After you, p.6
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       After You, p.6
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         Part #2 of Me Before You series by Jojo Moyes

  “Not out here, no.”

  I opened the door to the length of the safety chain, so that we were eye to eye.

  “You’re going to have to give me more than that.”

  She couldn’t have been more than sixteen, the dewy plumpness of youth still just visible in her cheeks. Her hair long and lustrous. Long, skinny legs in tight black jeans. Flicky eyeliner in a pretty face.

  “So . . . who did you say you were?” I said.

  “Lily. Lily Houghton-Miller. Look,” she said, and lifted her chin an inch. “I need to talk to you about my father.”

  “I think you have the wrong person. I don’t know anyone called Houghton-Miller. There must be another Louisa Clark who you’ve confused me with.”

  I made to shut the door, but she had wedged the toe of her shoe in it. I looked down at it, and slowly back up at her.

  “Not his name,” she said, as though I were stupid. And when she spoke, her eyes were both fierce and searching. “His name is Will Traynor.”

  • • •

  Lily Houghton-Miller stood in the middle of my living room and surveyed me with the detached interest of a scientist gazing at a new variety of manure-based invertebrate.

  “Wow. What are you wearing?”

  “I—I work in an Irish pub.”

  “Pole dancing?” Having apparently lost interest in me, she pivoted slowly, gazing at the room. “This is where you actually live? Where’s your furniture?”

  “I . . . just moved in.”

  “One sofa, one television, two boxes of books?” She nodded toward the chair on which I sat.

  My breathing was still unbalanced, as I tried to make any kind of sense at all out of what she told me. I stood up. “I’m going to get a drink. Would you like something?”

  “I’ll have a Coke. Unless you’ve got wine.”

  “How old are you?”

  “Why do you want to know?”

  “I don’t understand.” I stood behind the kitchen counter and shook my head at her. “Will didn’t have children. I would have known.” I frowned at her, suddenly suspicious. “Is this some kind of joke?”

  “A joke?”

  “Will and I talked . . . a lot. He would have told me.”

  “Yeah. Well, turns out he didn’t. And I need to talk about him to someone who is not going to totally freak out like the rest of my family does every time I even mention his name.”

  She picked up the card from my mother and put it down again. “I’m hardly going to say it as a joke. I mean, yeah. My real dad: some sad bloke in a wheelchair. Like that’s funny.”

  I handed her a glass of water. “But who . . . who is your family? I mean, who is your mother?”

  “Have you got any cigarettes?” She had started pacing around the room, touching things, picking up the few belongings I had and putting them down. When I shook my head, she said: “My mother is called Tanya. Tanya Miller. She’s married to my stepdad, who is called Francis Stupid Fuckface Houghton.”

  “Nice name.”

  She put down the water and pulled a packet of cigarettes from her bomber jacket and lit one. I was going to say she couldn’t smoke in my home, but I was too taken aback, so I simply walked over to the window and opened it.

  I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I could maybe see little hints of Will. It was in her blue eyes and vaguely caramel coloring. It was in the way she tilted her chin slightly before she spoke, her unblinking stare. Or was I seeing what I wanted to see? She gazed out of the window at the street below.

  “Lily, before we go on there’s something I need to—”

  “I know he’s dead,” she said. She inhaled sharply and blew the smoke into the center of the room. “I mean, that was how I found out. There was some documentary on television about assisted suicide and they mentioned his name and Mum totally freaked out for no reason and ran to the bathroom and Fuckface went after her so obviously I listened outside. And she was in total shock because she hadn’t even known that he ended up in a wheelchair. I heard the whole thing. I mean it’s not like I didn’t know Fuckface wasn’t my real dad. It’s just that my mum only ever said my real dad was an asshole who didn’t want to know me.”

  “Will wasn’t an asshole.”

  She shrugged. “He sounded like one. But anyway, when I tried to ask her questions she just started totally flipping out and said that I knew everything about him that I needed to know and Fuckface Francis had been a better dad to me than Will Traynor ever would have been and I really should just leave it alone.”

  I sipped my water. I had never wanted a glass of wine more.

  “So what did you do?”

