After you, p.28
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       After You, p.28
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         Part #2 of Me Before You series by Jojo Moyes

  I sat and watched her fork another little scone delicately onto her plate. She closed her eyes in pleasure as she took a bite. “This is just marvelous.”

  I swallowed. “Mum, you’re not going to get divorced, are you?”

  Her eyes shot open. “Divorced? I’m a good Catholic girl, Louisa. We don’t divorce. We just make our men suffer for all eternity.” She waited just for a moment, and then she started to laugh.

  • • •

  I paid the bill, and we disappeared into the Ladies, a cavernous room of walnut-colored marble and expensive flowers, overseen by a silent attendant who stood by the basins. Mum washed her hands twice, thoroughly, and then sniffed the various hand lotions lined up against the sink, pulling faces in the mirror depending on what she liked. “I shouldn’t say so, given my opposition to the patriarchy and all, but I do wish one of you girls had a nice man.”

  “I’ve met someone,” I said, before I realized I had said it.

  She turned to me, the lotion bottle in her hand. “You haven’t!”

  “He’s a paramedic.”

  “Well, that’s smashing. A paramedic! That’s almost as useful as a plumber. So when are we going to meet him?”

  I faltered. “Meet him? I’m not sure it’s . . .”

  “It’s what?”

  “Well. I mean, it’s early days. I’m not sure it’s that kind of—”

  My mother unscrewed the lid of her lipstick and stared into the mirror. “It’s just for sex, is that what you’re saying?”

  “Mum!” I glanced at the attendant.

  “Well, what are you saying?”

  “I’m not sure I’m ready for a real relationship just yet.”

  “Why? What else have you got going on? Those ovaries won’t go in the freezer, you know.”

  “So why didn’t Treena come?” I said, changing the subject.

  “She couldn’t find a sitter for Thom.”

  “You said she was busy.”

  Mum’s eyes darted across to my reflection. She pressed her lips together and snapped her lipstick back into her handbag. “She seems to be a little cross with you right now, Louisa.” She activated Maternal X-ray Vision. “Have you two had a falling out?”

  “I don’t know why she always has to have opinions about everything I do.” I heard my own voice, the sulky tones of a twelve-year-old.

  She fixed me with a look.

  So I told her. I sat up on the marble basin, and Mum took the easy chair, and I told her about the job offer and why I couldn’t possibly take it, how we had lost Lily and found her again, and how she was finally beginning to come out the other side. “I’ve arranged for her to meet Mrs. Traynor again. So we’re moving forward. But Treena just won’t listen, although if Thomas were going through half the same thing she’d be the first person saying I couldn’t walk away from him.”

  I felt relieved telling my mother. She, of all people, would understand the ties of responsibility. “So that’s why she’s not talking to me.”

  My mother was staring at me. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, have you lost your mind?”

  “What?”

  “A job in New York with all the trimmings and you’re sticking around here to work in that god-awful place at the airport? Did you hear this?” She turned to the attendant. “I can’t believe she’s my own daughter. Honest to God, I wonder what happened to the brains she was born with.”

  The attendant shook her head slowly. “No good,” she said.

  “Mum! I’m doing the right thing!”

  “For whom?”

  “For Lily!”

  “You think that nobody other than you could have helped get that girl back on her feet? Well, did you speak to this chap in New York and ask him whether you could defer the job offer a few weeks?”

  “It’s not that kind of job.”

  “How would you know? You don’t ask, you don’t get. Isn’t that right?”

  The attendant nodded slowly.

  “Oh, Jesus. When I think about it . . .”

  The attendant gave my mother a hand towel and she fanned her neck vigorously with it. “Listen to me, Louisa. I’ve got one brilliant daughter stuck at home weighed down with responsibility because she made a bad choice early on—not that I don’t love Thom to bits, but I’ll tell you, I want to cry my heart out when I think of what Treena could have become if she’d just had that boy a bit later. I’m stuck looking after your father and Granddad, and that’s fine. I’m finding my way. But this should not be the most you have to look forward to in your life, you hear me? Not a bunch of half-price tickets and a fancy tea every now and then. You should be out there! You’re the one person in our family with an actual ruddy chance! And to hear you’ve just chucked it away for the sake of some girl you barely even know!”

  “I did the right thing, Mum.”

  “Maybe you did. Or maybe it wasn’t actually an either/or situation.”

