Also by Joanna Trollope
A Village Affair
A Passionate Man
The Rector’s Wife
The Men and the Girls
A Spanish Lover
The Best of Friends
Next of Kin
Other People’s Children
Marrying the Mistress
Girl from the South
Brother & Sister
For more information on Joanna Trollope and her books,
see her website at www.joannatrollope.com
Looking back, it astonished her that none of them had broken down in the hospital. Even Dily, who could be relied on to burst into tears over a shed eyelash, had been completely mute. Chrissie supposed it was shock, literal y, the sudden suspension of al natural reactions caused by trauma. And the trauma had actual y begun before the consultant had even opened his mouth. They just knew, al four of them, from the way he looked at them, before he said a word. They knew he was going to say, ‘I’m so very sorry but—’ and then he did say it. He said it al the way through to the end, and they al stared at him, Chrissie and the three girls. And nobody uttered a cheep.
Chrissie didn’t know how she had got them home. Even though Tamsin and Dil y could drive, it hadn’t crossed her mind to hand either of them the car keys. Instead, she had climbed wordlessly into the driver’s seat, and Tamsin had got in – unchal enged for once – beside her, and the two younger ones had slipped into the back and even put their seat belts on without being reminded. Unheard of, usual y. And Chrissie had started the car and driven, upright behind the wheel as if she was trying to demonstrate good posture, up Highgate Hil and down the other side towards home, towards the house they had lived in since Amy was born, eighteen years ago.
Of course, there was no parking space directly outside the house. There seldom was in the evenings, after people got home from work.
Chrissie said, ‘Oh bother,’ in way, and Dil y said, from the back seat, ‘There’s a space over there, outside the Nelsons’,’ and then nobody spoke while Chrissie manoeuvred the car in, very badly, because they were al thinking how he would have been, had he been there, how he would have said, ‘Ornamental objects shouldn’t be asked to do parking. Gimme the keys,’ and Chrissie would – wel , might, anyway – have laughed and thrown the keys at him ineptly, proving his point, and he’d have inserted the car neatly into an impossible space in no time so that they could al please him by saying, ‘Show-off,’ in chorus. ‘I make my living from showing off,’ he’d say. ‘And don’t you forget it.’
They got out of the car and locked it and trooped across the road to their own front door. There were no lights on. It had been daylight when they left, and anyway they were panicking because of the ambulance coming, and his frightening pal or and evident pain, so nobody thought of the return, how the return might be. Certainly, nobody had dared to think that the return might be like this.
Chrissie opened the front door, while the girls huddled behind her in the porch as if it was bitterly cold and they were desperate to get into the warmth. It occurred to Chrissie, irrelevantly, that she should have swept the leaves out of the porch, that it badly needed redecorating, that it had needed redecorating for years and Richie had always said that his granny, in North Shields on Tyneside, had scrubbed her front doorstep daily –
except for Sundays – on her hands and knees. Daily. With a brush and a galvanized bucket.
Chrissie took the keys out of the door, and dropped them. Tamsin leaned over her mother’s bent back and switched on the hal lights. Then they al pushed past and surged down the hal to the kitchen, and Chrissie straightened up, with the keys in her hand, and tried to put them into the door’s inside lock and found she was shaking so badly that she had to hold her right wrist with her left hand, in order to be steady enough.
Then she walked down the hal , straight down, not looking in at the sitting room and certainly not in at his practice room, where the piano sat, and the dented piano stool, and the framed photographs and the music system and the racks and racks of CDs and the certificates and awards and battered stacks of old sheet music he would never throw away. She paused in the kitchen doorway. Al the lights were on and so was the radio, at once, KISS FM or something, and the kettle was whining away and al three girls were scattered about, and they were al now crying and crying.
Later that night, Chrissie climbed into bed clutching a hot-water bottle and a packet of Nurofen Extra. She hadn’t used a hot-water bottle for years.
She had an electric blanket on her side of their great bed – Richie, being a Northerner, had despised electric blankets – but she had felt a great need that night to have something to hold in bed, something warm and tactile and simple, so she had dug about in the airing cupboard and found a hot-water bottle that had once been given to Dil y, blue rubber inside a nylon-fur cover fashioned to look like a Dalmatian, its caricatured spotted face closing down over the stopper in a padded mask.
One of the girls had put some tea by her bed. And a tumbler of what turned out to be whisky. She never drank whisky. Richie had liked whisky, but she always preferred vodka. Or champagne. Richie would have made them drink champagne that evening; he always said champagne was grief medicine, temper medicine, disappointment medicine. But they couldn’t do it. There was a bottle in the fridge – there was almost always a bottle in the fridge – and they took it out and looked at it and put it back again. They’d drunk tea, and more tea, and Amy had had some cereal, and Tamsin had gone to telephone her boyfriend – not very far away – and they could hear her saying the same things over and over again, and Dil y had tried to pick some dried blueberries out of Amy’s cereal and Amy had slapped her and then Chrissie had broken down at last herself, utterly and total y, and shocked them al into another silence.
That shock, on top of the other unbearable shock, probably accounted for the whisky. And her bed being turned down, and the bedside lamp on, and the bathroom al lit and ready, with a towel on the stool. But there was stil a second towel on the heated rail, the supersized towel he liked, and there were stil six pil ows on the bed, and his reading glasses were on top of the pile of books he never finished, and there were his slippers, and a half-drunk glass of water. Chrissie looked at the glass with a kind of terror. His mouth had been on that glass, last night. Last night only. And she was going to have to lie down beside it because nothing on earth could persuade her either to touch that glass or to let anyone else touch it.
‘Mum?’ Amy said from the doorway.
Chrissie turned. Amy was stil dressed, in a minidress and jeans and bal et slippers so shal ow they were like a narrow black border to her naked feet.
Chrissie said, gesturing at the bed, at the whisky, ‘Thank you.’
‘S’OK,’ Amy said.
She had clamped some of her hair on top of her head with a red plastic clip and the rest hung unevenly round her face. Her face looked awful.
Chrissie put her arms out.
Amy came and stood awkwardly in Chrissie’s embrace. It wasn’t the right embrace, Chrissie knew, it wasn’t relaxed enough, comforting enough.
Richie had been the one who was good at comfort, at subduing resistant adolescent limbs and frames into affectionate acquiescence.
‘Sorry,’ Chrissie said into Amy’s hair.
‘What for?’ she said. ‘You didn’t kil him. He just died.’
For being here, Chrissie wanted to say, for being here when he isn’t.
‘We just have to do it,’ she said instead, ‘hour by hour. We just have to get through.’
Amy shifted, half pul ing away.
Chrissie looked at the Nurofen.
‘Want something to relax you? Help you sleep?’
Amy grimaced. She shook her head.
Chrissie said, ‘What are the others doing?’
‘Dil y’s got her door shut. Tam’s talking to Robbie.’
‘Stil ,’ Amy said. She looked round the bedroom. Her glance plainly hurried over the slippers, the far pil ows. ‘I don’t know what to do.’
‘Nor me,’ Chrissie said.
Amy began to cry again. Chrissie tightened the arm round her shoulders, and pressed Amy’s head against her.
‘I know, baby—’
‘I can’t stand it—’
‘Do you,’ Chrissie said, ‘want to sleep with me?’
Amy stopped crying. She looked at the extra pil ows. She shook her head, sniffing.
‘Don’t have to be sorry. Just a suggestion. We’l none of us sleep, wherever we are.’
‘When I wake up next,’ Amy said, ‘there’l be a second before I remember. Won’t there?’
Chrissie nodded. Amy disengaged herself and trailed towards the door. In the doorway she paused and took the red clip out of her hair and snapped it once or twice.
‘At least,’ she said, not turning, not looking at her mother, ‘at least we’ve got his name stil . At least we’re al stil Rossiters.’ She gave a huge shuddering sigh. ‘I’m going to play my flute.’
‘Yes,’ Chrissie said. ‘Yes. You do that.’
Amy flicked a glance at her mother.
‘Dad liked my flute,’ she said.
Then she went slowly away down the landing, shuffling in her little slippers, and Chrissie heard her starting tiredly on the stairs that led to the second-floor conversion that she and Richie had decided on and designed so that Dil y and Amy could have bedrooms of their own.
She did sleep. She had thought she neither could nor should, but she fel into a heavy, brief slumber and woke two hours later in order to fal instead into a pit of grief so deep that there seemed neither point nor possibility of climbing out of it. She had no idea how long she wrestled down there, but at some moment she exchanged her embrace of the Dalmatian hot-water bottle for one of Richie’s pil ows, scented with the stuff he used on the grey streaks in his hair, and found herself crushing it, and groaning, and being suddenly and simultaneously aware that there were lines of incipient daylight above the curtain tracks, and that a bird or two was tuning up in the plane tree outside the window. She rol ed over and turned on the light. It was six-thirteen. She was six hours and thirteen minutes, only, into the first day of this chapter of life which she had always dreaded and, consequently, had never permitted herself to picture.
‘I’l be a hopeless widow,’ she used to say to Richie, and, if he was paying attention, he’d say back, ‘Wel , I’m not giving you the chance to find out,’ and then he’d sing her something, a line or two of some Tony Bennett or Jack Jones bal ad, and deflect the moment. He’d always done that, defuse by singing. Once she thought it was wonderful. Recently, however, in the last year or two, she thought he found it easier to sing than to engage. Oh God, if only! If only he had engaged! If only he’d done even that!
She drew her left hand out from under the duvet, and looked at it. It was a wel -kept, pretty hand, as befitted a wel -kept, pretty woman. It bore a narrow white-gold plain band and a half-hoop of diamonds. The plain band was not new, in fact it was quite worn, having been on Chrissie’s finger since shortly after Tamsin’s birth. She remembered the occasion exactly, since she had bought it herself, in order to wear it in hospital, and put it on her own finger. The diamonds, however, were new. They were quite big, bigger than they possibly might have been had they been dug out of the faraway depths of South Africa. Instead, they had been made, ingeniously, in a smal factory near Antwerp, by a process which simulated what nature might have managed over mil ennia, but in only three weeks. They were, Chrissie told Richie, known as industrial diamonds. He had looked at her hand, and then his attention went back to his piano and he played a few bars of Gershwin, and then he said, ‘You wear them, sweetheart. If they make you happy.’
She said, ‘You know what would make me happy.’
Richie went on playing.
She said, ‘I have to be Mrs Rossiter, for the girls. I have to be Mrs Rossiter at school. I have to wear a wedding ring and be Mrs Rossiter.’
‘OK,’ Richie said softly. He began on some mounting chords. ‘Course you do.’
‘Wear the diamonds,’ Richie said. ‘Wear them. Let me pay for them.’
But she hadn’t. She told herself that it was principle, that a woman of independent mind could buy her own manifestations of the outward respectability required at the school gates, even in liberal-minded North London. For a week or two, she registered the glances cast at her sizeable diamonds – and the conclusions visibly drawn in consequence – with satisfaction and even tiny flashes of triumph. When Tamsin, who missed no detail of anyone’s appearance, said, ‘Oh my God, Mum, did Dad give you those?’ she had managed a smal , self-conscious smile that could easily have passed for coquettish self-satisfaction. But then heart quietly overcame head with its usual stealthy persistence, and the independence and the triumph faded before the miserable and energetic longing for her status as Mrs Rossiter to be a reality rather than a fantasy adorned with meaningless – and engineered – symbols.
It wasn’t real y just status either. She was Richie’s manager, after al , the control er and keeper of his diary, his finances, his pragmatical y necessary wel -being. She had plenty of status, in the eyes of Richie’s profession, as Christine Kelsey, the woman – girl, back then – who had persuaded Richie Rossiter that a bigger, younger audience awaited him outside the Northern circuit where he had thus far spent al his performing life. Richie only answered the telephone for pleasure and left al administration, and certainly anything technological, to her. No, it wasn’t real y status, it real y wasn’t.
It was instead that hoary old, urgent old, irreplaceable old need for commitment. In twenty-three years together, Chrissie could not shift Richie one mil imetre towards divorcing his wife, and marrying her. He wasn’t Catholic, he wasn’t in touch with his wife, he wasn’t even much in touch with his son by that marriage. He was living in London, in apparent contentment, with a woman he had elected to leave his wife for, and the three daughters he had had by her and with whom he was plainly besotted, but he would make no move of any kind to transfer his legal position as head of his first family to head of his second.
For years, he said he would think about it, that he came from a place and a background where traditional codes of conduct were as fundamental to a person as their heartbeat, and therefore it would take him time. And Chrissie at first understood that and, a little later in this relationship, continued at least to try and understand it. But his efforts – such as they had ever real y been – dwindled to invisibility over time, corresponding inevitably with a rise in Chrissie’s anxiety and insistence. The more she asked – in a voice whose rigorously modulated control spoke volumes –
the more he played his Gershwin. If she persisted, he switched to Rachmaninov, and played with his eyes closed. In the end – wel , it now looked like the end – she had marched out and bought her industrial diamonds and, she now realized, surveying her left hand in the first dawn of her new widowhood, let him off the hook, by finding – as she so often did, good old Chrissie – a practical solution to living with his refusal.
She let her hand fal into the plumpness of the duvet. The girls were al Rossiter. Tamsin Rossiter, Delia Rossiter, Amy Rossiter. That was how they had al been registered at birth, with her agreement, encouragement even.
‘It makes sense to have your name,’ she’d said. ‘After al , you’re the wel -known one. You’re the one people wil associate them with.’
She’d waited three times for him to say, ‘Wel , they’re our children, pet, so I think you should join the Rossiter clan as wel , don’t you?’ but he never did.
He accepted the girls as if it was entirely natural that they should be identified with him, and his pride and delight in them couldn’t be faulted.
Those friends from the North who had managed to accept Richie’s transition to London and to Chrissie professed exaggerated amazement at his preparedness to share the chores of three babies in the space of five years: he was a traitor, they said loudly, glass in hand, jocular arm round Chrissie’s shoulders, to the noble cause of unreconstructed Northern manhood. But none of them, however they might covertly stare at Chrissie’s legs and breasts or overtly admire her cooking or her ability to get Richie gigs in legendarily impossible venues, ever urged him to marry her.
Perhaps, Chrissie thought now, staring at the ceiling through which she hoped Dil y stil slept, they thought he had.
After al , the girls did. Or, to put it another way, the girls had no reason to believe that he hadn’t. They were al Rossiters, Chrissie signed herself Rossiter on al family-concerned occasions, and they knew her professional name was Kelsey just as they knew she was their father’s manager. It wouldn’t have occurred to them that their parents weren’t married because the subject had simply never arisen. The disputes that arose between Richie and Chrissie were – it was the stuff of their family chronicle – because their father wanted to work less and play and sing more just for playing and singing’s sake, and their mother, an acknowledged businesswoman, wanted to keep up the momentum. The girls, Chrissie knew, were inclined to side with their father. That was no surprise – he had traded, for decades, on getting women audiences to side with him. But – perhaps because of this, at least in part – the girls had found it hard to leave home. Tamsin had tried, and had come back again, and when she came home it was to her father that she had instinctively turned and it was her father who had made it plain that she was more than welcome.
Chrissie swal owed. She pictured Dil y through that ceiling, asleep in her severe cotton pyjamas in the resolute order of her bedroom. Thank heavens, today, that she was there. And thank heavens for Amy, in her equal y determined chaos in the next room, and for Tamsin amid the ribbons and flowers and china-shoe col ections down the landing. Thank heavens she hadn’t prevailed, and achieved her aim of even attempted daughterly self-sufficiency before the girls reached the age of twenty. Richie had been right. He was wrong about a lot of things, but about his girls he had been right.
Chrissie began to cry again. She pul ed her hand back in, under the duvet, and rol ed on her side, where Richie’s pil ow awaited her in al its glorious, intimate, agonizing familiarity.
‘Where’s Mum?’ Tamsin said.
She was standing in the kitchen doorway clutching a pink cotton kimono round her as if her stomach hurt. Dil y was sitting at the table, staring out of the window in front of her, and the tabletop was littered with screwed-up bal s of tissue. Amy was down the far end of the kitchen by the sink, standing on one leg, her raised foot in her hand, apparently gazing out into the garden. Neither moved.
‘Where’s Mum?’ Tamsin said again.
‘Dunno,’ Dil y said.
Amy said, without turning, ‘Did you look in her room?’
Amy let her foot go.
Tamsin padded down the kitchen in her pink slippers.
‘I couldn’t sleep.’
She picked up the kettle and nudged Amy sideways so that she could fil it at the sink.
‘I don’t believe it’s happened.’
Cold water gushed into the kettle, bounced out and caught Amy’s sleeve.
Tamsin took no notice. She carried the kettle back to its mooring.
‘What are we gonna do?’ Dil y said.
Tamsin switched the kettle on.
‘Go back to the hospital. Al the formalities—’
‘How do you know?’
‘It’s what they said. Last night. They said it’s too late now, but come back in the morning.’
‘It’s the morning now,’ Amy said, stil gazing into the garden.
Dil y half turned from the table.
‘Wil Mum know what to do?’
Tamsin took one mug out of a cupboard.
‘Why should she?’
‘Can I have some tea?’ Amy said.
‘What d’you mean, why should she?’
‘Why should she,’ Tamsin said, her voice breaking, ‘know what you do when your husband dies?’
Amy cried out, ‘Don’t say that!’
Tamsin got out a second mug. Then, after a pause, a third.
She said, not looking at Amy, ‘It’s true, babe.’
‘I don’t want it to be!’
‘None of us do,’ Dil y said. She gathered al the tissue bal s up in her hands and crushed them together. Then she stood up and crossed the kitchen and dumped them in the pedal bin. ‘Is not being able to take it in worse than when you’ve taken it in?’
‘It’s al awful,’ Amy said.
‘Wil Mum—’ Dil y said, and stopped.
Tamsin was taking tea bags out of a caddy their father had brought down from Newcastle, a battered tin caddy with a crude portrait of Earl Grey stamped on al four sides. The caddy had always been an object of mild family derision, being so cosy, so evidently much used, so sturdily unsleek.
Richie had loved it. He said it was like one he had grown up with, in the terraced house of his childhood in North Shields. He said it was honest, and he liked it fil ed with Yorkshire tea bags. Earl Grey tea – no disrespect to His Lordship – was for toffs and for women.
Tamsin’s hand shook now, opening it.
‘Wil Mum what?’
‘Wel ,’ Dil y said. ‘Wel , manage.’
Tamsin closed the caddy and shut it quickly away in its cupboard.
‘She’s very practical. She’l manage.’
‘But there’s the other stuff—’
Amy turned from the sink.
‘Dad won’t be singing.’
‘If Dad isn’t singing—’
Tamsin poured boiling water into the mugs in a wavering stream.
‘Maybe she can manage other people—’
‘Who can?’ Chrissie asked from the doorway.
She was wearing Richie’s navy-blue bathrobe and she had pul ed her hair back into a tight ponytail. Dil y got up from the table to hug her and Amy came running down the kitchen to join in.
‘We were just wondering,’ Tamsin said unsteadily.
Chrissie said into Dil y’s shoulder, ‘Me too.’ She looked at Amy. ‘Did anyone sleep?’
‘Not real y.’
‘She played her flute,’ Dil y said between clenched teeth. ‘She played and played her flute. I couldn’t have slept even if I’d wanted to.’
‘I didn’t want to,’ Tamsin said, ‘because of having to wake up again.’
Chrissie said, ‘Is that tea?’
‘I’l make another one—’
Chrissie moved towards the table, stil holding her daughters. They felt to her, at that moment, like her only support and sympathy yet at the same time like a burden of redoubled emotional intensity that she knew neither how to manage nor to put down. She subsided into a chair, and Tamsin put a mug of tea in front of her. She glanced up.
‘Thank you. Toast?’
‘Couldn’t,’ Dil y said.
‘Could you try? Just a slice? It would help, it real y would.’
Dil y shook her head. Amy opened the larder cupboard and rummaged about in it for a while. Then she took out a packet of chocolate digestive biscuits and put them on the table.
‘I’m trying,’ Dil y said tensely, ‘not to eat chocolate.’
‘You’re a pain—’
‘Shh,’ Chrissie said. She took Dil y’s nearest wrist. ‘Shh. Shh.’
Dil y took her hand away and held it over her eyes.
‘Dad ate those—’
‘No, he didn’t,’ Amy said. ‘No, he didn’t. He ate those putrid ones with chocolate-cream stuff in, he—’
‘Please,’ Chrissie said. She picked up her mug. ‘What were you saying when I came in?’
Tamsin put the remaining mugs on the table. She looked at her sisters. They were looking at the table.
She said, ‘We were talking about you.’
Chrissie raised her head. ‘And?’ she said.
Tamsin sat down, pul ing her kimono round her as if in the teeth of a gale.
Dil y took her hand away from her face. She said, ‘It’s just, wel , wil you – wil we – be OK, wil we manage, wil we—’
There was a pause.
‘I don’t think,’ Chrissie said, ‘that we’l be OK for quite a long time. Do you? I don’t think we can expect to be. There’s so much to get used to that we don’t real y want – to get used to. Isn’t there?’ She stopped. She looked round the table. Amy had broken a biscuit into several pieces and was jigsawing them back together again. Chrissie said, ‘But you know al that, don’t you? You know al that as wel as I do. You didn’t mean that, did you, you didn’t mean how are we going to manage emotional y, did you?’
‘It seems,’ Tamsin said, ‘so rubbish to even think of anything else—’
‘No,’ Chrissie said, ‘it’s practical. We have to be practical. We have to live. We have to go on living. That’s what Dad wanted. That’s what Dad worked for.’
Amy began to cry quietly onto her broken biscuit.
Chrissie retrieved Dil y’s hand and took Amy’s nearest one. She said, looking at Tamsin, gripping the others, ‘We’l be fine. Don’t worry. We have the house. And there’s more. And I’l go on working. You aren’t to worry. Anyway, it isn’t today’s problem. Today just has to be got through, however we can manage it.’
Tamsin was moving her tea mug round in little circles with her right hand and pressing her left into her stomach. She said, ‘We ought to tel people.’
‘Yes,’ Chrissie said, ‘we should. We must make a list.’
Tamsin looked up.
‘I might be moving in with Robbie.’
Dil y gave a smal scream.
‘Not now, darling,’ Chrissie said tiredly.
‘Shut it!’ Amy said suddenly.
‘I just thought if we were making plans, making lists—’
Amy leaned across the table. She hissed, ‘We were going to make a list of who to tel that Dad died last night. Not lists of who we were planning to shack up with.’
Chrissie got up from the table.
‘And the registrar,’ she said. She began to shuffle through the pile of papers by the telephone. ‘And the undertaker. And I suppose the newspapers. Always better to tel them than have them guess.’
Tamsin sat up straighter. She said, ‘What about Margaret?’
Chrissie stopped shuffling.
‘Margaret,’ Tamsin said.
Amy and Dil y looked at her.
‘Wel ,’ Tamsin said, ‘she ought to be told. She’s got a right to know.’
Amy turned to look across the kitchen at Chrissie. Chrissie was holding a notebook and an absurd pen with a plume of shocking-pink marabou frothing out of the top.
Chrissie nodded slowly.
‘But Dad wouldn’t want that!’ Dil y said. ‘Dad never spoke to her, right? She wasn’t part of his life, was she, he wouldn’t have wanted her to be part of – of—’ She stopped. Then she said angrily, ‘It’s nothing to do with her.’
Amy stood up and drifted down the kitchen again. Chrissie watched her, dark hair down her back, Richie’s dark hair, Richie’s dark Northern hair, only girl-version.
Amy didn’t turn.
‘I shouldn’t have mentioned her,’ Tamsin said, ‘I shouldn’t. She’s no part of this.’
‘I hate her,’ Dil y said.
Chrissie said, making an effort, ‘You shouldn’t. She couldn’t help being part of his life before and she’s never made any claim, any trouble.’
‘But she’s there,’ Dil y said.
‘And,’ Amy said from the other end of the kitchen, ‘she was his wife.’
‘Was,’ Tamsin said.
Chrissie held the notebook and the feathered pen hard against her. She said, ‘I’m not sure I can quite ring her—’
‘Nor me,’ Dil y said.
Tamsin took a tiny mobile phone out of her kimono pocket and put it on the table.
‘You can’t real y just text her—’
Chrissie made a sudden little fluttering gesture with the hand not holding the notebook. She said, ‘I don’t think I can quite do this, I can’t manage
—’ She stopped, and put her hand over her mouth.
Tamsin jumped up.
‘I’m OK,’ Chrissie said. ‘Real y I am. I’m fine. But I know you’re right. I know we should tel Margaret—’
‘And Scott,’ Amy said.
Chrissie glanced at her.
‘Of course. Scott. I forgot him, I forgot—’
Tamsin moved to put her arms round her mother.
‘Damn,’ Chrissie whispered against Tamsin. ‘Damn. I don’t—’
‘You don’t have to,’ Tamsin said.
‘I do. I do. I do have to tel Margaret and Scott that Dad has died.’
Nobody said anything. Dil y got up and col ected the mugs on the table and put them in the dishwasher. Then she swept the biscuit crumbs and bits into her hand and put them in the bin, and the remaining packet in the cupboard. They watched her, al of them. They were used to watching Dil y, so orderly in her person and her habits, so chaotic in her reactions and responses. They waited while she found a cloth, wiped the table with it, rinsed it and hung it, neatly folded, over the mixer tap on the sink.
Chrissie said absently, approvingly, ‘Thank you, darling.’
Dil y said furiously, ‘It doesn’t matter if bloody Margaret knows!’
Chrissie sighed. She withdrew a little from Tamsin.
‘It does matter.’
‘Dad wouldn’t want it!’
‘Wel , do it then!’ Dil y shouted.
Chrissie gave a little shiver.
‘I’d give anything—’
‘I’l stand beside you,’ Tamsin said, ‘while you ring.’
Chrissie gave her a smal smile.
Chrissie turned. Amy was leaning against the cupboard where the biscuits lived. She had her arms folded.
‘I’l do it.’
‘I’l ring her,’ Amy said. ‘I’l ring Margaret.’
Chrissie put her arms out.
‘You’re lovely. You’re a dol . But you don’t have to, you don’t know her—’
Amy shifted slightly.
‘Makes it easier then, doesn’t it?’
‘Look,’ Amy said, ‘I don’t mind phones. I’m not scared of phones, me. I’l just dial her number and tel her who I am and what’s happened and then I’l say goodbye.’
‘What if she wants to come to the funeral?’ Dil y said. ‘What if she wants to come and make out he was—’
‘Shut up,’ Tamsin said.
She looked at her mother.
‘Let her,’ Tamsin said. ‘Let her ring.’
‘Yes,’ Tamsin said. ‘Let her do it like she said and then it’l be done. Two minutes and it’l be done.’
‘And then? ’
‘There won’t be an “and then”.’
Amy peeled herself off the cupboard and stood up. She looked as she looked, Chrissie remembered, when she learned to dive, standing on the end of the springboard, ful of excited, anxious tension. She winked at her mother, and she actual y smiled.
‘Watch me,’ Amy said.
More than six decades of living by the sea had trained Margaret to know what the weather was doing, each morning, before she even drew back the curtains. Sometimes there was the subdued roaring that indicated wind and rain; sometimes there was a scattering of little sequins of light reflected across the ceiling from bright air and water, and sometimes there was the muffled stil ness that meant fog.
There was fog today. When she looked out, she would see that the sea mist had rol ed up the shal ow cliffs, and fil ed the wide grassy oval in front of the crescent of houses in Percy Gardens, bumping itself softly against the buildings. There would be shreds and wisps of mist caught in the fancy ironwork of the narrow balcony outside her bedroom window, and in the crooked cherry tree in the front garden. There would be salty smears on the window glass and the cars parked along the crescent and on the front-door brass that needed, real y, daily polishing. And there would be this eerie silence, a muted quality to al the usual morning noise of slammed front doors and car engines starting and the woman two doors down shouting at her dogs, who liked to start the day with a good bark.
Margaret got out of bed slowly and felt for her slippers with her feet. They were good slippers: sheepskin, of enduring construction, as was her padded cotton dressing gown patterned with roses and fastened with covered buttons, and although the sight of herself as she passed the mirror on her bedroom wal caused her to pul a face, she knew she looked appropriate. Appropriate for a professional woman – not yet retired – of sixty-six living in a house in Percy Gardens, Tynemouth, with a double front door and a cat and a large stand of plumed ornamental grasses outside the sitting-room window.
She opened the curtains and surveyed the mist. It was ragged and uneven, indicating that a rising wind or strengthening sun would disperse it quite quickly. A seagul – an immense seagul – was standing just below her, on the roof of her car, no doubt intending, as seagul s seemed to enjoy doing, to relieve itself copiously down the windscreen. Margaret banged on the window. The seagul adjusted its head to indicate that it had observed her and intended to ignore her. Then it walked stiffly down the length of her car roof, and turned its back.
Margaret went down the stairs to her kitchen. On the table, wearing much the same expression of insolent indifference as the seagul , sat a huge cat. Scott had brought him home as a tiny, scrawny tabby kitten some eight years before, having rescued him from a group of tormenting children on the North Shields quayside, and he had grown, steadily and inexorably, into a great square striped cat, with disproportionately smal ears and a tail as fat as a cushion.
‘I don’t particularly like cats,’ Margaret had said to Scott.
‘Nor me,’ he said.
They looked at the kitten. The kitten turned its head away and began to wash. Margaret said, ‘And I don’t like surprises either.’
‘Mam,’ Scott said, ‘this’l stop being a surprise soon. You’l get used to it.’
She had. Just as she had got used to a lot of other things, she got used to the kitten. Indeed, she realized how used to the kitten she had become when she found herself explaining to him that one of the main things about life that he should realize was that it consisted of, in fact, getting used to a great many things that were the result of other people’s choices, rather than one’s own. For the first year, the kitten was simply cal ed the kitten.
Then, as his bulk and solidity began to take shape as he grew, Scott christened him Dawson, after the comedian.
Dawson put out a huge paw now, as Margaret passed him on her way to the kettle, and snagged her dressing gown with a deliberate claw.
‘In a minute,’ Margaret said.
Outside the kitchen window, the sea mist had been diluted by having to slide up over the roofs, and the air here merely had a vague bleary look.
The little paved yard – a patio, her neighbours preferred to cal it – that passed for a back garden simply gave up in this kind of weather. Everything hung damply and dankly, and blackened leaves plastered themselves against surfaces, like flattened slugs. Margaret’s neighbour, on her left-hand side, had been infected by holidays in Spain, and had painted her patio white, inset with mosaic pictures made with chips of coloured glass and mirror, and hung wrought-iron baskets on the wal s which were intended to spil avalanches of pink and orange bougainvil ea. But bringing abroad back to Tynemouth was not Margaret’s way. Abroad was abroad and the English North was the English North. What was unhappy growing beside the North Sea shouldn’t, in her view, be required to try.
She made tea for herself, in a teapot, and shook a handful of dried cat food into a plastic bowl from a box which declared the contents to be designed for senior cats with a weight problem. She put the bowl on the floor. Dawson thudded off the table, inspected his breakfast with contempt and sat down beside it, not looking at Margaret.
‘You won’t get anything else,’ Margaret said. She poured out her tea. ‘You can sit there al day.’ She added milk. ‘It’l do you no harm to fast for a day, anyhow.’
Dawson’s thick tail twitched very slightly.
Margaret picked up her tea, preparatory to going upstairs. ‘I’l leave you to think about it.’
Dawson regarded the wal straight ahead of him. Margaret went past him, making a smal detour to beyond claw-reach – how extraordinary it was, the intimate knowledge two living organisms who shared a house had of one another – and climbed the stairs. They had recently been recarpeted, with a good-quality wool-twist carpet in pale grey. Scott had suggested sisal, or seagrass. Margaret said she wasn’t a bachelor (she emphasized the word, as if to underline her opinion of Scott’s abiding single state, at the age of thirty-seven) in a loft, in Newcastle, and that what was appropriate to Percy Gardens was a hard-wearing wool twist in a neutral colour. She was pleased with the result, pleased with the resilience provided by the thick foam-rubber underlay. A new carpet, she reflected, had the same effect on a house as mowing a lawn in regular stripes did on a garden.
Dressing was not a matter of indecision for Margaret. For the twenty-three years or so that she had been on her own, she had kept to a number of habits which she had first devised as a way of keeping the grief and shock of being deserted at bay. Because she had, after Richie’s departure, gone on doing for other people what she had once done – and very successful y – for him, there was a requirement to dress with professional care on a daily basis. In the early days without him, there was also of course an obligation to display an energizing measure of bravado, a need to show the world that her spirit had not been crushed, even if her heart had temporarily been broken. She had, from a week or two after he left, decided each night what she would wear the next day, got it out of her wardrobe, inspected it for stains or fluff, and hung it up for the morning, like a quilt put out to air. Sometimes, in the morning, she would feel inexplicably reluctant about the previous night’s choice, but she never changed her mind. If she did, she was afraid, in some mysterious superstitious part of her mind, that she would just go on changing and changing it until her bedroom was a chaos of discarded clothes, and she was a weeping, wild-haired wreck in the middle of it al .
