Two weeks passed and with them emerged a routine of sorts. Every morning I would arrive at Granta House at eight, call out that I was there, and then, after Nathan had finished helping Will dress, listen carefully while he told me what I needed to know about Will’s meds—or, more important, his mood.
After Nathan had left I would program the radio or television for Will, dispense his pills, sometimes crushing them with the little marble pestle and mortar. Usually, after ten minutes or so he would make it clear that he was weary of my presence. At this point I would eke out the little annex’s domestic tasks, washing tea towels that weren’t dirty, or using random vacuum attachments to clean tiny bits of skirting or windowsill, religiously popping my head around the door every fifteen minutes as Mrs. Traynor had instructed. When I did, he would be sitting in his chair looking out into the bleak garden.
Later I might take him a drink of water, or one of the calorie-filled drinks that were supposed to keep his weight up and looked like pastel-colored wallpaper paste, or give him his food. He could move his hands a little, but not his arm, so he had to be fed forkful by forkful. This was the worst part of the day; it seemed wrong, somehow, spoon-feeding a grown man, and my embarrassment made me clumsy and awkward. Will hated it so much he wouldn’t even meet my eye while I was doing it.
And then shortly before one, Nathan would arrive and I would grab my coat and disappear to walk the streets, sometimes eating my lunch in the bus shelter outside the castle. It was cold, and I probably looked pathetic perched there eating my sandwiches, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t spend a whole day in that house.
In the afternoon I would put a film on—Will had a membership in a DVD club and new films arrived by post every day—but he never invited me to watch with him, so I’d usually go and sit in the kitchen or in the spare room. I started bringing in a book or magazine, but I felt oddly guilty not actually working, and I could never quite concentrate on the words. Occasionally, at the end of the day, Mrs. Traynor would pop in—although she never said much to me, other than “Everything all right?” to which the only acceptable answer seemed to be “Yes.”
She would ask Will if he wanted anything, occasionally suggest something he might like to do the next day—some outing, or visit some friend who had asked after him—and he would almost always answer dismissively, if not with downright rudeness. She would look pained, run her fingers up and down that little gold chain, and disappear again.
His father, a well-padded, gentle-looking man, usually came in as I was leaving. He was the kind of man you might see watching cricket in a Panama hat, and he had apparently overseen the management of the castle since retiring from his well-paid job in the city. I suspected this was like a benign landowner planting the odd potato just “to keep his hand in.” He finished every day at 5 P.M. promptly and would sit and watch television with Will. Sometimes I heard him making some remark about whatever was on the news as I left.
I got to study Will Traynor up close, in those first couple of weeks. I saw that he seemed determined not to look anything like the man he had been; he had let his light-brown hair grow into a shapeless mess, his stubble crawl across his jaw. His gray eyes were lined with exhaustion, or the effect of constant discomfort (Nathan said he was rarely comfortable). They bore the hollow look of someone who was always a few steps removed from the world around him. Sometimes I wondered if it was a defense mechanism, whether the only way to cope with his life was to pretend it wasn’t him it was happening to.
I wanted to feel sorry for him. I really did. I thought he was the saddest person I had ever met, in those moments when I glimpsed him staring out the window. And as the days went by and I realized that his condition was not just a matter of being stuck in that chair, of the loss of physical freedom, but a never-ending litany of indignities and health problems, of risks and discomforts, I decided that if I were Will, I would probably be pretty miserable too.
But, oh Lord, he was vile to me. Everything I said, he had a sharp answer for. If I asked him if he was warm enough, he would retort that he was quite capable of letting me know if he needed another blanket. If I asked if the vacuum cleaner was too noisy for him—I hadn’t wanted to interrupt his film—he asked me, Why, had I worked out a way to make it run silently? When I fed him, he complained that the food was too hot or too cold, or that I had brought the next forkful up to his mouth before he had finished the last. He had the ability to twist almost anything I said or did so that I seemed stupid.
