Authors: Dani Atkins
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Romance
For Ralph. For ever.
And of course for Luke, just because.
And mostly for Kimberley, who helped make this happen.
My first life ended at 10.37 p.m. on a rainy December night, on a deserted street beside the old church.
My second life began some ten hours later, when I woke up to the blinding brilliance of the hospital lighting, with a large head wound and a life about which I had absolutely no recollection. I was surrounded by friends and family, and that should have made it better. But it didn’t, as one of them had been dead for a considerable period of time.
I wanted to write down everything that had happened, to see if by committing it to paper I could make some sense of it all. Or perhaps I just needed to prove to everyone, even myself that I wasn’t going crazy. For a long time I thought that this story should begin with what happened to me at the church, when my life literally came apart, but now I realise that to understand it all I have to go back much further than that. For it really all began five years earlier, on the night of the farewell dinner.
Long after the screaming had stopped, when the only sound to be heard was the soft crying of my friends as they waited for the ambulance to arrive, did I realise that I was still clutching the lucky penny tightly within my palm. My fingers refused to unfurl from around the tiny copper talisman, as though by sheer will alone I would somehow be able to wind back time and erase the tragedy around me.
Was it really only half an hour earlier that Jimmy had picked up the glinting coin from the restaurant’s tarmacked car park?
‘For luck,’ he had grinned, tossing the coin up in the air and deftly catching it with one hand.
I smiled back and then saw the flicker of irritation flash through his pale blue eyes as Matt had quipped, ‘Jimmy mate, you should’ve said if you’re a little short of cash, no need to go grovelling about on the floor for money!’
Matt had laughed then, and thrown his arm around my shoulder, pulling me close to his side. I thought the darkening expression on Jimmy’s face was just a natural reaction to Matt’s unnecessary comment, which highlighted the differences between their backgrounds. And maybe that was part of it. But it wasn’t all of it. There was more… though of course I didn’t understand that for a long time.
The three of us were standing in the fading sunlight of a warm September evening, waiting for the rest of our group to arrive. Jimmy had already been in the car park when Matt and I had driven in. Matt had made quite a show of circling the empty spaces, looking for just the right spot to park his new acquisition. I guess he was still in that strange honeymoon phase boys have when they’re really in love with their cars. I just hoped he’d have the good sense not to gloat about it too much in front of the rest of the group.
The new car was shiny, sporty and expensive. That’s as much as I know about cars. He’d been given it by his parents when the exam results had come out. That alone should tell you enough about Matt’s family to understand why comments about money sometimes hit a raw nerve with the rest of us. For the most part, Matt was really good and didn’t rub it in too much. But the odd glib remark occasionally slipped under the wire and lit a spark. I really hoped he wasn’t going to say anything that would ruin what was probably going to be one of the last nights we would all be spending together for quite a while.
‘You’ve been at work today, Jimmy?’ I asked, knowing full well that he had but anxious to steer things back onto neutral ground. Jimmy turned and gave me the smile that I swear hadn’t changed at all since he was four years old.
‘Yep, this is my last week helping out my uncle, after that I’m happily handing back the wheelbarrow and the pitchfork. The gardening world and I are about to part company.’
‘Still, look at the bright side, you’ve got a great tan this summer, you’d not have got that stacking shelves in the supermarket.’
And it was true, Jimmy’s normally fair skin was coloured a soft golden brown, and his forearms were definitely more sinewed and defined from his months of outdoor work. Of course, Matt and I were both still sporting fairly decent suntans from our holiday in France at his parents’ villa. That too had been another congratulatory gift – for both of us this time.
Actually, my dad had quite an issue over that one. Sure, he liked Matt well enough; he was a fairly familiar fixture around our house, and we
been going out for almost two years. But it had still been touch and go whether he’d allow me to go away for a fortnight with Matt’s family. Part of it had been the money thing because, of course, Matt’s parents had refused to accept any payment for the trip. The other part… the big part… had been the dad/daughter/boyfriend thing. I guess that’s universal with dads, but it seemed even more so in our case, with no mum around to smooth things over. Eventually Matt and I had managed to persuade him; explaining how everything was going to be all above board, how it was strictly separate bedrooms and that we’d be with Matt’s parents the whole time. Basically, we had just lied.
This chain of thought had made me wonder, and not for the first time, how Dad was going to cope when the time came for me to leave for university at the end of the month. I felt a frown forming and determinedly pushed the thought away. I’d spent most of the summer struggling with that one and I was
going to ruin the last evening my friends and I were going to have together by worrying over things I couldn’t change.
