After you, p.29
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       After You, p.29

         Part #2 of Me Before You series by Jojo Moyes
 

  time?” but Lily waved and climbed into the passenger seat of Mrs. Traynor’s Golf with barely a backward glance.

  It was done. Out of my hands.

  Mrs. Traynor turned to join her.

  “Mrs. Traynor? Can I ask you something?”

  She stopped. “Camilla. I think you and I are beyond formalities, don’t you?”

  “Camilla. Did you ever speak to Lily’s mother?”

  “Ah. Yes, I did.” She stooped to pick some tiny weed out of a border. “I told her I was hoping to spend a lot of time with Lily in the future. And that I was quite conscious that in her eyes I was no kind of maternal role model, but that, frankly, none of us appeared to be ideal on that score, and it would behoove her to think carefully, for once, about putting her child’s happiness before her own.”

  My jaw might have dropped a little. “Behoove is an excellent word,” I said, when I could speak.

  “It is rather, isn’t it?” She straightened. The faintest hint of mischief glinted in Mrs. Traynor’s eyes. “Yes. Well. The Tanya Houghton-Millers of this world hold no fears for me. I think we’ll rub along just fine, Lily and I.”

  I made to move back to my car, but this time Mrs. Traynor stopped me. “Thank you, Louisa.”

  Her hand lay on my arm. “I didn’t d—”

  “You did. I’m very much aware that I have an awful lot to thank you for. At some point I hope I can do something for you.”

  “Oh, you don’t need to. I’m fine.”

  Her eyes searched mine, and she gave me a small smile. Her lipstick, I noticed, was perfect. “Well. I’ll call you tomorrow about dropping Lily home.”

  Mrs. Traynor tucked her handbag under her arm and walked back to her car, where Lily was waiting.

  I stood watching as the car disappeared, and then I called Sam.

  • • •

  A buzzard wheeled lazily in the azure sky above the field, its enormous wings suspended in the shimmering blue. I had offered to help him finish some bricklaying, but we had done one row (I had handed him the bricks) when the sultry heat was such that he had suggested we have a cold beer during our break, and somehow after we had lain back in the grass for a while, it had proven impossible to get up again. I had told him the story of the beef cheeks and he had laughed for a full minute, trying to straighten his face when I protested that If they had only called them something else and I mean it’s like being told you’re eating chicken buttock or something. Now I was stretched out beside him, listening to the birds and the gentle whisper of the grass, watching the peach-colored sun slide gently toward the horizon, and thought, when I was managing not to worry about whether Lily had used the word pussy-whipped yet, that life was not all bad.

  “Sometimes when it’s like this I think I might not bother building the house at all,” said Sam. “I might just lie in a field till I get old.” The bass notes of his voice made the ground under my back vibrate slightly.

  “Good plan.” I chewed at a stalk of grass. “Except that a rainwater shower is going to seem a lot less appealing in January.”

  I felt his laugh, a low rumble.

  I had come straight to him from the restaurant, inexplicably unbalanced by the unexpected absence of Lily. I didn’t want to be in the flat alone. When I had pulled up in the gateway of Sam’s field, I had sat as my car engine ticked its way to sleep and watched him, content in his own company, scraping mortar onto each brick and pressing it onto the next, wiping the sweat from his brow on his faded T-shirt, and I had felt something in me unwind a little. He had said nothing about the slight awkwardness of our last few conversations and I was grateful.

  A solitary cloud drifted across the blue sky. Sam shifted his leg closer to mine. His feet were twice the size of my own.

  “I wonder whether Mrs. T. has got her photographs out again. You know, for Lily.”

  “Photographs?”

  “Framed pictures. I told you. She didn’t have a single one of Will anywhere that time Lily and I went to her house. I was quite surprised when she sent the album, because a little bit of me had wondered if she’d destroyed them all.”

  He was silent, thinking.

  “It’s odd. But when I thought about it, I don’t have any pictures of Will on display either. Maybe it just takes a while to . . . to be able to have them looking at you again. How long did it take you to have your sister by your bed again?”

  “I never took her down. I like having her there, especially looking like . . . like she used to look.” He lifted his arm above his head. “She used to give it to me straight. Typical big sister. When I think I’ve got something wrong, I look at that picture and I hear her voice. Sam, you great lunk. Just get on with it.” He turned his face toward me. “And, you know, it’s good for Jake to see her around. He needs to feel that it’s okay to talk about her.”