  “You don’t ask, you don’t get,” said the attendant.

  “There! This lady knows. You need to get back there and ask this American gentleman is there any way you can come along a bit later. . . . Don’t you look at me like that, Louisa. I’ve been too soft on you. I haven’t pushed you when I should have done. You need to get yourself out of that dead-end job of yours and start living.”

  “The job is gone, Mum.”

  “Gone my pearly handled backside it is. Have you actually asked them?”

  I shook my head.

  Mum huffed and adjusted the scarf around her neck. She pulled two pound coins from her purse and pressed them into the hand of the attendant, “Well, I have to say, haven’t you done a grand job! You could eat your supper off this floor. And it all smells simply gorgeous.”

  The attendant smiled at her warmly, and then, almost as an afterthought, held up a finger. She peered out of the door, then walked to her cupboard, unlocking it swiftly with a bunch of keys. She emerged and pressed a bar of floral soap into Mum’s hands.

  Mum sniffed it and sighed. “Well, that is just heaven. Just a little piece of heaven.”

  “For you.”

  “For me?”

  The woman closed Mum’s hands around it.

  “Well, aren’t you the kindest? May I ask your name?”

  “Maria.”

  “Maria, I’m Josie. I’m going to make sure I come back to London and use your toilet the very next time I’m here. Do you see that, Louisa? Who knows what happens when you break out a little? How’s that for an adventure? And I got the most gorgeous bar of soap from my lovely new friend Maria here!” They clasped hands with the fervency of old acquaintances about to be parted, and we left the hotel.

  • • •

  I couldn’t tell her. I couldn’t tell her that that job haunted me from the moment I woke every morning until I went to sleep every night. Whatever I said to anyone else, I knew I would always regret to my bones missing the chance to live and work in New York. That no matter how much I told myself that there would be other chances, other places, this would always be the lost opportunity I carried wherever I went, like a cheap handbag I regretted buying.

  And sure enough after I had seen her off on the train to my no doubt bemused, blustering father, and long after I had made a salad for Lily from bits that Sam had left in the fridge, when I checked my e-mail that night there was a message from Nathan.

  I can’t say I agree, but I do get what you’re doing. I guess Will would have been proud of you.

  You’re a good person, Clark x

  24

  These are the things I learned about being a parent, while not actually being a parent: That whatever you did would probably be wrong. If you were cruel or dismissive or neglectful, you would leave scars upon your charge. But if you were supportive and loving, encouraging and praising them for even their smallest achievements—getting out of bed on time, say, or managing not to smoke for a whole day—it would simply ruin them in a different way. I learned that if you were a de facto parent, all t
hese things still applied but you had none of the natural authority you might reasonably expect when feeding and looking after another person.

  With all these things in mind, I loaded Lily into the car on my day off and announced that we were going to lunch. It would probably go horribly wrong, I told myself, but at least there would be two of us there to shoulder it.

  Because Lily was so busy staring at her phone, with her earbuds plugged into her ears, it was a good forty minutes before she looked out the car window. She frowned as we approached a signpost. “This isn’t the way to your Mum and Dad’s.”

  “I know.”

  “Then where are we going?”

  “I told you. To lunch.”

  When she had stared at me long enough to realize I was not going to elaborate, she squinted out the window for a while and turned back to her phone. “God, you’re annoying sometimes.”

  • • •

  Half an hour later we pulled up at the Crown and Garter, a redbrick hotel set in two acres of parkland, about twenty minutes south of Oxford. Neutral territory, I had decided, was the way forward. Lily climbed out of the car and shut the door emphatically enough to send me the message that this was actually still quite annoying.

  I ignored her, put on a slick of lipstick, and walked into the restaurant, letting Lily follow.

  Mrs. Traynor was already at a table. When Lily saw her, she let out a little groan. “Why are we doing this again?”

  “Because things change,” I said, and propelled her forward.

  “Lily.” Mrs. Traynor rose to her feet. She looked quite different from the last time we had seen her. She had evidently been to a hairdresser, and her hair was once again beautifully cut and blow-dried. She was wearing a little makeup too, and those two things conspired to make her look like the Mrs. Traynor of old: self-possessed, someone who understood that appearances were, if not everything, at least the foundation of something.

  “Hello, Mrs. Traynor.”

