The Art of Losing
An exceptionally mature and tautly written first novel reminiscent of Josephine Hart's Damage.Haunted by childhood loss, 23-year-old Louise takes on her late mother's name and sets out to find Nicholas, the man she has always held responsible for her death. Now a middle-aged lecturer, husband and father, Nicholas has nevertheless been unable to shake off the events of his past, when he and Louise’s mother, Lydia, had a clandestine, destructive and ultimately tragic affair. As Louise infiltrates his life and the lives of his family, she forms close and intimate relationships with both his son and his wife, but her true identity remains unknown to Nicholas himself. Tensions grow and outward appearances begin to crack, as Louise and Nicholas both discover painful truths about their own lives, each other, and the woman they both loved.Told alternately from the perspectives of Louise and Nicholas, and moving between the past and the present, The Art of Losing is a stunning debut novel that shows how love, desire and loss can send out more complicated echoes across our lives than we can ever imagine.
The Art of Losing
For my parents, Nigel and Elaine, and my husband, Daniel Cormack – thank you for all your love and support so far.
Title Page (#u633a54c6-b322-5670-9275-be5c9d5a6549)Dedication (#u3449ab7e-2d20-51c9-8d94-06d83fe50db7)Chapter Louise (#u383afd04-afdf-561e-af53-880a8e96e67a)Chapter Nicholas (#ud7f8abe6-a071-5b07-8c30-bb9bf2a01922)Chapter Louise (#u2b100923-20df-51ff-b39a-74934a7a5076)Chapter Nicholas (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Louise (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Nicholas (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Louise (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Nicholas (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Louise (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Nicholas (#litres_trial_promo)Acknowledgements (#litres_trial_promo)Copyright (#litres_trial_promo)About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo)
Louise 2007 (#u6f354975-6248-5096-99a6-131987812659)
Until I was ten, my father told me a bedtime story every night. I suppose that in the early days the stories covered the usual ground, but after my mother died, they changed. His new stories were all about her. Some time she would attempt to disguise them a little, holding up a book as if he were reading from it, but I wasn’t fooled. Other times he would simply sit at my bedside and pour out memories – his own, and those she had passed on to him. Often they made him cry, and I would comfort him.
I thought for many years that the stories were my father’s way of keeping her alive for me; that he was anxious not only that I should not forget her, but that I should learn even more about her than I would have done if she had lived. Now I don’t believe those were his motives at all. It was simply that there were no other stories he could tell. When she died, it closed off all other avenues, and for many years circling around these old memories was a compulsion and not a choice.
The last story he ever told me started off innocuously enough. Out at a party together, my parents had begun talking to a woman who claimed to be clairvoyant, and my father, instantly fascinated, asked her to read their future. The woman spun a pretty tale: two children, plenty of travelling, long and happy lives. My mother seemed to accept her words readily enough, but when they left the party she exclaimed how ridiculous it had been. Still basking in the rosy glow of the predicted future, my father was a little hurt, and questioned her on how she could be so sure that everything the woman had foreseen would not come to pass. She stopped dead in the middle of the road to face him, and said, evenly and quietly, Because I won’tlive past forty. Irrational as they were, her words upset my father, and he demanded to know what she meant. She shrugged, and refused to elaborate. The next day, when he asked again, she claimed drunkenness and laughed the incident off, but in retrospect he believed that she was the one with the second sight – another attribute, albeit unwanted, to add to her extensive list.
When he finished this tale I was quiet, not knowing how or what I should reply. The point of the stories had always been that they were happy, but this one had left an unpleasant taste in my mouth and an eerie feeling sliding up and down my spine. My father was quiet, too, for a long while, staring down at the pink patterned coverlet. Although I can’t remember his expression, I can guess at what it would have been: the familiar lost, uncomprehending blanket of despair that was his face’s default setting after his wife’s death. After what seemed like hours, he heaved himself to his feet and left the bedroom without a word. When the next night came I half dreaded the bedtime story, but there was none forthcoming. The explanation was that I was getting too old for such things. Even at that age I knew better. The truth was that I was too young for the stories he had left – the stories he really wanted to tell.
I exercise it rarely, this talent I have. Scurrying down darkening streets, shivering in my rain-slicked clothes, I allow my muscles to relax into a familiar rhythm. I’m a dancer remembering a long-forgotten dance, a gymnast whose body instinctively recalls the twists and turns set aside many years ago. I haven’t played this game since school. Back then, Iused to skulk behind an admired teacher as he made his way from classroom to car park, always keeping a few steps behind. As he unlocked his car and drove off I would be there watching, only yards away, my breath still shallow from the excitement of the pursuit. Henever noticed me. I have this talent for following.
