Liv stares at her, her key in her hand. ‘I – I thought you’d left. Fran said you’d gone.’
‘Oh. The lady downstairs? Yeah. I just got back.’
‘Back from where?’
‘My day shift.’
‘You work a day shift?’
‘At a care home. Hope I didn’t disturb you this morning. I tried to leave quietly. I thought the whole desk-drawer thing might wake you. Getting up at six kind of kills the whole “welcome houseguest” vibe.’
‘You didn’t leave a key.’
Liv frowns. She feels as if she is two steps behind in this conversation. Mo puts her book down and speaks slowly. ‘I had to have a little dig around till I found the spare key in your desk drawer.’
‘You went in my desk drawer?’
‘It seemed like the most obvious place.’ She turns a page. ‘It’s okay. I put it back.’ She adds, under her breath, ‘Man, you like stuff tidy.’
She returns to her book. David’s book, Liv sees, checking out the spine. It is a battered Penguin Introduction to Modern Architecture, one of his favourites. She can still picture him reading it, stretched out on the sofa. Seeing it in someone else’s hands makes her stomach tighten with anxiety. Liv puts her bag down, and walks through to the kitchen.
The granite worktops are covered with toast crumbs. Two mugs sit on the table, brown rings bisecting their insides. By the toaster, a bag of sliced white bread sits collapsed and half open. A used teabag squats on the side of the sink and a knife emerges from a pat of unsalted butter, like the chest of a murder victim.
Liv stands there for a moment, then begins to tidy, sweeping the detritus into the kitchen bin, loading cups and plates into the dishwasher. She presses the button to draw back the ceiling shutters, and when they are fully open, she presses the button that will open the glass roof, waving her hands to get rid of the lingering smell of smoke.
She turns to find Mo standing in the doorway. ‘You can’t smoke in here. You just can’t,’ she says. There is a weird edge of panic to her voice.
‘Oh. Sure. I didn’t realize you had a deck.’
‘No. Not on the deck either. Please. Just don’t smoke here.’
Mo glances at the work surface, at Liv’s frantic tidying. ‘Hey – I’ll do that before I leave. Really.’
‘It obviously isn’t, or you wouldn’t be having a heart attack. Look. Stop. I’ll clean up my own mess. Really.’
Liv stops. She knows she is overreacting, but she can’t help it. She just wants Mo gone. ‘I’ve got to take Fran a cup of tea,’ she says.
Her blood thumps in her ears the whole way down to the ground floor.
When she gets back the kitchen is tidy. Mo moves quietly around the space. ‘I’m probably a bit lazy when it comes to clearing up straight away,’ she says, as Liv walks back in. ‘It’s the whole clearing-up-at-work thing. Old people, guests at restaurants … You do so much of it in the day, you kind of rebel against it at home.’
Liv tries not to bristle at her use of the word. It is then she becomes aware of the other smell, under the smoke. And the oven light is on.
She bends down to peer inside it and sees her Le Creuset dish, its surface bubbling with something cheesy.
‘I made some supper. Pasta bake. I just threw together what I could get from the corner shop. It’ll be ready in about ten minutes. I was going to have mine later, but seeing as you’re here …’
Liv cannot remember the last time she even turned the oven on.
‘Oh,’ says Mo, reaching for the oven gloves. ‘And someone rang from the council.’
‘Yeah. Something about council tax.’
Liv’s insides turn briefly to water.
‘I said I was you, so he told me how much you owe. It’s quite a lot.’ She hands her a piece of paper with a figure scribbled on it.
As Liv’s mouth opens to protest, she says, ‘Well, I had to make sure he had the right person. I thought he must have made a mistake.’
She had known roughly how much it would be, but seeing it in print is still a shock. She feels Mo’s eyes on her and, in her uncharacteristically long silence, she knows that Mo has guessed the truth.
‘Hey. Sit down. Everything looks better on a full stomach.’ She feels herself being steered into a chair. Mo flips open the oven door, allowing the kitchen to flood with the unfamiliar smell of home-cooked food. ‘And if not, well, I know of a really comfortable banquette.’
The food is good. Liv eats a plateful and sits with her hands on her stomach afterwards, wondering why she is so surprised that Mo can actually cook. ‘Thanks,’ she says, as Mo mops up the last of hers. ‘It was really good. I can’t remember the last time I ate that much.’
And now you have to leave. The words that have been on her lips for the past twenty hours do not come. She does not want Mo to go just yet. She does not want to be alone with the council-tax people and the final demands and her own uncontrollable thoughts; she feels suddenly grateful that tonight she will have somebody to talk to – a human defence against the date.
‘So. Liv Worthing. The whole husband-dying thing –’
Liv puts her knife and fork together. ‘I’d rather not talk about it.’
She feels Mo’s eyes on her. ‘Okay. No dead husbands. So – what about boyfriends?’
‘Since … the One We Must Not Mention. Anyone serious?’
Mo picks a piece of cheese from the side of the baking dish.
Mo’s head shoots up. ‘Not one? In how long?’
‘Four years,’ Liv mumbles.
She is lying. There was one, three years ago, after well-meaning friends had insisted she had to ‘move on’. As if David had been some kind of obstacle. She had drunk herself halfway to oblivion to go through with it and then wept afterwards, huge, snotty sobs of grief and guilt and self-disgust. The man – she can’t even remember his name – had barely been able to contain his relief when she had said she was going home. Even now when she thinks about it she feels cold shame.
‘Nothing in four years? And you’re … what? Thirty? What is this, some kind of sexual suttee? What are you doing, Worthing? Saving yourself for Mr Dead Husband in the hereafter?’
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