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Ebook Miss You (novel) By Kate Eberlen | Epub, Text

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  1. mukul
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    Miss You
    by Kate Eberlen
    English | 2016 | A Novel | ePub, Text | 689 kb
    [​IMG]
    In the tradition of One Day, a wryly romantic story about two strangers who meet briefly as teens in Florence and whose paths cross again many times over the course of the next sixteen years, until they’re finally brought back together

    What if the person you’re looking for is standing right next to you, and you don’t even know it?

    “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” reads the motto on a plate in the kitchen at home, and Tess can’t get it out of her head, even though she’s in Florence for a final, idyllic holiday before she starts university in London.

    Gus and his parents are also visiting Florence, seven months after their lives changed suddenly and tragically. Gus, headed to medical school, is trying to be a dutiful son, but he longs to escape and discover who he really is.

    On that day, the paths of an eighteen-year-old girl and boy criss-cross before they each return to England, to futures that are wildly different from the ones they’d envisioned for themselves.

    Over the course of the next sixteen years, life and love will offer them very different challenges. Separated by distance and fate, there’s no way the two of them are ever going to meet each other—until they each find themselves back in Florence, all those years later….

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    From The review (Amazon)
    MISS YOU is a story of missed connections about two people who are perfect for each other but never meet over the course of fifteen years.

    Tess and Gus first meet briefly in Florence as teenagers—she while on holiday with her best friend, Doll and he while on a trip with his parents who are still grieving after losing his older brother in a skiing accident. Over the next several years, both of their lives take them on journeys neither of them saw coming. Serendipitously, they almost meet again several times over many years.

    For much of the novel both Tess and Gus struggle with their own identity. After losing his brother (his parent’s favorite son), he doesn’t want to disappoint them and enrolls in university to study medicine, all the while knowing that medicine isn’t the calling of his heart. Meanwhile, Tess’s plans of studying English and writing are scrapped when tragedy strikes her family and she chooses to take care of her little sister.

    What this book does well is crafting two likable but flawed characters. Gus and Tess make choices along the way with which the reader may not always agree. But these seemingly poor choices take the characters on paths that bring them close to meeting but never quite do, something that can be tortuously frustrating for the reader. This novel deeply explores the idea of fate and how people come into our lives for a reason. The tension between autonomy, destiny, and fate is something that is perhaps a bit controversial but leaves room for a lot of discussion.

    When I read the synopsis over a year ago (prior to the U.K. publication even), I was immediately taken by the whole “missed connection” premise. I’ve read a missed connection type of romance before that didn’t really work because the novel leaned too much on its premise and not enough on character development. I felt like this novel had really great character development, since the two characters are living completely separate lives, but still felt like it suffered from far too many coincidences.

    This book is being marketed mostly as a romance. If you read the synopsis, you might think this a romance novel. I think it fits more in the women’s fiction category that it does for romance because the romance between Tess and Gus is so short in page count.

    The whole novel builds to the two finally meeting, but the romance part of the novel seemed like an afterthought. Maybe if Tess and Gus had actually had a moment as teenagers to hold on to and carry their love story for nearly 400 more pages it would have worked. But here, the reader is given just a couple passing conversations with no romantic substance (or even the promise of one) and then we go on to learn about these two people separately, who go though similar journeys. When Tess and Gus meet up again, the intense romantic connection we are asked to immediately believe in felt stale and far too rushed.

    If I had to rate the book as a romance, I would probably only give it 2 stars. But looking at the novel as a whole and ignoring the frustrating and short-lived love story we were given, I really liked reading about Gus and Tess’s separate lives.


    About The Author:
    Kate Eberlen grew up in a small town thirty miles from London and spent her childhood reading books and longing to escape. She studied Classics at Oxford University before pursuing various jobs in publishing and the arts. Recently, Kate trained to teach English as a foreign language with a view to spending more time in Italy. Kate is married with one son.


    Download: Miss You (Novel) by Kate Eberlen | ePub | 689 kb |

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  2. mukul
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    Miss You
    by Kate Eberlen
    English | 2016 | A Novel | Text

    PART ONE
    1
    August 1997
    TESS

    In the kitchen at home, there was a plate that Mum bought on holiday in Tenerife with a hand-painted motto: Today is the first day of the rest of your life.

    It had never registered with me any more than Dad’s trophy for singing, or the New York snow dome my brother Kevin sent over one Christmas, but that last day of the holiday, I couldn’t seem to get it out of my head.

    When I woke up, the inside of the tent was glowing orange, like a pumpkin lantern. I inched the zipper door down carefully so as not to wake Doll, then stuck my face out into dazzling sunlight. The air was still a little bit shivery and I could hear the distant clank of bells. I wrote the word ‘plangent’ in my diary with an asterisk next to it so I could check it in the dictionary when I got home.

    The view of Florence from the campsite, all terracotta domes and white marble towers shimmering against a flat blue sky, was so like it was supposed to be, I had this strange feeling of sadness, as if I was missing it already.

    There were lots of things I wouldn’t miss, like sleeping on the ground – after a few hours, the stones feel like they’re growing into your back – and getting dressed in a space less than three feet high, and walking all the way to the shower block, then remembering you’ve left the toilet roll in the tent. It’s funny how when you get towards the end of a holiday, half of you never wants it to end and the other half is looking forward to the comforts of home.

    We’d been Interrailing for a month, down through France, then into Italy, sleeping on stations, drinking beer with Dutch boys on campsites, struggling with sunburn in slow, sticky trains. Doll was into beaches and Bellinis; I was more maps and monuments, but we got along like we always had since we met on the first day at St Cuthbert’s, aged four, and Maria Dolores O’Neill – I was the one who abbreviated it to Doll – asked, ‘Do you want to be my best friend?’

    We were different, but we complemented each other. Whenever I said that, Doll always said, ‘You’ve got great skin!’ or ‘I really like those shoes,’ and if I told her it wasn’t that sort of compliment, she’d laugh, and say she knew, but I was never sure she did. You develop a kind of special language with people you’re close to, don’t you?

    My memories of the other places we went to that holiday are like postcards: the floodlit amphitheatre in Verona against an ink-dark sky; the azure bay of Naples; the unexpectedly vibrant colours of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but that last, carefree day we spent in Florence, the day before my life changed, I can retrace hour by hour, footstep by footstep almost.

    Doll always took much longer than me getting ready in the mornings because she never went out without full make-up even then. I liked having time on my own, especially that morning because it was the day of my A-level results and I was trying to compose myself for hearing if I’d done well enough to get into university.

    On the way up to the campsite the previous evening, I’d noticed the floodlit facade of a church high above the road, pretty and incongruous like a jewel box in a forest. In daylight, the basilica was much bigger than I’d imagined, and as I climbed the grand flights of baroque steps towards it, I had the peculiar thought that it would make the perfect setting for a wedding, which was unlike me because I’d never had a proper boyfriend then, let alone pictured myself in a long white dress.

    From the terrace at the top, the view was so exhilarating, I felt an irrational urge to cry as I promised myself solemnly – like you do when you’re eighteen – that I would one day return.

    There was no one else around, but the heavy wooden door of the church opened when I gave it a push. It was so dark inside after the glare, my eyes took a little time to adjust to the gloom. The air was a few degrees cooler than the heat outside and it had that churchy smell of dust mingling with incense. Alone in God’s house, I was acutely aware of the irreverent flap of my sandals as I walked up the steps to the raised chancel. I was staring at the giant, impassive face of Jesus, praying that my grades were going to be OK, when suddenly, magically, the apse filled with light.

    Spinning round, I was startled to see a lanky guy about my own age, standing beside a box on the wall where you could put a coin in to turn the lights on. Damp brown hair swept back from his face, he was even more inappropriately dressed than me, in running shorts, a vest and trainers. There was a moment when we could have smiled at one another, or even said something, but we missed it, as we both self-consciously turned our attention to the huge dome of golden mosaic and the light went out again with a loud clunk, as decisively and unexpectedly as it had come on.

    I glanced at my watch in the ensuing dimness, as if to imply that I would like to give the iconic image more serious consideration, perhaps even contribute my own minute of electricity, if I wasn’t already running late. As I reached the door, I heard the clunk again, and, looking up at Christ’s solemn, illuminated features, felt as if I’d disappointed Him.

    Doll was fully coiffed and painted by the time I arrived back at the campsite.

    ‘What was it like?’ she asked.

    ‘Byzantine, I think,’ I said.

    ‘Is that good?’

    ‘Beautiful.’

    After cappuccinos and custard buns – amazing how even campsite bar snacks are delicious in Italy – we packed up and decided to go straight down into town to the central post office where I could make an international call and get my results so that wouldn’t be hanging over us all day. Even if the news was bad, I wanted to hear it. What I couldn’t deal with was the limbo state of not knowing what the future held for me. So we walked down to the centro storico, with me chattering away about everything except the subject that was preoccupying me.

    The fear was so loud in my head when I dialled our number, I felt as if I’d lost the ability to speak.

    Mum answered after one ring.

    ‘Hope’s going to read your results to you,’ she said.

    ‘Mum!’ I cried, but it was too late.

    My little sister Hope was already on the line.

    ‘Read your results to you,’ she said.

    ‘Go on then.’

    ‘A, B, C . . .’ she said slowly, like she was practising her alphabet.

    ‘Isn’t that marvellous?’ said Mum.

    ‘What?’

    ‘You’ve an A for English, B for Art History and C for Religion and Philosophy.’

    ‘You’re kidding?’ I’d been offered a place at University College London conditional on my getting two Bs and a C, so it was better than I needed.

    I ducked my head out of the Perspex dome to give Doll the thumbs-up.

    Down the line, Mum was cheering, then Hope joined in. I pictured the two of them standing in the kitchen beside the knick-knack shelf with the plate that saidToday is the first day of the rest of your life.

    Doll’s suggestion for a celebration was to blow all the money we had left on a bottle of spumante at a pavement table on Piazza Signoria. She had more money than me from working part-time in the salon while she was doing her diploma and she had been hankering for another outside table ever since Venice, where we’d inadvertently spent a whole day’s budget on a cappuccino in St Mark’s Square. At eighteen, Doll already had a taste for glamour. But it was only ten o’clock in the morning, and I figured that even if we stretched it out, we would still have hours before our overnight train to Calais, and probably headaches. I’m practical like that.

    ‘It’s up to you,’ said Doll, disappointed. ‘It’s your celebration.’

    There were so many sights I wanted to see: the Uffizi, the Bargello, the Duomo, the Baptistery, Santa Maria Novella . . .

    ‘You mean churches, don’t you?’ Doll wasn’t going to be fooled by the Italian names.

    Both of us were brought up Catholic, but at that point in our lives Doll saw church as something that stopped her having a lie-in on Sunday and I thought it was cool to describe myself as agnostic, although I still found myself quite often praying for things. For me, Italy’s churches were principally places not so much of God but of culture. To be honest, I was pretentious, but I was allowed to be because I was about to become a student.

    After leaving our rucksacks in Left Luggage at the station, we did a quick circuit of the Duomo, taking photographs of each other outside the golden Baptistery doors, then navigated a backstreet route towards Santa Croce, stopping at a tiny artisan gelateria that was opening up for the day. Ice cream in the morning satisfied Doll’s craving for decadence. We chose three flavours each from cylindrical tubs arranged behind the glass counter like a giant paintbox.

    For me, refreshing mandarin, lemon and pink grapefruit.

    ‘Too breakfast-y,’ said Doll, indulging herself with marsala, cherry and fondant chocolate, which she described as orgasmic and which sustained her good mood through an hour’s worth of Giotto murals.

    The fun thing about looking at art with Doll was her saying things like, ‘He wasn’t very good at feet, was he?’ but when we emerged from the church, I could tell she’d had enough culture and the midday city heat felt oppressive, so I suggested we take a bus to the ancient hill town of Fiesole, which I had read about in the Rough Guide. It was a relief to stand by the bus window, getting the movement of air on our faces.

    Fiesole’s main square was stunningly peaceful after Florence’s packed streets.

    ‘Let’s have a celebratory menu turistico,’ I said, deciding to splurge the last little bit of money I’d been saving in case of emergencies.

    We sat on the terrace of the restaurant, with Florence a miniature city in the distance, like the backdrop to a Leonardo painting.

    ‘Any educational activities planned for this afternoon?’ Doll asked, dabbing the corners of her mouth after demolishing a bowl of spaghetti pomodoro.

    ‘There is a Roman theatre,’ I admitted. ‘But I’m fine going round on my own, honest . . .’

    ‘Those bloody Romans got everywhere, didn’t they?’ said Doll, but she was happy enough to follow me there.

    We were the only people visiting the site. Doll lay sunbathing on a stone tier of seats as I explored. She sat up and started clapping when I found my way onto the stage. I took a bow.

    ‘Say something!’ Doll called.

    ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow!’ I shouted.

    ‘More!’ shouted Doll, getting out her camera.

    ‘Can’t remember any more!’

    I jumped down from the stage and made my way up the steep steps.

    ‘Shall I take a picture of you?’

    ‘Let’s get one with both of us.’

    With the camera positioned three steps up, Doll reckoned she could get us in the frame against the backdrop of Tuscan hills.

    ‘What’s the Italian for cheese?’ she asked, setting the timer, before scurrying down to stand next to me for the click of the shutter.

    In my photograph album, it looks like we are blowing kisses at the camera. The self-stick stuff has gone all yellow now, and the plastic covering is brittle, but the colours – white stone, blue sky, black-green cypresses – are just as sharp as I remember.

    With invisible crickets chattering in the trees around us, we waited for the bus back to Florence in uncharacteristic silence.

    Doll finally revealed what was on her mind. ‘Do you think we’ll still be friends?’

    ‘What do you mean?’ I pretended not to know what she was asking.

    ‘When you’re at university with people who know about books and history and stuff . . .’

    ‘Don’t be daft,’ I said confidently, but the treacherous thought had already crossed my mind that next year I would probably be holidaying with people who would want to look at the small collection of painted Greek vases in the site museum, or enjoy comparing the work of Michelangelo and Donatello, and the other Ninja Turtles (as Doll referred to them).

    Today is the first day of the rest of your life.

    There was a little twist of excitement and fear in my tummy whenever I allowed myself to think about the future.

    Back in Florence, we made a small detour for another ice cream. Doll couldn’t resist the chocolate again, this time with melon, and I selected pear which tasted like the essence of a hundred perfectly ripe Williams, with raspberry, as sharp and sweet as a childhood memory of summer.

    The Ponte Vecchio was a little quieter than it had been at the start of the day, allowing us to look in the windows of the tiny jewellery shops. When Doll spotted a silver charm bracelet that was much cheaper than the rest of the merchandise, we ducked through the door and squeezed inside.

    The proprietor held up the delicate chain with miniature replicas of the Duomo, the Ponte Vecchio, a Chianti bottle and Michelangelo’s David.

    ‘Is for child,’ he said.

    ‘Why don’t I buy it for Hope?’ Doll said, eager to find a reason to spend the rest of her money.

    We were probably imagining, as we watched the man arrange the bracelet on tissue in a small cardboard box stamped with gold fleurs-de-lys, that this would be something my sister would keep safely in a special place and that, from time to time, we would all unwrap it together and gaze upon it reverently, like a precious heirloom.

    Outside, the light had deserted the ancient buildings and the noise of the city had softened. The mellow jazz riff of a busker’s clarinet wafted on the balmy air. At the centre of the bridge, we waited for a gap in the crowd so we could take photos of each other against the fading golden sky. It was weird to think of all the mantelpieces we would appear on in the background to other people’s photos, from Tokyo to Tennessee.

    ‘I’ve got two shots left,’ Doll announced.

    Scanning the crowd, my eyes settled on a face that was somehow familiar, but which I only managed to place when he frowned with confusion as I smiled at him. It was the boy I’d seen in San Miniato al Monte that morning. There was a reddish tinge to his hair in the last rays of sunshine, and he was now wearing a khaki polo shirt and chinos, and standing awkwardly beside a middle-aged couple who looked like they might be his parents.

    I held the camera out to him. ‘Would you mind?’

    The perplexed look made me wonder if he was English, then, his pale, freckly complexion flushing with embarrassment, he said, ‘Not at all!’ in a voice Mum would have called ‘nicely spoken’.

    ‘Say cheese!’

    Formaggio!’ Doll and I chorused.

    In the photo, our eyes are closed, laughing at our own joke.

    With a six-berth couchette to ourselves, we lay on the bottom bunks, passing a bottle of red wine between us and going over our memories of the holiday as the train trundled through the night. For me, it was views and sights.

    ‘Remember the flowers on the Spanish Steps?’

    ‘Flowers?’

    ‘Were you even on the same holiday?’

    For Doll, it was men.

    ‘Remember that waiter’s face in Piazza Navona when I said I liked eating fish?’

    We now understood that the phrase had another meaning in Italian.

    ‘Best meal?’ said Doll.

    ‘Prosciutto and peaches from the street market in Bologna. You?’

    ‘That oniony anchovy pizza thing in Nice was delish . . .’

    Pissaladière,’ I said.

    ‘Behave!’

    ‘Best day?’

    ‘Capri,’ said Doll. ‘You?’

    ‘I think today.’

    ‘Best . . . ?’

    Doll drifted off, but I couldn’t sleep. Whenever I closed my eyes, I found myself in the little room I had reserved in the university halls of residence which, until now, I hadn’t allowed my imagination to inhabit, excitedly placing my possessions on the shelves, my duvet cover on the bed, and Blu-Tacking up my new poster of Botticelli’s Primavera which was rolling gently from side to side on the luggage rack above me. Which floor would I be on? Would I have a view over rooftops towards the Telecom Tower, like the one they’d shown us on Open Day? Or would I be on the street side of the building, with the tops of red double-decker buses crawling past my window and sudden shrieks of police sirens that made it feel like being in a movie?

    The air in the compartment grew chilly as the train started its climb through the Alps. I covered Doll with her fleece. She murmured her thanks but did not wake, and I was glad because it felt special to have private time to myself, just me and my plans, travelling from one stage of my life to the next.

    I must have fallen asleep in the small hours. I awoke with the rattle of a breakfast trolley. Doll was staring dismally at viscous raindrops chasing each other down the window as the train sped across the flat fields of Northern France.

    ‘I’d forgotten about weather,’ she said, handing me a plastic cup of sour coffee and a cellophane-wrapped croissant.

    It wasn’t that I was expecting bunting, or neighbours lining the street to welcome me back, but as I walked up Conifer Road after leaving Doll outside her house on Laburnum Drive, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed that everything was exactly the same. Our council estate was built in the late sixties. It was probably the height of modernity then with its regular rectangular houses half pale brick, half white render, and communal lawns instead of front gardens. All the streets were named after trees, but apart from a few spindly flowering cherries, nobody had bothered to plant any. Some of the right-to-buy households had added a glazed porch at the front, or a UPVC conservatory to the through-room downstairs, but the houses all still looked like the little boxes in that song. With a month’s distance, it was clear to me that I had outgrown the place.

    Mum only had a rough idea of when I’d be getting back, but I was still slightly surprised that she and Hope were not positioned by the window or even sitting on the front lawn, waiting for me. It was a lovely evening. Maybe Mum had filled the paddling pool in the back garden? Perhaps there was too much splashing for them to hear the bell?

    Eventually, a small, familiar shape appeared on the other side of the frosted glass.

    ‘Who’s there?’ Hope called.

    ‘It’s me!’

    ‘It’s me!’ she shouted.

    It was never quite clear whether Hope was playing games or being pedantic.

    ‘It’s Tree!’ I said. ‘Come on, Hope, open the door!’

    ‘It’s Tree!’

    I could tell Mum was responding from somewhere in the house but I couldn’t hear what she was saying.

    Hope knelt down to speak through the letter box at the bottom of the front door. ‘I get chair from kitchen.’

    ‘Use the one in the hall,’ I instructed through the letter box.

    ‘Mum said kitchen!’

    ‘OK, OK . . .’

    Why didn’t Mum come down herself? I was suddenly weary and irritable.

    Eventually, Hope managed to open the door.

    ‘Where is Mum?’ I asked. The house was slightly chilly inside and there was no warm smell of dinner on the air.

    ‘Just getting up,’ said Hope.

    ‘Is she poorly?’

    ‘Just tired.’

    ‘Dad not home yet?’

    ‘Pub, I ’spect,’ said Hope.

    I manoeuvred my rucksack off my back, then Mum was at the top of the stairs, but instead of rushing down delighted to see me, she picked her way carefully, holding the banister. I put it down to the slippers she had on under the washed-out pink tracksuit she wore for her aerobics class. She seemed distant, almost cross, and wouldn’t catch my eye as she filled a kettle at the sink.

    I looked at my watch. It was after eight o’clock. I’d forgotten it stayed lighter in the evenings in England. I started to think I should have found a phone box and rung home after getting off the ferry, but that didn’t seem a serious enough offence for Mum to give me the silent treatment.

    I noticed Mum’s hair was unbrushed at the back. She had been in bed when I arrived. Just tired, Hope had said. She’d had four weeks of coping on her own.

    ‘I can do that,’ I offered, taking the kettle from her.

    I felt the first whisper of alarm when I noticed the collection of dirty mugs in the kitchen sink. Mum must really be exhausted, because she always kept the place spotless.

    ‘Where’s Dad?’ I asked.

    ‘Down the pub, I expect,’ said Mum.

    ‘Why don’t you go back upstairs and I’ll bring you a cup?’

    To my surprise, because nothing was ever too much trouble for Mum, she said, ‘All right,’ then added, as if she’d only just remembered I’d been away, ‘How was your holiday?’

    ‘Great! It was great!’

    My face was aching with smiling at her and not getting anything back.

    ‘The journey?’

    ‘Fine!’

    She was already on her way back upstairs.

    When I took the tea up, my parents’ bedroom door was open and I caught a glimpse of Mum’s reflection in the dressing-table mirror before I entered the room. You know how sometimes you see people differently when they’re not aware you’re looking at them? She was lying with her eyes closed, as if some vital essence had drained from her, leaving her insubstantial, like an echo of herself. For a couple of seconds I stared, and then she stirred, suddenly noticing me standing there.

    Her eyes, bright with anxiety, locked on mine, telegraphing, Don’t ask in front of Hope. Then, seeing I was alone, closed again, relieved.

    ‘Let’s sit you up,’ I said.

    She leaned against me as I plumped up the pillows behind her, and her body felt light and fragile. Half an hour before, I’d been walking up the Crescent, hating how familiar and ordinary it was, and now everything was shifting around me like an earthquake and I desperately wanted it to go back to normal.

    ‘I’m poorly, Tess,’ she said, in answer to the question I was too scared to ask.

    I waited for her to say, ‘It’s OK, though, because . . .’ But she didn’t.

    ‘What sort of poorly?’ I asked, giddy with panic.

    Mum was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was pregnant with Hope. She hadn’t had the chemo until after Hope was born, but she’d recovered. She’d had to go regularly for a check-up but the last one, just a few months ago, had been clear.

    ‘I’ve got cancer of the ovary and it’s spread to my liver,’ she said. ‘I should have gone to the doctor before, but I thought it was a bit of indigestion.’

