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The Last Letter From Your Lover, Page 2

Jojo Moyes

  "Yes, thank you," she said politely. She had no idea how to convey to him that she didn't know what that home was.

  He studied her face for a moment, perhaps gauging her uncertainty. Then he sat on the side of her bed and laid a hand on her shoulder. "I understand it must all seem a little disconcerting, that you might not feel quite yourself yet, but don't be too concerned if lots of things are unclear". It's quite common to get amnesia after a head injury.

  "You have a very supportive family, and I'm sure once you're surrounded by familiar things, your old routines, friends, shopping trips, and the like, you'll find that it's all popping back into place."

  She nodded obediently. She had worked out pretty quickly that everyone seemed happier if she did so.

  "Now, I'd like you to come back in a week so that I can check the progress of that arm. You'll need some physiotherapy to recover the full use of it. But the main thing is simply for you to rest and not worry too much about anything. Do you understand?"

  He was already preparing to leave. What else could she say?

  Her husband picked her up shortly before teatime. The nurses had lined up in the downstairs reception area to say good-bye to her, bright as pins in their starched pinafores. She still felt curiously weak and unsteady on her feet, and was grateful for the arm that he held out to her.

  "Thank you for the care you've shown my wife. Send the bill to my office, if you would," he said to the Sister.

  "Our pleasure," she said, shaking his hand and beaming at Jennifer. "It's lovely seeing her up and about again. You look wonderful, Mrs. Stirling."

  "I feel . . . much better. Thank you." She was wearing a long cashmere coat and a matching pillbox hat. He had arranged for three outfits to be sent over for her. She had chosen the most muted; she didn't want to draw attention to herself.

  They glanced up as Dr. Hargreaves put his head out of an office. "My secretary says there are some newspapermen outside. You might wish to leave by the back entrance if you want to avoid any fuss."

  "That would be preferable. Would you mind sending my driver round?"

  After weeks in the warmth of the ward the air was shockingly cold. She struggled to keep up with him, her breath coming in short bursts, and then she was in the back of a large black car, engulfed by the huge leather seats, and the doors closed with an expensive clunk. The car moved off into the London traffic with a low purr.

  She peered out of the window, watching the newspapermen, just visible on the front steps, and muffled photographers comparing lenses. Beyond, the central London streets were thick with people hurrying past, their collars turned up against the wind, men with trilbies pulled low over their brows.

  "Who was the singer?" she said, turning to face him.

  He was muttering something to the driver. "Who?"

  "A singer. Apparently he'd been in some kind of accident."

  "I have no idea who you are talking about."

  "They were all talking about him. The nurses, at the hospital."

  "Oh. Yes. I think I read something." He appeared to have lost interest. "I'll be dropping Mrs. Stirling back at the house, and once she's settled I'll be going on to the office," he was saying to the driver.

  "What happened to him?" she said.


  "The singer."

  Her husband looked at her, as if he was weighing something up. "He died," he said. Then he turned back to his driver.

  She walked slowly up the steps to the white stucco house and the door opened, as if by magic, as she reached the top. The driver placed her valise carefully in the hallway and retreated. Her husband, behind her, nodded to a woman who was standing in the hallway, apparently to greet them. She was in late middle age; her dark hair was pulled back into a tight chignon, and she was dressed in a navy two-piece. "Welcome home, madam," she said, reaching out a hand. Her smile was genuine, and she spoke in heavily accented English. "We are so very glad to have you well again."

  "Thank you," she said. She wanted to use the woman's name, but felt uncomfortable asking it.

  The woman waited to take their coats, and disappeared along the hall with them.

  "Are you feeling tired?" He dipped his head to study her face.

  "No. No, I'm fine." She gazed around her at the house, wishing she could disguise her dismay that she might as well have never seen it before.

  "I must go back to the office now. Will you be all right with Mrs. Cordoza?"

  Cordoza. It wasn't entirely unfamiliar. She felt a little surge of gratitude. Mrs. Cordoza. "I'll be quite all right, thank you. Please don't worry about me."

