After you, p.7
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       After You, p.7

         Part #2 of Me Before You series by Jojo Moyes
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  “But that’s just a fairy-tale ending, isn’t it? Man dies, everyone learns something, moves on, creates something wonderful out of his death.” I was speaking without thinking now. “I’ve done none of those things. I’ve basically just failed at all of it.”

  “My dad cries nearly every time he shags someone who isn’t my mum,” Jake blurted out, twisting his hands together. He stared out from under his fringe. “He charms women into sleeping with him, and then afterward he gets off on being sad about it. It’s like as long as he feels guilty about it afterward then it’s okay.”

  “You think he uses his guilt as a crutch.”

  “I just think either you have sex and feel glad that you’re having all the sex—”

  “I wouldn’t feel guilty about having all the sex,” said Fred.

  “Or you treat women like human beings and make sure you don’t have anything to feel guilty about. Or don’t even sleep with anyone, and treasure Mum’s memory until you’re actually ready to move on.”

  His voice broke on the word treasure and his jaw grew taut. By then we were used to the sudden stiffening of expressions, and an unspoken group courtesy meant that we each looked away until any potential tears subsided.

  Marc’s voice was gentle. “Have you told your father how you feel, Jake?”

  “We don’t talk about Mum. He’s fine as long as, you know, we don’t actually mention her.”

  “That’s quite a burden for you to carry alone.”

  “Yeah. Well . . . that’s why I’m here, isn’t it?”

  There was a short silence.

  “Have a biscuit, Jake darling,” said Daphne, and we passed the tin back around the circle, vaguely reassured, in some way nobody could quite define, when Jake finally took one.

  I kept thinking about Lily. I barely registered Sunil’s tale of weeping in the baked-goods section of the supermarket, and just about raised a sympathetic expression for Fred’s solitary marking of Jilly’s birthday with a bunch of foil balloons. For days now the whole episode with Lily had now taken on the tenor of a dream, vivid and surreal.

  How could Will have had a daughter?

  • • •

  “You look happy.”

  Jake’s father was leaning against his motorbike as I walked across the car park of the church hall.

  I stopped in front of him. “It’s a grief-counseling session. I’m hardly going to come out tap dancing.”

  “Fair point.”

  “It’s not what you think. I mean, it’s not me,” I said. “It’s . . . to do with a teenager.”

  He tipped his head backward, spying Jake behind me. “Oh. Right. Well, you have my sympathies there. You look young to have a teenager, if you don’t mind my saying.”

  “Oh. No. Not mine! It’s . . . complicated.”

  “I’d love to give you advice. But I don’t have a clue.” He stepped forward and enveloped Jake in a hug, which the boy tolerated glumly. “You all right, young man?”

  “Fine.”

  “Fine,” Sam said, glancing sideways at me. “There you go. Universal response of all teenagers to everything. War, famine, lottery wins, global fame. It’s all fine.”

  “You didn’t need to pick me up. I’m going to Jools’s.”

  “You want a lift?”

  “She lives, like, there. In that block.” Jake pointed. “I think I can manage that by myself.”

  Sam’s expression remained even. “So, maybe text me next time? Save me coming here and waiting?”

  Jake shrugged and walked off, his backpack slung over his shoulder. We watched him go in silence.

  “I’ll see you later, yes, Jake?”

  Jake lifted a hand without looking back.

  “Okay,” I said. “So now I feel a tiny bit better.”

  Sam gave the slightest shake of his head. He watched his son go, as if, even now, he couldn’t bear to just leave him. “Some days he feels it harder than others.”

  And then he turned to look at me. “You want to grab a coffee or something, Louisa? Just so I don’t have to feel like the world’s biggest loser? It is Louisa, right?”

  I thought of what Jake had said in that evening’s session. On Friday Dad brought home this psycho blonde called Mags who is obsessed with him. When he was in the shower she kept asking me if he talked about her when she wasn’t there.

  The compulsive shagger. But he was nice enough and he had helped put me back together in the ambulance, and the alternative was another night at home wondering what had been going on in Lily Houghton-Miller’s head.

  “If we can talk about anything but teenagers.”

  “Can we talk about your outfit?”

  I looked down at my green Lurex skirt and my Irish dancing shoes. “Absolutely not.”

