After you, p.5
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       After You, p.5
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         Part #2 of Me Before You series by Jojo Moyes

  “You must be Louise.” He thrust out a hand. His handshake was emphatic and without warmth. “I’m the new bar manager. Richard Percival.”

  I took in his slick hair, his suit, his pale blue shirt, wondering what kind of bars he had actually managed. “Nice to meet you.”

  “You’re the one who has been off for two months.”

  “Well. Yes. I—”

  He walked along the optics, scanning each bottle. “I just want you to know that I’m not a fan of people taking endless sick leave.”

  My neck shifted a few centimeters back in my collar.

  “I am just laying down a marker, Louise. I’m not one of those managers who turn a blind eye. I know that in many companies time off is pretty much considered a staff perk. But not in companies where I work.”

  “Believe me, I have not thought of the last nine weeks as a perk.”

  He examined the underside of a tap and rubbed at it meditatively with his thumb.

  I took a breath before I spoke. “I fell off a building. Perhaps I could show you my surgery scars. So, you know, you can be reassured that I’m unlikely to want to do it again.”

  He stared at me. “There’s no need to be sarcastic. I’m not saying you’re about to have other accidents, but your sick leave is pro rata, at an unusually high level for someone who has worked for this company a relatively short time. That’s all I wanted to point out. That it has been noted.”

  He wore cuff links with racing cars on them.

  “Message received, Mr. Percival.” I said. “I’ll do my best to avoid further near-fatal accidents.”

  “You’ll need a uniform. If you give me five minutes I’ll get one out of the stockroom. What size are you? Twelve? Fourteen?”

  I stared at him. “Ten.”

  He raised an eyebrow. I raised one back. As he walked off toward the stockroom, Carly leaned over from the coffee machine and smiled sweetly in his direction. “Utter, utter bell end,” she said, from the side of her mouth.

  • • •

  She wasn’t wrong. From the moment I returned, Richard Percival was, in the words of my father, all over me like a bad suit. He measured my measures, inspected every corner of the bar for molecular peanut crumbs, was in and out of the loos checking on hygiene, and wouldn’t let us leave until he had stood over us cashing up and ensuring each till roll matched takings to the last penny.

  I no longer had time to chat with the customers, to look up departure times, hand over lost passports, contemplate the planes we could see taking off through the great glass window. I didn’t even have time to be irritated by Celtic Panpipes Vol. III. If a customer was left waiting to be served for more than ten seconds, Richard would magically appear from his office, sighing ostentatiously, then apologize loudly and repeatedly for the fact that they had been kept waiting so long. Carly and I, usually busy with other customers, would exchange secret glances of resignation and contempt.

  He spent half the day meeting with reps, the other half on the phone to the head office, bleating about “footfall” and “spend per head.” We were encouraged to upsell the disgusting dry-roasted peanuts with every transaction, and taken to one side for a talking-to if we forgot. All that was bad enough.

  But then there was the uniform.

  Carly came into the Ladies as I was finishing getting changed and stood beside me in front of the mirror. “We look like a pair of eejits,” she said.

  Not content with dark skirts and white shirts, some marketing genius high up the corporate ladder had decided that the atmosphere of the Shamrock and Clover chain would benefit from genuine Irish clothing. This genuine Irish clothing was evidently thought up by someone who believed that across Dublin, right this minute, businesswomen and checkout girls were pirouetting their way across their workplaces dressed in embroidered tabards, knee-high socks, and lace-up dancing shoes, all in glittering emerald green. With accompanying curly ringlet wigs.

  “Jesus. If my boyfriend saw me dressed like this he’d dump me.” Carly lit a cigarette and climbed up on the sink to disable the smoke alarm on the ceiling. “Mind you, he’d probably want to do me first. The perv.”

  “What do the men have to wear?” I pulled my short skirt out at the sides and eyed Carly’s lighter nervously, wondering how flammable I was.

  “Look outside. There’s only Richard. And he has to wear that shirt with a green logo. The poor thing.”

  “That’s it? No pixie shoes? Or little leprechaun hats?”

  “Surprise, surprise. It’s only us girls who have to work looking like porno Munchkins.”

  “I look like Dolly Parton: The Early Years in this wig.”

