Gail leaves her at the door. Not literally. But Holly feels the emotional abandonment instantly. The moment Gail turns the key in the lock, pushes open the door and calls out into the cavernous entrance room, that small but charged current of hyper awareness that usually runs between them when they are in the same space disappears.
Maybe in another circumstance she might have been slightly miffed. But on this occasion Holly gets it. It’s not a betrayal, just a necessary measure of self-protection on Gail’s part.
And the protection, as Holly would have predicted, is against Elaine Peck. This is her turf. When they walk in, even Gail hesitates at the living room, calling out into the house, rather than just walking inside her own childhood home.
While they wait, Holly takes a chance to look around her. The house is as much of a display home on the inside as it is on the outside. On the outside it is not quite a McMansion, but bordering on it— a definite attempt at ostentation squeezed, turrets and all, onto a regular suburban block. The inside is clean and minimal, all tasteful furniture, tasteful beige, tasteful pre-framed art, tasteful blah. It is so removed from the eclectic clutter of books and plants and scratched woodwork Holly grew up around.
Elaine appears a minute or two after they walk into the living area, fashionably late to her own hosting. She is shorter than Holly would have imagined, given Gail and Steve’s height and her formidable reputation. She is dressed neatly but casually in jeans and a buttoned up shirt, her feet clad in spotless little tennis shoes. The elaborate casualness of her make-up and hair, however, tells Holly that plenty of effort goes into this offhand weekend look.
Elaine walks straight over to her daughter, barely glancing at Holly, and takes Gail by both hands and kisses her firmly on the cheek.
“Look at you,” she says, stepping back and appraising Gail.
“Yeah, same as last week,” Gail tells her, before retrieving her hands and flicking one uncomfortably between Elaine and Holly.
“Mum, this is Holly, Holly this is my mother, Elaine,” she says quietly.
Elaine gives Holly what is clearly her signature, charming smile, and offers a well-manicured hand to be shaken.
“It is lovely to meet you,” she says, taking the proffered bottle of suitably expensive red (Holly couldn’t help it. Never go to someone’s home empty-handed, her mother had drilled into her), her eyes quickly appraising the label before turning straight back to Gail.
“How are you, my darling?” She asks Gail, turning to walk out of the room, clearly expecting them to follow.
Gail ignores the question.
“Oh, probably out in the shed.” Elaine leads them briskly into the large kitchen, putting down Holly’s bottle and pulling another open bottle— white wine— from the stainless steel refrigerator. Holly looks around in the spotless white kitchen and wonders where the meal is coming from. It doesn’t look like anything resembling cooking has happened here in a while.
“So, how is work?’ Elaine takes three glasses from a cabinet and pours them each a glass without asking or offering first. “How is Frankie?” she then asks without waiting for an answer to her last question.
She holds out a glass to each of them, giving Holly a smile, before turning back to Gail and sitting at the bench and gesturing them to join her. “Poor Noelle.” She shakes her head. “A cancer scare at this time of her life. Awful.” She shakes her head,
“What?” Gail pauses, her glass halfway her mouth. “I … I didn’t know anything about that.”
“Oh, dear,” Elaine says, not looking the slightest bit contrite, Holly notes. “I suppose that was a secret.”
“Well maybe, yeah,” Gail agrees, the sarcasm dripping.
“Honey,” Elaine leans forward, picking at a strand of Gail’s hair. “Is your hairdresser on holiday? Your roots are showing.” She says this as though Gail has done something far more worrying, like forgotten to shower. “I’ve always said,” she continues, “If you want people to believe your hair really is that colour, you have to stay on top of it. It’s a job.”
“Mom, I don’t think anyone thinks …”
“So, are you girls hungry? I’ll call your brother. He should be here any minute, but you know what he’s like.” She hops down from her stool and strides out of the room, arms swinging like she is on the most important of missions.
The moment she leaves the room, Gail takes a hefty sip of wine, reaches for the bottle, pours a little more and turns to Holly, her eyes a silent plea, can we go now? Holly just smiles, picks up her hand and kisses it quickly before putting it down on the bench, glad to have her back, even for a moment.
Lunch happens quickly. The food materialises in the form of quiche and salad the moment Steve arrives. Bill, Gail’s father, a tall, craggy man joins them at the last minute at the dining table.
