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Authors: Louise Voss

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Contemporary Fiction

Lifesaver

BOOK: Lifesaver
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Prologue

I caught him as he was on his way out of the front door, with the abstract yet focussed look in his eyes he always got when his mind had raced ahead of his body.

‘I’ve got something to tell you.’

My hesitant words seemed so cliched; marginally better than the pure soap opera corn of ‘we need to talk’, but not a lot. It occurred to me how much like a soap opera the last year of my own life had been

‘In a bit of a hurry, baby, can it wait?’

‘No. Sorry. It can’t.’

He turned in the doorway, alarm framed on his face as I stood there, terrified, with my box of carefully-prepared props under one arm. As ready as I’d ever be. I pictured my lies as the dark shapes of goldfish, previously undetected in an algeous pond, all rushing up at once and breaking through the slimy surface.

I’d written down my excuses. I’d wanted to use index cards, to try and pretend it was some kind of skewed business presentation: bullet points and headers, neat captions. But I hadn’t been able to find any index cards. The only vaguely suitable writing material I’d been able to lay my hands on was a book of postcards depicting famous tennis players of the twentieth century. I’d ripped them all out, one by one, hearing the small squirty sound of their perforations tearing: shuffling Ile Nastase’s frown of concentration and Borg’s headband, Agassi’s smash and Rusedski’s serve. The world of tennis seemed so pure somehow, a distillation of energy, ambition and talent, worlds away from the messy, complicated confession I had to make.

I was in a pop video once. You could say it was the highlight of my acting career—a depressing thing to have to admit. I had been in loads of plays too, sometimes in the lead role, usually not. But this video was for a very famous country act, a slightly cross-eyed nouveau cowboy called Dwight Unsworth. I’d played his girlfriend. I didn’t recall the story, but what I did remember about it was having to stand stock-still for ages as crowds of extras flowed past me. The director had later speeded up the film so it looked as if the people were rushing like water, streaming around me as I remained motionless, waiting for Dwight.

That sense of standing still whilst things happened around me—that was exactly how my life had felt for a long time. Until I’d met Adam and Max, and everything had changed.

Now it was all changing again.

Chapter 1

A YEAR EARLIER

‘Anna—please - come round as soon as you can. It’s an emergency. I don’t know what to do. Please? I need help.’

I’d just got in from a run, and had to force myself to breathe quietly enough to listen to the message on the answering machine, before letting the remaining gasps of air out of my lungs in a panicked exhalation.

It was my great-aunt, Lil. Guilt stabbed me in the side, worse than a stitch, because I’d run past her house not fifteen minutes earlier, and I could have checked on her then. But the truth was, apart from stilted hellos if I’d seen her around, I hadn’t been able to face Lil for ten months. I’d crossed the street and looked away, averting my eyes from her neat front garden, and the beautiful purple pansies blooming in her window boxes. Purple was the colour of healing, I’d once read. I hated purple, it reminded me of something strangulated; of blood which couldn’t flow properly. More like the colour of hernias, in my opinion.

The blood in my own body was flowing around me with no problems, my legs felt like jelly, and my t-shirt was sticking to my back, but I turned straight back around and ran out the door again, not bothering to double-lock it. Quicker to jog than to take the car during school-run time. I barged past dawdling schoolchildren, grazing my shin with the sharp corner of a book bag, dodging dog-walkers, and trying both to avoid and yet not see all the prams and pushchairs. It was just about possible, to force my legs to keep up a rhythm fast enough for me not to be able to look at the faces within; the chubby cheeks turned like petals towards the sun.

Eyes front, Anna, I thought. Don’t do it. I was getting quite adept at avoidance tactics. It was just self-preservation, I thought, blocking out the sound of Aunt Lil’s hurt voice from all her earlier answerphone messages.

Please don’t let her be injured or in danger, I prayed as I hurtled around the corner into her street and puffed up to her front door, sick with dread. I’d never have forgiven myself. There was no smoke billowing out of her bedroom window, no fire-engines or ambulances, no groups of concerned passers-by on the pavement; but that hadn’t assuaged my fears. Maybe she’d slipped into unconsciousness, I thought, pounding on the knocker of number twenty-one.