  “Grab a red one. Lucky us, we have a choice of three colors.”

  From somewhere outside we could hear Richard calling. My stomach had begun to clench reflexively when I heard his voice.

  “Anyway, I’m not staying. I’m going to Riverdance my way out of this place and into another job,” Carly said. “He can stick his bloody shamrocks up his tight little corporate arse.” She had given what I could only describe as a sarcastic skip, and left the Ladies. I spent the rest of the day getting little electric shocks from the static.

  • • •

  The Moving On Circle ended at half past nine. I walked out into the humid summer evening, exhausted by the twin trials of work and the evening’s events. Too hot, I shrugged off my jacket, feeling suddenly that having laid myself bare in front of a room full of strangers, being seen in a faux Irish dancer uniform that was, in truth, ever so slightly too small, didn’t really make much difference.

  I hadn’t been able to talk about Will; not the way they talked, as if their loved ones were still part of their lives, perhaps in a room next door.

  Oh, yes, my Jilly used to do that all the time.

  I can’t delete my brother’s voice mail message. I have a little listen to his voice when I feel like I’m going to forget what he sounds like.

  Sometimes I can hear him in the next room.

  I could barely even say Will’s name. And listening to their tales of family relationships, of thirty-year marriages, shared houses, lives, children, I felt like a fraud. I had been a caregiver for someone for six months. I loved him and watched him end his life. How could these strangers possibly understand what Will and I had been to each other during that time? How could I explain the way we had so swiftly understood each other, the shorthand jokes, the blunt truths and raw secrets? How could I convey the way those short months had changed the way I felt about everything? The way he had skewed my world so totally that it made no sense without him in it?

  And when it came down to it, what was the point in reexamining your sadness all the time anyway? It was like picking away at a wound and refusing to let it heal. I knew what I had been part of. I knew what my role was. What was the point in going over and over it?

  I wouldn’t come next week, I knew now. I would find an excuse for Dad.

  I walked slowly across the car park, rummaging in my bag for my car keys, telling myself it had at least meant that I didn’t have to spend another evening alone in front of my television, dreading the passing of the twelve hours until I had to return to work.

  “His name wasn’t really Bill, right?”

  Jake fell into step alongside me.

  “Nope.”

  “Daphne’s like a one-woman broadcasting corporation. She means well, but your personal story will be all over her social club before you can say rodent reincarnation.”

  “Thanks for that.”

  He grinned at me, and nodded toward my Lurex skirt. “Nice threads, by the way. It’s a good look for a grief counseling session.”

  He stopped briefly to retie a shoelace. I stopped with him.

  I hesitated, then said, “I’m sorry about your mum.”

  He looked down, his face somber. “You can’t say that. It’s like prison. You can’t ask someone what they’re in for.”

  “Really? Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t—”
r />
  He looked up and grinned. “I’m joking. See you next week.”

  A man leaning against a motorbike lifted a hand in greeting. He stepped forward as Jake crossed the car park and enveloped him in a bear hug, kissing the side of his cheek. I stopped to watch, mostly because it was rare to see a man hug his son like that in public, once they were over bookbag-carrying age.

  “How was it?”

  “Okay. The usual.” Jake gestured to me. “Oh, this is . . . Louisa. She’s new.”

  The man squinted at me. He was tall and broad-shouldered. A nose that just might have once been broken gave him the faintly bruising appearance of a former boxer.

  I nodded a polite greeting. “It was nice to meet you, Jake. ’Bye then.” I lifted a hand and began to make my way to my car. But as I passed, the man kept staring at me, and I felt myself slowly start to color under the intensity of his gaze.

  “You’re that girl,” he said.

  Oh no, I thought, slowing suddenly. Not here too.

  I stared at the ground for a moment and took a breath. Then I turned back to face them both. “Okay. As I’ve just made clear in the group, my friend made his own decisions. All I ever did was support them. Not that, if I’m honest, I really want to get into this right here and with a complete stranger.”

  Jake’s father continued to squint at me. He lifted his hand to his head.

  “I understand that not everybody will get it. But that’s the way it was. I don’t feel I have to debate my choices. And I’m really tired and it’s been a bit of a day, and I think I’m going to go home now.”

