Most of life’s defining moments happen unexpectedly; sometimes they slide past you completely unnoticed until afterwards, if at all. The last time your child is small enough to carry on your hip. An eye-roll exchanged with a stranger who becomes your life-long best friend. The summer job you apply for on impulse and stay at for the next twenty years. That kind of thing. So I’m completely unaware that one of my defining moments is passing me by when my mobile rings at 6.47 p.m. on 14 March, 2018; instead, I curse under my breath because I’ve got a Velcro roller stuck in my hair and I’m already running late.
I can’t help it; I smile as I tap on speakerphone and Freddie half shouts his greeting over the background road noise.
‘I’m here,’ I say loudly, hairpins gripped between my teeth.
‘Listen, Lyds, Jonah’s got car trouble so I’m going to swing round and pick him up on the way back. It won’t make much difference, ten minutes max.’
I’m glad he isn’t here to see the look on my face. Was it Princess Diana who famously said there were three people in her marriage? I get that, because there are three people in mine too. Not that we’re married yet; very nearly though. Freddie Hunter and I are engaged, and I’m officially almost the happiest girl in the world. I refer you back to my earlier statement to explain why I say ‘almost’ the happiest; because there’s me, there’s Freddie and there’s Jonah bloody Jones.
I get it; I don’t go a day without speaking to my sister, but Elle isn’t always here on our sofa drinking our tea and demanding my attention. Not that Freddie’s best friend is demanding, exactly. Jonah’s so laid-back he’s almost horizontal most of the time and it’s not as if I don’t like him – I’d just like him a whole lot more if I didn’t see so much of him, you know? Tonight, for instance. Freddie asked Jonah to the dinner without thinking to check with me first, even though it’s my birthday.
I spit the hairpins out as I give up wrestling with the Velcro and pick the phone up instead, irritated.
‘God, Freddie, must you? Alfredo’s is booked for eight and they won’t hold the table if we’re late.’
I know this from bitter experience: our work Christmas dinner there turned into a disaster when the minibus arrived ten minutes late and we all ended up eating McDonald’s in our Sunday best. Tonight is my birthday dinner and I’m pretty sure my mum won’t be impressed with a Big Mac instead of Chicken Fettuccine.
‘Chill your boots, Cinders, you won’t be late for the ball. Promise.’
That’s Freddie all over. He never takes life seriously, even on the once-in-a-while occasions when, actually, it would be nice if he did. Time is elastic in his world, he can stretch it to accommodate his needs – or, in this case, to accommodate Jonah’s.
‘Okay,’ I sigh, resigned. ‘Just keep your eye on the time, for God’s sake.’
‘Got it,’ he says, already turning up the car radio. ‘Over and out.’
Silence fills the bedroom and I wonder if anyone would notice if I cut off the chunk of hair knotted around the roller currently hanging off the side of my head.
And there it was. My life’s defining moment, sliding nonchalantly past me at 6.47 p.m. on 14 March, 2018.
Thursday 10 May
Freddie Hunter, otherwise known as the great big love of my life, died fifty-six days ago.
One moment I’m cursing him for running late and ruining my birthday dinner, the next I’m trying to make sense of the two uniformed policewomen in my living room, one of them holding my hand as she speaks. I stare at her wedding ring and then at my engagement ring.
‘Freddie can’t be dead,’ I say. ‘We’re getting married next year.’
It’s probably a self-preservation thing that I struggle to recall exactly what happened afterwards. I remember being blue-lighted to A&E in the police car and my sister holding me up when my legs buckled at the hospital. I remember turning my back on Jonah Jones when he appeared in the waiting room with barely a scratch on him, just his hand bandaged and a wound dressing over one eye. How is that fair? Two get into the car, only one gets out again. I remember what I was wearing, a new green blouse I’d bought especially for the dinner. I’ve given it away to a charity shop; I never want it on my body again.
Since that awful day I’ve racked my brain countless times to try to recall every word of my last conversation with Freddie, and all I can remember is grumbling at him about cutting it fine for the restaurant. And then come the other thoughts. Was he rushing to please me? Was the accident my fault? God, I wish I’d told him that I love him. Had I known it was the last time I’d ever speak to him, I would have, of course I would. Since it happened, I’ve sometimes wished he’d lived just long enough for us to have one more conversation – but then I’m not sure my heart could have withstood it. It’s probably for the best if the last time you do something momentous passes you by unheralded: the last time my mother collected me at the school gate, her hand reassuring around my smaller one; the last time my father remembered my birthday.
Do you know the last thing Freddie said to me as he dashed back on my twenty-eighth birthday? Over and out. It was a habit, something he’d done for years, silly words that have now become one of the most significant phrases of my life. I guess it was just so Freddie, though, to go out on a phrase like that. He had this insatiable lust for life, a lightness of attitude coupled with a killer competitive streak – fun but lethal, if you like. I’ve never met anyone with such a gift for always knowing what to say. He has – he had – a knack of making other people think they’d won when in fact he’d got exactly what he wanted; he walked into his advertising career and shot up the ranks like a meteor, eyes always on the next prize. He is – he was – the bright spark amongst us, the one who was always going to be someone or do something that made people remember his name long after he’d gone.
