It was the moustache that reminded me I was no longer in England: a solid, grey millipede firmly obscuring the man’s upper lip; a Village People moustache, a cowboy moustache, the miniature head of a broom that meant business. You just didn’t get that kind of moustache at home. I couldn’t tear my eyes from it.
The only person I had ever seen with a moustache like that at home was Mr Naylor, our maths teacher, and he collected Digestive crumbs in his – we used to count them during algebra.
The man in the uniform motioned me forward with a flick of his stubby finger. He did not look up from his screen. I waited at the booth, long-haul sweat drying gently into my shirt. He held up his hand, waggling four fat fingers. This, I grasped after several seconds, was a demand for my passport.
‘It’s there,’ I said.
‘Your name, ma’am.’
‘Louisa Elizabeth Clark.’ I peered over the counter. ‘Though I never use the Elizabeth bit. Because my mum realized after they named me that that would make me Lou Lizzy. And if you say that really fast it sounds like lunacy. Though my dad says that’s kind of fitting. Not that I’m a lunatic. I mean, you wouldn’t want lunatics in your country. Hah!’ My voice bounced nervously off the Perspex screen.
The man looked at me for the first time. He had solid shoulders and a gaze that could pin you like a Tazer. He did not smile. He waited until my own faded.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘People in uniform make me nervous.’
I glanced behind me at the immigration hall, at the snaking queue that had doubled back on itself so many times it had become an impenetrable, restless sea of people. ‘I think I’m feeling a bit odd from standing in that queue. That is honestly the longest queue I’ve ever stood in. I’d begun to wonder whether to start my Christmas list.’
‘Put your hand on the scanner.’
‘Is it always that size?’
‘The scanner?’ He frowned.
But he was no longer listening. He was studying something on his screen. I put my fingers on the little pad. And then my phone dinged.
Mum: Have you landed?
I went to tap an answer with my free hand but he turned sharply towards me. ‘Ma’am, you are not permitted to use cell-phones in this area.’
‘It’s just my mum. She wants to know if I’m here.’ I surreptitiously tried to press the thumbs up emoji as I slid the phone out of view.
‘Reason for travel?’
What is that? came Mum’s immediate reply. She had taken to texting like a duck to water and could now do it faster than she could speak. Which was basically warp speed. You know my phone doesn’t do the little pictures. Is that an SOS? Louisa tell me you’re okay.
‘Reasons for travel, ma’am?’ The moustache twitched with irritation. He added, slowly: ‘What are you doing here in the United States?’
‘I have a new job.’
‘I’m going to work for a family in New York. Central Park.’
Just briefly, the man’s eyebrows might have raised a millimetre. He checked the address on my form, confirming it. ‘What kind of job?’
‘It’s a bit complicated. But I’m sort of a paid companion.’
‘A paid companion.’
‘It’s like this. I used to work for this man. I was his companion, but I would also give him his meds and take him out and feed him. That’s not as weird as it sounds, by the way – he had no use of his hands. It wasn’t like something pervy. Actually in my last job it ended up as more than that, because it’s hard not to get close to people you look after and Will – the man – was amazing and we . . . Well, we fell in love.’ Too late, I felt the familiar welling of tears. I wiped my eyes briskly. ‘So I think it’ll be sort of like that. Except for the love bit. And the feeding.’
The immigration officer was staring at me. I tried to smile. ‘Actually, I don’t normally cry talking about jobs. I’m not like an actual lunatic, despite my name. Hah! But I loved him. And he loved me. And then he . . . Well, he chose to end his life. So this is sort of my attempt to start over.’ The tears were now leaking relentlessly, embarrassingly, from the corners of my eyes. I couldn’t seem to stop them. I couldn’t seem to stop anything. ‘Sorry. Must be the jetlag. It’s something like two o’clock in the morning in normal time, right? Plus I don’t really talk about him any more. I mean, I have a new boyfriend. And he’s great! He’s a paramedic! And hot! That’s like winning the boyfriend lottery, right? A hot paramedic?’
I scrabbled around in my handbag for a tissue. When I looked up the man was holding out a box. I took one. ‘Thank you. So, anyway, my friend Nathan – he’s from New Zealand – works here and he helped me get this job and I don’t really know what it involves yet, apart from looking after this rich man’s wife who gets depressed. But I’ve decided this time I’m going to live up to what Will wanted for me, because I didn’t get it right, before. I just ended up working in an airport.’
I froze. ‘Not – uh – that there’s anything wrong with working at an airport! I’m sure immigration is a very important job. Really important. But I have a plan. I’m going to do something new every week that I’m here and I’m going to say yes.’
‘To new things. Will always said I shut myself off from new experiences. So this is my plan.’
The officer studied my paperwork. ‘You didn’t fill the address section out properly. I need a zip code.’
He pushed the form towards me. I checked the number on the sheet that I had printed out and filled it in with trembling fingers. I glanced to my left, where the queue at my section was growing restive. At the front of the next queue a Chinese family was being questioned by two officials. As the woman protested, they were led into a side room. I felt suddenly very alone.
The immigration officer peered at the people waiting. And then, abruptly, he stamped my passport. ‘Good luck, Louisa Clark,’ he said.
I stared at him. ‘That’s it?’
I smiled. ‘Oh, thank you! That’s really kind. I mean, it’s quite weird being on the other side of the world by yourself for the first time, and now I feel a bit like I just met my first nice new person and –’
‘You need to move along now, ma’am.’
