This is the 88 to Parliament Hill Fields."
The electronic announcement rang round the bus as Libby heaved her two rucksacks on board. There was a queue of passengers behind her, and she heard an impatient tut as she rummaged in her handbag to find her wallet. Finally she located it and tapped her card to pay, but not before she heard someone mutter, "Bloody tourist." Libby hurriedly scooped up her bags and began to maneuver toward the one free seat on the lower deck, but she'd gone only a few paces when a teenage boy pushed past, almost knocking her into the lap of an elderly woman, and threw himself into the vacant seat.
Libby gave the boy her best death stare, then turned and climbed the narrow stairs toward the front of the upper deck, clinging to the handrail so she didn't fall as the bus swerved out of Vauxhall Station. When she reached the top, she was relieved to see that the nearest seats in the first row were available, and she dumped her bags on the floor and sat down.
The bus edged its way through the London traffic, and Libby looked out of the front window. Everyone seemed in such a hurry: crowds of pedestrians streaming along the pavement, car horns honking like angry geese, a cyclist gesturing and swearing at a taxi driver. As the bus drove onto Vauxhall Bridge, Libby turned right to get a view along the River Thames. She recognized the Tate Britain art gallery, and behind it the London Eye, its glass pods glistening in the late April sunshine. Simon had taken Libby on it once as a birthday treat, three or four years ago. They'd drunk prosecco as the wheel had rotated them high above the city, and afterward they'd bought hot dogs and walked along the South Bank, hand in hand. It had been one of their rare day trips to London, and Libby remembered feeling so lucky to be there with Simon. And yet-
"Oh my goodness, it's you!"
A voice to Libby's left made her jump, and she swung around to see an elderly man sitting across the aisle, wearing a burgundy velvet jacket that had seen better days. His face broke into a grin when he saw her.
"It really is you, isn't it?"
Oh god. She'd been in London only ten minutes and already she'd picked up a weirdo.
"I'm sorry. I think you've mistaken me for someone else," Libby said, and she turned away from him.
"Oh . . . oh, I am sorry."
Libby pulled her phone out of her handbag. Usually, if a stranger tried to make unwanted conversation, she'd ring someone for a chat instead. But who on earth could she call now? Certainly not her parents, and all her friends these days were Simon's friends too, the wives and girlfriends of his mates and the last people she wanted to speak to. Libby slid her phone back into her bag.
"I'm sorry I disturbed you," the man continued, his voice shaky. "I get a little confused sometimes."
There was something in his tone that made Libby turn back around. He was staring at his lap, looking so utterly dejected that she had a sudden urge to make him feel better.
"Don't worry. Strangers are always mistaking me for someone else. It's my face, I think. I look very average."
"Average?" His head snapped up. "You don't look average. With that marvelous red hair, you look like Botticelli's Venus."
Libby ran a hand though her long, thick curls. Her hair had been called many things over the years-ginger nut, Weasley, carrot top-but never compared to a Renaissance painting, and she couldn't help but smile.
"Sorry. You must think I'm very strange," the man said. "I don't usually accost young women on the bus and tell them I like their hair, I promise."
"It's fine. I needed a compliment today, so thank you."
"You could say that."
"I'm happy to listen if that would help?" He ran a hand over his own hair, which was bright white and stuck out at all sorts of unruly angles from his head. "People often tell me their problems, especially on the night bus. Once they've had a few drinks, complete strangers confess all sorts. You wouldn't believe the things I've heard on here."
For a brief second, Libby considered pouring her miserable story out to this stranger, but where to even begin? "That's a kind offer but I'm okay, thanks."
The man nodded and turned to look out of his window, and Libby returned to hers. The bus wound its way behind Tate Britain and along toward Parliament Square. It was busy this morning, crowds of tourists queueing to get into Westminster Abbey, a small huddle of protesters with placards outside the Houses of Parliament being monitored by some bored-looking police officers. Libby checked her phone; it was two fifteen, and according to Google Maps she should be at her sister's house around three.
The thought made Libby shudder. When she'd turned up at her parents' house late last night, still numb with shock, she had assumed they'd let her stay with them for a few days while she worked out what to do. But this morning, over a strained breakfast at which her father could barely look at her, Libby's mum had announced that she'd called Rebecca, who had offered Libby her spare bedroom. This had struck Libby as odd, given the two of them weren't exactly close, but when she'd tried to argue, her mum had brushed her protests aside. And so here she was a few hours later, on an unfamiliar bus in an unfamiliar city, with her life packed into two ancient bags.
"Excuse me." The old man from across the aisle was looking at her again.
"I'm sorry to be nosy, but I couldn't help noticing that. Are you an artist?"
Libby looked to where he was pointing and saw an old, battered sketch pad stuffed in a side pocket of her backpack. She hadn't even realized it was there; that showed how long it was since she'd used this bag.
"I'm afraid not. That's from years ago when I was at school."
"Did you draw back then?"
"I did, but I haven't done anything artistic in a long time."
"And why is that?"
Libby opened her mouth to answer and then stopped. Why was she about to tell her life story to a complete stranger? The old man was right; there was clearly something about him that made people spill their secrets.
"I haven't had time" was all she said.
"Nonsense, there's always time to draw. You could sketch me now if you like?"
"Thanks, but I think my drawing days are long gone."
The bus pulled up outside Downing Street and more passengers boarded, their voices a jumble of languages under Libby's feet.
"It's never too late to start drawing again, you know," the man said. "Did you study art at school?"
"Yes, and I wanted to go to art college but . . ." There she went again, about to spill out her guts to him. "I did medicine at university instead."
"Medicine? Lordy, you don't strike me as the doctoring sort. No, I wouldn't trust you with my dickey hips for one minute."