The man I am following now is just as oblivious. He thinks he is alone, but ever since he left the lecture hall, I’ve been with him. Down the high street, I slide through the crowd like mercury. His heavy burgundy coat glints wetly ahead like a jewel. As I keep my eyes on that coat now, I can’t help but compare it to my own. I want to be wrapped up in his coat, engulfed in its warmth. It would swamp me; he must be six foot two, a clear eight inches above me. It would smell of – what? Cigarettes: I saw him light up as he left the hall, cupping his hand to shield the tiny flame from the wind. I’m getting too close. I hang back as his pace slows, counting my steps in my head.
Abruptly he stops, as if hearing his name called. I shrink back into the recesses of a doorway as he puts a hand to the back of his neck. He’s forgotten something, perhaps – a book, an umbrella, a scarf. No. He’s simply forgotten himself – passed his destination. He hurries back up the road and ducks into a brightly coloured café, swinging the door shut behind him. I wait a few moments, then sidle up to the café, leaning back against its wet orange wall. Through the rainwater that streaks the window-glass, I watch. He’s settled into a table near the window, rummaging in his bag to withdraw a newspaper, turning the pages with the enjoyment of a ritualised routine. A minute later, a waitress brings him a cup, and I see his lips move in silent thanks. I watch him for five, ten minutes. His black hair is heavily threaded with silver; closer than I’ve been before, I can see fine lines exploding out across his face. I know that he must be fifty-five years old.
The letter he wrote almost twenty years ago is in my pocket. Its words are always with me. They run through my head when I talk, an almost-heard undercurrent bubbling just below consciousness. I tap them on an imaginary keyboard, my fingers digging privately into my palm. Close to my heart, I keep them folded up tightly in their faded paper everywhere I go. The name at the top of this letter is not mine, but I intend to borrow it for a while.
The lights in the café are so dizzily bright that when Lydia turns away they’re still imprinted on the damp grey alleyway in front of her like the afterglow of a camera flash. She blinks, once, again, to jolt herself out of the cocoon he has wrapped her up in. It works. The cold returns and clamps her like a vice. Suddenly she’s alone on the street with no idea where she is.
Lydia wakes without warning, dragged up sharply by the sudden dip of her elbow off the ledge. For a second she glances around bewildered, expecting to see the cool blue walls of the rented attic room encircling her. The dreamlike hour that has passed drips back into her mind: rising after too little sleep, riding down town to the faculty lecture hall in the November half-light, falling into her seat. When she arrived the hall was almost deserted. Now it’s packed with students, huddled in little groups and chatting, their steady buzz of conversation punctuated by shrieks of laughter and groans of disbelief. A few are still snoozing, heads pillowed on the wooden ledges. Undisturbed, Lydia watches them all. The snatches of conversation she picks up are inane but compelling. She has never had this: the easy banter between friends, the talk of nights out unrestricted by parental guidelines or curfews.
She is leaning forward to listen more intently when she sees a boy sitting a few seats along the row, watching her. Dark hair swept over his face and stubble prickling his chin. Curious eyes that look hazel in the sunlit hall. He’s looking at her insolently, half smiling, as if he’s thinking, I know what you’re up to. As she catches his eye, there’s none of the embarrassed gaze-shifting she expects, only a slow deliberate wink. Flushing, she scowls at him and looks quickly away. A moment later she risks a swift glance back to check that he is properly subdued. He isn’t. He’s laughing, and when he catches her eye again he mouths something. She doesn’t get it at first, and can’t resist a puzzled frown. The boy leans farther towards her and mouths the phrase again, full lips moving soundlessly and exaggeratedly among the noise around them. Forgive me, they say.
She bites the bubble of laughter back into her throat as the lecturer walks down the aisle and takes the stage. He’s wearing a long trench-coat, his black hair swept back into peaks, high lighting the silver strands running through it. As he strides to the podium the students fall silent, settling expectantly back in their seats. He takes a moment to survey the room, holding his audience, then starts to speak. Although she knows that she must have heard his voice many times as a child, she has been unable to recapture it in her head, and yet it has a familiar quality; deep, powerful and harsh.
