Read an Excerpt
The thing about lying to your parents is, you have to do it to protect them. It's for their own good. I mean, take my own parents. If they knew the unvarnished truth about my finances/love life/ plumbing/council tax, they'd have instant heart attacks and the doctor would say, "Did anyone give them a terrible shock?" and it would all be my fault. Therefore, they have been in my flat for approximately ten minutes and already I have told them the following lies:
1. L&N Executive Recruitment will start making profits soon, I'm sure of it.
2. Natalie is a fantastic business partner, and it was a really brilliant idea to chuck in my job to become a headhunter with her.
3. Of course I don't just exist on pizza, black cherry yogurts, and vodka.
4. Yes, I did know about interest on parking tickets.
5. Yes, I did watch that Charles Dickens DVD they gave me for Christmas; it was great, especially that lady in the bonnet. Yes, Peggotty. That's who I meant.
6. I was actually intending to buy a smoke alarm at the weekend, what a coincidence they should mention it.
7. Yes, it'll be nice to see all the family again.
Seven lies. Not including all the ones about Mum's outfit. And we haven't even mentioned The Subject.
As I come out of my bedroom in a black dress and hastily applied mascara, I see Mum looking at my overdue phone bill on the mantelpiece.
"Don't worry," I say quickly. "I'm going to sort that out."
"Only, if you don't," says Mum, "they'll cut off your line, and it'll take ages for you to get it installed again, and the mobile signal is so patchy here. What if there was an emergency? What would you do?" Her brow is creased with anxiety. She looks as though this is all totally imminent, as though there's a woman screaming in labor in the bedroom and floods are rising outside the window and how will we contact the helicopter? How?
"Er . . . I hadn't thought about it. Mum, I'll pay the bill. Honest."
Mum's always been a worrier. She gets this tense smile with distant, frightened eyes, and you just know she's playing out some apocalyptic scenario in her head. She looked like that throughout my last speech day at school; afterward she confessed she'd suddenly noticed a chandelier hanging above on a rickety chain and became obsessed by what would happen if it fell down on the girls' heads and splintered into smithereens?
Now she tugs at her black suit, which has shoulder pads and weird metal buttons and is swamping her. I vaguely remember it from about ten years ago, when she had a phase of going on job interviews and I had to teach her all the really basic computer stuff like how to use a mouse. She ended up working for a children's charity, which doesn't have a formal dress code, thank goodness.
No one in my family looks good in black. Dad's wearing a suit made out of a dull black fabric which flattens all his features. He's actually quite handsome, my dad, in a kind of fine-boned, understated way. His hair is brown and wispy, whereas Mum's is fair and wispy like mine. They both look really great when they're relaxed and on their own territory-like, say, when we're all in Cornwall on Dad's rickety old boat, wearing fleeces and eating pasties. Or when Mum and Dad are playing in their local amateur orchestra, which is where they first met. But today, nobody's relaxed.
"So are you ready?" Mum glances at my stockinged feet. "Where are your shoes, darling?"
I slump down on the sofa. "Do I have to go?"
"Lara!" says Mum chidingly. "She was your great-aunt. She was one hundred and five, you know."
Mum has told me my great-aunt was 105 approximately 105 times. I'm pretty sure it's because that's the only fact she knows about her.
"So what? I didn't know her. None of us knew her. This is so stupid. Why are we schlepping to Potters Bar for some crumbly old woman we didn't even ever meet?" I hunch my shoulders up, feeling more like a sulky three-year-old than a mature twenty-seven-year-old with her own business.
"Uncle Bill and the others are going," says Dad. "And if they can make the effort . . ."
"It's a family occasion!" puts in Mum brightly.
My shoulders hunch even harder. I'm allergic to family occasions. Sometimes I think we'd do better as dandelion seeds-no family, no history, just floating off into the world, each on our own piece of fluff.
"It won't take long," Mum says coaxingly.
"It will." I stare at the carpet. "And everyone will ask me about . . . things."
