She had slept without meaning to, then woken with a start. As soon as her eyes were open, she automatically tried his mobile number. Again it went to answer. The clock read nearly five-thirty in the morning, and she failed to stop herself imagining the worst: a bike accident, a fall on one of his climbs.
It had been a hurried goodbye, before she went to work the previous day; they’d made love when she should have been getting dressed, and she’d been late.
Her shift at the hospital finished at seven and he’d said he’d be home, that he’d pick up some fresh fish for supper, that he’d fix the lamp on her bike. But he hadn’t been home, wasn’t home now.
She was a nurse in a Brighton hospital A&E, she knew what could happen to people: the blank eyes dulled by the paramedics’ morphine, the twisted limbs, the flesh ripped and jagged, bulging dark with blood.
Please, please don’t let that be Fin.
She thought of all the places he might go – a climber by profession, there weren’t many places he could climb locally. He sometimes went along the coast to the chalk cliffs at Hope Gap. Or the climbing wall if he was teaching. But he’d only taken his pedal bike. The sleek, powerful Triumph was still here, parked in the alley that led to the tiny back garden of their house and shrouded in its metallic-silver cover.
Had he mentioned anything different about his day? She tried to recall his exact words as she hunched inside a rug on the sofa, cold and worried, staring obsessively at the display on her phone, willing it to light up. But she couldn’t remember, the sex had distracted her.
She’d already rung her own hospital to check if he’d been brought in. Should she call the police now? But they wouldn’t do anything, she knew. It was too soon. Too soon for most people, who would assume just a drunken night out. But Fin never got drunk, barely touched alcohol when he was in training, which was most of the time. A bit of dope here and there, but nothing serious. He’d never stayed out late without her, let alone all night. And he always called or texted her constantly, all day.
In the end she fell asleep again, still clutching her mobile, waking an hour later with the dawn light and immediately checking for a missed call. She knew she’d never concentrate at work so she rang in sick and asked for a second time if someone called Fin McCrea had been brought in overnight.
By teatime she was down at the police station. The constable on the desk took careful details.
‘Has he ever done this before?’ he asked.
‘Never. Not once. We’ve been together eight years and he’s always told me where he was.’
‘And you didn’t have a row or anything?’
‘Nothing.’ She wasn’t going to tell him about the lovemaking, although it seemed to prove something about their closeness.
‘Have you rung his friends? Family?’
She said that she had: his dad in Scotland, a few climbing mates. He went on asking questions, which she answered mechanically. No, he wasn’t on any medication; yes, his bike was missing; no, she didn’t know if he’d taken his passport. ‘Well, Miss, we’ll make a few enquiries, check the other hospitals. I don’t think you should worry too much. It’s early days. There’ll be a perfectly simple explanation, practically always is.’
‘Like what?’ she demanded.
The young policeman sucked his teeth. ‘Well, you know the thing. . . a bit too much to drink and finds himself on a mate’s couch in the back of beyond with no signal; maybe a sudden illness in the family, mobile on the blink . . .’
Give the man credit, she thought, he’s doing his best. ‘Seen it all,’ he added, giving her an encouraging smile. ‘So what shall I do?’ she asked, on the verge of tears. ‘Go home. Have a good look round, see if he’s taken stuff – his passport, clothes, that sort of thing. Might’ve been called away suddenly. We’ll keep in touch, let you know as soon as we get any news.’ As she turned to go, he called after her, ‘Don’t forget to tell us if he turns up.’
She did as the policeman suggested. At home she went straight to the drawer in the desk where they kept their passports. Fin’s was gone. Then she checked his clothes, searched for the backpack he used for travelling. It was gone too, plus his climbing boots, his favourite Patagonia jacket, his waterproof trousers. She found his computer on the floor beside the bed. Logging in, she checked his emails, brought up his recent history. The emails were from days ago, just brief communications with mates, the usual bike sites, climbing blogs. Nothing that told her his plans – if he had any.
For a while she sat, numb, refusing to face the obvious: – he wasn’t missing, he wasn’t lying at the bottom of a ravine. He’d just gone climbing, left her without a word.
She began inventing excuses for him, just as the policeman had. Perhaps he’d got word of a fantastic climb, leaving immediately – she knew September was the start of the climbing season, post-monsoon, in Tibet – in some inaccessible place on the globe where there was no mobile signal. Maybe at the airport his phone had been lost or stolen and he had no time to call. Or a note gone missing . . . Had he left a note that had been blown off the table when she opened the door? She looked at once, scrabbling under the kitchen table, then under the bed. It’s barely twenty-four hours, she kept telling herself.
