Tara and Tania Winchester
Bill looks down at his twin daughters. Tara and Tania look back. He stares down at them. They stare back. He glares at them. They glare back. He scowls. They scowl back.
All in all, he should have given it up as a lost cause right from the start. He never wins.
“Girls, your first day at St. Trinian’s is tomorrow,” he says, perfectly aware that he sounds like he’s pleading. “You need to get your rest.”
“We want a bedtime story,” they say in perfect unison. He hates it when they do that. He hates it when they activate any of their Creepy Twin Powers, as he and their brother Will call them. He always starts wondering if they’re psychic, in which case, he’s in big trouble.
“But it’s late,” he argues, sitting down on the edge of Tania’s bed.
“So?” they ask. Together. He frowns at them.
They frown back.
“You need rest,” Bill says, and Tara sighs, snuggling down under her covers and tugging her stuffed bunny up to her chin.
“You need rest,” she says.
“We need a bedtime story,” Tania says.
“Tell us a story about Mummy,” they say simultaneously.
Of course, Bill thinks, they would want to know about Mary. His wife died giving birth to them, and they never knew her. And now that they’re starting at her old school, he supposes it’s natural that they’re curious. He ought to have expected it, really. So he groans, gets up, and grabs one of the little chairs by their tea set, sitting down carefully. The wood creaks ominously underneath it, but it doesn’t shatter, so he relaxes and tries to decide which story about his Mary he should tell.
He considers for a moment, and then nods to himself, deciding. “They called her Mayhem Mary,” he begins.
“Mummy?” Tara asks.
“Of course Mummy,” Tania says immediately, scoffing. “He isn’t going to tell us a random story about some woman named Mary.”
“Just checking!” Tara says defensively. Tania smirks at her, and then looks back at Bill, smiling.
“They called her Mayhem Mary,” he says again, “And she was one of the wildest girls at St. Trinian’s. No one could quite keep up with her. Her teachers despaired; her friends adored her.”
Bill pauses, trying to think of what to say next. Mary had never told him much about her years at St. Trinian’s, preferring to smile mysteriously and chuckle before changing the subject. He heard some stories, though, and of course he knows a few of her school chums. They’d been far more forthcoming, especially after Mary died.
“She was a Goth, which I’m told is like a school house. And she led the Goths by the end of her years at St. Trinian’s.”
“Did she like fire?” Tania asks.
“Did she like explosions?” Tara asks immediately afterward.
Bill smiles fondly. “She liked both. She was always looking for a new way to blow things up; she always found it. And I’m told that no one would lend her matches or lighters, because it was certain she would set something on fire.”
“Wicked,” they mutter at the same time.
“When she was sixteen, the school decided to take a field trip with the older students. They decided to visit Paris, figuring it would be an excellent cultural experience. Mary took French lessons, and she was particularly eager to test her language skills.”
He contemplates telling them that her language skills largely consisted of, “Drop your handbag and no one gets hurt,” and “Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t know how your wallet ended up in my jacket,” but decides against it. Telling the girls about explosions and fire is one thing; he’s a demolitions expert, and they’ve blown things up with him for years. Telling them about extortion and pick-pocketing is where he draws the line. At any rate, they’ll be learning those skills soon enough, and they can make their own conclusions about what Mary got up to at St. Trinian’s. So he plunges forward.
“Away they went, a group of sixty or so girls, to Paris. But as I’ve told you, St. Trinian’s isn’t an ordinary school.”
“It’s an extraordinary school,” Tara and Tania chime in together. Bill nods.
“Exactly. So when Mary set foot on French soil, she knew she had to leave her mark. She knew she had to do something so grand, so marvelous, that not only would St. Trinian’s girls be talking about it for years, but Parisians as well.”
“What did she do?” Tania asks.
“Quiet, he’s getting there!” Tara snaps.
“Mary liked fire and explosions. But she also liked being outside. She was- she was a consummate outdoorswoman,” he says, choking up a little. It was how they met, he and Mary. He’d been out camping with some mates, and they’d gone canoeing. Their canoe had tipped, and they’d been unable to right it. Mary had come paddling past, watched their struggles while laughing uproariously for nearly twenty minutes, and then hauled Bill into her canoe with one hand. It had been love at first sight, for him at least. He’d never asked her. He wishes he had.
He clears his throat noisily. “She loved canoeing, and camping, and hunting, but her favorite thing to do was climb rocks and then rappel down.”
“Rocks?” the twins say skeptically.
Bill shrugs. “I don’t get the appeal myself, but Mary loved it. She’d go every weekend, attach herself to some cliff, and start climbing. She was brilliant at it. Made everyone else look pathetic.”
“What does this have to do with Paris?” Tara asks.
“He’s getting there!” Tania says, glaring at her sister.
Bill glances up at the ceiling. God help him, Mary had to have twins. “Yes, well. She loved climbing, and she loved rappelling. So she took her equipment and went to the Eiffel Tower. She considered climbing it, but it’s not exactly built for people to climb on, so she rode to the top and then climbed outside.”
“Wow,” they say, sounding shocked. That’s quite all right. When Nancy told Bill the story, he’d stared at her in horror, and then looked over at Mary, who had been laughing herself sick. Of course.
“The police were there within minutes, convinced that she was a jumper. People were screaming at her to get inside. But Mary ignored them all, just climbed up a bit further, as high as she could. Then she hooked up her harness, put on a helmet, steeled herself and rappelled on down the Eiffel Tower.”
Bill pauses, imagining the sight in his mind. He’d had years with Mary, some of the best of his life, but she’d settled a little when he’d married her. Mellowed a bit, been less reckless. He appreciates that, in some ways, because they’d had Will only a year or two after they’d married, and having a wife who was reckless with her life would have given him a coronary, he’s sure. But sometimes, he wishes he had known her when she was young and still carefree. Still throwing herself down buildings and laughing at the world.
“Did the police arrest her?”
“Did she get expelled?”
“Well,” Bill says, “Not according to your mummy. According to Mary, she was hailed as a hero by all around. According to Nancy, though, she spent four days in lockup while the headmistress bargained for her freedom.”
The girls giggle, and Bill grins, continuing. “I do know this much, though. Your mummy and I had our honeymoon in Paris. And a number of people recognized her and insisted on shaking her hand. Mary did what she came to do. She left her mark on Paris.”
He stands up and goes to tuck the girls in. It’s enough of a story to keep them satisfied, and he’s exhausted. His girls go off tomorrow for St. Trinian’s, where they’ll learn math and history and English and how to blow things up and how to say “This message will self destruct” in three different languages. They’re already so much like their mother, Bill thinks, leaning down to kiss them on their forehead. So much like her, and they never knew her. St. Trinian’s will only bring out the similarities more.
“Good story, Daddy,” Tania murmurs.
“One of your best,” Tara agrees.
“I love you,” they say together.
“Love you too,” he says, and then switches off the light, walking quietly out of their bedroom. He shuts the door behind them, and leans against the wall, covering his face with one big hand. He ignores the tears welling up behind his eyes, taking deep, steady breaths. Mary’s been gone for ten years, and while it’s gotten easier, it’s never stopped hurting. She would have loved them, he thinks, pushing himself away from the wall. She would have loved teaching them advanced chemistry and stories of women warriors. He’s raised them well, and he doesn’t doubt for a minute that he’s a good father, but he wishes his wife had been by his side to do it. He misses his Mayhem Mary.
He walks down the hall and smiles to himself. She’d left her mark on Paris. But more importantly, she’d left her mark on them.
Her first family Christmas after she graduates is… awkward, at best.
Not because Taylor has a problem with her family, no. Taylor adores her family. For the most part, anyway. She loves her parents, would do anything for them. She likes Madison, the sister she’s closest to in age, who is also hearing. She doesn’t get on so well with her younger two siblings, Tristan and Ellie, who are hearing and Deaf, respectively. But those are petty, small squabbles, regular sibling stuff, and that isn’t why her first family Christmas after graduating is awkward.
It’s awkward because Andrea is there, and Andrea can barely speak BSL.
Taylor holds one of her hands under the table, squeezing it reassuringly as she signs rapidly with her father, Andrew, debating the merits of red wines over white (red sells better on the black market, which isn’t an argument Taylor can really use in her argument, but if she could, she’d win), and Madison translates the conversation between Tristan and Ellie for Andrea with ease. Their mother, Cynthia, just sits and watches Andrea with hooded eyes, sipping her (red) wine and pursing her lips. Taylor desperately wants to know what she’s thinking, but her body language skills are really limited to reading threats, so she just squeezes Andrea’s hand again and shouts as loudly as she can at her father, with her hands, that a poor Bordeaux is still better than a good Riesling.
Later, when the dishes are cleared and the leftovers are crammed into the refrigerator, Cynthia turns to consider Andrea and signs, “I want to talk to you.”
Andrea follows the words carefully, and Taylor can see her translating them into English. After a moment or two she turns to look at Taylor, her face contorting into terror. It’s possibly justified. Her mum doesn’t know about the two of them, but it doesn’t matter. Cynthia views every conversation as an interrogation. It’s always fun to watch, though. Taylor grins at Andrea, gestures for her to grab a drink, and follows her mum into their living room.
Cynthia Pearce is not Taylor’s role model in life, because they are nothing alike. Cynthia is a professor at a university, smiles far too much, likes to bake, and thinks that law enforcement officers are God’s gift to the world. But Taylor admires her mum, because every time someone told her that it was impossible for a Deaf person to do this, or a woman to do that, or a Deaf Black woman to do this and that, her mum just looked at that someone with a raised eyebrow and proceeded to prove them horribly, unmistakably wrong. Mostly just because she could.
Taylor admires sheer guts.
Cynthia sits on what the entire family refers to as The Throne (which only her mum sits in) and indicates for Andrea to sit down in the chair nearest to her. Taylor throws herself on the sofa, making sure to kick off her shoes before her mum yells at her. Andrea sits down in the chair Cynthia pointed to, perching on the very edge and glancing over at Taylor every few seconds, looking as though she’s about to be massacred. Taylor finds this all very amusing.
“So,” Cynthia signs, smiling warmly at Andrea, “what is it that you and Taylor do together?”
Andrea goes pale-faced and blank, and Taylor resists the urge to snicker. Well, Mum, she wants to sign, We do a lot of stuff with ropes and candlewax…
“We’re…” Andrea begins to sign, and then pauses, visibly searching for the word. She settles for fingerspelling. “I-n-t-e-r-v-e-n-t-i-o-n-i-s-t-s.”
Cynthia glances over at Taylor, who provides the sign. Cynthia nods quickly. Taylor supposes the cover story is close enough to the truth. Kidnapping people does intervene, in a way. It certainly interferes.
“What made you decide to go into that work?” Cynthia asks. Andrea glances at Taylor who interprets. Andrea bites her tongue, and raises her hands hesitantly.
“See girls school break themselves,” Andrea signs. “Want make stop.”
Taylor cringes to herself. She loves Andrea’s hands. They are one of her favorite things about her. She has wide, large hands and long fingers, and her knuckles are lovely enough to eat (and sometimes, she does). They aren’t graceful hands, necessarily, but they’re competent hands, sure hands. They’re hands that you trust. But Andrea knows only a bit of BSL, only what she’s picked up from Taylor, and still signs clumsily, like her hands are tripping over themselves. Her vocabulary is pathetically small as well. Taylor’s first language was BSL; she thinks in BSL, breathes BSL, and reaches for BSL first when she wants to communicate before she remembers that everyone around her is hearing, that she is hearing, and that she lives in the world of English. It’s hard for her to watch Andrea’s hands stumble.
Cynthia just nods, though, ignoring Andrea’s clumsiness and beaming. “That’s admirable,” she signs, and Taylor automatically begins interpreting. “I wouldn’t have thought my Taylor would want to be involved in something like that, though.”
Andrea has no poker face. She swivels to look at Taylor, and then looks over at Cynthia with a weak smile. “Well, you know,” she signs. That, at least, comes out clearly.
