An Unremarkable Body By Elisa Lodato: Book Review
How well do you know your mother?
I mean really know.
The ins and outs of her life outside “mum”.
That’s the question that confronts Laura, when her mother, Katherine, is found dead at the foot of her stairs.
How she died only an autopsy can say.
How she lived is another matter.
As the pathologist puts what he regards as Katherine’s “unremarkable body” under the knife, Laura becomes determined to prove there was more to this woman who lived, loved, laughed and lied.
As the cold hard unemotional process of the autopsy unfolds – her mother’s body severed, weighed, analysed – so too are the stories that made her who she was.
Ordinary, maybe, but a woman with whom Laura had more in common than she’d ever realised when her mother was alive.
An Unremarkable Body By Elisa Lodato: Book Extract
On Tuesday 14 February 2012 I carried out a post-mortem examination on the body of Katharine Rowan of 121 Crane View Road, Surbiton, at the instance of Dr Brian Steadings, Coroner. The body was that of a 51-year-old female, 5ft 7in in height and of moderate obese build. There was a small scar on the right side of the neck. Both earlobes had been pierced, the left torn.
I remember how my mother got that scar. She was attacked in the school playground. It happened as we waited for the bell to signal the beginning of the school day. I was about six years old, in Ms Graham’s class – 2B. My baby brother Christopher was snotty and cold in his pushchair, the front wheels positioned on the 2 and 3 of the hopscotch grid. I remember this because my mother was standing on the 7, making it an impossibly long leap from where I was, at number 1.
Her hair was pulled back, quickly and quietly, by Sue Warren. Sue lived a few doors down from us with her daughter Jenny and son Sam. I had sat in her car and at her table before, but whatever instinct led her to grab my mother’s hair – and entangled earring – back in this strangely intimate way, and stare down into my mother’s pained face, made her strange and ugly to me.
Remembering that morning, as an adult, I find myself wondering at my failure to cry. Christopher also failed in this basic requirement of the young and immobile whose lot it is to watch their mother plucked from them. But Christopher didn’t cry because his pushchair was positioned away from the shuffling feet, from what looked like a rather undignified fight for square number 10. I didn’t cry because it simply wasn’t an anatomical possibility. I was too astonished by what the woman who looked like Sue was doing to my mother.
And I wasn’t the only one frozen by events. The mothers of my friends and classmates also looked on, stupefied. The incongruous hush of a playground before the bell was broken only by my mother’s croaky grunts, uncertain but persevering.
Sue spoke first. ‘I need to talk to you. About Jenny.’ She said it almost calmly, as though my mother needn’t rush. As if she’d tapped my mother gently on the arm instead of grabbing her hair up in an angry fist. My mother tried to nod. It made her strained face look even more stretched as she tried to bring her chin down in assent.
The other women approached cautiously when Sue had let go of my mother’s hair, their resolve to intervene stiffened by the absence of any requirement to do so.
‘How could you let it happen?’ Sue’s voice was hoarse and dry – I could tell she needed to swallow. ‘Allow Richard to put his filthy hands on my Jenny? She’s a child. Just a child.’
I saw the looks of concern turn to confusion. They were wondering if my mother had it coming. Finally, one of them broke ranks and stepped forward. ‘Are you all right, Kath?’ Careful not to look at Sue with anything that might be construed as reproach. At that moment, Ms Graham came out of her classroom and rang the bell vigorously, joyful in her oblivion. Sue stepped away from my mother, her palms out and open in the universal gesture of it wasn’t me or, even if it was, the preamble to a pretty robust explanation.
My mother put her hand up to her left ear, stroked the earlobe gently and then smelt her fingers. As she looked at me in horror, I began to cry. She was smelling the blood that was running down her neck.
My mother’s torn earlobe was just one scar on her corpse among many. The others were more difficult to discern, buried so deep they would only show themselves to the pathologist’s scalpel. It was, of course, the most obvious physical assault on her body in the wake of my father’s affair, but seeing it recorded so clinically reminds me how public her humiliation was. Not just that day in the playground or even the years afterwards, but now, in her death. Her earlobe, like so much other tissue weighed and fingered, dispassionately reported in those pages, bears witness to all her body suffered. Did the earlobe give the pathologist pause? Did he crouch down and peer closely at the injury and wonder who might have pulled that earring down and away from her body?
‘Oh, Christ. You’re bleeding. Your earring.’ And then, as if we were looking for a set of keys, everybody’s eyes slid to the grey surface of the playground and the blue lines of the hopscotch grid. I continued crying until Christopher, jutting his jaw forward for more snot, opened his mouth and joined me in my howl.
It was then I felt Ms Graham’s fingers on my shoulders as she gently turned me in the direction of her classroom. ‘Come on, Laura. Come with me.’ But instead of going through the door to 2B’s room, we went down the dark red corridor that led to the school office. She kept her hand on my shoulder the whole time, reassuring me, ‘Your mother and brother are coming. They’re with Mr Lewis,’ when, in truth, I was relieved to be walking away from them with their too-much blood and snot. And sure enough, when I turned round, my chin brushing Ms Graham’s calloused fingers, I saw my mother was walking alongside the deputy head with a clump of bloodstained tissue held to her ear. Mr Lewis was pushing Christopher – the too-low pushchair handles forcing him to a stoop.
Ms Graham steered me towards one of the burgundy chairs, their colour deepening the red of the walls and giving the overriding impression of being stuck inside a hideous body passage. The chairs were lined up against the wall outside the school office, reserved for naughty pupils or anxious parents. Except I was the anxious pupil, swinging my legs, waiting for the naughty parent who had been taken into the school office for fighting. Mr Lewis pushed Christopher into the space at the end of the row of chairs and – rather expertly – applied the brake. He turned and knelt down in front of me, his breath heavy and wet with the smell of coffee: ‘You sit here, Laura. Mum will be out in a bit. We’re just going to have a little chat and see if we can’t find a plaster for her ear, OK?’ I nodded and looked up to see Ms Graham coming out of the office, shaking her head with disapproval, wearing the kind of obvious disappointment usually reserved for serious misdemeanours: spitting, biting, swearing, punching. Sue’s action in the playground and my mother’s consequent injury had served as a bloody demonstration of why dangly earrings should not be worn to school.
Mr Lewis stood up and steered Ms Graham away down the corridor. He kept his back to me as he tried to whisper, but I was able to make out the word fuck, which I knew to be a very serious swear word. But instead of looking at him with disappointment, Ms Graham just mouthed the words no idea and shook her head again. She looked up at me and noticed how closely I was watching them. Placing her hand gently on Mr Lewis’s elbow, she moved him aside, walked towards me and sat down in the chair next to mine. Taking my hand in hers, she began patting the back of it with her free hand. I stared down at our conjoined hands for a long time, noting she had blue chalk on her thumb and index finger. She must have changed the date on the blackboard before coming outside to ring the bell.
‘Your mummy’s going to be fine, Laura. It’s just a scratch.’
I nodded my agreement that her bleeding ear, violently torn by Sue, was probably just a scratch.
‘Laura, do you know why Mrs Warren was so angry this morning?’ Mr Lewis moved a little closer to us but did not sit down. Ms Graham continued: ‘Have your mummy and Mrs Warren had a falling-out?’
