Still Me Page 2

Now he held me at arms’ length, grinning. I straightened my 1970s tiger print dress. I had thought it might make me look like Jackie Kennedy, the Onassis Years. If Jackie Kennedy had spilled half her airline coffee on her lap. ‘It’s so good to see you.’

He swept up my leaden suitcases like they were filled with feathers. ‘C’mon. Let’s get you back to the house. The Prius is in for servicing so Mr G lent me his car. Traffic’s terrible, but you’ll get there in style.’

Mr Gopnik’s car was sleek and black and the size of a bus, and the doors closed with that emphatic, discreet thunk that signalled a six-figure price tag. Nathan shut my cases into the boot and I settled into the passenger seat with a sigh. I checked my phone, answered Mum’s fourteen texts with one that told her simply that I was in the car and would call her tomorrow, then replied to Sam’s, which told me he missed me, with Landed xxx.

‘How’s the fella?’ said Nathan, glancing at me.

‘He’s good, thanks.’ I added a few more xxxxs just to make sure.

‘Wasn’t too sticky about you heading over here?’

I shrugged. ‘He thought I needed to come.’

‘We all did. Just took you a while to find your way, is all.’

I put my phone away, sat back in my seat and gazed out at the unfamiliar names that dotted the highway: Milo’s Tire Shop, Richie’s Gym, the ambulances and U-Haul trucks, the rundown houses with their peeling paint and wonky stoops, the basketball courts, and drivers sipping from oversized plastic cups. Nathan turned on the radio and I listened to someone called Lorenzo talking about a baseball game and felt, briefly, as if I were in some kind of suspended reality.

‘So you’ve got tomorrow to get straight. Anything you want to do? I thought I might let you sleep in, then drag you out to brunch. You should have the full NY diner experience on your first weekend here.’

‘Sounds great.’

‘They won’t be back from the country club till tomorrow evening. There’s been a bit of strife this last week. I’ll fill you in when you’ve had some sleep.’

I stared at him. ‘No secrets, right? This isn’t going to be –’

‘They’re not like the Traynors. It’s just your average dysfunctional multimillionaire family.’

‘Is she nice?’

‘She’s great. She’s … a handful. But she’s great. He is too.’

That was as good a character reference as you were likely to get from Nathan. He lapsed into silence – he never was big on gossip – and I sat in the smooth, air-conditioned Mercedes GLS and fought the waves of sleep that kept threatening to wash over me. I thought about Sam, now fast asleep several thousand miles away in his railway carriage. I thought of Treena and Thom, tucked up in my little flat in London. And then Nathan’s voice cut in. ‘There you go.’

I looked up through gritty eyes and there it was across the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan, shining like a million jagged shards of light, awe-inspiring, glossy, impossibly condensed and beautiful, a sight that was so familiar from television and films that I couldn’t quite accept I was seeing it for real. I shifted upright in my seat, dumbstruck as we sped towards it, the most famous metropolis on the planet.

‘Never gets old, that view, eh? Bit grander than Stortfold.’

I don’t think it had actually hit me until that point. My new home.

‘Hey, Ashok. How’s it going?’ Nathan wheeled my cases through the marble lobby as I stared at the black and white tiles and the brass rails, and tried not to trip, my footsteps echoing in the cavernous space. It was like the entrance to a grand, slightly faded hotel: the lift in burnished brass, the floor carpeted in a red and gold livery, the reception a little darker than was comfortable. It smelt of beeswax and polished shoes and money.

‘I’m good, man. Who’s this?’

‘This is Louisa. She’ll be working for Mrs G.’

The uniformed porter stepped out from behind his desk and held out a hand for me to shake. He had a wide smile and eyes that looked like they had seen everything.

‘Nice to meet you, Ashok.’

‘A Brit! I have a cousin in London. Croy-down. You know Croy-down? You anywhere near there? He’s a big fella, you know what I’m saying?’

‘I don’t really know Croydon,’ I said. And when his face fell: ‘But I’ll keep an eye out for him the next time I’m passing through.’

‘Louisa. Welcome to the Lavery. You need anything, or you want to know anything, you just let me know. I’m here twenty-four seven.’

‘He’s not kidding,’ said Nathan. ‘Sometimes I think he sleeps under that desk.’ He gestured to a service elevator, its doors a dull grey, near the back of the lobby.

‘Three kids under five, man,’ said Ashok. ‘Believe me, being here keeps me sane. Can’t say it does the same for my wife.’ He grinned. ‘Seriously, Miss Louisa. Anything you need, I’m your man.’

‘As in drugs, prostitutes, houses of ill-repute?’ I whispered, as the service lift doors closed around us.

‘No. As in theatre tickets, restaurant tables, best places to get your dry-cleaning,’ Nathan said. ‘This is Fifth Avenue. Jesus. What have you been doing back in London?’

The Gopnik residence comprised seven thousand square feet on the second and third floors of a red-brick Gothic building, a rare duplex in this part of New York, and testament to generations of Gopnik family riches. This, the Lavery, was a scaled-down imitation of the famous Dakota building, Nathan told me, and was one of the oldest co-ops on the Upper East Side. Nobody could buy or sell an apartment here without the approval of a board of residents who were staunchly resistant to change. While the glossy condominiums across the park housed the new money: Russian oligarchs, pop stars, Chinese steel magnates and tech billionaires – with communal restaurants, gyms, childcare and infinity pools, the residents of the Lavery liked things Old School.

These apartments were passed down through generations; their inhabitants learnt to tolerate the 1930s plumbing system, fought lengthy and labyrinthine battles for permission to alter anything more extensive than a light switch, and looked politely the other way as New York changed around them, just as one might ignore a beggar with a cardboard sign.

I barely glimpsed the grandeur of the duplex itself, with its parquet floors, elevated ceilings and floor-length damask curtains, as we headed straight to the staff quarters, which were tucked away at the far end of the second floor, down a long, narrow corridor that led off the kitchen – an anomaly left over from a distant age. The newer or refurbished buildings had no staff quarters: housekeepers and nannies would travel in from Queens or New Jersey on the dawn train and return after dark. But the Gopnik family had owned these tiny rooms since the building was first constructed. They could not be developed or sold, but were tied through deeds to the main residence, and lusted after as storage rooms. It wasn’t hard to see why they might naturally be considered storage.

‘There.’ Nathan opened a door and dropped my bags.

My room measured approximately twelve feet by twelve feet. It housed a double bed, a television, a chest of drawers and a wardrobe. A small armchair, upholstered in beige fabric, sat in the corner, its sagging seat testament to previous exhausted occupants. A small window might have looked south. Or north. Or east. It was hard to tell, as it was approximately six feet from the blank brick rear of a building so tall that I could see the sky only if I pressed my face to the glass and craned my neck.

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