A Life Without You - read a sneak peek

Chapter 1 

Jen

She would hate that it wasn’t a spectacular occasion. Quite an ordinary day really. Not good enough. Not good enough at all.

A Sunday morning in January. Dull outside. The clouds a blanket of foreboding, a grey persuasion that staying inside, under a duvet, was the best course of action.

We didn’t take much convincing.

Dee was on one sofa, wrapped in a blanket, suffering from aching of the bones, I was on the other, nursing a mild hangover. The accomplices to our lazy day were steaming mugs of tea, the remnants of our Christmas stock of Matchmakers, and a movie box set: The Godfather 1, 2 and 3.

My choice.

There were no ailments in the world that could not be cured by a young Al Pacino, even if the volume was a few notches louder than it needed to be, a strategy aimed at drowning out the thumping techno beat coming through the wall from the 24/7 party house next door. The neighbours had only moved in a few weeks before. Judging by the trail of people that went up and down their path, either they were exceptionally sociable, or dealing in products that had a high demand. I just hoped it was Avon, but I had yet to see anyone emerge with a flawless complexion, so I had my doubts.

Dee winced as she adjusted her position. ‘God, my shoulders ache.’

‘No sympathy at all,’ I quipped.

‘You’re a terrible friend,’ she countered, but her words were softened by her grin. Her smile was the first thing that everyone noticed. Julia Roberts wide. A natural spring of happiness that needed no encouragement and always lingered longer than it needed to, as if it just wanted to give a little extra to the recipient’s day. And it was a cliché, but the wild tangle of red hair suited her personality perfectly: unpredictably, fiery, prone to escaping constraints at the first possible opportunity. ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time,’ she groaned.

‘At what time? When you signed up for it? When you put the suit on? Or when you stepped out of a plane at 3000 feet and plummeted to earth, relying on a bit of flimsy fabric to save you from splatting your organs across a turnip field?’

She shook her head. ‘Nope, it was a good idea when we were all at the pub on the Christmas night out and I came up with it after three glasses of wine and a packet of cheesy Wotsits. Besides, it was for charity. That’s a good thing, right?’

That smile again. No-one was immune to it, not even me. It got her into so much trouble and then got her right back out of it again. Always had done. We’d been friends since we were five and met on our first day at Weirbridge primary school, so that was… ouch, my head hurt when I tried to concentrate… around twenty-five years of being rescued from tricky situations by her toothy equivalent of a SWAT team. Although, for the sake of full disclosure, most of those incidents were caused by Dee’s love affair with risk-taking in the first place, and I, the mousy, sensible, well-behaved, good girl was invariably in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The time she shoplifted two caramel wafers from the school tuck shop because we forgot our dinner money. She charmed everyone as she pleaded innocence, while I was caught with a wrapper and got detention. The time she persuaded me to bunk off school and a teacher saw me keeping watch while Dee snogged her boyfriend round the back of ASDA. I got marched to the headmaster while Dee snuck into Home Economics and won a prize for her Bakewell Tart.

Luckily, I don’t bear grudges. I put it down to love, an aversion to confrontation and exceptionally high tolerance levels.

The door opened and my boyfriend, Pete, materialised, clutching a six-pack of Budweiser. He took in the scene in front of him, the two of us, prone, tucked into cocoons.

‘I’ve just had an insight into what it looks like when whales get confused and beach up on the sand,’ he observed.

‘I’d throw something at you but my shoulders are too sore,’ Dee muttered, then turned to me. ‘Did I mention my sore shoulders?’

‘Several times,’ I answered.

Pete was already heading out the door and only the very perceptive would have noticed that his gaze barely met mine. ‘I’m heading over to see Luke,’ he declared, telling us what we already knew. It was a familiar pattern. Dee and I worked together in our shop in the centre of Glasgow from Monday to Saturday, but still, every Sunday, she came to the house I shared with Pete, and we commandeered the TV, while Pete headed over to Dee and Luke’s house to colonize the high-tech tech, optimum sport-watching, obscenely large, flat-screen there. It was the non-sexual, non-kinky version of partner-swapping. 