Elaine runs the show. From ordering everyone to sit, to telling Bill which bottles to bring in from the kitchen, to serving up the lunch singlehandedly, the table is very much her stage. She also runs the conversation, shifting from topic to topic as if ticking off a list of pressing questions she prepared earlier. The family seems used to it. Holly feels she had better get used to it, too, but it seems more like a strategic planning session than a lunch.
Holly had expected an interrogation of some sort, given why she is here, but it never comes. The questions are cursory, scattered queries: job, parents, where she grew up, if she rents or owns. But they are merely polite inquiries and there is rarely, if any, follow-up. It’s weird and not at all what she expected given Gail’s quiet panic about Elaine’s demand to meet her.
But as she sits back and takes in the orchestration of this rigorously casual Sunday lunch, she gradually starts to get the picture of what this lunch is really about. She hasn’t been invited to lunch to be scrutinised— well she has, but not openly and that’s not the point. She has been invited to lunch here to observe, to learn an important pre-emptory lesson, crafted by Elaine Peck, in understanding who is in charge around these parts. Holly, she realises, is here to be shown the power that lies in being the Peck. This lunch is a warning.
So, she is largely left to witness to the Peck merry-go-round of shoptalk, largely played out between Steve and Elaine. Aside from those perfunctory getting-to-know you questions, Holly is free to slip into the preferred— and required— position of non-participant observer of the mythic, and yet somehow totally mundane Family Peck in action.
She eats her food and tries to follow the conversation, a discussion about some detail Steve is working on, something that Elaine is clearly somehow involved with at the bureaucratic end, but there is too much lingo and too many unfamiliar names of people with jobs and habits and arrest records and back-stories she clearly does not know to follow.
Gail and Bill don’t add much either, except when called upon to contribute by Elaine’s demand. She notices the insane amount of shrugging coming from both Gail and her Dad. Bill just seems to shrug because he is clearly one of those men of few words, and for him a shrug is acquiescence. He seems to know it will pass as participation.
“Must all sound like babble to you,” he says to her at one point, a friendly aside.
Holly nods and smiles, but doesn’t say anything.
Instead she watches Gail graze around the quiche on her plate, eating the salad, and then picking at the crust, leaving the dreaded egg-y part to congeal slowly. She steals a quick glance at Holly every now and then, but never for long enough to communicate anything.
In fact Gail seems to be so far away that when her mother turns to her, she jumps at the question thrown down the table.
“So, sweetheart, have you applied for any of the new rotations coming up this winter?”
“No,” Gail shakes her head. “You know that.”
“Well, you better get thinking about something soon, pumpkin.”
Elaine throws endearments into her conversations like they are punctuation, but they don’t sound that endearing to Holly.
Gail doesn’t say anything, just picks up another forkful of greens and chews mechanically.
Holly is distracted for a moment by Steve proffering a bottle of wine. She nods and he tops up her glass, giving her a conspiratorial smile, a smile that tells her he is pretty sure he is saying she’ll need it. He is right.
“Seriously honey, you’ve been playing at rookie for long enough. You need to start moving up the ladder soon and get noticed, or you’ll get left behind.” Elaine leans forward, plucking her own wine glass from the table and sipping. “Seriously Gail, get on it. Don’t think this award will get you anywhere with your superiors.”
Holly watches Gail stop chewing momentarily, then restart, robotic.
“They all know it’s just a public relations exercise.” Elaine tells her, breezy. “Don’t think of it as any sort of laurel you can rest on.”
Gail just blinks at her plate.
“I won’t.” The words are thick and quiet.
Steve glances at Gail briefly and changes the subject, “So, Ma, did you hear O’Halloran got fired? Six months before his retirement.”
“Yes, I did.” Elaine takes the bait and swings back to him, “What did you hear about it? Tell!”
And they are off.
Holly takes another sip of her wine and looks over at Gail. She is just sitting there, looking at her plate. She has never seen her so inert, so impassive to attack. If anyone else had said something like that, Holly is willing to bet Gail would jump down his or her throat in a second. But Elaine Peck’s particular brand of assailment seems to render her immobile.
She knows that Gail partly agrees with what her mother is saying about the award—she’s said as much herself. But she also knows that there is a part of Gail that is pleased about it. She knows because she extended herself, turned against her own insecurities enough to want Holly to come and see her get it. But Holly also knows that Elaine’s nagging is not about the award, it is about putting Gail in her place, somehow. What Holly can’t figure out, though, is why she seems to think Gail needs putting in her place. Holly can’t imagine her own mother ever saying something like that or saying anything even remotely close to being so offhandedly— and publically— undermining, let alone acting as if it were a maternal favour.