‘Of course. Sorry.’
I gathered up my belongings and pushed a sweaty frond of hair from my face.
‘And, ma’am . . .’
‘Yes?’ I wondered what I had got wrong now.
He didn’t look up from his screen. ‘Be careful what you say yes to.’
Nathan was waiting in Arrivals, as he had promised. I scanned the crowd, feeling oddly self-conscious, secretly convinced that nobody would come, but there he was, his huge hand waving above the shifting bodies around him. He raised his other arm, a smile breaking across his face, and pushed his way through to meet me, picking me up off my feet in a gigantic hug. ‘Lou!’
At the sight of him, something in me constricted unexpectedly – something linked to Will and loss and the raw emotion that comes from sitting on a slightly-too-bumpy flight for seven hours – and I was glad that he was holding me tightly so that I had a moment to compose myself. ‘Welcome to New York, Shorty! Not lost your dress sense, I see.’
Now he held me at arms’ length, grinning. I straightened my 1970s tiger print dress. I had thought it might make me look like Jackie Kennedy, the Onassis Years. If Jackie Kennedy had spilled half her airline coffee on her lap. ‘It’s so good to see you.’
He swept up my leaden suitcases like they were filled with feathers. ‘C’mon. Let’s get you back to the house. The Prius is in for servicing so Mr G lent me his car. Traffic’s terrible, but you’ll get there in style.’
Mr Gopnik’s car was sleek and black and the size of a bus, and the doors closed with that emphatic, discreet thunk that signalled a six-figure price tag. Nathan shut my cases into the boot and I settled into the passenger seat with a sigh. I checked my phone, answered Mum’s fourteen texts with one that told her simply that I was in the car and would call her tomorrow, then replied to Sam’s, which told me he missed me, with Landed xxx.
‘How’s the fella?’ said Nathan, glancing at me.
‘He’s good, thanks.’ I added a few more xxxxs just to make sure.
‘Wasn’t too sticky about you heading over here?’
I shrugged. ‘He thought I needed to come.’
‘We all did. Just took you a while to find your way, is all.’
I put my phone away, sat back in my seat and gazed out at the unfamiliar names that dotted the highway: Milo’s Tire Shop, Richie’s Gym, the ambulances and U- Haul trucks, the rundown houses with their peeling paint and wonky stoops, the basketball courts, and drivers sipping from oversized plastic cups. Nathan turned on the radio and I listened to someone called Lorenzo talking about a baseball game and felt, briefly, as if I were in some kind of suspended reality.
‘So you’ve got tomorrow to get straight. Anything you want to do? I thought I might let you sleep in, then drag you out to brunch. You should have the full NY diner experience on your first weekend here.’
‘They won’t be back from the country club till tomorrow evening. There’s been a bit of strife this last week. I’ll fill you in when you’ve had some sleep.’
I stared at him. ‘No secrets, right? This isn’t going to be –’
‘They’re not like the Traynors. It’s just your average dysfunctional multi-millionaire family.’
‘Is she nice?’
‘She’s great. She’s . . . a handful. But she’s great. He is too.’
That was as good a character reference as you were likely to get from Nathan. He lapsed into silence – he never was big on gossip – and I sat in the smooth, air-conditioned Mercedes GLS and fought the waves of sleep that kept threatening to wash over me. I thought about Sam, now fast asleep several thousand miles away in his railway carriage. I thought of Treena and Thom, tucked up in my little flat in London. And then Nathan’s voice cut in. ‘There you go.’
I looked up through gritty eyes and there it was across the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan, shining like a million jagged shards of light, awe-inspiring, glossy, impossibly condensed and beautiful, a sight that was so familiar from television and films that I couldn’t quite accept I was seeing it for real. I shifted upright in my seat, dumbstruck as we sped towards it, the most famous metropolis on the planet.
‘Never gets old, that view, eh? Bit grander than Stortfold.’
I don’t think it had actually hit me until that point. My new home.
‘Hey, Ashok. How’s it going?’ Nathan wheeled my cases through the marble lobby as I stared at the black and white tiles and the brass rails, and tried not to trip, my footsteps echoing in the cavernous space. It was like the entrance to a grand, slightly faded hotel: the lift in burnished brass, the floor carpeted in a red and gold livery, the reception a little darker than was comfortable. It smelt of beeswax and polished shoes and money.
‘I’m good, man. Who’s this?’
‘This is Louisa. She’ll be working for Mrs G.’
The uniformed porter stepped out from behind his desk and held out a hand for me to shake. He had a wide smile and eyes that looked like they had seen everything.
‘Nice to meet you, Ashok.’
‘A Brit! I have a cousin in London. Croy-down. You know Croy-down? You anywhere near there? He’s a big fella, you know what I’m saying?’
‘I don’t really know Croydon,’ I said. And when his face fell: ‘But I’ll keep an eye out for him the next time I’m passing through.’
‘Louisa. Welcome to the Lavery. You need anything, or you want to know anything, you just let me know. I’m here twenty-four seven.’
‘He’s not kidding,’ said Nathan. ‘Sometimes I think he sleeps under that desk.’ He gestured to a service elevator, its doors a dull grey, near the back of the lobby.
‘Three kids under five, man,’ said Ashok. ‘Believe me, being here keeps me sane. Can’t say it does the same for my wife.’ He grinned. ‘Seriously, Miss Louisa. Anything you need, I’m your man.’