  “Hi,” Lily mumbled. She didn’t reach out a hand, but positioned herself at the seat beside mine at the table.

  Mrs. Traynor registered this, but gave a brief smile, sat down, and summoned the waiter. “This restaurant was one of your father’s favorites,” she said, placing her napkin over her lap. “On the rare occasions I could persuade him to leave London, this is where we would meet. It’s rather good food. Michelin starred.”

  I looked at the menu, with its turbot quenelles with a frangipane of mussels and langoustine, and smoked duck breast with cavalo nero and Israeli couscous and hoped very much that the fact that Mrs. Traynor had suggested this restaurant also meant that she would pay.

  “It looks a bit fussy,” said Lily, not lifting her head from the menu. I glanced over at Mrs. Traynor.

  “That’s exactly what Will said too. But it is very good. I think I’ll have the quail.”

  “I’ll have the sea bass,” Lily said, and closed the leather-bound menu.

  I stared at the list in front of me. There was nothing here I even recognized. What was rutabaga? What was a ravioli of bone marrow and samphire? I wondered if I could ask for a sandwich.

  “Are you ready to order?” The waiter appeared beside me. I waited as the others reeled off their choices. Then I spotted a word I recognized from my time in Paris. “Can I have the . . . joues de boeuf confites?”

  “With the potato gnocchi and asparagus? Certainly, madame.”

  Beef, I thought. I can do beef.

  We talked of small things while waiting for our starters. I told Mrs. Traynor that I was still working at the airport but was being considered for a promotion and tried to make it sound like a positive career choice rather than a cry for help. I told her Lily had found a job, and when she heard what Lily was doing, she didn’t shudder, as I had secretly been afraid she might, but nodded. “That sounds eminently sensible. It never hurts to get your hands dirty when you’re starting out.”

  “It’s not got any prospects,” Lily said firmly. “Unless you count being allowed to move onto the till.”

  “Well, neither does having a paper round. But your father did that for two years before he left school. It instills a work ethic.”

  “And people always need tins of frankfurters,” I observed.

  “Do they really?” said Mrs. Traynor and looked briefly appalled.

  We watched as another table was seated beside us, an elderly woman lowered with much fuss and exclamation into a chair by two male relatives.

  “We got your photograph album,” I said.

  “Oh, you did! I had wondered. Did . . . did you like it?”

  Lily’s eyes flickered toward her. “It was nice, thank you,” she said.

  Mrs. Traynor took a sip of her water. “I wanted to show you another side of Will. I feel sometimes as if his life has been rather taken over by what happened when he died. I just wanted to show that he was more than a wheelchair. More than the manner of his death.”

  There was a brief silence.

  “It was nice, thank you,” Lily repeated.

  Our food arrived, and Lily grew silent again. The waiters hovered officiously, filling water glasses when their levels fell by a centimeter. A breadboard was offered, removed, and reoffered five minutes later. The restaurant filled with people like Mrs. Traynor: well dressed, well spoken, people for whom turbot quenelles was a standard lunch and not a conversational minefield. Mrs. Traynor asked after my family and spoke warmly of my father. “He did such a very good job at the castle.”

  “It must be strange, not going back,” I said, then winced internally, wondering if I’d breached some invisible line.

  But Mrs. Traynor just gazed at the tablecloth in front of her. “It is,” she agreed, and nodded, her smile a little tighter, then she took a long drink of water and looked away out of the window.

  The conversation carried on like this through our starters (smoked salmon for Lily, salad for Mrs. Traynor and me), stalling and moving forward in fits and starts, like someone learning to drive a car. It was with some relief that I saw the waiter approach with our main courses. My smile disappeared as he placed my plate in front of me. It did not look like beef. It looked like soggy brown disks in a thick brown sauce.

  “I’m sorry,” I said to the waiter, when I realized he thought he had the right plate. “I ordered the beef?”

  He let his gaze hang on me for a moment. “This is the beef, madame.”

  We both stared at my plate.

  “Joues de boeuf?” he said. “Beef cheeks?”

  “Beef cheeks?”

  We both stared at my plate and my stomach did a little flip.

  “Oh, of course,” I said finally. “I—yes. Beef cheeks. Thank you.”

  Beef cheeks. I was too afraid to ask from which end they came. I wasn’t sure which would be worse. I smiled at Mrs. Traynor until she looked away, and set about nibbling at my gnocchi.

