Read The One Before the One Online
Authors: Katy Regan
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General
The One Before the One
For my parents
I knew this would be the day the minute I opened my eyes that morning, the sun pouring through our slatted blinds throwing stripes onto Martin’s face. I turned over and examined him, his face slack with sleep, head half turned into the pillow, mouth ajar.
That was it, I decided, tears already threatening. I’d come to the end of the road.
I just couldn’t do this any more. It was killing me. Not softly, like the song, but slowly and painfully, sucking the life force out of me like hands around my neck.
I reached over and gently (guilty, probably, at what was about to come) pushed his dark hair, clammy after another Indian summer’s night, from his face so that it stuck up, revealing his widow’s peak. I’d watched that peak develop. That deepening V was like a measure of the fourteen years we’d spent together. Sometimes I felt like my feelings were receding at the same rate as his hair.
years. More than a third of my life. Did I even know who I was without him? My heart thudded with nerves.
‘Happy Birthday, gorgeous,’ he mumbled, still half-conscious, before flinging a heavy arm across my chest.
I swallowed hard. It felt like trying to swallow a mouthful of dried leaves.
‘Thanks,’ I managed eventually. But it was already anything but happy.
The next time I would be in this bed, I would be here alone. What I hadn’t predicted at that point, however, was that
I was about to finish with my fiancé, the man I was due to marry in a month’s time, the only man I had ever loved or who had loved me, over a present. A present he’d bought for me.
‘Here we are birthday girl, one blueberry smoothie and Eggs Benedict with – I dare say so myself – a Michelin star standard Hollandaise sauce.’
It’s two hours later (one of those spent perfecting the Hollandaise sauce) so that I’m that unfortunate mix of so ravenous I am annoyed, and guilty that I’m annoyed, Martin places the tray on the duvet in front of me, then sits down on the bed. He tightens the belt of his white ‘waffle’ dressing gown, a free gift from Boots with a Magimix coffee machine last Christmas.
I look at the tall glass with the sprig of mint placed lovingly on top and then at his face – such a pleasant, friendly face that I knew so well: the neat, narrow mouth, pressed deep into a generous chin that told of a man who was full of
joie de vivre
and liked the good things in life; the slightly upturned nose that he liked to root around constantly when he thought I wasn’t looking; round cheeks that made you want to reach out and squeeze them and those small, yet ever-twinkling dark eyes behind tortoiseshell glasses, slightly too far apart like a sheep, and yet filled with so much unwavering love it made me want to cry.
I forced a smile. ‘Thank you, honey.’
‘My pleasure. Now, does birthday girl want her present now, whilst she’s eating her breakfast, or later?’ Martin liked to refer to me in the third person.
‘Ooh, I think now.’
‘Good choice.’ Martin reached deep into his dressing gown pocket and produced an envelope wrapped up in red ribbon. Martin was always an excellent present-wrapper, unusual for a man I’d always thought. A momentary flurry of hope: tickets to the theatre perhaps? Beauty Salon facials? A voucher for John Lewis? It didn’t really matter since I’d already decided I won’t be able to keep it.
‘Come on then, Caro, the suspense is killing me. Aren’t you going to open it?’ he said, eyes glistening.
I opened the envelope, my hands shaking. A leaflet with a picture of a tree in full autumnal blaze on the front.
‘Your Guide to the National Trust', it read in an uninspiring font.
Membership to the National Trust? I momentarily had to catch my breath. If it was membership of the National Trust at thirty-two, what would it be at forty? His-and-her flasks?
The Vicar of Dibley
box set? Jesus Christ, I was about to marry my
(If my dad were a normal sort of dad, which he isn’t).
‘So do you like it? he said, nudging closer whilst I held the membership card in my shaking hand. ‘I thought after the honeymoon, when weekends are more free, we could start with the Stately—’
‘Course I like it!’ I cut in, and then an awful, awful thing happened. I started to cry. I started to cry and I couldn’t stop.
Martin peered at me, alarmed.
‘Caro, what on
is the matter?’ The membership leaflet was damp with tears now. ‘Please. Tell me. What on earth is wrong?’
And that’s where it ended, in what should have been our marital bed. Martin, the only man I had ever known, really, the man who had loved me for more than a decade, who had talked about having children with me, who had held me whilst I sobbed through no end of twenty-something self-esteem crises, who had listened to me moan about my parents and my mental family, who knew the best of me, the worst of me, the ugly truth of me and yet accepted me more than anyone else in he world, was lying next to me, shushing me, stroking my hair.