‘As in drugs, prostitutes, houses of ill-repute?’ I whispered, as the service lift doors closed around us.
‘No. As in theatre tickets, restaurant tables, best places to get your dry-cleaning,’ Nathan said. ‘This is Fifth Avenue. Jesus. What have you been doing back in London?’
The Gopnik residence comprised seven thousand square feet on the second and third floors of a red-brick Gothic building, a rare duplex in this part of New York, and testament to generations of Gopnik family riches. This, the Lavery, was a scaled down imitation of the famous Dakota building, Nathan told me, and was one of the oldest co- ops on the Upper East Side. Nobody could buy or sell an apartment here without the approval of a board of residents who were staunchly resistant to change. While the glossy condominiums across the park housed the new money –: Russian oligarchs, pop stars, Chinese steel magnates and tech billionaires – with communal restaurants, gyms, childcare and infinity pools, the residents of the Lavery liked things Old School.
These apartments were passed down through generations; their inhabitants learnt to tolerate the 1930s plumbing system, fought lengthy and labyrinthine battles for permission to alter anything more extensive than a light switch, and looked politely the other way as New York changed around them, just as one might ignore a beggar with a cardboard sign.
I barely glimpsed the grandeur of the duplex itself, with its parquet floors, elevated ceilings and floor-length damask curtains, as we headed straight to the staff quarters, which were tucked away at the far end of the second floor, down a long, narrow corridor that led off the kitchen – an anomaly left over from a distant age. The newer or refurbished buildings had no staff quarters: housekeepers and nannies would travel in from Queens or New Jersey on the dawn train and return after dark. But the Gopnik family had owned these tiny rooms since the building was first constructed. They could not be developed or sold, but were tied through deeds to the main residence, and lusted after as storage rooms. It wasn’t hard to see why they might naturally be considered storage.
‘There.’ Nathan opened a door and dropped my bags.
My room measured approximately twelve feet by twelve feet. It housed a double bed, a television, a chest of drawers and a wardrobe. A small armchair, upholstered in beige fabric, sat in the corner, its sagging seat testament to previous exhausted occupants. A small window might have looked south. Or north. Or east. It was hard to tell, as it was approximately six feet from the blank brick rear of a building so tall that I could see the sky only if I pressed my face to the glass and craned my neck.
A communal kitchen sat nearby on the corridor, to be shared by me, Nathan, and a housekeeper, whose own room was across the corridor.
On my bed sat a neat pile of five dark-green polo shirts and what looked like black trousers, bearing a cheap Teflon sheen.
‘They didn’t tell you about the uniform?’
I picked up one of the polo shirts.
‘It’s just a shirt and trousers. The Gopniks think a uniform makes it simpler. Everyone knows where they stand.’
‘If you want to look like a pro golfer.’
I peered into the tiny bathroom, tiled in limescale-encrusted brown marble, which opened off the bedroom. It housed a loo, a small basin that looked like it dated from the 1940s and a shower. A paper-wrapped soap and a can of cockroach killer sat on the side.
‘It’s actually pretty generous by Manhattan standards,’ Nathan said. ‘I know it looks a little tired but Mrs G says we can give it a splosh of paint. A couple of extra lamps and a quick trip to Crate and Barrel and it’ll –’
‘I love it,’ I said. I turned to him, my voice suddenly shaky. ‘I’m in New York, Nathan. I’m actually here.’
He squeezed my shoulder. ‘Yup. You really are.’
I managed to stay awake just long enough to unpack, eat some takeaway with Nathan (he called it takeout, like an actual American), flicked through some of the 859 channels on my little television, the bulk of which seemed to be on an ever-running loop of American football, adverts for digestion issues, or badly lit crime shows I hadn’t heard of, and then I zonked out. I woke with a start at four forty-five a.m. For a few discombobulating minutes I was confused by the distant sound of an unfamiliar siren, the low whine of a reversing truck, then flicked on the light switch, remembered where I was, and a jolt of excitement whipped through me.
I pulled my laptop from my bag and tapped out a chat message to Sam. You there? xxx
I waited, but nothing came back. I couldn’t remember when he had said he was on duty, and was too befuddled to work out the time difference. I put my laptop down and tried briefly to get back to sleep (Treena said when I didn’t sleep enough I looked like a sad horse). But the unfamiliar sounds of the city were a siren call, and at six I climbed out of bed and showered, trying to ignore the rust in the sputtering water that exploded out of the shower head. I dressed (denim pinafore sundress and a vintage turquoise short-sleeved blouse with a picture of the Statue of Liberty) and went in search of coffee.
I padded along the corridor, trying to remember the location of the staff kitchen that Nathan had shown me the previous evening. I opened a door and a woman turned and stared at me. She was middle-aged and stocky, her hair set in neat dark waves, like a 1930s movie star. Her eyes were beautiful and dark but her mouth dragged down at the edges, as if in permanent disapproval.
‘Um . . . good morning!’
She kept staring at me.
‘I – I’m Louisa? The new girl? Mrs Gopnik’s . . . assistant?’
‘She is not Mrs Gopnik.’ The woman left this statement hanging in the air.
‘You must be . . .’ I racked my jetlagged brain but no name was forthcoming. Oh, come on, I willed myself. ‘I’m so sorry. My brain is like porridge this morning. Jetlag.’
‘My name is Ilaria.’
‘Ilaria. Of course, that’s it. Sorry.’ I stuck out my hand. She didn’t take it.
