She was out there, the woman, standing on the pavement, staring at my house. Staring with unmistakable hatred. The hood of her raincoat shielded most of her face, but I could feel that hatred coming at me in waves from eyes that burned out of the shadows.
I was convinced those eyes were pinning me in place and I was transfixed by my own inability to understand or get a grip on the situation. On any situation. What was I supposed to do? Challenge a woman for standing on a public pavement, doing nothing? She had the right to stand wherever she wanted.
But if she dared to move just a yard or two to the right, to the pavement at my gate, the one place on earth where no one had any right to stand, I would act. I would scream. I would erupt in a rage equal to her own. I could feel the scream building up in anticipation, a sickness curdling within me. Was this going to go on all day?
The spell broke. Carla came striding through my gate. Even the sight of a friend marching across that spot upset me, but she could have no idea. She nodded in an off-hand way at my sinister stalker, who hunched her shoulders and turned away, slouching down the road.
Only when I felt my breath burst out in an explosion of relief did I realise that I had been holding it. I hurried to open the door before Carla could knock.
‘Nicki. How are you?’ Carla wrapped care and sympathy round me.
I wasn’t sure I could cope with it much longer. I had been swamped with kindness in the early days, so many people rallying round, and it had carried me through, saving me from a complete break-down. But now the love and compassion was beginning to have the reverse effect. Whenever I glimpsed possibilities beyond grief, sympathy reminded me of the thick black mud sucking me down.
‘I’m okay,’ I said. I’m fine is what I would have said once, meaning nothing at all except Hi, greeting’s over so let’s talk. But these days, fine was so palpably untrue. ‘Coping. Come in, I’ll make some coffee.’
‘How’s Willow?’ Carla, my childless agent, had been playing affectionate aunt to my daughter from her birth, so she always asked after her. Usually meaning, how is Willow liking her new school, how did she do at the dentist, did she enjoy her birthday? Now it meant, is she managing to survive from day to day?
I swallowed and smiled. ‘Well, you know. We’re getting through it.’
‘How did she cope with her exams?’
‘They’re finished. Last one a week ago, and how they went is anyone’s guess. All I get is a shrug and “Okay.” She’s scarcely been out of her room since they began, but I don’t know if she was in there revising or just… you know.’
‘Yes. Anyway, they’re done. I doubt if she’ll get the results we were hoping for a year ago, but her Head says they make allowances for bereavement.’ I tasted bitter lemon, saying the word, an anodyne label, pigeonholing us with others in the same boat, identified and contained. But no one was in our boat. We were alone and adrift, Willow and I.
‘I’m sure the universities will, too. She’ll be fine.’ Carla put mugs ready as I fiddled with the cafétière.
‘Maybe. We just have to wait.’ I braced myself on the draining board and looked out over the back garden, seeing nothing. ‘We’ll both get an A star in that: waiting. We’ll have practiced until we’re perfect by the time this is all over. Not that it ever will be.’
‘It will be.’ Carla squeezed my arm. Perhaps she sensed that I’d reached saturation point with tender sympathy. She changed her tone, sounding cheerfully brisk as she carried the tray through to the living room. ‘I think it’s time you stepped aside from that waiting game and started getting a bit more focused on ordinary life again.’
‘I tell myself that every day.’
‘So I’m a shit for nagging, but you pay me to be a shit. I’m your business bitch. We cancelled last month’s exhibition. No one expected you to cope with that. But do you really want me to cancel the November one as well? The gallery is very keen.’
‘I don’t know. I haven’t thought that far ahead. No, I suppose not. If I haven’t kick-started myself again by then, I might as well give up. Go looking for a proper job.’
She eyed me quickly. ‘You’re not going to give up, are you? I want to know that, Nicki, before I head off across the pond. Say it. Say you’re not going to give up.’
‘I’m not going to give up.’
‘Now say it as if you mean it.’
‘I am not going to give up.’
‘Good, because you have a proper job.’
‘If you say so. We both know that I’ve got by as an artist because Adam was willing to sacrifice his own dreams. Now I’m on my own…’
‘You’re not alone. Adam’s sacrifice is your best reason to carry on. Not that it was a sacrifice. He was a brilliant teacher. Ask his students. And he hasn’t left you stranded. I know it will take a while to get everything in order, but he arranged insurance and so on precisely so that, if anything happened to him, you could carry on.’
‘I know,’ I said, dully.
‘So, now I’m going to be a heartless cow and start pushing you around. I’ve been looking after the crap for you. Now I’m going to look after you. From a purely business point of view, of course. You’ve got a market, Nicki. Your name is worth something but people won’t stay interested if you let yourself drift out of their line of vision. You must keep going.’ She sniffed as she poured our coffees. ‘Like I said, heartless cow. But I’m trying to think of your best interests.’
‘I know. You always do.’
‘Have you managed to start anything new?’
