- variations in the key of fubar: five years later
But how long, babe, can you search for what’s not lost?
—Bob Dylan, “I’ll Keep it With Mine”
The string quartet takes up Vivaldi’s “Spring” with gusto and everyone watches the bride walking down the aisle. Except for Gillian, who can’t be bothered to look at the woman her son is marrying and Caroline, who, from the perspective of six rows deep and ten months in America, stares at the back of Gillian’s neck and is once again lost.
The woman Raff marries today is not Ellie but the daughter of his uncle’s business partner. Her name is Mandy Brandingham. She has preternaturally white teeth, gym-sculpted biceps, and the eager, entitled assurance of many women of her age and status that, under normal circumstances, masks a panoply of neuroses and fears.
Vaguely Caroline recalls having the energy, at that age, for such a sophisticated level of emotional subterfuge. No longer. When she left England last year to take up a visiting professorship in New York, Raff’s tangled affair with Mandy had just begun. Predictably his breakup with Ellie was messy and his mother furious, but it provided Caroline—in the throes of her own protracted, fractured relations with Gillian—with yet another reason to get the hell out of the country. Fleeing in timely fashion was truly in character, as was quietly acknowledging and then utterly ignoring both what she was doing and the ramifications thereof.
Apparently things got serious between Raff and his new girlfriend because three months ago, while she and Flora were still in New York, she received a wedding invitation in a flouncy font and engraved vellum so thick one could serve dinner on it. Flora greatly admired the beautiful script and relished the opportunity to drawl, trill, and chant Mandy’s name at every occasion as if it were an incantation to some higher state of being, a mythical white savior, at times sounding like an inebriated Irish priest giving himself last rites: Long have I loved yew, Mandy Brrrrandingham!
Although Caroline felt enormous empathy for any woman brave enough to attempt a serious romantic relationship with the son of Gillian Greenwood, she ignored the invite. Raff texted entreaties at every turn and even threatened to call her. She texted come at me bro. He replied, thats old Cazza just like you. She ignored him again.
Until two weeks ago when, on a warm, rainy Saturday, he made good on the threat and called—having cannily waited until she was back in the country so that the call wasn’t ridiculously expense. She had been driving back to the rented flat in Hebden Bridge, where she and Flora were staying, from a meeting with the realtor in Harrogate. In order to properly express herself and to shield Flora from witnessing emotional excesses served in a rasher of foul-mouthed invective, she pulled over into Lister Park and left the girl, happily absorbed in a game on the iPad, in the Jeep as she paced along a muddy track within vigilant sightlines of the vehicle and where she could rail with delicious, cathartic abandon:
“You cannot seriously fucking think your mother wants me at your wedding!” she screamed.
“I don’t care!” Descendent from a long line of shouters, Raff gave as good as he got. “It’s my wedding and I want you there. And seriously? You want to be serious? You two need to knock this passive-aggressive bullshit off and talk already.”
“For months I’ve called, texted, I even wrote her a letter—like I’m a fucking consumptive invalid in a fucking Bronte novel. She ignores me. She doesn’t want to talk to me, let alone see me!”
“It’s—she’s completely miserable. She don’t know her own head anymore,” Raff said. “All she ever does is work, and she’s mean to everyone except Calam and that stupid, half-blind sheepdog of hers.”
For a moment Caroline put aside fury and a sarcastic remark—so what else is new?—to truly marvel at the continued existence of Gillian’s now-ancient, nearly blind, and essentially useless sheepdog. “Steve McQueen is still alive?”
“Yes,” he groaned, “bloody thing herded a dozen ewes into a lake the other week. Anyway, she’s been nothing but a raving bitch for months—Mandy is completely terrified of her, you know.”
Indeed, this was quite the feat because super-confident Mandy—whose favorite word was super, have a super day, Caroline! she always chirped in farewell whenever they encountered one another—typically moved through the treacherous modern world with shark-like confidence.
“She’s a mess,” Raff continued. “Beyond the usual sort of mess she is. I mean, she doesn’t even sleep in her own bed anymore. Always on the couch now.”
This sent Caroline reeling and seeking a tree for support; her throat constricted, acid raged in her stomach. She sleeps on the couch. Like you slept on the couch for months after Kate died. She thought of the chilly bedroom in the farmhouse—the sagging mattress, the frayed curtains, Gillian stirring restless in the night and gone by first light. In the demimonde of early morning wakeup, her fingers would inch across the bed, blindly searching not for the woman who was already gone but a discarded t-shirt half-tucked under a pillow: she would lay there for long minutes, face pressed into that bundled shirt, before finally opening her eyes to the lukewarm cup of strong, bitter tea awaiting her on the nightstand.
“And then,” Raff went on, “there’s Proust.”
“What?” Caroline blurted, her jealous, fretful mind immediately leaping to the conclusion that Gillian was wooing someone named Proust—woman, man, dog, sheep? Fuck, it could be anything or anyone—in Halifax-inflected French. Actually her French was quite decent and when they vacationed in the Pyrenees a few years ago all the locals had been flirtatiously delighted by her accent.
“She’s—she’s trying to read Proust!” The confession started out as a mumble and ended as a plaintive roar, as if he were painfully admitting that his mother was a meth addict who drowned kittens for a fix.
She accepted this with dutiful numbness as she has with every miserable turn as of late. Nothing more to be said, really. Gillian was miserable and reading Proust. Caroline was miserable, technically unemployed, technically single, and selling a house that she had lived in for almost half her life. Still, curiosity won out.
“In French or English?” she asked. If the former, she was ready to be impressed beyond words and would regret everything all over again. Could she come to terms with losing a woman who read Proust in French?
“Jesus Christ”—Raff sputtered angrily—“will you just focus, please? No fucking normal person reads Proust in either French or English for fun. It’s because they’re miserable fucking gits!”
Later, when apprised of this literary development, William and his literature degree from Oxford would concur with Raff’s assessment.
“Please,” he said tightly, “just come to the wedding and talk to her.”
The spotty rain intensified and a particularly plump raindrop dangling from a tree branch plopped right on her head. She yearned for lightning to strike. “This will all go massively tits up. You know that.”
“No. Listen. She’s going to behave. I made her promise on granddad’s grave—no drinking, no swearing, no bad behavior at wedding. Seriously. I literally dragged her out there and made her take a vow in front of his head stone. And I told her you were invited and that she should gird her bloody loins and just deal with it because she’d have to see you sooner or later.”
Her resistance crumbled but she said nothing while appreciating the convenience of crying in the rain.
“Caroline.” As his mother always did, he spoke her full name when dead serious and, additionally, read her silences very well; the interstices of digital hisses and scratches wove accordance between them, the two people in the world who loved that stubborn, broken woman the most. “All right?” he added, so softly that she almost did not hear it.
She barely managed to get it out: “All right.”
“Good,” he sighed. “Sorted, then.” To lighten the mood, he went on: “You can bring a plus-one—you’ll need backup. Not a woman, though.”
“Why would I—?”
“Bring a bloke but someone not offensive, like William or Greg. Ta.”
Before Caroline could counter-argue the point of Greg’s offensiveness, Raff rang off. And before she could seriously contemplate what the hell she had just committed to, the sky unfurled a sheet of rain and she made a dash for the Jeep.
As she sat behind the wheel dripping wet and quietly devastated for the remainder of the day, Flora lowered the iPad, took one look at her, and opened the glove box to retrieve a box of tissues. At eight years of age her daughter was already far more competent than most adults Caroline encountered on a daily basis and she did not know how she—and Greg—managed to raise such a well-functioning child. But then she did not know how she raised someone as kind as William or emotionally stunted as Lawrence—well, she and John tag-teamed the latter into dysfunction, that much was obvious. Nonetheless it all seemed dismally apparent to her that after three children, she still didn’t have a fucking clue how parenting really worked.
Flora blinked at her with steady sympathy. “Still fubar?”
Startled, Caroline looked at the girl, who was at times such a mirror image of Kate that sometimes it ached terribly. She lost Kate and Kate lost this child, this chance to be a mother. Now she has lost Gillian as well.
Or perhaps not. She sleeps on the couch. Caroline was now desperate enough to potentially ruin a wedding—and with the groom’s blessing, no less.
Caroline wiped her face with a tissue and confirmed it: “Still fubar.”
She had Gillian to thank for the aggravation of introducing Flora to this unfortunate acronym. Months ago, she was both enraged and touched to discover that while Gillian pointedly ignored every attempt at communication Caroline attempted, she still emailed Flora on a regular basis—this revealed during an otherwise tedious and excruciatingly long and lurching crosstown bus ride in Manhattan:
“Why is everything fubar with Gillian?” Flora demanded.
Caroline gaped. One minute Flora was talking about a “basic” girl at her school and now it was Gillian and fubar. The toxic rumble of the bus perfectly represented the churning of her stomach. “Did you just say fubar to me?” Did you just stab me in the gut with mention of my wayward lover, child of mine?
“Yeah. I don’t know what it means, except that something is kind of bad.” Inquisitive, Flora cocked her head. “Is it a swear?”
“So I shouldn’t say it?”
“Well, perhaps not in polite company.”
Flora’s eyes narrowed. “Is it a Scottish word?” Before passing away two years ago, Celia had managed to bestow upon her granddaughter a talent for cheating at card games and a powerful suspicion of all things Scottish.
“No. Where on earth did you hear that word?”
Immediately Flora looked guilty and she had her answer.
“Of bloody course. When?”
“I emailed her.”
“She doesn’t have email.” Caroline sighed at the traffic, wondered if she should reconsider her Uber boycott. “Does she?”
“Of course she does: firstname.lastname@example.org.” Flora gave her poor old technology-impaired mother an exasperated look. “She sends me photos of all the sheep and Steve McQueen too.”
“Is that thing still alive?”
“Of course he is. He ate one of her trainers the other week and then upchucked all over the quilt in the living room. So are you going to tell me what fubar is?”
“Ask Gillian, since she seems so intent on improving your vocabulary.” Caroline pinched the bridge of her nose. Discussing her former lover with an eight-year-old on a crosstown Manhattan bus during rush hour seemed a particular hell that revived desperate, dormant hopes of a higher power. She glanced out the greasy window and saw a man pushing a grocery cart filled with trash bags against the slant of sunlight that fell across the long avenue, both sun and human moving faster than the bus.
“She said I should ask you.”
Impulsively Caroline let the word “bitch” escape her lips.
She expected Flora’s militant response, because the child never let her get away with anything: “You’ve said that’s not a nice thing to call a woman.”
“No, but it’s perfect for an ‘inglorious shepherd.’”
It was Friday evening, a night of the week when they had a standing dinner invitation with Ginika, who was hosting them tonight at her apartment. While the adults sat at the dining room table chatting and cutting vegetables for a salad, Flora marched out to the dining room table and sat down authoritatively with the iPad in her clutches as if she were a CEO opening a meeting in which she intended to fire every department head.
“All right,” Flora said in clipped tones, “I emailed Gillian and asked what fubar meant and she wrote back a bunch of stuff I don’t understand—I think she was drinking the Jagerboobs again.” She shoved the iPad in Caroline’s general direction.
Noting Caroline’s reluctance, Ginika intercepted the tablet. “Let’s take a look,” she said, and then read aloud: “Your mum thinks I am fractious ungracious belligerent and rude.”
“She gets surprisingly eloquent when drunk sometimes,” Caroline confirmed.
“I’ll need the dictionary again,” Flora said to Ginika, “but Gran, your dictionary is awful because there was no fubar in it.”
“Dictionary’s older than me, honey.” Ginika continued: “She is fairly unreliable but always right.” She shot Caroline an amused glance. “Shade is being thrown.”
“Seriously,” Caroline complained, “I get so much shade now I’m in a perpetual bloody rain forest.”
“She fears undergraduates bearing awful rosé.”
“Now that,” she admitted, “is very, very true.”
“None of this answers my very important question!” shouted Flora. “What is fubar?”
Ginika finally took pity on her granddaughter. “Oh, for God’s sake,” she sighed. “Sweetheart,” she said to Flora, “fubar is an acronym. You know what those are, right?” The girl nodded. “Okay. So yeah, your girl Gillian is messing with you. See in the each sentence, the f…u…b…a…r together?”
Flora frowned at the sentences. “Yeah, okay, but what—”
“Fucked up beyond all recognition,” Ginika slowly supplied, and paused. “Get it? It means when something gets so bad you don’t even know what it is anymore. Understand?”
Comprehension dawned over the girl’s face. “Oh! Now it all makes fucking sense!”
Caroline glared at Ginika. “Do you know how long it took before I got her to stop saying that word?”
Ginika shrugged apologetically. “It was only a matter of time. She would’ve googled it eventually.”
“I could have fucking googled it!” Flora wailed and melodramatically smacked herself in the forehead. Defeated, Caroline buried her face in her hands.
“Damn,” Ginika said with genuine admiration. “This kid is a real New Yorker.”
Real New Yorker or not, Flora took for granted that they would return to Yorkshire. Regularly she would meticulously list all the things that she missed, and she did this both verbally and in writing because, as she enjoyed pointing out, Caroline was like Steve McQueen the sheepdog: sort of cute, but old and forgetful. Prominent items on said list were her friends, the ginger biscuits from the bakery near their house, her bike, her brothers, Raff, and the ovine holy trinity of the sheep, the dog, and the farmer.
In the end it was Greg who accompanied Caroline to the Raff and Mandy nuptials; she took great personal umbrage at the fact that her sons had adult lives now far away from the ancestral home. Greg’s mother took Flora for the weekend and off they went to the wedding venue, a boutique hotel two hours away near Borrowdale. They arrived late and spent a few frantic minutes in front of the hotel as Caroline properly tied Greg’s tasteful yet playful bespoke polka-dot bowtie. As he squirmed she flashbacked to the hundred times she adjusted ties of all kinds for John and the boys; playing impromptu valet for helpless males was yet another aspect of compulsory heterosexuality she did not miss.
Even with her hands so close to his vulnerable neck, he wouldn’t stop oozing encouragement. “Sometimes,” he said, “you need to take a calculated risk. Not a gesture that’s senseless or cruel, just—bold. Something borne out of love.”
“Bold,” she sighed. “I’ve never been bold. Bossy, bitchy, domineering—yes. Bold or brave—no.”
“The thing about bold—well, like in color, in art—a little can be enough.” Bowtie perfect, he smiled. “I think you can manage a dab.”
She cannot help but think of Kate’s boldness at the wedding of her mother to Alan; how she came back, how they kissed and danced in front of everyone. And how, after that slim moment of hesitation and despite everything that happened later, she has never regretted a thing—even when she allowed herself to acknowledge how much agony Gillian was in at that time. That kind of dramatic public gesture, however, is not Gillian’s style. She appreciates the hidden message, the quiet declaration: A flower pressed into a book, a new screwdriver with a ribbon around it placed in her tool chest, a mash note tucked under her favorite coffee cup. Caroline’s only hope is to beckon, to pluck a cautious chord of their shared, secret history and hope Gillian will respond. Reluctantly she will play the twatty role of Orpheus—always Orpheus, she thinks dismally, because that has been the terrible pattern of her life: looking back and fucking up.
So she sits through the ceremony, visually dwelling in the shadowed, tense trapezius leading into the nape of Gillian’s neck, laid bare by a professionally done chignon, a sensual harbor of many memories: the salt of your skin sweet in my mouth, your pulse under my teeth.
After the ceremony she and Greg hang back during the photo ops and congratulations. Like a queen on a chessboard she waits to make her move, for all the pawns to fall away in inevitable bloodless carnage. A camera flash encompasses the happy family and in the aftermath she catches the photo-dazed Gillian blinking and then squinting at her warily from across the room—a look indicating that if she had her way, there would indeed be blood.
But by the time she and Greg navigate the crowd to offer congratulations to the happy couple, Gillian, the tricky rival queen, outmaneuvers her and is nowhere to be seen. Raff smothers her with a cologne-infused bear hug and whispers, “thank God you’re here” in her ear. Before she can say anything of substance to him, Mandy nervously blathers at her about Oxford because Mandy also went there, and quickly she is dragged over to a group of apple-cheeked young white people, where she is introduced as a fellow alum—a considerably less awkward label than “my mother-in-law’s stepsister and ex-lover.” After a load of idle Oxford chatter and a conversation with Gary and Felicity—in which it becomes clear they still view her as some sort of superlative Gillian-wrangler, the shepherdess of the shepherdess—the crowd thins out into a larger room for the reception and at long last she spots her quarry alone near an entryway: Arms folded and stiffly poised, watching people file out of the room as if she is not a significant member of the wedding party but rather the most sullen and least helpful usher in the entire western hemisphere. Even though Caroline knows she is merely hiding in plain sight, the invisible plumage of her vulnerability and self-perceived insignificance a most effective cover.
Caroline puts one well-shod, heeled foot in front of the other and makes her way across the room. Up close and personal, she allows herself a few moments to take in Gillian’s astonishingly elegant appearance: She wears a minimal amount of makeup and a dress befitting the mother of the groom, a dark royal blue that is tastefully shimmering and so sophisticated that Caroline suspects someone interceded and bought the dress for her—possibly Felicity, who always has the right touch in dealing with her obstreperous sister-in-law and, despite her obvious faith in Caroline’s abilities, sometimes makes Caroline doubt if she herself ever did.
“You came,” Gillian says briskly, all too ready to dismiss and move on. “That’s nice.” And of course she would say that, being the type to use the word nice as the most damning insult imaginable—worse than cunt, really.
Having long since moved up in rank from Captain to General Obvious, Caroline replies, “I did. Congratulations.”
“I’m not the one who got married.”
“It was a lovely ceremony.”
Gillian shrugs. “No one threw up, so I consider it a win-win.”
Taking note of the escalation in snark—oblique references to Robbie were never a good thing—she decides it’s time for the big gambit. Once again she offers up a silent thank you to whatever benevolent forces in the universe that allowed her to book a tiny room at this overpriced hotel on the weekend of a wedding. She opens her clutch. “I wanted to give you something.”
“Gifts are usually for the happy couple,” Gillian deflects sarcastically—but her brow contracts with consternation as Caroline extends the key card, slotted between index and middle finger. “What is this?”
Caroline looks at her, plays the chord: “Your get-out-of-jail-free card.”
Her face lays bare minute flashes and feints of pain and pleasure to the extent that Caroline has no idea what to expect—indeed, that is the glory of Gillian—but this expressive, silent symphony indicates remembrance: One night years ago in a Halifax hotel, one last chance, one last fling. Things unsaid, lies unchallenged, and one indirect admission. As it has for so many years, all of this hangs uneasily between them.
Tell me a lie, tell me you love me.
She is about to lose her nerve and retract the key card with a terse apology and retreat head-on toward the open bar in ignoble defeat when Gillian, as if committing to a bargain she will inevitably regret, reaches out and cautiously plucks it from her fingers; transmogrified into Doctor Faustus, all the world’s knowledge within easy grasp.
Comparing myself to the devil? Caroline thinks. Now I’m really getting ideas above my station. “I just want us to talk. Alone, someplace quiet. Maybe, maybe in an hour? That’s all. Please?”
Gillian is frowning at the keycard when Calamity Jane—who, Raff told her recently, now insists on the more grown-up moniker of Emily but still barrels into her grandmother as if they’re soccer hooligans at a championship match—ignores Caroline while announcing that the cake is being cut and they must go now or they will never, ever get any cake. And so, with a puzzled, apprehensive backward glance at Caroline, Gillian allows herself to be carted away by a nine-year-old.
Whether Gillian decides to follow through and come to her room is—well, something she’s not prepared to think about. So she seeks out the open bar anyway, where she finds Greg chatting with one of Mandy’s Oxford friends, both of them in the glassy-eyed stage of incipient drunkenness courtesy of some tropical nightmare of a drink resplendent with pink straw and orange umbrella.
“Is it a go?” Greg blurts when he sees her, all while she gets another onceover from this particular Oxford alum, who had eyeballed her earlier when they first met and seems to think she might do for a MILF-flavored shag in the coat room after a few more glasses of neon whatever.
“She took the key,” Caroline says, attempting to sound nonchalant even though she glows and grins so that the bartender gives her a generous, frothy pour of champagne.
Not unlike Flora when she sees sparkles on an article of clothing, Greg spasms into a little leap of glee.
“Let’s not get carried away,” Caroline says in her best mum voice, even as she downs the champagne in one gulp and chastises herself for doing so.
“No, no,” Greg retorts excitedly, “this is good! That’s half the battle right there. Now, you don’t have to worry about me, I’ve already set up a ride back home—”
“I told you, you don’t have to bother. I’m not going to try to seduce her. I just wanted some place to talk with her alone for a bit, that’s all. Neutral territory.”
He starts giggling. “Oh sure, you spent all that money on a hotel room just to talk.”
“Damn it, we argued about this all the way up in the car.” If not wearing heels, Caroline would be tempted to stamp her foot. “I told you the plan, I’m sticking to it. I’m serious.”
He snorts and hoots even louder and Oxford Alum, now eavesdropping without compunction, butts in. “What’s all this about, then?”
“Oh God,” Greg straightens, wipes tears from his eyes, wags his finger at Caroline: “She thinks”—another manic peal of laughter—“—she thinks she’s not going to hook up with her ex at a wedding!”
Oxford Alum bursts into laughter. “Aw, bless.”
“I know!” Greg squeals. “Isn’t she adorable?”
“Seriously. I’m not hooking up or whatever. I’m a lesbian. We don’t do that.” No sooner does she says it than Caroline realizes how extraordinarily stupid it sounds, particularly in light of a personal history where she more or less deliberately got drunk with a woman that she was unreasonably attracted to and while in love with someone else and this is where we are now, numpty. She’s never been certain if she abysmally failed Lesbianism 101 with that move or achieved some sort of stratospheric Einstein level of romantic dysfunction.
“Bullshit,” Oxford Alum retorts. “My cousin’s a lesbian. She gets shagged every wedding she goes to. Even the straight ones. Especially the straight ones.”
She attempts a different tack. “Look, I’m an adult, a grown bloody woman,” she says. Oxford Alum hums appreciatively and although flattered, she ignores it. “I mean, do you think—” But the champagne flute has miraculously refilled itself and it seems the only right thing to do is drain it again, after all, it is a wedding. “—I have absolutely no self-control?”
“Oh sure,” Greg mumbles and Oxford Alum purrs, “Another round, love?”
She is tempted by a third pour, but turns it down. “All right, that’s it. I’m done with you both.”
“No, wait!” Greg yelps. “Hug for good luck!” Before she can run away—fucking heels—he has her in an embrace while breathing heavily into her ear a benediction from a contemporary, tequila-infused Nietzsche: “Amor fati!”
“Greg.” Caroline says with quiet desperation. “We have never hugged before.”
“I know,” he purrs delightedly. “Isn’t this wonderful?”
Everybody is in a huggy mood. When she leaves Greg behind she spots Mandy surrounded by a phalanx of bridesmaids; the bride launches herself at Caroline, flinging those pythonesque muscular arms around her neck and the fear that Mandy is going to put her into some sort of wrestling headlock looms very real. “Caroline!” she cries, as if they are former rival debate team captains who had an ill-fated affair and are now acutely embarrassed by it every time they see one another to the extent that a natural affinity is painfully exaggerated—wait, Caroline remembers, that really happened. Except it wasn’t a debate captain, it was a girl she first met at the research library whom she ran into at a party and the exquisite foreplay of an argument about isotopes resulted in awkward finger-banging in the host’s bathroom. Now when she encounters this woman during alumni weekends they embrace with giddy enthusiasm, as if they have shared some rich personal history instead of a rickety past composed of isotopes, lager, and bad sex.
All Mandy needs, she knows, is an ally in her campaign to win over Gillian, hence the desperate embrace and even more desperate move of picking her as said ally. “I saw you talking with her,” Mandy slurs, not daring to invoke the name of her dreaded mother-in-law. She pulls away and with drunken tenderness cradles Caroline’s face in her sweaty hands. Everyone is drunk and sweaty; it’s like some heterosexual horror film and she must escape before she is terminally infected with hetero-spores. “Was she horrible to you?”
“No, it’s all right—”
“She’s so awful to me all the time,” Mandy moans. “I feel like, like I try and I try to get on with her, but I don’t know what to do anymore.” Her face spasms as she falls deeper into the hole of drunken confession: “And I hate sheep, Caroline. I really fucking hate sheep.”
“Well, let me figure out my relationship with her before I can figure out your relationship with her. And the sheep.”
“You. Are. Super.”
“I know, darling.” Caroline smiles as a brilliant idea occurs. “May I steal a bottle of wine?”
Armed with a bottle of red that Mandy demanded from the bar and a corkscrew in her purse—because it’s always survival of the drunkest in north country and also her last ditch effort with Gillian involves using the corkscrew to flatten all the tires of the Land Rover, well no, not really, no yes really, you fucking liar, you, daughter of Celia Dawson, who are you kidding, you’d kneecap her just to get five minutes alone with her—Caroline goes up to the hotel room and, opening the door, discovers to her horror that a ridiculously huge king-sized bed dominates the cozy room.
“Jesus Christ,” she mutters aloud. “I’ve booked the Shag Suite.”
Nerves settle in like a late season blizzard, an unexpected entrenchment of anxiety that coats every emotion and decision with a freezing, paralyzing layer of crippling self-doubt. She ignores the wine and paces the tiny length of the room. This was a mistake. She played it badly. Even if Gillian shows up, she thinks, the moment she sees the bed she’ll assume the worst, give Caroline shit, and leg it. Maybe I should just leg it. She groans, opens the wine, considers chugging it straight from the bottle even though there are pristine wine glasses wrapped in sterile tissue paper atop the desk. Then she wonders why they thought to put a desk in this tiny fuck den of a room. She flops down on the bed and stares at the ceiling for half an hour. How did things get so fucked up? She sits up, gradually reworks herself into another emotional lather, gnaws a knuckle to keep from screaming at herself. When pain burrows beneath the skin, she lets go. A red scrawl marks the indentation of teeth on skin: Sign on the dotted line, please. As she touches tongue to blood the door clicks.
Gillian walks in, closes the door, and leans against it. There are three things in the world that Gillian Greenwood loathes with unequivocal passion: posh people, large crowds, and fancy dress—four if one counts Jennifer Lawrence winning a Best Actress Oscar for portraying Mother Teresa but that is neither here nor there at the present moment save for the fact that the film is Mandy’s favorite “girl-power” movie. Regardless, this deadly three-way traumatic confluence occurs on a day that symbolically marks a significant transition in her relationship with her son and renders her glassy-eyed and staring listlessly not at Caroline, whom she hasn’t seen in nearly ten months, but at a blank spot on the wall.
Perhaps if nothing else, on this stressful day she has provided a much-needed sanctuary for Gillian, who stares into space for a very long minute as if she is in a Barry Lyndon-era Stanley Kubrick movie. Gillian had forced her to watch this movie once. Fifteen minutes into it she promptly dozed off and when she woke nearly two hours later with a horrible neck cramp from using a sheep farmer as a pillow, the bloody thing was still going on—and Gillian was also asleep.
Finally, Gillian inhales quite audibly. “Had to get the hell out of there,” she says. Language rouses her; she blinks, spots the oasis of wine on the desk, and makes a beeline for it. “Too many people down there.” She pours out a glass. “Asking the same bloody questions all the time. I was babbling. Well. You know how I get.” Frowning, she picks up the bottle. “You took a bottle of wine?”
“With the bride’s blessing,” Caroline replies.
“Margaux,” Gillian notes. Despite approval of the appellation, she quickly gulps half a glass down. “Not messing about, are they? Loads better than anything I’ve ever been served at a wedding. Even my own.” She taps the bottle. “Suppose I should start being nice to her. Mandy. Shit.” She rubs her brow. “Promised Raff I wouldn’t drink today.” Sighing, she puts down the glass. “Or swear.”
“Well,” Caroline says slowly, “I guess it’s true then.”
Gillian will not look at her. “What?”
“That I’ve always brought out the best in you.”
For the first time since setting foot in the room, Gillian smiles grudgingly, wryly, glances at her quickly, too quickly for a proper read—and then looks out the window again. “Why did you come?”
“Why do you think?”
“Open bar, I reckon. Got the good stuff, as you see.”
“You stopped talking to me.”
“It’s—well. Didn’t know what to say to you anymore.”
“I suppose that’s fair enough.”
“Seemed pointless to try to—to—really talk about anything when you’re across the pond.”
“I’m here now.”
“Still hard.” Gillian nibbles at her lip. “Nothing to say but I told you so. I told you I would—told you long ago I would mess it all up.”
“You didn’t. It’s not entirely your fault.”
Gillian shakes her head. “What’s the point?”
“The point is I’m here.” she rises from the bed and walks over to Gillian, an act basically accomplished in two long strides. “You know, I didn’t have to come back. What’s holding me here, really? My parents are dead. Will’s in London now, Lawrence is in Hong Kong doing fuck knows what with Angus, creating bitcoin sex robots or whatever—”
“Developing bitcoin mining software,” Gillian corrects.
“—whatever. I don’t have a job here, I’m selling the house—”
“Wait.” Stunned, Gillian stares at her. “You’re—you’re selling the house?”
Caroline plows on. “—and Flora loved New York, and Ginika didn’t want us to leave. I could’ve negotiated staying on at the college longer. But I came back. Like I said I would. Because of you.”
This registers, but not in the way Caroline had hoped. Scowling, Gillian rolls her eyes and polishes off the glass of wine. “F-fuck off,” she spits out. It’s her first fuck of the day and they’re off to races, to the first great competition of many a relationship drama: who will start shouting first. “Poor you, eh? Come off it. This isn’t about me. You never do anything you don’t want to do.”
“And neither do you,” Caroline snaps. “I wanted you to come with me, you could have come with me—”
“Are we having this argument again?” Gillian snarls incredulously. “What the hell was I going to do in New York? Herd sheep in Central Park?”
“You could have done something. Something part time. Or, you wouldn’t have had to work—”
“Sit around and do nothing?” Gillian, who has worked nonstop her entire adult life, finds the notion inconceivable. Caroline knows it was a silly thing to expect, as she recalls from their vacation in France years ago. When she wasn’t worrying incessantly about the farm and annoying Raff about it via text several times a day, she hiked and swam and drank wine as if in training for some imaginary middle-aged farmer marathon. That she always possessed enough energy to make love the way she did, and as often as they did, was truly a marvel.
The lost glory of that time together, and all the potential it had represented, makes Caroline ache—and, predictably, lash out. “Yeah, okay, all right then. You fucking win. You fucking win because you stacked the bloody deck against me from the beginning. You told me I should accept the job. You said you were all right with me going away for a while. And so I took it. And then you just—withdrew. Acted like it was the end of everything. Acted like it was my fucking fault for doing something that you encouraged me to do.”
Gillian retreats into sullenness. “I’m allowed to change my mind, aren’t I?”
“Not when you don’t tell me!”
“I didn’t want you to go,” Gillian cries.
This admission, this anguished shout, sets the room ringing and brings Gillian to the verge of tears. She drops back, sitting onto the edge of the bed, felled by her own emotional exhaustion. “I didn’t—I didn’t want to be that person. You know what I mean? Needy, clingy. I didn’t want to be s-selfish. I knew why you were going. Wasn’t about the job, not really. I mean, it sounded grand but I knew the real reason: You were doing it for Flora. And it was right, the right thing to do. She needs to spend as much time as she can with her grandmother—her real grandmother. She needs to know that side of her family. It was a perfect chance. Perfect plan. But, it’s—there, there was no room for me in it.”
“You’re wrong. You’ve always been part of the plan, Gillian. Always. Nothing was going to change that.”
“Plans have a way of changing.” Gillian pauses, and then adds gently, “You should know that more than anyone.”
“Jesus.” For a moment Caroline masks her face with both hands, if only to prevent herself from screaming, you fucking frustrating woman. “Yeah, things don’t work out the way we want sometimes. But you didn’t give it a chance. I was gone barely four months and I had to hear from your son that you’re seeing someone else?”
“Didn’t mean for that to happen.”
After so many months of blaming herself for Gillian’s behavior—she had grown distant after her mother’s death, carried on a flirtation with another woman, said that maybe, who knows, Jennifer Lawrence did deserve an Oscar—she wins the shouting contest: “That’s a shitty excuse and you know it!”
“It’s—it’s not an excuse,” Gillian says softly. “There’s no excuse.” She stares at her hands. “I wanted to know what it was like. To be with someone who wasn’t you.” At Caroline’s irritated look of confusion, she blathers out an explanation: “I don’t mean—sex. I mean, the rest of it, just being. You know? Thought it would be easier somehow. Just being with, with someone—more like me. Regular person, not a toff, didn’t go to university. I mean—” Gillian laughs mirthlessly. “She managed a pub, for Christ’s sake.”
Caroline indulges in a momentary vision of beating this nameless, bodiless pub slattern within an inch of her miserable life with a pair of heels. But murder fantasies are not conducive to attempted reconciliations with one’s ex, so she files it away for contemplation on some fine day when she’s caught in traffic on the M60. “So what was it like?”
Gillian is silent for long enough that Caroline can torture herself on a rack of emotional inadequacy for an exquisitely hellish eternity. “Disappointing,” she finally admits. She stares at the now-empty wine glass, still cradled in one hand. “Did you sleep with anyone in New York?”
“Great. You want me to hurt you now. Is that it?”
Stoically Gillian nods, takes it because she thinks she deserves it. “Seems only fair.”
“Yeah. I did. Happy? Like Sacha once told me, American women love the accent.” Mere mention of Sacha always hits a nerve; judging by Gillian’s facial twitch, this time is no different and she instantly regrets it. God, you are such a fuckup, she berates herself, you cannot stop hurting her. For fuck’s sake, do better.
“Went out a few times with someone. Liked her well enough, but—” Caroline stops, sighs. “Last time I saw her we went to this ridiculous restaurant, it was one of those farm-to-table places with a twee name—‘The Country in the City’ or something dim like that. Anyway, we go in, sit down, and I find myself staring up at this huge bloody painting of a Swaledale ewe. Staring down at me like some sort of judgmental fucking sheep god. So I just started—talking about sheep.” Still in disbelief at this, even months later, she shakes her head. “And you, of course. Up until then I’d never said a word about you. And then it all came pouring out. So that was that. Went home alone and—despite the fact that she seemed somewhat impressed that I knew random facts about sheep—didn’t hear from her again.” Caroline pauses. “I nearly called you that night. Knew it was early enough and you’d have been awake. Even though you weren’t taking my calls and I just would have said the same thing to your voice mail that I’ve been saying to you for months. But you never listened. But you’re here now and I’m saying it one last time and I hope to fucking God it finally sinks in: If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have taken the job. I would’ve fought harder to fix things between us—but I can’t do it all by myself. Still, I would’ve done anything—and still would do anything—to get us back to where we were, or as close to it as possible. And all of that was true and will always be true.”
Wincing, Gillian stares down at the tasteful Berber carpet, rubs her neck, struggles to contain herself. Absurdity helps, and she does a comical half-turn to glance at the glorious mattress she’s sitting on. “This is,” she says, “the biggest fucking bed I’ve ever seen.”
Caroline stifles a groan. “Seriously, I didn’t mean—it wasn’t intentional.”
“Well, that’s disappointing.” Massaging her temple, Gillian closes her eyes for a moment. “I haven’t had it off with anyone in months, and you’re here, and—” She sighs. “—you look damn good. Just like you always do. So I’m operating on limited, ah, reserves of self-control and I haven’t made a sh-shitty, impulsive decision in, oh, maybe two days—no, wait, twenty-four hours because yesterday I agreed to go shopping with Mandy’s mum next week. So I’m about due to wreck myself.” She lets the empty glass slip out of her hand and drop to the carpet. It does not break. It does not break and Caroline interprets that as some holy sign that the connection between them is still intact and unbroken. Meanwhile the practical side of her maintains that it’s also a testament to physics and damned good craftsmanship. Gillian shakes her head. “That’s all bullshit. The truth is that I, I need you, and I just can’t—I can’t do without you.”
In Gillian-speak this is, perhaps, a major admission because this ever-practical woman of action frequently speaks of doing, of making do, no matter what: Getting on with it, not making a fuss. It is Englishness in the extreme and Caroline sort of admires it save for the fact that she knows it’s complete bollocks, particularly since Gillian’s magical capacity to make do vaporized during the past year and everything went to shit.
Naturally Caroline requires a wee bit more assurance. “It sounds like what you’re saying is,” she speculates somewhat sadly, and while shakily gripping the edge of the desk as a ballast in a sea of emotion, “is that I’m just another bad decision you keep making.”
“Well, love,” Gillian says with a low, ragged breath, “if that’s true, then you’re the best bad decision I’ve ever made.” Here at last Gillian is neither queen nor quarry, but a woman reluctantly copping to a need greater than pride permits—to love, the most superlative force beyond her control. In this moment Caroline experiences perhaps the biggest epiphany she’s ever had concerning Gillian: Jesus Christ, she’s a control freak. Just like me. Does this seal the fucking deal or what?
Gillian has never said I love you. Caroline has always accepted this because the emotional sense of it all squared up with an almost scientific accuracy that she appreciated on several levels. If the unconditional substance behind the words were withheld from the formula, how could one expect or hope that the equation would yield what was so desperately desired? How could the substance of love be purely reciprocated and acknowledged when it was routinely degraded and commingled with disapproval over dubious sins, backhand blows and bruises, slurs and insults, cigarette burns and broken ribs? But the poisons of the past did not leave Gillian incapable of love. Rather, they served as an amalgamation, not unlike the union of mercury and gold; the contagion of the former extracts the purest form of the latter.
She sits down next to Gillian, who maintains masterful eye contact with both the carpet and the abandoned empty glass, which bleeds a stylish single strand of Margaux. Gillian’s breathing hits a nervous hitch as Caroline takes her hand and drags a thumb over the terrain of her palm, making reacquaintance with familiar calluses and lines, taking note of a new scar in the meaty part of her palm—a ragged, silvery flare, a flash of mercury.
As a girl, Caroline fell in love with mercury. At thirteen she witnessed a chemistry lab where a sheet of gold, subsumed by mercury, gave off a fiery dying burst of glitter before forming a shiny silver lump that, when dissolved in the proper solution, refined itself into gold. The protean beauty of its movement—breaking apart, coming together so effortlessly—fascinated her. Mercury, poisonous and pure.
When Gillian pulls her hand away, Caroline thinks she wants to die. Instead she shifts, stretches out, and rests her head in Caroline’s lap with a great contented sigh while her fingers— curling, trembling, reflexive—gently dig into the inner edge of Caroline’s thigh, just below her skirt. The delicate silk of the stockings buckles darkly, playfully threatening an ominous collapse of the space-time continuum. The heat of Gillian’s breath sifts through fabric and warms her skin. Caroline swallows at this quick intimacy. There is never any middle ground with Gillian; she’s either skittish or standoffish or unhesitant and unsparing. For her part Caroline always responds—sometimes too quickly—to this, the animal in her, to the instinctual attraction that has pulled them together and forced them apart more than once and that has, currently, unraveled their lives.
For the moment she keeps her senses, rallies the patience she developed long ago in rigorous training to be a scientist. Transformation requires time. Perhaps less important but also a salient point: The stockings she’s wearing are bloody expensive and she doesn’t want them sacrificed on the altar of Gillian’s particular kink of rending her stockings to shreds. Good stockings tear prettily with lingering hisses and crackling pops, like a needle circling the end of a record before it is yanked judiciously from its groove. This silent soundtrack within her mind provides easy, arousing recall of the first time, now so many years ago: At the farmhouse, messing around on the couch—well, she was on the couch half mad with foreplay while Gillian was on her knees, teasing her with a kiss here and a lick there—then curling her hand over the top of one black stocking and ripping it with the proud mastery of an impresario parting a curtain to reveal her latest production. Predictably she had been absolutely furious and insanely turned on, alternately growling and moaning you bitch, you fucking bitch before coming against Gillian’s face. Half an hour later they were sitting down to tea with the parents and the children, she bare-legged, sticky-thighed, and with underwear stuffed in her purse while Gillian lazily devoured cucumber and egg sandwiches and smirked at her from the head of the table, and with the discarded black stockings balled up under a cushion of the couch. For all she knows the stockings could still be buried there. Unless, of course, Steve McQueen found them and ate them.
“Raff said you’re reading Proust.” Would casual yet literate conversation somehow lead her back into a blessedly mundane everyday existence with this woman?
Gillian stirs and shifts; no longer face down in Caroline’s lap she presents an elegant profile, even though her cheeks are flushed, her eyes rimmed with red, and her hair rebelling against the constraints of the chignon. “It’s f-fucking hard. Too rich for my blood. But it keeps pulling me in. I keep going back, like I keep hoping I’ll get—get accustomed to how good it is.”
“So you think it’s worth the effort.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I do.”
The sun fills the room; it has been bright since Caroline first came in, but it’s only now that she notices. Her mobile rings. Then stops. Among the dark gold strands of Gillian’s hair—which faintly reeks of some quasi-botanical fug courtesy of whatever high-end salon that Mandy dragged her to—are threads of silver caught in the tumult of spring light.
“I love you,” she says.
Gillian smiles and it is, of course, mercurial—formed in an alchemical duel of wonder and doubt. “You do?”
- I am on a lonely road and I am traveling
The person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.
—John Williams, from Stoner
Sixteen months after her father dies of a heart attack, Gillian is on a hiking path of modest difficulty along an unimpressive mountainside in the French Pyrenees when she stumbles and falls to her knees—dizzy, chest tightening—and immediately assumes she is going to die of the same thing. Dirt digs into her knees and she cannot breathe. After an excruciating minute in which she convinces herself that dying in the Pyrenees wouldn’t be such a bad way to go after all, at least she would die happy, her breathing regulates itself and she realizes that what just happened is nothing more than an old-fashioned panic attack spurred on by altitude sickness.
She staggers off the path and finds a broad, old tree trunk to sit against, where she can guzzle water—from a bottle branded with an Oxford crest that was a present from Caroline, her idea of a joke—and pull herself together. During the flight here Caroline had lectured her at length about thin air and altitude sickness, all while self-medicated with gin and tonics in lieu of the anxiety pills that she forgot to take because she loathes flying. But the tension that flourished in her chest minutes ago is something Gillian is quite familiar with. Right after Eddie died, panic attacks were the slab of butter on her daily bread. Every day she waited to be arrested, to be caught out. Even months, years after the inquest. Time, the essential element in the corrosion of memory and suspicion, was not moving fast enough, not working in her favor—because Robbie would never forget and would be breathing bullishly down her neck for as long he lived.
It’s not as if anything is terrifically bad at the moment, though—aside from the lingering ache of losing her father. And dealing with his widow. In her grief Celia’s behavior had become, at times, unbearable. She sought to include her daughter-in-law in an exclusive club of mourning that Gillian wanted no part of, to cannibalize remembrances of Alan that existed outside of the life she had shared with him; at least it felt like cannibalizing and not merely sharing, because suddenly she yearned to know what he was like when younger—and married to Gillian’s mother. This touched the sacred ground of childhood, a territory Gillian would yield to no one save the possible exception of Caroline, who continuously dealt with the strain of running interference between them. The unexpectedly pleasant result of all this was a bold decision on Caroline’s part: Showing up unannounced at the farmhouse during teatime and dropping plane tickets into Gillian’s lap—a fortnight in France, just the two of them, everything arranged, Raff blackmailed into taking care of the farm, don’t ask—and then declaring in her inimitably bitchy but loving fashion, you better bloody say yes, because the tickets are nonrefundable.
Things were good with Caroline. They were together—not living together, not yet, though they’d talked about it. Even so Gillian had been nervous about the vacation, tense and snappish for weeks before the trip, and they argued over everything from how much to pack and the best route to the airport and every time this happened Gillian acknowledged the apprehensive coil of fear tense and furled in her gut, a malignancy festering within for untold years. Sometimes it shatters into infinite pieces or dissolves into a weakened state, but it is never long before a vicious regrouping of elements—loss, pain, fear—reconstitute its bothersome form. In the time she has been with Caroline the strength of the coil has vacillated wildly, but it always maintains a frustrating fluctuation coeval with the unpredictable expanse of love.
Love, she thinks. So that’s what that was all about just now. She stares down the steep path angling back into the village where they are staying; a sky of humid clouds hunches over this world, over the greenery of the hills and valleys and crags that unexpectedly remind her of home—save the panorama of slate blue and white-capped mountains, so elegantly dramatic that they can’t be anything but French. Still. No escaping where you come from. No escaping yourself.
Yesterday they got lost trying to find prehistoric caves in Niaux and discovering, on arrival, that they had missed the last tour of the day. Driving back to the cottage, the Citroen broke down. As she fiddled with a hose clamp it started to rain and Caroline held a flimsy umbrella over her while humming Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto—heard on the radio earlier—as “motivational music.” Flush with the triumph of the fixed car they drove defiantly through a thunderstorm to a nearby village and found a ridiculously picturesque inn for lunch: faded landscape paintings on the walls, dust on the windowsills, old couples eyeing them suspiciously, and an amusingly surly waitress. After a two-bottle lunch they spent a long time sobering up over coffee, much to the consternation of the waitress, who had to endure two middle-aged Englishwomen giggling more than any of their kind had the right to since the advent of Brexit. When they were sober enough to drive back to the cottage they made love for the remainder of the afternoon, the long, slow tenor of it reminding Gillian of the old days when they were still on the sly, when Caroline would scheme to spend an afternoon at the farmhouse and together they would strive to avoid anything remotely resembling adult responsibilities.
The intensity of the summer storm had darkened the bedroom, the rain’s shadows winnowed across the ceiling and the far wall in a soothing visual lullaby. She was flat on her belly as Caroline’s knuckles slowly navigated the tricky pathway of her spine, sliding and tapping a silent song that followed a musical score set forth by the blood coursing within her. She was half-asleep when Caroline said, I don’t want to jinx anything, but I haven’t been this happy in, well—she laughed softly—a really long time.
Gillian’s eyes fluttered. She yawned, her lips parted, and she almost said, Maybe we should get married then. But she didn’t. Nothing prevented her from saying it except the perpetual turning of the fucking screw, the coil of fear tightening in its familiar way, reminding her that she shouldn’t spoil this perfect moment by throwing that particular wrench in the works, that Caroline is done with marriage because she had the perfect wife and nothing would ever compare to that. Best let things go on as they are.
She has never seriously wanted to marry anyone. At least not to the point of asking. With Julia, she had been too terrifically young to think beyond fantastic daydreams of freedom and travel—and perhaps the minor, unearned fame of being an artist’s muse. With Eddie, she never imagined him serious enough for settling down, particularly with the likes of her. As many in their group of friends liked to remind her—Antje, of course, the sole exception—being with him, she was punching well above her weight. Whenever he brought it up she always categorized it as another one of his manic whims, because he had a million of them: backpacking through Europe, moving to Argentina, moving to Indonesia, becoming a DJ, buying a boat, a farm, a scrap yard, starting a cheese-making business. It finally seeped in when he bought a ring and proposed. And when it actually happened—standing in front of a sleepy-looking vicar and reciting cookie-cutter vows while sweating profusely into a scratchy new dress because she had impulsively consumed a hash biscuit beforehand, stupidly thinking it would settle her nerves—she could scarce believe it. But her parents were happy, Eddie was magnificently handsome in his shiny new suit, and frankly she thought she could do no better.
And still she believes it.
She had not known what to say to Caroline’s admission of happiness. She has spent a lifetime fumbling over words, awestruck over their beauty and substance. It’s why she has always sought them out so intensely in books and poems and stories, in dazzling monologues from artists and narcissists and fools. She picks through language like a survivor of a fire obsessively looking for keepsakes in the ruins, in the scorched earth of meaning. Love burns as much as language. As proof, she holds a lifetime of ash in her mouth, a lifetime of words given as freely as pleasure—for comfort, for placating, for others to see in her whatever they want to see and to take whatever they want to take from her. But with this woman, with her exacting mind and standards, Gillian experienced a regret unlike anything else she’s felt before: the frustration and futility in not finding the right words for the right person. It’s almost like keeping a secret from herself.
The secret stashed away, that afternoon she only tasted joy, the lingering finish of sex ripe in her mouth, better than any wine. She set off the riot of their bodies together, spanning the swells and curves of breasts and hips and thighs and ass, her tongue snaked wild and defiant up the canal of Caroline’s back. While entering her gently and fucking her slowly, waiting for the sweet inevitable pushback against her hand, Gillian bit her ear and whispered, You always set up a trembling in my bones. The words not her own, but always serving as the coordinates that have marked out the impulsive course of her life.
I don’t think I will feel this again for anyone, she said the next morning—but to herself, once in the luminous roar of the shower and then later while making coffee and watching the swirl of hot water over sweet dark grounds, as if cautiously testing out a new lyric for a song, a fresh line for a poem.
On the mountainside the fermentation of clouds give off stifling heat, the taste of rain. Gillian gets up, needlessly shakes the water bottle to confirm that it’s empty, and begins the descent back to the village. The coil of fear knots together, breaks apart, shatters into a seemingly infinite void. It will return, as usual, but not for now. Never before has falling apart felt so wonderful.
- not even a Smiths song
No, it's not like any other love
This one is different, because it's us
—The Smiths, “Hand in Glove”
Wer wagt mich zu höhnen?
The overture is over, the sailor has sung, and Isolde, the wild Irish princess, rails in German about mockery while thirteen-year-old Flora McKenzie-Dawson lies on the living room floor awash in the sounds of Wagner, blank-eyed and staring at the ceiling.
Suppressing a smile, Caroline turns down the volume of the music with a slender little remote, tilts her head to better look at her daughter, and says, “Well?”
Flora does not move a muscle, save for her eyelids as she blinks helplessly. “I—don’t—get—it.”
Caroline rises from the sofa, stretches, and rubs her back. “All right, then.”
“‘All right then?’” Frantic, Flora sits up. “What d’ya mean, ‘all right then’?”
“Ready for tea?”
“No, really.” The girl clambers to her feet. “What was I supposed to hear?”
“Told you, sweetheart. It’s just a chord. If you blink, you miss it. But no worries.” She saunters out to the kitchen. “Want a sandwich?”
“God, no—Mum, wait.” Teenaged stomping pursues her through the hallway. When it comes to adolescent thumping and lumbering about she never thought anyone would give Lawrence a run for his money, but this lanky girl rumbles through the house like a dinosaur because while Flora may possess Kate’s graceful, loose-limbed beauty, these aspects are counterweighed by the clumsy goofiness of her genetic inheritance from Greg.
Maybe she will outgrow it, Caroline thinks—as Flora bumps into a hallway table and squawks “Ow!” as she does nearly every time she walks past the damned thing—or maybe not.
She is at the age where she seeks clues to herself in bloodlines, wondering how much biological imperative will dictate her life and interests. Caroline thought it a bit daunting for her, to have a mother who was a musician and a father who is an artist; already an overachiever, Flora has bestowed great creative expectations upon herself. Earlier this year, under Greg’s eager tutelage, she made a go at learning to draw. Despite her intense, laborious efforts she managed sketches less sophisticated than the average toddler and was not fooled by her father’s endless encouragement and copious praise.
And two years ago—long haunted by a photo she’s seen many times in her grandmother’s apartment, the one of Kate playing piano—she committed to having piano lessons. As a tutor Caroline picked a fusty old Romanian who claimed to have studied with Daniel Barenboim. A dozen lessons revealed Flora’s lack of aptitude and general impatience with the process; the final, fateful lesson ended with the frustrated teacher berating Flora, leaving her in tears, and Caroline snapping the pendulum off his vintage metronome and calmly informing him to vacate the premises before she shoved both pieces of the object as far up his ass as she could manage.
Apparently this lack of musical ability vexes her still. As Caroline pours out tea, Flora slumps disconsolately against the kitchen counter. “I didn’t hear it. I didn’t get it.”
“Darling, it’s all right. It’s not a test.”
“No, it’s a big deal. This was your epiphany.” Flora pauses. “Right?”
“It was,” Caroline admits softly.
“And I’m not getting it.”
“Well, it was my epiphany after all—I don’t see why you would necessarily get it. But you said you wanted to know when I knew, and how I knew, so—” Caroline opens the refrigerator, stares at the contents, sighs. “Yogurt? Fruit?”
“No,” Flora wails emphatically.
“Stop asking me about food.”
“All right. Going to keep pouting?”
Turning around, she finds Flora now sitting on the counter—a verboten behavior. Playfully she smacks the girl’s thigh. “Down. Go sit in a proper chair.” As Flora sullenly slides on the counter Caroline cannot help but kiss her cheek. “We’ll give it another go some other time. I’ll play it for you again.”
“I’m hopeless,” Flora moans, now sprawling so dangerously low in a kitchen chair that Caroline wonders how she manages not to pour herself onto the floor. “I will never understand music.”
“Now seriously, it’s not like I understand it any better than you.” With the boys, Caroline always found teenage melodrama tiresome; with Flora, it’s amusing. Nice to know I’m growing up too after all these years, she thinks derisively.
She piles biscuits on a plate and deposits it in front of Flora, who shovels two digestives at once into her mouth and mixes it with a mouthful of tea, a childhood eating habit; when much younger she loved to open her mouth and reveal the masticated paste of biscuit and tea to anyone who cared to look, and Caroline is grateful she’s outgrown that particular culinary ritual. But some serious mulling is going on in that feverish teenaged brain.
Quite naturally, she has grown more curious about the mother she never knew. Most of the time Caroline does not mind answering her questions and telling her stories about Kate. In these moments the sensation she experiences is akin to someone poking and digging at a scar—it doesn’t exactly hurt, but the mere thought that something could successfully penetrate that nacreous, sacred shield makes it tingle in distress, leaves her nervous as hell.
Thus Flora’s next question takes an about-face into a surprising direction: “What about Gillian?”
“What about Gillian?” Caroline echoes in confusion and turns around.
“I mean—how’d you figure it out with her?”
She rubs her brow. “Oh, Jesus.”
“Really? It was Jesus’s doing?” Flora giggles at her own cleverness. “Ha! Maybe that bearded rando was onto something—you remember? When we were in London and that weird guy kept following us because he thought she was a vicar?”
“You’re just being cheeky now.”
“I can’t help but be cheeky,” Flora retorts. “You never give any real answers.”
“You know how we met—”
“Yeah, the great family legend—the epic meeting of brain-dead trailer trash and snotty bitch.” Flora adds, almost apologetically, “I’ve never said but seriously, you were really mean to her that first time, it’s no wonder she called you a bitch.”
“She stole my parking space. It was a dick move. Anyway, you know, it’s all like they say on Facebook: ‘it’s complicated.’” Caroline pauses. “Do they still say that on Facebook?”
Haughty, Flora shrugs. “How would I know? Facebook is for grannies.” She downs another biscuit. “So. You’re saying you didn’t have a big epiphany there? No weird little music chord? No opera?” She smiles mischievously. “Not even a Smiths song?”
Despite the breakups, the doubts, the complications, everything with Kate possessed a seemingly straightforward trajectory, an inevitable linearity. How then to explain the complicated pathways and terrains of a relationship that seemed as complex as an entirety of the Dales? How to sum that up with one single chord? If there was but one chord, there were infinite variations of it, a beautiful reverberation that lead everywhere, lead nowhere, pressed a nerve, opened a vein.
All Caroline can do is stumble through a half-assed explanation for an impatient teenager. “It’s, um, hard to say, really. Everything was very different with her. There wasn’t one moment, one epiphany. Just a bunch of moments strung together, so—maybe, I don’t know, it was, like, like a song I heard a lot? A soundtrack? I don’t know. It—confused me sometimes. I didn’t know what it all meant, or what I was feeling—and I’ve always ignored what I was feeling at my own stupid bloody peril. But then.” Resigned to fate, she sighs. “I’ve always been like that.”
“Why’d you ignore it?”
“How do you stop being afraid? Or foolish?”
“Well, love, that’s the problem,” Caroline replies. “You don’t. Your mileage may vary, as they say. All depends on how you handle it.”
“Not very encouraging.”
“Ah. Well. You’re young, still.”
“Hate it when you say that.”
“You’ve your whole life ahead of you to meet people and fall in love and make mistakes—”
Flora rolls her eyes. “Here she goes.”
“Take the piss all you like. But I’ll tell you one thing.”
“Words of wisdom, can’t wait.”
Caroline leans in and kisses the top of her daughter’s head. “You just haven’t earned it yet, baby.”
“Ah-ha! So you’re telling me there was a Smiths song involved!”
“Shut up and eat your biscuits.”