‘I know who you are.’
‘Um . . . can you show me where Nathan keeps his milk? I just wanted to get a coffee.’
‘Nathan doesn’t drink milk.’
‘Really? He used to.’
‘You think I lie to you?’
‘No. That’s not what I was s–’
She stepped to the left and gestured towards a wall cupboard that was half the size of the others and ever so slightly out of reach. ‘That is yours.’ Then she opened the fridge door to replace her juice, and I noticed the full two-litre bottle of milk on her shelf. She closed it again and gazed at me implacably. ‘Mr Gopnik will be home at six thirty this evening. Dress in uniform to meet him.’ And she headed off down the corridor, her slippers slapping against the soles of her feet.
‘Lovely to meet you! I’m sure we’ll be seeing loads of each other!’ I called after her.
I stared at the fridge for a moment, then decided it probably wasn’t too early to go out for milk. After all, this was the city that never slept.
New York might be awake, but the Lavery was cloaked in a silence so dense it suggested communal doses of zopiclone. I walked along the corridor, closing the front door softly behind me and checking eight times that I had remembered both my purse and my keys. I figured the early hour and the sleeping residents gave me licence to look a little more closely at where I had ended up.
As I tiptoed along, the plush carpet muffling my steps, a dog started to bark from inside one of the doors – a yappy, outraged protest – and an elderly voice shouted something that I couldn’t make out. I hurried past, not wanting to be responsible for waking up the other residents, and, instead of taking the main stairs, headed down in the service lift.
There was nobody in the lobby so I let myself out onto the street and stepped straight into a clamour of noise and light so overwhelming that I had to stand still for a moment just to stay upright. In front of me the green oasis of Central Park extended for what looked like miles. To my left, the side streets were already busy – enormous men in overalls unloaded crates from an open-sided van, watched by a cop with arms like sides of ham crossed over his chest. A road sweeper hummed industriously. A taxi driver chatted to a man through his open window. I counted off the sights of the Big Apple in my head. Horse-drawn carriages! Yellow taxis! Impossibly tall buildings! As I stared, two weary tourists with children in buggies pushed past me clutching Styrofoam coffee cups, still operating perhaps on some distant time zone. Manhattan stretched in every direction, enormous, sun-tipped, teeming and glowing.
My jetlag evaporated with the last of the dawn. I took a breath and set off, aware that I was grinning but quite unable to stop myself. I walked eight blocks without seeing a single convenience store. I turned into Madison Avenue, past huge glass-fronted luxury stores with their doors locked and, dotted between them, the occasional restaurant, windows darkened, like closed eyes, or a gilded hotel whose liveried doorman didn’t look at me as I passed.
I walked another five blocks, realizing gradually that this wasn’t the kind of area where you could just nip into the grocer’s. I had pictured New York diners on every corner, staffed by brassy waitresses and men with white pork-pie hats, but everything looked huge and glossy and not remotely as if a cheese omelette or a mug of tea might be waiting behind its doors. Most of the people I passed were tourists, or fierce, jogging hard-bodies, sleek in Lycra and oblivious between earphones, stepping nimbly around homeless men, who glared from furrowed, lead-stained faces. Finally I stumbled on a large coffee bar, one of a chain, in which half of New York’s early risers seemed to have congregated, bent over their phones in booths or feeding preternaturally cheerful toddlers as generic easy-listening music filtered through speakers on the wall.
I ordered cappuccino and a muffin, which, before I could say anything, the barista sliced in two, heated, then slathered with butter, all the while never breaking his conversation about a baseball game with his colleague.
I paid, sat down with the muffin, wrapped in foil, and took a bite. It was, even without the clawing jetlag hunger, the most delicious thing I had ever eaten.
I sat in a window seat staring out at the early-morning Manhattan street for half an hour or so, my mouth alternately filled with claggy, buttery muffin or scalded by hot, strong coffee, giving free rein to my ever-present internal monologue (I am drinking New York coffee in a New York coffee house! I am walking along a New York street! Like Meg Ryan! Or Diane Keaton! I am in actual New York!) and, briefly, I understood exactly what Will had been trying to explain to me two years previously: for those few minutes, my mouth full of unfamiliar food, my eyes filled with strange sights, I existed only in the moment. I was fully present, my senses alive, my whole being open to receive the new experiences around me. I was in the only place in the world I could possibly be.
And then, apropos of apparently nothing, two women at the next table launched into a fist fight, coffee and bits of pastry flying across two tables, baristas leaping to pull them apart. I dusted the crumbs off my dress, closed my bag, and decided it was probably time to return to the peace of the Lavery.
Ashok was sorting huge bales of newspapers into numbered piles as I walked back in. He straightened up with a smile. ‘Well, good day, Miss Louisa. And how was your first morning in New York?’
‘Amazing. Thank you.’
‘Did you hum “Let The River Run” as you walked down the street?’
I stopped in my tracks. ‘How did you know?’
‘Everyone does that when they first come to Manhattan. Hell, even I do it some mornings and I don’t look nothing like Melanie Griffith.’
‘Are there no grocery stores around here? I had to walk about a million miles to get a coffee. And I have no idea where to buy milk.’
‘Miss Louisa, you should have told me. C’mere.’ He gestured behind his counter and opened a door, beckoning me into a dark office, its scruffiness and cluttered décor at odds with the brass and marble outside. On a desk sat a bank of security screens and among them an old television and a large ledger, along with a mug, some paperback books and an array of photographs of beaming, toothless children. Behind the door stood an ancient fridge. ‘Here. Take this. Bring me one later.’
