After you, p.22
After You, p.22Part #2 of Me Before You series by Jojo Moyes
“It was around half past twelve. I gave her twenty pounds for a taxi and asked her to leave her key. I just assumed she’d come home.” I felt sick. I walked the length of the breakfast bar and back again, my brain racing. “I should have checked. But she tended to come and go as she pleased. And we . . . well, we’d had a bit of a row.”
Sam stood by the door, rubbing his brow. “And neither of you has heard anything from her since.”
“I’ve texted her four or five times,” I said. “I just assumed she was still angry with me.”
Tanya hadn’t offered us coffee. She strolled to the stairwell, peered upstairs, then glanced at her watch, as if she were waiting for us to go. She did not look like a parent who had just discovered her child was missing. Periodically I heard the dull roar of a vacuum upstairs.
“Mrs. Houghton-Miller, has anyone here heard from her at all? Can you tell from your phone whether she’s even read her texts?”
“I told you,” she said. Her voice was strangely calm. “I told you this was what she was like. But you wouldn’t listen.”
“I think we—”
She lifted a hand, stopping Sam. “This is not the first time. Oh, no. She disappeared for days before, when she was meant to be at boarding school. I blame them, of course. They were meant to know exactly where she was at all times. They only rang us when she’d been gone forty-eight hours and then we had to get the police involved. Apparently one of the girls in her dorm had lied for her. Why they couldn’t tell who was and who wasn’t there is completely beyond me, especially given the ridiculous fees we pay. Francis was all for suing them. He was called out of his annual board meeting to deal with it. It was a huge embarrassment.”
Upstairs there was a crash and somebody started to cry. Tanya walked to the kitchen door. “Lena! Take them out to the park, for goodness’ sake!” She came back into the kitchen. “You know she gets drunk. She takes drugs. She stole my Mappin and Webb diamond earrings. She won’t admit it, but she did. They were worth thousands. I have no idea what she did with them. She’s taken a digital camera too.”
I thought back to my missing jewelry and something in me tightened uncomfortably.
“So, yes. This is all rather predictable. I did tell you. And now if you’ll excuse me, I really have to go and sort the boys out. They’re having a difficult day.”
“But you’ll call the police, yes? She’s sixteen years old and it’s been almost ten days.”
“They won’t be interested. Not once they know who it is.” Tanya held up a slender finger. “Expelled from two schools for truanting. Cautioned for possession of a class-A drug. Drunk and disorderly. Shoplifting. What’s the phrase? My daughter has ‘form.’ To be perfectly frank, even if the police do find her and bring her back here, she will simply up and go again when it suits her.”
A wire had tightened across my chest, constricting my breath. Where would she have gone? Was that boy, the one who hung around outside my flat, involved? The nightclubbers who had been with Lily that drunken night? How had I been so distracted?
“Let’s call them regardless. She’s still very young.”
“No. I do not want the police involved. Francis is having a very tricky time at work right now. He’s fighting to retain his place on the board. If they get wind that he’s involved in some sort of police business that will be it.”
Sam’s jaw tightened. He took a moment before he spoke. “Mrs. Houghton-Miller, your daughter is vulnerable. I really think it’s time to get someone else involved.”
“If you call them I’ll simply explain to them what I’ve just told you.”
“How many times have you met her, Mr. Fielding?” She leaned back against the stove. “You know her better than I do, do you? You’ve been kept up nights waiting for her to come home? You’ve lost sleep? Had to explain her behavior to teachers and police officers? Apologize to shop assistants for things she’s stolen? Bail out her credit card?”
A muscle tightened in Sam’s jaw. “Some of the most chaotic kids are those most at risk.”
“My daughter is a talented manipulator. She will be with one of her friends. Just as she has been before. I will guarantee that within the next day or two Lily will turn up here, drunk and screeching in the middle of the night, or knocking at Louisa’s door, or begging for money, and you will probably have reason to wish she never had. Someone will let her in and she’ll be sorry and contrite and terribly sad, and then a few days later, she’ll bring a bunch of friends home or steal something. And the whole sorry cycle will revolve again.”
She pushed her golden hair back from her face. She and Sam stared at each other.
