How she'd shed her clothes where she stood, like she'd spontaneously combusted.
The mysterious way she'd select a mug for her tea, absorbed in the task as if it was of life-changing importance.
The dangerous flash in her eyes when she knew she was about to win an argument.
The birthmark on her hip that I thought looked like Mount Rushmore and she thought looked like a sparrow taking off. We compromised on Ringo's hair.
Her bitter contempt for the existence of glacé cherries.
The conversations she'd have with herself-me with front-row seats to the new hit one-woman show: Should I Dye My Hair? No, Lily, Don't Do That.
"I've got a headache," I said.
"Almost certainly terminal," she replied, cracking eggs into a pan.
How long it took me to wake her when she was having a nightmare.
A stray hair of hers, come loose, surfing down the banister, clinging on for dear life.
Her hand squeezing mine-once, twice. Our signal. Time to go.
The County Arms
At some point during the night, I must have crossed over into the unfamiliar terrain of my wife's side of the bed. Lying there now, I'm trying to remember whether we ever had a conversation about who would take which side, or whether one of us just staked our claim with a bedside table-planting a flag with an alarm clock or a paperback.
I sit up in bed. It's bittersweet, to have come across a gap in my knowledge like this-a blank space in the vast collage of memories of my life with Lily. I'm aware that if I'm not careful I could spend the whole morning here, searching for that memory-seeking out the others that are missing too. It wouldn't be the first time I've sat here, lost to the past, unaware of how far the morning sunlight has crept across the wall.
Not today, I think. Digging deep, I swing my legs out of bed, hearing the now-familiar cracks and creaks as my body splutters into life. My right knee always seems to hurt first thing these days, I don't know why. I did Google it not too long ago while making my morning cup of tea, and I'd diagnosed myself with leprosy by the time the kettle had boiled. I should go to the doctor, I suppose, but the last time I went with a minor complaint like this she told me "these things just happen when we get older." That put a spring in my step, I can tell you.
I'm distracted by something lying on the floor between my feet. It's Lily's watch, face down on the carpet. That's odd, I must have knocked it off her bedside table during the night. Clearly, I'd been flailing around in my sleep, though I can't remember having a nightmare. I put the watch back in its rightful place, then I'm up and dressed in my carefully curated look of a forty-seven-year-old man who's just got off a long-haul flight, and brace myself for another day.
I wonder how many other people are waking up this morning in a pub. To be clear, I'm the landlord, so I've got an excuse. My pub is called the County Arms (purveyors of fine ales & spirits since 1874), and my-our-bedroom is up above the front bar. Even though it's been over a decade that I've been coming down the narrow stairs and through the door that brings me out behind the taps and pumps, it still feels peculiar to be in a pub at this time. The thousands of memories created in this place all seem to leave a little of themselves behind, like the ancient tobacco smoke that's colored parts of the ceiling a dull yellow. Despite the thick silence-the place as still as a painting-if I close my eyes and concentrate I can just about remember what a busy day felt like here: the convivial chatter, glasses being clinked, the distant chaos of the kitchen. Even if I sought two minutes of calm up in our bedroom, I'd still be aware of the constant symphony below of muffled voices, cutlery on porcelain, the swift crash of the cash register announcing another pint sold, and, most of all, Lily's laughter. Standing here now, it's so quiet that if it weren't for the distant cry of a seagull I'd feel like the only living thing around for miles.
I open the hatch and come through the bar. Ever since I can remember, I've liked to do a circuit of the downstairs first thing. Ostensibly this would be so I could clear up anything we'd missed the night before, but I also used to feel so in awe of how this place was actually ours, that we had managed to find our dream pub, that I just wanted to take in every inch of the place to remind me of that fact.
It's not quite the same, these days. There's nothing to clear away, and I haven't had to make up a room for a guest in months. When I glance around I see a rotten window frame that's stuck fast with an inch gap at the bottom, the booth with an unexplained slash through its fabric, the damp patch by the skirting board. I assume the latter is what's causing the musty smell that pervades the pub, though I'm no longer sure how bad it is, because I've got so used to it.
As I finish my circuit, it strikes me that I can't actually remember the last time I left the building. A week? Longer? Best not to think about it too much. I comfort myself with the thought that when we first opened, over eleven years ago now, we were so rushed off our feet that we barely had time to leave the place then either. I stoop to pick up a beer mat, the one thing that's out of place. As I turn it over in my hands I think, Well, who's to say Lily and I won't be as busy as in our heyday once again? I look back to the bar and picture us there, caught up in one of our furious ballets-Lily flicking the Guinness tap on while I dive for Twiglets, limbs looped through limbs, constantly in motion.
I toss the beer mat onto a table and come back around the bar, settling myself on my stool. It isn't the most comfortable place to sit, up here. I'm twisted at a funny angle, and my knees are cramped for room, but crucially it gives me the clearest view of the main entrance. There was so much riding on Lily and me making a success of the pub once we took it over that the fact we had any customers at all was an enormous relief. But it wasn't until I started to notice people's faces when they came through the door that I knew we were going to be OK, that it had all been worth it. It was a wonderfully addictive thing to see-people shedding whatever worries had been occupying them as they set foot inside. That sense that they had opened a door to a new and exciting world while simultaneously coming home after an arduous journey. I'd sit here and watch even the most seasoned pub-goer looking around in awe at the hearty fire, the gleaming taps, the dimpled glasses suspended above the bar catching the light. Yes, that look would say, this will do us nicely.