  She shrugged, took another drag of her cigarette. “I Googled him, of course. And I found you.”

  • • •

  I needed to be alone to digest what she had told me. It was too overwhelming. I didn’t know what to make of the spiky girl who walked around my living room, making the air around her crackle.

  “So did he not say anything about me at all?”

  I was staring at her shoes—ballerina pumps, heavily scuffed as if they had spent too much time shuffling around London streets. I felt suddenly suspicious, as if I were being reeled in.

  “How old are you, Lily?”

  “Sixteen. Do I at least look like him? I saw a picture on Google images, but I was thinking maybe you had a photograph?” She gazed around the living room. “Are all your photographs in boxes?”

  She eyed the cardboard crates in the corner, and I wondered whether she would actually open them up and start pawing through them. I knew one of them contained Will’s jumper. And I felt a sudden panic.

  “Um. Lily. This is all . . . quite a lot to take in. And if you are who you say you are then we . . . we do have a lot to discuss. But it’s nearly eleven o’clock at night, and I’m not sure this is the time to start. Where do you live?”

  “St. John’s Wood.”

  “Well. Uh. I think your parents are going to be wondering where you are. Why don’t I give you my number and we—”

  “I can’t go home.” She turned to face the window, flicked the ash out with a practiced finger. “Strictly speaking, I’m . . . I’m not even meant to be here. I’m meant to be at school. Weekly boarding. They’ll all be freaking out now because I’m not there.” She pulled out her phone, as an afterthought, and grimaced at whatever she saw on its screen, then shoved it back into her pocket.

  “Well, I’m . . . not sure what I can do other than—”

  “I thought maybe I could stay here? Just tonight? And then you could tell me some more stuff about him?”

  “Stay here? No. No. I’m sorry, you can’t. I don’t know you.”

  “But you did know my dad. Did you say you think he didn’t actually know about me?”

  “You need to go home. Look, let’s call your parents. They can come and collect you. Let’s do that and I—”

  She stared at me. “I thought you’d help me.”

  “I will help you, Lily. But this isn’t the way to—”

  “You don’t believe me, do you?”

  “I—I have no idea what to—”

  “You don’t want to help. You don’t want to do anything. What have you actually told me about my dad? Nothing. How have you actually helped? You haven’t. Thanks.”

  “Hold on! That’s not fair—we’ve only just—”

  But the girl flicked her cigarette butt out of the window and turned to walk past me out of the room.

  “What? Where are you going?”

  “Oh, what do you care?” she said, and before I could say anything more, the front door had slammed and she was gone.

  • • •

  I sat very still on my sofa, trying to digest what had just happened for the better part of an hour, Lily’s voice ringing in my ears. Had I heard her correctly? I went over and over what she had told me, trying to recall it all over the buzz in my ears.

  My father was Will Traynor.

  Lily’s mo
ther had apparently told her Will had not wanted anything to do with her. But surely he would have mentioned something to me. We had no secrets from each other. Weren’t we the two people who had managed to talk about everything? For a moment I wobbled: Had Will not been as honest with me as I had believed? Had he actually possessed the ability simply to airbrush an entire daughter out of his conscience?

  When I realized my thoughts were chasing each other in circles, I grabbed my laptop. I sat cross-legged on the sofa and typed “Lily Hawton-Miller” into a search engine, and when that came up with no results, I tried again with various spellings, settling on “Lily Houghton-Miller,” which brought up a number of hockey-fixture results posted by a school called Upton Tilton in Shropshire. I called up some of the images, and as I zoomed in, there she was: an unsmiling girl in a row of smiling hockey players. Lily Houghton-Miller played a brave, if unsuccessful defense. It was dated two years ago. Boarding school. She said she was meant to be at boarding school. But it still didn’t mean she was any relation of Will’s, or indeed that her mother had been telling the truth about her parentage.

  I altered the search to just the words “Houghton-Miller,” which brought up a short diary item about Francis and Tanya Houghton-Miller attending a banking dinner at the Savoy, and a planning application from the previous year for a wine cellar under a house in St. John’s Wood.