During those first two weeks, I got quite good at keeping my face completely blank, and I would turn away and disappear into the other room and just say as little to him as I possibly could. I started to hate him, and I’m sure he knew it.
I hadn’t realized it was possible to miss my old job more than I already did. I missed Frank, and the way he actually looked pleased to see me when I arrived in the morning. I missed the customers, their company, and the easy chatter that swelled and dipped gently like a benign sea around me. This house, beautiful and expensive as it was, was as still and silent as a morgue. Six months, I repeated under my breath, when it felt unbearable. Six months.
And then on Thursday, just as I was mixing Will’s midmorning, high-calorie drink, I heard Mrs. Traynor’s voice in the hall. Except this time there were other voices too. I waited, the spoon stilled in my hand. I could just make out a woman’s voice, young, well-spoken, and a man’s.
Mrs. Traynor appeared in the kitchen doorway, and I tried to look busy, whisking briskly at the beaker.
“Is that made up with sixty-forty water and milk?” she asked, peering at the drink.
“Yes. It’s the strawberry one.”
“Will’s friends have come to see him. It would probably be best if you—”
“I’ve got lots of things I should be doing in here,” I said. I was actually quite relieved that I would be spared his company for an hour or so. I screwed the lid onto the beaker. “Would your guests like some tea or coffee?”
She looked almost surprised. “Yes. That would be very kind. Coffee. I think I’ll…”
She seemed even more tense than usual, her eyes darting toward the corridor, from where we could hear the low murmur of voices. I guessed that Will didn’t get many visitors.
“I think…I’ll leave them all to it.” She gazed out into the corridor, her thoughts apparently far away. “Rupert. It’s Rupert, his old friend from work,” she said, suddenly turning toward me.
I got the feeling that this was in some way momentous, and that she needed to share it with someone, even if it was just me.
“And Alicia. They were…very close…for a bit. Coffee would be lovely. Thank you, Miss Clark.”
I hesitated a moment before I opened the door, leaning against it with my hip so that I could balance the tray in my hands.
“Mrs. Traynor said you might like some coffee,” I said as I entered, placing the tray on the low table. As I put Will’s beaker in the holder of his chair, turning the straw so that he needed to adjust only his head position to reach it, I sneaked a look at his visitors.
It was the woman I noticed first. Long-legged and blond, with pale caramel skin, she was the kind of woman who makes me wonder if all humans really are the same species. She looked like a human racehorse. I had seen these women occasionally; they were usually bouncing up the hill to the castle, clutching small Boden-clad children, and when they came into the café their voices would carry, crystal clear and unself-conscious, as they asked, “Harry, darling, would you like a coffee? Shall I see if they can do you a macchiato?” This was definitely a macchiato woman. Everything about her smelled of money, of entitlement, and a life lived as if through the pages of a glossy magazine.
Then I looked at her more closely and realized with a jolt that (a) she was the woman in Will’s skiing photograph, and (b) she looked really, really uncomfortable.
She had kissed Will on the cheek and was now stepping backward, smiling awkwardly. She was wearing a brown shearling gilet, the kind of thing that would have made me look like a yeti, and a pale-gray cashmere scarf around her neck, which she began to fiddle with, as if she couldn’t decide whether to unwrap herself or not.
“You look well,” she said to him. “Really. You’ve…grown your hair a bit.”
Will didn’t say a thing. He was just looking at her, his expression as unreadable as ever. I felt a fleeting gratitude that it wasn’t just me he looked at like that.
“New chair, eh?” The man tapped the back of Will’s chair, chin compressed, nodding in approval as if he were admiring a top-of-the-line sports car. “Looks…pretty smart. Very…high-tech.”
I didn’t know what to do. I stood there for a moment, shifting from one foot to the other, until Will’s voice broke into the silence.
“Louisa, would you mind putting some more logs on the fire? I think it needs building up a bit.”
