From the author who brought you Dear Thing, Julie Cohen, comes After the Falla poignant, beautifully heartbreaking novel about what it means to be family, the ties that bind us, and the secrets that threaten to tear us apart.
When an unfortunate accident forces Honor back into the lives of her widowed daughter-in-law, Jo, and her only granddaughter, Lydia, she cannot wait to be well enough to get back to her own home. However, the longer she stays with Jo and Lydia, the more they start to feel like a real family. But each of the three women is keeping secrets from the others that threaten to destroy the lives they’ve come to know.
Honor’s secret threatens to rob her of the independence she’s guarded ferociously for eighty years.
Jo’s secret could destroy the “normal” family life she’s fought so hard to build and maintain.
Lydia’s secret could bring her loveor the loss of everything that matters most to her.
One summer’s day, grandmother, mother and daughter’s secrets will be forced out in the open in a single dramatic moment that leaves them all asking: is there such a thing as second chances?
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
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After The Fall
By Julie Cohen
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Julie Cohen
All rights reserved.
The last stage of Honor Levinson's life began at the top of the stairs in her home in North London.
The windows had been cleaned two days before by the young man who came every spring with his bucket and ladder. The sun shone through the glass, warming a stripe of carpet and wall, stroking against Honor's cheek as she passed through it on the way to the stairs, carrying a basket of laundry to be washed.
She was thinking of the laundry she used to have to do: the weight of PE kits and trousers caked with mud at the knees. School uniforms and gardening clothes, shirts that needed ironing, knickers and pants and handkerchiefs. So many loads every week, one after the other, unrelenting, just for one child and one woman. Sometimes it had felt as if her home were festooned with dripping clothes. She had to negotiate a jungle of drying socks and tights just to get into the bath. For something that took up so much time and effort, washing clothes was underrepresented in literature.
This afternoon her basket contained two blouses, a vest, a skirt, and three pairs of knickers. None of them dirty, really; what did she do to make her clothes dirty these days? Those days of sweat and soil and spills were over. Now her basket was light, as light as the sunshine in the side of her vision.
Honor balanced the basket on her hip and put her hand on the banister. The wood was warm, too, from the sun. Downstairs on the ground floor, the phone rang. She stepped forward to go down the first stair and she missed it.
The shock wasn't that she was falling. It was that she had missed the step, that her body had forgotten the language of the house, how to do this thing she had done every day for most of the years of her life. Honor put out her hands to stop herself but the banister slipped from her grip and she hit the riser hard with her hip and kept falling, slithering down the wooden stairs on her back.
'Stephen!' she cried to the empty air.
No pain, not yet, just thuds as she slid down the rest of the stairs, with no one to catch her. The back of her head bounced off a step and she saw stars. They were clearer than anything she had seen in a long time.
She knew this feeling, as if she had played this out in her mind many times before. The last moment, familiar as a child or a lover.
She came to rest at the bottom, splayed on the floor. The phone rang for the second time. Two rings, Honor thought. It all happened in the space between two rings of the telephone.
Now she felt it, or some of it: the back of her head, her hip, her back, her bottom, her elbows – impact rather than pain. Her head was resting on the last step. She lay in another pool of sunlight and dazzle. But she was alive. When she called out, she had been certain she wouldn't survive.
Honor touched the back of her head. It was warm and wet, and her hand, when she saw it, was shaking and covered with blood.
Seeing it, the pain came.
'Stephen,' she said again and her voice came from someone else, someone old and weak.
Honor sat up, ignoring the screaming from her back and hip, the pounding in her head. She sucked in a breath and, holding on to the banister, tried to pull herself up.
She immediately fell back down, squealing aloud with pain from her hip.
The phone rang for a third time, or perhaps it was the fourth. Broken hip, old woman living alone, what a cliché she was. All these years of struggling, and she was a cliché. Carefully, gasping, Honor turned herself so she was lying on her left side, the side where her hip wasn't broken. Using her arms and her left foot, pushing herself across the wooden floor, she crawled towards the phone.
There was a telephone on each storey of her house: one in her bedroom, one in the kitchen in the basement, and one here on the ground floor, in the living room. Her mobile was upstairs in her bedroom. Honor crawled through the doorway, slipping on her wet hands, her weak foot, to the Persian rug. She rested for a moment there, the wool scratchy against her cheek. Blood dripped from the back of her head, down her face. Cold water to wash that out, she thought, and the phone rang again, for the sixth time? Tenth?
It had been ringing for as long as she could remember and she still had a metre to crawl.
