Read When You Walked Back Into My Life Online
Authors: Hilary Boyd
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #General
Up until that September day three years ago, Flora had considered her life a good one. She loved her job in the A&E department, relished the frantic, unpredictable, life-or-death nature of the work – so much more exciting than the more mundane pace of ward life. And she had Fin.
True, his work – and obsession – was climbing mountains, and there weren’t too many of those in Brighton, so he was away a lot. And when he was home, he was restless from day one, champing to get out of the city again. As soon as she was off duty for a few days, he would whisk her away, both of them astride his sleek Triumph America. They had seen the dawn rise from the top of Mount Snowdon, they had camped out in Swiss mountain huts with the goats, hiked up Kilimanjaro, driven across the desert to Timbuktu, literally. If her duty rota meant they were stuck at home, he would smoke a bit of dope, tinker with the bike and make mostly botched attempts at renovating their tiny terraced house, seven minutes’ walk from the sea. And threaded through all the adventures was that powerful sexual charge, which Flora sometimes felt controlled her as much as any drug. She and Fin might be having supper, getting up in the morning, walking along the seafront, and one look would catapult them both into
an almost unseemly desire to possess each other. When he came back from one of his expeditions, perhaps having been away for a month or two, they would spend whole weekends in bed. Fin wasn’t just a boyfriend: for eight years he had been a way of life for Flora.
Thankful to be home, away from Prue’s nagging, Flora ran a bath and sank into the too-hot water with relief. She had drunk a lot of red wine but barely touched the butternut ravioli; she felt muddled and a bit queasy. All she could see as she lay still, the water almost up to her neck, was those light grey eyes she knew better than her own, their expression always containing vanity and a certain vagueness, a detachment from the reality around him, but also a balancing humour and charm, which was how he connected with the world.
She wondered if he had changed. But what does it matter if he has or he hasn’t? she asked herself. I blew him out, he won’t bother to try and find me. And acknowledging that, she felt an almost painful sense of loss.
‘Would you like to go to the park today?’ Flora asked Dorothea the following morning. ‘It’s so beautiful out there.’ She had just finished giving the old lady a bed bath and was dressing her, pulling on the navy elastic-waisted slacks that Rene bought from Marks and Spencer in bulk, along with cardigans and blouses in beige, and horrible pastel shades of blue, pink and green, which she found at knock-down prices at various outlets of Edinburgh Woollen Mill. ‘Every time I see a branch, I go in. There’s always something on offer,’ Rene told Flora proudly.
‘I … might like to,’ the old lady replied uncertainly, struggling weakly with the arm of today’s pink cardigan. She
looked up at Flora. ‘But … Maybe Dominic said he would come round.’
‘Oh, OK.’ Flora suppressed her annoyance. Dominic was Dorothea’s great-nephew and, in Flora’s opinion, a smarmy creep. ‘Did he say when?’
Dorothea gave a small shrug. ‘Perhaps not till this afternoon.’
‘You don’t have to go to the park if you don’t want to,’ Flora said, as she helped her off the bed, propping her inside the semicircle of her aluminium frame for the agonisingly slow walk to the armchair in the sitting room.
‘I think I would like it,’ Dorothea smiled up at Flora, her pale old eyes large behind her glasses.
Keith jumped up from his desk as soon as he saw Flora pushing Dorothea’s wheelchair out of the flat.
‘Go-o-od morning, Miss H-T. And how are we today?’
am quite well, Mr Godly. I can’t speak for Flora, I’m afraid.’
Keith laughed. ‘Touché!’ He grinned at the old lady, whose face lit up in response. ‘I deserved that.’
Never underestimate Dorothea, Flora thought with satisfaction. The small stroke she had suffered about a month ago had taken it out of her, as had the several other transient ischaemic attacks she’d experienced. Each time she lost a bit of ground physically, but mentally, although her speech was so slow, she seemed as sharp as ever.
The flower-walk in Kensington Gardens was worth the long haul with the wheelchair. Peaceful, and lined with blooms for most of the year, filled with small wildlife, it was a haven in the hectic urban surroundings. Nowadays it was Dorothea’s only real experience of the outside world, and she revelled in it.
‘Look …’ Dorothea held out her hand to a squirrel standing inches from the wheelchair, observing the old lady. ‘Do we have some bread?’