  “Maybe I’ll put one up. It will be nice for Lily to have pictures of her dad in the flat.”

  The hens were loose and a few feet away two of them shivered their way into a patch of dirt, ruffling their feathers and wiggling, sending up little clouds of dust. Poultry, it turned out, had personalities. There was the bossy chestnut one, the affectionate one with the piebald comb, the little bantam that had to be plucked out of the tree every evening and put to bed in the coop.

  “Do you think I should text her? To see how it’s going?”

  “Who?”

  “Lily.”

  “Leave them. They’ll be fine.”

  “I know you’re right. It’s weird. I was watching her in that restaurant and she’s so much more like him than I first realized. I think Mrs. Traynor—Camilla—could see it too. She kept startling at Lily’s mannerisms, like she was suddenly remembering stuff Will did. There was this one time, when Lily raised an eyebrow, and neither of us could take our eyes off her. She did it just like he used to.”

  “So what do you want to do tonight?”

  “Oh . . . I don’t care. You choose.” I stretched out, feeling the grass tickle my neck. “I might just lie here. If you happened to fall gently on top of me at some point that would be okay.”

  I waited for him to laugh, but he didn’t.

  “So . . . shall we . . . talk about us?”

  “Us?”

  He pulled a blade of grass through his teeth. “Yup. I just thought . . . well, I wondered what you thought was going on here.”

  “You make us sound like a maths problem.”

  “Just trying to make sure we don’t have any more misunderstandings, Lou.”

  I watched him discard the grass and pick a new blade.

  “I think we’re good,” I said. “Well, I’m not going to accuse you of having a neglected child this time. Or a trail of imaginary girlfriends.”

  “But you’re still holding back.”

  It was gently said, but it felt like a kick.

  I pushed myself up on my elbow, so that I was looking down on him. “I’m here, aren’t I? You’re the first person I call at the end of the day. We see each other when we can. I wouldn’t call that holding back.”

  “Yup. We see each other, we have sex, eat some nice meals.”

  “I thought that was basically every man’s dream relationship.”

  “I’m not every man, Lou.”

  We looked at each other in silence for a minute. I no longer felt relaxed. I felt wrong-footed, defensive.

  He sighed. “Don’t look at me like that. I don’t want to get married or anything. I’m just saying . . . I’ve never met any woman who wanted less to talk about what might be going on.” He shaded his eyes with his hand, squinting slightly into the sun. “It’s fine if you don’t want this to be a long-term thing. Well, okay, it’s not, but I just want an idea of what you’re thinking. I guess since Ellen died I’ve realized life is short. I don’t want . . .”

  He hesitated.

  “You don’t want what?”

  “To waste time on something that isn’t going anywhere.”

  “Waste time?


  “Bad choice of words. I’m not good at this stuff.” He pushed himself upright.

  “Why does it have to be anything? We have fun together. Why can’t we just let it run and . . . I don’t know, see what happens?”

  “Because I’m human. Okay? And it’s hard enough to be around someone who is still in love with a ghost, without them also acting like they’re just using you for sex.”

  He raised his hand, covering his eyes. “Jesus Christ, I can’t believe I just said that out loud.”

  My voice, when it emerged, cracked a little. “I’m not in love with a ghost.”

  This time he didn’t look at me. He pushed himself to a seated position and rubbed at his face. He sighed. “Then let him go, Lou.”

  He climbed heavily to his feet and walked off to the railway carriage, leaving me staring behind him.

  • • •

  Lily arrived back the following evening, slightly sunburned. She let herself into the flat and walked past the kitchen, where I was unloading the washing machine wondering for the fifteenth time whether to call Sam, and flopped onto the sofa. As I stood at the counter and watched, she put her feet on the coffee table, picked up the remote control, and flicked on the television.

  “So how was it?” I said, after a moment had passed.

  “Okay.”

  I waited for something more, braced for the remote control to be hurled down, for her to stalk off muttering, That family is impossible. But she simply changed channels.

  “What did you do?”

  “Not much. Talked a bit. Actually, we gardened.” She turned around, resting her chin on her hands on the back of the sofa. “Hey, Lou. Have we got any of that cereal with the nuts left? I’m starving.”

  25

  Are we talking?

  Sure. What do you want to say?

