Friday Night Book Club: Read an excerpt from The Promise, the life-affirming and beautifully written new book by bestselling author Lucy Diamond
More about the book!
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend.
Treat yourself to a glass of wine this evening with this excerpt from Lucy Diamond’s new novel The Promise, an unforgettable story about finding love, hope and joy in even the darkest moments.
About the book
‘A bittersweet, big-hearted take on family dynamics, grief, and how to make happiness a priority.’ – Woman and Home
When faced with the sudden death of his brother, Dan’s mission is clear. He puts together a project to help pick up the pieces and support his grieving sister-in-law Zoe, plus her young children. This is Dan’s promise – to ensure his family’s happiness, and to try and live up to the man his brother was.
But tying up loose ends brings a shocking secret to light, and calls into question everything Dan knew about his older brother.
With more than just his promise on the line, Dan is faced with an ultimatum: Should he tell the truth and risk his family’s fragile happiness, or will his brother’s secrets end up becoming his own?
Read the excerpt:
It wasn’t as if Dan had been deliberately avoiding Zoe since the funeral. All the same, when he glimpsed her and Bea at the far end of the supermarket aisle, his first thought was to swerve away and hide. Sweat prickled between his shoulder blades. Adrenalin spiked in jags through his blood. Every instinct he possessed told him to get out of there, fast, run – but then he pictured himself fleeing like a criminal, hunched low in the driver’s seat of his car, and knew he would feel even more of a scumbag than usual. Which was saying something.
Lurking behind an end-of-aisle stationery display, he felt a wrench inside as his gaze fell on Bea. She was wearing a grubby unicorn onesie, with the rainbow-striped horn at a dejected angle on the hood, trailing after Zoe, who was pushing the trolley. Were those tears streaking his niece’s round face? Yes, he thought, they were. Bea was usually a happy-go-lucky resident of her own magical daydream world; Dan remembered her on her sixth birthday blowing out the candles on her cake and saying that she wished she could be a real unicorn when she grew up. Beatrice Rose Sheppard had always been everybody’s poppet, the apple of her daddy’s eye, all dimples and bouncing. Although not today, clearly.
Come on, Dan. Stop being a coward. Say hello at the very least, he ordered himself.
He hurried to catch up with them. ‘Zoe – hi.’
Shame stabbed him below the ribcage as he noticed how thin and pale she appeared, how faraway her gaze. There had always been a wholesome sheen about Zoe, with her golden hair and rosy cheeks, but today she bore the dull skin and deadened expression of someone who’d just clawed her way through the worst weeks of her life. ‘Hello, Bea,’ Dan added weakly when Zoe didn’t answer immediately.
‘Hello,’ muttered Bea, eyes damp. Then her lower lip slid out, pink and quivering, and she stamped a foot, back in argument mode. ‘But why not, Mummy?’ she pouted.
Ignoring her, Zoe gave Dan an unfriendly look. ‘I thought you were meant to be in South America’ was all she said.
Dan hung his head. ‘Didn’t go,’ he replied. Obviously. His suitcase was still half-packed on the bedroom floor, where he hadn’t been able to face putting away the neat piles of new shorts, T-shirts and hiking socks, although he had at least managed to claim back most of the money from the untaken flights. It seemed like a dream now, that whole itinerary he and Tiggy had discussed and planned: the mountains he’d intended to climb, the temples and jungle and beaches he thought they’d be visiting, the fiestas and full-moon parties she had been so excited about. Dan’s great adventure to show the world there was more to his life than spreadsheets and calculations. Typical, he hadn’t even made it as far as the airport, though. Having arranged three months off work, he had barely been anywhere, other than the coroner’s court, the crematorium and his own miserable flat. He swallowed, aware of the awkward pause that was building between him and his sister-in-law. ‘So how are you both doing?’
Stupid, stupid question. Stupid, stupid man. How were they doing? It was three weeks since Patrick had died; they were probably doing about as abysmally as Dan. Worse, if anything. He’d last seen them at the funeral, after which he had borne both Zoe’s gaze-avoiding reproach (This happened on your watch) and the louder, shriller version from his mum (‘I don’t understand. Why did you let Patrick go off like that? Over a stupid argument. Honestly, Daniel!’). He had ended up repeating Sorry and He went before I could stop him on a miserable kind of loop, before resorting to desperate self-defence: Look, you know what Patrick was like – he was totally out of order, all right? I was angry! Except that this had been greeted by the pursed lips and judgemental head-shaking that were somehow worse than any yelled accusations. Yes, and now he’s dead, his mum’s silence said. Dead – and you’re the one to blame.
