“Wake up, Tess.” Sophie leans in closer to me. “Stealth approach, two o’clock.”
I blink and pull myself back into the present, glancing over my shoulder to see two men approaching our table, creased shirts and red faces a sure sign they’ve been here a while. Not bad-looking, but neither does anything for me.
“Are you interested?”
Sophie pulls a face and shakes her head.
I grin. “Okay—so who am I?”
Sophie looks at me. “You’re . . . Tanya Nibbington, a tree surgeon from Norfolk, here visiting a friend, celebrating graduating from tree surgeon college.”
My smile widens. “There’s a tree surgeon college? In Norfolk?”
She shrugs. “What am I?”
“Maeve Larson, undercover detective over from Sweden. Working on a case.”
She drains her drink. “Nice.”
“Or . . .” They’re almost through the crowd to our table. “Or we could just tell them to buzz off and enjoy our girls’ night.”
“Is that what you want? If you want to go somewhere quieter and talk . . . ?” She says it quietly and seriously and it makes me aware of how off I’ve been tonight.
I’m not being fair. We play this game a lot. We come to this pub a lot. It’s full of city boys, looking for a pickup. I’m rarely interested, but since Sophie turned thirty she’s become keener than ever to “meet the one” and we’re here for her. But I don’t think he’s going to be here, in a sweaty shirt, five pints down on a Tuesday night.
I squeeze her hand. “Don’t be daft. I’m fine, and we don’t want to miss the chance of finding your Prince Charming, do we?”
“It’s all right for you, Tess, you’re twenty-six. Oceans of time before you’re old and wrinkled and on the shelf like me.”
I laugh at her. Sophie looks about twenty-two.
“But really?” I say, nodding toward the approaching sharks.
She sighs. “You’re right, you’re right. We should be going anyway—I’ve got twelfth graders first thing in the morning and I won’t survive the class with a hangover.”
“Ladies . . .” Creased shirt number one has reached the table. He crouches down, drapes his arms across our chairs. He smells of beer and sweat.
“Did you want our table?” I ask. “We’re just leaving.”
I stand up just as creased shirt number two arrives and manage to bump into him.
“Ah—don’t go. We wanted to buy you a drink.”
Creased shirt number one has said something to make Sophie laugh and I roll my eyes.
“Come on, Maeve Larson,” I say, pulling on her arm. “We’ve got school in the morning.”
“School?” This is from creased shirt number two, sounding alarmed. “You two are still in school?”
I swallow the urge to laugh. The lighting isn’t that dim in here—how much have they had to drink?
“That’s right,” I say. “We’re both fifteen. Still want to buy us that drink?”
“You are such a cow,” Sophie says after they’ve fled, stumbling over chairs in their haste to get away from us. “He wasn’t bad close up.”
“Oh, please—you would have hated yourself in the morning. And he would never have called again.”
“But I wanted to be Maeve Larson, top detective with fourteen brothers and sisters. And you—I would have called you Nibs as a nickname and you could have told them all about your charmed life as . . .”
“A single, broke woman. Living in a one-bedroom flat. Who has to be up for school in the morning to teach five classes of snarky teenagers.”
“Ugh. The truth does not make for a sexy story. Although do I really want fourteen brothers and sisters? Sometimes I wish I was an only child. My brother is twenty-five going on twelve and a total pain in the ass most of the time.”
I pause by the door to stare at a blond girl walking away from me. It’s another game I play a lot—the pounding heart, the twist in my gut when I see a blond girl in skinny jeans, or hear a laugh that sounds familiar, the tilt of a head. Sometimes I make myself look away. Sometimes I follow her, just to check, just to see . . .
Of course it can’t be her. Could never have been my sister.
“Shit,” Sophie mutters, going pale and touching my arm. “Sorry, Tess. I didn’t think—my crass remark about wanting to be an only child . . .”
I sometimes wish I’d never told Sophie about Bella—it’s such a tragic mess. It’s easier to be what I pretend to be to the rest of the world, my own permanent version of our games: an only child, a city girl with a nice flat and a good job.
“Oh God, I don’t want to go to school tomorrow,” Sophie says as we walk toward the bus stop.
I laugh and tuck my arm in hers. “A sentiment echoed by every kid we’re teaching tomorrow.”
