Read When You Walked Back Into My Life Online
Authors: Hilary Boyd
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #General
Conversation was stopped by Prue clapping her hands for silence. She held onto the sleeve of her husband’s bespoke suit as she began to speak, as if she were worried he’d escape.
‘Philip didn’t want me to say anything. He didn’t want me to give him a party. He didn’t want to have another birthday, or be a year older. But, as usual, I
him it was for the best …’ There was raucous laughter and some barracking from the guests at the commonly accepted pretence
that Prue wore the trousers in the family. And Philip, as always, beamed genially at the crowd, accepting the spotlight with his usual unflappable calm. Flora adored her brother-in-law. He was a kind, non-judgemental man, patient with his bossy wife, a good father to Bel, and had been Flora’s friend through thick and thin. But she knew that the amiably charming façade he showed to the world hid a cutting intellect that had fooled many an opponent, both in and out of court. Now he shot the cuffs of his white shirt, smoothed his blue-patterned tie, and began his witty reply.
When the speeches were over, Flora and Jake had been separated. She looked around for him and saw him laughing in the corner of the room with a skinny redhead. So she crept away before her sister could stop her, a bit irritated with herself for not making more effort to be charming to Jake.
As Flora made her way down Gloucester Road just before eight the following Monday, she decided that Fin was no longer in town. It was a week since she’d bumped into him and there had been no sign of him since, no word left at Prue’s house, nothing. He’ll be off on another climb, she told herself, professing a certain relief that she could start to put him behind her again, to begin living the life she intended to live, but was somehow perpetually putting on hold. Prue had been on the phone to her early Sunday morning, her voice squeaky with excitement.
‘Darling, breaking news! Jake
he fancies you like mad. His very words: “She’s gorgeous.” He was very distressed you disappeared without saying goodbye.’
‘Really?’ Flora had asked, not believing her sister’s hyperbole one bit. He’d seemed so young and too self-consciously trendy to be interested in someone like her.
‘Yes, really. You
gorgeous, I keep telling you. So? Did you like him?’
‘I did. I … I thought he was very attractive,’ she was trying to tell the truth without getting her sister’s hopes up. It didn’t work.
‘Bingo! That’s the first time you’ve said that about
since that bloody man whose name we won’t mention in case I have a stroke. Anyway, I hope you don’t mind, I gave him your number.’
Prue sounded as if she’d already married them off and Flora hadn’t wanted to burst her bubble. He probably won’t call, she thought, but if what she said was true and Jake did like her, perhaps she
see him. Just do it, find out if she could.
Dorothea was sitting up in bed, eating a bowl of cornflakes on the bed table in front of her.
‘Morning, Dorothea.’ Flora gave her arm a quick stroke, but the old lady seemed almost alarmed to see her. She blinked nervily behind her glasses and jabbed uselessly at the cornflakes with her spoon.
‘Are you alright? Did you have a bad night?’ Flora enquired softly.
The old lady stared at her. ‘I think … I did.’
‘Was something bothering you?’
Mary Martin popped her head round the door. ‘See you a minute before I go?’
Assuring Dorothea she would be back, Flora went through to the kitchen where Mary was washing up her tea mug.
‘Up and down like Tower Bridge she was, sometimes barely an hour in between,’ Mary told her. ‘Said she wanted to wee, but mostly she didn’t.’ She was a tall, heavily built Irish woman, with short, dyed brown hair pinned back from her face with incongruously girlie clips, usually in pink or blue. She was always dressed in a maroon fleece and black tracksuit bottoms, never bothering with a uniform dress. ‘I thought perhaps it was the fish again, but Pia said she’d given her scrambled eggs last night.’
‘And was she distressed?’
‘Like she is now. I’m not sure she slept at all.’
Mary put her mug back in the cupboard. They all had their own particular mugs. Mary’s was a thick, blue pottery one, large and round. Flora’s was made of thin white china with ‘Mad Aunt’ written on the side in pink; Bel had given it to her for Christmas.
‘Do you think she’s in pain? Maybe her stomach again?’