Oh, you know,’ Zoe replied, voice flat. ‘Limping along. Bea, stop that now, come on,’ she added, when the little girl showed no signs of ending her grizzling.
‘But I want it,’ whined Bea, leaning against a rack of magazines. There was one with free plastic fairy wings attached that she kept plucking. ‘I want it, Mummy, very badly. Pleeeeease?’
‘No,’ snapped Zoe. ‘I’ve said no, and that’s that. Get your hands off it before you crease the pages; you’re not having it. Enough!’
Bea slumped against the trolley as if she’d been shot. ‘It’s not fair,’ she howled, fresh tears springing from her eyes. ‘You’re so mean to me. I hate you.’
You could practically hear Zoe’s teeth grinding as she tried to hang on to her patience. ‘I said enough.’ Her knuckles were white against the trolley handle, her face tightening as an elderly woman walked past and made a disapproving tut. ‘And I mean it. Any more and I’ll get cross.’
Dan opened his mouth. He wanted to say, I’m sorry. He wanted to say, I know this is all my fault. He wanted to say, Let me finish that shopping for you, let me do something to help. I’ll buy that magazine for Bea – I’ll buy all of them – I don’t mind. ‘How are the boys?’ he asked instead. Bea was now kicking the trolley mutinously, a pink light flashing on her scruffy
white trainer with every kick; a cross, defiant unicorn with a flushed face and blazing eyes.
‘They’re fine,’ Zoe said, but in a beaten-down voice that meant they were not fine. Well, of course they weren’t fine. ‘Anyway,’ she went on, shrugging, ‘I’d better go. I need to pick Gabe up from his football club in’ – she glanced at her watch – ‘Christ, in twenty-five minutes actually. I should crack on. Sorry,’ she added as a harassed-looking man tried to squeeze past them with a full trolley. ‘Get out of the way, Bea.’
‘Right,’ Dan replied, clearing his throat, wanting to say more; to say anything that might build a bridge between them. Or at least begin papering over the crevasse. ‘Er. Maybe …’
But she was already walking away, calling ‘Bye’ in a stiff, sod-off sort of voice over one narrow shoulder, the wheels of the trolley squeaking in protest as she swung it into the next aisle.
Dan stood there, clutching the wire supermarket basket, remembering the fi rst time he had ever met Zoe; how he and Patrick had been in The Ram, not realizing that some Godawful karaoke evening was about to begin. ‘Jesus, let’s get out of here,’ Patrick had groaned when the opening chords to ‘Atomic’ started up and they saw the three women clustered expectantly around a microphone. But then his face changed as he looked again. ‘Check out that blonde one,’ he said, eyes glued to her, and they’d both fallen silent as she gave it her best Debbie Harry. She was taller than her friends and slender, in tight jeans and boots, with long yellow hair that swung around her shoulders as she moved, and an animated face that you couldn’t help but warm to. ‘I’m in love,’ Patrick said as the song ended and there was a ragged round of applause. Then he added, ‘I’m going to marry that woman’ and got up, making it to the bar just before she did. ‘Allow me to buy you a drink, Ms Harry,’ Dan heard him say. ‘Or can I call you Debbie?’
The rest, as they said, was history.
She’d always been fun, Zoe, that was the thing. Originally from south Wales, she was giggly, kind and gorgeous. Dan had secretly fancied her himself until he grudgingly had to admit that she and his brother made the perfect couple.
‘Patrick Sheppard has been tamed at last,’ their mates teased, all raised eyebrows and disbelief. ‘Who’d have thought?’
More than tamed, though; Patrick had met his match. ‘She makes me want to be a better man,’ he confessed to Dan after a few pints, early on in the relationship. ‘To try harder. To be good. Do you know what I mean?’ Dan knew exactly what he meant. Because Zoe herself was good through and through, smiling and golden; a person who shone her attention on you like a lamp and made you feel warm in the glow. She listened properly, remembering tiny threads of conversation and then restringing them the next time you met. Did you get that commission you were hoping for? How’s Rebecca’s dad? What was the film like – is it worth seeing?
Once, just after Dan had split up with Rebecca, Zoe had paid a surprise visit, only to find him blind drunk and unshaven with the curtains pulled at four o’clock in the afternoon. He’d been embarrassed to see her looking so pretty and clean in his grungy living room, and half-expected her to start flinging wide the curtains and forcing coffee down his throat. Instead she’d cracked open a beer with him, slouched companionably into the sofa and said, ‘Go on then, tell me all about it.’ He’d ended up feeling a fraction better about everything as they talked, as if one person in the world might understand, after all.