She drew in a deep breath tasting of dust and wool, and pushed herself forward once again. It was more difficult across the carpet. As soon as she was better she was going to put this carpet in the nearest skip, bloodstain and all.
The phone was on a low table by the sofa. She wriggled the last few inches, using her shoulder to propel herself forward. Honor hooked her arm around the table leg, pulled as hard as she could and the table toppled over. Thank God for flimsy furniture.
Luckily the phone landed beside her, the receiver off its cradle. She snatched for it with her good hand. 'Hello?' she said. 'Hello, I need help.'
A pause. Her hair had come loose and was hanging in her face, dark with blood. She could feel sweat on her upper lip. It had been some time since she had last sweated.
'Yes, madam,' said a voice on the line at last, heavily accented. 'Good day, this is Edward from Computer Access Services. I am calling about trouble with your Windows computer?'
'Piss off,' she told him clearly, and pushed the button to hang up the phone. She dialled 999. 'I require an ambulance,' she told the operator, and waited the million hours until she was put through.
'Ambulance service, what's the nature and location of the emergency, please?'
'I've fallen down the stairs and I have broken my hip and I am bleeding from my head.' She gave the calm-sounding woman her address.
'All right, ma'am, I've alerted the dispatcher, and I'm going to stay on the line now and try to help you while you're waiting. You say you've hit your head and broken your hip? Are you having any difficulty breathing?'
'That's about the only thing I'm not having difficulty doing.'
'Don't patronize me, I'm old enough to be your grandmother. My name is Honor.'
'Yes, Honor,' said the dispatcher, a hint of humour in her voice. 'If you don't mind me saying, your telling me off is a good sign. Is there anyone with you?'
'Is your head still bleeding?'
'OK, Honor, is there anything you can use to press against it and stop the bleeding?'
She groped upward. A cushion, squashed nearly flat from use, lay near the edge of the sofa. Honor pulled it off. She pressed the cushion against the back of her head, gritting her teeth at the stab of pain. She held the phone to her ear with her other hand. It was slippery with blood.
'I've done it,' she said to the woman on the other end of the line.
'That's good to hear.' She sounded young and chirpy. Like Jo. Honor closed her eyes and pictured wavy hair, a pink-lipped smile.
'Honor? Are you still with us?'
She shook her head, trying to clear it. Still with us, another cliché, trying to make this whole incident sound inclusive, when she was more alone than she had ever been before.
'I can't walk to the door to let the paramedics in but there is a key under the blue plant pot holding a geranium.' There was a buzz in her ears; blackness grew from the centre of her world. 'I'm going to pass out now, so I hope they come quickly.'
* * *
She is at the top of the stairs, noise from the party swelling around her. She leans on the banister and sees the top of a man's head below her. He has dark hair, glossy and thick, and is wearing a brown tweed suit. He is taller than the people standing around him. He holds a drink in one hand, whisky, and the other one is resting on the newel post of the banister, on the round ball that crowns it. His hand is slender; even from here she can see the nails are clean, cut short. He wears a watch with a thick black leather strap.
Every detail so clear. Sharp.
'What's his name?' she asks Cissy, standing next to her.
'What, you haven't met him yet? That's Paul.' Cissy turns to someone else, and Honor keeps on looking.
There are people around him but he is alone. Somewhere, someone laughs loudly and instead of looking for the source he turns his head and looks up, straight into Honor's eyes.
For the first time, she feels as if she is falling.
* * *
'Hello, love? Can you hear me?'
Honor opened her eyes, tilted her head. A blur above her, two blurs, wearing green and yellow. 'Paul?'
'No, my name's Derek, this is Sanjay, and we're paramedics. Can you squeeze my hand for me? Fell down the stairs, did we?'
'I fell down the stairs. I don't know about you.' Her mouth was dry. How much blood, how much time? One of the paramedics was messing about with her head, with any luck stopping the bleeding. She heard the rip of packets opening, the rustle of bandages. She tried to struggle up, get some of her dignity back. She'd called him Paul. How embarrassing.
'What's your name, love?'
'Can you tell me what day it is, Mrs Levinson?'
'Tuesday the eleventh of April. You shall have to ask me something more difficult than that.' Her voice was raspy and hard.
'I'll get these questions out of the way and then I'll start with the Pointless questions, shall I? Are you taking any medication?' 'I'm eighty years old, of course I'm taking medication. It's in the bathroom cabinet.'
'Blood pressure eighty over fifty, Sanjay. Are you feeling dizzy, Mrs Levinson?'
'Are you alone here?'
