After you, p.3
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       After You, p.3

         Part #2 of Me Before You series by Jojo Moyes
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  with the appetites that Will had stirred in me. I got a job at a bar favored by expats where they didn’t mind my terrible French, and I grew better at it. I rented a tiny attic room in the 16th, above a Middle Eastern restaurant, and I would lie awake at night and listen to the sound of the late drinkers and the early morning deliveries and every day I felt like I was living someone else’s life.

  Those early months, it was as if I had lost a layer of skin—I woke up laughing, or crying. I felt everything more intensely, saw everything as if a filter had been removed. I ate new foods, walked strange streets, spoke to people in a language that wasn’t mine.

  Sometimes I felt haunted by him, as if I were seeing it all through his eyes, hearing his voice in my ear.

  What do you think of that, then, Clark?

  I told you you’d love this.

  Eat it! Try it! Go on!

  I felt lost without our daily routines. It took weeks for my hands not to feel useless without daily contact with his body: the soft shirt I would button; the warm, motionless hands I would wash gently; the silky hair I could still feel between my fingers. I missed his voice, his abrupt, hard-earned laugh, the feel of his lips against my fingers, the way his eyelids would lower when he was about to drop off to sleep. My mother, still aghast at what I had been part of, had told me that while she loved me, she could not reconcile this Louisa with the daughter she had raised. So with the loss of my family as well as the man I had loved, every thread that had linked me to who I was had been abruptly cut. I felt as if I had simply floated off, untethered, to some unknown universe.

  So I acted out a new life. I made casual, arm’s-length friendships with other travelers: young English students on gap years; Americans retracing the steps of literary heroes, certain that they would never return to the Midwest; wealthy young bankers; day-trippers; a constantly changing cast that drifted in and through and past, escapees from other lives. I smiled and I chatted and I worked and I told myself I was doing what he had wanted. I had to take some comfort, at least, in that. Didn’t I?

  Winter loosened its grip and the spring was beautiful. Then almost overnight I woke up one morning and realized I had fallen out of love with the city. Or, at least, I didn’t feel Parisian enough to stay. The stories of the expats began to sound wearyingly similar, the Parisians started to seem unfriendly, or, at least, I noticed, several times a day, the myriad ways in which I would never quite fit in. The city, compelling as it was, felt like a glamorous couture dress I had bought in haste but that didn’t quite fit me after all. I handed in my notice and went traveling around Europe.

  No two months had ever left me feeling more inadequate. I was lonely almost all the time. I hated not knowing where I was going to sleep each night, was permanently anxious about train timetables and currency, and had difficulty making friends when I didn’t trust anyone I met. And what could I say about myself, anyway? When people asked me, I could give them only the most cursory details. All the stuff that was important or interesting about me was what I couldn’t share. Without someone to talk to, every sight I saw—whether it was the Trevi Fountain or a canal in Amsterdam—felt simply like a name on a list that I needed to check off. I spent the last week on a beach in Greece that reminded me too much of a beach I had been on with Will only months before, and finally after a week of sitting on the sand fending off bronzed men who all seemed to be called Dmitri and trying to tell myself I was actually having a good time I gave up and returned to Paris. Mostly because that was the first time it had occurred to me that I had nowhere else to go.

  For two weeks I slept on the sofa of a girl I’d worked with at the bar, while I tried to figure out what to do next. Recalling a conversation I’d had with Will about careers, I wrote to several colleges about fashion courses, but I had no portfolio of work to show them and they rebuffed me politely. The course I had originally won after Will died was awarded to someone else because I had failed to defer. I could apply again next year, the administrator said, in the tones of someone who knew I wouldn’t.

  I looked online at jobs websites and realized that, despite everything I had been through, I was still unqualified for any of the kinds of jobs I might actually be interested in doing. And then by chance, just as I was wondering what to do next, Michael Lawler, Will’s lawyer, rang me and suggested it was time to do something with the money Will had left me. It was the excuse to move that I needed. He helped me negotiate a deal on a scarily overpriced two-bedroom flat on the edge of the Square Mile—a neighborhood I chose largely because I remembered Will once talking about the wine bar on the corner and it made me feel a bit closer to him—and there was enough money left over with which to furnish it. Then six weeks later I came back to England, got a job at the Shamrock and Clover, slept with a man called Phil whom I would never see again, and waited to feel as if I had really started living.

  Nine months on I was still waiting.