Even my six-year-old self knew this was an occasion ripe for sarcasm. A perfect opportunity to raise my eyebrows, tilt my head condescendingly and agree: ‘Yes, I think so. I think they might not be the best of friends at the moment.’ But Ms Graham was a nice person; she was stroking my hand, if not gently, then at least with the good intention of reassuring me while extracting pertinent information. I looked down at our intertwined fingers, wondered who was taking 2B’s register and started to cry again.
Many years have passed since that day in 1987. I tried to forget about it. My simple strategy was to pretend that it never happened, and my mother was happy to help me succeed in forgetting. She never tried to coax any fragment of it from me. Neither of us foresaw this, her post-mortem report, politely typed up with her torn earlobe as a matter of reported fact. An invitation to explain. As we both set about pretending Sue’s assault on her had never happened, neither of us thought about the possibility that an account would one day be required, or that the day in question would come after her death and removal. When I was alone. A motherless daughter, with no hope of ever seeing her emerge – whole – again.
When she came out of the school office, her earlobe inexpertly taped up with plasters, she walked purposefully towards Christopher’s pushchair, released the brake, took the handle with one hand and extended the other to me. I was relieved to emerge from all that red into the bright light of the playground and the promise of a day at home. We crossed the playground, walked over the hopscotch grid without so much as a downward glance and went out of the school gates.
I lay on the sofa for most of the afternoon, my mother happy for me to self-soothe with television. Christopher’s cold and traumatic morning extended his usual forty-five-minute nap to just over two hours. The hours of quiet afforded my mother the opportunity to bathe and ice her ear and re-dress the wound. By the time my father came home that evening, she had changed out of her blood-soaked top, and the only evidence of Sue’s assault was a subtle flesh-coloured plaster over her earlobe.
My father worked in a bank. In the years after my birth he had been slowly promoted to branch manager, an elevation in duties that kept him away from home for many hours and early evenings. But this was an evening at the end of the strangest of days.
Christopher and I were in bed by the time he came home but I was still awake, trying to piece together what had happened in the playground and wondering how my mother would ever wear an earring in her left ear again. I knew all about clip-on clasps, but couldn’t work out what skin it could possibly pinch now that hers was so irreparably torn. The insoluble nature of my mother’s injury led me back to her attacker: Sue was Jenny’s mother, and Jenny was our babysitter. She came over to help my mother around the house on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.
The sleepy escapism of the sofa had given way to a racing mind in bed; I was still wired and awake when my father came home and asked my mother what was wrong.
‘Kath, come on. You’re obviously not fine.’
‘Of course I’m not fine. Look what she did to my ear!’ ‘The woman’s a lunatic.’
‘Laura saw it all,’ she moaned.
‘This is your fault.’
‘I think Sue’s the one at fault, don’t you?’
‘Don’t give me that.’ Her voice had hardened. ‘It was because of you and Jenny. She came to accuse you – but decided to send her message through me, in front of our children!’ I heard my mother sniff and walk down the hallway into the kitchen. This was followed by the spink-spink of the gas lighter used to ignite the stove. I waited for my father to follow her into the kitchen, but the silence testified to his inaction.
And then, from the living room, his voice loud: ‘Give me a reason to stop and I’ll stop.’
I moved to the landing and heard my mother exhale loudly. I could see the top of my father’s head; he was standing on the threshold of the hallway, hovering uncertainly between the two rooms.
The answer came from the kitchen. It was spoken in a quiet and firm voice: ‘Never in the house.’
He put his hands in his trouser pockets and hung his head. As if something amused him. And then he turned on his heel and walked back into the living room.
I needed to wee and decided I’d use the downstairs toilet. I wanted in on this argument and – though I didn’t understand the significance of what she’d just said to my father – I felt an urgency, deep down in my body, to show my mother I was still alive to the morning’s events. My father might be sipping a gin and tonic in front of the fire, but I was still awake and straining to hear every movement and sound. I wanted to show her she wasn’t alone but I didn’t have the emotional vocabulary to explain any of this. All I could do was present myself, at the bottom of the stairs, in my pyjamas and peer through the open doorway of the kitchen. What I saw has stayed with me as an abiding and curious vision: my mother leaning on the work surface with a lit cigarette in her right hand. I had never, in my life, seen her smoke. Until that day. The day Sue ripped her ear apart.
On 12 February 2012 I drove the short distance to Surbiton to have lunch with my mother who, like me, lived alone. When she failed to answer the door, I let myself in. And there at the bottom of the stairs lay her body.
Her death changed everything. But not the spoken or written fact of it, the many euphemisms used to convey a difficult truth. She passed away. She’s gone. She’s no longer with us. It was her physical absence that I couldn’t settle on. There had been a body. A body I knew well. It looked like her and it felt like her, but when I touched it, the warmth had gone. And because she was so cold and so dead, someone had driven her away and opened her up. And then into this appalling nothing came a typed report from someone who’d weighed and categorised all of her constituent parts and, in the process, come to a conclusion about how her absence came to be.
Grief rose like a haze of heat, distant and distorted by absolute bewilderment that she was dead. And the unrelenting truth of it, the fact that day after day she was always nowhere, altered the landscape of my life; it drained the colour from what I could see had been a pretty pallid canvas. My small, two-bedroom flat in Balham, once a triumphantly independent purchase, immediately revealed itself as a small, cramped and tatty dwelling. And as I slowed and sank under what was now a certainty, life piled up around me. Dishes soaked in the sink for days, the bin overflowed, the phone rang and still I sat there, on the cold, thin carpet with only her post-mortem report for company. The closest thing I had to her body, I found myself searching for her in the lines that claimed to account for everything she was. They were all there – her lungs, brain, heart – the organs of function, and yet I couldn’t be satisfied. My own lungs heaved to the pain of her inexistence, my brain crawled over an absence that would never end: days that would never contain her again. And my heart. My heart was not broken. It was defiant and beating; pumping blood to meet the rising rhythm of my sobs.
I am a freelance writer and journalist, used to working alone and intensely on something, but I exhausted myself looking for meaning. I had never known such loneliness. I closed my eyes and tried to remember her face, the soft white fuzz that skirted her jawbone, but the image skipped away before I could reach out for it. When I opened my eyes again, to the crumbs on the work surface and the damaged sealant around the splashback tiles, I saw what a disappointing life mine was. And would be without her.Next chapter
The following Thursday I took the tube to Marble Arch, leaving myself enough time to walk across Hyde Park before my lunch with Andy. It was mid-March, and the trees had begun to bud with timid green leaves. I felt just as tight and nervous. It was a beautifully sunny day, not particularly warm, but bright enough to make me regret wearing a jacket. I wanted to take it off and spread it on the short, soft grass. To sit among and away from other people; but I knew that if I did, I wouldn’t want to get up again. Andy and my old life were waiting for me, so I walked across the park to see about rejoining it.
He was at the bar when I walked in, sweating in my too-many layers, all of which had felt essential that morning as I’d shivered in my underwear. The pub was warm and close, surrounding its drinkers with a forced affection. I took my jacket off and folded it over my handbag as I walked towards the bar.
‘Hello stranger,’ I said, tapping him gently on the arm.
‘Laura!’ he said, putting his arm across my shoulders and waving a twenty-pound note like a flag at the retreating barmaid. ‘I’m just ordering. What can I get you?’