And now he bloody well has gone, his car concertinaed against an oak tree, and I feel as if someone has sliced me through and tied a knot in my windpipe. It’s as if I can’t quite get enough air into my lungs – I’m breathless and perpetually on the edge of panic.
The doctor has finally given me something to help me sleep after my mum yelled at him yesterday in the living room, a month’s supply of some new pill that he wasn’t at all sure about prescribing because he thinks grief needs to be ‘passed through sentiently in order to emerge’. I’m not making this shit up; he said those actual words to me a couple of weeks ago, before leaving me empty-handed to go home to his very-much-alive wife and children.
Living around the corner from my mother is a blessing and a curse in varying measures. When she makes her champion chicken stew and brings a pan round for us still hot off the stove, for instance, or when she’s waiting for me at the end of the road on a cold November morning to give me a lift into work – those times our proximity is a blessing. Other times, like when I’m in bed seeing double with a hangover and she appears in my bedroom as if I’m still seventeen, or when I haven’t tidied up for a couple of days and she looks down her nose like I’m one of those extreme hoarders in need of a reality- TV intervention, those times our proximity is a curse. Ditto when I’m trying to grieve in private with the living-room curtains still closed at three in the afternoon and the same PJs on as when she visited me yesterday and the day before; making me tea I’ll forget to drink and sandwiches I’ll bury in the back of the fridge when she’s upstairs cleaning the bathroom or outside pulling the bins down.
I understand, of course. She’s fiercely protective of me, especially at the moment. She had the doctor practically shaking with fear when he wavered over the idea of prescribing sleeping tablets. I’m not all that sure about popping pills either, as it happens, although God knows the idea of oblivion is appealing. I don’t know why I’m bringing God into this. Freddie is, was and would have always been a strident atheist, and I’m ambivalent at best, so I don’t expect God has had much to do with my being placed on a clinical trial for the recently bereaved. The doctor recommended joining the drug trial, probably because my mother was demanding maximum-strength Valium and these new pills are being touted as a milder, more holistic option. To be perfectly honest, I don’t really care what they are; I’m officially the world’s saddest, most tired guinea pig.
Freddie and I have this fabulous bed, you see. It sounds unlikely, but the Savoy were auctioning off hotel beds to make way for new ones for hardly anything and, sweet heaven, this bed is a fantasy island of epic proportions. People raised eyebrows at first: You’re buying a second-hand bed? ‘Why on earth would you do that?’ my mother said, as aghast as if we were buying a camp bed discarded by the local homeless shelter. Clearly those doubters had never stayed at the Savoy. I hadn’t either, in truth, but I’d seen something on TV about their handmade beds and I knew exactly what I was getting. And that’s how we came to be in possession of the most comfortable bed in a hundred-mile radius, in which Freddie and I have demolished countless Sunday-morning breakfasts, laughed and cried and made heart-achingly sweet love.
When my mother told me she’d changed the sheets for me a few days after the accident, she unintentionally sent me into a sudden, screeching meltdown. I watched myself as if from a distance, clawing at the door of the washing machine, sobbing as the sheets tumbled through the suds, swilling any last lingering traces of Freddie’s skin and scent down the drain.
My mother was beside herself, trying to lift me from the floor, calling out for my sister to come and help. We ended up huddled together on the stripped kitchen floorboards, watching the sheets, all of us in tears because it is just so bloody unfair that Freddie isn’t here any more.
I haven’t been to bed since. In fact, I don’t think I’ve properly been to sleep since. I just nap sometimes: my head on the table beside my uneaten breakfast; on the sofa huddled underneath Freddie’s winter coat; standing up leaning against the fridge, even.
‘Come on, Lyds,’ my sister says now, shaking my shoulder softly. ‘I’ll come up with you.’
I glance at the clock, disorientated because it was broad daylight when I closed my eyes, but now it’s shadowy enough for someone, Elle I presume, to have flicked the lamps on. It’s typical of her to be so thoughtful. I’ve always thought of her as a better version of me. We’re physically similar in height and bone structure, but she’s dark to my light; her hair, her eyes. She’s kinder than I am too, too kind for her own good a lot of the time. She’s been here most of the afternoon – I think my mum must have drawn up a rota to make sure I’m never on my own for more than an hour or two. It’s probably pinned to the side of her fridge, right next to the shopping list she adds to all week and the food diary she fills in for her slimming class. She likes a list, my mum.
‘Up where?’ I say, sitting up straighter, clocking the glass of water and bottle of pills in Elle’s hand.
‘Bed,’ she says, an edge of steel to her voice.
‘I’m fine here,’ I mutter, even though our sofa isn’t actually all that comfortable to sleep on. ‘It’s not even bedtime. We can watch . . .’ I bat my hand towards the TV in the corner, trying to remember any of the soaps. I sigh, annoyed that my tired brain can’t muster it. ‘You know, that one with the pub and the bald men and the shouting.’
