“As funerals go,” Simon Price said at last, looking down at his oldest friend, “I’ve been to much worse.”
Liz grunted, and stared at her toes, encased in well-shined black shoes. The toes and the wet grass beneath them blurred for a moment, but she blinked hard and they cleared.
Simon slung an arm over her shoulder. Liz wondered where he’d got the black suit from, and how he’d managed to make it fit and look good, rather than as if he was a little kid playing dress-up, which was how she felt. Then again, Simon had always been neater, tidier and more composed than her, even when they’d been jumping into the same puddles, climbing the same trees and getting into the same fights. It wasn’t really fair.
Then again, nothing about today was fair.
Simon cleared his throat, and squeezed her shoulders. “Actually, it was, you know. Pretty awesome. I really admired you, getting up and reading that poem, you were really brave. And your stepdad is awesome. I’ve mentioned this, haven’t I. Terrifying, but awesome. A really gorgeous service and I’m not even Christian. And, you know, no-one called the d... Jamie a moneygrubbing git who never had a care in the world for his own relations, like my great-grandad, you know, my Dad’s granddad, I told you. God help us, where the priest got up and said that, only with more rude words. Woke me up, I can tell you, after three hours of Latin gibberish. The brawl was truly awesome, a thing of beauty, I didn’t know you could brawl in a church but they were total pros at it, you would have loved it, it was...”
“Awesome,” Liz said flatly, and sniffled.
“I overuse that word,” Simon conceded.
“Yeah. You kind of do.”
“But... it’s awesome.”
“Shut up before I tip you in a g- gr...“
“Thing they put vitally challenged people in,” Simon filled in, and squeezed her shoulders. Liz didn’t look up. She knew his eyes would be kind under the artistically arranged floppy brown fringe that usually obscured them, and she couldn’t face that. “Shutting up.”
They stood like that for another few minutes, until a sharp breeze skated down the hill and hit Liz full in the back, making her shudder with cold. She wasn’t wearing anything substantial enough for this: just hastily-bought black trousers and thin black collared shirt and the black pashmina her parents had forced on her, its ends trailing carelessly in the wind.
“We should go in,” Simon observed, in the manner of someone on the Titanic noting that it might be time to build a few spare life-boats.
Liz grunted again and wiped her nose with the back of her hand.
“Look, the sun’s coming out,” Simon tried again. Liz couldn’t fathom why he just didn’t shut up. He was her oldest friend, he’d known her since pre-school, how could he not know it was time to shut up, shut up, say nothing, be silent, let the air fill with the things that could not be said and needed to be heard...
“But I think it might be coming on to rain,” Simon said sadly. It was almost certainly not a comment on the weather. “Look, Liz. Juliet won’t go till you do, and she must be freezing to death in that dress.”
“She’s gone on,” Liz said.
“Oh. Oh in that case I must have fantastic eyes, because you know, I could swear that’s Juliet just over there, and if she’s gone she must be at your uncle’s house already, and that’s several fields and a few hedges away.”
Liz turned around, Simon’s arm slipping from her shoulders, and squinted to counter the blurriness that kept returning to her eyes. Juliet stood just down the path, tiny in black ballet pumps and a short-sleeved black dress with a full skirt, silent and motionless and pale as marble, except for her skirt and her loose blonde hair.
“You should go,” Liz called, her voice more a croak than anything else. “You’ll freeze.”
Juliet crossed her arms. “I don’t know the way.”
“It’s simple,” Liz said. “Just turn right out of the... out of here, follow the road round, second left, big house in need of a demolition notice, you can’t miss it.”
Juliet said nothing.
Liz held out for a few moments longer, and then broke with a frustrated sigh and marched over to Juliet. “You are useless.”
Juliet gave her a fish-eyed look and held out a hand imperatively.
Liz wrapped her own right hand around it and squeezed hard. “Both of you.”
“Awesome,” Simon said amiably, strolling up beside them.
The sharp sounds of footsteps alerted the two women in the office to Lester’s approach, and one got up to put her head around the open door and greet her employer. “Excuse me, sir.”
Lester came to an abrupt halt just outside his office, which was next door. He looked more tired than usual and thinner, even though he hadn’t had time to lose significant weight in the week or so he’d been off work, and his eyes were those of a man who sees no colour in the world. “Yes, Miss Wickes, what?”
“The Minister’s secretary called this morning to reschedule your appointment with him,” Lorraine said. “We’ve fixed it at two-thirty today, if that’s acceptable.”