‘Well…’ I gave in. ‘No, not really. I can’t – it’s this place, I think. It’s our home, it’s where Adam still is, all I have left of him. But at the same time it’s a nightmare. I go up to my studio and all I see is him standing there, head on one side, looking at my work. Or bringing me a coffee. Or massaging my shoulders. I’m paralysed. And his study… I can’t open the door, because he’ll be sitting there – no, that’s the point. He won’t be sitting there. He won’t be anywhere. As for going out, some days…’ I cradled my mug, preparing to say what I’d never said, even though my daughter had probably realised it. ‘Some days I can’t bring myself to leave the house, because… The liaison officer, she’s very efficient, assures me it’s all cleaned up, they’ve even replaced the gate post, but all I see is It.’
‘I get it.’ Carla sat back, her knuckles white around her mug. My agent was a purposeful, woman, always waving away objections, wonderfully bullish with shops and galleries and the press, but since my husband’s death, I had discovered a different side to her. She’d been friend to both of us, from college and she’d had her own grief for him to cope with, but she was strong enough to step back and be official crap-handler, while I reeled. My rock.
She looked around the room, summing up our home. Victorian semi, bought because the attic would make a studio for me and the back bedroom would make a study for Adam. Our creative Shangri-la. Perfect while we both shared it, but now…
‘How about selling up, moving somewhere new?’
‘Oh God.’ I groaned. ‘I don’t know. Maybe one day. Half of me wants to run away from it all, but it would be like wiping it out. Wiping him out. I don’t want to do that. Besides, I can’t cope with anything that complicated just now.’
‘No, of course not. Okay, so how about just getting away, for a break. Somewhere with no memories, bad or good, just to give yourself time to get your head straight.’
She stuck out her lower lip, swirling her coffee. ‘I wonder, would a tiny place do the two of you?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Our weekender. Pembrokeshire. It’s small, I mean seriously small, but it’s got the essentials, even a bit of a summerhouse you could use as a studio, and it’s totally away from all this. Totally away from just about everything, to be honest. Geoff and I won’t be using it while we’re Stateside, so if you fancied a complete change of scenery – it’s on a clifftop, looking over Cardigan Bay.’
‘Sounds great, but – I don’t know.’
‘It might be just what you need to jolt your inspiration back into life.’
‘Maybe. But it’s not just me and my inspiration I have to think about.’
‘Discuss it with Willow. She’ll want a summer holiday, won’t she?’
Willow was of an age when she might well have had plans of her own, but not this year. We sat together at dinner time, contemplating a limp supermarket pizza. I’d lost the will to chop and mince and sizzle since Adam’s death. All food had lost its flavour.
It didn’t matter to Willow. She just pushed her food round her plate, no matter what I served. She was locked up so tightly in herself I could no longer tell anything from her expression. I wanted to fight to get back the daughter I had known, but there were days when I couldn’t drag myself out of my own pit, let alone tackle hers.
‘How do you fancy going away for the summer?’ I asked.
‘Not Dorset,’ she said, flatly.
We’d had our favourite haunt in Dorset. Haunt was the word. Adam’s ghost would be there, reminding us, every hour of every day. ‘No, not Dorset,’ I said. ‘Carla McDonald came to see me today. She suggested something.’
‘Yeah?’ Willow started rolling a bit of melted cheese into a ball.
‘You know she’s off to America for a bit? She’s got a holiday cottage in Wales, won’t be needing it, so she offered it to us while she’s away.’
‘A holiday cottage.’ No reaction.
‘Pembrokeshire. By the sea. We could get away from here for a bit?’
‘For how long?’
‘As long as we want. All summer, until college starts – whatever you like. Carla will be gone for a whole year, so really whenever we want it.’
Willow ripped up another piece of pizza and shrugged.
‘I thought it would be good for us to have a break, a change of scenery. It was just a suggestion. Somewhere we’ve never been, so…’
A rattle at the front door made us turn towards the hall. Even now, I still expected to hear Adam’s key in the lock. This wasn’t a key though. It was the letterbox, and it was too late for the post. I got up and went to see. A folded sheet lay on the mat. I opened it. One word.
Why? Everything inside me went tight, not with fear or anger or distress, but in a silent scream against everything in the whole bloody world. I flung the door open. My watcher was there, hurrying away, hood up. For a second she looked back, with a snarl of accusation.
How dare she! How dare she have crossed that spot, to do this!
‘It’s her again. That woman.’ Willow was at my shoulder. If I hadn’t been blocking her way, she’d have been out, chasing my persecutor.
I pushed her back, shutting the door and crumpling the paper.
‘What does it say?’ demanded Willow.
‘Nothing,’ I said, but she had the screwed-up ball out of my hand before I could stop her. ‘Bitch.’ Her shoulders shook with sobs.
I snatched the paper back and tore it into tiny pieces. Then I let the pieces fall and threw my arms round her. ‘Forget her, whoever she is, her and her stupid notes. Forget her.’
Willow straightened, wiping the back of her hand across her nose. ‘How can we forget her when she’s always there?’ She sniffed again. ‘Let’s go away. To this cottage thing. Anywhere. I don’t want to be here anymore.’
‘All right then.’ My head was throbbing. I wanted air. Fresh air. Sea air. Ice-cold waves. ‘We’ll go.’