And I was about to break his big heart into a million different pieces.
Early June 2009
I suppose you could say that things had barely moved on in my life, nine months later, when my seventeen-year-old sister turns up on my doorstep and I am drunk, alone, on a Sunday afternoon.
When I say drunk, I don’t mean staggering-all-over-the-place drunk. God no! That would have been humiliating. It was more like two-large-glasses-of-wine drunk. Okay, possibly half a bottle, exacerbated by two fags and the dregs of a bottle of Prosecco. I’d say, on alcohol consumption alone, I would have just about got away with convincing someone I wasn’t drunk. If I hadn’t been crying. Or if I hadn’t answered the door with said bottle of Prosecco. Or if I wasn’t standing barefoot on my doorstep at 4 p.m. on a Sunday wearing a wedding dress and a tiara.
It had been raining, sheeting it down for hours, but was on the verge of brightening up so that the sky glowed, making the row of white terraces behind where Lexi stood and the trees of Battersea Park – full as broccoli florets in the height of summer – look unreal, like a stage set.
She was carrying a trolley case with fuscia-pink lips all over it and was wearing gold leggings, and a silver headband, Grecian-style, around her forehead. In the luminescent light,
I thought how lovely she’d become, a modern take on Wonder Woman, with her gamine crop and kittenish eyeliner. I, on the other hand, must have looked like a contestant for Trailer-Trash Bride of the Year.
‘Hi! It’s me, Lexi.’
Did she think I had dementia? That I needed to be reminded of who she was before being escorted back to the church where I would get on with the wedding I had clearly wandered off from?
‘Sorry, is this a crap time?’
I leant one hand on the top of the doorframe, but missed, so that I stumbled forward and ended up doing a strange unintentional dance on the front step.
‘Er … no.’
‘Right, it’s just you –’ I was aware I was swaying, that the trees were moving although there was no breeze – ‘look like you’ve been crying. And you’re wearing a wedding dress.’ I looked down. This was no word of a lie. ‘And a tiara. And you’re holding an empty bottle of wine.’
‘It’s Prosecco, actually.’
Overlooking the empty bottle of Prosecco and the fact my house stank of booze and fags and the fact I had Pat Benatar’s ‘Love is a Battlefield', blasting from the stereo, I think I styled it out well. It was regrettable that my wedding dress had a four foot train and so could not be passed off as evening wear, but like I say, all this was exacerbated by the fact I was drunk and it was the middle of the afternoon.
‘So how long are you planning on staying?’ We’re standing in my kitchen now and I’m trying to sound as breezy as possible.
Lexi leans against the doorframe and looks around her.
‘Um, well, I thought maybe the summer holidays …?’ she says, hopefully.
The summer holidays?
I almost heave.
‘What? Like, the whole summer?’
‘Er, yeah.’ She smiles. She still has the same rosebud mouth she had as a baby. Pouty and cherubic. A real Drew Barrymore mouth. ‘Why, are you going somewhere?’
‘Cool,’ she says brightly, like, that’s that sorted then.
She sits down at the kitchen table, helps herself from the bowl of pistachios. Inside, I’m beginning to panic – this is all a bit sudden, isn’t it? A bit unexpected. She’s been here half an hour now and I don’t feel we’ve quite got to the bottom of why she is.
‘Look, Lex …’ I say, gently. She looks at me with her big, brown eyes – there’s something hopeful about them, so innocent and trusting and I already feel awful. ‘I’m more than happy to have you for a while but you have to understand, I have a job, a really demanding job. I’m out all day …’
‘I’m very resourceful.’ She shrugs. ‘I’m used to amusing myself.’
That’s what’s worrying me.
‘I often have client events at night.’
‘Seriously? Cool. Maybe I could come to a few?’
I sigh. My stomach shrivels like a mollusc into its shell.
‘Or help you out at work? I’ve decided I want to go into business, actually – sixth form’s not for me. I was thinking, because I really love shoes, like
have a passion for them, that I could be a shoe designer. I could design the shoes here, I mean dead funky ones, much better than the pap that’s in the shops now,’ she says, in her flat Yorkshire accent. I’ve pretty much lost mine, after someone once told me I sounded like Geoff Boycott. ‘I could draw them – Art’s my best subject – send the designs to China where a team of people would make them, then get them sent back here!’
