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Authors: Elizabeth Haynes

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BOOK: Never Alone
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It’s bitterly cold outside in the car park. You support Sarah with your arm around her waist.

She doesn’t say anything until you’re in the car, strapped in.

‘Thank you for not telling Sophie,’ she says.

‘About what?’

‘About you and me. Back in the day.’

The headlights of your car pick out an elderly Jack Russell terrier and his equally elderly owner crossing the entrance to the car park. You wait while the dog crouches for a pee. The old man holds up a hand to say thank you.

‘Long time ago,’ you say.

‘Even so. She thinks Jim and I were some kind of perfect couple, just because –’ She stops abruptly.

‘Just because what?’

She doesn’t finish her sentence. Perhaps she’s forgotten what she was going to say.

You pass a motorbike heading in the other direction, but after that you turn right up the hill, and there is not a soul on the road. You think of Jim, and whether the night he crashed was like this.

‘Who was that lad that Sophie was talking to?’ you ask.

‘Will Brewer,’ she says. ‘He used to hang around with Louis, years ago. I’ve not seen him since Louis’s twenty-first.’

‘He’s been away?’

‘His mum and dad split up. His mum went to Morecambe with his younger sister; his dad went back to Scotland with
his older brother. Will got kind of left behind. He’s been a bit of a nomad ever since.’

She is gazing out of the window, although what she’s looking at you have no idea. It’s pitch-black up here, just the car’s headlights illuminating the winding lane. You change down a gear as the gradient steepens.

‘Is he friends with Sophie?’ you ask.

It’s the part of the evening that has intrigued you most: the unexpected arrival at their table of the young man, casually dressed in jeans and a checked shirt. You took that in and the rest of it: the wild hair, the beard, the leather bracelets and the silver nose-stud. He wouldn’t have looked out of place at a festival, or selling knock-off sunglasses on a beach somewhere. But sitting next to the impeccably dressed Sophie?

‘No, they just met,’ she says.

You don’t say any more. You pull up outside the main house, turn off the engine, sit for a moment. From inside the house, you can hear the dogs’ muffled barks. Nothing else.

‘You were holding my hand,’ she says.

You look at her. She turns her head to face you.

‘Yes,’ you say.

There is a brief pause.

‘You want to come in?’

Pushed against the side of the kitchen table, Sarah thinks:
I want to remember this.

She has forgotten what this hunger feels like. She has forgotten the feel of another person’s hands on her skin, being held, gripped by someone stronger than she is, being kissed hard by someone who tastes, faintly, of wine and distant memories. He smells of some aftershave, clean sweat, warm skin. His cheek is abrasive against hers. All of these things are like a whisper of the past coming back through the fog, falling away again.

Her fingers are numbed by the alcohol, clumsy.

‘You’re sure?’ he asks, against her throat.

‘Mmm,’ she responds, as if she’s forgotten how to speak along with everything else.

‘Come on, then,’ he says, stopping abruptly and leading her by the hand, out of the kitchen.

She catches a glimpse of Tess, watching her. She imagines Tess’s expression is vaguely judgemental and this makes her giggle.

‘It’s cold up here,’ he says, in the bedroom. ‘Are you cold?’

She shakes her head; she feels hot, peeling off the layers. It’s not exactly erotic, but she can’t remember how to be alluring. You’re supposed to tease, aren’t you? It feels a bit late for that. And besides, he’s seen it all before.

If she weren’t quite so pissed, she thinks, she would be worried about all the bits of her that were firm last time they
did this, over twenty years ago, and now aren’t: the fact that she has a tummy pouch that held her babies, faded stretch marks, saddlebags.

He does not seem to notice or care – and it’s dark, and he is in a hurry, pulling down his jeans and taking hold of her again before he’s even got them off properly – is reassuring.

You’ve drunk enough for this not to matter,
she thinks.

He says, again, ‘You sure about this?’ as if he’s expecting her to throw him off suddenly. He is sober, after all.

She feels a surge of something: hunger, frustration, desperation. ‘Just fuck me,’ she gasps.

He does.

 

Sarah wakes up and it’s still dark.

Her mouth is dry, her tongue like a lump of rubber, because she has been sleeping on her back with her mouth open. Most likely snoring, too, although since there is nobody but the dogs to hear it that doesn’t matter.

Aiden, if he was really here, has gone.

She lies still for a moment, thinking about the pub. How much did she drink? It hadn’t felt like a lot, at the time, but Sophie kept topping up her glass and telling her it was good that she wasn’t driving for a change. And she had been nervous, too, about introducing Aiden to everyone. She needn’t have worried, of course. He’s such a charmer. Everyone seemed to love him.

