After you, p.34
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       After You, p.34
 

         Part #2 of Me Before You series by Jojo Moyes

  “The tights. It’s a thank-you. Just—you know—for everything. You’re about the only person I know who would like it. Or me, for that matter. Back then. Actually, it totally goes with your dress.”

  I held out an arm and she put it on my wrist. I rotated my arm slowly. “I love it.”

  She kicked at something on the ground, her face briefly serious. “Well, I think I kind of owe you some jewelry.”

  “You owe me nothing.”

  I looked at this girl, with her newfound confidence, and her father’s eyes, and thought of everything she had given me without even knowing it. And then she punched me quite hard on the arm. “Right. Stop being all weird and emotional. Or you are totally going to ruin my mascara. Let’s go downstairs and fetch the last of the food. Ugh, did you know there’s a Transformers poster gone up in my bedroom? And one of Katy Perry? Who the hell have you got as a new flatmate?”

  • • •

  The rest of the Moving On Circle arrived, making their way with varying degrees of trepidation or laughter up the iron stairs—Daphne stepping onto the roof with loud exclamations of relief, her arm held firmly by Fred, William vaulting nonchalantly over the last step, Natasha rolling her eyes behind him. Others paused to exclaim at the bundle of white helium balloons, bobbing in the thin light. Marc kissed my hand and told me that it was the first time something like this had taken place the whole time he had been running the group. Natasha and William, I noticed with amusement, spent a lot of time talking alone.

  We put the food out on the trestle table. Jake was on bar duty, pouring the champagne and looking curiously pleased at the responsibility. He and Lily had skirted around each other at first, pretending the other was invisible, as teenagers do when they’re in a small gathering and conscious that everyone will be waiting for them to speak to each other. When she finally made her way over to him she thrust out her hand with exaggerated courtesy and he looked at it for a moment before smiling slowly.

  “Half of me would like them to be friends. The other can think of nothing more terrifying,” Sam murmured into my ear.

  I slid my hand into his back pocket. “She’s happy.”

  “She’s gorgeous. And he’s just split up with his girlfriend.”

  “What happened to living life to the full, mister?”

  He let out a low growl.

  “He’s safe. She’s now tucked away in Oxfordshire for most of the year.”

  “Nobody’s safe with you two.” He lowered his head and kissed me and I let everything else disappear for a luxurious second or two.

  “I like that dress.”

  “Not too frivolous?” I held out the pleats of the striped skirt. It turned out this part of London was full of vintage-clothing stores. I had spent the previous Saturday lost in racks of ancient silks and feathers.

  “I like frivolous. Although I feel a bit sad that you’re not wearing your sexy pixie thing.” He stepped back from me as my mother approached, bearing another pack of paper napkins.

  “How are you, Sam? Still healing up nicely?” She had visited Sam twice in hospital. She had become deeply concerned at the plight of those left to rely on hospital catering and brought him homemade sausage rolls and egg salad sandwiches.

  “Getting there, thanks.”

  “Don’t you do too much today. No carrying. The girls and I can manage just fine.”

  “We should probably start,” I said.

  Mum glanced again at her watch, then scanned the roof terrace. “Shall we give it another five minutes? Make sure everyone gets a drink?”

  Her smile—fixed and too bright—was heartbreaking. Sam saw it. He stepped forward and took her arm. “Josie, do you think you could show me where you’ve put the salads? I just remembered I didn’t bring the dressing from downstairs.”

  “Where is she?”

  A ripple passed through the small crowd by the table. We turned toward the bellowing voice. “Jesus Christ, is it really up here, or is Thommo sending me on another wild-goose chase?”

  “Bernard!” My mother put down the napkins.

  My father’s face appeared above the parapet, scanning the rooftop. He climbed the last of the iron steps and blew out his cheeks as he surveyed the view. A light film of sweat shone on his forehead. “Why you had to do the damn thing all the way up here, Louisa, I have no idea. Jaysus.”

  “Bernard!”

  “It’s not a church, Josie. And I have an important message.”

  Mum gazed around her. “Bernard. Now is not the—”

  “And my message is—these.”

  My father bent over and with exaggerated care pulled up his trouser legs. First the left and then the right. From my position on the other side of the water tank I could see that his shins were pale and faintly blotchy. The rooftop fell silent. Everyone stared. He extended one leg. “Smooth as a baby’s backside. Go on, Josie, feel them.”

  My mother took a nervous step forward and stooped, sliding her fingers up my father’s shin. She hesitated, then patted her hand around it.

  “You said you’d take me seriously if I had my legs waxed? Well, there you are. I’ve done it.”

  My mother stared at him in disbelief. “You got your legs waxed?”