Today her clothes were blue. Grey-blue. And then the pearls Richie had given her when Scott was born, which she wore almost every day, and the pearl earrings Scott had given her for her fiftieth birthday. He’d only been twenty-one then. He must have gone without a lot, to buy pearl earrings for her, and even now, when she considered what sort of sweet and clumsy atonement he was trying to make for his father’s absence, she felt unsteady about her earrings. So she wore them daily, even when she wasn’t wearing her necklace, as she wore the Cartier watch she had awarded herself when she was sixty. The watch had a tiny domed sapphire set into the knob that moved the hands. That sapphire was, for some reason, a source of great satisfaction to her.
Breakfast was equal y not a matter for daily whim. Porridge in winter, muesli in summer, with a grated apple, more tea and a selection of vitamin capsules measured out into an eggcup Scott had had as a child for Easter one year, fashioned like a rabbit holding a smal china basket. The rabbit’s ears were chipped, and the basket was veined with cracks, but its familiarity made Margaret grateful to it in the same way that she was grateful to the Lloyd Loom laundry basket in her bathroom, inherited from her mother, and the gateleg table she and Richie had bought, after his first successful gig, their first piece of grown-up furniture, a portent of one day owning a house of their own instead of sharing someone else’s.
When Scott came out to Tynemouth at weekends – not often, but he came – he’d bring Continental breakfast pastries from Newcastle, and Colombian coffee, and cranberry juice. Dawson, who appreciated a good croissant, became quite animated at these breakfasts, leaning against Scott’s legs and purring sonorously. Today, he had ignored his breakfast. It was untouched and he had removed himself to his favourite daytime place, stretched along the back of the sofa in the bay window of the sitting room, to catch any eastern sun there might be, and also any passing incident. He would not, Margaret knew, involve himself in anything that required exertion, but equal y, he liked to know what was going on.
Breakfast eaten, Margaret put her cereal bowl in the dishwasher, restored the rabbit to his shelf by the vitaminsupplement boxes, switched on the telephone answering machine and checked her bag and her briefcase for everything she would need during the day. In the hal , she paused in front of what Scott used to cal the lipstick mirror. It reflected what it always reflected. Someone once – an il -advised someone – had told her that she looked like the best kind of Tory supporter, groomed, capable, formidable. Margaret, born and bred a socialist in a cramped terraced cottage in North Shields, had been offended to her very marrow, and had said so. Her heroine, as she was growing up, had been Barbara Castle.
The seagul had evacuated itself thoroughly down the back window of Margaret’s car. If a day in the office awaited her, she would walk along East Street, behind King Edward’s Bay, to Front Street, but if, as today, her diary included a meeting in Newcastle, then she would take the car. She put her briefcase on to the back seat, and climbed in behind the wheel. The seagul ’s souvenir would have to wait.
Her office – Margaret Rossiter Entertainment Agency – was located beside one of Tynemouth’s many cafés, and above a hairdresser’s. A narrow door from the street – painted dark-grey matt at Scott’s insistence, and with brushed-aluminium door furniture instead of the brass she would have preferred – led into an equal y narrow white-painted hal way lined with framed photographs of some of Margaret’s clients and towards a staircase at the back. At the top of the staircase was a second door, and behind that the two rooms which had paid for Scott’s final years of education and training as wel as providing Margaret’s living for over two decades and a part-time living for Glenda, who did the correspondence, invoicing and books, and whose husband was disabled after an accident at the Swan Hunter shipyard when he was only twenty-seven.
It was the disablement that had swayed Margaret when hiring Glenda. It had swayed her because her own father had been disabled, and his injury had unquestionably darkened her childhood. He’d been chief engineer on a trawler, the Ben Torc , registered to North Shields, a trawler belonging to Richard Irvine and Sons, who’d owned almost two hundred trawlers and herring drifters when Margaret was a child and she could remember them, jammed up together against the Fish Quay in North Shields, tight as sardines in a can. And then her father – Darky, his mates cal ed him, on account of his swarthy skin – had lost an arm in an engine accident, which was never described to Margaret, and was transferred to work in the Shields Ice and Cold Storage Company canning herrings, and, at the same time, had taken to frequenting a local shebeen cal ed the Cabbage Patch. The rows at home were terrible. There wasn’t space in that house for living, let alone for screaming. Margaret and her sister fled out or upstairs when the screaming began. They didn’t discuss it, ever, but there was a mute and common consent that the rows were unbearable and that their mother was more than capable of looking after herself, especial y if her opponent had only one arm and was unsteady on his feet. As a girl and a young woman, their mother had worked as a herring fil eter, and both her daughters were fil ed with a determination not to fol ow her.
The determination in Margaret’s sister was so strong that she went to Canada when she was sixteen, and never came back, leaving Margaret and her mother to deal with life in North Shields, and the increasing wreck of Darky Ramsey and his appetite for what he infuriatingly referred to as
Glenda’s husband didn’t drink. He was a quiet, careful man in a wheelchair who spent his days mending things and regimenting things and analysing his household’s meagre cash flow with a calculator. He dealt with his disability by the obsessive control of detail, and Margaret, in robust disregard of regulations, paid Glenda some of her wages in cash, so that not every penny went home to be scrutinized and al otted under Barry’s ferocious micromanagement. If it wasn’t for Margaret, Glenda said, she’d never get a haircut or new underwear or presents for the grandchildren.
Glenda had become a grandmother before she was forty.
She was at her desk before Margaret. It wasn’t what Margaret liked, but she understood that to be in first was a mark of Glenda’s dedication to her boss and to the business. She was working, Margaret could see, on the month-end spreadsheets, which she would then want to explain, despite the fact that the way they were laid out made them absolutely intel igible without a word being said.
‘You look nice,’ Glenda said.
She said this most mornings and probably, Margaret believed, meant it. It was something that somehow had to be got over with, a ritual that must not be al owed to set her teeth on edge merely because she knew it was, inevitably, coming.
‘Thank you, dear,’ Margaret said.
She put her bag on the floor, and her briefcase on the desk. The windows were screened with vertical venetian blinds, and Margaret went across the room, behind Glenda, to open the slats and let in more of the unenthusiastic morning light.
‘I thought the bus would be late,’ Glenda said. ‘What with the fog. But it wasn’t. It was almost early. I had to run, you should have seen me, running down North King Street. No wonder I look a mess, al that running.’
She paused, waiting for reassurance.
Margaret, trained by Dawson in the art of sidestepping the obvious, said as if Glenda hadn’t spoken, ‘Glenda, dear. Has Bernie Harrison cal ed?’
‘Not yet,’ Glenda said. She put her hand to her hair and tucked a frond or two behind her ear. ‘Do I look a mess?’
Margaret glanced at her.
‘No, dear. You look exactly the same as usual.’
Inside her handbag, her mobile began to ring. As she reached inside to find it, the telephone on Glenda’s desk began to ring as wel .
‘Margaret Rossiter,’ she said into her mobile.
‘Margaret Rossiter Agency,’ Glenda said simultaneously into the landline phone.
‘Yes, dear,’ Margaret said to Bernie Harrison’s secretary. ‘No, dear. No, I can’t change today’s meeting. We have to decide today because—’
‘I’m sorry?’ Glenda said.
‘It’s very rare to be offered the Sage as a venue,’ Margaret said, ‘and if you’l forgive me, dear, I shouldn’t be discussing this with you, I should be speaking to Mr Harrison. Could you put him on?’
‘Mrs Rossiter is on the other line,’ Glenda said.
Margaret walked towards the window. She looked out into the street. Bernie Harrison’s mother had worked in Welch’s sweet factory, and now he drove a Jaguar and had a flat in Monte Carlo.
‘What sort of important?’ Glenda said. ‘Could I ask her to cal you back?’
‘Wel ,’ Margaret said, ‘if you can’t make later, you’d better climb into that vulgar jalopy of yours and come and see me now.’
Glenda inserted herself between Margaret and the window. She mouthed, ‘Something important,’ stretching her mouth like a cartoon fish.
‘One moment, Bernie,’ Margaret said. She took the phone away from her ear. ‘What now?’ she said to Glenda.
‘A girl,’ Glenda said, ‘a girl on the phone. She says it’s important. She says she must speak to you.’
Something chil y slid down Margaret’s spine.
‘She says,’ Glenda said, ‘she says her name’s Amy. She says you’l know—’
Margaret gave Glenda a little dismissive nod. She put her phone back against her ear.
‘Bernie. I’l cal you back in fifteen minutes. You just tel your client that even Josh Groban would jump at the chance to sing at the Sage.’
She flipped her phone shut and held out her hand. Glenda put the landline receiver into it.
‘Are you al right?’ Glenda said.
Margaret turned her back. She said into the phone, ‘Yes? Margaret Rossiter speaking.’
There was a fractional pause, and then Amy said, ‘It’s Amy.’
‘Amy,’ Margaret said.
‘Yes. Amy Rossiter.’
‘Is—’ Margaret said, and stopped.
‘No,’ Amy said. Her voice was faint and unsteady. ‘I tried your home number but you’d gone. That’s why I’m – wel , that’s why I’m ringing now, because you ought to know, I’m ringing to tel you about – about Dad.’
‘He died,’ Amy said simply.
‘Died?’ Margaret said. Her voice was incredulous.
‘He had a heart attack. He was rushed to hospital. And he died, in the hospital.’
Margaret felt behind her for the edge of Glenda’s desk, and leaned against it.
‘He – he died?’
‘Yes,’ Amy said. ‘Last night.’ Her voice broke. ‘He just died.’
Margaret closed her eyes. She heard herself say, ‘Wel , dear, thank you for tel ing me,’ as if someone else was speaking, and then she said, in quite a different voice, a much wilder voice, ‘What a shock, I can’t believe it, I don’t – I can’t –’ and Glenda came round from behind her desk and put a hand on her arm.
‘I’ve got to go,’ Amy said from London.
‘Can – can you tel me any more?’
‘There isn’t anything,’ Amy said, and then, with a kind of angry misery, ‘Isn’t that enough?’
‘Yes,’ Margaret said. ‘Yes—’
‘We thought,’ Amy said, more in control now, ‘we thought you should know. So I’ve told you. So Mum doesn’t have to.’
Margaret said nothing. She stood, leaning against Glenda’s desk with her eyes closed and the phone to her ear.
‘Bye,’ Amy said, and the line went dead.
Glenda transferred her hand from Margaret’s arm to the telephone and took it gently out of her grasp, and returned it to its base.
Margaret opened her eyes.
‘Amy,’ she said. ‘Amy. Richie’s daughter. Richie’s third daughter.’
She turned and looked at Glenda.
‘Richie’s dead,’ she said.
Scott couldn’t remember when his mother had last been to his flat. He went out to Tynemouth once a month or so, and slept in his old bedroom –
weird to sleep in a single bed again – but his mother almost never came to his flat, preferring to meet him, if she was in Newcastle, somewhere impersonal, like a hotel. Despite her manifest opinion of the contemporary decor of his flat, she had found a hotel, down on the quayside, opposite the Baltic, which was definitely not traditional in any way, and they would meet there sometimes in the bar on the first floor, looking out over the river, and she would drink gin and tonic and look about her with approval. She liked the trouble girls took with their appearances now, she said, as wel as the fashion for men having haircuts.
‘In the 1970s,’ she said to Scott, ‘your father looked a complete nightmare. Purple bel -bottoms and hair to his shoulders.’
When she had rung earlier that day, Scott had just been coming out of the Law Courts, quite close to that hotel, after seeing a barrister about a complicated case of VAT fraud. The fraud had been perpetrated by someone who had once had business dealings with his mother, so that seeing her name on his speed dial made Scott think that she was apprehensive about being caught up in the case, and was ringing for reassurance. But she had sounded strangely quiet and distracted, and had merely said, over and over, ‘I’d like to see you, dear. Today if you can make it. I’d like to see you at home.’
It was no good saying, ‘What about?’ because she didn’t seem able to tel him.
‘I’m not il , dear,’ she said, ‘if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m not il .’
So here he was leaving the office early – always difficult – and walking fast along the river westwards, and then turning off after the Tyne Bridge and climbing steeply up between old buildings and new office blocks to the Clavering Building where he had bought, two years ago, and for what his mother considered an exorbitant price, a studio flat with a view across the raised railway line to the old keep and the top of the Tyne Bridge arch and the distant shine of the Sage Centre, in Gateshead.
She was waiting in the central hal by the lifts. The Clavering Building had once been a vast Victorian factory, and the developers had been careful to leave an edgy industrial feel behind them, exposed bricks and metal pil ars and girders painted black, and quantities of the heavily engineered nuts and bolts that gave the place its air of having had a much more muscular past than its present.
Margaret came forward and kissed Scott’s cheek. She was very pale.
‘You OK, Mam?’
‘Yes, pet,’ she said. She sounded suddenly more Geordie, as she was apt to do when tired. She gestured at the lift. ‘Let’s go up. I’l tel you when we’re alone.’
Scott leaned forward to summon the lift.
‘I wasn’t expecting you, Mam. I think my bed isn’t made—’
‘Couldn’t matter,’ Margaret said. ‘Couldn’t matter.’
He fol owed her into the lift.
He said, ‘Mam, could you—’ and she turned and touched him on the chest and said, ‘In a minute, pet,’ and then she looked past him, at the steel wal of the lift, and there was nothing for it but to wait.
His flat consisted of one longish central room, wooden-floored, and held up by black iron pil ars, with a kitchen at one end and a smal bleak bedroom at the other. There was almost no furniture, beyond a metal table, a few chairs, a television and the Yamaha keyboard that Margaret had given Scott when he was twenty-one. He had left the blinds up – the view was too good to hide – and several beer bottles on the table, and a DVD
he would have preferred his mother not to know he possessed lying on the crushed cushions of his big black sofa. But Margaret did not appear to notice the bottles or the cover of the DVD, nor that the sofa was scattered with crisp crumbs. She walked into the flat, turned, waited for Scott to close his front door, and then she said, with an effort at steadiness, ‘Scott dear, it’s about your father.’
Scott put his keys down on the nearest kitchen counter.
‘Yes, pet,’ Margaret said. She came across the space between them and put her hands on his upper arms. ‘Your – wel , Amy rang me this morning. Amy Rossiter. She rang to tel me that your father had a severe heart attack last night, and he was rushed into hospital and he died there.
Your father died last night.’
Scott gazed at her. He swal owed. He felt a lump in his throat of something intractable – could it be tears? – which would certainly prevent him from talking and might even prevent him from breathing. His father had left them when he, Scott, was fourteen. He had, up to then, felt a strangled but intense adoration for his father, especial y at those rare but treasured times when his father sat down at the piano with him, and listened and watched while he played. Of course, Richie could never listen or watch for long, he had to join in and then take over, but when he was beside him on the piano stool, Scott had been what he later believed to be as close to joy as an adolescent could get. In retrospect, Scott could not bear to think about that joy. It got engulfed by grief and fury and blind incomprehension. He blinked now, several times, hard. Then he swal owed again, and the lump dispersed sufficiently to al ow him to speak.
‘Died,’ Scott said.
Scott removed himself gently from his mother’s grasp.
‘Amy rang you?’
‘She said,’ Margaret said, ‘she was ringing so that her mother wouldn’t have to.’
‘Wel , it’s brave,’ Margaret said, ‘if you think about it. She’l stil be wel in her teens.’
Scott took a step back. He shook his head.
‘So he’s dead.’
He shot a glance at his mother.
‘Are you OK?’
She said, ‘Wel , I’ve got through today and got what I wanted out of Bernie Harrison, so I suppose – wel , I suppose the news isn’t going to kil me.’
Scott moved forward and put his arms round his mother.
‘Sorry?’ she said. ‘What’s there for you to be sorry for?’
He said awkwardly, ‘Wel , it can’t happen now, can it, I mean, he can’t—’
‘I never hoped that,’ Margaret said. ‘Never.’ Her voice rose. ‘I never hoped that!’
Scott gave her a brief squeeze. She had never been helpful to hold.
‘I’m tel ing you, Scott, I never hoped he’d come back to me.’
Scott let her go. He gestured.
Margaret glanced at the table.
‘I’m not drinking beer—’
‘I’ve got brandy,’ Scott said. ‘I bought some brandy for a recipe and never used it. Let me get you a brandy.’
‘Thank you,’ Margaret said.
‘Sit down, Mam.’
Margaret went slowly across to the black sofa. She picked up the DVD, regarded the cover unseeingly, and put it down on the coffee table among the scattered magazines and newspaper supplements. Then she sat down and leaned back into the huge canvas cushions and stared up into the gaunt and careful y restored rafters of the ceiling. She was suddenly and overwhelmingly very, very tired.
Scott came down the room from the kitchen end. He was carrying a beer bottle and a tumbler of brown liquid.
‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘I don’t run to brandy bal oons.’
She turned her head slowly to look at him. Not as handsome as Richie, not as head-turning, but it was a better face, a less conscious face, and he’d got his father’s hair. Looking at him, she felt a rush of emotion, a rush of something that could end in tears if she’d been a crying woman. She patted the sofa next to her.
‘I’d drink it out of a jam jar,’ she said.
Scott sat down next to her. He held out the brandy.
‘Yes, pet,’ she said, heaving herself up to take the tumbler out of his hand.
‘Mam,’ Scott said, staring straight ahead, ‘Mam, do you think we should go to the funeral?’
The church, Chrissie thought, looked more suitable for a wedding than a funeral. The Funfair Club, the disabled children’s charity that so many in Richie’s profession supported, had said that they would like to give the flowers for his funeral, and the result was that every Gothic column of the church was smothered in pyramids of cream and pink and yel ow. The secretary of the Funfair Club had said that they wanted to do Richie proud, that he’d been such a valuable member for so long, so enthusiastic, such a supporter, and it hadn’t occurred to Chrissie to ask what, exactly, doing Richie proud might entail floral y. There must have been thousands of pounds’ worth piled up against the pil ars, roses and lilies and inescapable chrysanthemums exuding good intentions, and no taste. Chrissie glanced along her pew. At least she and the girls were doing Richie proud in the taste department.
They were al in black. Narrow black, with high heels. Tamsin and Dil y had pinned their hair up under glamorous little hats, and Amy’s was down her back under a black velvet band. Chrissie had added long black gloves to her own outfit, and a smal veil. She was wearing her industrial diamonds, and diamond studs in her ears. She would have been much happier to have been wearing them among a few simple architectural vases of madonna lilies.
The church was packed. Chrissie was aware, as she came up the aisle with the girls, that faces were turning towards her, and that there was a palpable wave of warmth and sympathy towards her, which made her feel, suddenly, very vulnerable and visible, despite the veil and the heels and the diamonds. If so many people were that sorry for you, then you were judged to have lost something insupportably enormous, and that consciousness added an unexpected layer of obligation to everything she was feeling already. She went up the aisle with her head up, and the girls just behind her, and, until she was safely in the front pew, did not al ow her eyes to rest on the pale oblong of Richie’s coffin ahead of her. Its presence, its known but unseen contents, required her to keep her imagination in as profound a state of inertia as she could possibly muster.
The girls, she was proud to see, were not crying. Not even Dil y. Tamsin’s Robbie – in a suit, his soberly cherished workwear – was standing in the pew behind her in an attitude of contained tension, as if poised to catch her should she buckle under the emotion of the occasion. Amy had her head bent, and she was scowling slightly, but she was dry-eyed. Chrissie had heard her playing her flute late into the smal hours the night before, the solo pieces she used to play to Richie’s accompanying piano arrangements, Messiaen’s ‘Le Merle Noir’, Debussy, and Jacob’s ‘Pied Piper’.
Neither of the others was particularly musical, although Tamsin could sing. She sang, Richie used to tel her, like a young Nancy Sinatra.
Chrissie made herself look directly at the coffin. There was an arrangement of white jasmine on it, twisted and shaped to resemble a treble clef. It was what the girls had wanted. She drew off her gloves and laid them along the prayer-book ledge of the pew. Then she picked up her service sheet and, as she did so, the diamonds on her left hand caught the sunlight slanting in through the east window and shot out bril iant unearthly rainbow rays.
At the back of the church, on the left rather than the right-hand side, Scott stood crammed against his mother. He couldn’t believe how ful the church was, nor what a ritzy congregation it was, with its air of barely suppressed flamboyance. They had arrived far too early, and had waited nervously on the gravel ed space outside, careful y not asking one another how they felt, how they would arrange themselves if – when – they came face to face with Richie’s other family.
Margaret had been doubtful about coming. She had wanted to, longed to, Scott could see that, but she had not wanted to be in a situation, or indeed to put anyone else in a situation – where old primitive energies might rise up and turn a ritual into a riot.
‘I want,’ Margaret said, ‘to remember him as he was.’ And then, a few minutes later, she said, ‘I want to say goodbye to him.’
In the end, Scott had decided for her. It wasn’t in his nature to insist, to be forceful, but it struck him that her regrets, her remorse, might insinuate themselves quietly and destructively into both their futures if she did not go to the funeral, and so he had said, in the voice he used for clients who wanted to have their cake and eat it, ‘We’re going.’
‘We can’t,’ Margaret said. She was in an armchair in her sitting room and Dawson was heavily in her lap. ‘I can’t be there with them.’
‘You can,’ Scott said. He’d opened a bottle of wine to encourage them both. ‘You can. You should.’
‘We’re going,’ Scott said.
‘We’l get the early train, do it, and be home for dinner.’
Margaret put her hand on Dawson’s head. He flattened his little ears to the point where he looked as if he didn’t have any, and was just an overblown example of a species of giant fur toad.
‘Thank you, pet,’ Margaret said.
So here they were, Margaret in black, he in his best dark work suit, hair gel ed, sober tie, uncomfortably damp palms, in a North London church packed with showbiz people, looking at a pale-wood coffin with brass handles – and his father inside. It occurred to him that he, as his father’s only son, and his mother, as his father’s wife, had more right to be there than anyone, more natural right. This was not the first time this primordial assertiveness had occurred to him, either. It had happened a few days earlier after the announcement of Richie’s death had appeared in the local press, fol owing a gauche little visit to Margaret, in her office, by a journalist too young to know anything of significance about Richie Rossiter, and impel ed him, boldly using the landline phone at the office, to ring the house in Highgate and inform them – no arguing – that he and his mother were coming to Richie’s funeral. He was braced to speak to Chrissie, or to one of those girls who were, improbably, his half-sisters, but he got an answering machine instead, and a young, disorganized voice – not Chrissie’s – asking him to leave his name and number and a message.
‘It’s Scott Rossiter speaking,’ Scott said. ‘I’m ringing to tel you that my mother and I wil be coming to the service on Friday, and returning North immediately afterwards.’
He’d paused then, wondering how to end the message. Should he say, ‘I thought you should know’? In the end, he said nothing, merely put the phone down, feeling that he had started that smal enterprise better than he’d finished it. When he told Margaret what he’d done she said, ‘Wel , pet, better that way,’ and he’d felt slightly cheated out of congratulation. But in the train, Margaret had rewarded him. She’d looked up from disapproving of her railway cardboard cup of tea and said, ‘I couldn’t do this on my own, Scott. And I couldn’t do it if they didn’t know, either.’
He looked down at her now. She wasn’t a smal woman, but he was considerably tal er than she was, tal er, he knew, than his father had been.
Heaven knows what was going on behind her resolute expression. She had felt about his father in a way that he was certain he had never yet felt about anybody, to a degree that, when his father left her, he managed at the same time to take the colour out of al other men for her. They’d met at junior school, in North Shields, their childhoods permeated with the same fish and ships and fierce local loyalty to North Tyneside. They were married in 1963, when his father was twenty-two, in the middle of the big freeze, when the old ferryboat, the Northumbrian, had to navigate its way across the Tyne among great chunks of ice floating in the river. A photograph taken on their wedding day, an unofficial photograph, showed them standing, hand tightly in hand, he in an Italian suit, she plainly frozen to death in a minidress and coat and white knee boots, watching people stream off the ferryboat from South Shields, housewives, shipyard workers, carts of rag-and-bone men, brewers’ drays, and none of those people were aware of the newly married couple, isolated on the edge of their own great adventure, gazing at them in the bitter wind.
Scott blinked. He hadn’t looked at that picture for twenty-five years; hadn’t wanted to. He wished he hadn’t remembered it now. He stared ahead.
At the front of the church, and to the right, he could see over the heads of the congregation to the front pew. Four women in black, three hatted. Two blondes, one medium brown, one dark, with no hat. Wel , that was them, then. The four women who had enveloped the last third of his father’s life as completely as if they’d always been there, and he and his mother had never existed. It was hard, real y, to know who to be angriest with.
He bent towards Margaret. She was glaring at her service sheet.
‘OK?’ he said.
‘There’s nothing here,’ Margaret said in a fierce whisper, ‘that he’d have wanted. Nothing.’
Amy had seen him as she came into church. She wasn’t looking for him, she’d just had her head up because a whole ten days since Dad’s death of people being so, so sorry for her, for them al , had made her feel that one more dol op of sympathy and she’d be sick, so she’d resolved to look as if sympathy was the last thing she wanted, and head them off that way. She’d almost stalked up the aisle, behind her mother, behind her sisters and their hats, and although she looked resolutely ahead, she’d caught him in her peripheral vision for the simple reason that, although he was tal er and slighter, he looked exactly like Dad, same nose, same jawline, hair growing exactly the same way. And, disconcertingly, his looking like Dad didn’t fil her with immediate outrage. It was weird, but it was comforting too. It was quite hard, in fact, to walk on up the aisle and not to stop, for a long, hungry stare.
She’d known he’d be there, after al . It was Amy who’d picked up the message on the answering machine and relayed it to her mother. Whether Chrissie told the others, Amy didn’t know, and didn’t ask. As the youngest, Amy had been good at reticence from an early age, having learned that silent observation often yielded her more useful information than yammering on al the time, like her sisters did, Tamsin instructing and Dil y wailing to be included.
‘He said,’ Amy told her mother, ‘that they’d come to the service and go away straight afterwards.’
‘I see,’ Chrissie said. She was at her computer, looking at something that seemed to be an invoice. ‘I shan’t seat them. I shan’t give them special places.’
‘OK,’ Amy said.
‘I can’t stop them. But I didn’t ask them—’
‘You don’t have to do anything,’ Amy said. ‘Their choice. You don’t have to do a thing.’
Chrissie had looked so tired. She’d looked quite unlike herself since Dad died, as if some inner light had been switched off somewhere. But today – wel , today she looked amazing. Amazing. Tam and Dil y did, too. Amy gave her head a tiny toss in order to shake her hair smoothly down her back. She hadn’t looked past Scott Rossiter in any detail, but she’d had a fleeting impression, one of those vivid nanoseconds of observation that sometimes tel you more than gazing at something for ages. She’d glimpsed her. And she looked like a granny.
Amy took a deep breath and glanced along the pew. Dad would have adored seeing them like that, sleek and styled and polished. She picked up her service sheet, almost ready to smile. There was – and it was a triumphant little realization – no comparison. None at al .
The gravel ed space in front of the church was ful , afterwards, of people standing about in the chil y sunshine, talking with the kind of animation born of social awkwardness. Scott wanted to steer Margaret through the throng, quite rapidly, and out into South Grove, towards Highgate Hil and down to the safe anonymity of the tube station. He’d already planned to buy her a gin and tonic at King’s Cross, and another on the train, and then take her out to dinner when they got home and send her back to Tynemouth in a taxi. But she was standing there staring, holding her bag over her arm like the Queen, her gloved hands folded in front of her. He put a hand under her elbow.
‘Come on, Mam, h’way—’
‘Don’t you h’way me,’ Margaret said. She twitched her elbow out of his grasp. ‘I can’t go til he’s gone.’
Scott fol owed the direction of her gaze. The undertakers, treading softly in their black orthopaedic shoes, were sliding Richie’s coffin into the gleaming black body of the hearse. The starry white flowers on top of the coffin, oddly ethereal and girlish, were ruffled by the wind, and those four women were standing in a row in front of them, watching.
‘There’s nothing to see—’
‘That’s not the point,’ Margaret said. She began to move forwards, through the crowd.
‘Mam—’ Scott said, in pursuit. ‘Mam. It’s going – he’s – it’s going to the crematorium—’
‘I know,’ Margaret said. She was dangerously close to those four black backs. ‘I know. But I can’t go until he’s gone.’
Scott was uncomfortably aware that people were staring at them, that some people, anyway, were remarking on how like Richie he looked. He took Margaret’s arm again, more firmly.
‘It isn’t right,’ she said. ‘It isn’t respectful. I came to say goodbye.’
‘Margaret,’ someone said.
They both turned. A heavily set man in a dark suit and a lavish black-satin tie was standing very close to them. He bent forward.
‘Margaret,’ he said, ‘Jim Rutherford.’ He kissed her cheek.
‘My God,’ Margaret said, ‘Jim Rutherford—’
He put large, flexible hands on her shoulders.
‘I wondered if you’d come. I thought about ringing you.’
‘Of course I came.’
‘Now I see you,’ Jim Rutherford said, ‘I remember that I shouldn’t have wondered any such thing.’ He glanced at Scott. ‘This your boy?’
Scott nodded. The undertakers had arranged the coffin and the flowers and were closing the doors of the hearse.
‘You won’t remember me,’ Jim Rutherford said. ‘Last time I saw you, you were only a nipper. Your dad and I ran you out down Tynemouth harbour wal . It was blowing fit to have your head off. You in the music business too?’
Scott shook his head.
‘I’m a lawyer—’
Jim Rutherford smiled.
‘As sensible as your mother, then.’ He looked down at Margaret again. ‘You bearing up then? You doing al right?’
‘Yes,’ Margaret said, ‘and why wouldn’t I?’
Jim Rutherford bent, and kissed her cheek again, and said, ‘Glad to see you, Margaret, very glad to see you,’ and as he straightened up the hearse slid away with Richie’s coffin in it and a sudden respectful silence fel upon the crowd like a blanket. Then Jim Rutherford stepped back, and Scott tightened his grip on his mother and the line of four black backs in front of them broke up, and swung round, and Chrissie and Margaret found themselves face to face, six feet apart, in an unexpected, unrehearsed moment of supreme drama.
Nobody said anything. The six of them confronted one another in a ring of startled spectators. A few interminable seconds passed and then Chrissie, like someone caught in the slow inexorable motion of an automatic revolving door, turned smoothly away and began to walk with purpose towards the road. Released from the intense potency of the moment, her daughters turned too, less smoothly, and went after her, hurrying to catch up, to touch her, to reconnect.
Margaret simply stood there, her arm in Scott’s grasp. People were looking at them now, looking and glancing, covert little snatches of reaction floating about like conversation heard down a stairwel . Scott cleared his throat. Margaret was not the only one in need of a gin and tonic.
She was stil gazing at the spot where Chrissie had stood only seconds before.
‘Wel ,’ Margaret said. ‘Wel . You never get what you expect. Do you?’
Chrissie had bought smoked salmon, and early strawberries flown in from Spain, and put two bottles of champagne in the fridge before they left for the church. She knew she wouldn’t be able to eat or drink at the reception after she and the girls went to the crematorium, and she knew that if they didn’t have something basic to focus on, like food and drink, when they got home, they were in for an evening as bad as – or perhaps in some ways almost worse than – the one on which Richie had died. The service had been bearable – just – but the crematorium had hardly been bearable at al , and Dil y had given a little scream when the coffin had, by virtue of some heartless modern mechanism, simply and silently sunk down on its plinth into a depth where no one’s imagination could bear to fol ow it. As with the drive back from the hospital the night Richie died, Chrissie wasn’t sure how she had got herself and the girls out of the crematorium and into the gleaming hired Lexus and back to confront al those hugs and smiles and champagne-flavoured offers of support, not to mention journalists and photographers asking her how she felt, wanting to take pictures of the girls in tears, asking them al to pose together, draped over one another in a stagy symphony of grief and loss.
Friends had suggested that they come back with them, that the late afternoon and evening would be better, easier, if the intensity of the four of them was diluted by other people, people who might, Chrissie’s friend Sue hinted, be able to remind them that Richie, of al people, believed life was for living and would be urging them to get on with it.
‘Tomorrow, maybe,’ Chrissie said. There was something about Sue’s smiling energetic desire to drive them forward out of the darkness and towards something more social y amenable that almost offended her. ‘It’s only been ten days. We’l get there, but we’l have to do it at our own pace.
And I don’t think, tonight, I could quite face—’
‘OK, sweets,’ Sue said. She’d put her arms round Chrissie, the way people perpetual y did in television soap operas. ‘You do what you need to do. But I’m there when you need me. I’l cal in the morning.’
‘Why didn’t you let her come?’ Dil y said later. She’d been strangely cheered by the sight of an ex-boyfriend, hovering at the edge of the reception, a boyfriend whom Richie had deemed a talented guitarist and who had abandoned Dil y for a scruffy little scrap of a girl with a cannabis habit and a deep smoky singing voice like the early queens of American blues. Yet here Craig was, at Richie’s funeral, and when Dil y said to him, sniffing, ‘Dad thought a lot of you, you little toerag,’ Craig said, ‘I didn’t come just for him,’ and that remark had given a sudden lift to spirits that Dil y had, only seconds before, believed would never rise again. So, a while later, she had felt a dawning renewal of her appetite for social life.
‘Why didn’t you let Sue come?’ Dil y said. ‘We could have had her and Fran and Kevin and the kids. Couldn’t we? It would have been a laugh.’