Lester’s eyebrows rose. “That’s fine, Miss Wickes,” he said briefly, and disappeared into his office. Lorraine retreated into her own, and sat down at her desk, resuming her trawl through her boss’s diary, which had been so abruptly and drastically reordered.
“Is he all right?” Jenny asked, laying a heavily altered press release on her desk with the tips of her fingers, as if it was something distasteful.
“It’s hard to know, isn’t it?” Lorraine remarked, sending an email to reschedule an appointment and tagging half of Lester’s inbox as personal condolences while she was at it.
“It was... abrupt,” Jenny said, flipping an elegant fountain pen over and over in her fingers.
“Interesting word choice,” Lorraine said without looking up.
Jenny grimaced at her. “His son – Jamie, Liz called him – was ill for a long time. He kept fighting it off.”
“So it wasn’t expected...?”
Jenny snorted and shook her head, leaning back in her chair. “Not really. A possibility, but a possibility for so long I don’t – you know, I don’t think any of them believed it really could happen. When I first met Liz last year, she was convinced Jamie would go into remission again. I don’t think any of them knew Jamie had run out of fight until a few weeks ago, if that.”
Lorraine’s fingers paused on the keyboard, and there was a long silence. “Lester is devastated.”
“Of course.” Jenny clicked the cap on her pen, fingers relaxing and contracting almost nervously. “You weren’t in when Liz came in, were you?”
“No, that was when I was... off. You had a temp in.” Lorraine tapped a key and frowned. “And she has messed up my system.”
“Carol Chapman is normally very reliable. How’s therapy?”
“She’s lousy, going by this, and horrible, thank you. No, I only heard about Liz’s trail of destruction. She impressed Niall and upset Tanya, and half of Accounting made complaints to me about allowing children to run around the ARC causing havoc when I came back into the office.”
Jenny sighed, undid her hair clip and repositioned it. “She was very upset. Half-wild.”
“That’s what Tanya said,” Lorraine agreed, sending another email.
There was a very long pause. “We should have made him take more time off,” Jenny said finally.
“I tried, but he walked all over Carol and refused to let me get a word in edgeways.”
“I did try when I got in,” Lorraine said. “He was unusually rude.”
“He’s been snappish and touchy ever since he got back,” Jenny agreed. “Luckily, Abby has Connor and Cutter in line, or we’d be in real trouble.”
Lorraine hummed in agreement. “Did you see Cutter offer his condolences yesterday?”
Jenny, taking a sip from a thermos flask that contained – depending on who you asked – either criminally strong coffee, Earl Grey tea with lemon and no sugar, or neat whiskey, choked. “No, I missed that! My God, what happened?”
“He just looked a little crushed and thanked Cutter. I think it’s the quietest exchange I’ve ever heard between them.”
“Good heavens,” Jenny said mildly. “The world must be coming to an e-“
She came to an abrupt halt, and caught Lorraine’s eye. They looked away from each other, and there was a long silence.
Eventually, Lorraine cleared her throat. “One of many metaphors we might... avoid... in the future.”
Jenny nodded, and drew a heavy line under an unacceptable word in the press release, scoring a trench in the paper. After she’d finished with it and set it aside, beginning instead to compose an email to an old friend at a national newspaper who wanted to know why Jenny was suppressing his story and wasn’t going to find out, she spoke again. “Have you seen Lyle around? He is back, isn’t he?”
Lorraine checked security’s list of arrivals and departures, which began at three in the morning with the departure of the second anomaly team for some well-earned shut-eye and ended five minutes previously with Michael in Physics returning from his lunch break. “He’s in today.” She switched screens, checking the roster for leave. “This is his first day back since he left. He took a week’s compassionate leave with Lester.”
“James came in two days ago.”
Lorraine paused, fingers hovering over her keyboard, and pursed her lips. “This is what happens when I disappear for ages without planning it beforehand; I’m out of the loop. Did you try and send him home?”
“Of course!” Jenny said indignantly. “He said something about dinosaurs not waiting for any man. He completely steamrollered me.”
Lorraine raised her eyebrows and went back to her work. “Men are idiots,” she said a few moments later, bashing the space bar viciously.
“You’ve lost me,” Jenny said. “Are we talking about Blade, James, or your therapist?”
“All of the above.”
“Well,” Jenny sighed and shifted in her computer chair. “No argument there.”
James Lester unlocked his door, pushed it open with a heavy sigh, and halted in surprise. The flat was quite dark, and in exactly the same state it had been left that morning; Liz’s schoolbag wasn’t by the door, her school shoes were missing, and there was no homework spread out across the table or remnants of an evening meal. It was relatively normal to come home and find that Liz had gone to bed – sometimes he was still at work past ten o’clock – but highly unusual to come home so late and find Liz not there, not without prior arrangement.
