13

Patrick stood on the edge of the track, jogging on the spot, his new Nike T-shirt and shorts sticking slightly to his damp limbs. I had stopped by to say hello and to tell him that I wouldn’t be at the Triathlon Terrors meeting at the pub that evening. Nathan was off, and I had stepped in to take over the evening routine.

“That’s three meetings you’ve missed.”

“Is it?” I counted back on my fingers. “I suppose it is.”

“You’ll have to come next week. It’s all the travel plans for the Xtreme Viking. And you haven’t told me what you want to do for your birthday.” He began to do his stretches, lifting his leg high and pressing his chest to his knee. “I thought maybe the cinema? I don’t want to do a big meal, not while I’m training.”

“Ah. Mum and Dad are planning a special dinner.”

He grabbed at his heel, pointing his knee to the ground.

I couldn’t help but notice that his leg was becoming weirdly sinewy.

“It’s not exactly a night out, is it?”

“Well, nor is the multiplex. Anyway, I feel like I should, Patrick. Mum’s been a bit down.”

Treena had moved out the previous weekend (minus my lemons washbag). Mum was devastated; it was actually worse than when Treena had gone to university the first time around. She missed Thomas like an amputated limb. His toys, which had littered the living-room floor since babyhood, were boxed up and put away. There were no chocolate fingers or small cartons of drink in the cupboard. She no longer had a reason to walk to the school at 3:15 P.M., nobody to chat to on the short walk home. It had been the only time Mum ever really spent outside the house. Now she went nowhere at all, apart from the weekly supermarket shopping with Dad.

She floated around the house looking a bit lost for three days, then she began spring cleaning with a vigor that frightened even Granddad. He would mouth gummy protests at her as she tried to vacuum under the chair that he was still sitting in or flick at his shoulders with her duster. Treena had said she wouldn’t come home for the first few weeks, just to give Thomas a chance to settle in. When she rang each evening, Mum would speak to them and then cry for a full half hour in her bedroom afterward.

“You’re always working late these days. I feel like I hardly see you.”

“Well, you’re always training. Anyway, it’s good money, Patrick. I’m hardly going to say no to the overtime.”

He couldn’t argue with that.

I was earning more than I had ever earned in my life. I doubled the amount I gave my parents, put some aside into a savings account every month, and I was still left with more than I could spend. Part of it was, I worked so many hours that I was never away from Granta House when the shops were open. The other was, simply, that I didn’t really have an appetite for spending. The spare hours I did have I had started to spend in the library, looking things up on the Internet.

There was a whole world available to me from that PC, layer upon layer of it, and it had begun to exert a siren call.

It had started with the thank-you letter. A couple of days after the concert, I told Will I thought we should write and thank his friend, the violinist.

“I bought a nice card on the way in,” I said. “You tell me what you want to say, and I’ll write it. I’ve even brought in my good pen.”

“I don’t think so,” Will said.

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“You don’t think so? That man gave us front-of-house seats. You said yourself it was fantastic. The least you could do is thank him.”

Will’s jaw was fixed, immovable.

I put down my pen. “Or are you just so used to people giving you stuff that you don’t feel you have to?”

“You have no idea, Clark, how frustrating it is to rely on someone else to put your words down for you. The phrase ‘written on behalf of’ is…humiliating.”

“Yeah? Well, it’s still better than a great big fat nothing,” I grumbled. “I’m going to thank him, anyway. I won’t mention your name, if you really want to be an arse about it.”

I wrote the card, and posted it. I said nothing more about it. But that evening, with Will’s words still echoing around my head, I found myself diverting into the library. I looked up whether there were any devices that Will could use to do his own writing. Within an hour, I had come up with three—a piece of voice recognition software, another type of software that relied on the blinking of an eye, and, as my sister had mentioned, a tapping device that Will could wear on his head.