    Downstairs, Hope was singing a familiar tune, but I couldn’t work out what it was.

    My brain was trying to picture Mum before I left. A bit tired, perhaps, and worried, I’d thought because of my exams. She was always there for me: in the kitchen at breakfast time, keeping Hope quiet as I raced through my notes; and when I came home, with a cup of tea and a listening ear if I wanted to talk, or if I didn’t, just pottering around washing up or chopping vegetables, a quietly supportive presence.

    How could I have been so selfish that I didn’t notice? How could I have even gone on holiday?

    ‘There was nothing you could do,’ Mum said, reading my thoughts.

    ‘But you were fine at your last scan!’

    ‘That was in my breast.’

    ‘And they don’t check the rest of you?’

    Mum put a finger to her lips.

    Hope was on her way upstairs. The nursery rhyme was ‘Goosey Goosey Gander’, except she was singing ‘Juicy Juicy Gander’.

    ‘Upstairs, downstairs, in my lady chamber . . .’

    We forced ourselves to smile as she came into the room.

    ‘I’m hungry,’ she said.

    ‘OK!’ I jumped up from the bed. ‘I’ll make your tea.’

    If I’d needed further evidence how bad things were, it was the empty fridge. Although there was never a lot of money in our family, there was always food. I felt suddenly angry with my father. In our house the division of labour was very traditional: Dad was the breadwinner, Mum was the homemaker, but surely he could have stirred himself in these circumstances? I pictured him in the pub milking the self-pity, with his mates buying him pints. Dad was always moaning about the hand life had dealt him.

    I found a can of Heinz spaghetti in the cupboard and put a slice of bread in the toaster.

    Hope was staring at me, but my mind was so full with trying to take it all in, I couldn’t think of anything to say to her.

    The spaghetti began to bubble on the stove.

    I slopped it onto the piece of toast, recalling the bowl of perfectly al-dente pasta we’d eaten in Fiesole the day before, with a sauce that tasted of a thousand tomatoes in one spoonful, and Florence in the distance, the backdrop to a Leonardo painting, so far away now, it felt like another life.

    The dictionary confirmed that ‘plangent’ means resonant and mournful. It comes from the Latin plangere: to beat the breast in grief.
     
  3. mukul
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    mukul Kazirhut Lover Member

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    August 1997
    GUS

    I took up distance running after my brother died because it was an acceptable way of being alone. Other people’s concern was almost the most difficult thing to deal with. If I said I was OK, they looked at me as if I was in denial; if I admitted I was finding things pretty difficult, there was no way for them to make it better. When I said I was training for a charity half-marathon to raise money for people with sports injuries, people nodded, satisfied, because Ross had been killed in a skiing accident, so it made sense.

    At optimum speed, the rhythmic pounding of shoe on road delivered a kind of oblivion that had become addictive. It was what made me get out of bed every morning, even on holiday, although in Florence, the uneven cobbles and sudden, astonishing encounters with beauty, made it difficult to maintain a pace that made me forget where or who I was.

    On the last day of the holiday, I ran along the Arno at dawn, crossing the river in alternate directions at each bridge, then looping back on myself to mirror the route, with the pale gleam of the sun in my eyes one way and its warmth on my back the other. With only an occasional road-sweeper for company, it felt as if I owned the place, or, perhaps, that it owned me. At the level of cardiovascular exertion that freed ideas to float across my mind, it occurred to me that I could come back to Florence one day, even live here, if I wanted. In this historic city, I could be a person with no history, the person I wanted to be, whoever that was. At eighteen, the thought was a revelation.

    On my third crossing of the Ponte Vecchio, I slowed to a walking pace to cool down. There was no one else around. The glittering goldsmiths’ wares were hidden behind sturdy wooden boards. There was nothing to indicate that I hadn’t been transported back in time five hundred years. Yet somehow it felt less real than it had the previous evening, heaving with tourists. Like a deserted film set.

    I suppose I’d hoped to find the girl there again. Not that I’d have known what to say to her any more than I had on the first two occasions. Handing back the camera, I hadn’t even been brave enough to make eye contact, then, given a third chance, I’d blown that too.

    Standing in the queue for ice cream beside the bridge, I’d felt a tap on my shoulder, and there she was again, smiling as if we’d known each other all our lives and were about to go on some amazing adventure together.

    ‘There’s this brilliant gelato place just down Via dei Neri where you can get about six for the price of one here!’ she informed me.

    ‘I don’t think I could manage six!’

    My attempt at wit had come out sounding pompous and dismissive. I wasn’t very practised at talking to girls.

    ‘Honest to God, you would from this place!’

    Why don’t you show me where it is? Great! Let’s go there! None of the responses I’d like to have given had been available with my parents standing right beside me. Instead, I’d stared at her like a moron, with sentences jostling for position in my head as her smile faded from sparkling to slightly perplexed before she hurried off to catch up with her friend.

    On the north side of the river, Florence was beginning to wake up to the mechanical clatter of shutters as bars opened up for the day. As I entered the Duomo square, the sun’s rays lit up the cassata stripes of the Campanile and the air was suddenly full of bells. Florence was a kind of heaven on earth and I thought it would be impossible to be unhappy living here.

    I joined my parents in the lobby of our hotel on their way in to breakfast.

    ‘The loneliness of the long-distance runner!’ my father remarked.

    It was what he always said when he saw me after a run, as if it meant something, when it was actually just the title of a film he’d seen in his youth.

    I always felt prickly with my parents, like a Pavlovian reaction to their company.

    I knew, from overhearing conversations at school, that a proper Tuscan holiday meant renting a villa with a pool, if you didn’t actually own one yourself, surrounded by olive groves and views of rolling hills. My father had instead booked us into this expensive hotel in the centre of Florence. I was never sure how the done thing got established, but I was aware from quite an early age that there was a done thing and that my father often got it slightly wrong. Not having been to a private school himself, but now able to afford to send his sons to one, he would turn up to sports days wearing a blazer and tie, whereas the cool dads, who went to the Cannes film festival, or held offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands, wore jeans, polo shirts and loafers with no socks, as if vying for a most-casually-dressed award. As a liberal-minded sixth-former, I upheld the right of anyone to dress as they wished; as his son, I was mortified.

    ‘Who on earth wants cheese at this time in the morning?’

    My father inspected the buffet table. He was the sort of man who made loud statements, as if inviting the room to agree with him.

    ‘I think it’s what Germans eat.’ My mother spoke in a low voice so as not to be overheard.

    ‘You never hear about the German rates of colonic cancer, do you?’ Dad mused. ‘All that smoked sausage too . . .’

    ‘Where are you off to today?’ I asked, as we returned to the table with laden plates.

    Included in the price of the Treasures of Tuscany package were excursions to the other principal tourist cities of the region. Since having to stop the coach twice to throw up on the first trip to Assisi, I now spent the days in Florence alone, visiting the galleries and churches at my own pace, enjoying the wonderful feeling of weightlessness that came from getting away from my parents.

    ‘Pisa,’ my father said.

    As someone who didn’t quite believe in travel-sickness, he couldn’t disguise his irritation at my failure to get full value from the holiday and the tour company’s refusal to refund a proportion of the cost.

    The city centre was filling with groups of tourists following dutifully behind the raised umbrellas of their guides, but it was easy enough to peel away down a shadowy side street. I’d walked so much in the past week, I had the map of Florence in my head. The covered market near San Lorenzo, its cool air infused with the smoky scent of delicatessen, was my first daily pilgrimage. Some of the stallholders recognized me now. At the fruit stall, the old man’s practised thumb roamed over a pyramid of peaches to select a perfectly ripe fruit. At thesalumeria, the friendly mamma paid serious attention to my search for a filling for my single bread roll, offering little slivers of different salamis for me to taste or sniff like fine wine. As it was my last day, I treated myself to un’etto of expensive San Daniele prosciutto. She carefully arranged the wafer-thin translucent slices in overlapping layers on a sheet of shiny paper.

    Ultimo giorno,’ I told her, attempting a few Italian words. It’s my last day.

    Ma ritorno,’ I added – but I’ll come back – as if voicing it would make my intention more real.

    I had bought a sketchbook, covered in hand-printed Florentine paper, to take with me to the art galleries because drawing made me look more closely at the paintings and feel less self-conscious about it. Art had always been my best subject at school, if you considered it a subject, which my father didn’t. The more I studied the art in Florence, the more I wished that I had summoned the courage to apply for Art History at university. It wasn’t just the skilful application of paint to canvas or fresco, it was what the artist was thinking that fascinated me. Did they believe in the religious stories they made so human, with saints and apostles dressed like Florentine burghers, or were they just doing it to make a living?

    I’d been steered towards Medicine, because it was ‘in the family’, as my sixth-form tutor put it, as if it was some kind of genetic mutation. As everyone always said, I could look at pictures in my spare time. Now, inspired by this city where art and science had flourished side by side, I wondered if there was even a way of combining the two. Perhaps I would come back to the Uffizi one day as a visiting professor in Anatomy? At least as a doctor, I’d have the means to return. There was no money in Art, my father always said. ‘Even Van Gogh couldn’t make a living out of it!’

    I ate my panino sitting on the steps of the Palazzo Vecchio, occasionally tapping my foot to the music of a guitar-playing busker to make it look as if I was doing something. Time on my own seemed to pass very slowly and I was pathetically shy about striking up conversations with strangers. I wondered if I’d have been any better at it if my friend Marcus had been there. We were supposed to be Interrailing together, but he’d got off with a girl from our sister school at the end of school prom, and had naturally chosen sex in Ibiza over trailing round Europe with me. Neither of us had any real experience with girls and I think had both assumed that sex was something that wouldn’t happen until university, so I had a grudging admiration for Marcus, but it had left me with the unwelcome decision to cancel our holiday or go it alone.

    Around the same time, one of my father’s patients, who’d broken a crown on a slice of panforte, expressed astonishment that my father had never been to Tuscany. The inferred criticism had stung Dad into action.

    ‘What do you think?’ he’d asked, pushing a brochure across the kitchen table one morning, as I was shovelling down cereal before cycling to my summer job at our town’s new gastropub.

    ‘Great idea!’ It had been good to see him focusing on a plan again.

    ‘Want to join us?’

    ‘Really?’ Somehow, through a mouthful of Weetabix, I made dread sound like surprised enthusiasm.

    Being a dentist, Dad never expected much more than a slight nod in answer to his questions, so, by the time I arrived back from work, the holiday had been booked and paid for.

    I’d told myself that it would be churlish not to accept my parents’ generosity, but the truth was, I was a wuss.

    Scanning the crowds of tourists taking photos with the replica statue of Michelangelo’s David, I began to wonder if I would actually recognize the girl if I saw her again. She was tall, and her hair was longish and brownish, I thought. There wasn’t anything particularly memorable about her features, except that when she smiled her face was suddenly full of mischief and intimacy, as if there was a thrilling secret that only she knew and was about to share only with you.

    Via dei Neri was a narrow street winding towards the Piazza Santa Croce and I missed the gelateria on the way down. It was just a single door with a dark interior. For my first cone, I chose nocciola and limone, because that was what the Italian man in front of me ordered, the delicious creaminess of the hazelnut perfectly complemented by the refreshing citrus tang. I walked back down to Santa Croce eating it, then returned and ordered another, pistachio and melon, and loitered in the cool shade of the shop, glancing at each new customer in the hope of seeing the girl again.

    In the heat of the afternoon, I made my way through the crowds on the Ponte Vecchio to the Boboli Gardens. The numbers of tourists dwindled the higher I climbed, and, on the top terrace, I found myself completely alone beside the ornamental lake. The sun was still very hot but invisible now behind a veil of humidity that muted the view of the city like the varnish of age over an old master. Distant thunder rolled around the hills and the air was thick with imminent rain. Opening my sketchbook, I recorded the smudgy outline of the Duomo.

    Suddenly, a bright beam of light broke through the unnatural yellowish twilight, giving surreal definition to the trimmed box hedges, lighting up the greenish-blue water. As I raised my camera, a white heron, which I had perceived as a static element of the ornate marble fountain in the centre of the lake, took off, startling me. It flew across the water, the flapping of its wings the only sound or movement in the still air.

    It occurred to me that I had not given Ross a thought since breakfast.

    For a moment, I saw my brother’s face glancing back at me through a cloud of thickly falling snow, his teeth white, the flakes settling on his dark, swept-back hair, his eyes hidden behind mirror ski goggles.

    A fat raindrop splattered my drawing. I closed the pad and stood for a few moments with my face tilted towards the sky, enjoying a warm drenching, until a splinter of lightning reminded me that I was one of the tallest objects around, and should probably take cover. As I skeltered down the suddenly slippery marble steps, hordes of tourists were emerging from the gardens, shiny guidebooks held over their heads.

    There was a feeling of camaraderie as we stood crowded together in the scant shelter of the Pitti Palace walls, one or other of us occasionally extending a bare arm to test the heaviness of the downpour and judge whether to make a dash for it or wait.

    Beside me, three American girls about my age, with cumbersome rucksacks on their backs, were consulting their guidebook, trying to work out how to get to the campsite. I knew the route, having passed it on my way to Piazzale Michelangelo on my run the previous morning, but wasn’t sure whether it would be polite or intrusive to show them. One of them was very pretty. I could feel myself going red even before I spoke.

    ‘I couldn’t help overhearing. Can I help?’

    My voice sounded as if it were coming from another person, initially croaky, then far too loud and public school.

    ‘You’re English, aren’t you?’ the pretty one said. ‘Your accent’s SO cute!’

    ‘Are you camping too?’

    ‘No. I’m in a hotel,’ I confessed, unable to think of anything cooler to say quickly enough.

    ‘Why don’t we all go for an aperitivo?’ the loud one suggested.

    ‘Actually, I’m meeting my parents for dinner.’

    With the rain easing, I set off in a hurry, convinced they were laughing at me. Ross would have known exactly how to behave. Was charm something you were born with, or just a matter of practice?

    The storm had driven the crowds from the Ponte Vecchio. I paused for a last look at the view, but the hills beyond the city walls were shrouded in low cloud and the green-and-white striped facade of San Miniato al Monte which I could see floodlit at night from the pool on the roof of the hotel had disappeared.

    The essential experiences for every visitor to Tuscany were listed at the front of the complimentary full-colour guidebook that had thumped through our letter box in a stiff white envelope with our tickets. Each evening, when we convened for dinner, my father recapped the day’s activities, counting the completed targets on his fingers, like a conscientious Cub Scout ticking off badges achieved.

    • SAN GIMIGNANO’S COBBLED STREETS?

    Wandered.

    • TUSCANY’S TALLEST TOWER?

    Conquered.

    • GIOTTO’S FAMOUS FRESCO CYCLE OF THE LIFE OF SAN FRANCESCO?

    Seen. (And that was enough religious paintings to last a lifetime!)

    • THE EXCITEMENT OF THUNDERING HORSES’ HOOVES IN SIENA’S PALIO SQUARE?

    Available only on two specific days of the year.

    • A RELAXING APERITIF ON THE FAMOUS FAN-SHAPED PIAZZA?

    Consumed, despite the extortionate price of a gin and tonic.

    ‘How was Pisa?’ I asked that evening, as we waited for menus in an expensive restaurant with beams and bare brick walls that gave it the feel of a medieval banqueting hall.

    ‘Bigger than you’d think.’ My father put on his reading specs although he already knew exactly what he was going to choose.

    ‘The Leaning Tower was smaller than I thought it would be,’ my mother said.

    ‘They should sort out their queuing system,’ my father announced, from which I gathered that they had not been able to climb the monument, and could not therefore deem it a mission accomplished.

    • THE LEANING TOWER OF PISA.

    Photographed but unclimbed.

    It was not an entirely satisfactory conclusion to the holiday.

    ‘There are lots of other buildings,’ said my mother.

    ‘Cathedral and whatnot. Jam-packed with tourists, obviously.’

    Nothing in their description gave me a reason to say that I’d like to go one day, and if I had, it would only have reminded my father of the wasted place on the coach, so I said nothing.

    ‘Ah, yes, buona sera to you too,’ said my father when the waiter arrived to take our order. ‘We’re going to have the Florentine beefsteak.’

    The best place to sample this ‘most famous typical dish’ had been a project from the start of the holiday. Dad had sought the advice of the driver who met us at the airport on our first night and all the receptionists at the hotel. We were now sitting in the restaurant recommended by a majority of five to one.

    Priced by the kilo, a bistecca alla Fiorentina was not just a meal, it was a spectacle performed on a raised platform within the dining area of the restaurant. First the rib of beef was held aloft by a chef in a tall white hat; a large knife was sharpened with swift, dramatic strokes; then a very thick slice of meat, a chop for a giant, was severed and weighed before being placed on a trolley and wheeled over to the table for approval. My father swelled with satisfaction as the other tables oohed and aahed obligingly at each stage of the ritual. I didn’t begrudge him this small pleasure, but my insides squirmed with embarrassment.

    ‘What did you get up to?’ my father asked, as the meat was trolleyed off to the kitchen and we had to talk to each other again.

    ‘Walking, mainly. I went to the Boboli Gardens.’

    Silence.

    ‘I saw this heron, actually.’

    ‘Heron? We’re too far inland, aren’t we? Sure it wasn’t a stork?’ said my father.

    ‘It was kind of weird, because I thought it was part of the statue at first, then it just took off, as if the stone had come alive.’

    My parents exchanged glances. ‘Fey’ was the word my mother sometimes used to describe me. ‘Airy-fairy’ or ‘arty-farty’ were my father’s expressions. In the shorthand descriptions that parents give to their children, I was the one with my head in the clouds.

    I made the mistake of extemporizing.

    ‘It was the sort of thing that might make you think you’d seen a vision, you know . . . I mean, maybe all those visions of St Francis actually have a neurological explanation? Maybe there was something different about his brain . . .’

    I realized, too late, that ‘brain’ was one of the words we didn’t say any more. Certain words triggered inevitable associations. Over the last few months our family’s spoken vocabulary had shrunk dramatically.

    Now my parents were both staring into the middle distance.

    My carelessness had got them thinking about the side of Ross’s head, the thickness of the bandage unable to disguise the fact that there was a bit missing.

    Had some of my brother’s brain spilled out into the snow? I wondered. Had the rescue party covered it up with more snow? And when the snow melted in the spring, were there still fragments of skull on the mountain?

    If this holiday was an attempt to move on, it hadn’t been a great success. The last time we were on holiday, Ross was with us. A winter holiday, so very different from the sticky heat of Florence, but a family holiday nonetheless. When you remember holidays you think about the sights and the weather, but somehow you always forget the confinement of being together, meal after meal. Ross used to dominate the conversation, bantering with my father and joshing me while my mother gazed at him adoringly. Now, his absence made him seem almost more present.

    You know that expression, ‘the elephant in the room’? You’re the elephant, Ross!

    I thought he’d quite like that description. Occasionally, I found myself speaking to my brother in my head even though we hadn’t had that kind of relationship when he was alive. I was surprised in retrospect how much we’d had in common just by virtue of being in the same family. Ross was the one person who would have understood how pitiful my parents were in their grief, and yet how annoying they still managed to be.

    ‘You have to deal with reality,’ said my father eventually. I wasn’t sure whether it was intended as a reprimand to me or an instruction to himself. ‘You have to get to grips with what’s in front of you.’

    What was in front of him now was the giant steak, charred and leaking blood onto the wooden board on which it was presented.

    My father looked up at the waiter.

    ‘We’d like Chef to cook it for us if that’s not too much trouble!’ he barked.

    I pictured the chef’s face as the waiter returned to the kitchen. During my summer job I’d learned that customers who sent their steaks back to be well done were even further down the hierarchy of contempt than pot washers.

    When the steak was returned to us, it was pale brown all the way through, as if it had been given ten minutes in a microwave.

    My father doled out the leathery slices.

    ‘How many for you, Angus?’

    ‘Just one.’

    ‘One?’

    ‘Angus has never had a huge appetite,’ my mother reminded him.

    Ross had an enormous appetite. Was it over-sensitive of me to hear an unspoken comparison?

    I was completely different to Ross. My brother was dark, handsome and built; I had inherited my mother’s willowy height, and, although my hair wasn’t orange like my father’s, I had enough of his freckly complexion to be called a ginge at school.

    Ross had been captain of the rugby and rowing teams and Head Boy; I enjoyed football and had never been considered for the prefect body. Ross’s summer job after leaving school had been a lifeguard at the local open-air swimming pool. Being a lifesaver was something to boast about, unlike being a kitchen boy. Not that Ross ever actually saved a life, although plenty of girls pretended to be struggling in the hope of being manhandled by him. Ross had starred in his own version of Baywatch. In Guildford.

    I was never sure whether the truth was that my parents weren’t very good at disguising their obvious preference, or that I was in fact pretty mediocre compared to Ross. It wasn’t something you could talk about without sounding like a whinger, so I never did, except occasionally to Marcus, who knew what Ross was really like. Was it Ross’s sporting prowess that had made the teachers at our school so willing to turn a blind eye to his other activities, we’d sometimes speculated, or had they too lived in fear of him? Perhaps Ross and his acolytes kept a record of punishable offences committed by the staff as well as the lower-school boys? I’d never know, because nobody said anything remotely critical about him now that he was dead.

    We sat in silence, chewing our steak.

    ‘I expect you’re itching to get to uni . . .’ my mother said.

    Was my discomfort so obvious?

    The truth was that although I was counting down the hours until the claustrophobia of the holiday would be over, I was also feeling pretty nervous about what was coming next. I thought I’d probably be OK at Medicine because I was good at Biology and interested in how people worked.

    ‘Which makes you sound like an agony aunt!’ Ross had needled, just the previous November, which now felt like a lifetime ago, because, in a way, it was.

    In spite of his ridicule, or maybe because it had made me think harder, I’d performed well at the interview and been offered a place conditional on achieving three As at A level. But I’d always felt uneasy about following in my brother’s footsteps. Over that Christmas holiday, I had actually made up my mind to ask if I could defer a year and use the time to decide if Medicine was what I really wanted to do.

    Then the accident happened.

    When I returned to school the deadline for acceptances was looming. My father had been so proud at the thought of both his sons becoming doctors. Doing Medicine, or at least, not not doing it, was the only small way I could begin to make it up to him.

    Only the previous day, calling the school to get my A-level results, with my parents hovering in the hotel corridor just outside the door, a tiny part of me had still been hoping to be granted a reprieve. But my grades were good enough.

    I realized I hadn’t responded to my mother.

    ‘Yes, really looking forward to it now,’ I assured her.

    At least there would be sex. If Ross’s experience was anything to go by, medics were at it all the time.
     
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    3
    September 1997
    TESS

    On Hope’s first day of school, she was surprisingly amenable to getting dressed in her little grey skirt, white polo top and blue sweatshirt. She ran into Mum’s room to get a goodbye kiss.

    ‘Take a picture, Tess,’ Mum said.