He felt a stab of anxiety as he shut the front door and switched on the lights. It wasn’t even two weeks since Jamie had died; Liz had insisted on returning to school, so close to her GCSEs and with so little else to do, and Lester had been forced to admit that occupying her time would be a good idea. Liz had found closure through the letter Jamie had left for her, and through her early-morning hilltop reading session, but she continued to grieve, and Lester had no idea what form this grieving was going to take. She’d been mainly silent at the funeral, pale and lost-looking with Juliet leaning against her, anchoring her, and she hadn’t spoken much since. She was acting with almost mechanic efficiency, sorrow bleeding slowly out of her as she fought to stay on an even keel, and Lester could say this for his daughter: she never surrendered when she thought she was in with a chance, and mostly she did think she was in with a chance.
Lester thinned his lips, and checked Liz’s room on the off-chance that she was in it. She was not, and the unmade bed suggested that she hadn’t been in it since flying out of the door at half-past seven that morning, which meant she hadn’t been home at all. With difficulty, Lester controlled the alarm in every parent’s brain that goes off screaming at the slightest suggestion that their child is in horrific danger, and rang Liz’s mobile. It went unanswered, and he bit the inside of his cheek and called Lyle instead. He was on the night shift at the ARC, but he might know something...
Jon picked up on the first ring, bless him. “Sweetcheeks.”
“Have you heard from Liz since this morning?” Lester demanded abruptly, ignoring the asinine endearment.
“No,” Lyle said, and Lester could hear the instant undercurrent of carefully hidden anxiety in his voice. He had a horrible feeling that Jon had a much better idea of the kind of danger Liz could have got herself into, and how likely it was that she had got herself into it.
“She isn’t at home,” Lester said grimly, mental alarm shrieking like a fighting child and freezing him with fear.
“Call Emily,” Jon said at once. “If she doesn’t know where the girls are I’ll eat Ditzy’s rubber gloves.”
“I’ll try her.”
“Text me when you’ve found the little swine.”
Lester made a mild protesting noise, although quite a large chunk of him agreed.
“She is being a little swine. She knows better.”
“In the state she’s in?” Lester pointed out.
“In any state,” Jon said uncompromisingly. “Call Emily.”
He rung off, and Lester didn’t waste time taking offense, but flicked through his contacts book until he reached Emily Sayers’ name and pressed call. Emily picked up nearly as quickly as Lyle had done.
“James! Crap, I’ve been meaning to ring you since eight.”
“I wish you had,” Lester muttered. “Emily, is she all right? Where is she?”
“She’s fine, James, I swear,” Emily said, uncharacteristically serious. “She’s upstairs, asleep next to Juliet. James, I’m really worried she’s withdrawing into herself; she barely spoke to me at all. I mean, she was polite, she’s always polite to me, but she said hardly anything!”
“It’s a defence mechanism. She doesn’t talk much to anyone at the moment.”
“She can’t keep talking to no-one but Juliet and that friend of hers with the hair!”
“Simon is perfectly harmless, and there’s nothing wrong with his hair that a decent cut wouldn’t solve. No, Emily, I know what you mean, but I don’t think there’s anything to be done about it now.” Lester scrubbed a hand over his eyes. “I’ll come and fetch Liz now, all right? I’ll be with you in half an hour.”
“All right,” Emily said, vague ominous overtones lurking in her voice that suggested she wouldn’t be letting this go any time soon. “See you then.”
“Thanks, Emily,” he said, and ended the call. He put the phone back on its station, then leaned against the kitchen counter for a moment, his head in his hands. He looked up and stared unseeingly out of the floor-to-ceiling window, over the Thames at night and the harsh stars of streetlamps and headlights; then, as if breaking out of a trance, he blinked and pushed away from the counter, grabbing his keys and his phone. He sent Lyle a quick text – You were right. She’s safe and with Juliet - then slammed out of the front door and taking the stairs down to the parking levels two at a time.
By the time he reached Emily’s house, Juliet had successfully woken Liz and chivvied her downstairs to wait for her father. Liz looked pale and thoroughly repentant, and he hadn’t the heart to tell her off; looking at her with eyes newly sensitised by Emily’s dire warnings, he was increasingly worried about her. She was a tallish girl, suddenly growing rapidly and consequently lanky and ungainly, but what had been natural growing pains three weeks ago now looked like painful thinness on a girl who had always been sturdy and robust. Liz did the greater part of the cooking, mostly because he couldn’t be trusted with anything more complicated than a grill, and he wouldn’t have laid money on her not eating enough lately. She was white-faced, with heavy shadows under her eyes; he had noticed that she slept at irregular times now, and however often he came home to find her face-down in her homework or asleep on the sofa she always seemed as tired as she did now after three hours curled up on Juliet’s floor, dead to the world.
