18TH JUNE, 2012
Speed. I’ve always been fast – a low boredom threshold will do that to a person. How fast is too fast? I think I’ve just taken myself to the edge.
Can’t count the junctions any more, they’re nothing but blurry smudges in the farthest corners of my eyes. I can’t see much at all, not with the acid tears that are biting into my face, the sobs cresting up inside me and smashing me against something hard and cold and unforgiving.
I’m swerving now, cutting across lanes, speeding up to make it past gas-belching monsters so much bigger and fiercer than my stupid little shell of a car. Horns blare, lights flash and I’m speeding up.
Speeding away from everything, like it doesn’t matter.
It does matter. Another sob reaches up from deep inside me, grabbing hold.
Sirens are starting up now. They’re howling like animals, chasing me down. They’re distant, but they’re getting closer with every passing second. They’ll trap me. You can’t run away, that’s the God’s honest truth, but my foot grinds down on the accelerator without me asking. Once you start running you can’t stop. You can’t stop.
Tuesday’s not the kind of day you expect your life to change for ever. That feels like a job for Friday, or Saturday – a flashier, shinier day that has surprise sprinkled over its surface like hundreds and thousands.
This particular Tuesday I’m doing the end of the day soft-shoe shuffle, glancing between the clock, my computer screen and my bat-shit scary boss Mary, trying to work out which will give way first. It’s a huge, retro-looking wall clock, with thick black hands that are currently crawling sluggishly towards six thirty. The wall behind it is papered with pastel pink roses, and the room is peppered with big velvet sofas that are designed to encourage the kind of impromptu brainstorms and shared confidences that never quite seem to happen. Mary presides over the room from her huge glass desk at the top, mistress of all she surveys. It’s like a twisted sort of nursery – soft on the outside, with an underlying air of menace.
I’m working on a campaign for supermarket organics, but even if my computer hasn’t turned off yet, my brain certainly has. I want to get home – I’m cooking dinner for James before I have to go out again – but I don’t want Mary to think I’m a slacker. Better to sit here playing with the same sentence for half an hour than appear half-hearted.
Mungo, my optimistically titled ‘assistant’, has no such compunction. He came in on work experience, bestowed by Mary, his godmother, and never left. Right now he’s already standing up, shoving a musty old hardback into his leather satchel and snapping off his monitor without so much as a backward glance in my direction. I take an unattractively loud slurp of water, but he fails to notice, just as he fails to notice every command or plea I throw his way: good cop doesn’t work, bad cop doesn’t work, the only authority this boy might possibly deign to respect is Martin Amis or Salman Rushdie, fellow Oxford graduates all. He styles himself as some kind of literary giant in waiting, all long scarves and corduroy jackets, with lustrous auburn hair that falls around his face like plush velvet drapes.
‘Mungo,’ I call out. ‘Before you go, how are you getting on with that research on the level of consumer spending?’
A fleeting look of panic crosses his face, like he’s spotted a herd of elephants stampeding towards him through the long grass, but then he remembers it’s only me.
‘It’s all in hand,’ he says glibly.
‘I need an ETA,’ I snap, before losing heart. ‘Or at least a rough idea of when I might expect it,’ I add, lamely.
‘Tomorrow, latest,’ he says, already halfway out of the door, ‘you have my solemn word.’
I suppose it’s not surprising he’s indifferent. He’s stayed on as an intern, unpaid by anyone but the relentlessly generous bank of Mum and Dad, which is pretty much the only way to get into a job like this these days. It’s lucky for me that I started more than a decade ago, as my dad’s ingrained frugality and sense of right and wrong would have afforded me about three days max. I came in as a bright-eyed graduate trainee, as relentlessly keen as Maria taking up residence with the Von Trapps, and, much like her, soon got the corners knocked off me. Up until then, hard work and diligence had got me through. I’d smugly collected my first class degree, then barely broken a sweat when I got my prestigious traineeship. This side of life – the ticking of boxes, the academic achievements – was easy for me; it was the other side, the messy business of other people, that I found so difficult to wrangle.