She stopped. ‘If you see what I mean.’
Chrissie had kicked off her shoes. They al had. They had kept their funeral hair and make-up, but in Amy’s case put jeans back on. But their high-heeled shoes were al scattered across the sitting-room rug, and Chrissie was lying along the sofa, with her champagne glass, and her eyes closed.
‘I couldn’t manage any more today,’ Chrissie said. ‘I couldn’t even manage Sue.’
‘We’ve got to break out, though,’ Dil y said. ‘We’ve got to start—’ She stopped again. Craig had retaken her mobile number. His had never been erased from her own phone. The promise this represented was compensation for restraining an inclination to provoke. She said with warmth, ‘We did it, though.’
‘We did,’ Chrissie said. She rol ed her head sideways on the sofa cushions and surveyed them. ‘You al were so great. Dad would have been so proud of you.’
‘That’s what Robbie said,’ Tamsin said. Robbie had been right behind her at the reception, had wanted to come to the crematorium to support her, had wanted to be there, that night, opening the bottles and fil ing the glasses. But she’d said no. Then she told her mother and sisters that she’d said no. Then she said that Robbie was quite hurt, because his being hurt was evidence of his devotion and even on an occasion like this, she didn’t want anyone to be under any il usion about that.
‘Nice boy,’ Chrissie said absently. ‘And Craig. Craig’s a nice boy.’
‘Dad liked Craig,’ Dil y said.
Tamsin waited a second, and then she said, with precision, ‘Dad liked Robbie.’
‘He liked everyone,’ Chrissie said. Tears began to leak down her face again. ‘He liked everyone. And they loved him back.’
There was a pause, another exhausted, wound-up pause.
And then Amy said, ‘Did you see him?’
‘You know,’ Amy said. ‘Him. Scott.’
Chrissie turned her face towards the back of the sofa.
‘Hardly. I was trying not to look.’
‘He looked just like Dad,’ Amy said.
‘Amy!’ Tamsin said reprovingly.
‘Wel , he did,’ Amy said. ‘You saw.’
Dil y said, with some venom, ‘I saw her.’
‘Shush,’ Chrissie said.
Amy leaned out of her armchair to inspect something on one bare foot.
‘She’s old,’ she said.
Tamsin said, ‘Wel , she must be Dad’s age—’
‘She looks it—’
‘She was staring at us—’
‘So was he—’
‘They shouldn’t have come —’
‘She had this gross coat on—’
‘What was she trying to prove?’
‘Dad wouldn’t have wanted her there—’
‘He looked real y awkward—’
‘Dad never talked about her—’
‘Jesus,’ Amy said suddenly.
Amy sat up straight. She said, ‘He’s Dad’s kid. How would we feel if Dad never talked about us?’
‘Whose side are you on?’ Dil y demanded.
‘I just thought,’ Amy said, ‘I just suddenly thought—’
Tamsin got out of her chair and picked up the champagne bottle.
‘He’s got his mother,’ Tamsin said.
She went round the circle, fil ing glasses.
‘He’s got his mother,’ she said again firmly. ‘And we’ve got ours.’
Chrissie smiled at her weakly.
‘And now,’ Tamsin said, ‘I’m just going to cal Robbie.’
Alone in her bedroom in Tynemouth, Margaret had the sensation of being so tired that she wondered if she was il . It had, of course, been a long, long day, ful of physical and emotional exertions of peculiarly demanding kinds, and she had had two double gins and two glasses of red wine in the course of the late afternoon and evening, but the thing that was exacerbating the fatigue, and making it agitating rather than obliterating, was trying to digest everything she had seen and done, to fit into her mind al those powerful jumbled images and impressions and believe, at the end, that she was back in the security of the familiar.
Dawson had been familiar, at least. He was not natural y affectionate or empathetic, but some instinct had urged him to sit in the hal and wait for her, and, when he heard her key in the lock past midnight, to pad down to the front door to welcome her and press himself inconveniently against her legs while she took off her coat. She had bent down, and heaved him up into her arms, and put her face into his rumbling, purring side for a few moments, and then she had put him down on the floor again, and he had gone to position himself, meaningful y, next to his empty dish.
‘You’l have to wait for another day to dawn,’ Margaret said to him. ‘Just as I wil .’
Her bedroom felt chil y and uninviting. She went through her rituals of closing and switching and turning down, and ran a bath with some of the rose oil – too sweet, if the truth be told – that Glenda had given her last Christmas. There was nothing much she could do about the kaleidoscope inside her head, except wait for it to stop swirling about in chaos and resolve itself into some kind of manageable order, but that was no reason to abandon the habits that had grown up round her, not because of lack of energy or enterprise, but because they suited her, and she functioned best within them.
A bath, an application of this and that to her face, a prolonged session with the immense variety of toothbrushes the fierce young hygienist at her dentist now insisted on, a vigorous hairbrush, a wel -laundered white cotton nightdress with picot edging – they al added up to something that, some days, Margaret looked forward to almost from the moment she woke in the morning. Tonight, they al seemed completely pointless, but they must be done. At the very least, they represented life when it was normal, the life that she had worked out, and worked on, to deliver her some value out of what was left on offer.
She sat down in her petticoat in front of her dressing-table mirror. She took out Scott’s pearl earrings and unfastened Richie’s pearl necklace, and laid them both in the Minton dish, where they had spent most of their nights for as long as she could remember. Then she took off the smal garnet ring from her right hand – it had belonged to Richie’s mother, a gentle and affectionate woman who had been a great relief to Margaret after the abrasiveness of her childhood – and put it in the dish beside the pearls.
She looked at her left hand. She stil wore her wedding ring. When she and Richie were married, the fashion had been for wide, flat wedding rings, as if cut from a length of metal tubing, but neither of them had liked that. Instead, they’d gone into Newcastle and found a smal , old-fashioned jewel er and bought a thin, gold, D-shaped band, which had been on Margaret’s wedding finger for forty-five years.
Perhaps she should, now, take it off. Whatever her quick denial, Scott had been painful y accurate in supposing that a tiny hope of Richie’s return had gone on glowing in her, a night light in a coal mine. She’d never had the smal est reason, the smal est sign, that a corresponding intention lingered in Richie – except that he had never divorced her. He had talked about it, to start with, and there’d been lawyers’ letters, and assessments of assets, but she, while never being uncooperative, had also never gone out of her way to move things along. And gradual y, they had stopped moving. Richie acquired one new baby, then two, and she waited for what seemed to her the inevitable consequent request for a divorce so that he could marry these babies’ mother. But it never came. A third baby arrived, and stil it never came. Margaret realized, gradual y and with little gleams of hope that she told herself were ridiculous but simultaneously had no wish to quel , that it probably never would.
But now was different. Today, with al its demands and complexities, had drawn a thick black line under twenty-three years of wondering and dreaming and hoping. Those three good-looking girls, that pretty, grieving, angry woman – the sight of them had brought Margaret to her senses. It might have been a consolation to go on wearing her wedding ring. She might have persuaded herself that she was legal y entitled stil to wear her wedding ring. But the Richie she had seen go off in his coffin today had transferred himself from belonging to her to belonging to that family in London, and that had to be recognized. In Margaret’s view, once something was acknowledged, it should be accepted, right away. It was over. She took hold of her wedding ring with her right hand, eased it with difficulty over the joints of her wedding finger, and dropped it, with finality, into the Minton dish.
Mark Leverton had folowed his father into the family practice almost without thinking. His grandfather, Manny Leverton, had started his smal solicitor’s practice – ‘Wil s and probate a speciality’ – in modest offices at the eastern end of West End Lane soon after the Second World War. In due course, a brother had joined him, and a nephew, and then his own son Francis, and the modest offices had spread down West End Lane to engulf a corner site on the Finchley Road, red brick with a handsome but sober white portal, and a business which now encompassed advice on civil partnership and inheritance-tax planning. Manny’s photograph – black-and-white, the subject dressed in a three-piece suit with a watch chain –
hung above the reception desk. There were twelve partners in the offices above, nine of them Levertons. Mark, who had idly, as a teenager, thought that he might do something creative in the media, found himself going from school to law col ege in a single seamless movement, propel ed by his purposeful family, and was now in possession of an office of his own, sandwiched between two cousins, with a large modern desk adorned, among other things, with a photograph of a wife and two little sons, whom he was delighted to have but could not quite – again – recal having stirred himself much to acquire.
His father, Francis, had decided early on that Mark should specialize in that area of the law on which the firm had first concentrated: wil s and probate. The boy might not be blazingly ambitious, but he was clever enough, and thorough, and his amiable manner would be invaluable in an area prone to intense disputatiousness among the clients. Mark would not mind detail, or shouting, or repetition. Mark would be good at reasoning and smoothing without identifying too much with any particular cause or person. Mark was the man, Francis considered, best able to deal with warring and divided families.
‘Tel them,’ Francis said to Mark when Mark joined Leverton’s, ‘tel them to assume nothing. That’s the golden rule for inheritance, especial y.
He gave Mark a quotation from Andrew Carnegie, careful y written out in copperplate, which Mark had framed and hung on his office wal . It was headed ‘The Carnegie Conjecture’: ‘The parent who leaves his son enormous wealth general y deadens the talents and energies of the son, and tempts him to lead a less useful and less worthy life than he otherwise would.’
Mark’s father Francis believed in Andrew Carnegie.
‘Establishing yourself is difficult,’ he told Mark. ‘It ought to be difficult. It won’t satisfy you if it isn’t difficult. You’ve got to cal people who don’t want to talk to you. You’ve got to get on with it when you’ve got a hangover and you’re bored stiff. Work delivers more than money ever wil – you remember that when you’re talking to people scrapping over a few thousand quid.’
Mark did remember it. He remembered too a study on happiness he’d read which concluded that Masai herdsmen and people on the Fortune 400 list were about as happy as each other. He remembered it when Richie Rossiter – whom his mother thought the world of – came to see him out of the blue and was very clear about making a wil that superseded any wil that he, or he and Mrs Rossiter, had previously made. He did not think that Richie Rossiter was in the habit of precision about any area of life that didn’t concern music, but on that occasion he had been both decided and wel prepared. The wil had been drawn up as he had requested, he had come into the office to sign it, and the document had then been filed, along with twenty years of Rossiter papers, against such time – ‘Shan’t need this for decades, Mark’ – as Richie should die.
And now, only a year later, he was dead. Suddenly, unexpectedly, fel ed by a heart attack that rumour was saying was probably genetical y accountable. Richie Rossiter was dead, the Rossiter files had been opened, and Mark Leverton had, in his diary for that Wednesday, an eleven o’clock appointment with Richie Rossiter’s widow.
Tamsin said that she would go with her mother to see Mr Leverton.
Chrissie looked round the table. You couldn’t real y cal it a breakfast table since there was no social coherence to it, and everybody was eating and drinking different things, some of them – like the pizza crusts on Amy’s plate – not conventional y appropriate to breakfast.
Chrissie said, ‘I hoped you’d al come.’
‘To the solicitor’s?’ Amy said, as if an outing to a slaughterhouse was being suggested.
‘Actual y,’ Dil y said, ‘I’m a bit busy—’
Chrissie leaned forward.
‘We should do this together. We should do al these things that concern Dad together.’
Dil y’s mobile was lying on the table next to a banana skin. She gave it a little spin.
‘She’s seeing Craig,’ Amy announced to the table.
‘Not til tonight,’ Tamsin said.
Amy leaned forward too.
‘But there’s so much to do before tonight,’ Amy said with exaggerated breathlessness. ‘Isn’t there, Dil ? Al the waxing and stuff. Al the hair straightening. Al the—’
Dil y picked up the banana skin and threw it at her sister.
‘We don’t say shut up in this house—’
The banana skin hit the wal and slid down to lodge limply in the radiator.
‘Be quiet!’ Chrissie said loudly.
They al looked at her.
‘It won’t take long,’ Chrissie said. ‘It’s merely a formality. I know exactly what’s in that wil because Dad and I agreed it together. But it would be nice if we could al four go together to see Mr Leverton and hear him tel us, even if I know what he’l say.’
‘Because it’s a kind of little ceremony,’ Chrissie said. ‘Because it’s a formal ritual thing we do together for Dad.’
Dil y picked up her phone and peered closely at it.
‘You’re pathetic,’ Tamsin said.
‘I just can’t,’ Dil y said, her hair fal ing in curtains round her face and phone. ‘I just can’t do any more.’
‘Usual y you can’t bear to be left out,’ Chrissie said.
‘Craig isn’t usual y,’ Amy said.
Chrissie looked at her.
‘What about you?’
‘Sorry,’ Amy said.
‘It’l take half an hour—’
Amy put her hands flat on the table and pushed herself to her feet.
‘Sorry,’ she said again, ‘but I don’t want to think about wil s. I don’t want to think about money and stuff. It just seems – kind of grotesque.’
‘ Grotesque?’ Tamsin said.
Amy picked the banana skin off the radiator and dropped it on the table.
She said, ‘Doesn’t matter—’
‘It does matter,’ Chrissie said. ‘What do you mean, that hearing what’s in the wil is grotesque?’
‘Wel ,’ Amy said, shuffling, ‘sort of wrong, then.’
‘ Wrong?’ Tamsin said, with the same emphasis.
‘Yes,’ Amy said, ‘because it isn’t just us. Is it?’
Chrissie put her head in her hands.
‘What isn’t just us?’
‘Wel ,’ Amy said, ‘this wil . It’s for us. It’s what Dad wanted for us. But – wel , he had a whole sort of life before us and what – what about them?’
Tamsin threw her head back and stared at the ceiling.
‘I do not believe this.’
‘Amy,’ Chrissie said, ‘are you saying that – that the – people in Newcastle should be included too?’
‘Sort of,’ she said. ‘Maybe not included but kind of, wel , kind of remembered?’ There was a short pause, then Amy said firmly, ‘Anyway, she doesn’t live in Newcastle, she lives in Tynemouth.’
‘Amy,’ Chrissie said again. She looked directly at her. ‘Amy.
It doesn’t matter where she lives, what matters is that she’s out of the picture. Al that was sorted long ago. A house, a sum of money, everything.
It was a clean break, no coming back for more, no questioning of decisions made. It was conclusively agreed and it was absolutely fair. Do you hear me? Absolutely fair.’
Amy pul ed out a long strand of hair and examined the ends.
‘Do you understand me?’
‘And believe me?’
‘Yup,’ Amy said.
Chrissie got up briskly and crossed the kitchen to assemble the components for making coffee. With her back to her daughters, she said,
‘However, Amy, I’m not sure I want you to come now. You may say you believe me, but what you said just now, the implied accusation in what you said just now, has made me feel that I’d rather you didn’t come with me to see Mr Leverton. You may al be thinking how much you’ve suffered in the last couple of weeks, but perhaps it wouldn’t do you any harm to think about me, not just what I’ve been through, but what I’ve got to go through in the future, without Dad.’ Her voice shook. She stopped, and spooned coffee, slightly unsteadily, into the cafetière. ‘If you can’t support me wholeheartedly,’ Chrissie said, ‘I’d real y rather go on my own.’
There was silence. It was broken after a few seconds by Dil y dropping her phone. Tamsin bent to pick it up, and tossed it at her sister.
She said to Chrissie’s back, ‘I’d like to come with you, Mum, please.’
Chrissie turned round. Dil y was looking at her phone and Amy was staring out of the window.
‘Thank you, Tamsin,’ Chrissie said with dignity. ‘Thank you. Then it wil just be you and me.’
Mark Leverton had arranged his office so that, when occasion demanded, he could sit beside his desk, rather than behind it, in order not to create too formal a distance between himself and those he was talking to. He seated Chrissie and Tamsin in padded upright chairs with wooden arms –
upholstered easy chairs did not seem suitable for discussion about, or after, death – put the papers on one side of his desk, and then positioned himself on a chair next to them. He usual y worked in his shirt sleeves, but he had put his jacket back on for the meeting, shooting his cuffs just enough to show off the silver Tiffany cufflinks that his wife had given him for their seventh wedding anniversary.
‘Just to remind you,’ she’d said, ‘that an itch is not on your agenda.’
Chrissie hardly took him in, except to notice that he was neat and dark and vaguely familiar, and was wearing a wedding ring. She too was wearing a wedding ring, but with an unwelcome self-consciousness, which she was sure never needed to cross Mr Leverton’s mind. There was nothing il egal in sitting in his office being cal ed Mrs Rossiter and wearing a wedding ring, because she and Richie had agreed, and signed, everything together, and she wasn’t doing anything furtive, or anything that Richie had not been party to; or anything that deprived someone of something they ought to have had, had she not been there. But sitting in that office, apparently composed and confident, in her wel -cut trouser suit, with her wel -cut hair tied back, and her expensive bag on the floor beside her wel -shod feet, she felt, to her surprise and dismay, knocked almost sideways by an unexpected spurt of pure fury at Richie, for refusing to marry her and thus landing her in a situation where the unlovely choice was between pretence and potential humiliation.
Mark Leverton smiled at Tamsin. She was very pretty, with her mother’s features and a smooth curtain of brown hair held off her face with a tortoiseshel clip. He smiled at her, not so much because she was young and pretty but more because she looked so much less tense than her mother and not as if she’d rather be anywhere else in the world than sitting in his office.
‘I am so sorry,’ Mark said. ‘So very sorry, about Mr Rossiter.’
His uncles, he knew, in the same situation, were stil apt to say, ‘May I offer my sincere condolences on your loss,’ but that sounded ridiculous to Mark. It also sounded insincere, and Mark was sincere for the very simple reason that, now he had a family of his own as wel as the one he had been born into, he could empathize – often painful y wel – with what the bereaved people sitting in front of him were going through.
‘Thank you,’ Chrissie said. She looked down at her lap. Tamsin reached across and held her nearest wrist.
‘I won’t keep you long,’ Mark said. ‘It’s very simple.’ He bent forward slightly towards Chrissie, in order to be encouraging. ‘You know, I think, Mrs Rossiter, how simple it is. Mr Rossiter’s wil is very familiar to you.’
Chrissie nodded again.
Mark drew the neat folder of papers close to him across his desk, and laid his hand flat on it.
‘In fact,’ Mark said, ‘there are only a couple of smal alterations since we revised the wil together three years ago, as I’m sure you wil remember.’
Chrissie’s head snapped up.
Mark smiled at her. This was the moment he had been rehearsing, the moment when he had to reveal to her that Richie had been to see him the previous spring and had indicated – but not actual y specified – that the visit was private.
‘I don’t believe in secrets,’ Richie had said, ‘but I do believe in privacy. We’re al al owed our privacy, aren’t we?’
‘There were just two smal matters,’ Mark said now, in as gentle a voice as he could muster, ‘that represented what you might cal wishes. Mr Rossiter’s wishes. Two little gifts he found he wanted to make, and he came here about a year ago to tel me about them. They don’t affect the bulk of the estate. That wil be yours, of course, the house and so on, after probate.’
Tamsin said faintly, ‘What’s probate?’
Mark smiled at her.
‘It’s the legal proving that someone’s wil actual y is their wil .’
Tamsin nodded. She looked at her mother. Chrissie was staring straight past Mark at a picture on the wal , a picture Mark’s wife had chosen, a sub-Mondrian arrangement of black lines and squares of colour. Tamsin twisted in her chair, gripping her mother’s wrist.
‘What gifts?’ Chrissie said, almost with her teeth clenched.
Mark glanced at Tamsin. She was concentrating whol y on her mother.
He said, ‘Please be assured, Mrs Rossiter, that you and your daughters remain the main and major beneficiaries in every respect.’
‘What gifts?’ Chrissie said again.
There was a smal silence. Mark took up the folder, and held it for a few seconds, as if assessing whether to open it and, as it were, release some genie, and then he put it down again, and said quietly, ‘Mr Rossiter wished to leave two items to his first family in Newcastle.’
Chrissie gave a violent involuntary shudder. Tamsin shot out of her chair, and knelt on the carpet next to her mother.
‘Mum, it’s OK, it’s OK—’
Chrissie took her wrist out of Tamsin’s grip, and put her hand on Tamsin’s shoulder.
‘I’m fine.’ She looked at Mark. ‘What items?’
Mark put his elbows on his knees, linked his hands loosely and leaned forward.
‘The piano,’ he said, ‘and his musical estate up to 1985.’
‘He wished,’ Mark said, his voice ful of the sympathy he truly felt and of which his father would doubtless have disapproved, ‘to leave the piano to his former wife and his musical estate up to 1985 to his son.’
Chrissie said, ‘The Steinway—’
‘Oh my God,’ Tamsin said. She crumpled against her mother’s chair. ‘Oh my God—’
‘I gather,’ Mark said, ‘that 1985 was the year in which Mr Rossiter came south to London. His son was then fourteen. I believe the current value of the Steinway is about twenty-two thousand pounds. And, of course, there’s value to those early songs, the rights in those. I haven’t established more than an estimate—’ He stopped.
Tamsin began to cry. She leaned forward until her forehead was resting against Chrissie’s thigh.
‘Not the piano,’ she said indistinctly. ‘Not the piano. Not that—’
Chrissie stroked her hair. She looked down at her, almost absently, as if she was thinking about something quite different. Then she looked back at Mark.
She said, quite steadily, ‘Are you sure?’
He put his hand on the folder again, drew it towards him, opened it and held out the top sheet inside for her to see.
‘Quite sure,’ he said.
She stared at the piece of paper, but didn’t seem to take it in. She was simply gazing, where instructed, her hand moving across and across on Tamsin’s head.
‘But that is al ,’ Mark Leverton said. ‘That’s the only difference. There are no complications, I’m delighted to say, and no inheritance tax is applicable, because a wil was made and you are Mr Rossiter’s widow.’
Chrissie withdrew her gaze very slowly from the sheet of paper and transferred it, equal y slowly, to Mark’s face. She stopped stroking.
She said, quite clearly, but from a long way away, as if waking from some kind of trance, ‘But I’m not.’
The clock beside Amy’s bed said, in oblong green digits, two forty-five a.m. Last time she had looked it had said one thirteen, and the time before that twelve thirty-seven, and in between those times, she had tried to read and tried to sleep and tried to talk to friends online and tried to play her flute and tried to want to go downstairs and make toast or hot chocolate. She had tried, and she had comprehensively failed. She had been in her room since just before eleven, and had been able to do nothing but agitate about in it since then, fiddling and fidgeting and feeling her mind skid away from yet more information it had no wish to acknowledge, let alone absorb. Who on earth, actual y, could possibly have a mind that did not react violently to being told, in the space of fifteen minutes, that your father had left two crucial elements of his life and being to the family that preceded yours, that your parents had never, actual y, got around to being married, and that your sisters had somehow known this al along, but had carelessly – or deliberately – omitted to include you in this knowledge?
‘Oh, Amy,’ Tamsin had said, in the exasperated tone of one forced to indulge the deliberate babyishness of a younger sibling, ‘you knew. Of course you knew.’
‘Wel ,’ Dil y said, ‘I can’t think how you didn’t know. It wasn’t exactly a secret. What were you doing, not knowing?’
Amy glared at her.
‘You tel me.’
‘They were together for twenty-three years,’ Tamsin said. ‘Twenty-five, if you count from when they met. He was only married once – before, for twenty-two years. He was with Mum for longer.’
‘How do you know?’ Amy said stubbornly.
‘Mum told me.’
‘Why didn’t she tel me?’
‘I expect,’ Dil y said, ‘you didn’t ask her.’
‘Ask her now,’ Tamsin said. ‘Go on. Ask her.’
But Amy hadn’t. In the turmoil of the evening, with supper hardly happening, and Robbie and Craig appearing and then disappearing, with Chrissie sitting silently on the piano stool in front of the closed piano – Amy didn’t think she’d ever seen it closed before – and nobody, for some reason, telephoning, there hadn’t been a moment when Amy, despite the turbulence of her feelings, could ask her mother a question. Wel , not a question of that kind, anyway, not a question that inevitably led to so many other questions, none of them comfortable. But not asking the questions had left her mind and her stomach churning, and was propel ing her in and out of her bed and round and round her bedroom as if driven by some arcane disorder that would not let her rest.
She looked at the clock again. Two forty-eight. She got out of bed for the fiftieth time, pul ed on an old cardigan of her father’s that she had appropriated from his cupboard in the week after his death, and opened her bedroom door. Across the tiny landing, with its sloping ceiling and ingenious Swedish skylight, Dil y’s bedroom door was closed. Amy had heard her come upstairs, about midnight, stil murmuring into her phone, and shut the door in the definitive way that indicated she would not be accommodating about being disturbed. Often, and especial y if she had had a bad day at the col ege where she was training to be a beauty therapist, she left her door just open enough to indicate that even Amy’s company was preferable, just now, to her own. But last night, the pitch of her voice, low and almost happy, on the telephone had made it plain that Amy was not to be included in anything that might be diverting or comforting. And now her door was firmly closed and the silence of sleep was unmistakable.
Amy crept downstairs. On the main landing, Tamsin’s door was shut, and so was Chrissie’s. In the family bathroom, someone had left the light on over the basin and it il uminated the glass shelf below, where Richie’s toothbrushes used to stand, in a Mickey Mouse mug Amy had brought back for him from a trip with a friend’s family to Euro Disney, when she was seven. Richie had always kept toothbrushes in the family bathroom, a hangover from the days when he made a game of tooth-brushing, when they were smal . Neither the mug nor the brushes were there any more, just a hair scrunchie and a plastic brush and a bottle of something creamy and pale pink. Girly, Amy thought, girly stuff. What this house is ful of.
She went on down to the ground floor, less careful y. There was a light on there, too, the light in the tiny room, not much more than a cupboard, beside the front door, that Chrissie used as an office. Amy put her head in to find the light switch. The computer was on, as wel as the light, and Chrissie, stil dressed, was sitting in front of it, typing.
Chrissie turned. She didn’t seem surprised.
‘Hel o, darling.’
Amy leaned against the door frame.
‘What’re you doing?’
Chrissie turned back to the screen.
‘Looking up inheritance tax.’
Amy pushed herself away from the doorpost.
‘It’s a tax the government makes you pay if you are left money and property. If you are married to the person who dies, you don’t have to pay any tax. If you aren’t, the government lets you have a certain amount without taxing you, and then it taxes you on the rest.’
Amy leaned over Chrissie’s shoulder.
‘In the eyes of the law,’ Chrissie said, ‘living with Dad for twenty-three years doesn’t make me his wife.’
Amy felt suddenly tearful. She said childishly, ‘ Why didn’t you marry him?’
Chrissie said, looking at the screen, ‘I can’t talk about it now, Amy. I’m sorry, but I’m angry, and I’l say the wrong thing and then I’l wish I hadn’t.
We’l talk about it as soon as I can.’
‘They knew,’ Amy said. ‘Why didn’t I?’
‘I don’t know,’ Chrissie said. ‘You didn’t ask. I wish you had. I wish I’d told you. I wish we’d al talked about it, al of us, with Dad. When Dad was stil here. I wish it wasn’t too late.’
Amy moved sideways and perched on the edge of the desk. She began to pluck at the strands of her hair.
‘Did you want to?’
‘Want to what?’
‘Did you want to marry Dad?’
Chrissie gave a little sigh.
‘Why didn’t you ask him?’
‘Amy,’ Chrissie said, ‘I told you. I can’t talk about it now. I’m wrestling with knowing that I’m what the law cal s a cohabitee and therefore not entitled to the status and privileges, in a tax sense, of being a married woman, and that is enough. Just now, that is quite enough for me to cope with.’
‘So I’m il egitimate.’
Chrissie didn’t look at her.
‘Don’t be melodramatic. Nobody uses that word now. You were wanted and adored and you know who both your parents are and that’s more than a lot of people can say. Society and the law often take a long time to catch up with how people behave.’
Amy said, into her handful of hair, ‘Don’t you care?’
Chrissie put a hand out and held the edge of Richie’s old cardigan.
‘Darling, I care so much about so much at the moment that I sometimes think I might just fal to pieces.’
‘Don’t,’ Amy said suddenly.
‘I won’t. I can’t. There’s just so much—’ She stopped. She took her hand away from the cardigan and put it briefly across her eyes. ‘It’s just such a lot to take in, Amy. Such a lot that’s different, that – that’s not what I thought it was, believed it was—’ She stopped again.
Amy pushed her hair back over her shoulders. She said, as a statement, ‘The piano.’
Chrissie looked down at her keyboard.
‘It was his voice,’ she said. ‘It – the piano – was everything, real y, not just his stage name but how he thought of himself, how he was. I can’t believe he did that, I can’t believe he wanted to do that and didn’t tel me, left me to find out like that, just left me to find out. Too late, like everything else. And I’m picking up the pieces.’ She glanced up at Amy and put her hand out again, to take Amy’s this time. ‘Sorry, darling. I shouldn’t be talking to you like this. I shouldn’t be thinking like this. It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair to you. Or me. It’s classic three-in-the-morning thinking. Sorry. So sorry.’
Amy said slowly, ‘Perhaps she won’t want it—’
‘Perhaps she won’t want the piano. Perhaps,’ Amy said a little faster, ‘perhaps she’s angry with him too.’
Chrissie gave another sigh.
‘I don’t real y want to know. I don’t care what she feels, I don’t want to have to consider her.’
‘OK,’ Amy said. She took her hand out of her mother’s and folded her arms. ‘OK. But I’m angry.’
Chrissie looked down at her keyboard.
‘Are you listening?’ Amy demanded.
‘I’m angry,’ Amy said, almost shouting. ‘I’m angry at you and I’m even angrier at him. How could he? Why did he treat me like a little kid, why did you both play your make-believe and think it wouldn’t affect me? What were you thinking of?’
‘I suppose we weren’t real y thinking—’
‘How dare you,’ Amy said, suddenly not shouting, but almost whispering. ‘How dare you. How dare he.’
‘Wel ,’ Chrissie said slowly, ‘if it’s any consolation, I’m paying for it now. Aren’t I? No income from Dad, this tax, everything frozen til after probate
‘This isn’t about you.’
‘No,’ Chrissie said. ‘Sorry. Sorry, darling. It’s just that—’
‘It’s about me,’ Amy said. ‘And Tamsin, and Dil y. And him.’
‘No,’ Amy said. She sighed. ‘No. Not Dad. Not you or Dad. Not parents. It’s about the children, isn’t it? The three of us, and him. In Newcastle.’
She bent towards her mother and hissed at her. ‘Isn’t it?’
‘Where wil you put it?’ Scott said.
Margaret was standing by the sofa in the bay window of her sitting room, gazing out across the undulating grass of Percy Gardens, towards the sea. The sea was dark today, despite a blue sky, dark and shiny, and from this distance, calm enough only to shimmer. A few hefty North Sea gul s were picking their way around the grass, and there was an old man going past, very slowly, with a stick in one hand and a plastic shopper in the other. Apart from them, there was no sign of life, no people, no shipping. Dawson, stretched along the back of the sofa, was sleeping the sleep of one who knows there is nothing worth staying awake for. ‘Put what?’ Margaret asked absently. She was in some kind of mild reverie. She’d been in it, Scott thought, al weekend, abstracted and peculiar, with a groove on her left hand where her wedding ring had been. When he’d asked her where it was, she’d looked at her hand as if it was nothing to do with her and said, ‘Oh, that’s nothing, pet. It was just time. Time to take it off.’
Scott said loudly, ‘Where wil you put the piano?’ Margaret turned round, without hurry. She looked at the room, at her sofa and chairs covered in linen union printed with peonies, at her occasional tables and lamps, at her brass fire irons hanging on their little tripod in the fireplace, at the glass-fronted display cabinet ful of the porcelain figures she used to col ect, shepherdesses dreaming on picturesque tree stumps, Artful Dodger boys playing with spaniels.
‘Wel ,’ Margaret said, ‘there isn’t room in here.’
He said, ‘There is if you move stuff.’
Margaret made a vague gesture. ‘It would be so dominating—’
Scott put his hands in his jeans pockets, and hunched his shoulders. He studied the toes of his trainers. He counted, with effort, to twenty. He wanted to say, with some force, that having the Steinway back was not just important because of what it indicated about his father’s abiding remembrance of them – after al – but also because it would mean that he, Scott, could play it. And that, if he played it in his mother’s sitting room, his mother might remember, at long last, that he, Scott, could actual y play. Rather wel . It might make her stop insisting that Richie was unique, that nobody could play like he could, that Scott had singularly failed to inherit his talent as wel as his looks. Scott didn’t even think his mother knew that he stil played, or recal ed that the modest Yamaha keyboard was stored in the flat in Newcastle behind the black sofa, and not only did Scott play it, often, but he also played for friends, and the friends told him he was fantastic and he ought to do something about it. Scott knew he wasn’t fantastic.
He didn’t want his mother to tel him he was fantastic: he just wanted her to acknowledge that he could play, and to be interested in his playing. He wanted his father’s Steinway in his mother’s sitting room so that sometimes, on these laborious weekends together, they could communicate, and probably more satisfactorily without words. He wanted to play the piano for her, his father’s piano, so that in some obscure way they could be a family again.
Margaret turned round. She said, with more interest than she’d shown in the topic of the piano, ‘And there’s those songs.’
‘Yes,’ Scott said.