It was the first time he had used my Christian name.
“Sure,” I said.
I busied myself by the log burner, stoking the fire and sorting through the basket for logs of the right size.
“Gosh, it’s cold outside,” the woman said. “Nice to have a proper fire.”
I opened the door of the wood burner, prodding at the glowing logs with the poker.
“It’s a good few degrees colder here than London.”
“Yes, definitely,” the man agreed.
“I was thinking of getting a wood burner at home. Apparently they’re much more efficient than an open fire.” Alicia stooped a little to inspect this one, as if she’d never actually seen one before.
“Yes, I’ve heard that,” said the man.
“I must look into it. One of those things you mean to do and then…” After a pause she added, “Lovely coffee.”
“So—what have you been up to, Will?” The man’s voice held a kind of forced joviality to it.
“Not very much, funnily enough.”
“But the physio and stuff. Is it all coming on? Any…improvement?”
“I don’t think I’ll be skiing anytime soon, Rupert,” Will said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
I almost smiled to myself. This was the Will I knew. I began brushing ash from the hearth. I had the feeling that they were all watching me. The silence felt loaded. I wondered briefly whether the label was sticking out of my sweater and fought the urge to check.
“So…,” Will said finally. “To what do I owe this pleasure? It’s been…eight months?”
“Oh, I know. I’m sorry. It’s been…I’ve been awfully busy. I have a new job over in Chelsea. Managing Sasha Goldstein’s boutique. Do you remember Sasha? I’ve been doing a lot of weekend work too. It gets terribly busy on Saturdays. Very hard to get time off.” Alicia’s voice had become brittle. “I did ring a couple of times. Did your mother tell you?”
“Things have been pretty manic at Lewins. You…you know what it’s like, Will. We’ve got a new partner. Chap from New York. Bains. Dan Bains. You come up against him at all?”
“Bloody man seems to work twenty-four hours a day and expects everyone else to do the same.” You could hear the man’s palpable relief at having found a topic he was comfortable with. “You know the old Yank work ethic—no more long lunches, no smutty jokes—Will, I tell you. The whole atmosphere of the place has changed.”
“Oh God, yes. Presenteeism writ large. Sometimes I feel like I daren’t leave my chair.”
All the air seemed to disappear from the room in a vacuumed rush. Someone coughed.
I stood up, and wiped my hands on my jeans. “I’ll…I’m just going to fetch some more logs,” I muttered, in Will’s general direction.
And I picked up the basket and fled.
It was freezing outside, but I lingered out there, killing time while I selected pieces of wood. I was trying to calculate whether it was preferable to lose the odd finger to frostbite rather than put myself back into that room. But it was just too cold and my index finger, which I use for sewing stuff, went blue first and finally I had to admit defeat. As I approached the living room I heard the woman’s voice, weaving its way through the slightly open door.
“Actually, Will, there is another reason for us coming here,” she was saying. “We…have some news.”
I hesitated by the door, the log basket braced between my hands.
“I thought—well, we thought—that it would only be right to let you know…but, well, here’s the thing. Rupert and I are getting married.”
I stood very still, calculating whether I could turn around without being heard.
The woman continued, lamely. “Look, I know this is probably a bit of a shock to you. Actually, it was rather a shock to me. We—it—well, it only really started a long time after…”
My arms had begun to ache. I glanced down at the basket, trying to work out what to do.
“Well, you know you and I…we…”
Another weighty silence.
“Will, please say something.”
“Congratulations,” he said finally.
“I know what you’re thinking. But neither of us meant for this to happen. Really. For an awfully long time we were just friends. Friends who were concerned about you. It’s just that Rupert was the most terrific support to me after your accident—”
“Big of him.”
“Please don’t be like this. This is so awful. I have absolutely dreaded telling you. We both have.”
“Evidently,” Will said flatly.