“I’m so fucking sorry,” Liz said with guilt heavy in her voice, leaping up from where she was sitting on the stairs next to Juliet. “I didn’t realise. I don’t even remember falling asleep – Jesus, Juliet, why didn’t you wake me?”
“I told you,” Juliet said, wrapping a hair-band around the end of a heavy plait and standing up from where she had been sitting next to Liz. She looked anxious, blue eyes darting between Liz and her father, and that was perhaps the biggest indicator that something was seriously wrong. “You were fast asleep and you looked like you needed it. It would have been mean to wake you.”
Liz made a discontented noise, and turned back toward Juliet, who stood on her tiptoes and kissed Liz gently, then caught one side of her jaw softly, forcing Liz to meet her eyes and whispering something. Lester looked away, resolving to find out what Juliet had said; whatever it had been, Liz’s face didn’t show any signs of being comforted by it.
“C’mere,” Liz said roughly, and Juliet stepped into her arms, pressing her face against Liz’s shoulder and clinging tightly to her for a moment before slipping away.
“You should go,” Juliet told her firmly. “And possibly not come back into school tomorrow.”
Liz sighed, and ran a hand through her hair, which was nominally in a tight plait and actually all over the place. “I’m so behind anyway.”
“The teachers understand,” Juliet assured her. “They’ll ease off on you. Hell, Miss Vandermeer was nice to you today.”
“Miss Vandermeer just didn’t want to have to tidy up if I collapsed all over her beauteous classroom,” Liz said, with a hint of her usual sharp sarcasm.
Juliet smiled slightly. “Whatever floats your boat, Liz.” She shrugged, and stepped back again, leaning against the newel post. “You know what I think, anyway.”
“Yeah.” Liz forced a smile, and leaned over to kiss her cheek. “Thanks, Ju. Talk soon?”
“Any hour of the day or night,” Juliet promised. “Although please not three a.m. again.”
Liz’s face shut down briefly, probably to prevent a guilty look passing across it. Lester examined the ceiling with unusual care. He slept like a log these days, simply because he was so tired, and Jon always seemed to do the same – but once or twice in the past week or so he’d been woken by Jon suddenly tensing to full alert beside him, listening for something Lester could never quite catch. Liz’s footsteps? Surely if Liz had woken either of them, Jon wouldn’t have hesitated to get out of bed and complain. Neither of them was shy in that respect.
“C’mon, dad,” Liz said, bumping her shoulder against his.
“Just a minute,” Lester said. “Juliet, is your mother around?”
Juliet shook her head. “She’s upstairs, reaming out someone in Hong Kong over the phone. She said she was sorry to have missed you and she’d see you on Friday, work allowing.”
Lester nodded, and rested a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. She leaned against him, shutting her eyes. “We’d better go, then.”
Liz waved sleepily at Juliet, who smiled in a kind of half-softly affectionate, half-god you’re an idiot kind of way, and waved back. Lester smiled and propelled his daughter out of the house with a hand in the middle of her back, grabbed her collar to prevent her falling down the steps to the street, and opened the door before she could fall into it.
“Juliet’s right,” he observed, as Liz treated him to a faint smile and collapsed into the front seat, dropping her schoolbag on her feet. It took her two tries to do up her seatbelt.
Liz suppressed a yawn. “When isn’t she?”
“Not very often,” Lester conceded, and went round to the other side of the car. Liz slammed her own door shut, and he climbed in on his side and pulled out of the resident’s parking space he’d stopped in. “In this case, she’s right about school. You’re not going in tomorrow, Liz.”
Liz went tense in her seat as they paused at the end of the road and then turned into the main stream of traffic. “What? But-“
He spared a moment to worry about the uncharacteristic tone of panic in her voice, and then said firmly: “You need to sleep. How much sleep have you been getting, Liz?”
There was a long silence. He repeated the question.
“Two or three hours at a time,” Liz admitted, sounding small and frightened.
Lester nearly hit the back of a bus.
“Yup,” Liz said, in a depressed tone of voice. “Pretty much.”
“Any special reason why?” Lester asked, keeping his voice calm and even.
