if to say, “Parents, eh?”

  She slid into the chair opposite him and he lowered his newspaper. “Aha. How are you today?”

  She felt embarrassed, as if last night she had been overly histrionic. As if it had all been a fuss over nothing. “Much better, thank you.”

  “Did you sleep well?”

  “Very well, thank you.”

  He had studied her for a minute over his glasses. “Very formal.”

  She smiled. She didn’t know what else to do. It was too weird, being here with her stepdad’s work colleague. The waitress offered her coffee and she drank it. She eyed the breakfast buffet, wondering if she was expected to pay. He seemed to sense her discomfort. “Eat something. Don’t worry. It’s paid for.” He turned back to his paper.

  She wondered whether he would tell her parents. She wondered what he had done with Peter’s phone. She hoped he had slowed his big black car on the Thames embankment, lowered his window, and hurled it into the swirling currents below. She never wanted to see that picture again. She rose and fetched a croissant and some fruit from the buffet. She was starving.

  He sat reading as she ate. She wondered how they looked from outside—like any father and daughter. She wondered whether he had children.

  “Don’t you have to be at work?”

  He smiled, accepted more coffee from the waitress. “I told them I had an important meeting.” He folded his newspaper neatly and put it down.

  She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “I need to get a job.”

  “A job.” He sat back. “Well. What kind of job?”

  “I don’t know. I kind of messed up my exams.”

  “And what do your parents think?”

  “They don’t . . . I can’t . . . They’re not very happy with me right now. I’ve been staying with friends.”

  “You can’t go back there?”

  “Not right now. My friend isn’t very happy with me either.”

  “Oh, Lily,” he said, and sighed. He looked out the window, considering something for a minute, then glanced at his expensive watch. He thought for another moment, then he
called his office and told someone he was going to be back late from his meeting.

  She waited to hear what he had to say next.

  “You finished?” He put his newspaper in his briefcase, and stood up. “Let’s go and make a plan.”

  • • •

  She had not been expecting him to come to the room, and was embarrassed by the state of it: the damp towels left on the floor, the television blaring trashy daytime programs. She dumped the worst of it in the bathroom and shoved what was left of her belongings hastily into her rucksack. He pretended not to notice, just gazed out of the window, then turned back when she sat on the chair, as if he had only just seen the room.

  “It’s not a bad hotel, this,” he said. “I used to stay here when I couldn’t face the drive to Winchester.”

  “Is that where you live?”

  “It’s where my wife lives, yes. My children are long grown.” He put his briefcase on the floor and sat on the edge of the bed. She got up and fetched the complimentary notepad from the bedside table, in case she needed to take notes. Her phone let out a chime and she glanced down.

  Lily just call me. Louisa x

  She shoved it into her back pocket and sat down, the notepad on her lap. “So what do you think?”

  “That you’re in a tricky position, Lily. You’re a bit young to be getting a job, to be frank. I’m not sure who would hire you.”

  “I am good at stuff though. I’m a hard worker. I can garden.”

  “Garden! Well, perhaps you could get work gardening. Whether that’s going to bring in enough for you to support yourself is another matter. Have you got any references? Any holiday jobs?”

  “No. My parents always gave me an allowance.”

  “Hmm.” He tapped his hands on his knees. “You’ve had a difficult relationship with your father, haven’t you?”

  “Francis isn’t my real father.”

  “Yes. I’m aware of that. I know you left home some weeks ago. It all seems like a very sad situation. Very sad. You must feel rather isolated.”

  She felt the lump swell in her throat and thought for a moment that he was reaching for a handkerchief, but it was then that he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a phone. Peter’s phone. He tapped it, once, twice, and she saw a flash of her own image. Her breathing stalled in her chest.

  He clicked on it, making it bigger. Her cheeks flooded with color. He stared at the photograph for what felt like several years. “You really have been quite a bad girl, haven’t you?”

  Lily’s fingers closed in a fist around the hotel bedspread. She looked up at Mr. Garside, her cheeks burning. His eyes didn’t leave the picture.

  “A very bad girl.” Eventually he looked up at her, his gaze even, his voice soft. “I suppose the first thing we need to do is work out how you can repay me for the phone and the hotel room.”

  “But,” she began, “you didn’t say—”

  “Oh, come on, Lily. A live wire like you? You must know that nothing comes for free.” He looked down at the image. “You must have worked that out a while ago . . . You’re obviously good at it.”

  Lily’s breakfast rose into her throat.

  “You see, I could be very helpful to you. Give you somewhere to stay until you’re back on your feet, a little leg up the career ladder. You wouldn’t need to do very much in return. Quid pro quo—you know that phrase? You did Latin at your school, didn’t you?”

  She stood abruptly and reached for her rucksack. His hand shot out and took hold of her arm. With his free hand he tucked the phone slowly back into his pocket. “Let’s not be hasty about this, Lily. We wouldn’t want me to have to show this little picture to your parents, would we? Goodness knows what they would think about what you’ve been up to.”

  Her words stalled in her throat.

  He patted the bedspread beside him. “I would think very carefully about your next move. Now. Why don’t we—”

  Lily shook him off. Then she wrenched the hotel-room door open and she was gone, feet pumping, racing down the hotel corridor, her bag flying out behind her.

  • • •

  London teemed with life into the small hours. She walked while cars nudged night buses impatiently along main roads, minicabs wove in and out of traffic, men in suits made their way home or sat in glowing office cubicles halfway to the sky, ignoring the cleaners who worked silently around them. She walked with her head low and her rucksack on her shoulder and when she ate in a late-night burger restaurant she made sure her hood was up and that she had a free newspaper to pretend to read; otherwise there was always someone who would sit down at your table and try to get you to talk. Come on, darling, I’m only being friendly.

