‘What?’ She is glazed, breathless.
‘You.’ He’s lost for words. Her smile spreads across her face, then she kisses him through it until she is lost, dizzy, until reason seeps out through her ears and she can hear only the growing, insistent hum of her own need. Here. Now. His arms tighten around her, his lips on her collarbone. She reaches for him, her breath coming in shallow bursts, her heart racing, over-sensitized so that she shivers as his fingers trail her skin. She wants to laugh with the joy of it. He tears his shirt over his head. Their kisses deepen, become punishing. He lifts her clumsily on to the worktop and she wraps her legs around him. He stoops, pushing her skirt up around her waist, and she arches back, lets her skin meet the cold granite so that she is gazing up at the glass ceiling, her hands entwined in his hair. Around her the shutters are open, the glass walls a window to the night sky. She stares up into the punctured darkness and thinks, almost triumphantly, with some still functioning part of her: I am still alive.
And then she closes her eyes and refuses to think at all.
His voice rumbles through her. ‘Liv?’
He is holding her. She can hear her own breath.
A residual shudder escapes her.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Sorry. Yes. It’s … it’s been a long time.’
His arms tighten around her, a silent answer. Another silence.
‘Are you cold?’
She steadies her breathing before she answers. ‘Freezing.’
He lifts her down and reaches for his shirt on the floor, wrapping it around her slowly. They gaze at each other in the near-dark.
‘Well … that was …’ She wants to say something witty, carefree. But she can’t speak. She feels numbed. She is afraid to let go of him, as if only he is anchoring her to the earth.
The real world is encroaching. She is aware of the sound of the traffic downstairs, somehow too loud, the feel of the cold limestone floor under her bare foot. She seems to have lost a shoe. ‘I think we left the front door open,’ she says, glancing down the corridor.
‘Um … forget the shoe. Did you know that your roof is missing?’
She glances up. She cannot remember opening it. She must have hit the button accidentally as they fell into the kitchen. Autumnal air sinks around them, raising goose-bumps across her bare skin, as if it, too, had only just realized what had happened. Mo’s black sweater hangs over the back of a chair, like the open wings of a settling vulture.
‘Hold on,’ she says. She pads across the kitchen and presses the button, listening to the hum as the roof closes over. Paul stares up at the oversized skylight, then back down at her, and then he turns slowly, 360 degrees, as his eyes adjust to the dim light, taking in his surroundings. ‘Well, this – It’s not what I was expecting.’
‘Why? What were you expecting?’
‘I don’t know … The whole thing about your council tax …’ He glances back up at the open ceiling. ‘Some chaotic little place. Somewhere like mine. This is …’
‘David’s house. He built it.’
His expression flickers.
‘Oh. Too much?’
‘No.’ Paul peers around into the living room and blows out his cheeks. ‘You’re allowed. He … uh … sounds like quite a guy.’
She pours them both a glass of water, tries not to feel self-conscious as they dress. He holds out her shirt for her to slide into. They look at each other and half laugh, suddenly perversely shy in clothes.
‘So … what happens now? You need some space?’ He adds, ‘I have to warn you – if you want me to leave I may need to wait until my legs stop shaking.’
She looks at Paul McCafferty, at the shape of him, already familiar to her very bones. She does not want him to leave. She wants to lie down beside him, his arms around her, her head nestled into his chest. She wants to wake without the instant, terrible urge to run away from her own thoughts. She is conscious of an echoing doubt – David – but she pushes it away. It is time to live in the present. She is more than the girl David left behind.
She does not turn on the light. She reaches for Paul’s hand and leads him through the dark house, up the stairs and to her bed.
They do not sleep. The hours become a glorious, hazy miasma of tangled limbs and murmured voices. She has forgotten the utter joy of being wrapped around a body you can’t leave alone. She feels as if she has been recharged, as if she occupies a new space in the atmosphere.
It is six a.m. when the cold electric spark of dawn finally begins to leach into the room.
‘This place is amazing,’ he murmurs, gazing out through the window. Their legs are entwined, his kisses imprinted all over her skin. She feels drugged with happiness.
‘It is. I can’t really afford to stay here, though.’ She peers at him through the half-dark. ‘I’m in a bit of a mess, financially. I’ve been told I should sell.’
‘But you don’t want to.’
‘It feels … like a betrayal.’
‘Well, I can see why you wouldn’t want to leave,’ he says. ‘It’s beautiful. So quiet.’ He looks up again. ‘Wow. Just to be able to peel your roof off whenever you feel like it …’ She wriggles out of his arms a little, so that she can turn towards the long window, her head in the crook of his arm. ‘Some mornings I like to watch the barges head up towards Tower Bridge. Look. If the light is right it turns the river into a trickle of gold.’
‘A trickle of gold, huh?’
They fall silent, and as they watch, the room begins to glow obligingly. She gazes down at the river, watching it illuminate by degrees, like a thread to her future. Is this okay? she asks. Am I allowed to be this happy again?
Paul is so quiet she wonders if he has finally drifted off to sleep. But when she turns he is looking at the wall opposite the bed. He is staring at The Girl You Left Behind, now just visible in the dawn. She shifts on to her side and watches him. He is transfixed, his eyes not leaving the image as the light grows stronger. He gets her, she thinks. She feels a stab of something that might actually be pure joy.
‘You like her?’
He doesn’t seem to hear.
She nestles back into him, rests her face on his shoulder. ‘You’ll see her colours more clearly in a few minutes. She’s called The Girl You Left Behind. Or at least we – I – think she is. It’s inked on the back of the frame. She’s … my favourite thing in this house. Actually, she’s my favourite thing in the whole world.’ She pauses. ‘David gave her to me on our honeymoon.’
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