For Life: a novella in progress 7

Seven: September

England had cooled and paled in her absence and no longer felt Mediterranean. Libby knew her own colour would soon drain too but for the moment the white dress made her look the kind of bronze she’d paid for on a sunbed in the past. Bee, who’d slept through most of the flight with a few murmured moans, was hungover and grumpy, but then she was back to work at the bar in a few hours. As they waited for their luggage, she muttered that she was desperate for a cigarette and would sneak one in the loo if her violet case didn’t appear on the conveyor belt soon.

   Like Lanzarote itself, Bee had been a lot less fun than Libby expected. When she’d told her she wouldn’t be repeating the experience, Bee had called her jealous, which provoked Libby into telling her that your average Cabinet minister was sexier than the guy she’d been shagging all fortnight. So Bee called her frigid.

   When Libby’s yellow suitcase bumped its way onto the conveyor belt she strode off to intercept it while Bee was occupied with her phone, and then carried on walking towards Customs. She wondered what her friend would do if she jumped into her dad’s saloon and told him to step on it like the getaway driver at a heist. On reflection she shouldn’t have abandoned him to a laptop that announced GRIEVING MUM DELETES VIRAL TRIBUTE TO ACTIVIST SON – even though it was a massive exaggeration. She could have got drunk with him instead, without lads in football shirts trying to grab her breasts to the sound of Ariana Grande. But three weeks later no one cared anymore. The only activists anyone talked about were the guys they called the Frack Free Four, who were apparently up in court soon: a date in her mother’s diary.

   She heard Bee running behind her, dragging her case behind until she caught her, swore and drew the glares of an elderly couple. Libby saw their point. But at the pick-up spot where James was waiting, he seemed relaxed and genial.

   “How was the holiday?”

   Libby had never felt lonelier but there was no one to tell. “Ask Bee.”

   “Great thanks, James. Sun, sea and sangria.” Bee was a nice girl now. She’d even got rid of her gum. Libby resented everything she said and did, the way she looked, her friendly smile.

   “You didn’t go near the sea.”

   “Not with you!” Bee winked at James but to give him credit, he either missed or ignored it.

   “How have you been, Dad?”

   “Oh, same old same old.”

   She hoped his sciatica hadn’t been giving him what he called gyp but he didn’t like to talk about it, preferring to keep the negatives to himself – for which Libby was grateful. She supposed there were loads of those at her parents’ age.

   “No more drama?” she asked with a wry smile. She wouldn’t have been surprised if Manda had posted an anniversary film that started with wedding pics and ended with Rob’s biodegradable pod being lowered into the ground. The music could be one of the rock choir hits James used to sing alongside his bit on the side.

   “None at all,” said James, eyes ahead as she fastened her seatbelt.

James could see the girls had fallen out again and opted for some classic BonJovi. As he drove away, Bee took a call that seemed to be from a boyfriend. He grinned at the fake Geordie accent she was using to tease him.

   “Don’t ask,” muttered Libby. “So have you seen Nick Gorski again?”

   “No.” He smiled. “Would you like to see him yourself?” he risked and gathered from her raised eyebrows that the answer was not as much as he’d like to see Tanya. He hadn’t been able to say, when the counsellor asked, what was so hard about calling Nick’s business number and asking for hers.

   “Dad, I’m not in the mood.” Pulling down the mirror, she noticed how tense she looked. “How’s Mum? Still at large?”

   “Oh, busy at the café I guess. They open on Sundays now.” He’d sent her flowers for their anniversary and she’d been touched; he could hear it in her voice. He wanted her to know things were all right, even if he’d never fully understand. He liked to think they were friends, or would be. “No Arms Fair this year so less chance of her calling from a police station to be rescued.”

  Libby said Manda’s singing was a crime whether she was sitting in the road or her bath. Her impression of her mother chanting Give Peace a Chance made him smile.

   “So, nothing you want to tell me?” he asked quietly, aware there was nothing he wanted to tell her. About one counselling session with a large, nervy woman in fringes that wouldn’t be followed by a second. Erotic dreams of Tanya interrupted by one of Manda. How he’d bunked off work one day to stand in the woodland where they buried Rob, and cried hard enough to scare himself into silence.

   In the back, Bee let loose a laugh he’d call extravagant. Libby began a lacklustre account of poolside novels and cocktails. It seemed the geology of the island had passed her by. There were times when James suspected Manda was right about flying. In fact he’d been considering a break in the Lake District or Cotswolds this autumn. Given how much fun Libby hadn’t had with booze by a pool, maybe she should do the same. But he’d let Manda be the one to suggest it.

   Maybe she was chilling out because the foot on the end of her crossed leg swung to the music. Behind them Bee lowered her voice as if she was saying something dirty but he couldn’t catch it.

   “Hi, Tanya. It’s James Craig.” Would she remember? “I was wondering whether you’d like to meet up for dinner/a show/ an exhibition.” He’d check the listings and make the call.

The Quaker women seemed disappointed that Skye was asleep in the buggy when she arrived at the Meeting House.

   “Gem! So glad you came back,” whispered the one who greeted her with a handshake, her eyes bright. She was elderly but looked pleased with her memory – which Gem couldn’t match. “You didn’t need to leave.” She looked down at Skye and smiled. “Bless her. Don’t worry at all if she wakes up and chatters. Just do what you need to do.”

   Gem thanked her and wheeled the buggy in, parking it behind the two concentric circles of dark red chairs. They were the only colour in the muted grey and white room. People who knew her ten years back would be shocked to see her in The Religious Society of Friends but she liked it last time – the welcome, the silence, the space to be herself without beliefs to sign up to.