‘That’s a wonderful legacy,’ Margaret said. ‘It’s a real y wonderful legacy to have his songs. And they’re worth something, I can tel you. The rights in those songs could be very useful to you. Maybe even get you out of that flat and into a house with a garden.’
Scott shifted his feet. He said tentatively, ‘Maybe they mean more to you than to me.’
Margaret resumed her expression of gentle reminiscence.
‘They mean a lot to me.’
‘“Chase The Dream”,’ Margaret said, not listening. ‘“Look My Way”. “Moonlight And Memory”. “Twosome, Threesome, Lonesome”. He wrote that after you were born. He wrote that when I couldn’t go to some gig he was doing because you weren’t sleeping, and I was so tired I wasn’t making any sense. He didn’t like it when I wasn’t there. He liked me to be there, to tel him what’s what afterwards. He relied on my opinion.’
‘OK,’ Scott said. He felt obscurely embarrassed, as if he was witnessing some parental intimacy that was definitely not for outsiders’ eyes.
Wanting to have affirmation of family life was definitely not the same as being shown unwanted evidence of his mother’s abiding romance with his father. His father’s music was not, actual y, much to his taste, and revelations of the autobiographical inspiration for some of it made him fidget.
He’d been initial y overwhelmed to hear he’d been left the early Richie Rossiter songbook, but when it came to absorbing the real nature of the material his awed gratitude had been replaced by something much more awkward, a sense that these often throbbingly emotional songs were not at al for him and especial y not if they were based in any way on Richie’s private life with Scott’s mother. He’d wondered, briefly, if it was pathetical y immature to feel this squeamish at thirty-seven, and decided that, even if it was, this reaction was the case, and he couldn’t pretend otherwise. As to the money they represented, wel , he couldn’t take that. Money wasn’t what he’d wanted from his father, and it was now definitively too late to have what he’d real y wanted.
‘Look,’ he said to Margaret, ‘I’ve spent al these years, since I was fourteen, trying to look after you because my dad wasn’t here to do it, and I can’t suddenly spin round and agree he’s the greatest romantic hero just because he’s dead.’
Margaret looked at him. She smiled. She said, ‘Of course not, pet.’
‘Mam,’ Scott demanded, ‘Mam, what’s the matter with you?’
‘It’s not nothing. You’re al vague and dreamy—’
‘I’m relieved,’ Margaret said.
‘Oh yes.’ She smiled at him again. ‘I’m just so relieved we’ve been left these things. I hardly dared to hope he hadn’t forgotten us. There were months, years, when I was sure he had and then I’d tel myself, wel , he’s never asked for a divorce, not even with al those babies, he’s never asked, and I’d find the hope starting up again. I came back from that funeral thinking that at least I didn’t have to keep hoping any more, hoping and not being certain, never being sure, and then this happens. Out of the blue, this happens. It hadn’t crossed my mind, not for a second. I’d imagined a thousand daft things, but never this. He did remember us. He remembered when he was wel , when he stil thought he’d got years to go, he thought about you and me, and he went to a lawyer to make sure we knew he’d thought about us. It’s the knowing that’s such a relief. I don’t need to see the piano, you know, I don’t need to have anything. I just needed to know. And now I do.’
Scott went over to the sofa and sat down on one end of it, putting his hand out to touch Dawson’s solid and thickly furry side.
He said, almost shyly, ‘I’m glad about that too. I real y am. It’s just – wel , it’s just that I don’t think I’m the right person for the songbook.’
‘Bit mushy for you,’ Margaret said. ‘People don’t think about love like that now, do they? More’s the pity. It was lovely, letting yourself go with the romance like that. But it’s not the way you do things now, is it, it’s not the way you express yourselves. Mind you, the feeling’s just the same, it’s just how you express it that’s different.’
‘Yes,’ Scott said. He pushed his fingers into Dawson’s fur, and felt the purring start up, and watched the claws begin to emerge and retract involuntarily, sliding in and out of their sheaths, as instinctive a reaction as Scott’s was to his father’s songs. ‘Mam—’
‘Why,’ Scott said, ‘why don’t you have the songbook? Those songs mean a lot to you, have a history for you—’ He stopped. He could not, for some reason, look at her.
‘They do,’ Margaret said. ‘They do.’
She came and sat the other end of the sofa, upright, as she always was, her hands loosely clasped in her lap.
‘Wel ,’ she said, ‘why don’t I have the songbook and the royalties, and you have the piano?’
‘Mam,’ Scott said, ‘a twenty-two-thousand-pound Stein-way next to an Ikea sofa—’ ‘So?’
‘Is that OK by you?’
Scott leaned forward and kissed her cheek.
‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘Thank you.’
‘Nothing to thank me for, pet.’
‘What, a mere Steinway?’
Margaret said, not looking at him, ‘Wel , it’s a wonderful instrument, of course it is, and it meant the world to him, but it had its problems.’
She glanced up at him.
‘We had to buy it on the never-never. Of course we did, back then. And I was the one with the steady wage. There was a lot of going without, to pay for that piano.’
‘I see,’ Scott said.
He glanced down at her bare left hand.
‘Wil you put your wedding ring back on?’
‘No,’ she said. She didn’t even look at her hand. ‘No, pet. No need.’
Sunday evenings, after visits to Tynemouth, had never been satisfactory. It was something about the change of gear from Margaret’s house, and the sea, and, al too often, too much lunch, of the kind of food he didn’t normal y eat, at the Grand Hotel, that left him feeling as disorientated as if he’d got back to Newcastle from Outer Mongolia. In the past, he’d tried seeing friends, or even going to a movie, but the intense temporary sense of unreality prevented him from being satisfied with either, and he now resorted to drifting about the flat, desultorily trying to create some order in honour of a new working week, clearing up dirty mugs and plates and glasses, straightening his bed (what for – when he was about to get into it again any minute?), finding a clean shirt for the morning, buffing up his black shoes with a handy gym towel. The friends he had who had live-in girlfriends complained mildly about the apparently compulsory domesticity of Sunday evenings and, although there were many poignant times when Scott remembered past girlfriends with inaccurate lonely yearning, he was mostly glad to be able to amble alone and haphazardly through this strange slice of life between time off and time on again.
And in any case, this particular evening was different. This particular evening required not just some energizing planning, but some actual shoving around of furniture. The black sofa needed to be pushed down towards the kitchen end, leaving a swathe of dusty, crumby detritus which had col ected comfortably underneath it, as wel as the coffee table, in order to leave a space big enough, at the window end of the flat, to house the Steinway grand in al its glory. The Yamaha keyboard could go into his bedroom, after al , where it would prove a useful clothes-parking place, the table and chairs (metal, cool to look at, unwelcome to sit on) could be rearranged on the wal opposite the sofa, never mind it was al a bit crowded, and then, when he came in, in the future, he could look down the length of the room to his spectacular view of the Tyne Bridge, and there the Steinway would be, gleaming and glossy, and ful of the double resonance of its own voice and his father’s. It was, for once, an exciting use of a Sunday evening, inspiring him not only to move everything around, but also to clean up the mess on the floor, throw away months’ worth of old papers and magazines, and bang clouds of dust out of his sofa cushions. The results of his efforts were very pleasing indeed and gave him an irrational but gratifying sense that his life, from now on, would somehow be very different, and inclusive of a new, important, if as yet entirely undefined, dimension.
He dumped a stout row of black bin bags by the front door, to go down in the morning, and went off, whistling, to have a shower. Showered, and wrapped in a towel, he cleaned wedges of curious rubbery grey scum out of the plugs and the shower tray, poured bleach lavishly down the lavatory, and shined up the mirrors with handfuls of toilet paper. Because of the splashing and the whistling, he only heard the telephone in time to race out of the bathroom and seize it at the moment when his voicemail cut in.
‘Hel o?’ Scott said.
‘Hi,’ his own voice said to him. ‘Scott here—’
‘Hel o?’ Scott said again over it. ‘Hel o? I’m here. I’m home.’
There was a silence.
‘I’m here,’ Scott said again. ‘Who is it?’
‘Amy,’ Amy said.
‘Amy — ’
‘Yes,’ Amy said. ‘You know.’
‘Gosh,’ Scott said. With his free hand, he tucked the towel more firmly round his waist. It didn’t feel quite decent, somehow, to be talking to Amy, wearing only a bath towel.
‘Is – it OK?’ Amy said.
‘OK to talk to you.’
‘Sure it is,’ Scott said. ‘I was just a bit surprised.’
‘Me too. I mean, I’m surprised I’ve done it. That I’ve rung you.’
‘Where are you?’
‘I’m in my bedroom. At home. I’m on my phone, in my bedroom.’
Scott walked, with his phone, to the window with the view.
‘I’m looking at the Tyne Bridge,’ he said.
‘What’s the Tyne Bridge?’
‘Don’t you know?’
‘If I knew,’ Amy said, her voice becoming more confident, ‘I wouldn’t ask you, would I?’
‘S’pose not,’ Scott said. ‘Wel , it’s a great massive thing, iron and stuff, over the Tyne. The railway goes over it. I can see the trains from my window.’
‘Oh,’ Amy said.
There was a pause. After letting it hang for some seconds, and wondering if he could actual y hear her breathing, or whether he just thought he could, Scott said, ‘Did you want something?’
‘I don’t know,’ Amy said uncertainly.
Scott decided to grasp the nettle. He stood straighter and looked sternly at his view.
‘Is it about the piano?’
‘No,’ Amy said.
‘Wel ,’ Scott said, ‘that’s something.’
‘Was it a dare?’
‘Did you,’ Scott asked, ‘dare yourself to ring me?’
There was another little pause and then Amy said, ‘Maybe.’
‘Did you think I’d refuse to speak to you?’
‘I might have. We didn’t exactly get a welcome, Mam and me.’
‘No,’ Amy said again. ‘What did you expect?’
‘OK,’ Scott said. ‘OK.’ He tried to picture her in detail. Tal ish, slim, long dark hair down her back. But he couldn’t remember her face, only that when he and Margaret confronted the four of them outside the church she was the only one who hadn’t looked daggers.
She said, ‘I’m supposed to be revising. I’m always supposed to be revising.’
‘A levels? ’
‘Don’t mention them.’
He turned his back to the window and regarded the swept space where the piano would stand.
He said, ‘You play an instrument?’
‘Flute,’ she said.
He looked at the ceiling.
‘Nice,’ he said.
‘And you? ’
‘Piano,’ he said. ‘Not wel .’
‘Yes,’ he said. He let his gaze drop back to the floor. ‘Yes, I’l play it here.’
She said, ‘I’d better go—’
‘Someone come in?’
‘No, I just think—’
‘Why did you ring, Amy?’ Scott said. ‘Why did you ring me?’
‘I was thinking,’ Amy said, ‘about Dad. My dad.’
‘Our dad. Was that why?’
‘Do you miss him?’
‘I don’t know,’ Scott said. ‘I hardly saw him after I was fourteen.’
‘Yeah,’ Amy said, very quietly.
‘Wel , is that why you rang? Because he was my dad too and you knew he didn’t see me?’
‘Are you angry about that?’
There was a silence.
‘Sorry,’ Amy said. ‘I shouldn’t have asked that.’
‘The answer’s yes,’ Scott said.
Amy said softly, ‘Me too. About other things.’
‘I’ve never said it out loud,’ Scott said. ‘Not for twenty-odd years. I’ve just let it stew around in my head.’
‘Yes,’ Amy said in a whisper.
‘And then you ask me—’
Amy said, more clearly, ‘I don’t know why I rang. I just thought I would. It was in my mind and it was bugging me, so I did.’
‘Wil it bug you again?’
‘You could ring me,’ Amy said. ‘It doesn’t have to be me. You could phone.’
‘I don’t think so—’
‘I’m going,’ Amy said. ‘I’m going to ring off.’
‘Cheers,’ Scott said. He waited. Amy said nothing. Then he heard her phone go dead. ‘Bye,’ Scott said, with exaggerated emphasis, into the ether. ‘Bye. Thanks for cal ing.’
He threw his phone across the space of the floor on to the sofa, and put his hands into his stil -damp hair, ruffling it up into spikes. What had al that been about?
Amy got down on to the floor and crouched there, holding her knees, pushing her eye sockets against them. She stayed there for some time, just breathing and waiting for the bones of her skul to press against the bones of her kneecaps until they were more painful than merely uncomfortable, and then she unrol ed herself slowly and stood up and stretched until her fingertips touched the sloping ceiling above her bed. She had taped a big picture of Duffy up there, wearing a red-and-black jumper and a lot of eye make-up, posed against a brick wal and looking pretty panicky. It was a look that Amy could often identify with.
She bent to pick up her phone from the carpet, and put it in her jeans pocket, leaving the charm she had attached to it – a blue glitter dolphin –
hanging outside so that she could tweak the phone out in an instant when it began to vibrate. She always had her phone on vibrate. Her sisters, of course, had loud ring tones but Amy preferred the near secrecy of vibrate, just as she preferred to let most family things drift her way, being ever observant but seldom demanding. It was only things that real y mattered that got Amy into demand mode, that turned her into someone she wasn’t al that pleased to be, someone who snooped, someone who went through drawers and checked e-mail inboxes and eavesdropped. Someone who opened her dead father’s piano stool – something that had never even remotely occurred to her to do, al the eighteen years of her life – and found inside al sorts of old stuff; stuff relating to a place and a time which had nothing to do with the dad who was part of Amy’s life, nothing to do with anything familiar to her either.
There was quite a lot of sheet music in there, battered copies of songs from musicals, Show Boat, and Guys and Dolls, and Carousel. There were footbal programmes from St James’ Park, dated in the 1970s. There was a postcard of something cal ed St Andrew’s Churchyard and on the back someone had written in a handwriting that wasn’t Richie’s, ‘Fifteen witches buried here!’ and a date, 27 July 1963. There was a brochure for the Grand Hotel, Tynemouth, and a smal wooden coat of arms, gold keys crossed on a red background, below a gilded helmet and a little ship, above a motto, ‘ Moribus Civilis’, and on the back of the shield was a grubby white label on which – her father’s hand this time – was written ‘Scott –
1983’. And there was a photograph. It was in an envelope but both the envelope and the photograph looked as if they’d been much handled. It showed a young mother, and a baby, quite a big baby, almost a toddler. The young mother had her hair in a curled pageboy, and a plainly home-made frock, and a hat like a halo. The baby was in hand-knitted shorts and an Eton-col ared jersey and little socks and bar shoes.
Amy had been alone in the house when she opened the piano stool. Chrissie had gone to see the bank manager, Tamsin was at work, on reception at an estate agent’s in the High Street, Dil y was at col ege. Amy was supposed to be upstairs, working. The period of grace she had been given on account of Richie dying had, quite suddenly, seemed to end. Chrissie had begun, with something approaching shril ness, to insist on Amy’s catching up with the revision she’d missed in the last few weeks, the revision it was absolutely imperative she complete, before the school term began. She found revision so hard to approach that some days it was almost impossible. The music was OK. Even music theory was OK. But when it came to English and Spanish, her concentration seemed to fragment and scatter like little bobbles of mercury skittering away across a sheet of glass. She’d made herself sit there, in front of her Hamlet quotations, for almost an hour, and then she’d gone downstairs, to make, oh, coffee or toast or powdered soup in a mug, and drifted into Richie’s piano room on a melancholy whim, to touch the keys, pressing them down very slowly, without a sound, and found herself on the floor, opening the worn padded seat of the piano stool.
There was a tie folded on top of al the papers. It was a terylene tie, navy blue with maroon-and-cream stripes. It was creased and had lost its label. It was definitely a tie that pre-dated Chrissie, Amy thought. Chrissie would never have countenanced Richie wearing a tie that wasn’t pure silk, and French or Italian. But there was something about this old, worn, cheap tie that made Amy put it down beside her with respect, an eloquent something. It was almost as eloquent, in fact, as the photograph, which was right at the bottom of the piano stool, under everything else, gritty with dust. When Amy put everything back into the piano stool, very methodical y, in the order in which she had taken everything out and with the tie neatly folded on top, she put the photograph in its envelope in the back pocket of her jeans. Then she took it out again, laid it on top of the tie, closed the piano stool, walked out of the room, paused, walked back in, opened the piano stool, extracted the envelope, put it back in her jeans pocket and went swiftly and stealthily up the stairs to her room like a burglar, even though she was the only person in the house. Once in her room, she slipped the envelope behind the Duffy poster. Then she went across to her laptop, and connected to Google Earth.
She had, she realized, no idea where Newcastle was, in any detail. Up north somewhere, like Manchester or Leeds, lost in that hil y other world that started after Birmingham and stretched vaguely up the map until it got to Scotland, but she had no precise idea of which side of up north it was, or whether it was in the middle or on the sea. It was surprisingly astonishing, then, to see the city swim up into view under the satel ite’s scrutiny, swel ing out from the curving ribbon of the River Tyne, with a great space of sea to one side and crumpled hil s scattered on the other. She moved on, over Tynemouth and Gateshead and North Shields, past bridges and monuments, along streets and al eys tipping down to the river, to the sea, and then into information about the area’s history and music and decayed industries and revived nightlife. She was so absorbed in what she was doing that when she heard the front door slam, she’d given a little gasp, and hastily switched the screen back to Hamlet, back to those quotations that seemed to be, however passionately she chanted them, so dead on the page. ‘“It is not madness I have uttered”,’ she was saying, her eyes closed on an inward vision of Newcastle. ‘“Bring me to the test”,’ when Chrissie came into the room and asked her if she’d like a mug of tea.
That had been three days ago. Since Thursday, she had gone back, half a dozen times, to look at Newcastle, and, almost as often, had slipped the photograph from behind Duffy’s poster, and gazed at it again, almost greedily. Richie and his mother. Richie in 1942, perhaps, in a photographer’s studio in North Shields, or maybe at home, although it seemed odd, even for 1942, to wear a hat at home. There was no background much to the picture, just the table Richie was sitting on, and a straight fal of thin curtain behind him and his mother, no other piece of furniture, no pictures or flowers. Just that proud young mother, in a frock she’d possibly made herself, and that baby, who would grow up to have his own babies. Four of them. Tamsin, Dil y, herself – and Scott. Scott, who stil lived roughly where Richie had grown up and who was going to have the piano. Scott, who had come to the funeral, and looked like some weird echo of Dad. Scott, who had stood, almost defensively, at his mother’s elbow but who had, at the same time, regarded his three half-sisters, that split second they were facing each other, with more interest than hostility.
It was three days of this, three days of Newcastle and her father and her father as a baby and Scott, that final y got to her. She was lying on her bed, one of her Spanish set texts – Lorca – propped up on her stomach, when the impulse came to her, cramping up her nerve ends until she seized her phone and dial ed Scott’s number and waited, rigid with panic and thril , for him to answer.
And then, of course, she didn’t know what to say. When he asked her why she’d rung, she couldn’t tel him. He sounded quite relaxed, though there’d been wary moments, and she discovered she wanted him to go on talking, wanted him to somehow take the conversation over and guide her, help her, suggest something she might do next. But of course he hadn’t. He had let her drift on, waiting to see what she was after, and, as she hardly knew that herself, she’d lost her nerve, as suddenly as it had spurred her to act, and she’d ended the cal , before she knew she was doing it, before she meant to.
She glanced at the radio clock beside her bed: seven forty-eight. Downstairs, someone might be making their traditional Sunday-night scrambled eggs, the eggs that were the only cooking Richie had ever done, and that not often. Food, Amy thought, would at least be distracting, would stop her thinking and wondering for a while, would clear Scott’s irritating, endearing Geordie voice out of her ears. She touched the dolphin charm hanging out of her pocket to reassure herself that the phone was stil there, and went out of her bedroom, and downstairs.
Only Tamsin was in the kitchen. She was wearing a white velour tracksuit, and had a dark-blue towel wrapped round her head like a turban. She was sitting at the kitchen table, painting her nails with clear varnish in long, slow, careful strokes. She glanced up as Amy came in.
‘Out,’ Tamsin said. ‘I sent her out to have a drink with the Nelsons. Anything to get her away from the computer.’
‘And Dil y?’
Amy opened the fridge.
Tamsin shook her head careful y, so as not to dislodge the towel.
Amy took out a plastic box of pieces of cheese and a tomato and a caramel yoghurt, and put them on the table.
‘You been working?’ Tamsin said.
‘Al this time?’
Amy began to rummage in a cupboard.
‘It’s so boring—’
‘You’l break Mum’s heart if you screw these exams up.’
Amy dumped a col ection of cracker packets on the table, beside the cheese box.
‘Don’t say that!’
‘Wel ,’ Tamsin said, splaying the fingers of one hand and surveying them. ‘You’re the bright one. Dad always said that. I’m practical, Dil y’s decorative and daft, and you’re bright.’
Amy sat down at the table, holding a knife.
‘Get a plate,’ Tamsin said.
‘I’m just going,’ Amy said, ‘to put bits of cheese, Madam Fusspot, on crackers and eat them. I don’t need a plate.’
‘Get a plate,’ Tamsin said again.
Amy got up, sighing, and went to retrieve a plate from the cupboard, banging the door.
‘Tam, d’you ever think about when Dad was little? What his life was, when he was little?’
Tamsin looked at her other hand.
Amy took out a smal block of cheese and put it on the plate. Then she hacked an irregular chunk from one end.
Tamsin shot her a glance.
‘What d’you mean?’
‘Wel ,’ Amy said, ‘we don’t know anything about where he grew up, do we, we never went there, he never talked about it.’
‘He didn’t think about it,’ Tamsin said. ‘It was over.’
Amy balanced her cheese on a biscuit.
‘How do you know?’
‘We’d have known if he thought about it,’ Tamsin said. ‘But he didn’t. He didn’t want to know about it any more. He had a new life.’
Amy bit into her cheese. The biscuit broke and fragments scattered across the table.
Through her mouthful, she said indistinctly, ‘I do.’
Tamsin stopped painting. She glared at her sister.
Amy swal owed the cheese.
‘I want to know about where Dad was born. I want to know about his life there.’
‘You can’t,’ Tamsin said flatly.
‘Why can’t I?’
‘You’d upset Mum.’
‘Why would I, I’m only wanting to know where Dad—’
‘You know why.’
Amy said nothing. She gathered up several pieces of biscuit, and pressed them into the remaining cheese.
She said, looking at the food in her hand, ‘They didn’t ask for the piano.’
Tamsin leaned forward. The towel turban made her face look older, more severe.
She said, ‘Mum has enough to cope with. She’s not in a good place. She needs us to be right behind her, not siding with people who’ve taken things they’ve no right to.’
‘I’m not siding,’ Amy said stubbornly. ‘And they haven’t taken anything.’
Tamsin slammed her hands down on the table. She almost shouted, ‘Whose side are you on?’
Amy put another bite of cheese and cracker into her mouth.
‘Everybody’s,’ she said.
Chrissie’s friend Sue was sitting on the edge of Chrissie’s big bed, gazing at the line of fitted cupboards across the room. Behind her, balanced unsteadily on the duvet, was a tray bearing the things she’d brought from the delicatessen – a bottle of Prosecco, some big green olives, a smal whole salami in a netting tube – and two glasses, plates, and a knife. The door to the bathroom was closed. Behind it, Chrissie was doing God knows what. Sue crossed her legs and leaned back on her hands. Chrissie had said, a few days ago, that she couldn’t face sorting out Richie’s clothes alone, so Sue had said not to worry, I’l come, I’l bring a bottle, we’l have a party, and here she was, as good as her word, al alone on Chrissie’s bed while Chrissie was locked in the bathroom.
Sue turned very slowly to look at the bedside tables behind her. On Richie’s side of the bed there was just a pile of books and an old-fashioned alarm clock on legs with a metal bel on top. On Chrissie’s side, there were books, and bottles of water and hand cream, and nail files, and scrunchies, and a notebook, and pens, and a smal stuffed panda with a red felt heart stitched on his chest, and a photograph of Ritchie framed in black bamboo. It showed him leaning forward, smiling. He was wearing a blue shirt, open at the neck, and the cuffs were nonchalantly unbuttoned as was his habit, showing his strong wrists, and hands. You could see a watch on one wrist, but his hands were ringless.
Sue knew that women had swooned over Richie. Thousands and thousands of women had found his dark, solid, almost Latin looks devastatingly attractive. Sue herself wasn’t one of them. She found his looks dated, old-fashioned. The men she found attractive were definitely more dangerous.
‘Give me a skinny rock god any day,’ she’d say to Chrissie, as if to reassure her that she, Sue, had no designs on a man whose fan mail stil arrived in sacks, rather than by e-mail. ‘Give me a real y bad boy, any day.’ Chrissie had laughed. It was easy, then, to laugh at the idea of not being helplessly susceptible to Richie Rossiter. She could laugh because she felt – you could see it – completely secure.
‘It’s amazing,’ she’d say sometimes. ‘It’s amazing watching him flirt with three thousand women from the stage, and then switch it off like a light the moment he’s back in the wings.’
‘Lucky for you—’
‘Very lucky for me,’ Chrissie would say soberly. ‘So lucky. He’s a family man.’
‘Rather than first a romantic?’
A tiny shadow would flit across Chrissie’s face. She’d touch her earrings, or a bracelet, as if to indicate that these had been presents from Richie, sentimental offerings, and she’d say evasively, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that—’
Sue pul ed the tray towards her across the duvet, and put her hand on the neck of the bottle of Prosecco.
‘I’m opening it!’ she cal ed.
There was a pause. Sue wedged the bottle between her knees and began to peel off the foil and wire round the cork. The bathroom door opened.
‘Sorry,’ Chrissie said.
Sue looked up.
‘Have you been crying?’
‘No,’ Chrissie said. ‘Wondering if I might be sick, but not crying.’
‘You need some time.’
‘Maybe,’ Chrissie said.
Sue eased the cork out deftly, and fil ed a glass with care. She held it out to Chrissie.
‘Open those doors,’ Sue said.
Holding the glass away from her as if to steady it that way, Chrissie crossed the room and, with her free hand, opened the two right-hand pairs of cupboard doors. On one side in two rows, one above the other, hung jackets and trousers, and on the other, a row of shirts on hangers above shelves of sweaters and T-shirts, al folded with precision.
‘Heavens,’ Sue said, ‘looks like the menswear floor in John Lewis.’ She averted her gaze from the pale-blue linen jackets and looked resolutely at the floor of the left-hand wardrobe. It contained brown and black shoes, al on shoe trees.
‘Who kept it like that?’ Sue said.
Chrissie was standing to one side as if it was rude to stand directly in front of a shrine.
‘Blimey,’ Sue said, ‘care to come and blow fairy dust into my cupboards? You can’t see for chaos. I’m the original makeover mess-up.’
‘He liked clothes,’ Chrissie said. ‘But he liked me to buy them.’
‘Liked, or let you?’
Chrissie took a tiny sip of her wine.
‘Liked. He’d never shop on his own. He said he didn’t trust his taste. We had a nickname for it, NC for Northern Circuit. He’d pick something up and hold it out to me and say, “Too NC?” Satin lapels and pointed shoes. That kind of thing.’
Sue said, ‘There’s never been anything smarter than a T-shirt in my house—’
Chrissie said abruptly, desperately, ‘I can’t touch these.’
Sue slid off the bed. She went over to Chrissie and put an arm round her.
‘It’s OK, Chris—’
‘If I touch them,’ Chrissie said, ‘I’l smel his smel . Touching them wil sort of release that. I can’t—’
‘You don’t have to,’ Sue said.
‘But I’ve got to—’
‘No,’ Sue said, ‘you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.’
‘Damn,’ Chrissie said, looking at the white carpet. ‘Look. I’ve spil ed it—’
‘White wine,’ Sue said. ‘Won’t show. Go and sit on the bed.’
‘Go and sit on the bed.’
Chrissie was shaking.
‘You came here to help me sort his clothes—’
‘It doesn’t matter. I came here as your mate, not as a second-hand clothes dealer. Go and sit on that bed before I push you there.’
She took her arm away from Chrissie’s shoulders.
‘I thought I could do it—’
‘Look,’ Sue said, ‘it doesn’t matter. This is a rite of passage. There’s no dress rehearsal for rites of passage, you can’t practise for widowhood.
I’m going to shut these doors.’
Chrissie crept away from the cupboards and sat on her own side of the bed, facing away from the cupboards. Sue shut the doors decisively, and then she came to sit down next to Chrissie.
‘Drink. Big swal ow.’
Chrissie took an obedient gulp. She said, ‘I’m in such a mess.’
‘I don’t wonder.’
‘I don’t know what to think, now. I don’t know what he real y felt, any more. I don’t know what we’re going to do.’
Sue put a hand on Chrissie’s, urging her glass towards her mouth.
Chrissie said, ‘He had bookings up to May next year. I’ve had to cancel them. They would have brought in almost forty thousand. There’s fan mail like you can’t believe. I should think every middle-aged woman in the North of England has written to say they can’t believe he’s dead. I’m left with a house and not enough savings and three daughters and an inheritance tax bil and the realization that he’s left his piano and a good part of his creative output to the life he had before he even met me. And I can’t even ask him what the hel he thought he was playing at, I can’t ask him if he meant what he used to say to me, what he used to say to the girls, I can’t even ask him, Sue, if he actual y real y loved me.’
Sue picked up the Prosecco bottle and refil ed Chrissie’s glass.
‘Course he loved you.’
‘But not enough to marry me.’
‘Love,’ Sue said firmly, ‘is not necessarily about marriage.’
Chrissie took another gulp.
‘Where Richie came from, it is. Where Richie came from, you had to make love respectable. He was always tel ing me that. Why didn’t he get a divorce? Because where he came from, the way he was brought up, divorce was very difficult, divorce was frowned on, his fans would not have liked it if he had been divorced.’
Sue waited a moment, and then she said, ‘None of that antediluvian claptrap means he didn’t love you.’
Chrissie was staring straight ahead.
‘But not enough to leave me his piano. His piano and a tea caddy were about the only things he brought with him when he came south. He bought that piano when he was thirty-five, with the royalties from “Moonlight and Memory,” it was the absolutely most precious thing he had and, if any of us inadvertently put a glass or a mug down on it, he’d go berserk. Not leaving me the piano is like saying sorry, I tolerated you al these years because I fancied you once and then there were the girls so I was trapped and couldn’t get away, but actual y, al the time, my heart, my real heart, was somewhere else, where it had been al the time since I was a little kid at school, and I can’t pretend any more so I’m leaving her the piano and not you. You can have the things anyone could give you, like a house and a car and an inadequate life-insurance policy and a load of memories which turn out to be rubbish because I didn’t, I’m afraid, actual y mean any of it.’
She stopped. Tears were pouring down her face. Sue moved closer, putting an arm round her again, holding out a clump of tissues.
‘That’s right, Chrissie, that’s right. You let it out, you let it right out—’
‘I don’t know whether I’m sadder or angrier,’ Chrissie said, taking the tissues but letting the tears run. ‘I don’t know if I’m so bloody furious or so bloody heart-broken that I can’t see straight. Maybe it’s both. I want him back, I want him back so badly I could scream. And I want to kill him.’
Sue pul ed more tissues out of the box by the bed and mopped at Chrissie’s face.
‘I’m frightened,’ Chrissie said, her voice uneven now because of the crying. ‘I’m frightened of what’s going to happen, how I’m going to make a living, what I’m going to do about the girls. I’m frightened about the future and I’m frightened about the past because it looks like it wasn’t what I thought it was, that I’ve spent twenty years and more believing what I wanted to believe and not seeing the truth. I’m frightened that al the efficiency and competence and administration I thought was keeping us going and getting us somewhere was like just trying to mend a house with wal paper.
‘Now stop it,’ Sue said kindly. ‘Time to stop.’ Chrissie gave an immense sniff and blotted her eyes with the tissues in her hand.
‘It’s understandable, but going on and on like this wil just make you feel like shit.’
‘I feel like shit anyway.’
‘There are degrees of shittiness—’
‘I just don’t,’ Chrissie said, ‘know what to do.’
Sue prised the damp tissues out of her hands.
‘Get up and go into that bathroom and wash your face and have a good scream and come downstairs. You’ve said it al , you’ve got it al out, but it doesn’t help getting it al out over and over. I’m going downstairs. I’l be waiting for you downstairs.’ She stood up, and bent for the tray. ‘It’s murder when people die while you’ve stil got stuff to say to them, murder. Drives you crazy. But you mustn’t let it. See you downstairs.’
In the kitchen, Dil y was sitting at the table with her laptop and a notebook and a large volume on anatomy open beside them. Sue put the tray down on the table next to her and glanced at it.
‘What on earth’s that?’
‘The lymphatic system,’ Dil y said.
She was wearing spotless white jeans and a pale-grey T-shirt and her fair hair hung down her back in a tidy pigtail, fastened with a cluster of crystals on an elasticized loop.
‘Why,’ Sue said, ‘do you need to know about the lymphatic system for Brazilian waxes?’
Dil y frowned at the screen.
‘It’s for facials. You have to know how the lymphatic system drains, for facials.’
‘Yuck,’ Sue said. She began taking things off the tray and putting them on the table. She had known Dil y since she was a tiny girl, since Amy was a baby, and Tamsin was going to nursery school at a termly price, Richie used to say, that would have covered a whole education in the North when he was a boy; Tamsin had a tabard for her nursery school, pink cotton with a flower appliqué. Sue Bennett’s children had gone to nursery school in whichever T-shirt was cleanest. She sat down beside Dil y.