I soon discovered that achievement in the big wide world was a complicated two-step between the two: 30 per cent inspiration, 70 per cent the ability to sell that inspiration as genius, and pull your genius out of exactly the right make and model of handbag. Luckily Mary saw something in me, didn’t dismiss me as the gauche goody-two-shoes I was, and allowed me to carve out a niche for myself. It’s not a comfy nook, it’s more a thin, precarious shelf, but I know how to keep my balance and, when it’s going well, I love my work. Well, sort of – I definitely like it. I’m incredibly lucky that I get paid to make things up, it’s just that I’m not sure that this is what I’d choose to make up given the choice. My imposter’s handbag currently contains the scratchy beginnings of a short story I’d like to enter for a magazine competition. I don’t know if I’ll ever manage to finish it – I’ve rewritten the opening lines so many times that it’s started to read like Greek.
It’s nearly an hour later, and Mary’s still showing absolutely no sign of leaving, despite the two young children she’s got stowed at home with the nanny. Her perfect nails are tip-tapping a tattoo on her keyboard, her eyes scanning the room at regular intervals. She’s mid-forties at least but you’d never guess it: time hung up his arrows and admitted defeat long ago. Any greys are disguised by discreet, expensive blond highlights and her outfits are so outrageously high fashion that the term ‘age appropriate’ seems laughable.
I look at the picture of a sad-looking pig on my computer screen, oinking out a plea to harassed shoppers to save him from a life lived in a tiny pen, and just for a second he feels like my brother. Mary’s engrossed in a phone call, which seems like the perfect moment to make a run for it. The only other person left is Amy, a junior copywriter a few years younger than me who sits on the desk behind. She’s wearing a T-shirt for some obscure Indie band, her wild torrent of blond hair caught up in something that looks suspiciously like a bulldog clip, her bitten-down nails painted with tiny Union Jacks. It all gives her the kind of effortless Hoxton cool that should make her desperately annoying, but she’s too sweet to dislike. She’s poring over a folder of notes, but she looks up when she spots me shaking the ironic Reykjavik snowstorm that sits on her desk.
‘You off? I was going to ask you if you fancied a glass of wine over the road when Mary’s gone.’
At roughly midnight, I think, looking at the expression of grim determination on Mary’s face as she stares down her screen, but I don’t depress Amy by pointing it out.
‘I’d love to, but I’ve got to go home and then go out.’
It sounds stupid when I say it: I should just go straight out, but I need my fix of James to propel me into the night.
‘We’ve got to go and have a proper boozy one soon.’
‘Soon,’ I promise emphatically, even though neither of us really believe me. I feel a stab of guilt – I like Amy, I really do, but I’m not very good at this stuff. What’s that phrase? Women beware women. I know in my head that it’s not true, but in my heart there’s still a skulking fear that it is.
‘Livvy,’ calls Mary, as I push open the door.
‘Yes?’ I say, swivelling round. She’s off the phone now, her eyes fixed on me, her expression cold and blank. She pauses for what feels like an eternity: it’s stupid, but my heart starts to race, the handle suddenly clammy to my touch.
‘See you tomorrow,’ she says, bestowing a smile.
Our flat – located to the left of Kennington tube, perched above an electrical shop – is most definitely shabby. Not shabby chic, just shabby, but it’s homely, and to me that’s more important. I also think it’s hard to make a home out of one person, so, whilst it means that I’m fighting my way past James’s squash racket and piles of my dog-eared paperbacks to get to the cooker, I don’t really mind.
The grease-spattered kitchen clock is edging towards 7.55, and there’s still no sign of him. The thing is, whilst he might burst through the door at any second, he might just as well have forgotten what we arranged – got distracted by work, or worse. I try to pretend that I’m cool and unconcerned, stirring the Thai chicken curry that I’ve rustled up and singing along, loudly and tunelessly to the Carpenters, who are blasting out of the tinny transistor radio on the kitchen counter. I don’t even hear him come in.