  • • •

  Sometimes I look at the lives of the people around me and I wonder if we aren’t all destined to leave a trail of damage. It’s not just your mum and dad who fuck you up, Mr. Larkin. I gazed around me, like someone suddenly handed clear glasses, and I saw that pretty much everyone bore the brutal imprint of love, whether it was lost, whipped away from them, or simply vanished into a grave.

  Will had done it to all of us, I saw now. He hadn’t meant to, but even in simply refusing to live, he had.

  I loved a man who had opened up a world to me but hadn’t loved me enough to stay in it. And now I was too afraid to love a man who might love me, in case . . . In case what? I turned it over in my head in the silent hours after Lily had retreated to the glowing digital distractions of her room.

  Sam didn’t call. I couldn’t blame him. What would I have said, anyway? The truth was that I didn’t want to talk about what we were, because I didn’t know.

  It wasn’t that I didn’t love being with him. I suspected I actually became slightly ridiculous around him—my laugh a bit too loud, my jokes silly, my passion fierce and surprising even to myself. I felt better when he was around, more the person that I wanted to be. More of everything. And yet.

  And yet.

  To commit to Sam was to commit to the likelihood of more loss. Statistically most relationships ended badly and, given my mental state over the past year or two, my chances of beating the odds were pretty low. We could talk around it, we could lose ourselves in brief moments, but to me, it looked like love really ultimately meant only more pain. More damage—to me, or worse, to him.

  Who was really strong enough for that?

  • • •

  I had insomnia—again. So I slept through my alarm and despite tearing my way up the motorway, arrived late for Granddad’s birthday. In celebration of his eighty years, Dad had brought out the foldaway gazebo we had used for Thomas’s christening, and it flapped, mossy and listless, at the end of the garden, where, through the open door that led to the back alley, a succession of neighbors popped in and out, bringing cake or good wishes. Granddad sat in the middle of it all on a plastic garden chair, nodding at people he no longer recognized, and only occasionally looking longingly toward his folded copy of the Racing Post.

  “So this promotion.” Treena was on tea duty, pouring from an oversized pot and handing out cups. “What exactly does it mean?”

  “Well, I get a title. I balance the till at the end of every shift and I get to hold a set of keys.” This is a serious responsibility, Louisa, Richard Percival had said, bestowing them to me with as much gravitas and pomposity as if he were handing me the Holy Grail. Use them wisely. He actually said those words. Use them wisely. I wanted to say: What else am I going to do with a set of bar keys? Plow a field?

  “Money?” She handed me a cup and I sipped at it.

  “A pound an hour extra.”

  “Mm.” She was unimpressed.

  “And I don’t have to wear the uniform anymore.”

  She gave a brief look at the Charlie’s Angels jumpsuit I had put on that morning in honor of the occasion. “Well, I guess that’s something.” She pointed Mrs. Laslow toward the sandwiches.

  What else could I say? It was a job. Progress of sorts. I didn’t tell her about the days when it felt like a peculiar form of torture to work in a place where I was forced to watch each plane taxi on the runway, gather its energy like a great bird, then launch itself into the sky. I didn’t tell her how putting on that green polo shirt each day somehow made me feel as if I had lost something.

  “Mum says you’ve got a boyfriend.”

  “He’s not really my boyfriend.”

  “She said that as well. What is it then? You just bump uglies once in a while?”

  “No. We’re good friends—”

  “So he’s a pig.”

  “He’s not a pig. He’s gorgeous.”

  “But crap in the sack.”

  “He’s wonderful. Not that it’s any of your business. And smart, before you—”

  “Then he’s married.”

  “He is not married. Jesus, Treen. Will you just let me explain? I like him, but I’m not sure I want to get involved just yet.”

  “Because of the long queue of other handsome, employed, single, sexy men waiting to snap you up?”

  I glared at her.

  “I’m just saying. Gift horses and all that.”

  “When do you get your exam results?”

  “Don’t change the subject.” She sighed and opened a new carton of milk. “Couple of weeks.”

  “What’s wrong? You’re going to get top marks. You know you will.”

  “But what’s the difference? I’m stuck.”

  I frowned.

  “There are no jobs in Stortfold. But I can’t afford the rent in London, not with childcare for Thom on top. And nobody gets top dollar when they’re first starting out, even with top marks.”