    We’d decided that Mum wouldn’t even try to come, because then it would become one of Hope’s routines. Hope seemed to accept that I would be the one to go with her. Perhaps it seemed natural to her, as it wasn’t long since I’d been the one going off to school every morning. I’d been bracing myself for screaming and crying, but as we left the house, and Mum called down, ‘Bye then!’ it was her little voice that was feeble with tears.

    Mum and Hope were inseparable. Mum was forty-three when she had her. ‘An afterthought,’ was the way she put it, because she would never have said Hope was an accident. With all the rest of us practically grown up, Mum had had the time to do things like reading library books and baking fairy cakes together. Most people considered Hope spoilt. She’d been a pretty little baby, with a froth of blonde curls, and, with five big people in the house, six if you included Brendan’s girlfriend Tracy, she’d got a lot of attention. We all loved holding her and jiggling her to make her smile. People said that’s why she was a bit late with walking and things, because everything was done for her. Mum had tried taking her to nursery school but Hope wouldn’t be left. She could count to a thousand by the time she was four and could sing all the nursery rhymes, which was probably more than most children of that age.

    She walked with me happily enough and marched over to stand in line with the other tiny children in the playground. I waited by the gate with my fingers firmly crossed, praying that everything would be fine, and that school would be her protection from everything that was about to happen.

    The perfect silence of those first few seconds after the whistle blew, felt like a gift, a miraculous gift from God who I should not have abandoned. Then a familiar sound tore it apart.

    Mum used to say Hope’s carrying-on was what drove my brothers away. I was never sure whether she was joking because she’d always add that it was about time they spread their wings. Mum had a sharp sense of humour. I think it was because of her being intelligent but not very confident, so she’d put something out there, then make out she was joking if she got the wrong reaction.

    Kevin was the first to go, to London when he got his scholarship, then America. He and Dad had never seen eye to eye, especially when Kevin refused to go into construction. So it made things easier at home, really. Then Tracy got pregnant, and Brendan dropped the bombshell that they were emigrating to Australia. He’d always felt in Kev’s shadow; this was going one better. So Hope had got her own room, instead of sleeping in mine, but it was still noisy. I used to spend as long as I could in the library at school. Dad used to spend as long as he could at the pub. People said Mum had the patience of a saint.

    It was natural for a child to be unsettled, Mrs Corcoran, the head teacher at St Cuthbert’s, told me, when there was so much worry at home. She thought the best idea would be if I came along to school with Hope to reassure her. I could help out with the little ones. The Reception class’s teaching assistant was on maternity leave, so they could do with an extra pair of hands.

    I welcomed the distraction. With a class of thirty small children, there was no time to think about anything except getting coats, hats, gloves, painting aprons and gym clothes on and off, tracking lost shoes, monitoring trips to the toilet, making sure hands were clean, and handing out slices of apple at break time.

    At home, Mum was sleeping a lot because of the morphine. You’d think that if you knew someone was going to die in a few weeks, or days, you’d try to say everything there was to say, but it wasn’t like that. It was almost like we didn’t want to make it over before it was over and were afraid of getting everything ready and then having nothing to do except wait.

    I did tell Mum that I loved her. I told her every day, and then I started saying it every time she went to sleep, or I had to leave the room to cook Hope’s tea or something, until it started sounding a bit silly. You wouldn’t think ‘I love you’ could become meaningless, would you?

    Course, I said other things too, like, ‘You mustn’t worry about us, because we will cope.’

    To which Mum replied, ‘I know you will.’

    We never really talked about what that coping would entail, because I didn’t want it to sound like I was the one with the problem.

    On one occasion, Mum held my hand and said, staring me out to show she meant it, ‘You must go to university.’

    ‘I will, don’t worry.’ Leaving it vague meant that neither of us had to confront the glaring question of how.

    I helped Mum make a memory box for Hope. It was a shoebox that we covered with pink gingham offcuts from the curtains Mum had made when the boys’ bedroom was turned into Hope’s. Mum embroidered ‘Hope’ on the rectangle we cut for the top with yellow silk thread from her sewing box. I pasted and stapled the fabric on. The box looked really good; the difficulty was knowing what to put into it. There wasn’t a lot of physical evidence of Mum’s time with Hope. Parents take a lot of pictures of their firstborn, but the novelty seems to wear off with the subsequent children. We did find a lovely photo of her with Hope as a smiling baby. And Mum dictated her recipe for Hope’s favourite trifle. Using the microphone and Hope’s Fisher Price cassette recorder, Mum recorded a message for her. Finally, she took off the gold cross she always wore and asked me to put that in.

    ‘You wouldn’t want it, would you, Tess?’

    I wasn’t sure whether it would make her happier if I said yes, or if she had the consolation of it going to Hope. The cross went in the box. But then Hope noticed Mum wasn’t wearing it and Mum wasn’t going to tell her why before she needed to know, so the cross came out again, and the box went back in its hiding place under the bed. On a couple of occasions, Mum said, ‘Can we think of anything more for the box? How about a CD? ABBA’s Greatest Hits? She loves that one with the children singing . . .’

    I wished in a way that we’d never started on it, or chosen a smaller box, because the few items rattling around were such inadequate tokens of Mum’s love.

    One of the questions I did ask, while we were stitching and stapling – like Victorian ladies, Mum said – when it was easier to talk because we were both engaged in another activity, was this: if there was an afterlife, could Mum please find a way of giving me some kind of sign, so I’d know.

    That made her laugh.

    ‘I can’t give you faith, Tess,’ she said. ‘It’s a step you have to take yourself, and then everything follows.’

    ‘But could you try, please? Just a little sign?’

    ‘If you’d put the imagination you spend doubting into believing . . .’ she said, in that mildly exasperated way she had that made criticism sound like a compliment.

    Brendan and Kevin arrived from different ends of the world in suits. Brendan, hefty with success and lurching between the show-off swagger of a prodigal son and the crumpling confusion of imminent disaster; Kevin, toned and dapper, in light brown pointy brogues and tight grey trousers showing his calf muscles through the slightly shiny fabric, and a lot of talk about issues – his own that is, not Mum’s.

    After visiting Mum at the hospice, Dad took them down the pub, and there was something strangely jolly about the three of them rolling back home late and smelling of beer.

    ‘Like the old days,’ Dad said, with an arm draped around each son, recalling a happy tradition that he’d have enjoyed, but had never actually happened.

    It was just me by the bed with Mum at the end. I don’t know if she wanted it like that, or if she ran out of time to do all the individual goodbyes. It was almost like she’d waited to see all her children, then was in a hurry to go. Perhaps she was thinking about the boys’ needing to get back to their jobs. Mum always put others before herself.

    The curtains around the bed gave a false sense of privacy and we could hear everything the others were saying just on the other side.

    Brendan’s ‘Have I time for a coffee, do you think?’

    I should probably be grateful to him for the gift of her last flash of smile, conspiratorial – would you listen to him!

    One moment she was there, then the light in her eyes went out.

    I thought I was prepared for her leaving, but when I realized she was dead, I felt as shocked as if it had happened without warning. I sat holding her hand until it no longer seemed right not to share her with the others.

    The men cried immediately. I did not. All their hungover heaving and blubbing felt like blows against my shell of numbness.

    Hope didn’t like it either and shouted at them to stop.

    ‘Sssh!’ she said, finger to her lips. ‘Mum trying to sleep!’

    I told her to give Mum a kiss, and then I took her to the hospice cafe for sausage and chips, and, to her astonishment, a whole bag of Haribo.

    When I put Hope to bed that night, she asked what time we were seeing Mum the next day (we were doing telling the time in Reception class), and I told her that Mum had gone to heaven.

    ‘Why?’

    ‘To see the angels,’ I improvised.

    ‘And Jesus,’ said Hope.

    ‘Yes.’

    ‘And Nana and Granda and Lady Di and Mother Teresa . . .’ Hope listed all the people they’d recently prayed for together.

    I had never seen the point of heaven but now I could. Was that a sign?

    I waited for the lull that told me Hope was asleep, then began to creep towards the door.

    ‘Tree?’

    ‘Yes?’

    ‘When Mum coming back?’

    What was I supposed to say?

    ‘She’s not, Hope. She still loves us though.’

    ‘She’ll never stop loving us,’ said Hope.

    Even though it was dark in the room, I could tell she wasn’t crying. For Hope, it was a simple statement of fact because Mum had said it, and would say it again and again on the cassette tape.

    A lot of the relations made the journey from Ireland that they’d never made while Mum was alive. Her leaving for England with Dad in the seventies had been resented by her siblings because, as the older sister, she was supposed to be the one who looked after their father after their own mother had died young. I knew my uncles, aunt and cousins only vaguely from sitting in chilly front rooms drinking tea from the good china that was brought out for guests, on the boring part of childhood holidays in Ireland that Mum and Dad had called ‘Doing the rounds’. None of them had met Hope before, but still they claimed the right to pat her on the head with tear-filled eyes, or scoop her up in great hugs, which she didn’t like at all.

    ‘That enough kissy stuff!’ she shouted, making herself all stiff.

    ‘She’s a character, isn’t she?’ said my mother’s sister, Catriona, adding, in a loud, doom-laden whisper, ‘You’ll have to watch her, now, Teresa, and yourself as well, because they say it runs in families. It’s a terrible thing for us all to have hanging over us.’

    Even with Mum dead, I felt she was still trying to blame her.

    I didn’t think Hope should go to the funeral, but Dad and Brendan wanted her to and Kev said nobody ever took any notice of his opinion anyway, which was a good way to get out of giving one. So that was a kind of majority. Except I was sure that Mum wouldn’t have wanted it either.

    ‘Did she tell you that?’ my father demanded.

    ‘No.’

    It was one of the many things I should have asked her. It was so stupid. All that time we’d had and I’d never dared ask what she wanted for her funeral.

    ‘Well, then,’ said Dad.

    Hope was fine, swaying along to the organist’s slightly slow and tentative interpretation of ABBA’s ‘I Have a Dream’, as we walked in. She stood between Dad and me as we sang ‘How Great Thou Art’ which was Mum’s favourite hymn. We all said the Lord’s Prayer and Hope said that too, with Dad glancing over the top of her head at me as if to say, Told you!

    I don’t think she even noticed the coffin until Brendan got up to read his poem.

    With hindsight, Kev or I should have stopped him. I think we were both so shocked by the idea of Brendan, of all people, writing a poem, that neither of us thought to ask if we could read it first. In fact, we both probably felt a little bit ashamed for not writing one ourselves.

    If you look in the local newspaper at the memorial section, you’ll see that just because something rhymes, doesn’t make it profound, except to the author. It was Brendan’s couplet that had ‘Always there to wash my socks’ with ‘Now, you’re lying in a box’ that caught Hope’s attention.

    ‘In a box?’ she echoed, her voice ringing through the hush.

    ‘Sssh!’ said Dad.

    ‘Tree, is Mum in that box?’

    ‘You have to be quiet now, Hope, we’re in church.’

    It used to work when Mum said it, but there wasn’t enough conviction in my voice.

    ‘Mum is in heaven with Jesus!’ Hope declared.

    Father Michael came creeping across to us.

    ‘Your mother’s body is in the box, Hope, but her soul is gone to heaven,’ he whispered, breathing his halitosis over her.

    The screaming was piercingly loud as I carried Hope flailing from the church. How could such a little person possibly understand about the separation of the body and the soul? I should have trusted my instincts. A funeral was no place for a child. I’d known it. Worst of all, I felt I’d let Mum down.

    It was one of those breezy late-September days, with a few white clouds racing across a blue sky and the trees just beginning to turn copper, too beautiful a day for something so sad. Hope stopped screaming as soon as we were out of the church and started struggling to get down from my arms. The tarmac path had little bits of confetti trodden onto it, pink horseshoes, white butterflies, lemon hearts. Hope skipped away from the church, chasing occasional falling leaves. I stood watching her, thinking that if she caught one, it would most definitely be a sign. Of course she didn’t. Autumn leaves have a habit of darting away when you think you’re on to them and Hope’s coordination was never the best. Before frustration could turn to fury, I took her down the road for a McFlurry.

    So we missed whatever trite words Father Michael had to say about Mum being a dutiful mother and wife, and Charlotte Church singing ‘Pie Jesu’ on the CD player, and the coffin going into the ground, which you’re supposed to see for closure. I wonder whether that’s why Mum still sometimes appears in my dreams, and I wake up with this lovely moment of relief – I knew it couldn’t be true! – before my brain cells reorder themselves back to reality.

    Mum was a popular member of the community and her friends took it upon themselves to organize the wake in the church hall. The small kitchen beside the stage was a production line of women in aprons turning out platters of sandwiches and mini quiches, scones and home-made cakes, great plastic bowls of crisps and trays of piping-hot sausage rolls, while others wielded the big metal pots of tea they used at the Christmas Fayre and poured glasses of sherry for the women and whiskey for the men.

    It wasn’t long before the atmosphere shifted from sombre to animated, and people started telling their stories. Mum’s sister Catriona talked about how when she’d heard Mum had passed away she went to the room in the house that had been hers and she’d smelled a powerful scent. Didn’t they say that when people returned, they sometimes brought a fragrance with them? She’d been sure for a moment that Mary was there, before she remembered that she’d put an Autumn Breeze air-freshener plug in the room because it was a bit musty from lack of use.

    Dad regaled anyone who’d listen with the anecdote about how they’d met. He’d gone back to his home town in Ireland for his grannie’s funeral and he’d spotted my mother across a crowded room and the light of love was in her eyes.

    That phrase, ‘the light of love’, made me think of Mum’s eyes just before the end. It was a good description. Dad could surprise you like that. You’d be looking at him and wondering what it was that had drawn someone as gentle and intelligent as Mum to him, and then you’d get a glimpse.

    ‘We met at a wake, and now we’re saying goodbye at one!’

    His closing line became more tearily indulgent as the evening went on, and people clutched his arm and said wise words like ‘The cycle of life, Jim,’ or ‘You’ve a lot of happy memories to see you through.’

    ‘Ach, she was a wonderful wife to me!’ he told them, which was true, although I’d never heard him say it to her.

    I didn’t think he’d been nearly a wonderful enough husband to her, but Mum had never complained.

    ‘Your father’s got a lot on his mind,’ or ‘Your father works very hard to put food on the table,’ were the usual excuses for why he was more often at the bookie’s or down the pub than at home. Not that any of us hankered for his presence because there was always an aura of threat hanging around Dad.

    ‘It’s the drink, not the man,’ Mum had even defended him after the terrible night it came out that she had secretly been paying for Kev’s ballet classes with the housekeeping money, and Brendan had to leap on Dad’s back, kicking his calves to hold him back, and I’d run down the street shouting at the neighbours to call the police because I thought he was going to kill them.

    By the time it got dark outside, there was quite a party atmosphere, with that fug of alcohol and exaggerated emotion that you often get at weddings with family members who haven’t seen each other in a while.

    Kev pushed the piano out on the stage, and played his party piece, ‘Danny Boy’, which he’d probably sung a few times in New York on St Patrick’s Day because it’s an even bigger deal there than it is in Ireland. Kev’s singing was never as good as his dancing, but he could hold a tune well enough and the performance brought a stunned silence to the room before people started clapping and telling him how proud his mother would have been.

    ‘Will you give us a song, Jim?’ someone called.

    After only a moment of protest, my father said, ‘Ach, go on then,’ and made his way to the stage, where he stood, leaning against the piano, and, with Kev accompanying him, sang the Fureys’ ‘I Will Love You’.

    There wasn’t a dry eye in the house after that. For me, it wasn’t the words so much as seeing Kev and Dad together, and knowing how happy that would have made Mum. At the end, a moment of reflective silence was broken by a small voice, surprisingly loud and clear next to me.

    ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are. Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky. Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are!’

    There was something about the seriousness on Hope’s face and her stout little frame, with her fingers doing the twinkling actions she’d learned at school, that would have made it comical if it hadn’t been so moving.

    When she finished, everyone clapped, but unlike Kevin and Dad, Hope didn’t bask in the attention. She didn’t actually seem to notice it.

    ‘What about you now, Teresa?’ my aunt Catriona called out. ‘We haven’t heard anything from you.’

    To be fair, she probably only meant to give me the opportunity, but she made it sound like I didn’t want to contribute.

    ‘I can’t sing,’ I protested.

    ‘That all right, Tree,’ Hope chimed up. ‘Everyone has things they’re good at and things they’re not so good at.’

    Which sounded so much like Mum that everyone except Hope laughed.

    ‘OK. This was Mum’s favourite poem,’ I said, wondering why I hadn’t thought of suggesting it for the service.

    ‘“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”.

    I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree.

    And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made.

    Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,

    And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

    And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow . . .’

    As I spoke the words, slowly and evenly, trying to keep the wobble out of my voice and do her proud, I wondered whether Mum had yearned for peace and solitude away from the constant noisy chaos of our family. And as I looked around the faces of her friends and relations, I thought that we were all perhaps thinking that the poem described a kind of heaven for her, which made us feel calmer about the whole injustice of it. That’s probably why people talk about the consolation of poetry.

    When I’d finished, the room was quiet.

    ‘Bedtime,’ I said to Hope, taking the opportunity to say our goodbyes before the singing inevitably started up again, along with more drinking and the potential for the mood to switch from affection to umbrage in a single sentence.

    Hope spotted the butterfly in the corner of the bathroom window when I was giving her a bath. One of those white ones with a tiny black spot on each wing. Cabbage White.

    ‘Want to get out,’ she said.

    So, without thinking about it really, I opened the window, and the butterfly flew into the dying light.

    It was only when I knelt down again and started lathering Hope’s hair that I wondered how the butterfly had got in. There was a buddleia in the back garden which attracted butterflies in the summer, but usually those were orange, and I’d never seen one in the house before. Wasn’t it a bit late for butterflies anyway? Perhaps it had come in to get warm?

    Or perhaps the butterfly was the sign I’d asked Mum for, and all I’d done was let it out into the cold.

    The morning after, while Dad was still snoring upstairs, and Hope was watchingTeletubbies, Brendan came over from the Travelodge and reported that Kevin had already left for the airport.

    Apparently there’d been a big row in the church hall a couple of hours after we’d gone home, when Kevin got up the courage to announce that Shaun, the man who was sharing his room at the hotel, wasn’t in fact a colleague en route to a business meeting, but his partner of two years, a partner, he’d shouted tearily, who he couldn’t even introduce to his own family at his own mother’s funeral!

    The fact that Kevin was gay didn’t come as much of a shock to me or Brendan (or in truth, I suspect, to my father, who’d always been suspicious of the dancing) but to come out at a funeral, Brendan said, well, it just wasn’t on, was it?

    Dad, now twice the mawkish victim, had wailed to Father Michael, ‘I’ve lost my wife and my son on the same day!’

    So that had given Kevin the opportunity to list all the resentments he had harboured since adolescence. Ironically, it was Shaun who saved the day, arriving in a taxi and scooping Kev off back to the Travelodge after hearing his belligerent meanderings on the phone.

    He seemed like a decent enough fella, Brendan said.

    It did cross my mind afterwards that maybe Kevin had, consciously or unconsciously, created the opportunity for a dramatic exit – he’s always been theatrical – to relieve him of any familial duty. Or perhaps it never even crossed his mind, as it didn’t seem to cross Brendan’s, that there were three of us with a sister about to be only five years old and a father who was a drinker.

    ‘I wanted to talk to you about what’s going to happen with Hope,’ I said, trying to broach the subject.

    ‘She’ll get over it sooner than you think,’ Brendan said. ‘Kids do.’

    He was a father with two little ones of his own now so he knew about these things. And he lived on the other side of the world. What did I ever think he was going to do? But it would have been nice if someone had just asked if I was OK.

    I left it to the last minute to cancel my university place. Not because I forgot, or was distracted, but because I think I was hoping for some kind of miracle.

    I waited until Dad and Hope took Brendan to the airport, so I was on my own in the house.

    The woman in the accommodation office was brusque. ‘It’s terribly short notice.’

    ‘My mother died, so I’ve been busy with the funeral,’ I told her.

    ‘Oh. I’m sorry.’

    I hadn’t yet worked out how to respond to people saying that. ‘It’s all right,’ didn’t do it. ‘So am I,’ sounded impertinent.

    ‘It’s not your fault,’ I said. Which wasn’t right either.

    There was an embarrassed pause.

    ‘I’m afraid we won’t be able to refund the deposit unless we find someone else to take the room,’ the woman finally said. ‘Which I have to say is very unlikely at this point. Obviously, I’ll inform you if the situation changes.’

    ‘Thank you.’

    I put the phone down and that’s when I cried. Great, wracking sobs. Sounds selfish, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t just the end of my dream. It was Mum’s dream too. Going to university had been our project.

    I don’t know how long I wept, sitting in the kitchen that felt so empty without her, until I finally stopped and found myself staring at the plate that said, Today is the first day of the rest of your life.

    It says in all the books about bereavement that when a small child loses a parent, the worst thing you can do is change things. You’d think that a fresh start or a change of scene would be a good idea, but it says not. The child’s had enough change. What they need is a bit of stability. I suppose that’s how it was for Hope with the plate.

    I put it away in a cupboard, but Hope noticed as soon as she came in and demanded its return. So it remained on the knick-knack shelf in the kitchen. And sometimes it made me rueful, and sometimes it made me depressed, and other times I felt so angry I wanted to smash it on the floor, which are all stages of grief, according to the books.
     
  5. mukul
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    mukul Kazirhut Lover Member

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    4
    September 1997
    GUS

    It’s difficult to look cool with your mother trailing behind you carrying armfuls of items she’s purchased for your student life, like scatter cushions, a first-aid kit, a desk tidy and a toilet brush in a ceramic holder.

    When my possessions were finally heaped in the centre of the room, the three of us stood for a moment at a loss for anything to say. It was just a room, with a single bed, a built-in wardrobe and a desk, the last but one along a corridor of similar rooms, all with open doors awaiting their new occupants. It was on the second of four floors, so didn’t have as much of a view as the showroom in the prospectus, but it was at the back of the building, away from the road. My father and I stood looking out of the window, staring at the branches of two large trees whose leaves were just beginning to turn brown.

    ‘At least you’re not on the ground floor,’ my mother said. ‘Let’s get this lot put away, shall we?’

    My father and I exchanged a rare moment of understanding.

    ‘I expect Angus wants to arrange things his own way,’ he said, with a gentle but determined shove of my mother’s arm.

    ‘Oh!’ Her eyes were suddenly watery as she realized the time had come, sooner than she’d anticipated, to say goodbye. ‘Shouldn’t we at least buy him lunch?’

    The finishing post kept moving away. My heart sank at the prospect of trawling around the locality peering at menus, with my father taking out his glasses and reading the dishes out loud. But I said nothing. Another hour or two of embarrassment was preferable to parting with the lingering guilt of not behaving properly.

    My father checked his watch. ‘We’ve only got another twenty minutes’ free parking.’ The car was parked underneath Sainsbury’s.

    ‘Well then.’ My mother stood on tiptoe to peck my cheek, holding me at arm’s length for a moment, as if making an assessment. As usual, I felt I had been judged slightly inadequate.

    Over her shoulder, I noticed a girl with pink hair and a rucksack stop outside my door, look at me, then at the number on the door, then at the piece of paper in her hand, before moving on.