Flora passed her a handful of crumbs from a plastic bag slung on one of the chair handles. A small child saw the squirrel too and came over, sitting quietly on her haunches to watch. Dorothea passed the little girl some bread, which the squirrel grabbed eagerly, making the child laugh. The sound sent the squirrel darting off into the bushes.
Normally, Flora would have taken pleasure in the scene, but today she was distracted. Since she’d woken up, Fin had never been out of her thoughts. She had begun looking around as soon as she left Miss Heath-Travis’s flat, hoping and dreading in equal measure that she might bump into him. She had no idea how long he would be living with his friend, he hadn’t said. But she knew Fin never stayed in one place very long.
‘Flora, lovely to see you.’ Dominic Trevellick, Dorothea’s great-nephew – her sister’s daughter’s son and only living relative – held his hand out.
‘Hello, Dominic.’ She reluctantly shook the limp, moist hand that was offered and forced a smile. Dominic was short and plump. An antique dealer by trade, he was about her age but dressed like a fogey in a navy blazer, butter-yellow cords, a matching silk waistcoat with paisley bow tie, and tan loafers. His blond hair, neatly parted, was darkened by hair product and barbered too short, his large tortoiseshell spectacles giving him an owlish air which seemed to overwhelm his watery blue eyes.
‘How is she?’ Dominic lowered his voice, a look of studied concern on his face.
‘She’s very well.’
‘Good-good.’ He waited, looking awkward. ‘May I go in?’
Flora nodded. ‘She’s expecting you.’
She went into the kitchen to make the tea and unwrap the Jamaican ginger cake Dorothea always asked her to get for her great-nephew. She heard him making conversation with his aunt, his plummy tones loud in the quiet flat. He had barely visited in the first eighteen months that Flora was working for the old lady, but since then he had been round more frequently and more regularly. Flora knew from an unguarded moment with Rene that he stood to inherit
from Dorothea, so perhaps he was just keeping tabs on his legacy. Although Dominic had done nothing specific to warrant it, Flora didn’t entirely trust him. His aunt, however, seemed always delighted by his company.
She carried the tea tray in and set it on the sideboard. Dominic, ever on guard about showing his ‘breeding’, insisted on the habit of putting the milk in last. This seemed daft to Flora because you then had to stir the tea; whereas, if you put the milk in first, the tea mixed itself. But she played along and handed Dominic his cup of tea, then offered him the milk jug.
‘Marvellous. Thank you so much.’ He beamed up at Flora from his seat on the ancient chintz sofa. ‘I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: you’re a very lucky lady, Aunt Dot, to have this special girl looking after you.’ He splashed milk into his cup and handed the jug back to Flora. ‘But I’m sure you know that.’
Dorothea nodded slowly. ‘She
wonderful,’ she said, speaking slowly but with deep sincerity, and Flora found herself blushing.
‘I’ll be in the other room if you need me,’ she told the old lady, escaping gratefully to the kitchen.
When she went back into the sitting room, Dominic was standing over by the French doors that led to the balcony and then, via some iron steps, to the communal gardens
behind the flats. He still carried his cup and saucer in one hand, but with the other he was lovingly stroking the surface of a small walnut box-table wedged next to the window.
‘This is a pretty little piece, Aunt Dot. I never noticed it before.’
Dorothea twisted round as much as she could and cast an eye on the table. ‘It’s Georgian, I think. A sewing box. Open it up, the inside is quite interesting.’
Dominic turned the small metal key and lifted the lid. Flora had never seen inside. It was neatly laid out into fretwork sections, some still containing spools of coloured thread, a cloth tape measure, tiny gold-coloured scissors and a thimble. The lid was lined with delicate floral marquetry.
‘Splendid.’ Dominic bent to inspect the detail. ‘And it’s in such good condition. Must be worth a couple of hundred at auction.’
‘My mother’s. I don’t care for it much,’ Dorothea told him, her tone unusually disdainful. Flora had seldom heard her mention her mother. Her father, yes. She talked about him a lot, and always with great fondness. His portrait hung above the fireplace. He was a handsome Edwardian, with Dorothea’s hawk nose and an impressive waxed moustache. It was almost a swagger portrait in style – with his puffed chest, his head thrown slightly back and his hand resting
on the marble mantelpiece as if he were at least a captain of industry – when in fact he’d been something in insurance.
Dominic came and sat down. ‘Well, if you ever need some extra cash, I’m sure I’d be able to sell it for you.’