"No, they won't!" says Mum at once, glancing at Dad for backup. "No one will even mention . . . things."
There's silence. The Subject is hovering in the air. It's as though we're all avoiding looking at it. At last Dad plunges in.
"So! Speaking of . . . things." He hesitates. "Are you generally . . . OK?"
I can see Mum listening on super-high-alert, even though she's pretending to be concentrating on combing her hair.
"Oh, you know," I say after a pause. "I'm fine. I mean, you can't expect me just to snap back into-"
"No, of course not!" Dad immediately backs off. Then he tries again. "But you're . . . in good spirits?"
I nod assent.
"Good!" says Mum, looking relieved. "I knew you'd get over . . . things."
My parents don't say "Josh" out loud anymore, because of the way I used to dissolve into heaving sobs whenever I heard his name. For a while, Mum referred to him as "He Who Must Not Be Named." Now he's just "Things."
"And you haven't . . . been in touch with him?" Dad is looking anywhere but at me, and Mum appears engrossed in her handbag.
That's another euphemism. What he means is, "Have you sent him any more obsessive texts?"
"No," I say, flushing. "I haven't, OK?"
It's so unfair of him to bring that up. In fact, the whole thing was totally blown out of proportion. I only sent Josh a few texts. Three a day, if that. Hardly any. And they weren't obsessive. They were just me being honest and open, which, by the way, you're supposed to be in a relationship.
I mean, you can't just switch off your feelings because the other person did, can you? You can't just say, "Oh right! So your plan is, we never see each other again, never make love again, never talk or communicate in any way. Fab idea, Josh, why didn't I think of that?"
So what happens is, you write your true feelings down in a text simply because you want to share them, and next minute your ex- boyfriend changes his phone number and tells your parents. He's such a sneak.
"Lara, I know you were very hurt, and this has been a painful time for you." Dad clears his throat. "But it's been nearly two months now. You've got to move on, darling. See other young men . . . go out and enjoy yourself . . ."
Oh God, I can't face another of Dad's lectures about how plenty of men are going to fall at the feet of a beauty like me. I mean, for a start, there aren't any men in the world, everyone knows that. And a five-foot-three girl with a snubby nose and no suntan isn't exactly a beauty.
OK. I know I look all right sometimes. I have a heart-shaped face, wide-set green eyes, and a few freckles over my nose. And to top it off, I have this little bee-stung mouth which no one else in my family has. But take it from me, I'm no supermodel.
"So, is that what you did when you and Mum broke up that time in Polzeath? Go out and see other people?" I can't help throwing it out, even though this is going over old ground. Dad sighs and exchanges glances with Mum.
"We should never have told her about that," she murmurs, rubbing her brow. "We should never have mentioned it-"
"'Because if you'd done that," I continue inexorably, "you would never have got back together again, would you? Dad would never have said that he was the bow to your violin and you would never have got married."
This line about the bow and the violin has made it into family lore. I've heard the story a zillion times. Dad arrived at Mum's house, all sweaty because he'd been riding on his bike, and she'd been crying but she pretended she had a cold, and they made up their fight and Granny gave them tea and shortbread. (I don't know why the shortbread is relevant, but it always gets mentioned.)
"Lara, darling." Mum sighs. "That was very different; we'd been together three years, we were engaged-"
"I know!" I say defensively. "I know it was different. I'm just saying, people do sometimes get back together. It does happen."
"Lara, you've always been a romantic soul-" begins Dad.
"I'm not romantic!" I exclaim, as though this is a deadly insult. I'm staring at the carpet, rubbing the pile with my toe, but in my peripheral vision I can see Mum and Dad, each mouthing vigorously at the other to speak next. Mum's shaking her head and pointing at Dad as though to say, "You go!"
"When you break up with someone," Dad starts again in an awkward rush, "it's easy to look backward and think life would be perfect if you got back together. But-"
He's going to tell me how life is an escalator. I have to head him off, quick.