Libby looked up in surprise, but the man winked at her.
"I'm only joking. I'm sure you're a wonderful doctor."
"Actually, you're right. I'm not the doctoring sort. I hated medical school and left before I could do damage to anyone's dickey hips."
The man chuckled and Libby smiled despite herself.
"So, what do you do now, then, if not medicine or drawing?"
She didn't reply, unsure what to say. Up until twenty-four hours ago Libby had worked for Simon, doing the accounts and admin for his gardening firm. But now who the hell knew?
The bus was approaching Trafalgar Square and Libby saw the four majestic lions sitting as defiant sentries, accompanied by a flock of fat pigeons. In the middle, Nelson's Column rose tall above the crowds of tourists and buskers, the admiral on top watching over London like a disapproving parent. Behind him stood the grand pillars and domed roof of the National Gallery. At the sight of it, Libby felt a memory stir. She'd been to the gallery once, on a school trip. Most of her classmates had got bored quickly and complained they wanted to go to Madame Tussauds instead, but Libby had been in awe of the huge building with its ornate ceilings and room after room of extraordinary paintings. But that had been back when she still held out hope of going to art school, before her parents put their foot down about her doing a "proper" degree so she could get a "real" job.
Libby looked at the old man and saw he was lost in thought too, his eyes misty as he stared out the window. He must have sensed her looking at him as he shook his head, as if waking himself from a dream.
"You know, someone once told me you didn't need to go to art school to learn how to draw. She said all you needed was to spend time here, at the National Gallery, and it was like studying under the greatest artists in the world."
"She used to practice sketching on the bus too. She said it was the perfect place to learn life drawing because there's always a choice of interesting models."
"I think I'd find it impossible-far too bumpy."
The man turned to look at Libby. "Have you ever been to the National Gallery?"
"Once, when I was a teenager. I've always meant to go back."
"Well, in that case, why don't we go now? We can start your art education right away!" He reached to the pole behind his seat and hit the stop button with force.
"I'm sorry. I can't," Libby said, and she saw his shoulders sag.
"Of course, silly me."
"I have somewhere I need to be. Plus, I've got these beasts." She indicated her two bags.
"I'm sorry. I don't know what's got into me. I'm behaving very strangely today."
"Not at all. And I will go another time, I promise."
But the man had stopped listening to her, staring back toward the gallery. The bus pulled up at a stop, letting out a low moan as its doors opened. He was still looking out the window.
"You know, I think I'll get off here," he said, pulling himself up into a standing position. "There's a painting I'd like to go and see."
Libby watched as he shuffled out from his seat, clinging to the pole for support. He looked as though he might topple over at any moment.
"Do you need a hand on the stairs?"
"No, thank you. I'll be fine." The man looked down at her. "My name is Frank, by the way."
"It was nice to meet you, Frank. I'm Libby."
"Libby." He smiled as he repeated her name. "Why don't you give drawing on the bus a go? I have a feeling it might suit you." And with that he turned and made his way slowly down the stairs.
Libby stood outside her sister's house, looking up at the tall, imposing Georgian building, then took a deep breath and climbed the steep steps. A moment after she rang the bell, the front door swung open and there was her older sister, dressed in yoga leggings and an expensive-looking gym top, eyeing Libby up and down.
"Wow, you look knackered." Rebecca leaned forward and gave her a bony hug.
"Yeah, it's all a bit of a shock." Libby tried to hand one of her bags to Rebecca, but she'd already turned and swept back into the house.
"Take your shoes off, will you?" she called as Libby struggled in.
Libby dumped her bags on the floor and kicked off her shoes, then headed down the hallway into the large open-plan kitchen, which occupied the back of the house. Everything in here was bright white, down to the identical china mugs hanging in a row on hooks and the crisp white tea towels folded over the oven handle. Libby was amazed Rebecca allowed bananas to sit in the fruit bowl, given they didn't match the color scheme.
Libby perched on a narrow stool at the central island, awaiting the inevitable.
"So, tell me everything," Rebecca said. "Mum gave me a brief outline but I want to hear it all from you."
"Okay." Libby swallowed. "So, Simon had suggested we go out for dinner last night to this new Italian place. I thought it was a bit strange, because we usually have takeaway on a Friday, and we haven't been out for a meal for ages. But he'd booked the table, so I got dressed up and out we went."
"We had a nice meal, but I could tell Simon was distracted-he kept checking his phone and he went to the toilet three times. I thought . . ." She trailed off, embarrassed to say it out loud.
Libby closed her eyes and she was back there, watching Simon across the candlelit table, the way he was chewing his thumbnail as he did when he was nervous. The bubble of excitement that had risen in her throat as it occurred to her what this meant.
"I thought he was about to propose," she said in a quiet voice.
"Oh my god!"
"I know." Libby felt the emotion coming up again, and she took a breath to push it back down. "But it turns out he wasn't working out how to propose to me. He was working out how to break up with me."
"The total bastard," Rebecca said, with a little too much relish. "What did he say?"
"He said that he still loved me but he's been unhappy for a while. That things have got stale and he's been questioning whether he wants to be in a relationship anymore. He said he thought it was best to be honest and tell me how he felt, rather than-what did he say?-'suffer in silence any longer.'"
"And why did he take you to a romantic restaurant to tell you all of this?"
"He said he thought it was easier. That at home I'd have got upset, but he knew I'd never make a scene in front of other diners."
"I have to give it to him-that's some Machiavellian-level planning," Rebecca said, shaking her head in admiration. "And you really thought he was going to propose?"
"We'd always said we'd get engaged when we turned thirty, and my birthday's soon, so . . ."
"You know what this is, don't you?" Rebecca said. "This is a classic midlife crisis."