‘You know what your mum and I’ve been doing—’
Dil y stared harder at the screen.
‘Didn’t real y want to think about it.’
‘No. You wouldn’t.’
‘It’s too soon,’ Dil y said.
‘Wel ,’ Sue said, ‘that’s exactly how Mum felt. When it came to it.’
Dil y turned to look at her.
‘So it’s – it’s al stil there?’
‘Not a sock moved.’
‘What a relief,’ Dil y said. She looked back at the screen. ‘Is she OK?’
‘I was going to ask you that.’
‘None of us are,’ Dil y said. ‘You’re OK for a bit and then it suddenly hits you. And it’s awful.’
‘Has she,’ Sue said casual y, moving the olives and salami about on the table, ‘has she talked to you?’
Dil y stopped swivel ing the mouse panel on her laptop.
‘About what? ’
‘About what’s on her mind. About what’s happened, since your dad died.’
Dil y said flatly, ‘You mean the piano.’
‘She hasn’t said much. But you can see.’
‘I don’t get it,’ Dil y said. ‘I don’t get why he’d do a thing like that.’
‘I don’t think you should read too much into it.’
Dil y turned to look directly at her. Her skin, at these close quarters, Sue observed, was absolutely flawless, almost like a baby’s.
‘What d’you mean?’
‘What I mean,’ Sue said, ‘is that you shouldn’t let yourselves think that just because he left the piano to her he was in love with her al along.’
Dil y made a smal grimace.
‘You should see her—’
‘I did, briefly. At the funeral.’
‘No competition for your mum.’
‘But then he goes and leaves her the piano!’
Sue said careful y, ‘That may have nothing whatsoever to do with love.’
‘Wel , it could be nostalgia. Or Northern solidarity. Or guilt. Or al three.’
Dil y leaned her elbows on the table and balanced her forehead in the palms of her hands.
‘None of that means anything to us.’
‘Wel , think about it. Think about it and try and see it as something other than just a bloody great rejection. And while you’re at it, stop behaving as if it’s al the fault of that poor cow in Newcastle. What did she do, except get left to bring a child up on her own? She’s never made trouble, never asked for anything. Has she? You’re al letting yourselves down if you blame her for what your father did. You hear me?’
Dil y’s phone began to play the theme tune from The Magic Roundabout. She pounced on it at once and peered at the screen. And then, without looking at Sue, she got up, saying, ‘Hi, big guy,’ happily into it, and walked away down the kitchen to the far window.
‘You’re a rude little cow,’ Sue said equably, to her back.
In the doorway, Chrissie said, ‘Do I look as grim as I feel?’
‘No,’ she said, ‘you just look as if you’ve been crying because you’re extremely sad.’
‘And mad,’ Chrissie said.
Sue got up to find clean wine glasses.
‘Mad’s OK. Mad gives you energy. It’s hate you want to avoid.’
Chrissie said nothing. She glanced at Dil y, smiling into her phone at the far end of the kitchen. Then she sat down in the chair Dil y had vacated, and picked up an olive. Sue put a fresh glass of Prosecco down in front of her.
‘Thing is,’ Chrissie said, staring at the olive in her hand, ‘thing is, Sue, that I do hate her. I’ve never met her, and I hate her. I know it wasn’t her that prevented Richie from marrying me but I can’t seem to leave her out of it. Maybe it’s easy to hate her. Maybe I’m just doing what’s easy. Al I know is that I hate her.’ She put the olive in her mouth. ‘I do.’
In her office in Front Street, Tynemouth, Margaret was alone. Useful and faithful though Glenda was, there was always a smal relief in Margaret when five o’clock came and she could say, ‘Now come on, Glenda, you’ve done al I’ve asked you and more, and Barry’s been on his own long enough, don’t you think?’ and Glenda would gather up her jacket and scarf and inevitable col ection of supermarket bags and, always with a look of regret at the comforting anonymity of the computer screen, say a complicated goodnight and disappear down the steep stairs to the street. When the outside door slammed behind her, Margaret would let out a breath and feel the office relax around her, as if it was taking its shoes off. Then, she would sit down in Glenda’s swivel chair, bought especial y to support her back, whose condition was an abiding consideration in their relationship, and go through everything, on screen and on paper, that Glenda had done that day.
On the top of Glenda’s in-tray lay the estimates she had obtained for the transport of Richie’s piano from North London to Newcastle. It was going to be a very expensive business, in view of the quality and the weight and the distance. Margaret looked at the top sheet, on which Glenda had pencil ed, ‘This firm specializes in the moving of concert pianos.’ It was the highest estimate, of course, but probably the one she would accept, and pay, in order that Scott could benefit from something that represented a joint parental concern after over twenty years of only having hers.
She had discovered, over the last week or so, that her initial euphoria at being left the piano had subsided into something both more manageable and more familiar to her, a state of quiet satisfaction and comfortable relief. It was a relief and satisfaction to know Richie had remembered her, and so meaningful y; and it was a relief she didn’t have to house the piano and look at it every day. It was a satisfaction that Scott wanted it and would play it and a relief that he would not be haunted by the memory of its purchase and arrival, more than thirty years ago, when Margaret had had every reason to believe that a shining future awaited her in every area of her life – a rising husband, a smal son, the increasing exercise of her own managerial skil s.
As it turned out, it had been the last two that had saved her. Scott, though he had inherited more of her unobtrusive competence than his father’s flair, had been a good son to her. She wished he were more ambitious, just as she wished he was married, with a family, and a decent house near her and the sea, rather than living his indeterminate bachelor existence in that uncomfortable flat in the city, but that didn’t make him other than a good son to her, affectionate and mostly conscientious, with a respect for her and her achievements that she often saw lacking in her friends’
And of course, those achievements had been a life saver. It wasn’t a big business, Margaret Rossiter Entertainment, never would be, she didn’t want it to be, but it was enough to maintain her and Glenda, to provide moderate holidays and to keep her involved in a world in which she had a smal but distinct significance, the world of singers and musicians, of stand-up comics and performance poets, who stil managed to make a living in the clubs and hotels and pubs and concert hal s of the circuit she had known al her life. There was, she sometimes reflected with satisfaction, not a venue or a person connected with the minor entertainment industry in the North-East whom she did not know. By the same token, there was hardly anyone who did not know who Margaret Rossiter was.
She looked again at the estimate. She would probably, she told herself again, accept it. Then she would ask Scott to telephone the family in Highgate to make arrangements for the piano’s packing up, and removal. It was not that she shrank from ringing herself, she told herself firmly, but rather that if Scott were to ring one of the girls, it would be lower-key, less of a drama. She closed her eyes for a moment. A drama. Watching the Steinway being loaded into a crate, swaddled in blankets or bubble wrap or whatever, and taken away couldn’t possibly be other than a drama. If she were Chrissie, Margaret thought, she’d be sure to be out of the house.
She had sometimes tried to visualize that house. There had been years – long years – when she had studiously avoided pictures in minor celebrity columns and magazines of Richie and Chrissie together, he so dark, she so blonde, so very blonde, and young, and dressed in clothes that appeared to have needed her to be sewn into them. But the house was another matter. The house was where Richie lived, and Margaret was occasional y tormented by the need to know how much it resembled – or differed from – that first house in Tynemouth of which they had been so proud, and from which Scott had been able to walk when – an even greater source of pride – he had gained a place at the King’s School. She thought the North London house must be quite a big one, to house three children and a grand piano, and she knew that part of London was famed for its hil s, so perhaps the garden sloped, and there were views from the top windows, views to the City perhaps, or out to Essex, unlike the view she had now, the view she had chosen almost as proof of her own achievements, out to sea.
Margaret swivel ed Glenda’s chair towards the window, and adjusted the venetian blinds – Glenda liked to work with them almost closed, in an atmosphere of elaborate and pointless secrecy – so that she could see down into the street. There was much activity down there, of the kind induced by imminent shop-closing. There were the usual groups of teenagers in their uniforms of clothing and attitude, and children and dogs and people pushing buggies and walking frames adapted as shopping baskets. Al those people, Margaret thought, her hands lying on the arms of Glenda’s chair, have stories that are just as important to them as mine is to me. Al those people have to do the big things like dying just as they have to do the little things like buying tea bags. There’l be women down there whose men have pushed off and broken their hearts, and some of them wil have got over it, and some of them won’t, and I just wonder if that Chrissie, in London, is going to be one of the ones that doesn’t, because a wil is the last act of generosity or vengeance that we have left to us, even after death, and I bet she wasn’t expecting Richie’s wil to turn out like that, I bet it didn’t cross her mind that he even remembered he’d had a life before her. And the odd thing is, Margaret reflected, gripping the chair arms now, that it doesn’t give me any pleasure, not a scrap, not even the smal est shred of I-told-you-so gratification, to think that I’ve got what she assumed would be hers. I’ve spent years – wasted years – on longing and jealousy, and now that I’ve got the proof I wanted, I’m glad to have it, but I’m sorry for that girl. I real y am, I’m sorry for her and it’s a weight off my mind I hardly knew was on it, I’d got so used to having it there. It’s such a relief not to have to hate her any more, though I never liked that word hate, never real y owned up to using it. And now I don’t have to. It doesn’t even figure any more.
She leaned back, and closed her eyes. Behind her lids, she conjured up that row of four women outside the church in Highgate, standing on the gravel square, facing her and Scott like an army drawn up in battle lines. It had only been seconds that they stood like that, but those seconds were enough for Margaret to take in the finish on Chrissie, the metropolitan polish, and to see that those three girls, Richie’s three daughters, his second family, were very young. One of them, the one who had the courage and the spirit to ring Margaret and tel her of Richie’s death, had looked not much more than a child, with her hair held back by a velvet band and fal ing down her back like Alice in Wonderland’s. Long hair, almost to her waist. Involuntarily, Margaret thought what a pleasure it would be to brush such hair, long smooth strokes down the silky strands, rhythmic, intimate, maternal.
Her eyes flew open. What on earth was she thinking of? What in heaven’s name was she doing, dreaming of brushing the hair of Richie’s daughter by a woman who had every reason now to despair of him, and, however unfairly, to detest her? She stood up unsteadily. This would never do. She picked up a plastic cup with half an inch of water in the bottom that Glenda had left on her desk and swal owed it. Then she put the cup in the overflowing bin by Glenda’s desk – an office-cleaning firm of dubious efficiency only came in two evenings a week – and moved purposeful y around the room, ordering papers, switching off screens, switching on answering machines. Then she went into the tiny cloakroom beside the door and washed her hands vigorously, and arranged her hair and applied her lipstick without needing to look in the mirror. Only as she was leaving did she give it a glance.
‘Pul yourself together,’ she said out loud to her reflection. ‘Act your age.’
‘You’re an attractive woman,’ Bernie Harrison had said to her a few days earlier, over a vodka and tonic to celebrate a good booking at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle. ‘You’re an attractive woman, for your age.’
‘And you,’ she’d said briskly, ‘are showing your age, talking like that.’
‘I’m flattering you, Margaret.’
‘Patronizing, more like—’
He’d leaned forward, and tapped her knee.
‘Ritchie knew which side his bread was buttered. He knew right up to the end. Didn’t he?’
And she, instead of agreeing with him as she had intended, instead of saying you can’t believe how it feels, after al these years of wondering and worrying, to know, to actual y know, had found herself saying instead, ‘Wel , it’s nice to have the piano. But it’s a dead thing, isn’t it?’
Bernie had eyed her.
‘Yes,’ she said. She picked up her drink and took the size of swal ow her sweet little mother-in-law would have considered vulgar. ‘Dead. She may be breaking her heart over that piano, but she’s got her girls, hasn’t she? She’s stil got those girls.’
Scott had a hangover. It was a peculiarly discouraging hangover because he had had neither the seductively reckless intention of getting drunk nor the reward of losing inhibition during the process, but had merely gone on accepting drinks and buying rounds, with a passive kind of aimlessness, until he found himself tottering unsteadily under the railway arch outside the Clavering Building and wondering why it was so difficult to extricate his keys from his pocket.
It was then, as he stood fumbling and cursing, that Donna had caught up with him. Two summers before, he’d had something going with Donna, who worked in the same law firm as he did and who thought his ability to play the piano was a very hot attribute indeed. They had spent a lot of nights and weekends together on the modern, black-framed bed in Scott’s flat, and then Donna had begun to ask to meet Margaret, and to stock the fridge with probiotic yoghurts, and berries in plastic boxes, and to col ect Scott’s work suits from the dry cleaner’s, and Scott had, in response, devised ways of avoiding her in the office and leaving clubs and pubs before she did. When she cornered him, and demanded to know what he was playing at, he said exactly what was in his mind, which was that sex was one thing, but love was quite another, and she should know that he thought sex with her was great. In revenge, she went out, immediately, with Colin from the family department, who was divorced and drove a BMW, and it didn’t seem to strike her that Scott, after a pang or two of competitive sexual jealousy, hardly minded at al . There’d been Clare, from accounts, anyway, even if that only lasted six weeks, after she’d borrowed two hundred quid from him and never paid it back.
But recently, Donna had started to be very nice to Scott again. Not flirtatious nice, but just friendly and pleasant and cheerful, which made Scott look at her rather as he had first looked at her two years ago, and she had picked up these tentative signals in an instant, and had watched, and waited, and last night, at the end of one of those post-work office-col eague social sessions that seemed like a good idea at the time, she had fol owed him down the hil from the city centre to the Clavering Building, and slipped her hand into his trouser pocket from behind, and pul ed his keys out with no trouble at al . And then she had taken him into his own building, and up to his own flat, and into his own bed, and he had felt, then, quite pleased to acquiesce, and, a bit later, for a short while, positive and energetic, and, later stil , perfectly content to fal down, down into slumber with Donna against his back and her breath stroking between his shoulder blades in little warm puffs.
In the morning, she was gone. She had slipped out from beside him, smoothed the pil ow she had lain on, dressed, and left. There was no evidence she had been there, no hairs in the basin, no damp towels. His toothbrush was dry. The only thing that proved to him that she had not been part of a giant alcoholic hal ucination the night before – if pressed, Scott knew he probably couldn’t even name the last club they had al been to –
was that on the kitchen worktop was an empty tumbler and a foil square of Alka-Seltzer tablets. Scott ran water into the tumbler, and dropped two of the tablets into it, holding the glass away from him, eyes screwed shut, as if the fizzing of the tablets as they dissolved was too much for a head as tender as his to bear.
He drank. Then he held his breath. There were always a few seconds, with Alka-Seltzer, when you wondered whether you would throw it up as fast as you had swal owed it. Nothing happened. He ran another glass of water, and drank that. Then he bent and inserted his face sideways under the tap, and let the water splash across his eyes and ears and down his neck.
In the bathroom mirror, he looked at himself with revulsion. Being so dark meant a navy-blue chin most mornings. Today, his skin was yel owish grey and there were bruises around his eyes and he looked il . Which he was. Poisoned. His liver must be in despair.
‘You are,’ he said to his reflection, ‘too old for this. Any day now, you’l just be sad. Sad, sad, sad, sad.’ He shut his eyes. This was the moment self-pity usual y kicked in, the self-pity which had lain in wait for him ever since a history master at school – who had had his own reasons for ingratiating himself with the better-looking boys – had taken him aside, after Richie had left, and put an arm round his shoulders and said, in a voice intense with understanding sympathy, ‘I am very, very sorry for you, my boy.’ Scott had broken down. The history master had been very adept at comforting him, had made him feel there was no loss of manliness in weeping.
‘Just not in front of your mother,’ the history master said. ‘She has enough to bear. Come to me, when things get too much. Come to me. It wil be our secret.’
The word ‘secret’ had alarmed Scott. But the feeling of warmth, of understanding, remained. Al his life since then, Scott could summon up, at wil , the adolescent desolation of that moment, and the permission he had been given – whatever the motive – to grieve for his loss, and for the loneliness it left him in. Now standing naked in his bathroom, feeling disgusting and disgusted in every atom of his maltreated body, he waited to be given the pardon of self-pity. But it wouldn’t come.
‘Fuck,’ Scott said to the mirror.
He picked up the spray can of shaving foam, and pressed the nozzle. Nothing happened. He shook the can. It rattled emptily. He flung it furiously across the bathroom and it clattered into the shower tray. He picked an already used disposable razor out of the soap dish, and, with his other hand, attempted to lather a cake of soap onto his chin. He was two unsatisfactory stripes down the left-hand side when his phone rang.
Of course, he couldn’t find it. Last night’s clothes – his work suit, a shirt, socks, underpants – were in a shameful stew on the floor. From somewhere inside the mess, his phone was ringing. It would be Donna. Not content with the gentle hint of the Alka-Seltzer, she would be ringing to make sure he was awake and would not be late for work. She would also, no doubt, be after some little reference to last night, some little reassurance that he had wanted what had happened, that she had, somehow, reminded him of what he had been missing, that they might now—He found the phone, in the back pocket of his trousers, just as it stopped ringing. ‘One missed cal ’, said the screen. He pressed Select. ‘Mam’, the screen said helpful y.
Scott went back to the bathroom, and found a towel. He wound it round his waist, and then he took the phone into the sitting room, to look at the view rather than at his own dispiriting face. It was seven-forty in the morning. What could Margaret want, at seven-forty in the morning, unless she was il ? Scott dial ed her number, and then stood, leaning against the windowsil , and looked at the rain outside, fal ing in soft, wet sheets through the girders of the Tyne Bridge and into the river below.
‘Were you in the shower?’ Margaret said.
‘Sorry to ring so early, but I’ve got a long day—’
‘Are you OK?’ Scott said.
‘Of course I am. Why wouldn’t I be? I’m off to Durham in ten minutes.’
‘Oh,’ Scott said. If he didn’t concentrate on focusing, he would see two Tyne Bridges, at least. He wondered if his mother had ever had a hangover.
‘I wanted to catch you,’ Margaret said, ‘before you got to the office.’
‘Are you OK?’ Scott said again. He shut one eye.
‘Perfectly fine,’ Margaret said. ‘Why d’you keep asking? I’m fine, and so is Dawson, and I’m about to drive to Durham to see a new club. I could do with more venues in Durham. Scott, dear—’
‘Yes?’ He closed both eyes.
‘Scott, pet,’ Margaret said. Her voice was warm and he could tel a request was coming. ‘I want you to do something for me.’
‘It’s for you, real y. It’s about the piano. I want you to make a cal , about the piano.’
Scott opened his eyes and made himself focus sternly on a single bridge.
‘Who to?’ he said.
Tamsin worked in the oldest estate agency in Highgate vil age. There were a great many estate agencies up the hil , but the one where Tamsin worked prided itself on its antiquity, and the famous houses – famous both for their beauty and for the celebrity of their inhabitants – that had been bought and sold over the years through their good offices. Tamsin, after failing to get into art school and declining either the cookery course or IT
skil s course suggested to her, had found herself a job in the estate agency, with which she declared herself perfectly satisfied. It was, basical y, a reception job with the added task of arranging al the appointments for viewings of the properties, and it was becoming plain to the five partners of the company that Tamsin possessed the kind of competent attention to detail, as wel as an admirably together appearance, that made her, especial y in the present perilous times, good value in every sense. Rather than promote her, or increase her pay, the partners tacitly decided that the initial tactic to prevent her beginning to think that she might be better off somewhere else was to flatter and thank her. Tamsin, deftly managing the office diary, and answering the telephone and enquiries in person, to perfection, was wel aware that the smiling compliments that came her way on a daily basis were not without ulterior motive. In return, she declined to reassure the partners that, for the moment, aged twenty-one, with a boyfriend who was the definition of steady and the recent loss of her father and the effect of that loss on both her mother and sisters, she had no intention of going anywhere.
Al the same, it was nice to be treated as valuable. It was nice to have the attention she paid to hair and clothes obviously appreciated. It was nice to know that, as far as representing the firm was concerned, she was giving a good impression. Al these reassurances were contributing to Tamsin’s sense that, amidst al the family grief and insecurity and anxiety, she was emerging as the one member of the family who could be relied on to think straight even in the midst of emotional turmoil. And so, returning home one evening from work, and walking into the empty kitchen to find Amy’s phone jerking its little jewel ed dolphin about and ringing, unattended, on the kitchen table, Tamsin did not hesitate to pick it up and, after a cursory glance revealed an unfamiliar number on the screen, say crisply into it, ‘Amy’s phone.’
There was silence at the other end.
‘Hel o?’ Tamsin said, stil using her office inflection. ‘Hel o? This is Amy’s phone.’
She waited another second or two and then a voice, a man’s voice with a distinct North-East accent, said, ‘It’s Scott here. I was hoping to speak to Amy.’
‘Scott!’ Tamsin said in her normal voice.
‘Why are you ringing? Why are you ringing Amy?’
‘Because,’ Scott said, ‘she’s the only one I’ve spoken to.’
‘When,’ Tamsin demanded, ‘did you speak to her?’
‘Look,’ Scott said, more bel igerently, ‘I’m not bothering her. And I’m not saying anything that might get her into trouble. I rang her because we’ve spoken and I’ve got her number. Who are you, anyway?’
‘Tamsin,’ Tamsin said frostily.
‘And what did you want to say to Amy?’
There was a sigh the other end of the line.
‘I didn’t want to say anything to Amy. In particular. I just wanted to ask one of you something, and Amy was the one I’d spoken to.’
Tamsin found she was standing at her ful height, as if she was in court, giving evidence.
‘What did you want to ask?’
‘Wel ,’ Scott said, ‘I want to ask when it would be convenient to col ect the piano.’
‘When would it be—’
‘I heard you!’ Tamsin shrieked.
There was a scuffle behind her. Amy appeared, holding out her hand for the phone.
‘How dare you,’ Tamsin said to Scott. ‘Have you got absolutely no sensitivity? How—’
‘Give me that!’ Amy said, trying to reach her phone. ‘What are you doing on my phone? I’d only gone to the loo. Give it—’
‘Take it,’ Tamsin said furiously. She flung it across the table, where it skidded to the far side and fel down beside the radiator. Amy darted after it.
‘Who is it?’
‘That man,’ Tamsin said between clenched teeth. ‘That man. From Newcastle—’
Amy was under the table. Tamsin bent down so that she could see her.
‘What’s he doing, ringing you? What’ve you been up to?’
Amy retrieved her phone and held it to her ear.
‘Hel o? Are you stil there?’
‘Are you OK?’ Scott said. ‘Is that Amy?’
‘I’m fine,’ Amy said. ‘I’m under the kitchen table.’
Tamsin straightened up. She thumped hard on the table above Amy’s head.
‘What was that?’ Scott said.
‘Don’t talk to him!’ Tamsin shouted. ‘Don’t have anything to do with him!’
Amy took the phone away from her ear. She shouted back, ‘We’re not al witches like you!’ and then she said to Scott, ‘Why are you ringing?’
‘Sorry if it’s not very tactful,’ Scott said, ‘but I was wondering when it’d be OK to col ect the piano.’
‘Have I rung at a bad time?’
‘It’s al pretty bad just now.’
‘Look, forget it. Sorry. Leave it. I’l ring another time. In a few weeks. It was just my mam—’ He stopped.
Amy watched Tamsin’s legs move very slowly towards the door.
Scott said, ‘Are you real y OK?’
‘Are you stil under the table?’
‘Look,’ Scott said, ‘I’l ring off now. You’ve got my number. You ring me when things have calmed down a bit.’
Amy said, clearly so that Tamsin could hear, ‘It’s your piano, you know.’
Tamsin’s legs stopped moving.
‘No hurry,’ Scott said. ‘I’l leave it to you. OK? You ring me when you can.’
‘Cheers,’ Amy said. She clicked the cal to end. Then she sat crouched and stil under the table.
Tamsin came back and bent down again.
‘What are you playing at, you disloyal little beast?’
‘Nothing,’ Amy said.
‘I heard you,’ Tamsin said, ‘I heard you. Talking to him al nice as pie. I heard you.’
‘He said to leave it. He said he didn’t mean to upset anyone. He said he’d leave it til we’re ready.’
‘We’l never be ready.’
‘We’ve got to be,’ Amy said. ‘We’ve got to, one day. It’s their piano.’
Tamsin straightened up again.
‘Come out of there.’
Amy crawled slowly out from under the table, and stood up. She was wearing a green sweatshirt and cut-off jeans, since her school did not require uniform in the sixth form.
‘You wait,’ Tamsin said. ‘You just wait until Mum hears about this.’
Amy raised her chin, just a little.
‘OK,’ she said.
Donna, having left Scott in bed that morning with what she felt was admirable sophistication, found that she couldn’t concentrate at work. It seemed that the price of being mature enough to leave a sleeping lover without a word of affection from him was that the maturity was only temporary, and the need to be reassured came back later, in double measure, as a result of being initial y repressed. So, after two hours of fiddling about pointlessly at her computer, Donna made a plausible excuse to her nearest col eague, and headed for what she hoped would be the reward for her early-morning restraint.
Scott shared a room at work with two others. The room was at the back of the building – only the senior partners’ and the boardroom looked out on the river – and they needed to have the lights on, even in summer, on account of the new building behind it being constructed so close that Scott and his col eagues could see if the people working across the way were playing games on their computers. They had been provided with blinds, heavy vertical panels of translucent plastic, but by tacit agreement the three of them found it more amusing to have the blinds at their widest setting, giving a clear view into the opposite office. In any case, there were some good-looking girls in the opposite office, and, for Scott’s gay col eague, Henry, there was a particular guy, who, Henry knew, just knew, was aware of being watched and liked it.
When Donna came into the office, it was empty. She had checked that both Henry and Adrian were at the Law Courts that morning, and she had reckoned on finding Scott alone. She had spent ten minutes in front of the mirror in the Ladies on her floor, and was planning to breeze in, kiss Scott’s cheek, wink, say something like, ‘Just fabulous,’ and then swing out again, leaving a seductive and tantalizing breath of Trésor on the air, which would drive him to seek her out later in the day and hint that she might like to cook him supper.
But Scott’s chair was empty. His jacket was not even on the back of it. But his screen was on, and his mobile – not one she recognized – was lying in the chaos of papers across his desk. There was also a tal takeaway cup – cold, when she touched it – and a half-eaten Snickers bar, the wrapper peeled roughly back like a banana skin. Donna sat down in his chair. The document on his screen showed a series of mathematical calculations, one column entirely in red, and was no doubt something to do with one of the VAT cases in which he was becoming something of a specialist. If Scott had taken his jacket, he’d gone to do more than have a pee, but if he hadn’t taken his phone then he hadn’t left the building.
Donna sighed. If he came back and found her in his chair, he would be able to assume the initiative in any future development between them, and that was absolutely not what Donna wanted. From past experience, Donna knew that, if Scott had the initiative, he just left it lying about without using it until it ran out of its vital initial energy, and simply expired. She lifted one leg and flexed her foot. What a waste of spending al morning in four-inch heels it might turn out to be.
On the desk in front of her, Scott’s phone beeped twice and jerked itself sideways. Donna leaned forward so that she could see the screen.
‘One message received’, the screen said.
Donna hesitated. She glanced at the doorway. Then she stretched her arm out and touched Select.
‘Amy’, said the message box.
Donna uncrossed her legs and sat straighter. She touched again.
‘Sorry about that,’ Amy had written.
Donna peered at the screen. That was al there was. ‘Sorry about that.’ No signing off, no x’s, no initial. She scrol ed down. Nothing but a mobile number and the time of the message. Sorry about what? Donna put the phone down. She stood up. She felt, abruptly, sick and angry and guilty. She also felt consumed by disappointment, waves of it, rol ing and crashing over her in just the way they had when Scott had told her that she was a fantastic fuck but that didn’t mean he loved her, because he didn’t.
She walked – with difficulty, her knees seeming to have locked rigid with shock – to the window. Ten feet and two windows away, a girl in a short skirt and knee boots was perched on the edge of a man’s desk, and he was leaning back in his chair with his fingers interlaced behind his head, and they clearly were not talking about the cost of insurance of cars with two-litre engines. Donna felt hot tears spring up and flood her eyes. She swal owed hard and tossed her hair back. No crying, she told herself. No crying and no softness over what her Irish father would have cal ed feckin’
‘Oh, hi,’ Scott said from the doorway.
Donna whirled round. He was in his suit, but looking slightly dishevel ed, and he had a plastic cup of water in each hand. Donna glared at him.
‘Who is Amy?’ she demanded.
‘Look,’ Scott said later, stretched on his sofa and replete with a Thai green curry Donna had made with real lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves purchased in her lunch hour, despite the four-inch heels. ‘Look. That was great, last night was great, but I am completely bushed and you’ve got to go now.’
Donna had kicked her shoes off. She had removed the jacket of her work suit and replaced it with a little wrap cardigan that tied meaningful y under her bosom, of which she was proud. She looked at the remaining wine in her glass.
‘I’m not suggesting a repeat of last night,’ Donna said.
Scott repressed a groan.
‘But it’s nice,’ Donna said, stil looking at the wine and not at Scott, ‘to have a bit of support at family times like this. Nice for you.’
Scott said nothing.
‘It’s a comfort,’ Donna said. ‘It’s a comfort not to be alone.’
Scott closed his eyes. Then he made a huge effort and swung himself upright. He looked directly at Donna.
‘I want to be alone,’ Scott said.
Donna regarded her wine in silence.
‘You’re right, it is a family time,’ Scott said. ‘But it’s my family and my difficulties, and you don’t know any of them.’
Donna let a smal pause fal , and then she said, ‘But I could.’
Scott stood up. His clothes were deeply rumpled.
Donna leaned forward very slowly and put her wine glass down among the dirty plates on the coffee table.
She said, ‘I thought you said Amy was just your kid half-sister.’
‘Who you’ve seen but never spoken to except on the phone.’
‘Then why are you making such a big deal about this piano and Amy and everyone? Why do you have to do anything about her or anyone else, except your mother? Why don’t you want me to help you?
‘Because,’ Scott said, looking down at her, ‘it’s none of your business.’
‘Thank you!’ Donna cried. She waved wildly at the curry plates. ‘After al I’ve—’
‘I didn’t ask you to!’ Scott shouted. ‘I didn’t ask you to snoop round my office and check my phone! I didn’t ask you to be a shoulder to cry on because I don’t want one, I don’t need one, I never have, my family is my business and always has been and I’l deal with it my way and on my own as I always have!’
Donna leaned out of her chair and found her shoes. She put them on and stood up, with difficulty.
She said, ‘I think it’s disgusting, getting fixated on an eighteen-year-old, especial y if she’s your half-sister.’
‘I’m not fixated,’ Scott said, ‘I’m just trying to get this bloody piano to Newcastle. And before you start spreading the news that I’m some sort of perv, let me tel you something, something that’s none of your bloody business, but I’l tel you to stop you making mucky trouble. When my father left, Donna, there was no one to comfort me. Yes, there was my mother but she was in her own bad place and, anyway, she wasn’t a child like me, his child, I was on my own there. And al I’m trying to do now, Donna, is to help Amy a bit because I know what it’s like. I’m trying to do for her just a little of what no one did for me. OK? Get it?’
Donna turned to look at him. Her eyes were huge.
‘I just love it,’ she said softly, ‘when you play the piano.’
Scott closed his eyes. He clenched his fists. He heard Donna’s heels approaching, not quite steadily, across the wooden floor, and then felt her wine- and food-scented lips on his cheek for what was plainly intended to be a significant number of seconds. Then the lips were removed, and the heels tapped unevenly away across the floor, paused to open the door, tapped outside and let the door bang behind them. Scott let out a long, noisy breath and opened his eyes. Then he fel back on to the sofa and lay there, gazing at the girders of the ceiling and resolutely refusing to let his brain change out of neutral. His phone beeped. He picked it up and eyed the inbox warily. Donna. She could hardly have left the building.
‘Grow up Scottie. U R 37 not 7. Little girls not the answer.’
He deleted the message and struggled to sit up. The mess on the table revolted him, the mess of the last twenty-four hours revolted him, the mess he stil seemed bril iant at getting himself into revolted him beyond anything. He looked at his phone again and retrieved Amy’s message.
She’d said once that she played the flute. Scott got up and went to the window and looked at his view, glittering under a night sky. He stared out into the darkness, at the lines of light the cars made, at the dramatic glow of the Tyne Bridge. There was something very – wel , clean was the word that came to mind, about picturing his half-sister – yes, she was his half-sister – with her hair down her back, playing her flute. He closed his eyes again, and rested his mind on this mental image, with relief.
‘I think,’ Chrissie said, ‘that we need to talk.’
She closed Amy’s bedroom door behind her. Amy was on her bed, propped up against the headboard, with her flute in her hands. She hadn’t been playing anything in particular, just fiddling about with a few pop tunes, but it had been absorbing enough to prevent her from hearing Chrissie coming up the stairs, and when the handle of the door turned she’d given a little jump, and her flute had knocked against her teeth.
‘Ow,’ Amy said, rubbing.
Chrissie took no notice. She turned Amy’s desk chair round so that it was facing the bed, and sat down in it. She was wearing camel-coloured trousers and a camel-coloured sweater and a rope of pearls. She looked extremely considered and absolutely exhausted.
‘Now,’ Chrissie said, ‘what is going on?’
