Authors: Claire Douglas
His concern brings a lump to my throat. A stranger wouldn’t be able to see it – his grief – but I can. He wears it like a heavy trench coat, one that he refuses to remove so that he’s buckling underneath its weight. It’s evident in the greying of his dark eyebrows, the hollowness of his once-rounded face, in the new lines etched into his sallow skin, and I think,
I’ve caused this.
For a man of nearly six foot two, he seems diminished, shrunken, older.
‘I want to move in here, Dad,’ I say. If only he knew how much. ‘Beatrice has become a friend, she understands me.’
Dad opens his mouth to reply but is interrupted by shrieks as Beatrice and Cass bound out of the house and towards us with Pam ambling after them, grinning good-naturedly.
Since Monty’s party I’ve only seen Bea a handful of times; the vintage fair a couple of weeks ago where she bought two expensive tea-dresses, a trendy bar in the centre of Bath one evening and last Saturday she asked me to accompany her to a showing of one of her favourite artists at the Holburne Museum. Afterwards we met up with Pam and Cass for afternoon tea in the café downstairs. The day was pleasant enough, I enjoyed the company of the other girls, even if Pam did monopolize me, regaling me with tales of her past, living with a nudist painter, and I tried to concentrate on what she was saying, but it was difficult with Beatrice and Cass murmuring to each other in the corner, the usual pained expression on Cass’s pretty elfin face, making me curious as to what they were talking about. I haven’t seen Ben since Monty’s party. He never did call to arrange to take me out for a drink, and maybe, on reflection, that’s for the best. I can’t deny that there is an attraction between us, but it’s probably not a good idea to get romantically involved with a housemate, particularly Beatrice’s twin brother. I sense that she’s quite over protective, maybe a little possessive of him.
‘Abi,’ shrieks Beatrice, throwing her arms around my neck as if she’s known me for years. ‘Happy Moving In Day!’ She laughs her familiar tinkly laugh. Then she unlinks her arms from me and turns to Dad to introduce herself, and I’m amused to see the flush of pink staining his rough skin as she bends in to kiss him on the check, informing him how happy she is to finally meet him.
She indicates the mobile in my hand. ‘Let’s do a selfie. We need to commemorate this day,’ she says, pressing her head against mine so that we are cheek to cheek, shoulder to shoulder.
I stretch my arm out, trying to aim the phone so that it captures both our faces and press click. I take half a dozen photos before we look through them, laughing at our cross eyes and silly expressions.
‘I could have taken a photo of the two of you, if you’d wanted.’ I turn to see Cass standing a little way behind us, the toes of her sandals on the edge of the pavement, her hands behind her back. She’s blushing as she says this, but there is something else in her expression, a tinge of petulance, like a child who feels left out because her best friend is giving someone else some attention. I smile warmly at her, but she doesn’t meet my eyes.
We each grab a box from the back of the car, and I show Dad into the house and watch, amused, as his eyes widen in surprise as he surveys the vast hallway and the large high-ceilinged rooms that run off of it. I follow his gaze, half-hoping that Ben will be in one of the rooms.
Beatrice comes up behind me hugging one of my boxes, small and oblong, the one that contains Lucy’s old letters. I have the sudden urge to snatch it from her. She tells me casually, as if she’s read my mind, that Ben had to be called in to work. ‘He said to tell you he’s sorry he isn’t able to help,’ she pants, scuttling past me and up the stairs. I trudge behind her despondently, grappling with my own box and wondering if Ben is trying to avoid me.
It takes most of the afternoon to unload the boxes from the car and heave them up the two flights of stairs to my new bedroom, which has been stripped bare of Josie’s belongings leaving a narrow single bed, with an iron frame and a sagging mattress that has been pushed up against the wall facing the sash windows. Next to it there is a rickety pine chest of drawers and a bedside cabinet. The indigo walls are marked where Jodie has ripped down her posters, leaving little holes of crumbling plaster where the blu-tac has been. The once champagne-coloured carpet is murky with the tread of numerous footsteps and there’s a dubious stain in the shape of a large moth by the built-in wardrobe. My excitement at moving in with Beatrice, at being part of her life at last, is dampened by the state of this bedroom. Apart from its size, the room reminds me of the one I shared with Nia during our student days in halls. The prickles of regret creep over me when I think of my tidy little flat in the centre of town, with its freshly painted walls and wooden floors. I drop the box at my feet and throw open one of the sash windows, taking in lungfuls of fresh air, hoping to dispel the stale smell of Jodie.
