Alice Peterson Author of If You Were Here

If You Were Here

If your future was decided, how would you live?

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I hear the sound of a motorbike outside. I peep through my shutters to see Flo climbing off James’s ugly bike, the two of them laughing.

She looks happy, positively glowing, which makes my argument for not saying a word tonight, even stronger.

I open my front door, Elvis by my side, wagging his tail at the new arrivals.

‘Flo,’ I say, immediately spotting the dazzling ring on her finger. It would be hard not to.

She rushes into my arms, just as she always used to when she was a little girl. ‘Theo proposed,’ she says.

‘Congratulations, my darling,’ I reply, holding back the tears. ‘Now come inside and tell me all about it, I want to hear everything.’ I nod at James and put on my bravest smile before he waves goodbye.

Over drinks, Flo describes how Theo had taken her to a family-run jewellery shop overlooking Central Park, a room filled with soft pink furnishings and glass cabinets displaying necklaces and earrings that looked too expensive to touch let alone wear.

‘Oh Granny, it was so much fun trying everything on. I felt like Audrey Hepburn for the night. And then he bent down and… ‘ She gestures to her ring that already looks at home on her finger. ‘And said, “Will you be my wife?”’

‘How romantic,’ I sigh, thinking back to how Tim had proposed to me six months after we met. We were eating macaroni cheese – our favourite – watching TV.

‘I think we should get hitched, Peg, don’t you?’ he’d said.

‘I think that would be a grand idea,’ I replied.

‘Granny, that’s not all,’ Flo continues.

‘You’re moving to New York, aren’t you?’ I say, wanting to get it over and done with. Better to rip the plaster off than peel it back slowly.

‘Theo’s been asked to stay on for another year – two at the most. I’d keep in constant touch,’ she reassures me, ‘and I promise you it’s not for ever.’

‘This calls for champagne,’ I propose, needing to turn my face away from hers, afraid I might give away my fear that Flo still doesn’t know the truth about her mother. I walk into the kitchen, feeling unsteady on my pins.

‘To be honest, Granny,’ Flo says, following me, ‘I’ve been thinking about leaving my job for some time now and Theo thinks the culture, the theatre, it could be an amazing chance for me to reconnect with my art.’

‘Yes, that would be good,’ I admit. I have always thought it a waste that Flo never followed her dream.

‘When would you go? I ask.

‘Well, first of all I have to hand in my notice…’ She stops. ‘Granny, I hate the thought of leaving–’

‘Now now, I’ll be perfectly all right. This is exciting news, Flo.’

‘I know, but–’

‘You can’t worry about your old granny.’

‘Theo promised he’d fly you out business class.’

Makes me sound like a parcel.

‘Flo, I couldn’t be happier for you.’

But you’re certain he’s the one?

Flo uncorks the bottle for me.

‘Have you set a date yet?’

‘No, we need to talk about that. I want to get married here, at your local church. This is my home.’

Relieved, I brush a thread of cotton off my skirt. ‘That’s a lovely idea.’

‘I only wish Mum were here too,’ Flo says, as she pours us both a glass.

I wipe a tear from her eye with my thumb. ‘So do I. Now let me look at the ring again.’ I take her hand. I have to admit, it’s quite a statement, and if I’m honest, I’m not sure I like it. ‘Do you love him, Flo?’ I ask, before seeing the colour flush in Flo’s cheeks and wishing I hadn’t.

‘Yes, and I really want you to like him too.’

‘I do,’ I claim, hoping I haven’t given Flo any reason to pick up on my misgivings. The one and only tiff we had was when Theo claimed illness was all in the mind, and that we had the power to heal ourselves through meditation and diet. I’d had one too many vodka and tonics by then, so told him I thought he was talking rubbish. ‘Our lives, our futures are in the hands of the Gods and no amount of chanting and carrot juice is going to change that, young man.’ You should have seen his face! I doubt anyone had spoken to Theo like that before.

But in reality Theo hadn’t meant to be insensitive; he just wasn’t aware of Tim’s Huntington’s Disease, or Beth inheriting the gene. In the grand scheme of things, what he’d said was hardly a crime.

Theo is older; he clearly cares for Flo. Yet I can’t help but feel something is lacking.

‘Is he kind?’ I ask, again registering Flo’s surprise. But I have to ask.

She nods. ‘He’d do anything for me. You don’t need to worry, Granny.’

My face softens. I realise I have pushed her enough. I raise my glass to touch Flo’s. ‘To your future – just don’t come back with an American accent.’

And at long last we laugh.

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