Cynthia bursts into laughter, loud and raucous, and Taylor laughs as well. Andrea just keeps smiling weakly, too nervous to laugh. After a few minutes, her mum calms down again and grins at Andrea, leaning over to pat her on the hand.
“Don’t hurt yourself, honey,” her mum signs. Andrea looks over at Taylor, who shrugs.
“Didn’t quite catch that,” she says. Some things are probably best left in the ether.
They drift into silence, and Taylor reaches for her wine, unsure of what to do next. She supposes she could ask after her mum’s work, but then, she doesn’t much care for political science, and she’d rather not hear a lengthy lecture on the Philippines, and Andrea wouldn’t understand a word of it, in BSL or in English. Taylor wouldn’t either, really. Both of them weren’t much in the way of learning. Chaos and destruction, that was them. And of course, she can’t tell Cynthia more about their work because, well, interventionists they aren’t. She guesses she could ask her mum about her siblings, but that’s a bit desperate, and she’d like to think that they haven’t reached that point yet.
“So, how long have you two been fucking?” Cynthia asks. Out loud. Her voice is a bit garbled and overly loud, but her meaning is clear. Taylor chokes on her wine. Of course her mother would speak when she doesn’t want Taylor to censor her. Of course.
Andrea is turning bright red beneath her foundation, which is toned down for Christmas- she almost looks normal, and Taylor hates it, but this is what meeting the parents consists of, putting on fancy outfits and smiling at the right moments and pretending that you’re just friends- and looking like she wants to die, so Taylor glares at her mum.
“What the hell, Mum?” she signs. Cynthia grins at her.
“Well, it was obvious that you weren’t just going to tell me,” her mum signs back. “I had to take matters into my own hands.”
“Did you have to sound like a sixth former while doing it?” Taylor snaps back. Cynthia just snorts in response. Taylor’s third word in BSL was “fuck.” Her father was appalled. Her mum, according to family legend, was mostly amused. Taylor comes by her crudeness naturally.
“So, how long?” Cynthia asks again, looking over at Andrea, who appears to be sinking into the chair and trying to be as invisible as possible. Andrea isn’t looking at her. Cynthia scowls and bangs her hand against the wall. Andrea shrieks a little, jumping. Cynthia smiles. “How long?” she signs, her hands slow and clear.
Andrea looks at Taylor, eyes wide and darting. Taylor scowls. She has her mother’s scowl, she knows. She tosses back the last of her wine in one go and waves her hand at Andrea, who looks back at Cynthia and shrugs minutely.
“A while?” she says. Taylor translates it quickly before her mother can ask.
Cynthia sighs. “How long is a while?”
Taylor and Andrea instantly lock eyes, trying to do the math. They’ve been disagreeing about this for months. They have to celebrate two anniversaries. It’s fucking annoying, it is. They stare each other down, and raise their hands at the same time.
“Thirteen months,” Taylor signs.
“Fourteen months,” Andrea signs at the same time.
Cynthia raises an eyebrow.
Taylor scowls. So does Andrea. “I count since we made it official. In the official sense,” Taylor says, not feeling the need to go into detail. “Andrea counts since our first date. Even though,” she spits, directly her comment toward Andrea, “we weren’t exclusive at the time.”
Andrea rolls her eyes. “I keep telling you, Irene and I were just friends.”
Taylor isn’t sure what sort of friends give that sort of massage, but she doesn’t want to rehash the old argument in front of her mum, so she settles for glaring at Andrea and hissing, “Thirteen months,” before looking back at Cynthia and smiling politely.
“Were you a Chav, too?” Cynthia asks Andrea, ignoring Taylor.
Andrea stares blankly at Taylor’s mum for a long moment, but comprehension finally dawns and she laughs. “Oh, no! God, no!” she signs, and Taylor lets out a huff of annoyance. “Emo,” Andrea signs.
Cynthia looks at Andrea critically. Andrea is wearing regular makeup, and her hair is lacking its usual pink or orange or purple or blue dyed streaks. She’s wearing a simple frock, a deep green for Christmas, and if anyone passed her in the street, they’d take her for just another eighteen-year-old. It’s disgusting, Taylor thinks, but then, she also looks blandly normal. They don’t look like Emos or Chavs. If anything, they look like muted Posh-Totties. Or maybe Annabelle, pre-makeover. They don’t look like St. Trinian’s girls.
“You’re an Emo?” Cynthia asks.
“Yes,” Andrea says firmly.
Cynthia looks at her a moment longer, and then nods to herself. “Look like yourself next time,” she signs. “Don’t put on these costumes for my sake.”
Taylor translates, and Andrea smiles at Cynthia. They drift off into silence once more, the horribly awkward part of the evening over. Her mum has known for years that she’s bisexual, after all, so it isn’t as if she was coming out. Taylor just likes to keep her relationships private. In the Deaf community, nothing is private. In a few days, every Deaf person in London will know about Andrea. Possibly every Deaf person in the United Kingdom, Taylor reflects ruefully. It’s both a blessing and a curse.
It is possibly because neither Taylor nor Andrea is actually looking at Cynthia that Cynthia says, out loud, “When do I get grandchildren?”
Taylor contemplates dying. She imagines Andrea is doing the same.
Andrea contemplates dying.
She wishes desperately to be at the Pearce’s again for Christmas dinner, like last year. Her BSL has gotten so much better; she suspects that she can hold a full conversation with Cynthia, Andrew, and Ellie without needing any of the hearing family members to translate. She’s taken classes and everything, courtesy of Peaches. Taylor’s mum likes to take every opportunity to embarrass them to death, and bother them about having babies, but anything would be better than sitting in the frozen, icy hell that is her parents’ house.
Her mother, Olivia, eyes her over the veal scallopine piccata. Her posture is perfect. Andrea automatically corrects her own slouch, shooting a glance at Taylor, trying to get her to do the same. Taylor ignores her, poking listlessly at the veal, her elbows on the table. Taylor hates veal. Taylor hates posh meals. Taylor hates being dressed up within an inch of her life. Andrea imagines she must hate every minute of this meal, what with its veal, the multiple forks, and the black tie requirement.
That’s quite all right. Andrea hates it too.
“Is the main course not to your liking, Miss Pearce?” Olivia asks, her voice cool. Taylor glances at her.
“Naw, it’s… fine,” Taylor says. As if to demonstrate, she shovels a forkful into her mouth, grimacing around the taste. Olivia wrinkles her nose disdainfully.
“It’s disgusting,” Andrea says bluntly. She isn’t going to let her girlfriend suffer. “Veal scallopine piccata is gross.”
“Andrea,” her mother scolds, and Andrea scowls.
“It is. Why would you serve veal at Christmas?”
She knows why. The same reason why her mother is wearing her best diamonds. Why they’re eating in the dining hall with the chandelier instead of in the kitchen. Why there are five forks and too many courses to keep track of. Her family has always been about status and showing off. Taylor, despite everything, doesn’t look particularly high class. Her mother wants to rub their money in her face.
“Veal scallopine piccata is quite good if you have the palate for it,” her mother sniffs, taking a small bite. Anyone who didn’t know Olivia Baldwin would assume that she enjoyed it. But Andrea knows her mother, and can tell from the slightest tightening of her hand around the fork that, like Taylor and Andrea, she doesn’t like it. She looks at her plate to hide her smile.
“I guess people who don’t like veal are low class slobs, then,” she says. “Oh well.”
Taylor gives her an odd look, but Andrea ignores it in favor of smiling blandly at her mother. Olivia looks at her coldly. Andrea stabs her fork into the veal and flops it onto her empty dessert plate. Then she continues to eat her braised asparagus (which she also hates, but she can’t win every battle) with such daintiness that her mother can’t complain.
Andrea hadn’t wanted to have Christmas with her mother. She and Taylor had been planning to have Christmas with the Pearce’s again, just like last year. But then Olivia had called, demanding their presence.
“Your father is going to Uruguay on business,” she’d said airily, “And your brothers will be with their wives, of course. You can’t leave me all alone in this house, Andrea, you simply can’t.”
And of course, she couldn’t. Taylor is the spine in their relationship. Andrea regrets that, at times, because here they are, poking at veal scallopine piccata and braised asparagus with the wrong forks. She likes to think that she has more backbone with other things. Just not with her mother. Her mother is terrifying.
“So, how’s business going, Mrs. B?” Taylor asks suddenly, shoving her plate away from her. Andrea can feel her mother cringe at the shortening of her name.
“Oh, it’s fine. I suppose you wouldn’t understand much about business yourself-” Olivia begins, and Taylor snorts.
“I understand plenty. Andrea and me, we’re entrepreneurs. Got our own chief financial officer and everything.”
Andrea doesn’t point out that their CFO is really just a school friend who is also a hacker and can funnel them money from whichever bank accounts she feels are morally dubious. It rather ruins Taylor’s point.
“Yes,” her mother says dubiously. “Well. Still, my business is a little different than yours, what with shareholders and whatnot.”
“We got shareholders,” Taylor says, sipping her water.
Andrea shoves asparagus in her mouth. Their shareholders are, again, schoolmates.
“Do you appear on the stock exchange?” her mother says frigidly. Taylor folds her hands on the table and crosses her legs, suddenly looking so much like a businessperson that it pains Andrea, a bit. Her parents are businesspeople. She doesn’t like them much.
“Not yet, but our business is only two years old,” Taylor says. “We’re looking for investors.”
“You’re interventionists, Miss Pearce.” Olivia sneers. Taylor looks at her seriously.
“It’s a growing market.”
Andrea wonders if she memorized Wikipedia before coming over, or if she called Polly and asked for a quick lesson. Because she’s speaking Olivia’s language. Her mother shifts in her seat, which means that she’s interested, despite herself. Andrea and her mother have never gotten along, not since she began wearing all black and generally calling attention to herself, but if there is something her mother dislikes more than her children standing out in a bad way, it’s her children failing. Andrea’s brothers are both businessmen, but they’re stuck in middle management, have been for years. Everyone knows how disappointed her mother and father are with Alexander and Allen.
But, Andrea realizes, she started her own business. She’d never thought about it like that before.
“You had start up capital, I take it?” Olivia asks, and Taylor shrugs.
“Graduation money, but we’re running out.”
“Are you in the red?”
“No. But we’re not in the black.”
“Do you have a financial portfolio?”
Taylor leans down and reaches into her briefcase, a Chanukah gift from Polly. Andrea hadn’t really understood at the time. Polly doesn’t buy them Chanukah gifts. And they don’t need briefcases. Now, as Taylor hands over a thick booklet, Andrea thinks that they planned this.
You bloody gits, she thinks, watching in amazement as her mother flips through God knows what. It certainly can’t be a real financial portfolio. Polly wouldn’t show her mother what she and Taylor are really doing, what with the kidnapping and the blackmailing. She looks at Taylor and frowns, but Taylor smiles at her reassuringly, and Andrea tries to convince herself to relax.
“This is quite impressive,” Olivia says finally. “Especially as you’ve only just begun. I have a few suggestions for diversification and expansion that I’d like to discuss with you after dessert.”
“Sounds wonderful,” Taylor says, and her mother rings the bell for the servants to bring in the next course.
After dessert, they retire to her mother’s study and talk for two hours over the privatization of certain fields like the prison system and the implications on intervention. Taylor lays out a five year strategy that Andrea has never seen in her life, moving away from individual interventions to a series of large, commercial facilities specializing in group interventions, and how they’ll be different from rehabilitation facilities. It’s surreal on a number of levels. For one, they aren’t interventionists. They’re criminals, and Taylor seems to have lost track of that somewhere along the way,
And Taylor and Andrea both hate the privatization of these things. They both think it’s dangerous. And yet here Taylor sits with business projections and charts and tables, and a stock portfolio, and Andrea is certain, dead certain, that they didn’t have these things this afternoon.
