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Meredith, Alone
by Claire Alexander

Published: 2022-11-01T00:0
Hardcover : 368 pages
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“The brilliant author of this brilliant book” will have you laughing and crying as Meredith, after spending three years inside her house, figures out how to rejoin the world one step at a time (Gillian McAllister, author of the Reese’s Book Club Wrong Place Wrong Time).

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Introduction

“The brilliant author of this brilliant book” will have you laughing and crying as Meredith, after spending three years inside her house, figures out how to rejoin the world one step at a time (Gillian McAllister, author of the Reese’s Book Club Wrong Place Wrong Time).

She has a full-time remote job and her rescue cat Fred. Her best friend Sadie visits with her two children. There's her online support group, her jigsaw puzzles and favorite recipes, her beloved Emily Dickinson poems. Also keeping her company are treacherous memories of an unstable childhood and a traumatic event that had sent her reeling.

But something's about to change. First, two new friends burst into her life. Then her long-estranged sister gets in touch. Suddenly her carefully curated home is no longer a space to hide. Whether Meredith likes it or not, the world is coming to her door...

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Excerpt

Prologue

I’ve got six minutes to walk to the train station, plenty of time
if I wear my flat boots. My trench coat is hanging on the hook
by the front door, my red hat stuffed in its pocket. My bag on
the kitchen table contains everything I need for a day at the
office. My hair is freshly washed and straightened; my lips are
glossed. They match my hat— by chance, but I like it.
Somewhere between the kitchen and the front door I become
aware of a seed of doubt in my throat. I can’t swallow it down
or cough it up. My chest is tight, my palms hot. Tingles race up
my arms, like tiny electric shocks. I keep my eyes on the floor,
watching my feet slide across the wooden boards I’d sanded, so
painstakingly, only a month earlier. It’s as if they belong to
someone else.
I slump onto the stairs, sit on the third step from the bottom,
and try to swallow. I’m still staring at my feet, encased in the
thick socks I always wear with my flat boots because I tend to
be between sizes and I’d opted to go up a half in them. The
boots stand tall and proud beneath my coat at the end of the
hall. I know they’re there, but I can’t reach them.
All I have to do is walk to the door. Slide my feet into my
boots and pull the zippers. Put on my coat and my red hat. Hook
my bag over my shoulder and lock the door behind me. A simple
sequence that takes less than a minute of my day. If I leave
now, I can still make my train. I can still get to work on time.
But the seed in my throat is swelling. I gulp for air. There’s
nobody here to help me and I can’t help myself because my
arms and legs are on fire.
When I can finally take my phone out of my bag, three hours
have passed, I’ve missed twelve calls, and I’m still sitting on the
third step from the bottom.


Day 1,214
Wednesday, November 14, 2018

My name is Meredith Maggs and I haven’t left my home for
1,214 days.



