After you, p.30
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       After You, p.30

         Part #2 of Me Before You series by Jojo Moyes
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  “Of course not,” said Treena. But she didn’t sound quite as convinced as she could have.

  • • •

  I couldn’t find Dad when I was getting ready to leave. I helped Treena tidy up the kitchen, and played ten minutes of Super Mario with Thom. Mum stayed up in her room, apparently working on her essay, and Granddad retreated with some relief to the more reliable consolations of Channel 4 Racing. I wondered if Dad had gone down to the pub again, but as I stepped out the front door, there he was, just sitting in the driver’s seat of his work van.

  I knocked on the window and he jumped. I opened the door and slid in beside him. I had thought maybe he was listening to sports results but the radio was silent.

  He looked straight ahead and let out a long breath. “I bet you think I’m an old fool.”

  “You’re not an old fool, Dad.” I nudged him. “Well, you’re not old.”

  We sat in silence, watching the Ellis boys wheel up and down the road on their bikes, wincing in unison when the littler one took a skid too fast and slid halfway across the road.

  “I want things to stay the same. Is that so much to ask?” He rubbed at his eye.

  “Nothing stays the same, Dad.”

  “I just . . . I just miss my wife.” He sounded so bleak.

  “You know, you could just enjoy the fact that you’re married to someone who still has a bit of life in her. Mum’s excited. She feels like she’s seeing the world through new eyes. You’ve just got to allow her some room.”

  His mouth was set in a grim line.

  “She’s still your wife, Dad. She loves you.”

  He finally turned to face me. “What if she decides that I’m the one with no life? What if all this new stuff turns her head and . . .” He swallowed. “What if she leaves me behind?”

  I squeezed his hand. Then I thought better and leaned over and gave him a hug.

  “You won’t let that happen.”

  The wan smile he gave me stayed with me the whole way home.

  • • •

  Lily came in just as I was leaving for the Moving On Circle. She had been with Camilla Traynor again, and she arrived home, as she often did now, with her fingernails black with dirt from digging and planting. They had created a whole new border for a neighbor, she said cheerfully, and the woman had been so pleased she had given Lily thirty pounds. “Actually she gave us a bottle of wine, too, but I said Granny should keep that.” I noted her unself-conscious use of the word “Granny.”

  “Oh, and I spoke to Georgina on Skype last night. I mean it was morning there, because it’s Australia, but it was really nice. She’s going to e-mail me a whole load of pictures of when she and my dad were little. She said that I really look like him. She’s quite pretty. She has a dog called Jakob and it howls when she plays the piano.”

  I put a bowl of salad and some bread and cheese on the table for Lily as she chatted on. I wondered whether to tell her that Steven Traynor had called again, the fourth time in as many weeks, hoping to persuade her to go and see the new baby. “We’re all family. And Della is feeling much more . . . relaxed about things now that the baby is safely here.” Maybe that was a conversation for another time. I reached for my keys.

  “Oh,” she said. “Before you go. I’m going back to school.”

  “What?”

  “I’m going to go back to the school near Granny’s house. Do you remember? The one I told you about? The one I actually liked? Weekly boarding. Just for sixth form. And I’m going to live with Granny at weekends.”

  I had missed a leaf with the salad dressing. “Oh.”

  “Sorry. I did want to tell you. But it’s all happened really fast. I was talking about it and just on the off chance Granny rang up the school and they said I would be welcome and you’ll never guess what—my friend Holly is still there! I spoke to her on Facebook and she said she can’t wait for me to come back. I mean, I didn’t tell her everything that’s happened, and I probably won’t tell her any of it, but it was just really nice. She knew me before it all went wrong. She’s just . . . okay, you know?”

  I listened to her talking animatedly and fought the discomfiting sensation that I had just been shed, like a skin. “When is all this going to happen?”

  “Well, I need to be there for the start of term in September. So Granny thought it would probably be best if I moved quite soon. Maybe next week?”

  “Next week?” I felt winded. “What—what does your mum say?”