‘Oh . . . to eat? What do they have?’
‘No, just drinks. We can look at the menu in a minute. If you’re hungry, that is.’
‘I’ll have an orange juice, please.’
‘Orange juice. I’m at that table over there in the corner. Go and grab a seat. I’ll bring the drinks over.’
I did as I was told and sat down opposite Andy’s chair, claimed by his jumper folded over the back of it. And as I sat there, pulling the layers of clothing from myself, I felt a kind of weary awe for the motions that had delivered me to a pub in Kensington. The tube I’d taken; the barmaid pouring my drink; the editor who wanted me to work again. They were all part of a wider and insensible existence. One I could rejoin or withdraw from at a moment’s notice.
Andy returned to the table with a pint of lager and my orange juice. He had two menus tucked under his right arm. He sat down and passed me my drink, offering his own up in salutation: ‘Cheers.’
‘Cheers.’ I smiled.
Andy studied my face for a few seconds as he sipped his lager. When he put it down again, his expression had changed to one of sympathetic understanding.
‘I’m so sorry, Laura. If it’s any consolation, my dad died five years ago. Parkinson’s. So I know what it’s like to lose a parent.’
I stared down at my orange juice. ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
He shook his head. ‘Don’t be. I’m just trying to say that I know how shit it can be.’
‘It was very . . . unexpected. As I think you know.’
‘Yeah. I sometimes catch myself thinking, would that be easier?’
‘Would what be easier?’
‘You know, someone important in your life dying suddenly rather than a long-drawn-out performance in a hospice.’
I took a sip of my drink. ‘I don’t know.’
‘How was the funeral?’
‘Sad. Really sad.’
He reached across the table and grabbed the fingers of my left hand. I could tell he didn’t know how long or tightly he should hold them.
‘Did you bury her?’ he asked, pulling his hand away. As though I might still have some of the dirt under my fingernails.
‘Are you going to scatter her somewhere?’
‘Not sure,’ I answered, sipping more of my drink. ‘She’s currently on my kitchen windowsill. I need to find her a more permanent resting place,’ I said, smiling.
Andy was relieved by the banter. ‘Listen, the way to get through something like this is to keep yourself busy. From my own experience, it’s the only thing that works.’
I nodded my head and looked behind him to the bar, where the barmaid was holding a glass to one of the spirit optics on the wall, scrutinising herself in the mirrored glass. She looked bored.
‘And I’ve got something just perfect for you.’
‘Oh yes?’ I said, refocusing on him.
‘We’re looking to do a series of articles on what the Olympics will mean for east London,’ he continued. ‘You know – in real terms, not just the landlords and homeowners but minority groups, elderly residents, disadvantaged kids. That sort of thing.’
I heard his words, numbered the community groups, pre-empted the ‘issues’ and felt suddenly exhausted. I looked down at my orange juice, the ice cubes smaller than they had been. Less willing to clink. ‘I’m not sure.’
‘What are you not sure about?’
‘That I can take something that big on at the moment. And do it justice.’
‘OK. Look. Forget the series. Just try one article. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think you were the right person.’
‘Can I have a think about it?’
‘Of course. And listen, like I said on the phone, we all miss having you around. Have a think and let me know by Monday. OK?’
‘OK. Will do,’ I said, swallowing. ‘So, how are you? And how are the kids?’
‘Really good,’ he said with a smile. ‘Freya’s getting on well in Reception, and Jacob loves Year Three.’ He picked up his phone and began searching for a recent picture. It took a few seconds but eventually he found one: a young boy with front teeth that were too big for his smile. Beside him was a pretty, diffident little girl.
‘They’re beautiful,’ I said.
He drank his pint quickly and opened one of the menus. ‘Did you want to eat something?’
‘No, not if you don’t.’
‘I can grab a sandwich on the way back to the office if you don’t feel like it.’
I pulled one of the menus across to me and glanced at the mains. They were all heavy with calories and written conspicuously to appeal.
‘I’m OK. I’ll get something later on.’
He finished the last of his pint and began pulling his jumper from the back of the chair. ‘I’ve got to get back. Listen, Laura, it was great to see you.’
We stood for an awkward hug across the table. All arms and faces. I waited for ten minutes before following him out of the door in search of a bench and fresh air. I didn’t want to risk running into him again.
It felt easy to be outside, neither too hot nor too cold. I knew I’d have to return to work eventually. And the articles Andy had offered me were a gift for anyone in my position. But my mind returned, as it always did, to my mother’s post-mortem report and the stark account I’d written of her torn earlobe.
I couldn’t go home and face all the things that needed doing there, so I took my phone out of my bag and stared at the screen, willing a reason not to go home to appear. When nothing materialised, I decided to phone Andrea. She answered quickly. And apparently out of breath.
‘Laura. Finally. Where have you been?’
‘Hi Andrea. I know, I’m sorry.’
‘I must have phoned you ten times in the last three weeks.’
‘I know. It’s been tough.’ I swallowed heavily. ‘I’m sorry. What about you? Are you OK? You sound like you’ve been running.’
‘I was. Ran back to my desk from the photocopier when I heard my phone ring.’
‘Jesus, Andrea. That’s about three yards away.’
‘I know, but I didn’t want to miss your call. Where are you?’
‘Hyde Park, actually. Just had a meeting with my editor. Do you fancy joining me for a drink?’
‘You’re drinking in Hyde Park? It’s two o’clock in the afternoon.’
‘No, you div. I’m not drinking in Hyde Park. But I would like to go for a drink. With you.’
‘I’ve already had lunch, but it’s pretty quiet here. Can you come to Clerkenwell?’
‘Yes, definitely. I’ll start walking and text you when I’m outside.’
We met in The Betsey Trotwood on Farringdon Road. It was our go-to pub of choice when we worked together. Andrea and I became friends when I got a job as a personal assistant to the Head of Marketing at a small internet service provider based in Clerkenwell in December 2003. She was personal assistant to the CEO, and though the people we assisted were several organisational levels apart, our desks were side by side.
Her face lit up when she saw me sitting at a table in the corner. She put her arms out to embrace me too many metres away. I stood up, awkwardly awaiting her affection. She pulled me to her, crushing my shoulders against her chest.
‘I’m so pleased to see you. Let me get a drink, though,’ she said, looking at my glass of wine.
‘I wasn’t sure if you wanted a drink drink. Sorry.’
‘You’re grieving, Laura. Not insane. Of course I want a drink.’
She returned to her seat full of admiration for her large glass of white wine and my face behind it.
‘So, bloody hell. Tell me everything. I didn’t feel I could ask you at the funeral, what with everything going on, but . . . did you shag him?’ She was referring to the night before my mother died. I’d met up with an ex-boyfriend and, rather predictably, we’d ended up in bed together.
‘And what? We had full penetrative sex and then he went home to his wife.’
Her shoulders slumped with theatrical commiseration. She sipped her wine, gleefully. ‘Shit. Were you careful?’
‘I wouldn’t call sleeping with a married man particularly careful, but we used a condom and I’m definitely not pregnant.’
‘And what now? Have you told him about your mum?’
‘No. There’s no point. It won’t change anything.’
‘Do you want things to change?’
‘Not really. They’ve got a little girl together. The whole thing is fucked up.’
‘I’m so sorry.’
