To celebrate the start of spring, we’ll be featuring a series of posts all about making a fresh start. This post is an excerpt of THEN AND ALWAYS by Dani Atkins, a novel about getting a second chance at life.
My first life ended at 10:37 P.M. on a rainy December night, on a deserted street beside the old church.
My second life began some thirty- six hours later, when I woke up to the acrid aroma of a hospital ward, with a large head wound and a life about which I had absolutely no recollection. I was surrounded by friends and family, and that should have made it better. But it didn’t, as one of them had been dead for a considerable period of time.
I wanted to write down everything that had happened, to see if by committing it to paper I could make some sense of it all. Or perhaps I just needed to prove to everyone, even myself, that I wasn’t going crazy. For a long time I thought that this story should begin with what happened to me at the church, when my life literally came apart, but now I realize that to understand it all, I have to go back much further than that. For it really all began five years earlier, on the night of the farewell dinner.
Long after the screaming had stopped, when the only sound to be heard was the soft crying of my friends as they waited for the ambulance to arrive, I realized that I was still clutching the lucky penny tightly within my palm.
My fingers refused to unfurl from around the tiny copper talisman, as though by sheer will alone I would somehow be able to wind back time and erase the tragedy around me. Was it really only half an hour earlier that Jimmy had picked up the glinting coin from the restaurant’s tarmacked car park?
“For luck,” he had said with a grin, tossing the coin up in the air and deftly catching it with one hand.
I smiled back and then saw the flicker of irritation flash through his pale blue eyes as Matt quipped, “Jimmy, mate, you should’ve said if you’re a little short of cash, no need to go groveling about on the ground for money!”
Matt had laughed then, and thrown his arm around my shoulder, pulling me close to his side. I thought the darkening expression on Jimmy’s face was a natural reaction to Matt’s unnecessary comment, which highlighted the differences between their backgrounds. And maybe that was part of it. But it wasn’t all of it. There was more . . . though of course I didn’t understand that for a long time.
The three of us were standing in the fading sunlight of a warm September evening, waiting for the rest of our group to arrive. Jimmy had already been in the car park when Matt and I had driven in. Matt had made quite a show of circling the empty spaces, looking for just the right spot to park his new acquisition. I guess he was still in that strange honeymoon phase boys have when they’re really in love with their cars. I just hoped he’d have the good sense not to gloat about it too much in front of the rest of the group.
The new car was shiny, sporty, and expensive. That’s as much as I know about cars. He’d been given it by his parents when the exam results had come out. That alone should tell you enough about Matt’s family to understand why comments about money sometimes hit a raw nerve with the rest of us. For the most part, Matt was fairly considerate and didn’t rub it in too much. But the odd glib remark occasionally slipped under the wire and lit a spark. I hoped he wasn’t going to say anything that would ruin what was probably going to be one of the last nights we would all be spending together for quite a while.
“You’ve been at work today, Jimmy?” I asked, knowing full well that he had but anxious to steer things back onto neutral ground. Jimmy turned and gave me the smile that I swear hadn’t changed at all since he was four years old.
“Yep, this is my last week helping out my uncle; after that I’m happily handing back the wheelbarrow and the pitchfork. The gardening world and I are about to part company.”
“Still, look at the bright side: you’ve got a great tan this summer— you’d not have got that stacking shelves in the supermarket.”
And it was true, Jimmy’s normally fair skin was a soft golden brown, and his forearms were definitely more sinewy and defined from months of outdoor work. Of course, Matt and I were both still sporting fairly decent suntans ourselves from our holiday in France at his parents’ villa. That too had been another congratulatory gift—for both of us.
Actually, my dad had taken issue with us over the trip. Sure, he liked Matt well enough; he was a fairly familiar fixture around our house, and we had been dating for almost two years. But it had still been touch and go whether he’d allow me to go away for a fortnight with Matt’s family. Part of it had been the money thing, because, of course, Matt’s parents had refused to accept any payment for the trip. The other part—the big part— had been the dad/daughter/boyfriend thing. I guess that’s universal with dads, but it seemed even more so in our case, with no mum around to smooth things over. Eventually Matt and I had managed to persuade him, explaining how everything was going to be all aboveboard, how it was strictly separate bedrooms and that we’d be with Matt’s parents the whole time. Basically, we lied.
This chain of thought had made me wonder, and not for the first time, how Dad was going to cope when the time came for me to leave for university at the end of the month. I felt a frown forming and determinedly pushed the thought away. I’d spent most of the summer struggling with that, and I was not going to ruin the last evening with my friends by worrying over things I couldn’t change.
Two cars, both considerably older than Matt’s but no less appreciated by their owners, pulled into the restaurant’s car park. The rear door of the small blue car nearest to us flung open and Sarah ran over in a clatter of improbably high heels.
