Joey Mullen laid the flowers against the gravestone and ran her fingertip across the words engraved into the pink-veined granite.
SARAH JANE MULLEN
Beloved mother of Jack and Josephine
“Happy new year, Mum,” she said. “I’m sorry I didn’t come to see you yesterday. Alfie and I had shocking hangovers. We went to a party over in Frenchay, at Candy’s new flat. Remember Candy? Candy Boyd? She was in my year at school; she had all that long blonde hair that she could sit on? You really liked her because she always said hello to you if she passed you on the street? Anyway, she’s doing really well; she’s a physiotherapist. Or . . . a chiropractor? Anyway, something like that. She cried when I told her you were dead. Everyone cries when I tell them. Everyone loved you so much, Mum. Everyone wished you were their mum. I was so lucky to have a mum like you. I wish I hadn’t stayed away for so long now. If I’d known what was going to happen, I would never have gone away at all. And I’m sorry you never got to meet Alfie. He’s adorable. He works at a wine bar in town right now, but he wants to be a painter-decorator. He’s at his mum’s now, actually, painting her kitchen. Or at least, he’s supposed to be! She’s probably made him sit down and watch TV with her, knowing her. And him. He’s a bit of a procrastinator. Takes him a while to get going. But you’d love him, Mum. He’s the cutest, sweetest, nicest guy and he’s so in love with me and he treats me so well and I know how much of a worry I was to you when I was younger. I know what I put you through and I’m so, so sorry. But I wish you could see me now. I’m growing up, Mum. I’m finally growing up!”
“Anyway, I’d better go now. It’ll be getting dark soon and then I’ll get really scared. I love you, Mum. I miss you. I wish you weren’t dead. I wish I could go to your house and have a cup of tea with you, have a good gossip, have a bitch about Jack and Rebecca. I could tell you about the gold taps. Or maybe I could tell you about the gold taps now? No, I’ll tell you about the gold taps next time. Give you something to look forward to.
“Sleep tight, Mum. I love you.”Iconic was the word that people used to describe this row of twenty-seven Victorian villas: the iconic painted houses of Melville Heights.
Joey climbed the steep lane from Lower Melville to the parade of houses above. Even in the sodium gloom of a January afternoon, the houses of Melville Heights popped like a row of children’s building blocks: red, yellow, turquoise, purple, lime, sage, fuchsia, red again. They sat atop a terraced embankment looking down on the small streets of Lower Melville like guests at a private party that no one else was invited to. Iconic was the word that people used to describe this row of twenty-seven Victorian villas: the iconic painted houses of Melville Heights. Joey had seen them from a distance for most of her life. They were the sign that they were less than twenty minutes from home on long car journeys of her childhood. They followed her to work; they guided her home again. She’d been to a party once, in the pink house, when she was a student. Split crudely into flats and bedsits, smelling of damp and cooked mince, it hadn’t felt bright pink on the inside. But the views from up there were breathtaking: the River Avon pausing to arc picturesquely on its mile-long journey to the city, the patchwork fields beyond, the bulge of the landscape on the horizon into a plump hill crowned with trees that blossomed every spring into puff balls of hopeful green.
She’d dreamed of living up here as a child, oscillated between which house would be hers: the lilac or the pink. And as she grew older, the sky blue or the sage. And now, at twenty-six, she found herself living in the cobalt-blue house. Number 14. Not a sign of a lifetime of hard work and rich rewards, but a fringe benefit of her older brother’s lifetime of hard work and rich rewards.
Jack was ten years older than Joey and a consultant heart surgeon at Bristol General Hospital, one of the youngest in the county’s history. Two years ago he’d married a woman called Rebecca. Rebecca was nice, but brittle and rather humorless. Joey had always thought her lovely brother would end up with a fun-loving, no-nonsense nurse or maybe a jolly children’s doctor. But for some reason he’d chosen a strait-laced systems analyst from Staffordshire.
They’d bought their cobalt house ten months ago, when Joey was still farting about in the Balearics hosting foam parties. She hadn’t even realized it was one of the painted houses until Jack had taken her to see it when she moved back to Bristol three months ago.
“You bought a painted house,” she’d said, her hand against her heart. “You bought a painted house and you didn’t tell me.”