  “She’s just glad I’m going back to school, especially since Granny’s paying. She had to tell the school a bit about my last school and the fact that I didn’t take my exams and I mean you can tell she doesn’t like Granny much, but she said it would be fine. ‘If that’s actually going to make you happy, Lily. And I do hope you’re not going to treat your grandmother the way you’ve treated everyone else.’”

  She cackled at her own impression of Tanya. “I caught Granny’s eye when she said that and Granny’s eyebrow went up the tiniest bit but you could totally see what she thought. Did I tell you she’s dyed her hair? A sort of chestnut brown. She looks quite good now. Less like a cancer patient.”

  “Lily!”

  “It’s all right. She laughed when I said that.” She smiled to herself. “She said it was the kind of thing Dad would have said.”

  “Well,” I said, when I’d caught my breath, “sounds like you’ve got it all worked out.”

  She shot me a look. “Don’t say it like that.”

  I swallowed. “Sorry. It’s just . . . I’ll miss you.”

  She beamed, an abrupt, brilliant smile. “You won’t miss me, silly, because I’ll still be back down for the holidays and stuff. I can’t spend all my time in Oxfordshire with old people or I’ll go mad. But it’s good. She just . . . she feels like my family. It doesn’t feel weird. I thought it would, but it doesn’t. Hey, Lou . . .” She hugged me exuberantly. “You’ll still be my friend. You’re basically the sister I never had.”

  I hugged her back and tried to keep the smile on my face.

  “Anyway. You need your privacy.” She pulled away and took a piece of gum from her mouth, folding it carefully into a torn piece of paper. “Having to listen to you and Hot Ambulance Man shagging across the corridor was actually pretty gross.”

  Lily is going.

  Going where?

  To live with her grandmother. I feel . . . strange. She’s so happy about it. Sorry. I don’t mean to talk about Will-related things all the time, but I can’t really talk to anyone else.

  • • •

  Lily packed her bag, cheerfully stripping my second bedroom of nearly every sign that she had ever been there, apart from the Kandinsky print and the camp bed, a pile of glossy magazines and an empty deodorant canister. I dropped her at the station, listening to her nonstop chatter and trying not to look as unbalanced as I felt. Camilla Traynor would be waiting at the other end.

  “You should come up. We’ve got my room really nice. There’s a horse next door that the farmer across the way says I can ride. Oh, and there’s quite a nice pub.”

  She glanced up at the departures board, and bounced on her toes, suddenly seeing the time. “Bugger. My train. Right. Where’s platform eleven?” She began to run briskly through the crowd, her carryall slung over her shoulder, her legs long in her black tights. I stood, frozen, watching her go. Her stride had grown longer.

  Suddenly she turned and, spotting me by the entrance, waved, her smile wide, her hair flying up around her face. “Hey, Lou!” she yelled. “I meant to say to you. Moving on doesn’t mean you loved my dad any less, you know. I’m pretty sure even he would tell you that.”

  And then she turned and was gone, swallowed up by the crowd.

  Her smile was like his.

  She was never yours, Lou.

  I know. It’s just . . . I suppose she was the thing I felt was giving me a purpose.

  Only one person can give you a purpose.

  I let myself absorb
these words for a minute.

  Can we meet? Please?

  I’m on shift tonight.

  Come to mine after?

  Maybe later in the week. I’ll call you.

  It was the “maybe” that did it. There was something final in it, the slow closing of a door. I stared at my phone as the commuters swarmed around me and something in me shifted too. Either I could go home and mourn yet another thing I had lost, or I could embrace an unexpected freedom. It was as if a light had gone on: the only way to avoid being left behind was to start moving.

  I went home, made myself a coffee, and stared at the gray wall. Then I pulled out my laptop.

  Dear Mr. Gopnik,

  My name is Louisa Clark and last month you were kind enough to offer me a job, which I had to turn down. I appreciate that you will have filled your position by now, but if I don’t say this I will regret it forever.

  I really wanted your job. If the child of my former employer hadn’t turned up in trouble, I would have taken it without hesitation. I do not want to blame her for my decision, as it was a privilege to help sort things out for her. But I just wanted to say that if you ever need someone again I really hope you might consider me for the job.

  I know you are a busy man so I won’t go on, but I just needed you to know.

