Home > Still Me (Me Before You #3)(20)

Still Me (Me Before You #3)(20)
Author: Jojo Moyes

I upped my game. I jogged with Agnes and George every morning, and some days I even managed to last the entire route without wanting to throw up. I got to know the places that Agnes’s routines took her to, what she was likely to need to have with her, and wear, and bring home. I was ready in the hallway before she was there, and had water, cigarettes or green juice ready for her almost before she knew she wanted them. When she had to go to a lunch where the Awful Matrons were likely to be, I would make jokes beforehand to shake her out of her nerves, and I would send her cell-phone GIFs of farting pandas or people falling off trampolines to pick up during the meal. I was there in the car afterwards and listened to her when she told me tearfully what they had said or not said to her, nodded sympathetically or agreed that, yes, they were impossible, mean creatures. Dried-up like sticks. No heart left in them.

I became good at maintaining my poker face when Agnes told me slightly too much about Leonard’s beautiful, beautiful body, and his many, many beeeyoootiful skills as a lover, and I tried not to laugh when she told me Polish words, such as cholernica, with which she insulted Ilaria without the housekeeper understanding.

Agnes, I discovered quite quickly, had no filter. Dad always said I used to say the first thing that came into my head, but in my case it wasn’t Bitter old whore! in Polish, or Can you imagine that horrible Susan Fitzwalter getting waxed? Would be like scraping the beard off a closed mussel. Brr.

It wasn’t that Agnes was mean per se. I think she felt under such pressure to behave in a certain way, to be seen and scrutinized and not found wanting, that I became a kind of safety valve. The moment she was out of their company she would swear and curse, and then by the time Garry had driven us home she would have recovered her equanimity in time to see her husband.

I developed strategies to reintroduce a little fun into Agnes’s life. Once a week, without putting it into the diary, we would disappear to the movie theatre on Lincoln Square in the middle of the day to watch silly, gross-out comedies, snorting with laughter as we shovelled popcorn into our mouths. We would dare each other to go into the high end boutiques of Madison Avenue and try on the worst designer outfits we could find, admiring each other straight-faced, and asking, Do you have this in a brighter green? while the sales assistants, one eye on Agnes’s Hermès Birkin handbag, fluttered around, forcing compliments from the sides of their mouths. One lunchtime Agnes persuaded Mr Gopnik to meet us, and I watched as, posing like a catwalk model, she paraded a series of clown-like trouser suits in front of him, daring him to laugh, while the sides of his mouth twitched with suppressed mirth. You are so naughty, he said to her afterwards, shaking his head fondly.

But it wasn’t just my job that had lifted my spirits. I had started to understand New York a little more and, in return, it had started to accommodate me. It wasn’t hard in a city of immigrants – outside the rarefied stratosphere of Agnes’s daily life, I was just another person from a few thousand miles away, running around town, working, ordering my takeout and learning to specify at least three particular things I wanted in my coffee or sandwich, just to sound like a native.

I watched, and I learnt.

This is what I learnt about New Yorkers in my first month.

1. Nobody in my building spoke to anyone else and the Gopniks spoke only to Ashok. The old woman on the second floor, Mrs De Witt, didn’t talk to the couple from California in the penthouse, and the power-suited couple on the third floor walked along the corridor with their noses pressed to their iPhones, barking instructions to the microphone or at each other. Even the children on the first floor – beautifully dressed little mannequins, shepherded by a harried young Filipina – didn’t say hello but kept their eyes on the plush carpet as I walked past. When I smiled at the girl, her eyes widened as if I had done something deeply suspicious.

The residents of the Lavery walked straight out and into identikit black cars that waited patiently at the kerb. They always seemed to know whose was whose. Mrs De Witt, as far as I could see, was the only person who spoke to anyone at all. She talked to Dean Martin constantly, muttering under her breath as she hobbled around the block about the ‘wretched Russians, those awful Chinese’ from the building behind ours who kept their own drivers waiting outside twenty-four seven, clogging up the street. She would complain noisily to Ashok or the building’s management about Agnes playing the piano, and if we passed her in the corridor she would hurry by, occasionally letting slip a vaguely audible tut.

2. In contrast, in shops everyone talked to you. The assistants followed you around, their heads tilted forward as if to hear you better, always checking to see whether there was any way they could serve you better or whether they could put this in a room for you. I hadn’t had so much attention since Treena and I had been caught shoplifting a Mars Bar from the post office when I was eight and Mrs Barker shadowed us, like an MI5 operative, every time we went in there for Sherbet Dib Dabs for the next three years.

And all New York shop assistants wanted you to have a nice day. Even if you were just buying a carton of orange juice or a newspaper. At first, encouraged by their niceness, I responded, ‘Oh! Well, you have a nice day too!’ and they were always a little taken aback, as if I simply didn’t understand the rules of New York conversation.

As for Ashok, nobody passed the threshold without exchanging a few words with him. But that was business. He knew his job. He was always checking you were okay, that you had everything you needed. ‘You can’t go out in scuffed shoes, Miss Louisa!’ He could pull an umbrella from his sleeve like a magician for the short walk to the kerb, accepting tips with the discreet sleight of hand of a card huckster. He could pull dollars from his cuffs, discreetly thanking the traffic cop who smoothed the way of this grocery driver or that dry-cleaning delivery, and whistle a bright yellow taxi out of thin air with a sound only dogs could hear. He was not just the gatekeeper to our building but its heartbeat, keeping things moving in and out, ensuring that everything went smoothly, a blood supply, around it.

3. New Yorkers – those who didn’t take limos from our apartment building – walked really, really fast, striding along sidewalks and dipping in and out of crowds as if they had those sensors attached that automatically stop you bumping into other people. They held phones, or Styrofoam coffee cups, and before seven a.m. at least half of them would be in workout gear. Every time I slowed I heard a muttered curse in my ear, or felt someone’s bag swing into my back. I stopped wearing my more decorative shoes – the ones that made me totter, my Japanese geisha flip-flops or my seventies stripy platform boots – in favour of sneakers so that I could move with the current instead of being an obstacle that parted the waters. If you had seen me from above, I liked to think you would never have known that I didn’t belong.

During those first weekends I walked too, for hours. I had initially assumed that Nathan and I would hang out together, exploring new places. But he seemed to have built a social circle of blokey men, the kind who really had no interest in female company unless they had sunk several beers first. He spent hours in the gym, and topped each weekend off with a date or two. When I suggested we go to a museum or perhaps to walk the High Line he would smile awkwardly and tell me he already had plans. So I walked alone, down through Midtown to the Meatpacking District, to Greenwich Village, to SoHo, veering off main streets, following whatever looked interesting, my map in my hand, trying to remember which way the traffic went. I saw that Manhattan had distinct districts, from the towering buildings of Midtown to the achingly cool cobbled roads around Crosby Street, where every second person looked like a model or as if they owned an Instagram feed devoted to clean eating. I walked with nowhere particular to go, and nowhere I had to be. I ate salad at a chopped-salad bar, ordering something with cilantro and black beans because I had never eaten either of them. I caught the subway, trying not to look like a tourist as I fathomed how to buy a ticket and identify the legendary crazies, and waited ten minutes for my heart rate to return to normal when I emerged back into daylight. And then I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, as Will had done, and felt my heart lift at the sight of the glinting water below, feeling the rumble of the traffic beneath my feet, hearing once again his voice in my head. Live boldly, Clark.

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