Liz snuggled into the leather seat of the Mercedes, and shrugged. “I don’t know. I just... I sleep for a couple of hours, and then I wake up, and then I can’t sleep, I can’t. It’s like I know something’s wrong, and I have to get up and just... find something to do. And if I can’t find something to do, I just end up... walking around. And I can’t sleep. I’ll go back to sleep about an hour before I’m meant to wake up, and I just... I wake up and it feels like I haven’t slept at all.”
“Right,” Lester said, trying to remain calm and not break the speed limit in an area of London smothered in cameras. “In that case, you are definitely not going to school tomorrow, and I am booking you a doctor’s appointment.”
“But, I-“ Liz said, and then abruptly shut up.
“But, you,” Lester prompted, wondering what horrible revelation was going to come next.
“I don’t want to be alone,” Liz muttered, wrapping her school tie around her hands and twisting it viciously.
Lester felt his lips thin in anxiety, and slowed to accommodate a traffic jam. “Don’t worry. Jon’s on the night shift tonight; he’ll be at home tomorrow.”
“Thank God,” Liz said with real relief, and Lester tamped down all the fears besieging him into the bottom of his heart and smiled.
Lyle’s mobile phone went off, and he grabbed it out of his pocket and accepted the call. “James,” he said instantly. “Have you got Liz- What? Yeah, I’d noticed she’s been tired a lot; it’s a bit difficult not... Oh fuck. You’re not serious. ...All right, you are serious. Christ. Yeah, I can come straight back to the flat.... I won’t. I’m not a bloody idiot, James.” There was a pause, and then he half-laughed. “That’s fair. Night.”
He ended the call, stared at his phone for a minute, and shook his head as he tucked it away.
“Speak of the devil,” Ditzy remarked, setting the kettle back on the heating element and picking up his mug.
“I was about to ask you how Liz is,” Ditzy elaborated, leaning against the back of the sofa in the rec room.
“Insomniac, apparently,” Lyle said. “James says she’s been getting four hours’ broken sleep a night at most since her brother died.”
Ditzy choked on the concoction he persisted in referring to as coffee.
“Exactly,” Lyle said grimly, and took a large, scalding gulp of his own – rather better made – coffee. “She’s making herself sick. I wondered why she’s been wandering around looking like a ghost and a zombie rolled into one, but I assumed it was just...”
“Normal for someone who’s just lost a thirteen-year-old brother,” Ditzy finished, and shook his head. “Fuck.”
Lyle nodded in agreement. “So she isn’t going to school tomorrow. She’s got an emergency doctor’s appointment instead.”
Ditzy scrubbed a hand over his face, clearly imagining a grieving and combative teenager strung out on no sleep and disliking the thought. “How long has this been going on?”
“A week and a half, if it’s since Jamie died,” Lyle said.
“I’m surprised she’s still on her feet,” Ditzy said.
Lyle shrugged one shoulder. “It’s Liz. She stays on her feet so no-one else falls over. Speaking of which, has Abby left yet, or is Ross going to have to peel her away from that litter of little furry toothy bastards? I’m not doing it. She’ll kill me.”
“Ross pushed her out of the door half an hour ago. She nearly gave him a black eye,” Ditzy added, in the affectionate tones of someone recognising a kindred spirit. “Going on about difficult labour and possibly too small to survive and the big furry toothy bastard’s maternal instincts not kicking in. In hindsight, it was tactless of Ross to point out that the vet, what’s-his-name, is on night shift specially to deal with the furry toothy bastards.”
“Have you got any idea what they’re actually called?”
“No,” Ditzy said. “But they’ve got a hell of a bite.”
Lyle sat in the waiting room, ignoring the out-of-date issues of home decoration magazines and Good Housekeeping, getting funny looks from little old ladies and trying to block out the sound of the three-year-old charging around making plane noises. It was beginning to seem like Liz would never re-appear, and when he checked his watch, he realised the appointment had lasted forty-five minutes. He seriously considered going to look for Liz, or a forced door or broken window that suggested she’d run away.
Luckily for the surgery, the receptionist came over at that moment and informed him that Dr. Sharma wanted to see him in consulting room eight about Liz Lester, which at least saved him from rampaging around the entire building looking for Liz. After a brief period of wandering through the corridors – which were decorated identically and badly signposted, with only the occasional identifying pot plant or plate signifying a consulting room – he found consulting room eight, and paused outside. The name plate on the outside read Dr. Dipika Sharma. He hesitated for a second, then raised his hand and knocked.
Liz opened the door to the small room, sniffling and red-eyed. She had been sitting across a desk from a doctor in a dishevelled white coat and a pair of quite remarkable glasses, who looked maternal in a blunt, no-nonsense sort of way even though she was currently trying to type and giving her computer a glacial look over her glasses. Liz smiled waterily, wiping her nose on the back of her wrist, and jerked her head at one of the two chairs on her side of the desk. The doctor looked up and smiled briskly at him and Liz as they sat down.
