The Other One – Fiction
By Tessa Hadley
When Heloise was twelve, in 1986, her father was killed in a car crash. But it was a bit more complicated than that. He was supposed to be away in Germany at a sociology conference, only the accident happened in France, and there were two young women in the car with him. One of them was his lover, it turned out in the days and weeks after the crash, and the other one was his lover’s friend. He’d never even registered at the conference. Didn’t it seem strange, Heloise’s mother asked long afterward, in her creaky, surprised, lightly ironic voice, as if it only touched her curiosity, that the two lovebirds had taken a friend along with them for their tryst in Paris? The lover was also killed; her friend was seriously injured. Heloise’s mother, Angie, had found out some of these things when she rushed to be at her husband’s bedside in a hospital in France: he lived on for a few days after the accident, though he never recovered consciousness.
That time was blurred in Heloise’s memory now, more than thirty years later. She’d been convinced for a while that she’d accompanied her mother to France; vividly she could picture her father, motionless in his hospital bed, his skin yellow-brown against the pillow, his closed eyelids bulging and naked without their rimless round glasses, his glossy black beard spread out over the white sheet. But Angie assured her that she was never there. Anyway, Clifford had shaved off his beard by then. “I should have known he was shaving it off for someone,” Angie said. “And why would I have taken you with me, darling? You were a little girl, and I didn’t know what I was going to find when I got there. I’ve mostly blocked out my memory of that journey—it was the worst day of my life. I’ve no idea how I got across London or onto the ferry, though, strangely, I remember seeing the gray water in the dock, choppy and frightening. I was frightened. I felt surrounded by monstrosities—I suppose I was worried that his injuries might be monstrous. Once I was actually there and I saw him, I was able to grasp everything. I had time to think. It’s a bizarre thing to say, but that hospital was a very peaceful place. It was connected to some kind of religious order—there were cold stone floors and a high vaulted ceiling, nuns. Or at least that’s how I remember it. I’ve forgotten the name of the hospital, so I can’t Google it to check. Probably it doesn’t exist now.”
“Did you see her?”
“Delia, the lover.”
“Delia wasn’t the lover. She was the other one. The lover was killed instantly, in the accident, when they hit the tree. They took her body away.”
Heloise and Angie were sitting drinking wine at Angie’s kitchen table, in the same skinny four-story Georgian house in Bristol where they’d all lived long ago with Clifford, in the time before the accident: Heloise and her older brother, Toby, and their younger sister, Mair. Angie hadn’t even changed the big pine kitchen table since then, although she’d done things to the rest of the kitchen—it was smarter and sleeker now than it used to be, when the fashion was for everything to look homemade and authentic. She and Clifford had bought the table from a dealer in the early days of their marriage; she had stripped off its thick pink paint with Nitromors. And then she’d worked with that dealer for a while, going through country houses with him and keeping his best pieces in her home to show to customers. She couldn’t part with the old table, she said; so many friends and family had sat around it over the years. And now she was seventy-two.
Heloise didn’t have her mother’s gift of lightness. Angie was tall and thin, stooped, with flossy gray silk mingling in her messy, faded hair. Vague and charming, she had escaped from a posh county family whose only passionate feelings, she said, were for dogs and property. Heloise was stocky, top-heavy with bosom, and serious, with thick, kinked tobacco-brown hair and concentrating eyes; she looked more like her father, whose Jewish family had come to the East End of London from Lithuania in the early twentieth century. She didn’t think her personality was much like his, though; she wasn’t audacious. She had kept the obituary that appeared in an academic journal—Angie said she didn’t want it—which expressed shock and sadness at the loss of “an audacious original thinker,” whose book, “Rites of Passage in Contemporary Capitalist Societies,” was required reading for radicals. The obituary didn’t mention the problem of the lover. And there were no obituaries in any of the big newspapers; Clifford would have felt slighted by that, if he’d been able to know it—he’d have believed that it was part of the conspiracy against him. Probably no one read his book these days.