She watched me as the seconds passed, waiting for something – a sneak peek at my grief. I felt momentary relief as I said, quickly and quietly, ‘She was all alone, Andrea. I was too late to help her.’ I swallowed the painful dryness that always presaged tears.
‘Don’t worry. I’m OK.’
‘I don’t think you are.’
I put my hands up to my face and began to cry. Andrea reached across the table and pulled my left hand away. As though she wanted me to confront the thing I was looking away from. She gripped my reluctant fingers and pulled them towards her chest.
‘I’m sorry,’ I mumbled as I tried to take my hand back. But she wouldn’t let go.
‘Don’t say that,’ she said fiercely. ‘You don’t have to be sorry with me. Let me help you.’
‘I know. And thank you. It’s just all up here in my head. I can’t stop seeing her like that. The way I found her. It’s the last thing I think about before I go to sleep. If I sleep.’
‘OK, listen to me. Work through what you need to, take all the time you need, but let’s arrange to meet again – a fixed date in the diary. You know, a sort of deadline.’
‘Eric’s always on at me to set targets and agree deadlines. I’ve got to get his presentation notes typed up this afternoon, actually,’ she said, inexplicably turning round and looking at the door, as if he might march in and order her back to her desk. ‘So what I’m saying is, we need a plan. It’s your birthday next month. Let me come over and cook you dinner. How does that sound?’
‘That sounds nice. Thank you. And thanks for project-managing my grief.’
‘You’re welcome.’Next chapter
There was lividity on the back of the body. The limbs were still rigid.
My mother was a relatively tall woman. At five feet seven inches, she had long, strong legs that were often prickly. She shaved them in the summer months and allowed the hair to grow, dark and wiry, from September until the first warm day of April or May. Around the time of my birthday, more of my mother’s body would start to appear, smooth and white.
In 1987, my sixth birthday fell on Easter Monday. Christopher was just seven months old. My mother baked a cake, covered it in pink icing and arranged for three of my school friends to come over for a birthday tea party. Jenny was there too, alternating between holding Christopher and washing up, while my mother fussed around me and my guests, pouring cups of orange squash and handing out small triangular sandwiches. It was the first bright, sunny day of the year and after tea we were allowed to go and play in the garden. My mother, wearing shorts and a yellow T-shirt, took Christopher silently from Jenny and, tucking a folded picnic blanket under her arm, followed us out. She put Christopher down on the grass, and with her long back to the house, she shook the blanket open to the skies. I watched as she sat down and folded her shiny, shaved legs under her and pulled Christopher into the crook of her lap. He was sucking his fists contentedly, his small round head bobbing backwards against her breasts. My mother smiled, first at me and then up at the sky.
‘Are you having a nice time, Laura?’ she asked the clouds.
I went and sat next to her and Christopher and took one of his fat hands. It was covered in slobber. ‘Yuck!’ I exclaimed, wiping it on my mother’s leg. I got up to rejoin my friends, who were busy blowing bubbles to send floating over the weeds. As I stood up and turned round, I saw the shadow of Jenny standing inside the kitchen, diffident and awkward, staring out at us from the open French doors. And then came the figure of my father, whom I hadn’t realised was even in the house, so curiously absent had he been from the party earlier. He joined her at the doorway and stood still beside her. They didn’t touch, but were united in the act of watching the happy scene from a distance: my mother with her children.
The following day, a Tuesday, Jenny came over as usual in the afternoon to look after Christopher and me. I was in the upstairs bathroom, wiping myself after a wee. I heard Jenny’s feet pad up the stairs as she went into Christopher’s room to lift him from his cot. Her duties began as soon as he woke from his lunchtime sleep. She would change his nappy and take him downstairs so my mother could feed him. But as she began opening his little sleepsuit, I heard my mother’s heavier step follow her up and into his room.
‘I’ll do that.’
Jenny was surprised and a little defensive. ‘OK.’
‘He’s just been a bit fraught recently. I’ll keep him with me this afternoon.’
‘Shall I do something with Laura?’
‘No, don’t worry about Laura. I’ll take them both to the swings. You can stay here and hang out that washing.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course. I think we could all do with some fresh air. Come on you,’ she said to Christopher, ‘let’s get you some milk and into the pushchair.’ And with that, she walked out of the room and back down the stairs.
Our house was within walking distance of a small playground with a slide, a set of swings and a rather jaded roundabout. It was where I spent most afternoons during the school holidays – a good place for my mother to sit with Christopher while I played, sometimes with other children but more often on my own. I used to pretend Christopher was my baby, that I was leaving him with a childminder all day and then disappear off down the slide, which doubled as my train to work. My mother would often join in, shouting at me to ‘have a good day!’ as I hurried away. Sometimes I had to rush down the slide in order to make a flight I’d booked on the swings. At which point my mother would stand up from the bench and, holding my baby up in her arms so I could see him and her from my bobbing window seat, would reassure me with the words: ‘Don’t worry! I’ll look after him.’
On the morning of her cremation, Christopher met me at the funeral home I’d selected in Kingston. He’d arrived on a flight from Sydney the evening before and spent the night in a local hotel. I remember it vividly: he was sitting in the reception area waiting for me, wielding a cup of coffee like a weapon, to hack at the jet lag and grief. She’d left him all alone.
I decided to Skype Christopher. He lives in a large house on the outskirts of Melbourne with his girlfriend Steph. A house they bought together and proceeded to fill with dogs. It was just after seven one bright morning at the end of March, and I was having breakfast at my laptop. He was nine hours ahead and well into his afternoon. I tried him a few times and after the fourth attempt, just as I was giving up and going to make myself another cup of tea in the kitchen, he called back.
‘Laura? Are you there?’
‘Yep, here. Hang on a sec.’ I turned the camera off. ‘Trust me, I’m doing you a favour – you don’t want to see this face.’
‘How are things?’ He looked tired.
‘OK. Just getting on, you know. I’m working again, trying to get into the habit of running. All that kind of stuff. How about you?’
‘Good. Yeah, all good,’ he said, nodding. ‘Steph’s outside, fixing one of the fences. Ruby managed to dig her way under it last night.’
I rolled my eyes, thankful I’d remembered to turn the camera off. Christopher had never so much as stroked a dog before he met Steph, and now they were all he could talk about. They met in 2007 while travelling in South East Asia. He was sufficiently smitten with her to feign an interest in the abiding love of her life. They continued travelling together and then, several weeks before he was due to fly home, he phoned my mother and told her he was going to live in Australia – that he and Steph had plans to marry. Five years on they were still, as far as I knew, unmarried, but heavily committed to a raucous and unruly pack of dogs.
‘Have you got any plans for your birthday?’
‘No, but Andrea has. She wants to cook for me here. I think she’s worried I’m going to become some sort of recluse. You know, the kind who hoards newspapers and plastic bottles and names the rats.’
Christopher folded his arms across his chest and smiled. ‘Or obsessive-compulsive? You know, cleaning the toilet seat five times a day. All I’m saying is, think about the kind of recluse you want to be. Don’t let Andrea pigeonhole you.’
‘Pigeons. I could feed pigeons – like the old lady in Mary Poppins.’
Christopher leant down to stroke one of the dogs.
‘But anyway, I’ll be sure to let you know what form of deranged outcast I become when I phone you from the secure unit.’