  He cocked his head to one side.

  And then he said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

  I frowned.

  “The limp. I noticed you have a limp. You live near that massive new development, right? You’re the girl who fell off the roof. March. April.”

  And suddenly I recognized him.

  “Oh—you were—”

  “The paramedic. We were the team who picked you up. I’d been wondering what happened to you.”

  I felt myself almost buckle with relief. I let my gaze run over his face, his hair, his arms, suddenly recalling with Pavlovian accuracy his reassuring manner, the sound of the siren, the faint scent of lemons. And I let out a breath. “I’m good. Well. Not good exactly. I have a shot hip and a new boss who’s an utter arse and—you know—I’m at a grief counseling group in a damp church hall with people who are just really, really . . .”

  “Sad,” said Jake, helpfully.

  “The hip will get better. It’s plainly not hindering your dance career.”

  My laugh emerged as a honk.

  “Oh. No. This is . . . the outfit is related to the boss who is an arse. Not my normal mode of dress. Anyway. Thank you. Wow . . .” I put my hand to my head. “This is weird. You saved me.”

  He shook his head. “It’s good to see you. We don’t often get to see what happens afterward.”

  “You did a great job. It was . . . well, you were really kind. I remember that much.”

  “De nada.”

  I stared at him.

  “De nada. Spanish. It was nothing.”

  “Oh, okay, then. I take it all back. Thanks for nothing.”

  He smiled, turned away, and raised a paddle-sized hand.

  Afterward, I didn’t know what made me do it. “Hey.”

  He looked back toward me. “It’s Sam, actually.”

  “Sam. I didn’t jump.”

  “Okay.”

  “No. Really. I mean, I know you’ve just seen me coming from a grief-counseling group and everything but it’s—well, I just—I wouldn’t jump.”

  He gave me a look that seemed to suggest he had seen and heard everything. “Good to know.”

  We gazed at each other for a minute. Then he lifted his hand again. “Nice to see you again, Louisa.”

  He pulled on a helmet and Jake climbed onto the bike behind him. I found myself watching as they pulled out of the car park. And because I was still watching I just caught Jake’s exaggerated eye roll as he pulled on his own helmet. And then I remembered what he had said in the session.

  The compulsive shagger.

  “Idiot,” I told myself, and limped across the rest of the Tarmac to where my car was boiling gently in the evening heat.

  5

  I lived on the edge of the City. In case I was in any doubt, across the road stood a huge office block–sized crater, surrounded by a developer’s boarding upon which was written: Farthingate—Where the City Begins. We existed at the exact point where the glossy glass temples to finance butted up against the grubby old brick-and-sash windows of curry shops and twenty-four-hour grocers, of stripper pubs and minicab offices that resolutely refused to die. My block sat among these architectural refuseniks, a lead-stained warehouse-style building staring at the steady onslaught of glass and steel and wondering how long it could survive, perhaps rescued by a hipster juice bar or pop-up retail experience. I knew nobody by name except for Samir, who ran the Mini Mart, and the woman in the bagel bakery, who smiled at me but didn’t seem to speak any English.

  Mostly this anonymity suited me. I had come here, after all, to escape my history, from feeling as if everyone knew everything there was to know about me. And the city had begun to alter me. I had come to know my little corner of it, its rhythms and its danger points. I learned that if you gave money to the drunk at the bus station he would come and sit outside your flat for the next eight weeks; that if I had to walk through the estate at night it was wise to do it with my keys lodged between my fingers; that if I was walking out to get a late-night bottle of wine it was probably better not to glance at the group of young men huddled outside the Kebab Korner. I was no longer disturbed by the periodic whump whump whump of the police helicopter overhead.

  I could survive. Besides, I knew, better than anyone, that there were worse things that could happen.

  • • •

  “Hey.”

  “Hey, Lou. Can’t sleep again?”

  “It’s just gone ten o’clock here.”

  “So what’s up?”

  Nathan, Will’s former physio, had spent the last nine months in New York, working for a middle-aged Wall Street CEO with a four-story townhouse, and a muscular condition. Calling him during my sleepless small hours had become something of a habit. It was good to know there was someone who understood, out there in the dark, even if sometimes his news felt tinged with a series of small blows—everyone else has moved on. Everyone else has achieved something.