  • • •

  I didn’t go out much that first week home. I was sore and grew tired quickly, so it was easy to lie in bed and doze, wiped out by extrastrength painkillers, and tell myself that letting my body recover was all that mattered. In a weird way, being back in our little family house suited me; it was the first place I had managed to sleep more than four hours at a stretch since I had left; it was small enough that I could always reach out for a wall to support myself. Mum fed me, Granddad kept me company (Treena had gone back to college, taking Thom with her), and I watched a lot of daytime television, marveling at its never-ending advertisements for loan companies and stairlifts, and its preoccupation with minor celebrities whom the better part of a year abroad had left me unable to recognize. It was like being in a little cocoon, one that, admittedly, had a whacking great elephant squatting in its corner.

  We did not talk about anything that might upset this delicate equilibrium. I would watch whatever celebrity news that daytime television served up and then say at supper, “Well, what about that Shayna West, then, eh?” And Mum and Dad would leap on the topic gratefully, remarking that she was a trollop or had nice hair or that she was no better than she should be. We covered Bargains That Could Be Found in Your Attic (“I always wonder what that Victorian planter of your mother’s would have been worth . . . ugly old thing”) and Ideal Homes in the Country (“I wouldn’t wash a dog in that bathroom”). I did not think beyond each mealtime, beyond the basic challenges of getting dressed and brushing my teeth and completing whatever tiny tasks my mother set me (“You know, love, when I’m out, if you could sort out your washing, I’ll do it with my coloreds”).

  But like a creeping tide, the outside world steadily insisted on intruding. I heard the neighbors asking questions of my mother as she hung out the washing. “Your Lou home, then, is she?” And Mum’s uncharacteristically curt response: “She is.”

  I found myself avoiding the rooms in the house from which I could see the castle. But I knew it was there, the people in it living, breathing links to Will. Sometimes I wondered what had happened to them. While in Paris I had been forwarded a letter from Mrs. Traynor, thanking me formally for everything I had done for her son. “I am conscious that you did everything you could.” But that was it. That family had gone from being my whole life to a ghostly remnant of a time I wouldn’t allow myself to remember.

  Now, as our street sat moored in the shadow of the castle for several hours every evening, I felt the Traynors’ presence like a rebuke.

  I’d been there for two weeks before I realized that Mum and Dad no longer went to their social club. “Isn’t it Tuesday?” I asked on the third week as we sat around the dinner table. “Shouldn’t you be gone by now?”

  They glanced at each other. “Ah, no. We’re fine here,” Dad said, chewing on a piece of his pork chop.

  “I’m fine by myself, honestly,” I told them. “I’m much better now. And I’m quite happy watching television.” I secretly longed to sit, unobserved, with nobody else in the room. I had barely been left alone for more than
half an hour at a time since I’d come home. “Really. Go out and enjoy yourselves. Don’t mind me.”

  “We . . . we don’t really go to the club anymore,” said Mum, not looking at me as she sliced through a potato.

  “People . . . they had a lot to say. About what went on.” Dad shrugged. “In the end it was easier just to stay out of it.” The silence that followed this disclosure lasted a full six minutes.

  And there were other, more concrete reminders of the life I had left behind. Ones that wore skin-tight running pants with special wicking properties.

  It was on the fourth morning that Patrick jogged past our house when I realized it might be more than coincidence. I had heard his voice the first day and limped blearily to the window, peering through the blind. And there he was below me, stretching out his hamstrings while talking to a girl with a blond ponytail and clad in matching blue Lycra so tight I could pretty much figure out what she’d had for breakfast. They looked like two Olympians missing a bobsled. I stood back from the window in case he looked up and saw me, and within a minute they were gone again, jogging down the road, backs erect, legs pumping, like a pair of glossy turquoise carriage ponies.

  Two days later I was getting dressed when I heard them again. Patrick was saying something loudly about carb loading, and this time the girl flicked a suspicious gaze toward my house, as if she were wondering why they had stopped in exactly the same place twice.

  On the third day I was in the front room with Granddad when they arrived. “We should practice sprints,” Patrick was saying loudly. “Tell you what, you go to the fourth lamppost and back and I’ll time you. Two-minute intervals. Go!”

  Granddad looked at me, and then rolled his eyes meaningfully.

  “Has he been doing this the whole time I’ve been back?”

  Granddad’s eyes rolled pretty much into the back of his head.

  I watched through the net curtains as Patrick fixed his eyes on his stopwatch, his best side presented to my window. He was wearing a black fleece zip-up top and matching Lycra shorts, and as he stood, a few feet from the other side of the curtain, I was able to gaze at him, quietly amazed that this was someone I had been sure, for so long, I’d loved.

  “Keep going!” he yelled, looking up from his stopwatch. And like an obedient gun dog, the girl touched the lamppost beside him and bolted away again. “Forty-two point three-eight seconds,” he said approvingly when she returned, panting. “I reckon you could shave another point five of a second off that.”

  “That’s for your benefit,” said my mother, who had walked in bearing two mugs.

  “I did wonder.”