  “I did. And if I’d had any idea you were going through pain like that, love, I would have kept my stupid mouth shut. What fecking torture is that? Who the hell thinks that is a good idea?”

  “Bernard—”

  “I don’t care. I’ve been through hell, Josie. But I’d do it again if it means we could get things back on track. I miss you. So much. I don’t care if you want to do a hundred college courses—feminist politics, Middle Eastern studies, macramé for dogs, whatever—as long as we’re together. And to prove to you exactly how far I’d go for you, I’ve booked myself in again next week, for a back, sack, and—What is it?”

  “Crack,” said my sister unhappily.

  “Oh, God.” My mother’s hand flew to her neck.

  Beside me Sam had started to shake silently. “Stop them,” he murmured. “I’m going to bust my stitches.”

  “I’ll do the lot. I’ll go the full plucked ruddy chicken if it shows you what you mean to me.”

  “Oh, my days, Bernard.”

  “I mean it, Josie. That’s how desperate I am.”

  “And this is why our family doesn’t do romance,” muttered Treena.

  “What’s a crack, back, and wax?” asked Thomas.

  “Oh, love. I’ve missed the bones of you.” My mother put her arms around my father’s neck and kissed him. The relief on his face was palpable. He buried his head in her shoulder and then he kissed her again, her ear, her hair, holding her hands like a small boy.

  “Gross,” said Thomas.

  “So I don’t have to do the—”

  My mother stroked my father’s cheek. “We’ll cancel your appointment first thing.”

  My father visibly relaxed.

  “Well,” I said, when the commotion had died down, and it was clear from Camilla Traynor’s blanched complexion that Lily had just explained to her exactly what my father had planned to endure in the name of love, “I think we should do one last check of everyone’s glasses, and then maybe . . . we should start?”

  • • •

  What with the merriment over Dad’s grand gesture, Baby Traynor’s explosive nappy change, and the revelation that Thomas had been dropping egg sandwiches onto Mr. Antony Gardiner’s balcony (and his brand-new replacement Conran wicker-effect sun chair) below, it was another twenty minutes before the rooftop grew silent. Amid some surreptitious scanning of notes and clearing of throats, Marc stepped into the middle of the roof deck and gazed around. He was taller than I’d thought; I realized I had only ever seen him sitting down.

  “Welcome, everyone. First, I’d like to thank Louisa for offering us this lovely space for our end-of-term ceremony. There’s something rather appropriate about being this much closer to the heavens . . .” He paused for laughter. “This is a
n unusual final ceremony for us—for the first time we have some faces here who aren’t part of the group—but I think it’s a rather lovely idea to open up and celebrate among friends. Everyone here knows what it’s like to have loved and to have lost. So we are all honorary members of the group today.”

  Jake stood beside his father, a freckled, sandy-headed man who I unfortunately couldn’t look at without picturing him weeping after coitus. As I looked over, he reached out and gently pulled his son to him. Jake caught my eye and rolled his. But he smiled.

  “I like to say that although we’re called the Moving On Circle, none of us move on without a backward look. We move on always carrying with us those we have lost. What we aim to do in our little group is ensure that carrying them is not a burden, something that feels impossible to bear, a weight keeping us stuck in the same place. We want their presence to feel like a gift.

  “And what we learn through sharing our memories and our sadness and our little victories with one another is that it’s okay to feel sad. Or lost. Or angry. It’s okay to feel a whole host of things that other people might not understand, and often for a long time. Everyone has his or her own journey. We don’t judge.”

  “Except the biscuits,” muttered Fred. “I judge those Rich Teas. They were shocking.”

  “And that as impossible as it may feel at first, we will each get to a point where we can rejoice in the fact that every person we have discussed and mourned and grieved over was here, walking among us, and whether they were taken after six months or sixty years, we were lucky to have them.” He nodded. “We were lucky to have them.”

  I looked around me at the faces I had grown fond of, rapt with attention, and I thought of Will. I closed my eyes and recalled his face and his smile and his laugh and thought of what loving him had cost me, but mostly of what he had given me.

  Marc looked around at our little group. Daphne dabbed surreptitiously at the corner of her eye.

  “So . . . what we usually do now is just say a few words acknowledging where we are. It doesn’t have to be much. It’s just a closing of a door on this little bit of your journey. And nobody has to do it, but if you do, it can be a nice thing.”

  The group exchanged embarrassed glances, and for a moment it looked like nobody would say anything at all. Then Fred stepped up. He adjusted his handkerchief in his blazer pocket, and straightened a little.

  “I’d just like to say thank you, Jilly. You were a smashing wife and I was a lucky man for thirty-eight years. I will miss you every day, sweetheart.”

  He stepped back, a little awkwardly, and Daphne mouthed, “Very nice, Fred,” to him. She looked at her feet, adjusted her silk scarf, and then she stepped forward too.