‘I look forward to it. So what’s up? What did you want to talk about?’
‘I’ve been going over some stuff in my head. You know, to do with Mum and Dad. And Jenny.’
‘I’m sorry, it’s not exactly uplifting.’
He paused. ‘Go on.’
‘Well, you were very young at the time, but Mum’s earlobe was torn by a woman called Sue.’
‘Jenny’s mum, I know.’
‘Right. And that night, when Dad came home, Mum said something to him about “never in the house”. I mean, that’s weird, isn’t it? Condoning an affair between your husband and a seventeen-year-old girl.’
He looked down at his lap.
‘But I don’t just mean Jenny’s age. Or Dad’s age, for that matter. I mean the fact that she – Mum – allowed it.’
Christopher sighed and looked around the immediate radius of his desk for the dog he’d just been stroking. Perhaps he was hoping Ruby would come and dig him out of this conversation. And then he surprised me. ‘We’re conditioned to think things like that are wrong.’
‘Do you remember Coco?’
‘No. Who’s Coco?’
‘Steph’s terrier. Her parents looked after him while we went travelling. No? Anyway, Coco was pretty old by the time we moved here, and he was just tired. You know?’
‘Well, he was. And when we got Ruby, everybody said they’d make great puppies. But Coco wasn’t interested. Ruby would back up all the time, trying to get herself all up in his nose, that sort of thing.’
‘Please get to the point.’
‘Well, then we got Buster, and he was all young and yappy and before long he was mounting her day and night. You could hear the howls for miles.’
‘That’s a very beautiful story. But what’s your point?’
‘I’m just saying, you’re overthinking things. Jenny was a young piece of ass and Mum was tired. It’s really not that complicated.’Next chapter
We were children from a broken home. According to a recent study, Christopher and I were five times more likely to suffer from emotional and mental problems, problems that often manifest themselves in poor attainment at school. But in my case, academic achievement and going to university were a means of escape.
In 1999, I left home to read English at Cambridge. My mother didn’t drive, so the big journeys back to college at the beginning of every term were always expedited by my father. She would sit in the passenger seat – in Jenny’s seat – and stare straight ahead at the road. Uncomfortably still in my father’s car. They rarely spoke, connected only by my presence on the back seat and my belongings in the boot. But the moment they drove away, on that first morning of my first term, in silent pursuit of the M11, I remember standing on the street and craning my neck to look up at the grinning gargoyles above; they were smug and superior, their laughter fed by the timid undergraduate. It was the first time I truly understood the effect of my parents’ separation on me, as a young person. I looked closely at the red brick of my new college and knew I had no option but to go inside and make this place my home. Because they could offer no alternative. I knew my parents loved me: my father loved me enough to fill the car with petrol and put one of the seats down so all my belongings would fit. My mother loved me enough to sit silently beside him and point in the right direction as we came off the motorway. But they didn’t love each other. And the real truth of that fact meant I was on my own.
The first person I met was a girl called Sarah. Pinned on the noticeboard in my room was an invitation to tea in the Old Library where we could ‘meet other undergraduates and bid farewell to parents’. In their haste to get going, my mother and father hadn’t considered the possibility that they may have neglected a social ritual. But then neither had I; so after a momentary gulp, I felt relieved that in our ignorance we’d avoided an uncomfortable situation.
Sarah was standing at the back of the room, stirring a cup of tea. She had shoulder-length, light brown hair and large oval glasses. Her features were small and sharp, alert like a little mouse. Beside her was a tall, balding man in his fifties. He had his hand on her shoulder and was leaning down to say something pointed and only for her. She nodded as he spoke, glancing self-consciously at me as I walked over to a nearby table and poured myself the first cup of coffee I’d ever drunk. In my haste to join in I neglected to add sugar. I was still wincing at the bitterness when he reached across his daughter’s shoulder and introduced himself: ‘Michael Fisher,’ he said. ‘Pleased to meet you. This is my daughter Sarah,’ he said, pushing her gently towards me, ‘and this,’ he reached behind him and tapped a blonde woman with her back to us on the shoulder, ‘is my wife Jan.’ Jan lifted her right hand in a wave and turned back to the small group of timid undergraduates before her.
‘I’m Laura,’ I said, shaking his big, hairy hand.
‘Have your parents gone?’ Sarah asked, her voice – when it came – surprisingly loud.
‘Yes. I saw the note too late,’ I said, sipping the acrid coffee. ‘What are you reading?’
‘Arch and Anth.’
I nodded as though I understood. This was the first of many linguistic landmines I stepped on in Cambridge. ‘Have you met any other architects?’
She smiled kindly and said, as though it was her mistake, ‘No, sorry – Archaeology and Anthropology.’
‘Oh, I see. Right. What A levels did you do?’ The fail-safe question.
‘Sarah did English, History, German and Politics,’ Michael interrupted. ‘I’m a science man myself, but she wouldn’t be persuaded.’ He smiled down at his daughter.
Sarah’s mouth twitched, as though she wanted to smile but couldn’t. ‘How about you?’ she asked, looking back at me. ‘English, History and Psychology. Oh, and General Studies, but that doesn’t really count, does it?’
‘It does. It does,’ she said, nodding her head with authority and looking around for her father. He’d returned to Jan, whose group had been joined by the Senior Tutor. ‘I’d better go,’ she said, finding herself all alone with me.
‘OK. I’m going to try and find some sugar. See you later.’
I chatted to several people before finally meeting a small group of fellow English students, and we promptly settled into conversation about how little of the recommended reading list sent to us over the summer we’d covered. Another first – the attempt to belie effort and hard work – an accepted deception among undergraduates at Cambridge. I looked around for Sarah, wondering how she was getting on, and saw she was talking to a tall, slightly scruffy guy. Her parents were standing nearby, sipping their coffees and watching. Her companion was wearing the kind of jeans that are designed to fit badly, just loose enough to maintain an air of sartorial indifference but not enough for them to fall down around the knees. And watching him smile and run his hand through his hair, I found myself wondering what his knees looked like. I must have been staring, because Sarah looked over at me and smiled from behind her glasses. It was quiet and subtle, intended not to interrupt the flow of her conversation. I turned back to the English students, all of us bound together by a new sense of belonging.
‘That’s David over there,’ a girl who’d just introduced herself as Jess told me, indicating the scruffy guy. ‘He’s also English.’
‘Have you already chatted to him?’
‘Yeah, he’s nice. Lives in the staircase next to mine.’
‘OK. I’ll go over and say hello in a bit.’
Sarah’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly as I approached in their direction. David turned immediately and put his hand out.
‘Hiya. I’m David. And this is . . .?’ He inclined his head to- wards Sarah, willing her to provide the name he had already forgotten.
‘Sarah,’ she said, smiling and tucking more of her hair behind her ear.
‘We’ve met,’ I said, ignoring Sarah and shaking his hand. ‘I’m Laura. Nice to meet you. I hear you’re reading English too.’
‘Yeah! There’s quite a few of us. I’ve just met someone called Jess? She’s over there somewhere,’ he said, looking over the sea of bobbing, keen heads.
‘Oh, cool. Yes, I’ve met Jess too.’ I looked at Sarah, whose cheeks were red. ‘Anyway, I just thought I’d come and say hello. You’re welcome to come over and talk Piers Plowman with us.’