  “His mother asked me in the supermarket were you back and I said yes, you were. Don’t look at me like that—I could hardly lie to the woman.” She nodded toward the window. “That one’s had her boobs done. They’re the talk of Stortfold. Apparently you could rest two cups of tea on them.” She stood beside me for a moment. “You know they’re engaged?”

  I waited for the pang, but it was so mild it could have been wind. “They look . . . well suited.”

  My mother stood there for a moment, watching him. “He’s not a bad sort, Lou. You just . . . changed.” She handed me a mug and turned away.

  • • •

  Finally, on the morning he stopped to do push-ups on the pavement outside the house, I opened the front door and stepped out. I leaned against the porch, my arms folded across my chest, watching until he looked up.

  “I wouldn’t stop there for too long. Next door’s dog is a bit partial to that bit of pavement.”

  “Lou!” he exclaimed, as if I were the very last person he expected to see standing outside my own house, which he had visited several times a week for the seven years we had been together. “Well. I . . . I’m surprised to see you back. I thought you were off to conquer the big wide world!”

  His fiancée, who was doing push-ups beside him, looked up and then back down at the pavement. It might have been my imagination, but her buttocks may have clenched even more tightly. Up, down, she bobbed, furiously. Up and down. I found myself worrying slightly for the welfare of her new bosom.

  He bounced to his feet. “This is Caroline, my fiancée.” He kept his eyes on me, perhaps waiting for some kind of reaction. “We’re training for the next Ironman. We’ve done two together already.”

  “How . . . romantic,” I said.

  “Well, Caroline and I feel it’s good to do things together,” he said.

  “So I see,” I replied. “And his and hers turquoise Lycra!”

  “Oh. Yeah. Team colors.”

  There was a short silence.

  I gave a little air punch. “Go, team!”

  Caroline sprang to her feet and began to stretch out her thigh muscles, folding her leg behind her like a stork. She nodded toward me, the least civility she could reasonably get away with.

  “You’ve lost weight,” he said.

  “Yeah, well. A saline-drip diet will do that to you.”

  “I heard you had an. . . . accident.” He cocked his head sideways, sympathetically.

  “News travels fast.”

  “Still. I’m glad you’re okay.” He sniffed, looked down the road. “It must have been hard for you this past year. You know. Doing what you did and all.”

  And there it was. I tried to keep control of my breathing. Caroline resolutely refused to look at me, extending her leg in a hamstring stretch.

  “Anyway . . . congratulations on the marriage.”

  He surveyed his future wife proudly, lost in admiration of her sinewy leg. “Well, it’s like they say—you just know when you know.” He gave me a faux-apologetic smile. And that was what finished me off.

  “I’m sure you did. And I guess you’ve got plenty put aside to pay for the wedding? They’re not cheap, are they?”

  They both looked up at me.

  “What with selling my story to the newspapers. What did they pay you, Pat? A couple of thousand? Treena never could find out the exact figure. Still, Will’s death should be good for a few matching Lycra onesies, right?”

  The way Caroline’s face shot toward his told me this was one particular part of Patrick’s history that he had not yet gotten around to sharing.

  He stared at me, two pinpricks of color bleeding onto his face. “That was nothing to do with me.”

  “Of course not. Nice to see you, anyway, Pat. Good luck with the wedding, Caroline! I’m sure you’ll be the . . . the . . . firmest bride around.” I turned and walked slowly back inside. I closed the door, resting against it, my heart thumping, until I could be sure that they had both finally jogged on.

  “Arse,” said Granddad as I limped back into the living room, and then again, glancing dismissively at the window: “Arse.” He chuckled.

  I stared at him. And then, completely unexpectedly, I found I had started to laugh, for the first time in as long as I could remember.

  • • •

  “So did you decide what you’re going to do? When you’re better?”

  I was lying on my bed. Treena was calling from college, while she waited for Thomas to come out of his football club. I stared up at the ceiling, on which Thomas had stuck a whole galaxy of Day-Glo stickers that apparently nobody could remove without bringing half the ceiling with them.

  “Not really.”

  “You’ve got to do something. You can’t sit around here on your backside for all eternity.”

  “I won’t sit on my backside. Besides, my hip still hurts. The physio said I’m better off lying down.”

  “Mum and Dad are wondering what you’re going to do. There are no jobs in Stortfold.”

  “Treen, I just fell off a building. I’m recuperating.”

  “And before that you were wafting around traveling. And then you were working in a bar until you knew what you wanted to do. You’ll have to sort out your head at some point. If you’re not going back to school, then you have to figure out what it is you’re actually going to do with
your life. I’m just saying. Anyway, if you’re going to stay in Stortfold, you need to rent out that London flat. Mum and Dad can’t support you forever.”