  “I just wanted to say . . . I’m sorry. To Alan. You were such a kind man, and I wish we’d been able to be honest about everything. I wish I’d been able to help you. I wish—well, I hope you’re okay, and that—that you’ve got a nice friend, wherever you are.”

  Fred patted Daphne’s arm.

  Jake rubbed the back of his neck, then stepped forward, blushing, turning so that he faced his father. “We both miss you, Mum. But we’re getting there. I don’t want you to worry or anything.” When he finished, his father hugged him, kissing the top of his head and blinking hard, and I saw him exchange a small smile of understanding with Sam. Leanne and Sunil followed, each saying a few words, looking up at the sky to hide awkward tears or nodding silent encouragement at each other.

  William stepped forward and silently placed a white rose on the ground. Unusually short on words, he gazed down at it briefly, his face impassive, and then stepped back. Natasha gave him a little hug and he swallowed suddenly, audibly, then straightened up and folded his forearms across his chest.

  Marc looked at me and I felt Sam’s hand close around mine. I smiled at him and shook my head. “Not me. But Lily would like to say a few words, if that’s okay.”

  Lily chewed at her lip as she stepped into the middle of the circle. She glanced down at a bit of paper she had written on, then appeared to change her mind and crumpled it into a ball. “Um . . . I asked Louisa if I could do this too, even though, you know, I’m not a member of your group. I didn’t know my dad in person, and I never got to say good-bye to him at his funeral and I thought it would be nice to say a few words now that I sort of feel I know him a bit better.”

  She gave a nervous smile, and pushed a strand of hair from her face. She took a breath, and looked around her. “So. Will . . . Dad. When I first found out you were my real father, I’ll be honest, I was a bit freaked out. I had hoped my real dad was going to be this wise, handsome man who would want to teach me stuff and protect me and take me on trips to show me amazing places that he loved. And what I actually got was an angry man in a wheelchair who’d just, you know, killed himself. But because of Lou, and your family, over the last few months I’ve come to understand you a bit better.

  “I’ll always be sad and maybe even a bit angry that I never got to meet you, but now I want to say thank you too. You gave me a lot, without knowing it. I think I’m like you in good ways—and probably a few not-so-good ways. You gave me blue eyes and my hair color and the fact that I think Marmite is revolting, and the ability to do black ski runs and . . . Well, apparently you also gave me a certain amount of moodiness—that’s other people’s opinion, by the way, not mine.”

  There was a little ripple of laughter behind me.

  “But mostly you gave me a family I didn’t know I had. And that’s cool. Because to be honest it was not going that well before they all turned up.” Her smile wavered.

  “We’re very happy you turned up,” Georgina called out.

  I felt Sam’s fingers squeeze mine. He wasn’t meant to be standing this long, but, typically, he refused to sit down. I’m not a bloody invalid. I let my head rest against him, fighting the lump that had risen to my throat.

  “Thanks, G. So, um, Will . . . Dad, I’m not going to go on and on because speeches are boring and also that baby is going to start wailing any minute, which will totally harsh the mood. But I . . . I just wanted to say thank you, from your daughter, and that I . . . love you and I’ll always miss you, and I hope if you’re looking down and you can see me, you’re glad. That I exist.

  “Because, you know, me being here sort of means you’re still here, doesn’t it?” Lily’s voice cracked and her eyes filled with tears. Her gaze slid toward Camilla, who gave a small nod. Lily sniffed, and lifted her chin.

  “So, anyway. I thought maybe now would be a good time for everyone to release their balloons?”

  There was a barely perceptible release of breath, a few shuffled steps. Behind me the members of the Moving On Circle murmured among themselves, reaching into the gently bobbing bundle for a string.

  Lily was the first to step forward, holding her white helium balloon. She lifted her arm, then as an afterthought, stooped and picked a tiny blue cornflower from one of her pots and tied it carefully to the string. Then she straightened, raised her hand, and, after the smallest hesitation, released the balloon.

  I watched as Steven Traynor followed, saw Della’s gentle squeeze of his arm as he did so. Camilla released hers, then Fred, Sunil, Georgina, her arm linked with her mother’s. My mother, Treena, Dad, blowing his nose noisily into his handkerchief, and Sam. We stood in silence on the roof and watched the balloons sail upward, one by one into the clear blue sky, growing smaller and smaller until they were somewhere infinite, unseen.

  • • •

  I let mine go.

  30

  The man in the salmon-colored shirt was on his fourth Danish pastry, wedging great iced wads of it into his open mouth with chubby fingers, periodically sluicing it down with a pint of cold lager. “Breakfast of champions,” muttered Vera as she walked past me with a tray of glasses and made a fake gagging noise. I felt a fleeting, reflexive gratitude that I was no longer in charge of the Gents.