Day 1,215
Thursday, November 15, 2018

I’m tidying the living room when he arrives. First, he pulls up
outside my house in a gray car. Next, he walks up my path. He
has a slim folder tucked under one arm and long legs. It only
takes him three strides to reach the door.
At 10:57 a.m. the tall man rings my doorbell.
I like it when people are punctual. I don’t get many visitors—
my best friend, Sadie, and her kids, James and Matilda, and the
grocery deliveryman are my only regulars. Sadie is often late
and frazzled, but I let her off because she’s a single mum with a
busy job— a cardiac nurse at the biggest hospital in Glasgow.
The grocery deliveryman is always right on time.
I take deep breaths, watch my feet walk to the door in their
blue Converse. Look at my right hand as it reaches for the handle,
grips, pushes, pulls. I draw the door toward me, slowly, and
do a quick scan. Checked shirt, buttoned right up to the neck,
under a navy duffel coat. A few years younger than me, I think.
Or maybe just someone who benefits from fresh air and sunshine.
He has dark hair, short at the sides and longer on top. A
friendly face— open eyes and an easy smile, not forced.
I don’t get a lot of visitors. But this one seems OK, on first
impression.
He offers a hand. “Meredith? I’m Tom McDermott from
Holding Hands, the befriending charity. I’ve been looking forward
to meeting you.”
I wish I could say the same, but of all the things I have to
look forward to—and it’s a short list admittedly— this isn’t one
of them. Meeting new people has never been a joy. Especially
people who visit solely to make sure I’m not neglecting my personal
care, or wasting away, or drinking vodka for breakfast.
When the boxes have been ticked and the forms have been
filled out, I’m really rather boring.
I shake Tom McDermott’s hand, because it’s the polite thing to
do. He’s the first man to come to my house since Gavin—lovely,
sweet Gavin, who was no match for my nightmares—but I don’t
feel threatened. I don’t find Tom McDermott intimidating, in his
checked shirt and duffel coat, standing on my doorstep.
Still, I don’t let him in. Not yet. Even though I invited him
here, grudgingly, after Sadie left the leaflet on my kitchen table
under a box of Tunnock’s Teacakes and I went through the
motions. The same leaflet that Tom McDermott has just fished
out of his folder and is holding up in front of me. I interlink my
fingers behind my back in response to the large black capital
letters: “WE’RE HERE TO HOLD YOUR HAND.” An act
of defiance that only I’m aware of.
I look at the two people on the front of the leaflet. I know
their faces well— I’ve seen them several times a day because
they’re attached to the front of my fridge with a magnet in the
shape of a heart. One is a middle- aged woman, the other a man
who looks old enough to be her grandfather. He has cloudy
eyes and a tuft of white hair on either side of his head, and
looks tiny in his armchair, shoulders hunched up around his
ears. They’re smiling at each other and— right on brand— holding
hands.
“I always thought befriending was for old people,” I tell Tom
McDermott, ready to label the leaflet as Exhibit A.
“Actually, we try to reach out to anyone who might need a
friend. Elderly people, teenagers, anyone in between.”
“I have friends,” I tell him, stretching the truth.
“Maybe you have room for another one?”
I think about this, about the way my tiny circle might not
pass for a circle at all— unless cats count— and I’m not really
concentrating on what he’s saying about training and risk assessments
and codes of conduct. But I decide I’m curious enough
to let him into my house.
I couldn’t move my almost- completed jigsaw of Gustav Klimt’s
The Kiss from the coffee table in the living room, so I’d carefully
pushed it against the wall. If Tom McDermott needs a table, we
can move through to the kitchen.
I leave him there and go to make us tea. (“No sugar— I’m
sweet enough,” he tells me with a wink, and somehow it comes
across as quite endearing, not sleazy.) When I return, he’s kneeling
down, looking at The Kiss.
“How long did this take you?” he asks.
“A few days, just doing the odd half hour here and there,” I
say, setting the tea tray on the floor. I’ve added a plate of chocolate
cookies, despite Tom McDermott claiming he’s sweet
enough.
“Amazing,” he says, and I think he’s talking about the jigsaw,
not the biscuits, but he reaches for a cookie and takes a bite. He
stays on the floor, his long legs crossed, and washes his cookie
down with a gulp of tea. For a total stranger, he’s making himself