Amy polished her flute on her T-shirt sleeve.
Chrissie looked up at the skylight.
‘Tamsin tel s me you spoke to Scott about moving the piano to Newcastle.’
‘Sort of,’ Amy said.
‘He rang you.’
‘Yes,’ Amy said.
‘How,’ Chrissie said, ‘did he know your number?’
Amy put the flute down beside her, and laid her hands flat on the duvet. She looked directly at Chrissie.
‘Because I rang him once.’
‘And why did you do that?’
Amy thought for a moment. She was conscious of a dangerous energy beginning to surge up inside her, an energy compounded of apprehension at Chrissie’s imminent anger and distress, and excitement at defending her own position.
She said slowly, ‘It was an impulse.’
‘Inspired by what?’
‘Newcastle,’ Amy said truthful y.
‘I Googled it.’ She got off the bed and reached up to slide the envelope from behind the Duffy poster. ‘And I also found this.’
Chrissie took the envelope and opened it. Amy watched her. Chrissie glanced at the photograph, and then held it and the envelope out to Amy.
‘Please put that away.’
‘It’s Dad!’ Amy said.
‘I know it’s Dad.’
‘Look,’ Chrissie said, suddenly agitated. ‘Look. I know he came from Newcastle. I know he was born on North Tyneside. I know his parents struggled for money and his mother adored him. I know al that. But I can’t bear to know it. After everything that’s happened, after everything he’s done and we’ve discovered, al his life in the North, al his loyalties in the North just seem like a betrayal to me. Perhaps you can’t feel it because he never let you down, but, Amy, having you talk to that man, having you making plans with that man, and without tel ing me, just makes me feel worse, it makes me feel that I can’t trust you, that you’re taking sides with people whose existence has made my life so difficult for so long and stopped me having what I real y wanted, what I should have had, I should, I should.’
Amy sat down on the edge of the bed and held the photograph between her hands.
‘I wasn’t making plans.’
‘But you were, about the piano, Tamsin—’
‘Tamsin answered my phone,’ Amy said. ‘I was in the loo, and she answered my phone.’
Chrissie began to wind her pearls in and out of her fingers.
‘Did you hear a word I’ve just said?’
‘Do you have any idea of what I’ve been through?’
Amy looked up.
‘Then how can you? How can you talk to that man about the piano behind my back?’
‘He’s not that man,’ Amy said, ‘he’s Dad’s son. He’s our half-brother.’
‘Don’t you care at all?’
‘You said that already.’
‘Mum,’ Amy said, suddenly al owing the dangerous energy to spurt out like hot liquid, ‘Mum, it’s not al about you, it’s not al about Tam or Dil y, or me, either, it’s about other people too, who never did you any harm except by existing, which they couldn’t help, and who didn’t ask for the piano or expect the piano, they just politely wondered when it would suit you to have them arrange for it to go. Don’t take your anger at Dad out on them, it isn’t fair, it isn’t OK, it isn’t like you.’
Amy slid the photograph back into the envelope.
‘How dare you,’ Chrissie said. ‘How dare you speak to me like that?’
Amy’s head drooped. She felt the energy drain away and be replaced by a tremendous desire to cry. She put the back of her hand up against her mouth and pressed. She was not going to cry in front of her mother.
Chrissie stood up.
‘I want you to think about what I’ve just said to you. I want you to think about family loyalty. I want you to use your emotional intel igence and feel the shock this has al been.’
She moved to the door and put her hand on the knob.
Amy nodded. Chrissie turned the doorknob and went out into the little landing outside, not closing the door behind her. Amy waited a few moments and then she tipped backwards on to her bed, and rol ed towards the wal , her knees drawn up, the photograph in its envelope held against her chest. Only then, as quietly as she could, did she al ow herself to cry.
Bernie Harrison liked quality in a restaurant. He liked stiff white tablecloths, and heavy cutlery and his fish to be fileted with a flourish at the table, and presented to him complete with a half-lemon neatly wrapped in muslin. He liked carpets, and thick curtains, and properly dressed waiters who said things like ‘Mr Harrison, Chef has some guinea fowl he’d very much like to offer you today.’ Booking a table at his favourite restaurant in the centre of the city, he specified a particular table for two, and was not in the least pleased to be told that that table had already been reserved.
‘Then unreserve it,’ Bernie said to the young woman – Dutch? Scandinavian? Eastern European? – on the other end of the line.
‘I’m afraid I can’t do that, Mr Harrison.’
Bernie glared ahead of him. He usual y had his personal assistant telephone restaurants for him, but he found he did not particularly want Moira to know that he was giving Margaret Rossiter dinner. Moira had been the late Mrs Harrison’s choice of assistant for Bernie – personable without being seductive, middle-aged and capable, with enough of her own family and life to prevent her from becoming needy – and she had been silently but eloquently intolerant of Bernie’s entertaining any woman alone since his wife’s death five years before. Admittedly, Bernie’s taste, in the immediate aftermath of Renée’s death, had run to the extremely obvious, but Margaret Rossiter was of the calibre of lady dinner companion that Moira considered to have the potential to be a real threat. Margaret Rossiter would be a catch, even for a man like Bernie.
‘I’ve eaten at La Réserve, young lady,’ Bernie said, ‘since before you were born. I want table six, in the alcove, and a bottle of Laurent-Perrier on ice, by eight o’clock tomorrow night, and no more bloody nonsense. If you please.’
Then he put the phone down. Stupid girl. Not only did he want to give Margaret Rossiter a good time, he wanted her to see that he was a man of consequence who was acknowledged as such, in places where you paid London prices. He put his hands flat either side of his head and smoothed his thick iron-grey hair back. Renée had hated to see him do that. Touching your hair in public, she said, was common.
Margaret had reacted to his invitation to dinner without surprise.
‘Wel , that’s nice of you, Bernie, but what are you after?’
‘Your company, my dear.’
‘I don’t like flattery, Bernie.’
He beamed into the telephone.
‘I’l come clean. We’ve done a few good deals just now, and I’l admit I couldn’t have got the Sage gig without you. I think you’ve had a rough time just recently with Richie going and al that upset. We get along fine and I’d like to buy you dinner.’
‘Thank you, Bernie.’
‘I’l send a car for you.’
‘You won’t,’ Margaret said. ‘There’s a perfectly good taxi service in Tynemouth.’
‘If you insist.’
Bernie beamed again.
Renée Harrison had not cared for Margaret Rossiter. Renée had been much better-looking than Margaret, much better-groomed, with a more sophisticated taste in food and friends and travel. She had also come from a professional family in Harrogate, and she preferred not to remember that Margaret and Bernie had been at King Edward School in North Shields together, in Miss Grey’s class, and that Bernie’s father had been a fisherman and Bernie’s mother had worked in Welch’s sweet factory. This unease was confounded by Bernie’s chosen career, which, although it paid for the house in Gosforth and the cruises and the golf membership and the wardrobes of superior clothes, was not one that Renée would have chosen, even if she did occasional y get to shake the hand of the likes of Dame Shirley Bassey. To al but her most intimate and trustworthy friends, Renée had referred to Bernie as an impresario.
There had been times when Bernie had believed her. He had produced the odd thing, after al , the odd one-off, showy thing, and he had been an angel a few times for friends with favours to cal in, who were taking a bit of a risk on a rising unknown, or a rival, or a comeback star. But mostly he knew he was an agent, a hugely successful, extremely hard-headed agent, with an unrival ed spread of contacts and a greater range of artists on his books than anyone else in the North-East. He was, professional y, in a different league from Margaret Rossiter, and the fact that she not only didn’t seem to care but also declined to acknowledge the difference was both an irritation and a chal enge. He looked forward to their dinner. She was, after al , official y a widow now and that new state of affairs must – surely it must – create in her just a little of that attractive vulnerability which was both to his taste and to his purpose.
Dawson had roused himself from his slumber along the back of the sofa to inspect Margaret briefly before she went out.
She stood in the doorway of the sitting room and said to him, ‘Wil I do?’
‘Scott would say lilac was a Queen Mother colour,’ Margaret said.
‘I won’t be late,’ Margaret said. ‘I’ve got my pearls on, so there’s nothing to pinch, except you, and nobody but me would want you.’
Dawson shut his eyes again. Margaret switched off al the lights but one lamp and let herself out of the front door. The taxi driver, she noted, did not get out of his cab and open the door for her. He looked no more than twenty. He had the radio on at ful volume. Footbal commentary.
‘Passenger on board,’ Margaret said loudly.
He glanced at her in his rear-view mirror.
‘I’m here,’ Margaret said. ‘I’m in the car. You have resumed work.’
He turned the volume down a very little.
‘We’re playing at home!’ he said, as if that justified everything.
‘And we’d better win,’ Margaret said. ‘I don’t want us slipping back to the second division. You won’t remember it, but in the early 1990s, we were nowhere. I remember the Gal owgate end at St James’ Park almost empty. Now turn that off, and concentrate on driving me.’
He glanced at her again. His gaze was startled. Then reluctantly he turned the radio off and pul ed away from the kerb.
‘You remind me,’ he said conversational y, ‘of my nan.’
‘The taxi driver,’ Margaret said, a bit later, to Bernie Harrison, settled in the alcove table with a glass of Laurent-Perrier in front of her, and a napkin across her knees as stiff with starch as if it had been plasticized, ‘told me I reminded him of his grandmother.’
Bernie raised his glass.
‘Did you tel him to turn his radio off?’
‘Certainly I did.’
‘Wel ,’ Bernie said, ‘you’l be a grandmother one day. More than I’l ever be.’
Margaret gave him a quick glance. Renée Harrison had never looked like a childbearing woman, but then you could never tel , you could never dismiss a childless woman as not having wanted children. And Bernie had wanted them al right; Bernie hadn’t wanted to put another child through a single childhood like his own.
‘You’d have made a wonderful father.’
‘I would. I envy you that boy.’
A waiter put a huge, plum-coloured, tassel ed menu into Margaret’s hands.
‘That boy,’ she said, ‘wil be thirty-eight on his next birthday. Thirty-eight. No wife, no children, not even a girlfriend at the moment. And don’t say there’s plenty of time yet, because there isn’t. He’s getting set in his ways and they’re not good ways.’
Bernie indicated something to the waiter from the wine list.
‘A Pouil y-Fumé, Margaret?’
She looked up from the menu.
‘I haven’t had that for years—’
‘Then you shal have it tonight.’
She looked round.
‘I haven’t been anywhere like this for years, either.’
‘Traditional French,’ Bernie said with satisfaction. ‘Plenty of cream and butter. None of this fusion and foam twaddle. I recommend the fish.’
‘The sole,’ Margaret said. She put the menu down. ‘I can say this to you, Bernie, because I’ve known you almost as long as I’ve known myself, but Scott worries me.’
Bernie indicated that she should drink her champagne.
‘In what way?’
‘Wel ,’ Margaret said, ‘he’s aimless. He’s drifting about when he’s not at work, his flat looks as if it belongs to a student and he doesn’t seem to know where he’s going. He’s too old not to know where he’s going.’
‘We’l start with the coquilles Saint-Jacques,’ Bernie said to the waiter, ‘and then the lady wil have the sole and I’l have the turbot. You’l take the sole off the bone.’ He held his menu out, and then he said to Margaret, ‘Vegetables? I never do.’
‘Spinach,’ she said. ‘Spinach, please. Just steamed.’
‘Drink up,’ Bernie said, ‘drink up. Plenty of young men nowadays are like Scott. I see it al the time. One good thing about the music industry is that they don’t differentiate between work and play, they just live music al the time.’
Margaret drank some champagne.
‘His work I’m not worried about. He does his work. It’s the rest of his life that bothers me. He doesn’t have a focus.’
Bernie put his glass down and looked at her.
‘Do I what?’
‘Do you have a focus?’
‘Wel ,’ Margaret said, ‘I have a structure—’
‘We al have that.’
‘I have my work and my home and my son—’
‘But to be honest with you, Bernie,’ Margaret said, putting her own glass down firmly, ‘I’ve felt a bit adrift since Richie went, I’ve felt that I’ve lost a dimension somehow, that some kind of power supply’s been shut off.’
‘Ah,’ Bernie said.
‘Wel , I wondered.’
Margaret folded her hands in the space between the paral el lines of the cutlery.
‘And what did you wonder?’
‘I wondered,’ Bernie said, leaning forward and laying one heavy hand on the cloth not very far away from Margaret’s folded ones, ‘I wondered how his death had affected you.’
‘What did you feel after Renée?’
He smiled down at the tablecloth.
‘Devastated and liberated.’
‘Wel , there you are,’ Margaret said, ‘and add to that the sense that you’ve got nothing to prove any more, so the savour goes out of a lot of it. I’m not a bravely achieving abandoned woman any more, I’m just a working widow, and I don’t, if I’m honest, feel the same energy. I’m doing as much, but I’m driving myself. I can’t quite remember what it’s al for. And when I look at him, I wonder if Scott—’
‘I don’t want to talk about Scott,’ Bernie said. ‘I want to talk about us.’
Margaret drew herself up.
‘No sentimental nonsense, please, Bernie.’
‘Wouldn’t dream of it.’
Margaret gave a mild snort.
‘You were a pest when you were nine and you have every potential to be a bigger pest now. You and Eric Garnside and Ray Venterman—’ She paused. Better not to bring up Richie’s name.
‘Both dead,’ Bernie said.
‘We were different ends of the school,’ Margaret said, as if he hadn’t spoken. ‘Boys and girls. And you boys lay in wait for us after school, you and Doug Bainbridge—’
‘I want to talk business,’ Bernie said.
Two huge white plates bearing scal op shel s topped with potato purée piped in intricate squiggles were put simultaneously in front of them.
‘Business?’ Margaret said.
‘Yes,’ Bernie said.
He indicated that a waiter should pour the wine, and picked up his immense napkin prior to tucking it in over his expensive silk tie. Then, unbidden, an image of Renée rose in his mind. She was wearing black and diamonds and her hair was newly done. She said sharply, ‘Don’t behave like a lout, Bernard.’ Bernie lowered his napkin again to his knees.
‘You can wear it on your head, for al I care,’ Margaret said.
He smiled at her. There was an element in her that was entirely unchanged from the lippy nine-year-old in Miss Grey’s class in King Edward School.
‘Margaret,’ he said, ‘listen careful y. I have a very attractive proposition for you.’
They were al sitting, at Chrissie’s request, round the kitchen table. She had opened a bottle of wine but nobody except her was drinking it. Dil y and Tamsin had bottles of mineral water with sports caps in front of them and Amy was drinking Diet Coke out of the can in a way Chrissie deplored.
‘Please get a glass, Amy.’
‘I’ve nearly finished it—’
Chrissie said again, very slowly, ‘Please get a glass when I ask you to.’
Amy got up and lounged across the kitchen towards the relevant cupboard. Chrissie watched her, and her sisters regarded their water bottles.
Amy drifted back with a glass in her hand and set it on the table. She upended the can and a few drops of dark brown liquid fel into the tumbler.
‘Sit down, please,’ Chrissie said. Her voice was not quite steady.
Tamsin glanced at her.
‘It’s OK, Mum.’ She looked at Amy. ‘Do not be such a pain.’
Amy sat down, and drained her tumbler.
Dil y said, ‘I hope you aren’t going to tel us something else horrible.’
Chrissie looked down at the pile of papers in front of her.
‘I want a discussion. A family discussion. To help me come to a few decisions.’
Tamsin arranged herself to look alert and businesslike.
‘Is it about money?’
‘Basical y,’ Chrissie said, ‘yes.’
Dil y said, ‘You mean there isn’t any.’
‘No,’ Chrissie said deliberately. ‘No. There is some. But not as much as there was. Not as much as we’re used to having. We are al going to have to think differently about money.’
Nobody said anything.
‘We lived, you see,’ Chrissie said, ‘on Dad’s performing. Because I managed him, there was no percentage payable to anyone else, but he was the only person I managed. I do not, you see, have other performers to fal back on. There was only Dad.’
They were al looking at her.
‘And,’ Chrissie went on, her eyes fixed on a spot on the tabletop beyond her papers, ‘Dad was not making the money he had made in the past, when – when he died. He was always in work, I saw to that, but his CD sales had declined and been subject to the inevitable piracy, and his appearances didn’t – wel , he didn’t command the highest fees any more, in fact he hadn’t made very much at al in the last few years, which is why I was urging him to take everything that was offered, everything I could find, and of course now I feel very bad about that, and I worry that I was driving him too hard and, even though I’m so upset about what he did with his wil , I can’t get it out of my mind that I might have somehow—’ She stopped, with a little gasp, and put her hand over her eyes.
Dil y took hold of her other forearm, stil lying on the table.
‘You didn’t do anything wrong, Mum. He’d got a family to support.’
‘He loved performing,’ Tamsin said. ‘Never happier.’
‘He didn’t love it like he used to,’ Chrissie said, stil not looking up. ‘He wanted, real y, just to have fun, sort of – sort of talk to it. I think he’d rather have talked to the piano than to anyone, I think that was the language that real y suited him.’
Amy knocked her Coke can against the glass to make a point of extracting the last drops.
‘Wel ,’ she said, ‘the piano was what he grew up with. Wasn’t it? The piano was what he played al the time he was a teenager. It was a kind of friend. He’d had it al his life. Hadn’t he?’
Tamsin glared at her sister.
‘Thank you for that, Amy.’
Amy looked up.
‘That the piano was part of his life from when he was little and al through his life til Mum met him and you can’t pretend that bit of his life didn’t exist because it did and it mattered to him.’
Dil y looked at Chrissie.
‘Mum. Tel her where to get off.’
Chrissie was stil looking at the tabletop. She said, ‘I’m not sure why Amy wants to be hurtful but as she does seem to want to be, I am, for the moment, ignoring her until she can behave with more sensitivity. But Dad’s past is not what we are talking about now. What we are talking about now is that without Dad here to perform we are virtual y without an income.’
Dil y leaned forward.
‘Let’s just sel the piano!’
Chrissie shot Amy a ferocious silencing glance, and then she said, ‘Don’t be sil y. It isn’t ours to sel .’
Tamsin looked round the kitchen with an appraising and professional eye.
‘It’s not a good time for the housing market, of course, but we could sel this. A good family house in this postcode would always—’
‘Where would we live?’ Amy said, her eyes wide.
‘In a flat, maybe—’
‘I don’t want to go to a different school—’
‘You won’t be going to any school after the summer, you dork. You’l have finished with school—’
‘That,’ Chrissie said, ‘was the conclusion I had come to. That we must face sel ing this house.’
Nobody said anything.
‘Yes,’ Chrissie said, ‘we must sel the house and I must find work. I have already approached several agencies.’
They looked at her.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I have approached a few agencies asking if, given my contacts, they would consider taking me on to represent people on their books who maybe they don’t have time for.’
Dil y said, ‘You mean you’d manage other people.’
‘But you can’t—’
‘I have to,’ Chrissie said. ‘What else do you suggest?’
Tamsin took a neat swal ow of her water.
‘I’m sure I could negotiate a good sel ing commission—’
‘Thank you, darling.’
‘And as,’ Tamsin said deliberately, ‘I shal probably be moving out soon to live with Robbie, you won’t need more than a three-bedroom flat. Wil you?’
Chrissie gave a little gasp.
‘Mum,’ Tamsin said, ‘I did warn you, I warned you just after Dad—’
Chrissie held a hand up.
Dil y said, shooting a glance at Amy, ‘I’m not sharing a room with her.’
‘Dil y,’ Chrissie said, ‘I would so like this conversation to be about what we can contribute, and accommodate ourselves to, and not about what we refuse to do.’
Dil y put her chin up.
‘I’l have finished my course this summer. I can get a job then. Soon it’l only be Amy you have to worry about.’
They al turned to look at Amy. She had pushed the ring pul off her drinks can down on to her finger, and was now trying to work it off again, over her knuckle. She flicked a look at her mother.
‘If I’m here,’ she said.
Alone in her bedroom, Chrissie lay with the curtains pul ed, and her eyes shut. Even with the door closed, she thought she could hear the faint strains of Amy’s flute, and the rise and fal of Dil y’s voice on the telephone. Tamsin, she knew, had gone back to work, with the brisk step of someone with a place to go to, and a purpose to fulfil. Tamsin might be acting as if she was an equity partner in the estate agency, rather than its lowliest and least professional y defined employee, but at this alarming and dispiriting moment Chrissie felt nothing but gratitude for her show of resolution.
Dil y, Chrissie told herself, was plainly frightened. Doted on by her father for her blondeness and her dependency, she could not now be expected to cope at once with a life without that reliable cushion of indulgence to buffer her frequent inability to face things or endure things. Chrissie had noticed that Dil y’s room, always as orderly as her reactions were chaotic, was ferociously neat just now, as if the confusion and uncertainty created by Richie’s death could only be endured by exercising a meticulous control of areas where Dil y felt she had power, in the polished regiments of bottles and jars on her speckless make-up shelves, and the precise piles of fastidiously folded clothes and the paired-up shoes in her cupboards.
Chrissie felt a need, a wish, to forgive Dil y her distinct unhelpfulness in planning their future. Dil y was the one who looked most like her. Dil y was the one who, for al her talents in various specific areas, had the fewest obvious intel ectual gifts. Dil y was the one who, by tacit agreement between her parents, had always needed the most protection and the least demands made. ‘Decorative and daft,’ Richie said, both of her and to her, holding her chin in his hand, kissing the end of her nose. It was to be hoped, Chrissie thought now, lying in the centre of the great bed (only four pil ows now – she had tried just two, and they had looked not just forlorn but somehow defeated), that Craig was sufficiently drawn to Dil y’s looks and girlishness not to become bored and take his own good looks on to try their languid luck somewhere else. Craig’s appearance at Richie’s funeral had been one of the few bright moments in that dark day.
As, it had to be admitted, had Tamsin’s Robbie’s sturdy support been. Robbie was not what Chrissie – and, she secretly suspected, Tamsin –
would cal exciting. Robbie was solid in both person and personality; he was capable and competent, and if in conversation presented with a concept rather than a fact, looked distinctly alarmed. He worked for a removals company, being the man in a suit who went round to assess the nature and quantity of goods to be packed, so specialized in a soothing manner and a steady, uneventful speaking voice. He plainly found Tamsin fascinating. When they lived together – Chrissie found herself tearful at the prospect, although only days before Richie’s death, she had been contemplating the possibility with a satisfaction close to relief – Robbie would quietly take on al the heavier domestic chores as only appropriate to a man sharing his life with a woman. There would, in Robbie’s mind, be areas of their life together where he would never dream of trespassing, just as there would be roles he would assume as natural to his gender and everything that implied. That Tamsin might become exasperated by this ponderous respectfulness was something Chrissie had once mischievously imagined, but which she now rejected out of hand. In their present circumstances, Robbie looked set to become the man in Chrissie’s life as wel as in Tamsin’s, who could be relied upon in al domestic crises, large and smal . Robbie represented, to her surprise, a patch of solid ground in al the current marshes and quicksands, where she could set her foot. She bit her lip. How absurd, how ridiculous, how evident of her present state of mind that the thought of Robbie, in his high-street suit with his clipboard and his impassive voice, should bring tears to her eyes.
As Amy did. Only, the tears that Amy caused were angry and hot and painful. Amy had succeeded in wrong-footing Chrissie in every way, in provoking in her mother al the unworthy demons of jealousy and self-pity and mistrust. Amy was dealing with her father’s death by imagining him, Chrissie supposed, when he was deathless, when he had been as young as she was now, a teenager on Tyneside with a singing voice and an aptitude for the piano, in a community whose focus was entirely taken up by life in the shipyards and on the herring drifters. And in imagining her father as a boy, as a young man, Amy’s imagination had also latched on to that other young man, on to Richie’s son, who looked, albeit in a weaker version, so disturbingly like his father, and presumably sounded like him too, the Richie whom she, Chrissie, had first gone round to see at the stage door of the Theatre Royal in Newcastle to tel him that she not only thought his performance wonderful but that she was sure there were hundreds of thousands of women in the South of England who would think so too.
Perhaps, Chrissie thought, opening her eyes, and straining her gaze up towards the shadowy ceiling, perhaps that is al Amy is doing. Perhaps she is just trying to recapture her father through that – that man. Perhaps she is trying to bring her father back by hiding his baby picture, by going on about Newcastle, by playing, over and over, al the pieces they played together. Perhaps she doesn’t have the faintest idea how much pain she is inflicting, how disloyal and cal ous she seems. Or perhaps I – Chrissie felt the tears start again, spil ing in a warm stream out of the sides of her eyes and down her face into her hair – perhaps I am the one in the wrong; I am the one too insecure and jealous and vengeful to let her seek solace in a way that suits her but is so painful for me.
Chrissie rol ed on to her side, careless of her clothes in a way that Richie, she thought now angrily, would have probably rejoiced to see. She could picture herself at that stage door, dressed like a pretty urban hippy, in 1983, pink suede boots and a floating print frock and her hair in long curls caught up with a slide decorated with a dragonfly. He’d looked at her as if she’d been offered to him on a plate, the perfect little pudding complete with a silver spoon. He’d said, ‘I’ve never sung south of Birmingham, pet,’ and then he’d laughed and she’d looked at his teeth and his skin and his thick hair and she’d thought, ‘I don’t care if he’s over forty, he’s gorgeous,’ and two weeks later he’d taken her to bed in a hotel with brocade curtains and fringed lampshades and they’d drunk champagne in a shared bath later and he’d told her he didn’t make a habit of this, that he was a family man, but, by heck, she was worth making an exception for. And on the train back to London, a heart pendant from Richie on a chain round her neck, she’d told herself that she’d found a man and a cause, a lover and a life’s work. She would bring him south, she would marry him, she would make him a Southern star.
On the table at her side of the bed, the phone began to ring. She waited for a moment, waited for Amy or Dil y to stop what they were doing and pounce on it, but they didn’t. She rol ed back across the bed and picked up the handset.
‘Wel ,’ Sue said, the other end, ‘I don’t like the sound of you. What are you doing?’
Chrissie swal owed.
‘Lying on my bed and remembering—’
‘And snivel ing.’
‘Remembering when he was hot and you were hotter and the future was bright with promise?’
‘Right,’ said Sue. ‘Stop right now.’
Chrissie gave a shaky little laugh.
‘You be thankful,’ Sue said, ‘that you didn’t get lumbered with a decrepit old granddad to nurse. When men stop being hot, nobody looks colder.’
Chrissie struggled to sit up.
‘You’re a good friend.’
‘So, what’s happening?’
‘Today,’ Chrissie said, ‘a very unsatisfactory family conversation about the future.’
‘Nobody seems to care much about what I do or what happens to me because they al have plans for their own futures.’
‘Surely you exaggerate—’
‘Only a bit.’
‘OK,’ Sue said, ‘come right round here, and we’l discuss your future and drink green apple Martinis.’
‘I have no idea either,’ Sue said, ‘but they’ve just been demonstrated on the tel y. That il egal y gorgeous Nigel a woman. Get off that bed and get in your car.’
‘Thank you,’ Chrissie said fervently.
‘If nothing else,’ Sue said, ‘my children wil make you feel real y grateful for yours.’
Chrissie put the phone down and swung her legs off the bed. A tiny movement by the bedroom door caught her eye, the door handle turning fractional y and silently. Then it was stil , and the sound of light, quick feet went down the landing.
‘Amy?’ Chrissie cal ed.
There was no reply. Chrissie went over to the door and opened it. There was no one there, but the air on the landing had an unmistakably disturbed quality. Chrissie listened. No sound. No flute, no voice on the telephone. She shut the door again, very careful y, and turned on al her bedroom lights. Then she went into her bathroom and turned on al the lights there too. She looked at herself steadily in the mirror. Maybe Sue had something. Maybe whatever had propel ed her twenty-three-year-old self round to the stage door of the Theatre Royal in Newcastle in 1983 was stil in there somewhere, under al the layers superimposed by the years, by the children, by Richie.
She leaned forward and inspected herself closely.
‘Go, girlfriend,’ Sue would say.
Amy should have been in school. Her school, named for the American educator Wiliam Elery Channing, and founded in 1885, was tolerant of the relaxed rules for the sixth form, but, al the same, Amy should have been in a Spanish literature class, and not in a tea shop in Highgate vil age, just up the hil from her school, sitting under a chandelier composed of glass cups and saucers, and eating a slice of home-made carrot cake with her cappuccino. On the table in front of her, as wel as the cake and the coffee, was a copy of Lorca’s Poeta en Nueva York, published posthumously, after he had been kil ed by the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War at the age of thirty-eight. The young man, newly graduated and teaching Amy’s A level Spanish literature class, had told her to forget poetic comparisons between Lorca and John Keats, both dead before they were forty.
‘You don’t,’ he said, ‘want to fal into cliché. Do you?’ Amy had been offended. Out of her whole family, she was, in her own view, the least clichéd by a mil ion miles. Her father had liked that quality in her, had urged her to believe in her difference, in her independence of thought, had encouraged her to play the flute rather than the piano or the guitar, as soon as her teeth and jaw were strong enough, and to use the flute to play whatever she wanted on it. She had, by the same token, chosen to concentrate on Lorca’s poetry, not his plays, and she wasn’t going to be told by some big-head Cambridge graduate that her ideas about Lorca were banal merely because someone else might have thought of them before.
‘If the idea’s new to me,’ Amy had said to Mr Ferguson, ‘then it’s new. OK?’
She had stalked out of the classroom, and now she was sitting in the tea shop, with Lorca’s poems in front of her, and the local paper in one hand and the cake in the other. The local paper was folded to the smal -ads page.
‘Lindy Hop, swing dancing,’ said the ad which had caught her eye. ‘Beginners 6–7 p.m. Improvers 7–8 p.m. £1. Movers and Shakers Studio, Highgate Road.’
Below it was an ad from the South Place Ethical Society, a talk: ‘British Democracy Works’. Then, below that, the Heath and Hampstead Society, a walk, ‘Flora of the Heath’, led by Sir Roland Philpott, tickets £2. And below that again, an ad for an active meditation drop-in, at Primrose Hil Community Centre, once a week on Thursday evenings.
If you didn’t have a life, Amy thought, if you didn’t have school and work and friends and a family, you could stil fil your days with stuff, you could stil put things in your diary, you could stil tel yourself that there was a reason not just to stay in bed with your head under the duvet, breathing your own bedfug and wondering if you’d just vanished, just got rubbed out like a mistake made in pencil.
She put the paper down and picked up her coffee cup. It was very pretty, decorated with posies of flowers linked by ribbons. So it ought to be, at that price. Tamsin had lectured Amy on extravagance at breakfast, had told her that she couldn’t just waltz around letting money leak out of her pockets like she used to. That the least they could do for Chrissie was not to worry her about money. That it was perfectly possible to hand-wash most stuff, not take it to the dry-cleaner’s. The effect of this lecture had been to send Amy upstairs to put on her only cashmere jersey (a present from Richie), and to find the nicest, least economical place in Highgate to spend the hour when Mr Ferguson would be expounding on Lorca to Chloë and Yasmin and the others who were doing A level Spanish and who – pathetical y, in Amy’s view – thought he was wonderful.
In any case, being out of the house and alone gave her space to think, a space less encumbered by longing, as she so often did in her own bedroom, to go downstairs as she used to and find her father at the piano, absorbed but never too absorbed to say, ‘That you, pet? Come on in.
Come in, and listen to this.’ He’d let al of them interrupt him, always, but the others didn’t want to join in the music quite the way that Amy did.
Tamsin loved being accompanied while she sang – there was a family video film of her singing ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking’ to an enthusiastic audience at her seventh birthday party – but neither she nor Dil y liked, as Amy did, to slip on to the edge of the piano stool beside him, and watch what he did with his hands, where he put his fingers on the notes, how lightly or heavily he touched them, how his feet on the pedals seemed to know exactly what to do by instinct. His hands had been beautiful y kept – ‘Pianist’s hands,’ he’d say – long-fingered and broad in the palm, with knuckles so flexible they felt almost rubbery when she kneaded them, as he let her do.
For her part, she thought, scooping the last of the foam out of the bottom of her coffee cup with her forefinger – ‘Use your spoon,’ she could hear Chrissie saying – she would like the piano out of the house as soon as possible. It was increasingly awful having it there, like some sad old dog who doesn’t understand that its master is never coming home again. It would be easier, Amy was sure, when it wasn’t sitting there, closed and unplayed, a constant and haunting reminder of what had been, and wasn’t any more, and never, ever would be again. Quite apart from the fact that it ought to be in Newcastle now because that was what Dad had asked for, it simply ought not to be sitting mournful y in his practice room, making them al feel terrible every time they passed the open door – about one hundred times a day, by Amy’s calculation.
She looked at her Lorca, and sighed. The piano was only one thing that was putting her at cross purposes with her family just now, that was making her behave in a way that she was ashamed of, like listening at Chrissie’s bedroom door and hearing her tel Sue that her three daughters were too selfishly concerned with their own futures in these new, unwanted circumstances to concern themselves with hers. Hearing her say that had made Amy feel more frustrated than furious, more despairing of Chrissie’s inability to see what seemed to Amy both transparently clear and manifestly right and fair. It was no good, Amy thought, no good, blaming the people in Dad’s previous life, or Dad for having had a previous life, for the utter, angry misery and shock of finding yourself facing the future without him.
