A hundred pieces of me, p.1
A Hundred Pieces of Me, p.1Lucy Dillon
Also by Lucy Dillon
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Walking Back to Happiness
Lost Dogs and Lonely Hearts
The Ballroom Class
A Hundred Pieces of Me
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Hodder & Stoughton
An Hachette UK company
Copyright © Lucy Dillon 2014
The right of Lucy Dillon to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library
ISBN 978 1 444 72708 1
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
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For Patricia Routledge,
always an inspiration, more now than ever
A Q&A with Lucy Dillon
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Also by Lucy Dillon
ITEM: a red cashmere scarf
Longhampton, June 2008
Gina wraps her new scarf tightly around her wrist, like a bandage. It’s a scarlet cashmere one that she bought on the way home from work two days ago, the colour of lipstick and poisoned apples and danger. For something that cost so much, it took no time to buy: she was cold, she’d always wanted a beautiful big cashmere scarf, and the usual sensible voice of caution, reminding her of the gas bill or the council tax, had gone, and in the silence Gina could hear her own voice asking aloud, Why not?
‘Why not?’ always makes Gina feel queasy. She isn’t a ‘why not?’ sort of person. But this whole week has felt like careering downhill on a sledge, swerving and dodging as shock after shock has rushed at her. The price tag on the scarf didn’t even register.
The bright colour is still taking her by surprise. Gina doesn’t normally like red – her house and her wardrobe are calming shades of sea blue and slate grey – but something in the bold scarlet feels right. It looks alive against her pale skin, somehow Spanish against her wavy dark hair, her brown eyes. This red is bold and definite, grabbing attention, fixing her against the greyness of the town.
Gina’s extravagant scarf is the only giveaway of the reason she and Stuart are sitting here. The red slash lurking at the corner of her eye whispers that now is the time to indulge herself. Now might be the last chance to do it.
She glances at Stuart again, to see if he’s noticed the scarf. He hasn’t. He’s frowning over some notes he made for today’s consultation: he sat up until 2 a.m. in bed with his laptop while she was pretending to sleep, the greenish light reflecting the planes of his handsome face, his forehead lined with concentration.
Stuart’s absorbing everything. There’s a lot of information to absorb, on the Internet, from the hospital, from the friends of friends. Words and terms are floating around her but nothing will settle in her brain. They melt away like snowflakes as soon as they touch her.
The door behind them opens and Mr Khan hurries in, fresh from some other crisis, full of apologies for keeping them waiting. Stuart stiffens in his seat. Gina remembers the suspended moment in school exams when the invigilator coughed and told them to turn over their papers. Weeks and months hanging in the air, the desperate scrabble to go back, one more week’s revision, but it’s too late. It’s already over. Half panic, half relief.
‘Hello, Georgina . . . Gina?’ he says, with an easy smile. ‘Lovely, yes, Gina, and this is your . . .?’
‘Fiancé, Stuart Horsfield, hello,’ says Stuart, and Gina still thinks it sounds strange, but everything that’s happening to her seems to be happening to someone else. She grips his hand. It’s strong and comforting.
While Mr Khan flips through her notes Gina makes herself look around the room so she won’t try to read the scrawled words in front of him. Maybe that’s why doctors make their handwriting so bad, she thinks, so it can’t be read upside-down from the other side of the desk.
She notes everything deliberately. There’s a window, looking onto the car park, white gloss paint, a calendar and a candy-pink cyclamen (very hard to kill off). There’s a mirror on the wall by the door, simple, unframed, too far from the desk to be intended for the doctor.
A cool shiver of fear runs over Gina’s skin. It’s for the patients. So they can adjust their faces, wipe away their mascara smears before they go back to the silent waiting area outside. Stuart’s fingers tighten around hers.
Mr Khan clicks the lid back on his chunky silver fountain pen, pushing it in with his palm and letting a sigh escape from his downturned lips. He doesn’t smile. And that’s when Gina knows. She struggles to stay in the moment. Part of her is flying above it, her consciousness shooting backwards, out of her head, detaching her. Is this really happening to me? she wonders. How can I tell?
A bleak longing to go back sweeps through her, and she has to force herself to concentrate on the now.
‘So, Georgina,’ he says, ‘I’m afraid I have some bad news.’
ITEM: a gold blown-glass Christmas-tree decoration in the shape of an angel playing a trumpet
Longhampton, December 2013
Gina stands back and breathes in the sharp dark-green scent of the Douglas fir, and thinks, Yes, this is why I bought this house. For Christmas.