She sits on the edge of the bed for a moment before she trusts her legs to support her; goes to the loo and washes her hands, which feel sticky. Then she drinks a whole glass of cold water, straight down, gasping at the end of it. She refills the glass and takes a few sips, turns off the bathroom light and takes the glass back to the bedroom.

The clock tells her that it’s half-past three.

Outside, the wind has picked up again and she can hear it buffeting the window. The weather is always noisy up here; even with double glazing, the wind is always pushing against the walls and the glass and trying to get in. It moans and sighs and catches something in the mortar, ending on a tuneless whistle. She settles down again in the warm bed.

She remembers Aiden holding her hand; she doesn’t remember going outside. She remembers sitting in the car outside the house, inviting him in. She remembers the feel of him, hard, strong, against her.

He kept asking her if she was sure, didn’t he, as if he wanted to back out but wasn’t quite brave enough to do it himself.

Shit,
she thinks.
I’m never drinking again. I’m not confident. I don’t remember how this works.

 

Aiden’s car is gone when Sarah takes the dogs for a walk. She wonders if he has done a runner – decided against staying after all and gone to London, or to stay with friends, or something. She wouldn’t blame him. In the dull, greyish daylight, showered, fully dressed, everything she can remember about last night feels horribly awkward.

For most of the day her brain feels solid, dense, like cream that has been whipped too far; she carries a bottle of water to the studio and sips it as she stares at the illustration she has been working on for
The Candy Cotton Piglet at the Circus
. No animals in her circus, of course, at least, not in the traditional sense. Her acrobats are mice, her ringmaster is an elephant, the clowns are a flock of crazy seagulls. She thinks the seagulls aren’t working; considers that they really should be monkeys. But she hates being predictable.

It feels pointless, today. It won’t sell.

Eventually she puts the sketch to one side and ends up copying a picture of Louis as a toddler, one of her favourites,
in which he’s holding up an empty snail shell, his brows drawn together in a frown of scientific discovery. Seconds after the picture was taken, his two-year-old fingers had squeezed a bit too hard and shattered the shell. He’d been inconsolable.

She has a drawer in the studio full of sketches and watercolours of her children, at every age of their lives, some copied from photographs, some from memory.

There are more pictures of Louis than there are of Kitty. It wasn’t that she favoured her son, more that his expressions fascinated her: everything about him was curious, open, delighted. Kitty had been much more of a challenge as a small child. She had some delayed speech, and as a result spent much of the time seething with barely repressed fury at being unable to express herself. Tantrums were frequent, often inexplicable, and exhausting. For several months Sarah barely left the house, having spent so much time and energy apologising and eventually not even bothering to do that, so fed-up was she at the looks on people’s faces.
Bad mother,
they all thought.
Spoiled her, let her get away with it. Nip it in the bud, that’s the way to deal with behavioural issues
. Louis had always loved his sister, from the moment she was born; but even he had seemed baffled as to how to react to the fury.

In the end, staying at home with Kitty had helped where going out had not. In her home environment Kitty was calmer; she had the time and the space to make choices, to get things for herself. And gradually, with the peace and quiet, her speech had developed and the tantrums became less frequent and eventually stopped altogether. But Sarah remembers them well: the stand-offs, the red cheeks, the brows knitted together, bared teeth, screams so ferocious your ears rang with them afterwards.

Strange, then, that it’s now Kitty she can turn to; Louis who has stopped communicating.

At lunchtime she tries to call her daughter. She has essay deadlines frequently and Sarah tries hard not to interrupt, but much of every day is spent imagining what she’s doing. If she’s not in lectures; she’ll be in the library, or working in her room. Sarah has left two voicemails since Aiden arrived, and Kitty has done the same.

‘Mum! At last. I keep missing you.’

‘I know, you’ve been busy. How’s it going?’

Kitty has just started her second term. Since Christmas things have been noticeably better for Kitty, and noticeably worse for Sarah. Last term Kitty had been homesick; she’d phoned almost every day. But by Christmas she had made friends, had joined a film-making club and was writing scripts for them, had started running with another girl from her shared apartment. By January she had been desperate to get back and Sarah, facing the prospect of several months before Kitty was planning to come home again, felt hollow with the loss of her.

‘It’s good.’

‘How’s the flat?’

‘Oh, it’s fine apart from the bloke upstairs with his bloody drum kit. We’re all going to talk to him, though; Oscar thinks it’s way too loud.’