‘Close to you-oo,’ he harmonises, coming up behind me and snapping it off.
‘I was listening to that!’
‘I know. I’m saving you from yourself.’
He’s towering over me, ruddy and damp from the gym, smelling not of sweat or of aftershave, but of a smell peculiar to him. He’s gingery-blond, with a boyish lankiness that suits the irrepressibility of his personality. He’s bendy and springy and unstoppable, constantly in motion, and yes, before you ask, I’m more than a little bit in love with him. I always have been, ever since he walked into my A-level politics class, his timing impeccable: my parents were in the middle of their gruesome separation and I was ripe for distraction.
James was an army brat, the youngest of three boys, and the family had recently been transported to Northwood, the boring north London suburb we lived in, which was dominated by the naval base. A life spent being uprooted from place after place could go two ways. For James, rather than making him shy and mistrustful, it had given him the cast iron certainty that he could walk into any situation and charm his way to the very heart of it. It wasn’t oiliness or manipulation, it was pure self-belief combined with an innate knowledge that he was attractive.
It was that age and stage where boys and girls first peek over the barricades and try out being ‘friends’ – a funny old version of friendship in which you can snog furiously at a party one night and go back to being mates the very next day. Or at least other people could do that. James and I had one such night at school, an hour spent kissing in the boys’ cloakroom during the first-year Christmas prom – it was brief and clumsy and awkward, and yet I did nothing but daydream about it for months, staring wistfully through my clumsily applied eye make-up and playing ‘Wuthering Heights’ on loop, whilst he remained utterly oblivious. I hoped with every fibre of my being that he’d come back to me, that I’d be able to prove myself second time around, but he’d already moved on, climbed back aboard the romantic merry-go-round and recast me as his long-lost sister. That’s not strictly true, there was one more time but now – now is not the time to think about it. Sally whispers across my consciousness but I push her away. Perhaps it’s the ferocity with which I suppress her which makes her continue to surge up, like those schlocky horror films where the hero tries more and more elaborate methods to destroy the invincible slasher.
James leans across me, digging the wooden spoon into the pan and taking a greedy mouthful.
‘Perfect,’ he says, grabbing a bottle of wine from the fridge and plonking down plates on the table.
‘It needs another ten minutes,’ I protest.
‘Yeah but you’ve got a date.’
It’s yet another soul-destroying internet date born out of necessity – I’m thirty-five, and most of my contemporaries are coupled up, though not necessarily happily. Even so, I don’t think many of those discontented partners are looking to roll the dice again, and even if they were, I never envisioned being someone’s difficult second album. I want to be the answer to a question they’ve never been able to phrase, for me to feel the same way about them, rather than a compromise born out of a disappointment.
It’s not like I haven’t tried the compromise route. My last proper boyfriend was a perfectly nice man called Marco who I met at a Christmas party a few months after my sister Jules had got married. I was secretly, silently panicking and I managed to convince myself that I’d alighted on my one true love, rather than admitting that it was the romantic equivalent of a game of pin the tail on the donkey, the two of us flailing around in the dark, desperate to believe we’d somehow found the sweet spot. We moved in together far too quickly, and immediately started arguing about the kind of piffling, trifling things, like whether the pepper should live on the table or in the ‘condiment cupboard’, that made it clear that when we had to make decisions about things that really mattered, we wouldn’t survive. As I wept fat, salty tears of disappointment on James’s shoulder he came up with the brilliant suggestion we should live together and here we are, eighteen months on. He’s an employment lawyer – unlike me, he easily earns enough to live alone but I think that he values having someone to come home to just as much as I do.
By now he’s shovelling the curry into his mouth like he’s rescuing a very, very small casualty who is trapped under the rice.
‘Let me have a look at him then.’
I know perfectly well who.