  We ate in near silence. I think Mrs. Traynor and I were both running out of conversational options. Lily spoke little, and when she did say something it was spiky, as if she were testing her grandmother. She toyed with her food, a reluctant teen dragged along to a too-fancy lunch with the grown-ups. I ate mine in small forkfuls, trying not to listen to the little voice that kept squeaking in my ear: You’re eating cheeks! Actual cheeks!

  Eventually we ordered coffee, When the waiter had gone, Mrs. Traynor removed her napkin and put it on the table. “I can’t do this any longer.”

  Lily’s head lifted. She looked at me and back at Mrs. Traynor.

  “The food is very nice and it’s lovely hearing about your jobs and all, but this really isn’t going to move us forward, is it?”

  I wondered if she was going to leave, whether Lily had pushed her too far. I saw the surprise in Lily’s face and realized she was thinking it too. But instead, Mrs. Traynor pushed away her cup and saucer, leaned forward over the table, and addressed Lily directly. “Lily, I didn’t come to impress you with a fancy lunch. I came to say I’m sorry. It
’s hard to explain how I was when you turned up that day, but that unfortunate meeting was not your fault, and I want to apologize that your introduction to this side of your family has been so . . . inadequate.”

  The waiter approached with the coffee, and Mrs. Traynor lifted her hand without turning. “Can you leave us for two minutes, please?”

  He backed away swiftly with his tray. I sat very still. Mrs. Traynor, her face taut and her voice urgent, took a breath. “Lily, I lost my son—your father—and in truth I probably lost him some time before he died. His death took away everything my life was built on: my role as a mother, my family, my career, even my faith. I have felt, frankly, as if I descended into a dark hole. But to discover that he had a daughter—that I have a granddaughter—has made me think all might not be lost.”

  She swallowed.

  “I’m not going to say that you’ve returned part of him to me, because that wouldn’t be fair to you. You are, as I’ve already grasped, very much your own person. You have brought me a whole new person to care about. I hope you’ll give me a second chance, Lily. Because I would very much like—no, dammit—I would love for us to spend time together. Louisa tells me you’re a strong character. Well, you should know that it runs in your family. So we’ll probably butt heads a few times, just as I did with your father. But essentially, if nothing else comes of today, you must know this.”

  She took Lily’s hand and gripped it. “I am so very glad to know you. You’ve changed everything so much, simply by existing. My daughter—your aunt—Georgina, is flying over next month to meet you, and has already been asking if the two of us might go over to Sydney and stay with her at some point. I have a letter from her for you in my handbag.”

  Her voice dropped. “I know we can never make up for your father not being here, and I know I’m not—well, I’m still climbing out of things rather—but . . . do you think . . . perhaps . . . you could find some room for a rather difficult grandmother?”

  Lily stared at her.

  “Might you at least . . . give it a go?”

  Mrs. Traynor’s voice cracked slightly on the last sentence. There was a long silence. I could hear the beating of my heart in my ears. Lily looked over at me, and after what seemed like an eternity, she looked back at Mrs. Traynor. “Would you . . . would you want me to come and stay with you?”

  “If you wanted to. Yes, I would like that very much.”

  “When?”

  “When can you come?”

  I had never seen that woman anything less than composed, but at that moment Camilla Traynor’s face crumpled. Her other hand crept across the table. After a second’s hesitation, Lily took it, and they gripped each other’s fingers tightly across the white linen, like survivors of a shipwreck, while a few well-dressed diners looked up from their plates, and the waiters stood holding their trays, unsure when they could safely move forward again.

  • • •

  “I’ll bring her back tomorrow afternoon.”

  I stood in the car park as Lily hung back by Mrs. Traynor’s car. She had eaten two puddings—her chocolate molten pot and my own (I had completely lost my appetite by then) and was casually examining the waistband of her jeans. “You’re sure?” I wasn’t sure which of them I was directing this to. I was conscious of how fragile this new entente cordiale was, how easy it would be for it to flare up and go wrong.

  “We’ll be fine.”

  “I don’t have work tomorrow, Louisa,” Lily called out. “Samir’s cousin does Sundays.”

  It felt odd leaving them there, even if Lily was beaming. I wanted to say “no smoking,” and “no swearing,” and maybe even “How about we do this some other
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