    I was expecting my father to shake my hand like one of his golf-club cronies, when, out of nowhere, he produced an orange plastic carrier bag. ‘You have to spend a fiver to get the free parking . . .

    I pulled out a bottle of champagne.

    ‘But that’s . . .’ Much more than a fiver, I was about to say. Of course it was. ‘. . . very generous!’

    ‘Don’t drink it all at once!’

    Seeing him beaming with the success of his surprise, I remembered that he was once a person who was capable of having fun.

    We all went down to the front hall together.

    ‘Got your keys?’

    ‘Yes!’

    ‘It’s the start of a new future for you,’ my mother began, then trailed off and I knew she was actually thinking about Ross’s future, which had been taken away.

    ‘Work hard!’ said my father.

    ‘I don’t think I’ll have a choice about that!’ I replied, which seemed to please him.

    I stared at their backs as they strode away, her camel coat and his blazer marking out their class and provenance against the backdrop of urban graffiti. Then I went back up to the room, feeling strangely empty. Freed from the suffocation of my family’s grief, I’d been hoping to create a new identity for myself, but, strangely, it felt as if there was nothing at all inside me.

    The girl with pink hair was Sellotaping a piece of paper to her door that saidNash’s Room in large, bold handwriting.

    ‘Bit institutional, isn’t it?’ she said, throwing open the door to show me her room, which had an extra window because it was on the corner of the building. She’d already hung up a mobile type of thing, with mirrory bits that caught the weak rays of autumn sunshine and made a fluttering pattern of lights across the grubby beige carpet.

    ‘I’ve lucked out, right?’ she said. ‘Didn’t even have a room yesterday but someone dropped out at the last minute. Nash, by the way. Short for Natasha.’

    I nodded at the notice on her door.

    ‘Duh!’ She tossed back her pink hair in a dramatic way that made me wonder if I was supposed to remark on it.

    ‘Angus,’ I said.

    ‘Seriously?’

    Was it such an amusing name?

    ‘It sounds Scottish,’ she said, explaining, I suppose, that she hadn’t detected a Scottish accent.

    ‘My father’s originally Scottish.’

    ‘So what shall I call you?’

    Clearly Angus wouldn’t do.

    At school we knew each other by our surnames. I was Macdonald, so people shortened it to Mac, or sometimes Farmer. I wasn’t going to tell her that.

    ‘How about Gus?’ she suggested. Nobody had ever called me Gus. I quite liked it. My new identity had a name.

    ‘Gus, absolutely,’ I said quickly, offering my hand to seal the deal.

    ‘How tall are you?’

    People think it’s OK to ask that question even though they’d never dream of asking how much a fat person weighs, or even how short a short person is.

    ‘Six foot four.’ I couldn’t think of a question to ask her.

    ‘I would offer you coffee,’ she said. ‘If I had any coffee.’

    ‘Do you drink champagne?’ I heard myself asking.

    ‘What a ridiculous question!’

    My father would be horrified at the idea of me opening the bottle before six, and drinking it warm from china mugs off the wooden cup tree my mother had supplied, but that made it taste even better.

    ‘Divinely decadent, darling!’ said Nash.

    She was a bit like Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Not that she looked like Liza Minnelli, in her baggy black parachute suit and plimsolls without laces, but there was something of the same self-conscious eccentricity. It crossed my mind that she might see me as the innocent, possibly gay, Michael York character just arrived in the big city.

    ‘What are you studying?’ I asked, wincing at the prosaic quality of my conversation.

    ‘Guess!’ she said, lying back on her bed, which she’d already made up with black sheets and a red duvet cover. There was a poster of Che Guevara just behind her head.

    ‘Politics?’

    She looked surprised.

    ‘English and Drama, actually.’ She peered at me intently. ‘Psychology?’

    I was flattered if that was how I appeared to her. I liked the idea of looking like a ‘Psychology’ sort of person. ‘Medicine.’

    ‘Oh. You must be clever.’

    ‘Not especially.’

    ‘I’m going to be an actor,’ she announced.

    Perhaps wanting to appear a little mysterious, I said, ‘I’m not sure what I want to be.’

    She laughed.

    ‘What?’

    ‘You’re going to be a doctor, obviously!’

    Hearing it from someone I’d only just met, at the beginning of my new identity, the inevitability depressed me.

    I poured out the rest of the champagne, knocking it back like lemonade.

    ‘Do you think we ought to get something to eat?’ Nash said, suddenly the less drunk, sensible one.

    The nearest restaurant was Greek. It wasn’t serving food until six, but the waiter said we could sit and have a drink. Nash, who had been to Greece, said we should order retsina. The sour pine taste was like the air in the school shower room after the cleaners had been in.

    Nash was very direct. ‘How did you vote?’

    Born in 1979, we were Thatcher’s generation. We had known nothing but Conservative government, but this May, change had swept across the country.

    ‘I’m not very political.’ I tried to duck the question because I hadn’t actually voted.

    ‘You’re a Tory then,’ said Nash. ‘If you’re not prepared to challenge the status quo . . .’

    I’d never thought about it like that. I’d been brought up to think it rude to ask about someone’s politics.

    ‘Football or rugby?’ she demanded.

    ‘Football and running.’

    ‘So you’re a minor public-school boy who didn’t quite fit in,’ she deduced, with a flap of her napkin and a wave in the direction of the waiter who was setting up a big table.

    I winced at the accuracy of her summation.

    ‘I bet your dad’s a doctor.’

    ‘He’s a dentist.’

    ‘A failed doctor then. Even worse!’

    It had never occurred to me that maybe Dad’s desire for both his sons to become doctors had in fact been about his own ambition. Had he not quite made the grade himself? Was Nash very perceptive, or just very rude?

    ‘What shall we have?’ she asked, browsing through the menu. ‘I’m vegetarian, by the way.’ Her statements came out like challenges, as if she was expecting me to argue with her.

    Apart from a dish called moussaka, which was pretty much indistinguishable from all the other sloshy trays of mince they’d served us at school, I’d never eaten Greek food before so I let her order. The waiters brought us little plates of oily dips, slabs of fried rubbery cheese, and baskets full of warm pitta bread that sank comfortingly to my stomach, soaking up the pine aftertaste, and allowing me to agree that a carafe of house red would be a good idea.

    My memory of the evening is hazy. There was sparring, and laughter, and crying too. Nash’s parents were divorced, her father twice remarried, her mother now living with another woman. She seemed to have a lot of half-brothers and half-sisters in various countries around the world. Nash referred to her father as a bastard, but clearly longed for his affection. A sense of relief washed over me when I realized that this woman, who came across as so sophisticated, was also insecure.

    ‘So what about your family?’ she asked me.

    ‘Nothing to tell.’

    ‘Very mysterious!’

    ‘Or very ordinary?’

    ‘Any brothers or sisters?’

    A second elapsed.

    I saw Ross’s face glancing back at me through the thickly falling snow, his teeth white, his eyes hidden behind ski goggles.

    ‘No,’ I said.

    It’s not really a lie, Ross.

    ‘Look,’ I added quickly. ‘I’m not interested in being defined by where I come from or who my parents are. I’ve always felt like an outsider in my family and at my school. Now I’m free to be who I really am.’

    ‘So, who’s the real you?’ she asked.

    ‘Haven’t a clue.’

    Nash mistook my answer for wit.

    I woke up the following morning fully clothed, but feeling fine, almost sparklingly alert, until I went to get up and discovered my skull had been replaced by a rigid steel box that bashed against the tissue of my brain with every slight movement. I weighed the alternatives of ducking back under the duvet, or running off the remains of the alcohol.

    Among the still-unpacked possessions lying on the floor, I located my sports bag and pulled on shorts and running shoes. After a panicky search for my key, I saw that I had sensibly left it in the door when I locked it, although I couldn’t remember doing so. I couldn’t actually remember returning to the room, although, as I stepped out into the rain and splashed along at a slow jog, a mental video of the previous evening began to spool through my mind, freezing randomly on single frames of searing embarrassment. Had my hair really become entangled in the plastic vine that decorated the Greek restaurant ceiling when I stood up to go to the toilet? Had we really smashed plates and danced in a frantic circle with the wedding party?

    The city pavements were slippery with a dirt soup that splashed my legs and soaked into the mesh of my white running shoes, but the rain felt cool and cleansing, flattening my hair, cascading down my face when I tilted back my head.

    The streets were fairly empty, with only an occasional bus sloshing past. I had no idea where I was running to, but decided to turn left when I reached a major crossroads, into a more well-to-do area with estate agents, a pub with tables outside and baskets of bruised red geraniums swinging in the damp breeze, and a newsagent which was just opening up. Flipping through an A–Z, I saw that I’d come three quarters of the way around a squarish circle. My hall of residence was less than a mile away. I bought a pint of milk. The rain was beginning to ease as I pounded back, and my hangover was gone.

    In the male shower room, a big, bluff kind of guy was towelling down ostentatiously just like the rugby players did at school to make sure you clocked the size of their muscles and their dicks.

    He stared at my mud-bespattered legs.

    ‘Got wrecked last night. Been out to run it off,’ I said, and saw I’d gone up in his estimation.

    Back in my room, I found a brand-new kettle in a box marked Kitchen along with a big jar of premium-quality instant coffee, a canister of Coffee Mate creamer and some tins of baked beans. My mother had thought of everything and I now regretted my reluctance to let her help me unpack and tidy everything away as she would have liked.

    With two mugs of coffee in my hands, I was about to give Nash’s door a sharp kick, when I had another flashback.

    Did we kiss? We did. Right there outside her door. A peck, then a Frenchie and then, looking at me with heavy-lidded eyes, she’d asked if I wanted to come in, and it was clear that we could have had sex, but I’d muttered something about it not being a good idea.

    Nash wasn’t really my type. I hadn’t even known I had a type until then.

    I drank both cups of coffee, then set off to the Medics’ introductory talk.

    There was an almost tangible buzz of nerves among the crowd of strangers congregating outside the lecture theatre and a ripple of laughter when the student who was standing nearest the big wooden door tried the handle and discovered that it was open.

    ‘Your first step on the way to becoming independent learners,’ the professor remarked acidly from the lectern, as we filed into the tiers of seats, casting surreptitious glances around to see if others were taking off jackets, or taking out notepads.

    Along the rows, I recognized a couple of faces from the interview day. A boy with glasses soberly acknowledged my nod of recognition; a girl wearing a headscarf looked away shyly.

    ‘Which one of us is going to faint, do you reckon? There’s always one, apparently, at our first sight of a cadaver . . .’ the guy next to me whispered.

    I unfurled a forefinger to point at the shiny blonde bob of a girl sitting right in front of us, who suddenly turned, as if she’d detected the slight movement in her direction. She was classically pretty in an appley, English kind of way. Her eyes held mine for a moment and I could feel the colour spreading over my face.

    Her name was Lucy, my neighbour discovered when we broke for coffee and ended up sharing a table in the cafe. His was Toby.

    If I’d been a moment later arriving outside the lecture theatre, or squeezed onto the end of a row of seats instead of starting a new one, I would probably have spent my training with different people. Or doesn’t it work like that? Were Lucy and I always destined to meet and have coffee together? If I’d sat next to Jonathan, the guy with glasses, would I have passed my university years playing chess, and would I, too, have gone on to be a renowned oncologist? We think we choose our friends, but perhaps it’s always just a matter of chance.

    They took us into the anatomy lab during the first week. I suppose the idea was to confront it straight away. In the corridor outside, everyone was talking loudly, but silence descended as we trooped in. The air was thick with chemicals.

    I had tried to prepare myself by imagining all sorts of different people when the bag was opened up, but the faces I had envisaged were old. This was a young man, the side of his face disfigured where his head had hit the pavement as a lorry turned left into his bike.

    Next to me, Toby fainted. I helped carry him out of the lab, lying him on the floor with his legs up on a chair, and sat with him, pretending to be the calm one, until he thought he was up to going back inside. By that time, the other students at our table had been allowed to touch the body, and shown how the organs would be accessed in a surgical procedure. Anatomy teaching would not start in earnest until the second term, our tutor reassured us, by which stage we’d have had several opportunities to get used to the experience.

    ‘Are you OK?’ Lucy asked me as we stood in the refectory queue afterwards.

    The concern on her face made me wonder if she’d observed my own struggle in the lab. She was so sweet and so pretty that for a moment, in a cynical attempt to make her like me more than Toby, I was tempted to tell her about Ross. But I held back because I couldn’t bear the idea of my new friends being all sympathetic or limiting their vocabulary around me.

    I’ve spent my whole life in your shadow, Ross. I’m not doing that any more.
     
  6. mukul
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    5
    December 1997
    TESS

    Hope was the little donkey in her first nativity play. Nobody thought she’d do it after the fuss she made about not being allowed to be an angel. To be honest, I didn’t see why she couldn’t be an angel, there were enough of them, but Mrs Madden, the Reception class teacher, said people weren’t doing Hope any favours bowing to her will all the time. To be fair to Mrs Madden, I don’t think it was because Hope didn’t look or behave like an angel, I think she was just tired of all the questions.

    Christmas was a confusing time for Hope.

    ‘Is Mum with the herald angels?’ she would ask, making them sound like some chapter of bikers. And, ‘The Virgin Mary looks just like Our Lady.’

    ‘Because she is the same, Hope.’

    ‘Why is she called Virgin?’

    ‘It’s just another name.’

    I made her a cardboard donkey mask just in case she changed her mind, and when at the dress rehearsal Mrs Madden pointed out, in a last-ditch attempt to include her, that the little donkey was the only one apart from baby Jesus who had a carol just about them, Hope decided she would go on stage after all, on all fours, taking her role very seriously and getting very cross when the other children joined in to her song. In the end, a compromise was reached where Hope sang the first verse herself and the rest of the class were allowed to come in for the chorus of ‘Ring out the bells tonight, Bethlehem! Bethlehem!’

    Hope had sat out watching so many rehearsals, she knew where everyone should stand. You could hear her telling the camel that he wasn’t in the right place in between verses of ‘Away in a Manger’. Several of the mothers came up after to tell me how Mum would have been proud, their fixed smiles meaning they’d let it go this time.

    Hope wasn’t popular, even with the other kids. You’d think that four- and five-year-olds would be too young for that, but they’re not. On playground duty, I would watch her charging around and around the painted lines on the tarmac in some determined pursuit of her own, praying that one of the kids would ask to be her friend. Hope didn’t seem to notice, but it broke my heart.

    When I mentioned Hope’s isolation to Dad, he just came out with the usual stuff about Hope being spoilt and mollycoddled. If people just left her alone, he said, she’d soon sort herself out, missing the point that people were leaving her alone, but you didn’t challenge Dad like that.

    Brendan rang from Australia every fortnight, but he wasn’t much help when I told him my concerns about Hope.

    ‘I expect you’d be lonely, if you were five years old and lost your mammy,’ he said. ‘You worry too much!’

    ‘I expect you’d worry if you were eighteen and you’d been landed with your little sister to look after,’ I wanted to say to him. But that would have been childish.

    At lunchtime on the last day of term, Mrs Corcoran sent word she wanted to see me. Waiting on a hard chair outside her office, I was sure she was going to issue a warning about Hope’s behaviour, or worse, but when she called me in, she told me that the school was about to advertise for a teaching assistant, but if I wanted it, the job was mine.

    ‘A mutually beneficial arrangement,’ she called it.

    ‘You might as well get paid for all the work you do,’ said Doll, as we sat watching Sleepless in Seattle. She’d got into the habit of coming round with a takeaway and a video every Friday night when Dad was out at the pub, usually choosing something romantic on the basis that we’d both be able to have a good old cry. ‘Just until Hope settles,’ she added.

    We all used that phrase a lot. When Hope settles. As if it was just a temporary arrangement. I borrowed books from the course reading list from the library, so I wouldn’t be behind if some miracle allowed me to slot back into university.

    I suppose I had kind of been expecting Doll to put up an argument, but we both knew I didn’t really have a choice. Dad had to go out to work so he couldn’t look after Hope, even if he’d had the capacity or inclination to deal with a young child. Any other alternative was unthinkable.

    ‘I know how much you wanted to go to university, so I’m sad for you, but I’m happy for me,’ Doll said, picking up a triangle of pizza. ‘Do you think that makes me a good friend or a horrible selfish person?’

    ‘A horrible selfish person, obviously,’ I said, with a hollow little laugh.

    We both sat staring at the television screen for a while.

    ‘Do you believe in The One?’ Doll finally asked.

    ‘Depends what you mean by The One,’ I said, with that unintentionally surly voice you get when you’re trying to hold back tears, not because of the romance on the screen, which I wasn’t paying much attention to, but because it felt like we’d finally confirmed I was stuck here for the foreseeable future.

    ‘As in, there’s one person out there who’s destined for you?’

    ‘Seems unlikely, doesn’t it?’

    ‘Why?’ asked Doll, attempting to deal prettily with an infinite string of mozzarella.

    ‘That there’s only one person out of the whole of mankind? I mean, what if your person happens to live in the Amazonian rainforest, or speak Arabic, or something? And how would you ever know anyway, because if you think somebody is The One and he’s not, then you might have given up your chance of meeting The One who is . . .’

    ‘What about Mr Darcy, then?’

    Like everyone else, we’d both had a big crush on Colin Firth in the television series of Pride and Prejudice.

    ‘That was the eighteen hundreds,’ I said. ‘You didn’t get to meet as many people.’

    ‘You’re so unromantic!’

    My mind wandered through the great romantic pairings in literature. Had they really met because they were meant for one another, or simply because they lived in close proximity? Cathy and Heathcliff shared the same house, Romeo and Juliet were both in Verona. Wasn’t The One more to do with the fact that the emotion we called love, which I had yet to experience, was so powerful it made you believe that this was the only person in the world for you? Wasn’t it more a matter of definition than of destiny?

    On screen, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks finally met at the top of the Empire State Building.

    ‘She could do better, don’t you think?’ Doll said over the closing credits. ‘I mean, he’s a good actor, but he’s just not sexy, is he?’

    ‘Sorry, which one of us was the unromantic one?’ I asked.

    ‘So, if it was anyone in the whole world, right now, who would it be?’ Doll wanted to know.

    It was the sort of conversation we used to have as we walked home from school. In those days, it was all Robbie Williams, although I’d always assumed that if our paths had crossed, he would have chosen Doll, because Doll was petite and blonde and boys liked her.

    ‘George Clooney?’ I offered.

    ER was the programme the teaching assistants at St Cuthbert’s talked about. Lusting after George Clooney was something I had in common with a staffroom of sympathetic middle-aged women, where conversation often centred on topics like varicose veins and the menopause.

    ‘A bit old for you, isn’t he?’ said Doll.

    ‘I’m never going to meet him, am I?’

    ‘You always did have a thing for the older guys,’ Doll mused.

    ‘How d’you work that out?’

    Little Women, remember? You didn’t mind when Jo got that old professor bloke instead of nice Laurie. It’s the one book I’ve read all the way through,’ she admitted when she saw me looking at her, astonished. ‘Only ’cause you made me.’

    ‘So who would it be for you?’ I felt obliged to ask.

    ‘If we’re talking a famous person, Tom Cruise.’

    ‘Yeah, he is pretty gorgeous.’

    ‘He’s too short for you,’ said Doll immediately, as if I was planning to snatch him from her.

    She got up and removed the video cassette from the machine.

    ‘What about blokes we know?’ she asked.

    I was about to say that men hadn’t been uppermost in my mind for the past few weeks, when I heard Dad fumbling with his keys at the front door, so jumped up to tidy away the pizza debris. You could never tell what mood he’d be in after the pub.

    A cloud of curry entered the room with him.

    ‘So you girls had yourselves a pizza, did you?’ he asked, seeing the box on the table.

    ‘We did.’

    ‘None left for me?’ He lifted the lid of the box, in a twinkly rather than menacing way.

    ‘Sorry!’

    ‘How much does one of these takeaway pizzas cost, then?’

    ‘Doll paid,’ I said quickly.

    ‘You’ve got yourself a job, have you?’ Dad asked her.

    ‘I have, Mr Costello. I’m working full-time at the salon now.’

    While I was in the sixth form, Doll had been at the local college, doing her diploma, but she’d always worked evenings and weekends at the town’s poshest hairdressing salon since she was thirteen, graduating from the girl who swept the floor all the way up to junior stylist.

    ‘There now,’ said Dad, giving me a look.

    ‘I’ve been offered a job as well,’ I heard myself telling him, my heart sinking at the inevitability of accepting Mrs Corcoran’s offer. ‘I’m going to be a proper teaching assistant on the staff after Christmas.’

    ‘You’ll be getting the pizza in then,’ said Dad.

    Not well done, or anything like that. Dad hadn’t forgiven me for choosing university rather than work, even though I hadn’t gone.

    Doll and I exchanged glances.

    ‘Well, I’ll be off,’ said Doll.

    ‘I’ll walk you,’ I said, hoping that Dad would have fallen asleep by the time I got back. You would have thought with Mum dying we’d have got along better together, but if anything, Dad seemed more cantankerous than ever. Perhaps it was one of his stages of grief.

    The cool air was refreshing after being indoors all evening.

    ‘Oh, I forgot! Mum said you’re to come for Christmas,’ Doll announced.

    ‘Seriously?’

    ‘All of you.’

    I almost wept with gratitude. I’d been so worried about Christmas. I hadn’t been able to decide whether to get the tinsel tree down from the loft, or decorate the lounge with paper chains, in case it seemed disrespectful. Whenever I tried to speak to Dad about it, he’d say, ‘Christmas? Doesn’t it get earlier every year?’

    And there’d be some excuse – the pub, the snooker, the match – as to why we wouldn’t talk about it yet.

    The cards we’d received were piled up on the hall table, except for the one Hope had made at school in the shape of a Christmas tree, so loaded with glitter and glue it never properly dried. That went up on the knick-knack shelf in the kitchen and each morning while she was eating her Coco Pops, Hope gazed at it, saying, in rather a good impression of Mrs Corcoran’s Irish lilt, ‘That’s really very good, Hope, isn’t it now?’

    I’d dreaded tackling the Christmas lunch. My cooking skills were non-existent. It was fortunate that they served a hot lunch at school, because in the evenings all I ran to was toast with beans, toast with spaghetti or toast with Marmite. Occasionally, when Dad was flush from a win on the horses, he’d arrive home with a big bag of fish and chips, but usually he ate at the pub, or at the Taj Mahal after closing time.

    One Sunday, I’d tried to make us a roast dinner, Hope’s favourite, chicken with little sausages, but I got the timings all wrong, and omitted to remove the plastic tray under the chicken before putting it in the oven. The custard for the trifle was sweet scrambled egg, and I over-whipped the cream, so instead of being all floaty, it was fatty and impossible to spread. After that, Dad started taking us to the Carvery on Sunday where it was all you could eat for £4.99 and kids went free, including an Ice Cream Factory which Hope went backwards and forwards to, until Dad decided value for money was one thing, but enough was enough. The Carvery wasn’t open on Christmas Day.