‘I’ll get your laptop.’
As he goes off to find it, I try not to brood about the unfairness of the fact that he doesn’t have to submit himself to this kind of indignity. Women just seem to appear in his life, like fruit flies around a mango, and, whilst he’s not exactly a bastard, he’s not exactly not. Take last month’s victim (Anita? Angela . . . something beginning with an A). I met her shaking the last of my granola into a bowl. When I futilely rattled the empty box she fashioned her mouth into a theatrical ‘oh!’ and promised to replace it. She was as good as her word, leaving a replacement on my bed the very next day with a sweet, flowery postcard saying how much she was looking forward to getting to know me better. No time: before I’d got so much as halfway through it James had finished with her, spooked by the seven individually wrapped presents she’d lovingly bestowed for his birthday. ‘How did she take it?’ I asked, knowing from even those brief fragments of contact how gutted she’d be. ‘It was like shooting a fawn,’ he said, shoving his sports kit into a backpack, and I thanked my lucky stars for how it had played out between us.
It’s not like I’m one of those weird masochists who marries serial killers and gaily drowns out the sound of their victim’s screams with the Hoover: James as a friend is a million miles away from James as a boyfriend. He truly is my best friend – the only person in the world that I’m as close to is Jules – and until I meet someone I feel a real heart connection to I’m truly grateful to have him there to shield me from the chill.
‘Do you really want to go out?’ he says, coming back in, with my ancient laptop whirring into life between his hands.
Of course I don’t, what I want to do is slob out on the sofa watching The Apprentice and getting drunk with the person I like being with most in the world, but 365 more days like that equals another whole year consigned to a loveless wasteland.
‘Yes,’ I say, slightly unconvincingly, ‘sort of.’ I’m fighting to stop myself from melting in the face of his obvious glee that I might nix my plans and stay in with him. ‘Anyway, I have to.’
‘We haven’t hung out for days,’ he says, turning the machine towards me so I can log on, whilst he gives me puppy dog eyes from over the top of it.
‘And whose fault is that?’
‘I miss you,’ he says. ‘It’s been a mad week. But here I am, your willing slave, ready to go out and buy more wine and watch Siralan kick some corporate butt.’
‘You know perfectly well he’s Lord Sugar,’ I say, swivelling the computer back towards him so he can check out Luke, a quantity surveyor with kind eyes, who at this very moment is probably sitting in his office mentally rehearsing a few witty opening gambits in his head. I hate internet dating.
‘Why are you meeting him so late?’
‘I told him I’d probably get stuck in the office.’
‘Or is it because he looks like the spawn of Mr Baxter?’
‘He does not!’
Mr Baxter was our chubby, well-meaning history teacher, whose sweaty hands invariably left a damp imprint on your essay when he handed it back.
‘Look at those cheeks. He’s definitely got a bulimic hamster vibe going on.’
‘Don’t be mean!’ I say, peering critically at his picture. He’s not madly good looking, it’s true, but there’s something honest about his gaze, and I liked the way his profile didn’t read like a psycho’s shopping list of non-negotiable attributes – he sounded like a proper human being. Sounds.
‘Just saying, Livvy, I don’t think we’ve found the one.’
It was half an hour later when I stepped out of the house, having guiltily and inevitably cancelled my date, and somehow ended up volunteering to be the person to go to the off-licence. James called me as I got to the end of the road.
‘I know, I know. I won’t get anything rank just because it’s on special.’
‘Livvy, you need to come home.’
‘I’ll only be five minutes.’
‘Seriously. Turn round now,’ he said, his voice shaking. James never sounded like that.
‘What is it?’ Slivers of dread crawled down my back like icy raindrops down a window pane. ‘Tell me.’
‘I’m just going to say it,’ he said, steeling himself. ‘Sally’s dead.’
Excerpted from The Last Time I Saw You by Eleanor Moran. Copyright © 2013 by Eleanor Moran.
First published in 2013 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
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