‘I asked and she said no, but it’s hard to tell. I hope she’s not building up to another TIA. She doesn’t have a temperature
but she definitely isn’t herself. I think the season change can affect old people. They see the light fade and think of winter and–’
‘I’ll ask Dr Kent to drop in, perhaps.’ Flora interrupted Mary before she could expand on another of her wacky theories. And no doubt the onset-of-winter speculation would have segued neatly into the need to keep the patient alive till the following summer. It was always hard to get new jobs in the winter, Mary said, because none of the nurses were taking holidays, and the patients died more often. It didn’t make sense, but that didn’t stop her repeating it on an almost daily basis.
Mary chuckled to herself. ‘You realise I’m in love with the man, don’t you?’
‘Mmm. What a dreamboat. So kind and handsome.’ Mary had had to call him out recently when Dorothea was taken ill in the night.
Flora laughed. ‘Do you think?’
‘Well, don’t you?’
‘Never thought about him like that. But I like him, he’s brilliant with Dorothea.’
Mary shook her head in mock despair. ‘You’ve got no taste, you. Anyway, I’d best be getting back to little Millikins.’ She yawned. ‘Christ, I’m knackered. Not used to having to work
for my living.’ She gathered her black backpack from the hall floor and went to say goodbye to her patient.
Dorothea seemed to settle down during the morning. Flora suggested she stay in bed until lunchtime, and the old lady slept. She seemed a little dazed, however, when Flora got her up and into the sitting room.
‘Is Peter coming?’ Dorothea asked, as Flora collected the tray with the remains of her fish, broccoli and mashed potato. She hadn’t eaten much, but Flora didn’t want to force her.
‘Peter?’ The old lady had never mentioned a Peter before.
Dorothea gave a small laugh. ‘Er, you know …’ She waved her right hand in the air. ‘Is it Peter I mean … the man …’ She lapsed into silence.
‘Dominic? Your nephew?’ Flora suggested, but Dorothea shook her head.
‘No. Not him.’ The arm was up again as Flora watched her struggle with her memory.
‘Keith Godly …? Dr Kent?’ She couldn’t think of any other men that visited the old lady.
Dorothea shook her head again and gave a small giggle. ‘Silly old me,’ she said. ‘I think … I was remembering someone else.’
The doorbell rang.
‘That might be Dr Kent,’ Flora said, and went to let him in.
‘She’s not herself,’ Flora told him.
‘I’ll take a look.’ He seemed in a rush, as was often the case, and went on through to the sitting room.
‘Flora tells me you didn’t sleep well last night?’ He spoke so gently to her, and the old lady gave him a radiant smile.
‘It … wasn’t anything … much,’ she said, almost apologetically.
The doctor bent to take her pulse. For a second there was silence in the room, only the laboured ticking of the long-case clock by the fireplace. He turned to Flora.
‘What’s her temperature?’
Flora helped Dorothea take off her cardigan; Dr Kent fixed the blood-pressure cuff around her right upper arm and pressed the button.
‘Hmm.’ He watched the display on the Boots sphygmomanometer. ‘OK, that’s it. How are you feeling now, Dorothea? Do you have a headache or anything? Is your stomach bothering you?’
The old lady took a long, slow breath. ‘I … don’t think so.’ She stared ahead, as if she was unaware the doctor and Flora were there at all.
He got up and motioned Flora to join him outside.
‘Her blood pressure’s a bit raised, but nothing alarming. I can’t find any sign of anything serious.’
‘Sorry to drag you out.’
‘No, no, not at all. I was on my way to another patient anyway. Maybe she’s just got something on her mind?’
‘We’ve asked her, but she won’t say. She’s not of the generation to complain.’
Dr Kent smiled. ‘No, bless her. She’s a sweetheart.’ He glanced at Flora as he put on his coat. ‘Did you sort out the boyfriend problem?’
‘I did … sort of.’
‘You missed a good night of ballroom.’
She smiled. ‘I was stupid. I should have come.’
She closed the door behind him, suddenly wondering what his private life was like. She realised she didn’t even know if he was married or had children. If he’s asking me to go dancing with him, he’s probably not married, she decided.
Her mobile rang as she was walking to the bus stop that night.
‘It’s Jake. Jake Hobley, from the other night.’
‘Jake, hi.’ She was taken by surprise at hearing his voice, and couldn’t think of what else to say.
A bus roared past and she missed his next words. He repeated them: ‘Just wondered if you felt like a drink sometime?’
Flora took a deep breath, pressing the phone hard to her ear against the traffic noise. ‘Yes, I’d like that.’
