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The Art of Losing

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He takes her arm, and leads her back to the three waiting figures. Now that she’s up close, she sees that the blonde girl is very beautiful; huge slanting eyes balanced on angular cheekbones, subtly pouting lips slashed with red. She beams and holds out her hand, but Lydia sees a swift head-to-toe glance of appraisal, sizing her up.

‘This is Isobel,’ Adam shouts into her ear. The girl nods and smiles again, saying something that Lydia doesn’t catch. ‘And this is Jack and Carla,’ he continues, lumping them together with a wave of his hand. They are clearly a couple, the girl’s hand now snaking into the boy’s pocket to retrieve his wallet as he rolls his eyes and wriggles away.

‘Hi,’ she says, laughing and snatching the wallet. ‘I was just about to go and get us some more drinks, d’you want anything?’

Lydia hesitates; she’s not sure of the etiquette. They’ve barely been introduced, after all. ‘I could give you some money—’ she starts, but Carla dismisses her words with a flamboyant wave of the hand. ‘Well, thanks,’ she says. ‘Vodka and lemonade, then.’

Carla disappears into the crowd, hips swaying confidently as she goes. Lydia sees Jack watching her out of the corner of his eye. ‘Hello,’ she says. ‘I know Adam from lectures. He said he was going to come down here tonight, so I thought—’ All too late she realises this sounds as if she has come deliberately in search of Adam, a fact she has barely acknowledged even to herself. Her cheeks flame up and she covers her embarrassment with a cough.

Jack’s eyes flare briefly and wickedly. ‘No worries.’ Drawled, flattened vowels lend his voice a dry edge. He’s only averagely good looking, but she can tell that his confident bearing would raise him a few notches on the scale with many women. He lights a cigarette now, narrowing his eyes above the smoke, and drags sharply on it. ‘You known Adam for long, then?’

Adam cuts into the conversation, saving her. ‘Ooh, a while,’ he says teasingly.

‘Yeah?’ Jack says. They both laugh. Lydia looks from one to the other, not seeing the joke. By the looks of it, it’s equally lost on Isobel, who looks briefly irritated before resting a hand on Adam’s arm and leaning in farther towards her.

‘So tell us about yourself,’ she shouts invitingly above the music. Lydia smiles and shrugs. ‘You know,’ Isobel continues, ‘name, college, what you’re reading, where you’re from, all that?’

Lydia fields questions until Carla returns with the drinks and Isobel is mercifully distracted. They find a small table on the far side of the club, but squeezing all five of them on to the narrow bench is a struggle, and Lydia finds herself pressed up tightly against Adam. At such close range, she can smell the tart citrus tang of his aftershave, and something deeper beneath, a mix of alcohol and cigarettes and sweat that makes her feel dizzy. His bare arm brushes her own, and all the hairs on her arm prickle in response. There’s no way he can know, but for a second he looks at her in a way that makes her look hurriedly away. They barely exchange a word for the next hour. Banter flows back and forth between the two boys with practised ease, and Lydia gradually finds herself chipping in with the odd jibe along with the other girls. She’s having fun, she realises with a shock as she tips back her fourth vodka. Laughter makes her hiccup on the last mouthful, and her eyes water and smart. Adam slaps her on the back, letting his hand rest there for a few moments longer than necessary, and she smiles her thanks.

‘All right?’ he asks, leaning in. She nods. ‘Do you live in?’ he half breathes, half shouts. It seems like a non sequitur, and an incomprehensible one at that. Her mind gropes around the strange unfinished sentence. ‘Do you live in college?’ he clarifies, seeing her lost face. ‘Or out?’

‘Oh!’ she exclaims. ‘No, I live out.’

‘Whereabouts?’ he asks intently, leaning in farther.

‘Beechwood Road,’ she says. The truth slips out easily; she’s sick of the lies she has been telling all evening and it feels like a small relief.

‘Really?’ Adam says, his seriousness replaced by an amused smile. ‘Which number? My mate Rob lives up there.’

‘Nineteen,’ she says. Again, it’s the truth, but she feels uncertain about divulging it. Adam merely nods, draining his drink.

‘How are you getting back?’ he asks casually.

‘I don’t know. I’ll get a taxi, I suppose,’ she says. She hasn’t thought this far ahead, but a glance at her watch reveals that it’s almost 2 a.m. It doesn’t seem to be the answer that Adam wants or expects; an irritated shadow passes over his face and he shrugs. Lydia is about to rephrase her answer into something more non-committal when there is a commotion at the other end of the table. Isobel is clambering up from her seat and standing on the table-top, spiky black heels sliding and gaining purchase on its shiny surface. She starts to dance, swaying seductively back and forth to the rhythm of the music, her short black dress snaking up and down her body and revealing tautly honed thighs. Her eyes are half closed, her red lips parted. Jack and Carla whoop in delight, whistling and slamming their hands down on the table-top. Before long a little crowd of men has collected around the table, encouraging Isobel on her self-appointed podium. She pouts her lips laughingly at them as she continues to dance.