But today … Today she looked terrible. Her radiant face seemed to have caved in, all the sparkle bleached away, her shoulders drooping with an unbearable weariness.
He had done that to her, he thought. He had done that.
The guilt was so monstrous that he had to lean against the nearby rack of greetings cards because he suddenly felt unsteady, as if the ground was shifting beneath him. He dropped the wire basket to the floor with a metallic clatter and left the supermarket, smarting with shame. Driving home, Dan felt detached from the world, which probably wasn’t recommended in the Highway Code. This was how life had become since the accident, though: observing time passing like an outsider, the days and weeks dragging by in a sludgy sort of numbness where nothing touched him. Having haltingly explained to Tiggy that he could no longer join her on the South America jaunt, he’d spent most of the time in bed like an invalid, unable to manage anything much besides sleep or staring at the walls. Well-meaning people kept assuring him that time was a great healer, but as February turned into March, and early blossom began appearing on the trees, Dan couldn’t say that he had noticed any meaningful personal change. The shock of his brother’s death still throbbed like an aching wound, hot with infection, the horror as fresh and new as ever. He missed Patrick so much. And yet the missing-him was tangled up and tainted with the last evening they’d spent together; with how it had all ended.
If he shut his eyes at any moment, day or night, Dan would find himself back there, walking home alone, with the lamp posts casting their cones of orange light through the darkness, the sound of bassy reggae from a passing car rising and falling, the smell of frying onions and spicy meat from the kebab shop on the corner. The night air was cold against his face, in contrast to the alcohol and rage boiling his blood, and his fists were still clenched. How he’d hated his brother in those last few minutes, truly hated him – and yet how he wished now that someone could have told him, warned him: You’re making a huge mistake, one you will always regret. Turn round, go back, patch things up. Otherwise you’ll never see him again.
There had been no such warning, no such premonition, though. Instead, he had continued home, alone and seething, while Fate had been left to play its cruel trick. And now they all had to live with the consequences.
He hadn’t cried properly yet, not even at the funeral. Sure, his throat felt tight for a while, especially at the sight of Zoe and his mum breaking down in tears, hands over their faces, but that was it. A rock of sadness had appeared inside him instead – the burden of having been the last person in the family to see Patrick alive, plus the solid ache of his loss. ‘Thick as thieves, you two,’ his mum had often said fondly during their childhood, ruffling their hair – or sometimes rolling her eyes with frustration if they were trying her patience. He was an only child now, though.
Arriving home, Dan sank to the floor in his hallway, breathing in the stale air that told tales of too many takeaway dinners. He remembered with a pang the fixed set of Zoe’s jaw, the numb exhaustion scored into her face, and felt ashamed. Patrick’s death had dropped a huge and terrible crater into her life and yet there she was – limping along, as she put it, filling a supermarket trolley with food for the kids, while Gabe was at football and Ethan was presumably taken care of elsewhere. Meanwhile here was Dan, with no kids and very few responsibilities (did the spider plant count? probably not), wallowing in self-pity as if he was the only one affected by his brother’s death. Some days he hadn’t even got dressed or left his bed. Had Zoe been afforded that luxury? Of course she hadn’t.
How would Patrick have reacted in a similar situation, he wondered, if, for instance, a mate of his had died suddenly, leaving a wife and kids behind, shell-shocked and struggling? If Patrick had come across them in the supermarket, the child weeping, the mother defeated-looking, he’d have scooped them up in the next instant – Dan knew it. He would have hoisted the tearful child onto his shoulders, come to the rescue, taken charge. Okay, I’m here now, I’ll help you, he’d have said in that direct way of his, before leaping into action and heroically saving the day.
Whereas Dan … Well, he’d done nothing. He’d scurried from the building, having provided no support or solace whatsoever. What a loser, he chastised himself. What a selfish coward.
He found himself thinking about the occasions when he’d been round at his brother’s place, having arrived before Patrick got back from work; how the whole house became charged up with new energy and noise the moment Patrick let himself in with a bellow of ‘I’m home!’ The younger kids would swarm all over him like monkeys, shrieking with laughter, Zoe’s face lighting up as he came to kiss her. How quiet the house must be now, without him. How empty it must feel.
And yet Dan hadn’t been round there once since the accident. He had bottled picking up the phone or sending a text because he didn’t know what to say. What kind of a brother-in-law did that make him? What kind of uncle? It was shoddy of him. Really shoddy.
Suddenly he was sick of feeling sorry for himself. Sick of doing nothing. He got to his feet again, grabbing his bike helmet and keys. Patrick’s death had broken Zoe and the kids. What sort of man was he if he didn’t at least attempt to put things right?