Then Taylor and her mother begin debating about diversification and benefits and employee qualifications. Andrea watches in blank fascination as Taylor sips Chianti and insists that she isn’t going to Uni to get a degree in social work, no matter what the benefits are to the business. That’s because there are none. Criminals don’t need degrees in social work to do their job.
“I think you’re being stubborn,” Olivia says acidly, and Andrea sighs. She’s about to argue the point on Taylor’s behalf, but before she can, Olivia continues. “Despite that, you girls have good business sense. You can expect my check in the mail by New Years. And I’d like to buy a third of your stock.”
“You- what?” Andrea says, shocked.
“I’m sorry?” Taylor asks, sounding equally shocked.
“Well, I presume you had a point in showing me all of this,” Olivia says, gesturing to the piles of paper covering her desk. “And I presume that point was to get me to invest in your business.”
“Well, yeah,” Taylor says bluntly. “But buying a third of our stock?”
Olivia crosses her legs and smiles chillily. Andrea has to look away from her. She hates that smile. It’s cold and ugly.
Taylor once told Andrea that she thinks that she and Cynthia Pearce are nothing alike, but Andrea thinks that they are. They’re blunt and to the point, and they don’t see the point in secrets. They go for what they want, and don’t believe in obstacles. They both love fiercely. And maybe Taylor doesn’t know much about the Philippines, and maybe she doesn’t like to bake, but at least they have the same smile. At least they’re on the same side.
Most days, she isn’t even sure if she loves her mother.
“Yes. As I’ll be giving you enough capital to ensure that whatever money you bring in for the next five years keeps you firmly in the black, I don’t see why I shouldn’t have a controlling investment in your company.”
Andrea licks her lips. She doesn’t like that word, controlling.
“What do you want?” she asks, twisting her hand in her dress. It’s a very nice dress. Chelsea sent it to her. Some sort of designer, and she suspects that Chelsea would shriek if she could see what she’s doing to the fabric.
Olivia looks at her, her eyes cold. “You’re expecting me to say something horrible, aren’t you? You expect that I’ll want daily inspections, or that I’ll want to completely change your business philosophy.”
Andrea hadn’t even known that they had a business philosophy, actually. She nods anyway, folding her arms over her chest.
“You’re wrong,” Olivia says. “What I want is very simple.”
Her mother rings the bell, ordering tea from the servant who appears. Andrea groans mentally. Let it never be said that her mother doesn’t have a flair for the dramatic. Her mother shuffles papers around, carefully organizing them and putting them neatly into their folders before handing them back to Taylor, who looks like she regrets all of this. She’ll be sleeping on the couch tonight, Andrea decides. Possibly tomorrow night as well. After the tea arrives, Olivia carefully prepares hers and drinks some before finally answering the question.
“What I want, Andrea, is monthly tea with my daughter and her partner.”
Andrea stares at her mother, who stares back. Automatically, she pours herself tea, and then turns to Taylor. “Oolong?” she offers.
“No,” Taylor says. “I think I’ll, uh, go look at the pictures in the hallway.”
Taylor disappears, leaving Andrea to stare blankly at her mother while expertly preparing tea, her hands moving as if by rote. She learned how to pour tea when she was four. Poured tea for a Countess when she was ten. Andrea has always moved in exalted circles, and she has always been a disappointment to her mother.
“Pictures,” her mother sniffs, finally. “That’s what she calls Rembrandt.”
“She thought The Girl With the Pearl Earring should wear hoops,” Andrea says without thinking. Olivia sneers into her teacup.
“I must say, dear, you’ve never had very good taste in girlfriends.”
“Father thinks Rembrandt is a footie team,” Andrea points out acidly, and Olivia sighs.
“No, he thinks Rembrandt is a toothpaste brand. He thinks Chagall is a footie team.”
They reflect for a minute on John Baldwin’s artistic foolishness, and sigh in unison. They’ve never been able to figure out why Chagall gets mistaken for a football team. There doesn’t seem to be any internal logic to it at all.
“I thought I was a disappointment,” Andrea says finally. Olivia sets her teacup down carefully and taps one finger against the back of her hand, frowning delicately.
“You are, in a way.”
Andrea’s heart sinks. “Oh.”
Olivia sighs. “Well, look at you, Andrea. You wear hideous clothes, your makeup is disgusting, you date girls, you went to a laughable school- I’d rather tell people you went to prison than St. Trinian’s- and I cringe when I think about your friends. A Kaluwitharana and Chloe Lewiston? She’s the VP of my rival company, Andrea. It’s like you’re trying to embarrass me.”
It’s not that she tried, Andrea knows. It’s just that no matter what she did, nothing was right.
“You didn’t go to Uni,” her mother continues, ticking off her points on her fingers, “And you’re not particularly bright, even, so I doubt you could. You were raised with the best of culture around you, and yet I know for a fact that you no longer attend the symphony or the opera. You are utterly spineless, can barely speak against me; it’s pathetic really.”
Andrea contemplates dying again. At the very least, she’d like the chair to swallow her whole. Or for Taylor to rescue her.
“And yet,” Olivia says, continuing on blithely, “You started your own business and it’s doing quite well. You have friends, despite your social anxiety. You’re in love, and your partner loves you. You aren’t me, which is your own way of having a backbone, I suppose. So while you are marginally disappointing, you also seem to be succeeding in… what you want to be succeeding in.”
Andrea sips her tea carefully, her hands shaking a little. It isn’t how they define success in their family, not at all, and she wonders what it cost her mother to use success in that way. “Oh,” she says finally.
“Besides, you’re my only daughter,” Olivia says. “Of course I want to have tea with you once a month. You’re not everything I wanted, but I still love you.”
On their way home that night, Andrea presses her cheek against the taxi window, enjoying the cold air from outside. Taylor holds her hand gently, but doesn’t invade her space. They’re very bad girlfriends, at times, but Taylor knows better than to get too close when she’s troubled.
“I don’t like my mother very much,” Andrea says softly, after a while.
“I know, love,” Taylor says, just as softly.
“She was so mean to me, when I was young.”
“Seems to me she’s still mean now,” Taylor replies.
Andrea shuts her eyes tight and lets out a long breath. “I think she tries,” she says. “But doesn’t quite know how.”
Taylor is silent for a long time, simply stroking her thumb over Andrea’s, but when she speaks, her voice is slightly troubled. “I just wanted to get some money out of the bint. Wanted to laugh as she paid for our… business expenses. Thought it would be funny, you know? Woman like her, being involved in what we do and her not even knowing it. But if the cost is going to be you, I’d rather drop it all and tell her to rot in hell.”
Andrea opens her eyes and shakes her head, looking up at the sky and trying to imagine what the stars would look like, if she could see them through the haze of city lights. “I’d like to try it. For a while. I’m her only daughter. She loves me.”
It feels like a blank recitation, and her mouth twists bitterly. If only the words made it all better. Taylor tugs her away from the window and into her arms, pressing her lips to Andrea’s temple.
“I love you, you fucking harpy. And next year, we’ll have Christmas together, just the two of us. No mothers to make things awkward.”
Andrea does her best to burrow into Taylor’s side, tucking her face into Taylor’s neck, and takes a deep breath. And another. And another. And another.
Sometimes all she can do is hold on.
In the world of criminal syndicates, there ought to be no time for family. There are people to threaten, bribe, extort, blackmail, and kill. There are things to smuggle, steal, exchange, forge, and light on fire. There are drugs to be bought, sold, and made. It is a busy life, and to be the head of a criminal syndicate is to be busier than most. And yet, Nimala finds herself staring at her day planner and considering when she wants to hold her daughter’s birthday party.
“The fifteenth,” she says, and Alanna, her assistant, shakes her head.
“No, that’s when your husband is going to raid one of our meth labs,” she reminds her, and Nimala lets out a sigh of disgust.
“Yes, yes, why isn’t that in here?”
“I believe Mr. Kaluwitharana forgot to add it,” Alanna demurs. Nimala snorts. Her polite way of saying Suresh is an airhead. She grabs a pen and writes it in her planner. She idly thinks that she must be the only leader of a criminal enterprise who plans raids on valuable merchandise ahead of time. Of course, she thinks she’s the only head of a criminal enterprise who is married to a copper, so.
“The fourteenth. I can reschedule that murder,” Nimala says, pointing. Alanna considers, thinking it over. Alanna is invaluable to her. Not only does she have Nimala’s schedule in her head, but she sits with the personal assistants of other criminal overlords during her lunch hour, and they chat, so she has most of their schedules in her head as well.
“No, I think you need to murder him then. The Italians are planning on using your murder to spark a war between themselves and the police.”
“Oh, are they going to take credit for it?” Nimala asks, pleasantly surprised. “Yes, well, we can use that. And it means I won’t have to sleep on the couch for a week, since Suresh won’t be able to pin it on me. All right, not the fourteenth, then. The thirteenth? We don’t really need that new shipment of guns…”
Alanna leans over her shoulder, and begins to nod slowly. “Actually, we can just adjust the shipment. You have an hour here, on the sixteenth, that should suffice.”
Nimala beams. “The thirteenth it is, then. My Peaches will have the most elaborate birthday party the world has ever seen!”
When she arrives home that night, her children run to greet her, Chandra more enthusiastically than Peaches. She does not blame her daughter; seeing your future personified in your mother tends to make you wary of her. But she holds Peaches close anyway, pressing kisses to both of her cheeks, trying to make her understand that she may be a leader in the criminal underworld, but her family always comes first. Peaches is only eight, though, turning nine; Nimala doubts that she understands.
Nimala sweeps into the family room, where Suresh is sitting and reading his dull, dull paperwork. Nimala has always been thankful that her job, at least, has interesting paperwork. Paperwork that has the chemical compositions of new, interesting drugs, and reports on how smugglers evaded people like her husband. Reports on new inks for forgers that she needs to invest in. Not paperwork on the newest regulation for belt buckles.
“Husband mine,” she purrs in Sinhalese, walking across the room to tuck her Glock in the gun safe, “You are not paying proper attention to your wife.”
He doesn’t even look up. Nimala sighs. She cannot blame him. She loves her paperwork, too, and he complains that hers is dull.
“Husband mine,” she says sharply, this time in English, “Your wife is annoyed!”
She doesn’t know if it’s the tone or the English that does it, but Suresh looks up and smiles at her. “Nimala! I didn’t hear you come in.”
She throws herself down on the couch and halfway into his lap, snuggling under his arm. He moves his papers to the side and kisses her cheek. Nimala pouts and tilts her head back. Suresh takes it as the cue it is and gives her a proper kiss on the lips. She deepens it instantly. It had been a long day, and she has missed her husband.
When he ends the kiss, she sighs and asks, “Did you remember to pick up Peaches from fencing practice this afternoon?” There is a long moment of silence, and Nimala twists so that she is sitting upright. She folds her arms. “Suresh?”
“John drove her home,” he says, looking sheepish. Nimala groans.
“The bodyguards aren’t there to drive our children home. They’re there to guard their bodies! Suresh!”
“I needed to be in court, Nimala!”
“If I can reschedule my day to be there for the children, so can you!”
Suresh scowls. “You’re rescheduling murders and drugs and guns. I’m rescheduling justice. There’s a difference.”
Nimala scowls back. “Oh, please. I know which case you were in court for today. The one where that constable got a little excited, maybe kicked the suspect a few times? The suspect who, by the way, I have told you a thousand times is not in any crime organization?”
“Nimala, it’s not that simple. What Constable Barnes was wrong, but-”
“Wrong? At least I’m willing to say that I kill people, no bones about it, Suresh, but you dress it up in justice and-”
Nimala and Suresh stop arguing instantly and look at Peaches, who somehow slipped into the room without either of them noticing. Nimala cannot help but relax around her children. They’re both intelligent and beautiful, and Peaches is someday going to take her place. Right now, Peaches is staring at both of her parents like they’re daft gits. Which, Nimala internally confesses, they’re acting like.
“Yes, Peaches?” Nimala says, smiling. She reaches out and puts her hands on Peaches’ shoulders. Peaches smiles back at her, looks shyly at Suresh, and then back at Nimala.