She looks at me as if to say, ‘Genius, or what?’ and a strange nausea passes over me, like this is already becoming more surreal than I can handle. Thankfully, then, there’s a noise like a lion roaring. Her mobile. Again.
She picks up. ‘Yo.’
She said that last time they called, so I assume it’s the same person.
‘Yeah, yeah, I’m here now.’
‘Yeah, she’s cool, yeah, I
so …’ She looks at me and grimaces, apologetically – so she clearly told whoever’s on the other line of her plans to come and ‘surprise me’. Just not me.
Her voice grows quieter.
‘Yeah, I know Carls, I know. I’ll talk to him at some point.’
So, boyfriend trouble?
She rolls her eyes and makes a blah-blah-blah sign with her hand. There’s a long pause, then a gasp and a ‘No way!’ then an even bigger gasp and a ‘What, like permanent-permanent?!’
After about five seconds and no ‘goodbye’ that I can decipher, she hangs up.
‘What’s happened? Is everything Okay?’
‘Oh yeah,’ she says, cracking a pistachio between her teeth, ‘it’s just my mate Carly’s had her hair dyed, and it’s gone totally tits up.’
We sit at the kitchen table, me still in the wedding dress and the start of a hangover.
‘So listen, honey, about the sixth form thing. Does Dad know you aren’t planning on going back?’
‘Yes. Dunno. Don’t care. I’m not really talking to him at the moment, or Mum for that matter.’
‘What? What do you mean you’re not talking to them? You mean to say you came on the train all the way to London and you didn’t tell them? Lexi! Right, I’m calling Dad now.’
I pick up my bag and rummage in it, trying to find my
mobile, but Lexi stretches across the table and slaps her hand on top of it.
‘Caroline, don’t. Please.’
She lowers her eyes at me, looks at me from under silky black lashes that I was always so envious of as a teenager.
‘Back away from the bag, Caroline. Away from the bag, come on …’
She slowly takes the bag from my grasp, like I’m a self-harmer and it’s full of razors.
‘Please don’t call Dad. They know I’m here – Dad drove me to the station.’ She looks a bit sheepish. ‘And gave me the money to get the train. He gave me a bit of cash too, you know, for the holidays?’
‘Oh, did he now? And did he think to, you know, call me about this?’
She wrinkles her nose.
‘Mmm, yeah. But I think you had your phone off.’
I am about to protest about the ludicrousness of this comment when I remember, yes, I did. I always switch off all methods of communication when I’m indulging in a maudlin-fest. One gets so much more out of it that way.
We sit in silence for a minute. I look around at the kitchen, at the disarray – the Flora margarine carton with fag butts in it, the empty bottle of Prosecco (with a fag butt in it), the little sister, helping herself to pistachios, announcing she’s staying for the summer. The
summer. God, I hate summer, and I am suddenly taken hold with a sickening grip of panic, a sort of vertigo like I’m in freefall.
Then Lexi’s phone goes again. This time she looks at the screen and runs upstairs to take it.
Brilliant. A lovesick teen on my hands.
I get straight on the landline to Dad. It rings three times before the answerphone kicks in. If they’ve sodded off on
one of their yoga holidays to an obscure Greek island, I’ll kill him, I really will.
‘Hi, this is the happy home of Cassandra and Trevor Steele. I’m afraid we’ve been currently called upon elsewhere, but if you’d be so kind as to leave us a message …’
These days, Dad sounds like he just leapt off a yacht in the Carribean to answer the phone, he’s so ecstatic. ‘Dad, it’s Caroline.’
‘Ah, lovely Caro! I was just about to call you.’
‘Were you? Good.’
Resist temptation to rant. It never works with Dad.
‘Do you think you might be able to tell me what’s going on?’
‘Yes, Dad, Lexi.’
‘The thing is, honey, I’ve been trying to call you all afternoon but you’re always so unavailable.’
(Note: emotional blackmail three seconds into the conversation.)
‘I see, so you thought you’d just send her over?’
‘No! It wasn’t like that. Look, I can tell you’re excited …’
‘Am I? I don’t feel that excited.’
‘So just take a moment to relax. A few deep breaths. Would you like me to call you back?’
‘No, I’m fine. I want to talk about this now.’
‘Okay, all right.’ (Dramatic sigh.) ‘The thing is, honey, Lex is … how can I put it … “at sea” at the moment. She’s in a transitional phase, there’s a lot of inner conflict. She’s been off the rails recently, raging against the world. All the normal teenage stuff, but also some sadness, some searching; her mum and I feel, some un-met needs.’