    Christmas shopping in London was something I’d always done with Mum before Hope was born. We’d rarely bought anything but we used to look at all the Christmas windows of the department stores, sometimes venturing inside to take a surreptitious squirt of Chanel N°5 – ‘If you marry a rich man, Tess, that’s the scent he’ll buy you!’ – while the perfumery assistant’s back was turned. I knew it was a risk taking Hope, but I thought she might enjoy all the decorations and the change of scene.

    It was a mistake to stop outside Hamleys. When I tried to move us on, Hope literally stuck herself to the pavement, the force of her will making her much heavier than she really was. Inside, she immediately spotted the mountain of soft toys.

    ‘You can touch them very carefully and nicely. Nicely, Hope! Gently. Now put it back, please, Hope . . . put it back!’

    I ended up having to buy the giraffe who was on the point of losing his tail by the time we got it to the till. I couldn’t believe the price. Dad had given me a twenty-pound note to have ourselves a good time, but there was only enough left for a Happy Meal for lunch. At that point, it would have been more sensible to go home, but it was already 23 December and I hadn’t yet got gifts for Mrs O’Neill or Doll, and I wanted to buy them something in Selfridges.

    After Doll and I turned fifteen, we were allowed to go up to London in the holidays if we saved enough money from our Saturday jobs. We loved walking round the city, discovering all the different little villagey areas and fantasizing about sharing a place there one day. Doll fancied a modern flat overlooking Hyde Park; I preferred the idea of one of the little houses at the top of Portobello Road which were all painted a different bright colour. The dream was that I’d be a librarian or work in a bookshop and Doll would be one of the women in Selfridges’ perfumery who wear a clinical-looking white uniform and offer you a demonstration facial.

    Oxford Street was crammed with last-minute shoppers. You just had to keep moving along with the crowd, which was tiresome enough for someone as tall as me but much worse for Hope. When she couldn’t stand the crush and the noise any longer, she stopped dead.

    ‘Come on, Hope. It’s not far now.’

    The columns of Selfridges were just up ahead.

    ‘Hope! We’re holding everyone up.’

    Initial glances of sympathy changed to disapproval as the screaming started.

    ‘Hope! Come on now! What would Mum think of this behaviour?’

    I’d vowed never to use Mum’s memory as a threat, and as soon as I said it I wanted to take it back, but the question had distracted her for the second I needed to scoop her off her feet and carry her. She started fighting and kicking me.

    ‘Put me down!’

    ‘Only if you’ll promise to behave.’

    ‘Put me down!’

    The screams were getting louder, her face was all hot and wet with tears, and then suddenly, she stopped, cocking her head to one side, like a robin. My ears searched the rumble of traffic and detected the noise of a band playing ‘Silent Night’ somewhere in the direction of Selfridges.

    We must have stood there for half an hour listening to the carols, Hope’s face lighting up as she recognized each familiar tune. She knew all the words to ‘Away in a Manger’ and ‘We Three Things’, as she called it, and sang them completely unselfconsciously. When the band stopped for a break, I gave her fifty pence to go and put in the collection box.

    ‘Aren’t you the little angel?’ the Salvation Army lady said.

    ‘I’m the little donkey,’ Hope told her.

    Selfridges was packed inside, and all the cosmetic counters were just a little too high for Hope. When I tried to interest her with a squirt of perfume on the back of her hand, she started coughing in a silly exaggerated way. I quickly chose a box of guest soaps with beautiful floral wrappers for Mrs O’Neill and a gift pack of Rive Gauche eau de parfum and body lotion, Doll’s current favourite fragrance.

    ‘I’d like them in separate bags, please,’ I told the assistant when we eventually got to the front of the queue.

    The whole point was the bright yellow Selfridges bags.

    ‘That’s twenty-eight pounds, madam.’

    Delving around in my bag, I could feel the line behind me growing impatient and had a horrible sinking feeling that some clever pickpocket had stolen my wallet in the crush of shoppers. Finally, I felt it at the bottom of my bag.

    ‘Here!’

    Thrusting two notes at the assistant, I was suddenly aware that Hope was no longer holding my hand, nor was she standing next to me.

    ‘Hope?’

    No sign of her.

    My chest tightened, as if I’d forgotten how to breathe. Keep calm. She must be around somewhere. I scanned the crowds. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of people on the ground floor of the shop. Where had she gone? People were packed onto every step of the escalators going up and coming down; and everywhere there were mirrors reflecting more people. But no Hope.

    ‘Hope?’

    With the cash still in my hand, I started moving through the crowd peering over the tops of the shiny glass counters looking for her. Perhaps she was hiding? But it would be so unlike Hope to hide. Whenever I tried to play hide-and-seek with her, she didn’t get the idea.

    ‘. . . nine, ten, coming to get you!’

    ‘Here I am!’ Hope would call out from behind the curtain.

    Had she run away? Hope never ran away. She wriggled and kicked, but she didn’t run.

    It was like a nightmare, except instead of shouting and nothing coming out of my mouth, I was shouting and nobody was paying any attention.

    Someone must have taken her! Please God, no! Don’t let someone have taken her!

    The revolving door was whirling people into the street. Did someone have a car outside waiting, a car with black windows? Surely people would have seen her being taken? But I’d had all the disapproving glances and nobody had asked, ‘Is that child yours?’ Everyone was too busy shopping.

    Please God! I will believe in you, if you just bring her back to me!

    As I started saying Hail Marys in my head, I suddenly had a flash of inspiration. Aren’t you the little angel?

    Outside, I dodged this way and that, not caring who I bumped into in my haste to get back to the Salvation Army band.

    An ambulance siren screamed nearby. Please God, don’t let her have tried to cross the road and gone under a big red bus!

    Calm down. She’ll be standing by the litter bin where we listened to the band.

    She wasn’t! I’d lost her! I really had lost her! And it was stupid to leave the shop because if she was looking for me, she wouldn’t find me now!

    The band started a new carol.

    ‘Little donkey, little donkey, on the dusty road . . .’

    In my panic, I hadn’t seen Hope standing right next to the conductor. She was adamantly refusing to hold the hand of the worried-looking woman with the collection box.

    ‘Stop that huggy stuff!’ Hope shouted, as I squeezed her ever so tightly in my arms. ‘Stop it, I said.’

    She fell asleep on the train home, a picture of innocence, her hand clasped around the giraffe’s neck, his soft face next to hers. When I thought about it calmly, it was astonishing that she had found her way through the store and back to the band. Didn’t that just prove that she was as intelligent as any other child, if not more so? That would be something to tell Mrs Corcoran.

    Or not. Because that would involve admitting that I’d lost her.

    A middle-aged woman sitting opposite us with her Christmas shopping nodded and smiled.

    ‘Bless her!’

    ‘You should have seen her earlier,’ I said. ‘Screaming blue murder!’

    ‘You don’t ever want to criticize your own,’ she admonished me. ‘There’ll be plenty of people in life who’ll do that for you.’

    Normally, I’d have explained that I wasn’t Hope’s mother, but those cataclysmic seconds, minutes – I don’t even know how long it was – without her, had made me realize that Hope was so much more important than anything else. It was suddenly clear as an epiphany that I had a choice: I could either go on thinking life was unfair and getting all bitter and resentful, or just get on with looking after her. It was actually a relief. And it was true what Brendan said the last time I’d had a bit of a moan on the phone. Not studying English Literature didn’t stop me reading books, did it?

    I thought of something Mum often used to say. If you do something with a happy heart, it will bring you joy.

    Or as Doll put it, because she was the only person I ever told about the incident:

    ‘You lost Hope, but then you found it again.’
     
  7. mukul
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    6
    December 1997
    GUS

    As the days grew shorter, I began to feel as if London was my home. Autumn sharpened the experience of living in the city. We came out of our afternoon lectures into darkness, with street lights sparkling in the rain and the air steaming with appetizing wafts of spicy food. Shivering throngs at dripping bus stops were cheerfully united in suffering. In summer, it felt more like being a tourist; if you were there as winter approached, it was because you had to be.

    On Bonfire Night Lucy, Toby and I joined the crowds of people trudging up Primrose Hill and gazed over the vast, illuminated map of London spread out below us. As we oohed and aahed at the firework display, it was obvious that Toby and I both fancied Lucy. There was an unspoken competition between us, which she pretended not to see.

    On the first day of the holidays, most of the students loaded up with dirty washing and headed out of town. Lucy was eager to see her family, Toby to be reunited with his school friends; Nash was flying off to see her father. Everyone else was looking forward to the thing I was dreading: Christmas at home.

    I kept finding reasons not to leave, spending mornings studying in the library for the January exams, and afternoons in the National Gallery, working my way from the Renaissance to fin-de-siècle Paris. When I discovered that the National Theatre had a batch of cheap tickets available on the day for the evening performance, I headed south instead of north on my morning run, crossing the steely grey Thames as the first commuters began to spill across the bridge, and standing in the box-office queue, with the cold river air slicing through to my bones.

    The day before Christmas Eve, it occurred to me that I hadn’t yet bought any presents, which provided an excuse to delay my departure for another few hours. In the past, my mother had always bought our presents for us: from me, after-dinner mints for her and liqueur chocolates for my father. From Ross, a collection of guest soaps and a set of golf balls. The theory was that we paid her back out of our pocket money, but we never did. We were responsible for wrapping, although paper, scissors and Sellotape were thoughtfully placed on our beds beside the gifts, and on Christmas morning she would feign surprise as the parcels were opened. This year, I was determined that my mother would be genuinely delighted when she opened her gift from me, even though I didn’t have the slightest idea what to buy her.

    I made my way to Selfridges, where we used to be taken to see Father Christmas as children. Afterwards, my father, Ross and I would tuck into generous salt-beef sandwiches with lashings of mustard and gherkin at the Brass Rail, while my mother sought advice about face creams and tested lipstick colours on the back of her hand in the perfumery department. Then we’d drive down Regent Street, Ross and me in the back seat, craning our heads to see the lights.

    The old-fashioned revolving door at the centre of the store triggered a memory of Ross pushing as fast as he could to whirl unsuspecting shoppers off-balance. One section of the ground floor was a sturdy, masculine kind of place where I found a range of gifts for men and bought a matching tartan-covered hip-flask and scorecard holder in a faux-wooden box. On the more feminine side of the store, I chose a Yardley boxed set of talc and bath oil tied with lavender ribbon and stood in the line for the till.

    In front of me, there was a tall woman with a fidgety little girl in one hand and a couple of boxes in the other. Her gift sets looked much more sophisticated than mine and I became a little anxious about the Yardley. She was talking to the child so patiently that I was about to pluck up the courage to ask her opinion, but then it was her turn at the till, and, as she delved into her shoulder bag, the little girl shot off through the legs of the shoppers.

    I was suddenly at the front of the queue.

    ‘Can I help you?’

    I picked up the black, blue and silver box the woman had abandoned and weighed it against mine.

    ‘Girlfriend or mother?’ demanded the shop assistant.

    I could feel the colour spreading across my face and burning the tips of my ears.

    ‘Mother,’ I murmured.

    A small, knowing smile completed my humiliation.

    ‘Probably safer with the Yardley, then,’ she said, taking it from my hand.

    For a moment, I was tempted to buy the other box out of sheer defiance. Perhaps my mother was younger and trendier than she assumed? Perhaps I would give it to Lucy? We’d made tentative plans to meet up between Christmas and New Year. But I had no idea what perfume, if any, she used.

    My father picked me up at the station, leaning across the passenger seat to open my door.

    ‘They’re saying it might snow.’ He was something of an amateur weather forecaster and there was a mahogany barometer in our hall, but the statement was freighted with deeper layers of meaning.

    ‘Let’s hope not,’ I said.

    We both sat in silence, staring straight ahead as if to face down any stray snowflakes for the duration of the short drive home.

    There was the usual wreath of holly and tartan ribbon on the door and a real Christmas tree in the hall, but the Blue Peter advent crown that Ross and I had made the winter we both had measles had been retired. My mother emerged from the kitchen in her festive apron. Her hands were covered in flour, so we air-kissed, and then she looked me up and down as if she was expecting me to have changed.

    At supper, in our rarely used dining room, my father was eager to catch me out with questions about the working of organs and glands. I remembered him behaving in a similar way towards Ross early on in his training. Perhaps Nash was right about him being a failed doctor? Ross had been more combative than me, unafraid to challenge him. My reticence simply made my father more persistent. And yet, when my mother said, ‘For goodness’ sake, leave him alone, Gordon!’ I almost wished he would keep going, because the silence in the room was so acute, it was like an inaudible scream of pain.

    The dining table was polished to a high shine, the glasses and cutlery twinkled. With all her attention to cleanliness and propriety, my mother had made the place as sterile as my father’s surgery.

    ‘More wine?’ asked my mother.

    I had barely touched my glass, but hers had been filled and emptied three times. The neck of the bottle tinkled slightly against its rim. My father stared at it. She put the bottle carefully down and picked up her glass. Then, the doorbell rang.

    ‘Who on earth?’ said my father.

    ‘Probably carol singers!’ My mother seemed almost feverish at the distraction. When she opened the front door, the sound that filtered through to the dining room from the hall was not a song, but an exaggerated squeal of delight.

    ‘What a lovely surprise!’ Her voice became louder as she walked down the hall towards the dining room. ‘Guess who, Gordon? Angus?’

    Ross’s girlfriend Charlotte followed her into the room. She was wearing a long lilac coat with a shawl collar that on anyone less elegant or slim might have looked like a dressing gown, but made her look like a film star. She was holding a cube wrapped in incongruously cheap and cheerful wrapping paper.

    ‘Please don’t get up!’ she said. ‘I don’t want to disturb your supper.’

    ‘You’re not!’ I blurted, ridiculously grateful to her for changing the dynamic.

    ‘Let me get you a drink!’ My father clicked into the jovial-host mode I’d forgotten he was capable of.

    The dining room felt nice, normal again.

    ‘Something soft.’ Charlotte put down the parcel and slid off soft black leather gloves. ‘I’m in my car.’

    ‘Your own car? How exciting!’ said my mother.

    ‘It’s just a little Peugeot.’

    My father opened a bottle of tonic water. Ice cubes cracked in the glass as the fizz frothed over them and a faint, bitter aroma drifted across the table. ‘Peugeot, eh?’

    With a shrug of Charlotte’s shoulders, her coat hung itself over the back of her chair, revealing a slippery satin lining. Underneath she was wearing a plain black polo neck and black jeans. Her long hair was so black and shiny, it almost looked blue; her complexion was flawless. In the photo of her and Ross on the living-room mantelpiece, dressed up as the Addams family for a Halloween ball, there was something almost vampiric about her beauty, but now, with her lips pale from the cold, she was like a model shot by David Bailey in the sixties: stunning, and somehow a tiny bit vulnerable.

    ‘So you’re a houseman now?’ said my father. ‘Or am I meant to say “houseperson”?’

    The pale lips formed a thin smile.

    ‘Any areas you’re keen to specialize in? General practice?’

    ‘Cardiac surgery,’ she replied, evenly.

    For some reason, I let out a little snort of laughter.

    I’d been in awe of Charlotte from the first time Ross brought her home the summer at the end of his second year. My dad had just built the hot tub on the decking. Charlotte had worn a tiny white bikini. I’d never seen a woman wearing so little before. She’d been tantalizingly aloof. I couldn’t even tell if she’d noticed me behind her film-star sunglasses.

    ‘How are you enjoying Medicine, Angus?’ she asked.

    ‘Fine. Hard work, obviously,’ I mumbled, thirteen years old again.

    ‘Not as hard as being a heart surgeon,’ my mother said. ‘Goodness! I should think that’s the most difficult—’

    ‘It’s a competitive area,’ Charlotte acknowledged.

    ‘I wonder . . .’ my mother began.

    Her eyes had the watery, unfocused look that meant she was thinking about what path Ross would have chosen.

    ‘Anyway,’ said Charlotte, taking a sip of her tonic water. ‘That’s for the future.’

    ‘Good to have ambitions, nevertheless,’ said my father. It didn’t sound as though he rated her chances. ‘So, you’re going home for Christmas?’

    Her mother’s house was just a few miles from ours, though Charlotte and Ross had met at uni.

    ‘I’ve fucked women on five continents,’ he’d told me once, as he shaved before a date. ‘When the finest fuck lives five minutes down the road.’

    ‘Just today and tomorrow. I’m working Christmas Day,’ Charlotte replied.

    ‘Welcome to real life!’ said my father.

    I could think of only one Christmas when he had been called upon to prescribe antibiotics for an abscess.

    ‘And New Year?’ my mother asked quietly.

    ‘Yes, New Year too.’

    ‘Probably just as well,’ said my father.

    ‘Yes,’ said Charlotte.

    The silence seemed endless.

    ‘How lovely of you to come to see us, though! Gordon, isn’t it lovely?’

    Charlotte pushed the parcel towards my mother.

    ‘Just a little something,’ she said.

    ‘You shouldn’t have! But how lovely!’ said my mother. ‘I must go and get yours.’

    From the length of time she was out of the room, I wondered if my mother really had purchased a gift for Charlotte, or whether she was wrapping something up that she had bought on the off-chance that, even with all her meticulous Christmas lists, she had overlooked someone.

    ‘Where are you living?’ I asked Charlotte, to break the silence.

    ‘Battersea. Do you know it?’

    ‘No.’

    ‘It’s quite convenient.’

    ‘I’ve been to the National Theatre.’

    To produce this howling non-sequitur, my thought processes had jumped from Battersea to the only place I knew south of the river.

    Charlotte regarded me disdainfully.

    ‘Lucky you,’ she said, with a thin edge of irony.

    ‘You can get cheap tickets on the day,’ I said, for the benefit of my father, who was looking perplexed. ‘I run,’ I added.

    ‘I run too,’ said Charlotte.

    ‘Perhaps you’ll run into each other!’ my father tried to join in, but his attempt at a joke simply closed the conversation down.

    My mother returned with a soft parcel and handed it to Charlotte.

    ‘Shall I open it now?’ Charlotte asked.

    She tore the paper to reveal a red knitted glove and scarf set from Marks & Spencer.

    ‘Mmm,’ she said, draping the scarf around her neck. ‘This will keep me nice and warm!’

    She pointed at the cube on the table, which my mother unwrapped to reveal a box with a pink amaryllis on it.

    ‘You plant the bulb and it shoots up a lovely flower,’ Charlotte said.

    ‘I’ve always wondered if they work,’ said my mother doubtfully, turning the box over and peering at the instructions.

    ‘Of course they work!’ I said, dismayed to see that Charlotte was slipping her narrow shoulders into the satiny sleeves of her coat. The knitted red scarf looked as discordant against her outfit as the parcel had when she came in. I wondered how far she would drive down the road before taking it off.

    ‘Well, I must be getting going,’ she said.

    Charlotte air-kissed my mother, then, after holding out her hand to be shaken, stiffly allowed my father to give her a hug.

    So that there was no question of looking as if I was expecting a kiss or hug myself, I rushed to the front door to see her out.

    ‘Thanks for coming,’ I said. ‘Cheered them up no end.’

    Charlotte looked up at me. Her eyes, I noticed, were a greeny colour, like a cat’s.

    ‘You’ve grown so tall, Angus,’ she said. ‘Goodness, I think you’re bigger than Ross now.’

    ‘He’d hate that!’

    It just came out and I was immediately ashamed that I had made the only reference to him irreverent.

    Charlotte’s forehead was furrowed with a small frown, as if she was considering the truth of the proposition, and then, to my great relief, she smiled, a genuine smile, as if remembering something pleasant.

    ‘You’re absolutely right! He would!’ she said, and gave my arm a tiny squeeze before stepping out into the cold.

    Although it was just the three of us, my mother was up before dawn on Christmas Day to put a huge turkey in the oven. I hadn’t slept well and went downstairs as soon as I heard the clanking of baking trays. The kitchen was already swathed in a warm mist of offal from the giblets she was boiling for gravy. I drank the cup of tea she put in front of me, and told her I was going for a run.

    ‘Blow away the cobwebs,’ she said.

    Outside, the air was opaque with freezing fog, the pavement laced with frost which stuck slightly to the soles of my trainers. With zero visibility, I found myself jogging slowly, as if some primal instinct had kicked in, causing my brain to think me blind and in need of protection from obstacles that might loom in my path. I couldn’t get up to the precious speed where thought left my body and nothing mattered but the pounding rhythm of feet hitting the ground.

    Suddenly aware of another person’s steps, I slowed to a halt.

    Perhaps you’ll run into each other!

    A man I didn’t know ran past. He must have eaten garlic the night before. The acrid odour hung in the still whiteness as his laboured breaths receded into silence.

    There was a smell of burning when I returned to the house. My mother was standing over the kitchen sink scrubbing at the blackened giblet pan. She didn’t look round as I stood in the doorway, but from the angle of her shoulders, I could tell she was crying.

    I showered for a long time, enjoying the hot water streaming over my cold face.

    When I came downstairs, my father was sitting at the kitchen table in his usual Christmas mufti: thick tweedy sweater over checked shirt and corduroy trousers.

    I’d noticed a slight air of impatience about him since my return, like a man waiting beside a motorway for the RAC to turn up.

    My mother brandished one of her Christmas platters. ‘Smoked salmon and champagne?’

    ‘It’s a bit early, isn’t it?’ he said.

    ‘Some of us have been up for hours!’

    I had heard the same exchange every Christmas morning for as long as I could remember.

    ‘Well, you only live once!’ was my father’s standard reply. But obviously he wasn’t going to say it this year.

    Previously, I had been allowed only half a glass of champagne, but at eighteen, it appeared I could have as much as I wanted. It slipped down my throat like cream.

    ‘It hardly seems worth lighting the fire in the living room,’ my mother was saying.

    For the last few years, that had been Ross’s job. I couldn’t decide whether she was hinting that I should do it this year, or indicating that she would be happier not to go in the living room where we’d be surrounded by photos of him.

    ‘Why don’t we have our presents in the kitchen?’ I suggested.

    ‘Nice and warm,’ said my father immediately.

    ‘Why ever not?’ My mother seemed almost excited about the break with tradition.

    She had bought me a pair of pyjamas, a voucher for ten driving lessons at the British School of Motoring, and, from my father, a pedometer.

    ‘Let’s have a look,’ he demanded, making it clear that it was the first time he had seen it.

    ‘It counts how many paces you’ve done!’ said my mother.

    I would never use it, but I recognized the thought that had gone into the gift. I could almost hear her saying to her WI friends, ‘I can’t think of a thing for Angus. All he does these days is run!’

    My father appeared satisfied with his gift from me, but there was something about the way my mother said, ‘Oh! Lavender!’ when she unwrapped hers, that made me realize that she didn’t like the fragrance. She turned the pretty box over and over in her hands.

    ‘Ross always used to buy me Yardley guest soaps,’ she whispered, throatily.

    A barb of resentment stabbed through the cotton-wool cocoon the champagne had spun around me.

    No, he didn’t!’ I wanted to say. ‘You did! Why does he have to be a saint?

    The clock ticked on the wall. The turkey spat and sizzled in the oven.

    ‘Good Lord, is that the time?’ my father suddenly said. ‘I said I’d have nine holes with Brian!’

