The Second Cup

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Would your life unravel if someone you knew committed suicide? Theirs did.
.
University was years ago, but Faye’s heart still belongs to her first love from her days as a student. She knows Jack might have moved on, but when she decides to try and track him down nothing prepares her for the news that he’s killed himself.
With the fragility of life staring them in the face, Abbie finds herself questioning her marriage and Faye her friendship with Ethan. And poor Olivia is questioning everything – including why Jack’s death has hit Beth the hardest. Is she about to take her own life too?
The Second Cup is the first novel by London South Bank University postgraduate scholarship holder Sarah Marie Graye.
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Prologue
Today’s the day. I’m going to do this.
That’s what I say to myself over and over in my head as I pull on
my leathers, fasten the straps on my boots and pull on my crash helmet and adjust the chin strap. Actually, I’m mumbling to myself, saying it out loud: “Today’s the day. Today’s the day.” I take a quick look round to make sure there’s nobody around to hear me. Not that it would make much difference. I’m so focused on today I have no space in my thoughts for other people.
     I walk up to my bike. She’s a beauty. I think bikes are female, like ships are. There’s something enslaving about her curves, the way she calls me. I’m addicted to the buzz I get when I ride her. I don’t even need to be going quickly. I like to think she responds to my every move, but I’m also conscious of the sliver of fear I get whenever I twitch the throttle and her engine growls.
     I put the key in the ignition, climb over her, then put my gloves on, taking time to pull my jacket sleeves over the edges. There’s nothing quite like the pain you feel deep in your bones from riding a bike in the cold when you’ve got a draught between your layers. I’ve got a patch of skin on my lower back that I believe has been damaged from my early days of riding when my trousers and jacket didn’t zip together. The nerve endings on a 10in-by-2in stretch of skin have never fully recovered, not even after hour upon hour of hot baths.
     Kicking up the stand, turning the key, pulling in the clutch, putting her in first, I’m a conductor in front of an orchestra playing his favourite piece of music, I know every move. I pull down my visor, my final move before I pull of from the kerb and join the living.
     “Today’s the day.”

Chapter 1. Faye

 

I. Must. Not. Blink.
     I must not blink. If I blink he might not be there when I open my
eyes again. As I stare at his back, he grows in front of my eyes, his shoulders broadening, splitting the seams of his suit. The sounds around me becoming the dull base of dance music in a passing car. Other people merely debris collecting around the doorway to my right and gathering in piles of trash outside restaurants diagonally opposite. I’m not sophisticated enough for this end of town. But the independent boutiques and quaint shabby chic cafes morph into gaudy shops and chain restaurants before my eyes. It’s embarrassingly bland now Jack’s here.
     What does he think about how Manchester has changed? It’s not on his mind right now. He’s listening intently to the man facing him, dressed in an identikit suit to the one he is wearing, who is talking animatedly about something, struggling to gesture with both hands when one of them holds a heavy laptop bag and the other contains a carry-out coffee cup. They look like they’re heading to an important business lunch, their coffees being the fuel to keep them going through three courses of meeting and maybe to help combat the bottle of beer they will have as a nod to the fake freedom these trips out of the office give them. I always thought Jack would end up the sort of person who attended important business lunches. I always worried he would.
     I swallow awkwardly to push down the lump that has formed in my throat. The skin reaching down below the back of my tongue and into my oesophagus is too dry to cope with my desperate gulping. The sides stick together as my throat constricts. It is painful but, like the traffic and the people causing an irritating hubbub around me, I ignore it and stare at his back. My blink creeps up the inside of my eyelids. The whites of my eyes ache and tingle, pricked by a thousand pins no thicker than the hairs of a newborn. I have to blink; I have no choice. I surrender to the fogginess of the inside of my eyelids then wrench my eyes open again. I want to kiss the man Jack is talking to for rooting him to the spot just 30 yards in front of me, for hold him there longer than my blink. There’s a jiggle in my hips – what my mum called my ants-in-my-pants-dance. I could never stand still as a kid.