‘Sensibility,’ he says. ‘It’s a word that has become downgraded over the centuries. Now, it aligns itself with sentimentality, and that carries a pejorative ring – mawkish, oversensitive, weak.’ He spits out the words one by one. ‘But sensibility was once the encapsulation of the finest feelings of which man was capable. An acute sensitivity to emotion, significance, mortality, all the things that still surround us in modern society but which are more often forced underground than brought out into the open. This was a different time, a time where a man crying at the symbolism of a caged bird was accepted as part of the natural order of life. Such over-analysis, such keen awareness of pathos and significance in every living creature, be it man or fly, was actively celebrated – and satirised too, of course, as every great movement is—’
She is dragged away from his words by a muted commotion a little farther down the row. With horror she sees that the dark-haired boy is nudging his neighbour and passing a folded piece of paper, whispering in her ear and gesticulating. His friend puts up a show of resistance, rolling her eyes laughingly, but takes it and turns to her neighbour in turn. The paper makes its whispering way down the row until it reaches the girl sitting next to Lydia, who passes it on with a look of contempt. Lydia smiles at her apologetically – we’re on the same side – but the other girl turns away and makes a great show of listening to the lecture. Hurriedly, Lydia unfolds the paper and smooths it out on the ledge. The note is written in uneven capitals, like those a child might use. YOU LOOK VERY SERIOUS, it says. I’VE NEVER SEEN ANYONE PAY SO MUCH ATTENTION TO A LECTURE. OR ARE YOU JUST IGNORING ME?
She puts the note to one side and tries to focus her attention back on the front of the stage, but she can’t concentrate, the lecturer’s words flowing over her in an incomprehensible torrent. Angrily, she snatches the paper up and writes quickly. In caseyou hadn’t noticed, everyone is concentrating, except you. Onlysomeone very presumptuous would assume that a completestranger should be looking at him rather than listening to the lecture.P.S. Your handwriting is terrible. I’m surprised they even letyou in. She refolds the paper and passes it to the unamused girl next to her, who shoots Lydia a look of scorn and pushes it to her left without looking at it. It’s only five minutes before the paper boomerangs back. This time the girl lets out a long sigh and hands it to Lydia pointedly. She’s right; this has gone far enough. Lydia determines to read the note and then crumple it into a ball and discard it, no matter what its contents.
WE USE COMPUTERS NOW, it reads. ANYWAY, THERE’S NO POINT ME CONCENTRATING. I HEAR ALL THIS AT HOME, THE LECTURER IS MY FATHER.
The last words hit her square in the chest. She looks back up at the figure at the lectern, tall and imposing, dressed in black. She can’t connect this boy with him, or all she knows of him.
‘The concept of an emotional journey is one we haven’t lost,’ the lecturer is saying now. ‘But we’ve transfigured it into trite Hollywood movies, where a journey can be as simple as going from A to B with a ready-made message at the end of the rainbow. The ugly duckling transforms into a swan, and finds that in the end it’s her inner beauty that has captured the highschool jock and that looks don’t matter after all. Sterne’s concept of a journey was very different. Here we learn more about the travelling than the arriving; false starts, irrelevant-seeming diversions, every emotion of the traveller dissected.’ It seems to Lydia that his eyes are fixed on hers, blotting the rest of the hall out in a messy blur of light. ‘Which is the more real? Which is the more true to life? Do we still understand the meaning of sensibility, or are our attempts at sensitivity, at love, little more than hollow flights of fancy?’
A sudden burst of nausea jolts her into action. She stumbles to her feet and pushes past the row of students, fighting her way towards the aisle. Heaving the oak door open, she lurches out into the cool dark hallway. She presses her head against the stone wall, so hard that she feels a jolt of pain pass through her. The sickness soon fades, but she knows she can’t go back in there. She stands alone in the corridor, listening to the unmoved hum of the lecturer’s voice behind the door, until a faint noise makes her swing round. The dark-haired boy is standing silhouetted at the end of the corridor, watching.
‘I thought I should follow you,’ he says simply, shuffling forward. ‘I felt bad. Was it something I said?’
‘No,’ she mutters. ‘I felt faint for a moment. I shouldn’t have left. It’s nothing.’
The boy moves closer. Up close he seems different, his initial cockiness replaced by a charming diffidence which makes it hard for her not to look at him. His eyes are fringed blackly with long lashes like a girl’s, but there’s something in the hard set of his jaw which she realises now does echo the lecturer’s granite-carved face. ‘Good,’ he says. ‘I thought it was me.’ He breaks off and throws her a small smile. ‘Presumptuous again,’ he says.
‘Sorry about that,’ she says, hurriedly. ‘I just couldn’t understand why you were looking at me.’
‘Really?’ The boy looks her full in the eyes for a second, holding the gaze until she breaks it. ‘I’m Adam,’ he continues, extending his hand so that she has no choice but to take it. ‘Just to get the introductions over with.’
‘Lydia,’ she says, and the name still feels strange on her tongue.
‘Pleased to meet you.’ Adam clears his throat. She knows this should be her opportunity to get away, to thank him for his concern and abandon the situation before it grows more complex, but she can’t seem to rouse herself. ‘What college are you at?’ he asks now, smiling again and leaning back against the wall.
‘Jesus,’ she says automatically without considering her answer. She’s picked a college she has never even seen, which she knows nothing about.
‘Really?’ Adam says eagerly. ‘I’m at Lincoln. I’m surprised I haven’t seen you on the street before, or in the Turl.’ With difficulty she remembers that this is a pub which must presumably be near by. She shrugs. ‘So what do you think of Sterne?’ he asks, gesturing back towards the lecture hall.