How exhausting, Holly thinks. Maybe this lunch is a brief show to demonstrate to Holly who is boss, but this is also a permanent, relentless show for Gail. That has got to be draining. No, Holly is now starting to see what it is about Elaine Peck that makes Gail so defensive— and what it is about Gail that makes her so cautious to seeming vulnerable.
Holly turns to look at Bill, wondering where he fits into this dynamic. But looking at him, she realises he hasn’t even been listening. He has his head down, wolfing down his food, a million miles away. That’s probably how he has stayed married this long, Holly thinks. He turns off.
When lunch is over, Holly is refused her offer to help clean up. Instead Elaine stands, saying, “Oh no you don’t dear. Gail will help, won’t you sweetheart? I want some time with my girl.”
Gail nods slowly, reaching over to take Holly’s plate without looking at her.
“How’s the latest brew coming, Dad?” Steve turns to his father.
“Excellent,” Bill rubs his hands together. “We should have some ready for Christmas.”
“Let’s go.” Steve gets up. He turns to Holly, grinning. “You should come see this. But get a jacket.”
Holly nods, happy at this point to go wherever Elaine is not at this point.
She takes her jacket from the coat rack and follows them through the kitchen to the big wooden back door.
“Where are you going?” Gail calls from her station at the dishwasher.
“To the shed, of course. Come.” Steve tells her, pulling on his jacket.
Gail puts down a dish and turns, but Elaine, who is scraping plates at the sink is straight on to her. “Honey, stay in here, would you? I really need to talk to you about your aunt’s birthday lunch before you go.”
As Holly goes to follow them outside, she sees Gail sigh and turn back to the dishwasher. Poor Gail.
They lead her across a stretch of decking and down some wooden steps into the back garden. They march down a narrow path, recently swept clear of snow, in single file. It is lined on both sides with a thick stand of trees and snow-covered flowerbeds. They are headed, Holly supposes, for the tall wooden structure she assumes is the shed at the bottom of the long yard. When they get there, Bill pulls some keys from his pocket, unlocks the door and pushes it open. The shed has a high wooden roof, large shuttered windows and a pot-bellied stove. Someone has put a lot of work into crafting this space that somehow manages to be more homely than the house. It smells of wood smoke, tempered by a whiff of chemical she can’t place. They shuffle inside to be greeted with a scene that looks to Holly like one of her high school science projects.
“Welcome to the Peck distillery,” Steve tells her, resting a hand on a tall barrel by the door.
“Wow,” she says, crossing her arms over her chest and trying to make sense of the containers and pipes and barrels organised into some logic she cannot interpret on the polished wooden floor. “What exactly are you making?”
“Brandy, mostly,” Bill tells her, picking up a jar of reddish amber liquid from a shelf. “Gypsy style.”
“I have no idea what that means,” Holly confesses.
“It means it’s strong,” Steve grins at her, opening a bottle and waving it under her nose.
She gets a burning whiff of ethanol laced with some secretive spicy scent.
“I believe you,” she laughs, leaning away from it.
“They’re fruit brandies, mostly,” Bill tells her, more animated than he’s been since she got to the house. “Here,” he beckons her back over to the door of the shed. She comes over to stand next to him on the step.
He points up at the trees, “Apples over there, for apple brandy.” He points to another group of trees, “Cherry over there. The trick is to crush some of the pits into it. There’s an almond behind it, and plums by the house for prunes. Apricots and mulberries up at the cottage.”
“Wow.” Holly stares out into the snowy garden. She can tell there is a lot going on in this industrious yard, despite the thin blanket of snow covering the plants and trees and workbenches. “Did you plant all of these yourself?”
“Yes, when we first moved here, after Gail was born. The front garden is Elaine’s, but this, this is mine.” He looks around the yard one more time before turning and smiling at her. She smiles right back, recalling the neat privet hedges and manicured lawn at the front of the house, acknowledging the metaphor he is throwing out for her to interpret. The back yard is, indeed, a striking contrast.
“You have a cottage?” She asks.
“Yes, up North. It was my grandparents’ place. When we retire I’d like to live up there permanently.” He shakes his head, staring back out into the yard. “Summers just aren’t enough.”