“I was wondering, could I have an ice cream cake for my birthday this year? Juliet mentioned having one at her birthday, and I’ve never had one, and I want to know what they’re like, and my birthday is coming up, so I thought I’d ask, because you said I could ask, so I’m asking,” Peaches says, in one great long breath. Nimala glances at Suresh, amused, and then tugs on one of Peaches’ braids gently.
“Of course, darling. It’s your birthday. You can have whatever you want.”
“Can I have a pony?”
“Except a pony. We’ve talked about this.”
They have. Extensively.
“Thank you, Mum,” Peaches says. She leans forward and kisses Nimala on the cheek, and then hugs Suresh, and skips away, humming to herself. Nimala watches her go, chuckling, and looks at Suresh.
“I bet she heard us arguing and came in here with the first thing she could think of to interrupt us.”
“I’m not taking that bet,” Suresh says. He sighs and rubs a hand over his face. “I’ll try harder. To remember about the children.”
“Thank you,” Nimala says, leaning back on the couch. Suresh looks at her expectantly. “What?”
“Now you have to say something you’ll try harder at.”
Nimala doesn’t think it actually works like that, especially since she isn’t the one who made mistakes, but she loves her husband, very much, and she wants to make him laugh. “I’ll try harder to only kill the ones who really deserve it.”
He bursts into laughter. And that, Nimala reflects, is probably why he’ll never rise higher than a constable.
On the thirteenth, Peaches does have an ice cream cake. And a pony.
(It isn’t that her children are spoiled, Nimala argues with the other mothers. They’re indulged.)
She just wants this to be over. Anoushka licks her lips and turns the paperweight over in her hands. It was a gift to her mother from the British Foreign Minister. It’s ugly, and gaudy, and her mother treasures it, loves to tell anyone who will listen that the Foreign Minister gave it to her while complimenting her dedication to British-Russian relations.
Of course he did, Anoushka thinks viciously. It is not as if he’s going to say you are doing an atrocious job. Or the truth, which is he thinks you are attractive and he wants you to sleep with him.
Anoushka hates politicians. She thinks it’s a condition to be found in all politicians’ children.
The door slams open, and Anoushka drops the paperweight, looking up. Tamar Zharova, professional diplomat and Anoushka’s mother, flies into the room. She looks disheveled, Anoushka notes with cruel pleasure. Her hair is in complete disarray, her lipstick is smudged, and the heel of one of her pumps has completely snapped off. Anoushka wonders if she came straight from the embassy. She wonders if she ran from the embassy. More likely, given how she looks.
“Mama,” she says coolly.
Despite how she looks, Tamar composes herself immediately. “Anoushka.”
“How is the embassy?” Anoushka asks. She can’t help herself. She smiles.
Tamar kicks her useless shoes off and walks across the room until she is standing right in front of Anoushka. Anoushka is already very tall, but her mama is taller, terrifyingly tall. She looks down her long nose at Anoushka. “You dare smile? At me?”
Tamar backs away and turns toward the mirror she keeps in her office, running a hand through her hair and carefully fixing her messy lipstick. Within moments, she is Ice Queen Mama, as Anoushka and her sister Magda call her. When she turns around to face Anoushka again, she smiles.
“Did you enjoy blowing our embassy up?” she asks, and moves around to the other side of her desk, sitting in her chair. She nods at the chair across from her, indicating for Anoushka to sit as well. Anoushka knows better than to take it as a suggestion. She sits down, and Tamar continues. “No one was hurt, thank God. Did it occur to you that people could have been killed?”
“Yes,” Anoushka snaps. “No one would have been in that conference room at that time of day. I thought about this.”
“And what if plans had changed, Anoushka? What if someone decided to meet another person privately, and used that room specifically because it isn’t used at that time of day?”
“It wouldn’t have happened,” she replies sulkily. She hadn’t actually thought about it. She just likes blowing things up, and like any other First Year at St. Trinian’s, she has learned many techniques on how to do so.
Her mama sighs, long and heavy. “Christ above, Anoushka. I break my back for you. And this is how you repay me?”
“You don’t do anything for me!” Anoushka snaps, furious. “You’re never there! Ioana was the one who raised us, not you.”
For a moment, she thinks she has dented her mother’s armor. Tamar looks paler for just a second, and her mouth goes flat, but then she is as blank as ever, and Anoushka decides that she imagined it.
“Well, that will no longer be a problem,” her mama says smoothly.
“What?” Anoushka asks.
“I will no longer have a hand in raising you. Not anymore, anyway.”
Anoushka stares at her in confusion as Tamar rises and walks over to her liquor cabinet. She rummages through it for a moment before pulling out a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. She sets them down, pours two neat shots, and tosses hers back easily.
“I don’t understand,” Anoushka says, her throat tightening. She has a horrible feeling she does.
“I am disowning you,” Tamar says, and pours herself another shot.
Anoushka grabs the shot her mother poured her and sips it. She can’t take shots neat yet, and she doesn’t even really like whiskey, but right now she needs something. “What?” she finally says.
Her mama takes another shot, her third, and then smiles waterily at Anoushka. “I am disowning you. A diplomat cannot have a daughter who is a terrorist.”
“I’m not a terrorist!” Anoushka protests, and Tamar waves a hand in the air.
“Of course not, but do you think people really care? The newspapers, the public, the politicians, the other diplomats, they will see you as a budding terrorist. You blew up the embassy, Anoushka. Did you think there would be no consequences?”
Tamar goes and sits behind the desk again, and Anoushka decides that sipping the horrid whiskey is not enough for her. She swallows as much as she can, ignoring the burn, both in her throat and her eyes. She looks desperately at her mama. “You don’t disown your daughter when she is bad! You punish her!”
“When you last acted out, I sent you away,” Tamar says, leaning across the desk to refill Anoushka’s glass. “I sent you to that school. I cannot send you any further away.”
Tamar stands suddenly, and Anoushka shrinks as far down in her seat as she can. Her mother is furious. No one infuriates Tamar Zharova. People have made analogies of her temper to storms, to wars, to clashes between the gods, and none of them have come close.
“How dare you!” she yells. “How dare you force me to make this choice! How dare you do this to your family, and how dare you make me the sole enemy in all of this!”
Her mama throws the whiskey bottle, and it shatters against the wall. The shot glasses go next, and they break against the door. Tamar grabs all the papers on her desk and holds them up, shoving them in Anoushka’s face.
“Do you understand how many months of work this is? Months of negotiation, of trying to get people to look at Russians and not think in Cold War era mentalities, of making them think Russians, not Soviets, reminding them that we’re people too? That’s gone now, Anoushka. Gone! Because a twelve-year-old Russian girl just blew up her own embassy! And she was a diplomat’s daughter, and so now they will look at that diplomat and wonder if she, too, wants to blow things up.”
Tamar flings the papers across the room. They flutter to the floor. Anoushka watches them go. Then she looks back at her mama, who is calm once more.
“When you are older, perhaps you will understand. Bombs are not toys, they are not fun, you do not blow things up when you are bored. When a bomb goes off, the world changes.”
Anoushka tries arguing, she tries yelling, she tries apologizing, she tries pleading, she tries everything she can think of, but everything falls on deaf ears. Tamar just stares at her and shakes her head. Finally, she orders Anoushka out of her office and tells her to go to their home and pack her bags.
“I have contacted Headmistress Fritton. You are officially a ward of St. Trinian’s.”
When Anoushka arrives at her home, she can hear Magda wailing in her bedroom. She stands in the entranceway, feeling as though she were caught in her own bomb blast. Ioana walks up to her and nods at their chauffeur.
“Thank you, Aaron. I’ll take her from here.” Ioana takes her arm and guides her up the stairs.
To the world, Ioana Ivanova is just a member of Tamar Zharova’s staff, her personal assistant. But the world is full of idiots, and so their relationship is secret. Ioana is Anoushka and Magda’s other mother, has been since they were children. Anoushka cannot remember a time in her life when Ioana wasn’t there.
Her eyes fill with tears when she realizes that now she’ll have to.
“Mamulya,” she says, and sits down, hard, on the stairs. Ioana sits next to her and gathers her in her arms.
“Oh, Anoushka,” Ioana says, her voice breaking.
“Tell me she doesn’t mean it,” Anoushka begs. “Tell me she’ll come home in a few hours and tell me that this feeling is my punishment.” Ioana’s silence is damning. Anoushka clings to her, desperate. “Please don’t send me away, Mamulya.”
“Anoushka, it is Tamar’s decision,” Ioana says gently.
“You are her wife,” Anoushka says, looking up at her. “You can convince her otherwise.”
“Has anyone ever been able to change Tamar’s mind?”
Anoushka bursts into a fresh round of tears, and Ioana hugs her, murmuring reassurances in Russian. “She says I am to never contact you again,” Anoushka chokes out in between sobs. “She says I must never speak another word to you.”
Ioana runs a hand down her hair. “No, no, my love. Think about what Tamar said exactly.”
Anoushka tries. She closes her eyes, shaking, and tries to recall what her mother said precisely. It takes her a moment to figure out what Ioana is hinting at, but she does, and she opens her eyes and sits back, wiping her face.
“She said I am never to contact her. I am never to speak another word to her.”
Ioana smiles. Ever since Anoushka has been young, Ioana’s smile has seemed perpetually sad. Tamar once told her that Ioana’s life during the Soviet Union did not inspire many smiles, and so she never learned, but Anoushka did not understand. She still does not, but she understands her Mamulya. This smile says, sacrifice is the greatest sign of love. It is a Zharova motto. Anoushka has always hated it.
“Your mama loves you very much. In order to preserve Russian-British relations right now, sacrifice is a must. But she would not take away your entire family.”
Anoushka frowns. “But-”
“I am just the personal assistant of a Russian diplomat,” Ioana says casually. “And if I happen to be walking in the park with the diplomat’s youngest daughter, and we happen to run into her disowned daughter, then what a coincidence! And really, can anyone blame Tamar Zharova if her youngest daughter desires to see her former sister from time to time? Is that the diplomat’s fault?”
“You talked to Mama,” Anoushka realizes. “You planned this.”
Her mamulya stands up and offers her hand to Anoushka, who takes it. They begin walking up the stairs. “You may hate politicians, but we are good for something. Tamar would have walked away from her job to protect you, but that would not have helped relations between Russia and the United Kingdom.”
Anoushka squints as they walk toward her bedroom. She thinks she understands. “This has fewer casualties,” she says.
“The most valuable,” Ioana says, “but fewer. In a few years, when no one remembers, we can be a family again.”
Anoushka pulls out her suitcase and begins packing. She only loses Tamar for good. She only loses Mama, who a few hours ago she was making fun of, sneering at, and generally hating. She should feel free. She loses her mama, who has paid more attention to her career than her children, who chose to sacrifice a child on the altar of politics, who loves Russia more than her family.
She’s losing Mama, she realizes. The thought makes her collapse.
It is awkward, Chelsea thinks, to have a famous mother that no one knows is your mother. In every sense of the word.
When she arrives at St. Trinian’s, everyone is talking about her mother’s most recent book. They keep asking her if she’s read it, and Chelsea politely says no, she hasn’t. Of course, they look at her and assume that she’s just not much of a reader- which isn’t true, not with her mother as her mother- but then they keep demanding that she read it, and how can Chelsea explain that not only has she read it, but she’s read every single draft that led up to the book they now hold in their hand? That she’s the one who told her mother to keep Gertrude, who is everyone’s favorite, and to get rid of the original romance between her and Evan, because everyone wants it, and this way she can add it in the guaranteed sequel. That she watched her mother suffer through severe bouts of insomnia that lasted for days, that she followed her mother around their penthouse and begged her to eat something, to drink something, that she forced her mother into the shower and turned on the water herself. How does she tell people these things? It ruins the romantic image people have of an author. It ruins the romantic image that people have of artists in general. And Chelsea is new, and she loves St. Trinian’s, and St. Trinian’s loves her mother. So she doesn’t say anything, and instead just says she doesn’t really like to read.