Lydia is smiling, caught up in the moment, until she looks at Adam. He’s staring up at Isobel, watching the black silk slithering over her body, the blonde hair forming a soft static halo around her as she shakes her head. The look on his face is rapt and lustful, and his gaze doesn’t break until the song finishes and Isobel slips off the table to a chorus of cheers and wolf whistles. She crosses to behind where Adam and Lydia are sitting, puts her hands lightly on Adam’s shoulders. He leans back, looking up at her, and she puts her mouth to his ear and speaks clearly, loud enough for Lydia to hear.

‘Let’s fuck.’ The word jolts Lydia rigid and she stares down at the table-top, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. She doesn’t hear Adam’s reply, but she feels him shift away from her and get to his feet. When she next dares to look they have both gone. Abruptly she stands.

‘Stay,’ Jack calls over to her. ‘They’ll be five minutes, ten tops.’ She can’t bring herself to return his laugh or to say goodbye, pushing past the morass of people around them, heading for the cloakroom. The crumpled ticket is tucked inside her bra and as she fishes it out she feels her skin is burning hot and trembling. It’s cold in the cloakroom queue, but she can feel the sweat dripping off her. She snatches her coat back and wraps herself up in it, stumbling out of the club into the drizzling rain. It seems she walks for hours before she sees the bright beam of a taxi blinking ahead. She runs for it and slips into the back seat. The driver is talking to her, but she can’t make sense of his words. She can barely focus on the streets ahead as they zip through them, and when the cab pulls up in Beechwood Road she thrusts her last ten-pound note at the driver and slams the door without waiting for her change.

The noise wakes her hours later, a sharp, brittle sound like gravel hitting the windowpane. Head swimming, she sits up in bed and listens. A few moments later it comes again, stronger now. She hears him calling faintly below. ‘Lydia.’ A minute’s pregnant silence, then a frustrated noise, halfway between a sigh and a shout. Finally something else grazing the windowpane before dropping down; a softer sound this time. She is out of bed now, shivering by the window, hand poised to draw the curtain back, but something stops her. She waits until she hears the footsteps crunching away and dying into silence before she peeks outside.

The street lamps that flank the house are still gleaming, illuminating the pavement. She sees the flowers scattered below the window. Long-stemmed roses, blood red, abandoned where they have fallen. Before she knows it she’s running softly down the stairs in her thin T-shirt, pushing the door open, hurrying with bare feet over stone. She gathers the roses in her arms, their thorns grazing her fingers. Takes a deep breath, shakily inhales. In a moment she’ll turn back inside, but for that instant, she’s frozen in time, crouching motionless on the cold pavement, her head bowed as if in prayer.

Lydia waits at the orange café for five afternoons before the lecturer returns. Over those five days she’s done little else. The waitresses recognise her now, and when the jangling door announces her arrival on the sixth day they both look up and smile. She orders her customary coffee, settles into her corner seat and opens up the same book that she has been bringing to the café all week. She’s read through it twice already, but has taken in so little that she might as well be coming to it with fresh eyes. Her mind is elsewhere. She hasn’t seen Adam since the night in the club, although a couple of times Sandra, her landlady, has reported a visitor searching for her while she has been out. He’s an unwanted distraction, but nevertheless she can’t stop thinking about him: his wicked dark eyes, the hair softly curling around his collar. Anyone else would put it down to lust, but she finds it hard to do even this. It isn’t something she has ever experienced, and as a result it’s hard for her to classify.

The sharp clatter of the bell raises her head. It’s automatic by now, the hungry searching glance, constantly disappointed by a procession of scarf-wrapped students and nondescript families. This time she has to blink to make sure the lecturer is real. His outline shines against the bright winter sun and gives him the air of a mirage. He looks tired, distracted, and his clothes don’t match, an old-looking red jumper slung like an after-thought under his black suit. He stands in the doorway for a moment as if announcing his arrival. There are two seats he could choose: one directly opposite Lydia, the other tucked away in the far corner of the café. He looks back and forth between them. She sees a mental coin being tossed in the instant before he turns towards her and settles into the seat, so close that she feels herself trembling. He takes a rolled newspaper out of his pocket, smooths it carefully out on to the table and scans the page blankly. So far he hasn’t glanced at her, but she knows it’s only a matter of time before he realises he’s being watched. Sure enough, it is little more than a minute before awareness ripples the surface of his face. His head swings sharply towards her, and suddenly he’s staring straight into her eyes.

