When Olivia Berrington gets the call to tell her that her best friend from college has been killed in a car crash in New York, her life is turned upside down. Her relationship with Sally was an exhilarating roller coaster, until a shocking betrayal drove them apart. But if Sally really had turned her back, why is her little girl named after Olivia?
As questions mount about the fatal accident, Olivia is forced to go back and unravel their tangled history. But as Sally’s secrets start to spill out, Olivia’s left asking herself if the past is best kept buried.
“I know. I’m saving you from yourself.”
He’s towering over me, ruddy and damp from the gym, smelling not of sweat or of aftershave, but of a smell pecu- liar to him. He’s gingery-blond, with a boyish lankiness that suits the irrepressibility of his personality. He’s bendy and springy and unstoppable, constantly in motion, and yes, before you ask, I’m more than a little bit in love with him. I always have been, ever since he walked into my high school politics class, his timing impeccable: my parents were in the middle of their gruesome separation and I was ripe for distraction.
James was an army brat, the youngest of three boys, and the family had recently been transported to Northwood, the boring north London suburb we lived in, which was domi- nated by the naval base. A life spent being uprooted from place after place could go two ways. For James, rather than making him shy and mistrustful, it had given him the cast iron cer- tainty that he could walk into any situation and charm his way to the very heart of it. It wasn’t oiliness or manipulation, it was pure self-belief combined with an innate knowledge that he was attractive.
It was that age and stage where boys and girls first peek over the barricades and try out being “friends”—a funny old version of friendship in which you can snog furiously at a party one night and go back to being mates the very next day. Or at least other people could do that. James and I had one such night at school, an hour spent kissing in the boys’ cloakroom during the first-year Christmas prom—it was brief and clumsy and awkward, and yet I did nothing but daydream about it for months, staring wistfully through my clumsily applied eye makeup and playing “Wuthering Heights” on a loop, while he remained utterly oblivious.
I hoped with every fiber of my being that he’d come back to me, that I’d be able to prove myself the second time around, but he’d already moved on, climbed back aboard the roman- tic merry-go-round and recast me as his long-lost sister. That’s not strictly true, there was one more time but now— now is not the time to think about it. Sally whispers across my consciousness but I push her away. Perhaps it’s the feroc- ity with which I suppress her that makes her continue to surge up, like those schlocky horror films where the hero tries more and more elaborate methods to destroy the invin- cible slasher.
James leans across me, digging the wooden spoon into the pan and taking a greedy mouthful.
“Perfect,” he says, grabbing a bottle of wine from the fridge and plunking down plates on the table.
“It needs another ten minutes,” I protest. “Yeah but you’ve got a date.”
It’s yet another soul-destroying Internet date born out of necessity—I’m thirty-five, and most of my contempo- raries are coupled up, though not necessarily happily. Even so, I don’t think many of those discontented partners are looking to roll the dice again, and even if they were, I never envisioned being someone’s difficult second album. I want to be the answer to a question they’ve never been able to phrase, for me to feel the same way about them, rather than a compromise born out of a disappointment.
It’s not like I haven’t tried the compromise route. My last proper boyfriend was a perfectly nice man called Marco whom I met at a Christmas party a few months after my sister Jules had got married. I was secretly, silently pan- icking, and I managed to convince myself that I’d alighted on my one true love, rather than admitting that it was the romantic equivalent of a game of pin the tail on the don- key, the two of us flailing around in the dark, desperate to believe we’d somehow found the sweet spot. We moved in together far too quickly, and immediately started argu- ing about the kind of piffling, trifling things, like whether the pepper should live on the table or in the “condiment cupboard,” that made it clear that when we had to make decisions about things that really mattered, we wouldn’t survive. As I wept fat, salty tears of disappointment on James’s shoulder he came up with the brilliant suggestion we should live together and here we are, eighteen months on. He’s an employment law yer—unlike me, he easily earns enough to live alone—but I think that he values having someone to come home to just as much as I do.
By now he’s shoveling the curry into his mouth like he’s rescuing a very, very small casualty who is trapped under the rice.
“Let me have a look at him then.” “Who?”
I know perfectly well who. “I’ll get your laptop.”
As he goes off to find it, I try not to brood about the unfairness of the fact that he doesn’t have to submit him- self to this kind of indignity. Women just seem to appear in his life, like fruit flies around a mango, and, while he’s not exactly a bastard, he’s not exactly not. Take last month’s victim (Anita? Angela . . . something beginning with an A). I met her shaking the last of my granola into a bowl. When I futilely rattled the empty box she fashioned her mouth into a theatrical “oh!” and promised to replace it. She was as good as her word, leaving a replacement on my bed the very next day with a sweet, flowery postcard saying how much she was looking forward to getting to know me better. No time: before I’d got so much as halfway through it James had finished with her, spooked by the seven individually wrapped presents she’d lovingly bestowed for his birthday. “How did she take it?” I asked, knowing from even those brief fragments of contact how gutted she’d be. “It was like shooting a fawn,” he said, shoving his gym bag into a back- pack, and I thanked my lucky stars for how it had played out between us.
It’s not like I’m one of those weird masochists who mar- ries serial killers and gaily drowns out the sound of their victim’s screams with the vacuum cleaner: James as a friend is a million miles away from James as a boyfriend. He truly is my best friend—the only person in the world that I’m as close to is Jules—and until I meet someone I feel a real heart connection to I’m truly grateful to have him there to shield me from the chill.
“Do you really want to go out?” he says, coming back in, with my ancient laptop whirring into life between his hands.
Of course I don’t, what I want to do is slob out on the sofa watching The Apprentice and getting drunk with the per- son I like being with most in the world, but 365 more days like that equals another whole year consigned to a loveless wasteland.