  “So how’s the Big Apple?”

  “Not bad?” His antipodean drawl made every answer a question.

  I lay down on the sofa, putting my feet up on the armrest.“Yeah. That doesn’t tell me a whole lot.”

  “Okay. Well, got a pay rise, so that was cool. Booked myself a flight home in a couple of weeks to see the olds. So that’ll be good. They’re all over the moon because my sister’s having a baby. Oh, and I met a really fit bird in a bar down on Sixth Avenue and we were getting on real well so I asked her out, and when I told her what I did, she said sorry but she only went out with guys who wore suits to work.” He started to laugh.

  I found I was smiling. “So scrubs don’t count?”

  “Apparently not. Though she did say she might have changed her mind if I was an actual doctor.” He laughed again. Nothing phased Nathan. “It’s cool. Girls like that get all picky if you don’t take them to the right restaurants and stuff. Better to know sooner, right? How about you?”

  I shrugged. “Getting there. Sort of.”

  “You still sleeping in his T-shirt?”

  “No. It stopped smelling of him. And it had started to get a bit unsavory, if I’m honest. I washed it and I’ve packed it in tissue. But I’ve got his jumper for bad days.”

  “Good to have backup.”

  “Oh, and I went to the grief-counseling group.”

  “How was it?”

  “Crap. I fe
lt like a fraud.”

  Nathan waited. I shifted the pillow under my head.

  “Did I imagine it all, Nathan? Sometimes I think I’ve made what happened between Will and me so much bigger in my head. Like how can I have loved someone that much in such a short time? And all these things I think about the two of us—did we actually feel what I remember? The further we get from it, the more that six months just seems like this weird . . . dream.”

  There was a tiny pause before Nathan responded. “You didn’t imagine it, mate.”

  I rubbed my eyes. “Am I the only one? Still missing him?”

  Another short silence.

  “He was a good bloke. The best.”

  That was one of the things I liked about Nathan. He didn’t mind a lengthy phone silence. I finally sat up and blew my nose. “Anyway. I don’t think I’ll go back. I’m not sure it’s my thing.”

  “Give it a go, Lou. You can’t judge anything from one session.”

  “You sound like my dad.”

  “Well, he always was a sensible fella.”

  I started at the sound of the doorbell. Nobody ever rang my doorbell, aside from Mrs. Nellis in flat 12, when the postman had accidentally swapped our mail. I doubted she was up at this hour. And I certainly was not in receipt of her Elizabethan Doll partwork magazine.

  It rang again. A third time, shrill and insistent.

  “I’ve got to go. Someone’s at the door.”

  “Keep your pecker up, mate. You’ll be okay.”

  I put the phone down and stood up warily. I had no friends nearby. I hadn’t worked out how you actually made them when you moved to a new area and you spent most of your upright hours working. And if my parents had decided to stage an intervention and bring me back to Stortfold, they would have organized it between rush hours as neither of them liked driving in the dark.

  I waited, wondering if whoever it was would simply realize their mistake and go away. But it rang again, jarring and endless, as if the person was now leaning against the bell.

  I got up and walked to the door. “Who is it?”

  “I need to talk to you.”

  A girl’s voice. I peered through the peephole. She was looking down at her feet, so I could only make out long chestnut hair and an oversized bomber jacket. She swayed slightly, rubbed at her nose. Drunk?

  “I think you have the wrong flat.”

  “Are you Louisa Clark?”

  I paused.

  “How do you know my name?”

  “I need to talk to you. Can you just open the door?”

  “It’s almost half past ten at night.”

  “Yeah. That’s why I’d rather not be standing here in your corridor.”

  I had lived here long enough to know not to open my door to strangers. In this area of town it was not unusual to get the odd junkie ringing bells speculatively in hope of cash. But this was a well-spoken girl. And young. Too young to be one of the journalists who had briefly fixated on the story of the handsome former whiz kid who had decided to end his life. Too young to be out this late? I angled my head, trying to see if there was anyone else in the corridor. It appeared to be empty.

  “Can you tell me what it’s about?”

 
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