I hold the receiver away from my mouth for a second and swear, silently and enthusiastically to the heavens.
‘Dad, do you think I could have this in plain English please?’
‘Basically, she’s decided …’ (sigh) ‘Lex has decided she doesn’t want to go back to sixth form next year and finish her A levels.’
Well, that’s a relief. By the way he was carrying on, you’d think she’d signed up for a sex change.
‘Basically, she dropped out of school last month, been moping around the house ever since, lots of tears, very hostile. As you can imagine, her mother and I are very concerned and we thought – well, actually it was Lexi’s idea – that she’d really benefit from spending some time with you. You lead such a stimulating life down there in London.’
‘And you’ve always been so driven, such an achiever, Caro, done your A Levels, gone to university. Always done everything so right. You’d be a great role model for Lex, who needs some direction right now, so I invite you to take this opportunity, Caro. Cass and I invite you—’
‘Stop inviting me, Dad,’ I interrupted, ‘it’s not a bloody party.’
He makes this noise, and I know he’s tapping manically at his forehead, which he does when he’s stressed.
‘I guess what I’m trying to say is, can you talk to her? Please, darling? She’s mighty upset about something, and
happened for her to just drop out of school, of life, like this …’
‘Probably just boyfriend trouble, Dad. She’s seventeen, these things often seem like the end of the world …’ (Like I knew anything.)
‘Ah, but it’s not. You’re wrong there, because …’
There’s an enormous racket as Lexi thumps down the stairs.
‘Look, she’s here now.’
‘I know, and I’ll talk to her in a minute, but just … Will
you do this one thing for me, Caro? Will you talk to your sister? Her mother and I just don’t want to see her throwing her life away like this. It would give you a chance to get to know her better, besides anything else, and she’s a good kid, a
Why was he talking like he was in an episode of
all of a sudden?
‘I will, Dad, okay? Course I will. Anyway, here she is …’
I hold out the receiver.
‘It’s Dad,’ I say. ‘I think you should talk to him.’
Lexi’s on the phone for ages. She sits, curled up like a cat, in a puddle of evening sun by the window, fiddling with the phone cord. I watch her as she talks, and I have to admit she’s very pretty. She has thick, dark hair, painstakingly styled ‘bedhead', a neat, snub nose – her mum’s nose, not the sizeable Steele honk I inherited, and then those eyes, wide-spaced, chocolate-dark, a flick of black eyeliner accentuating their feline quality, and framed by slightly too bushy eyebrows, which give her a naturally exotic look, like she might look ridiculous in too much make-up.
She talks to Dad for ages. At first there are the usual sullen grunts and rolls of the eyes and a ‘Yeah, all right, Dad, don’t give yourself a nosebleed about it.’
But then her voice becomes much quieter and softer and when I next look, a big fat tear is rolling down her face.
‘I know that, Dad,’ she’s saying. ‘I know it’s coz you care … Course I’d tell you if there was something. You know I tell you everything …’
Liar, I think. Girls don’t tell their dads
thing. At least, I didn’t, but then, that’s probably because Dad was always doing the talking.
‘But there isn’t, I promise,’ she carries on, wiping her nose on the palm of her hand, and something, despite myself,
squeezes my heart. Even if this was just boyfriend trouble she was gutted, really upset – and she’d dropped out of sixth form. It
Eventually, she says, ‘I will. I miss you, too. Yep, love you too.’ Then she hangs up and looks at me, mascara running down her cheeks. ‘God, look at the state of me,’ she says, laughing through the tears. ‘What sort of total minger must I look now?’
‘Wanna talk about it?’
I’m sitting down beside her now.
‘No. Honest. I’m all right.’
‘Sure?’ I nudge her with my elbow. ‘I might be able to help, you know. Especially since I am such an exceedingly sensible, level-headed and mature person.’
Lexi looks at me in my wedding dress.
‘Yeah, right!’ She laughs. ‘I used to think you were – now I’m not so sure.’ There’s a pause.
‘Anyway,’ I say, eventually, putting my hand on her knee. ‘We’ll sort this out, yeah? Me and you, whatever it is, we’ll get you back on track.’
‘Okay.’ She sniffs. ‘Thanks. You’re very nice to me.’
‘Oh, I know – my benevolence knows no bounds.’