“I’ve had to undergo counseling to cope with the chaos my daughter has brought into my life, Mr. Fielding. It’s hard enough coping with her brothers and their . . . behavioral difficulties. But one of the things you learn in therapy is that there comes a point when you have to take care of yourself. Lily is old enough to make her own decisions—”
“She’s a child,” I said.
“Oh, yes—that’s right. A child you turned out of your apartment some time after midnight.” Tanya Houghton-Miller held my gaze with the complacency of someone who has just been proven right. “Not everything is black and white. Much as we would like it to be.”
“You’re not even worried, are you?” I said.
She held my gaze. “No, frankly. I’ve been here too many times before.” I made to speak again but she was ahead of me. “Quite the savior complex, haven’t you, Louisa? Well, my daughter doesn’t need saving. And if she did, I wouldn’t be hugely convinced by your record so far.”
Sam’s arm was around me even before I was able to take a breath. My retort formed, toxic, in my mouth, but she had already turned away. “C’mon,” he said, propelling me out into the hallway. “Let’s go.”
• • •
We drove around the West End for several hours, slowing to peer at the groups of catcalling, staggering girls, and then, more soberly, at the homeless sleepers, as we parked and walked side by side along the dark archways under bridges. We put our heads around the doors of nightclubs, asking if anyone had seen the girl in the photographs on my mobile phone. We went to the club where she had taken me dancing, and to a couple more that Sam said were notorious haunts for underage drinkers. We passed bus stops and fast-food joints and the farther we went the more I thought how ridiculous it was to try to find her among the thousands milling around the humming streets of central London. She could have been anywhere. She seemed to be everywhere. I texted her again, twice, to tell her we were urgently looking for her, and when we got back to my flat Sam rang various hospitals just to be sure she hadn’t been admitted.
Finally we sat on my little sofa and ate some toast and he made me a cup of tea and we sat in silence for a bit.
“I feel like the worst parent in the world. And I’m not even a parent.”
He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “You can’t blame yourself.”
“Yes, I can. What kind of person turfs a sixteen-year-old out of her flat in the small hours without checking where she’s actually going?” I closed my eyes. “I mean, just because she’s disappeared before doesn’t mean she’ll be okay now, does it? She’ll be like one of those teenage runaways who disappear and nobody ever hears of them again until some dog out walking digs up their bones in the woods.”
“I should have been stronger. I should have understood her better. I should have thought harder about how young she is. Was. Oh, God, if something’s happened I’ll never forgive myself. And out there right now is some innocent dog walker who has no idea that he’s about to have his life ruined—”
“Louisa.” Sam put his hand on my leg. “Stop. You’re going around in circles. Irritating as she is, it’s entirely possible Tanya Houghton-Miller’s right and Lily will coast in or ring your bell in about three hours’ time and we’ll all feel like fools
“But why won’t she answer her phone? She must know I’m worried.”
“Perhaps that’s why she’s ignoring you.” He gave me a wry look. “She may be enjoying making you sweat a little. Look, there’s not much more we can do tonight. And I’ve got to go. I have an early shift.”
He cleared away the plates and put them in the sink, leaning back against the kitchen cabinets.
“Sorry,” I said. “Not exactly the most fun start to a relationship.”
He lowered his chin. “This is a relationship now?”
I felt myself color. “Well. I didn’t mean—”
“I’m kidding.” He reached out a hand and pulled me to him. “I quite enjoy your determined attempts to convince me you’re basically just using me for sex.”
He smelled good. Even when he smelled faintly of anesthetic, he smelled good. He kissed the top of my head. “We’ll find her,” he said, as he left.
• • •
After he’d gone, I climbed up onto the roof. I sat in the dark, inhaling the scent of the jasmine she’d trained up the edge of the water tank, and ran my hand softly over the tiny purple heads of the aubretia that tumbled over the terra-cotta planters. I looked over the parapet and scanned the winking streets of the city, and for the first time my legs didn’t even tremble. I texted her again, then got ready for bed, feeling the silence of the flat close in around me.
I checked my phone for the millionth time, and then my e-mail, just in case. Nothing. But there was one from Nathan:
Congratulations! Old Man Gopnik told me this morning he’s going to offer you the job! See you in NY, mate!
Peter is waiting again. Out of the window, she sees him standing against his car. He spots her, gestures up, and mouths. “You owe me.”
Lily opens the window, glances across the road to where Samir is putting out a fresh box of oranges. “Leave me alone, Peter.”