‘I’ll help you paint it.’ I hear Beatrice’s soft Scottish voice behind me. I turn to see her standing in the doorway, surveying the room, her ski-slope nose wrinkled in disapproval. Her cat, Sebby, weaves himself in and out of her legs. She looks fresh and pretty in her vintage tea-dress, even after lugging boxes all afternoon, whereas my jeans are sticking to my legs and there is a grey stain on my white T-shirt. ‘I’m not happy with the way Jodie kept it. I asked her to put mats down when she was working on her sculptures, but she’s got no respect for other people’s things.’
I can’t help but agree and I make a silent vow to look after this room so that it fits in with this beautiful, eclectic house. I glance up at the intricate coving around the high ceilings; a cobweb hangs from a corner, shimmying in the breeze from the open window, and I know with a fresh coat of paint and the carpet cleaned I can make this room my own.
Despite Dad’s earlier reservations, I can tell by the slight blush that travels up his neck, the chuckle that emerges from his throat every time Beatrice addresses him, that he’s as taken with her as I am. And when he says goodbye a few hours later, he tells me, ‘I think you’ll be happy here, sweetheart,’ and envelops me in a hug. ‘It will put your mother’s mind at rest at any rate.’
I watch as he strides on his long legs to the car, his tall frame bending almost in half as he gets behind the wheel, and I wave as he pulls away from the kerb and rounds the corner, out of sight. In the distance I hear the scream of an ambulance, the shrill noise at odds with the blue skies, the perfect summer day, and it sends goosebumps all over my body as I imagine the life that hangs in the balance, the family that could be torn apart. I will never be able to hear the sound of an ambulance again without thinking of the night my twin sister died.
We sit around the table drinking wine, our plates empty, relaxed and enjoying each other’s company. Pam is in the middle of telling us about bumping into her ex-boyfriend at Monty’s party with his attractive, and much younger, girlfriend when Ben walks in and for some reason we all stop talking. The air crackles with tension.
His hair is slightly dishevelled from the humid June day and he’s wearing a crisp linen shirt, open at the collar, revealing a tanned neck which I have sudden visions of kissing and I’m shocked at the impact he has on me.
Beatrice pushes back her chair and gets up from the table. ‘Ben,’ she seems surprised to see him, as if she’s forgotten he lives here too. ‘There’s some lasagne left over.’ She goes to the Aga, donning a pair of Emma Bridgewater oven gloves, and carefully lifts out a plate from its innards as if conducting an operation. She places it on the table next to Cass. From the corner of my eye I can see that Ben has taken the seat opposite me and alongside Cass, but I keep my eyes firmly fixed on the burnt curl of pasta left on my empty plate.
‘I don’t know if you’ve forgotten, Ben, but Abi moved in today,’ says Beatrice, as she takes her place at the head of the table.
‘I haven’t forgotten.’
I look up into Ben’s hazel eyes, flecked with gold, his familiar crooked smile tugging at his lips and a bolt of desire, so strong and unexpected, shoots through me, causing my cheeks to burn and giving me away. I pull my gaze from his reluctantly and glance towards Beatrice, who is staring at us intently, eyes narrowed, her pale fingers almost merging with the porcelain cup that she’s gripping.
And for some reason I can’t yet fathom, a sweat breaks out all over my body.
I’m sitting on the edge of my newly made bed later that evening. My room is still in disarray, boxes, some empty, some still full, are stacked around me, the chest of drawers yawns open, revealing the clothes that I’d crammed in there earlier, a pile of books leans against the skirting board, threatening to topple over at any moment. I pick up the framed photograph of me and Lucy that I’ve unpacked and placed on the table next to my bed. We both look tanned, our arms around each other’s neck, grinning into the camera. It was taken while on holiday in Portugal with Callum and Luke, the summer before she died. We had come from the beach and, as we sat on the wall waiting for Luke to return with ice-creams, Callum, ever the photographer, decided to take a few snaps with his camera. Both Lucy and I have, or should I say
, the same photo by our beds. I wonder idly what happened to hers. Did Mum take it when she came to pack up her room, a job I was too distraught to do so I let my poor grief-stricken mother do it instead? The guilt still gnaws at me. I put the photograph down.