     Ants. In. My. Pants.
     Fate has brought Jack to me today. I’d cursed when I’d laddered my favourite sparkly green tights. Footless ones so my toes didn’t get pinched by the seams. Ones I could wear with socks. My outfit wouldn’t work then, so I’d had to strip off to my smalls and start again. I’d cursed again – and this time out loud – when Waterstone’s in the Arndale only had a hardback of Everything You Need You Have in stock. I had to traipse over to the branch on Deansgate for the paperback. But now it was all worth it. If it hadn’t been for the large splinter sticking out at the bottom of the bannister, my tights would have escaped ladder-free, allowing my legs to get me into town earlier and maybe in time to buy the last paperback copy of the book in the Arndale. I hadn’t asked when the last one was sold, but it was feasible that it was earlier today – and I hope it was because it made bumping into Jack all the more fragile and all the more delicious. I need ants in my pants now. I’m tense. I relax my jaw and shake out the stiffness consuming my body by jiggling my arms and hopping from foot to foot. I blow out air a few times, filling my aching cheeks. I need to be ready if he turns round.
     If. He. Ever. Turns. Round.
     Not that I’m leaving this up to his actions. I can’t risk Jack and his companion walking the other way. Nope, I’m grasping this with both of my typically paint-splattered hands. I notice a green man flashing to my left. Perfect. I cross Deansgate in a few purposeful strides. I’ve got my fake Ugg boots on. They’re moon boots because they’re so bouncy. I’ve got socks on plus slippersocks inside my boots to keep my feet warm. And I have memory foam insoles that, although they have gone a bit lumpy, still give me that extra lift with each step. They may not take me to Jack by a single click of a red sequined heel, but they’re the fastest footwear I own.
     A few glances down the side of House of Fraser and I’m across to the busy restaurant corner. The human mass outside is a mix of the office crowd, foreign students attempting to experience the tastes of England and bewildered OAPs harking back to how different it was when they popped in for a pre-theatre dinner. The group is good camouflage and I can stare at Jack without causing strangers on the street to stumble away from me in panic. I try to get a good look at his hands. They were one of my favourite parts of him because they were so huge and would consume my dainty ones in one gulp. He always claimed to love my hands too, but it’s a compliment I found hard to believe at the time.
*
It was coming up to the end of the first term and it seemed like Jack was holding Faye’s hand at every available moment to make up for the time when he wouldn’t be able to over the Christmas break. Although Jack’s home in Preston wasn’t that far away, Jack and Faye were still too young to consider visits to each other’s parents. It would be another 18 months before Faye graced the front step of Jack’s parents’ house – at Faye’s insistence – and it would be her one and only visit there.
     Faye hands were always a mess of overly dried and paint-streaked skin, her nails always a rainbow of the flecks of paint that worked their way underneath her nails, and sometimes within the splitting layers, refusing to be budged by the spinning hook on the inside of her set of nail clippers no matter how much she scraped. Her dry, cracked skin got worse as her course continued, no matter how much Nivea she slapped on. Her final year work was in acrylics and she loved using rich blacks and deep, oppressive blues. Limiting her colour palette had positive financial implications too. Her work contained sweeping arcs that were reminiscent of Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers, but less overly sexual and more aggressive. That’s what Faye liked to think anyway, although for her tutors there was an edge or an understanding missing from her work that couldn’t be learned – that she needed to go out and live life and experience sorrow before she could transfer it successfully into canvas. One of them even yearned for a life where only mature students studied fine art so that those inexperienced in the ways of the world were forced to go out and live in it first. Another believed Faye shouldn’t just be reading books about the artists that influenced her work, but heading to places such as Santa Fe – where O’Keeffe’s museum was and where she spent much of her life working – and to walk down the streets they walked and to experience life from a range of different angles.