    ‘Why don’t you take Angus along?’ my mother suggested.

    I sensed a slight hesitation.

    ‘Would you like to come?’

    I knew that he would have preferred me to say no, but my mother seemed equally keen for me to go.

    I waited in the hall for him to come downstairs jangling his car keys amid a powerful waft of some cologne I’d never smelled on him before.

    We drove several miles to his golf club. There were a few diehards in the club lounge, and a lone woman sitting at a table by the log fire. As I pushed open the door, she glanced up expectantly, then down again when I was not the person she was waiting for.

    ‘What’ll it be?’ My father put an arm around my shoulder, ushering me towards the bar.

    I asked for a half of bitter knowing he wouldn’t hesitate to voice his thoughts about lager drinkers to anyone who would listen.

    ‘Two halves of your best!’ he said loudly to the bartender, then turned to me. ‘Don’t think we’ve had a proper drink together, have we?’

    ‘I don’t think so.’

    We both knew we hadn’t. My eighteenth birthday in April had come and gone without anyone really noticing it.

    ‘Pubs in London any good or are you more of a wine-bar man?’ he asked.

    ‘I haven’t been to that many.’

    ‘Cheaper at the Union, eh?’

    I wasn’t sure if he wanted me to be a hearty drinker or whether it was a trap.

    ‘I suppose so!’

    ‘He supposes so!’ said my father, as if to invite the others at the bar into our manly tête-à-tête.

    There were a few smiles but no takers.

    He drained his glass.

    ‘Another?’ I asked.

    ‘Better not,’ he said. ‘Not when I’m driving. Look, while you’re finishing up, I just need to point Percy.’

    I stood at the bar, trying to ignore the drainy taste of the warm ale as I gulped it back.

    My father returned with the woman I’d noticed when we came in.

    ‘Angus, would you believe it! This is Samantha, my new nurse at the practice!’

    ‘Not that new!’ she said with a little laugh, looking at him, not me, as we shook hands.

    Like most dental nurses I had encountered, she was pretty, in a clinical sort of way, with short hair, good teeth and sensible little stud earrings. She was wearing tight, clean jeans tucked into leather boots, and a pale blue fluffy jumper. A silk scarf with a navy border and a pattern of gold buckles was draped around her shoulders, slightly at odds with the rest of her outfit. I imagined it was his Christmas present to her. She wasn’t yet the age for silk scarves.

    ‘How long is it now?’ my father was asking her.

    ‘Seven months,’ she said.

    ‘Is it really? So, you’re a member here, are you?’ he asked, as if anyone was going to believe that she was the sort of girl who would nip out on her own to practise her swing on Christmas morning.

    ‘Daddy is,’ she replied. ‘I’m spending Christmas with my parents.’ She caught my eye for the first time, as if we both knew what a pain that was. ‘I really should be getting back.’

    In the car on the way home, I couldn’t decide what I felt, if I felt anything at all. If Samantha was the way he had found some comfort, then good for him. I guessed she wasn’t the first. My mother probably suspected – she had been his nurse herself – so perhaps her suggestion that I accompany him had been mischievous? One thing I was clear about was that she would not want to be told by me.

    ‘Samantha seems nice,’ I ventured, with a hint of complicity.

    ‘What? Oh, yes, she’s not bad at all,’ my father replied, keeping his eyes focused on the road.

    There was a yellowy glimmer of impending snow in the fading light.

    As we turned into our drive, my father suddenly remembered his alibi.

    ‘I don’t know where Brian got to!’ he exclaimed.

    ‘We were rather late,’ I said.

    My father turned and gave me the kind of blokey smile I had only ever seen him give to Ross.

    ‘That must be it!’

    ‘A girl called to speak to you,’ my mother announced as the two of us walked into the hall.

    ‘Oh?’ said my father.

    ‘Not you, Gordon. Angus! A girl.’

    ‘A girl, eh?’ My father smiled at me again.

    ‘Did you get her name?’ I asked.

    ‘Did you get her name!’ he echoed, delightedly. In a sentence I had gone from being the son he was unsure about to Casanova.

    ‘It wasn’t a good line. She said she’d call again later. I hope not while we’re eating.’

    The phone rang as my mother was offering me custard, cream or both with my Christmas pudding.

    ‘It’s for you!’ said my father, giving me a wink as he passed the handset over.

    I took it in the hall, my heart racing a little as I cleared my throat before speaking. But it wasn’t Lucy, it was Nash.

    ‘So, how’s things? Are you having a good one?’

    ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Pretty quiet. How about you?’

    ‘Bloody disaster! I’ve only been here two days. Dad’s new girlfriend is a bitch. I don’t know a soul! Look, Dad says he’ll pay for a friend to fly over for New Year . . . ?’

    ‘Where are you, exactly?’ I asked, thinking New York, Brussels or one of the many other cities where Nash’s father owned property.

    ‘The chalet in Val d’Isère,’ she said. ‘You ski, don’t you?’

    ‘No,’ I lied. ‘So I wouldn’t be the best—’

    ‘Oh, come on, Gus. Think croissants, good coffee and oodles of red wine. Please, pretty please?’

    ‘Sorry . . . I just can’t, Nash. Thanks for the offer . . .’

    I put down the phone, and stared at the bunting of Christmas cards festooning the hall. Snow on churches, snow on trees, snowy Bruegel scenes of skaters, a snow-encrusted branch with a robin perched on it, glittering snow on the roof of the nativity stable – did it actually snow in the Middle East? – a cute Labrador puppy with a red bobble hat, skidding in snow. Row after row of soft, white images twinkling their snowy greetings. Had no one thought?

    I saw Ross’s face glancing back at me through the thickly falling snow, his teeth white, his eyes hidden behind mirror ski goggles. There were flakes settling on his dark, swept-back hair.

    ‘What offer’s this then?’ my father asked when I returned to the table.

    My mind replayed the conversation with Nash, in case there was anything else they’d overheard that I was going to have to explain.

    ‘Nothing,’ I said.

    ‘Nothing, eh?’

    I hated the idea of the two of us being men with secrets.

    ‘Look, do you mind if I save this for later? I’m stuffed . . .’

    He shot me a wounded glance. Our bubble of matey bonhomie had been fragile, and now I’d popped it.

    In my bedroom, I stared at the snowflakes falling past the window, thinking of this time one year ago.

    The snow had started to fall as the light faded. It wasn’t safe to ski off-piste, but it was sheer madness if you couldn’t even see where you were going.

    ‘Why did you come up, if you didn’t want to ski down?’ Ross demanded.

    My brother’s strategy was always to make me feel stupid first.

    ‘I thought you wanted to go down the usual way . . .’

    ‘We’ve done “the usual way”,’ he whined, mocking me.

    ‘Not in these conditions. It’ll still be fairly dangerous . . .’

    ‘“Still be fairly dangerous”!’ Another mocking echo, then the inevitable taunt that never failed to spur me into doing things I didn’t want to do. ‘God, you’re such a fucking wuss!’

    Ross looked down the slope. I looked down the slope. Then he looked at me, his eyes gleaming with the challenge.

    ‘Last one to the bottom gets the drinks in!’ He pulled his goggles down and was off, straight to ‘Go!’ when I was still at ‘Ready!’ just like every race we’d ever run.

    I almost followed. I almost followed. But I did not follow.

    I’d heard the taunts so often, they’d lost their power. I didn’t even ski down the marked run. The little wave of triumph ebbed away as I stood alone in the bubble, drifting slowly down through the dense fog, as if I’d finally accepted defeat.

    Back at the hotel, I sat in the window of the bar, staring out into zero visibility.

    After a few minutes, Mum and Dad found me. She’d been in the spa all afternoon and was looking rather pink and shiny; he’d called it a day after the snow came in and had already showered and changed for dinner.

    ‘Where’s Ross?’

    ‘He wanted to ski down. I’d had enough.’

    I didn’t tell them about Ross going off-piste. Didn’t see the point in worrying them unnecessarily.

    After about an hour, Mum started getting fidgety and looking at her watch every few minutes.

    ‘He’s probably bumped into someone and gone for a drink,’ I suggested.

    ‘He’s probably gone back to the room to dry off,’ said Dad.

    ‘It seems to be clearing up now,’ said Mum. ‘Perhaps he took shelter and waited for it to pass over?’

    We were all keen to imagine possible scenarios that would explain the unnatural delay.

    I think perhaps all of us were frightened of Ross. My mother didn’t dare to be thought of as a worrier; my dad revelled in his older son’s courage and prowess and didn’t want to be seen to be questioning that; my own growing anxiety was compounded by not having told them the full facts.

    ‘Do you think we should alert someone?’ I finally asked. ‘It’s just that I think he was planning to ski off-piste . . .’

    ‘What? Why the hell didn’t you say before?’

    My father had already decided to blame me.

    By the time we’d ascertained what we were supposed to do in the circumstances and the rescue team had set off, three hours had passed since I’d last seen my brother. They found him at nine o’clock that night, still alive but hypothermic, with a shattered arm and catastrophic head injuries. It appeared that, just a minute or so after we’d parted, Ross had skied into a tree at speed. They were able to pinpoint the time because the watch on his broken arm had stopped. I always pictured him hurtling through the whiteness, glancing back over his shoulder to see if I was catching him up, losing the crucial split second he needed to avoid the suddenly looming obstacle.

    ‘Why did you let him go . . . ?’ my mother screamed at me when she saw the stretcher.

    ‘. . . alone?’ added my father.

    They must have known that I couldn’t have stopped him, but they needed someone to blame and they couldn’t blame Ross, because Ross was clearly going to die. And those who die young must always be heroes.
     
  8. mukul
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    mukul Kazirhut Lover Member

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    7
    December 1997
    TESS

    On Christmas morning, I woke up to the distant clatter of saucepans. Leaping out of bed, I ran downstairs in my nightie and bare feet. In the kitchen, Mum was crouching down to look at the progress of the turkey through the glass door of the oven. She turned and smiled up at me. ‘How was Midnight Mass?’

    ‘I knew it couldn’t be true!!’ I was bursting with joy as I ran towards her, arms outstretched. Then I woke up, the cocoon of exquisite happiness shattered by crushing disappointment.

    The room was dark, the blankets and pink candlewick bedspread heavier than my duvet at home. The warm aroma of roasting turkey and distinctive clatter of someone cooking filtered up from the kitchen below. The O’Neills’ guest room, I remembered.

    I wondered how long my dream had lasted. Was it a few minutes, or just a second? How did the brain do that? How did the sleeping consciousness manage to construct a story to interpret the smells and sounds around it? And why did I have to wake up so soon? I closed my eyes tight, trying to conjure Mum back, but she’d gone.

    Was this the sign? I suddenly thought.

    Mum could have said anything, but she’d mentioned Mass.

    Hope was sleeping in the twin bed an arm’s length from mine.

    ‘Happy Christmas, Tree!’ she said, opening her eyes. ‘Christmas Tree!’ she repeated, delighted.

    I don’t think I ever saw Hope being sad. Obstinate, yes, angry for no reason, yes, but she’d always been like that. Sometimes I looked at my sister and I wondered whether she missed Mum at all. I didn’t ask, because I wasn’t going to introduce unhappiness if there was none. Sometimes I asked myself, if a five-year-old child can get over it, why can’t you?

    ‘How was Midnight Mass?’ Mrs O’Neill said as we gathered in their living room to open presents.

    ‘Same as usual,’ said Doll, straight out.

    She’d always been much better at lying than me, keeping it simple, gambling on getting away with it, rather than making up a narrative to explain our absence in case any of the congregation reported back on us.

    I wondered if it was my guilt for going to the pub the previous evening instead of going to church that had subconsciously put the words into Mum’s mouth? Her presence still felt so strong, I was strangely disorientated.

    ‘Which ones are my presents?’ asked Hope.

    With money Dad had given me, I’d got Hope a CD player from him. I’d bought her a carol compilation. Santa Claus had got her a selection stocking, although he didn’t actually visit our house or the O’Neills’ because we didn’t have chimneys: Hope was very literal-minded and the idea of a big man with a beard sneaking around at night frightened the life out of her.

    I’d got Dad some Homer Simpson socks from Hope and a bottle of Jameson’s from me, because that was the whiskey Mum always used to buy him. Dad seemed pleasantly surprised, as if he hadn’t expected anything.

    Then it was my turn to open the gift of dangly earrings from Accessorize that I’d bought from Hope for me.

    ‘Where’s your present for Tree?’ Hope asked Dad.

    I probably should have realized I was meant to buy myself something from him too. I felt like an idiot for believing Mum’s exclamations of surprise when she opened his gift of cheap perfume each year.

    ‘Well now,’ said my father, uncomfortably. ‘I didn’t really know what to get you, Tess, so you’ll be better off getting something for yourself.’

    He stood up, took the money clip out of his back pocket and peeled off first five, then, aware of Mrs O’Neill watching him, a further five ten-pound notes, which was generous, but I’d have preferred it if he’d thought of buying me a gift.

    Mum always got me a diary, a normal A5 page-a-day from WHSmith which she customized with a fabric cover she embroidered with my name and the year. It was the first Christmas I hadn’t received a diary since I was ten years old.

    At lunch, there was a box of twelve crackers, which we never had at home because of the cost. After the shock of the initial bang, Hope became obsessed and went around the table insisting on pulling every single one, collecting up all the little gifts in the pink handbag Doll had bought her, but allowing us, after a small debate, to keep our tissue crowns.

    ‘It’s what Christmas is all about, children, isn’t it?’ Mr O’Neill remarked, on several occasions, as if to remind himself.

    Mrs O’Neill made turkey with all the trimmings, with extra little sausages for Hope, and, for dessert, her very own Ice Cream Factory, which was a tub of soft-scoop Cornish and a selection of Smarties, jelly beans and chocolate buttons, because Mrs O’Neill had had enough little ones of her own to know that they didn’t always like Christmas pudding.

    In the afternoon, Dad and Mr O’Neill went to the pub and Hope settled down with Mrs O’Neill in front of the big TV to watch the Disney film. After Doll and I had done the washing-up, she suggested we go for a walk.

    There was a pale, silver path across the water towards the wintry sun. When the colours were mistily muted like this, you could see why the town had attracted artists in its heyday, including Turner himself. Nowadays, most of the Victorian villas where well-to-do Londoners used to enjoy their holidays had become old folk’s homes, or hostels for what everyone referred to as ‘Care in the Community’, a motley collection of addicts and people with mental-health problems who wandered around the town during the day. Dingy loops of tinsel hung in joyless windows.

    There were a few other people out and about, walking off their lunch. Without the usual bleep and rattle of slot machines from the amusement arcades, my ears tuned into tiny snippets of conversation.

    ‘Sad for those boys . . .’ an older woman in a wheelchair said to the younger woman who was pushing her along.

    ‘A tragedy . . .’

    Were they talking about a bereavement of their own, I wondered, or the Royal Family’s?

    I guessed the two men in their thirties walking towards us were brothers who’d come home for Christmas. Or perhaps a gay couple? As they approached, one of them clocked Doll. So not gay. The other one was talking.

    ‘. . . that’s the thing about living the dream . . .’ From the look of him – cheap jeans and a leather jacket the colour of diarrhoea – I didn’t think things had worked out the way he’d hoped.

    ‘What do you think the dream was?’ I asked Doll.

    ‘What dream?’

    ‘Never mind.’

    I’m always listening in to other people’s conversations and making up stories in my head to explain their history. Mum was the same. We’d go for a cup of tea in a cafe on the seafront and we’d be having this perfectly normal chat, but when the couple at the next table left, we’d immediately start discussing everything we’d overheard: ‘He’s feeling guilty about something . . . I didn’t believe him when he said he was sorry, did you? Do you think she was his bit on the side . . . ?’

    Doll didn’t really do that, because she usually had a lot to say herself.

    We went down onto the beach. The tide was out and the sea was very calm, with waves no bigger than ripples of silk breaking over the flat, wet sand.

    ‘Lapping with low sounds by the shore . . .’

    ‘You what?’ said Doll.

    ‘It’s from Mum’s poem.’

    ‘Oh.’

    Was there a time limit on grief? Three months? Six? Even Doll wouldn’t be patient for ever. Wasn’t it time I ‘came to terms with’ or ‘got over’ it, or were these just phrases clung to by those who had never suffered a loss?

    ‘In Italy, you visit your dead relatives on Christmas Day,’ said Doll. ‘There are flower stalls outside the cemeteries. It’s kind of a nice idea, don’t you think?’

    I thought of Mum’s grave, at the end of a row in the cemetery. Apparently, you had to let the earth settle before you put a headstone up, so we hadn’t done that yet. I hated the thought of her lying there with people she didn’t know, under a litter of dead flowers and rain-soaked teddy bears. On the next grave along there was a shiny black heart-shaped headstone bearing the message All ways in our heart’s which Mum would have hated because she was very particular about spelling and punctuation. I should have gone today, I thought. It hadn’t even occurred to me, because I didn’t have any real sense she was there.

    ‘. . . Fred says it’s like including them in the party,’ Doll continued.

    ‘Fred?’ I tuned back in.

    ‘Fred Marinello. His dad’s Italian.’

    ‘Duh!’

    What I was asking, and she knew I was asking, was, how come you’re suddenly so familiar with Fred? I should explain that Fred had been the captain of the football team and the coolest boy in our year at school. At sixteen, he’d been given a contract by a local semi-professional football club, their youngest ever signing, and recently, it was rumoured, been scouted by Arsenal. The story had been front and back of the local newspaper under the banner Fred for the Premiership? Fred was the nearest thing the town had to a celebrity and every girl in our year fancied him.

    Now that I thought about it, he’d been in the Crown the previous evening with a crowd of lads and I’d noticed Doll exchanging a few words on the way to the ladies and pointing back at me, as if to say, ‘We’re sitting over there.’

    ‘He comes to the salon for a leg wax,’ she said, breezily. ‘Some of the Premiership players have them, apparently, for the aerodynamics.’

    ‘Or a wind-up!’ I laughed.

    Doll didn’t. She took her profession very seriously. She had wanted to be a beautician since she was five and got a doll for Christmas with hair that grew when you cut it. Being the baby of her family and the only girl, she’d been allowed to experiment with Mrs O’Neill’s old stubs of lipstick and dried-up pots of eyeliner. On one occasion, when we were about seven, Doll had used me as her model, horrifying my mother, and causing our families to sit in different rows at Mass for several weeks.

    ‘As a matter of fact,’ Doll said, ‘he’s invited us to a New Year’s Eve party.’

    ‘Fred? Us?’

    ‘Well, me, but I said could you come too.’

    ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ I said.

    ‘Oh, go on. If you’re there, we’ll be able to stay as long as we like. You know how my mum is.’

    My mum had been slightly wary of Doll’s influence on me, whereas Mrs O’Neill had always encouraged our friendship because I was the one who read books and knew what homework we’d been given, and what you were supposed to bring in for cookery classes, that sort of thing.

    ‘What about Hope?’ I said, searching for an excuse. ‘Dad’s bound to want to go to the pub.’

    ‘She can stay at ours, can’t she?’ Doll said.

    ‘But I don’t have anything to wear.’

    ‘Now you sound like Cinderella.’

    ‘So it’s all arranged, is it?’ I said.

    ‘You shall go to the ball,’ said Doll.

    It was only when Fred Marinello opened the door on New Year’s Eve that it clicked. Fred’s smile like a sunlamp. He’d had crooked teeth as a child, but they’d recently been knocked out in a goal-mouth clash, so now he had a full row of even white caps.

    His eyes travelled up and down Doll’s body.

    Then, as if he’d only just seen me behind her, ‘Tess!’

    I was as tall as Fred even in flats, and men like him didn’t quite know how to deal with that.

    ‘Sorry to hear about your mother,’ he said. ‘She was a nice lady. Your hair suits you like that, by the way.’

    Usually I tied my long curly hair back to keep it under control, but this afternoon Doll had insisted on straightening every strand and parting it at the side so that half of it fell across my face. When I moved my head, I could still detect a slightly scorched smell.

    ‘Doll did it,’ I said.

    ‘Talented as well as beautiful . . .’ Fred kissed Doll on the lips.

    I felt pretty stupid. I was good at making up stories about the lives of people I’d never met, but I’d missed my best friend’s first big romance. Recalling the conversation we’d had recently about The One, and all that stuff about Italian families, it had been obvious really.

    ‘How long?’ I asked Doll, in Fred’s parents’ bedroom where we left our coats and checked our teeth for lipstick smears in the dressing-table mirror.

    ‘I wasn’t sure if it was serious,’ was Doll’s excuse for not telling me.

    ‘It’s serious?’

    ‘He calls me Maria D!’

    ‘And you like that?’

    It was what she was called when teachers took the register. To distinguish her from Maria Lourdes who was Maria L.

    ‘I think it sounds more grown up,’ said Doll, smoothing down her clinging black-lace dress.

    I stared at my reflection. Standing next to Doll seemed to emphasize my height, because she was petite and perfect. On social occasions, I always felt self-conscious beside her, like a slightly censorious chaperone instead of a best friend. I was wearing black jeans and a red velvet top with a floppy kind of neckline at the front that made it look a bit fifties, and matching Ruby Gem lipstick from the palette of lip colours that had been Doll’s Christmas gift to me. I sometimes felt I’d been born into the wrong era as far as fashion was concerned. With long legs and slim hips, I looked good in jeans or trousers, but my top half was two sizes bigger. A swimmer’s build, my mum used to say, after one of the medallists at the Barcelona Olympics became a bit of a pin-up and went on to advertise cosmetics.

    I couldn’t work out whether the funny feeling I had was because I was jealous that Doll was moving on without me – not that I fancied Fred myself, and even if I had, he was way out of my league – or whether I was just annoyed with her for not telling me straight out. Was I acting so pathetic that my best friend didn’t dare tell me she was going out with her dream boyfriend?

    The people at the party were mostly from our school year, although there were a few additions who looked like they were probably footballers. As far as I was concerned, they divided into three basic groups. Those who knew about Mum, who mostly smiled at me, or said, ‘How ARE you?’ to which the only answer was ‘Fine.’ Then there were the people who didn’t know about Mum, who asked how I was liking university, so I had to tell them, even though I didn’t want to keep bringing it up. I decided that ‘Thank you’ was the best response when people said they were sorry, but that sounded like they’d said, ‘I like your top,’ or something. Then there were new people, but I wasn’t confident enough to introduce myself to them.

    My peers mostly had proper jobs now and were aspiring towards a mortgage and an interest-free dining suite, whereas I’d gone backwards, so far backwards that I was spending my days at the primary school we’d all been to.

    ‘God, Mrs Corcoran, I was always terrified of her!’ said Cerise McQuarry.

    ‘I still am!’

    We were drinking rosé cava in the kitchen. It was all cava in those days. Nobody had even heard of Prosecco.

    ‘Lucky old Doll, eh?’ said Cerise. ‘The One Most Likely to Marry a Millionaire . . .’

    ‘That’s assuming Fred becomes a millionaire and they get married,’ I said.