Holly smiles at him again. She can see this quiet, grizzled man living in the woods somewhere, hermetic and happy. She realises that, until now, Gail’s father has been a silence, an unspoken presence, unlike the ineffable, ever-impending presence of her mother. Holly hadn’t ever given much thought to how he factored in. And now, standing here with him on the steps of his man-made kingdom of respite, he makes some sense of Gail for her. He, at least partly, explains the shifting sands of Gail’s moods, oscillating between aggressively on, to that dreamy counter-being who, if left to her own devices lapses into a dream state of staring, happily, for hours on end. He, she wonders, might just be what Gail could be if she were allowed to be content with herself. He is the tempering of the parts of Gail that are her mother.
Of course, they make Holly try some of the brandy, the plain spiced stuff that will be used for the Christmas eggnog, and then a sample of the cherry flavour. And just as Steve promised, it is strong. What is it with the Pecks feeding her hard liquor? Holly is not built for drinking strong spirits. But she obediently swallows down the drinks that to her, basically tastes like firewater, and praises it as best she can.
They return to the house, Holly feeling a touch unsteady after the two generous shots of brandy that have chased the lunchtime wine. Bill and Steve stop at the door discussing something to do with distilling that she can’t quite follow. She leaves them there to go in search of Gail, who she is sure must need rescuing by now. Gail is sitting on the couch in the living room with her mother. And yes, she looks relieved to see her. She stares up at Holly, her eyes wide open, another get me out of here, telegraphed straight at her. Holly wishes she knew how to find a way to end this visit, but the brandy is not exactly helping her in the speedy decision-making department.
“Gail, honey” Elaine interrupts, “Can you go upstairs and get that card for your aunt from my study? I need you and your brother to sign it before you go.”
“Okay,” Gail mumbles, reluctantly getting up from the sofa, her eyes fixed on Holly as she walks past.
Before Holly can even smile a reassuring smile at her, Elaine breezes right in with a question.
“So Holly, Gail tells me you just finished a paper for a research journal. What was it about?”
“Uh,” Holly stutters, trying to collect herself, “It was a paper on performing forensic analysis on bullet wounds in bodies that have been disposed in water.”
“Oh, I see. How interesting.” Elaine nods, approvingly, patting the sofa, inviting Holly to sit.
Obedient, Holly sits at the far end of the couch.
“It will be good for my Gail to spend some time around someone so driven.” She says, rubbing at a smudge on the coffee table. “Tell me, has she talked to you about any career plans? She doesn’t tell her mother anything.”
Holly suppresses a sigh. Here it is. This is the test— a test that barely bothers to disguise itself as anything else. With just this one question she knows she is being slotted into her place. Can she be instrumental? Will she be an ally or will she be a hindrance to Elaine Peck’s mothering project?
“Uh, I don’t know if she is planning anything,” Holly says carefully, wishing she didn’t feel quite so tipsy. Then, calculating, she adds, shrugging “We don’t really talk about that sort of thing.”
“Oh, well then,” Elaine says carefully, showing that she received it as Holly intended it to be received— an innocuous, but can’t-be-taken-the wrong-way reminder that Elaine and the things she thinks are important have no place in the world of Gail and Holly. It is offered as a small warning that their concerns for Gail are different— and that never the twain will meet. And certainly not behind Gail’s back.
“You know, Holly,” Elaine tells her, her brows furrowing as much as they can, “Joining the police force saved Gail. My girl was on a rocky road to that point.”
Holly stiffens. All she knows in this moment is that she cannot look at Elaine. If she takes in just a glimpse of the look that she knows will be on Elaine’s face right now, she will laugh. She knows it.
“Yeah, she on a rocky road to too much eye make-up and a permanent hangover.” Steve says, walking into the living room. “You make it sound like she was on the streets, one step away from giving favours for cash. Hardly the drama you make it, Mom.”
“Thanks Steve,” Gail says, walking in behind him. She delivers it in a tone that manages to tread the fine line between gratitude and ire. She thrusts a card and an envelope at him.
“Uh Holly, we had better go. “ she says, standing in the middle of the room, her hands thrust in her back pockets. “Don’t you have to get to that book club meeting?”
“Yes, yes I do,” Holly nods decisively, taking the out Gail has given her with both hands and standing up a little wonkily.
“Yeah, I got to run too, Ma,” Steve adds, quickly scribbling onto the card, shoving it in the envelope and handing it to Elaine, pressing a kiss on to her proffered cheek.