“At least we get paid for it, I suppose. And I do love it most of the time.”
“Do you? Really love teaching?”
“Of course.” She sounds surprised. “Why on earth would I put myself through all the crap bits if I didn’t love it for the good bits?”
Do I love it? Even the good bits? Have I ever loved teaching, like properly “it’s-my-vocation” loved it? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself too often lately.
“Do you want to stay at my place tonight?” I say as I see a bus heading toward us. “It’s not late—we can be sensible and drink tea, but continue the evening.”
I’m feeling . . . melancholy. Flat. None of the night-out buzz I felt earlier, getting ready for two-for-one happy hour with my best friend.
“Aw, Tess, I can’t. I haven’t got any of my stuff with me and I can’t go to school tomorrow dressed like this.” She gestures down at her sequined skirt.
I smile. I laughed when she turned up earlier in sequins and high heels. If it’s over the top for a Tuesday night in town, it’s definitely over the top for teaching. “That’s fine. It was just a thought.”
“Are you okay? You’ve been a bit down tonight.”
“Things are . . . I’ve been having bad dreams. Bad thoughts that keep creeping in and . . .” Sophie frowns and I shake my head. “No, don’t worry. I shouldn’t have had gin-based cocktails, that’s all. Gin makes me maudlin.”
“But it’s not only tonight . . .” Her voice trails off and she sighs. “No, sorry. Not the time. But let’s catch up tomorrow, okay?”
She gets on her bus and I wave as it signals to pull away.
“Good night, Maeve Larson—I love you and your fourteen brothers and sisters!” I shout, and I see her laugh and blow a kiss through the window as the bus accelerates away.
My smile fades and I pull my coat closed as I wait at the empty shelter for my own bus and the bad thoughts crowd in around me to keep me company. I’m lucky, I tell myself. I have a good job—a great job. I have amazing friends. A flat of my own. My life is good. It is. All I need to do is believe it.
I’m late. I’m bloody late. I took forever to fall asleep last night and when I did my slumber was filled with tangled fragments of dark dreams that kept jerking me awake.
My phone buzzes—a message from Sophie: Where are u? Not still sleeping off the cocktails?????!
I call her. “I overslept! Can you—shit!” I bang my leg on the table and lean down to rub my calf through my trousers. “Can you cover for me?”
“Again? Oh Christ, Tess . . . I’ll try.”
Eight forty. Shit. It’s the third time this term I’ve been late and we’re only five weeks in. Sophie’s got her own class to teach—I can’t expect her to keep this from the head of the department for me.
The anxious knot in my stomach grows as I wait at the bus stop and it passes nine o’clock. There are going to be twenty-three teenagers waiting at school for their English lesson and I’m still fifteen minutes away. I’ve already had one verbal warning; this time it’s going to be a written one, a permanent warning on my record. I’m tempted to call in sick, pretend I was too ill to phone earlier, but I’ve already done that twice this term. Two missed days, three late days in less than half a term. I can’t lose this job. I can’t.
The bus comes and, despite my anxiety, I’m tempted to let it drive by. Same route to work, same walk at the other end. Every day, the same. I get this urge every so often to get on a different bus, ride it to the end of the route and see where I end up. Walk away from the school and the sick feeling I get in my gut when I sit in front of my first class, feeling like a fraud. What am I doing? That’s what I think on those days.
On the bus, I close my eyes and feel myself drifting, jerking awake with a start as my phone starts ringing at the bottom of my bag, a harsh interruption that has my fellow passengers staring at me. I fumble for it, hunched over, pausing before answering when I see it’s my dad.
“Tess?” His voice is faint, muffled.
“What’s wrong, Dad?” I know he’s not ringing for a casual chat. That’s our Sunday-night routine, ten minutes of talking where we fill the silence but say nothing at all.
“It’s . . . Julia. She’s home.”
There’s too long a silence as my brain scrabbles to make sense of his words. “Home? She’s better?”
His turn for silence. “No . . . there’s nothing more they can do. She wants to die at home.”