It’s an extravagantly tall, old-fashioned tree and it fills what she’d earmarked from their very first viewing as a specific Christmas-tree space in the black-and-white-tiled entrance hall of 2 Dryden Road. The springy branches are ready to be hung with glass baubles, topped with a star, the special iron tree-stand hidden by a pile of presents underneath. The final Victorian touch to a lovingly renovated Victorian family home.
Gina smiles at it, pleased. It’s taken a long time, renovating the house themselves, after work, at weekends. The mental picture of this tree, of this moment, has kept her going through the endless months of sanding, plastering, builders turning the electricity
As she reaches for the first bauble, a memory skims the back of her mind, moving too fast for her to place it: she’s filled with a sudden glow of contentment, a deep-red sort of Christmassy anticipation that wraps round her like a sudden soft blanket of joy. It’s more like déjà vu than a memory: the satisfying sensation of something clicking into place.
What is it? The smell of pine and cinnamon sticks? The slithery rustle of tinsel? The cosiness of the central heating ticking into life as the afternoon shadows start to fall? Gina probes in the shapeless depths of her early memories but can’t find the exact moment. She doesn’t have a lot of childhood memories, and the precious few she does have are blurred by over-examination, and she’s never sure whether she’s remembering actual facts, or something her mother’s told her happened. But this happy feeling is familiar.
It’s probably dressing the tree, she thinks, turning back to the box of ornaments in their tissue nest. It’s a tradition: first Saturday in December, tree goes up. Decorating it was always something she and her mum, Janet, did, just the two of them, listening to a Christmas compilation tape and sharing a tin of Roses, Gina handing the baubles to Janet, Janet fixing them in the same spots every year. They lived in lots of houses while Gina was growing up, but the tree routine was always the same.
Gina has a box of baubles, including some old favourites handed on by her mum, and she’s adopted Janet’s ritual of buying a new one every Christmas. She picks up the decoration she bought for this year: it’s a golden angel, playing a trumpet. Next year, she thinks, suddenly light inside with hope, will be better. It’s a long time since Gina’s felt simply content; the uncomplicated pleasure is so unfamiliar that she’s horrified by how long it’s been.
A few snowflakes blow past the window and Gina hopes it’s not snowing in the New Forest where Stuart’s office is on a Christmas jolly. Instead of their usual all-you-can-eat bonanza in the local Chinese restaurant, the whole sales department of Midlands Logistics has been treated to some sort of karting event, followed by a murder mystery dinner.
Stuart will almost certainly be leading one of the teams. He cycles; he plays cricket; he’s still captaining his football team at thirty-six, with his modest but determined attitude. The other football WAGs, most of whom have not-so-secret crushes on Stu, joke that he’s the Longhampton David Beckham. Without the tattoos. Obviously. Stuart’s not a fan of tattoos.
She hangs another silver bauble, then stops: it’d be nice to share this with Stu, she thinks. He shouldered the back-breaking part of the renovation when she wasn’t up to it; it’s only fair that they should share the fun stuff. Decorating the tree is something they should do together, a new tradition they can start of their own.
Gina puts the lid on the box so the cats can’t get into it, and goes through to the sitting room where she’s been ordering presents on her laptop. There aren’t that many shopping days left, and she’s barely started their family list. She turns up Phil Spector’s Christmas album to an indulgently loud level, but has only got as far as Stuart’s aunts when her credit card’s declined.
She checks again. Declined.
Gina frowns at it. It’s their joint card, the one that’s supposed to be for household bills. Stuart must have bought something big, probably for his bike – she’d paid off the balance last month in full, ready for Christmas. The website says the cut-off date for presents to Australia is Monday; if Auntie Pam in Sydney wants her usual tin of shortbread, it’s got to be sent today.
Gina chews her lip, then dials Stuart’s mobile. Her card’s already at the limit with her car’s MOT and insurance, and Pam’s his auntie. After two rings it goes to voicemail, which doesn’t surprise her – if he’s karting, his mobile will be sensibly stowed in his locker – so she calls his workmate Paul, who picks up after a couple of rings.
‘Hello, Paul, it’s Gina,’ she says, wandering around the sitting room, drawing the heavy curtains, clicking on the lamps. ‘Sorry to bother you – hope I’m not interrupting any murdering!’
‘Hey, Gina.’ Paul sounds as if he’s somewhere noisy: she can hear ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ by Slade in the background.
‘I’m trying to get hold of Stu. When he finishes what he’s doing, can you ask him to give me a ring?’
‘Um, yes. Are you supposed to refer to him as Hercule Poirot or something?’