very comfortable in my living room. I perch on the end of
the couch, my mug sending heat into my palms.
“Meredith, it’s really good to meet you. Before we start
chatting, let me give you some information about the charity.
It was set up in 1988, right here in Glasgow, by a woman
called Ada Swinney, whose mother was housebound due to
dementia. Our mission today is exactly the same as Ada’s was
back then— to offer company, friendship, and support to anyone
who needs it.”
I don’t know what to say, so I sip my tea.
“The most important thing, at all times, is that you feel comfortable
and safe. At any time, if you don’t, you can tell me to
leave and I will— no questions asked!” He takes some forms out
of his folder. “Shall we get the boring stuff out of the way first?”
I answer all his questions and nod in all the right places until
the forms are back where they belong.
“You’re clearly a bit of a star at jigsaw puzzles,” he says. “What
else do you like to do with your time?”
After a few long seconds of Tom McDermott smiling— he
has, I concede, kind eyes— and me looking blankly back at him,
I say, “I read a lot.”
“Well, I can see that!” He gestures at the books lining an entire
wall of the room, then jumps to his feet in one surprisingly
smooth motion for someone with those legs. “Quite a variety
you have here, Meredith. Plenty of classics . . . history . . .
art . . . do you have an all- time favorite?”
“It’s actually a poetry collection. Emily Dickinson.” I join him at
the shelves and reach for a slim orange book, its spine soft and
creased from decades of use, from the touch of fingers much
older than mine. I bought it in my favorite secondhand bookshop;
it has For Violet, ever yours handwritten on the inside cover.
I’ve often wondered who Violet was, and why a book given to her
with so much commitment ended up being available to me for
two pounds. Whatever its story, I feel safe with it in my hand.
“Dickinson. She felt a funeral in her brain, didn’t she? Genius.”
“You can borrow it, if you like.” I surprise myself by offering
him the book.
“I would love to. Thank you, Meredith. I’ll take very good
care of it, and give it back to you the next time I see you.”
I’m a little taken aback. I expected him to say— politely,
kindly— that he couldn’t possibly take my favorite book. But
by the time I’ve taken my seat back on the couch, he’s tucked it
into his folder and has helped himself to another chocolate
cookie.
“Meredith, I know you haven’t left your house for a very long
time,” he says.
“One thousand two hundred and fifteen days,” I tell him.
“A very long time,” he says again.
“Well, it’s flown by.”
“You count the days?”
I shrug, feeling stupid. “I guess I have nothing to count down
to, so I count up.”
I fold my arms across my body, well aware of the message
that sends.
“We don’t have to talk about that, if you don’t want to.” He
keeps his voice soft, a contrast to my sharpness. “I’m here to get
to know you. I’m interested to learn about your life, what you
like and don’t like, how you pass your time. And . . . well, maybe
we can fi gure out a way to help you get back into the world?”
“I am in the world,” I say defi antly.
“Yes, of course you are. But—”
“And I have a cat. Fred.”
“Fred? Astaire, Savage?” He grins.
I don’t. “Just Fred.”
“I love cats,” he says. I’m beginning to think that Tom
McDermott will agree with me no matter what I say. He thinks
my jigsaw is amazing. He loves Emily Dickinson and cats. I’m
also beginning to regret giving him my most treasured poetry
collection. I might never see him— or that beloved, faded
orange cover— again. I wonder if I could ask for it back. Maybe
he’ll go to the bathroom and I could slip it out of his folder
and put it back on the second shelf from the top, where it
belongs.
But he shows no sign of going to the bathroom and wants to
keep talking about cats.
“What happens if Fred gets sick?” he asks.
Tom McDermott has underestimated me. I’ve been asked all
these questions before.
“Fred has never been sick,” I say proudly. “But I have a very
good friend, Sadie. Sadie would take Fred to the vet.”
“Ah. That’s good. What else does Sadie do for you?”
“She picks up my prescription once a month. That’s it. She’s
my friend, not my carer.” My shoulders feel tense. They’ve been
frozen in place—somewhere near my ears—since I gave him
my book. “I don’t need anything else.”
“And you work . . . full- time?”
“I’m a freelance writer, so it varies. But I’m kept busy.”
“A writer? That sounds exciting.”
“It’s not really. I don’t have bylines in the New York Times or
anything. It’s just web content for businesses.”