  "I'll be back at seven . . . if you're sure you're fine . . ." He was clearly keen to leave. He stooped, kissed her cheek, and, after a brief hesitation, was gone.

  She stood in the hallway, hearing his footsteps fade down the steps outside, the soft hum of the engine as his great car pulled away. The house seemed suddenly cavernous.

  She touched the silk-lined wallpaper, took in the polished parquet flooring, the vertiginously high ceilings. She removed her gloves, with precise, deliberate motions. Then she leaned forward for a closer look at the photographs on the hall table. The largest was a wedding picture, framed in ornate, highly polished silver. And there she was, wearing a fitted white dress, her face half masked by a white lace veil, her husband smiling broadly at her side. I really did marry him, she thought. And then: I look so happy.

  She jumped. Mrs. Cordoza had come up behind her and was standing there, her hands clasped in front of her. "I was wondering if you would like me to bring you some tea. I thought you might like to take it in the drawing room. I've laid a fire in there for you."

  "That would be . . ." Jennifer peered down the hallway at the various doors. Then she looked back at the photograph. A moment passed before she spoke again. "Mrs. Cordoza . . . would you mind letting me take your arm? Just till I sit down. I'm feeling a little unsteady on my feet."

  Afterward she wasn't sure why she didn't want the woman to know quite how little she remembered about the layout of her own house. It just seemed to her that if she could pretend, and everyone else believed it, what was an act might end up being true.

  The housekeeper had prepared supper: a casserole, with potatoes and fine French beans. She had left it in the bottom oven, she told Jennifer. Jennifer had had to wait for her husband to return before she could put anything on the table: her right arm was still weak, and she was afraid of dropping the heavy cast-iron pot.

  She had spent the hour when she was alone walking around the vast house, familiarizing herself with it, opening drawers and studying photographs. My house, she told herself over and over. My things. My husband. Once or twice she let her mind go blank and her feet carry her to where she thought a bathroom or study might be, and was gratified to discover that some part of her still knew this place. She gazed at the books in the drawing room, noting, with a kind of mild satisfaction, that while so much was strange she could mentally recite the plots of many.

  She lingered longest in her bedroom. Mrs. Cordoza had unpacked her suitcase and put everything away. Two built-in cupboards opened to reveal great quantities of immaculately stored clothes. Everything fitted her perfectly, even the most well-worn shoes. Her hairbrush, perfumes, and powders were lined up on a dressing table. The scents met her skin with a pleasant familiarity. The colors of the cosmetics suited her: Coty, Chanel, Elizabeth Arden, Dorothy Gray--her mirror was surrounded by a small battalion of expensive creams and unguents.

  She pulled open a drawer, held up layers of chiffon, brassieres, and other foundation garments made of silk and lace. I am a woman to whom appearances matter, she observed. She sat and stared at herself in the three-sided mirror, then began to brush her hair with long, steady strokes. This is what I do, she said to herself, several times.

  In the few moments when she felt overwhelmed by strangeness, she busied herself with small tasks: rearranging the towels in the downstairs cloakroom, putting out plates and glasses.

  He arrived back shortly before seven. She was waiting for him in the hall, her makeup fresh and a light spray of scent over her neck and shoulders. She could see it pleased him, this semblance of normality. She took his coat, hung it in the cupboard, and asked if he would like a drink.

  "That would be lovely. Thank you," he said.

  She hesitated, one hand poised on a decanter.

  Turning, he saw her indecision. "Yes, that's it, darling. Whiskey. Two fingers, with ice. Thank you."

  At supper, he sat on her right at the large, polished mahogany table, a great expanse of which was empty and unadorned. She ladled the steaming food onto plates, and he placed them at each setting. This is my life, she found herself thinking, as she watched his hands move. This is what we do in the evenings.

  " I thought we might have the Moncrieffs to dinner on Friday. Might you be up to it?"

  She took a little bite from her fork. "I think so."

  "Good." He nodded. "Our friends have been asking after you. They would like to see that you're . . . back to your old self."