  She poured another cup of tea. I wanted to protest, to say it wasn’t so. But I knew only too well how tough the job market was. “So what will you do?”

  “Stay here for now, I suppose. Commute maybe. Hope that Mum’s feminist metamorphosis won’t stop her picking Thom up from school.”

  She raised a small smile that wasn’t a smile at all. I had never seen my sister down. Even if she felt it, she plowed on, like an automaton, a firm advocate of the “short walk and snap out of it” school of depression. I was trying to work out what to say when there was a sudden commotion at the food table. We looked up to see Mum and Dad facing off over a chocolate cake. They were talking in the lowered, sibilant voices of people who did not want other people to know they were arguing, but weren’t actually going to stop arguing.

  “Mum? Dad? Everything okay?” I walked over.

  Dad turned to me and pointed at the table. “It’s not a homemade cake.”

  “What?”

  “The cake. It’s not homemade. Look at it.”

  I looked at it—a large, lavishly iced chocolate cake, decorated with chocolate buttons interspersed with candles. Mum shook her head in exasperation. “I had an essay to write.”
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  “An essay. You’re not at school! You always do a homemade cake for Granddad.”

  “It’s a nice cake. It’s from Waitrose. Daddy doesn’t mind if it’s not homemade.”

  “Yes, he does. He’s your father. You do mind, don’t you, Granddad?”

  Granddad looked from one to the other, and gave a tiny shake of his head. Around us the conversation stuttered to a halt. Our neighbors eyed each other nervously. Bernard and Josie Clark never argued.

  “He’s just saying that because he doesn’t want to hurt your feelings,” Dad harrumphed.

  “If his feelings aren’t hurt, Bernard, why on earth should yours be? It’s a chocolate cake. It’s not like I ignored his whole birthday.”

  “I just want you to give priority to your family! Is that too much to ask, Josie? One homemade cake?”

  “I’m here! There’s a cake, with candles! Here’s the ruddy sandwiches! I’m not off sunning myself in the Bahamas!” Mum put her pile of plates heavily down on the trestle table and folded her arms.

  Dad went to speak again but she shut him up with a raised hand. “So, Bernard, you devoted family man, you, exactly how much of this little lot did you put together, eh?”

  “Uh-oh . . .” Treena moved a step closer to me.

  “Did you buy Daddy’s new pajamas? Did you? Did you wrap them? No. You wouldn’t even know what bloody size he is. You don’t even know what bloody size your own pants are because I BUY THEM FOR YOU. Did you get up at seven o’clock this morning to buy the bread for the sandwiches because some eejit came back from the pub last night and decided he needed to eat two rounds of toast and left the rest of the loaf out to get stale? No. You sat on your arse reading the sports pages. You gripe away at me for weeks on end because I’ve dared to claim back twenty percent of my life for myself, to try to work out whether there is anything else I can do before I shuffle off this mortal coil, and while I’m still doing your washing, and looking after Granddad, and doing the dishes, you’re there harping on at me about a shop-bought fecking cake. Well, Bernard, you can take the fecking shop-bought cake that is apparently such a sign of neglect and disrespect and you can shove it up your”—she let out an exasperated roar—“up your . . . well . . . There’s the kitchen, there’s my ruddy mixing bowl, you can make one your-ruddy-self!”

  With that, Mum flipped the cake plate upward, so that it landed nose down in front of Dad, wiped her hands on her apron, and stomped up the garden to the house.

  She stopped when she got to the patio, wrenched her apron over her head, and threw it to the ground. “Oh, yes, and Treena? You’d better show your daddy where the recipe books are. He’s only lived here twenty-eight years. He can’t possibly be expected to know himself.”

  • • •

  Granddad’s party didn’t last long after that. The neighbors drifted away, conferring in hushed tones, and thanking us effusively for the lovely party, their eyes flickering toward the kitchen. I could see they felt as thrown as I did.

  “It’s been brewing for weeks,” Treena muttered, as we cleared the table. “He feels neglected. She can’t understand why he won’t just let her grow a little.”

  I glanced over to where Dad was grumpily picking up napkins and empty beer cans from the grass. He looked utterly miserable. I thought of my mother at the London hotel, glowing with new life. “But they’re old! They’re meant to have all this relationship stuff sewn up!”

  My sister raised her eyebrows.

  “You don’t think . . . ?”

 
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