“Believe me, it’s exciting compared to what I used to do.” He
pulls a face. “I got made redundant from my job in finance last
year. So I’m taking a bit of time out, trying to figure out what to
do next.”
I nod. I’ve never been good at small talk.
“What about your family, Meredith? Do they visit often?”
My stomach clenches. I take a gulp of my tea.
“It’s complicated,” I tell him.
“I’m pretty good with complicated,” he says, and his voice is
gentle. “But we don’t have to go there, Meredith.”
“I have a mother. And a sister. Fiona. Fee. She’s eighteen
months older than me.” I rush the words out of my mouth.
“What’s your sister like?” It’s a natural question, out of his.
“Different from me. But I don’t know anything about her anymore.
We haven’t spoken for a long time. I don’t see her or my
mother at all, actually.”
“It is complicated,” Tom says softly. Then he waits, and the
fact that he’s giving me space makes me wonder if I can say
more. But I can’t find the right words, so I go back into the
kitchen for more cookies.
Half an hour later, I stand at my front door and wait patiently
for Tom McDermott to leave, to take three strides down my
garden path and get into his gray car and drive away. I’m
exhausted from all the talking, all the questions, all the worrying
about my book, all the pretending my life is a ten when the
truth is that most days barely scratch the underside of a six.
He’s taking his time to go. He’s already thanked me profusely
for my hospitality, looking straight into my eyes and telling me
he’ll be back to see me next week, if that’s OK with me. Fred
watches us from his favorite place, the comfy chair on the
upstairs landing. It’s the first man in the house for him too; I
wonder if cats pick up on things like that. Part of me is pleased
that he didn’t come down to welcome Tom.
“Remember, there’s no obligation on your part,” Tom says. “If
you hate my jokes, or can’t afford all the cookies I eat, you can
tell me to go away at any time. No hard feelings, I promise.”
“You’ve got my favorite book, so I suppose I’ll need to see
you again.”
“Very true.” He smiles. “And I’m looking forward to seeing
what jigsaw you’re working on next.”
“A mosaic tile design,” I tell him. “It’s intricate.”
“Well, I can’t wait to see it. Until then, Meredith.”
I raise my hand to bid him farewell, but he pauses on the
doorstep.
“One more thing, Meredith . . . if you don’t mind? I’m
curious— there must be something you used to do that you
miss? One thing you can’t do at home?”
It’s started to rain heavily. Tom McDermott buttons up his
duffel coat. Behind his head, the dense, gray clouds of the
late- afternoon sky move toward me. I’m aware of them, without
looking directly at them. I inch backward, away from the
open door.
“Swimming. I love swimming,” I say softly.
“I’m a terrible swimmer,” he says. “I can do doggy paddle, and
that’s about it. Anyway . . .” He pulls the collar of his coat tighter
round his neck and shakes a raindrop off the tip of his nose. “I’ll
be swimming home at this rate. Goodbye, Meredith. You take
care.”
“You too, Tom McDermott,” I whisper as I close the front
door.
That night, I dream I’m doing doggy paddle in a huge lake
with Emily Dickinson. Tom McDermott and the old man from
the leaflet are sitting on the side, watching and waving and eating
chocolate biscuits.
... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

1. Meredith says she’s happy staying inside her home. Do you believe her? How long do you think she would have been able to keep up that kind of existence?

2. One of the topics explored in the book is mental health. With many famous people opening up about their struggles, the topic seems less stigmatized than before. Do you think this is true for non-famous people?

3. Sadie says that she and Meredith are “like salt and pepper.” They’re different but come together as great friends. Why do you think they fit so well? Is there truth that “opposites attract”?

4. Although Meredith has kept herself confined, she’s able to socialize digitally. Are we different when interacting with people on-screen versus in person?

5. The book depicts an unstable childhood environment for Meredith and her sister. What coping mechanisms did they develop? Did that past life prepare Meredith for her present-day life? How?

6. What circumstances would lead you toward a self-imposed solitary lifestyle? Meredith has her survival kit to keep her going—there’s Fred, jigsaw puzzles, Emily Dickinson poems, and cooking. What are your essentials (family is already included)?

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