“You know what’ll happen . . .”
“I’ve given you enough. Just leave me alone, okay?”
“Bad move, Lily.” He raises an eyebrow. He waits, just long enough for her to feel uncomfortable. Lou will be home in half an hour. He hangs around so often she’s pretty sure he knows this. Eventually he climbs back into his car and pulls out onto the main road without looking. As he drives off, he holds his phone up out of the driver’s window. A message:
Bad move, Lily.
Spin the bottle. Such an innocent-sounding game. It had been her and four girls from her school and they had come up to London on an exeat. They had stolen lipsticks from Boots and bought too-short skirts in Top Shop and got into nightclubs for free because they were young and cute and doormen didn’t ask too many questions if there were five of you and you were young and cute, and inside, over rum and Cokes, they had met Peter and his friends.
They had ended up in someone’s flat in Marylebone at 2 a.m. She couldn’t entirely remember how they had got there. Everyone was sitting in a circle, smoking and drinking. She had said yes to everything that was offered her. Rihanna on the music system. A blue beanbag that smelled of Febreze. Nicole had been ill in the bathroom, the idiot. Time had slipped by: 2:30 a.m., 3:17 a.m., 4 . . . She lost track. Then someone had suggested Truth or Dare.
The bottle spun, careered into an ashtray, tipping butts and ash onto the carpet. Someone’s truth, the girl she didn’t know: on holiday the previous year she had engaged in phone sex with her ex-boyfriend while her grandmother slept in the twin bed beside her. The others reeled in fake horror. Lily had laughed.
“Niche,” said someone.
Peter had watched her the whole time. She had been flattered at first; he was the best-looking boy there by miles. A man, even. When he looked at her she refused to look away. She wasn’t going to be like the other girls.
She had shrugged when it pointed to her. “Dare,” she had said. “Always dare.”
“Lily never says no to anything,” said Jemima. Now she wonders whether there was something in the way she had looked at Peter when she said it.
“Okay. You know what that means.”
“You can’t do that!” Pippa was holding her hands to her face in the way she did when she was being dramatic.
“Nah. I hate truth.” So what? She knew these boys would be chicken. She stood, nonchalantly. “Where. Here?”
“Oh, my God, Lily.”
“Spin the bottle,” said one of the boys.
It hadn’t occurred to her to be nervous. She was a bit woozy and anyway, she quite liked standing there, unbothered, while the other girls clapped and squealed and acted like idiots. They were such fakes. The same girls who would whack anyone on the hockey pitch and talk about politics and what careers in law and marine biology they were aiming for became stupid and giggly and girly in the presence of boys, flicking their hair and doing their lipstick, like they had spontaneously filleted out all the interesting parts of themselves.
“Peter . . .”
“Oh, my God. Pete, mate. It’s you.”
The boys, all catcalling and crowing to hide their disappointment, or perhaps relief, that it wasn’t them. Peter, climbing to his feet, his narrow cat’s eyes meeting hers. Different from the others, his accent spoke of somewhere tougher.
She shrugged. “I don’t mind.”
“Next door.” He gestured toward the bedroom.
She stepped neatly over the other girls’ legs as they walked through to the next room. One of the girls grabbed at her ankle, telling her not to, and she shook her off. She walked with a faint swagger, feeling their eyes on her as she left. Dare. Always dare.
Peter closed the door behind him and she glanced around her. The bed was rumpled; a horrid patterned duvet that you could tell from five yards hadn’t been washed in ages, and left a faint, musty trace in the atmosphere. There was a pile of dirty laundry in the corner, a full ashtray by the bed. The room fell silent, the voices outside temporarily stilled.
She lifted her chin. Pushed her hair back from her face. “You really want to do this?” she said.
He smiled then, a slow, mocking smile. “I knew you’d back out.”
“Who says I’m backing out?”
But she didn’t want to do it. She didn’t see his handsome features anymore, just the cold glitter in his eyes, the unpleasant twist to his mouth. He put his hands on his zipper.
They stood there for a minute.
“It’s fine if you don’t want to do it. We’ll go outside and say you’re chicken.”
“I never said I wouldn’t do it.”
“So what are you saying?”
She can’t think. A low buzzing has started up in the back of her head. She wishes she hadn’t come in here.
