Me before you

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There are 158 footsteps between the bus stop and home, but it can stretch to 180 if you aren’t in a hurry, like maybe if you’re wearing platform shoes. I turned the corner onto our street (68 steps), and could just see the house—a four-bedroom semi in a row of other three- and four-bedroom semis. Dad’s car was outside, which meant he had not yet left for work. Behind me, the sun was setting behind Stortford Castle, its dark shadow sliding down the hill like melting wax to overtake me.

On a different sort of day, I could have told you all the things that had happened to me on this route: where Dad taught me to ride a bike without stabilizers; where Mrs. Doherty with the lopsided wig used to make us Welsh cakes; the hedge where Treena knocked a wasp’s nest and we ran screaming back to the castle. Thomas’s tricycle was upturned on the path and, closing the gate behind me, I dragged it under the porch and opened the door.

The warmth hit me with the force of an airbag; Mum is a martyr to the cold and keeps the heating on all year round. Dad is always opening windows, complaining that she’d bankrupt the lot of us. He says our heating bills are larger than the GDP of a small African country. “That you, love?” “Yup.” I hung my jacket on the peg, where it fought for space among the others. “Which you? Lou? Treena?” “Lou.” I peered around the living room door. Dad was facedown on the sofa, his arm thrust deep between the cushions as if they had swallowed his limb whole.

Thomas, my five-year-old nephew, was on his haunches, watching him intently. “Lego.” Dad turned his face toward me, puce from exertion. “Why they have to make the damned pieces so small I don’t know.” “Where’s Mum?” “Upstairs. How about that? A two-pound piece!” I looked up, just able to hear the familiar creak of the ironing board. Josie Clark, my mother, never sat down. It was a point of honor. She had been known to stand on an outside ladder painting the windows, occasionally pausing to wave, while the rest of us ate a roast dinner. “Will you have a go at finding this bloody arm for me? He’s had me looking for half an hour and I’ve got to get ready for work.” “Are you on nights?” “Yeah. It’s half past five.” I glanced at the clock. “It’s half past four.”

He extracted his arm from the cushions and squinted at his watch. “Then what are you doing home so early?” I shook my head vaguely, as if I might have misunderstood the question, and walked into the kitchen. Granddad was sitting in his chair by the kitchen window, studying a Sudoku. The health visitor had told us it would be good for his concentration, and help his focus after the strokes. I suspected I was the only one to notice he simply filled out all the boxes with whatever number came to mind. “Hey, Granddad.” He looked up and smiled.

“You want a cup of tea?” He shook his head and partially opened his mouth. “Cold drink?” He nodded. I opened the fridge door. “There’s no apple juice.” Apple juice, I remembered now, was too expensive. “Water?” He nodded and murmured something that could have been a thank you as I handed him the glass. My mother walked into the room, bearing a huge basket of neatly folded laundry. “Are these yours?” She brandished a pair of socks. “Treena’s, I think.” “I thought so. Odd color. I think they must have got in with Daddy’s plum pajamas. You’re back early. Are you going somewhere?” “No.” I filled a glass with tap water and drank it.

“Is Patrick coming around later? He rang here earlier. Did you have your mobile off?” “Mm.” “He said he’s after booking your holiday. Your father says he saw something on the television about it. Where is it you like? Ipsos? Kalypsos?” “Skiathos.” “That’s the one. You want to check your hotel very carefully. Do it on the Internet. He and Daddy watched something on the news at lunchtime.

They’re building sites, half of those budget deals, and you wouldn’t know until you got there. Daddy, would you like a cup of tea? Did Lou not offer you one?” She put the kettle on, then glanced up at me. She may have finally noticed I wasn’t saying anything. “Are you all right, love? You look pale.” She reached out a hand and felt my forehead as if I were much younger than twenty-six. “I don’t think we’re going on holiday.” My mother’s hand stilled. Her gaze had that X-ray thing that it had held since I was a kid. “Are you and Pat having some problems?” “Mum, I—” “I’m not trying to interfere. It’s just, you’ve been together an awful long time.

It’s only natural if things get a bit sticky now and then. I mean, me and your father, we—” “I lost my job.” My voice cut into the silence. The words hung there, searing themselves on the little room long after the sound had died away. “You what?” “Frank’s shutting down the café. From tomorrow.” I held out a hand with the slightly damp envelope I had gripped in shock the entire journey home. All 180 steps from the bus stop. “He’s given me my three months’ money.”

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