  All the while she replayed that morning’s events in her head. What had she done? What signal had she sent? Was there something about her that meant everyone assumed she was a whore? The words he had used made her want to cry. She felt herself shrink into her hood, hating him. Hating herself.

  She used her student card and rode on underground trains until the atmosphere became drunk and febrile. Then it felt safer to stay above ground. The rest of the time she walked—through the glittering neon lights of Piccadilly, down the lead-dusted length of Marylebone Road, around the pulsing late-night bars of Camden, her stride long, pretending she had somewhere to be, only slowing when her feet began to ache from the unforgiving pavement.

  When she got too tired she begged favors. She spent one night at her friend Nina’s, but Nina asked too many questions and the sound of her chatting downstairs to her parents while Lily lay in the bath, soaking the grime out of her hair, made her feel like the loneliest person on earth. She left after breakfast, even though Nina’s mum said she was welcome to stay another night, gazing at her with concerned maternal eyes. She spent two nights on the sofa of a girl she had met while clubbing, but there were three men sharing the flat, and she didn’t feel relaxed enough to sleep and sat fully clothed, hugging her knees, watching television with the sound turned off until dawn. She spent one night at a Salvation Army hostel, listening to two girls argue in the next-door cubicle, her bag clutched to her chest under the blanket. They said she could have a shower, but she didn’t like to leave her bag in the lockers while she got wet. She drank the free soup and left. But mostly she walked, spending the last of her cash on cheap coffee and Egg McMuffins and growing more and more tired and hungry until it was hard to think straight, hard to react quickly when the men in doorways said disgusting things or the staff in the café told her she’d made that one cup of tea last long enough, young lady, and it was time to move on.

  And all the while she wondered what her parents were saying at that moment, and what Mr. Garside would say about her when he showed them the pictures. She could see her mother’s shocked face, Francis’s slow shake of the head, as if this new Lily was of no surprise to him whatsoever.

  She had been so stupid.

  She should have stolen the phone.

  She should have stamped on it.

  She should have stamped on him.

  She shouldn’t have gone to that boy’s stupid flat and behaved like a stupid idiot and broken her own stupid life, and that was usually the point at which she would start crying again and pull her hood farther up around her face and—

  20

  She’s what?”

  In Mrs. Traynor’s silence I heard disbelief, and perhaps a faint echo of the last thing of hers I had failed to keep safe (although maybe I was being oversensitive).

  “And you’ve tried to call?”

  “She’s not picking up.”

  “And she hasn’t been in touch with her parents?”

  I closed my eyes. I had been dreading this conversation. “She’s done this before, apparently. Mrs. Houghton-Miller is convinced Lily will turn up any minute.”

  Mrs. Traynor digested this. “But you aren’t.”

  “Something’s not right, Mrs. Traynor. I . . . I know I’m not a parent, but I just . . . something isn
t right.” My words tailed off. “Anyway. I’d rather be doing something than nothing, so I’m going to get back out walking the streets to find her. I just wanted you to know the truth about what was going on.”

  Mrs. Traynor was silent for a moment. And then she said, her voice measured but oddly determined: “Louisa—before you go, would you mind giving me Mrs. Houghton-Miller’s telephone number?”

  • • •

  I called in sick, noting fleetingly that Richard Percival’s cold “I see” was actually more ominous than his previous blustering protests. I printed photographs—one of Lily’s Facebook profile photograph, and one of the selfies she’d taken of the two of us—to put up in neighborhoods where Lily might have gone. I spent the morning driving around central London. I parked up on curbs, my hazard lights flashing as I nipped in to pubs, fast-food joints, nightclubs where the cleaners, working in the stale, dim air, peered up at me with suspicious eyes.

  —Have you seen this girl?

  —Who wants to know?

  —Have you seen this girl?

  —Are you police? I don’t want no trouble.

  Some people evidently thought it amusing to string me along for a bit—Oh, that girl! Brown hair? Yeah, what was her name?. . . . Nah. Never seen her before. Nobody seemed to have seen her. And the farther I traveled, the more hopeless it felt. What better place to disappear than London? A teeming metropolis where you could slide into a million doorways, mingle with crowds that never ended. I would gaze up at the tower blocks and wonder whether even now she was lying on someone’s sofa in her pajamas. Lily picked up people with fearless ease, and had no qualms about asking for anything—she could be with anyone.

  And yet.

  I wasn’t entirely sure what drove me to keep going. Perhaps it was my cold fury at Tanya Houghton-Miller’s semidetached parenting; perhaps it was my guilt at having failed to do the thing I was criticizing Tanya for not doing. Perhaps it was just the fact that I knew only too well how vulnerable a young girl could be.

  Mostly, though, it was Will. I walked and drove and questioned and walked and held endless internal conversations with him as my hip began to ache and I paused in my car, chewing on stale sandwiches and garage chocolate and choking down painkillers to keep me going.

  Where would she go, Will?

  What would you do?

  And—yet again—I’m sorry. I let you down.

  • • •

  I texted Sam.

  Any news?

  It felt odd speaking to him while having concurrent conversations with Will in my head, a strange infidelity. I just wasn’t quite sure who I was being unfaithful to.

  Nope. I’ve called every ER department in London. How about you?

  Bit tired.

  Hip?

  Nothing chewing a few Nurofen won’t fix.

  Want me to stop by after my shift?

  I think I just need to keep looking.

  Don’t go anywhere I wouldn’t go x

  Very funny xxx

 
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