     Jack loved holding Faye’s hand. It wasn’t really an issue of ownership, more of showing her off as a prize, as if he’d been the only one clever enough to leave the confines of Manchester University and venture into the creative belly of Manchester Metropolitan University to seek out an unusual beauty of translucent skin and burnt curls, of a figurine who could have stepped out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting herself. Why she could almost be Jane Morris – the artists’ muse and model and encapsulater of all things Pre-Raphaelite. Except Faye was born 140 years later, and her narrower jaw, wider eyes, thinner lips and altogether more “feminine” face of modern day tastes were never captured by Dante Rossetti’s sleight of hand and manipulation of brush.
What Jack usually left out of the telling of this story is that they met at a walk-in centre, being typical students who had not only listened to their parents when they were told to register with a GP as soon as they arrived, but who’d also ended up ill in Freshers’ week. It had been an usually hot and muggy week for late September, especially in Manchester. The main job of the doctors was looking out for cases of meningitis and handing out the usual doses of antibiotics needed to keep glandular fever at bay. That particular year, their job also included handing inhalers out like sweeties to anyone who might have smog- induced asthma. Jack and Faye had queued for matching drugs in the pharmacy afterwards, while he joked his she had caused his breathlessness.
     Since leaving university, Faye had lived to understand what her tutors meant. She had felt the pain, loss and anger they thought she needed to feel to grow as an artist. Although her newer work contained far less black paint, it was very much darker, harder and colder – far bleaker than anything she could have imagined herself producing within the walls of university and the constraints of a degree.
     Faye had lost her life when she lost Jack. He stopped holding her tiny, fragile hands in his own boulderous ones; he turned and walked away. She was made of glass and each of his footsteps vibrated through the paving stones heading southwards, they reverberated through her, fracturing her life, her body, her soul into too many tiny slithers of amorphous solid. No matter how many pieces of herself she picked up and glued back together, there were always more pieces to be found. And after seven years of hunting, Faye had stopped looking, deciding to live with the cracks hidden under her clothes in an attempt to get on with her life. It was a decent attempt too, because while she didn’t think of him, she was able to construct a new version of herself where she stopped seeing the spiders’ web of fissures that crawled across her body. She filled the gaps in her life with reading and meditation and with yoga. She eventually reached the stage where she could speak his name and although her heart would pound, it wouldn’t pulse out of her chest, splintering her fragile frame once again.
     She became able to think of him in abstract terms and talk about the life they’d lived together as undergraduates, telling the story up until the point where he left, just after she attended his graduation ceremony with his parents, fighting for one of the few extra tickets, brushing over the fact that he didn’t attend hers, even though her mum needed only one of the two tickets automatically issued to her. The tiny chinks in their relationship had already begun to appear by the time Jack upped sticks and moved to London without her, it’s just that Faye hadn’t been able to see them or made excuses for them, until afterwards, when she was looking back. Then she saw all of them, magnified in their new significance and she started to doubt the very core, the very foundations their relationship had been built on. Mostly though, she just had unanswered questions.
     She longed to see him, to talk to him. But she couldn’t. Ethan kept her grounded and attempted to keep her sane but he also kept her stuck for long enough that she lost her chance to follow Jack. It was the time before Facebook and Jack was able to easily slip between the layers of life in capital and become one of the ghosts locked up in the Tower of London.
But as she painted, she grew stronger and with each stroke she started to heal herself. The canvas became her therapy and she became more complete with each composition. Faye stopped needing Jack. She moved on.
*
I catch a glimpse of one of his hands. They’re not as big as I remember, but then I’m not as birdlike, so all things are relative. I stare down at my own hands. They are aching. My fingers, my arms, my chest and down into my boots I ache for the person I got over years ago. I’m hit with a sudden and severe case of dystonia, my whole frame seizing up. Every muscle stiffens and cramps, every ligament tightens, every tendon contracts.
     Pulled by my marionette my strings, my limbs jerk as I weave in and out of oncoming pedestrians. I reach the next layer of human coverage outside another neon and plastic eatery. Here I’m also hidden by a collection of buses at the bus stop too, their engines trundling like the curmudgeonly musings of impatient old men too arthritic to get moving, but who take great pleasure in their grumblings.