Rupert’s voice broke in. “Look, we’re only telling you because we both care about you. We didn’t want you to hear it from someone else. But, you know, life goes on. You must know that. It’s been two years, after all.”
There was silence. I realized I did not want to listen to any more, and started to move softly away from the door, grunting slightly with the effort. But Rupert’s voice, when it came again, had grown in volume so that I could still hear him.
“Come on, man. I know it must be terribly hard…all this. But if you care for Lissa at all, you must want her to have a good life.”
“Say something, Will. Please.”
I could picture his face. I could see that look of his that managed both to be unreadable and to convey a kind of distant contempt.
“Congratulations,” he said again. “I’m sure you’ll both be very happy.”
Alicia started to protest then—something indistinct—but was interrupted by Rupert. “Come on, Lissa. I think we should leave. Will, it’s not like we came here expecting your blessing. It was a courtesy. Lissa thought—well, we both just thought—you should know. Sorry, old chap. I…I do hope things improve for you and I hope you do want to stay in touch when things…you know…when things settle down a bit.”
I heard footsteps, and stooped over the basket of logs, as if I had only just come in. I heard them in the corridor, and then Alicia appeared in front of me. Her eyes were red-rimmed, as if she were about to cry.
“Can I use the bathroom?” she said, her voice thick and choked.
I slowly lifted a finger and pointed mutely in its direction.
She looked at me hard then, and I realized that what I felt probably showed on my face. I have never been much good at hiding my feelings.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said, after a pause. “But I did try. I really tried. For months. And he just pushed me away.” Her jaw was rigid, her expression oddly furious. “He actually didn’t want me here. He made that very clear.”
She seemed to be waiting for me to say something.
“It’s really none of my business,” I said, eventually.
We both stood facing each other.
“You know, you can only actually help someone who wants to be helped,” she said.
And then she was gone.
I waited a few minutes, listening for the sound of their car disappearing down the drive, and then I went into the kitchen. I stood there and boiled the kettle even though I didn’t want a cup of tea. I flicked through a magazine that I had already read. Finally, I went back into the corridor and, with a grunt, picked up the log basket and hauled it into the living room, bumping it slightly on the door before I entered so that Will would know I was coming.
“I was wondering if you wanted me to—” I began.
But there was nobody there.
The room was empty.
It was then that I heard the crash. I ran out into the corridor just in time to hear another, followed by the sound of shattering glass. It was coming from Will’s bedroom. Oh God, please don’t let him have hurt himself. I panicked—Mrs. Traynor’s warning drilled through my head. I had left him for more than fifteen minutes.
I ran down the corridor, slid to a halt in the doorway, and stood, both hands gripping the door frame. Will was in the middle of the room, upright in his chair, a walking stick balanced across the armrests, so that it jutted eighteen inches to his left—a jousting stick. There was not a single photograph left on the long shelves; the expensive frames lay in pieces all over the floor, the carpet studded with glittering shards of glass. His lap was dusted with bits of glass and splintered wood frames. I took in the scene of destruction, feeling my heart rate slowly subside as I grasped that he was unhurt. Will was breathing hard, as if whatever he had done had cost him some effort.
His chair turned, crunching slightly on the glass. His eyes met mine. They were infinitely weary. They dared me to offer him sympathy.
I looked down at his lap, and then at the floor around him. I could just make out the picture of him and Alicia, her face now obscured by a bent silver frame, among the other casualties.
I swallowed, staring at it, and slowly lifted my eyes to his. Those few seconds were the longest I could remember.
“Can that thing get a puncture?” I said, finally, nodding at his wheelchair. “Because I have no idea where I would put the jack.”
His eyes widened. Just for a moment, I thought I had really blown it. But the faintest flicker of a smile passed across his face.
“Look, don’t move,” I said. “I’ll get the vacuum cleaner.”
I heard the walking stick drop to the floor. As I left the room, I thought I might have heard him say sorry.