Peaches and Chloe discover her lie quickly enough. There’s only so long you can read paperbacks by torchlight, after all, and not have people notice. But they’re the only ones who find out her secret, and they promise to keep it.
As her first year at St. Trinian’s goes by, Chelsea doesn’t know why she keeps her mother secret. Her mother is, after all, brilliant. She’s funny, and kind, and intelligent. Chelsea adores her with a fierceness that’s sort of frightening. It isn’t like the sort of love that Peaches has for her mum, which is both genuine and obligatory, and it isn’t the love that Chloe has for her mum, which is wrapped up in insecurity and desperation. Chelsea’s entire world is her mother. And she’s very aware that she is her mother’s entire world.
She misses her mother horrendously, that first year.
Her mother picks her up at St. Trinian’s at the end of the year, and Chelsea can feel people staring at her. Jennifer Parker is sublime. In another life, she would have been a model. Her hair is so blonde that it’s nearly white, and she’s so thin that, in Chelsea’s opinion, she’s nearly transparent. She’s tall- Chelsea gets her height from her mother- and pale, and every single one of her features is aristocratic to the extreme. She’s draped in gauzy fabrics, so much so that Chelsea imagines a strong breeze could blow her away.
She rushes over to her mother and hugs her as hard as she can. She may look like fragile porcelain and spiderwebs, but Chelsea knows her mother can withstand storms. Her mother hugs her back just as tightly.
“Oh, honey, I missed you,” she says gently.
“I missed you, too, Mother,” she replies.
They go home.
It becomes immediately apparent that her mother is working on a new book. Dishes are piled in the sink, and the trash hasn’t been taken out in a few weeks. Clothes are everywhere and, more importantly, the floor is littered with paper. Chelsea sighs when she sees it.
“Did you fire the housekeeper?”
“She was breathing too loud,” Jennifer says absently, looking at one of the papers on the floor, riveted by it. She bends down quickly and grabs it, her mouth moving as she reads over whatever she had written and once discarded. Chelsea ignores her in favor of looking over the scene of destruction.
“Too loud, or was she just breathing?” She knows her mother’s quirks. When she is writing, everything becomes too much. Once, Chelsea had to remove everything yellow from their flat because her mother had deemed it too prickly.
“Both,” Jennifer decides, and wanders away, one hand already typing on an invisible keyboard.
Chelsea smiles after her mother and goes to find the phone in order to hire a new housekeeper, one who doesn’t breathe too loudly. Then she’ll take out the trash and do the dishes and the laundry, and then she’ll organize her mother’s writing notes. Afterwards, she knows, her mother will yell at her for disrupting her files, but Chelsea lives here too, and she can’t live in this mess. Her mother will survive. She has done before.
Later, her mother yells at her for moving her notes, but Chelsea ignores her in favor of asking if she wants Indian or Chinese takeout. Jennifer derails momentarily, distracted, blinks, and then decides that Indian will make her synapses fire more quickly.
“You don’t need that, Mother,” Chelsea scolds with a grin. Jennifer grins back.
“Am I being strange?”
“You’re being you,” Chelsea replies, and her mother reaches over and ruffles her hair gently.
“Such a saint, you are. Such a trial I can be.”
Chelsea doesn’t think so, not really. When she was younger, it was harder, but she went with her mother to a doctor’s appointment when she was eight, and he’d explained about sensory overload and how her mother’s brain processes things very differently. Chelsea doesn’t think of her mother as a trial. It can get frustrating, trying to figure out how to interpret things, but never a trial.
“No,” she says, going to find the phone again. “You’re fine.”
That night, her mother plays Paranoid Android on repeat. Chelsea puts in earplugs.
The next morning, her mother is still sitting at her computer, typing away, so Chelsea decides to spend the day however she wants. Her mother had showered in order to get her, so she doesn’t need to be reminded yet, and she’d eaten Indian with her last night. Chelsea can see that three water bottles (there is only one brand that her mother will drink; it’s ridiculously expensive, but her mother won’t drink tap water, and it’s worth it to avoid dehydration) have disappeared since last night, and she decides that her mother hasn’t disappeared so far into whatever world she’s crafting that she’s lost sight of the fact that she has a body. So she goes and spends the day at the mall, shopping and people watching and generally enjoying life.
When she gets home that evening, Jennifer has supper on the table. It looks like chicken potpie, which is Chelsea’s favorite comfort food. Her mother’s as well. It’s all bland and colorless, which, as Jennifer once explained, is a great comfort after a day of bright, unending colors bombarding you constantly. Her mother looks tired, but happy, so Chelsea assumes it’s been a good day.
“I was about to call,” her mother says, distracted as she finishes mashing the mashed potatoes. “I didn’t tell you this morning that we were eating tonight.”
“I would have been home by six anyway,” Chelsea says, putting down her bags. “To make sure you didn’t forget.”
Jennifer looks up and pushes a few blonde strands out of her eyes with the back of her wrist, smiling. “You know, I did survive before you came along. And clearly, I didn’t starve to death in the year you were at school.”
Chelsea walks over to give her mother a kiss on the cheek. Her mother flinches away from her, and Chelsea immediately backs away. Too much. Right. “Maybe not, but I’m home now. And you’re working on a book.”
Her mother scrapes the potatoes into a bowl, wincing a little at the sound, and then hands the bowl to Chelsea, who takes it over to the table. Jennifer follows her and sits down in her customary chair. “I am,” she says. “It’s going to be a good one. I can tell.”
“How far along are you?” Chelsea asks, sitting. She takes a potpie and then scoops some potatoes onto her plate.
Jennifer chews on the inside of her mouth for a moment. “Nearing the end of the first draft. I’ll let you read it when I’m done, if you’d like.”
Chelsea smiles. She always wants to read her mother’s work. Every scrap of paper, every draft, every edition. “Of course,” she says. “When do you think it will be done?”
“Tonight,” her mother says. “Tonight. Unless something goes wrong. I have a headache.”
Chelsea pauses in eating her potatoes. It’s never a good sign when her mother has a headache. They tend to dissolve into episodes where Jennifer locks herself in her room with all the lights out and can’t hear a single sound without bursting into tears, which only makes her cry harder. She resolves to be quiet. Maybe, if she’s quiet, things will be all right.
They aren’t. Her mother is in her bedroom by nine, too sensitive to everything around her to even bear the air touching her. Chelsea sits on the other side of the door, vaguely miserable, wishing she could do something and knowing there is nothing she can do. She can’t help but hate the world a bit in moments like these, when she’s on the other side of the door from her mother, and she can do nothing but think good thoughts. Good thoughts didn’t help her earlier. They certainly aren’t going to help now.
Her mother is fine, of course. The next morning, she emerges from her bedroom, pale and shaky, but smiling at Chelsea, who fell asleep in front of her door.
“Oh, honey,” she sighs, and squats down to be closer to her. “What are we going to do?”
“What we always do,” Chelsea says, smiling faintly. “Shop.”
It’s their guaranteed therapy for whatever ails them. Jennifer smiles at the people around them in the mall, in her vague and distracted way, while Chelsea mutters nasty things about their fashion decisions in her ear. A year ago, she knew very little about actual fashion, beyond your basic do’s and don’ts. Now, after befriending Peaches and Chloe, she can tell knock-offs from designer, and she knows what is popular this season, and what is so last season, and what colors best match a person’s skin tone, and she whispers her precious secrets into her mother’s ear. Her mother nods and hums and clearly doesn’t understand, but tries. Of course, her mother has always been effortlessly in style, something that Chelsea cannot help but envy.
On their way out of the mall, they stop in the bookstore. This is always part of the ritual. Her mother wafts up to the counter and asks for recommendations. The clerk nods enthusiastically. “Let’s see, some of our popular authors are Neil Gaiman, JK Rowling, James Patterson, Alice Sebold, James Parks, Patricia Cornwell, Terry Pratchett, and John Grisham.”
Jennifer smiles quietly and nods. “Thank you.”
Chelsea and her mother giggle on their way out, exchanging high fives.
The summer passes by far too quickly. Chelsea reads her mother’s drafts, making suggestions as she feels fit, knowing perfectly well that her mother will either accept them or ignore them as she feels fit. Her mother has two more raging headaches, which isn’t the worst that it’s ever been, so Chelsea thinks they’re fairly lucky. The new housekeeper, Sean, doesn’t breathe too loudly, and he wears bland colors at Jennifer’s request, and he doesn’t listen to salsa music, which Jennifer hates, and so he’s allowed to stay. Chelsea likes him, and flirts shamelessly with him, but her mother tells Sean, very firmly, that if he so much as smiles back at Chelsea that he’ll never work in London again. Chelsea pouts at her mother for ruining her fun, but after her mother’s chef kissed her when she was ten, her mother has been very, very careful. Out of the staff of seven they used to have, they only have a housekeeper now.
Her mother’s new book goes out to her editor on the day she takes Chelsea back to school. She drives her there and walks her up to the school doors, looking tall and pale and rather tragic in her all black ensemble, a hat with a veil obscuring half her face.
“People are staring at you, Mother,” Chelsea says, amused.
“I know,” Jennifer says, equally amused.
They cling to each other for a moment, before her mother shudders and has to let go, apologetically explaining about the needles under her skin. Chelsea understands. One cannot schedule the good days.
Several months later, James Parks’s new book comes out, and everyone at St. Trinian’s has a copy, except Chelsea. She ignores the squeals until finally, finally it gets to be too much, and she turns to the fortieth person to ask her if she’s read the book and says, “Yes. In fact, I read the first draft of the book. And the second. And the third. The author is my mother.”
There is a moment of confusion on the poor girl’s face, and Taylor, sitting further down, looks at the book in her hands. “It says it’s by James Parks.”
Chelsea smiles sweetly at Taylor. “She writes under a male pseudonym. Her name is Jennifer.”
Andrea, who is sitting a ways away, literally climbs over two tables and sits down across from Chelsea, her eyes wide and starstruck. “What’s it like, being the daughter of a world famous author?”
Chelsea thinks about it. She thinks about walking over piles of papers and being yelled at for messing up their organization. She thinks about her mother fretting over minor characterization details that mean nothing to Chelsea, yet keep Jennifer up for hours at a time. She thinks about having to force her mother to eat or drink when she really gets into a writing spell. She thinks about her mother crying over bad reviews.
Then she thinks about the inside of every book that her mother has ever written, where the dedication is. For my daughter, always. Without whom I could do nothing.
“It’s amazing,” she says, and a crowd gathers round.
Agnes was a child-bride, her father used to brag, which was of course ridiculous. She was eighteen when she married Tom, and very much an adult, just like all the women in her family. But she understood what her father meant. In her family, marrying young matters, and Agnes married youngest of all.
She is a beautiful bride, and she and Tom are an excellent match. They believe in the same things. They believe in family above everything else. Agnes wants children, desperately, wants them more than anything. Her father is nervous- her mother died in childbirth, as did her grandmother, and her great-grandmother- but Agnes ignores his fears and pulls Tom to bed with her, eager. Tom is eager, too. He comes from a big family, and, like her, dreams of being surrounded by children and grandchildren.
She’s pregnant within a month of their marriage. When she gives birth to Roger, she cries. She has, against all odds, survived, and she has a lovely little boy. Tom holds her in his arms and cries into her hair, and Agnes starts planning for her next child even as she runs a finger over Roger’s little face.
Holly comes with more difficulty. Her doctor and her father advise her to stop with two, but Tom looks so thrilled with his little girl, and Roger looks awed at his baby sister, that Agnes promises herself one more. One more, and the family will be done.
The two miscarriages are… horrific. Tom holds her, but she can’t feel him. She looks at Roger and Holly, but she doesn’t see them. Her father calls her every day, but she can’t talk to him. She wants one more. One more, she promises herself. One more, she prays. One more, she thinks, is perfection.