These days, I watch the door even more closely. I wish I could say it's because of some delightful new phenomenon where the sunlight coming through the frosted glass casts beautiful shapes in silhouette. But there's really nothing particularly noteworthy about the door. The flowery motif etched on its glass is charming, but it's fairly standard Victorian public house fare. Nor has the door played a part in some notorious historical incident, the kind you often see dubiously referenced in pubs on chalkboards proclaiming that Shakespeare "probably" drank a piña colada on this spot before he dashed off Hamlet.
What I do know is the time it takes from someone's form becoming visible through the frosted glass to them opening the door. That seven out of ten people will (correctly) guess that the door needs to be pushed, not pulled. That three out of five people who've incorrectly pulled first will give the door a reproachful look for misleading them. That a certain kind of man with a certain kind of beard will rub his hands together in anticipation as he approaches the bar. That women are more likely to whisper as they ask where the loos are.
This is all entirely useless knowledge, of course. Something Lily would be quick to point out. But it's the result of me sitting here every moment I can, staring at that door, wondering if today is the day, seven years after she disappeared, that Lily finally comes back home.
The Bakerloo Line
London, June 1995
Let me go back to the beginning. Or, at least, the beginning of the story of Lily and me, which in all honesty is the moment my life began in earnest. Leaving school, graduating university, getting my first job-these moments hadn't felt as significant to me as they seemed to for other people. I was waiting for the moment when something revelatory would happen-but my touchpaper had as yet remained unlit.
After graduating, I had kicked around at home, feeling a bit rudderless. By contrast, my friend Ed-who I'd met at university and who was far more outgoing-had moved straight to London, and had been badgering me to join him ever since. There are so many new people to meet, he'd tell me. As if this were a good thing. It often seemed like it was Ed's personal mission to rid me of my shyness and unleash what he very optimistically hoped was the charismatic raconteur hiding underneath. Eventually I caved and made the move to London, shortly after I'd turned twenty-four.
At first, I found the pace of it all completely overwhelming. When I went out with Ed and his revolving group of friends, I'd watch on enviously as people quickly forged connections with others they'd only just met. I was determined to get to this point myself-relying somewhat less on charm and more on homework and rigorous preparation. This led to one of the more mortifying moments in my life when I came home one evening to find a very drunk Ed leafing through the aide-mémoires I'd been keeping in my coat pockets, designed to make conversations with his friends easier.
"Jenny. Doctor. Scared of birds," Ed read, holding the card out of reach as I tried to snatch it back. When I finally relented and explained myself, Ed said, "So next time you see Jenny you'll say, 'Hi, Jen, how's things? Hope you've not had to give a heron CPR recently'?"
"If absolutely necessary, yes!"
Ed gave me a look he often did back then, like I was a spider drowning in the bath and he couldn't work out whether or not to save me.
"Look," he said eventually, "you're a bright, funny, lovable guy. You just need to show that side a bit more. I know it's been hard for you . . . with, well . . ."
Ed left it there, but I knew what he meant, and it made me uncomfortable. He was one of the few people who knew I'd had a slightly unusual upbringing, one that hadn't necessarily lent itself to me becoming the most easygoing person on the planet. But I was determined that I wouldn't let that define or hinder me, and so, gradually, by making myself show up to parties and pubs and blustering my way through, I began to emerge from my shell.
I'd got a job working for an insurance firm, and though I'd learned to tell people that it was deathly boring, and complain about my bosses-because that's what everyone else seemed to do when they were in the pub, cynicism being a strong currency-I secretly very much enjoyed it. The work itself didn't thrill me, but I was just rather proud of myself-not an emotion I was particularly familiar with-about the fact that here I was, in the big city, blending in with the great homogenous mass of suits and spreadsheets. I remember as a kid watching the news-where they'd use a shot of office workers walking down a busy London street on their lunch breaks as a backdrop to a report on the economy or something-and wondering about the lives of these busy, important-looking people, and now, lo and behold, I was one of them.
Having grown in confidence enough to make some friends, I found myself tentatively turning my intention to encounters with the opposite sex. (It was Ed who pointed out that using phrases like "encounters with the opposite sex" was why I wasn't having any.) My romantic history thus far had been limited to a brief, unhappy time at university with Morag Henderson, a girl on my accountancy course with a severe fringe and a personality to match. One of the many odd things about our relationship was that I couldn't actually remember it beginning. Morag had just seemed to decide one day, and frankly I was too scared of her to refuse. Our time together consisted mainly of sitting in cafés in strained silence, as if we'd been married for thirty years and had run out of things to say to each other. The physical side of the relationship had been even more baffling to me. We would occasionally kiss in the chaste manner of 1950s film stars, but I had only once built up the courage to take things further as we lay on the unforgiving single bed of her dorm room. Completely guessing at what I was supposed to do, I found myself pressing my hand to her bottom and then just . . . leaving it there, as if I were trying to guess the weight of a cake at a village fête. We broke up soon after, around the time we graduated. Much to my confusion, Morag wrote me a letter afterward in which she told me that I would always be the greatest love of her life. Since moving to London two years ago, there had been a couple of things that had seemed promising, but they'd all fizzled out fairly quickly.
"And that's why you're going to come to drinks on Friday," Ed said after my latest bad date, this one with a girl called Sophie (flutist, shin splints, Dutch) who had offered me a cigarette and caught me trying to surreptitiously drop it down the drain rather than tell her I didn't smoke.
Copyright © 2024 by Richard Roper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.