He was predictably sniffy about the head device, but he conceded that the voice recognition software might be useful, and within a week we managed, with Nathan’s help, to install it on his computer, setting Will up so that with the computer tray fixed to his chair, he no longer needed someone else to type for him. He was self-conscious about it initially, but after I instructed him to begin everything with “Take a letter, Miss Clark,” he got over it.

Even Mrs. Traynor couldn’t find anything to complain about. “If there is any other equipment that you think might be useful,” she said, her lips still pursed as if she couldn’t quite believe this might have been a straightforwardly good thing, “do let us know.” Three days later, just as I set off for work, the postman handed me a letter. I opened it on the bus, thinking it might be an early birthday card from some distant cousin. It read, in computerized text:

Dear Clark,

This is to show you that I am not an entirely selfish arse. And I do appreciate your efforts.

Thank you. Will

I laughed so hard the bus driver asked me if my lottery numbers had come up.

After years in that box room, my clothes perched on a rail in the hallway outside, Treena’s bedroom felt palatial. The first night I spent in it I spun around with my arms outstretched, just luxuriating in the fact that I couldn’t touch both walls simultaneously. I went to the DIY store and bought paint and new blinds, as well as a new bedside light and some shelves, which I assembled myself. It’s not that I’m good at that stuff; I guess I just wanted to see if I could do it.

I set about redecorating, painting for an hour a night after I came home from work, and at the end of the week even Dad had to admit I’d done a really good job. He stared for a bit at my cutting in, fingered the blinds that I had put up myself, and put his hand on my shoulder. “This job has been the making of you, Lou.”

I bought a new duvet cover, a rug, and some oversized cushions—just in case anyone ever stopped by, and fancied lounging. Not that anyone did. The calendar went on the back of the new door. Nobody saw it except for me. Nobody else would have known what it meant, anyway.

I went to work each day thinking about other places I could take Will. I didn’t have any overall plan, I just focused each day on getting him out and about and trying to keep him happy. There were some days—days when his limbs burned, or when infection claimed him and he lay miserable and feverish in bed—that were harder than others. But on the good days I had managed several times to get him out into the spring sunshine. I knew now that one of the things Will hated most was the pity of strangers, so I drove him to local beauty spots, where for an hour or so it could be just the two of us. I made picnics and we sat out on the edges of fields, just enjoying the breeze and being away from the annex.

“My boyfriend wants to meet you,” I told him one afternoon, breaking off pieces of cheese-and-pickle sandwich for him.

I had driven several miles out of town, up onto a hill, and we could see the castle across the valley opposite, separated from us by fields of lambs.

“Why?”

“He wants to know who I’m spending all these late nights with.”

Oddly, I could see he found this quite cheering.

“Running Man.”

“I think my parents do too.”

“I get nervous when a girl says she wants me to meet her parents. How is your mum, anyway?”

“The same.”

“Your dad’s job? Any news?”

“No. Next week, they’re telling him now. Anyway, they said did I want to invite you to my birthday dinner on Friday? All very relaxed. Just family, really. But it’s fine…I said you wouldn’t want to.”

“Who says I wouldn’t want to?”

“You hate strangers. You don’t like eating in front of people. And you don’t like the sound of my boyfriend. It seems like a no-brainer to me.”

I had worked him out now. The best way to get Will to do anything was to tell him you knew he wouldn’t want to. Some obstinate, contrary part of him still couldn’t bear it.

Will chewed for a minute. “No. I’ll come to your birthday. It’ll give your mother something to focus on, if nothing else.”

“Really? Oh God, if I tell her she’ll start polishing and dusting this evening.”

“Are you sure she’s your biological mother? Isn’t there supposed to be some kind of genetic similarity there? Sandwich, please, Clark. And more pickle on the next bit.”

I had been only half joking. Mum went into a complete tailspin at the thought of hosting a quadriplegic. Her hands flew to her face, and then she started rearranging stuff on the dresser, as if he were going to arrive within minutes of me telling her.