Sometimes, when Heloise spoke to her therapist, she imagined her father’s death slicing through her life like a sword, changing her completely with one blow; at other times, she thought that, in truth, she’d always been like this, reserved and sulky, wary. She knew other children of those brilliant, risky marriages of the nineteen-seventies who were taciturn and full of doubt like her. Her parents had been such an attractive, dynamic couple, so outward-turning; the crowd of friends dropping in to talk and eat and drink and smoke pot was always on the brink of becoming a party. From the landing on the top floor, where their bedrooms were, or venturing farther down the deep stairwell, Toby and Heloise and Mair, along with strangers’ children put to sleep on the spare mattresses, had spied over the bannisters on the adults, who were careless of what the children witnessed: shouted political arguments; weeping; snogging; someone flushing her husband’s pills down the lavatory; the husband swinging his fist at her jaw; Angie dancing to Joni Mitchell with her eyes closed, T-shirt off, her pink nipples bare and arms reaching up over her head, long hands washing over each other; Clifford trying to burn five-pound notes in the gas fire and yelling to tell everyone that Angie was frigid, that Englishwomen of her class were born with an icebox between their legs. Angie called him “a dirty little Jew,” and then lay back on her beanbag chair, laughing at how absurd they both were.
But that was all ancient history, and now Heloise was in her mid-forties, divorced, with two young children, running her own small business from home—finding and styling locations for photo shoots—and making just about enough money to live on and pay her half of the mortgage. When she met a woman called Delia at a dinner party, the name didn’t strike her at first; it was just a name. It was a late summer’s evening, and dinner began with white wine outdoors in a small, brick-walled garden, its smallness disproportionate to the dauntingly tall back of the terraced house, built on a steep hill in Totterdown; there were espaliered apple trees trained around the garden walls. The guests’ intimacy thickened as the light faded; birds bustled in the dusk amongst the leaves, and a robin spilled over with his song. Venus pierced the clear evening sky. They all said that they wouldn’t talk politics but did anyway, as if their opinions had been dragged out of them, their outrage too stale to be enjoyable. Was it right or wrong to use the word “fascism” to describe what was happening in the world? Was the future of socialism in localism? Their host, Antony, put out cushions on the stone seats and on the grass, because of the cold coming up from the earth; he poured more wine. Heloise had her hair pinned up; she was wearing her vintage navy crêpe dress.
She liked Delia right away.
Delia was older than the rest of them, with a lined, tanned, big-boned face and an alert, frank, open gaze; her dark hair was streaked with gray and cut in a gamine style, fringe falling into her eyes, which made her look Italian, Heloise thought, like an Italian intellectual. Around her neck on a cord hung a striking, heavy piece of twisted silver, and as the air grew cooler she wrapped herself in an orange stole, loose-woven in thick wool, throwing one end over her shoulder. Everything Delia did seemed graceful and natural. Heloise was full of admiration, at this point in her own life, for older women who managed to live alone and possess themselves with aplomb; she was learning how to be single again, and she didn’t want to end up like her mother, volatile and carelessly greedy. Delia was a violinist, it turned out, and taught violin to children, Suzuki-style; this was how she’d got to know Antony, because his younger son came to her classes. She hadn’t been to his home before, and said that she liked the neat creative order in his garden; it made her think of a medieval garden in a story. And she was right, Heloise thought. There was something Chaucerian about Antony, in a good way, with his pink cheeks and plump hands, soft, shapeless waist, baggy corduroy trousers, tortoiseshell-framed glasses, tousled caramel-colored hair.
“Delia’s like the Pied Piper!” he enthused. “At the end of the morning, she leads the kids around the community center in a sort of conga line, playing away on these violins as tiny as toys, past the Keep Fit and French Conversation and the Alzheimer’s Coffee Morning, all of them bowing away like crazy at Schumann and Haydn. Some of these kids have never heard classical music in their lives before. And yet it all sounds great: it’s in tune! Or almost in tune, almost!”
Antony and Heloise had been close friends since university. He worked for the city planning department, which was innovative and chronically short-staffed and underfunded. Like her, he was bringing up his children as a single parent; his wife had left him and gone back to Brazil. Heloise had secret hopes of Antony. He wasn’t the kind of man she’d ever have chosen when they were young together—too kind, not dangerous enough—but recently she’d come to see him differently. It was as if she’d turned a key in the door of her perception, opening it onto a place that had existed all along. How whole Antony was! How nourishing his company, how sound his judgments! She kept her hopes mostly hidden, though, even from herself. She was afraid of spoiling their friendship through a misunderstanding, or a move made too soon.
Delia said that intonation always came first, in the Suzuki method. No matter how simple a piece you’re playing, it should sound right from the very beginning. The conversation became animated, because the other guests were parents of young children, too, and intensely concerned about the creativity of their offspring. Heloise thought that Delia looked amused, as if she was used to parents thinking their children were prodigies, because they liked banging away on a piano. Antony wished that his older boy would take lessons, but he had been diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, and wasn’t good at following directions; Heloise thought that this boy was sometimes just plain naughty, though she didn’t say so to Antony. When she suggested that she’d like to bring her own five-year-old daughter, Jemima, to the class, Delia told her the time and the venue. There were still a couple of places free. Teaching was a great pleasure, she added. She liked the company of children, and had never had any of her own. Heloise marvelled at how calmly Delia talked about herself, not trailing ragged ends of need or display.
“And what about your own playing?” somebody asked her. “Do you still play?”
She belonged to a quartet that met twice a week, she said, and played sometimes with another friend, who was a pianist; they put on concerts from time to time. “I had hopes of playing as a professional when I was young,” she added. “I won some competitions and dreamed of being a soloist—it was probably only a dream. But then I was involved in a car accident in France—I damaged my neck and my hands—I was ill for a long time. And that was the end of that.”
The light was almost gone from the garden. Antony had slipped inside to serve up the food. He was a good cook; appetizing smells were coming from the kitchen. Through the open glass doors, Heloise could see yellow lamplight spilling over his books piled up on the coffee table, a folded plaid blanket on a sofa, the children’s toys put away in a toybox; beyond that, a table set with glasses and colored napkins, a jug filled with fresh flowers and greenery.
“It was such a long time ago,” Delia said, laughing to console the others when they exclaimed over her awful loss. “Like I said, I was very young. It was really all very tragic, but don’t worry. It happened to me in another life.”
It was possible that Delia’s accident had nothing to do with Heloise’s father. There might have been two accidents in France, two Delias. If it was the same accident, then why hadn’t she identified Heloise when they met or guessed whose daughter she was? Heloise was a pretty unusual name. But then, why would Clifford have mentioned his children’s names to a girl who was only his lover’s friend? Perhaps he had met Delia for the first time on that fateful day: it was likely that she’d come along only for the drive, a lift to Paris. Anyway, he wouldn’t have been talking about his children to either of those young women. He’d have been pretending, at least to himself, that he wasn’t really the father of a family, that he could do anything he dared to do, that he was as young and free as the girls were, his life his own to dispose of. And, after the accident, when Delia had endured months and perhaps years of suffering and rehabilitation, and lost her hope of a career as a performer, why would she have wanted to find out anything about the family whose happiness had been ruined along with hers? She’d have wanted everything connected with Clifford to fall behind her into oblivion. Into the lead-gray sea.
Heloise talked all these possibilities through with her therapist; she didn’t want to talk to anyone else, not yet. The therapist was wary of her excitement. She asked why it was important for Heloise right now to find a new connection with her father, and suggested a link between the breakdown of her marriage and her feelings of abandonment at the time of her father’s death. “What did you do, when this woman told the story of her accident? How did you react?”
“Somehow I was all right. I’d drunk a couple of glasses of wine, I was feeling surprisingly mellow—for me, anyway. And then, when I suddenly understood who she was—or might be—I felt as if something clicked into place, and I belonged to her. Or she belonged to me. Everything belonged together. It was probably the wine.”Most Popular
Antony had called them in to eat, just as Delia was finishing her story, and Heloise had stood up from her cushion on the stone bench, elated. She’d almost spoken out then and there—but she’d had more sense, knew that this wasn’t the right time to open up anything so momentous, not in company. However well balanced Delia appeared, it would be painful to have her buried history brought back to life. So Heloise had gone inside instead, ahead of the others, and put her arms around Antony, who was standing at the sink lifting a tray of vegetables from the bamboo steamer. Because of the kind of man he was, he wasn’t annoyed at her getting in between him and the tricky moment of his serving up the food, but put down the vegetables and hugged her back, enthusiastically. “Hey, what’s this in honor of?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Just. Such a nice dinner party.”
He said that she looked lovely in her vintage dress with the Art Deco brooch, like a learned Jewess from Minsk or Vilnius in the old days, and Heloise realized that this was exactly the look she’d been trying for. She put her outfits together, always, with the same effort she might use in dressing a room for a shoot, working toward some idea at the back of her mind, like an old photograph or a painting.
For the rest of the evening, she’d been more lively and talkative than usual, conscious of the extraordinary story of the accident that she was hoarding inside her, charged with emotion and as dramatic as an opera. Watching Delia, she’d enjoyed the way she held her fork, the poised, elegant angle of her wrist and her rather big brown hand; how she sat up very straight and listened to the others with intelligent interest, reserving her own judgment. She did have Mediterranean heritage, as Heloise had guessed, though it was not Italian but Spanish. Her politics were quite far left but not doctrinaire; she was well informed and thoughtful. As she grew older, Heloise decided, she’d like to wear clothes in Delia’s easy style, made of homespun wool or linen, dyed in natural colors.
Jemima wasn’t a musical prodigy, it turned out. But she enjoyed the Suzuki classes and for a while, in the first flush of enthusiasm, even carried her tiny violin around with her at home, tucked under her chin, and bowed out her answers to Heloise’s questions in snatches of “Twinkle, Twinkle” or “The Happy Farmer” instead of words. And Delia in the different context of the classes was a revelation: not kindly and encouraging, as Heloise had imagined her, but crisp and unsmiling, even stern. Making music was not a game, she conveyed, but an initiation into a realm of great significance. The children responded well to this, as if it was a relief that something for once wasn’t all about them. Unconsciously, they imitated Delia’s straight back, the flourish of her bowing, the dip of her head on the first beat of the bar; they were carried outside themselves in the music’s flow. Their parents, too, were intimidated and gratified by Delia’s severity. She liked them to stay to watch the class, so that they could encourage good practice at home during the week, and mostly they obediently did stay.
Usually, Heloise sat through these sessions with Antony, and toward the end of the class one or the other of them would go off to pick up the two older boys—Heloise’s Solly and Antony’s Max—from their football club. Through the crowded busyness of the rest of her week, Heloise anticipated with pleasure this hour of enforced mute stillness, squeezed up against Antony on the community-center benches, in the big, characterless white room, with its missing ceiling tiles and broken Venetian blinds, feeling his companionable warmth along her flank, buoyed up by the children’s music. The room smelled of hot plastic from the lights, and of sweat from the Zumba class that came before Suzuki. Sometimes, she and Antony bought lunch together afterward at the café in the center, depending on how wound up Max was from football. None of this would have been so straightforward if Antony’s ex-wife, Carlota, the boys’ mother, hadn’t gone back to Brazil. Heloise couldn’t help feeling a surge of selfish relief when she thought of it; she’d found Carlota abrasive and difficult. When she’d told Antony once that her ex-husband, Richard, had complained that she wasn’t spontaneous, Antony confessed in exchange that Carlota had called him an old woman. “Which was kind of surprising, coming from her,” he added, with the modest amount of owlish irony he permitted himself, “as she was supposed to be such a feminist.”
Heloise had told Antony years ago, when they first knew each other, about her father’s accident, although not about the lover, because that had still felt shaming then, private. Angie had always wanted to tell everyone everything, as a twisted, crazy joke: wasn’t life just bound to turn out like that! Now Heloise came close, on several occasions, to explaining to Antony her occult connection, through the accident, with Delia: a connection that might or might not exist. Each time, however, the moment passed; Max threw one of his tantrums, or Jemima spilled her water. And she hadn’t said anything, yet, to Delia herself—with every week that she delayed, it grew more difficult to imagine bringing up the subject. The whole story seemed so improbably far-fetched, and, even if it had really ever happened, it was a million years ago, in another age. At the Suzuki classes, anyway, Delia was too remote, impersonal: she belonged to everyone; it would have been inappropriate to take her aside and make that special claim on her.
Apparently, Antony was having viola lessons with her, one evening a week. Heloise hadn’t known that he used to play when he was younger. She wished she had some such privileged way into intimacy with Delia; she was shy in the face of the older woman’s authority, her self-sufficiency. Delia was always perfectly friendly, but she would never join them for lunch; she rehearsed with her string quartet, she said, on Saturday afternoons. Heloise suspected that she took in, too, with some distaste, the mess at their shared table in the café: the chips afloat in spilled water, the older boys high with adrenaline from their game, obnoxiously shouty, eyes glittering and faces hot, hair pasted down with sweat.
Heloise’s brother, Toby, was over from L.A., where he worked in the music business; he came to spend a few days in Bristol with their mother. Richard had the children on Saturday night, so Heloise went to have supper with Toby and Angie at the old kitchen table. Toby was like their mother, rangy and tall and thin, with silky graying reddish curls; he had the same rawboned sex appeal that Angie used to have—indolent, indifferent to what anyone thought about him, scratching carelessly at the hollow white belly exposed under his too-short T-shirt, leaning back in his chair and stretching his long legs under the table, so that his big feet in scruffy Converse trainers intruded into Heloise’s space. He and Angie were mesmerizing when they exerted their allure, auburn like angels; and then sometimes they were unabashedly ugly, ill-tempered, with their pale-lard coloring, blue eyes small with exhaustion, the sex-light withdrawn like a favor they were bored with proffering.
Angie was happy because Toby was there; she was girlish and gauche, clowning. In honor of the occasion she’d made something ambitious for supper—enchiladas that had to be assembled and fried at the last minute—and then Toby mixed L.A.-style Martinis, which she said made her too drunk to cook safely. He had to fry the enchiladas, with a lot of flame and noise, under her laughing supervision, as she hung on to his shoulder. Heloise thought that her mother, despite her fierce feminism, actually preferred the company of men, powerful men. Women’s winding approaches to one another, all the encouraging and propitiating, made her impatient; she’d rather be up against men’s bullishness, their frank antagonism—she had even enjoyed sparring with Richard. And Angie liked the way Toby made fun of her radicalism, as if she were some kind of Trotskyite firebrand extremist, while she accused him of selling out; they had this teasing, challenging rapport. Still, it was notable that he’d chosen to live thousands of miles away from her.
Heloise had thought that she might speak to them about Delia. Perhaps her mother could tell her something that would make it clear, at least, whether this was the right Delia. But she was surprised, once she was inside her old home, at her reluctance to mention her discovery. She could imagine Angie taking Delia up, inviting her round to talk, celebrating her, the pair of them growing close, bound together by their long-ago disaster. Or Angie might be scathing, and recoil from making any new connection with those days. So, when Heloise told them about Jemima’s Suzuki class, she didn’t mention the teacher’s name. Angie loved the idea of Jemima communicating through her violin. She was an inspired, enthusiastic grandmother, throwing herself into her grandchildren’s world, siding with them and seeing everything at their eye level; also fretting to Heloise and Mair, when Toby wasn’t there, about the teen-age son he had in the U.S. and never saw, from a marriage that hadn’t lasted a year. Mair complained that Angie had reinvented herself over the decades. “You’d think now that she was some kind of hippie earth mother, dedicated to her offspring. Which isn’t exactly the childhood I remember.”
Inevitably, they talked about politics in America; Toby knew a lot, in his laconic, disparaging way. Watching out for totalitarianism, they said, everyone had been oblivious to the advent of the illiberal democracies. And what did it mean for the world, if America’s compass was no longer set to liberal? But it had never really been set there in the first place, Angie protested. Toby played them his latest music, then went hunting upstairs in a cupboard for a box of cassette tapes from his youth, and came down with a quiz game and a cricket bat. He tried to make them play the game, but too many questions referred to TV stars and football contests they’d forgotten—in fact, to a whole vanished world of perception. Heloise told awful stories about Richard; there was such relief in not having to defend him to her family any longer. By eleven o’clock, Angie was drained, done for. This was something she had to get used to, she said, now that she was an old woman. Weariness came rattling down all at once in her mind, like a metal shutter across a window, peremptory and imperative, so that she had to go to bed. “But I wish that you’d really begin to be an old woman!” Heloise joked, placating her. “It’s about time. Shouldn’t you be knitting? You’re meant to be tedious and repetitive by now. With a nice perm.”
“Toby thinks I’m tedious and repetitive already.”
Angie couldn’t help flirting with her son, wanting his reassurance. Cruelly, Toby smiled back at her, implacable. And she did look old at that moment, under the bright kitchen light, despite her lovely, careless dress with its zigzag print: the loose skin on her face was papery, her shoulders were bowed, her skull shone through her thinning hair. Heloise couldn’t help wanting, whatever Mair said, to deflect her mother’s attention from certain hard truths. She asked if there was a copy anywhere of Clifford’s book; Angie stood blinking and absent from herself, as if she had no idea what Heloise meant. “Whose book?”
“Dad’s book. ‘The Whatsit of Contemporary Capitalism.’ ”
“Oh, that book. Good God. I’ve no idea. Why? You can’t seriously be entertaining the idea of reading it?”
“I just thought suddenly that I never have.”
Toby said that there was a whole box of them, under the bed in his old room. “They’re a bit mummified, sort of shrunken and yellow.”
“You can have all of them if you want, darling,” Angie said. “Get rid of them for me.”
“I don’t want all of them. I only want one copy.”
When Angie had gone to bed, Toby asked why Heloise wanted the book anyway, and she said that she’d been thinking about their father. He rumpled her hair affectionately; in childhood games, she’d been her brother’s faithful squire, in awe of his glamour as he advanced ahead of her into life, knowing all the things she didn’t know. “I thought I went with Mum to France,” she said, “after Dad’s accident. But she told me no.”
“Why would you have gone?” Toby said. “None of us went. We had to stay with that ghastly family, the Philipses, and they were sanctimonious and sorry for us. I got drunk for the first time on their bottle of gin, really sick drunk, threw up all over their stair carpet, and they couldn’t even be mad with me, under the circumstances. I can remember thinking at the time—this is awful, really, considering that Dad was dying—that from now on, under the circumstances, I could get away with just about anything.”
Heloise said she’d been convinced, though, that she’d seen their dad in the hospital. “He looked so peacefully asleep, without his glasses: you know, how he was never peaceful in his life.” It was awful to think, she added, that their mother had travelled all alone to France.
“She wasn’t alone. She had her boyfriend with her.”
“Terry? Jerry? That guy who kept his furniture here to sell it. I couldn’t stand him.”
“I’d forgotten about him. But that was just a business relationship—he wasn’t her boyfriend.”
“Oh, yes, he was.”
Toby said that he’d once come across Angie “doing it,” as he put it, in his mocking, slangy drawl, with the stripped-pine dealer; this was in Clifford and Angie’s bed, before the accident. Heloise was shocked and didn’t want to believe it; but probably that sex scene was the kind of thing you couldn’t make up, unlike a picture of your dead father at peace. And she did remember vaguely that Toby had fought with the furniture dealer, at some point in that awful time after Clifford’s death—a real physical fight, fisticuffs, here in this very kitchen. Toby said that effectively he’d won the fight, although Terry had knocked him down. Because it didn’t look good, did it? Big beefy macho bloke beating up a skinny weak kid, his girlfriend’s kid, making his nose bleed. Angie hadn’t liked it. They hadn’t seen much of Terry after that.Most Popular
Heloise began reading “Rites of Passage in Contemporary Capitalist Societies” as soon as she got home that night. She seemed to hear her father’s own voice—which she hadn’t even realized she’d forgotten—right in her ear, urgent and confiding. This sense of Clifford’s closeness made her happy, just as it used to when she was small and he read to her at bedtime, or told her stories about his family or from history—she understood only years later that he’d never really been to Kiev or Berlin or Moscow. He hadn’t censored these stories or tamed them to make them suitable for a child; he’d called her his little scholar. His good moods couldn’t be trusted, though; he would come storming out of his study, ranting at the children if they made any noise when he was trying to write. Didn’t they care about his work, or believe it was important? Now Heloise was reading the actual words he’d written, describing the barrenness of life under consumer capitalism, the loss of the meaning that was once created through shared belief and ritual. And she seemed to see through the words, with miraculous ease, to the flow of her father’s thought.
When she picked up the book again, however, over her coffee the next morning, while she waited for Richard to bring back the children, she got bogged down in its technical language: “the significance of changing notions of value for the development of a capitalist economy,” or “the process of differentiation makes sense if we see it as a continuous process of negotiation.” It would take a huge mental effort on her part to even begin to master Clifford’s ideas, and she wasn’t convinced, in her daylight self, that it was worth it. She was afraid that, as the years had passed, the relevance of his formulations might have slipped away, as relevance had slipped from Toby’s quiz. The book’s pages had an unread, depressing smell. In the end, she lent it to Antony: he was better with that kind of writing than she was. If he felt like dipping into it, she said, she’d be interested to hear whether he thought it was any good. She liked to think of Antony having her book in his safekeeping.
Then, one stormy Thursday morning in half term, Heloise turned up unannounced at Antony’s house with Solly and Jemima. She had rung to ask him if they could come round, but his phone was switched off; in desperation, she’d decided to take a chance, drive over anyway. It had rained every day of the holiday so far, Richard was away, and Heloise had given up inventing things to do; often the children were still in pajamas at teatime. Rain came sluicing across the big windows of their flat, the conifers thrashed at the end of the garden, wheelie bins blew over. The rooms were like caves inside the noise of water, either greenish and spectral or bleak with the lights on in the middle of the day; the children crouched over their screens, whose colors flickered on their faces. Jemima accompanied back-to-back episodes of “Pet Rescue” on her violin; Solly played his Nintendo until he was glazed and drugged, shrugging Heloise off impatiently if she tried to touch him. The idea of Antony’s ordered home was a haven in her imagination. He would be struggling to keep up with his work while at home with his children, just as she was; only he was better at it, better at everything. His boys at this very moment, she thought, would be making art, or laughing at an old film. When Antony saw her, he’d know that she’d been trying her best, that the dreary shirtdress she’d put on was meant to be domestic and sensible. She thought that it was time to make some offer of herself, to find a way to express how she wanted him.
His front door was down some stone steps, in a narrow basement area crowded with bikes, and tubs planted with herbs and shrubs; the muscular gray trunk of a wisteria wound up from here, branching across the whole front of the house. Heloise was worried—once they’d rung the bell and were waiting in the rain, which splashed loudly in the enclosed stone space—at not hearing the children inside. She didn’t know what to do if Antony wasn’t in. She was counting on him. Then the door opened and Delia stood there, in a gray wool dressing gown and nice red Moroccan leather slippers. She had those weathered, easy looks that are just as good in the morning, without makeup; she seemed taken aback when she saw Heloise, and, for one confused, outraged moment, Heloise thought that Delia’s dismay was because she’d been caught out—Antony and Delia had been caught out together—in something forbidden and unforgivable. She knew perfectly well, in the next moment, that there was nothing forbidden about it. Antony could do what he liked. He didn’t belong to her.
“Delia, it’s you! Is Antony home?”
“He just popped out to buy bread for our breakfast. I thought you were him, coming back.”
“Breakfast! Gosh, we’ve been up for hours.”
Heloise knew how absurd she sounded, accusing them. “Where are the boys?”
The boys were with Antony’s mother, not due back till after lunch. Heloise had blundered into what should have been a lazy lovers’ breakfast: fresh rolls, butter, honey, scrolling through the news with sticky fingers, sharing stories. Imagining it, she was stricken with longing. Her children had been counting on their visit, too: Jemima, whining, pressed her snotty face into Heloise’s thigh; Solly kicked at the wall and swore. “I knew there was no point in driving over.”
“You’d better come in,” Delia said. “I’ll make coffee.”
“You don’t want visitors. We’re the last thing you want.”
“But you’d better come in. We ought to talk.”