They arranged to meet that Thursday at a bar in Notting Hill. She felt anxious as soon as she’d ended the call. Was this a date? The thought was terrifying. She immediately wanted to ring and cancel. I don’t have to go, she told herself, I can make some excuse on the day. But that didn’t seem to soothe her. At some stage, if she wasn’t to spend the rest of her life alone, she knew she would have to cross the line.
When Flora got home, Prue was standing on the doorstep of the main house, silhouetted by the light from the hall behind her. Despite it being so late, her sister was still in her work clothes – a charcoal tailored suit and cream shirt – talking to a blonde girl who was clutching an armful of giant folders containing what looked like fabric samples. The girl said goodbye when she saw Flora, and clattered down the steps into the night.
‘Darling, come in for a sec.’ Prue held the door open. ‘God, I’m whacked. Amy promised me those samples at nine this morning. People are so casual. Does she really think the client’ll give a toss that UPS went to the wrong house?’
Flora looked sympathetic and waited for the inevitable.
‘Well, has he called?’ Prue asked, as soon as the door was shut.
‘Just now. We’re meeting for a drink on Thursday.’
Prue squealed with delight, clasping her hands in front of her in anticipation. ‘Quick glass? You can fill me in.’
‘OK.’ She could do with some wine to steady her nerves. ‘But there’s nothing to tell.’
They perched on the stools in the kitchen.
‘What do you know about him?’ Flora asked, after giving Prue a verbatim account of her very brief phone call from Jake.
‘Not much really, except that he’s single.’ Prue laughed. ‘All you need to know really.’
‘Why isn’t he married?’
Prue shrugged. ‘Why aren’t you married?’ She must have seen Flora’s face fall, because she hurried on. ‘He’s only thirty-seven. Lots of men aren’t married by then. Plus he never stops working.’
‘So you don’t know about any girlfriends?’
‘Doh! He wouldn’t be asking you out if he had a girlfriend, now would he?’ Prue did one of the eye rolls she kept specially for anything to do with Flora’s frustratingly single status.
‘I certainly hope not.’
Prue frowned. ‘You will go, won’t you? I know you, Flora Bancroft. You’ll invent some feeble excuse and cry off at the last minute.’
How perceptive, thought Flora. ‘OK … just one drink. But I reserve the right to not like him enough and not go out with him ever again, no matter what you say.’
‘Christ, darling! You’d think I was forcing you on a date with Quasimodo … or worse, Simon Cowell. Jake’s a poppet. How bad can it be, having a drink with a cute guy in a cool bar of a Thursday night?’
‘Put like that,’ Flora grinned.
‘No helping some people,’ her sister chuckled, looking pleased with herself.
By Thursday, Flora was a bag of nerves. The old lady had recovered her spirits over the course of the week, and they had settled back into their normal routine – but neither Flora nor Mary had managed to get to the bottom of what had been bothering Dorothea.
Flora was meeting Jake at nine. She could have gone straight from work, but that would have meant changing and getting ready in Dorothea’s flat. Instead, she raced home and had a shower, threw almost her entire wardrobe on the bed before deciding on black jeans, a lacy cream top and black pumps. It would do, she told herself.
He was already there when she arrived, sitting at a table in the corner of the room. The bar was manic: loud and drunk and young and very Thursday night. Flora wasn’t used to the noise or the crowded space, but she was grateful for it nonetheless. It masked her nervous tension.
Jake, on the other hand, seemed perfectly at ease. He rose to greet her, his boyish face breaking out into a big smile.
‘Hi, there. Great you could make it. What’ll it be?’ He pulled a face as a guy stumbled drunkenly into the table as he went past, clutching an empty cocktail glass. ‘Bit crazy in here. Would you rather go somewhere quieter?’
Flora shook her head. ‘No, it’s fun.’ She didn’t want to seem her age, even if she felt it in this melee of twenty-somethings. She asked for a beer.
‘Nothing stronger? How about a cocktail? They do fantastic margaritas here.’
She hesitated. She hadn’t eaten, but the thought of a heavy shot of alcohol right now was very appealing. ‘Oh, OK. Make it a margarita then.’
Jake smiled approvingly. In for a penny, Flora thought.
‘You look great,’ Jake said later, eyeing her over his drink, a flirtatious smile hovering around his mouth.
‘Thanks,’ she muttered, not believing a word and concentrating hard on the purple tortilla chip in her hand, a bowl of which had been delivered with the order.