‘You want to talk about it? Ex-cops have generally heard a lot of stuff.’ He hands her the glass of wine. ‘Much worse stuff than yours. I’d put money on it.’
‘Not really.’ She takes an audible gulp of her wine. Then, abruptly, she turns to him. ‘Actually, yes. My husband died four years ago today. He died. Most people couldn’t even say the word when he did, and now they keep telling me I should have moved on. I have no idea how to move on. There’s a Goth living in my house and I can’t even remember her surname. I owe money to everyone. And I went to a g*y bar tonight because I couldn’t face being in my house alone, and my bag got nicked with the two hundred pounds I’d borrowed from my credit card to pay my council tax. And when you asked if there was anyone else I could call, the only person I could think of who might offer me a bed was Fran, the woman who lives in cardboard boxes at the bottom of my block.’
He is so busy digesting the word ‘husband’ that he barely hears the rest. ‘Well, I can offer you a bed.’
That wary glance again.
‘My son’s bed. It’s not the world’s most comfortable. I mean, my brother slept in it on and off when he broke up with his last boyfriend, and he says he’s had to see an osteopath ever since, but it’s a bed.’
He pauses. ‘It’s probably better than cardboard boxes.’
She looks sideways at him.
‘Okay. Marginally better.’
She smiles wryly into her glass. ‘I couldn’t ask Fran anyway. She never bloody invites me in.’
‘Well, that’s just rude. I wouldn’t want to go to her house anyway. Stay there. I’ll sort you out a toothbrush.’
Sometimes, Liv thinks, it is possible to fall into a parallel universe. You think you know what you’re in for – a bad night in front of the television, drinking in a bar, hiding from your history – and suddenly you veer off the track to a whole destination you never even knew was there. It is all, on the surface, a disaster: the stolen bag, the lost cash, the dead husband, the life gone awry. And then you’re sitting in the tiny flat of an American with bright blue eyes and hair like a grizzled pelt, and it’s almost three o’clock in the morning and he’s making you laugh, properly laugh, as if you have nothing to worry about in the whole world.
She has drunk a lot. There have been at least three glasses since she got here, and there were many more back at the bar. But she has reached that rare, pleasant state of alcoholic equilibrium. She is not drunk enough to feel sick or woozy. She is just merry enough to be suspended, floating in this pleasurable moment, with the man and the laughter, and the crowded little flat that carries no memories. They have talked and talked and talked, their voices getting louder and more insistent. And she has told him everything, liberated by shock and alcohol, and the fact that he is a stranger and she will probably never see him again. He has told her of the horrors of divorce, the politics of policing and why he was unsuited to them, and why he misses New York but cannot return until his son is grown-up. She wants to tell him everything, because he seems to understand everything. She has told him of her grief and her anger, and how she looks at other couples and simply cannot see the point in trying again. Because none of them seem really, properly, happy. Not one.
‘Okay. Devil’s advocate here.’ Paul puts down his glass. ‘And this comes from one who totally f**ked up his own relationship. But you were married four years, right?’
‘I don’t want to sound cynical or anything, but don’t you think that one of the reasons it’s all perfect in your head is that he died? Things are always more perfect if they’re cut short. An industry of dead movie icons proves that.’
‘So you’re saying that if he had lived we would have got as grumpy and fed up with each other as everyone else?’
‘Not necessarily. But familiarity and having kids, work and the stresses of everyday life can take the edge off romance, for sure.’
‘The voice of experience.’
‘Well, it didn’t.’ She shakes her head emphatically. The room spins a little.
‘Oh, come on, you must have had times when you got a bit fed up with him. Everyone does. You know – when he moaned about you spending money or farted in bed or left the toothbrush cap off …’
Liv shakes her head again. ‘Why does everyone do this? Why is everyone so determined to diminish what we had? You know what? We were just happy. We didn’t fight. Not about toothpaste or farting or anything. We just liked each other. We really liked each other. We were … happy.’ She is biting back tears and turns her head towards the window, forcing them away. She will not cry tonight. She will not.
There is a long silence. Bugger, she thinks.
‘Then you were one of the lucky ones,’ says the voice behind her.
She turns and Paul McCafferty is offering the last of the bottle.
‘Not many people get that. Even four years of it. You should be grateful.’
Grateful. It makes perfect sense when he says it like that. ‘Yes,’ she says, after a moment. ‘Yes, I should.’
‘Actually, stories like yours give me hope.’
She smiles. ‘That’s a lovely thing to say.’
‘Well, it’s true. To … What’s his name?’ Paul holds up a glass.
‘To David. One of the good guys.’
She is smiling – wide and unexpected. She notes his vague look of surprise. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘To David.’
Paul takes a sip of his drink. ‘You know, this is the first time I’ve invited a girl back to my place and ended up toasting her husband.’
And there it is again: laughter, bubbling up inside her, an unexpected visitor.
He turns to her. ‘You know, I’ve been wanting to do this all night.’ He leans forward and, before she has time to freeze, he reaches out a thumb and wipes gently under her left eye. ‘Your makeup,’ he says, holding his thumb aloft. ‘I wasn’t sure you knew.’
Liv stares at him, and something unexpected and electric jolts through her. She looks at his strong, freckled hands, the way his collar meets his neck, and her mind becomes blank. She puts down her glass, leans forward and, before he can say anything, she does the only thing she can think of and places her lips against his. There is the brief shock of physical contact, then she feels his breath on her skin, a hand rising to meet her waist and he is kissing her back, his lips soft and warm and tasting faintly of tannin. She lets herself melt into him, her breath quickening, floating up on alcohol and sensation and the sweetness of simply being held. Oh, God, but this man. Her eyes are closed, her head spinning, his kisses soft and delicious.
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