    Cerise gave me that look I used to get a lot at school. She had been The One Most Likely to Be a Model, which is probably why she’d mentioned the yearbook, but for the time being, she was working behind the No 7 counter in Boots.

    I’d been The One Most Likely to Be a Teacher, I suppose because I was a bit swotty and pedantic. Being a teacher was what Mum had wanted for me, but I’d never been sure. Even less so, now. The staffroom at St Cuthbert’s was divided by a strict hierarchy. We teaching assistants sat together to eat our sandwiches, while the teachers sat up the other end moaning about the National Curriculum and the amount of work they had to do at home. It didn’t sound like much of a life.

    I’ve never been great at parties. If you’re tall and shy, it’s worse than being small and shy because when you’re tall, people approach you with the assumption that you must be confident, so then if you’re a bit tongue-tied, they think you’re stand-offish. The other problem is that a lot of men are quite short, so they say things like, ‘You’re a big girl, aren’t you?’ which puts me on the defensive.

    There was one guy here, however, who was so tall he had to duck when he moved from one room to another. Our fingers touched as we both went for the last sausage roll and then did this kind of ‘You, no you, no really’ thing. I wasn’t even hungry, but looking at the food made it seem like I was doing something rather than just standing there on my own.

    ‘Fred says you’re Maria’s friend?’

    It took a moment.

    ‘I call her Doll,’ I said. ‘Dolores, rather than the children’s toy. Did you know Maria Dolores means “Mary of the Sorrows” . . .’ I prattled on.

    ‘Doesn’t look very sorry now!’ he said, glancing into the living room. ‘I’m Warren, by the way.’

    ‘And your connection is?’

    ‘What? Oh, I’m the goalie.’

    We had a dance and it was kind of nice to feel a great meaty hand round my waist and to get a proper kiss when the bongs went. Warren was so tall and built, he made me feel almost delicate and petite in his arms.

    ‘Come on, get your coat!’ he murmured into my neck.

    ‘I don’t think so, thank you very much!’ I shrank away, prim as a nun.

    ‘Did he honestly think that I was going to have sex with him after one snog?’ I asked Doll on the way home.

    Her silence spoke volumes.

    ‘Oh my God, you and Fred? You’re . . . ?’ I said, feeling suddenly very sober. The reason I’d felt isolated at the party was nothing to do with Mum dying. They were all having sex. And I was still very much a virgin.

    ‘Sorry, Tess,’ Doll said.

    She meant for not telling me.

    I remembered when we’d first started thinking about boys we’d taken it in turns to practise our kissing technique on the mirror in Doll’s bedroom, which was odd when you think about it, because something cold and flat was never going to approximate human lips, and you kept your eyes open to see how you were doing, which people in romantic clinches don’t normally do.

    Since then, Doll and I had both gone on dates, but nothing more serious than a milkshake on the seafront, or a movie. We’d always shared the extent of the physical contact, comparing love bites and how far we’d gone on a scale from one to ten, although, since neither of us had actually been ‘all the way’ it was sometimes difficult to calibrate the experience. What seemed like a five one year only felt like a two the next.

    Now Doll had got to ten, and I probably wasn’t even at six, because I wasn’t keen on boys touching my breasts, let alone down there.

    ‘Is it nice?’ I asked.

    ‘It’s bloody fantastic. Much better than I thought.’

    ‘Do you love Fred?’ I asked, feeling about twelve years old again.

    ‘I think so,’ said Doll. ‘I can’t believe it sometimes. Fred Marinello!’

    It was a cold night. Our breath made clouds and our footsteps pinged on the pavement. I looked up at the dome of stars.

    ‘Isn’t it weird that there are thousands of couples who’ll meet for the first time tonight?’ I said. ‘And some of them will last two weeks and some of them will still be together in twenty years’ time, but none of them know right now . . .’

    Doll looked at me as if I’d lost it.

    ‘Warren’s all right,’ she said. ‘He’s in telesales.’

    I wasn’t thinking about Warren. I wasn’t even thinking about me. It’s just that sometimes when I’m looking at a clear night sky, with all those stars, the universe seems so vast and random, it’s strange to think how our tiny little moments down on earth can hold so much significance.

    ‘He’s got a company car,’ said Doll, as if that clinched it.

    ‘Look, I know you think I’m choosy,’ I said, ‘but when Warren said, “Come on! Fred says you’re in need of a good seeing-to!” it wasn’t the most seductive line I’d ever heard.’

    ‘Oops!’ said Doll. ‘Sorry!’

    ‘I’m really happy about you and Fred, though,’ I said, because I thought I was supposed to. ‘I’m just a bit sad that I won’t see so much of you. Which probably makes me a horrible selfish person!’

    ‘That’s two of us then!’

    We laughed and, for a moment, we were back to normal, then we both went quiet again because it wasn’t really as symmetrical as that.

    You could hear Hope from down the street. Dad and Mr O’Neill had gone to the pub and Mrs O’Neill hadn’t wanted the CD on again with Big Ben coming up.

    ‘She does like her carols, doesn’t she?’

    Mrs O’Neill had brought up four boys as well as Doll, but I’d never seen her looking as worn out as she did after an evening with Hope.

    ‘Shall I just take her home?’ I suggested.

    ‘At this time of night?’ said Mrs O’Neill. ‘When the guest room’s all made up?’

    I said Hope could have the CD player on in the bedroom, if she stopped carrying on and brushed her teeth and got into her pyjamas first. Just to make sure she behaved, I got into the other twin bed straight away, instead of having a Snowball with Doll and her mum.

    The CD played all the way to ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ before Hope finally fell asleep.

    I lay on my back thinking about New Year’s resolutions.

    When I was young, I used to write them out in my best handwriting and tie them into little scrolls with coloured thread from Mum’s sewing box, then hang them from the knobs on the chest of drawers in my bedroom.

    I will always do the washing-up.

    I will help Mum more.

    I will save my pocket money.

    I’d long since stopped writing them out, but I still made them in my head – everyone does, don’t they? – but now I couldn’t think of any.

    A year ago, Mum and I had seen in the New Year together, with the silver tinsel tree twinkling, Jools’s Hootenanny on the box and a small glass of Baileys. My resolutions had been pretty straightforward: to revise really hard for my A levels in order to get the grades for university; to save enough money from my Saturday job at the One Stop to go travelling in the summer.

    ‘What are yours?’ I remembered asking her.

    ‘Mine’s always the same, Tess,’ she’d replied. ‘To be happy with everything I have.’

    To be honest, I’d been exasperated with her, because I thought if Mum hadn’t been so saintly, she could have made a bit more of herself. She was an intelligent woman, such a fast reader that she got through two or three library books every week. She could answer all the questions on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?She could have done something better with her life.

    Now, it occurred to me that I might have missed her meaning.

    Did the fact that Mum had to resolve to be happy mean that she wasn’tactually happy?

    Had she not felt fulfilled in life?

    Why hadn’t we talked about all these things?

    Why hadn’t she told me what she was thinking, instead of giving me that infuriating smile that said, You’ll find out soon enough?

    Why, when she could have said anything, did she ask whether I’d been to Midnight Mass?

    And what was I supposed to deduce from a bloody butterfly?

    I turned my face to the wall in a silent howl, my shoulders heaving as hot tears cascaded down my cheeks. Curled up like a baby, my legs scrunched up to my chest, I sobbed and sobbed, until I could almost feel Mum bending over me concerned, like she did when I was little and had a temperature.

    In Truly, Madly, Deeply, which Doll had rented one Friday mistaking it for a straightforward romcom, Juliet Stevenson had cried so hard that Alan Rickman came back from the dead to be with her.

    But there was no cool, damp flannel for my forehead, no soothing ‘There, there! You’ll feel better soon, I promise.’

    In the slight chill of a room where no one usually slept, I yearned for Mum so much, my heart literally ached.

    ‘It’s not that I can’t cope,’ I told her silently. ‘It’s just that I miss you being there when we come home from school because the house feels so empty. I miss talking to you in the kitchen and I miss not talking because we’re both eavesdropping. I just miss you so much, Mum! It’s not the same when you’re not here . . .’

    I suddenly thought how sad she would be to see me like this, crying my eyes out and making Mrs O’Neill’s pillows all wet.

    ‘I’m sorry, Mum,’ I said.

    And I could almost hear her reply: ‘I’m sorry too, Tess. It’s not what I wanted either, you know.’
     
  9. mukul
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    mukul Kazirhut Lover Member

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    8
    December 1997
    GUS

    Ross died at midday on New Year’s Eve.

    The decision was etched on my parents’ faces that morning, though they didn’t tell me. If I’d asked, would they have allowed me to be in the room? I didn’t because it felt like something private between them and him. They’d brought him into the world and spent five years with him before I ever came along. I would only be in the way. So I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, because nobody wanted to face up to what was about to happen. ‘Passed away’ is so much easier than ‘switched off’. It would have been an empty farewell anyway, since he was brain dead. The only difference I could detect when I was called in was that the machines had stopped whooshing and bleeping. The room was totally silent. I was glad he’d gone while it was still light, rather than just before midnight with fireworks going off and cars sounding their horns in the street outside.

    We all flew home a couple of days later in a plane full of hungover skiers except for the one empty seat next to me. Following long deliberation, my parents decided to cremate what was left of his body after the organs had been donated, and scatter the ashes at sea. Ross had always loved the sea. He’d always talked about trying to set a record for rowing the Atlantic.

    Exactly a year later, on New Year’s Eve, my parents and I set off to Lymington to catch the ferry to the Isle of Wight. We were silent, the beating of the windscreen wipers marking time as the tyres sloshed through the surface water on the M3. Next to me on the back seat lay a large bouquet of white lilies.

    Dad had it in mind that we’d row out into the bay in the little clinker boat that came with the coastguard’s cottage we always used to rent for the summer, and drop the flowers in the same area of the bay that we’d scattered the ashes the previous spring. But when we stopped outside the cottage, it was raining so hard and the wind was so strong, it felt as if someone was throwing giant buckets of water at the car, rocking it with the force of the gusts. Through the steamed-up windows, it was impossible to distinguish where the meadow ended and the sea began.

    Midday passed with us all hoping for a sudden miraculous break in the weather. Nobody said anything. After waiting for a good hour with no sign of it letting up, my father suddenly turned on the ignition and drove us back to Yarmouth, his fury at the failure of the mission as overpowering in the confined interior of the BMW as the scent of the lilies.

    ‘How about we drop them over the side of the ferry?’ he finally suggested as we approached the town.

    ‘Why don’t we go to the little jetty by the pub instead?’ said my mother, glancing round to enlist my support. ‘Where you used to go crabbing?’

    As we made our sorry little procession down the slippery boardwalk under a golf umbrella that didn’t cover all of us, I wondered why Ross couldn’t have a normal grave in a place that was already sad instead of turning this whole island, with its sunny childhood memories of sandcastles and ice cream, into a rainy place where we could never be happy again.

    At the end of the jetty, Mum struggled with the crackly florist’s cellophane on the lilies before finally ripping it off and passing it back to me to hold while the two of them performed the flower throwing.

    ‘One, two, three!’

    Their eyes were closed as they hurled, as if they were making a wish. The bouquet plopped onto the water. We stood watching it bob about, pelted by the rain. I found myself willing it not to sink, because that would somehow feel wrong, and yet not be washed inshore by the swell in case we had to go through the whole ritual again. After a couple of minutes, I thought perhaps it would be better if it did sink, because we were never going to leave unless something happened.

    My mother finally sighed and said, with a fond smile in her voice, ‘I bet he’s gone twice round the world already.’

    ‘I bet he has!’ my father agreed heartily.

    Even Ross’s ashes were adventurous and heroic.

    They both turned and stared at me as if they’d forgotten I was there.

    They’d have preferred it to be me, Ross.

    Of course they would.

    We drove home in silence.

    My mother went straight upstairs. My father poured himself a Scotch and switched on the Hogmanay celebrations.

    In my room, I lay staring at the black window, remembering how I used to listen to the murmur of grown-ups at my parents’ cheese-and-wine parties downstairs, or my father’s sporadic guffawing at Ross’s stories as they shared a single-malt whisky or two. Now, only the splashes of canned laughter from the show on television blotted my mother’s stifled sobbing in Ross’s room next door.

    I opened the window, sticking my face out into the cold, still air, amazed at how dark and silent it was now that the rain had stopped. In London, it never got properly dark; there was always a fine orange gauze over the night sky. I thought about Bonfire Night and Lucy’s face all golden as she gazed up with child-like wonder at shimmering palms of iridescence in the sky. In London, it was never completely quiet. There was always the rumble of an Underground train or the nerve-jangling shriek of a car alarm.

    As my ears adjusted to the silence, I became aware of the slight reverberation of party music from some distant home. It stopped for the countdown to midnight; a faraway crowd of strangers shouting, ‘Five, Four, Three, Two, One!’ amid a discordant blast of party hooters; a confident first line of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ trailing away into the base thump of dance music.

    The sky was now clear. There were probably millions of people in the world gazing up at the twinkling universe, fixing resolutions on the stars.

    Closing the window, I rifled through my bag until I found the piece of paper on which Lucy had written her number, then I ran downstairs and dialled it before I could change my mind.

    ‘Who’s calling?’ the woman asked.

    I could hear a buzz of people celebrating in the background.

    ‘Gus,’ I said, trying to keep my voice as quiet as possible, so there was no chance of my parents overhearing.

    I thought I heard her say, ‘It’s him!’ Then Lucy was on the line.

    ‘Happy New Year!’ I said.

    ‘Happy New Year!’

    There was a slight pause, then we both spoke at once.

    ‘You know we said about meeting . . .’

    ‘Look, d’you fancy meeting . . . ?’

    Nervous laughter.

    ‘OK if I come tomorrow?’

    The familiar shape of Lucy’s duffle coat and her beaming face when she spotted me walking down the platform towards her brought life streaming back into my blood. I’d told my parents I’d decided to go back to London early so that I could revise. It felt satisfyingly rebellious, as if I was running away from home.

    Lucy drove us to the seafront. It had only been two weeks since we had seen each other, but she was full of news. Bright, happy, normal news about going to a school reunion to pick up her A-level certificates, and shopping with her sister at the sales in Bluewater, and the pantomime they’d taken her little niece Chloe to at the Winter Gardens in Margate, where they’d had to leave at the interval because the child was terrified by the dame.

    I told her about my trips to the National Theatre, which seemed a long time ago now.

    ‘On your own? Wasn’t that a bit strange?’

    ‘I suppose so,’ I admitted. ‘Maybe we could go together sometime?’

    ‘Definitely,’ she said.

    We parked in one of the narrow little streets that led down to the beach. She handled the car with enviable confidence, backing into a tight space right next to the kerb.

    ‘So how was your Christmas?’ she asked.

    I didn’t have any funny stories like her Granny Cynthia, who apparently suffered from mild dementia, pouring the water jug over the Christmas pudding to put out the flames.

    ‘Quiet,’ I said.

    It wasn’t like the seaside I knew. On the Isle of Wight, there was fine pale sand, like caster sugar, but here it was coarse and dark, like builders’ sand, and shelved so steeply into the Channel that it was a struggle to keep a footing. We had to dig in the edges of our trainers to stay upright. The first time Lucy slid away from me down the slope I grabbed her gloved hand to pull her back up and let go as soon as she was stable again. The second time, I kept her hand in mine as we climbed up to the promenade high above the beach.

    ‘Let’s get a coffee!’ I suggested as we passed the window of a retro Italian cafe.

    The steamy warmth inside relaxed the tension.

    ‘This place is famous for its ice cream,’ Lucy said, then ordered a hot chocolate for herself.

    ‘I’ll have a Knickerbocker Glory,’ I told the waitress, then saw Lucy was laughing. ‘What? I love ice cream!’

    ‘You’re so . . .’ She searched for a word.

    ‘Stupid?’

    ‘Original.’ Lucy chose the word carefully.

    ‘Is that all right?’ I asked.

    ‘It’s lovely!’ she reassured me, then blushed, as if she’d said too much.

    ‘You’re lovely,’ I heard myself saying.

    My hand stretched across the pink Formica table. She had taken her gloves off but her fingers felt cold. I kneaded them gently in mine, releasing her hand quickly when the waitress returned with our order.

    Lucy sipped her tall glass mug, then replaced it on the table.

    ‘What’s wrong?’

    ‘The cream on top is fluffy, but the liquid underneath is boiling . . .’

    ‘Did you burn your mouth?’

    ‘A little.’

    ‘Have some ice cream.’

    I gouged out a quenelle of vanilla and offered it across the table on the long spoon. She hesitated before opening her lips for it. I felt a twitch of arousal in my groin as she took the whole spoonful and dabbed at the corners of her mouth with a paper napkin.

    ‘Better?’ I asked.

    ‘Yes, thank you, doctor!’

    The silence that followed was charged with unspoken thoughts as I delved and swallowed and she stirred her drink, spoon clinking occasionally against glass.

    ‘We could go back to my house, if you like,’ she said.

    ‘OK,’ I said, cautiously, wondering if jeans and a checked shirt were suitable for meeting her family.

    ‘My parents are taking Granny Cee back to Rye.’ ‘Rye?’ I repeated.

    ‘She’s in a home. Just outside Rye.’

    ‘That’s quite a drive, isn’t it?’ I wasn’t really talking about the distance.

    ‘About an hour and a half. They’ll stay for tea.’ Nor was she.

    Lucy carried on stirring her hot chocolate.

    ‘Why don’t I put some more ice cream in that? Cool it down?’

    She giggled. ‘You’re funny . . .’

    I knew I wasn’t very funny, or original, for that matter, but in her company, I felt as if I was all right, as if my frozen emotions were gradually beginning to thaw.

    The family home was in a leafy private estate on the outskirts of town. A large detached house with mock-Tudor features, half-timbered gables and a stained-glass crest in the front door, it was built in an era when land was plentiful and people who could afford places like this expected a decent garden, front and back. There was a Volvo parked on the semicircular drive as we pulled in, making me fear that something had prevented her parents from going to Rye. Lucy read my mind. The car was her mother’s, she told me. They’d gone in her father’s Audi. The Renault Clio we were in was shared with her middle sister.

    ‘How many sisters do you have?’ I asked, finding it increasingly difficult to make small talk in the anticipation of what might be about to happen.

    ‘Two. The oldest, Helen, is married and has Chloe and a baby on the way. The middle one, Pippa, is in Canada at the moment.’

    ‘Are you close?’

    ‘We’re all very different, but we get on quite well. I can’t imagine what it’s like being on your own . . .’ Lucy gave me such a searching look that I wondered if she’d guessed.

    I’d never directly lied to her about Ross, but I knew this was an opportunity to correct the mis-impression, possibly the last chance that I would have and still get away with it.

    I said nothing.

    Ironically, Ross used to say I was a hopeless liar because I couldn’t come up with excuses quickly enough. Back then, my silences had given me away. Now they seemed to make me a little bit mysterious and unknowable.

    ‘No wonder you’re so . . .’ Lucy searched for the right word.

    I hoped she wasn’t going to say ‘spoilt’. That’s what only children were usually called, wasn’t it?

    ‘Self-contained.’

    The spacious hall was littered with bright plastic children’s toys. A ride-along yellow horse with a blue mane towered like a giant over the scattering of much smaller farm and zoo animals.

    ‘Mum looks after my niece two days a week,’ Lucy said. ‘So Helen can work part-time.’

    ‘What does Helen do?’

    ‘She’s a GP.’

    Lucy’s father was a GP, her mother a health visitor, one sister a GP, the other training to be a physiotherapist. I imagined how eager my father would be to impress in this set-up.

    ‘Coffee?’ Lucy asked.

    I followed her into a large kitchen diner, which, unlike ours, was filled with all the paraphernalia a happy family generates – unmatching fridge magnets with lists, taxi cards and children’s drawings; opened boxes of cereal on the table; a bowl of cat food and one of water on the floor.

    ‘Excuse the mess,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know you’d be coming back.’

    ‘I like it.’

    She looked at me as if I was joking. The whoosh of water filling the kettle seemed inordinately loud.

    I jumped as I felt something furry around my legs and looked down to see a large ginger cat.

    ‘That’s Marmalade. He doesn’t normally like strangers! Do you have any pets?

    ‘I had a guinea pig when I was little, but a fox got him.’

    ‘Oh!’ Lucy’s face fell and I kicked myself for putting a downer on things.

    We seemed to have gone back to square one. Or maybe even further than that, as if we had just met and were struggling to make conversation.

    ‘Coffee or tea?’

    ‘Coffee. Please.’

    The jar of instant coffee on the counter had only one serving left. Lucy stretched to get another from the cupboard above.

    ‘Here, let me . . .’

    One moment I was behind her, my arm reaching for the jar, the next, she had turned to face me, and we were kissing, and, with my eyes tight closed, all I could hear was the bubbling of the kettle as the water heated to boiling point, and then clicked off.

    She tasted of chocolate. All I wanted to do was kiss and kiss her again, cupping her face in my hands, inhaling the lemon scent of her shiny hair. At first, she stood with arms passively by her side, but as I drew away to look at her, she placed her hands softly on the small of my back at the precise spot that made me squirm and harden with pleasure.

    Then she took my hand and led me out of the kitchen.

    I wanted to kick aside the toys and do it on the parquet floor of the hall; on the carpeted stairs, the edges pressing into our backs; on the landing, the two of us reflected in the full-length mirror on the wall.

    ‘I haven’t got any . . .’ I stuttered, as she opened a door with a little painted china plaque saying Lucy’s room.

    ‘It’s OK. I’m on the Pill,’ she whispered.

    The statement was so clinical and unexpected, the spontaneity vanished, along with my erection.

    All sorts of questions were racing around my head as I watched Lucy undress, folding each item in a neat pile on the stool of her dressing table. I had assumed that, like me, she was a virgin, with no one to compare me to. Had she planned this, and if so, for how long? And why hadn’t I known? Or had she been having sex with other people? Not Toby, surely?

    When she was down to a bra and panties, she lifted the corner of her duvet and got into bed and then I wished that I had undressed with her, because now she was looking at me. I turned away, took off my shirt, jeans and socks, and got into bed with my boxers still on. It was a single bed. There was no way we could lie without touching, but neither of us dared move.

    My feet were sticking out. She was completely motionless. How weird we would look if someone walked in now! Had she changed her mind? Or was she waiting for me? In the kitchen, my need had been so urgent, I could barely hold myself together. Now, I didn’t know how to begin.

    ‘Nervous?’

    ‘Yes.’

    I wondered why we were whispering. We were the only people in the house.

    ‘Have you ever done it before?’ she asked.

    ‘Not really . . .’

    ‘What does that mean?’

    ‘It means no,’ I admitted.

    Her laughter loosened the grip of my fear.

    ‘Me neither.’

    ‘We’re medical students,’ I said. ‘We should know about anatomy and stuff. Tell you what . . .’ I propped myself up on my elbow, ‘. . . shall I examine you?’

    ‘OK . . .’ she agreed, uncertainly.

    ‘Just relax, and tell me does this hurt?’ I kissed her ear.

    ‘No!’ She laughed again.

    ‘How about this?’ I kissed her shoulder.

    ‘No!’