But when she woke the next morning and still her mobile was silent, she recognised her excuses for what they were. What she could not yet face were the implications of his absence.
She went downstairs to make a cup of tea, then punched in the number of the police station.
‘Umm, I’d like to cancel the missing persons report I made yesterday.’ She gave the reference number, feeling humiliated, a total fool.
‘Oh, hello Miss Bancroft. So you’ve found him then?’ She recognised the young PC’s voice.
‘Not exactly, but I think I know where he is.’
The policeman said nothing for a moment.
‘OK . . . so you’re sure you don’t want us to go on looking?’
‘Quite sure. Thank you.’
‘Right you are then, I’ll take it off the system. Let us know if you need any more help.’
She carefully laid her phone down on the kitchen table. With shaky steps, she climbed the stairs back up to bed and crept under the duvet. No tears now. Nor rage. Just nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing.
10 September 2012
‘I’m just nipping out to the shops for about forty-five minutes. You’ve got your glasses on, the phone is right here. Will you be OK?’ Flora fiddled with the things on the small side table, placing the phone in the most accessible position, then laid the newspaper across the old lady’s lap, open at a page about Pippa Middleton’s antics. She knew that when she came back the page would not have changed, but Dorothea Heath-Travis, aged ninety-three, liked to maintain the illusion that she read the paper in the morning.
‘I expect I shall.’ Dorothea spoke slowly and carefully – her speech had not completely recovered after her last ministroke.
‘Ring me if you need me. Or Keith. Speed-dial one for me, two for Keith.’ Flora said this every morning as she went off to do the shopping, never sure whether Dorothea would remember, if the need arose. In the two years she’d been working there, however, it never had.
The old lady looked up at Flora from her armchair by the window, an amused expression on her face; she hated fuss. But she didn’t reply, just bent her head to the paper, her white hair, thin now, neatly rolled in a small French pleat. The room was quiet, and filled with morning light that showed up the worn chair covers, the faded wallpaper and carpet – all good quality in their day, but not new now for at least fifteen years. Rene Carmichael, Dorothea’s friend, who had power of attorney for the old lady’s affairs, was always tut-tutting about the tatty state of the flat, but Dorothea seemed not to notice or, if she did, not to care.
Flora went through to the hall, taking her cardigan from the coat stand by the front door, and pulling it on over her shapeless, pale-blue uniform dress. She checked herself quickly in the ornate oval mirror on the wall and frowned. Her brown-gold eyes seemed huge in her face, which she knew was too pale, too thin. But it had been one of the wettest summers on record, barely a ray of sun until late July, and she couldn’t afford to go away . . . had no one she particularly wanted to go away with . . . Yanking the band from her ponytail, she allowed her dark hair to fall about her shoulders before scraping it back and off her face again. She preferred not to go out dressed like this unless she had a proper coat to hide the uniform, but she swallowed her pride; it was pointless to change just for a quick trip to the supermarket, and who would see her?
‘Morning, Florence.’ Keith Godly, porter for the block, poked his head sideways from behind his computer.
‘Hi, Keith. Good weekend?’ Flora asked the question without thinking. She knew what the answer would be; Keith never had a good weekend.
The porter, predictably, let out a groan and dropped his voice, flexing his muscle-bound shoulders in his dark suit. ‘Nah. Just same old, same old. Bloody whingeing tenants with leaking toilets or lost keys. That new woman in number twenty-four phoned me three times on Saturday night because a dog was howling his bloody head off somewhere! It was annoying the hell out of me too, but it wasn’t even in our block. Did she think I was fucking Superman?’
Flora nodded sympathetically. ‘The problem is you’re a sitting duck, living right under their noses.’
‘Not the only problem in my life though, eh?’
Flora gave him a wave and moved off towards the main entrance. She liked Keith, he was endlessly kind to Dorothea, helping her out with small tasks in the flat whenever Flora asked, such as fixing the bathroom light or recalibrating the Freeview box, but she didn’t feel inclined to listen again to the tale of his miserable life since he’d been forced out of the Army – his one and only passion. His back, the cause of his discharge, was fine now, he insisted. But for him, life was over.
‘Will you be here for the next half an hour?’
‘For you, Florence, I’ll be here a million lifetimes.’
His attempt at flirting was accompanied by a theatrical sigh that made her laugh, and even brought a smile to Keith’s heavy, lugubrious features.
As soon as she was outside she took a long, slow breath, happy to be in the open air on this late-summer’s day, the air sharp with a hint of approaching autumn but still pleasantly warm. Twelve hours in the flat, always on duty even when Dorothea was having her afternoon nap, was wearing, and she relished these brief moments to herself. She turned right down Gloucester Road, towards the Underground station, crossed the busy Cromwell Road and entered the arcade on the corner. The supermarket was at the far end, and she dawdled . . . checking out the face cream in Boots, which she decided she couldn’t afford, peering into the expensive jewelry boutique.