‘Hello dear,’ Lil said, opening the front door with my hand still attached to the knocker. ‘Do come in. I’ve just put the kettle on.’

I stood rooted to the spot with disbelief, my ribcage heaving and my forehead dripping sweat ( I’d only recently had the energy to take up running again, and I was still far from fit).

‘What is it?’ I gasped, scanning her for signs of distress. The sides of her dove-grey hair were pulled away from her face and, I noticed as she bent down to pick up a sweet wrapper which had fluttered onto her doorstep, fastened with a clip at the back of her head in a jaunty style. Her pale coral lipstick couldn’t have been more neatly applied if painted on by a make-up artist, she wore a lavender wool suit, and smart steel-coloured court shoes. She looked perfectly fine. No, more than that, she looked immaculate.

‘Well, hurry up, Anna,’ she said, straightening up with the litheness of a woman twenty years younger, ‘You don’t want to stand around out there all day, do you? I’ll get you a towel, and you can rub your hair dry. This much exercise surely can’t be good for you!’

No, it bloody can’t be, I thought. Not to mention the near heart-attack she’s just given me. I allowed her to usher me inside, where I leaned against the banisters, still panting loudly in the quiet hall.

‘So there’s nothing wrong with you at all, then, is there?’ I said, once I’d got my breath back.

Lil smiled disarmingly—at seventy-nine, she still had the most amazing teeth - and handed me a small burgundy towel, which I rubbed across my face and the back of my neck.

‘Well, I really didn’t know what to do. And I do need help—there’s a lightbulb stuck in the fitting in the pantry, and I need somebody strong to twist it out for me. I’m always worried that I’ll break it and then have to spend hours in Casualty having shards of glass tweezered out of my fingers. So anyway, I just happened to be looking out of the window when I saw you jogging past a while ago and guessed you were on your way home.’

I buried my hot face in the towel. It smelled of the inside of her airing cupboard - yeast, rosemary and rose-petal, tweed, and something unidentifiable from my childhood. She knew that I couldn’t resist the scents of the past. I felt a rush of emotion: anger, guilt, affection, grief.

‘Very clever,’ I said, following her into the kitchen and flopping down on one of the orange formica stools she’d had in there since the Seventies. I used to love the fact that Lil’s house had a breakfast bar and stools; it was so different and exotic.

The stools were quite high with long varnished wooden legs as if they aspired to being imitation plastic. When I’d sat on them as a kid, I’d felt like a solo artiste on
Top of the Pops
; Mary Hopkins, perhaps All I’d needed was the guitar and the cheesecloth dress and the blonde curtains of hair. My little brother Olly and I used to balance on them, relishing the hedonistic thrill of being high up, legs dangling unsupported. We would sit and eat our tea with our heads down, facing the wall. ‘You look like horses at a trough,’ Uncle Norm would say when he got in from work to find us all there.

Now Norm was dead, and I worried that Lil would break her hip some day, trying to get on or off one of the stools.

‘What do you mean, dear?’ she asked innocently.

I didn’t know what to say. I stuck my left forefinger through a rip in the slippery vinyl covering of my stool, feeling the yellowy crumbling stuffing inside. That rip had been there for years, and it was always a temptation to pull at the foam, like picking a scab. But it was deceptively tough and unyielding, clinging to the stool’s wooden seat like a limpet to a rock. It reminded me of Lil herself.

Lil placed a cup of thick brown tea in front of me, incongruous in a delicate china cup and saucer, and a large glass of cold water, which I immediately gulped down. When I replaced the empty glass on the counter, she reached out and put her hands over mine.

‘You live less than a mile away. We used to be such good friends. I’m pleading with you, Anna, don’t shut me out any more. I miss you. It’s been months now—getting on for a year - and you know how awful I feel about it too…’

I bit my lip, unable to meet her eyes. Part of me felt that I couldn’t possibly cope with this, not at nine o’clock in the morning in my damp sweaty running gear; but a bigger part of me was relieved that she’d decided to take matters into her own hands. The same thin hands which now covered mine, with their bluish veins and constellations of liver spots. Those hands had pulled so many souls into life.

