She slows to a brisk walk, buys a coffee, and rides the lift back up to the Glass House, her eyes stinging with sweat, unsightly damp patches on her T-shirt. She showers, dresses, drinks her coffee and eats two slices of toast with marmalade. She keeps almost no food in the house, having concluded that the sight of a full fridge is oddly overwhelming; a reminder that she should be cooking and eating, not living on crackers and cheese. A fridge full of food is a silent rebuke to her solitary state.
Then she sits at her desk and checks her email for whatever work has come in overnight from copywritersperhour.com. Or, as seems to have been the case recently, not.
‘Mo? I’m leaving a coffee outside your door.’ She stands, her head cocked, waiting for some sound suggesting life within. It’s a quarter past eight: too early to wake a guest? It has been so long since she had anyone to stay that she no longer knows the right things to do. She waits awkwardly, half expecting some bleary response, an irritable grunt, even, then decides that Mo is asleep. She had worked all evening, after all. Liv places the polystyrene cup silently outside the door, just in case, and heads off to her shower.
There are four messages in her inbox.
Dear Ms Halston
I got your email from copywritersperhour.com. I run a personalized stationery business and have a brochure that needs rewriting. I notice your rates are £100 per 1000 words. Would you consider dropping that price at all? We are working on a very tight budget. The brochure copy currently stands at around 1250 words.
Mr Terence Blank
This is your father. Caroline has left me. I am bereft. I have decided to have nothing more to do with women. Call me if you can spare the time.
Everything okay for Thursday? The kids are really looking forward to it. We’re looking at around 20 at the moment, but as you know this figure is always fluid. Let me know if you need anything.
Dear Ms Halston
We’ve tried several times to reach you by phone without success. Please could you contact us to arrange a time whereby we can discuss your overdraft situation. If you fail to make contact we will have to impose additional charges.
Please can you also ensure that we have your up-to-date contact details.
Personal accounts manager, NatWest Bank
She types a response to the first.
Dear Mr Blank. I would love to drop my prices to accommodate you. Unfortunately my biological make-up means I also have to eat. Good luck with your brochure.
She knows there will be somebody out there who will do it more cheaply, someone who doesn’t care too much about grammar or punctuation, and will not notice that the brochure copy contains ‘their’ for ‘there’ twenty-two times. But she is tired of having her already meagre rates pushed down further.
Dad, I will call round later. If Caroline happens to have returned between now and then, please make sure you are dressed. Mrs Patel said you were watering the Japanese anemones naked again last week and you know what the police said about that.
The last time she had arrived to comfort her father after one of Caroline’s disappearances, he had opened the door wearing a woman’s Oriental silk robe, gaping at the front, and wrapped her in an expansive hug before she could protest. ‘I’m your father, for goodness’ sake,’ he would mutter, when she scolded him afterwards. Although he hadn’t had a decent acting job in almost a decade, Michael Worthing had never lost his childlike lack of inhibition, or his irritation with what he called ‘wrappings’. In childhood she had stopped bringing friends home after Samantha Howcroft had gone home and told her mother that Mr Worthing walked around ‘with all his bits swinging’. (She had also told everyone at school that Liv’s dad had a willy like a giant sausage. Her father had seemed oddly untroubled by that one.)
Caroline, his flame-haired girlfriend of almost fifteen years, was untroubled by his nakedness. In fact, she was quite happy to walk around semi-naked herself. Liv sometimes thought she was more familiar with the sight of those two pale, pendulous old bodies than she was with her own.
Caroline was his great passion, and would walk out in a giant strop every couple of months, citing his impossibility, his lack of earnings, and his brief, fervent affairs with other women. What they saw in him, Liv could never quite imagine.
‘Lust for life, my darling!’ he would exclaim. ‘Passion! If you have none you’re a dead thing.’ Liv, she suspects privately, is something of a disappointment to her father.
She swigs the last of her coffee, and pens an email to Abiola.
I’ll meet you outside the Conaghy building at 2 p.m. All cleared this end. They are a little nervous but definitely up for it. Hope all good with you.
She sends it then stares at the one from her bank manager. Her fingers stall on the keyboard. Then she reaches across and presses delete.
She knows, with some sensible part of her, that this cannot continue. She hears the distant, threatening clamour of the neatly folded final demands in their envelopes, like the drumbeat of an invading army. At some point she will no longer be able to contain them, to fob them off, to slide, unnoticed, away from them. She lives like a church mouse, buys little, socializes rarely, and still it is not enough. Her cash cards and credit cards are prone to spit themselves back at her from cashpoints. The council had arrived at her door last year, part of a local reassessment of council taxpayers. The woman had walked around the Glass House, then had looked at Liv as if she had somehow tried to cheat them of something. As if it were an insult that she, a virtual girl, lived in this house alone. Liv could barely blame her: since David’s death she has felt a fraud living here. She’s like a curator, protecting David’s memory, keeping the place as he would have wanted it.
Liv now pays the maximum council tax chargeable, the same rate as the bankers with their million-pound wage packets, the financiers with their swollen bonuses. It eats up more than half of what she earns in some months.
She no longer opens bank statements. There is no point. She knows exactly what they will say.
‘It’s my own fault.’ Her father drops his head to his hands theatrically. From between his fingers, sparse grey hair sticks up in tufts. Around him the kitchen is scattered with pots and pans that tell of an evening meal interrupted: half a lump of Parmesan, a bowl of congealed pasta, a Mary Celeste of domestic disharmony. ‘I knew I shouldn’t go anywhere near her. But, oh! I was like a moth to a flame. And what a flame! The heat! The heat!’ He sounds bewildered.
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