“Ah!” the doctor said cheerfully. “This your stepdad, then?”
Liz shuffled her chair closer to his and made an ambiguous movement of her head.
“Yes,” Lyle said without thinking, and then froze, but Liz didn’t seem fazed; she just rested her head against his shoulder. He put his arm around her and hugged her instinctively.
“Have to go to therapy,” Liz muttered.
“Christ,” Lyle said, being unable to think of any greater hell.
“And take sleeping pills,” Liz said relentlessly, and sneezed.
“You’ve just got snot all over my shirt, haven’t you.”
“No,” Liz said untruthfully, and sighed.
Dr. Sharma chuckled and stabbed at her computer, before reaching for a piece of green and white paper and scribbling on it. “Ahh, family love. Here.” She held out a prescription. Lyle took it, and examined it.
“It’ll make you drowsy.” Dr. Sharma said to Liz, “but it’s not full-on sleeping pills; I’m not going to prescribe those to an idiot like you, you’ll either refuse to take them or get addicted, and you’re much too young anyway. Nor will they deal with the root problem, whatever that is, hence the therapist referral.”
“I should’ve thought,” Liz hesitated audibly, “Jamie would explain the whole... not sleeping... thing.”
“It’s certainly connected to that,” Dr. Sharma admitted. “It still needs dealing with. Properly, do you hear me?”
“Yes, Dr. Sharma,” Liz mumbled.
“You may not go away and take the medicine and pretend that will fix it,” Dr. Sharma said sternly.
“No, Dr. Sharma,” Liz mumbled.
“Good girl. It was nice meeting you,” Dr. Sharma added, leaning over the desk and shaking hands with Lyle. He got the distinct impression that he was being evaluated, confirmed by the sharp nod she gave him as they stood up. “I would stick around to chat, but I have another appointment ten minutes ago, and the waiting room will be boiling over. Feel better soon, Liz. I’m sorry about Jamie.”
Liz nodded shortly and looked down at her feet.
“C’mon,” Lyle said, filling a silence that promised to be awkward, “Chinese for lunch, I can’t be arsed to cook,” and he towed Liz out of the consulting room and navigated the maze of corridors and the waiting-room, which was indeed boiling over. Liz said nothing.
“She seemed... nice,” he said at last,
“Uh-huh,” Liz said, sniffed, and wiped her nose on her sleeve again. “This is disgusting. Have you got a tissue?”
“What do you think?”
“Sorry I asked. Yeah, Dr. Sharma’s a bit brisk. Plus, she swears a lot. But she’s really nice and she’s done a lot of work with me, when I break bits of myself.” They walked out of the surgery into the car-park. “She says I always come in a week later than she’d like me to, and she’s probably kind of right. There’s a chemist down the road, by the way, we can fill the prescription there.”
“Right.” Lyle glanced down at it. “By the way... about the stepdad thing...”
“What about it?” Liz yawned, then caught herself and shut her mouth.
“You don’t mind? I mean...”
“You’re being thick,” Liz said, sounding unnaturally like her father. “Of course I don’t mind.”
“Oh. Okay.” Lyle grinned, and squeezed her shoulders.
“Yeah,” Liz said, and grinned and elbowed him in the side. “You’re stuck with me.”
“That hurt, you little swine! Right. Where’s this bloody chemist?”
“One more,” Liz said with cheerful sadism, pausing to stretch out her hamstrings.
Juliet flicked her ponytail over her shoulder and looked pitiful. The ducks in the pond quacked at each other, wholly unconscious of the teenagers on the other side of the railings.. “Li-iz...”
“It’s good for you,” Liz said, getting out of the way of a cyclist.
“We’ve done two circuits already and you’re shattered,” Juliet pointed out. “So am I.”
“I don’t want to get unfit as well as insomniac,” Liz said tartly. “Besides, I slept quite well last night. The sleeping stuff Dr. Sharma gave me is pretty good. Dad says I can go back to school on Monday.”
Juliet pulled a face at her girlfriend’s back. “Believe me, Liz, missing one of your weekend runs won’t have been enough to lower your fitness level – not enough that you need to be running extra. And you still look wrecked. Are you sure you’re well enough for school?”
“Yes,” Liz told her, lying through her teeth. “If you didn’t want to go for a run, how come you said yes when I texted you?”
“Because I wanted to see you,” Juliet said, and kissed her cheek. “I’m rethinking that now. Come on – half a circuit?”