  “So, Lou! What does a man have to do to get some
service around here?” A short distance away, Dad had perched himself on a bar stool and was leaning over the bar examining the various beers. “Do I need to show a boarding card to buy a drink?”

  “Dad—”

  “Quick trip to Alicante to qualify for a beer? What do you think, Josie? Fancy it?”

  My mother nudged him. “We should look into it this year. We really should.”

  “You know, it’s not a bad ol’ place, this. Once you get past the daft idea of actual kids being allowed in an actual pub.” Dad shuddered and glanced behind him to where a young family, their flight evidently delayed, had spread a mixture of Legos and raisins all over the table while they eked out two coffees. “So what do you recommend, sweetheart, eh? What’s good on the old pumps?”

  I eyed Richard, who was approaching with his clipboard. “It’s all good, Dad.”

  “Apart from those outfits,” said Mum, eyeing Vera’s too-short green Lurex skirt.

  “Head Office,” said Richard, who had already endured two conversations with my mother about the objectification of women in the workplace. “Nothing to do with me.”

  “You got any stout there, Richard?”

  “We have Murphy’s, Mr. Clark. It’s a lot like Guinness, although I wouldn’t say as much to a purist.”

  “I’m no purist, son. If it’s wet and it says ‘beer’ on the label it’ll do for me.”

  Dad smacked his lips in approval and the glass was set down in front of him. My mother accepted a coffee with her “social” voice. She used it almost everywhere in London now, like a visiting dignitary being shown around a production line: So that’s a lah-tay, is it? Well, that looks simply lovely. And what a clever machine.

  My father patted the bar stool beside her. “Come and sit down, Lou. Come on. Let me buy my daughter a drink.”

  I glanced over at Richard. “I’ll have a coffee, Dad,” I said. “Thank you.”

  We sat at the bar in silence, as Richard served, and my father made himself at home, as he did in every bar he ever sat in, nodding a greeting to fellow bar dwellers, settling on his stool as if it were his favorite easy chair. It was as if the presence of a row of bottles and a hard surface on which to rest his elbows created an instant spiritual home. And at all times he kept within inches of my mother, patting her leg appreciatively or holding her hand. They barely left each other alone these days, heads pressed together, giggling like teenagers. It was utterly revolting, according to my sister. She told me before she set off for work that she had almost preferred it when they weren’t talking. “I had to sleep with earplugs last Saturday. Can you imagine the horror? Granddad looked quite white over breakfast.”

  Outside, a small passenger plane slowed on the runway and began taxiing toward the terminal, a man in a reflective jacket waving paddles to guide it in. Mum sat, handbag balanced on her lap, and gazed at it. “Thom would love this,” she said. “Wouldn’t he love this, Bernard? I reckon he’d stand at that window all day.”

  “Well, he can come now, can’t he, now he’s just up the road? Treena could bring him here at the weekend. I might come, too, if the beer’s any good.”

  “It’s lovely what you’ve done, letting them come and stay in your flat.” Mum watched the plane disappear from view, then turned to me, her voice dropping. “You know this will make all the difference to Treena, with her starting salary and all.”

  “Well. It made sense.”

  “Much as we’ll miss them, we know she can’t live with us forever. I know she appreciates it, love. Even if she doesn’t always show it.”

  I didn’t really care if she didn’t show it. I had realized something the moment she and Thom walked in through my front door with their cases of belongings and posters and Dad behind them bearing the plastic crate of Thom’s favorite Predacons and Autobots: that I could finally begin to feel okay about the flat that Will’s money had paid for.

  “Did Louisa mention that her sister is moving down here, Richard?” My mother now operated on the basis that pretty much everyone she met in London was her friend, and therefore keen to hear all developments in the Clark household. She had spent ten minutes this morning advising Richard on his wife’s mastitis, and couldn’t see any reason why she shouldn’t pop along and see his new baby. Then again, Maria the hotel loo attendant was actually coming for tea in Stortfold in two weeks’ time, with her daughter, so she wasn’t entirely wrong. “Our Katrina’s a great girl. Smart as a whip. If you ever need any help with your accounts, she’s your woman.”

  “I’ll bear it in mind.” Richard’s gaze met mine and slid away.

  I glanced up at the clock. A quarter to twelve. Something inside me fluttered like captive wings.

  “You all right, love?”

  You had to hand it to her. My mother never missed a thing.

  “I’m fine, Mum.”

  She squeezed my hand. “I’m so proud of you. You know that, don’t you? Everything you’ve achieved these past few months. I know it hasn’t been easy.” And then she turned and pointed. “Oh look! I knew he’d come. There you go, sweetheart. This is it!”

 
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