Dec 2 2012 11:00am
After a health scare, Brighton-based Lou is forced to confront the fact that her time to have a baby is running out. She can't imagine a future without children, but her partner doesn't seem to feel the same way, and she's not sure whether she could go it alone.
Meanwhile, in Yorkshire, Cath is longing to start a family with her husband, Rich. No one would be happier to have children than Rich, but Cath is infertile.
Could these strangers help one another?
Get a sneak peek at Sarah Rayner's The Two Week Wait (available December 24, 2012) with an excerpt of Chapters 1-2.
The water is getting cold; Lou has been in the bath a while. Usually she prefers the swiftness of showers, but very occasionally she likes to bathe, to linger and relax, surrounded by bubbles. She is shaping them into miniature mountain ranges, like she did as a girl. She laughs to herself as she sculpts two extra high peaks from her breasts, Everest and K2.
She slides forward to twist on the hot tap with her toe. It’s a manoeuvre she’s done countless times: this is the bathroom of her childhood home, though only her mum, Irene, lives here now. The foam – given a second burst of life by the running water – billows in candyﬂoss clouds at her feet. Lou closes her eyes, inhales. Even the scent is redolent of her past: Lily of the Valley, her mother’s favourite.
It is late evening and, after a long drive down from the Lakes, the worn avocado suite beckoned like an old friend. Lou lies back, warmth easing up her body and loosening her muscles. She listens. The sounds of the house are familiar: the wind in the trees outside – she misses those, her Brighton ﬂat has none nearby; the plaintive hoot of an owl, so much less raucous than gulls. Through the faded pink shagpile carpet she can hear a deep male voice; her mother is watching television. Lou pictures Soﬁa sprawled on the counterpane in the next room, ﬂicking through Sunday’s supplement, having discarded the paper that Irene gets delivered with a huff, unable to endure its political leanings.
Lou would like Soﬁa to be in the bathroom with her, perched on the Lloyd Loom laundry basket, nattering. But it makes Irene edgy when she’s confronted with physical intimacy of any kind – Lou doubts her mum ever allowed her father to sit there when he was alive. Lou and Soﬁa’s displays of affection seem to make her mother especially tense, so they tend to avoid expressing any tenderness when she’s around.
Lou shifts position; the bubbles ﬂoat to the edge of the bath, revealing the slight dome of her belly. ‘Your little pot’, Soﬁa calls it. It galls Lou that her tummy is not as taut and ﬂat as Soﬁa’s, when she’s the one who’s into exercise. But whilst the rest of her body is reasonably toned, it seems that no matter how hard Lou works out, the pot remains. If anything, it seems to be getting bigger.
That’s odd, Lou thinks, I’m uneven. One side doesn’t match the other, close to my pubic bone.
Maybe she’s not lying ﬂat. She shifts again, carefully places one foot beside each tap to ensure she is symmetrical.
But if anything it’s more marked. There, to her left, a bulge.
A ﬂutter of anxiety.
Don’t be silly, she tells herself, it’s probably something you’ve eaten. But her stomach is up towards her breastbone, and it’s hardly as if she swallowed her roast potatoes whole at dinner.
Maybe I just need the loo? she wonders. But she’s unconvinced, so she presses the area with her ﬁngertips.
Hmm. She can feel something. She presses the other side. It seems softer, less resistant. Perhaps the angle is different; she’s using her right hand. So she swaps to her left.
She can even detect the shape, rounded, like an orange.
Deep breaths. Don’t panic.
She lies a moment longer, trying to take stock.
She jumps out of the bath, half-dries herself, and runs into the bedroom with a towel clutched round her, not caring that her mother might catch her undressed in the hall.
Soﬁa is lying on the bed, listening to her iPod. Dark curls scooped in a makeshift topknot, lace-ups discarded on the ﬂoor, hoodie slipping off one shoulder.
Lou gestures at her to turn down the music.
‘I think I’ve found a lump,’ she declares. No point in softening it.
Soﬁa sits up, unhooks her earphones. ‘Si?’
Lou repeats it. ‘Here,’ she indicates.