‘Oscar?’ This name has cropped up a few times recently, but, if he was bothered by the drumming, it meant he’d spent time at Kitty’s flat.

‘Yeah,’ Kitty says.

Sarah can hear the smile in her voice. Wants to ask, but decides to leave it for now. If there’s something to say, Kitty will share it when she’s ready.
Change the subject.

‘I’ve got a new neighbour, by the way.’

‘Really? What do you mean?’

Kitty is probably expecting Sarah to tell her that she’s adopted a goat to keep the grass down in the field. This has
been an ongoing plan which has never quite come to fruition.

‘You remember Aiden, Dad’s and my friend from uni?’

‘Vaguely.’

‘He’s back in the UK, so he’s staying in the cottage for a while.’

And we fucked last night,
she almost wants to add, just to make it real. Of course she doesn’t want to say this. Kitty doesn’t need to know. She’d be horrified.

‘Oh,’ Kitty says. ‘That’s nice for you. Is it? I mean, he is all right, is he?’

‘Of course. Anyway, I’m not going to see much of him; he’s got his own space. I think it’s good to have someone nearby, though. It’s incredibly quiet without you home.’

‘You’re kidding! You’ve got Basil and Tess, and I can’t imagine for one minute that Sophie’s not round every five minutes. You were always complaining you never got a moment to yourself.’

Sarah laughs. ‘I know, I know. How’s the workload? Are you exhausted yet?’

Another swift change of subject, neatly done. The next ten minutes is taken up with Kitty listing her responsibilities, reading lists and everything else she’s got on – although there still appears to be time in the schedule for nights out.

Sarah feels relieved that she’s managed to explain the Aiden situation at last. It’s felt odd, having something so dramatic happen to her without having discussed it with her daughter first. It feels as if Kitty is slipping away.

After the call ends, Sarah tries Louis’s mobile. There’s no reply, and no option to leave a voicemail. Louis conducts his business entirely by email and text, not that he ever replies to her. She sends him a message anyway.

Hope you’re OK. Call home if you get a chance. Love Mum xxx

She knows he won’t respond. This does not seem to matter as much as usual.

At four, a little past their regular time but she is only just feeling up to it, Sarah feeds the dogs and takes them out to the back field. It’s not much of a run but with the aid of a ball she can ensure they get a fair amount of exercise. As usual, Basil chases the ball with manic enthusiasm, as though this is what he was put on the earth to do. Tess steals the ball from Basil when he drops it, then she runs away and abandons it, leaving Basil to complete the cycle and bring it back to Sarah to throw again. It’s almost as if Tess enjoys teasing him.

At the top of the field Sarah walks the length of the dry stone wall separating her land from the moor beyond, checking for loose stones when the mood takes her, until it becomes almost too dark to see. The field is too big for her, really. When the weather warms up, George’s gardener will come over twice a month with his tractor to cut the grass back and collect it. He charges her £10 for the privilege, and sells the grass on. She should think about letting it out for grazing, but it’s nice to be able to walk the dogs up here without worrying about them chasing livestock, or rolling in muck every few paces.

The valley begins to light up as a hundred kettles are boiled for a hundred post-work cups of tea. The cottage is lit. The car is back; perhaps he’s going to stay, after all.

She has not been hungry all day but Sarah forces down a piece of toast, listening to the news. She thinks about going back to the studio, although it’s raining now; she can hear it against the window. Thinks about ringing Kitty again. What she really wants to do is call Sophie, tell her about Aiden, get it all out there like a proper confession. Is that what it is? Does she need to be cleansed? But Sophie and George have gone to some constituency dinner tonight, planned for months. She won’t be home until the early hours.

In the end she runs a bath, hoping that it will make her sleepy, because now she’s started thinking about it – Aiden – she can’t stop. She undresses slowly, automatically, folding her clothes and putting them on to the chair. As she leans forward and slips off her bra, the soft cotton brushes lightly across her breast, and instantly the exposure reminds her of last night and a rush of liquid heat floods her.

The shock of her arousal is followed within seconds by a dangerous prickling behind her eyelids. She invited him in. She was drunk. She shagged him. He didn’t stay. He hasn’t come over to see her, hasn’t texted, even though he’s just a few yards away he might as well be back in Japan, or wherever it was he’s been all this time.

She sits up in the bath, sniffing, trying to contain it. Here it comes, the wave of misery; tears pouring from nowhere. She rests her face in hot, wet hands, sobs.

You bastard,
she thinks.
I’d forgotten what a shit you are.

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