After you, p.4
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       After You, p.4

         Part #2 of Me Before You series by Jojo Moyes
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  “Oh fat,” he insisted, again.

  “Right.” She said, and smiled kindly.

  “Please, Granddad.” I felt hot and dizzy, like I might faint. They might have still been talking but my ears were ringing so loudly I couldn’t tell.

  “’Bye-bye,” he said.

  “’Bye then,” said the girl.

  “Nice,” said Granddad as we emerged into the sunlight. Then, looking at me: “Why you crying?”

  • • •

  So here is the thing about being involved in a catastrophic, life-changing event. You think it’s just the catastrophic, life-changing event that you’re going to have to deal with: the flashbacks, the sleepless nights, the endless running back over events in your head, asking yourself if you had done the right thing, said the things you should have said, whether you could have changed things had you done them even a degree differently.

  My mother had told me that being there with Will at the end would affect the rest of my life, and I had thought she meant me, psychologically. I thought she meant the guilt I would have to learn to get over, the grief, the insomnia, the weird, inappropriate bursts of anger, the endless internal dialogue with someone who wasn’t even there. But what I now discovered is that it wasn’t just me. I had become that person and in a digital age I would be that person forever. It was in that faint swivel of heads when you walked through a busy street—“Is that—?” Even if I managed to wipe the whole thing from my memory, I would never be allowed to disassociate from Will’s death. My name would always be tied to his. People would form judgments about me based on the most cursory knowledge—or sometimes no knowledge at all—and there was nothing I could do about it.

  I cut my hair into a bob. I changed the way I dressed, bagged up everything that had ever made me distinctive, and stuffed those bags into the back of my wardrobe. I adopted Treena’s uniform of jeans and a generic tee. Now, when I read newspaper stories about the bank teller who had stolen a fortune, the woman who had killed her child, the sibling who had disappeared, I found myself not shuddering in horror, as I once might have, but wondering instead at the part of the story that hadn’t made it into print.

  What I felt with them was a weird kinship. I was tainted. The world around me knew it. Worse, I had started to know it too.

  • • •

  I tucked what remained of my dark hair into a beanie and put on my sunglasses and then I walked to the library, doing everything I could not to let my limp show, even though it made my jaw ache with concentration.

  I made my way past the singing-toddler group in the children’s corner, and the silent genealogy enthusiasts trying to confirm that, yes, they were distantly connected to King Richard III, and I sat down in the corner with the archived files of the local papers. It wasn’t hard to locate August 2009. I took a breath, then I opened them halfway, and flicked through the headlines.

  LOCAL MAN ENDS HIS LIFE AT SWISS CLINIC

  Traynor Family Asks for Privacy at “Difficult Time”

  The 35-year-old son of Steven Traynor, custodian of Stortfold Castle, has ended his life at Dignitas, the controversial center for assisted suicide. Mr. Traynor was left quadriplegic after a traffic accident in 2007. He apparently traveled to the clinic with his family and his caregiver, Louisa Clark, 27, also from Stortfold.

  Police are investigating the circumstances surrounding the death. Sources say they have not ruled out the possibility that a prosecution may arise.

  Louisa Clark’s parents, Bernard and Josephine Clark, of Renfrew Road, refused to comment.

  Camilla Traynor, a Justice of the Peace, is understood to have stood down from the bench following her son’s suicide. A local source said her position, given the actions of the family, had become “untenable.”

  ”And then there it was—Will’s face, looking out from the grainy newspaper photograph. That slightly sardonic smile, that direct gaze. I felt, briefly, winded.

  Mr. Traynor’s death ends a successful career in the City, where he was known as a ruthless asset stripper, but also as someone with a sure eye for a corporate bargain. His colleagues yesterday lined up to pay tribute to a man they described as

  I closed the newspaper, and let out a breath. When I could be sure that I had got my face under control, I looked up. Around me the library hummed with quiet industry. The toddlers kept singing, their reedy voices chaotic and meandering, their mothers clapping fondly around them. Behind me, the librarian and a colleague were discussing, sotto voce, the best way to make Thai curry. The man beside me ran his finger down an ancient electoral roll, murmuring: “Fisher, Fitzgibbon, Fitzwilliam.”