For a second she thinks she sees a glimmer of recognition; something in her features calling up a memory so obscure and unidentifiable that it slips away almost instantly. In that instant his mouth has fallen slightly open, poised to identify her, but his lips abruptly close. A frown of incomprehension settles on his face. He’s not a young man any more. He must be less used than he once was to students making eyes at him; perhaps he suspects an ulterior motive. She has thought about this moment many times, and with a shock she realises that she still hasn’t decided which way to jump. Lydia the earnest scholar, keen to engage him in academic conversation. Lydia the breezy, talk-to-anyone novice student, looking for a friend and mentor. Lydia-Lolita, amateur seductress aiming at the depths of his vanity. As the options whir through her mind each seems more unthinkable than the last, but to her surprise the decision has been made for her. Her eyes are filling with tears.

He looks concerned, but she sees a faint irritation sifting beneath. ‘Are you all right?’ he asks in a low voice, glancing around as if he fears the waitresses will accuse him of attacking her. She doesn’t reply, bowing her head as the tears start to fall. ‘Come now,’ he says, an edge of panic to his voice. ‘This is … this is unnecessary, surely.’

What did she expect? A paragon of sensitivity? She battles a wild urge to laugh, sniffing instead and wiping an arm over her eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ she whispers.

He clears his throat, scratching the back of his neck with long fingers. ‘Is there anything I can get you?’ he asks, looking around again. ‘Another drink, or a cake or something? If you like cake.’ She shakes her head. ‘Well, then,’ he says. He can make a polite excuse and leave, or he can ask the question he so clearly wants to avoid. ‘Would you like to talk about it?’ he asks. To his credit, not much of his obvious reluctance comes through in his voice, and for a second she almost warms towards him.

‘I wouldn’t know where to start,’ she says, shrugging and smiling shakily. ‘It’s just … the sadness of things.’

He doesn’t know how to respond to this. He inclines his head, perhaps respectfully. ‘Life can be very hard,’ he says eventually. To her shock she hears a raw edge of pain scraping his voice. He is frowning down at his paper, momentarily lost to her. She takes a moment to study him – the profile set into something close to cruelty, the strong Roman nose, lips hardened into a thin line. The sun pours a sharp radiance across his face, casting him in light. She knows what he is thinking of, and it makes her want to seize his hands roughly across the table and shout, You see? You see what you have done?

‘I should go,’ she says instead, not moving. He looks up at her again, nodding.

‘Well, I hope you feel better soon,’ he says. ‘Take care, ah—’ He pauses expectantly, waiting for her to fill in her name.

‘Lydia,’ she says, and watches him closely. This time the emotion spills across his face and he can’t hold it back. She knows her reaction is crucial. She frowns as if puzzled. ‘What’s the matter? Are you all right?’ she asks. He looks at her again, more intently this time.

‘It’s an unusual name,’ he says. ‘These days.’

‘Is it?’ she replies lightly. ‘My mum always says it was my dad who chose it.’

‘Does she,’ he mumbles, retreating back into himself. Her words have dismissed any lurking suspicion that has pricked him. She can see he wants to be alone with his thoughts. As she moves towards the door she looks back and sees him fending these thoughts off, his shoulders hunched against them, his back rigid. She feels a surge of anger so great that she wants to hit something, so hard that she draws blood, but she simply turns and leaves, closing the door quietly behind her.

Back in my room I study my face in the mirror for traces of my mother. I’ve done this a thousand times but I never tire of it. When you lose someone, you take any small comfort that you can get, and it warms me to see any echo of a resemblance. We did not look alike, not really, but when I look closely I can see the line of her jaw beneath mine, the tinge of her eerily green eyes making its impression on my own. She’s there inside me somewhere, but I don’t want her there. I want her here, so badly I can taste it, the acid tang of need sickeningly fresh and surprising every time. The face in the mirror is blurring before me and suddenly it doesn’t look like either of us. It doesn’t look like anyone I know. I blink the tears away. I whisper my own name to myself, wanting to hear it as she used to say it. Louise. It’s not the same, never the same.

I step back from the mirror, addressing myself in my head. You thought that this would be enough – to see him, to satisfy your curiosity. You were wrong. Nothing you can do will bring her back, but you have the right to know. This man murdered your mother. You need to understand why.