She tottered alarmingly over the uneven surface before enveloping me in a huge hug.
“Rachel, my lovely, how are you?”
I hugged her back, feeling momentarily choked up as I realized that soon I’d only be seeing her during the uni holidays and not every day. Apart from Jimmy, she was my oldest friend. And however close Jimmy and I were, and had always been, there were still some topics of conversation that were reserved only for your girlfriends.
“Sorry we’re late,” Sarah apologized.
I gave her a wry smile. Sarah was always late. For a girl so naturally pretty, she required an incredible amount of time to get ready to go out, with multiple hair and outfit changes before she could be persuaded to step away from the mirror. And she never seemed satisfied with the final effect, which was ridiculous, because with her heart- shaped face, shiny brown curls, and petite frame, she always looked perfectly lovely.
“Have you been waiting long?” she asked, slipping her arm through mine and pulling me away from Matt across the car park to the restaurant’s entrance. This was most likely to ensure that she made it in one piece across the tarmac with those ridiculously high stilettos, although it could have been to avoid watching Trevor and Phil’s knee- jerk reaction to Cathy as she climbed out of the car beside them.
“Just long enough for Matt to piss Jimmy off,” I replied in a voice low enough for only her to hear. She smiled knowingly.
“Oh, no time at all then!”
By now we had reached the patioed doorway at the rear of the restaurant and stood waiting while the boys (Matt included) tried to pretend that they were not noticing the extremely inviting cleavage displayed by Cathy’s low- cut top. Wearing as well a pair of skintight jeans and high-heeled sandals— which, to Sarah’s chagrin, she appeared to have no difficulty walking in— Cathy looked as though she were off to a photo shoot. Long blond hair fell around her shoulders and everything about her seemed so perfectly put together that I instantly felt as though I’d got dressed in the dark with clothes that’d been thrown out from a charity shop.
Cathy had been a relatively late addition to our circle of friends. Prior to her arrival into our sixth form, our group had been a tight unit of Sarah and me and the four boys. I suppose the boy- girl ratio had been a bit unbalanced, but we’d all been mates for so long that it wasn’t an issue. That said, Cathy’s slow inclusion into our group had been welcomed quite vigorously by most of the boys, for obvious reasons.
And, looks aside, Cathy was good fun to have around. Her family had moved to Great Bishopsford from a much larger town, and she had seemed much more worldly and clued up than the rest of us. Added to that, she was extremely open and friendly and had a wicked sense of humor, and, when she wasn’t flirting outrageously with every male within a five-mile radius, I actually really liked her.
Sarah, though, had her reservations, and on more than one occasion, when Cathy had ruffled her feathers or stepped on her toes, I had heard her mutter darkly, “Last in. First out.”
When Jimmy sauntered across the car park to join us, Sarah stepped to one side and began to peruse the menu displayed inside a glassed- in case by the doorway. The others had walked over to admire Matt’s car, or Cathy’s chest, I thought waspishly, as I watched her bend down low, supposedly to examine the alloy wheels. As if she cared about wheels!
“You look much nicer than her,” Jimmy whispered into my ear, knowing instantly what was on my mind.
“Am I that easy to read?” I asked, smiling back up at him.
He gave me the grin I knew so well, the one that crinkled up the corners of his eyes and lit up his whole face.
“Like a book,” he confirmed, “but a good one.”
“Like a battered old paperback, you mean, rather than a glossy magazine.”
He followed my eyes and my analogy as we looked across to where Cathy was standing with Matt, listening raptly while he extolled something or other about the car.
“You don’t have anything to worry about,” Jimmy reassured me, giving my shoulder a friendly squeeze. “Matt would be crazy to look at her when he’s got you.”
“Hmm,” was all I managed in reply, surprised to feel that the warmth of his words had ignited a small blush. I quickly turned away.
Catching my reflection in the restaurant’s window, I didn’t feel my old friend was being entirely honest. If he was, then he seriously should think about getting his eyes tested. I was certainly never going to elicit the kind of reaction from men that Cathy did. Long dark hair, fashionably poker straight, big eyes that hardly functioned at all without their contact lenses, and lips that were a little too wide. A pleasant enough face, but not stunning, and I was honest enough to know I was never going to stop traffic. And that had never worried me before, but since being with Matt, who was, let’s face it, undeniably gorgeous, I seemed more aware than ever of some of my shortcomings.
“And just remember, to me you’ll always be the freckly-faced girl with the gap in her front teeth, whose ears stuck out.”
“I was ten years old then,” I protested. “Thank God for orthodontia. Do you really have to remember every damn thing about my geeky childhood?”
“I can’t help myself,” Jimmy replied. I would have pursued that strange comment if we hadn’t just then been joined by the others.
“C’mon then,” urged Matt, grabbing my hand and holding it tightly. “Let’s go before they give our table to someone else.”