  “It was worth a try,” he said, and climbed onto his motorbike.

  • • •

  We sat outside at a near-empty bar a short distance from my flat. He drank black coffee, and I ordered a fruit juice.

  I had time to study him surreptitiously now that I wasn’t dodging cars in a car park, or lying strapped onto a hospital gurney. His features were coarser than Will’s. His nose held a telltale ridge, and his eyes crinkled in a way that suggested there was almost no human behavior he had not seen and, perhaps, been slightly amused by. He was tall and broad, and yet he moved with a kind of gentle economy, as if he had absorbed the effort of not damaging things just from his size. He was evidently more comfortable with listening than talking, or perhaps it was just that it was unsettling to be on my own with a man after so much time, because I found that I was gabbling. I talked about my job at the bar, making him laugh about Richard Percival and the horrors of my outfit, and how strange it had been to live briefly at home again, and my father’s bad jokes, and Granddad and his doughnuts, and my nephew’s unorthodox use of a blue marker pen. But I was conscious as I spoke, as so often happened these days, of how much I didn’t say: about Will, about the surreal thing that had happened to me the previous evening, about me. With Will I had never had to consider what I said; talking to him was as effortless as breathing. Now I was good at not really saying anything about myself at all.

  He just sat and nodded, watched the traffic go by and sipped at his coffee, as if it were perfectly normal for him to be passing the time with a feverishly chatting stranger in a green Lurex miniskirt.

  “So, how’s the hip?” he asked, when finally I ground to a halt.

  “Not bad. I’d quite like to stop limping, though.”

  “You’ll get there, if you keep up the physio.” For a moment, I could hear that voice from the back of the ambulance. Calm, unfazed, reassuring. “The other injuries?”

  I peered down at myself, as if I could see through what I was wearing. “Well, other than the fact that I look like someone’s drawn all over bits of me with a particularly vivid red pen, not bad.”

  Sam nodded. “You were lucky. That was quite a fall.”

  And there it was again. The sick lurch in my stomach. The air beneath my feet. You never know what will happen when you fall from a great height. “I wasn’t trying to—”

  “You said.”

  “But I’m not sure anyone believes me.”

  We exchanged an awkward smile and for a minute I wondered if he didn’t either.

  “So . . . do you pick up many people who fall off the tops of buildings?”

  He shook his head, gazed out across the road. “I just pick up the pieces. I’m glad that in your case the pieces fitted back together.”

  We sat in silence for a while longer. I kept thinking about things I should say, but I was so out of practice at spending time alone with a man—while sober, at least—that I kept losing my nerve, my mouth opening and closing like a goldfish’s.

  “So you want to tell me about the teenager?” Sam said.

  It was a relief to explain it to someone. I told him about the late-night knock at the door and our bizarre meeting and what I had found on Facebook, and how she
had run away before I’d had a chance to work out what on earth to do.

  “Whoa,” he said when I’d finished. “That’s . . .” He gave a little shake of his head. “You think she is who she says she is?”

  “She does look a bit like him. But I don’t honestly know. Am I looking for signs? Am I seeing what I want to see? It’s possible. I spend half my time thinking how amazing that there’s something of him left behind, and the other half wondering if I’m being a complete sucker. And then there is this whole extra layer of stuff in the middle—like, if this is his daughter, then how is it fair that he never even got to meet her? And how are his parents supposed to cope with it? And what if meeting her would actually have changed his mind? What if that would actually have been the thing that convinced him . . .” My voice tailed off.

  Sam leaned back in his chair, his brow furrowed. I could feel him studying me, perhaps reassessing what Will had meant to me.

  “I don’t know what to do,” I said. “I don’t know whether to seek her out, or whether I should just leave well enough alone.”

  He looked out at the city street, thinking. And then he said, “Well, what would he have done?”

  And just like that, I faltered. I gazed up at that big man with his direct gaze, his two-day stubble, and his kind, capable hands. And all my thoughts evaporated.

  “You okay?”

  I took a deep gulp of my drink, trying to hide what I felt was written clearly on my face. Suddenly, for no reason I could work out, I wanted to cry. It was too much. That odd, unbalancing night. The fact that Will had loomed up again, ever present in every conversation. I could see his face suddenly, that sardonic eyebrow raised, as if to say What on earth are you up to now, Clark?

