The Family Upstairs Page 2

Lucy takes Marco’s plate from him when he is done and puts it on the pavement for the dog. The ice cream comes. It is three flavours in a glass bowl with hot chocolate sauce, crumbled praline and a pink foil palm tree on a cocktail stick.

Lucy’s head throbs again and she eyes the horizon. They need to find shelter and they need to do it soon. She asks for the bill, places her card on the saucer, taps her number into the card reader, her breath held against the knowledge that now there is no money in that account, that there is no money anywhere.

She waits while Stella licks out the glass bowl, then she unties the dog’s lead from the table leg and collects their bags, handing two to Marco, one to Stella.

‘Where are we going?’ asks Marco.

His brown eyes are serious, his gaze is heavy with anxiety.

She sighs. She looks up the street towards Nice’s old town, down the street towards the ocean. She even looks at the dog, as though he might have a good suggestion to make. He looks at her eagerly as though there might be another plate to lick. There’s only one place to go and it’s the last place she wants to be. But she finds a smile.

‘I know,’ she says, ‘let’s go and see Mémé!’

Marco groans. Stella looks uncertain. They both remember how it was last time they stayed with Stella’s grandmother. Samia was once a film star in Algeria. Now she is seventy years old, blind in one eye and living in a scruffy seventh-floor apartment in a tower block in l’Ariane with her disabled adult daughter. Her husband died when she was just fifty-five and her only son, Stella’s father, disappeared three years ago and hasn’t been in touch since. Samia is angry and raw and rightly so. But she has a roof and a floor; she has pillows and running water. She has everything right now that Lucy can’t offer her children.

‘Just for one night,’ she says. ‘Just tonight and then I’ll sort something out for tomorrow. I promise.’

They reach Samia’s estate just as the rain starts to fall, tiny water bombs exploding on to the hot pavement. In the graffiti-daubed lift on the way to the seventh floor, Lucy can smell them: the humid aroma of unwashed clothes, of greasy hair, of trainers that have been worn too long. The dog, with his coat of dense wiry hair, smells particularly horrible.

‘I can’t,’ says Samia at her front door, blocking their entrance. ‘I just can’t. Mazie is sick. The carer needs to sleep here tonight. There is no room. There is just no room.’

A crack of thunder booms overhead. The sky behind them turns brilliant white. Sheets of rain sluice from the sky. Lucy stares at Samia desperately. ‘We have nowhere else to go,’ she says.

‘I know,’ says Samia. ‘I know that. I can take Stella. But you and the boy and the dog, I’m sorry. You’ll have to find somewhere else.’

Lucy feels Stella push against her leg, a shiver of unease run through her small body. ‘I want to stay with you,’ she whispers to Lucy. ‘I don’t want to stay without you.’

Lucy crouches down and takes Stella’s hands. Stella’s eyes are green, like her father’s, her dark hair is streaked hazel-blond, her face tanned dark brown from the long hot summer. She is a beautiful child; people stop Lucy on the street sometimes to tell her so, with a soft gasp.

‘Baby,’ she says. ‘You’ll be dry here. You can have a shower; Mémé will read you a story …’

Samia nods. ‘I’ll read you the one you like,’ she says, ‘about the moon.’

Stella presses herself tighter against Lucy. Lucy feels her patience ebbing. She would give anything to be allowed to sleep in Mémé’s bed, to be read the book about the moon, to shower and slip into clean pyjamas.

‘Just one night, baby. I’ll be here first thing tomorrow to collect you. OK?’

She feels the flutter of Stella’s head nodding against her shoulder, the intake of her breath against tears. ‘OK, Mama,’ says Stella, and Lucy bundles her into Samia’s flat before either of them can change their mind. Then it is just her and Marco and the dog, yoga mats rolled up on their backs, heading into the heavy rain, into the darkening night, with nowhere to go.

For a while they take shelter beneath the flyover. The constant fizz of car tyres over hot wet tarmac is deafening. The rain keeps falling.

Marco has the dog held in his lap, his face pressed against the dog’s back.

He looks up at Lucy. ‘Why is our life so shit?’ he asks.

‘You know why our life is shit,’ she snaps.

‘But why can’t you do something about it?’

‘I’m trying,’ she says.

‘No you’re not. You’re letting us go under.’

‘I am trying,’ she hisses, fixing him with a furious gaze. ‘Every single minute of every single day.’

He looks at her doubtfully. He is too, too clever and knows her too, too well. She sighs. ‘I’ll get my fiddle back tomorrow. I can start making money again.’

‘How are you going to pay for the repairs?’ He narrows his eyes at her.

‘I’ll find a way.’

‘What way?’

‘I don’t know, all right? I don’t know. Something will come up. It always does.’

She turns from her son then and stares into the parallel lines of headlights burning towards her. A huge cannon of thunder explodes overhead, the sky lights up again, the rain becomes, if it is possible, even heavier. She pulls her battered smartphone from the outside pocket of her rucksack, turns it on. She sees that she has 8 per cent battery charge left and is about to switch it off again when she notices her phone has sent her a notification from her calendar. It’s been there for weeks now but she can’t bring herself to cancel it.

It says, simply: The baby is 25.



My name, like my father’s name, is Henry. This duplication was the cause of occasional confusion, but as my mother called my father darling and my sister called him Daddy and pretty much everyone else called him Mr Lamb or sir, we got by.

My father was the sole beneficiary of his own father’s fortune, made from slot machines. I never knew my grandfather, he was very old when my dad was born, but he was from Blackpool and his name was Harry. My father never worked a day in his life, just sat around waiting for Harry to die so that he could be rich in his own right.

He bought our house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea the very same day he got his hands on the money. He’d been house-hunting during Harry’s dying days, had his eye on the place for a few weeks, was terrified that someone else was going to put an offer in on it before he could claim his inheritance.

The house was empty when he bought it and he spent years and thousands filling it with what he used to call objets: moose heads looming off panelled walls, hunting swords hanging crossed above doorways, mahogany thrones with barley twist backs, a medieval-style banqueting table for sixteen, replete with scars and wormholes, cabinets full of pistols and bullwhips, a twenty-foot tapestry, sinister oil portraits of other people’s ancestors, reams of gold-blocked leather-bound books that no one would ever read and a full-size cannon in the front garden. There were no comfortable chairs in our house, no cosy corners. Everything was wood and leather and metal and glass. Everything was hard. Especially my father.

He lifted weights in our basement and drank Guinness from his own private keg in his own private bar. He wore £800 handmade suits from Mayfair that barely accommodated his muscles and his girth. He had hair the colour of old pennies and raw-looking hands with tight red knuckles. He drove a Jaguar. He played golf although he hated it because he wasn’t designed to swing a golf club; he was too solid, too unyielding. He went on shoots at the weekends: disappeared on Saturday morning wearing a tight-fitting tweed jacket with a boot full of guns and came home on Sunday evening with a brace of wood pigeons in an ice box. Once, when I was about five, he brought home an English Bulldog he’d bought from a man on the street using the mint-fresh fifty-pound notes he kept rolled up in his jacket pocket. He said it reminded him of himself. Then it shat on an antique rug and he got rid of it.

My mother was a rare beauty.

Not my words. My father’s.

Your mother is a rare beauty.

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