‘Shit.’ He ran his hand through his greasy hair. ‘Did you read that? I tried, but it was fucking boring.’
I laughed. ‘I don’t think any of us have. That’s what we’re talking about, actually. How the entire reading list made us dangerously drowsy.’
‘Yeah, like don’t-operate-any-heavy-machinery boring. I’ll be over in a sec.’
‘OK, and Sarah, you’re very welcome too. Sorry – didn’t mean to be exclusive.’
‘That’s OK. I’ll go and find some architects to talk to.’ Her smile had gone, and so too had her parents. She went off to look for them.
I don’t know how she did it, but Sarah managed to pull David a few nights later at a fresher’s bop. I hadn’t seen it coming at all: he was effortlessly charismatic and she was horribly contained. I was sitting at a table in the college bar talking to a small group of girls when one of them raised an eyebrow in the direction of the Junior Parlour, a large sitting room adjoining the bar. Sitting on an armchair with his long legs stretched out in front of him was David, and on his lap – in a side-saddle position – was Sarah. She had her arms around his neck, her hair covering his face in the manner of a bland curtain. There was much speculation about how she’d managed to win such a prize. But what became quickly apparent was that she had no plans to ever let go.
While Sarah and David became the couple that cooked together, I got on with the business of being Laura at Cambridge. Like a road that’s been built too quickly, I constructed a version of myself that was still very much in progress. And there were plenty of people I met who simply ran out of road. Guys I slept with in my first year who were happy to go to bed with a carefree and insouciant undergraduate found themselves waking up next to an eighteen-year-old agonising over what it meant the next morning. I clawed at life by smoking weed and listening to jazz, consciously pulling experience to me. Though David was often absent – he’d moved his single bed into Sarah’s room so they could assume marital sleeping arrangements towards the end of our second term – the Director of Studies for English dealt Sarah a heavy blow: David and I were designated supervision partners for the Renaissance paper. We were expected to attend a one-hour supervision together every week and began studying, side by side, in the English faculty library. The library, too subject-specific for Sarah, meant we were finally free to get to know each other.
And what I got to know was pretty harrowing. We’d fallen into a set rhythm of smoking every forty-five minutes. One cigarette often became two, followed by a coffee in the can- teen – anything to avoid returning to Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney.
Like me, David had a younger brother. And like me, David’s family had been fractured by circumstances. When he was just six years old he’d watched his American-born mother pack bag after bag while he was cared for by their live-in nanny. Her suitcases mounted by the front door until David, suddenly frantic that he might be left behind with a woman paid to know him, went to his bedroom and found a little Team USA rucksack his maternal grandmother had given him on her last visit to London. He knew he had to hurry, that his mother had a flight to catch, so he grabbed a small stuffed elephant from under his pillow and a watch that was lying on his desk. He hadn’t yet learnt to tell the time but he knew he’d need it in America: time was different over there – they ate breakfast when he was having dinner. But when he went downstairs, the suitcases had gone. The front door was ajar and his nanny was standing in the opening with her right arm raised. As he heard the tyres manoeuvring on the gritty road, he tried to pull the door wider but his nanny clamped it to her hip. He tried to push her from behind, to force her out so he could get closer to his mother.
‘I knew some decision had been made. That they’d agreed it would be better if she didn’t say goodbye.’
‘I can’t even process this,’ I said, shaking my head in my hands. The lit cigarette sticking out between my fingers like a candle that’s been blown out. The wish already made.
‘I know. Seriously fucked-up.’
‘What did you do?’
‘I tried to get out. I thought if I could just stand on the road and let her see my face, I thought . . .’ His voice had started to tremble. I put my hand on his arm. ‘I thought, if she saw me.’
‘She wouldn’t go?’
He nodded and lifted the cigarette to his lips, the pain of that morning red and raised again. He inhaled deeply, closing his eyes to the smoke that had pencilled up and away from him. As he exhaled he jammed the heel of his right hand, the one still holding the cigarette, into his eye, rubbing away the moisture there.
‘Did you ever see her again?’ I asked, looking down at my feet.
‘Is she dead?’
‘No. I hear she lives in Connecticut now. So she may as well be,’ he said with a little smile.
‘I’m just so sorry. Where was your dad when all this was going on?’
‘In the middle of East-fucking-Nowhere on business. He only found out she’d left me the following day when the nanny phoned to ask when he was planning to return.’
‘That’s just so unbelievable.’
‘Did she ever try to get in touch?’
‘She phoned a few times and tried to explain. Said she loved me, that her and my dad were trying to work things out. Bullshit like that.’
‘And did they?’
‘Did they fuck. My dad wouldn’t go with me to the States, and she was adamant she wouldn’t set foot in the UK again. It went on for a long time, and I just grew up. Life happened, and she wasn’t a part of it. And then, when I was about nine or ten, my dad told me she’d remarried and moved house. She said she’d write with her contact details but never did.’
I hung my head.
‘That was the end for me. She hadn’t taken me with her, didn’t want to come and collect me and then just forgot about me.’
I took a deep breath. ‘And James? When was he born?’
‘In 1993. I was eleven. And you know, Monica’s nice. She’s more suited to my dad than my mum ever was. And by that I mean she’s more suited to being alone.’
I’d met Monica once or twice. She came up at the beginning and end of term, collecting David and his things. She was glamorous in an effortlessly Mediterranean way, suffering her own youth and beauty as she inspected the time-worn buildings. ‘I can’t imagine life without a mother,’ I said, as much to myself as to him.
‘It’s pretty fucked-up,’ he agreed, dropping his cigarette to the ground and stepping on it. Quietly and firmly.
I remember one warm afternoon towards the end of the Lent term in particular. We were reading Milton – lots of it – in preparation for a supervision at the end of the week. I had been reading the same five lines of Samson Agonistes for well over an hour. The words had become inscrutable, blurring and dancing before my slow-blinking eyelids. My head kept pitching forward, my mouth open in pre-sleep surrender until I felt the book pulled gently from beneath my fingertips.
‘What are you doing?’
‘You look like you’re having a stroke. You know you’re dribbling, don’t you?’
I put my fingers to the corner of my mouth, defensive. ‘No I’m not.’
‘Well, you were about to. All over this book. You were literally drooling over Milton. That’s embarrassing.’
I stood up and stretched my arms above my head. I saw his eyes shift to my exposed midriff. ‘How am I going to write about Milton if I can’t stay awake to read him?’
‘You need some fresh air,’ he said, rifling through his pockets for cigarettes and a lighter.
We found a bench in the sunshine and sat down. He pulled two cigarettes from the packet and put them between his lips. He lit them both in a swaying motion and, passing one to me, he said, ‘He was blind, you know.’
‘Yes, I know. I plan to crowbar that into my essay somehow.’
‘But even as he was writing, he was going blind. Imagine knowing that the thing you’re doing is the thing that’s going to destroy you. But you do it anyway.’
I watched him lift the cigarette to his willing lips and considered voicing the irony of what he’d just said, but I didn’t want to interrupt his flow; smoking always made David earnest, whereas my reaction was more physical. It made my bowel twist. I clenched my arse cheeks together and tried to hold the bad air in. ‘As in, you keep going because you believe in a higher purpose?’
