‘Oh, you and your tawny crew, all legs and hair and men around you, like satellites. Like something out of Scott Fitzgerald. I thought you’d be … I don’t know. On telly. Or in the media, or acting or something.’
If Liv had read these words on a page, she might have detected an edge to them. But there is no rancour in Mo’s voice. ‘No,’ she says, and looks at the hem of her shirt.
Liv finishes her coffee. The remaining waiter has gone. And Mo’s cup is empty. It is a quarter to twelve. ‘Do you need to lock up? Which way are you walking?’
‘Nowhere. I’m staying here.’
‘You have a flat here?’
‘No, but Dino doesn’t mind.’ Mo stubs out her cigarette, gets up and empties the ashtray. ‘Actually, Dino doesn’t know. He just thinks I’m really conscientious. The last to leave every evening. “Why can’t the others be more like you?”’ She jerks a thumb behind her. ‘I have a sleeping-bag in my locker and I set my alarm for five thirty. Little bit of a housing issue at the moment. As in, I can’t afford any.’
‘Don’t look so shocked. That banquette is more comfortable than some of the rental accommodation I’ve been in, I promise you.’
Afterwards she isn’t sure what makes her say it. Liv rarely lets anyone into the house, let alone people she hasn’t seen for years. But almost before she knows what she’s doing, her mouth is opening and the words ‘You can stay at mine,’ are emerging. ‘Just for tonight,’ she adds, when she realizes what she has said. ‘But I have a spare room. With a power shower.’ Conscious that this may have sounded patronizing, she adds, ‘We can catch up. It’ll be fun.’
Mo’s face is blank. Then she grimaces, as if it is she who is doing Liv the favour. ‘If you say so,’ she says, and goes to get her coat.
She can see her house long before she gets there: its pale blue glass walls stand out above the old sugar warehouse as if something extra-terrestrial has landed on the roof. David liked this; he liked to be able to point it out if they were walking home with friends or potential clients. He liked its incongruity against the dark brown brick of the Victorian warehouses, the way it caught the light, or carried the reflection of the water below. He liked the fact that the structure had become a feature of London’s riverside landscape. It was, he said, a constant advertisement for his work.
When it was built, almost ten years ago, glass had been his construction material of choice, its components made sophisticated with thermal abilities, eco-friendliness. His work is distinctive across London; transparency is the key, he would say. Buildings should reveal their purpose, and their structure. The only rooms that are obscured are bathrooms, and even then he often had to be persuaded not to fit one-way glass. It was typical of David that he didn’t believe it was unnerving to see out when you were on the loo, even if you were assured that nobody else could see in.
Her friends had envied her this house, its location, and its occasional appearances in the better sort of interiors magazine – but she knew they added, privately, to each other, that such minimalism would have driven them mad. It was in David’s bones, the drive to purify, to clear out what was not needed. Everything in the house had to withstand his William Morris test: is it functional, and is it beautiful? And then: is it absolutely necessary? When they had first got together, she had found it exhausting. David had bitten his lip as she left trails of clothes across the bedroom floor, filled the kitchen with bunches of cheap flowers, trinkets from the market. Now, she is grateful for her home’s blankness; its spare asceticism.
‘So. Freaking. Cool.’ They emerge from the rickety lift into the Glass House, and Mo’s face is uncharacteristically animated. ‘This is your house? Seriously? How the hell did you get to live somewhere like this?’
‘My husband built it.’ She walks through the atrium, hanging her keys carefully on the single silver peg, flicking on the internal lights as she passes.
‘Your ex? Jeez. And he let you keep it?’
‘Not exactly.’ Liv presses a button and watches as the roof shutters ease back silently, exposing the kitchen to the starlit sky. ‘He died.’ She stands there, her face turned firmly upwards, bracing herself for the flurry of awkward sympathy. It never gets any easier, the explanation. Four years on, and the words still cause a reflexive twinge, as if David’s absence is a wound still located deep within her body.
But Mo is silent. When she finally speaks she says simply, ‘Bummer.’ Her face is pale, impassive.
‘Yup,’ Liv says, and lets out a small breath. ‘Yup, it really is.’
Liv listens to the one o’clock news on the radio, distantly aware of the sounds from the guest bathroom, the vague prickle of disquiet that she feels whenever someone else is in the house. She wipes the granite work surfaces and buffs them with a soft cloth. She sweeps non-existent crumbs from the floor. Finally she walks through the glass and wood hallway, then up the suspended wood and Perspex stairs to her bedroom. The stretch of unmarked cupboard doors gleams, giving no clue to the few clothes behind it. The bed sits vast and empty in the middle of the room, two Final Reminders on the covers, where she left them this morning. She sits down, folding them neatly back into their envelopes, and she stares straight ahead of her at the portrait of The Girl You Left Behind, vivid in its gilded frame among the muted eau de Nil and grey of the rest of the room, and allows herself to drift.
She looks like you.
She looks nothing like me.
She had laughed at him giddily, still flush with new love. Still prepared to believe in his vision of her.
You look just like that when you –
The Girl You Left Behind smiles.
Liv begins to undress, folding her clothes before she places them, neatly, on the chair near the end of the bed. She closes her eyes before she turns off the light so that she does not have to look at the painting again.
Some lives work better with routines, and Liv Halston’s is one of them. Every weekday morning she rises at seven thirty a.m., pulls on her trainers, grabs her iPod, and before she can think about what she is doing, she heads down, bleary-eyed, in the rackety lift, and out for a half-hour run along the river. At some point, threading her way through the grimly determined commuters, swerving round reversing delivery vans, she comes fully awake, her brain slowly wrapping itself around the musical rhythms in her ears, the soft thud-thud-thud of her feet hitting the pavements. Most importantly, she has steered herself away again from a time she still fears: those initial waking minutes, when vulnerability means that loss can still strike her, unheralded and venal, sending her thoughts into a toxic black fug. She had begun running after she had realized that she could use the world outside, the noise in her earphones, her own motion, as a kind of deflector. Now it has become habit, an insurance policy. I do not have to think. I do not have to think. I do not have to think.
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