  I sat back, thinking, then did a search on “Tanya Miller” and “William Traynor.” It turned up nothing. I tried again, using “Will Traynor,” and suddenly I was on a Facebook thread dated some eighteen months ago, for alumni of Durham University, on which several women, all of whose names seemed to end in “ella”—Estella, Fenella, Arabella—were discussing Will’s death.

  I couldn’t believe it when I heard it on the news. Him of all people! RIP Will.

  Nobody gets through life unscathed. You know Rory Appleton died in the Turks and Caicos, in a speed-boating accident?

  Didn’t he do Geography? Red hair?

  No, PPE.

  I’m sure I snogged Rory at the Freshers Ball. Enormous tongue.

  I’m not being funny, Fenella. That’s rather bad taste. The poor man is dead.

  Wasn’t Will Traynor the one who went out with Tanya Miller for the whole of the third year?

  I don’t see how it’s in poor taste to mention that I may have kissed someone just because they then went on to pass away.

  I’m not saying you have to rewrite history. It’s just his wife might be reading this, and she might not want to know that her beloved stuck his tongue in the face of some girl on Facebook.

  I’m sure she knows his tongue was enormous. I mean, she married him.

  Rory Appleton got married?

  Here’s the link. Tanya married some banker. I always thought she and Will would get married when we were at uni. They were so gorgeous.

  I clicked on the link, which showed a picture of a reed-thin blond woman with an artfully tousled chignon smiling as she stood on the steps of a registry office with an older dark-haired man. A short distance away, at the edge of the picture, a young girl in a white tulle dress was scowling. She bore a definite resemblance to the Lily Houghton-Miller I had met. But the image was seven years old, and in truth it could have portrayed any grumpy young bridesmaid with long midbrown hair.

  I reread the thread, and closed my laptop. What should I do? If she really was Will’s daughter, should I call the school? I was pretty sure there were rules about strangers who tried to contact teenage girls.

  And what if this really was some elaborate scam? Will had died a wealthy man. It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that somebody could think up an intricate scheme by which to leach money from his family. When Dad’s mate Chalky died of a heart attack, seventeen people had turned up at the wake telling his wife he owed them betting money.

  I would steer clear, I decided. There was too much potential for pain and disruption if I got this wrong.

  But when I went to bed it was Lily’s voice I heard, echoing in the silent flat.

  Will Traynor was my father.

  6

  Sorry. My alarm didn’t go off.” I rushed past Richard and hung my coat on the peg, pulling my synthetic skirt down over my thighs.

  “Three quarters of an hour late. This is not acceptable.”

  It was 8:30 a.m. We were, I noted, the only two people in the bar.

  Carly had left; she hadn’t even bothered telling Richard to his face. She simply sent a text message telling him she would return the sodding uniform at the end of the week, and that as she was owed two weeks sodding holiday pay she was taking her sodding notice in lieu. If she had bothered to read the employment handbook, he had fumed, she would have known that taking notice in lieu of holiday was completely unacceptable. It was there in Section 3, as clear as day, if she had cared to look. And the sodding language was simply unnecessary.

  He was now to go through the due processes to find a replacement. Which meant that until due processes were completed it was just me. And Richard.

  “I’m sorry. Something . . . came up at home.”

  I had woken with a start at seven thirty, unable for several minutes to recall what country I was in or what my name was, and had lain on my bed, unable to move, while I mulled over the previous evening’s events.

  “A good worker doesn’t bring their home life to the workplace with them,” Richard intoned, as he pushed past me with his clipboard. I watched him go, wondering if he even had a home life. He never seemed to spend any time there.

  “Yeah. Well. A good employer doesn’t make his employee wear a uniform Stringfellow’s would have rejected as tacky,” I muttered, as I tapped my code into the till, pulling the hem of my Lurex skirt down with my free hand.

  He turned swiftly and walked back across the bar.

  “What did you say?”

  “Nothing.”

  “Yes, you did.”

  “I said I’ll remember that for next time. Thank you very much for reminding me.” I smiled sweetly at him. He looked at me for several seconds longer than was comfortable for either of us. And then he said: “The cleaner is off sick again. You’ll need to do the Gents before you start on the bar.”