Lou nods. She hopes her girlfriend will be able to provide a rational explanation. Though why she would have more insight than Lou Lord knows: she’s a web designer, not a doctor.
‘Can you see?’ Lou turns, drops the towel.
Soﬁa inspects her belly. ‘Er . . . no.’
‘It’s bigger on one side than the other.’ Lou stands there, shifting from foot to foot. Even though they’ve been naked together countless times, the worry makes her self-conscious.
Soﬁa squats down, twisting her head to examine fully. ‘It looks the same to me.’
‘Here.’ She takes Soﬁa’s hand, guides her to the spot. ‘No . . . Not like that, you won’t be able to feel anything. Prod harder.’
‘It will hurt.’
‘OK, I’ll lie down.’ Lou stretches out on the ﬂeecy counterpane. She’s still wet from the bath, but no matter. ‘Now, look from here,’ she instructs, yanking Soﬁa down by her sleeve to her own eye level. ‘As if you’re me.’
Soﬁa crouches down, rests her chin on Lou’s shoulder. A wave of her hair brushes against Lou’s cheek.
‘There,’ says Lou. ‘See?’
Cath is trapped in another world, lost in a vast public building, desperate to get somewhere, fast. Time is short – it’s a race against the clock – but there are hordes of people in her way, moving frustratingly slowly.
‘I’ve got to get through,’ she tries to explain to those around her, struggling to push past the throng, but no one acknowledges her pleas. Instead people leer at her, pale-faced and ghoulish, or turn their backs, unyielding. Eventually she reaches a barrier, guarded by a man in a white coat. Perhaps he can help her. He’s carrying a clipboard; he appears to be some kind of doctor – he has a stethoscope round his neck.
‘I must catch it,’ she begs. ‘It’s terribly important. It’s—’ She wants to tell him it’s a matter of life and death, yet can’t seem to get the words out.
He blocks her path. ‘I’m afraid it’s too late,’ he says.
She jerks awake with a gasp. Her heart is pounding; it takes a moment to ground herself, realize she is safe here in her room. The cat is wedged behind her on the pillow, as she often is; the gap in the curtains is at the end of the bed, as usual. Cath snuggles in tight to her husband, feeling her breasts and tummy against the smoothness of his back, easing her knees into the parallel Vs of his larger ones to calm herself, careful not to disturb him. Outside the warmth of the duvet the air is chilly; her arm is cold. She slides it under the covers too, inhales the comforting scent of his naked ﬂesh as she does so; slightly honeyed, lemony. Beneath her palm she can sense the hairs on his chest, soft and curled. His breathing is deep and slow, it feels solid, just as he is. Gradually she feels her panic subside. It must be worry about the journey ahead, that’s all.
Just then, Rich’s mobile goes off beside him, a frenzy of buzzing and vibrating. He stirs beneath her touch.
‘Bloody hell, that’s a bit much.’ She is jangled again.
‘Sorry.’ He reaches to switch it off. ‘I was worried we’d sleep through.’ He’s bleary. ‘I was having the weirdest dream . . . ’
‘Me too,’ says Cath.
She’s just about to tell him about her nightmare when he says, ‘Amy Winehouse was in our kitchen, loading the dishwasher.’
‘Yeah . . . There she was, in one of those tight little dresses she used to wear, with her beehive piled high . . . Stacking plates. Very odd.’
‘Mad,’ says Cath.
‘Mind you . . . ’ he chuckles. ‘When did anyone ever have a dream that wasn’t strange?’
‘Yeah, it’s not like you wake up and say, “Ooh, last night I had a very conventional dream.” ’ She laughs. Bless Rich for lightening her mood. She ﬂings back the bedclothes. ‘Come on then, let’s get up.’
Normally they emerge from sleep gradually. Cath wears earplugs to block Rich’s occasional snoring; he wakes to the muted talk of the radio, nudges her, and they both snooze a while before getting up for work. But not today. Their plane leaves in three hours; before that, they must drive from Meanwood in Leeds to Manchester Airport, over ﬁfty miles away. They pull on clothes left out the night before, Rich gulps down coffee, Cath tea, and Cath puts down food for the cat.