  She raised a smile. "That will be . . . nice."

  "I thought we probably wouldn't do too much for a week or two. Just till you're up to it."


  "This is very good. Did you make it?"

  "No. It was Mrs. Cordoza."


  They ate in silence. She drank water--Dr. Hargreaves had advised against anything stronger--but she envied her husband the glass in front of him. She would have liked to blur the disconcerting strangeness, to take the edge off it.

  "And how are things at . . . your office?"

  His head was down. "All fine. I'll have to visit the mines in the next couple of weeks, but I'll want to be sure that you can manage before I go. You'll have Mrs. Cordoza to help, of course."

  She felt faint relief at the thought of being alone. "I'm sure I'll be all right."

  "And afterward I thought we might go to the Riviera for a couple of weeks. I have some business there, and the sun might do you good. Dr. Hargreaves said it might help your . . . the scarring . . ." His voice faded.

  "The Riviera," she echoed. A sudden vision of a moonlit seafront. Laughter. The clinking of glasses. She closed her eyes, willing the fleeting image to become clear.

  "I thought we might drive down, this time, just the two of us."

  It was gone. She could hear her pulse in her ears. Stay calm, she told herself. It will all come. Dr. Hargreaves said it would.

  "You always seem happy there. Perhaps a little happier there than in London." He glanced up at her and then away.

  There it was again, the feeling that she was being tested. She forced herself to chew and swallow. "Whatever you think best," she said quietly.

  The room fell silent but for the slow scraping of his cutlery on his plate, an oppressive sound. Her food suddenly appeared insurmountable. "Actually, I'm more tired than I thought. Would you mind terribly if I went upstairs?"

  He stood as she got to her feet. "I should have told Mrs. Cordoza a kitchen supper would suffice. Would you like me to help you up?"

  "Please, don't fuss." She waved away the offer of his arm. "I'm just a little tired. I'm sure I'll be much better in the morning."

  At a quarter to ten she heard him enter the room. She had lain in the bed, acutely aware of the sheets around her, the moonlight that sliced through the long curtains, the distant sounds of traffic in the square, of taxis slowing to disgorge their occupants, a polite greeting from someone walking a dog. She had kept very still, waiting for something to click into place, for the ease with which she had fitted back into her physical environment to seep into her mind.

  And then the door had opened.

  He did not turn on the light. She heard the soft clash of wooden hangers as he hung up his jacket, the soft vacuum thuck of his shoes being pulled from his feet. And suddenly she was rigid. Her husband--this man, this stranger--was going to climb into her bed. She had been so focused on getting through each moment that she hadn't considered it. She had half expected him to sleep in the spare room.

  She bit down on her lip, her eyes shut tight, forcing her breathing to stay slow, in semblance of sleep. She heard him disappear into the bathroom, the sluice of the tap, vigorous brushing of teeth and a brief gargle. His feet padded back across the carpeted floor, and then he was sliding between the covers, causing the mattress to dip and the bedstead to creak in protest. For a minute he lay there, and she fought to maintain her even breaths. Oh, please, not yet, she willed him. I hardly know you.

  "Jenny?" he said.

  She felt his hand on her hip, forced herself not to flinch.

  He moved it tentatively. "Jenny?"

  She made herself let out a long breath, conveying the blameless oblivion of deep sleep. She felt him pause, his hand still, and then, with a sigh of his own, he lay back heavily on his pillows.

  Chapter 2

  Moira Parker regarded the grim set of her boss's jawline, the determined way in which he strode through her office to his own, and thought it was probably a good thing that Mr. Arbuthnot, his two-thirty, was late. Clearly the last meeting had not gone well.

  She stood up, smoothing her skirt, and took his coat, which was speckled with rain from the short walk between his car and the office. She placed his umbrella in the stand, then took a moment longer than usual to hang the coat carefully on the hook. She had worked for him long enough now to judge when he needed a little time alone.

  She poured him a cup of tea--he always had a cup of tea in the afternoons, two cups of coffee in the mornings--collected up her papers with an economy born of years' practice, then knocked on his door and walked in. "I suspect Mr. Arbuthnot has been held up in traffic. Apparently there's a big jam on the Marylebone Road."