Amy knew that Chrissie thought her being interested in the Newcastle family was Amy’s way of somehow bringing her father back to life, or cheating his deadness by finding intimate connections of his who were stil very much alive. But Amy, overwhelmed with grief as she was at some point in every day stil , had no il usions about how dead Richie was. Rather, what she had discovered – to her amazement – since his death was how alive she was, not just in straightforward, physical, physiological ways, but in terms of the richness and diversity of her heritage, which gave her the sense that she had more dimensions than she had ever imagined. She was Amy, living with her family in North London, with a considerable talent for the flute, and an agile (her mother would say frequently perverse) mind, and she was now also Amy with this al uring and almost exotic North-Eastern legacy, this background of hil s and sea and ships and fish, this weird and wonderful dialect, this intense sense of place and community, which had produced a boy as shaped by but as simultaneously alien to that background as she felt herself to be to hers. She couldn’t think quite how – if ever – she could explain this to Chrissie, but the eager interest in the Newcastle family was not real y about them, or even about Dad. It was about her. And, at such a time, and after such a shock, it real y was not on, in any way, to do more than hint that your attitudes and opinions were rather about yourself than about your dead father or the family he had belonged to before he belonged to yours.
She pul ed the Lorca towards her and opened it randomly. She gazed at the page without taking it in. She felt dreadful about Chrissie, dreadful about her palpable apprehension at the future and revulsion for the present. But she couldn’t help her by pretending to feel and be something other than she felt and was. She couldn’t want to keep the piano or hate the Newcastle family just to make Chrissie feel temporarily better. Nor could she, just now, think of a way to explain to Chrissie without angering and hurting her further that, if Chrissie tried to refuse her the freedom to go and explore her newly realized amplitude, then she was going to just take the freedom anyway. What form that taking would assume she couldn’t yet visualize, but take it she would.
Amy sighed. She shoved the book and the newspaper into her schoolbook bag, and stood up. The coffee and cake came to almost four pounds; four pounds, it occurred to her, that she real y ought to be saving towards whatever future this freedom urge resolved itself into. Oh wel , she thought, today is today and the carrot cake has given me enough energy to face Mr Ferguson as he comes out of class.
She put a crumpled five-pound note on the table and weighted it with her coffee cup, and then she sauntered out into the street, her book bag over her shoulder like a pedlar’s pack.
Sitting inoffensively at her desk in the office on Front Street in Tynemouth, Glenda wanted to tel Margarett hat whatever she had on her mind – and Glenda wished Margaret to know that she was extremely sympathetic to al burdens on Margaret’s mind – there was no reason to snap at her. She had merely asked, out of manners, real y, if Margaret had enjoyed her evening with Mr Harrison, and Margaret had responded – with a sharpness of tone that Glenda thought was quite uncal ed for – that fancy French food was not for her and that Bernie Harrison took way too much for granted.
Glenda swal owed once or twice. She drank from the plastic cup of water – she would much rather have had tea – which Margaret told her she should drink because everyone in Scott’s office in Newcastle had this fetish about drinking water al day long.
Then she raised her chin a fraction and said, ‘Did he make a pass at you, then?’
Margaret, reading glasses on, staring at her screen, gave a smal snort.
‘He did not.’
Glenda wondered for a second if Margaret was in fact slightly disappointed that Mr Harrison hadn’t tried anything on. Then she remembered that they had known each other since primary school, and that Margaret never made a particular sartorial effort if she had a meeting with him, and dismissed disappointment as an idea.
Instead, she took another sip of water and said, ‘Oh,’ and then, after a few more seconds, ‘Good. I suppose—’ and then, a bit later and defensively, ‘I wasn’t prying—’
Margaret said nothing. She went on typing rapidly – Glenda knew she was writing a difficult e-mail to a young comedian whose act Margaret considered better suited to the South than the North-East – with her mouth set in a line that indicated, Glenda imagined, that her teeth were clenched. Glenda was familiar with clenched teeth. Living with Barry’s methods of enduring his disability had resulted in so much teeth-clenching on her part that her dentist said she must do exercises to relax her jaw, otherwise she would grind her teeth to stumps and have a permanent headache. She opened her mouth slightly now, to free up her teeth and jaw, and tried not to remember that Barry had managed to start the day in as disagreeable a mood as Margaret now seemed to be in, and that neither of them appeared to be aware that the person who was real y suffering was her.
Margaret stopped typing. She took off her reading glasses, put them back on again, and reread what she had written.
‘Doesn’t matter how I put it,’ she said to the screen. ‘A no’s a no, isn’t it? He won’t be fooled.’
Glenda drank more water. She would not speak until Margaret spoke to her, and pleasantly, as Margaret herself had taught her to do when answering the telephone to even the most irritating cal er. It was hard to concentrate with a personality the size of Margaret’s, in a manifestly bad mood, eight feet away, but she would try. She had commissions to work out – the clients Margaret had represented for over ten years paid two and a half per cent less than those she had had for only five years, and five per cent less than anyone taken on currently – and she would simply do those calculations methodical y, and drink her water, until Margaret saw fit to behave in what Glenda had learned to cal a civilized manner.
‘Poor boy,’ Margaret said. ‘Refusal sent!’ She glanced up. ‘Coffee?’
Usual y, she said, ‘Coffee, dear?’
Glenda said, as she always said, ‘I’d prefer tea, please.’ Normal y, after saying that, she added, ‘But I’l get them,’ but this morning she added nothing, and stayed where she was, looking at her screen.
Margaret didn’t seem to notice. She went into the little cubbyhole that led to the lavatory and housed a shelf and an electric plug and a kettle.
Glenda heard her fil the kettle at the lavatory basin, and then plug it in, and then she came back into the room and said, ‘I’ve got Rosie Dawes coming at midday, and I’m giving lunch to Greg Barber and I’m going to hear these jazz girls tonight.’
Glenda nodded. She knew al that. She had entered al these appointments in the diary herself.
Margaret perched on the edge of Glenda’s desk. Glenda didn’t look at her.
‘You know,’ Margaret said, in a much less aggravated tone, ‘there was a time when I was out five or six nights a week at some club or show or other. There was always a client to support or a potential client to watch. I used to keep Saturday and Sunday free if I could, in case Scott could manage to come home, but the rest of the time I was out, out, out. I never stayed til the end, mind. I’d stay long enough to get a good idea, and then I’d speak to the performer at the end of their first set, and say wel done, dear, but I never stayed for the second set. I’d seen al I needed to see by then. I’d go home and make notes. Notes and notes. I don’t do that now. I don’t make notes on anyone. And I don’t go and see many people now, do I?’
Glenda half rose and said, ‘I’l get the kettle.’
‘I was speaking to you,’ Margaret said.
Glenda finished getting up. She said, ‘I thought you were just thinking aloud.’ She moved towards the cubbyhole.
‘Maybe,’ Margaret said. She didn’t move from Glenda’s desk. ‘Maybe I was. Maybe I was thinking how things have changed, how I’ve changed, without real y noticing it.’
Glenda made Margaret a cup of coffee with a disposable filter, and herself a powerful y strong cup of tea, squeezing the tea bag against the side of the cup to extract al the rich darkness. Then she carried both cups – mugs would have been so much more satisfactory but Margaret didn’t like them – back to her desk, and held out the coffee to Margaret.
‘Thank you, dear,’ Margaret said absently.
Glenda sat down. This tea would be about her sixth cup of the day and she’d have had six more by bedtime. Nothing tasted quite as good as the first mouthful of the first brew – loose tea, in a pot – she made at six in the morning, before Barry was awake. She took a thankful swal ow of tea, and put the cup back in its saucer.
Then, greatly daring, she said, ‘So what did happen last night?’
Margaret turned her head to look out of the window. She said, ‘Bernie Harrison asked me to go into partnership with him.’
She didn’t sound very pleased. Glenda risked a long look at her averted face. Bernie Harrison agented three times the number of people that Margaret did, as wel as handling a lot of Canadian and American and Australian business. Bernie Harrison had offices near Eldon Square, and a staff of five, some of whom were al owed their own – strictly regulated – expense accounts. Bernie Harrison drove a Jaguar and lived in a palace in Gosforth and had an overcoat – Glenda had hung it up for him several times when he came to see Margaret – that had to be cashmere. Why would someone like Margaret Rossiter not leap at the chance to go into partnership with Bernie Harrison, especial y at her age? Then a chil ing little thought struck her.
‘Would there be stil a job for me?’ Glenda said.
Margaret glanced back from the window.
‘I turned him down.’
‘Oh dear,’ Glenda said.
Margaret got off the desk and stood looking down at her.
‘My heart wasn’t in it.’
‘What d’you mean?’
‘When he made his proposal,’ Margaret said, ‘I waited to feel thril ed, excited, ful of ideas. I waited to feel like I’ve felt al my working life when there was a new chal enge. But I didn’t feel any of it. I just thought, It’s too late, you stupid man, I’m too old, I’m too tired, I haven’t got the bounce any more. And then,’ Margaret said, walking to the window, ‘I spent half the night awake worrying about why I didn’t leap at the chance, and in a right old temper with myself for losing my oomph.’
Glenda leaned back in her chair.
‘You aren’t that old, you know.’
‘I do know,’ Margaret said. ‘I’m behaving as if I’m fifteen years older than I am. And the thing that’s real y getting to me is that I have got energy, I have, it’s just that I don’t want to use it on the same old things.’
Glenda drank her tea. This was a profoundly unsettling conversation.
‘What,’ she said nervously, ‘ do you want to use it on?’
‘Don’t know,’ she said. ‘Simply don’t know. Stuck. That’s the trouble. Restless and stuck. What a state to be in at sixty-six. Al very wel at thirty, but sixty-six!’ She peered at Glenda. ‘Was I a bit sharp with you this morning?’
* * *
Scott had arranged to meet Margaret in the pub close to the Clavering Building. It was more a hotel than a pub proper, with panel ing inside, and a dignified air, and was not, therefore, a place Scott frequented much. When he got there – late, having run some of the way up the hil from work, after yet another bruising and unwanted encounter with Donna – Margaret was sitting with a gin and tonic in front of her, and a pint for him on the opposite side of the table, jabbing in a haphazard sort of way at her mobile phone. Scott bent to kiss her. He was aware of being breathless and sweaty, and his tie fel forward clumsily and got entangled with her reading glasses.
Margaret said, extricating herself, ‘What’s the dash, pet?’ She put her phone down.
‘You’re always late,’ Margaret said. ‘I al ow for you being late. Have you been running?’
Scott nodded. He col apsed into a chair and took a thirsty gulp of his beer.
‘You should have rung. There was no need to half kil yourself, running.’
‘I needed to work something off,’ Scott said.
‘A work thing.’ He pul ed a face. ‘The consequence of me being wet and indecisive. A work thing.’
‘I can’t decide either,’ Margaret said. She twisted her glass round in her fingers. ‘That’s why I wanted to see you.’
Scott grinned at her.
‘This work thing,’ he said, ‘I can decide. I do decide. And then I just can’t do it.’
Margaret lifted one eyebrow.
‘A woman thing?’
‘You want to tel me about it, pet?’
‘I’d rather,’ Scott said, ‘hear what you want to talk about.’
Margaret picked up her glass and put it down again.
She said, ‘I had dinner with Bernie Harrison. In al the years I’ve known him, coming up sixty years, that would be, he’s never asked me to have dinner. Drinks, yes, even a lunchtime sandwich, but never dinner. And dinner is different, so I wondered what he was after—’
‘I can guess,’ Scott said, grinning again.
‘No, pet. No, it wasn’t. Bernie prides himself on being a ladies’ man, but ladies’ men like Bernie don’t like risking a failure, so I knew I was safe there. No. What he wanted was quite different. He wanted to offer me a partnership in his business.’
Scott banged down his beer glass.
‘Mam, that’s fantastic!’
‘Yes,’ Margaret said careful y, ‘yes, it was. It is. But I said no.’
‘I said no, pet.’
‘Mam,’ Scott said, craning forward, ‘what’s the matter with you?’
She took a very smal sip of her drink.
‘I don’t know, pet. That’s why I thought I’d better talk to you. I’ve been worrying about you being aimless and unfocused, and then I get the offer of a lifetime at my age, and I find I’m just as aimless and unfocused as you are. I turned Bernie down because, as I said to poor old Glenda, whose head I bit off for no fault of her own, my heart just wasn’t in it. I thought, How lovely, but I couldn’t feel it. I couldn’t feel I could match either his expectations or my own, so I turned him down. And I’ve been, as my father used to say, like a man with a hatful of bees ever since. I don’t expect you to come up with any solutions, but you had to know. You had to know that your stupid old mother just blew it, and she can’t for the life of herself think why.’
Scott put a hand across the table and took one of Margaret’s.
‘D’you think it’s Dad?’
‘Could be. There’s no practice for these things, after al . Could be shock and grief. But it’s been weeks now, we’ve had weeks to get used to the idea.’
‘It’s unsettled stil , though,’ Scott said. He squeezed Margaret’s hand and let it go. ‘Al that antagonism from London, and no sign of the piano.’
‘Do you real y think the piano wil make a difference?’
‘Having it sorted wil make a difference.’
‘But it isn’t going to change our lives. We know what we needed to know, and that’s a relief, even if I can’t understand why the relief hasn’t let me go, hasn’t liberated me to get on with things, instead of having to prove things al the time, like I used to.’
‘Mam, I’m sure you could change your mind—’
‘Yes, I could. I’m certain I could. But I can’t. I want to, but I can’t. I can’t see the point of changing anything, but I don’t feel very keen about just chugging along with nothing unchanged either. I am not impressed with myself.’
‘Join the club,’ Scott said.
Margaret eyed him.
‘Who is she?’
‘A col eague. A work col eague. I let her get the wrong idea and now she won’t let go of it. She’s a nice girl, but I don’t feel anything for her.’ He paused, and then he said with emphasis, ‘ Anything.’
‘Then you must make that plain.’
‘Oh, I do. Over and over, I do.’
‘There’s none so deaf as those that won’t hear—’
‘Mam,’ Scott said suddenly.
‘Mam, can I say something to you?’
Margaret sat up straighter.
‘I’m braced for it, pet. I deserve it—’
‘No,’ Scott said, ‘not about that. Not about Bernie. It’s just I wanted to ask you something because I’d like to know I’m not the only one, that I’m not a freak like Donna says I am, that I’m not unnatural or pervy or weird or anything, but do you just feel sometimes, when it comes to other people, that you are just – just empty? And at the same time you have a hunch, which won’t go away, that there is someone or something out there that might just fil you up?’
Since the evening of the green-apple Martinis – not an evening to be remembered without wincing, on several fronts – Chrissie had been much on Sue’s mind. Chrissie had always been such a contrast to Sue, so organized in her life and her person, so apparently able to make decisions and steer her life and her family in a way that was invisible to them but satisfactory to her, so very much an example of that exasperating breed of women who, when interviewed in their flawless homes about their ability not to go mad running four or five people’s lives as wel as their own, plus a job, smiled serenely and said it was real y just a matter of making lists.
Sue had never made a list in her life. There was a large old blackboard nailed to the wal in her kitchen on which the members of the household –
Sue, her partner Kevin, Sue’s sister Fran, who was an intermittent lodger, and three children – were supposed to write food and domestic items that needed replacing. But nobody did. The blackboard was used for games of hangman, and writing rude poems, and drawing body parts as a chal enge to Sue to demand to know who drew them, and then forbid it. But Sue wasn’t interested in chal enges about which child was responsible for a row of caricature penises drawn in mauve chalk. Sue, just now, was interested in why her friend Chrissie seemed to have disintegrated since Richie’s death, and be unable to access any of the admirable managerial and practical qualities that she had manifested when he was alive. It shocked Sue that Richie’s clothes stil hung in the bedroom cupboards and that the only change to their bedroom had been the removal of two pil ows from the bed. It shocked her even more that his piano stil sat in the room where he had practised, hours every day, which now was in grave danger of becoming the most lifeless and pointless kind of shrine.
‘I wouldn’t be surprised,’ Sue said to Kevin, ‘if she wasn’t hunting for hairs in his comb.’
Kevin, who was twelve years younger than Sue, and worked for a high-class local plumber, was reading the evening paper.
He said, without looking up, ‘Wouldn’t you do that for me?’
Sue looked at him. Kevin had had a shaved head ever since she met him.
‘Very funny. But Chrissie isn’t funny. She might be griefstricken but I think she’s more loss-stricken. The structure of her life was founded on that bloody man, and that’s gone now he’s gone.’
Kevin said, staring at the sports page, ‘What a wanker.’
‘She loved him,’ Sue said.
‘Kev,’ Sue said, ‘Kev. Are you listening to me? You like Chrissie.’
Kevin shook the paper slightly.
‘You like her. When I suggest seeing her, you don’t behave like I’ve asked you to have tea with the Queen, like you do with Verna or Daniel e.’
Kevin made a face. Sue leaned across the table and twitched the paper out of his hands. He didn’t move, merely sat there with his hands out, as they had been while holding the paper.
‘Listen to me, tosser boy.’
‘On message,’ Kevin said.
‘Chrissie is stuck. Chrissie is lost. Chrissie is consumed by a sense of betrayal and a hopeless rage and jealousy about that lot up in Newcastle.
Chrissie needs to move forward because there’s no money coming in and those useless little madams, her daughters – sorry, I exclude Amy, on a good day – aren’t going to lift a spoiled finger to help her or change their ways. Chrissie is in some bad place with the door locked and what I would like to do, Kev, is find the key.’
Kevin gazed at her. Sue waited. Years ago, when they had first met, Kevin sitting gazing, apparently blankly, at her had driven her wild. She’d shrieked at him, certain his mind had slipped back to its comfort zones of footbal and sex and boiler systems. But over time she had learned that not only did Kevin not think like her, he also manifested his thinking quite differently. Quite often, when he was just sitting there, ostensibly gormlessly, his mind was like rats in a cage, zooming up and down and round and about, seeking an answer. If Sue waited long enough, she had discovered, Kevin would say something that not only astounded and delighted her with its astuteness but also proved that, while absorbed in the newspaper or the television, he had missed not a nuance or a syl able of what had been going on around him.
‘I learned deadpan as a kid,’ he once said to Sue. ‘It was best, real y. Saved getting clobbered al the time.’
Kevin leaned forward. Very gently, he took his newspaper back. Then he said, ‘Get that piano out of the house.’
* * *
The house was quiet. Amy was at school, Tamsin was at work and Chrissie, in a grey-flannel trouser suit, had gone into town, to an address off the Tottenham Court Road, for an interview.
‘I don’t hold out much hope,’ Chrissie said to Dil y before she left. She had her handbag on the kitchen table and was checking its contents. Dil y had her laptop open. She preferred working in the kitchen because that left her bedroom pristine and undisturbed. It also meant that, if there were any distractions going on, she wouldn’t miss them. Next to her laptop lay a manual on hair-removal techniques. The screen on her laptop showed her Facebook account.
‘Why’d you say that?’
‘It just doesn’t feel right,’ Chrissie said. ‘It doesn’t feel me. I didn’t like the tone of the woman I spoke to.’
Dil y was looking at the screen. Her friend Zena had posted a series of pictures of her trip to Paris. They were so boring that Dil y couldn’t think why she’d bothered.
‘Why’re you going then?’
‘Because I have to,’ Chrissie said. ‘Because I have to find something that wil bring some money in. We’re not on the wire, but we’re close.’
Dil y gave a little shiver. It was frightening when Chrissie talked like this, and she’d talked like this a lot recently. Dil y didn’t want to be unsympathetic, but she couldn’t see what was so very different about the way they’d lived since Richie died, apart from his glaring absence.
Chrissie wore the same clothes; the fridge was ful of the same food; they al took showers and baths and spent hours on the computer and switched the lights and the television on, just as they always had. Tamsin had made a bit of a speech about economy the other day, but then she swished off to work in a pair of shoes Dil y swore she’d never seen before, and for shoes Dil y had a memory like a card index. It wasn’t so much that Dil y was afraid of economizing, afraid of making changes, but more that she was made fearful by the uncertainty, by these vague and awful threats of an impending doom, which was never quite specified and whose arrival, though certain, was vague as to timing.
‘Mum,’ Dil y said, turning away from yet another of Zena’s art shots of the Eiffel Tower, ‘Mum, we’l al get on our bikes when you tel us what’s happening and how we can help.’
Chrissie picked up her handbag and blew Dil y a kiss.
‘I’l tel you that, poppet, as soon as I even begin to know myself.’
When she had gone, Dil y was very miserable. Even the thought of texting Craig, of seeing Craig on Friday, didn’t have its usual diverting capacity. She logged off Facebook with an effort of wil and glanced at her manual. The next section was on sugaring and threading. Threading was real y difficult. The Asian girls on Dil y’s course said that in their community the threading technique was passed down from mother to daughter, so they’d known how to do it since they were tiny, a sort of beauty routine cat’s cradle. Dil y looked up, tapping a pencil against her teeth. Anxiety was an almost perpetual waking state now, and it made her fidgety and unhappy, unable to distract herself as she usual y could with a phone cal or a coffee or a bit of eBay browsing. She would have liked to cry. Crying had always been Dil y’s first resort when confronted by the smal est hiccup in life, but one of the many miseries of the present time was that she couldn’t seem to cry with any ease at al over little things. Crying seemed to have taken itself into another league altogether, and involved huge, wrenching sobbing sessions when she suddenly, al over again, had to confront the fact that Richie was no longer there.
Her phone, lying on the table beyond her laptop, began to ring. She picked it up and looked at the screen. It was bound to be Craig. It was, instead, a number she didn’t recognize. She put the phone to her ear.
‘Hel o?’ she said cautiously.
‘Dil y?’ Sue said.
‘Got a minute?’
‘Wel , I—’
‘Home alone, are you? I need to see you for a moment.’
‘Dil y,’ Sue said, ‘I’m ringing you, aren’t I?’
‘I’m – I’m working—’
‘No, you’re not,’ Sue said. ‘You’re doing your nails and comparing boyfriends on Facebook. I’m coming round.’
‘Mum isn’t here—’
‘Exactly. I’m coming round to see you.’
Dil y said warily, ‘Are you going to tick me off?’
‘Why would I?’
‘You just sounded a bit – forceful—’
‘Not forceful,’ Sue said, ‘decided. That’s why I’m coming round. I’ve decided something and I want your help.’
Dil y said, ‘Why don’t you ask Tamsin whatever it is?’
‘Amy — ’
‘OK,’ Dil y said doubtful y.
‘Don’t move. I’l be ten minutes. Put the kettle on.’
Dil y roused herself. She said abruptly, ‘What’s it about?’
‘Tel you when I get there.’
‘No,’ Dil y said, ‘ no. No games. Tel me now.’
‘Then I won’t open the door to you.’
‘You’re an evil little witch, aren’t you—’
There was a short pause, and then Sue said, ‘It’s about the piano.’
Bernie Harrison asked Scott Rossiter to meet him in his offices. He had thought of suggesting a drink together, but he wanted the occasion to be more businesslike than convivial, and he wanted Scott’s ful attention. So he thought, on reflection, that to meet in his offices would not only achieve both those things but would also impress upon Scott the size and significance of the Bernie Harrison Agency.
He had known Scott almost al his life. He remembered him as a smal boy at home in one of the plain-brick, metal-windowed council houses on the Chirton Estate in North Shields, when Richie and Margaret were stil sharing with Richie’s parents. Richie’s parents had been living in the house since Richie was five, being categorized as ‘homeless’ after the Second World War, which then meant being a married couple stil forced to live with their parents. And then, a generation later, it had happened to Richie and Margaret, before Richie’s career struck gold, and while he was stil taking low-key dates in obscure venues, and she was a junior secretary in a North Shields legal firm, and Scott was a toddler, cared for in the daytime by his sweet and ineffectual grandmother. After that, of course, it al changed. After that, after Richie’s ‘discovery’ on a talent show for Yorkshire Television, it was very different. The house on the Chirton Estate was abandoned for a little terraced house in Tynemouth and then a semi-detached, much larger house, with a sizeable garden, and when Scott left primary school he left the state system too and gained a place, a fee-paying place, at the King’s School in Tynemouth. Richie and Margaret had almost died of pride when Scott got into the King’s School.
Bernie held out a big hand.
‘Scott, my lad.’
Scott took his hand.
Scott shook his head. ‘Couldn’t, Mr Harrison. Sorry.’
Bernie motioned to a leather wing chair.
‘Good to see you. Sit yourself down.’
‘Isn’t that your chair?’
‘They are all my chairs, Scott.’
Scott gave a half-smile, and subsided into the chair. He had a pretty good idea why Bernie had asked to see him, and an even better idea of what he was going to say in reply. He had not told Margaret he had been summoned, but he was going to tel her about the meeting when it was over. He was feeling fond and protective of Margaret at the moment. When, the other night, he’d asked her if she ever felt like he did that there might be someone or something out there that could spring him from the trap of his sense of obstructing himself from moving forward, she’d said,
‘Oh, pet, you know, you always hope and hope it’l be someone else who does the trick, but in the end it comes down to you yourself, and the sad fact is that some of us can and some of us can’t,’ and then she’d taken his hand and said again, ‘Some of us just can’t,’ and he’d had a sudden lightning glimpse of how she’d looked at his age, younger even, when there seemed to be everything to live for, and nothing to dread. He looked now at Bernie Harrison.
‘I shouldn’t be too long, Mr Harrison.’
‘Me neither,’ Bernie said firmly.
He balanced himself against the edge of the desk and held the rim either side of him. ‘It’s your mother, Scott.’
‘Yes,’ Scott said. He looked at Bernie’s shoes. They were expensive, black calf slip-ons, with tassels. The fabric of his suit trousers looked classy too, with a rich, soft sheen to it, and his shirt had French cuffs and links the size of gobstoppers.
‘Did she tel you,’ Bernie said, ‘about my proposal?’
‘Yes,’ Scott said. ‘The other night.’
‘So she also wil have told you that she declined my offer.’
Bernie cleared his throat.
‘Can you enlighten me as to why she’d turn me down?’
‘I wouldn’t try,’ Scott said.
‘OK, OK. I’m not asking you to betray any confidences. I’m just seeking a few assurances. Is it – is it me?’
‘Wel ,’ Bernie said, ‘does she think that if she worked with me I’d make a nuisance of myself? Your mother’s a good-looking woman.’
Scott smiled at him.
‘No, Mr Harrison, I don’t think that was the problem.’
Bernie flicked him a look.
There was a smal silence, tinged with disappointment. Then Bernie said robustly, ‘Wel , she can’t have doubts about her own abilities, can she?
It may be smal , but that’s a cracking little business she has.’
‘No,’ Scott said, ‘I don’t think the possibility of inadequacy crossed her mind. Quite rightly.’
‘Oh,’ Bernie said with energy, ‘quite rightly, I agree. Wel , if it’s not me and it’s not her, what is it?’
Scott said careful y, ‘Sometimes you find you just don’t want to do something, however great the offer is.’
Bernie regarded him.
‘But that’s not like your mother.’
Bernie said, ‘Has she been affected by your father’s death? I mean, badly affected?’
Scott looked out of the window. He said, ‘It’s something to come to terms with. Obviously.’
‘You’re not helping me much, young man.’
Scott looked back. He said, ‘I can’t answer your question because I don’t know much more than you do. She was very pleased and very flattered by your offer, but she doesn’t want to accept it. Maybe she doesn’t know why any more than we do.’
Bernie shook his head. He stood up and put his hands in his trouser pockets, and jangled his keys and his change.
He shook his head again, as if to clear a buzzing in his ears.
‘It isn’t me, and it isn’t her, and it isn’t your dad’s death—’
‘Or it’s al three of them.’
‘But it won’t be personal, if you see what I mean. Mam’s not like that. She won’t have said no for any reason that isn’t straight, she wouldn’t do it just to spite you or something like that.’
Bernie shook his keys again.
‘That’s one of the reasons I asked her. Because she’s so straight, and everyone knows that. I want her reputation as much as I want her expertise and her input and her presence.’
Scott made to get up.
‘If it’s OK by you, Mr Harrison—’
Bernie looked at him again. He took his hands out of his pockets and jabbed a forefinger towards Scott.
‘If this is how it is, my lad, I’m not giving up. If it was a concrete reason, I’m not saying I wouldn’t have another go, but I’d respect it. But as it’s al this vague, don’t-know, wishy-washy stuff, I’m going to keep trying. And I’d be grateful if you’d put in a word for me with her now and then. I want to keep the pot boiling.’
Scott said, standing now, ‘I’m happy to see you today, Mr Harrison, but this is between you and my mother. Whatever I think may be good for her is real y neither here nor there. It’s what she thinks is good herself that counts, and she’s had years of practice deciding that. I’d like to see her here, Mr Harrison, but only if that’s what she real y wants.’
Bernie looked at him in silence for a few moments. Then he touched Scott’s arm.
‘Anyone tel you how like your dad you are, to look at?’
Threading his way through the ambling crowds in the Eldon Square shopping centre, Scott felt his phone vibrating in his top pocket. He paused to take it out and put it to his ear.
A female voice with a slight London accent said, ‘That Scott?’
Scott moved into a quieter spot in the doorway of a children’s clothes shop.
‘Who is this?’
‘My name’s Sue,’ Sue said. ‘I’m a friend of your stepmother’s.’
‘Of Chrissie’s,’ Sue said. ‘Of your father’s wife.’
Scott shut his eyes briefly. This was no moment to say forcibly to a stranger on the telephone that his father had only ever had one wife, and it wasn’t Chrissie.
‘You stil there?’ Sue said.
‘Wel , I just rang—’
‘How did you get my number?’
There was a short pause, and then Sue said, ‘Amy’s phone.’
‘Amy knows you are ringing? Why aren’t I talking to Amy?’
‘Amy doesn’t know,’ Sue said.
‘Dil y took the number from Amy’s phone,’ Sue said. ‘Dil y is Amy’s sister.’
‘I know that.’
‘Wel ,’ Sue said with irritation, ‘how I got your number is neither here nor there—’
‘It’s why I’m ringing that matters. And you’l be pleased when you hear.’
Scott waited. A lump of indignation at Amy’s phone being investigated behind her back sat in his throat like a walnut.
‘Listen,’ Sue said.
‘The piano is fixed.’
‘The piano. Your piano. With Dil y’s help, we’re getting it shifted. I think it’l be next week. You should have your piano by the end of next week. I’l let you know the exact timing when I’ve got firm dates from the removal company.’
Scott said, ‘Does Amy know? Does – does her mother know?’
‘Look,’ Sue said, suddenly furious, ‘ look, you ungrateful oaf, none of that is any of your business. No, they don’t know, nobody knows but Dil y and me, but that’s none of your business either. Your business is to thank me for extricating your sodding piano and arranging for it to come north. Al I need from you is thanks and a delivery address. The rest is none of your business. You have no idea what it’s like down here.’
Scott swal owed. He said, with evident self-control, ‘I told Amy the piano could wait until – until it was OK for them to let it go.’
‘They won’t even begin to be OK until the piano has gone. Trust me. Cruel to be kind, maybe, but the piano has to go.’
‘I don’t like it being a secret—’
Sue yel ed, ‘It has nothing to do with what you like or don’t like!’
Scott held his phone a little way from his ear. He wanted to explain that he didn’t, for reasons he couldn’t quite articulate, wish to do anything remotely underhand as far as Amy was concerned, but he had no wish to open himself up, in any way, to this assertive woman.
Sue said, slightly less vehemently, ‘Don’t go and bugger this plan up now by refusing the piano.’
‘I wouldn’t do that—’
‘You’re doing Chrissie a favour, removing the piano. You’re doing them al a favour. None of them can move on one inch until that piano is out of the house and they aren’t passing it every five minutes.’
Scott put the phone back against his ear.
‘OK,’ he said. ‘Thank you.’
‘That’s more like it,’ Sue said. ‘Jeez, what a family. I thought mine was a byword for dysfunction but the Rossiters run us a close second. Text me your address and I’l let you know the delivery date.’
‘Is it too much to ask,’ Sue demanded, ‘that you say, “Thank you so much, stranger lady, for restoring my birthright to me”?’
Scott considered. Who knew if this woman was a miracle-worker or a meddler? He remembered that she had cal ed him an oaf. A peculiarly Southern insult somehow.
‘Yes,’ Scott said decidedly, and flipped his phone shut.
* * *
That night, instead of slamming a curry or chil i con carne into the microwave, Scott cooked dinner. He paused in the little Asian supermarket on his way home and bought an array of vegetables, including pak choi, and a packet of chicken-breast strips, and a box of jasmine rice, and when he got home he made himself a stir-fry.
He put the stir-fry on a proper dinner plate, instead of eating it out of the pan, and put the plate on his table with a knife and a fork and three careful y torn-off sheets of kitchen paper as a napkin. Then he stuck a candle-end in an empty bottle of Old Speckled Hen, and put a disc in the CD
player, a disc of his father playing Rachmaninov, a disc that had never sold in anything like the numbers that his covers of Tony Bennett songs had.