‘Do all doormen do this?’
‘No doormen do this. But the Lavery is different.’
‘So where do people do their shopping?’
He pulled a face. ‘People in this building don’t do shopping, Miss Louisa. They don’t even think about shopping. I swear half of them think that food arrives by magic, cooked, on their tables.’ He glanced behind him, lowering his voice. ‘I will wager that eighty per cent of the women in this building have not cooked a meal in five years. Mind you, half the women in this building don’t eat meals, period.’
When I stared at him he shrugged. ‘The rich do not live like you and me, Miss Louisa. And the New York rich . . . well, they do not live like anyone.’
I took the carton of milk.
‘Anything you want you have it delivered. You’ll get used to it.’
I wanted to ask him about Ilaria and Mrs Gopnik, who apparently wasn’t Mrs Gopnik, and the family I was about to meet. But he was looking away from me up the hallway.
‘Well, good morning to you, Mrs De Witt!’
‘What are all these newspapers doing on the floor? The place looks like a wretched newsstand.’ A tiny old woman tutted fretfully at the piles of New York Times and Wall Street Journal that he was still unpacking. Despite the hour, she was dressed as if for a wedding, in a raspberry pink duster coat, a red pillbox hat and huge tortoiseshell sunglasses that obscured her tiny, wrinkled face. At the end of a lead a wheezy pug, with bulbous eyes, gazed at me belligerently (at least I thought it was gazing at me: it was hard to be sure as its eyes veered off in different directions). I stooped to help Ashok clear the newspapers from her path but as I bent down the dog leapt at me with a growl so that I sprang back, almost falling over the New York Times.
‘Oh, for goodness’ sake!’ came the quavering, imperious voice. ‘And now you’re upsetting the dog!’
My leg had felt the whisper of the pug’s teeth. My skin sang with the near contact.
‘Please make sure this – this debris is cleared by the time we return. I have told Mr Ovitz again and again that the building is going downhill. And, Ashok, I’ve left a bag of refuse outside my door. Please move it immediately or the whole corridor will smell of stale lilies. Goodness knows who sends lilies as a gift. Funereal things. Dean Martin!’
Ashok tipped his cap. ‘Certainly, Mrs De Witt.’ He waited until she’d gone. Then he turned and peered at my leg.
‘That dog tried to bite me!’
‘Yeah. That’s Dean Martin. Best stay out of his way. He’s the most bad-tempered resident in this building, and that’s saying something.’ He bent back towards his papers, heaving the next lot onto the desk, then pausing to shoo me away. ‘Don’t you worry about these, Miss Louisa. They’re heavy and you’ve got enough on your plate with them upstairs. Have a nice day now.’
He was gone before I could ask him what he meant.
The day passed in a blur. I spent the rest of the morning organizing my little room, cleaning the bathroom, putting up pictures of Sam, my parents, Treena and Thom to make it feel more like home. Nathan took me to a diner near Columbus Circle where I ate from a plate the size of a car tyre and drank so much strong coffee that my hands vibrated as we walked back. Nathan pointed out places that might be useful to me – this bar stayed open late, that food truck did really good falafel, this was a safe ATM for getting cash . . . My brain spun with new images, new information. Some time mid-afternoon I felt suddenly woozy and leadenfooted, so Nathan walked me back to the apartment, his arm through mine. I was grateful for the quiet, dark interior of the building, for the service lift that saved me from the stairs.
‘Take a nap,’ he advised, as I kicked off my shoes. ‘I wouldn’t sleep more than an hour, though, or your body clock will be even more messed up.’
‘What time did you say the Gopniks will be back?’ My voice had started to slur.
‘Usually around six. It’s three now so you’ve got time. Go on, get some shut-eye. You’ll feel human again.’
He closed the door and I sank gratefully back on the bed. I was about to sleep, but realized suddenly that if I waited I wouldn’t be able to speak to Sam, and reached for my laptop, briefly lifted from my torpor. Are you there? I typed into the messenger app.
A few minutes later, with a little bubbling sound, the picture expanded and there he was, back in the railway carriage, his huge body hunched towards the screen. Sam. Paramedic. Man-mountain. All-too-new-boyfriend. We grinned at each other like loons.
‘Hey, gorgeous! How is it?’
‘Good!’ I said. ‘I could show you my room but I might bump the walls as I turn the screen.’ I twisted the laptop so that he could see the full glory of my little bedroom.
‘Looks good to me. It’s got you in it.’
I stared at the grey window behind him. I could picture it exactly, the rain thrumming on the roof of the railway carriage, the glass that steamed comfortingly, the wood, the damp and the hens outside sheltering under a dripping wheelbarrow. Sam was gazing at me, and I wiped my eyes, wishing suddenly that I had remembered to put on some make- up.
‘Did you go into work?’
‘Yeah. They reckon I’ll be good to start back on full duties in a week. Got to be fit enough to lift a body without busting my stitches.’ He instinctively placed his hand on his abdomen, where the gunshot had hit him just a matter of weeks previously – the routine callout that had nearly killed him, and cemented our relationship – and I felt something unbalancing and visceral.
‘I wish you were here,’ I said, before I could stop myself.