“Yes,” I say, slightly unconvincingly, “sort of.” I’m fight- ing to stop myself from melting in the face of his obvious glee that I might nix my plans and stay in with him. “Any- way, I have to.”
“We haven’t hung out for days,” he says, turning the machine toward me so I can log on, while he gives me puppy-dog eyes from over the top of it.
“And whose fault is that?”
“I miss you,” he says. “It’s been a mad week. But here I am, your willing slave, ready to go out and buy more wine and watch Siralan kick some corporate butt.”
“You know perfectly well he’s Lord Sugar,” I say, swiveling the computer back toward him so he can check out Luke, a quantity surveyor with kind eyes, who at this very moment is probably sitting in his office mentally rehearsing a few witty opening gambits in his head. I hate Internet dating.
“Why are you meeting him so late?”
“I told him I’d probably get stuck in the office.”
“Or is it because he looks like the spawn of Mr. Baxter?” “He does not!”
Mr. Baxter was our chubby, well-meaning history teacher, whose sweaty hands invariably left a damp imprint on your essay when he handed it back.
“Look at those cheeks. He’s definitely got a bulimic ham- ster vibe going on.”
“Don’t be mean!” I say, peering critically at his picture. He’s not madly good looking, it’s true, but there’s something honest about his gaze, and I liked the way his profile didn’t read like a psycho’s shopping list of nonnegotiable attri- butes—he sounded like a proper human being. Sounds.
“Just saying, Liv v y, I don’t think we’ve found the one.”
It was half an hour later when I stepped out of the house, having guiltily and inevitably canceled my date, and some- how ended up volunteering to be the person to go to the liquor store. James called me as I got to the end of the road. “I know, I know. I won’t get anything rank just because it’s on special.”
“Liv v y, you need to come home.” “I’ll only be five minutes.”
“Seriously. Turn around now,” he said, his voice shaking. James never sounded like that.
“W hat is it? ” Slivers of dread crawled down my back like icy raindrops down a window pane. “Tell me.”
“I’m just going to say it,” he said, steeling himself. “Sa lly’s dead.”
Short Q&A with Eleanor
Why a broken friendship? Do you think a lot of women hold their friendships in higher esteem than any of our other relationships? If so, why is it men can come between us so easily?
I wanted to write about a broken friendship because I think most women have a ‘toxic friendship’ which haunts them, sometimes years after it broke up. Or a friend who subtly undermines them, so slyly that they leave no bruises. The friendship in the book is partly based on a very intense friendship I had at college. When the friend brutally ended it, it felt in some more ways more painful than an ending with a lover. In romantic relationships we know what the rules are – we grieve, our friends neatly divide, we eventually meet someone else. When friendship turns toxic, we’re probably still forced to cross over with that person, particularly with Facebook’s iron grip on us. There’s no rhyme or reason, it can be your word against theirs.
And yes, I think men can often be the cause of our friendships imploding. It’s certainly a key factor for Livvy and Sally in the book. Their friendship is forged in the intensity of their early 20s, where relationships are more fluid, and boys are more fickle. I think the battle grounds change as we get older. Brene Brown, who gave the fantastic 7 million views Ted talk on vulnerability, writes very eloquently about “the mommy wars”and what a battleground that can be (even between the childless and the moms).
Our girlfriends are often the people we share the most intimate details of our lives with – even the things we feel ashamed or self conscious about. That can be pretty powerful ammunition when things go wrong. But also, how wonderful to have amazing girlfriends. In my 30s, I feel blessed with the women I could almost call sisters. Kate, Naomi, Sophia, Kay, Anne – thanks for being fabulous!
Do you think the relationships we prioritize change as we age?
For sure. Partnerships and families become much more top of the agenda, and we have to work harder to sustain those close female friendships. Research shows though, that women are much happier if they have a core group of other women to be close to. I know I am.
My thoughts on LAST TIME I SAW YOU
Olivia (Livvy) Berrington met Sally Atkins on her first day at University. Sally drew people to her and being her closest friend was heady, but there was a dark side as well. After their friendship ends Olivia meets with Sally shortly before Sally’s wedding. News of Sally reaches her through mutual acquaintances until the day she learns of Sally’s death. Like everything to do with Sally her death isn’t simple but surrounded with questions. After Sally’s death Olivia is drawn into Sally’s life and the mystery she left behind.
At Sally’s funeral Olivia meets her husband, William. He asks if she’ll share some of her memories with him as Sally thought the world of her to the point of their daughter’s middle name being Olivia. This news shocks Olivia because it doesn’t fit with her reality of the years past. William’s simple request once again makes Sally and the questions she left behind a central focus in Olivia’s life.
THE LAST TIME I SAW YOU is from Olivia’s POV and her friendship with Sally is told via flashbacks. It didn’t take long to suss out Sally’s problem and I wonder how much of her sly meanness was due to it and how much was her personality. Not all who suffer from this are like Sally in that respect. I admit to being disappointed in the eventual reason for the death of Olivia and Sally’s friendship. I understand it, but it wasn’t as dramatic as it had been built up to be. Olivia’s search for answers to the questions Sally left behind has a profound effect on her life, altering its path in ways she’d never dreamt possible. I prefer the Olivia that emerged to the doormat she was. In looking for Sally, Olivia finds herself. The ending was acceptable, as well as being the only plausible one to stay true to the story, because of the death of their friendship and the reality of the intervening years. There were times THE LAST TIME I SAW YOU dragged but the mystery and intensity pulled me through.
Ms. Moran has done a fine job portraying the effects of mental illness not only on the sufferer but those around them and the guilt and grief that often surrounds those who survive them.
Like life, THE LAST TIME I SAW YOU, is messy, complicated, and often uncomfortable.