Gina pauses in front of the mirror over the fireplace and stares at her reflection in the age-spotted glass; as usual, after a trip to the hairdresser, she doesn’t look like herself. Her short black hair is smooth, swooping across her long face in a sophisticated fringe that will last four more hours before frizzing. The haircut is part of her resolution to make more effort this year. More effort with her business, with Stuart, with . . . everything.
‘Gina? Sorry, I’m not with Stuart.’
‘He’s not with you?’
‘Not unless he’s stupid enough to be in Cribbs Causeway shopping!’ Paul pauses, then laughs. ‘Oh, bollocks, I’ve probably blown his big surprise, haven’t I? He’ll be out getting your present from somewhere. What’ll it be this year? A kayak?’
‘Yes, that’s probably it.’ Gina tries to laugh. She can’t. Her face feels heavy, her cheeks suddenly doughy. ‘Ha! Sorry to bother you, Paul. Have a good weekend!’
She hangs up and, half-heartedly, tries on Paul’s explanation, but it doesn’t fit.
Stuart packed a weekend bag; he ironed his own shirts. He told her several times – once too many, come to think of it – that it was a karting weekend, then a murder mystery dinner, and they’d be busy from Friday morning through to Sunday afternoon but not to worry if she couldn’t get hold of him because the hotel was in a forest with no reception ‘which is best for team-building’.
Too much detail. Stuart’s even an over-efficient liar.
Gina sinks onto the sofa, still gripping her phone, and Loki, the less disdainful of their two cats, shoots away from her.
She has to force the two concepts to mesh. Stuart: lying. Reliable, upright Stuart, who got the decorations down from the attic for her before he left, who emptied the bins and changed the cat litter.
All practical things, she realises. Thoughtful, but housemate-y. That’s what they are, after five years of marriage, housemates. Her last birthday present had been a sander, for the upstairs floorboards.
The weird thing is, Gina doesn’t feel devastated, just sad. It’s only confirmed something she realises now that she already knew. Has known for months, but not wanted to acknowledge. She’s been buying how-to-fix-your-relationship books and hiding them in the airing cupboard; Stuart’s just been more practical, as usual.
She gazes at her half-dressed tree out in the hall. It’s making a cookie-cutter Christmas-tree shape against the pale blue staircase behind, and underneath the dull ache that’s filling her chest like gravel, Gina feels a faint flutter of that elusive happiness.
Something pushes her towards the tree, to finish decorating the branches. There’s at least half a day before he gets back when this house is going to be perfect. It deserves it.
Gina levers herself off the sofa and sleepwalks into the hall, to her box of decorations and memories. While the Ronettes sing in the background, she carries on slipping glass baubles onto the knotty pine branches, breathing in the rosemary-scented resin and letting the dark heart of the tree fill her senses until there’s no room for any thoughts about the future or the past.
Outside, beyond the glossy holly wreath and the brass knocker on the freshly painted front door, it snows.
It was no coincidence, thought Gina, gazing around her empty new flat, that Heaven was commonly assumed to be a big white room with
She stepped towards the big picture window with its panoramic view over the brown and grey rooftops beyond the high street, and experienced a strange elation like sparkling mineral water rinsing through her veins. She hadn’t expected to feel quite so positive about the first day of her new life, single, in a new place. The last few weeks had been hard, and Gina’s bones ached with invisible bruises, but now underneath there was a first-day-of-school excitement.
Fresh paint. Empty rooms. Smooth walls, ready to be filled, like a brand-new notebook.
Some of it was adrenalin at having sold the house and rented this new flat in just a fortnight. Some of it was relief to be away from the atmosphere that had hung over Dryden Road after Stuart’s bombshell, which, like an actual bombshell, had left a sort of miserable crater where Christmas was supposed to have been. Even though he’d moved out almost as soon as he’d admitted where he’d really been that weekend (Paris), his presence had lingered in every stray sock and framed holiday photo, of which there were many. Almost overnight, Gina felt as if she’d woken up in the house of a happily married couple of strangers.
She knew that was her own fault, which only made it worse. She’d deliberately set out to make Dryden Road into a sort of scrapbook of her and Stuart’s life together: it was feathered with tiny mementoes of parties and anniversaries, and quirky collections in frames. Gina never met a shelf she couldn’t fill, which was why it came as a bit of surprise to feel so instantly at home in the cloud-like emptiness of this modern flat, above the optician’s, next to the deli.
A Hundred Pieces of Me by Lucy Dillon / History & Fiction / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes