London was rousing from the brief, unquiet sleep of a summer night. Phones were shrilling, trains were thundering under the streets, delivery vans were hurtling through roundabouts. The earth thrummed, a muted roar and quiver rising through the pavement and vibrating in flesh and bone. As stragglers from after-hours clubs fell from taxis into unmade beds, the mercury climbed, and the soft, dusky faces of terraces and warehouses hardened in the daylight.
Gillian, only half awake, stood in the doorway of the smaller bedroom of the new flat, eyeing the stacks of cardboard boxes. Her cardboard boxes. They leaned crookedly, like doomed highrises financed by the Mafia.
“What was I thinking? That I was moving to Blenheim Palace? That I had to fill two hundred rooms?”
“This flat feels palatial to me,” Edward said. He had already showered and dressed and had a coffee cup in one hand and a newspaper in the other.
“That’s because your old one was so small we couldn’t squeeze past each other without having tantric sex. Where on earth am I going to put all this?”
She’d shipped the boxes at the end of June and had been living with what she’d carried on the plane—summer clothes, her laptop. It felt like camping.
“Sod the boxes. It’s too hot today to do anything,” Edward said.
Gillian buttoned a sleeveless dress and decided she would have to buy a hat. Something to shade her face. It had never been this hot in London, and she wasn’t used to it. Even the nights were heavy with heat. Her hair felt limp and gritty. “I’m supposed to visit Charlotte this morning. I wonder if she’ll remember.”
“You could ring her up.”
“I could if she’d answer. She has the machine on half the time, and it doesn’t work. It cuts you off before you can even leave your name.”
“How is she, these days?”
“I’ll find out when I get there.” “She’s still in Fulham?”
“In her same old house. She hasn’t moved an inch.” “Lucky Charlotte.”
Gillian’s boxes had arrived the previous afternoon. The men had carried them up the stairs, sweating. Fifteen hundred books, she’d packed. Half her library. Shoes, winter coats, sheets, wine glasses, china, CDs, pictures, papers, a pair of curtains made up from a fragment of Flemish tapestry, a dozen sweaters, and God knows how many other things that had seemed important at the time. It had been hard to strip down, even to this vast favela of boxes.
Edward had finished his coffee. He’d be off in a minute. She knew his route. He’d walk up through Warwick Square and across the Vauxhall Bridge Road, and wend his way past the playing fields and through the smell of frying chips in Strutton Ground to Scotland Yard. For more years than she’d known him, he’d been walking the same streets in Pimlico. The neighbours didn’t set their watches as he passed, since he kept irregular hours, but the shopkeepers knew him, and so did the old ladies and the dogs.
He was wide awake in the mornings, while her mind was still clouded with sleep. In summer he was up before six, unless he’d been working late. Even in the dark of winter, he usually heard the clock’s preparatory click and shut it off before the alarm sounded. He liked a smooth glide to the door, nothing in the way. He filled the kettle before he went to bed and set a new paper filter in place over the coffee pot. Over the years, he had honed his routine. Choice had been eliminated where practical, as in the matter of socks. His socks were all the same. As for his other clothes, they weren’t literally the same, but they were similar. Well-made, unobtrusive, plain. They lasted. He still had—still wore—the same gray herringbone tweed jacket she’d seen him in when they first met. Never once had she caught him staring blankly into the cupboard wondering what to wear, a posture she herself was all too familiar with. He dressed, he drank his coffee and ate his slice of toast, and he was gone.
This morning, when she’d heard him moving about, she hadn’t wanted to open her eyes. People who could rocket out of bed in the morning had an unfair advantage in life, she sometimes thought. What for the rest of humanity was a daily test of character—waking at the necessary hour, being efficient and cheerful—was automatic for Edward and his early-to-rise sort. Not that the difference mattered here and now. She had no need to race to the door, to think of six impossible things before breakfast. She needn’t have risen from the bed. But she was used to getting up to go to work, and it was hard to settle back to sleep after twenty minutes of morning noises—water running, drawers shutting, the kettle blasting into outer space. Also, it felt indecently slothful to be still in bed as Edward left the flat. Demoralising. So she was up and dressed, and rewarded by a sense of rectitude and a view of the back of his newspaper.
“Maybe we should buy a cottage,” she said.
“What?” Edward lowered the paper, looking startled.
Satisfied with her effect, she said, “I could put the boxes in it. Visit them once in a while. Like a museum.”
He laughed, relieved, and went back to scanning the headlines.
The street was quiet, protected by traffic barriers. Edward had found the flat, in one of those buildings that were swathed in cream paint up to the knees and showed bare brown brick above. It had tall windows, two bedrooms, and a balcony off the sitting room just big enough for a dolls’ tea party. When Gillian opened the French windows in the evening, she could sometimes smell the river. One of Edward’s mother’s friends had a son in the property business who’d had a word with someone-or-other, and Edward had been the first to see the flat. It had been a distress sale, the renovations unfinished, otherwise the price would have been beyond their reach. It was still shockingly high, but that was the reality of property in London now. Gillian had listened and simply said yes over the phone.
The move had been hard for Edward. She knew that because he’d complained, and because she knew how hard she found it herself. “What have you got to grouse about?” she’d said one night on the phone. “You’re moving from a small flat to a larger one. That’s easy. I’m trying to shrink a big house into a couple of dinky rooms.”
“I haven’t moved since I was divorced.”
“I’ve been in my house almost as long. And I have to cross an ocean. You’re just moving around the corner.”
“You have a heart of stone.” “Cardboard. As in box.”
The new flat was hardly any further from the Yard than the old one. That had been Edward’s only condition. Gillian hadn’t contested it. The walk had an almost mystical power to put him in a good mood, whereas driving any distance through the congested streets of central London made him short-tempered. She didn’t want to discover what he’d be like to live with if he were forced to commute by means other than foot. Besides, she liked Pimlico, its mix of the seedy and the posh, Regency terraces and council flats, flaking paint and lightning-strike reno jobs, its unassuming eclecticism.
She liked the Italian she heard in the streets, the old ladies emerging from their roosts, the cool young mothers reading on benches in the gardens while their children squabbled, the rows of quiet flats interspersed with Buddhist temples and language schools and little hotels. She’d stayed in one of the hotels once, in a room on the top floor. Her head had bumped the ceiling at the turn in the staircase. Pimlico felt a bit out of the way, tucked into a bend of the Thames. Nothing quite stood still, but the tidal race of London swept past, while Pimlico drifted a little.
“I’m off now,” Edward said. “I’ll be in court all day.” “Who’s the judge?”
“Rankin. Just our luck. Will you see Olivia this morning?” “Another time. She’s away filming, Charlotte said.”
He kissed her. “Don’t fret about your boxes.” “I wish the ship had sunk.”
She’d liked the flat, too. It was empty and light, Edward’s spare living habits having made only a slight imprint on its neutrality. In the mornings, the kitchen smelled of peeled oranges and coffee. The paint wasn’t even scratched yet. A few pieces of furniture stood where he’d put them but didn’t look settled; they had a temporary air, as if they had unexpectedly found a pleasant little hotel. It was how she felt herself. All she’d had to do was move in.
He closed the door, quietly. If she were to list the things she liked about him, one of the items would be ‘does not slam doors’. The list of deficiencies would include ‘does not cook’. But she hadn’t added up the pros and cons before moving. The conclusion hadn’t been reached through a process of rational analysis. The analysis, such as it was, had come afterwards, as it tends to when we want something. She had wanted to be here, suddenly wanted it badly.
And now that she’d arrived? Today she could be in her own large, cool house, looking at reading lists for the fall semester. All her books would be on the shelves; her papers would be spread out across the desk. Her garden would be blooming outside the windows. Not that she’d ever been a real gardener, but right now the honeysuckle would be perfuming the back yard and the daisies and hollyhocks would be opening. She shouldn’t think about them. The house had been bought by a Chinese doctor, daisies and all.
The long day loomed before her. Why had she shipped all these boxes? They would just remind her of everything she’d left behind. She was supposed to be starting a new life in London. Freedom. Janis Joplin’s sorrowing, scraped-bare voice came to mind, though Gillian had plenty left to lose and thumbing rides in the rain was hardly congruent with her shipping bill and the pink-faced, sweating movers. The boxes looked stupid, comic in their inadequacy and excess, as if she’d thought she could drag her other life along and tack it on to her new life in London. But the boxes couldn’t hold the spaces of the house she had loved, the blue-green Pacific-drenched light, evenings in the kitchen at Laura’s house. The boxes were merely emblematic of the wrench of departure. They were funereal. They made her think of Egyptian tombs where the mummified dead lay surrounded by objects they were supposed to require in the next life. Well, at least she hadn’t killed her slaves, too. Maybe the Egyptians were right: the contents of the boxes would come in handy in a few thousand years.
She washed her cup and dried it and read the headlines in the paper. The stories couldn’t hold her attention; they were abstract tales, like gossip about people you hadn’t met. Since the boxes had arrived, her move, her displacement, had become tangible. Why had she thought she could reinvent her life? Love. But now that she was here, she felt the immensity of London. It did not know her, and a new life seemed like a foolish enterprise. Perhaps it was the heat. Anyhow, this morning she was going out. She would shut the door on the idiocy of her boxes; she would visit Charlotte and look for a hat.
A few miles away, in Bayswater, a man leaned against the wall just inside the entrance to a dilapidated arcade of shops. Shoe repairs, key cutting, small print jobs and photocopying— businesses that couldn’t afford to pay for higher visibility—clung to a few square feet of musty space in the dim passageway. The shops were empty, the windows still dark. On the corner, the Queen’s Head pub was locked and silent. Only the Chagga, a coffee bar a few doors down, was open and busy. A stream of people flowed in and then briskly out, fortified with caffeine.
The man made no move towards the coffee bar, remaining in the shadowed entryway. He was big, with broad shoulders and a large round head, the scalp showing white through a brown stubble of crew-cut hair. His clothes hung loose, shirttail flopping, cuffs dragging over his boots. He slouched, his chin thrust forward, a fixed frown making him seem unaware of his surroundings until a sudden darting upward glance focused on a window across the road.
Not many people were about. Solitary men and women hurried along the pavement, intent on the day, their minds jumping ahead, already at work or skittering past it to the promise of the evening. They chatted into phones; they ruminated on shopping lists; they fretted about computer viruses or whether the escalators at their underground stops were still out of service. They knew their way and hardly saw the street’s details; they responded to motion in the field of vision and then forgot.
For long minutes the man was still, framed in the recess like a statue in a niche. Only his eyes flickered over the block of flats across the street. Then he twitched, and his fingers stabbed into the pocket of his shirt. He lit a cigarette. A woman passing the arcade glanced sideways, startled to see him so close to her. She scuttled away, angling across to the outer edge of the pavement. Ignoring her, he resumed his surveillance of the flats, the cigarette pinched between his thumb and forefinger, his curled palm hiding the glowing tip.
Moments later, a figure appeared in the doorway of the building he was watching. A blonde in sunglasses. He started, straining forward. His pale eyes focused sharply as she stepped out into the light, but almost immediately he frowned and slumped back against the wall. The young woman, oblivious, slipped across the street to the coffee bar; his gaze tracked her briefly, then drifted away. He muttered and fidgeted, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
He studied the building again. The window he was watch- ing was on the fourth floor. It was open and the curtains were drawn; the folds of thin, cream-colored fabric hung limp in the humid air. The nearby windows, presumably belonging to the same flat, were also open, but the listless curtains revealed nothing of the interior. At night, he might have seen something, for there was a gap where the curtains didn’t quite meet, but in the daytime it was only a triangular strip of darkness between opaque swathes of cloth.
Well down the street, a pair of constables moved steadily along, scanning the shop entrances and the weave of traffic, sorting the sample of humanity that showed itself at this early hour. They were relaxed, but seeing them, the crew-cut man withdrew deeper into the arcade.
An empty plastic flask of gin lay on the tiled floor beside a flattened nest of cardboard and newspaper. A dosser had been sleeping in the arcade, but he’d smelled foul, and the man had kicked him until he woke up, grunting, and staggered off. The sour reek of urine hung in the air. The man wiped his sleeve across his nose. A wad of gum was stuck to the edge of his bootsole. Irritably, he scraped his foot against the brick wall, missing the constables as they crossed the street. He was taken by surprise when they suddenly stood at the mouth of the passage, blocking out the light.
“Looking for something, mate?”
“Waiting for a friend.” He turned away, staring sullenly at the cards in the window of the print shop.
Their eyes flicked over the arcade, registered the tattered cardboard.
The same one spoke again. “Been having a kip?” “Do I look like it, for Chrissake?”
The other officer was studying the man. “I’ve seen you here before, hanging about.”
“No you haven’t.” “I know your face.”
The man shrugged. “So? I’ve got a mate lives near here.
We have a few pints at the pub.”
“Pub’s not open, son. What’s his name, this mate of yours?” “Piss off.” Coppers.
“How long you been waiting?” the first constable asked, intervening.
“On yer bike, then.” The constable jerked his thumb, dismissive. “Go and wait where your friend can see you.”
Stepping aside, the two officers waited while the man left the arcade and clumped along the pavement. Near the coffee bar, the people clutching their lattes in paper cups saw him coming, saw the wide-legged walk and the glare, and detoured out of his way.
“Right. Piss off,” he repeated half aloud, halting outside the window of the Chagga. The blood was drumming in his ears. He peered in. She wasn’t there, Olivia. Only a scrum of idiots dressed up for work, pouring coffee down their throats before they went to their robot jobs. Poncy blokes, girls with expensive shoes and wee tattoos on their shoulders. He balled his hands into fists. Sweat beaded under his arms and trickled down his sides.
The regal-looking black woman at the cash register saw him staring in. The lower half of his face was hidden by the swirl of gold lettering painted across the glass, but she recognised the big head, the eyes. Him again. She’d told him she didn’t want him hanging about. Mechanically, she handed change across the counter, smiled, greeted the next customer in the queue. But she remained aware of the man outside, watching. Those two constables she’d just seen walking the beat, had they noticed him? She wouldn’t mind having a word with them, but there were more people coming through the door; she had no time now, her busiest hour was just starting.
The crew-cut man squinted into the sun, checking the block of flats. The curtains on the fourth floor were still closed. The Old Bill hadn’t budged from the arcade; they were alert, keeping him under observation. It would be stupid to wait about; he would have to come back later.
When the woman in the Chagga looked up again, he was gone.
On a cooler day, Gillian might have decided to walk, but not this morning. She went to Victoria Station and took the District Line. The passengers had a stunned look. Underground, the air felt greasy, like air that had spent the night spitting in a deep-fryer. Second-hand air. A mathematician had once told her that she had a 99% chance of breathing some of the same atoms that Aristotle and Caesar had breathed. Possibly she was breathing some of them at this very moment, but only after everyone else in London had had a whiff.
At Parson’s Green, she got off, blinking at the milky blue sky and the glaring streets as if she’d been to a matinee. Charlotte’s house was only a few minutes’ walk. She didn’t remember all this graffiti near the station. Behind a row of houses, vines spilled over the tops of high brick walls, hinting at hidden Edens. Lower down, the scrawls of paint writhed angrily. She turned a corner and the graffiti vanished. Rows and rows of painted front doors, clean and shining these days. The houses hadn’t been smart in the early 1970s when Charlotte moved in. Gillian could remember the grimy brick housefronts and cracked pavements and litter. Also piles of sand everywhere, and cement mixers, and here and there a polished brass letterbox or a single strand of clematis tied to a bare trellis announcing the arrival of the middle classes. The neighbourhood had been on the way up. Now, in the late 1990s, it was up, indeed. All of London was up, even dingy lanes in Clerkenwell.
She rang the bell. Charlotte had been pregnant with Olivia when she and Tom moved to Fulham. Gillian remembered her coming home with shopping bags from Habitat, nervous and elated, determined to excel, every move a rebuke to the recollections of her mother and Mrs. Arthur. Olivia would be, what? Twenty-four, in a few months.
She rang a second time. The tiny front garden was dry and brown, and a few crumples of silvery paper festooned the leggy shubbery like forgotten Christmas decorations. The black gloss paint on the door was peeling, but the bell was in working order; she could hear it. She looked up and down the silent street. There was no traffic. She didn’t see anyone on foot. But there wouldn’t be that many people about; most would have jobs, unlike herself, who had no urgent purpose in life at present, no tasks to perform, except a duty to unpack her bloody boxes. There was her unfinished book, of course. You could always do more research. But you had to feel there was a point to it, and lately, she hadn’t felt there was much of a point to anything. If the move to London hadn’t been planned, the flat bought, the machinery already in motion, she wouldn’t have been able to carry it through. Ever since her mother died, her own life seemed to have stopped; she had coasted to London on momentum, and now she had no vision of the future.
It was pointless to keep standing. She would ring once more and then leave a note.
“Who is it?” Charlotte’s voice came through the closed door. She sounded annoyed.
“Oh.” There was a pause, and then the sound of the door being unlocked. “I thought you were coming tomorrow,” Charlotte said. She squinted at the sunlight. “Today’s Wednesday.”
“Is it? I suppose you’re right. Well, you’d better come in.” Charlotte shuffled ahead of her. She was wearing a red silk kimono and woollen socks. In the old days, Gillian had come here often. So many dinners, washed down with so many bottles of wine. Charlotte gestured at the door of the sitting room. “Go in and sit down. I shan’t be a minute.” She walked heavily up the stairs, easing her weight onto her right foot and gripping the banister for support.
Not a promising start. Gillian stepped cautiously through the door into the sitting room and waited for her eyes to adjust from the blaze outside. All the curtains were drawn, and a disheartened light seeped through their dusty folds. The room stayed cooler this way, she supposed, but it was stuffy, with a smell of ashtrays, like an empty pub. She knew every table and chair and footstool—good Victorian pieces Charlotte had picked up years ago, when no one wanted them. They squatted contentedly in the gloom. A fine collection of botanical prints hung in closely-packed rows on the walls, trophies from the days when Charlotte, quick of eye and sharp of elbow, had jousted at bookstalls and jumble sales.
Gillian moved closer to look. Ragged robin, star-of-Bethlehem, snake’s head, honesty, traveller’s joy. Names that evoked a vanished rural world, though not one Charlotte had grown up in. Gillian’s foot touched something that clinked and she looked down. A cup and saucer. The bottom of the cup was coated with green mold.
Charlotte was at the door. She’d combed her hair and put on a skirt and some lipstick. They kissed, awkwardly. Charlotte’s breath smelled of toothpaste; under it Gillian recognised the sour chemistry of alcohol coming off the body. It wasn’t a smell you could wash off, not when you’d pickled every cell.
“So here you are,” Charlotte said. “Here I am.”
“You’ve really quit your job?”
“I’ve quit my job. I’ve sold my house, and I’ve come to live in London. It was an ordeal. I had to get rid of things, tons of things. I hope you never have to move.”
Charlotte raised her thin, arched brows. “Where would I go?”
“What do you keep when you’re starting a new life? You look at things you’ve completely forgotten about, and when you see them again, they bring memories back. They’re your history. ‘Oh,’ you think. ‘My father gave me that when I graduated.’ You remember the moment. Then you make another donation to the thrift shop. It goes on and on, like some task in mythology, trying to empty the sea with a spoon. I’d keep thinking I was getting somewhere, and then I’d open a closet and there would be more stuff. I’m not a packrat, not like my mother. But, God almighty.” She stopped. She was talking too much.
“And how is your mother?” “She died.”
“Oh. I didn’t know.”
Dammit. I sent you a note, Gillian thought. “Her heart gave out last spring. On the 5th of April.”
“That’s an easier way to go than some.” “Yes, but I miss her.”
“You were lucky to have Estelle for so long.”
“I know. And I was there, at least. I was with her for the last eight months.”
“What have you done with the farm?”
“I haven’t done anything. It belongs to my brother and me, and we want to keep it. He goes up there sometimes on weekends. It’s only an hour or so out of New York.”
“But you can’t use it if you’re living here.”
“I don’t care. I don’t want to change anything. It’s the only home I’ve got.” She wouldn’t say that to Edward, Gillian thought. It was true, however. She was living in Pimlico, now, but it didn’t feel like home.
Charlotte lit a cigarette. “Coffee? It’s real, not nescaf.” “Coffee would be nice.”
Charlotte went into the kitchen. Gillian heard the tap run and the fridge open and close. She walked to the windows and lifted up the edge of the curtain. A thick layer of soot coated the sill. In the light, the room looked worse. The wooden tables next to both armchairs were scarred with overlapping rings. There were cigarette burns on the carpet and a plate with old crusts of toast.
“I hope you can manage without milk,” Charlotte said, from the kitchen. “It’s gone off.”
There was a framed eight-by-ten photograph on the what-not. Charlotte, Tom, Olivia. A picture from another era. Handsome Tom, Olivia at about six. And Charlotte, smiling. A bright, particular star—vital, quick, furious and sentimental, gifted and scared. The trio, close to each other, the child in the middle. Olivia had grown up and had her own life now. And Tom? Tom had gone, had removed himself from the picture. He was still in London, Gillian knew, but he’d left Charlotte and Fulham years ago.
“Thomas is married, did I tell you?” Charlotte came in with the coffee. She’d always called him Thomas, though everyone else called him Tom.
“Yes, and having a baby, if you please.” “Who told you? Olivia?”
“She went to the wedding. It was important to him, she said.”
“How old is his wife?”
“How old do you think? Young. Boring, isn’t it? But at least she’s not twenty. Credit where credit’s due. She’s older than Olivia.”
“And Thomas is fifty-five. I hope he enjoys having a teenager in the house when he’s seventy.” Charlotte lowered herself into an armchair. “The woman’s name is Sybil. Really.
Sybil. He probably thinks the silly bitch’ll wipe his bottom for him when he’s eighty, but she’ll be gone by then, I expect, unless she’s stupid.”
“What about Olivia? Will she be back in town soon?” “Any day now. She’s on location. She was sharing a flat in Bayswater with her friend Lisa, but she’s given it up. She’ll be staying at her boyfriend’s while she hunts for a flat of her own.”
“I hope I’ll see her more often, now that I’m here. What’s he like, the boyfriend?”
“He’s an architect. At the moment he’s off in one of those Arab oil states. He’s away a lot, she says. I can’t tell whether it’s serious. I’ve never met him.” One corner of Charlotte’s mouth twisted downward in self-mockery. “She might think I’d scare him off.” She drew smoke into her lungs as if it was hard to get enough. “He has a posh flat—there’s always a porter on duty, Olivia says, and I’m glad. Some perverted fan was hanging about, sending her flowers and ringing up constantly. Importuning her on the street. That’s why she moved so suddenly. It’s a good time for her to be away from London, I suppose.”
“What’s the film she’s making?”
“A silly comedy. Diamond smugglers in the Sahara, people falling off their camels. Frightful rubbish.”
“You used to like comedies.”
“They used to be witty. She has to do one scene with nothing on above the waist,” Charlotte said. “I saw that in the script; she wouldn’t have mentioned it.” Her blue glance shifted to the shrouded windows, as though it could escape, could fly out and over rooftops and oceans and deserts, to land, unerringly, at whichever global coordinates Olivia had positioned herself. “At least she’s not entirely naked. I tell myself it’s acting, even stars take their clothes off nowadays, and she’s being decently paid. But then there are these perverts. It doesn’t bear thinking of when it’s your only daughter.”
Gillian said nothing. If you didn’t have children, you didn’t express opinions about them to anyone who did, not if you didn’t like being told you didn’t know what you were talking about. This went double for Charlotte. Nothing but eggshells in all directions.
“She wants to work, I know that. She says it’s good experience. But why do these dopey comedies and nihilistic films about drug addicts? Bloody Trainspotting was a hit, so now we’ve got to see every auteur’s vision of life and death in a crackhouse? She was such a lovely baby,” Charlotte went on. “Two minutes into the world and she latched onto the breast and went about her business. She was never fussy. You don’t think then what they might do later. You don’t think about anything at all, just how beautiful they are.”
Gillian’s mind wandered. Baby Olivia was a favourite subject of Charlotte’s; the same memories tended to be repeated in the same phrases. Gillian had her own fund of recollections, but Gillian had also known Charlotte long before Olivia was born, before Charlotte was married, had met her way back, in the year of Sergeant Pepper. Charlotte was living in Notting Hill Gate, then, and Gillian was staying in London for the summer, doing research for her thesis in the Public Record Office. She still remembered the white-haired man behind the wicket in Chancery Lane who’d inspected her reader’s ticket on the first day and, like a Cockney St Peter, had called her ‘luv’ and let her in.
Charlotte, conversely, let her out. She took Gillian shopping at Biba and explained how squats were organized, and who Mary Whitehouse was, and what Private Eye meant by its inscrutable references to ‘Ugandan Affairs’. She seemed to know half the population of London and all the gossip; when she talked, the city of monuments and museums and peculiar hours for pubs was only the background to endlessly unfolding human dramas. After a long day in the silent domain of the Public Record Office, with its smell of pencil shavings and whispers of turning pages that reminded Gillian of exams, or—even more—after a day in the newspaper archives at the Siberian outpost of Colindale, seeing Char- lotte had been as exhilarating as a holiday.
“You’re not listening,” Charlotte said.
Gillian smiled guiltily. “I was thinking about the long walks we used to take when I first met you. When I fell in love with London.”
“It was a city worth loving, then. I don’t know why anyone would move here now. It’s been spoilt.”
“Do you think so?”
“Do I think so? It was a humane city then. Look at it now—the traffic, Gillian, the crowds, the rudeness. Crack addicts, same as America. And the greed: it’s so expensive. On top of that, busloads of tourists jammed into all those hideous hotels. Eyesores! And the bloody Labour government gave grants to people who built them. Then there’s the pollution. No more ‘bright and glittering in the smokeless air.’ We got rid of the coal fires, thank you very much, but we might as well not have bothered, now we’re being choked to death by diesel fumes. There isn’t a politician in the country who’ll put a stop to it. The ‘motoring public’ has them by the short and curlies. Cool Britannia. What a larf.”
“I don’t know, the mood’s certainly fizzy.”
“Dizzy, you mean. A foul-mouthed brat opens a new restaurant and the media wet themselves. It’s all right for the rich, they breathe different air—they can afford to.”
“Well, I’ve moved. I’m here, now.”
“But I don’t understand why you burnt your bridges. Why didn’t you take a leave of absence from your job, so you could go back? What if it’s not the right choice for you? Or Edward finds some dolly-bird?”
“Dolly-bird?” Gillian laughed. “I can’t quite picture him with a girl in thigh-high boots and a miniskirt. You’re right, though, if we can’t stand each other in six months, I’ll wonder if I was mad to move. But I’ve made my bed, so to speak.”
All she’d had to do was sell her house and say goodbye to her friends and her job and pack up her entire life and shift it to the other side of the globe. She might have confided in Charlotte, confessed her doubts, but not when Charlotte was in this unbending mood.
“He never thought of moving, of course.” “No.”
“So you left your job.”
“Well, Charlotte, I wanted to.” “Why?”
“Lots of reasons, but if you want the short version, the answer is too many meetings.”
Gillian laughed. “You sound as if you’d never heard of them. I’ve developed a galloping phobia. I hear the word ‘meeting’ and I fall down and foam at the mouth. I’ve lost my zest for the battles. I’m tired of my colleagues, tired of students turning into consumers of education and the university acting like a struggling shopping mall, with special offers and discounts on grades. And I wanted to move to London, Charlotte, lunatic as that may seem to you. I want to live with Edward before I get old. The decision made itself when I was living with my mother last year, and I was reminded how short life is. So it’s done, for better or worse. I won’t say for richer or poorer—I know I’ll be poorer. But it’s still London, whatever they do to it. As long as I can breathe. Do you ever get away to the cottage?”
“Never. It’s rented.”
“You once loved that place. Who lives there now?”
“I scarcely know. The estate agency looks after it for me. It’s not what it was, you realise. I couldn’t bear to see it. A stockbroker bought the field next door and built a monstrous house. I’m told it looms over the hedge and is visible for miles.”
“But you don’t want to sell?”
“Not unless I must.” Charlotte stood up. “I’m going to have a glass of wine. Would you care for any? The house white is Muscadet.”
“No, thanks.” The last time she’d been in London, they’d gone out to lunch, but it hadn’t been a success. Charlotte had pushed the food around her plate and bitched about the effort, though they’d only gone as far as Chelsea. The bill had seemed like an expensive joke. It had been her fault, Gillian had concluded; she’d thought an outing would be good for Charlotte, and Charlotte had acquiesced, probably to please her.
“Thomas, that bastard,” Charlotte said, coming back with her wine. Gillian guessed she’d swallowed a quick mouthful in the kitchen before coming back; she seemed more relaxed. “It was bad enough that he married again. But a baby—I could kill him. It’s been almost eight years, Gillian. Eight years. I didn’t believe he was never coming back until he married that woman.”
“Does he see much of Olivia?”
“Hmph. He’s frightfully busy, my dear. He has his own company now. Spinning gold from straw. Did you know that boards can be made from the chaff that farmers used to burn? That’s the sort of thing Thomas is interested in these days.”
“It sounds like good work he’s doing.”
“Oh yes. He always has done. He’s nothing if not high-minded, our Thomas. He’ll probably be a candidate for an OBE one of these years, if they persist with the absurd custom of handing them out.” Charlotte lit another cigarette. “Sorry about the fag reek. I rather hope they’re not what kills me, but I can’t stop. Did I tell you, someone at Granada rang me a few weeks ago? Maybe it was a few months ago. About a job. I said no. I don’t work any more. I could hardly believe they called me.”
“Charlotte, your programmes were wonderful. Everyone said so. You might like it if you started again.”
“You must be joking. Looking like this? Everyone in the studio will be twenty-two and as skinny as Kate Moss and perfectly certain they’ll never look like me.” Charlotte finished her glass and fetched another. “It doesn’t matter what I do now. It’s Olivia’s life that matters.”
“Charlotte, you’re only in your fifties.”
“Most people who ever lived died before they were sixty.” “Do you eat?”
“Do you ever see a doctor?”
“I wouldn’t want to waste the NHS’s money. There’s not enough to go round as it is.” Charlotte’s voice grew sharp. “Don’t tell me I should be taking better care of myself. You don’t know a thing about it.”
“Tell me, then.”
“I can’t. You’ve got Edward, so you can’t understand.” “You and I go back a lot further than that.”
“Give it a rest, Gillian. I don’t want to moon over the old days when we hitchhiked around France and slept on the beach at Corfu and all that. Or what a brilliant producer I was. That’s finished. All over now. I’m fat, I’m losing my hair, and I drink. My husband’s having a baby with somebody else.”
“You still have a daughter. A marvellous daughter.” “I’ve done all I can for her.”
Gillian heard finality in Charlotte’s voice.
“Charlotte, tell me whether I should come back. I’d like to see you, and Pimlico’s not far, but I can’t tell how you feel about it.”
There was a silence. Gillian waited. Charlotte had her bad days and she’d been caught unprepared; that might have made her cranky.
“I don’t know, seeing people. It’s easier not, in a way. I’m out of the habit. But yes, do come. You’re the only one I can speak the truth to. Parts of it, anyhow.”