  His gaze was steady, daring me to say something. I reminded myself that I could not afford to lose this job.

  I swallowed. “Right.”

  “Oh, and cubicle three’s a bit of a mess.”

  “Jolly good,” I said.

  He turned on his highly polished heel and walked back into the office. I sent mental voodoo arrows into the back of his head the whole way.

  • • •

  “This week’s Moving On Circle is about guilt. Survivor’s guilt, guilt that we didn’t do enough. . . . It’s often these emotions that keep us from moving forward.”

  Marc waited as we handed around the biscuit tin, and then leaned forward on his plastic chair, his hands clasped in front of him. He ignored the low rumbling of discontent that there were no bourbon creams.

  “I used to get ever so impatient with Jilly,” Fred said into the silence. “When she had the dementia, I mean. She would put dirty plates back in the kitchen cupboards and I would find them days later and . . . I’m ashamed to say I did shout at her a couple of times.” He wiped at an eye. “She was such a house-proud woman, before. That was the worst thing.”

  “You lived with Jilly’s dementia a long time, Fred. You’d have to have been superhuman not to find it a strain.”

  “Dirty plates would drive me mad,” said Daphne. “I think I would have shouted something terrible.”

  “But it wasn’t her fault, was it?” Fred straightened on his chair. “I think about those plates a lot. I wish I could go back. I’d wash them up without saying a word. Just give her a nice cuddle instead.”

  “I find myself fantasizing about men on the tube,” said Natasha. “Sometimes when I’m riding up on the escalator, I exchange a look with some random man going down. And then before I’ve even got
to platform 2 I’ve started building whole relationships between us, in my head. You know, where he runs back up the escalator because he just knows there is something magical between us, and we stand there, gazing at each other amid the crowds of commuters on the Piccadilly line and then we go for a drink, and before you know it, we are—”

  “Sounds like a Richard Curtis movie,” said William.

  “I like Richard Curtis movies,” said Sunil. “Especially that one about the actress and the man in his pants.”

  “Shepherd’s Bush,” said Daphne.

  There was a short pause. “I think it’s Notting Hill, Daphne,” Marc said.

  “I preferred Daphne’s version. What?” said William, snorting. “We’re not allowed to laugh now?”

  “So in my head we’re getting married,” said Natasha. “And then when we’re standing at the altar, I think, What am I doing? Olaf only died three years ago and I’m fantasizing about other men.”

  Marc leaned back in his chair. “You don’t think that’s natural, after three years by yourself? To fantasize about other relationships?”

  “But if I had really loved Olaf, surely I wouldn’t think about anyone else?”

  “It’s not the Victorian age,” said William. “You don’t have to wear widow’s weeds till you’re ancient.”

  “If it was me who’d died, I would hate the thought of Olaf falling in love with someone else.”

  “You wouldn’t know,” said William. “You’d be dead.”

  “What about you, Louisa?” Marc had noticed my silence. “Do you suffer feelings of guilt?”

  “Can we . . . can we do someone else?”

  “I’m Catholic,” said Daphne. “I feel guilty about everything. It’s the nuns, you know.”

  “What do you find difficult about this subject, Louisa?”

  I took a swig of coffee. I felt everyone’s eyes on me. Come on, I told myself. I swallowed. “That I couldn’t stop him,” I said. “Sometimes I think if I had been smarter, or . . . handled things differently . . . or just been more—I don’t know. More anything.”

  “You feel guilty about Bill’s death because you feel you could have stopped him?”

  I pulled at a loose thread. When it came away in my hand it seemed to loosen something in my brain. “Also that I’m living a life that is so much less than the one I promised him I’d live. And guilt over the fact that he basically paid for my flat when my sister will probably never be able to afford one of her own. And guilt that I don’t even really like living in it because it doesn’t feel like mine and it feels wrong to make it nice because all I associate it with is the fact that W—Bill is dead and somehow I benefitted from that.”

  There was a short silence.

  “You shouldn’t feel guilty about property,” said Daphne.

  “I wish someone would leave me a flat,” said Sunil.

 
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