Melody Browne opened her eyes and saw the moon, a perfect white circle, like a bullet hole shot through the sky. It was fully lit and beamed down upon her, as if she were the star of the show.
She closed her eyes again and smiled. Around her she could hear the rapturous applause of creaking timber, blistering paint, popping windows, a fire engine’s alarm wailing dramatically somewhere in the distance.
“Melody! Melody!” It was her. That woman. Her mother.
“She opened her eyes! Did you see? Just for a second!” Another voice. The man with the bald head. Her father.
Melody breathed in. Her throat and her nose felt like they had been doused in acid; the smoky air burned like fire as it passed down into her lungs. It stuck for a while, halfway to her gullet, like a lit match. She held it there and waited a heartbeat for her body to expel it. But for that tiny moment, lying on the pavement in front of her house, the moon shining down onto her, her thoughts muffled and her parents at her side, she felt suspended somewhere both dark and light, painful and comfortable, a place where her life finally made some sense. She smiled again and then she coughed.
They were smiling at her, her mother and father, smiling with sooty faces and frazzled hair. Her mother put her hand to her hair and stroked it. “Oh thank God!” she cried breathlessly. “Thank God!”
Melody blinked at her and tried to talk, but she had no voice. The fire had taken it. She turned to look at her father. There were tear tracks running through the dirt on his face. He held her hand inside his.
“Don’t try to talk,” he said. His voice was raw and gravelly, but full of tenderness. “We’re here. We’re here.”
In her peripheral vision, Melody could see the strobe of blue lights playing out in the splintered windows of the house. She allowed her mother to pull her into a sitting position and she gazed around her at an altogether unexpected vision. A house, her house, roaring and alive with flames. Crowds of people, huddled together in dressing gowns and pajamas, watching the fire as though it were a Guy Fawkes Night offering. Two big red engines drawing up in the middle of the street, men in yellow helmets unfurling thick hosepipes and rushing toward them, and the moon still hanging there, fat and bright and oblivious.
She got to her feet and felt her knees trembling precariously beneath her.
“She was unconscious for a while,” she heard her mother saying to somebody. “Out cold for about five minutes.”
Somebody took her elbow and moved her gently toward the bright light of an ambulance. She was wrapped in a blanket and fed oxygen through a strange-smelling plastic mask. Her eyes were riveted by the mayhem around her. Slowly reality seeped through the layers of smoke and chaos and something hit her like a thunderbolt.
“It’s OK,” said her mother. “It’s here. Clive saved it.”
“Where? Where is it?”
“There.” She pointed at the curb.
The painting was propped up against the pavement. Melody stared at it, at the Spanish girl with the huge blue eyes and the polka-dot dress. It moved her in some strange, unknowable way. It soothed her and reassured her like it had always done, ever since she was a small girl.
“Can you look after it?” she croaked. “Make sure it doesn’t get stolen?”
Her parents glanced at each other, clearly reassured by her preoccupation with a shoddy junk-shop painting.
“We’ll have to take her into hospital,” said a man. “Get her checked over. Just to be on the safe side.”
Her mother nodded.
“I’ll stay here,” said her father. “Keep an eye on things.”
All three of them turned then, as one, to acknowledge the shocking sight of their home disintegrating in front of their very eyes, to ash and rubble.
“That’s my house,” said Melody.
Her parents nodded.
“And you’re my mum and dad.”
They nodded again and pulled her toward them into an embrace.
Melody felt safe there, inside her parents’ arms. She remembered a few moments ago, lying in her bed, a pair of strong arms pulling her, carrying her through the roasting house, toward the fresh air. And that was all she could remember. Her father saving her life. The moon staring down at her. The Spanish girl in the painting telling her that everything was going to be all right.
She lay down on the crisp white sheets of the emergency bed and watched as the doors were pulled shut. The noise, the lights, the crackle of destruction all faded away and the ambulance took her to hospital.
Chapter 1 Chapter 1
When she was nine years and three days old, Melody Browne’s house burned down, taking every toy, every photograph, every item of clothing and old Christmas card with it. But not only did the fire destroy all her possessions, it took with it her internal memories too. Melody Browne could remember almost nothing before her ninth birthday. Melody’s early childhood was a mystery to her. She had only two memories of it, both as vague and as fleeting as a flurry of snow. The first was of standing on the back of a sofa and craning her head to see out of a tall window. The second memory was of a perfumed bed in a dimly lit room, a puff of cream marabou, and a tiny baby in a crib. There was no context to these memories, just two isolated moments of time hanging pendulously and alone, side by side, in an empty, echoing room that should have housed a thousand more moments just like them.
But when she was thirty-three years old, and the past was just a dusty fragment of what her life had turned out to be, something unpredictable and extraordinary happened to her. On a warm July night, one of only a handful of warm nights that summer, Melody Browne’s life turned in on itself, stopped being what it was, and became something else entirely.
Melody Browne would have been home that night, the night everything started to change, if she hadn’t decided, upon feeling a fat droplet of summer rain against her bare arm, to hop onto a number 14 bus after work one afternoon, instead of walking. She would also, most probably, have been at home that night if she hadn’t chosen to put on a sleeveless camisole top that morning, revealing her bare shoulders to the world.
“You have the most amazing shoulders,” said a man, slipping onto the seat next to her. “I’ve been staring at them since you got on.”
“Are you taking the piss?” was her poetic response.
“No, seriously. I’ve got a bit of a thing about shoulders, and yours—they’re incredible.”
She touched her shoulders, self-consciously, and then threw him a suspicious look. “Are you a fetishist?”
He laughed, full throated, showing the three silver fillings in his back teeth. “Not that I know of,” he said. “Unless fancying women because they’ve got nice shoulders makes me one.”
She stared at him, agog. He fancied her. Nobody fancied her. Nobody had fancied her since 1999, and even then she wasn’t sure if he had or if he’d just felt sorry for her.
“Do I look like a pervert?” he asked in amusement.
She appraised him, checked him out from his loafers, to his pale blue shirt, to his shampoo-fresh hair and his stone-colored trousers. He couldn’t have looked more normal.
“Who says that perverts look like perverts?” she said.
“Well, look, I promise you, I’m not. I’m totally normal. I’ll give you my ex-wife’s phone number if you like. She found me so incredibly normal that she left me for a bloke with a stud through his eyebrow.”
Melody laughed and the man laughed back. “Look,” he said, getting to his feet. “I’m getting off here. Here’s my card. If you fancy a night out with a fetishistic pervert, give me a ring.”
Melody took the card from his tanned fingers and stared at it for a moment.
“I won’t hold my breath,” he said, smiling. And then he picked up his rucksack and disappeared through the puffing hydraulic doors and out onto the busy pavement.
The woman sitting in front of Melody turned round in her seat. “Bloody hell,” she said, “if you don’t call him, I will!”
She didn’t call him. She waited a full seven days and then she texted him, not because she particularly wanted to—the last thing Melody Browne needed in her life was a man—but because everyone, from her son to her best friend to the women at work, wanted her to.
“Hello,” her text read, “I am the woman whose shoulders you were perving over on the no. 14 bus last week. This is my number. Do with it as you will.”
Less than five minutes later he replied.
“Thanks for the number. Not sure what to do with it. Any ideas?”
She sighed. He wanted to banter.
Melody didn’t want to banter. Melody just wanted to get on with her life.
She texted back, somewhat abruptly. “I don’t know—ask me out?”
And so the journey began.