  I had done nothing. It was more than eighteen months and I had done nothing but tend bar in two different countries and feel sorry for myself. And now, after four weeks back in the house I grew up in, I could feel Stortfold reaching out to suck me in, to reassure me that I could be fine here. It would be all right. There might be no great adventures, sure, and a bit of discomfort as people adjusted to my presence here again. But there were worse things, right? Than to be with your family, loved and secure? Safe?

  I looked down at the pile of newspapers in front of me. The most recent front page headline read:

  ROW OVER DISABLED PARKING SPACE IN FRONT OF POST OFFICE

  I thought back to Dad, sitting on my hospital bed, looking in vain for a report of an extraordinary accident.

  I failed you, Will. I failed you in every way possible.

  • • •

  You could hear the shouting all the way up the street when I finally arrived home. As I opened the door my ears were filled with the sound of Thomas wailing. My sister, her finger wagging, was scolding him in the corner of the living room. Mum was leaning over Granddad with a washing-up bowl of water and a scouring pad, while Granddad politely batted her away.

  “What’s going on?”

  Mum moved to the side and I saw Granddad’s face clearly for the first time. He was sporting a new set of jet black eyebrows and a thick black, slightly uneven mustache.

  “Permanent pen,” said Mum. “From now on nobody is to leave Granddad napping in the same room as Thomas.”

  “You have to stop drawing on things!” Treena was yelling. “Paper only, okay? Not walls. Not faces. Not Mrs. Reynolds’s dog. Not my pants.”

  “I was doing you days of the week!”

  “I don’t need days-of-the-week pants!” she shouted. “And if I did I would spell Wednesday correctly!”

  “Don’t scold him, Treen,” said Mum, leaning back to see if she’d had any effect. “It could be a lot worse.”

  In our little house Dad’s footsteps coming down the stairs sounded like a particularly emphatic roll of thunder. He barreled his way into the front room, his shoulders hunched in frustration, his hair standing up on one side. “Can’t a man get a nap in his own house on his day off? This place is like a ruddy madhouse.”

  We all stopped and stared at him.

  “What? What did I say?”

  “Bernard—”

  “Ah, come on. Our Lou doesn’t think I mean her—”

  “Oh, my sweet Lord.” Mum’s hand flew to her face.

  My sister had started to push Thomas out of the room. “Oh, boy,” she hissed. “Thomas, you better get out of here right now. Because I swear when your granddaddy gets hold of you—”

  “What?” Dad frowned. “What’s the matter?”

  Granddad barked a laugh. He held up a shaking finger.

  It was almost magnificent. Thomas had colored in the whole of Dad’s face with blue marker pen. His eyes emerged like two gooseberries from a sea of cobalt blue. “What?”

  Thomas’s voice, as he disappeared down the corridor, was a wail of protest. “We were watching Avatar! He said he wouldn’t mind being an Avatar!”

  Dad’s eyes widened. He strode to the mirror over the mantelpiece.

  There was a brief silence.

  “Oh, my God.”

  “Bernard—don’t take the Lord’s
name in vain.”

  “He’s turned me bloody blue, Josie. I think I’m entitled to take the Lord’s name to Butlins in a flipping wheelbarrow. Is this permanent pen? THOMMO? IS THIS PERMANENT PEN?”

  “We’ll get it off, Dad.” My sister closed the door to the garden behind her. Beyond it you could just make out the sound of Thomas wailing.

  “I’m meant to be overseeing the new fencing at the castle tomorrow. I have contractors coming. How the hell am I meant to deal with contractors if I’m blue?”

  Dad spat on his hand and started to rub at his face. The faintest smudging appeared, but mostly the ink seemed to spread onto his palm.

  “It’s not coming off. Josie, it’s not coming off!”

  Mum shifted her attention from Granddad and set about Dad with the scouring pad. “Just stay still, Bernard. I’m doing what I can.”

  Treena went for her laptop bag. “I’ll go on the Internet. I’m sure there’s something. Toothpaste or nail polish remover or bleach or—”

  “You are not putting bleach on my ruddy face!” Dad roared. Granddad, with his new pirate mustache, sat giggling in the corner of the room.

  I began to edge past them.

  Mum was holding Dad’s face with her left hand as she scrubbed. She turned, as if she’d only just seen me.