Dee and Luke had been married for five years, but Pete and I had yet to follow them to the ‘death do us part’ stuff, despite the fact that our relationship had preceded theirs by a decade, the legacy of a lethal fourth year Christmas disco at high school that had served up the perfect storm of contraband wine and mistletoe. Making it official had never been high on our priority list. I’d always thought we were fine just the way we were. And mostly, that was the case. Mostly.

He backed out of the doorway. ‘See you later. I’ll bring dinner home with me, so don’t worry about making anything.’

There was a loaded dig in there. My cooking skills extended to salad and anything that could be put in the oven at 220 degrees for twenty minutes - and that was on a good, non-hangover day. Dee, on the other hand, could look in my fridge, find several food items of questionable origin and age, and whip them up into an appetising meal. It was like some kind of Marvel superpower.

The door banged behind him and there was a pause until my very perceptive friend cracked.

‘Things not any better then.’ It was more of an observation than a question.
I shrugged.

They weren’t.

I took a sip of my tea to deflect the question, but her raised eyebrow of curiosity made it clear Dee wasn’t for moving on.
I capitulated. I’d have made a rubbish spy.

‘He’s just… distant. Preoccupied. I’m sure it’s just a phase. A dip. You know he can be pretty distracted sometimes.’
That much was true. Pete was just like Dee – needed the constant amusement and focus of something going on – whereas Luke and I were perfectly happy to snap open a beverage, chill out and leave them to it. We’d lounged on beach chairs in Bali and watched them surf. We’d sat in a rooftop bar in Vegas and watched them shoot off the roof above us on a roller coaster. We’d stood on the sidelines cheering them on when they crossed the line at a marathon. I saw first-hand why that old cliché of opposites attracting could work out particularly well. If Pete were like me, we’d live life at non-adventurous, turtle speed. If I were like him, we’d probably be up a mountain right now, risking life and limb, getting friction rashes from Lycra.

I much preferred the couch option.

‘Do you want me to talk to him?’ Dee asked, and I could see she was concerned.

‘Nah, it’s fine. He’s adamant that it’s all in my imagination and swears there’s nothing wrong, so maybe I’m just being touchy. He says we should book a holiday. I keep catching him looking longingly at the brochures for the Maldives I brought home from the shop last week.’

Our shop – Sun, Sea, Ski – was a one-stop holiday and travel shop that sold everything from bikinis, to sun cream, to skiwear, to scuba suits, to gizmos that allowed you to take pictures underwater. We also booked hotels and excursions, activity breaks, group adventures and we’d even planned a couple of weddings. We’d opened it right out of college, on a wing and a prayer, and the Gods of Package Tours had delivered. We’d made a million mistakes along the way, but we’d stayed afloat and managed to build up a great base of regulars, and develop healthy online sales. Our partnership worked perfectly. I handled the business side of things and Dee took care of the promotion and marketing, writing a travel blog, trying out the products, going to conventions and establishing links with hotels and entertainment outlets in popular destinations. We’d never be rich but we’d survived this long and were finally making a pretty good living out of it.

‘And you don’t want to go?’ she asked.

I took a bite of my caramel wafer. The shoplifting incident hadn’t put me off them and, besides, it was purely medicinal, with long-recognised hangover-curing properties.

‘It’s not that I don’t want to go…’ I said, in a tone that I realised absolutely suggested that I didn’t want to go. ‘But it’s just… look, it’s expensive. And completely over-the-top ostentatious.’

‘And fabulous,’ she added, not that she needed to. I’d just described the two essential characteristics for any trip Dee ever took.
I wasn’t that person. I was happy at home. Maybe a week in a cottage somewhere up north. Or a fortnight in a villa in the south of Spain if I was really pushing the pedalo out. But a fortnight in the Maldives, even if I put it through the business and claimed back the tax, would be at least ten grand. We’d be home in two weeks and all we’d have to show for it would be fading tan lines and a large hole in the bank account. I didn’t see the point.

‘You have to go!’ Dee exclaimed. ‘It’s a trip of a lifetime.’

The irony almost made me choke on my tea. ‘Wise words, Obi Wan Travel Guru. So tell me, how many “holidays of a lifetime” did you rack up last year?’