‘Me too. But you’re on day one of your adventure and it’s going to be great. And in a year you will be sitting here –’
‘Not there,’ I interrupted. ‘In your finished house.’
‘In my finished house,’ he said. ‘And we’ll be looking at your pictures on your phone and I’ll be secretly thinking, Oh, God, there she goes, whanging on about her time in New York again.’
‘So will you write to me? A letter full of love and longing, sprayed with lonely tears?’
‘Ah, Lou. You know I’m not really a writer. But I’ll call. And I’ll be there with you in just four weeks.’
‘Right,’ I said, as my throat constricted. ‘Okay. I’d better grab a nap.’
‘Me too,’ he said. ‘I’ll think of you.’
‘In a disgusting porny way? Or in a romantic Nora Ephron- y kind of way?’
‘Which of those is not going to get me into trouble?’ He smiled. ‘You look good, Lou,’ he said, after a minute. ‘You look . . . giddy.’
‘I feel giddy. I feel like a really, really tired person who also slightly wants to explode. It’s a little confusing.’ I put my hand on the screen, and after a second he put his up to meet it. I could imagine it on my skin.
‘Love you.’ I still felt a little self-conscious saying it.
‘You too. I’d kiss the screen but I suspect you’d only get a view of my nasal hair.’
I shut my computer, smiling, and within seconds I was asleep.
Somebody was shrieking in the corridor. I woke groggily, sweatily, half suspecting I was in a dream, and pushed myself upright. There really was a woman screaming on the other side of my door. A thousand thoughts sped through my addled brain, headlines about murders, New York and how to report a crime. What was the number you were meant to call? Not 999 like England. I racked my brain and came up with nothing.
‘Why should I? Why should I sit there and smile when those witches are insulting me? You don’t even hear half of what they say! You are a man! It is like you wear blinkers on your ears!’
‘Darling, please calm down. Please. This is not the time or the place.’
‘There is never a time or place! Because there is always someone here! I have to buy my own apartment just so I have somewhere to argue with you!’
‘I don’t understand why you have to get so upset about it all. You have to give it –’
Something smashed on the hardwood floor. I was fully awake now, my heart racing.
There was a weighty silence.
‘Now you’re going to tell me this was a family heirloom.’
‘Well, yes, yes, it was.’
A muffled sob. ‘I don’t care! I don’t care! I’m choking in your family history! You hear me? Choking!’
‘Agnes, darling. Not in the corridor. Come on. We can discuss this later.’
I sat very still on the edge of my bed.
There was more muffled sobbing, then silence. I waited, then stood and tiptoed to the door, pressing my ear against it. Nothing. I looked at the clock – four forty-six p.m.
I washed my face and changed briskly into my uniform. I brushed my hair, then let myself quietly out of my bedroom and walked around the corner of the corridor.
And I stopped.
Further up the corridor beside the kitchen, a young woman was curled into a foetal ball. An older man had his arms wrapped around her, his back pressed against the wood panelling. He was almost seated, one knee up and one extended, as if he had caught her and been brought down by the weight. I couldn’t see her face, but a long, slim leg stuck out inelegantly from a navy dress and a sheet of blonde hair obscured her face. Her knuckles were white from where she was holding on to him.
I stared and gulped, and he looked up and saw me. I recognized Mr Gopnik.
‘Not now. Thank you,’ he said, softly.
My voice sticking in my throat, I backed swiftly into my room and closed the door, my heart thumping in my ears so loudly that I was sure they must be able to hear it.
I stared, unseeing, at the television for the next hour, an image of those entwined people burned onto the inside of my head. I thought about texting Nathan but I wasn’t sure what I would say. Instead, at five fifty-five, I walked out, tentatively making my way towards the main apartment through the connecting door. I passed a vast empty dining room, what looked like a guest bedroom and two closed doors, following the distant murmur of conversation, my feet soft on the parquet floor. Finally I reached the drawing room and stopped just outside the open doorway.
Mr Gopnik was in a window seat, on the telephone, the sleeves of his pale blue shirt rolled up and one hand resting behind his head. He motioned me in, still talking on the phone. To my left a blonde woman – Mrs Gopnik? – sat on a rose-coloured antique sofa tapping restlessly on an iPhone. She appeared to have changed her clothes and I was momentarily confused. I waited awkwardly until he ended his call and stood, I noticed, with a little wince of effort. I took another step towards him, to save him coming further, and shook his hand. It was warm, his grip soft and strong. The young woman continued to tap at her phone.
‘Louisa. Glad you got here okay. I trust you have everything you need.’
He said it in the way people do when they don’t expect you to ask for anything.
‘It’s all lovely. Thank you.’
‘This is my daughter, Tabitha. Tab?’
The girl raised a hand, offering the hint of a smile, before turning back to her phone.
‘Please excuse Agnes not being here to meet you. She’s gone to bed for an hour. Splitting headache. It’s been a long weekend.’
A vague weariness shadowed his face, but it was gone within a moment. Nothing in his manner betrayed what I had seen less than two hours previously.
He smiled. ‘So . . . tonight you’re free to do as you please, and from tomorrow morning you will accompany Agnes wherever she wants to go. Your official title is “assistant”, and you’ll be there to support her in whatever she needs to do in the day. She has a busy schedule – I’ve asked my assistant to loop you in on the family calendar and you’ll get emailed with any updates. Best to check at around ten p.m. – that’s when we tend to make late changes. You’ll meet the rest of the team tomorrow.’