When she finally has Chloe, she thinks her soul splits in two. Chloe is a part of her. Chloe is her crowning achievement.
Agnes knows, of course, that it is wrong to have favorites among her children. And she loves them all equally. Roger is exactly what she could hope for in a son, all rough and tumbles, love of sports, competitive and tough, covered in dirt and grass stains. Holly shies away from her, clings to Tom and spends most of her time reading, which surprises Agnes, as neither she nor Tom are much for books, but she finds it adorable nonetheless. But Chloe- Chloe is her everything.
Chloe is her little companion as she cooks dinner in the evenings, the apron dragging on the ground. She is her doll as Agnes buys her new dresses and shows her how to wear makeup, patient and still whenever Agnes runs the brushes over her face, unlike Holly, who wrinkles her nose and wipes the paints away in disgust. Chloe mimics her laugh, and is always polite to the women who visit, making a point of saying hello and asking after their children, their husbands. She’s a little piece of Agnes, in miniature.
Eventually, Agnes has to get a job. They aren’t the wealthiest, and she doesn’t have much to give her family, and it burns at her. Sometimes, she catches herself wishing she’d married a richer man, but she loves Tom, so she never says it out loud. Still, when she gets home at night from typing things for rich men in nice suits, she looks at Holly and Chloe and says, “Never work for someone else, girls. Marry rich.”
Both of her daughters are smarter than she is, though, so she knows they’ll be all right. Holly is genuinely smart, of course, what with her books. Chloe, though. Chloe is clever, which is so much better than being smart. She goes to St. Trinian’s, and Agnes watches her daughter blossom, watches her befriend rich girls, watches her meet rich boys, and knows without a doubt that Chloe is the one that will get far in life.
When Chloe announces her engagement even before she graduates, Agnes knows she’s right. James is wealthy, and kind, and he’ll give Chloe everything that Agnes couldn’t.
Chloe has Hannah shortly after graduating, and Agnes dotes upon her. Tom adores her as well, and they spend hours lying in bed, talking about how all their dreams about a large family are finally coming true. Tom has never blamed her for not being able to have more children, but she knows he wanted at least six, and she felt her failure keenly in the early days of their marriage. Now, with Chloe married, and Chloe being such a part of her, Agnes knows they’ll have so many grandchildren that Tom will finally feel fulfilled.
Hazel comes along immediately afterwards, but falls ill in her early months, a severe fever that nearly kills her. Tom and Agnes sit in the hospital and hold hands for hours, waiting with Chloe and James. When the doctors tell them that they broke the fever, but Hazel lost her hearing, Agnes collapses into tears.
“Stop,” Chloe says firmly, wiping her own tears away. “Stop it, Mum. She’s alive, that’s what matters.”
“But she’s deaf!” Agnes wails, and Tom pulls her into his shoulder, muffling her sobs.
“So we’ll learn sign language,” Chloe says.
Agnes gives her a doubtful look, one that’s mirrored by James, but Tom looks hopeful, so Agnes decides to do her best.
She doesn’t learn sign language, and neither does James. Tom does, and so does Chloe. Tom comes home from days spent with the grandchildren with stories of arguments between Chloe and James about how to handle Hazel’s education, arguments between Chloe and James about finances, arguments between Chloe and James about decorating, arguments, arguments, arguments.
“I don’t think things are going well,” Tom tells her, turning on the telly.
“Don’t be silly,” Agnes scoffs. “They love each other.”
Tom looks at her, concerned, but says nothing.
Chloe starts asking her to take the grandchildren for days at a time, which Agnes is more than happy to do. Hannah and Hazel are delightful children, bright and clever, just like their mother. She makes them dolls out of towels and dollhouses out of cardboard boxes.
“I know this isn’t like the ones you have at home,” she says, kneeling, “but these are like the ones your mum grew up with.” Hazel and Hannah don’t seem to care much. They love the dolls, whether made out of towels or tissue paper (Agnes) or porcelain and china (Chloe). Agnes is so thankful that her daughter can give them the world. That she married well and has the resources to do so.
The children are home with Chloe when Chloe kills James.
It’s nearly midnight when Agnes gets the phone call from one of Chloe’s school friends, Peaches, and she and Tom throw themselves in the car and drive to the hospital as quickly as they can. Peaches hadn’t explained much, just said that Chloe was in intensive care and that James was dead. Tom and Agnes go to the nurse’s station and, after getting Chloe’s room number, Agnes goes to see her daughter while Tom stays to get details.
Chloe is lying in the hospital bed, wrapped in bandages and covered in bruises. Her mouth is a thin line. Her eyes flicker when Agnes rushes in, but she doesn’t look up. Agnes presses her hand to her mouth.
“Oh darling,” she whispers. “What happened?”
“He attacked me,” Chloe says flatly. “I killed him.”
Agnes licks her lips, confused. “Who?”
Chloe turns her head to look at her. Both of her eyes are blackened. It pains Agnes to see her beautiful, beautiful daughter this way. “James.”
Agnes doesn’t understand. “I don’t,” she says, and stops. She tries again. “I don’t understand. Are you saying James did this? Are you saying…”
“James tried to kill me,” Chloe whispers. “And then he tried to kill-”
Her voice cracks, and she squeezes her eyes shut. One of her bandaged hands comes up and swipes at her face. When she opens her eyes, they’re blank again.
“He went after the girls,” she says. “So I shot him.”
Agnes stares at her. She can’t believe what she’s hearing. She looks around the room, expecting to see James appear, her beloved son-in-law, expecting to see him laughing at her for her gullibility, expecting to see him holding Hazel in his arms and keeping Hannah close to him. But she doesn’t. There’s no one else there.
“No,” she says. “He wouldn’t…”
“He’s been hitting me for a long time, Mum,” Chloe says, shutting her eyes again.
“No,” Agnes says, aware that she sounds a bit desperate. “He- he wouldn’t- he couldn’t- he loves you.”
Chloe just laughs.
Agnes tries again. “You’re just- you’re making up stories. You don’t- you don’t remember what happened. You just think that’s what happened. You’ll remember later. That’s-”
“Mum,” Chloe says, her voice strained.
“Chloe,” Agnes snaps, “I taught you better than this. I taught you better, I taught you better, I-”
“I think you ought to leave,” says someone behind her.
Agnes turns to see a woman in a tailored suit, her face cheerful enough, but Agnes has spent enough time around business sharks to recognize the layer of hostility underneath. It’s been a year or two, but Agnes would recognize Peaches Kaluwitharana anywhere. Chloe’s letters home were almost entirely about this girl. She had never mentioned how incredibly intimidating she was.
“This is a family matter,” she says stiffly, trying to stare her down. Peaches smiles brightly at her.
“Visiting hours are over,” she replies.
“That’s ridiculous,” Agnes snaps. “I just got here and the nurse let me right in. They can’t be over yet.”
“They’re over,” Peaches says pleasantly, snapping her fingers, “when I say they’re over.” A handful of men in dark suits appear in the doorway, looking incongruous in the sterile hospital hallway. “This is my security team, Mrs. Lewiston. Would you like to argue with them?”
Agnes purses her lips. “Fine,” she says. “Just let me gather up Hazel and Hannah, and I’ll be on my way.”
“No, I rather think not,” Peaches says blithely, pulling out her mobile and glancing down at it.
“Excuse me?” Agnes asks. Behind the men, she sees Tom materialize, looking concerned. Peaches looks up and waves the men aside. Tom walks through and immediately goes to Chloe, whispering nonsense at her and brushing her hair aside. Agnes ignores them in favor of glaring at Peaches.
“I don’t think placing the children with you is in their best interest at the moment,” Peaches says.
“I’m their grandmother,” she snaps.
“And I’m their godmother and legal guardian in case their parents are incapacitated,” Peaches says. She smiles gently at Agnes. “Go home, Mrs. Lewiston. I’ll bring them by for a visit tomorrow.”
She doesn’t hear from Chloe for quite some time after that. True to her word, Peaches brings the grandchildren over for regular visits, but only after Agnes promises to start BSL lessons. She finds out that Chloe did indeed kill James, and she’s sickened by it. Tom is horrified but says, softly, that he would have killed the bastard first if he’d realized he was putting a hand on their little girl. Agnes stares at him and excuses herself to their bedroom to lie down.
It isn’t that she thinks James was right to hurt her daughter. It isn’t that. Of course not; Chloe is not just her daughter, she’s part of Agnes. She’s her soul. But Chloe had a real chance with James, a way to provide for herself and her children, and it’s gone now, and Agnes doesn’t think she would have ever given that up. She doesn’t know what that says about her. She’s very thankful that Tom is as good and gentle as he is.
And she knew James. James was a good man. He laughed and smiled and was always gentle with her. He loved Chloe. She has a million snapshot memories of him brushing the hair out of Chloe’s eyes, of him reaching over to hold her hand spontaneously, of him opening the door for her, of him holding her coat so she could put it on. It simply doesn’t make sense that he would hurt her. She ignores the quiet memory of Tom telling her that Chloe and James were arguing.
It’s nearly a month before she hears a familiar knock at her door. Agnes glances up the stairs, where Tom is already asleep, and then goes to answer it. Chloe is there, looking firm and proud and very alone.
“We need to talk,” Chloe says. Agnes lets her in.
They drink tea in silence for almost twenty minutes, and then Agnes takes a deep breath. “You killed your husband,” she says.
Chloe looks steadily at her. “Yes.”
Agnes closes her eyes and sets her teacup down. “You took your children’s father away from them.”
“He was going to take them away from me. He was going to kill them, Mum.”
“You don’t seriously believe that,” Agnes says, opening her eyes slowly. Chloe is regarding her tea blankly. She still has some bruising, though faded, on her wrists, just peeking out from her cardigan.
“I do. Tell me, Mum, that you wouldn’t do anything for your children.”
Of course she would, Agnes thinks. That’s not even a question. Everything she has done in her life has been for her husband or her children. She has only ever wanted the best for them.
“Of course, but-”
“If Daddy came at me with a knife, would you just let him?”
“No!” Agnes blurts, appalled. “But your father would never do such a thing!”
Chloe smiles bitterly down at her teacup, and sets it down. “No, he wouldn’t. But James did. And I did what I had to do to protect Hannah and Hazel.” She looks up, biting her lip. She learned that from Agnes. She learned it all from Agnes, really. “I would do it again if I had to.”
“There must have been another way,” Agnes pleads, reaching across the table to grip Chloe’s hand. “You could have found another way.”
“No, Mum. I couldn’t. Not right then.”
Agnes realizes she’s crying and tries to wipe away the tears. Chloe just stares at her passively, and then stands up, brushing invisible crumbs and dust off her skirt.
“I don’t need James in order to give my children everything, Mum. Not like you needed Daddy. I can handle this on my own. If you can’t-” Chloe’s voice breaks, “If you can’t cope with what I’ve done, please, don’t bother me. I need to take care of my children right now. I can’t take care of you, too.”
Chloe lets herself out, and Agnes watches her go. Her daughter walks with her back straight and her head held high, limping slightly. She marvels at Chloe’s strength, blinking back tears. She doesn’t know where Chloe gets it from.
Agnes doesn’t go around for their weekly tea that week. Nor the next week, nor the week after. She stops going around altogether. She wants to be there for Chloe; she wants to wrap her grandchildren up in her arms and promise to keep them safe; she wants to sit down across from her daughter and give her all that she can. But in the most crucial way, she knows, she is not like Chloe. She’s just not that strong.
Agnes loves her three children equally, but Chloe is part of her, her crowning achievement.
Chloe is the only one she doesn’t speak to.
Polly weighs the options carefully.
She considers, and then weighs them again.
Then, for good measure, one more time.
Polly likes to be thorough.
Finally, after checking to make sure her conscience and moral values will abide it, she transfers fifteen thousand pounds from Mr. Dolby’s bank account in her Grandmum Judith’s. He, after all, will never miss it. And they haven’t had electricity for two days now.
After ensuring that the transfer is completely untraceable, she erases the hard drive on the library computer, hops off the stool, and smiles politely at the librarian. Walking out, she can’t help but be thankful that no one ever suspects ten-year-olds of anything.
When she gets home, Emily and Edward are in a strop about one thing or another, Tim is hiding in the cupboard, and Susan is playing with one of Polly’s old dolls. She doesn’t know where Grandmum is, and she can’t really be bothered, because Tim is in the cupboard and Emily and Edward are in a strop, and there is far too much to be done to make the house… less.
Getting Tim out of the cupboard really isn’t that hard. Polly gets her Tim-poking stick, as she and Grandmum like to call it (it’s really a broom handle, the broom bit long disappeared), and pokes him in the side, gently, until he crawls out and pouts at her.
“I was hiding,” he sulks.
“I know,” she says. “Hide somewhere we don’t keep food.”
Tim runs off, probably to hide under his bed, and Polly looks at Emily and Edward, who are screaming at each other. There are two ways she can approach this. She can:
1) mediate their argument; or
2) drag them apart, kicking and screaming, and lock them in their rooms.
The first requires more effort, and actually caring about what her siblings are fighting about, again, and she never has done, so she grabs them both by their arms and drags them, kicking and screaming, to their thankfully separate bedrooms, tosses them in, and locks the door behind them.
“Polly, let me out! I need to kick that wanker in the bollocks!” Emily yells.
“Polly, open this door! I need to teach that slag a thing or two!” Edward howls.
Polly opts for ignoring both of them. Instead, she heads back for the family room, where Susan is still sitting, playing with her dolly. Polly sits down across from her with a long, resigned sigh.
“How’s my favorite sibling?” she asks. Susan looks up. She’s only four, but she’s easily Polly’s favorite because she doesn’t talk much, and she doesn’t hide in anything she can fit in.
“Do you want to play tea party?” Susan asks.
Of course, she’s also obsessed with tea parties, which is the downside of being four, Polly supposes. “No,” Polly says shortly, and stands up again. Now that she’s ended the riots, she wants to read while there is still daylight. When Grandmum Judith gets home, Polly will tell her to go pay the bill, and she can get on her computer, and all will be right with the world again.
It’s quiet in the house, finally. Emily and Edward have stopped screaming at each other and instead have decided to pass insulting notes to each other through the cracks in the doorways. Polly checks on Tim, and he’s actually hiding in the linen closet in the lavatory. And Susan has set up her mostly imaginary tea set and is playing tea party. Polly nods to herself and settles in with the Q volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
She’s still reading when Grandmum Judith gets home, looking thoroughly irritated. Susan hugs Grandmum tightly around the waist, and Polly stands to release Edward and Emily from the bedrooms. They greet Judith with hugs and kisses, and Tim emerges long enough to shake her hand regally before disappearing again. Judith welcomes them warmly enough, so she isn’t irritated at any of them. When Polly steps forward, however, Judith goes still.
“Welcome home, Grandmum,” Polly says, as innocently as possible. It isn’t all that innocent. She’s a rubbish actress, and she knows it.
“Polly Hopkins, what have you done?” Judith says softly, her faint German accent more pronounced than usual, and shakes her head. She walks away, vanishing into the kitchen. Polly cringes. She may not be considered a suspect by random librarians, or bank managers, or police officers, but her grandmum isn’t going to suspect anyone but her.
She considers locking herself in the room she shares with Emily and Susan, but Judith has the key.
There’s really nothing for it, then. Polly puts down the encyclopedia, takes a deep breath, and walks into the kitchen.
Grandmum Judith is drinking wine. Rather a lot of it, from what Polly can tell.
“I’ve driven my grandmother to drink,” she says dryly, sitting down at the kitchen table.
“It’s not the first time, Polly,” Judith says, just as dry, “And I rather doubt it will be the last.”
“Are you in trouble?” she asks, and Grandmum Judith lets out a bark of laughter. Polly has always loved her laugh. It’s so unlike Polly’s mother’s laughter, which always like the sort of laughter you would read in a book: ha ha ha! In staccato, high and bright and painfully false, just like everything else about her. Judith’s laugh is like an explosion of gravel, and no one ever doubts its sincerity.
“No, of course not. I trust if you’re going to steal from someone, you’re at least going to do it right, Polly.”
Polly can’t help but smile slightly at the praise. She nods quickly. “I did, I made sure no one will trace it to you.”
Judith crosses over to the table and sits next to Polly. She’s an old woman, in Polly’s eyes, but everyone has always commented on how young Judith is to be a grandmother. Polly has heard it all: how it must have broken Judith’s heart to see her son ruin his life like that, get that girl pregnant when they were still in secondary school, marry that girl; how it must have broken Judith’s heart to see her son throw it all away for so many children; how it must have broken Judith’s heart to have to take all those children in.
Polly has heard all of Judith’s responses too: at least he did right by that girl, never abandoned her, was responsible; at least he made a decision to stay home with his children, was responsible; at least he realized he wasn’t responsible enough for the children and gave them to me.
“I don’t actually care about that, you know,” Judith says gently. “You do know why I’m irritated?”
Polly looks down at her lap, all the pride she felt earlier about accomplishing the impossible draining away. “I just wanted to get the lights back on,” she whispers. “I just wanted to help.”
Judith leans over and tucks her finger beneath Polly’s chin, lifting her face. She’s smiling, just slightly, the corner of her mouth tilted upwards and shifting the careworn lines of her face. “I already had the money to pay the bill. I just hadn’t sent it in yet.”
“Oh,” Polly says.
“When have I ever let the lights stay off for more than a day or two, Polly? Or the water or the gas or anything else?” Judith asks, and Polly shrugs one shoulder. “Never. Sometimes we go a day or two without, but never indefinitely.”
Polly shifts uncomfortably in her seat. Grandmum Judith is watching her, the irritation drained away into a soft sort of amusement that Polly doesn’t really understand. “I’m sorry,” she says. “Tomorrow I’ll go move the money back.”
Judith purses her lips. “Who did you take the money from?”
“Mr. Dolby,” Polly says. Mr. Paul Dolby is Grandmum Judith’s boss. They don’t like him much in this household. Judith’s eyebrows shoot up.
“He had fifteen thousand quid in his account?”
“He had eleven million quid in his account,” Polly replies honestly. “I thought he wouldn’t miss fifteen thousand.”
Judith whistles lowly. “Someone’s been embezzling funds,” she mutters, and then smiles again at Polly. “I don’t think you need to return to money, Polly. As it is, I already have plans for it.”
Polly brightens instantly. “I was thinking we could expand the house a bit, and maybe get-”
“It’s going to charity,” Judith says, and Polly deflates. “Except for four thousand of it.”
Polly watches, curious, as Grandmum Judith stands to get her handbag. When she comes back over, she’s pulling a brochure from her it. She hands it to Polly and looks at her expectantly. Polly looks at it.
It’s for a school. St. Trinian’s. She looks through the brochure, which shows girls running around a school, girls in classrooms, girls blowing things up, and all looking thoroughly happy while doing so. Polly looks back up at her grandmum.
“It’s time to consider a school for you. St. Trinian’s would suit your… unique… skillset, I think,” Grandmum Judith says. “Obviously you need to do your own research, but I rather think you’ll like it.”
“The four thousand?”
“Fees for the first year.”
“What about Emily?” Polly protests, turning the brochure over in her hand. “She’s only a year younger than me. We need to think about her as well.”
Judith sighs. “A year younger means I have another year to decide where she’ll go. Polly, let me worry about your sisters and brothers. For once, worry about yourself.”
Polly considers. She weighs her options, makes mental lists of pros and cons, makes Venn Diagrams, and then discards it all in favor of her gut feeling. She never listens to her gut. She’s feeling adventurous.
“All right,” she says carefully. “I’ll look it up tomorrow.”
Judith’s smile breaks into a grin and she leans forward to kiss Polly’s forehead. Polly wrinkles her nose and backs away, which makes Judith laugh. “And tomorrow, we’ll have electricity again, and you can show me exactly how you stole from Dolby’s account.”
Polly perks up. “You really want to know?”
Judith stands, smiling down at Polly fondly. “Of course. Now come help me tackle these dishes.”
Lily Jones plays the piano, and Kelly Jones watches.
It’s really the only thing they do, the pair of them, as mother-and-daughter. Kelly remembers when she was a child, her mother attempted to teach her, but even as a child Kelly didn’t have the patience for such endeavors. Even then, she was always looking for something faster, brighter, harder, better. The piano was all right for listening to, but not for playing. And it was only all right to listen to if she could get up and walk away whenever she wanted. Her mother never bothered to take her to concerts. She’d known better.
It is three days after graduation, and Kelly is moving to London tomorrow. All her things are packed. She has a job with the government, a secret position with MI7 that will send her all over the world. It is incredibly exciting. It is also, Kelly knows, incredibly terrifying. The trouble with secret government positions is that they must remain secret, even if you disappear and die. She sits on the settee and stares at her mother playing the piano, thinking, a book in her lap.
If Polly were in their parlor, she’d know exactly what her mother was playing, but Kelly doesn’t have that skill. It’s something dark and low and sweet, and her mother isn’t looking up from the piano keys. Her hair is falling in her face, soft curls obscuring her eyes from Kelly’s view. She can see her mother’s mouth, though. She’s smiling slightly, just a soft tilt at the corner of her lips. It’s almost melancholy. It suits, Kelly supposes. The piece sounds a bit sad. A bit like them.
Kelly and her mother have been at odds for years. They are too different. Lily describes Kelly as her wild child to guests, her changeling child.
“I don’t know where she gets it from,” Lily says to others, her voice always like a sigh. She never speaks in anything above a whisper. “Seymour and I just don’t understand it.”
Kelly thinks she’s lucky. Her mother doesn’t understand her at all. But she doesn’t try to change her. She just lets her be. Lily Jones welcomes her home every year with a smile and a sigh, a shake of her head, and it’s enough. They sit together in the parlor when Kelly is home, and her mother plays the piano and Kelly watches. She reads whatever book of poems she’s currently obsessed with, and they pretend, just for a moment, to be closer than they really are.
Tomorrow she leaves for London and a job that will send her away from her friends and family for months, maybe even years, at a time. Kelly stares hard at her mother. For all she knows, this could be the last time she’ll see her. The thought hurts.
“Mum,” she blurts, shattering the music and her miasmic thoughts. Her book sits, untouched, in her lap. Lily looks up from the piano, startled.
She doesn’t actually have anything to say, she realizes. What can she say? Kelly can’t tell her mother about her new job- she’s been specifically told to give people as few details as possible- so she can’t tell her about the dangers involved. If she starts telling her mum how much she loves her, her mum will become concerned. They’re not a very demonstrative family.
Kelly blinks. “Did you ever do anything?” she asks, which is not what she was thinking at all, but she supposes it will work. Her mother has been a housewife as long as she’s been alive, and she’s always wondered if she had a career before her older brother was born.
Lily takes her hands off the piano and places them gently in her lap. She considers Kelly carefully, tilting her head to the side. “First day jitters?”
“Something like that,” Kelly says, smiling.
Her mother smiles back and rises gracefully. A dancer, maybe, Kelly thinks. Annabelle’s mother was a dancer, from the little bit that Annabelle has told her. Annabelle hasn’t told her much. Kelly doesn’t think she knows much about her mother, to be honest. Lily crosses the room and sits down across from Kelly on the settee.
“Of course I did something,” Lily says. She reaches out and places a hand on Kelly’s cheek. “I was your mother.”
Kelly leans into her mother’s touch, but shakes her head. “For a job, Mum.”
“I was a waitress,” Lily says after a moment, pulling her hand away. “But it wasn’t important, and when I met your father, I quit.”
They sit and stare at each other for a long time. Kelly could be an exact replica of her mother, except that her hair is stick straight like her father’s, and her face is a bit rounder. Kelly’s younger brother looks like their mother as well, but her older brother looks like their father. Kelly wonders what her mother sees when she looks at her.