This is too much of a minefield. ‘Actually, I’m not doing English,’ she says. ‘I was just interested by the topic and thought I’d come along. I don’t know much about it. I’m doing—’ She pauses fractionally, trying to settle on a subject of which Adam might reasonably be expected to have little knowledge. ‘Geology.’
‘Wow,’ he says. ‘Interesting.’ She forces a smile in response. ‘So what are you doing tonight?’
‘I don’t know,’ she says feebly. His rapid questions and subject changes are starting to exhaust her. ‘I have some work to do.’
‘I’m going clubbing,’ Adam volunteers. He names a place that she remembers passing a few nights back, and moving quickly away from as a gaggle of drunken students lurched out of its doors and started loudly heckling her. ‘I might see you there?’
She nods. She wants to get away now. This isn’t why she’s here, and she doesn’t want this boy to complicate things. She starts to edge away down the corridor.
‘I’ll see you,’ she says vaguely.
‘OK.’ He makes no attempt to follow her, and for a second she is perversely disappointed. She’s almost at the door when he calls her back. She turns expectantly. He’s smiling again, hands in his pockets, still lounging against the wall. Just as in the lecture hall, his lips move silently, exaggeratedly. I was lookingat you, they say, because I think you lookamazing. The unspoken words ring in her head. She turns and pushes her way outside, sharp winter air suddenly knocking the breath from her and making her light headed. Without knowing why, she breaks into a run.
When she is back in her bedroom it is still before eleven o’clock. She falls asleep again in the blink of an eye, and dreams of things that leave her lost and lonely when she wakes again and finds nothing but silence, silence and solitude and memories of people and places and things that feel so, so long ago that they seem to have happened to someone else – someone else entirely.
There are too many people in the club. After over an hour’s wait in the queue, Lydia hands her rain-sodden coat over to the cloakroom, then heads for the dance-floor. She pushes her way into the centre of the crowd, letting the rhythm of the dancing carry her along, closing her eyes as music thumps and screeches above her. She wants to get a drink, but the bar seems so far away that she’s not sure she’ll ever reach it. Gasping for breath, she elbows a path through the mass of dancers, following the twisting gaps and breaks between groups as if she is tracing the tangles of a densely knotted necklace. When she eventually reaches the edge of the bar she grabs it tightly, looking back at what she has come from. Neon lit, heads bob in the air like beads of rain trembling on a washing line. She can’t see the expressions on their faces, features blurred out in bursts of flashing red and green light. The music is changing now. Frenetic beats give way to slower, grittier rhythms, and the heads respond to it, bowing and swooping gravely back and forth.
She turns to the barman and motions him towards her. ‘Water,’ she shouts, but he seems not to hear her. She tries to shout louder, but her voice cracks and dries up. Instead she points at random at one of the bottles behind the bar. The barman nods and pours her a small glass of liquid that could be any colour, rippling over chunks of ice. She hands him a five-pound note and waits for change that never comes, taking a sip of the drink. It’s vodka, pure and strong, hitting the back of her throat like fire. As she takes another gulp, she catches sight of herself in the long row of mirrors behind the bar. A strobe light sweeps across and dyes her dark brown hair a dazzling white blonde, and for a second she looks like someone else and what she sees makes her turn quickly away.
Ever since she reached the club she’s been looking for Adam, somewhere in the back of her mind, but it’s only now that she sees him. He’s standing on a raised podium, a vantage point from which he is scanning the dance-floor. His dark hair curls around the collar of a bright white T-shirt, bare arms folded in front of him. He’s not looking at her, but he’s looking for someone, that much is clear. Before she can think about it, she leaves the bar and runs up the steps, weaving her way round the room. It takes her only a minute, but by the time she reaches him, he’s not alone. Another boy and two girls have joined him and all four are laughing together: they’ve found him before he found them. The boy has white-blond hair cropped to the curve of his scalp, wiry shoulders under a black T-shirt. His arm is slung around one of the girls, a Latin-looking brunette in a short skirt and knee-high boots, rocking from foot to foot to the rhythm of the music. The other girl is closest to Adam. Lydia watches as she snakes her arm around his neck, having to raise herself on tiptoes to reach him. The girl is petite and blonde, hair feathered in a funky crop around her face, her black dress highlighting the paleness of her skin. She’s snuggling in closer to Adam, hugging him to her; it’s hard to tell whether the gesture is that of a lover or a friend.
At that moment he sees her. For a second his eyes look through her blankly. Then something snaps into focus. He breaks away from the group and walks towards her, his face serious.
‘Lydia,’ he says.
‘Thought I’d pop by,’ she says, and only then does he smile.