   She left Skye sleeping and sat down in the larger circle within reach of the buggy. Already a dozen people sat still and quiet. Looking up at the arch-shaped window, she liked the way the view was different in every pane as it framed a gnarled old tree with young leaves. The blue of the sky was pale today but the light behind it felt strong.

   Some eyes were open, other closed; most hands rested on laps. A couple of people read from a fat red book called Faith and Practice but Gem just wanted to wait. To connect with something bigger than the days that came and went – something more hopeful than the world. Just for a while to feel whole. Or acceptably broken.

     A middle-aged woman in jeans and a plaid shirt rose, hands clasped in front of her. Gem wasn’t sure whether she was meant to look at her or keep her eyes down. The woman read about diversity and not judging others, about forgiveness and understanding. Gem repeated the last sentence in her head: “Remember that each one of us is unique, precious, a child of God.”

    God was a strange idea Gem had never understood, but the trees changed everything. Along with sunsets and rainbows and clouds, they came from a place that was mysterious and wild but pure. And so had Skye. The luminous numinous, Rob called it. People met it here; you could see that. Without fuss. And she’d met too many Quakers at protests not to give it a try.

   The silence knitted back the moment the woman sat down. Gem thought most people never experienced its softness. A kind of expanse, full of promise. She didn’t know whether she was meant to think or clear everything so truth could break in, or even whether the people around her were praying or meditating. But it felt safe. Looking at Skye, who hadn’t moved – not even to close the mouth that hung just slightly open – she was glad she’d come.

   She didn’t need magic. She didn’t even need to stop missing Rob because love and sadness were the same under the skin. And she wasn’t sure whatever she needed had a name.

Farah told Manda to stop watching the door; it was early yet. Manda had shown her Adam Browne’s picture, warning her – and herself – that he might be using one a decade old for his profile. A glance at her watch suggested that Libby would be home from the airport by now but unlikely to call until the café closed at four – by which time this blind date she’d helped to engineer would be over. A safe bit of recklessness given the public setting and Farah’s new Mother Hen routine, but still… it felt out of character, frivolous. A diversion.

   The place would need to fill up quickly or Farah would rethink Sunday opening. Manda turned to see two very middle-class women who might be Anglicans straight out of a service; they chose the corner table with a street view and looked around at the décor as if it was all rather a change from the church hall. The family that followed was led by a boy who informed everyone in the café that he wanted a Mocha with cream and marshmallows, and wasn’t happy when his pony-tailed father had a few quiet words about veganism.

   Manda was making discreet what a brat eye contact with Farah when a bearded man pushed the door open and looked straight at her. Adam Browne was rather fuller in the figure than she’d imagined and his beard had more grey but his smile was the same. He recognised her too, and raised a hand. Now none of this seemed the reckless anymore, not in the least.

   “Do you want to serve this gentleman?” Farah suggested.

   “Hi, Adam. I’m Manda. And I’ve just realised you’re my anagram.”

   “I know.” He smiled. “It’s great to meet you at last. I’ll start with a black coffee if I may.” He chose a table facing the counter and took off his linen jacket, which was crumpled. That seemed endearing until she realised there was no other way for a linen jacket to be.

   While she served the church women, who said they’d live dangerously with almond milk in their coffees, she felt watched. But when she turned he seemed absorbed in his phone.

   “Excuse me,” said one of the women, “but are you vegan yourself?”

   “Yes. For a few years now.”

   “Why is that? Is it an animal rights issue?”

   “Well yes, they have the right to live, same as us.” She knew he’d be able to hear. “But even if I approved of slaughterhouses and factory farming” – which would make her a psychopath, in fact – “I’d still be a vegan. It’s better…” She hated that lame phrase the environment. “It would cut greenhouse gas emissions dramatically” – she never remembered figures – “if everyone ate less meat and dairy.”

   They were making ah faces as if this was new to them.

   “It’s one of the ways I’ve reduced my carbon footprint,” continued Manda. “And I recommend it.” They looked a little awkward now; for all her edits she was being evangelical again and Farah would shake her head.

   “Thank you, dear,” the older one said. Pulling the plug.

   Manda stopped at Adam’s table. He looked up from his phone and smiled. “I’ll never eat a hog roast again.”

   “I should hope not.” He’d said he was veggie but ate too much junk food she she’d boasted about their menu.

   “Can you sit with me a few minutes or do I really have to wait until your lunchbreak?”

   She looked back at Farah who nodded. Manda sat, smoothed her apron and felt slightly shy. Which was odd given that on the phone she’d already told him things Libby didn’t know.

   “You’re a long way from home,” she said.

   “Only twenty-odd miles. It’s good to get away on a Sunday – from the pile of books to mark.” He showed her with his hand how tall that was.

   “I suspect you of exaggeration.”

   “You don’t know many teachers.”

   Flirting now. Manda didn’t think she’d ever been any good at this, but after the best part of thirty years she really didn’t remember. She told him Geography was her worst subject.

   “You liked Art and English best.”

   “Am I that transparent?!”

   “No, you told me, in your second PM on Twitter.”

   “And you said you didn’t like Shakespeare. I nearly blocked you on the spot.”

   She turned towards the door as a couple walked in, along with teenage Ahmed who arrived for his lunch shift with headphones in. “I’d better go. Sorry.”

   “I’ll watch you work.”

   “You’ll get back to your phone.”

   He picked it up, the other hand making a fair cop gesture. And then, did he take a photo – of her?

  She hoped not.

The next chapter will be posted on Friday 1st March at 5:30 UK time.

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