Then he sat down, and ate his dinner in as measured a way as he could, and reflected with something approaching pride on having stood up to Bernie Harrison, not al owed himself to be grateful to that rude cow from London, and succeeded, at last, in taking Donna out for a coffee – not the drink she would have preferred – and tel ing her that he was very sorry but she was mistaken and nothing she could do was going to make him change his mind.
He had feared she might cry. There were long moments while she stared down into her skinny latte with an extra shot, and he had been afraid that she was going to opt for tears rather than fury. But to her credit, she had neither wept nor shouted. In fact she’d said, after swal owing hard several times, ‘Wel , Scottie, I’l be thirty-six next October, so you can’t blame me for trying,’ and he’d squeezed her hand briefly and said, ‘I don’t. I just don’t want you to waste any more time or effort on me.’
She looked at him. She said, with a gal ant attempt at a smile, ‘Rather have a piano than a relationship, would you?’
He said, ‘At least you know where you are with a piano,’ and they’d grinned weakly at each other, and then she bent to pick up her bag and stood up and said she was off to see the girls from work to drown her sorrows. Or, as it was only Wednesday, to half drown them anyway. She bent and gave his cheek a quick brush with her own.
‘It was nice being wanted for my body—’
‘Great body,’ Scott said politely.
Then she had clicked out of the coffee bar on her heels and he had gone to the Asian supermarket and bought the ingredients for a proper meal.
Which he had now prepared, and cooked, and eaten. And washed up. He put the kettle on, to make a coffee, and then he strol ed down the length of his flat and contemplated the space he had cleared – but not swept, recently – where the piano would sit.
It was very, very wonderful to think that, within ten days, it would be sitting there, huge and shining and impregnated with memories and possibilities. Now that it was actual y on its way, Scott could permit himself to acknowledge how much he wanted it, how hard it had been to say that they should not let it go until they were ready to let it go. It had been hard, but it had been worth it, both because it gave Scott the sense of having behaved honourably in an awkward situation and because the joy of knowing it would soon be on its way north was so very intense by contrast.
The joy was, Scott thought, an unexpected bonus. It gave him an energy of pleasure that he couldn’t remember feeling about anything much for a very long time. The only element that tempered it – and Scott had not al owed himself to consider this ful y til now – was that a deception was being practised on Amy, and on her mother and older sister, in order that he might have the Steinway sitting where he was standing now, with the night view of the bridge, and the Gateshead shore shimmering away beyond, outside the uncurtained window.
Scott moved over to the window and leaned his forehead against the cold glass. He supposed that part of him felt that Amy’s mother and sister could look out for themselves. He had, after al , had no contact with them except cold looks at the funeral and an unpleasant brief telephone exchange with Tamsin. But Amy herself was another matter. Amy had had the guts to ring him, had spoken to him as if the bond between them didn’t just exist but should be respected and, for God’s sake, she was only eighteen, she was only a kid, but she had shown an independence of mind that would do credit to someone twice her age.
Scott took his phone out of his trouser pocket, and tossed it once or twice in his hand. If he rang her, and told her about Sue’s cal , she might wel flip and refuse to let him have the piano. He looked, for a long time, at the dusty space where the piano was going to sit. He walked across it, and then back again. He weighed his desire for it to be there against his peace of mind. He flipped his phone open, and dial ed Amy’s number.
Her phone rang four times, then five, then six. Then her voice said hurriedly, ‘This is Amy’s phone. I’l cal you back,’ and stopped, as if she had meant to leave more message, and suddenly couldn’t think what more to say.
Scott looked out at his view.
‘Amy,’ he said, ‘it’s Scott. I’m cal ing on Wednesday night. It’s about the piano. There’s something we should talk about. Could you cal me when you get this? Any time. I mean, any time.’
She rang back at ten past two in the morning. She sounded odd, but she said that was because she was under the duvet. Apart from being a bit muffled, her tone was normal, even neutral.
She said, ‘What is it? About the piano?’
Scott, lying back on his pil ow, his eyes stil closed from the deep sleep he’d been in, told her briefly about Sue’s cal .
‘Oh,’ Amy said.
‘Look,’ Scott said, ‘it doesn’t have to happen, not if you—’
‘It does have to happen. It’s not that—’
‘It’s not you having the piano—’
‘Oh,’ Scott said.
Amy said, ‘I’m glad.’
‘Are you? ’
‘Oh yes,’ she said.
He waited for her to ask if she’d woken him, but she didn’t. Instead, she said, ‘I won’t let my phone out of my sight now.’
There was a silence. He longed to say more but couldn’t initiate it.
Then she said, ‘Night-night. Thanks for tel ing me,’ and the line went dead. Scott looked at the clock beside his bed. Two-thirteen and he was awake now. Wide awake.
Tamsin was keeping her eyes and ears open. It was completely obvious, from the agents who were being summoned into the partners’ rooms and coming out looking as if they’d been hit with a bucket, that a fair number of redundancies were going on. There had been a confidential memo sent round saying that the present economic climate and resulting effect on the housing market meant that there inevitably had to be a certain amount of restructuring within the company, but that for the sake of al those concerned the partners requested that al members of staff should behave with as much discretion as possible. Which meant, Tamsin knew, that none of them were supposed to gossip when people were got rid of.
And people were being. People were going out of the building by the back door, carrying boxes and bin bags, with the contents of their desks in them, and a lot of company cars were beginning to sit idle, day after day, in the company car park.
Tamsin had said to Robbie that the fact that she wasn’t paid much more than the minimum wage might work either way. The partners might think she was extremely expendable, or they might think that she was very good value. Robbie said he thought the latter would be the case and that she should work on that assumption anyway, so Tamsin was going into work having made an extra effort with her appearance every day, and was conducting herself with increased alertness and alacrity as wel as a wide and confident smile every time she encountered a partner. If she was made redundant, she reckoned, she’d make sure she left with a glowing recommendation.
The reception desk, Tamsin decided, was where she was going to make her mark. It didn’t take much to realize that the first face of a business that a customer saw was also the one that made the significant first impression. So Tamsin was making an extra effort to greet everyone, including the least prepossessing of the courier delivery boys, with a wide smile and an air of being completely impervious to any possibility of suffering in the current crisis. It was annoying, therefore, to turn from a switchboard complication to greet a new arrival and find that she was wasting warmth and charm on her sister Amy.
‘What are you doing here? Why aren’t you in school?’
‘Revision period,’ Amy said. She was wearing jeans and a black hooded sweatshirt and chequerboard sneakers.
‘I’m working,’ Tamsin said. ‘Can’t you see?’
Amy leaned forward.
‘I’ve got to talk to you—’
Amy glanced round. The office was open-plan, and several people were plainly not as absorbed by what was on their screens as they were pretending to be.
‘Can’t tel you here.’
‘Amy,’ Tamsin said again, ‘I’m working. You shouldn’t be here.’
‘Ten minutes,’ Amy said. ‘Tel them it’s family stuff. It is family stuff.’
Tamsin hesitated. There was her natural curiosity and, in addition, there was the aggravation of not knowing something that, by rights, she should both have known and have known first.
She said, ‘I’l ask Denise.’
Amy nodded. She watched Tamsin go across to talk to a girl with dark hair in a short glossy bob. The girl was typing. She neither looked up nor stopped typing when Tamsin bent over her, but she nodded, and then she stood up and fol owed Tamsin back to the reception desk.
‘This is my sister Amy,’ Tamsin said.
‘Hi,’ Amy said.
Denise looked at Amy. Then she said to Tamsin, ‘Fifteen minutes, max. I’ve got a client at twelve and he’s my only client al bloody day.’
On the pavement outside, Amy said, ‘Is she always like that?’
‘Everyone’s worried,’ Tamsin said. ‘Everyone’s wondering who’s next.’
‘Are you? ’
‘No,’ Tamsin said.
‘I’m cheap,’ Tamsin said, ‘I’m good. It’d be a false economy to lose me. Now, what is al this?’
There was a sharp wind blowing up the hil . Amy pul ed her sleeves down over her knuckles and hunched her shoulders.
‘Can we get a coffee?’
‘No,’ Tamsin said. ‘Tel me whatever it is and go back to school.’
Amy said unhappily, ‘You won’t like this—’
‘What won’t I like?’
‘I thought I wouldn’t tel you. I thought I wouldn’t say. But I think not tel ing you is worse than tel ing you. I don’t know—’
Amy looked at the pavement.
‘The piano’s going.’
‘Next Thursday. It’s booked.’
‘No,’ Amy said. She flicked a glance up at her sister. ‘No. That’s the point. Sue’s done it. Sue’s organized it with Dil y while Mum’s out, next Thursday. The removal people wil just come and take it.’
Tamsin said nothing. Her mind raced about for a few seconds, wondering what aspect of this new situation she was most upset about. Then she said furiously, ‘How do you know? Did Sue tel you?’
‘No,’ Amy said.
‘No,’ Amy said.
Amy sighed. She said reluctantly, ‘It was him.’
‘You know,’ Amy said. She stretched her sleeves down further. ‘Him. In Newcastle.’
‘He rang me. Sue had rung him to ask for his address. Dil y got his number off my phone. He rang because he thought it shouldn’t be behind our backs—’
‘It was nice of him!’ Amy cried. ‘It was nice of him to warn us!’
Tamsin seemed to col ect herself. She leaned forward and gripped Amy’s shoulders.
‘Let me get this straight. You are tel ing me that Sue, with Dil y’s connivance, has arranged for the piano to be taken away next Thursday while Mum is out of the house?’
‘And you only know about it because Newcastle Man rang you?’
‘He’s cal ed Scott,’ Amy said.
Tamsin let go of her sister’s shoulders.
‘I’m not sure who I’m going to kil first—’
‘It’s good the piano’s going,’ Amy said. ‘It’s good. It’l be better for Mum. It’l be better for al of us—’
Tamsin wasn’t listening. She was looking away from Amy, eyes narrowed.
‘I think,’ she said, ‘I’l start with Dil y.’
Chrissie had not been thinking straight. She’d begun at Bond Street Station, intending to take the Central Line to Tottenham Court Road and then change to the Northern Line to travel north. But for some reason, she had drifted down the escalator to the Jubilee Line, going northwards, and sat blankly on the train for a number of stops until the sight of the station name, West Hampstead, jolted her back into realizing that she was miles further west than she had intended to be. She got out of the train in the kind of fluster she used to watch, sometimes, in middle-aged and elderly women with a slightly contemptuous pity, and made her way up into the open air and West End Lane, thankful that no one she knew had seen her.
Only once she was out of the station did it occur to her that she should have crossed the road and taken the overland train to Gospel Oak. But somehow, she couldn’t face retracing her steps. She stood in the light late-afternoon drizzle for a few moments, just breathing, and then she set off northwards, towards the fire station where West End Lane turned sharp right before it joined the Finchley Road, and she felt she was back in the main swim of things and might find a cup of coffee.
At the junction of West End Lane and the Finchley Road, something struck her as familiar. The building she was beside, the red-brick building with a portal and an air of solidity, was of course her solicitor’s building, the offices of Leverton and Company, where there had been that dreadful interview with Mark Leverton in which she had had to confess that she and Richie had never been married and, inevitably, convey that this situation had persisted despite her earnest and growing wish to the contrary. At the end of the interview, when Tamsin had preceded her out of the door of Mark Leverton’s office, he had said to Chrissie, in a low and urgent voice that she was sure came from a human rather than professional impulse, ‘If there’s anything I can do to help—’ She had smiled at him with real gratitude. She had thanked him warmly and, she hoped, conveyed that, touched though she was, she had always been a coping woman and intended to continue to cope. But now, weeks later, standing on the damp pavement outside the building, and disproportionately shaken by having made such a muddle of her journey home, Chrissie felt that not only was coping something she no longer felt like doing but also it was, for the moment at least, something she simply could not do. She pressed the bel marked
‘Reception’ and was admitted to the building.
The receptionist said that she thought Mr Mark was stil there, but as it was twenty past five, and a Friday, he might wel have already left for family dinner.
‘Could you try?’ Chrissie said.
She crossed the reception area and sat down in a grey tweed armchair. On the low table in front of her was a neat fan of legal pamphlets and a copy of the business section of a national newspaper. She stared at it unseeingly, until the receptionist came over and said that Mr Mark was on his way down. She said it in a tone that made Chrissie feel that Mr Mark should not have had his good nature presumed upon.
‘Thank you,’ Chrissie said.
The receptionist’s heels clacked back behind her desk. Five minutes passed. Then ten. A smal panic rose up in Chrissie, a panic that caused her to demand of herself what she thought she was doing, what on earth should she say to Mark Leverton, and then he was beside her, in a tidy fawn raincoat over his business suit and he was bending over her and saying, ‘Mrs Rossiter?’ in the tones you might expect from a doctor.
She looked up at him.
‘I’m so sorry—’
He put a hand under her elbow to help her to her feet.
‘Are you unwel ?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘No. I’m fine. I – I – this is just an impulse, you know. I found myself outside and I just thought—’
He began to steer her towards the door. He said, ‘Goodnight, Teresa,’ to the receptionist, and leaned forward to push the door open to al ow Chrissie to go through ahead of him.
‘I’m due home soon,’ he said to Chrissie, ‘it being a Friday. But there’s time for a coffee first. It looks to me as if you could do with a coffee.’
‘I’m sorry, so sorry—’
‘Please don’t apologize.’
‘But you’re a solicitor, you’re not a doctor or a therapist—’
‘I think,’ Mark Leverton said, holding Chrissie’s elbow, ‘we’l just pop in here. I often get a lunchtime sandwich here. It’s run by a nice Italian family
The café was warm and bright. Mark sat Chrissie in a plastic chair by a wal and said he was just going to cal his wife, and tel her that he’d be half an hour later than he’d said.
‘Oh, please—’ Chrissie said. She could feel a pain beginning under her breastbone at the thought of Mrs Leverton and her children, and maybe her brothers and sisters and parents, sitting down to the reassuring candlelit ritual of a Jewish Friday night. ‘Please don’t be late on my account!’
Mark said something briefly into his phone, and then he made a dismissive, friendly little hand gesture in Chrissie’s direction, and went over to the glassed-in counter of Italian sandwich fil ings and ordered two coffees.
‘Cappuccino?’ he said to Chrissie.
‘One of each,’ Mark Leverton said, and then he came back to the table where Chrissie sat, and slipped off his raincoat and dropped it over an empty chair.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Chrissie said again. ‘This isn’t like me. I don’t know what I’m thinking of, bothering you like this—’
‘It’s not a bother.’
‘And it isn’t,’ Chrissie said unsteadily, ‘as if I can afford to pay you for even ten minutes of your time—’
‘We’re not ogres,’ Mark said. He was smiling. ‘We don’t charge just for picking up the phone. You wouldn’t have come to find me if you didn’t need help now, would you?’
The coffee was put down in front of them. Mark looked at his cappuccino.
‘Europeans would never drink it like this after mid-morning. But I love it. It’s my little vice. Ever since I gave up chocolate.’ He grinned at Chrissie.
‘I was a real shocker with chocolate. A bar of Galaxy a day. And I mean a big bar.’
She smiled back faintly. ‘I wish chocolate was the answer—’
He dipped his spoon into the cushion of foam on top of his coffee cup.
‘D’you want to tel me, Mrs Rossiter, or would you like me to guess?’
‘I’m not Mrs Rossiter, Mr Leverton.’
‘I’m Mark. And you are, in my mind and for al practical purposes, Mrs Rossiter. OK?’
‘And I’m guessing that the shocks of the last couple of months have now segued into anxiety about the future.’
Chrissie nodded again. She said, ‘Got it in one,’ to her coffee cup. Then she glanced up and she said, ‘I can’t believe I was so stupid. I can’t believe I let us rely so heavily, in such an undiversified way, on his earning power. I can’t believe I didn’t see how that earning power was diminishing, because even if he stil had a huge fan base it was very much women of a certain age, and getting good gigs was harder and harder and no one seems able to stop the rip-offs and il egal downloading of CDs. I can’t believe I didn’t see that I’d put al my eggs in one basket and that basket turned out to be – to be—’ She stopped, took a breath, and then she said, ‘You don’t want to hear al that.’
‘It’s background,’ he said.
She took a swal ow of coffee. She said simply, ‘And now I can’t get work.’
‘I’ve been to seven interviews. It’s a waste of time. Everybody seems to want to be an agent, so there’s an infinite supply of cheap young people they can train up like they want to. They don’t want someone like me who managed just one talent for twenty years. They say come in and we’l talk and then they take one look at me and you can see them thinking, Oh, she’s too old, too set in her ways, won’t be able to adapt to our client list, and so we exchange pleasantries – or veiled unpleasantries – for twenty minutes or so, and then I get up and go and you can hear the sighs of relief even before the door is shut behind me.’
Mark Leverton put his hands flat on the table either side of his coffee cup.
‘Two things.’ He grinned again. ‘And I won’t charge you for either.’
Chrissie tried a smile.
‘First,’ he said, ‘sel your house. Real y sel it. Don’t just play with the idea. Put it on the market and take whatever you can for it.’
She quivered very slightly.
‘Second,’ he said, ‘change your thinking. Put agenting, managing, whatever, behind you.’
‘My father says,’ Mark said, reaching for his raincoat, ‘that there’s always work for those prepared to do it.’ He winked at her. ‘I mean, d’you think I’d choose to do what I do?’
‘If you tel your mother,’ Sue said to the assembled Rossiter girls, ‘you are al three going to wish you had never been born.’
Tamsin was standing. She had been standing throughout this conversation in order to assert herself and to make it very plain to Sue that her interference – even if it was for everyone’s good, especial y Chrissie’s – was completely out of order, on principle. Dil y, looking mulish, was sitting by the kitchen table and Amy was staring out of the window at the slab of darkening sky between their house and the next one with an expression that indicated to Sue that her mind was absolutely somewhere else.
‘Did you hear me?’
Tamsin said nothing, elaborately.
Amy turned her head. She said, ‘Why would we?’
‘Because,’ Sue said mercilessly, ‘you’re al in the habit of running to Mummy about everything.’
‘No,’ Amy said, ‘we ran to Dad.’
Dil y put her hand over her eyes.
Tamsin said grandly, ‘I have no objection to being spared the sight of the piano al the time—’
‘But I real y, real y object to its going to those people in Newcastle. I hate that.’
‘Me too,’ Dil y said.
Amy opened her mouth.
‘Shush,’ Sue said to her loudly. She folded her arms. ‘You have no choice. You know that.’
Dil y said, ‘Twenty-two thousand—’
‘Shut it, Dil . Never mind al those royalties on the music—’
‘The good news is,’ Sue said loudly, ‘that once the piano is gone you need have no further dealings with Newcastle ever again. You can put al that behind you. You need have no further contact. You can forget they even exist.’
‘They’ve poisoned us,’ Dil y said.
There was a short, angry silence and then Amy said, ‘No, they haven’t.’
Tamsin glared at her.
‘You wouldn’t know loyalty if it bit you on the nose—’
‘And you—’ Amy began. There was the sound of a key in the lock of the front door, and then it opened, paused, and slammed shut.
They froze. Chrissie’s heels came down the hal and she opened the kitchen door. She looked terrible, weary and washed out. She blinked at the four of them.
‘What’s going on? What are you doing?’
Sue made an odd little gesture.
‘Plotting?’ Chrissie went over to the table and put her bag down. ‘What are you plotting?’
‘Wel ,’ Sue said slowly, fixing each girl’s gaze in turn, ‘we were plotting what to do about al those clothes upstairs. How to help you. How to find a suitable home for a cupboardful of terrible tuxedos.’ She paused. Then she said, ‘Weren’t we, girls?’
Amy lay on her bed, her phone with the dolphin tag in her hand. Nobody had rung her al evening. Nobody had rung her yesterday either. Her friends weren’t ringing because she, Amy, couldn’t join in the required hysteria about the imminent exams. She’d wanted to, she’d tried to, goodness knows she was nervous enough about them, but somehow they couldn’t get to her the way the other stuff did, they couldn’t seem, as they plainly seemed to al her friends as wel as to a lot of the staff at school, like the only thing in the world that mattered, or would ever matter. They loomed ahead of her in a menacing and unavoidable way that she real y hated, but they stil couldn’t compare with everything else, not least because, if she made her mind stop jumping about and settle down, she could tel herself that the exams would be over in four weeks and Richie’s death wouldn’t.
Amy had tried explaining this to friends at school and they had nodded and been sweet and hugged her, but you could see that, in their heart of hearts, in their secret deep selves, they couldn’t imagine what it was like to have your father die, because al their fathers were alive, very much so, and mostly a pain because they either didn’t live with their mothers any more for one reason or another, or were insanely restrictive about boys and alcohol and, like, freedom, for goodness’ sake. A dead father wasn’t even a romantic concept to them, it was too way out even for fantasy, it was something you hurried over with squeezes and sad eyes and whispered ‘Poor babe’ before you went back to the familiar mutual agonizing over revision and personal stupidity and boredom and the shackles of adult expectation. Amy couldn’t see that these exams might literal y spel the end of the world, because lousy grades meant no uni, and if there wasn’t uni, your father – oh God, Amy, so sorry, so sorry, Amy – would yel that he’d been right al along about wasting money educating a girl and then your mother—No wonder, Amy thought, they aren’t ringing me. I can see it matters, of course I can, but I can’t, can’t see that it matters al that much.
She sighed and reached out to drop the phone on the rug by her bed. It had been another exhausting evening in a long, long sequence of exhausting evenings. She didn’t know if Chrissie had believed Sue or not, but they had al trooped up to Chrissie’s bedroom, and just opened the cupboards, and looked miserably at Richie’s clothes, al dead too now, except for his shoes, which remained painful y alive – and then Dil y had fled from the room, and Tamsin had put an arm round Chrissie and Chrissie had said faintly, ‘I stil can’t do it. I know you mean wel , but I can’t. Even if I know it wil make me feel better, I can’t.’
Then she’d gone to have a shower, and Tamsin and Sue and Amy had gone back down to the kitchen, and even Sue had been uncharacteristical y subdued, and had almost said sorry for interfering in a family matter, and then she’d muttered something about getting something in for her and Kev’s supper and Tamsin had said sharply, ‘He’l faint. When did you last get him supper?’ and Sue had gone off leaving a jangled atmosphere behind her and nothing, Amy felt, that she and Tamsin could say to each other made anything any better. Tamsin went off to ring Robbie, and Amy looked, rather hopelessly, in the fridge to see what they might have to eat so that Chrissie could come down to a laid table and pans on the hob, but there was nothing there that looked like a real meal to Amy, so she got out cheese and hummus and made a salad, and when Chrissie came down she said tiredly, ‘Oh, lovely of you, sweets, but I’m just going to have a mug of soup.’
She’d taken the soup into the sitting room, to drink it in front of the television, and Amy asked Dil y and Tamsin if they wanted supper and they said no in a way that real y meant, ‘I don’t want that supper.’ So Amy picked wedges of avocado out of the salad she’d made, and col ected a satsuma and a bag of crisps and a foil-wrapped chocolate biscuit and went up to her bedroom, and realized with despair that she didn’t even feel like playing her flute.
So, here she was on her bed, with her stomach uncomfortably ful of il -assorted things eaten far too fast, and a silent telephone. She wondered if this acute kind of loneliness was part of grief, that the stark fact of being left behind by her father translated into a keen sensation of solitariness, of being, somehow, an outcast. It was al made worse, too, by feeling that she hardly belonged in her own family just now, either. They were, certainly, haphazardly united by the anger of grief so common at a sudden death, but beyond that she couldn’t meet them, couldn’t make enemies out of Scott and Margaret, couldn’t blame them because it was easier to blame them than blame Richie.
Amy sighed, shudderingly. It was perfectly plain that neither she nor the rest of her family could change their profound convictions about justice and injustice, and if sticking to her guns meant that her sisters would scarcely speak to her, she would just have to bear that, however hard it was.
And it was hard. It was hard and it was wretchedly alone. She sighed again, and then, with an effort, swung herself upright and off her bed until she was standing on the rug by her telephone.
She looked across the little room. Her laptop was, as usual, on. She crossed the room and sat down in front of it and put her hands on the keys.
No point looking at Facebook. Her Facebook account would be as empty of life as her telephone. Maybe a little swoop over Newcastle on Google Earth would make her feel better, maybe she could divert herself by remembering that, even if Richie was dead, what he had left her, deep in her, by virtue of where he had come from was stil very much alive. She leaned forward and tapped the keys. It was worth a try.
The carton of sheet music sat on the floor, in Margaret’s sitting room. Scott had sent it over in a taxi. Dawson had investigated it in a leisurely way, and had tried sitting on it, but had then retreated to his usual place along the back of the sofa, which was, after al , cushioned, and got the morning sun. Margaret had opened the carton with a kitchen knife, kneeling on the carpet. Then she had turned back the flaps and there, on top, was the familiar – oh, so familiar – cover of ‘Chase The Dream’, with Richie’s blurred photograph on the front against a background of a geometric pattern, printed in aquamarine, with the song’s title in black across the top, italic script, and Richie’s name at the bottom.
She lifted it out. You didn’t get proper, printed, published song sheets like that any more. Everything was virtual, digitalized, ephemeral. You couldn’t hold a song in your hands, not unless it was by Sondheim or someone and worth publishing in huge numbers. But Richie’s songs, in the early days, came out as sheets at the same time that they came out as records. In that carton lay something that was far more valuable to Margaret than the copyright, which was a stack of these battered paper copies, al the songs that Richie had written in the golden decade before he’d believed – Margaret would never say ‘been persuaded’: it took two to tango, every time – that going to London would fire him off into some career stratosphere. Those years, the Tynemouth houses, Scott’s school success, had produced songs that were right for Richie and, crucial y, right for their times. And those songs lay, in their faded physical form, on her sitting-room carpet. It wasn’t a carpet Richie had ever trodden on – he had never been to Percy Gardens – but the furniture mostly dated from their time together, and the songs were the essence of those times.
‘You might have liked him,’ Margaret said to Dawson. ‘Except he wouldn’t have liked you much. He preferred dogs to cats.’
‘It’s something to leave behind, isn’t it, a box of songs? It’s quite something. It’s more than I’l do. It’s certainly more than you’l do. Though I expect I’l get a little pang when I pass your dish on the floor, after you’ve gone.’
Dawson closed his eyes. Margaret closed hers too, and sang the first lines of ‘Chase The Dream’.
‘“When the clouds gather, when the day darkens, when hope’s smal candle flickers and dies—”’
Dawson flattened his little ears. Margaret opened her eyes.
‘“That’s when I want you, that’s when I need you, that’s when I find the dream in your eyes.”’ She stopped. She said to Dawson, ‘Bit soppy for you?’ She looked down at the sheet in her hand. ‘Never too soppy for me. I can picture him writing it, picking out the melody with his left hand and singing snatches of the words and scribbling them down. It was lovely. They were lovely times. You must be very careful, you know, not to let good memories get poisoned by what comes later.’
She put the song sheet back in the carton and got stiffly to her feet. Better not to remember what those months and years had been like, after Richie left. Better not to recal how desperate she had been, both emotional y and practical y, how unreachable poor Scott had been, mute with rage and misery, and twitching himself away from her hands. Better, always, to focus on what saved you, saved you from bitterness and nothingness.
She glanced at Dawson.
‘We’l have some nice times, with those songs. I’l sing and you can turn your back on me, and then we’l both be happy. I just hope the piano makes Scott a bit happy too, poor boy.’
Scott had asked Margaret to come and see the piano in situ. She had bought champagne to take with her and, for some reason which wasn’t quite clear to her although the impulse had been strong, flowers. She knew she couldn’t put flowers on the piano – Richie had been adamant that nothing should ever, ever be put on the piano – but they could sit on the windowsil near by, and lend an air of celebration as wel as compensating for the fact that Scott seemed to feel no need for either blinds or curtains.
She’d gone up in the lift of the Clavering Building with an armful of flowers and the champagne ready-chil ed in an insulated bag, and Scott had been on the landing to meet her, looking animated and more than respectable in the trousers from his work suit and a white shirt open at the neck.
He’d stepped forward, smiling but not saying anything, and he’d kissed her, and taken the champagne and the flowers, and then he’d gone ahead of her into the flat and just stood there, beaming, so that she could look past him and see the Steinway, shining and solid, sitting there with the view beyond it as if it had never been away.
‘Oh, pet,’ Margaret said.
‘It looks fine,’ Scott said, ‘doesn’t it?’
‘It looks—’ She stopped. Then she said, ‘Have you played it?’
‘Oh yes. It needs a tune, after the journey. But I’ve played it al right.’
Margaret moved down the room.
‘What have you played?’
‘Bit of Cole Porter. Bit of Sondheim. Bit of Chopin—’
Margaret stopped in front of the piano.
‘Chopin? That’s ambitious—’
‘I didn’t,’ Scott said, grinning, ‘I didn’t say I played it wel —’
He put the flowers down on the kitchen worktop. He lifted the insulated bag.
‘I guess this is champagne?’
‘Laurent-Perrier,’ Margaret said.
‘Wel , if it’s good enough for Bernie Harrison, it’s good enough for a Steinway, wouldn’t you say?’
Margaret sat down gingerly on the piano stool.
‘ Your Steinway, pet.’
Scott extricated the bottle from the bag.
‘I even have champagne flutes.’
‘They came free with something.’
Margaret put a finger lightly on a white key.
‘I’m getting the shivers—’
‘Good shivers?’ Scott said. He was almost laughing, twisting the cork out of the bottle and letting the champagne foam out and down the sides, over his hand.
‘Just shivers,’ Margaret said, ‘just echoes. Just the past jumping up again like it wasn’t over.’
Scott poured champagne into his flutes. He carried them down the room to the piano.
‘Don’t put them down!’ Margaret said sharply.
‘Wouldn’t dream of it,’ Scott said. He handed her a glass. ‘What shal we toast?’
Margaret looked doubtful.
‘Dad?’ Scott said.
‘Don’t think so, pet.’
‘Us? Each other?’
Margaret eyed him.
‘That wouldn’t suit us either, dear.’
‘OK,’ Scott said, ‘the piano itself, music, the future—’
Margaret gave a little snort.
‘Don’t get carried away—’
‘I feel carried away. I am carried away. I want to be carried away.’
Margaret looked up at him. She took a sip of her champagne without toasting anything.
She said, ‘Talking of carried, who paid for the carriage? Who paid for this to come up here?’
Scott hesitated. He looked fixedly at his drink. Then he said, ‘I did.’
There was a silence. Margaret looked at him steadily. She took another sip of her drink.
‘Why did you do that?’
‘I wanted to,’ Scott said. ‘I needed to.’
‘How did you arrange it?’
‘Who did you speak to?’
‘Mam,’ Scott said, ‘it doesn’t matter. It’s done, it’s sorted and I’ve got the piano. I couldn’t bear to be obliged to them.’
‘No,’ Margaret said, ‘I see that.’ She paused, and then she said quietly, ‘I wonder how it was, for her, when it went.’
Scott moved round behind the piano and leaned against the windowsil , his back to the view.
He said, ‘She wasn’t there.’
Margaret looked up sharply.
‘ She wasn’t there. It went while she was out. They arranged it that way on purpose. She’d gone out with a friend.’
‘How do you know al this?’
Scott took a big swal ow of champagne.
‘Amy told me.’
‘I rang her.’
‘Yes,’ Scott said, ‘I rang her to check she was OK about the piano, that she didn’t think I was party to some kind of plot. I rang her to say I wanted to pay for the carriage.’ He grinned at his drink. ‘She said she thought they’d expect me to do that anyway.’
Margaret gave a second smal snort.
‘She said she hoped I’d real y play it,’ Scott said. ‘She said she hoped it’d bring me luck. She said—’ Scott stopped.
Margaret waited, holding her glass, the finger of her other hand stil lightly poised on the piano key.
‘She said,’ Scott said with emphasis, ‘she said that one day she hoped she’d hear me play it. She wants, one day, to hear me play the piano.
She said so.’
Margaret’s finger went down on the middle C.
‘And,’ Scott said, ‘I told her I hoped so too. I told her I’d like her to hear me play. I’d like it.’
Scott put his champagne glass down on the windowsil .
‘Move over,’ he said to his mother.
‘Move over,’ Scott said. ‘Make room for me.’
‘What are you doing—’
‘I’m going to play,’ Scott said. ‘I’m going to play Dad’s piano and you’re going to listen to me.’
Margaret moved to the right-hand edge of the piano stool. She felt as she used to feel at the beginning of one of Richie’s concerts.
‘What are you going to play?’
Scott settled himself. She watched him flex his right foot above the pedals, settle his hands lightly on the keys.
‘Gershwin,’ he said, ‘“Rhapsody In Blue”. And you can cry if you want to.’
Margaret’s throat was ful .
‘Wouldn’t dream of it,’ she said.
The door of Richie’s practice room was shut. While he was alive, it had never been completely closed except on very rare occasions, because he liked to feel that his playing belonged to al of them, to the whole house; so much so that Chrissie had had to organize insulation for the party wal with the neighbouring house, and have ugly soundproofing tiles fixed to the ceiling. But now the door was firmly shut so that none of them, Chrissie said, would have to see the sharp dents in the carpet where the little wheels on the piano’s legs had dug almost through to the canvas.
‘It’s worse than his shoes,’ Chrissie said.
There was a silence when she said this. Al the girls felt a different kind of relief once the piano had