“Fine,” Liz compromised, wrapping an arm around Juliet’s waist and returning the kiss. A cat-call from the other side of the park road interrupted them, and both girls turned sharply, but only Juliet relaxed when she recognised the callers.
“It’s just Liam and Amandeep. Let’s go and say hello, Liz, come on – hey, what? Liz-”
“Half a circuit,” Liz said implacably, waved at Liam and Amandeep, producing a travesty of a smile, and grabbed Juliet’s hand, running off along the chosen route.
The front door crashed open, and the argument that had been raging in the corridor transported itself indoors. “For God’s sake, Liz! It was just Liam and Amandeep! You could’ve at least said hello!”
Lyle, sprawled on the sofa and therefore hidden from the girls’ view, opened his eyes. He’d never heard Liz and Juliet shout at each other before, and they were getting dangerously close to it now.
“We were busy,” Liz said gruffly, the door slamming as if she’d kicked it shut.
“We were not! We were about to finish off our run! Would it have killed you to do a bit more than wave?”
“Look, I just didn’t want to talk to them, okay? Bloody hell, Juliet! This isn’t rocket science!”
Lyle lay very still indeed. If he was caught by either girl witnessing a private spat, he wouldn’t survive the experience intact. He heard shoes hitting the wall, as if Liz had kicked them off, and footsteps. He closed his eyes, and braced himself for discovery.
“Liz!” That was an unusually frustrated shriek from Juliet, who only became neurotic in the presence of exams and major injuries.
“What? I want to change out of this lot, I’m sweating rivers.”
“I can see that! But, Liz, look – you can’t go through life not talking to people.”
“I’m talking to you, aren’t I?”
Lyle opened his eyes for the sole purpose of rolling them. Liz was an effective liar, although she didn’t have her father’s polish and total credibility, but she wasn’t on top of her game; if he could read the insincere bravado in her voice, so could Juliet.
“Yeah. Me, Simon, your dad, Jon, and that’s it. You barely speak to anyone else. You don’t volunteer in class, and half the time you ignore people when they talk to you. What the hell is going on, Liz?”
There was a brief silence, and then the sound of footsteps, and the door into Liz’s room shutting.
Juliet took a deep breath and followed her. Lyle heard her knock on Liz’s door. “Liz?” A rattle as she tried the handle. “Liz, let me in.” A long pause.
Lyle held his breath, and prayed to anyone listening that Liz’s stubbornness would break.
“You know what?” Juliet said loudly, and Lyle winced as he heard the hint of tears in her voice. “You know what? Fuck this. Seriously. I know you feel like shit, Liz. I know. I was there. But you can’t do this, Liz. You can’t. This is exactly what Jamie didn’t want you to do, this is why he wrote to you. I know you, I know you feel like you have to shut down right now, but there’s lying low and then there’s... there’s this.” Juliet sucked in another deep breath. “I’m going home. Call me when you feel like being less of a dickhead.”
Lyle considered getting up and stopping her, but then heard Juliet sniffle as she walked out of the door and revised his plans. Neither girl would thank him for getting involved now, he told himself as he heard the front door bang shut.
He lay still for a while, and then tapped his fingers thoughtfully on his stomach, peeled himself off the sofa, and went over to Liz’s closed door. It still had her name on it in blue wooden letters, as it had done the first time he’d visited the flat nearly a year ago.
He knocked. “Liz. Open up.”
There was no answer.
“Open this door, Liz, or I’m going to kick it down.”
There was still no answer.
“Right,” Lyle said, and went to put on his boots.
Several very loud bangs and the crash of a door falling off its hinges later, Lyle successfully burst into Liz’s bedroom, and found her lying on her side on her bed, curled into a tight ball with her head facing the window. He went over to her, and sat down beside her; she neither moved nor looked at him, but her eyes crinkled as if she was trying not to cry.
Lyle reached out, and brushed a hank of dark hair out of her face. “You’re a bit fucked up, aren’t you,” he said, and it came out surprisingly kindly.
Liz nodded without focussing on him.
“Why didn’t you want to talk to Liam and Amandeep? Liam’s the ginger, isn’t he? And Amandeep’s the pretty one who likes bright colours and flirts with you when Liam’s paying attention.”
Liz snorted, and nodded again.
“Nothing wrong with them,” Lyle observed, folding his arms and staring out of the window.
Liz sniffed, but Lyle suspected that it was less a comment on Amandeep and Liam than an attempt to get snot up her nose and out of her airway so she could breathe.