  With best wishes,

  Louisa Clark

  I wasn’t sure what I was doing but at least I was doing something. I pressed send, and with that tiny action, I was suddenly filled with a sense of purpose. I raced into the bathroom and ran the shower, stripping off my clothes and stamping on my trouser legs in my hurry to get out of them and under the hot water. I began to lather my hair, already planning ahead. I was going to go to the ambulance station, and I was going to find Sam and I was—

  The doorbell rang. I swore and grabbed a towel.

  “I’ve had it,” my mother said.

  It took me a moment to register that it was actually her standing there, holding an overnight bag. I pulled my towel around me, my hair dripping onto the carpet. “Had what?”

  She stepped in, closing the front door behind her. “Your father. Grumbling incessantly at me about everything I do. Acting as if I’m some kind of harlot just for wanting a little time to myself. So I told him I was coming here for a little break.”

  “A break?”

  “Louisa, you have no idea. All the mumping and grumping. I can’t stay set in stone, you know? Everyone else gets to change. Why can’t I?”

  It was as if I’d come halfway into a conversation that had been going on for an hour. Possibly in a bar. After hours.

  “When I started that feminist consciousness course I thought a fair bit of it was exaggerated, you know? Man’s patriarchal control of woman? Even the unconscious kind? Well, I’ve realized they only had the half of it. Your father simply can’t see me as a person beyond what I put on the table or put out in bed.”

  “Uh—”

  “Oh. Too much?”

  “Possibly.”

  “Let’s discuss it over some tea.” My mother walked past me and into the kitchen. “Well, this all looks a bit better. I’m not sure about that gray though. It washes you right out. Now where are your teabags?”

  • • •

  My mother sat on the sofa and, as her tea grew cold, I listened to her litany of frustration and tried not to think about the time. Sam would be arriving for his shift in half an hour. It would take twenty minutes to get over to the ambulance station. And then my mother’s voice would lift and her hands would end up somewhere around her ears and I knew I was going nowhere.

  “Do you know how stifling it is to be told you are never going to be able to change? For the rest of your life? Because nobody else wants you to? Do you know how awful it is to feel stuck?”

  I nodded vigorously. I did. I really did. “I’m sure Dad doesn’t mean for you to feel like that—but listen, I—”

  “I even suggested he take a course at the night school. Something he might like—you know, repairing antiques or life drawing or something. I don’t mind him looking at the nudies! I thought we could grow together! That’s the kind of wife I’m trying to be, the kind that doesn’t even mind her husband looking at nudies, if it’s in the name of culture. . . . But he’s all ‘What would I want to go down there for.’ It’s like he’s got the ruddy menopause. And as for the rabbiting on about me not shaving my legs. Oh my days. He’s so hypocritical. Do you know how long the hairs in his nostrils are, Louisa?”

  “N-no.”

  “I’ll tell you! He could wipe his plate with them. For the last fifteen years, I’ve been the one telling the barber to give him a trim up there, you know? Like he’s some kind of child. Do I mind? No! Because that’s the way he is. He’s a human being! Nose hair and all! But if I dare not to be as smooth as a ruddy baby’s bottom he acts like I’ve turned into flipping Chewbacca!”

  It was ten minutes to six. Sam would be heading out at half past. I sighed, and pulled my towel around me.

  “So . . . um . . . how long do you think you’ll be here?”

  “Well, now I don’t know.” Mum took a sip of her tea. “We’ve got the social services bringing Granddad his lunch now so it’s not like I’ve got to be there all the time. I might just stay for a few days. We had a lovely time last time I was here, didn’t we? We could go and see Maria in the toilets tomorrow. Wouldn’t that be nice!”

  “Lovely.”

  “Right. Well, I’ll make up the spare bed. Where is the spare bed?”

  We had just stood up when the doorbell sounded again. I opened the door, expecting a random pizza delivery, but there stood Treena with Thom and, behind her, his hands jammed into his trouser pockets like a recalcitrant teenager, my father.

  She didn’t even look at me. She just walked in past me. “Mum. This is ridiculous. You can’t just run away from Dad. How old are you? Fourteen?”

  “I am not running away, Treena. I am giving myself breathing space.”

