Still Me

Page 10


– The florist, who arrived in a van on Monday morning and brought enormous vases of arranged blooms to be placed at strategic intervals in the communal areas of the apartment. Several of the vases were so large that it took two to carry them in. They removed their shoes at the door.
– The gardener. Yes, really. This at first made me slightly hysterical (‘You do realize we’re on the second floor?’) until I discovered that the long balconies at the back of the building were lined with pots of miniature trees and blossoms, which the gardener would water, trim and feed before disappearing again. It did make the balcony look beautiful, but nobody ever went out there except me.
– The pet behaviourist. A tiny, birdlike Japanese woman appeared at ten a.m. on a Friday, watched Felix at a distance for an hour or so, then examined his food, his litter tray, the places he slept, quizzed Ilaria on his behaviour and advised on what toys he needed, or whether his scratching post was sufficiently tall and stable. Felix ignored her for the entire time she was there, breaking off only to wash his bottom with what seemed like almost insulting enthusiasm.
– The grocery team came twice a week and brought with them large green crates of fresh food, which they unpacked under Ilaria’s supervision. I caught sight of the bill one day: it would have fed my family – and possibly half my postcode – for several months.
And that was without the manicurist, the dermatologist, the piano teacher, the man who serviced and cleaned the cars, the handyman who worked for the building and sorted out replacement light bulbs or faulty air-conditioning. There was the stick-thin redheaded woman who brought large shopping bags from Bergdorf Goodman or Saks Fifth Avenue and viewed everything Agnes tried on with a gimlet eye, stating: ‘Nope. Nope. Nope. Oh, that’s perfect, honey. That’s lovely. You want to wear that with the little Prada bag I showed you last week. Now, what are we doing about the Gala?’
There was the wine merchant and the man who hung the pictures and the woman who cleaned the curtains and the man who buffed the parquet floors in the main living room with a thing that looked like a lawnmower, and a few others besides. I simply got used to seeing people I didn’t recognize wandering around. I’m not sure there was a single day in the first two weeks when there were fewer than five people in the apartment at any one time.
It was a family home in name only. It felt like a workspace for me, Nathan, Ilaria, and an endless team of contractors, staff and hangers-on who traipsed through it from dawn until late into the evening. Sometimes after supper a procession of Mr Gopnik’s suited colleagues would stop by, disappear into his study and emerge an hour later muttering about calls to DC or Tokyo. He never really seemed to stop working, other than the time he spent with Nathan. Even at dinner his two phones were on the mahogany table, buzzing discreetly, like trapped wasps, as messages filed in.
I found myself watching Agnes sometimes as she closed the door to her dressing room in the middle of the day – presumably the only place she could disappear – and I would wonder, When was this place ever just a home?
This, I concluded, was why they disappeared at weekends. Unless the country residence had staff too.
‘Nah. That’s the one thing she’s managed to sort her way,’ said Nathan, when I asked him. ‘She told him to give the ex their weekend place. In return she got him to downscale to a modest place on the beach. Three beds. One bathroom. No staff.’ He shook his head. ‘And therefore no Tab. She’s not stupid.’
‘Hey, you.’
Sam was in uniform. I did some mental calculations and worked out he had just finished his shift. He ran his hand through his hair, then leant forward, as if to see me better through the pixellated screen. A little voice said in my head, as it did every time I’d spoken to him since I’d left, What are you doing moving to a different continent from this man?
‘You went in, then?’
‘Yeah.’ He sighed. ‘Not the best first day back.’
‘Donna quit.’
I couldn’t hide my shock. Donna – straight-talking, funny, calm – was the yin to his yang, his anchor, his voice of sanity at work. It was impossible trying to imagine one without the other. ‘What? Why?’
‘Her dad got cancer. Aggressive. Incurable. She wants to be there for him.’
‘Oh, God. Poor Donna. Poor Donna’s dad.’
‘Yeah. It’s rough. And now I have to wait and see who they’re going to pair me with. I don’t think they’ll put me with a rookie because of the whole disciplinary-issues thing. So I’m guessing it will be someone from another district.’
Sam had been up in front of the disciplinary committee twice since we had been together. I had been responsible for at least one of those and felt the reflexive twinge of guilt. ‘You’ll miss her.’
‘Yup.’ He looked a bit battered. I wanted to reach through the screen and hug him. ‘She saved me,’ he said.
He wasn’t prone to dramatic statements, which somehow made those three words more poignant. I still remembered that night in bursts of terrifying clarity: Sam’s gunshot wound bleeding out over the floor of the ambulance, Donna calm, capable, barking instructions at me, keeping that fragile thread unbroken until the other medics finally arrived. I could still taste fear, visceral and metallic, in my mouth, could still feel the obscene warmth of Sam’s blood on my hands. I shivered, pushing the image aside. I didn’t want Sam in the protection of anyone else. He and Donna were a team. Two people who would never let each other down. And who would probably rib each other mercilessly afterwards.
‘When does she leave?’
‘Next week. She got special dispensation, given her family circumstances.’ He sighed. ‘Still. On the bright side, your mum’s invited me to lunch on Sunday. Apparently we’re having roast beef and all the trimmings. Oh, and your sister asked me round to the flat. Don’t look like that – she asked if I could help her bleed your radiators.’
‘That’s it now. You’re in. My family have you like a Venus flytrap.’
‘It’ll be strange without you.’
‘Maybe I should just come home.’
He tried to raise a smile and failed.
‘Go on.’
‘I don’t know … Feels like I just lost my two favourite women.’
A lump rose to my throat. The spectre of the third woman he’d lost – his sister, who had died of cancer two years previously – hung between us. ‘Sam, you didn’t lo–’
‘Ignore that. Unfair of me.’
‘I’m still yours. Just at a distance for a while.’
He blew out his cheeks. ‘I didn’t expect to feel it this badly.’
‘I don’t know whether to be pleased or sad now.’
‘I’ll be fine. Just one of those days.’
I sat there for a moment, watching him. ‘Okay. So here’s the plan. First you go and feed your hens. Because you always find watching them soothing. And nature is good for perspective and all that.’
He straightened up a little. ‘Then what?’
‘You make yourself one of those really great bolognese sauces. The ones that take for ever, with the wine and bacon and stuff. Because it’s almost impossible to feel crap after eating a really great spaghetti bolognese.’
‘Hens. Sauce. Okay.’
‘And then you switch on the television and find a really good film. Something you can get lost in. No reality TV. Nothing with ads.’
‘Louisa Clark’s Evening Remedies. I’m liking this.’
‘And then …’ I thought for a moment. ‘… you think about the fact that it’s only a little over three weeks until we see each other. And that means this! Ta-daa!’ I pulled my top up to my neck.
With hindsight, it was a pity that Ilaria chose that exact moment to open my door and walk in with the laundry. She stood there, a pile of towels under one arm, and froze as she took in my exposed bosom, the man’s face on the screen. Then she closed the door quickly, muttering something under her breath. I scrambled to cover myself up.