  “Just . . . a long day. Actually, would you mind if I—”

  Sam pushed his chair back, stood up. “No. No, you go. Sorry. I didn’t think—”

  “This has been really nice. It’s just—”

  “No problem. A long day. And the whole grief thing. I get it. No, no—don’t worry,” he said, as I reached for my purse. “Really. I can stand you an orange juice.”

  I think I might have run to my car, in spite of my limp. I felt his eyes on me the whole way.

  • • •

  I pulled up in the car park and let out a breath I felt I’d been holding all the way from the bar. I glanced over at the Mini Mart, then back at my flat, and decided that I didn’t want to be sensible. I wanted wine, several large glasses of it, until I could persuade myself to stop looking backward. Or maybe not look at anything at all.

  My hip ached as I climbed out of the car. Since Richard had arrived, it hurt constantly; the physio at the hospital told me not to spend too much time on my feet. But the thought of saying as much to Richard filled me with dread.

  I see. So you work in a bar but you want to be allowed to sit down all day, is that it?

  That milk-fed, preparing-for-middle-management face; that carefully nondescript haircut. That air of weary superiority, even though he was barely two years older than me. I closed my eyes, and tried to make the knot of anxiety in my stomach disappear.

  “Just this please,” I said, placing a bottle of cold sauvignon blanc on the counter.

  “Party, is it?”

  “What?”

  “Fancy dress. You going as— Don’t tell me.” Samir stroked his chin. “Snow White.”

  “Sure,” I said.

  “You want to be careful with that. Empty calories, innit? You want to drink vodka. That’s a clean drink. Maybe a bit of lemon. That’s what I tell Ginny, across the road. You know she’s a lap dancer, right? They got to watch their figures.”

  “Dietary advice. Nice.”

  “It’s like all this stuff about sugar. You got to watch the sugar. No point buying the low-fat stuff if it’s full of sugar, right? There’s your empty calories. Right there. And them chemical sugars are the worst. They stick to your gut.”

  He rang up the wine, handed me my change.

  “What’s that you’re eating, Samir?”

  “Smoky Bacon Pot Noodle. It’s good, man.”

  I was lost in thought—somewhere in the dark crevasse between my sore pelvis, existential job-related despair, and a weird, sudden craving for a Smoky Bacon Pot Noodle—when I saw her. She was in the doorway of my block, sitting on the ground, her arms wrapped around her knees. I took my change from Samir, and half walked, half ran across the road.

  “Lily?”

  She looked up slowly.

  Her voice was slurred, her eyes bloodshot, as if she had been crying. “Nobody would let me in. I rang all the bells but nobody would let me in.”

  I wrestled the key into the door and propped it open with my bag, crouching down beside her. “What happened?”

  “I just want to go to sleep,” she said, rubbing at her eyes. “I’m so, so tired. I wanted to get a taxi home but I haven’t got any money.”

  I caught the sour whiff of alcohol. “Are you drunk?”

  “I don’t know.” She blinked at me, tilting her head. I wondered then if it was just alcohol. “If I’m not, you’ve totally turned into a leprechaun.”

  She patted her pockets. “Oh, look. Look what I’ve got!” She held up a half-smoked roll-up that even I could smell was not just tobacco. “Let’s have a smoke, Lily,” she said. “Oh, no. You’re Louisa. I’m Lily.” She giggled and, clumsily pulling a lighter from her pocket, promptly tried to light the wrong end.

  “Okay, you. Time to go home.” I took it from her hand and, ignoring her vague protests, squashed it firmly under my foot. “I’ll call you a taxi.”

  “But I don’t—”

  “Lily!”

  I glanced up. A young man stood across the street, his hands in his jeans pockets, watching us steadily. Lily looked up at him and then away.

  “Who is that?” I said.

  She stared at her feet.

  “Lily. Come here.” His voice held the surety of possession. He stood, legs slightly apart, as if even at that distance, he expected her to obey him. Something made me instantly uneasy.

  Nobody moved.

  “Is that your boyfriend? Do you want to talk to him?” I asked quietly.

  The first time she spoke I couldn’t make out what she said. I had to lean closer and ask her to repeat herself.

  “Make him go away.” She closed her eyes and turned her face toward the door. “Please.”