‘No sign of sunrise yet,’ she says, as they lug their suitcases down the front steps. It’s mid-December; in a few days it will be the longest night of the year. Rich heaves the cases into the boot of the car and Cath gets into the passenger seat. The windscreen is icy. Rich removes the worst with a gloved hand while she waits for him inside, breath steaming white and cold.
‘Right,’ he exhales, getting in. He starts the ignition, turns to her and grins. ‘Ready to roll.’
Cath waves goodbye to their red-brick terrace as Rich edges the car with a bump bump over the potholes that have been deepened by a succession of freezing winters, and out onto Grove Lane. They’ve barely gone half a mile past their local shops on the Otley Road when he suddenly brakes. Luckily, there’s no vehicle behind. He swivels to face her. ‘Did you feed Bessie?’
‘Yes. And I left the keys out for your sister. Now, come on. We’ll be late.’
The ring road, frequently nose-to-tail with trafﬁc, is ghostly quiet as they head past warehouses and budget hotel chains out of town. Presently they’re speeding across the Pennines. The M62 never sleeps, it seems; even though it’s not yet 6 a.m., lorries thunder down the inside lane, spewing spray from overnight sleet. Alongside, their hatchback feels small and vulnerable; Cath can feel the wind buffeting the side of the car. She rubs mist from the window so she can see: spies a cottage on a remote hillside, whitewashed and pale against the dark heather. She wonders who lives there, on the moor, whether they’re lonely with no one nearby. She tries to imagine her own life away from the city, their little house, the shops and park, far from anyone. It might be good for her artistically – she imagines she’d be so bored she’d have to occupy herself somehow – but she would crave company, miss her friends.
She reaches for Rich, appreciating his presence, strokes the back of his neck where his hair is downy, going grey. He hates his neck, thinks it’s too thick and makes him look stupid, no matter how often she tells him it’s manly. ‘It’s almost fatter than my head,’ he claims.
As if he can read her thoughts, he glances at her and smiles.
She smiles back affectionately, pulls down the mirror on the back of the sun visor to check her own appearance.
At last her hair is growing back properly. Initially it was a different texture entirely; still mousy, but curlier and thicker than it had been; a small consolation for everything she’d been through. But now it’s returned to its familiar form: thin, wispy, infuriating. She has to wear it short and layered, it won’t ‘do’ any other style. Nonetheless, she is pleased; at least she looks herself again. Though her skin remains grey and drawn and her eyes have lost some sparkle; she seems older, somehow. Worn.
She hopes this trip will help. After the tsunami of emotions they’ve experienced in the last two years, they both deserve a good time.
She thinks of the mountains that await them, dazzling whiter than white beneath bluer than blue. There will be dramatic peaks, there will be sun, there will be crystal-clear air . . .
At once, a burst of excitement. Soon it’s Christmas, then New Year, and she can kiss goodbye to this vile twelve months forever.
‘We’re going on holiday!’ she says, and claps her hands.
Lou resists an impulse to wake Soﬁa. It’s 5 a.m., wouldn’t be fair.
It’s all very well telling me not to worry, she thinks. If only it were that easy to switch off my mind.
She rolls over onto her back, eases down her pyjama bottoms, checks her abdomen. Is it her imagination or does it feel tender? Though she could just be bruised from all the prodding.
The previous evening they had scoured the Internet for possible diagnoses. Soﬁa homed in on less dramatic conditions (including, to Lou’s irritation, constipation), but Lou is still convinced it’s something worse. They’d wondered about calling a medical helpline, then decided it was too late and not really an emergency. ‘Let’s go to bed,’ Soﬁa had urged. ‘We can ring the doctor in the morning. We’ll get you an appointment as soon possible.’
So Lou is here, in one of the twin divans her mother insists on giving them. These days Irene runs the family home as a B. & B., and this is the room they’ve been allocated, even though her mother doesn’t take guests over the Christmas holidays, so there’s a much larger double free next door. ‘She is like a woman from the 1950s, your mum,’ Soﬁa had moaned. ‘Even in Spain, most mothers are not so strict. Does she believe it will stop us having sex?’ ‘It’ll stop her having to admit we do,’ Lou had replied. Her mother’s propensity for denial would be laughable had not vast swathes of Lou’s life gone painfully unacknowledged as a result.