“You didn’t ask,” he’d responded. “And anyway, it wasn’t my idea. It was Rebecca’s. She virtually bribed the old lady who was living here to sell up. Said it was literally the only house in Bristol she wanted to live in.”
“It’s beautiful,” she’d said, her eyes roaming over the tasteful interior of taupe and teal and copper and gray. “The most beautiful house I’ve ever seen.”
“I’m glad you like it,” Jack had said, “because Rebecca and I were wondering if you two would like to live here for a while. Just until you get yourselves sorted out.”
“Oh my God,” she’d said, her hands at her mouth. “Are you serious? Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure,” he’d replied, taking her by the hand. “Come and see the attic room. It’s completely self-contained—perfect for a pair of newlyweds.” He’d nudged her and grinned at her. Joey had grinned back. No one was more surprised than she was that she had come back from Ibiza with a husband.His name was Alfie Butter and he was very good-looking. Far too good-looking for her. Or at least, so she’d thought in the aqua haze of Ibizan nights.
His name was Alfie Butter and he was very good-looking. Far too good-looking for her. Or at least, so she’d thought in the aqua haze of Ibizan nights. In the gunmetal gloom of a Bristol winter the blue, blue eyes were just blue, the Titian hair was just red, the golden tan was just sun-damage. Alfie was just a regular guy.
They’d married barefoot on the beach. Joey had worn a pink chiffon slip dress and carried a posy of pink and peridot lantanas. Alfie had worn a white T-shirt and pink shorts, and white bougainvillea blossom in his hair. Their marriage had been witnessed by the managers of the hotel where they both worked. Afterward they’d had dinner on a terrace with a few friends, taken a few pills, danced until the sun came up, spent the next day in bed, and then and only then did they phone their families to tell them what they’d done. She would have had a proper wedding if her mother had still been alive. But she was dead and Joey’s dad was not really a wedding kind of a man, nor a flying-out-to-Ibiza kind of a man, and Joey’s parents had themselves married secretly at Gretna Green when her mum was four months pregnant with Jack.
“Ah, well,” he’d said, with a note of relief. “I suppose it’s a family tradition.’
“Hi,” she called out in the hallway, testing for the presence of her sister-in-law. Rebecca made a lot of noise about how delighted she was to be housing a pair of twenty-something lovebirds in her immaculate, brand-new guest suite—“It’s just so brilliant that we had the space for you! Really, it’s just brilliant having you here. Totally brilliant”—but her demeanor told a different story. She hid from them. All the time. In fact, she was hiding from Joey right now, pretending to be arranging things in their huge walk-in pantry.
“Oh, hi!” she said, turning disingenuously at Joey’s greeting, a jar of horseradish in her hand. “I didn’t hear you come in!”
Joey smiled brightly. She’d totally heard her coming in. There was a mug of freshly made tea still steaming on the kitchen table, a newspaper half read, a half-eaten packet of supermarket sushi. Joey pictured Rebecca Mullen twitching at the sound of Joey’s key in the lock, looking for her escape, scurrying into the pantry, and randomly picking up a jar of horseradish.
“Sorry, I did shout out hello.”
“It’s fine. It’s fine. I’m just . . .” She waved the jar of horseradish in a vague arc around the pantry.
“Yes!” said Rebecca. “Yes. I am. Nest-building. Exactly.”
Both their eyes fell to Rebecca’s rounded stomach. Her first baby was due in four months. It was a girl baby who would, on or around May 1, become Joey’s niece. One of the reasons, Joey imagined, that Rebecca had agreed to let her and Alfie have their guest suite was that Joey was a trained nursery nurse. Not that she’d touched a baby since she was eighteen. But still, she had all the skills. She could, in theory, change a nappy in forty-eight seconds flat.
There was a stained-glass window halfway up the oak staircase that ran up the front of the house. Joey often stopped here to press her nose to the clear parts of the design, enjoying being able to see out with anyone seeing in. It was early afternoon, almost dusk at this time of the year; the trees on the hills on the other side of the river were bare and slightly awkward.
She watched a shiny black car turn from the main road in the village below and begin its ascent up the escarpment toward the terrace.
The only cars that came up here were those of residents and visitors.