‘Great. Thank you.’ I noted the word ‘team’ and had a brief vision of footballers trekking through the apartment.
‘What’s for dinner, Dad?’ Tabitha spoke as if I wasn’t there.
‘I don’t know, darling. I thought you said you were going out.’
‘I’m not sure I can face going back across town tonight. I might just stay.’
‘Whatever you want. Just make sure Ilaria knows. Louisa, do you have any questions?’
I tried to think of something useful to say.
‘Oh, and Mom told me to ask you if you’d found that little drawing. The Miró.’
‘Sweetheart, I’m not going over that again. The drawing belongs here.’
‘But Mom said she chose it. She misses it. You never even liked it.’
‘That’s not the point.’
I shifted my weight between my feet, not sure if I had been dismissed.
‘But it is the point, Dad. Mom misses something terribly and you don’t even care for it.’
‘It’s worth eighty thousand dollars.’
‘Mom doesn’t care about the money.’
‘Can we discuss this later?’
‘You’ll be busy later. I promised Mom I would sort this out.’
I took a surreptitious step backwards.
‘There’s nothing to sort. The settlement was finalized eighteen months ago. It was all dealt with then. Oh, darling, there you are. Are you feeling better?’
I looked round. The woman who had just entered the room was strikingly beautiful, her face free of make- up and her pale blonde hair scraped back into a loose knot. Her high cheekbones were lightly freckled and the shape of her eyes suggested a Slavic heritage. I guessed she was about the same age as me. She padded barefoot over to Mr Gopnik and kissed him, her hand trailing across the back of his neck. ‘Much better, thank you.’
‘This is Louisa,’ he said.
She turned to me. ‘My new ally,’ she said.
‘Your new assistant,’ said Mr Gopnik.
‘Hello, Louisa.’ She reached out a slender hand and shook mine. I felt her eyes run over me, as if she were working something out, and then she smiled, and I couldn’t help but smile in return.
‘Ilaria has made your room nice?’ Her voice was soft and held an Eastern European lilt.
‘It’s perfect. Thank you.’
‘Perfect? Oh, you are very easily pleased. That room is like a broom cupboard. Anything you don’t like you tell us and we will make it nice. Won’t we, darling?’
‘Didn’t you used to live in a room even smaller than that, Agnes?’ said Tab, not looking up from her iPhone. ‘I’m sure Dad told me you used to share with about fifteen other immigrants.’
‘Tab.’ Mr Gopnik’s voice was a gentle warning.
Agnes took a little breath and lifted her chin. ‘Actually, my room was smaller. But the girls I shared with were very nice. So it was no trouble at all. If people are nice, and polite, you can bear anything, don’t you think, Louisa?’
I swallowed. ‘Yes.’
Ilaria walked in and cleared her throat. She was wearing the same polo shirt and dark trousers, covered by a white apron. She didn’t look at me. ‘Dinner is ready, Mr Gopnik,’ she said.
‘Is there any for me, Ilaria darling?’ said Tab, her hand resting along the back of the sofa. ‘I think I might stay over.’
Ilaria’s expression was filled with instant warmth. It was as if a different person had appeared in front of me. ‘Of course, Miss Tabitha. I always cook extra on Sundays in case you decide to stay.’
Agnes stood in the middle of the room. I thought I saw a flicker of panic cross her face. Her jaw tightened. ‘Then I would like Louisa to eat with us too,’ she said.
There was a brief silence.
‘Louisa?’ said Tab.
‘Yes. It would be nice to get to know her properly. Do you have plans for this evening, Louisa?’
‘Uh – no,’ I stuttered.
‘Then you eat with us. Ilaria, you say you cook extra, yes?’
Ilaria looked directly at Mr Gopnik, who appeared to be engrossed in something on his phone.
‘Agnes,’ said Tab, after a moment. ‘You do understand we don’t eat with staff?’
‘Who is this “we”? I did not know that there was a rulebook.’ Agnes held out her hand and inspected her wedding band with studied calm. ‘Darling? Did you forget to give me a rulebook?’
‘With respect, and while I’m sure Louisa is perfectly nice,’ said Tab, ‘there are boundaries. And they exist for everybody’s benefit.’
‘I’m happy to do whatever . . .’ I began. ‘I don’t want to cause any . . .’
‘Well, with respect, Tabitha, I would like Louisa to eat supper with me. She is my new assistant and we are going to spend every day together. So I cannot see the problem in me getting to know her a little.’
‘There’s no problem,’ said Mr Gopnik.
‘There’s no problem, Tab. Ilaria, please could you set the table for four? Thank you.’
Ilaria’s eyes widened. She glanced at me, her mouth a thin line of suppressed rage, as if I had engineered this travesty of the domestic hierarchy, then disappeared to the dining room from where we could hear the emphatic clattering of cutlery and glassware. Agnes let out a little breath and pushed her hair back from her head. She flashed me a small, conspiratorial smile.
‘Let’s go through,’ said Mr Gopnik, after a minute. ‘Louisa, perhaps you’d like a drink.’
Dinner was a hushed, painful affair. I was overawed by the grand mahogany table, the heavy silver cutlery and the crystal glasses, out of place in my uniform. Mr Gopnik was largely silent and disappeared twice to take calls from his office. Tab flicked through her iPhone, studiously declining to engage with anybody, and Ilaria delivered chicken in a red wine sauce with all the trimmings and removed serving dishes afterwards with a face, as my mother would put it, like a smacked arse. Perhaps only I noticed the hard clunk with which my own plate was placed in front of me, the audible sniff that came every time she passed my chair.