The sky is hazy, shot through with violet and orange, the sun about to go out of sight behind the row of houses opposite. An evening breeze filters through the opening in the sash window, bringing with it the aroma of cut grass and bonfires. I close my eyes and inhale deeply, breathing in the smell of summer.
I’m here, I’m actually here at last.
And, when I think about it, getting here has been easier than I ever thought possible. I’ve managed to become part of her life within six short weeks.
There is a soft knock on my half-opened bedroom door. My eyes ping open and I see a long denim-clad leg, a linen sleeve. I jump off the bed eagerly, causing the mattress to groan in protest.
‘Hi,’ says Ben sheepishly. ‘Can I come in?’
I shrug. ‘If you want.’
‘I’m sorry I didn’t call you, but it’s difficult with Bea. Her rules, you know.’
‘That’s okay, it probably wasn’t a good idea anyway,’ I say nonchalantly.
The echoes of chatter, Pam’s raucous laugh and the clink of cutlery tell me that the others are still in the kitchen and I push the door closed on the darkening hallway with my foot.
I turn to face him, noticing his downcast expression at my words.
‘That’s a shame,’ he says. ‘Because I’ve not been able to stop thinking about you since the party.’
‘Really?’ I’m annoyed at how eager I sound.
He takes my hand. We are inches away from each other, his eyes are dark and intense in the half light and my heart hammers and I’m trembling with nerves. I don’t know who makes the first move, but we are suddenly kissing, his hands in my hair, mine stroking the warm soft skin of his back under his shirt. I’ve not felt so much desire since Callum. I press my body up against his, so that we’re as close as we can be with clothes on. His erection presses into my abdomen, his teeth nip my lips. I don’t know how long we kiss for, but I’m conscious that the room has darkened. Then he stops abruptly, pushing me gently away so that I almost stumble on one of my boxes.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says, running his hands through his hair. ‘I don’t know what came over me.’
I frown, confused. ‘Ben, it’s fine. I wanted you to kiss me. I’m glad you did.’
I watch as he walks over to the window, his face like parchment from the light of the moon that filters through the open curtains. Something is clearly troubling him.
‘Beatrice has warned me off you,’ he says eventually.
‘What?’ I’m shocked. Why would Beatrice do that? Am I not good enough for her twin brother? ‘Why?’ For the first time, I’m furious with her.
‘Because of your sister, your twin. She told me that she died. I’m so sorry to hear that, Abi.’
I swallow a lump that’s formed in my throat. ‘Thanks.’ I pause, something doesn’t add up. I walk over to where he stands by the window. ‘But why would that make her warn you off me?’
He turns to face me. ‘She thinks you’re vulnerable after everything that’s happened to you.’
I frown, oscillating between feeling flattered that Beatrice cares enough to worry about me and angry that she’s poking her nose into something that is none of her business. ‘She doesn’t know what happened to me.’
‘No, I know,’ he says, too quickly. ‘But she knows you’ve been through a lot. Call it woman’s intuition, I don’t know.’
‘I’m old enough to make my own decisions,’ I snap.
‘That’s what I told her,’ he murmurs. He grabs me by the waist and pulls me towards him, encircling me in his arms. He lowers his head and I shut my eyes expectantly, wanting, needing to be close to him.
We are about to kiss again when the creak of the door makes us spring apart. I’m sure my expression can’t hide my guilt as Beatrice stands there, a shadowy figure in the doorway. ‘I thought you might both be in here. Why is it so dark?’ She switches the main light on and I blink with the assault on my eyes, little black patches swimming in my vision.
‘I’m unpacking, Ben was helping.’ I indicate the boxes stacked behind me, the nearly empty one by my bed. I know I don’t sound very convincing.
‘Oh, I’ll give you a hand,’ she says. ‘Ben, be a darling and bring up some wine.’ Ben scuttles from the room obediently and I notice that his shirt is hanging out of his jeans. He throws me a rueful smile as he leaves and I can’t help but grin back.
I half-expect her to question me about Ben, to tell me she knows there’s something between us, but she doesn’t. Instead she goes to the small oblong box she carried for me earlier, the one that contains Lucy’s letters. It’s perched on the top of two larger boxes and I hold my breath as she picks it up, silently willing her to leave it alone.
Don’t you know how precious that is?
I want to wail. But she’s like a magpie with a new shiny trinket. She swivels on her heels towards me, the box in her upturned hands as if it’s an offering, a sacrificial lamb.