She waited for a while longer to see who it might be. The car parked on the other side of the street and she watched a woman get out of the passenger side, a boyish, thirty-something woman with jawlength, light brown hair wearing a hoodie and jeans. She stood by the back door while a young boy climbed out, about fourteen years old, the spitting image of her. Then a rather handsome older man got out of the driver’s side, tall and leggy in a crumpled sky-blue polo shirt and dark jeans, short dark hair, white at the temples. He went to the boot of the car and pulled out two medium-sized suitcases, with a certain appealing effortlessness. He handed one to his son, passed a pile of coats and a carrier bag to his wife, and then they crossed the road and let themselves into the yellow house.
Joey carried on up the stairs, the image of the attractive older man returning from his family Christmas break already fading from her consciousness.
Joey saw Tom Fitzwilliam again a few days later. This time it was in the village. He was coming out of the bookshop, wearing a suit and talking to someone on the phone. He said good-bye to the person on the phone, pressed his finger to the screen to end the call, and slid the phone into his jacket pocket. She saw his face as he turned left out of the shop. It held the residue of a smile. His upturned mouth made a different shape of his face. It turned up more on one side then the other. An eyebrow followed suit. A hand went to his silver-tipped hair as the wind blew it asunder. The smile turned to a grimace and made another shape of his face again. His jaw hardened. His forehead bunched. A slow blink of his eyes. And then he was walking toward his black car parked across the street, a blip blip of the locking system, a flash of lights, long legs folded away into the driver’s side. Gone.
But a shadow of him lingered on in her consciousness.
Alfie had been a crush. For months she’d watched him around the resort, made up stories about him based on tiny scraps of information she’d collected from people who’d interacted with him. No one knew where he was from. Someone thought he might have been a writer. Someone else said he was a vet. He’d had long hair then, dark red, tied back in a ponytail or sometimes a man-bun. He had a small red beard and a big fit body, a tattoo of a climbing rose all the way up his trunk, another of a pair of wings across his shoulders. He often had a guitar hanging from a strap around his chest. He rarely wore a top when he wasn’t working. He had a smile for everyone, a swagger and a cheek.In Joey’s imagination, Alfie Butter was kind of otherworldly; she ascribed to him a sort of supernatural persona, and tried to imagine what they would talk about if their paths were ever to cross.
In Joey’s imagination, Alfie Butter was kind of otherworldly; she ascribed to him a sort of supernatural persona, and tried to imagine what they would talk about if their paths were ever to cross. Then one day he’d stopped her at the back of the resort next to the laundry and his blue, blue eyes had locked on to hers and he’d smiled and said, “Joey, right?”
She’d said yes, she was Joey.
“Someone tells me you’re a Bristol girl. Is that right?”
Yes, she’d said, yes, that was right.
He’d punched the air. “I knew it!” he’d said. “I just knew it! You know when you get that feeling in your gut, and someone said you were from Bristol and I just thought Frenchay girl. Got to be. And I was right! I’m a Frenchay boy!”
Wow, she’d said, wow. It was a small, small world, she’d told him.
Which school did you go to?
And Alfie had turned out to be neither supernatural nor otherworldly, a vet nor a poet, nor even very good at playing the guitar, but spectacularly good in bed and a very good hugger. He’d had her name tattooed on his ankle two weeks after their first encounter. He said he’d never felt like this about anyone, in his life, ever. He slung his heavy arm across her shoulder whenever they walked together. He pulled her on to his lap whenever she walked past him. He said he’d follow her to the ends of the earth. Then, when her mother died and she said she wanted to come home, he said he’d follow her back to Bristol. He’d proposed to her after she returned from her mother’s funeral. They’d married two weeks after that.
But what do you do with an unattainable crush once it’s yours to keep? What does it become? Should there perhaps be a word to describe it? Because that’s the thing with getting what you want: all that yearning and dreaming and fantasizing leaves a great big hole that can only be filled with more yearning and dreaming and fantasizing. And maybe that’s what lay at the root of Joey’s sudden and unexpected obsession with Tom Fitzwilliam. Maybe he arrived at the precise moment that the hole in Joey’s interior fantasy life needed filling.
And if it hadn’t been him, maybe it would have been someone else instead.