Lou continues the exploration. She knows she’s being obsessive, yet she’s vaguely hoping it will ease her fear, and at least in the dark, in the silence, she can concentrate. With both hands she locates the lump again. It feels huge. How can she have missed it until today? She presses it; it makes her need to pee.
Soﬁa stirs and rolls over. Lou holds her breath – she could do with Soﬁa to murmur sleepy consolation, soothe her – but she doesn’t wake.
Lou persists with her mission, ﬁngertips slow, ominous, tarantula-like. If the lump were in the middle, she’d concede it was just the way her body is made. It’s the alien asymmetry that most alarms her. She swallows her fear. She can’t – she won’t – allow that notion to gain hold.
She puts her counsellor head on, thinks what she would say if she were a client. She is better at giving advice than receiving it. Perhaps she should make a list of symptoms to report to the doctor. I need the loo quite a lot – more than Soﬁa. My periods are heavier than they used to be.
She’s made allowances for her bladder – sitting on the end of a row in the cinema, snatching any opportunity to go to the toilet on protracted journeys lest she get caught short – for as long as she can remember. But she’s hardly incontinent and her periods aren’t that bad. Many women suffer from much worse.
Otherwise, she’s pretty ﬁt. She can do a hundred sit-ups in succession, easy, so there’s nothing wrong with her muscles. She doesn’t drink much; her diet is almost exemplary. So what on earth is it? If something major were wrong, wouldn’t she be in some kind of pain?
None of this is helping. It’s only raising more questions, sending her thoughts spinning. And whichever way she turns them, she ends up with the same answer, like a ball on a roulette wheel that lands on the same number, time and again.
The plane rumbles along the runway, gathering speed. Cath watches the airport blur past, grips the seat arms with clammy palms, waiting for the wheels to lift from the ground. In the seat in front of her a toddler is crying.
Poor thing, she thinks. I hate take-off and landing, too.
That’s when she has heard most accidents happen, and certainly it’s when there’s no escaping the absurdity of spewing a vast metal object into the sky. When they’re cruising tens of thousands of feet up, Cath can suspend disbelief, imagine she’s just in some strange tube-shaped cinema, watching the sun and clouds through the misty porthole like a ﬁlm.
Faster and faster they go: she can’t believe they’re not yet airborne . . .
Finally – whoooosh! – they’re up.
She’s been holding her breath the entire time.
She sits back, relaxes. Shortly the ‘Fasten seatbelts’ sign goes off, and the child in front stops wailing. Cath can feel him jolting the chair, wriggling, restless, so she scratches the white antimacassar above his head to get his attention. He peers round the gap between the seats. His face is tear-stained.
‘Hello,’ she says, and smiles.
He ducks away, wary. Shortly he re-emerges, wide-eyed, curious.
‘Boo!’ says Cath.
Again he disappears, and a few seconds later he’s back.
She hides her face behind her hands, then quickly removes them. ‘Boo!’
What a sweetie, Cath thinks.
So now there’s just landing, then her ﬁrst skiing lesson, to get through. She’s dreading that. Cath was never good at PE; she was the girl at school who took every opportunity to skive and sit on the bench, and skiing will require not just aptitude but bravery too.
Still, having stared at her own mortality in the mirror, nothing frightens her quite as much as it did.
It’s no good: Lou can’t rest, and now she can hear birds – at this time of year it must be a robin, laying claim to its territory. Perhaps she doesn’t miss those trees after all.
She gets up, impatient, throwing back the sheets. At least with Soﬁa in a separate bed it’s easier not to wake her.
She raises the blind a touch to help her see, rummages through her holdall for appropriate clothes, retrieves her trainers from the ﬂoor and tiptoes into the bathroom to pull on her tracksuit. She has to do something with this nervous energy.