  He was reading the letters she had left on his desk earlier for his signature. Evidently satisfied, he took his pen from his breast pocket and signed with short, abrupt strokes. She placed his tea on his desk and folded the letters into her pile of papers. "I've picked up the tickets for your flight to South Africa, and arranged for you to be collected at the airport."

  "That's the fifteenth."

  "Yes. I'll bring them through if you'd like to check the paperwork. Here are the sales figures for last week. The latest wage totals are in this folder here. And as I wasn't sure you would have had time for lunch after the car manufacturers' meeting, I've taken the liberty of ordering you some sandwiches. I hope that's acceptable."

  "Very kind, Moira. Thank you."

  "Would you like them now? With your tea?"

  He nodded and smiled at her briefly. She did her best not to color. She knew the other secretaries mocked her for what they considered her overattentive manner with her boss, not to mention her prim clothes and slightly stiff way of doing things. But he was a man who liked things done properly, and she had always understood that. Those silly girls, with their heads always stuck in a magazine, their endless gossiping in the ladies' cloakroom, they didn't understand the inherent pleasure in a job well done. They didn't understand the satisfaction of being indispensable.

  She hesitated briefly, then pulled the last letter from her folder. "The second post has arrived. I thought you should probably see this. It's another of those letters about the men at Rochdale."

  His eyebrows lowered, which killed the small smile that had illuminated his face. He read the letter twice. "Has anyone else seen this?"

  "No, sir."

  "File it with the others." He thrust it at her. "It's all troublemaking stuff. The unions are behind it. I won't have any truck with them."

  She took it wordlessly. She made as if to leave, then turned back. "And may I ask . . . how is your wife? Glad to be back at home, I should say."

  "She's fine, thank you. Much--much more her old self," he said. "It's been a great help for her to be at home."

  She swallowed. "I'm very pleased to hear it."

  His attention was already elsewhere--he was flick
ing through the sales figures she had left for him. Her smile still painted on her face, Moira Parker clasped her paperwork to her chest and marched back out to her desk.

  Old friends, he had said. Nothing too challenging. Two of those friends were familiar now, having visited Jennifer in the hospital and again once she had returned home. Yvonne Moncrieff, an elongated, dark-haired woman in her early thirties, had been her friend since they had become close neighbors in Medway Square. She had a dry, sardonic manner, which stood in direct contrast to that of the other friend, Violet, whom Yvonne had known at school and who seemed to accept the other's cutting humor and droll put-downs as her due.

  Jennifer had struggled initially to catch the shared references, to gauge any significance from the names they bandied between them, but she had felt at ease in their company. She was learning to trust her gut reactions to people: memories could be lodged in places other than the mind.

  "I wish I could lose my memory," Yvonne had said, when Jennifer confessed how strange she had felt on waking up in the hospital. "I'd walk off into the sunset. Forget I ever married Francis in the first place." She had popped over to reassure Jennifer that all was in order. It was to be a "quiet" dinner party, but as the afternoon had worn on, Jennifer had become almost paralyzed with nerves.

  "I don't know why you're flapping, darling. Your parties are legendary." She perched on the bed, as Jennifer wriggled in and out of a succession of dresses.

  "Yes. But for what?" She tried to rearrange her bust inside a dress. She seemed to have lost a little weight in the hospital, and the front puckered unattractively.

  Yvonne laughed. "Oh, relax. You don't have to do a thing, Jenny. The marvelous Mrs. C will have done you proud. The house looks beautiful. You look stunning. Or, at least, you will if you put some damned clothes on." She kicked off her shoes and lifted her long, elegant legs onto the bed. "I've never understood your enthusiasm for entertaining. Don't get me wrong, I do love going to parties, but all that organizing." She was examining her nails. "Parties are for going to, not for having. That's what my mother said, and frankly, it still stands. I'll buy myself a new dress or two, but canapes and seating plans? Ugh."