The store wasn’t busy yet. She took a hand-basket and began in the fruit and vegetable section. A Bramley apple or some plums to stew, leeks – Dorothea’s favourite – carrots, a couple of potatoes for mash. Maybe she’d get some chicken today . . . a change from the endless poached fish. She was picking out tomatoes for her own lunch, when an arm reached rudely across her and plucked a bag of organic carrots from the box to the left of the tomatoes. No ‘excuse me’, no apology. Flora, irritated, turned to glare at the owner of the arm, and froze. For a moment she held her breath, then her heart began to beat twenty to the dozen.
‘Fin?’ She was surprised that any sound came out.
The man, obviously equally taken aback, just stared at her for a moment.
She knew her pale cheeks were flushed, she could feel the warmth. She brushed a hand self-consciously across her hair, collecting the dark strands that had come loose from the band and smoothing them flat.
‘God, Flora. Is it really you?’ Fin McCrea kept staring at her.
He looks just the same, she thought, just as beautiful. Tall and athletic, he stood well over six feet, his hair, sunbleached, sticking out from his head in a wild tangle she was painfully familiar with. He wore jeans, and a faded red T-shirt sporting a Save the Children logo, the ubiquitous black daypack slung across his broad shoulders.
‘What . . . what are you doing here?’ he was asking. ‘Shopping?’ She smiled and so did he, his light grey eyes creasing with amusement. ‘How about you?’ she added. ‘Not your usual neck of the woods, West London.’
Flora talked, but she hardly knew what she was saying. It had been all but three years – she knew almost to the hour how long – since she had seen him last.
Fin put his basket down by his feet and shook his head. ‘Long story. I’m staying with a mate at the bottom of Queen’s Gate. I had a pretty bad fall in January.’
‘What happened?’ She asked more to give herself time than because she wanted the grisly details.
‘I was in Chamonix, guiding this old Italian, and the ledge I was standing on collapsed . . . sodding rock just fell off the side of the mountain. He was OK, miraculously, but I smashed into the rock face and just broke up. They flew me back to the UK and it was all mending fine, except the pin in my leg’s playing up now. I had to go back into hospital.’ As he talked, she just watched him, watched every movement of his face, noted his square hand clutching the strap of his bag and the golden hairs on his permanently tanned arms.
‘But everything else is OK?’
He shrugged. ‘S’pose . . . I had a bust pelvis, compound fracture of my thigh.’ He tapped his right leg. ‘Two cracked lumbar vertebrae, God knows what else – the docs got bored of telling me. Can’t stand London, as you know, but it’s easier to be near the hospital for all the follow-up stuff. They’ve put more metal plates in me than a Sherman tank.’ He looked questioningly at her, as if he were waiting for her story now.
‘Sounds as if you’re lucky to be alive.’
‘Lucky to be alive and walking, so the doctor says,’ he agreed, his face breaking into an uncertain grin.
There was a paralysed silence. Flora didn’t know what to say, where to look; adrenaline was coursing through her body making her shaky and cold. She clung to the black plastic handle of the basket as if it were her lifeline.
‘I’d better get going. I’m on duty,’ she said eventually, but remained rooted to the spot.
‘You’re not at the Charing Cross are you? That’s where I’ve been . . . on and off all year. How weird would that be? Us in the same place and not knowing it.’
‘No, no, I’m doing private nursing at the moment – just down the road. I needed a break.’
Finlay McCrea and her, standing in the middle of a London supermarket, making polite conversation as if they were old mates catching up? She suddenly needed to get away from him.
‘Flora.’ As she turned to go, he reached out and touched her arm, sending a shock through her body as if he’d been electrically charged. ‘It’s . . . incredible to see you. Seems like a lifetime. Don’t go without telling me how I can get hold of you.’
She felt a spurt of anger. ‘What for?’
He looked surprised at her tone. ‘Well, er, I thought we could meet up. Have a drink or something while I’m around?’
A drink? It sounded so normal. As if going for a drink could ever contain the maelstrom of feelings she had for this man. ‘Sorry . . . it’s . . . it’s not such a good time. I’ve got a lot on.’
She noted his crestfallen expression. ‘But it’s been good to see you too,’ she added, hearing the formal, almost prim tone of her voice as she hurried away and instantly regretting it.