Down the stairs, softly, softly. Her mother is the lightest sleeper; Lou can’t face a dressing-gowned inquisition on top of her own anxiety. She eases back the bolts on the front door, praying they won’t clank, and then she’s out and on the drive.
She inhales fresh air deep into her lungs, and, without stretching – the desire to get moving far outweighing any concerns of injury – she’s off down the lane.
The house is on the outskirts of town. Bare, tangle-twigged hedgerows rise on either side of her. In the distance are gently undulating ﬁelds, ploughed and ready for planting. Dawn is approaching; mist rising from the valley, spectral grey on brown.
It takes a minute or two for her muscles to warm up and to hit her stride. Ah, that’s better – the rhythm helps calm her, each footfall brings with it increased lucidity, shaking down thoughts like rice in a jar so they no longer crowd her.
Soﬁa must be right. Would she be able to sprint like this if she was really ill? Of course not.
It’s just, things have been going so well lately. The two of them are looking to buy a place together; her job counselling kids who’ve been excluded from school is easier now she’s no longer such a novice. It would be typical if something were to trip her up.
As if to comment on her thoughts, a driver toots, forcing her into the kerb, then overtakes at speed in a glistening Audi.
What’s the hurry? thinks Lou, annoyed.
She decides to get off the main road. Hitchin is commuter-belt territory; even this early, people are heading to work.
She turns left through a kissing gate and onto the common. The riverside path weaves through alder trees and the arching stems of pendulous sedge. In the reed beds frogs will be mating come early spring, then there will be tadpoles just like the ones she and her sister used to collect in jam jars when they were small. And there in the grazing pasture are the cattle: English Longhorns, an ancient, placid breed. They raise their heads from the vegetation to gaze at her, bemused.
She takes her cue, reduces her pace.
You can run but you can’t ﬂee, she tells herself.
Two laps later, she’s feeling less agitated. As she jogs out onto the road once more, she has an idea. Yes, why not? She’ll go back that way, through town.
She slows to a walk as she approaches the entrance, a mark of respect. She brieﬂy wonders if anyone will mind that she’s in her exercise gear, then remembers it’s most unlikely there will be other visitors at this time.
It’s been a while, but she ﬁnds the spot quickly and kneels down. The ground is damp with frost.
How strange to think of him beneath this soil.
Even after all these years, she still misses him. She wishes that she could talk to him; so much has happened since he died. She’s ﬁnished her training, moved to Brighton, come out to her mother . . . And now, this lump. What would he say about that?
In part he’s what’s made her so jumpy. She’s thrown right back to the experience of his illness: the protracted demise, the pain and fear, the loss of dignity. He became so thin and fragile, a ghost of his former self. The prospect of going through anything even remotely similar to her father terriﬁes her.
Lou plucks at the grass, struggling with her memories. Even though most plants have withered in the cold, the hump still needs weeding, she thinks abstractedly. It can’t have been done in a while. She’s surprised her mother hasn’t tended it – Irene’s garden at the B. & B. is immaculate: every pot diligently planted with winter pansies, the drive lined with snowdrops, just beginning to push through. Maybe she doesn’t come here much, can’t face it. Lou ﬁnds that notion strange, but that’s her mum all over.
She yanks at the weeds more deliberately, uses her nails to prise them from the cold soil, working from the front of the plot to the back. Soon she’s collected a little pile of wilted leaves. She smoothes the earth with her palms, sits back to check her handiwork. The couch grass will need a fork, but it’s a start.
‘That’ll be Mummy,’ says Lou. ‘Do you want to buzz her in?’
She follows Molly to the intercom. Small ﬁngers reach up to hit the button.
‘Let’s watch her come upstairs,’ Lou suggests. Together they go to the landing; she lifts Molly so she can see over the banister.
Lou and Soﬁa live in a studio ﬂat on the top ﬂoor of a three-storey house – she and Molly hear Karen’s footsteps before they see her. Eventually she comes into sight: chestnut hair and anorak soaked from the rain.
Karen looks up from the ﬂoor below, her cheeks rosy from being outside. ‘Hello, Molster,’ she smiles. When she reaches them she bends to kiss her daughter.