‘No. You keep going because you don’t know anything else. Even if it means losing something you love. I’m not explaining myself very well.’
‘You are. Go on.’
‘It wasn’t good for me. To just pretend my mum never existed. It was a kind of blindness.’
‘Now I have you. And Sarah.’ He smiled.
I inhaled too deeply, right at the end of the cigarette. My lower incisors felt hot and uncomfortable as I pulled the caustic flavour into my mouth. The cramps were lower now. I saw the goosebumps rise up on my arm as I thought of the toilet. Any toilet.
‘What’s the matter with you? Where are you going?’
‘I’ve got to go.’
‘To the loo.’
‘Right.’ He forced a laugh and pulled another cigarette from the packet. ‘Don’t let me keep you.’
As the weeks ticked away, we grew closer. By the time the summer term presented itself as an indisputable fact, we found ourselves revising side by side in the library out of habit. If I got up from my seat to go and find a book somewhere in the stacks, I’d invariably return to find a giant cock and balls had been drawn on my notebook. He lent me CDs, books; sketched portraits of me in biro on the back of postcards and pinned them to my door.
During the long vacation we wrote to one another. He went on his much-anticipated two-week break to Italy and, though he was careful to write about other things, I sensed his eagerness to return to Cambridge. I was at home in Surbiton, with my mother and Christopher, delighted every time a letter landed on the mat. My mother asked, only once, who was writing to me.
‘Just a friend from college,’ I replied with deliberate nonchalance, running upstairs to devour the ink on the paper he’d been the last one to touch.Next chapter
In the end it wasn’t the supervisions or the long library sessions or even the camaraderie of escaping with a cigarette that revealed the strength of the attachment. It was much simpler than that. One bright morning in September 2000, before many of the other undergraduates had returned from the long vacation, I saw him standing outside the Porter’s Lodge, tall and tanned. He’d returned to Cambridge earlier than planned and was checking his pigeonhole. I was wheeling my bike back into college, the chain clicking over the cobblestones, and stopped still the moment I saw him. The cessation of sound made him look up and his visible elation was unmistakable. That our friendship had been weighed down by deep attachment was clear. To both of us.
But there was still the small matter of Sarah. Three years of undergraduate study were, for her at least, an inconvenient hiatus separating them from department stores and estate agents. I tolerated her because I loved her boyfriend. And I spent the first term of my second year waiting for him to break up with her.
David’s room in the second year was at the top of one of the oldest staircases in college. He had little to do with the people he shared it with, and used their eccentricities as a well from which to draw amusing anecdotes he could deliver up to his parched friends. Sarah indulged him as a mother would a precocious toddler, smiling at his perspicacity but never laughing at his humour. He told me about Christina the vet who really cared about bowel movements. She commented on David’s irregularity one memorable morning as he emerged from their shared lavatory: ‘How are you doing, Dave? Eating enough fibre?’
‘Morning,’ and then, considering the matter, ‘I think so. Yes. Yes, I am, Christina.’
‘Just been in there a while, that’s all. I’ve got some insane laxatives if you need them.’
‘Why have you got insane laxatives?’
‘To relieve constipation. In horses.’
‘And what the fucking hell would they do to me?’
‘I’m only trying to help, Dave.’
‘And I’m only trying to make sure I don’t shit myself away tomorrow morning. But thank you anyway.’
Then there was Jonathan the natural scientist. He was fiercely Christian, academic and – according to David – sinfully boring. Jonathan was the son of a rector from a small North Yorkshire village, had never been away from home prior to university and thought David, who was from London, unnervingly cosmopolitan. He once asked him what people do in London. David, who had been making a cup of tea in the kitchen at the time, replied warily: ‘How do you mean?’
‘I just mean, do you go out a lot?’
‘Me personally? Yes. I go out.’
‘And what about everybody else?’
‘What? Sorry – are you asking about everyone else in London?’
Jonathan’s face flushed as he realised his mistake. ‘I just mean, there must be something for everyone. I’d like to go one day.’
‘Yeah, you should definitely come. On a Wednesday we go to Buckingham Palace for a pub quiz and get shit-faced. All seven million of us.’
I loved him. And that feeling only intensified the more time we spent together.
One Tuesday evening in November, we arranged to meet in the courtyard just before ascending the cold stone steps to our supervisor’s room at the top of the tower. It was dark outside, and the college was preparing itself for evening; gowns began to appear in the cloisters, broad and black on busy shoulders hurrying along the ancient walkways.
David and I had an hour on Robert Browning ahead of us. When we arrived at the appointed room it was clear the supervision before ours had overrun: we could still hear convivial laughter and the rustling of papers within. I turned to David and noticed the dark circles under his eyes. ‘What’s the matter with you? You look like shit.’
‘Thank you. Just having a few problems with Sarah, that’s all.’ I said nothing. And my silence encouraged him. ‘She wants to get married.’
‘What the fuck? Now? You’re not even old enough.’
‘No, not now. But soon. Laura, how old do you think you have to be?’
‘OK, I know legally you can. But Jesus, you’re not even twenty yet. What’s the rush?’
‘Her parents have offered to buy us a house. Here in Cambridge. And from their point of view, it would be better if we were married.’
‘That’s outrageous! You’re getting married because they want to invest in property? You can’t be serious.’
‘It’s not like that. They’re good, kind people, and they’re trying to help us out.’
‘Help you out how? By anchoring you to a county fifty miles from London where you can live in sleepy seclusion with their daughter?’
He looked at me in surprise. Daring me to continue.
‘How can you even consider marrying her? She’s so boring. I wish you could see it.’
‘What, because she’s not cutting or witty? I know all that. But I also know that she’s a very nice person.’
‘I’m a nice person!’ I shouted, my mouth firing flecks of saliva into the air.
He looked down at his trainers and clenched his jaw. As if I’d said something he was dreading. But the door opened and our professor’s busy and apologetic welcome made any more shouting impossible. We took our seats on the sofa, at opposite ends, and began pulling papers from our bags. Because of the hour, the darkness and the fire burning in the grate we were offered a glass of sherry and invited to unwind to the lines of ‘My Last Duchess’. I carried the discussion until we came to the lines, ‘“Paint/Must never hope to reproduce the faint/Half-flush that dies along her throat.”’.
We waited for David to say something, but his silence appeared resolute.
‘I think the narrator glories too much in the sudden and violent nature of her death. It makes it impossible for the reader to believe he ever really loved her,’ I said, nervously looking over at David.
‘David?’ our professor said in polite encouragement.
‘With all due respect, Laura, that’s a totally moronic thing to say. Of course he loves her – throat flush and all – he just can’t control her in life, so it makes sense to kill her.’
‘I’m sorry, David, but that was unacceptably rude. Please apologise to Laura.’
‘No, please. Don’t worry. It’s fine,’ I mumbled, mortified.
‘Sorry,’ he whispered, and stood up. He left the room, and his bag agape on the floor. It was such an impulsive and unexpected departure that we couldn’t piece the discussion back together. We agreed to reschedule for the following week, and that I would take David’s things back to his room. I picked up his bag and trudged across college and up the several flights of stairs to his room. When I got there the door was ajar and he was sitting on his bed, smoking a cigarette. I went in and dropped his bag on the carpet. ‘We’ve rescheduled for next Thursday.’
‘And? Is that it?’