The rest of the shopping was conducted in a blur. She moved up and down the aisles, plucking the necessary items mechanically from the shelves, not daring to look up from her task in case she saw him again. She felt lightheaded, but she kept focused until she was safely out of the store, then almost ran back to Dorothea’s flat as if the devil were on her tail.
Keith hadn’t moved from his desk. He looked up as she shot round the corner.
No need to panic. I haven’t heard a peep out of her.’ ‘Oh . . . thanks, thanks for keeping an eye.’
‘You OK?’ He peered at her through the gloom of the hall.
‘Fine, yes.’ She smiled brightly and hurriedly closed the door of the flat behind her, only able to relax when she had a physical barrier between herself and Fin McCrea.
That evening Flora stood in her sister’s immaculate, state-of-the-art kitchen, telling her about the supermarket encounter. It was nearly nine – Flora only finished work at eight, and Prue was just back from a gallery opening in the West End.
Prue took a wine glass from the cupboard and set it on the polished black granite worktop with a sharp click. She poured out red wine from an already opened bottle of Australian Shiraz and handed it to Flora, her face set and angry.
Prue, three years Flora’s senior, was about as unlike her sister as it was possible to be and yet still be related. She looked good for her forty-four years, her clothes classic and expensive, giving only a passing nod to trend. Her hair, short, layered and tastefully blonde, framed a round face, seldom seen without extensive make-up; her nails were long, manicured, and varnished a rich, shiny crimson. The only similarity to her sister was her gold-flecked brown eyes. Financially ambitious from an early age, Prue was now an interior designer of considerable fame and popularity amongst the international set with homes in London; she never stopped working. Her husband, Philip, a lawyer, was usually the one at home making supper for their teenage daughter, Bel.
‘He wanted to have a drink with me,’ Flora said. She had somehow managed to get through the rest of the day with some semblance of normality. Rene had come round for tea with Dorothea, the doctor had visited, Mary, the night nurse, had bent her ear about what they would all do if Dorothea died. So she hadn’t yet had time to make sense of what had happened.
‘And you said no, right?’ Prue asked, not really concentrating as she checked her BlackBerry and replied at once to whatever message she’d just received – Prue’s phone was never more than grabbing distance from her hand. Laying it temporarily on the counter, she opened the fridge and pulled out a box of butternut squash and sage ravioli, a bag of watercress, a lemon and a block of Parmesan cheese. ‘Have you eaten?’
Flora shook her head. ‘Where are Philip and Bel?’
‘Bel’s staying with Holly . . . getting up to some unspeakable fifteen-year-old mischief, no doubt. And Philip is having dinner with an old college mate.’ Prue stopped what she was doing to peer closely at her sister. ‘You didn’t give him your number, did you?’
‘No, no, of course I didn’t.’ And then she burst into tears. ‘Darling . . . come here.’ Prue wrapped Flora in her arms and held her close. ‘Poor you, it must have been a terrible shock.’
Flora rested in her sister’s embrace for only a moment before pulling away and wiping the tears away with the back of her cardigan sleeve. Prue made a disapproving face and passed her a piece of kitchen roll.
‘It was a shock.’
‘What was he doing in Waitrose in the Cromwell Road for Christ’s sake? He spends his entire life up a mountain.’ ‘He had a bad fall, he said. He was in Charing Cross Hospital getting his leg fixed.’ Flora took a gulp of wine and pulled herself up onto one of the high beechwood stools that lined a side of the square island in the centre of the kitchen. Her sister’s house always amazed her. She realised, of course, that it was Prue’s calling card for her design business, but still, there was no mess anywhere, none of the normal clutter, nothing out of the cupboards and drawers at all. Just clean, blank lines and gleaming surfaces, punctuated by an occasional art work, an elegant vase of flowers, some tasteful arrangement of fruit. Not even salt and pepper mills or a bottle of olive oil sullied the black polished perfection of the kitchen.
‘Serves him right, stupid sod.’ Prue smacked a pan of water down on the stove, repeatedly jabbing at the controls of the black ceramic hob until the halogen plate was glowing.
She leaned across the central island. ‘You don’t want to see him again, do you? After what he did? You’d be insane.’
‘No . . .’
In the face of her sister’s indignation, Flora wasn’t going to argue – too much like hard work right now – but it didn’t seem as black and white to her. Part of her wanted more than anything else in the world to sit with Fin McCrea and talk and laugh – and perhaps experience the intense sexual energy that had always existed between them. But part of her wanted to run a million miles in the opposite direction, so terrified was she at the thought that she might depend on him in any way again.
Prue looked at her suspiciously. ‘You don’t sound at all certain.’ She topped up Flora’s glass and went to check on the water. It had boiled, and she tipped in the ravioli, prodding with a wooden spoon to separate the pouches.