‘Ew, you’re wet,’ says Molly. ‘And don’t call me Molster.’
‘Sorry.’ Karen glances at Lou. ‘Everything OK?’
Lou nods. ‘We’ve had a great time, haven’t we?’
‘We’ve done a funny drawing,’ says Molly.
‘Ooh,’ says Karen. ‘Why is it funny?’
‘It’s a plan for the allotment,’ says Lou. ‘She wanted to plant seeds – she saw the ones I’d ordered from the catalogue – but I told her it wasn’t the right time of year. So we did a plan instead.’
‘Come and see!’ says Molly. The three of them head into the kitchen.
‘It’s really great of you to have her,’ says Karen, peering at the drawing.
‘No problem at all,’ says Lou. She looks at the combination of her own adult handwriting alongside Molly’s enthusiastic colouring-in and smiles. ‘I’ve enjoyed it.’
‘Well, you know Molly’s your number one fan.’
That pleases Lou. The feeling is mutual. ‘Have you time for a cup of tea?’
Karen pushes damp tendrils from her face. ‘I guess I have
– just a swift one.’ ‘Here, let me.’ Lou takes Karen’s coat, hangs it on the radiator to dry.
Karen stands gazing out of the window. The street of Victorian terraced houses looks tired and tatty, a hotchpotch of mismatched dirty pastel frontages. Beyond it the sea is dark and dreary. Even the pier seems to be struggling to remain bright and cheerful with its gaudy lights ﬂashing in the drizzle and fairground attractions empty.
‘So how are you?’ says Lou, catching Karen’s wistful expression.
Karen sighs. ‘OK, I guess.’ Molly is winding herself round her legs like a cat. Karen glances down at her daughter, strokes her hair. She looks up and smiles wanly at Lou. ‘I’ve been worse.’
Lou nods, recognizing Karen’s sadness. She pauses, unsure whether to make this observation, decides it’s better to do so: ‘It must be tough, the run-up to . . . well, you know.’
Karen swallows. Lou can see she is ﬁghting back tears, which must have been near the surface. Oh dear, she thinks, perhaps I shouldn’t have brought it up with Molly here. But there are enough people scared of mentioning what Karen’s been through; Lou doesn’t want to be one of them.
Karen struggles to keep her voice steady. ‘It’s our ﬁrst Christmas without him.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ Lou says. ‘I should have thought.’
‘Don’t worry,’ says Karen.
But Lou feels dreadful. She’s been so wrapped up in her self; ﬁrst enjoying the Lakes with Soﬁa, then preoccupied with this wretched lump. Yet she, more than anyone, ought to have remembered how her friend would be feeling. Lou was with Karen when her husband died the previous February.
The kettle has boiled. Within seconds Lou is handing over a steaming brew. It seems inadequate but Karen takes it gratefully.
‘Molly, love,’ Lou says gently. Molly has stopped entwining, is eyeing her mother. ‘Would you like to watch Princess Aurora for a bit while Mummy and I have a chat?’ Karen brought the DVD when she dropped off her daughter; it’s Molly’s favourite.
‘I’ve seen it already,’ says Molly.
‘It’s all right,’ says Karen. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll be ﬁne.’ She goes over to the sofa, adjusts a couple of cushions so she can sit down. Molly clambers onto her knee, all pink and pastel against her mother’s olive greens and browns.
Karen continues stroking her daughter’s hair, running comb-like ﬁngers away from her forehead. Molly wrinkles her nose and pouts. Karen, lost in her thoughts, doesn’t see; the motion seems more to comfort herself than Molly. Lou switches on the TV anyway, ﬂicks it to a children’s programme. Soon Molly is transﬁxed by the antics of a giant-eyed CGI bunny, so when Karen clutches her tight and kisses the top of her head repeatedly, she barely registers.
‘Biscuit?’ Lou reaches for the tin.