Nicholas 1983 (#u6f354975-6248-5096-99a6-131987812659)

I walked in to work across Waterloo Bridge every morning. I told myself that it saved me money, but in reality the walk was more about building a sense of occasion than anything else. It was something to do with height: the feeling that I was walking above the world and that the grey industrial sweeps of office buildings and the cloudy river beneath were somehow watching me and cheering me on. As I paced the bridge, I would often be hit by the sudden knowledge that the day was to be a momentous one, holding events that could alter the course of my life. It was one way – sometimes the only way – of getting me into the school and precipitating the same stultifying routine.

Strangely, I seemed to be able to fool myself with these false premonitions again and again. I thought they were harmless, but in retrospect they turned me into the boy who cried wolf. When the familiar sense came to me as I crossed the bridge on that bright morning of 17 May, I had no way of divining that, for once, the bubbling anticipation and queasy, faint foreboding sifting beneath my skin were genuine.

I had been working at the school for two and a half years, bumping along the middle ranks of the English department. Thirty-one, living alone in a box flat in Wimbledon, I had far too much time to convince myself that I was a misunderstood genius who was condemned to a life of a monotony as unremarkable as the recognition after my death would be ecstatic. I was writing poetry around this time: oblique fragments which aimed at Ted Hughes but fell anticlimactically short of the mark. I deliberately kept my flat in little better state than that of a hovel, telling myself as I drank cheap soup out of a grey chipped mug in front of my two-bar fire that I was the typical starving artist in his garret. At these times I conveniently forgot about the school, and my underpaid but decidedly middle-class position there. I hadn’t had a girlfriend for three years. Not because I didn’t want one, and not because I couldn’t get one, but because the two states of wanting and attaining never seemed to coincide. I sometimes thought about becoming a monk. All in all I was ripe for a major life overhaul, and that is exactly what I got.

When I reached the school that morning I had twenty minutes before I was due to teach my first class at nine. It needed no preparation; the collection of oiks and devils that made up my fourth form were so laughably beyond reach that I had given up on them in all but name months ago. I toyed with the idea of going to the classroom early, sitting at my desk and staring at the whitewashed walls, but the restless mood generated by the walk was still on me. I prowled the campus instead. Sprawling and unstructured, a peculiar mix of original Gothic towers and tacked-on post-war concrete blocks, the school must have once been beautiful, I knew. Now it had the air of an institution gone to seed, an impression only reinforced by the grubby teenage louts crammed into its every crevice. I found myself turning towards one of the few unspoilt buildings remaining on the campus – the library, a converted church with honeyed, yellowing stone walls and candles that lit up its long arched windows when darkness fell. I often wandered its aisles when I was at a loose end, enjoying the temporary tranquillity, for few of the students ever ventured in except under sulky duress. That morning I hesitated before entering. I didn’t feel like browsing, but I still had a quarter of an hour to kill. I pushed open the stone door and slipped into the silence inside.

I saw her almost at once. Sitting behind the check-out desk, she was slumped forward, reading a newspaper. Her face was shaded by her hand, but the curve of her blonde head, the long fingers splayed over her forehead and the narrowness of her sloping shoulders in their pink wool cardigan leapt out at me, as shockingly and unexpectedly as if she had jumped out of her seat and shouted at me across the library. I know you, I thought. It was an irrational thought, and I knew even as the words formed in my head that I had never seen this woman before, but that’s what it felt like: seeing a much-missed friend again after a long absence. I had to stop myself from going straight up to the desk and telling her so. Instead I crossed softly to the rows of desks that flanked the library’s darkest corner, and settled myself down to watch her. After a few minutes, she pushed the paper aside and looked up. Her face was finely sculpted, delicate yet sensual, dark brows and lashes framing large ethereal eyes. The way she looked, her ash-blonde hair falling primly over the pink cardigan, reminded me of a sixties fashion model, polished and restrained, but nursing a secret abandon. She was beautiful, but not really my type. I liked exotic girls, Mediterranean lips and curves, not wistful English roses who looked as if they should be clutching on to something at all times – a posy of flowers, a prayer book, a man’s hand. And yet somehow, looking at her, I realised that the preferences I had thought I had were all muddled up and wrong, belonging to someone else.

I went over to the nearest bookshelf and picked a book at random, an obscure Henry James. Without giving myself time to think, I walked up to the check-out desk and slapped the book down, making her look up with a start.

‘Have you read this?’ I asked.

She glanced at the title, then back up at me. ‘I haven’t,’ she answered. When she spoke, something seemed to light up inside her, animating her face and making her eyes shine. She was smiling quizzically. ‘Should I have?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I haven’t read it either.’

‘Oh.’ There was a pause; she was clearly baffled. I couldn’t blame her. As an opening gambit, it hadn’t been one of my best – I was obviously out of practice.
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