‘It’s not you…’ I managed.

‘I know. But it won’t help, your not talking to anybody about it. You aren’t talking to anybody, are you?’

‘I went to that shrink for a while,’ I mumbled, feeling the steam from the tea heat my already burning cheeks.

‘What about that support group, SANDS?’

‘Went a couple of times. Couldn’t handle it. All those people expecting me to cry, just because they were crying. Telling me they knew how I felt, like that made it all right.’

Lil got up, put on a flowery apron and her Marigolds, and painstakingly began to wash a pot which had been sitting in the sink. She rinsed it, put it on the drying rack, then peeled off the gloves again and lifted the noose of the apron carefully back over her head, hanging it back on the nail on the back of the pantry door. Even in the misery and awkwardness of the moment, I couldn’t help marvelling at somebody who would do all that, just to wash up one pot. That’s what I’d missed about her, I thought.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, finally.

‘So am I, darling,’ she replied, holding out her arms to me. ‘So am I.’

We hugged. I feasted on the scent of her lavender wool and leaned into her shoulder, without looking up to see if she was crying. I’d seen her cry once, and I never wanted to again. It was such a relief, to be held by her, surrounded by her tall, gaunt frame.

‘So what’s new?’ she asked later, in the post-hug rapprochement. After I’d changed her lightbulb for her, we had adjourned to the living room, where we sat facing one another in her deep flowery wing-back armchairs.

I shrugged, feeling the black veil of depression drifting gently over me, cloying and cobwebby.

‘Nothing. Nothing at all. There’s no work around. I’ve got an audition tomorrow, for a soap, but it’s only a cable show, filming in Bristol or somewhere.’

I was about to add: ‘I won’t get it, anyway,’ but just in time I realised how self-pitying this sounded, and made a colossal effort to lighten my tone. I didn’t want Auntie Lil to feel any worse than she already did.

‘But at least it’s something,’ I said vaguely instead. ‘And I’ve started seeing Vicky a bit more, though, now that it’s getting easier for me to see the kids again. They all came over on Saturday. She’s finding it really tough, with two.’

Lil nodded sympathetically. She had always really liked my friend Vicky (largely, I thought, because Vicky used to do uncannily accurate impressions of Thora Hird, Lil’s favourite actresses). ‘Do send her my love, won’t you, when you next see her?’

‘I will. In fact I’m meeting her and Crystal later - I’m going to a fifth birthday party at a bowling alley with them. Vicky’s dreading it, so she’s asked me along to keep her company.’

‘That sounds fun, dear,’ said Lil, dubiously. ‘And how is Ken? Still working far too hard?’

I sighed. ‘Yes. I only see him last thing at night most nights. He’s even working weekends now too, you know, either travelling or entertaining executives from the different territories. When he’s not out playing tennis, that is - he’s in the First Division of his club’s league now. Takes it all very seriously.’

Lil tutted sympathetically. I looked around the room, feeling its stillness. The only sound was a radio with the volume down low, murmuring classical music. Something seemed different, although for a few moments I couldn’t work out what. Then I realized.

‘Your baby table’s gone,’ I blurted. Where before there had been dozens of framed photographs propped up, the majority of them black and white; of tiny babies and toddlers in clumsy hand-knitted garments, there was now just a gleaming empty mahogany table. Its surface was blank and smooth and somehow threatening, like deep brown polished ice.

Aunt Lil gazed at me, and I admired her for not looking away. ‘I took them down some months ago. You just haven’t been in this room for a long time.’

‘But why?’ I asked, knowing exactly why, but not being able to stop myself. ‘You loved those pictures.’

‘Yes. I still have them. But I just didn’t want to see them every day anymore. All those babies are grown up now. Most of them have babies of their own…

BOOK: Lifesaver
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