  He began to walk across the street toward us. I stood and tried to make my voice sound as authoritative as possible. “You can go now, thanks. Lily’s coming inside with me.”

  He stopped halfway across the road. I held his gaze.

  “You can speak to her some other time. Okay?”

  I had my hand on the buzzer, and now muttered at some imaginary, muscular, short-tempered, boyfriend. “Yeah. Do you want to come down and give me a hand, Dave? Thanks.”

  The young man’s expression suggested this was not the last of it. Then he turned, pulled his phone from his pocket, and began a low, urgent conversation with someone as he walked away, ignoring the beeping taxi that had to swerve around him, and casting us only the briefest of backward looks.

  I sighed, a little more shakily than I’d expected, put my hands under her armpits, and with not very much elegance and a fair amount of muffled swearing, managed to haul Lily Houghton-Miller into the lobby.

  • • •

  That night she slept at my flat. I couldn’t think what else to do with her. She was sick twice in my bathroom, batting me away when I tried to hold her hair up for her. She refused to give me a home phone number, or maybe couldn’t remember it, and her mobile phone was pin locked.

  I cleaned her up, helped her into a pair of my jogging bottoms and a T-shirt, and led her into the living room. “You tidied up!” she said, with a little exclamation, as if I had done it just for her. I made her drink a glass of water and put her on the sofa in recovery position, even though I was pretty sure by then that there was nothing le
ft inside her to come out.

  As I lifted her head and placed it on the pillow, she opened her eyes, as if recognizing me properly for the first time. “Sorry,” she said, so quietly that for a moment I couldn’t be entirely sure that that was what she had said at all, and her eyes brimmed briefly with tears.

  I covered her with a blanket and watched her as she fell asleep—her pale face, the blue shadows under her eyes, the eyebrows that followed the same curve that Will’s had, the same faint sprinkling of freckles.

  Almost as an afterthought, I locked the flat door and brought the keys into my bedroom with me, tucking them under my pillow to stop her stealing anything, or simply to stop her leaving, I wasn’t sure. I lay awake, my mind still busy with the sound of the sirens and the airport and the faces of the grieving in the church hall and the hard, knowing stare of the young man across the road and the knowledge that I had someone who was essentially a stranger sleeping under my roof. And all the while a voice kept saying: What on earth are you doing?

  But what else could I have done? Finally, some time after the birds started singing, and the bakery van unloaded its morning delivery downstairs, my thoughts slowed, and stilled, and I fell asleep.

  7

  I could smell coffee. It took me several seconds to consider why that aroma might be wafting through my flat and when the answer registered I sat bolt upright and leaped out of bed, hauling my hoodie over my head.

  She was sitting cross-legged on the sofa, smoking, using my one good mug as an ashtray. The television was on—some manic children’s show, full of brightly clad kids making clever faces—and two Styrofoam cups sat on the mantelpiece.

  “Oh, hi. That one on the right’s yours,” she said, turning briefly toward me. “I didn’t know what you liked so I got you an Americano.”

  I blinked, wrinkling my nose against the cigarette smoke. I crossed the room and opened a window. I looked at the clock. “Is that the time?”

  “Yeah. The coffee might be a bit cold. Didn’t know whether to wake you.”

  “It’s my day off,” I said, reaching for the coffee. It was warm enough. I took a slug gratefully. Then I stared at the cup. “Hang on. How did you get these? I locked the front door.”

  “I went down the fire escape,” she said. “I didn’t have any money so I told the guy at the bakery whose flat it was and he said you could bring him the money later. Oh, and you also owe him for two bagels with smoked salmon and cream cheese.”

  “I do?” I wanted to be cross, but I was suddenly really hungry.

  She followed my gaze. “Oh. I ate those.” She blew a smoke ring into the center of the room. “You didn’t have anything much in your fridge. You really do need to sort this place out.”

  The Lily of this morning was such a different character from the girl I had picked off the street last night that it was hard to believe they were the same person. I walked back into the bedroom to get dressed, listening to her watching television, padding into the kitchen to fetch herself a drink.

  “Hey, thingy . . . Louise. Could you lend me some money?” she called out.

  “If it’s to get off your face again, no.”

  She walked into my bedroom without knocking. I pulled my sweatshirt up to my chest.

 
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