Breath gone, I lean back in the seat. It shouldn’t be a shock. Julia has been slowly dying for the past year. I’ve seen it on my too-infrequent visits to see her in the hospital. Less Julia, more shadow each time. But still . . . had I thought she would go on fighting forever? Maybe I had—she’s always been so bright and alive. All my most vivid memories of her from the beginning are of her bringing our house back to life—against our will at first. Well, mine and Bella’s at least. The three of us, after my mother died, were drifting along living a half-life, then along came Julia, so vibrant, a whirl of glaring color impossible to ignore or freeze out and, God, Bella and I resented that. We were so horribly hostile toward her at the beginning, but she never gave up trying, our so very not-wicked stepmother.
“Will you come home?”
Home? My throat closes at the thought. Go back to the house, to the village, to that fishbowl where everyone knows me and everyone knows what happened to Bella? I can’t be anonymous there, can’t be safe and invisible like I am here. If I go back home, will they all be there—Sean and Jack and Max and Lena? I can’t. Christ, what a reunion that would be. I can’t do it—can’t gather round Dad and Julia to watch Julia die when the last time we were all together was to watch them get married. The gap where Bella should be would be too huge and glaring. I just can’t.
“I . . . I can’t. I have work. It’s midway through the term and . . .”
“Please, Tess, she has no one else. Come for a weekend, at least. You haven’t been back here in so long. Jack and Sean . . . they won’t return my calls. I even tried tracking Greg down but no one seems to have any idea where he is. I’ve left messages for Max and Lena—their parents can’t get back from Spain until next month and that might be . . . I don’t want her to die alone.”
Jack and Sean—no, of course they wouldn’t bother, not even with their mother dying.
“Dad, I . . .” My voice trails off. What excuse can I possibly give?
“The doctor says she has weeks at the most.”
He doesn’t need to say anything else. Last chance, last chance for all of us to say goodbye, to say anything. What would I give for a last chance with Bella? With my mother? A last chance to say all the things I never got to say because I thought I had forever to say them.
I glance up. We’re approaching my stop. “Dad, I have to go. I’m already late.”
“But Tess . . .”
“I’ll call you later, okay?”
I end the call and drop the phone into my bag, getting up as the bus stops. God, I want to run back to my flat, climb into bed, still dressed, and pull the covers over my head. I force myself to take deep, slow breaths, pushing away the panic Dad’s call has elicited. Stupid to be scared of a place. My fear is irrational, but it invades my dreams at night. Not the house, but the woods, that’s where my dreams relentlessly take me. Back to West Dean, back to the woods, back to Bella’s body.
* * *
I have a tenth-grade class first. By the time I get to school, the class is almost over. I rush in, apologizing to Sophie, who’s struggling to make herself heard over the noise. Half the class are on their phones, the other half talking among themselves. Not a single one of them has their textbook open. Sorry, I mouth to Sophie, who raises her eyebrows and leans in toward me.
“You’re lucky. I had twelfth graders first thing—I’ve left them with revision.”
Lucky. Yes, that’s me. I think of Dad’s call and shake my head. I might have gotten away with it this time, but I can’t ask for time off now, not when I’m sailing so close to the wind. Julia would understand.
Sophie comes over as I’m pouring a coffee in the staffroom at break time.
“What’s going on, Tess? You look . . .”
A mess. I know I look a mess. Curls wild, eyes dark-circled, my shirt as creased as the ones those guys from last night were wearing. I stayed up way too late, putting off this morning and avoiding sleep.
“My stepmother’s home. There’s nothing more they can do.” “Oh God, I’m sorry.”
I told Sophie about Julia’s cancer on another melancholy gin night.
“Dad wants me to go home.”
“Of course. Of course you should go home.”
“How can I? I was late again this morning. Karen will be gunning for me if I ask for more time off.”
“But it’s Friday the day after tomorrow. You could go home for the weekend, couldn’t you? It’s not that far.”
It is, though. Way too far. Not in physical distance. That’s easy enough to travel.
Sophie doesn’t understand. Because I haven’t told her enough about Bella—how it happened, what happened. Or the wedding. Or Julia’s family.
“I can’t go back,” I say, draining my coffee. “I have a mountain of marking to catch up on over the weekend. Lesson plans as well.”
“But . . .”
The buzzer goes off, signaling the end of break. “Back to class,” I say, walking away from Sophie.
She doesn’t get it. I can’t go back.