  “Lou! I didn’t ask—are you okay, love? Did you have a nice walk?” Everyone stopped, abruptly, to smile at me; a smile that said Everything’s okay here, Lou. You don’t have to worry. I realized I hated that smile.

  “Fine.”

  It was the answer they all wanted. Mum turned to Dad.

  “That’s grand. Isn’t it grand, Bernard?”

  “It is. Great news.”

  “If you sort out your whites, love, I’ll pop them in the wash with Daddy’s later.”

  “Actually,” I said, “don’t bother. I’ve been thinking. It’s time for me to go home.”

  Nobody spoke. Mum glanced at Dad. Granddad let out another little giggle and clamped his hand over his mouth.

  “Fair enough,” said Dad, with as much dignity as a middle-aged, blueberry-colored man could muster. “But if you go back to that flat, Louisa, you go on one condition . . .”

  4

  My name is Natasha and I lost my husband to cancer three years ago.”

  On a humid Monday night, the members of the Moving On Circle sat in a ring of orange office chairs in the Pentecostal church hall, alongside Marc, the leader, a tall, mustachioed man whose whole being exuded a kind of exhausted melancholy, and one empty chair.

  “I’m Fred. My wife Jilly died in September. She was seventy-four.”

  “Sunil. My twin brother died of leukemia two years ago.”

  “William. Dead father, six months ago. All a bit ridiculous, frankly, as we never really got on when he was alive. I keep asking myself why I’m here.”

  There was a peculiar scent to grief. It smelled of damp, imperfectly ventilated church halls and poor-quality teabags. It smelled of meals for one and stale cigarettes, smoked hunched against the cold. It smelled of spritzed hair and armpits, little practical victories against a morass of despair. That smell alone told me I did not belong here, whatever I had promised Dad.

  I felt like a fraud. Plus they all looked so . . . sad.

  I shifted uneasily in my seat, and Marc caught me. He nodded and gave me a reassuring smile. We know, it said. We have been here before.

  I bet you haven’t, I responded silently.

  “Sorry. Sorry I’m late.” The door opened, letting in a blast of warm air, and the empty chair was taken by a mop-headed teenager who folded his limbs into place like they were always somehow too long for the space they were in.

  “Jake. You missed last week. Everything okay?”

  “Sorry. Dad messed up at work and he couldn’t get me here.”

  “Don’t worry. It’s good you made it. You know where the drinks are.”

  The boy glanced around the room from under his long fringe, hesitating slightly when his gaze landed on my glittery skirt. I pulled my bag onto my lap in an attempt to hide it and he looked away.

  “Hello, dear. I’m Daphne. My husband took his own life. I don’t think it was the nagging!” The woman’s half laugh seemed to leak pain. She patted her carefully set hair and looked down awkwardly at her knees. “We were happy. We were.”

  The boy’s hands were tucked under his thighs. “Jake. Mum. Two years ago. I’ve been coming here for the past year because my dad can’t deal with it, and I needed someone to talk to.”

  “How is your dad this week, Jake?” said Marc.

  “Not bad. I mean, he brought a woman home last Friday night, but, like, he didn’t sit on the sofa and cry afterward. So that’s something.”

  “Jake’s father is handling his own grief in his own way,” Marc said in my direction.

  “Shagging,” said Jake. “Mostly shagging.”

  “I wish I was younger,” said Fred, wistfully. He was wearing a tie, the kind of man who considers himself undressed without one. “I think that would have been a marvelous way to handle Jilly dying.”

  “My cousin picked up a man at my aunt’s funeral,” said a woman in the corner who might have been called Leanne; I couldn’t remember. She was small and round and had a thick fringe of chocolate-colored hair.

  “Actually during the funeral?”

  “She said they went to a Travelodge after the sandwiches.” She shrugged. “It’s the heightened emotions, apparently.”

  I was in the wrong place. I could see that now. Surreptitiously, I began to gather my belongings, wondering whether I should announce my leaving, or whether it would be simpler to just run.

  And then Marc turned to me and smiled expectantly.

  I looked blankly at him.

  He raised his eyebrows.

  “Oh. Me? Actually—I was just leaving. I think I’ve . . . I mean, I don’t think I’m—”

  “Oh, everyone wants to leave on their first day, dear.”