We walked en masse through the large double doors, arms linked or thrown casually around a neighboring shoulder, never realizing that in the next half hour our lives would be irrevocably changed forever.
We were led directly to our table, which was situated at the very front of the restaurant beside a large plate- glass window, where we had an excellent view of the high street and the church perched high up on the hill. As we wove between the tables to reach our seats, I could see Cathy drawing several appreciative glances from the male diners. Matt too hadn’t gone unnoticed— but in his case by the women. I tried to stifle that small worried voice that had been whispering in my ear for several months.
Matt was a very attractive guy; he naturally drew the attention of other women, it was only to be expected, and while part of me relished the fact that it was my side he was standing by, my hand that he held in his as we slalomed between the closely packed tables, there was an unspoken worry that sooner or later I would have to address: what would happen when he was faced with temptation when we were apart?
Would we be one of the couples who survived the university separation, or would we become victims of the curse of the long-distance relationship?
This line of thinking was interrupted by the softly accented Italian waiter, indicating we had arrived at our reserved table. Tight for space in the crowded restaurant, they had pushed two tables together to accommodate our party, resulting in a rather narrow gap by a concrete pillar. Someone would have to squeeze past it to reach the seat beside the window.
Wishing Sarah had got there first—she was much smaller than me—I nevertheless managed to maneuver through the gap without getting stuck. Matt slid into the chair beside me as the others found their places and sat down. Jimmy took the window seat directly opposite me, with Sarah claiming the chair on his right- hand side. I refused to look at the undignified scrabble of who was sitting by Cathy on the other side of Matt. I guessed pole position was opposite her anyway, with its excellent view down the front of her top. Under cover of the tablecloth, I tugged down on the hem of my own T- shirt, lowering the neckline by an inch or two, then felt myself blushing like an idiot when Jimmy noticed.
“What’s so funny, Jimmy?” Matt asked, and suddenly, by some horrible coincidence, the whole table fell silent to hear his response. I knew my eyes were frantically telegraphing him not to say anything, but I needn’t have worried. Jimmy calmly picked up the menu and gave a casual shrug.
“Nothing, just thinking of something my uncle said earlier, that’s all.”
While everyone else followed Jimmy’s lead and began to study their menus, I looked across and mouthed a silent “thank you.” The smile he gave me back was so full of warm affection and friendship that for some strange reason my stomach flipped erratically. Confused, I broke eye contact and pretended to be deeply interested in the merits of the lasagna versus the cannelloni.
Matt’s arm snaked around my waist, pulling me against him as we chose our meal. When I did look over to Jimmy a few minutes later, he was deep in conversation with Sarah, and although he caught my glance and gave me a small smile, my stomach remained exactly where it should have been.
It was impossible to ignore the nostalgia around the table, and the air of impending separation was almost as apparent as the aroma of tomato and garlic wafting around us. While there were still a few weeks before I left for my place at Brighton, Trevor and Phil were both going to leave after the weekend, and Sarah only a few days later. Somehow I couldn’t really imagine the remains of our group—Cathy, Jimmy, Matt, and myself—all getting together in the remaining weeks.
This sudden reluctance to leave struck me unexpectedly with its intensity. It wasn’t as though I didn’t want to go away to university. Of course I did. I’d certainly worked hard enough to achieve the grades I needed to get on my journalism course. It was just that tonight it was hitting home for the first time that this was really the end of a very important chapter in my life.
Just for the moment I couldn’t focus on the new beginnings, because all I could think of was leaving behind my boyfriend and my two closest friends. Ridiculously, I felt my eyes begin to water, and I hastily looked away, preferring the dazzling glare of the rays of the dwindling sun to the reaction from those around the table if they knew I’d been crying.
“You okay?” asked Jimmy softly, leaning forward so only I could hear his words.
Matt was placing the drinks order, so it was safe to reply.
“Oh, you know, just feeling a little emotional, I guess. Changes coming, saying goodbye to everyone, stuff like that . . .” I trailed off, expecting some sort of ridicule, but instead was surprised when his hand reached across the table and encircled my fingers, which were fiddling restlessly with the cutlery.
His grip felt oddly different; not the familiar clasp I had known since nursery school. Perhaps it was just the rough texture of the skin from his summer gardening, or was it more in the way my hand felt so small, so tightly encompassed in his own?
I felt, rather than saw, Matt’s slow awareness of Jimmy’s gesture, but rather than a hurried retreat, Jimmy gave my hand one last squeeze and took his time before withdrawing his own. In an instinctive response, Matt drew his body closer toward mine, reclaiming both my attention and his territory, and it was only after a moment or two that I became aware that when taking back his hand, Jimmy had managed to transfer the lucky penny he had picked up outside the restaurant from his hand to mine.