Fortunately just then two cars, both considerably older than Matt’s but no less appreciated by their owners, pulled into the restaurant’s car park. The rear door of the small blue car nearest to where we stood flung open and Sarah ran over towards us in a clatter of improbably high heels. She tottered alarmingly over the uneven surface before enveloping me in a huge hug.
‘Rachel, my lovely, how are you?’ I hugged her back, feeling momentarily choked to realise that soon I’d only be seeing her during the uni holidays and not every day, as we had done for all of our senior school years. Apart from Jimmy, she was my oldest friend. And however close Jimmy and I were, and had always been, there were still some topics of conversation that were reserved only for your girlfriends.
‘Sorry we’re late,’ Sarah apologised.
I gave her a wry smile. Sarah was
late. For a girl so naturally pretty, she still seemed to require an incredible amount of time getting ready to go out, with multiple hair and outfit changes before she could be persuaded to step away from the mirror. And she never seemed satisfied with the final effect, which was ridiculous, because with her heart-shaped face, her shiny brown curls and petite frame she always looked perfectly lovely.
‘Have you been waiting long?’ she asked, slipping her arm through mine and pulling me away from Matt to walk with her across the car park to the restaurant’s entrance. This was most likely to ensure that she made it in one piece across the tarmac with those ridiculously high stilettos, although it could have been to avoid watching Trevor and Phil’s knee-jerk reaction to Cathy as she climbed out of the car beside them.
‘Just long enough for Matt to piss Jimmy off,’ I replied in a voice low enough for only her to hear. She smiled knowingly.
‘Oh, no time at all then!’
By now we had reached the patioed doorway at the rear of the restaurant and stood waiting while the various boys in our group of friends (Matt included) all tried to pretend that they were not noticing the extremely inviting cleavage being displayed by Cathy’s low-cut top. Worn over skin-tight jeans and high-heeled sandals – which, to Sarah’s chagrin, she appeared to have no difficulty walking in – Cathy looked every inch as though she was off to a photo shoot. Long blond hair fell around her shoulders and everything about her seemed so perfectly put together that I instantly felt as though I’d got dressed in the dark with clothes that’d been thrown out from a charity shop.
Cathy had been a fairly new addition to our circle of friends. Prior to her arrival into our sixth form, our group had been a tight unit of Sarah and me and the four boys. I suppose the boy–girl ratio had been a bit unbalanced, but we’d all been mates for so long that it wasn’t an issue. That said, Cathy’s slow inclusion into our group had been welcomed quite vigorously by pretty much all of the boys, for obvious reasons. And, looks aside, Cathy was good fun to have around. Her family had moved to Great Bishopsford from a much larger town, and she had seemed much more worldly and clued-up than the rest of us. Added to that, she was extremely open and friendly with a wicked sense of humour and, when she wasn’t flirting outrageously with every male within a five-mile radius, I actually really liked her.
Sarah, though, had her reservations, and on more than one occasion, when Cathy had ruffled her feathers or stepped on her toes, I had heard her mutter darkly, ‘Last in. First out.’
When Jimmy sauntered across the car park to join us, Sarah stepped to one side and began to peruse the menu displayed inside a glassed-in case by the doorway. The others had all walked over to admire Matt’s car, or Cathy’s chest, I thought waspishly, as I watched her bend down low, supposedly to examine the alloy wheels. As if she cared about wheels!
‘You look much nicer than her,’ Jimmy whispered into my ear, knowing instantly what was on my mind.
‘Am I that easy to read?’ I asked, smiling back up at him. He gave me the grin I knew so well, the one that crinkled up the corners of his eyes and lit up his whole face.
‘Like a book,’ he confirmed, ‘but a good one.’
‘Like a battered old paperback, you mean, rather than a glossy magazine.’
He followed both my eyes and my analogy as we looked across to where Cathy was standing with Matt, listening raptly while he extolled something or other about the car.
‘You don’t have anything to worry about,’ Jimmy reassured me, giving my shoulder a brief friendly squeeze. ‘Matt would be crazy to look at her when he’s got you.’
‘Hmm,’ was all I managed in reply and was surprised to feel that the warmth of his words had ignited a small blush. I quickly turned away to avoid him seeing.
Catching my reflection in the restaurant’s window I didn’t feel my old friend was being entirely honest. Or if he was, then he seriously should think about getting his eyes tested. What I saw in the glass was certainly never going to elicit the kind of reaction from men that Cathy did. Long dark hair, fashionably poker straight, big eyes, that hardly functioned at all without their contact lenses, and lips that were a little too wide. It was a pleasant enough face, but not stunning and I was honest enough to know I was never going to stop traffic. And that had truly never worried me before, but since being with Matt, who was, let’s face it, undeniably gorgeous, I seemed more aware than ever of some of the shortcomings Mother Nature had dished up.