‘Why not?’ Karen takes a digestive and breaks off a chunk for Molly. ‘Actually, we’re having a little family gathering on Christmas Eve, in the day, to remember Simon, you know. I thought it would be nice for the children. As well as for me and the grown-ups, obviously.’ She’s regained her composure; Lou can’t help but feel relieved. ‘I’d love you to come if you’d like?’
Although Karen has become a good friend in the last ten months, Lou hesitates. ‘If it’s just family, I’m not sure . . . I wouldn’t want to intrude.’
‘It won’t be entirely relatives – you can bring Soﬁa, and Anna’s coming as well. There’s no ceremony or anything formal – it’s a party. We’re having bubbly. And cake . . . ’
‘OK.’ Lou grins. ‘Thank you. That would be lovely.’
When Karen has gone, Lou checks the clock: it’s a while before she’s due to leave for the doctor’s, where she’s been promised an appointment last thing.
Lou had been hoping to tell Karen about the lump, but it didn’t seem appropriate in the circumstances. It’s been good having Molly to look after, kept her worries in perspective. She bends to pick up the cushions she and Molly used to make a train on the ﬂoor.
Poor Karen, no wonder she was so tearful, she thinks, plumping the sofa. I can only begin to imagine what it’s like, losing your partner that suddenly. Simon died of a heart attack one morning on the train. Karen was with him, Lou witnessed everything. She is haunted by the memory of the
07:44 to Victoria. One moment she was half watching people as she dozed; across the aisle was Simon, stroking Karen’s hand. The next: boof! He was gone, and there was nothing anyone could do to revive him. If there’s one thing Lou has learned, it’s that you never know what’s coming to knock you off course.
Down, swish, down, swish, down, swish; Cath is gaining conﬁdence, becoming more stable on her skis, able to go faster. The instructor is ahead of her; she’s following in his tracks, her ﬁrst blue run. Here’s the scary bit – the steep gradient she has been dreading. From the cable car she’s seen more proﬁcient skiers fall foul of it. They’re early in the season and even though they’ve chosen a resort at a particularly high altitude, it’s not snowed in days, so it’s icy in patches. But she hasn’t the time to get really nervous; she’s in the present, eyes on Claude, carving the same sweeping curves as best she can.
Along, turn, bend the knees, swoosh; along . . . and swoooooooooosh! She pulls up beside him with a spray of powder, triumphant.
He lifts his goggles and beams at her. ‘Well done, Cathy!’
Her name isn’t Cathy, it’s Cath, but she lets it pass because he’s young and good-looking and it sounds extremely charming with a Gallic accent.
She beams back.
‘Much less snowplough and more skis parallel. You are getting so much better!’
Her grin broadens.
‘Now, once more up in the lift and we do it again.’
Damn. She thought that was it for the day and wanted to ﬁnish on a personal best. Next time she’s bound to fall. Dutifully, she staggers after him, skis skidding diagonally like a clumsy duck, and joins the queue to return up the mountain.
Rich was right, she realizes as she edges forward in line, it’s taking her out of herself, learning to ski. She’s been so focused, so determined to master at least the basics, she hasn’t had time to worry or analyse anything else, and that’s been such a change, a joy. For the ﬁrst time in ages her nervousness has been excitement, not fear, and her muscles have ached as the result of exercise rather than chemo. She’d not been at all sure beforehand; she’d had moments of believing the holiday was just a ruse for Rich, a skier since childhood, to indulge his own passions. But her husband isn’t so self-centred, and he is aware how fragile she’s been.
Later, she and Rich are sitting on a wooden bench by their locker, struggling to remove their boots, when Cath has an urge to say, ‘Thank you for making me come.’
‘No worries,’ says Rich. But he remains focused on clasps and Velcro – she doesn’t think he’s taken it in. She wants him to know he understood what was good for her better than she understood herself.
She places a damp gloved hand over his. ‘No, I mean it. I appreciate your persuading me. I’m having such a good time. I feel much better, really I do.’
‘That’s great,’ he says, swapping his hand so it’s over hers, and squeezing it.
Copyright © 2012 by Sarah Rayner
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Sarah Rayner was born in London and now lives in Brighton with her partner. She worked for many years as an advertising copywriter, and now writes fiction full time.