The old lady returned her attention to Nell and almost caught her rolling her eyes. ‘You have family?’
‘I have a sister and a brother, both older and both married with children.’
‘You live alone?’
‘I live with my dad,’ she said without thinking. Then she remembered and muttered, ‘So stupid, I keep forgetting. I lived with Dad.’
‘Your father died?’
Luiz, noticing for the first time the violet smudges beneath her big eyes, felt an unidentifiable emotion break loose inside him as she pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes and scrubbed them like a child before responding to his grandmother’s question.
‘Eight weeks ago.’ Beside her she was conscious of Luiz stiffening.
‘Eight weeks,’ she repeated in a softer, almost surprised voice. Weeks that had been filled with practicalities; there had been no time for grieving.
Lots of practicalities, she mused, thinking of the pile of packing cases she had left when she had jumped on the first flight available. The removals people would be arriving in the morning and there would be no one to let them in.
And Clare, who was arriving to collect the more valuable pieces of furniture that she had claimed for her own home, was going to be annoyed. Nell was conscious that the idea of her sister’s anger and the removal people standing on the doorstep ought to bother her more, but it didn’t.
‘The house was only on the market a week when it sold.’ You are telling them this why, Nell? ‘It would have been too big for me anyway.’
Clare and Paul had both said it was fine by them if she stayed on for a while, but she knew they had both been pleased when she had put the property straight on the market. They would both find the money from the sale useful. And as they had said, she could find a nice little place of her own.
‘Your father, he had been ill for a long time, Nell?’ There was a gentler note than she had yet heard in the old lady’s voice.
Nell nodded tiredly and registered Luiz say something that sounded angry in Spanish. His grandmother responded, saying, ‘Can’t you see she needs to talk? The little one has been bottling up her emotions.’
‘He had a stroke. It left him partially paralyzed down his left side…’ Nell sketched an explanatory sweeping motion down her side. ‘He had some mobility problems so I didn’t go to university.’
If she had taken her university place and not stayed on the option would have been a nursing home or sheltered accommodation and Nell knew how much her dad loved his home. And with a few modifications to the house he had become reasonably independent, to the point that before his death he had been pushing for Nell to go to college as a mature student.
‘But he was doing really well. That’s why it was such a shock when he…’ Her voice trailed away as she swallowed past the lump in her throat. ‘It was pneumonia.’
Nell heard her voice crack and thought, Please, no, not now, not here. Her grief lay lodged like an icy block in her chest. When it melted she knew there would be a lot of moisture and a lot of pain—but not now.
Luiz, watching as she forced her stiff features into a composed smile, felt her grief as a physical pain in his chest.
‘I told him that it was my choice to stay at home. I wanted to be there with him. There was no need for him to feel guilty about university, but…’
Nell didn’t connect herself with the strangled whimper. The second sob she felt as it worked its way up from deep down inside her and escaped and then she couldn’t stop them.
As the tears began to flow she turned her head and found Luiz’s chest. A hand came up to hold her there and another wrapped around her ribs, hauling her up against him.
‘This was not a good idea,’ Luiz, his face set like stone, said to his grandmother as he cradled her shaking body. The sound of her sobs tore him up inside; he had never felt so impotent in his life, or more responsible.
He should, he told himself, have recognised her vulnerability, but he hadn’t and this was the result.
He rested his chin on the top of Nell’s head and rocked her in his arms. ‘It will be all right,’ he soothed.
‘The girl has a sense of duty. I like that.’
‘I think she’s had enough,’ he said abruptly, before he swept her casually into his arms and walked out of the room with her.
NELL’S sobs went straight to an unprotected portion of Luiz’s heart. Each sob seemed to be dragged from deep inside her. It was painful to listen to, to feel as they racked her body.
While she wept Sabina floated silently into the room, took in the scene at a glance and, after nodding at him, left. When she returned a short time later she was carrying a tray laden with sandwiches and cake, a coffee pot and two cups.