'Do you think I would have left my underwear on the stairs, otherwise?' She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth as the paramedics shifted her, placed a restraint on her head to stabilize it.
'She must have pulled herself all the way from the bottom of the stairs to the phone,' said one of the medics. 'Pretty impressive.'
'Morphine,' she gasped.
'Don't worry, we've got gas and air in the ambulance and we'll have you to hospital in a tick. Do you have anyone you'd like us to ring for you, Mrs Levinson?'
'Doctor. Doctor Levinson.'
'Is that your husband?'
'No, it bloody is not. It's me. I don't have anyone to call.'
They lifted her, more delicately than she could have thought possible, onto the stretcher and out through the door where the ambulance was waiting. Honor kept her eyes closed, unwilling to see the pedestrians who would be pausing to gape at the helpless old lady carried out of her home, frail as a bundle of twigs. Once she'd known all these people, everyone in the houses all around. The outside air cooled the tears on her cheeks.
'No one,' she whispered as they slid her safely into the back of the ambulance, and she repeated their names in her head like a song, the names of no one.
Paul, and Stephen. Stephen, and Paul.CHAPTER 2
'Hey, man, wait for me!' The teenager pushed past Jo, who was pressing all her weight down on the back of the pushchair so the front of it would lift up onto the bus. He flashed his pass and was up the stairs, yelling to his mates, before she could say anything.
'He was in a hurry,' Jo said to Oscar, sucking his thumb beside her. Iris yelled out 'No!' and threw her beaker out of the pushchair. It landed in the space between the bus and the kerb, and rolled out of sight.
'Oh God. Sorry. Hold on to the pushchair, Oscar. Step up. That's right. Stay there.' She shoved the pushchair up into the bus and dropped to her hands and knees outside. The person behind her in the queue tutted. 'I'll just be a minute!' she called cheerfully, reaching under the bus. The beaker had rolled almost all the way to the front wheel. She retrieved it and stood up, red-faced, her hair escaping from its clip, just another forty-year-old mother getting in everyone's way.
'Mummy, the bus is going to go without you!' Oscar's forehead was wrinkled, his eyes panicked, ready to cry.
'No, no, sweetie, it's fine.' Jo scrambled up into the bus, bumping against the shopping bags hanging from the handles of her pushchair. She wiped dirt from the beaker with her skirt and gave it to Iris. 'Hold on to that now, darling. Sorry,' she said to the bus driver, and the people behind her, and everyone. 'My purse is ...'
It was on the pushchair, wedged into the folded canopy. She found it and unzipped the top. 'Sorry, I've only got a five-pound note.'
'No change,' said the bus driver. Jo looked back at the other people behind her in the queue. Some gazed back blankly; some averted their eyes.
'OK,' she said. 'Just take it. It's still less expensive than paying for parking.' She pushed it under the glass barrier with a self-conscious laugh.
'Can we sit upstairs, Mummy? In the front seat?' Oscar pulled at her jacket.
'Not with the pushchair, sweetheart. Go ahead and find a seat, I'll park Iris.'
There was only one seat, near the back. Oscar scampered to it while Jo manoeuvred the pushchair to the space near the front. Thankfully, there were no other pushchairs this time. A woman in an overcoat buttoned up to her neck was in the fold-out priority seat and she gave Jo's loaded pushchair a dirty look.
'Sorry,' said Jo. 'We've done rather a lot of shopping.' She glanced from Iris, strapped in, to Oscar in the back, alone.
'Mummy!' he yelled.
'You forgot your ticket!' called the bus driver.
Jo went back for it. As she took it, her phone rang in her pocket. She shoved the ticket in her pocket along with her ringing phone and returned to Iris. The little girl grinned, holding out her hands to her mother. Chocolate stained all round her mouth, even though Jo had wiped it with a napkin after they'd been to the café. It always came back. How?
'I'll just get you out, sweetheart,' she said, smiling down at her daughter, and the bus pulled away with a lurch. She caught herself on the post and heard Oscar calling for her, the beginning of panic in his voice.
'Oscie,' Iris told her.
'Just a minute.' She unbuckled Iris, the little girl's sticky hands going round her neck, into her hair, sweet breath on her cheek. The pushchair, without the weight of Iris to keep it steady, tipped backwards under the weight of the shopping. Jo righted it with one arm, the other around her daughter. The woman in the priority seat sighed.
Have you forgotten what it's like to have children, you old bat? Jo thought, but instead she smiled and said, 'Sorry,' and carried Iris up the aisle to where her brother was sitting. She passed another group of teenagers in their school uniforms, earphones in, talking loudly to each other, long legs sprawled over seats they had no intention of giving up. In her pocket, her phone stopped ringing. She picked up Oscar with her other arm, settled both children on her lap, though Oscar was hanging half off, trying to peer out of the window past the man sitting next to him.