Heloise still thought that Delia meant they should talk about whatever was happening between her and Antony. The children were squeezing past her already, shedding wet coats, dropping to the floor in the hall to tug off their Wellingtons, making a show of their eager compliance with house rules. Solly would be relishing the prospect of playing Max’s games without Max; Jemima was in a phase of exploring other people’s houses—she could spend hours staring into their cupboards and drawers, touching everything inside carefully, one item at a time. When Heloise followed Delia into the kitchen, she saw Clifford’s book on the table. Delia stood facing her, with her hand on the book, in a gesture that was almost ceremonial.
“If this is your father,” Delia said, “it makes a strange connection between us.”
At some point later, Heloise told her mother the whole story, though not about Delia moving in with Antony, not yet, in case her mother guessed that she’d had hopes herself. “There was no tree,” she said. “Apparently they spun across two lanes and smashed into a lorry coming the other way. Delia doesn’t remember this, but it’s what they told her. You made up the tree. And it was Delia, after all, who was the lover; it wasn’t the other one. The other one died.”
Angie sat listening stiffly, cautiously, as if there were something bruising and dangerous in this news for her, even after all this time. “So what’s she like, then, the lover-girl?”
Heloise said that she was hardly a girl. She wanted to say that Delia was cold and shallow and selfish, but she couldn’t. “She’s pretty tough. She’s made a life for herself. I like her—she’s a survivor.”
“What does she look like? Is she scarred? I hope so.”
She wasn’t scarred, Heloise said, as far as she could see.
Delia has never been able to remember anything from the time she and Clifford and Barbie set out for France until she woke up in hospital. Or just about woke up—into a long dream of pain, in which she was the prisoner of enemies speaking some alien language that was neither English nor French. Slowly, slowly, she’d come back from the dead. And now, after all these years, she can scarcely remember Clifford, either, or why he once seemed essential to her happiness. A few things: that he was overexuberant when making love, as if he was anxious to impress. That he was moved to tears when she played Brahms, though he argued that it was all up for nineteenth-century music. And the soft cleft shape of his chin, revealed when he shaved off his beard, disconcerting, as if a third person, younger and more tentative, were in the bed alongside them. They had met at a concert: he was a friend of the father of someone she knew from the Guildhall.
But she can remember getting ready, in the flat she shared with Barbie, that morning they left for France. Clifford was expected any moment, and Barbie was still packing, holding up one after another of the big-shouldered satiny dresses she wore, splashed with bright flower patterns, deciding which looked right for Paris, where she’d never been. Delia was anxious at the prospect of being without her violin for three whole days. She hardly thought about Clifford’s wife and children; she discounted them—she was unformed and ignorant and very young, used to discounting whatever got in the way of her music. Was Delia sure, Barbie worried, that it was all right for her to travel with them? Didn’t Delia and Clifford want to be alone together? Barbie promised to make herself scarce as soon as they got to Paris.
Delia wanted Barbie to come. Perhaps she was beginning to be tired of Clifford. Or perhaps she wanted to show off her grownup lover to Barbie, who hadn’t met him, or to show off Barbie to Clifford, have him see what lively, attractive friends she had. Barbie wasn’t a musician; she was a primary-school teacher. She was a voluptuous blonde, effervescent and untidy, with thick calves and ankles, always in trouble because of her no-good boyfriends, or because she drank too much, or fell out over school policy with her head teacher. Climbing up onto the bed now, she was holding one of her dresses in front of her, singing and pretending to dance the cancan. In Delia’s memory, the window is open that morning in her bedroom, it’s early spring, she’s happy. The slanting low sunlight is dazzling in her dressing-table mirror. ♦ (copied from The New Yorker)Author’s bio: Tessa Hadley has contributed short stories to The New Yorker since 2002, when her first novel, “Accidents in the Home,” was long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award. Since then, Hadley has published six highly praised novels, including “The London Train,” “Clever Girl,” “The Past,” and, most recently, “Late in the Day.” She is also the author of three short-story collections, “Sunstroke,” “Married Love,” and “Bad Dreams and Other Stories,” all of which were New York Times Notable Books. In 2016, she was awarded the Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction.
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