‘And you’re a fucking dick.’ I turned to go.
‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry I need her as much as I do.’
I stopped, but didn’t turn back to him. ‘You don’t need her. You only think you do.’ And then I heard him stand up and walk over to me. I felt his fingers on my right shoulder. He’d never touched me, deliberately, before. He pulled me gently to face him. It was the most arousing moment of my life. I thought he was going to kiss me; my mouth braced for the impact of a longed-for act. But he didn’t. He leant in and pushed his body against mine, hard and heavy as though he were trying to knock me over. And then I felt the door slam shut behind me as he pushed my body up against it. He looked furious, his breath hot and rapid on my face. I kissed him gently on his cheek, provoking him. A teasing gesture of peace designed to open hostilities. After that there was no more distance, no more talking – he was on top of me. Pulling and pushing at me. Our frenzy made us ineffective, almost clumsy. The bed was too far and domestic for what we had to do. He lifted me off my feet and we fucked standing up, my body rocking the door in its aperture to the prevailing rhythm of his thrusts. We were without care, locked in a physical indulgence that hadn’t felt possible a year, a month or an hour earlier. Even as it happened I couldn’t believe he was inside me. I understood Sarah’s blind possession as I felt my own body cleave to his. And as I thought of her I became more reckless. I pulled at his hair, dug my nails into his neck and made him look at me. He flinched once but I grabbed his face and forced him to meet my eyes, just before he conceded.
The pleasure we uncovered that evening was too primitive, too good to abandon. We continued seeing each other; our lack of discretion, coupled with the fact that none of David’s housemates liked him, meant our secret was soon discovered. Sarah was understandably hurt, but not enough to withdraw the promise of a life with her. She gave David a way out: stop sleeping with me and they could try again. But he wasn’t ready to go back. Our relationship felt like a destructive act from the beginning; for him, it was an attempt to disown encroaching security. But for me, I realise now, that because I’d grown up among shifting allegiances, I saw relationships as being more fluid than was perhaps normal.
At the end of June, as the long vacation opened up again, David and I clung to one another with promises to meet up. He was meeting his dad, Monica and James in the South of France for a couple of weeks and promised to call me as soon as he got back.
And he did. His voice was tight and cold, suggesting we meet at Embankment tube station. I was there early, nervous and excited. I’d managed to persuade myself that he’d probably been in the company of others when he called. That we’d find our way back to one another as soon as we were together again. But he was there even earlier than me, and didn’t take my hand when I approached him. He asked if I’d like to take a walk in the Victoria Embankment Gardens. I followed him, muted by the formality of his invitation and his unwillingness to touch me.
‘Would you like a coffee?’ I shook my head miserably. I knew something was wrong. We sat down on a patch of grass near the entrance. ‘There’s something I have to tell you.’
‘I don’t know how to say this . . .’
‘Christ. Just say it. What’s happened?’
‘I met up with Sarah.’
‘She drove up from Italy. We had lunch in Avignon.’
‘How splendid for you both!’
‘Please don’t.’ He hung his head.
‘Please don’t what? Express surprise that you met up with your ex-girlfriend?’
He looked at me for too long. Gently challenging what I’d said.
‘And what? Are you back together now?’
‘We just talked through a lot of stuff. I think I’ve been afraid.’
‘Afraid of what? A life with someone you don’t love?’
‘That’s not true. I do love Sarah. And I get on really well with her family.’
‘Why are you always talking about her family? What have they offered to buy you this time? A chateau? A royal title?’
‘No, you stop it. Stop being such a fucking twat.’
He put his head in his hands. I pulled his hand away – our first physical contact in nearly three weeks.
‘They’ve made me feel like one of them.’ He lifted his head and looked at me, suddenly angry. ‘And maybe, deep down, that’s all I’ve ever wanted.’
‘Do me a favour.’
‘I was six, Laura! Six years old when I was left with a nanny whose name I can’t even remember.’
‘We all have our problems, OK? You’re not the only one to have had a difficult childhood.’
‘Yeah, and most kids have the other parent to fall back on. My dad’s solution was to give me some bullshit replacement and go back on his merry way.’
I was determined not to feel sorry for him. ‘So Sarah’s parents are your adopted family now?’
‘In a way, yes.’
‘And they’re prepared to forgive you, are they? For cheating on their daughter?’
‘They don’t know about you. Sarah hasn’t told them.’
I looked at the tourists milling around the gardens, taking photographs, walking slowly among the pigeons, some with their arms around each other.
‘Did you fuck her?’ I shouted at him with tears in my throat, garbling my question. He looked at me with eyes that were trying to cry.
‘I’m sorry, Laura. I don’t know what to say. It just felt right – being together again.And we… I want to make a go of it this time.’
‘What a joke.’ I sniffed at the snot that threatened to meet my tears.
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘Don’t be sorry. You’re a coward. I knew it all along – I just didn’t expect you to run back to her so quickly.’ And then, as my fury gained momentum, I turned to him in mock sympathy and said, ‘Was she very understanding of your need to fuck other women?’ I reached out to stroke his arm, but the feel of his hair, standing on end, reminded me his arm was not mine to touch. I pulled back and stood up.
‘I know this is shitty. I feel very shitty.’
‘Now it’s my turn to say sorry, is it? I wish you weren’t feeling so down about this? What can I do to make this easier?’
‘Stop it, Laura. I feel bad enough.’
‘Do you? Oh God, I’m sorry. Have you just been told by the person you love,’ my voice trembled on the ruined hopes of that word, ‘that they’d rather be with a deaf fucking dodo?’ He stood up now, too, confused by the words I’d used.
‘Deaf ? What does that mean?’
‘Dead, Dave!’ We were shouting at each other now. ‘I mean dead! Because she’s got the charisma of a corpse. Oh, fuck this. Be with her. Enjoy your life together. I hope you’ll be very happy. But don’t ever speak to me again.’
I walked away and back into the tube station I’d only just emerged from. I looked behind me as I descended on the escalator, keeping right in the hope that David would follow me, urgent and certain. I was waiting for the implausibility of romantic comedy to blanket my anguish. For him to catch up with me just as the tube door was closing and mouth the words I love you before I was pulled, inexorably, down the tunnel and away to Waterloo. He didn’t, of course. I travelled home to Surbiton, alone and utterly rejected.
We ignored each other for the entire duration of my third year. He and Sarah moved out of college and rented privately, so, in fact, he was absent most of the time. At dinners, balls and supervisions we maintained a working distance and, in this bitter and painful silence, our university experience concluded. My parents and Christopher came to attend my graduation in 2002 and help me pack my things. As we stood uncomfortably together on the college lawn, I looked over at David, standing with Sarah and her large extended family. They were posing for photographs. I stared hard at his happiness until he felt the dark shadow of my glare and noticed me. He stopped smiling then and held my gaze. It was intense and meaningful – the same look he’d given me as we fucked against his door. Sarah saw me and nudged him hard in the side, forcing him to click back into photo-mode.
Two years later I saw a note in the college newsletter that David and Sarah had married in a stately home in Northamptonshire, near her parents’ house. Twelve months on, another update appeared announcing the birth of their daughter, Beatrice Rose. I had no doubt these notices were intended for me. Sarah had got what she wanted, papering over the cracks of a flimsy commitment with marriage and birth certificates.