She smiles and rolls her eyes. ‘You mean EastEnders.’
‘That’s the one,’ I say, distracted as I scan the room for the remote to turn the TV on.
‘It’ll have finished by now. Besides, you haven’t watched EastEnders for the last five years or more,’ she says, having none of it.
I screw my face up. ‘I have. There’s . . . there’s that woman with the dangly earrings and . . . and the one played by Barbara Windsor,’ I say, lifting my chin.
Elle shakes her head. ‘Both dead,’ she says.
Poor them, I think, and their poor families.
Elle holds her hand out. ‘It’s time to go to bed, Lydia,’ she says, gentle and firm, more nurse than sister.
Hot tears prick the back of my retinas. ‘I don’t think I can.’
‘You can,’ she says, resolute, her hand still outstretched. ‘What else are you going to do? Sleep on the sofa for the rest of your life?’
‘Would that be so bad?’
Elle perches next to me and picks up my hand, the pills in her lap. ‘It would, really, Lyds,’ she says. ‘If it was Freddie left here alone rather than you, you’d want him to get some proper sleep, wouldn’t you?’
I nod, miserable. Of course I would.
‘In fact, you’d haunt him rotten until he went to bed,’ she says, rubbing her thumb over my knuckles, and I half choke on the permanent ball of tears I’ve been trying to breathe around since the day Freddie died.
I watch her shake a small neon-pink tablet into her palm. Is that all it’s going to take to put me straight? A few weeks of solid sleep and I’ll be ship-shape-shiny and good to go again?
Elle holds my gaze, unwavering, and tears slide down my cheeks as I realize how shattered I am; I’m as emotionally and physically low as I can go. Or at least I hope I am, because I don’t think I’ll survive if there’s further to fall than this. Taking the pill with trembling fingers, I put it in my mouth and wash it down. At my bedroom door, I turn to Elle.
‘I need to do this on my own,’ I whisper.
She brushes my lank hair out of my eyes. ‘You sure?’ Her dark eyes study my face. ‘I can stay with you until you’re asleep, if you like?’
I sniff, looking at the floor, crying as usual. ‘I know you could,’ I say, catching hold of her hand and holding on tight. ‘But I think I’d better . . .’ I can’t quite find the words I need; I don’t know if it’s because the tablet is having an effect or simply because there aren’t any adequate words.
Elle nods. ‘I’ll be just downstairs if you want me, okay? I’m not going anywhere.’
My fingers close around the handle. I’ve kept the door shut since the day Mum changed the bed linen, not wanting to catch even an accidental glimpse of the pristine bed on my way to the bathroom. I’ve built it up into this thing in my head, this alien place, as off-limits as a crime scene criss-crossed with yellow tape.
‘It’s just a bed,’ I whisper, slowly pushing the door open. There’s no yellow tape blocking my entry and there are no monsters under the bed. But there’s no Freddie Hunter either and that’s every kind of heartbreaking.
‘Just a bed,’ Elle says, her hand soothing on my back. ‘A place to rest.’
But she’s lying. We both know it’s so much more than that. This room, mine and Freddie’s bedroom, was one of the main reasons we bought this house. Airy, bathed in daylight thanks to the low-slung sash windows and honey floorboards, striped by bright slices of moonlight on clear summer nights.
Someone, Elle presumably, has been in already to switch on the lamp on my side of the bed, a pool of mellow light to welcome me, even though the sun hasn’t quite set yet. She’s turned the bed down too; it’s all more hotel than bedroom. The overwhelming scent in here when I close the door is line-fresh bed linen. No traces of my perfume mingled with Freddie’s aftershave, no office-crumpled shirts slung carelessly over the armchair or shoes kicked off before they could make it as far as the bottom of the wardrobe. It’s neat as a new pin; I feel like a visitor in my own life.
‘It’s just a bed,’ I whisper again, sitting on the edge of the mattress. I close my eyes as I lie down, curling on to my side beneath the quilt.
We spent more than we should have on bedding befitting of our Savoy bed; white cotton sheets with a higher thread count than most hotels I’ve ever stayed in. As my body slides against the sheets, I realize they’re already warm. Elle’s put a hot-water bottle in here for me, my lovely sister, taking away the chill of clean sheets. My bed, our bed, envelops me like an old friend I feel guilty for neglecting.
I lie on my side of the mattress, my body painful with sorrow, my arms outstretched to find him as always. Then I push the hot-water bottle to his side, warming the sheets before I move across and lie there myself, clutching the heat of the bottle to my chest with both arms. I bury my wet face in his pillow and wail like a wounded animal, a noise as alien as it is uncontrollable.
And then, little by little, it subsides. My heart rate begins to steady and my limbs turn lead-heavy. I’m warm, cocooned, and for the first time in fifty-six days, I’m not lost without Freddie. I’m not lost, because as I slide under the coat-tails of sleep, I can almost feel the solid weight of him depress the mattress, his body spooned around mine, his breath steady against my neck. Save me from these dark, uncharted waters, Freddie Hunter. I pull him close and breathe him in as I fall into a deep, peaceful sleep.