“But what if he needs to go to the loo? We don’t have a downstairs bathroom. I don’t think Daddy would be able to carry him upstairs. I could help…but I’d feel a bit worried about where to put my hands. Would Patrick do it?”

“You don’t need to worry about that side of things. Really.”

“And what about his food? Will he need his pureed? Is there anything he can’t eat?”

“No, he just needs help picking it up.”

“Who’s going to do that?”

“I will. Relax, Mum. He’s nice. You’ll like him.”

And so it was arranged. Nathan would pick up Will and drive him over, and would come by two hours later to take him home again and run through the nighttime routine. I had offered, but they both insisted I should “let my hair down” on my birthday. They plainly hadn’t met my parents.

At half past seven on the dot, I opened the door to find Will and Nathan on the front porch. Will was wearing his smart shirt and jacket. I didn’t know whether to be pleased that he had made the effort or worried that my mum would now spend the first hour of the night worrying that she hadn’t dressed smartly enough.

“Hey, you.”

My dad emerged into the hallway behind me. “Aha. Was the ramp okay, lads?” He had spent all afternoon making the particleboard ramp for the outside steps.

Nathan carefully negotiated Will’s chair up and into our narrow hallway. “Nice,” Nathan said, as I closed the door behind him. “Very nice. I’ve seen worse in hospitals.”

“Bernard Clark.” Dad reached out and shook Nathan’s hand. He held it out toward Will, before snatching it away again with a sudden flush of embarrassment. “Bernard. Sorry, um…I don’t know how to greet a…I can’t shake your—” He began to stutter.

“A curtsy will be fine.”

Dad stared at him and then, when he realized Will was joking, he let out a great laugh of relief. “Hah!” he said, and clapped Will on the shoulder. “Yes. Curtsy. Nice one. Hah!”

It broke the ice. Nathan left with a wave and a wink, and I wheeled Will through to the kitchen. Mum, luckily, was holding a casserole dish, which absolved her of the same anxiety.

“Mum, this is Will. Will, Josephine.”

“Josie, please.” She beamed at him, her oven gloves up to her elbows. “Lovely to meet you finally, Will.”

“Pleased to meet you,” he said. “Don’t let me interrupt.”

She put down the dish and her hand went to her hair, always a good sign with my mother. It was a shame she hadn’t remembered to take an oven glove off first.

“Sorry,” she said. “Roast dinner. It’s all in the timing, you know.”

“Not really,” Will said. “I’m not a cook. But I love good food. It’s why I have been looking forward to tonight.”

“So…” Dad opened the fridge. “How do we do this? Do you have a special beer…cup, Will?”

If it was Dad, I told Will, he would have had an adapted beer cup before he had a wheelchair.

“Got to get your priorities right,” Dad said. I rummaged in Will’s bag until I found his beaker.

“Beer will be fine. Thank you.”

He took a sip and I stood in the kitchen, suddenly conscious of our tiny, shabby house with its 1980s wallpaper and dented kitchen cupboards. Will’s home was elegantly furnished, its décor spare and beautiful. Our house looked as if 90 percent of its contents came from the local pound shop. Thomas’s dog-eared paintings covered every unoccupied surface of wall. But if he had noticed, Will said nothing. He and Dad had quickly found a shared point of reference, which turned out to be my general uselessness. I didn’t mind. It kept them both happy.

“Did you know, she once drove backward into a postbox and swore it was the postbox’s fault…”

“You want to see her lowering my ramp. It’s like Ski Sunday coming out of that car sometimes…”

Dad burst out laughing.

I left them to it. Mum followed me out, fretting. She put a tray of glasses on the dining table, then glanced up at the clock. “Where’s Patrick?”

“He was coming straight from training,” I said. “Perhaps he’s been held up.”

“He couldn’t put it off just for your birthday? This chicken is going to be spoiled if he’s much longer.”

“Mum, it will be fine.”