The pushchair fell over again. The woman gave it an even filthier look, and moved her handbag conspicuously six inches to the right.
I will tell this story to Sara tomorrow, Jo thought, and we'll laugh.
'Mummy.' Oscar squirmed on her. 'I'm hungry.'
'It's not far now, sweetheart. And you just had a muffin at the café.'
'I'm really hungry.'
Jo snaked her arm round so she could reach into her other pocket, the one with her keys instead of her phone, and found a small plastic container. 'Cheerios,' she said, producing it, grateful that there was something in it other than a used wet-wipe. She packed these small pots every morning, hiding them in various places, to be apparated like a bunny in a magician's hat at vital moments when distraction was needed. Sometimes she forgot. Sometimes she found pots she'd left there days before.
'No!' said Iris, and filled her chubby hand with the cereal. Little Os dropped onto Jo's lap, onto the seat and the floor. The man sitting next to the window stared straight ahead.
'Save some for your brother,' Jo said.
'I don't like Cheerios. What does this button do?' Oscar pressed the big red button on the post in front of him. It dinged. Delighted, he pressed it again.
'Ten minutes till we get home!' said Jo, though it would be more like twenty until they passed out of the cramped streets of Brickham town centre and into the broader leafy suburb. And then a walk through the park and down the street before they reached their house. Under her jacket, her armpits were damp, and her hair was bound to be a mess. 'Not far now! Do you want to sing a song?'
'The wheels on the bus,' sang Iris through wet Cheerios.
'If you don't stop that bloody kid pressing that bloody button I'm going to stop this bloody bus right now!' The driver's voice came via a microphone and blared through the bus. The teenagers laughed.
'Sorry,' said Jo, her words lost, catching Oscar's hand and holding it. He struggled to free himself. 'You can't press the button, Oscar, the man asked you not to.'
'That man is rude,' said Oscar.
'Oscar loves riding on the bus,' Jo said to the man sitting next to them. 'And he loves pressing buttons. Any button at all. He keeps on changing the television settings. I'm hoping he's going to be a computer programmer or an engineer.'
The man grunted and continued to look out of the window. They passed by the end of Jo's old street, the one she'd used to live in with Stephen and Lydia. If she craned her head, she could see the brick front of their old house. And then up the hill, down the road, trundling into the suburbs, stopping to let more people on and off with a hiss and a sigh.
Excerpted from After The Fall by Julie Cohen. Copyright © 2016 Julie Cohen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One: Honor,
Chapter Two: Jo,
Chapter Three: Lydia,
Chapter Four: Jo,
Chapter Five: Lydia,
Chapter Six: Jo,
Chapter Seven: Lydia,
Chapter Eight: Honor,
Chapter Nine: Lydia,
Chapter Ten: Jo,
Chapter Eleven: Lydia,
Chapter Twelve: Jo,
Chapter Thirteen: Honor,
Chapter Fourteen: Lydia,
Chapter Fifteen: Jo,
Chapter Sixteen: Honor,
Chapter Seventeen: Jo,
Chapter Eighteen: Lydia,
Chapter Nineteen: Honor,
Chapter Twenty: Jo,
Chapter Twenty-One: Lydia,
Chapter Twenty-Two: Honor,
Chapter Twenty-Three: Jo,
Chapter Twenty-Four: Lydia,
Chapter Twenty-Five: Honor,
Chapter Twenty-Six: Jo,
Chapter Twenty-Seven: Lydia,
Chapter Twenty-Eight: Honor,
Chapter Twenty-Nine: Lydia,
Chapter Thirty: Jo,
Chapter Thirty-One: Honor,
Chapter Thirty-Two: Lydia,
Chapter Thirty-Three: Jo,
Chapter Thirty-Four: Lydia,
Chapter Thirty-Five: Lydia,
Chapter Thirty-Six: Jo,
Chapter Thirty-Seven: Lydia,
Chapter Thirty-Eight: Honor,
Chapter Thirty-Nine: Jo,
Chapter Forty: Lydia,
Chapter Forty-One: Lydia,
Chapter Forty-Two: Honor,
Chapter Forty-Three: Jo,
Chapter Forty-Four: Lydia,
Chapter Forty-Five: Jo,
Chapter Forty-Six: Lydia,
Chapter Forty-Seven: Lydia,
Also by Julie Cohen,
About the Author,