  “This from the woman who has been supported by the Bank of Mum and Dad for the past eight years.”

  “I’m in full-time education. That’s different. So anyway, I went through your bank statements while you were in hospital and after I paid all your bills, I worked out that you’ve got about fifteen hundred pounds left, including statutory sick pay. By the way, what the hell were all those transatlantic phone calls? They cost you a fortune.”

  “None of your business.”

  “So I made you a list of estate agents in the area who do rentals. And then I thought maybe we could take another look at college applications. Someone might have dropped out of that course you wanted.”

  “Treen. You’re making me tired.”

  “No point hanging around. You’ll feel better once you’ve got some focus.”

  For all that it was annoying, there was also something reassuring about my sister nagging at me. Nobody else dared to. It was as if my parents still believed there was something very wrong at the heart of me, and that I must be treated with kid gloves. Mum laid out my washing, neatly folded, on the end of my bed and cooked me three meals a day, and when I caught her watching me she would smile, an awkward half smile, which covered everything we didn’t want to say to each other. Dad took me to my physio appointments and sat beside me on the sofa to watch television and didn’t even take the Mickey out of me. Treen was the only one who treated me like she always had.

  “You know what I’m going to say, don’t you?”

  I turned over onto my side, wincing.

  “I do. And don’t.”

  “Well, you know what Will would have said. You had a deal. You can’t back out of it.”

  “Okay. That’s it, Treen. We’re done with this conversation.”

  “Fine. Thom’s just coming out of the changing rooms. See you Friday!” she said, as if we had just been talking about music or where she was going on holiday, or soap.

  And I was left staring at the ceiling.

  You had a deal.

  Yeah. And look how that turned out.

  • • •

  For all Treen moaned at me, in the weeks that had passed since I’d come home I had made some progress. I’d stopped using the cane, which had made me feel around eighty-nine years old, and which I had managed to leave behind in almost every place I’d visited since coming home. Most mornings I took Granddad for a walk around the park, at Mum’s request. The doctor had instructed him to take daily exercise but when she had followed him one day she had found he was simply walking to the corner shop to buy a bumper pack of pork rinds and then eating them on a slow walk home again.

  We walked slowly, both of us with a limp, and neither of us with any real place to be.

  Mum kept suggesting we do the grounds of the castle “for a change of scene,” but I ignored her, and as the gate shut behind us each morning Granddad nodded firmly in the direction of the park anyway. It wasn’t just because this way was shorter, or closer to the betting shop. I think he knew I didn’t want to go back there. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t sure I would ever be ready.

  We did two slow circuits of the duck pond, and sat on a bench in the watery spring sunshine and watched the toddlers and their parents feeding the fat ducks, and the teenagers smoking and yelling and whacking each other in the helpless combat of early courtship. We took a stroll over to the bookies so Granddad could lose three pounds on an each-way bet on a horse called Wag the Dog. Then as he crumpled up his betting slip and threw it in the bin, I said I’d buy him a jam doughnut from the supermarket.

  “Oh fat,” he said, as we stood in the bakery section.

  I frowned at him.

  “Oh fat,” he said, pointing at our doughnuts, and laughed.

  “Oh. Yup. That’s what we’ll tell Mum. Low-fat doughnuts.”

  Mum said his new medication made him giggly. I had decided there were worse things that could happen to you.

  Granddad was still giggling at his own joke as we queued up at the checkout. I kept my head down, digging in my pockets for change. I was thinking about whether I would help Dad with the garden that weekend. So it took a minute to grasp what was being said in whispers behind me.

  “It’s the guilt. They say she tried to jump off a block of flats.”

  “Well, you would, wouldn’t you? I know I couldn’t live with myself.”

  “I’m surprised she can show her face around here.”

  I stood very still, my hands rigid in my pockets.

  “You know poor Josie Clark is still mortified. She takes confession every single week and you know that woman is as blameless as a line of clean laundry.”

  Granddad was pointing at the doughnuts and mouthing oh fat at the checkout girl.

  She smiled politely. “Eighty-six pence, please.”

  “The Traynors have never been the same.”

  “Well, it destroyed them, didn’t it?”

  “Eighty-six pence, please.”

  It took me several seconds to register that the checkout girl was looking at me, waiting. I pulled a handful of coins from my pocket. My fingers fumbled as I tried to sort through them.

  “You’d think Josie wouldn’t dare leave her in sole charge of her granddaddy, wouldn’t you?”

  “You don’t think she’d—”

  “Well, you don’t know. She’s done it the once, after all . . .”

  My cheeks were flaming. My money clattered onto the counter. Granddad was still repeating, “Oh fat. Oh fat.” at the bemused checkout girl, waiting for her to get the joke. I pulled at his sleeve. “Come on, Granddad, we have to go.”

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