He stifles a theatrical yawn. “Getting bored, Lily.”
A frantic knocking on the door. Jemima’s voice. “Lily—you don’t have to do it. C’mon. We can go home now.”
“You don’t have to do it, Lily.” His voice is an imitation, mocking.
A calculation. What’s the worst that will happen—two minutes, at worst? Two minutes out of her life. She will not be a chicken. She will show him. She will show them all.
He is holding a bottle of Jack Daniel’s loosely in one hand. She takes it from him, opens it, and swigs from it twice, her eyes locked on his. Then she hands it back and reaches for his belt.
• • •
Pictures or it didn’t happen.
She hears the boy’s catcalling voice through the thumping in her ears, through the pain in her scalp as he grips her hair too tight. It is too late, by then. Way too late.
She hears the camera-phone click just as she looks up.
• • •
One pair of earrings. Fifty pounds in cash. One hundred. Weeks later and the demands keep coming. He sends h
I wonder what would happen if I put this on Facebook?
She wants to cry when she sees the picture. He sends it to her again and again: her face, her eyes bloodshot, smudged with mascara. That thing in her mouth. When Louisa comes home she has to stuff the phone under the sofa cushions. It has become radioactive, a toxic thing she has to keep close.
I wonder what your friends would think.
The other girls don’t talk to her afterward. They know what she did because Peter flashed the picture to everyone as soon as they walked back into the party, ostentatiously adjusting his zipper, long after he had to. She had to pretend she didn’t care. The girls stared at the picture, then at her, and she had known as soon as their eyes met hers that their tales of BJs and sex with unseen boyfriends had been fiction. They were fakes. They had lied about everything.
Nobody thought she was brave. Nobody admired her for not being chicken. She was just Lily, the slag, a girl with a cock in her mouth. It made her stomach go into knots even to think about it. She had swigged more Jack Daniels and told them all to go to hell.
Meet me at McDonald’s Tottenham Court Road.
By then her mother had changed the locks to her house. She couldn’t take money from her purse anymore. They had blocked her access to her savings account.
I haven’t got anything else.
Do you think I’m a mug, Little Rich Girl?
Her mother had never liked the Mappin & Webb earrings. Lily had hoped she wouldn’t even notice they were gone. She had made fake cooing faces at Fuckface Francis when he gave them to her, but she had muttered afterward that she really didn’t understand why he’d bought her heart-shaped diamonds when everybody knew they were common and a pendant shape was far better against her bone structure.
Peter had looked at the glittering earrings as if she had handed him small change, then tucked them into his pocket. He had been eating a Big Mac and there was mayonnaise in the corner of his mouth. She felt nauseous every time she saw him.
“Want to come and meet my mates?”
“Want a drink?”
She shook her head. “That’s it. That’s the last thing. Those earrings are worth thousands.”
He had pulled a face. “I want cash next time. Proper cash. I know where you live, Lily. I know you got it.”
She felt as if she would never be free of him. He texted her at odd hours, waking her up, keeping her from sleep. That picture, again and again. She saw it in negative, burned onto her retinas. She stopped going to school. She got drunk with strangers, went out clubbing long after she really wanted to. Anything not to be alone with her thoughts and the relentless ping of her phone. She had moved to where he couldn’t find her and he had found her, parking his car for hours outside Louisa’s flat, a silent message. She even thought, a few times, about telling Louisa. But what could Louisa do? Half the time she was like a one-woman disaster area herself. So Lily’s mouth would open and nothing would come out, then Louisa would start rattling on about meeting her grandmother or whether she had eaten something, and she had realized that she was on her own.
Sometimes Lily lay awake and thought about what it would have been like if her dad had been there. She could picture him in her head. He would have walked outside, grabbed Peter by his neck, and told him never to come near his little girl again. He would have put his arms around her and told her it was all okay, that she was safe.
Except he wouldn’t. Because he was just an angry quadriplegic who hadn’t even wanted to be alive. And he would most likely have looked at the pictures and been disgusted.
She couldn’t blame him. She would probably have done the same.
• • •
The last time, when she’d nothing to bring him, he had shouted at her on a pavement behind Carnaby Street, calling her worthless, a whore, a stupid little skank. He had pulled up in his car and she had drunk two double whiskies because
After You by Jojo Moyes / Romance & Love / History & Fiction have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on102 votes