"Dad. Listen. Please." Somehow I muster my calmest tones. "You've got it all wrong. I don't want to get back together with Josh." I try to sound as if this is a ridiculous idea. "That's not why I texted him. I just wanted closure. I mean, he broke things off with no warning, no talking, no discussion. I never got any answers. It's like . . . unfinished business. It's like reading an Agatha Christie and never knowing whodunnit!"
There. Now they'll understand.
"Well," says Dad at length, "I can understand your frustrations-"
"That's all I ever wanted," I say as convincingly as I can. "To understand what Josh was thinking. To talk things over. To communicate like two civilized human beings."
And to get back together with him, my mind adds, like a silent, truthful arrow. Because I know Josh still loves me, even if no one else thinks so.
But there's no point saying that to my parents. They'd never get it. How could they? They have no concept of how amazing Josh and I were as a couple, how we fit together perfectly. They don't understand how he obviously made a panicked, rushed, boy-type decision, based on some nonexistent reason probably, and how if I could just talk to him, I'm sure I could straighten everything out and we'd be together again.
Sometimes I feel streets ahead of my parents, just like Einstein must have done when his friends kept saying, "The universe is straight, Albert, take it from us," and inside he was secretly thinking, "I know it's curved. I'll show you one day."
Mum and Dad are surreptitiously mouthing at each other again. I should put them out of their misery.
"Anyway, you mustn't worry about me," I say hastily. "Because I have moved on. I mean, OK, maybe I haven't moved on totally," I amend as I see their dubious expressions, "but I've accepted that Josh doesn't want to talk. I've realized that it just wasn't meant to be. I've learned a lot about myself, and . . . I'm in a good place. Really."
My smile is pasted on my face. I feel like I'm chanting the mantra of some wacky cult. I should be wearing robes and banging a tambourine.
Hare hare . . . I've moved on . . . hare hare . . . I'm in a good place. . . .
Dad and Mum exchange looks. I have no idea whether they believe me, but at least I've given us all a way out of this sticky conversation.
"That's the spirit!" Dad says, looking relieved. "Well done, Lara, I knew you'd get there. And you've got the business with Natalie to focus on, which is obviously going tremendously well. . . ."
My smile becomes even more cultlike.
Hare hare . . . my business is going well . . . hare hare . . . it's not a disaster at all. . . .
"I'm so glad you've come through this." Mum comes over and kisses the top of my head. "Now, we'd better get going. Find yourself some black shoes, chop chop!"
With a resentful sigh I get to my feet and drag myself into my bedroom. It's a beautiful sunshiny day. And I get to spend it at a hideous family occasion involving a dead 105-year-old person. Sometimes life really sucks.
As we pull up in the drab little car park of the Potters Bar Funeral Center, I notice a small crowd of people outside a side door. Then I see the glint of a TV camera and a fluffy microphone bobbing above people's heads.
"What's going on?" I peer out the car window. "Something to do with Uncle Bill?"
"Probably." Dad nods.
"I think someone's doing a documentary about him," Mum puts in. "Trudy mentioned it. For his book."
This is what happens when one of your relations is a celebrity. You get used to TV cameras being around. And people saying, when you introduce yourself, "Lington? Any relation to Lingtons Coffee, ha ha?" and them being gobsmacked when you say, "Yes."
My uncle Bill is the Bill Lington, who started Lingtons Coffee from nothing at the age of twenty-six and built it up into a worldwide empire of coffee shops. His face is printed on every single coffee cup, which makes him more famous than the Beatles or something. You'd recognize him if you saw him. And right now he's even more high profile than usual because his autobiography, Two Little Coins, came out last month and is a bestseller. Apparently Pierce Brosnan might play him in the movie.
Of course, I've read it from cover to cover. It's all about how he was down to his last twenty pence and bought a coffee and it tasted so terrible it gave him the idea to run coffee shops. So he opened one and started a chain, and now he pretty much owns the world. His nickname is "The Alchemist," and according to some article last year, the entire business world would like to know the secrets of his success.
From the Hardcover edition.