     I use this cover to cross back over. Jack and his companion are now ahead of me once again, but this time I have Jack facing me, half hidden behind the boulder of shoulder of the man mountain he’s talking to. His coffee cup is from Subway. I want to run up and smash the textured paper cup out of his hand. As much I don’t want Jack to be a city boy, I would rather that than a failed attempt. Why not a rich cup of illy? But he does have his back to Patisserie Valerie. Maybe it is his companion who doesn’t want to spend money on coffee, who doesn’t see it as an everyday luxury to treat oneself to.
     Beth refuses not to fall in love with coffee. She is obedient to all that is old-fashioned tea with milk. I long for her to be with me right now so we can face this together. I could lean on her confidence and her conversational skills. “Jack,” she could say, “long time no see” she could say, even though she’s never met him. But he would recognise her and give her a hug and then she would refer to me. “Remember Faye?” she would ask, with enough of a question in her voice to not sound arrogant that of course he would. But it would be obvious that he did from the shyness in his smile and the way he would glance down at the space between our feet.
     I look from his coffee cup to his face.
     He. Has. A. Mono. Brow.
     His eyes are too close together and between them a smattering of
rebellious hairs that have crossed over the bridge of his nose. A nose that surely should be more bulbous? His broad chin and slight ears are the right shape, but his top lip is too thin and disappears all at once too soon to meet the edge of his bottom one. Someone has rearranged all his features. He no longer looks like himself. I have to find out what has happened to him.
     “Jack?”
     He looks up at me, straight at me, in fact. He knows his name. His companion turns to look too.
     “Hello?”
     It is his companion who answers for him. Why doesn’t Jack speak for himself?
     “Do I know you?”
     His companion speaks again.
     “Jack, do you know this woman?” Jack asks his companion, calling
him Jack, which is rather strange. The companion shakes his head a little, attempting to answer “no” to Jack without offending me.
     “It’s not you I know,” I tell the companion, “It’s Jack” I say, nodding in the direction of Jack.
Jack stares back at me, his face becoming even less familiar as it is flooded with a mix of bemusement and confusion.
     “I’m not Jack.”
     I look hard at him, blinking. And I blink again. Now I can’t blink enough. The windscreen wipers of my eyelids wash away the blurriness and help me to see clearly. But the swimming features in front of me won’t form into the face I remember.
     “I’m not Jack,” he says again, this time softer, as if recognising the absolute importance to me that he is.
     But. He. Isn’t.
     Warmth vomit rises in my throat, flooding my once-dry skin with too much wetness. I have to get away from them before the contents of my throat works its way into my mouth and through the hairline cracks between my clamped lips and over onto the paving stones and their shined leather shoes. I stumble away from them, raising a palm to them to tell them that I’m okay, that it’s a case of mistaken identity, that it’s not their fault that the wrong one of them is called Jack, that I’m fine dealing with this news just fine on my own. As I walk backwards, I receive an aggressive shoulder barge from someone who thinks I should have turned round before trying to make my escape. The bang jolts the vomit into my mouth and I turn and throw my face forwards, sending the warm greeny-yellow liquid down the concrete blocks that separate Subway from its neighbour.      I stare at the sick in shock, realising I can identify the worms of noodles I had for lunch.
     There. Are. No. Carrots.
     Suddenly this NOT-Jack person has his arms round my shoulders and is leading me along and into St Anne’s Square and over to a bench where he can sit me down. He sits down next to me, his arm limp around my shoulders, unsure of what to do next; whether to keep a firm grip on my shoulders, or to rub my back, or to sit there in silence, or maybe get up and leave. He chooses silence. So we sit there in silence together, the real-but-not-the-right-Jack standing watching from just a few feet away.
     This. Is. Not. What. I. Laddered. My. Tights. For.

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Sarah Marie Graye

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