Agnes barely picked at hers. She sat opposite me and chatted gamely as if I were her new best friend, her gaze periodically sliding towards her husband.
‘So this is your first time in New York,’ she said. ‘Where else have you been?’
‘Um . . . not very many places. I’m sort of late to travelling. I backpacked around Europe a while ago, and before that . . . Mauritius. And Switzerland.’
‘America is very different. Each state has a unique feel, I think, to we Europeans. I have only been to a few places with Leonard, but it was like going to different countries entirely. Are you excited to be here?’
‘Very much so,’ I said. ‘I’m determined to take advantage of everything New York has to offer.’
‘Sounds like you, Agnes,’ said Tab, sweetly.
Agnes ignored her, keeping her eyes on me. They were hypnotically beautiful, tapering to fine, upward-tilted points at the corners. Twice I had to remind myself to close my mouth while staring at her.
‘And tell me about your family. You have brothers? Sisters?’
I explained my family as best I could, making them sound a little more Waltons than Addams.
‘And your sister now lives in your apartment in London? With her son? Will she come visit you? And your parents? They will miss you?’
I thought of Dad’s parting shot: ‘Don’t hurry back, Lou! We’re turning your old bedroom into a jacuzzi!’
‘Oh, yes. Very much.’
‘My mother cried for two weeks when I left Kraków. And you have a boyfriend?’
‘Yes. His name’s Sam. He’s a paramedic.’
‘A paramedic! Like a doctor? How lovely. Please show me picture. I love to see pictures.’
I pulled my phone from my pocket and flicked through until I found my favourite picture of Sam, sitting on my roof terrace in his dark green uniform. He had just finished work, and was drinking a mug of tea, beaming at me. The sun was low behind him and I could remember, looking at it, exactly how it had felt up there, my tea cooling on the ledge behind me, Sam waiting patiently as I took picture after picture.
‘So handsome! And he is coming to New York too?’ ‘Um, no. He’s building a house so it’s a bit complicated just now. And he has a job.’
Agnes’s eyes widened. ‘But he must come! You cannot live in different countries! How you can love your man if he is not here with you? I could not be away from Leonard. I don’t even like it when he goes on two-day business trip.’
‘Yes, I suppose you would want to make sure you’re never too far away,’ said Tab. Mr Gopnik glanced up from his dinner, his gaze flickering between his wife and daughter, but said nothing.
‘Still,’ Agnes said, arranging her napkin on her lap, ‘London is not so far away. And love is love. Isn’t that right, Leonard?’
‘It certainly is,’ he said, and his face briefly softened at her smile. Agnes reached out a hand and stroked his, and I looked quickly at my plate.
The room fell silent for a moment.
‘Actually, I think I might head home. I seem to be feeling slightly nauseous.’ With a loud scrape, Tab pushed her chair back and dropped her napkin on her plate, where the white linen immediately began to soak up the red wine sauce. I had to fight the urge to rescue it. She stood and kissed her father’s cheek. He reached up a free hand and touched her arm fondly.
‘I’ll speak to you during the week, Daddy.’ She turned. ‘Louisa . . . Agnes.’ She nodded curtly, and left the room.
Agnes watched her go. It’s possible she muttered something under her breath, but Ilaria was gathering up my plate and cutlery with such a savage clatter that it was hard to tell.
With Tab gone, it was as if all the fight left Agnes. She seemed to wilt in her seat, her shoulders suddenly bowed, the sharp hollow of her collarbone visible as her head drooped over it. I stood. ‘I think I might head back to my room now. Thank you so much for supper. It was delicious.’
Nobody protested. Mr Gopnik’s arm was resting along the mahogany table now, his fingers stroking his wife’s hand. ‘We’ll see you in the morning, Louisa,’ he said, not looking at me. Agnes was gazing up at him, her face sombre. I backed out of the dining room, speeding past the kitchen door to my room so that the virtual daggers I could feel Ilaria hurling my way from the kitchen wouldn’t have a chance to hit me.
An hour later Nathan sent me a text. He was having a beer with friends in Brooklyn. Heard you got the full baptism of fire. You all right?
I didn’t have the energy to come back with something witty. Or to ask him how on earth he knew.
It’ll be easier once you get to know them. Promise.
See you in the morning, I replied. I had a brief moment of misgiving – what had I just signed up for? – then had a stern word with myself, and fell heavily to sleep.
That night I dreamt of Will. I dreamt of him rarely – a source of some sadness to me in the early days when I had missed him so much that I felt as if someone had blasted a hole straight through me. The dreams had stopped when I met Sam. But there he was again, in the small hours, as vivid as if he were standing before me. He was in the back seat of a car, an expensive black limousine, like Mr Gopnik’s, and I saw him from across a street. I was instantly relieved that he was not dead, not gone after all, and knew instinctively that he should not go wherever he was headed. It was my job to stop him. But every time I tried to cross the busy road an extra lane of cars seemed to appear in front of me, roaring past so that I couldn’t get to him, the sound of the engines drowning my shouting of his name. There he was, just out of reach, his skin that smooth caramel colour, his faint smile playing around the edges of his mouth, saying something to the driver that I couldn’t hear. At the last minute he caught my eye – his eyes widened just a little – and I woke, sweating, the duvet knotted around my legs.