  “I wanted to leave on my second and third too.”

  “That’s the biscuits. I keep telling Marc we should have better biscuits.”

  “Just tell us the bare bones of it, if you like. Don’t worry. You’re among friends.”

  They were all looking, waiting. I realized I couldn’t run. I hunched back into my seat.

  “Um. Okay. Well, my name’s Louisa and the man I . . . I loved . . . died at thirty-five.”

  There were a few nods of sympathy around the room.

  “Too young. When did this happen, Louisa?”

  “Twenty months ago. And a week. And two days.”

  “Three years, two weeks, and two days.” Natasha smiled at me from across the room.

  There was a low murmur of commiseration. Daphne, beside me, reached out a plump, beringed hand and patted my leg.

  “We’ve had many discussions in this room about the particular difficulties when someone dies young,” said Marc. “How long were you together?”

  “Uh. We . . . well . . . a little less than six months.”

  A few barely hidden looks of surprise.

  “That’s—quite brief,” a voice said.

  “I’m sure Louisa’s pain is just as valid,” said Marc smoothly. “And how did he pass, Louisa?”

  “Pass what?”

  “Die,” said Fred, helpfully.

  “Oh. He—uh—he took his own life.”

  “That must have been a great shock.”

  “Not really. I knew he was planning it.”

  There is a peculiar sort of silence, it turns out, when you tell a room full of people who think they know everything there is to know about the death of a loved one that they don’t.

  I took a breath.

  “He knew he wanted to do it before I met him. I tried to change his mind and I couldn’t. So I went along with it because I loved him, and it seemed to make sense at the time. And now it makes a lot less sense. Which is why I’m here.”

  “Death never m
akes sense,” said Daphne.

  “Unless you’re Buddhist,” said Natasha. “I keep trying to think Buddhist thoughts but I’m worried that Olaf is going to come back as a mouse or something and I’m going to poison him.” She sighed. “I have to put poison down. We have a terrible mouse problem in our block.”

  “You’ll never get rid of them. They’re like fleas,” said Sunil. “For every one you see there are hundreds of them behind the scenes.”

  “You might want to think about what you’re doing, Natasha, love,” said Daphne. “There could be hundreds of little Olafs running around. My Alan could be one of them. You could actually be poisoning the both of them.”

  “Well,” said Fred, “if it’s Buddhist, it’d just come back as something else, wouldn’t it?”

  “But what if it’s a fly or something and Natasha kills that too?”

  “I’d hate to come back as a fly,” said William. “Horrible, black, hairy things.” He shuddered.

  “I’m not, like, some mass murderer,” said Natasha. “You’re making it sound like I’m out there slaughtering everyone’s reincarnated husbands.”

  “Well, that mouse might be someone’s husband. Even if it isn’t Olaf.”

  “I think we should try to steer this session back on track,” said Marc, rubbing his temple. “Louisa, it’s brave of you to come and tell your story. Why don’t you tell us a bit more about how you and—what was his name?—how you met. You’re in a circle of trust here. We have all pledged that these stories go no farther than these walls.”

  It was at this point that I happened to catch Jake’s eye. He glanced at Daphne, then at me, and shook his head subtly.

  “I met him at work,” I said. “And his name was . . . Bill.”

  • • •

  Despite what I had promised Dad, I hadn’t planned to attend the Moving On Circle. But my return to work had been so awful that by the time the day ended I hadn’t been able to face going home to an empty flat.

  “You’re back!” Carly had placed the cup of coffee on the bar, taken the businessman’s change, and hugged me, all while dropping the coins into the correct sections of the till drawer, in one fluid motion. “What the hell happened? We heard you had an accident. I wasn’t even sure you were coming back.”

  “Long story.” I stared at her. “Uh . . . what are you wearing?”

  Nine o’clock on Monday morning and the airport had been a blue-gray blur of men charging laptops, staring into iPhones, reading the City pages, or talking discreetly into handsets about market share. Carly caught the eye of someone on the other side of the till. “Yeah. Well, things have changed since you’ve been gone.”

  I turned to see a businessman standing on the wrong side of the bar. I blinked at him and put my bag down. “Um—if you’d like to wait there, I’ll serve you—”

 
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