The farewells are relatively painless. Holly gets a couple of firm handshakes and some polite nice-to-meet-yous, and see-you-at-the-awards-nights and then stands back and watches Gail wrap her arms around her father in what is clearly an exchange of mutual affection. Holly smiles. At least he seems to be an ally. She then watches her submit to a ferocious hug and an all-undertone conversation with her mother as Steve opens the door for them.
Holly steps out onto the outside landing, glad for the rush of cold air to her senses.
“Hang on,” Steve mutters to her, holding the door open and waiting for Gail to extricate herself from their mother.
“Leave no man behind, that’s our motto,” he says.
Holly stifles a laugh as Bill and Elaine come to the door to wave them down the steps.
“Well, that was fun, as ever” Steve mutters, as they beat a hasty retreat away from the house. “See you guys later. It’s been real.” He strides away to his car, an arm raised in farewell.
“You have to drive,” Holly tells her, watching the Pecks close the front door behind them. She pulls her keys out of her pocket.
“Why?” Gail asks, grumpy, still clearly shrouded in home even though they are finally making their departure.
“Because your father and brother made me drink brandy.”
“Oh, then yeah, I better drive.” She catches the keys Holly tosses to her and walks around to the driver’s side.
Holly waits for her to unlock the door, stamping the freshly fallen snow off her feet and climbs into the car. She yanks the seatbelt across, but it won’t give, locking up on her each time she tries. She laughs at her own clumsiness.
“Holly,” Gail looks over at her, lips pursed, but a twinkle in her eye, “Are you drunk?”
“Uh, have you had your dear father’s hooch?” She finally gets the seatbelt right and clicks it into place. “I might be a little, yes,” She admits, nodding.
“Well you better sober up.” Gail smirks. “You have book club, remember?”
“Book club.” Holly gives her a slap her on the arm. “I can’t believe you put me in a book club. What if your parents ask me about it again? Why couldn’t you give me an extra-curricular activity I actually do?
“I had to think quick. And they won’t remember.” Gail says, perfectly assured as she starts the car and waits for it to warm up. “Beside, you’d totally do book club.”
“So, what are you doing now?” Holly asks, reaching over and pulling on Gail’s ear lobe. “You want to hang out?”
Gail swats her hand away. “Of course I want to hang out, Holly.”
“Good, Gail.” Holly crosses her arms, nodding, satisfied.
“But we’re going to my house.”
“Okay.” Holly shrugs. She doesn’t care where they go. But she does, she realises, want to know why Gail cares. “Why?”
“I kind of feel like paying a game. You know killing some people. She turns and grins. “Via remote control.”
“Oh, ha,” Holly chuckles. Therapy. Fair enough. “Then let’s go to your house.”
Gail grabs her hand quickly, kisses it, and pulls away from the kerb, depositing Holly’s hand back into her lap. “I’ll teach you to play.”
“Who says I can’t already?” Holly asks.
“You’re right.” Holly tells her, grinning. “I don’t want to play, but I’ll watch. One question though, do you have anything to drink? I think I’m going to need another drink.”
“Look in my bag,” Gail tells her, turning and smiling at her before focusing on the road.
“Just do it, Holly.”
Obedient, she lifts Gail’s bag from the floor near her feet and opens it. There, nestled inside is the bottle of red wine, the one she brought to lunch.
“You took it?” Holly gasps.
“So?” Gail shrugs. “She won’t miss it. She doesn’t deserve it, anyway.”
Holly kind of agrees, but she doesn’t say anything, because she doesn’t want to say anything. It’s not her place. But she can’t resist asking one burning question.
“I have to ask, why would someone cook quiche for someone who doesn’t even like it?”
Gail laughs. It’s a bitter laugh, but it’s the first of the day, so Holly will take it.
“Holly, you don’t think my mother actually made that lunch, do you? Even that salad came ready-made in plastic from the market.” She makes a turn out of the street. “My mother doesn’t cook. She caters.”
Holly just shrugs. She suspected as much, but that’s not her point. She rests her head against the headrest, watching the suburban streets float by, feeling slightly queasy. That brandy is a stayer.
“Besides, she couldn’t really be expected to know that, anyway.” Gail asks. “And why’d you eat it then?”
“No, not me, you idiot.” Holly turns to her. “You. That thing was rife with egg.”
“Oh.” Gail shrugs. “Like she’d remember I hate eggs?”
To be continued....
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