  “Well, we’re going to sit here until you two have sorted this ridiculous thing out. You know he’s been sleeping in his van, Lou?”

  “What? You didn’t tell me that.” I turned to Mum.

  She lifted her chin. “You didn’t give me a chance, with all your talking.”

  Mum and Dad stood there not looking at each other.

  “I have nothing to say to your father right now,” Mum said.

  “Sit down,” said Treena. “The both of you.” They shuffled toward the sofa, casting mute glances of resentment at each other. She turned to me. “Right. Let’s make tea. And then we’re going to sort this out as a family.”

  “Great idea!” I said, sensing my chance. “There’s milk in the fridge. Tea’s on the sideboard. Help yourselves. I’ve just got to pop out for half an hour.” And before anyone could stop me I had whipped on a pair of jeans and a top and was running out of the flat with my car keys.

  • • •

  I saw him even as I turned the car into the ambulance station car park. He was striding toward the ambulance, his pack slung over his shoulder, and something inside me lurched. I knew the delicious solidity of that body, the soft angles of that face. He turned and saw me and his step faltered, as if I had been the last thing he had expected to see. Then he turned back to the ambulance, hauling open the rear doors.

  I walked toward him across the Tarmac. “Can we talk?”

  He lifted an oxygen tank like it was a can of hairspray, securing it in its holder. “Sure. But it’ll have to be some other time. I’m on my way out.”

  “It won’t wait.”

  His expression didn’t flicker. He stooped to pick up a pack of gauze.

  “Look. I just wanted to explain . . . what we were talking about. I do like you. I really like you. I just—I’m just scared.”

  “We’re all scared, Lou.”

  “You’re not scared of anything.”

  “Yeah. I am. Just not stuff you’d notice.”

  He stared at his boot
s. And then he saw Donna running toward him. “Ah, hell. I’ve got to go.”

  I jumped into the rear of the ambulance. “I’ll come with you. I’ll get a taxi home from wherever you’re headed.”

  “No.”

  “Ah, come on. Please.”

  “So I can get in even more trouble with Disciplinary?”

  “Red Two, reports of a stabbing, young male.” Donna threw her pack into the back of the ambulance.

  “We have to go, Louisa.”

  I was losing him. I could feel it, in the tone of his voice, the way he wouldn’t look at me directly. I climbed out of the back, cursing my lateness. But Donna took me by the elbow and steered me toward the front. “For God’s sake,” she said, as Sam made to protest. “You’ve been like a bear with a sore head all week. Just sort this thing out. We’ll drop her before we get there.”

  Sam walked briskly around to the passenger door and opened it, casting a glance over at the controller’s office. “She’d make a great relationship counselor.” His voice hardened. “If we were, you know, in a relationship.”

  I didn’t need telling twice. Sam climbed up into the driver’s seat and looked at me as if he were going to say something, then changed his mind. Donna began sorting out equipment. He started the ignition and put the blue light on.

  “So where are we headed?”

  “We are headed to the estate. About seven minutes away with blues and twos. You are headed to the High Street, two minutes from Kingsbury.”

  “So I’ve got five minutes?”

  “And a long walk back.”

  “Okay,” I said. And realized, as we sped forward, that I really had no idea what to say next.

  26

  So here’s the thing,” I said. Sam indicated and swung out onto the road. I had to shout, as the siren was so loud.

  He did not look at me, his attention on the road ahead. He glanced at the computer readout on the dashboard. “What have we got, Don?”

  “Possible stabbing. Two reports. Young male collapsed in stairwell.”

  “Is this really a good time to talk?” I said.

  “Depends on what you want to say.”

  “It’s not that I don’t want a relationship,” I said. “I just still feel a bit mixed up.”

  “Everyone’s mixed up,” said Donna. “Every bloke I go out with starts our date with how he’s got trust issues.” She looked up and then over at Sam. “Oh. Sorry. Don’t mind me.”

  Sam kept his eyes straight ahead. “One minute you’re calling me a dick because you’ve decided I’m sleeping with other women. Next you’re keeping me at arm’s length because you’re still attached to someone else. It’s too . . .”

 
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