It was our standing joke. Dee’s excuse was that she had to try out our products and maintain the authenticity of our travel blog. The reality was that the mere whiff of Piz Buin had a crack-like effect on her, an addiction that could only be satisfied by throwing half a dozen of our top-selling Melissa Odabash bikinis into her Eddie Harrop travel bag and heading to Glasgow airport. Luke went with her when he could, but he had those trifling issues called work, commitments and financial responsibilities. Last year, she did a week in LA, a fortnight touring the Hawaiian islands, three weeks in Australia, five days in Fiji, two Spanish activity trips and long weekends in Monaco, Rome, and Venice. I had a couple of weekends up north and a week driving behind Pete while he cycled across France. And that suited me just fine. 

The conversation was halted with a loud thud from next door. Dear God, what were they doing in there?

Raised voices. More banging.

It was difficult to tell if it was high spirits or a high chance of violence. I should probably have complained to some department or other in the local council about noise pollution, but I’d tried to adopt a ‘live and let live’ policy. And when that was wavering, the earmuffs I’d brought home from a ski weekend in Glencoe last winter solved the problem.

More crashing sounds and raised voices. We lived in a row of four terrace houses; I just hoped poor Mrs Kinross on the other side had her hearing aid turned off.

Dee groaned. ‘Oh, bugger, I’ve left my phone in the car.’

‘Just leave it,’ I told her. ‘It’s Sunday. No one needs you urgently, and if Luke wants you he’ll call my phone.’

‘Can’t help it. I’m a nomophobe. It’s a registered medical condition. I should get special seats on public transport.’

She wasn’t lying about the first bit – nomophobia: ‘an intense, irrational fear of being without your mobile phone.’ It really was a thing and Dee really did have it. Her handset was rarely far from her side, it beeped with irritating frequency, and in the last couple of months I’d noticed her compulsion to check it every few minutes was getting more and more prevalent. I, on the other hand, got approximately one call a week, and it was usually from our cleaner Josie, to say that Dee hadn’t turned up on time when it was her turn to open the shop.

She was already stretching, stiffly, as she got to her feet, pausing as she caught sight of something through the window.
‘Police have just pulled up. Bloody hell, it’s getting like an episode of Blue Bloods around here. Not sure I can take this much real-life excitement at the weekend.’

We both knew she was lying. A SWAT team could charge through my front room and she’d be riveted by the action. Not that it would ever happen. Weirbridge was a small town about fifteen miles from Glasgow, and the odd theft of a Flymo and occasional pub disagreement were about as much as the cops ever had to deal with.

Thankfully, I realised, craning my neck to see outside, there didn’t appear to be any riot shields, just two fairly relaxed cops in high-vis vests, calmly alighting from their vehicle, their eyes on the neighbour’s front door. S’pose it was only a matter of time before someone objected to our quiet little suburban street having the decibel levels of an Ibiza rave.

Curious (or nosy), I went to the window and watched as Dee headed out to retrieve her phone, smiling at the officers as they passed on the parallel paths, knowing the restraint she must be deploying to prevent herself from asking what was going on and getting a vicarious buzz from the action.

A substantial fist battered the neighbour’s door. Nothing. The cops stood back, looked at the windows, returned to the door, banged again.

Dee’s car was parked on the other side of the road, in front of a green used by the local Ronaldos as the Weirbridge equivalent of Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu stadium. Right now there were four boys, somewhere between the ages of eight and ten, using two raised, stone-walled flower beds as one set of goals, and a pile of jumpers and an Irn Bru bottle as the other, so absorbed in the game they hadn’t even noticed the arrival of the cavalry. I recognised all of them. Two brothers from across the road. The boy who came to stay with his dad two doors along at weekends. And Mrs Kinross’s little blond grandson, Archie.
As Dee crossed the road, she fumbled in her pocket for her keys. When she reached her car, she opened her driver’s door and the top half of her body disappeared inside for a few seconds.

Bang. Bang. Bang. The knocks next door were harder now, impatience obvious.

Dee unfurled herself from the inside of the car and stretched up, looking puzzled, her aching bones making her movements very deliberate.

‘Police!’ a voice of authority shouted. More raps on the door.