His great-aunt raised her eyebrows and looked at Flora questioningly, but she didn’t know how to reply, so went on collecting up the teacups, the teapot, the plates littered with crumbs from the ginger cake. She obviously couldn’t get involved in anything to do with her patient’s finances, but if she had her way she wouldn’t let Dominic anywhere near the walnut sewing box.
As she left the room she heard Dorothea say in her slow, laboured way: ‘Maybe you should. I never use it. I don’t really need things any more.’
She jumped. The tap was running as she rinsed out the brown teapot, and she hadn’t heard Dominic come up behind her in the small kitchen.
‘Sorry, I startled you.’
Flora turned, hands wet, still clutching the pot. ‘Everything alright?’ she asked.
‘Fine, fine. I just wanted to tell you that I’m taking the sewing table with me.’
‘Might as well. Aunt Dot wants it sold. She says she wants
to clear stuff out before she dies. Make things simple. I’ve got an auction coming up in a few weeks, so I’ll need to get it down to the sale room to be catalogued.’
‘Oh … OK. Will you tell Rene or shall I?’
Dominic looked puzzled. ‘Does she need to know?’
‘It’s just I don’t want her accusing the nurses of making off with stuff in the flat,’ Flora explained.
‘Ah. No, no, of course not. Hadn’t thought of that. I’ll give her a bell when I get home.’
Dominic hovered. He had this odd habit of saying something then waiting, even when she had answered him, peering at her through his owl glasses as if he was expecting her to speak again. And often, just because of the silence, she obliged.
‘Can you carry it yourself?’
‘It’s not heavy. I’ll just bring the car round. Won’t be a tick.’
As soon as he’d left the flat, she went through to Dorothea.
‘Dominic’s taking the table now. Is that the plan?’ Flora asked, wanting to make sure the old lady realised what was happening.
Dorothea looked blankly at her for a moment.
‘Your mother’s sewing table in the corner? You asked Dominic to sell it.’
The old lady nodded. ‘I never liked it. Reminds me of those dreadful samplers I was made to sew as a child. Cross-stitch reduced me to tears. I never got the hang of it.’
‘So you’re happy for him to sell it?’ Flora paused, not knowing quite how to phrase what she wanted to say. ‘I … don’t think you need the money, if you were worrying about that.’
Dorothea shook her head. ‘I don’t suppose I do … But it’s better to get rid of things now, perhaps, than leaving it to be sorted out when I’m dead. And he’s so kind, going to all that trouble for me.’
The front-door bell rang that evening as Flora was sitting on the sofa with a bowl of mushroom soup on her lap, watching catch-up
on the television. She glanced through the barred window leading out to the area steps up to the pavement, and saw her niece pulling a comical face at her as she huddled close to the door to avoid the rain. Flora let her in.
‘Hi, darling. Lost your keys again?’
Bel nodded, grinning ruefully as she gave her aunt a hug. ‘Yup, second time this month. Mum’ll kill me.’
‘They’re probably upstairs somewhere.’
Bel shook her head. ‘That’d be too lucky.’
‘Worth looking before you tell Mum.’
Her niece plonked herself down on the sofa and peered at the soup. ‘Is there any more of that? I’m starving.’
The room was open plan, the small kitchen running the length of the window with the sitting room space behind, then a bedroom and bathroom underneath the stairs that led up to the main house. Flora had been allowed by her sister to decorate it as she pleased, and the result was a random collection of furniture, cushions and rugs from the Brighton house that gave a cosy, slightly bohemian, air to the tiny place.
Flora heated up the remains of the soup and cut some brown bread.
Bel nodded enthusiastically and curled up contentedly in the only armchair. She was small for her age, wiry and sporty like her father, with a puckish face and lively brown eyes. She had recently had her waist-length brown hair restyled in a gamin cut which feathered prettily around her face – an act that made her mother weep for days. But Bel’s clothes were Prue’s real Armageddon. To her intense distress and irritation, her daughter had no interest whatsoever in what she wore – usually a pair of jeans and an old T-shirt or sweater often plundered from a friend’s drawer. She never wore make-up and looked more like twelve than fifteen. With the equivalent money her friends
were spending on clothes and lip gloss, Bel was buying books about the theatre, tickets to the theatre or attending theatre workshops at the weekends and in the school holidays. She wanted to be a stage designer, not an actress or a director – small comfort to her parents, Flora knew, who had pegged law as the route to their daughter’s glittering future.