    ‘And this?’

    I kissed the top of her breast.

    ‘That’s nice,’ she sighed.

    ‘Let’s have a better look.’

    I pulled the duvet down an inch to expose the lacy edge of her bra, then kissed her there. She smiled and closed her eyes.

    I burrowed under the duvet, my tongue travelling down the centre of her belly towards the elastic of her panties, and I kissed her there just above the line of her pubic hair.

    Suddenly her arms and legs were around me, her mouth on mine, as we grappled to get naked. As I closed my eyes and felt her opening for me, I remembered her face in the light of the bonfire, all golden with wonder, and fireworks started exploding in my head.

    Afterwards, we lay in each other’s arms, skin against skin, breathing each other’s breath. My eyes took in the neatness and girliness of her room. The curtains had a pattern of old-fashioned pink roses, the white dressing table matched the white fitted cupboards; on the pink carpet, there was a pair of oversized slippers in the form of two fluffy grey rabbits.

    Lucy followed my gaze. ‘Christmas present. Actually, they’re really warm!’

    ‘Hope they don’t breed . . .’

    She giggled.

    ‘How long have you been on the Pill?’ I asked, before I could stop myself.

    ‘Two months.’

    Two months! I tried to think back. November. Bonfire Night.

    ‘Helen said if I wanted to, I should be prepared.’

    She’d discussed it with her older sister!

    ‘With me?’ As soon as I asked, I realized that there was no way she was going to say, ‘No, with someone else.’

    ‘Of course with you, silly!’

    ‘I wish I’d known!’

    ‘Did you want to?’

    I smiled and gave her a squeeze.

    ‘Sure did.’

    ‘When?’

    ‘From the first moment I saw you,’ I told her, which sounded like the sort of thing Ross would have said.

    Was it true, I wondered, as we started kissing again? Or had I just said it to make her happy?

    Our second time was more exploratory and sustained, and left us in a dreamy drift of satisfaction, unaware of time passing.

    When we suddenly noticed that it had become dark outside and her parents would soon be back, it was a race to get dressed and out of the building.

    Lucy drove me to the station and I had to run for the train to London.

    Tomorrow, we decided, breathlessly, between kisses, she would come back too. We would revise for the January exams together.

    She ran along the platform as the train pulled away, holding my hand for as long as she could, before letting go and waving.

    ‘I can’t wait to do some more revision!’ I called.

    From then on, it would be our special code word.

    I sat in the carriage staring out into the night, the heater blowing ineffectively around my feet. I could still smell Lucy on my skin and feel her in my groin, and when I closed my eyes, I could still hear her sharp little breaths. In the rattling, draughty compartment, life suddenly felt bearable. The reflection of a face in the window smiled at me, and, for a moment, I didn’t recognize myself.
     
  10. mukul
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    mukul Kazirhut Lover Member

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    PART TWO
    9
    1998
    GUS

    ‘You’ve struck gold!’

    My friend Marcus and I, sitting at an outside table in the beer garden of the Gloucester Arms, watched Lucy, in a denim miniskirt and pink vest, disappear inside the pub to get another round.

    For some unfathomable reason – Marcus didn’t say this, but I knew it was what he was thinking – this near-perfect example of femininity had fallen for me. His undisguised approval made me even prouder of my girlfriend, not just because of her pretty face and great body but because of the attentive way she’d been drawing him out about his course and his life in Bristol, where he was reading Law. His university experience seemed to have a lot to do with debating societies and drinking. The tongue-tied boy I knew had become almost chatty in response to her questions.

    After depositing two more pints in front of us, Lucy left us to spend the evening together. She’d arranged to go to a movie with a couple of her girlfriends.

    ‘I’m sure you’ve got lots of catching up to do,’ she said.

    We both watched her walking away, her hair bright gold in the early-evening sunshine.

    Inside the pub, the World Cup semi-final was on a big screen, the air suddenly full of cheering. We craned our necks to see who had just scored a goal. One all.

    ‘Do you think it’ll go to penalties?’ Marcus asked.

    ‘It’s a possibility.’

    ‘Brazil have to win, don’t they?’

    ‘You’d think so.’

    Our friendship was founded on shared reticence rather than conversation. Both more naturally inclined to observe than participate, we’d met at the back of the dinner queue our first day at boarding school, sized each other up and discovered that we were both Arsenal supporters, although we’d quickly learned not to celebrate that allegiance in public. At our school, football was for chavs and wusses; real men played rugby. On the field, my speed and Marcus’s skills helped us avoid the worst of the mauling. In the dormitory and showers, we looked out for each other and weighed in on each other’s behalf. The fact that my big brother was Head Boy that year had offered me no protection from random violence. Ironically, Ross was always an enthusiastic proponent of the what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger philosophy. As in most male friendships, there was always an element of friendly rivalry between Marcus and me. Assessing him with the benefit of a year’s distance, I suspected I’d grown up more than he had. As sixth-formers, we’d envisaged wild student parties where females would roll into bed with us and roll out again in the cold light of morning when they saw the mistake they’d made. Now I started sentences with ‘we’ and knew about clitoral stimulation, and not just from my textbooks. I gathered that Marcus’s Ibiza relationship hadn’t been a great success, and though he’d slept with a couple of girls since, he had yet to find a serious girlfriend and still called sex ‘shagging’.

    Medics are renowned for playing as hard as they work, but Lucy and I were ridiculously middle-aged. Almost every Saturday morning, I awoke to find her handing me a mug of coffee before squeezing back into the narrow bed and giving me a kiss that tasted of toothpaste. Lucy did sex like she did most things, with a lot of thorough research. All the magazine articles she had read on the subject advised talking openly about what you liked, so we had become fairly expert at giving each other pleasure. Occasionally, Lucy asked if I had any fantasies, and I always said I was happy with things just the way they were because I was sure that was the correct answer.

    Obviously, I didn’t tell Marcus any of this.

    For his second year, Marcus had made plans to rent a house with a bunch of guys from his hall; Lucy and I were going to be sharing a flat.

    ‘So, it is lurve?’ Marcus asked a little wearily.

    Lucy and I called sex ‘making love’. We were allowed to say things like ‘I love how that feels’ or ‘I loved this evening’ or even ‘I love you when you’re funny/silly/serious’. However, the words ‘I love you’ on their own remained unspoken, as if they had the power to cast an irrevocable spell on us. Once, I thought I heard her breathe the words over a particularly undulating orgasm, but I wasn’t sure and could hardly ask for clarification.

    ‘Whatever “lurve” means!’ I replied, trying to show Marcus that I was cool about it.

    The truth was that I didn’t know if I loved Lucy. I liked her enormously. She was very easy to be with and cared about me much more than anyone else in my life ever had, noting things I said, even tiny inconsequential things like preferring crunchy peanut butter to smooth. Perhaps that was a girl thing? I didn’t know because she was my first girlfriend. I felt constantly surprised and fortunate that she was interested in me. Was that love? In the ensuing silence, Marcus and I both took long, serious gulps of our lager.

    ‘I haven’t told Lucy about Ross,’ I suddenly confessed.

    I couldn’t work that one out either. Was it really because I didn’t want her to get all sympathetic and insist on talking about it? Or was I harbouring some irrational fear that Ross still had the power to ruin the things I treasured, like my selection as Lower School goalkeeper, which I’d had to relinquish when he dislocated my shoulder, and Toffee, my guinea pig, whose hutch he’d ‘accidentally’ left open.

    Marcus considered the statement for so long I was beginning to wonder whether he’d actually heard. Then he finally said, ‘No reason to, I suppose.’

    The relief was immense.

    ‘A new chapter for you.’

    ‘Yes.’

    ‘Ross was such a psycho,’ said Marcus. ‘RIP, obviously.’

    The match had gone to penalties.

    Conversation was suspended while we watched Brazil go through to the final.

    ‘You still playing squash?’ I asked.

    ‘Yup. You still running?’

    ‘Every morning.’

    My usual route – and it was important to have a usual route so that thinking didn’t intrude on the meditative vacuum that running delivered – took me down through the grimy main streets of Camden, up Parkway, and through the gate into the quiet paradise of Regent’s Park. In winter, frost on the grass, a pinkish tinge to the dawn sky, the delicate structures of trees, blurred by my misty breath, gave the landscape the feel of an Impressionist painting. In spring, I found myself noticing smaller-scale beauty like the stone urns, spilling over with tulips, in the formal Italian gardens near the Euston Road, and the wax-like petals of magnolia blossom. Summer brought swags of roses on the pergolas of the Inner Circle, which my route circumnavigated before a long straight sprint across the fields, past the giraffe houses of the zoo, over the canal and back across the lower slope of Primrose Hill.

    On sunny days, cafe owners would be setting out tables and chairs along the wide, curving street which took me back to the railway bridge. It was one of those chichi areas of London where traditional businesses could no longer compete with the demand for coffee and fresh, delicious food. Over the course of the year, I’d watched a launderette being gutted, renovated and reinvented as an Italian canteen.

    One day the owner, who’d done most of the work himself, was struggling on a ladder as I passed. I stopped and offered to help steady the sign, which saidPIATTINI. Since then we’d exchanged a friendly buon giorno! as he chalked up the day’s specials on a folding blackboard. The descriptions were unadorned –polenta con funghi trifolati, salsiccia al finocchio, granita alla mandorla – the smells filtering out from the kitchen, mouth-watering.

    The day I noticed the words WAITER REQUIRED above the menu, I ran past, as usual, then stopped, turned, and ran back. Salvatore gave me an evening’s trial after which he paid me for the hours I’d worked and asked if I’d like a job. I think I was probably prouder of that achievement than I was of passing my first-year exams.

    ‘So you’re staying in London for the summer?’ Marcus asked.

    ‘That’s the plan.’

    The flat Lucy had found for us became available at the end of the academic year, and now that I had a job, I wouldn’t have to go home at all.

    ‘How are your parents doing?’

    ‘OK, I think.’

    I called them every fortnight or so. Since I was last home, my father had re-tiled the downstairs cloakroom and installed a movement-sensitive security system, both projects, I suspected, designed to keep his mind from thinking about more intractable problems. My mother had taken up quilting. When they asked me if everything was going well, I said yes. The only way I could imagine of giving them any small pleasure was to qualify as a doctor. A photo of me in a mortar board on the living-room mantelpiece would be something to show their friends. Left to my own devices, I probably would have foundered under the pressure of the course, but Lucy made sure we both stuck to the work, nagging me to keep my portfolio up to date, and helping me with my reflections on practice.

    ‘It’s not a philosophy essay,’ she said, when I was making a meal of it. ‘All they want to know is what you could have done better. You’re training to cure sick people, not change their lives.’

    ‘What about you?’ I asked Marcus. ‘Do you have any plans?’

    ‘I was thinking of Interrailing,’ Marcus said, with a shrug that made me realize that was why he’d come to see me. For a moment I was tempted by the thought of going back to Italy, enjoying the holiday we hadn’t managed the previous year. But the need to earn my own money was more pressing. Though my parents never mentioned the cost of my education, I was determined to be as independent as I could.

    Lucy gave Marcus a hug when we saw him off at Paddington station. As he turned to offer me a formal handshake, I half-wished men were allowed to hug too. I had male friends at college, like Toby, although we’d seen each other less since Lucy and I got together, and Jonathan, the serious guy I’d met on the interview day, who I sometimes went for a drink with when he wasn’t playing chess, but there was no one who knew me like Marcus. Nash was the closest I got to a confidante, but my friendship with her made Lucy uncomfortable. The most critical thing I ever heard Lucy say about Nash was that she was ‘a bit much’; Nash was far more explicit, especially when drunk, accusing me of settling for the easy option of someone who didn’t challenge me, to which my answer was, ‘And your problem with that is?’

    Which riled her all the more, although, somehow, we always ended up laughing a lot.

    The flat was on the seventh floor of a big block on a council estate between Camden and Euston Road. The location, only ten minutes’ walk from the hospital, was convenient, and we had a view north and eastwards over the mainline out of Euston, and beyond towards Camden, Gospel Oak and Hampstead Heath. At first, the grim, graffitied, concrete wasteland felt forbidding, but once we became familiar with the routes in and out, it didn’t feel quite so much like a war zone.

    Lucy and I took one of the bedrooms, her friends Harriet and Emma, the other two. Until university, I’d never been exposed to the company of women, but found it generally more agreeable than the all-male environment at school. There, my reluctance to join in initiation rituals, such as tea bagging, where you took another man’s scrotal sac in your mouth, had been condemned as effeminacy; in the flat, I only had to be watching Final Score on Saturday afternoon to be considered unequivocally male.

    We all shared household duties, with me volunteering to take the rubbish down (before learning how often the lift would be broken) and do the communal shopping once a week. I took to the role, searching out the cheapest places for staples like milk and toilet rolls, trawling Inverness Street market for bargains on Saturday afternoons when the stalls were packing up.

    Under the tutelage of Stefania, Salvatore’s wife and the chef at Piattini – where I continued working at weekends – I developed an interest in cooking.

    ‘How many tomatoes can four people eat?’ Lucy asked when I’d arrived back with a crate that cost me a pound.

    But she had to admit that roasted with a little olive oil they made a delicious pasta sauce, especially with a little Parmesan cheese grated over the top.

    I began to look forward to the methodical rhythm of washing and chopping vegetables, stirring, sipping, tasting and creating something delicious, likeribollita, from a few raw ingredients. It was a good way of winding down at the end of a day of hospital rounds, cheaper and more nutritious than buying ready meals or takeaways, and it was something I could do for all my flatmates to compensate for their efficiency with all the other household chores, like hoovering and cleaning the bathroom, which were done before I’d got round to noticing they needed to be.

    In October, when my parents, who were curious about my ‘living arrangements’, announced that they were coming up to London for the day and asked me to book a restaurant for Sunday lunch – ‘somewhere decent, you couldn’t afford yourself’ – I surprised them by instead serving porchetta stuffed with fennel, chilli and garlic, accompanied by rosemary-roast potatoes, and a crisp salad.

    ‘This is really very good, Lucy!’

    My father was doing that embarrassing-dad thing of trying to flirt with her.

    ‘It’s all down to Gus,’ she told him. ‘I’m useless in the kitchen!’

    ‘Gus?’ said my mother. ‘Well, this is a surprise. A lovely surprise!’

    It wasn’t clear whether she meant my name, the evidence of my heterosexuality, or my cooking. The swell of childish pride I felt in finally demonstrating a talent Ross had never displayed, was immediately followed by a wave of dread that she would make the comparison out loud instead of inside her head. She didn’t. The day was a success. But not one I wanted to repeat.

    ‘Your parents are nice,’ Lucy said afterwards.

    Your parents. I’d introduced them as ‘my mother’ and ‘my father’ rather than Caroline and Gordon. I wasn’t even sure whether Caroline and Gordon would have been acceptable to them.

    ‘Do you think they liked me?’ Lucy asked.

    I didn’t know if they even liked me.

    ‘I’m sure they did. They’re just not the type who express affection very much.’

    I’d never really thought about why that was. Perhaps, as only children themselves, they hadn’t needed to; perhaps as people who had risen to the middle class from fairly ordinary backgrounds, they weren’t sure how they were supposed to behave.

    ‘You’re not like them,’ Lucy said.

    ‘That’s a relief,’ I said, glad that her curiosity had been satisfied without the need to take her home to our chilly, lifeless house.

    Lucy’s parents were used to their daughters having boyfriends and treated me with exactly the right balance of fondness and suspicion. Lucy’s mother, who instructed me to call her Nicky straight away, was warm and hospitable. When cooking, she always made a point of asking my opinion about how much spice to put in a curry or how long to give a piece of meat. When I jumped up to help clear the table, she’d say how nice it was to meet a man who didn’t think that washing up was putting the saucepans in the sink and leaving them there to soak. Lucy’s father, on the other hand, never told me to call him Bill. His circumspect frown always made me behave slightly clumsily, trailing my sleeve in my cereal bowl or tripping over a rake when I was helping him clear the leaves from the lawn.

    Theirs was a more informal household than I was used to, where you could sleep in on Sunday if you wanted and make yourself toast at any time of day. When Nicky asked me if I’d like to join them for Christmas, I leapt at the invitation with almost unseemly enthusiasm, telling my parents that I was working in the restaurant until late Christmas Eve making it impractical to visit them, which was actually true, although I probably could have got the time off.

    Lucy’s family did a jokey Secret Santa before lunch. My gift was a pair of those huge soft-toy slippers in the shape of Gromit; the one I picked out for Lucy’s older sister Helen, after much deliberation, was a soap-bubble-making machine, which delighted her little girl, Chloe. Helen was the sister I was least keen on. She had that cool, detached GP’s way of appraising you that made you feel as if she’d seen symptoms she didn’t much like the look of. When I’d told her once, only half-joking, that I didn’t think I’d want to be a GP because I couldn’t see myself sitting on my own and being confident enough to diagnose even a common cold, she informed me, humourlessly, that most colds are caused by a virus and there isn’t much you can do about them except advise the patient to keep well hydrated until their immune system does its job.

    ‘But what about the one in a thousand cases that might turn to meningitis?’

    ‘We all worry about that.’

    ‘The thing is,’ I said, ‘I can’t see myself ever able to make a decision about the nine hundred and ninety-nine—’

    ‘You will when you’ve got thirty of them sitting reading dog-eared copies ofHello! in the waiting room,’ she said, briskly. ‘Never a good idea to over-think these things.’

    The middle sister Pippa was much more fun: slightly flustery and inclined to take offence, but also quick to show affection. Compared to the other two, she was a bit of a rebel. Having suffered from bulimia in her teenage years – in a family full of doctors, this is the sort of thing they talked about at table – she now kept herself stick-thin by smoking surreptitious cigarettes at the end of the garden. She was the ‘needy’ one, according to those labels families often hang around their children’s necks.

    ‘What does that make Lucy then?’ I’d asked Nicky when I felt our relationship was well enough established to get involved in such conversations.

    ‘Lucy’s the no-trouble-at-all one,’ she told me.

    ‘Probably because I’ve always had everyone looking after me,’ Lucy said.

    ‘See what I mean?’ said Nicky.

    In truth, Lucy could be a bit needy too. For instance, when I recounted anecdotes about the customers at Piattini, she’d always say, with a little moue, ‘I think you like that job better than being a medical student.’

    And I’d have to assure her, no, I like being a medical student (code for: I like being with you); it’s just that, in a restaurant, you get a glimpse into the lives of all kinds of people with all kinds of different stories.

    ‘You do in hospital,’ she pointed out.

    ‘Yes, but they’re all ill!’

    Lucy often thought I’d said something funny when I hadn’t actually intended to.

    We ate our Christmas lunch in the middle of the day with paper crowns on our heads, passing gravy and bowls of vegetables up and down the table, helping ourselves to cranberry sauce straight from a jar. I pictured my parents in the silent dining room dutifully eating their smoked-salmon starter with the correct cutlery and felt a horrible pang of guilt.

    After lunch, the adults sat in the living room around the roaring fire opening our proper Christmas presents. After a lot of indeterminate searching, I’d found what I thought was the perfect gift for Lucy. We’d been to the Christmas fancy-dress party at the Union dressed as Sandy and Danny from Grease. Lucy looked great with her hair pulled up into a ponytail, wearing a fifties dress with a white plastic belt that she’d found in a charity shop. Everyone said so. When I saw a real fifties handbag on the arm of a mannequin wearing a similar dress in the window of a shop selling American vintage clothes in Neal Street, I’d paid more than I’d budgeted for it.

    Without the dress to give it context, however, the white handbag looked more junk than vintage, the purse clasp at the top slightly rusty, the plasticized fabric brittle and cracked at the corners. As I struggled to explain my thought process, Pippa was unable to contain a little burst of laughter and Helen looked at me as if I’d brought in something nasty on my shoe.

    ‘I love it!’ said Lucy, loyally, carefully returning it to its wrapping and handing me the heavy package with my name on the gift tag.

    Inside was a sketchpad, some drawing pencils and a wooden box of watercolours.

    It was a gift that exactly reflected her generous and practical nature. Lucy wasn’t interested in art herself – at the couple of exhibitions we’d been to together, she’d very quickly started glancing at her watch – but she knew I liked painting and was keen to encourage me.

    ‘Gus wanted to be an artist when he was little,’ she announced to the family.

    ‘I can’t imagine Gus being little,’ said Helen.

    ‘I can, he’s got a very boyish face,’ said Pippa.

    ‘Who’s Gus?’ asked Granny Cee.

    ‘Come on, then, draw something!’ Pippa challenged me.

    So, with the whole family watching, albeit in a friendly rather than a critical way, I sketched Marmalade, who was asleep in front of the fire.

    ‘But that’s really good!’ Lucy exclaimed, when I turned the sketchpad round.

    I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or a little bit offended by her surprise.

    I tore the page off and gave it to her.

    ‘I’m going to frame it!’

    ‘Can you draw people?’ Pippa asked.

    ‘I’ve never really tried.’

    ‘Try now!’ she said. ‘Go on!’

    Keeping the sketchbook almost perpendicular to my thigh to stop anyone seeing my efforts, I did my best to capture Lucy’s face. I noticed that there was a stillness about her expression that didn’t change very much whether she was tired or bored or happy. I’d never seen that before I tried to draw her, but once I had, I could see that in all the photographs on her family’s mantelpiece, Lucy always looked more or less the same. The equivalent photos of me on the mantelpiece at home caught me with all sorts of expressions, from pissed off to totally moronic.

    When I allowed the family to look at the drawing, they seemed pleased. I was quite proud of the way I’d caught her aura of contentment.

    ‘It makes you look like one of those dolls that goes to sleep when you tip it back,’ said Pippa, peeping over her sister’s shoulder. ‘Which is actually how you do look, as a matter of fact! Maybe you should have been an artist, Gus!’

    ‘There’s no money in it, though, is there?’ I said, with what I thought was the appropriate amount of modesty.

    ‘Even Van Gogh never sold any paintings in his lifetime,’ said Lucy.

    It was one of two statements that people who knew nothing about art always trotted out. The other was that contemporary art which sold for a lot of money wasn’t really art at all. But I didn’t want to spoil the jollity by getting into a debate about sheep carcasses or unmade beds.

    ‘Sorry about Pip,’ said Lucy, as we lay curled around each other in her single bed that night.

    ‘No, I like her. She’s fun.’

    I immediately regretted the word when Lucy said, ‘I should probably be more fun.’

    ‘You’re great fun,’ I assured her, hoping she wasn’t going to ask me to put it on a scale of one to ten as she sometimes did with adjectives.

    ‘In a week’s time, it’ll be a year,’ said Lucy.

    It took me a moment to realize she was talking about us. Did I have to buy a card? Or flowers? Or both? ‘Yes,’ I said.

    ‘Does it seem longer or shorter to you?’

    There was probably a correct answer involved, but I didn’t know which it was. Time was supposed to go quicker when you were having fun, so I thought I should probably say shorter, but I wasn’t completely sure. I’d never thought about it like that.

    ‘It feels like about a year,’ I said, uncertainly, feeling fraudulent when she laughed as if I’d been trying to be witty.
     

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