Dee moved around to the back of her car and opened the boot.

I heard the click of a lock as someone finally answered next door.
Back to Dee. She pulled her backpack from her boot, opened the zip, peered inside.

A flash of black, then yellow in my peripheral vision. It took me a moment. A guy, early twenties, jeans, black hoodie, noted my inner Miss Marple. He bolted down the path, the two officers in pursuit, one of them barking into the black walkie-talkie attached to his vest.

Oblivious, Dee tossed the bag back into the boot of her car, then reached in and pulled out her gym bag, and started rummaging in it.

The guy from next door was about fifty yards down the road now. He came to a dead halt when he reached a customised Corsa that I knew belonged to a frequent visitor to our rambunctious neighbours. I congratulated myself on my observation skills and decided I’d be great in a Crimewatch reconstruction.

As he opened the door, the noise made Dee turn, her expression puzzled. Her eyes widened, the beginnings of a smile playing on her lips. We’d be laughing over the fact that we had a police chase on our doorstep for the rest of the day. Oh, the scandal. Behind her, a couple of the young kids had stopped playing and were now watching the action.

A roar as the souped-up engine of the Corsa started up, just as one of the cops reached its door. His hand grappled for the handle, the Corsa shot forward, out of the parking space, into the middle of the road.

Dee had found her phone now, had it at her ear and I could see her lips moving. She was smiling, no longer watching the high drama, engrossed in the call.

A roar of the engine as the Corsa accelerated, the cops on the road now, giving chase as it came back towards our direction, towards their parked car. I’d give anything to see them doing one of those stunt rolls across the bonnet before climbing in and roaring off in pursuit. 

Over on the other pavement, the noise made Dee turn, still chatting and grinning.

Fast and Furious was about to make a clean getaway, when suddenly, over to my right, another police car appeared, blocking his escape.

The two cops on foot stopped running, confident they had trapped their prey. I watched. Dee watched. The kids behind her watched.
The Corsa would have to stop. Brake. And for a split second, I thought that’s what was happening, but then… It took me a moment to process… In one explosive move, the car shot to the left, towards the green.

The boys realised it was coming, and started to run as it careered in their direction.

Except one.

The littlest one, Archie Kinross, couldn’t keep up with the others, despite the frantic screams of his pals.

Dee saw him too. Now she was running, sprinting towards him. The car roared as it raced from one direction, Dee from the other, a terrified little guy in the middle.

There was a bang as it mounted the kerb, the engine screaming now.

I started running too. Across the lounge, out of the front door, just in time to see Dee reach the little boy, lift him, throw him to one side. Yes! She got him! She saved him! She…

The bang was indescribable.

The aftermath wasn’t. 

Gut-wrenching. Horrific. Brutal. Dee flying high in the air, and then… slow motion.

From somewhere inside me, a primal, desperate scream. I was running towards her, she was still soaring, upwards, her hair fanning out like a red halo around her head. Archie sat on the grass, his eyes wide with disbelief. His fleeing buddies had stopped at the sound of the impact and turned, and now they stood, frozen to the spot, faces contorted in shock and horror.

The car engine grinding as it raced forwards, under her, heading into the distance. Dee was soaring, then she twisted, like a high diver, and began to fall.

Almost there. I could catch her. ‘Deeeeeeeeee!’ It was my voice, telling her I’m on my way. Wait for me. I’ll catch you. I’ll make it, Dee, just…

The thud was barely audible, yet somehow the loudest noise I’d ever heard. She came down, head first, hit the small stone wall that bordered one of the flower beds. Then she was still.

Screams. All mine.

The police officers got there first, but I darted between them, slid to my knees, threw myself on her, shielding her. Too late.
Someone’s voice. Maybe mine.

‘Dee! Oh, God, Dee. Dee!’

The gorgeous, adventurous, wild, hilarious, adrenalin junkie, utterly irrepressible Dee Harper replied with nothing more than a slow, unfathomable trickle of red from the side of her mouth.

On that oh-so ordinary, devastating day, my best friend died in my arms.


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More by Shari Low: THE STORY OF OUR LIFE, THE OTHER WIVES CLUB

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