“Unless you don’t want to talk to people at all,” Lyle said, mock-thoughtfully. He glanced down at her and cocked an eyebrow enquiringly. “Now why would that be?”
Liz rolled onto her back, uncurling and staring up at the ceiling. He waited patiently while she swallowed, cleared her throat and spoke, her voice rough. “I just don’t... people want me to talk to them. They want me to answer them so they can be... nice. And sympathetic. And tell me how sweet they thought Jamie was.” She shut her eyes for a long moment, and then opened them again. “They want me to respond, and I don’t... it’s too hard. I don’t want to talk about him d... dead. I want to think about him alive. And the worst is when they ask about- about how. And I was stupid and an idiot and I told fucking Mark I was holding Jamie when... it happened, and it’s all over the place. It’s... they all want to talk about it, I can’t trust them to shut up about it. And if they’re not talking about it, they’re thinking about it. And I know, because they’re tip-toeing round it, easy does it, careful how you go about Liz because she’s so f- fragile...” Her eyes shut, and her mouth turned down, a picture of misery.
Lyle reached for her hand, and grasped it. Her grip tightened fiercely on his fingers, brittle and angry. “So it’s easier,” he completed for her. “It’s easier, to shut them out. It hurts less.”
Liz nodded, and curled towards him. Her fingers were leaving red marks. There would be bruises by tomorrow.
“It doesn’t fix anything,” Lyle told her.
“I know, but I don’t know – what else –“ She broke off, tears forcing their way out of eyes screwed shut. Lyle hauled her off the duvet and held her, tucking her head under his chin; this was more physical contact than he usually had with her, and he wondered if she would be annoyed later, but she seemed to need comfort from someone, and neither James or Juliet were here. She was wooden and tense, stiff with grief in his arms, and he suddenly realised that he had bugger-all idea what he was doing. Probably someone who knew about parenting – was that what he was doing, parenting? Christ, when had that happened? He was so fucked – would not have kicked the door down. Probably they would have known exactly how to fix Liz.
“You need to talk to a professional,” he said, this being the only thing he was certain of.
“I’ve got an appointment,” Liz muttered, sounding distinctly sullen.
“I know. You told me.”
“The point does not bear repetition,” Liz mumbled, a pale shadow of her usual scathing tones.
Lyle let that one pass. “It might not be as bad as you think.”
He grinned. “Really. I’ve seen more people go kicking and screaming into therapy than you’ve had hot dinners, and it didn’t kill any of them.”
“Yeah, but- what if-“
“What if what?” Lyle demanded, throwing grammar out of the window and into the Thames.
“What if they think I need therapy because of... you and Dad? People say all kinds of shit about people they don’t think are normal, I know that.”
Lyle felt as if someone had chucked a bucket of ice water over him, and when Liz elbowed him in the ribs he realised his grip had turned crushing. “Has anyone said anything?” he demanded.
“Not to me,” Liz said flatly. “At school they’re all too frightened of me to talk about my... life where I can hear. But Mum’s thinking it. I can tell, she keeps edging round it like she wants to say it without saying it. She thinks I need more female influences in my life, and that I wasn’t unstable like this when we were all together, which is total bollocks because back then no-one was happy and we argued all the time. Dad knows about it, I think. It can’t be only me she’s been... not-saying stuff to, and Dad actually talks to her way more than I do, which is kind of weird, but nobody ever claimed we were normal. Ow! Stop that!”
“Sorry,” Lyle said distractedly, letting go of her, and bit his tongue on a number of swearwords, since Kathy was, after all, Liz’s mother.
“She always thinks she can fix things better than anyone else,” Liz explained, sitting up with her legs crossed and scrubbing her eyes with the backs of her hands. “That she knows what’s wrong better than anyone else. Half the time she’s right. It’s just... the other half.”
“When she’s dead fucking wrong,” Lyle growled.
Liz tilted her head on one side, evaluating this, and nodded regretfully, looking down at her lap. “Yeah. Pretty much.” There was a long pause, in which Liz leaned against Lyle’s side and stared into space, and Lyle tried not to say a lot of things that wanted saying about Kathy. He’d been impressed by the courage and love she’d shown Jamie once she’d made up her mind to respect his wishes, but less so by the way she always seemed to want someone to blame, whether it was herself or anyone else.
“I have some hardcore grovelling to do, don’t I,” Liz said at last.
“Yeah,” Lyle said.
There was another long pause.
“What are we going to tell Dad about the door?”
“Fucked if I know.” Lyle ruffled Liz’s hair, eliciting an indignant squawk, and got up. “But it’ll be fine.”
Liz gave him a lopsided smile. “I believe you.”