‘I suppose I’m not.’
‘Uh?’ Prue spun round, letting out a gasp of horror. ‘Flora!’
Flora held up her hand. ‘OK, OK, I know what you’re saying and I agree, of course I do. But . . .’
‘But nothing. You can’t go there, darling. You really can’t. Eight years together and he walked out on you, never called you, never even wrote. Just disappeared up one of his sodding, bloody mountains.’
Flora met her sister’s angry stare. ‘I know all that.’
‘No, you can’t. Not if you’re even contemplating spending a single second in that bastard’s company.’ Prue paused, as if she were gathering together her arsenal before an attack. ‘He broke your heart. He wrecked your career. He made it unlikely you’d have the children you always wanted, and he sent you into a depression that you’re only now recovering from. What part of this sounds like a good idea to you?’
Flora had to admit Prue was right, but that didn’t mean that meeting Fin hadn’t triggered all the feelings that, for nearly three years, she’d been trying to quash. Mostly unsuccessfully. The therapist to whom she’d been assigned when she’d been depressed had said she needed ‘closure’, to be able to draw a line under the relationship. But how could she do that without learning why he’d walked out on her so suddenly? Perhaps, she thought, it was important to see him again: to realise for herself what a selfish bastard he was, rather than just being told so by everyone else. She ignored the voice in her head, which said, ‘That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.’
‘Hello? Speak to me . . .’ Prue was waving the spoon in front of her sister’s face.
Flora smiled. ‘Sorry. Just thinking. You don’t need to worry. It’s not like he’s after me any more. If he was he’d have got in touch years ago. He knows where you live.’
Prue looked away for a moment. She seemed to be about to say something, then apparently changed her mind.
‘Anyway, I didn’t give him my number.’
‘Bloody good thing too,’ Prue pursed her lips, glaring off across the room. ‘It’s not his agenda I’m worried about . . .’ she added.
After supper, Flora made her way downstairs to the flat in the basement of her sister’s large Cornwall Crescent house near Ladbroke Grove. However irritated Flora got with what she considered her sister’s blunt, pragmatic approach to life, it had been Prue who had scooped Flora up after Fin’s defection and brought her to live with her and Philip. Later, when she fell badly behind with the mortgage payments on the house in Brighton, Prue had suggested she sell up and stay with them, rent the basement flat on a ‘mate’s rates’ basis. Flora had reluctantly agreed, helpless in the face of her incapacity. Her only certainty back then, which had been a steady beacon in her darkness, was the absolute certainty that Fin would come back – today, tomorrow, next week . . . But as the months passed and he didn’t, her depression deepened.
Up until that September day three years ago, Flora had considered her life a good one. She loved her job in the A&E department, relished the frantic, unpredictable, life-or-death nature of the work – so much more exciting than the more mundane pace of ward life. And she had Fin.
True, his work – and obsession – was climbing mountains, and there weren’t too many of those in Brighton, so he was away a lot. And when he was home, he was restless from day one, champing to get out of the city again. As soon as she was off duty for a few days, he would whisk her away, both of them astride his sleek Triumph America. They had seen the dawn rise from the top of Mount Snowdon, they had camped out in Swiss mountain huts with the goats, hiked up Kilimanjaro, driven across the desert to Timbuktu, literally. If her duty rota meant they were stuck at home, he would smoke a bit of dope, tinker with the bike and make mostly botched attempts at renovating their tiny terraced house, seven minutes’ walk from the sea. And threaded through all the adventures was that powerful sexual charge, which Flora sometimes felt controlled her as much as any drug. She and Fin might be having supper, getting up in the morning, walking along the seafront, and one look would catapult them both into an almost unseemly desire to possess each other. When he came back from one of his expeditions, perhaps having been away for a month or two, they would spend whole weekends in bed. Fin wasn’t just a boyfriend: for eight years he had been a way of life for Flora.
Thankful to be home, away from Prue’s nagging, Flora ran a bath and sank into the too-hot water with relief. She had drunk a lot of red wine but barely touched the butternut ravioli; she felt muddled and a bit queasy. All she could see as she lay still, the water almost up to her neck, was those light grey eyes she knew better than her own, their expression always containing vanity and a certain vagueness, a detachment from the reality around him, but also a balancing humour and charm, which was how he connected with the world.
She wondered if he had changed. But what does it matter if he has or he hasn’t ? she asked herself. I blew him out, he won’t bother to try and find me. And acknowledging that, she felt an almost painful sense of loss.
Excerpted from When You Walked Back Into My Life by Hilary Boyd. Copyright © 2013 by Hilary Boyd.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus Editions Ltd. Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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