A Banquet of Consequences

By: Elizabeth George

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS





In loving memory of Jesse Vallera: Every moment in his presence was an absolute privilege.





. . . the past is so hard to shift.

It comes with us like a chaperone,

standing between us and the newness

of the present—the new chance.

—JEANETTE WINTERSON, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Sooner or later, we all sit down to a banquet of consequences.

—NANCY HORAN, Under the Wide and Starry Sky





THIRTY-NINE MONTHS BEFORE





8 DECEMBER



SPITALFIELDS

LONDON

Since it was only to be a weekend jaunt to Marrakesh, Lily Foster reckoned they could use one suitcase, and a carry-on at that. What did they need to take, really? It had been deadly cold, grey, and wet in London since the middle of November, but it wasn’t going to be that way in North Africa. They would spend most of their time lounging round the pool, anyway, and when they weren’t doing that, they’d be getting romantic in their room, for which, obviously, they needed no clothes at all.

Packing took less than ten minutes. Sandals, summer trousers, a tee-shirt for William. Sandals, a clingy frock, and a scarf for her. Swimming suits for them both and a few other essentials. That was it. Then began the wait, which—confirmed by a glance at the plastic wall clock ticking away above the cooker—should have been less than thirty minutes. But it stretched instead into more than two hours during which time she texted him and she phoned him as well, only to receive no response. Just his pleasant voice saying “This is Will. Tell me and I’ll tell you back,” to which she said, “Where are you, William? I thought the job was only in Shoreditch. And why’re you still there in this rotten weather? Ring me soon as you get this, okay?”

Lily went to the window. The afternoon was spitting rain outside, the sky dark and angry with erupting clouds. In the best of weather, this particular housing estate was grim: a mixture of filthy brick blocks of flats tossed by the handful across a level plain, which was crisscrossed by cracked and heaving pavements that the residents ignored in favour of trudging across a dying patchwork of lawns. In weather like this, the place looked like a death trap and what was at risk of extermination was hope. They didn’t belong here, and Lily knew it. It was bad for her; it was worse for William. But it was what they could afford for now, and it was where they would remain until she built her business larger than what it was and William had his own on firmer footing.

That part was tricky: William’s business. He regularly argued with his clients, and people didn’t like that when they were paying someone to work for them.

“You do have to take on board what people think,” she kept telling him.

“People,” he countered, “need to stay out of my way. I can’t concentrate when they yammer at me. Why don’t they get that? It’s not like I don’t tell them straightaway.”

Well, yes, right, Lily thought. Telling people was part of the problem. William needed to stop doing that.

Lily frowned down at the street. There was no one on the pavements below, certainly no William with his collar up, making a dash from his car to the narrow tower that contained their building’s lift. Instead there was only a woman on a balcony of the block of flats sitting at an angle to theirs. She was gathering laundry in her arms, her bright yellow sari whipped by the wind. As for the rest of the buildings’ balconies with their lines of dispirited laundry and their children’s toys and their few haggard-looking plants and—always—their satellite dishes, whatever they contained was being left to fend for itself in the weather.

Through the window Lily could dimly hear the unrelenting city noise: the squeal of tyres on wet pavement as a car took a corner too swiftly, the metallic roar of a building site where yet something else was being redeveloped nearby but out of view, the siren of an ambulance on its way to hospital, and, much closer, the thump thunka thump of a too-loud bass underscoring someone’s musical preference.

She texted William again. After two minutes of no response, she rang him as well. She said, “William, you must be getting my texts. Unless . . . Oh damn it, you haven’t got your mobile on silent again, have you? You know I hate it when you do that. And this is important. I don’t like to say but . . . Oh hell, hell, hell. Look. I’ve a surprise planned for our anniversary. I know, I know. You’ll say ten months can’t be an anniversary but you know what I mean, so don’t be difficult. Anyway, this surprise involves our being somewhere at a particular time, so if you’re just not replying because you’re playing silly buggers for some reason, please ring me back.”