It was almost midnight and the Thames was rolling along, black as tar, wrinkling and smoothing itself beneath the starlit sky. The houseboats were shadowy shapes at their moorings as frost scattered icy glitter across rooftops and railings, silvering each trembling blade of grass. High above, a crescent moon gleamed, as lustrous as wedding satin.
A man walked unsteadily down the river path, hands shoved in his pockets, head bowed. His world seemed to have tilted on its axis and he wasn’t sure how to right himself again. First there had been the breathless phone call that afternoon – I’ve got something to tell you – leaving him with the prickling sense that luck was slipping between his fingers, that maybe the charm he’d always relied upon might not be enough to rescue him this time. Then, feeling cornered, he had lashed out needlessly, hurting people he loved with his words. Now he was left with a rising tide of dread that he couldn’t shake off.
What was he going to do? Had he blown everything?
A scouring wind skimmed off the river against his face and somewhere in the distance a fox shrieked, as high-pitched and unnerving as a child’s scream. The man hunched deeper into the collar of his coat, wishing he was already at home, the front door bolted, warm and safe in bed, the heating pipes cooling with their soft clicks and creaks. But did he even deserve to be there any more, after what he had done?
Suddenly there were footsteps scuffling behind him. A shout. ‘Oi! Mate.’
He turned. And then—
It wasn’t as if Dan had been deliberately avoiding Zoe since the funeral. All the same, when he glimpsed her and Bea at the far end of the supermarket aisle, his first thought was to swerve away and hide. Sweat prickled between his shoulder blades. Adrenalin spiked in jags through his blood. Every instinct he possessed told him to get out of there, fast, run – but then he pictured himself fleeing like a criminal, hunched low in the driver’s seat of his car, and knew he would feel even more of a scumbag than usual. Which was saying something.
Lurking behind an end-of-aisle stationery display, he felt a wrench inside as his gaze fell on Bea. She was wearing a grubby unicorn onesie, with the rainbow-striped horn at a dejected angle on the hood, trailing after Zoe, who was pushing the trolley. Were those tears streaking his niece’s round face? Yes, he thought, they were. Bea was usually a happy-go-lucky resident of her own magical daydream world; Dan remembered her on her sixth birthday blowing out the candles on her cake and saying that she wished she could be a real unicorn when she grew up. Beatrice Rose Sheppard had always been everybody’s poppet, the apple of her daddy’s eye, all dimples and bouncing. Although not today, clearly.
Come on, Dan. Stop being a coward. Say hello at the very least, he ordered himself.
He hurried to catch up with them. ‘Zoe – hi.’
Shame stabbed him below the ribcage as he noticed how thin and pale she appeared, how faraway her gaze. There had always been a wholesome sheen about Zoe, with her golden hair and rosy cheeks, but today she bore the dull skin and deadened expression of someone who’d just clawed her way through the worst weeks of her life. ‘Hello, Bea,’ Dan added weakly when Zoe didn’t answer immediately.
‘Hello,’ muttered Bea, eyes damp. Then her lower lip slid out, pink and quivering, and she stamped a foot, back in argument mode. ‘But why not, Mummy?’ she pouted.
Ignoring her, Zoe gave Dan an unfriendly look. ‘I thought you were meant to be in South America’ was all she said.
Dan hung his head. ‘Didn’t go,’ he replied. Obviously. His suitcase was still half-packed on the bedroom floor, where he hadn’t been able to face putting away the neat piles of new shorts, T-shirts and hiking socks, although he had at least managed to claim back most of the money from the untaken flights. It seemed like a dream now, that whole itinerary he and Tiggy had discussed and planned: the mountains he’d intended to climb, the temples and jungle and beaches he thought they’d be visiting, the fiestas and full-moon parties she had been so excited about. Dan’s great adventure to show the world there was more to his life than spreadsheets and calculations. Typical, he hadn’t even made it as far as the airport, though. Having arranged three months off work, he had barely been anywhere, other than the coroner’s court, the crematorium and his own miserable flat. He swallowed, aware of the awkward pause that was building between him and his sister-in-law. ‘So how are you both doing?’
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