I waited until she had put the tray down, and then I slid my arms around her and gave her a hug. She was rigid with anxiety. I felt a sudden wave of sympathy for her. It couldn’t be easy being my mother.

“Really. It will be fine.”

She let go of me, kissed the top of my head, and brushed her hands down her apron. “I wish your sister was here. It seems wrong to have a celebration without her.”

Not to me, it didn’t. Just for once, I was quite enjoying being the focus of attention. It might sound childish, but it was true. I loved having Will and Dad laughing about me. I loved the fact that every element of supper—from roast chicken to chocolate mousse—was my favorite. I liked the fact that I could be who I wanted to be without my sister’s voice reminding me of who I had been.

The doorbell rang, and Mum flapped her hands. “There he is. Lou, why don’t you start serving?”

Patrick was still flushed from his exertions at the track. “Happy birthday, babe,” he said, stooping to kiss me. He smelled of aftershave and deodorant and warm, recently showered skin.

“Best go straight through.” I nodded toward the living room. “Mum’s having a timing meltdown.”

“Oh.” He glanced down at his watch. “Sorry. Must have lost track of time.”

“Not your time, though, eh?”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

Dad had moved the big gateleg table into the living room. He had also, on my instruction, moved one of the sofas to the other wall so that Will would be able to enter the room unobstructed. Will maneuvered his wheelchair to the place I pointed to, and then elevated himself a little so that he would be the same height as everyone else. I sat on his left, and Patrick sat opposite. He and Will and Granddad nodded their hellos. I had already warned Patrick not to try to shake Will’s hand. Even as I sat down I could feel Will studying Patrick, and I wondered, briefly, whether he would be as charming to my boyfriend as he had been to my parents.

Will inclined his head toward me. “If you look in the back of the chair, there’s a little something for the dinner.”

I leaned back and reached my hand downward into his bag. I pulled it up again, retrieving a bottle of Laurent-Perrier champagne.

“You should always have champagne on your birthday,” he said.

“Oh, look at that,” Mum said, bringing in the plates. “How lovely! But we have no champagne glasses.”

“These will be fine,” Will said.

“I’ll open it.” Patrick reached for it, unwound the wire, and placed his thumbs under the cork. He kept glancing over at Will, as if Will were not what he had expected at all.

“If you do that,” Will observed, “it’s going to go everywhere.” He lifted his arm an inch or so, gesturing vaguely. “I find that holding the cork and turning the bottle tends to be a safer bet.”

“There’s a man who knows his champagne,” Dad said. “There you go, Patrick. Turning the bottle, you say? Well, who knew?”

“I knew,” Patrick said. “That’s how I was going to do it.”

The champagne was safely popped and poured, and my birthday was toasted.

Granddad called out something that may well have been “Hear, hear.”

I stood up and bowed. I was wearing a 1960s yellow A-line minidress I had got from the thrift shop. The woman had thought it might be Biba, although someone had cut the label out.

“May this be the year our Lou finally grows up,” Dad said. “I was going to say ‘does something with her life’ but it seems like she finally is. I have to say, Will, since she’s had the job with you she’s—well, she’s really come out of herself.”

“We’re very proud,” Mum said. “And grateful. To you. For employing her, I mean.”

“Gratitude’s all mine,” Will said. He glanced sideways at me.

“To Lou,” Dad said. “And her continued success.”

“And to absent family members,” Mum said.

“Blimey,” I said. “I should have a birthday more often. Most days you all just hurl abuse at me.”

They began to talk, Dad telling some other story about me that made him and Mum laugh out loud. It was good to see them laughing. Dad had looked so worn down these last weeks, and Mum had been hollow-eyed and distracted, as if her real self were always elsewhere. I wanted to savor these moments, of them briefly forgetting their troubles, in shared jokes and familial fondness. Just for a moment, I realized I wouldn’t have minded if Thomas was there. Or Treena, for that matter.