“You’ll be wonderful,” Lily says softly, taking Kelly’s hand. “At your job, I mean. You’ve never been anything less than wonderful at everything you’ve ever wanted to do. I’m proud of you, Kelly.”
She wasn’t expecting that. She tears up. Her mother smiles and reaches forward, hugging her gently.
Tomorrow she leaves for London, Kelly thinks, and she may never see her mother again.
“I love you,” she says, choking on her tears. She squeezes her mother as hard as she can, decidedly ignoring the fact that Lily Jones has always looked like a particularly fragile thing, and she has always been terrified of hurting her.
“I love you too, sweetie,” her mother says, hugging back just as hard.
Josephine Leroux has several goals in life. She wants her artwork to be displayed in a gallery. She wants to dance the Firebird in Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. She wants to get married. She wants children. She wants to experience so many moments of bliss that she loses track of them. When she meets Carnaby Fritton, she is able to achieve most, if not all, of these.
He owns a gallery, and he loves her work, so her oil paintings and her watercolors and her portraits are displayed, and bought, and people write about her in the art sections of newspapers. She becomes, if not a famous artist, one who is well-known in the London area, and she cannot enter any fashionable establishment without seeing one of her own pieces gazing back.
He is charming, and handsome, and when he begins to court her, Josephine is flattered. Camilla warns her that Carnaby is only interested in her as a cash cow and because he wants an heir, but Josephine finds him fascinating and really, the heart wants what the heart wants.
“Camilla, it isn’t as if I’ve given up my dreams,” she scoffs over coffee. “Do I look like the oppressed woman to you?”
Camilla gives her a worried look. “Josephine, you don’t know my brother.”
“You’re not the one dating him, so I don’t see how it’s any of your business,” she replies shortly, and ends the conversation there.
They marry months later. The wedding is opulent, decadent, and it sets Josephine’s teeth on edge. She wanted something simple and tasteful, and she wanted a Jewish ceremony. Carnaby had refused all three.
“Darling,” he’d cooed, tilting her chin up and pouting, “You know how I feel about religion. Do you really want me to feel dreadfully uncomfortable the entire time? On our special day?”
She’d smacked him for that. She lets him have the wedding he wants, though. Josephine does not care all that much about her wedding, in the end. It’s one day out of many, and she’ll save her arguments for something truly important. For something she really wants.
“They’re such a bother,” Carnaby whines at her. “Can’t you just get the operation?”
Josephine reviews her life in her head. She’s twenty-four. She’s hailed as an artistic genius by newspapers and magazines throughout London, and she’s received an offer from a broker to show her works to gallery owners in France, Germany, and Spain. She’s in the corps de ballet in the English National Ballet, which is not quite the Firebird, but it’s more than most ballet dancers get. She’s ambitious, successful, and she’s young, and by God, if this is what Carnaby wants, then she doesn’t have to stand for it.
“No,” she says calmly, rising from her armchair and taking the Times with her. “I’m going to stay with your sister. I’ll be by tomorrow to get my art from your gallery.”
She knows the buttons to push. If she’d said, I’ll be by tomorrow to get my things, he would have let her walk away. But taking her artwork, that would kill him. It wouldn’t just kill him. It would ruin him. In Carnaby Fritton’s eyes, that is much, much worse.
Carnaby catches her hand. “Now, darling, we can work this out.”
And they do. They talk for hours, and Josephine makes her position quite clear: if she cannot have children, plural, than she’d damn well better have child, singular. Or she leaves. She’s twenty-four, ambitious, successful, and she can start again if she must.
“Are you happy?” Camilla asks her the next time she’s in London. Josephine considers, tilting her head to the side as though listening to voices only she can hear. She takes a sip of her espresso to buy time.
“I’m not unhappy,” she decides upon. Camilla sighs.
She dances in the ballet until she’s five months pregnant. At that point, Josephine takes leave from the ballet and spends more time painting. She decides to experiment a little, exploring new mediums, and discovers that she enjoys sculpting. Carnaby does not.
“Have you seen the cost of sculpting materials?” he groans. “I am not made of money, Josephine.”
Josephine ignores him. The baby rages within her, all kicks and tumbles, and she needs something to distract her. Besides, she can always sell more of her artwork if they find themselves financially strapped. She’s Josephine Leroux Fritton.
When the baby comes, Josephine is so blissfully happy that it hurts. She holds her little girl in her arms and stares down at her, marveling at the little hands and feet, shocked at how small they are.
“I made a tiny person,” she whispers at her daughter, and her daughter screams, kicking and waving. Josephine adores her for it. Simply adores her. Such tiny lungs producing an enormous sound shouldn’t be possible and yet, there it is.
Carnaby is busy in Portugal, something to do with an art deal, so Josephine names her daughter herself. She thinks it more than makes up for not getting to have a Jewish ceremony for her wedding. She names her Annabelle Miriam Fritton, whispers Hebrew blessings over her head, and calls Camilla to inform her of her niece’s entrance into the world.
“Is she gorgeous?” Camilla asks. Josephine can just hear the pop! of a champagne cork exploding over the static hiss of the phone.
“She’s red, she’s wrinkly, she’s bald, she screams a lot, and she’s more beautiful than you or I could ever hope to be,” Josephine says honestly, unable to tear her eyes away from the baby she’s nursing.
“Why isn’t my wretch of a brother taking photos?” Camilla grumbles. “I need photos! I must show them to every girl in my school and tell them to watch out!”
Josephine hums. “Oh, he’s somewhere in Portugal. I don’t really care.”
When Carnaby returns, his only comment is, “Oh, a girl. I had rather hoped for a boy. Still, can’t exactly return to sender, can we?”
Josephine spends a year at home with Annabelle, doting on her, but she has no intentions of giving up her career. After one year at home, she converts the basement of their house into a ballet studio and begins practicing again, Annabelle’s playpen in the corner, and gets back into shape. Her muscles twinge and protest at being forced into pirouettes and arabesques and hortensias. Annabelle learns to walk with her mother in point shoes.
When Annabelle is nineteen months old, Josephine looks at Carnaby and says, “We’ll need to find a nanny.”
Carnaby looks up from whatever he’s reading and raises an eyebrow. “Whyever do we need to do that?”
“The English National Ballet is holding auditions next week. I intend to be there,” Josephine says, and smiles as Annabelle toddles up to her, hands grasping. She scoops her daughter up and drops a kiss on the top of her head, settling her in her lap and handing her the spoon off the table.
“To watch?” Carnaby asks.
Carnaby finally sets down his book and looks at her. “You can’t audition,” he says.
“Why not?” Josephine asks, pursing her lips and frowning.
“We have a daughter. She needs someone home with her.”
“Yes. Which is why I said we need to find a nanny.”
Carnaby scowls. “A parent, Josephine. Nannies aren’t acceptable substitutes.”
Annabelle giggles and smacks the spoon against the table, hard. Carnaby’s scowl deepens, and Josephine slides the spoon out of her tiny hands before he can start to complain, giving Annabelle her fingers instead. “Fine,” she says airily. “You can take a year off of work. I’ve taken a year and half off. We can trade off.”
“It doesn’t work that way, Josephine, and you know it.”
“Why not?” Josephine says for a second time.
“You can’t support a family on your wages,” he splutters. “I’m the breadwinner in this household.”
Josephine smiles. It’s slightly dangerous, but she doesn’t expect Carnaby to notice that. Carnaby doesn’t notice much about her, now that they’re married. He seems content to have a wife, but not content to have Josephine. She is perfectly aware of the difference.
“Carnaby,” she says evenly, standing and throwing Annabelle up onto her hip. “I am auditioning with the Ballet. If you don’t hire a nanny, I will.”
The new nanny’s name is Jasmine. Josephine auditions at the ballet, and is not selected for the corps de ballet.
She is selected to be an artist.
Josephine decides she could die tomorrow and be happy.
She teaches Annabelle how to talk between rehearsals, and becomes fast friends with Jasmine, who adores Annabelle nearly as much as she does. She practices roles in their basement, and laughs in delight as Annabelle tries to mimic her and falls over. She plays Stravinsky as loudly as they can both possibly manage, sweeping Annabelle up into her arms and dancing her around the room, never dropping her, never even coming close, whispering the story of the Firebird in her ears.
When she walks in on Jasmine and Carnaby together, it’s really a shock. And yet, given the state of her marriage, it really isn’t. The shock is that it’s Jasmine, who is her friend. She asks her to leave, quietly, and tells her that she’ll mail her last paycheck.
“I’m so sorry,” Jasmine says, tears in her eyes. Josephine looks at her, not feeling particularly charitable.
“So I am,” she says. “Now get out.”
After Jasmine has disappeared, she looks back at Carnaby, who hasn’t even bothered to get out of bed. He doesn’t look contrite, or sheepish, or ashamed. He looks… amused.
Josephine supposes she knows why. She is twenty-seven. She is less ambitious, but more successful. She has a daughter. And she hasn’t left him yet, despite the fact that he has given her a thousand and one reasons. Even now, she knows she won’t leave. Infidelity is not her final straw.
She wonders what is.
“If you ever,” she murmurs, shutting their bedroom door behind her, “sleep with another woman in our house, with Annabelle here, I will contact one of your sister’s girls, and they will never find your body.”
In the dim light, Josephine can see a spark of real fear in Carnaby’s eyes. He has always feared Camilla’s girls. She walks closer to the bed, until she is standing right over him. She is just back from rehearsal, and she still reeks of sweat. “And if you ever fuck one of my friends,” she growls, “I will kill you myself.”
She waits until he nods, and then she turns to take a shower. She’s filthy, and Annabelle won’t go to sleep until she reads Goodnight, Moon to her.
“Aren’t you going to make me promise to never cheat on you again?” Carnaby calls after her. Josephine turns back at the entrance to their bathroom door, looking over her shoulder and smirking sadly.
“I’m not delusional, Carnaby. I told you my terms. Stick to them.”
It isn’t that she doesn’t care. Inside, she wants to scream, and howl, and fly apart. She wants to demand a divorce. She wants to take Annabelle away from that man and tuck them both away where he’ll never get to them. But Josephine knows herself better than that. She knows that if she leaves, she’ll destroy herself. She may be less ambitious, but she’s still ambitious, and if she stays, she can still pursue her dreams. If she leaves, she’ll have to find a regular job with regular hours and regular pay to support herself and Annabelle.
She would do it, for Annabelle. She would walk the world thrice over for her darling girl. But she knows it would kill her, much as she imagines walking the world would. And then her baby would be right back where she began, and what good would it all have been?
No, Josephine decides, watching Annabelle sleep, stroking her hair away from her face. It is better to stay.
That spring, she premieres a new art collection, her first full series since Annabelle was born. It premieres in one of the major galleries in downtown London, not in Fritton Gallery. The critics rave at its brilliance, but also note at how different it is from her normal style.
“Much darker,” one writes, “as though Leroux’s world fell down and she picked it up and put it on the canvas to salvage it.”
Josephine saves that review. She thinks it’s probably the most accurate.
So the world goes on. She paints, she dances, she mothers Annabelle, and if she doesn’t have as much bliss as she dreamed of, she has moments where she’s happy, and she’ll settle for that.
Until Annabelle is four, and her doctor sits her down and gently says, “You have breast cancer.”
Josephine takes a moment to absorb this, folds her hands neatly in her lap, nods, and says, “Chemotherapy or mastectomy, then?”
They try chemotherapy and radiation first, though the doctor warns her that the cancer is very bad. Josephine hates chemotherapy, hates it, in part because chemotherapy is naturally awful, but also because she has to quit the ballet, and she had just been cast as one of the princesses in The Firebird. Not quite Firebird herself, but closer, so much closer than she had ever been before. But she endures the chemotherapy, the pain and the weakness and the humiliation of it all.
“It’s not working,” her doctor tells her as she lies in her hospital bed, weak from throwing up all day and not eating anything for two. Josephine nods as decisively as she can when it feels like her head is going to fall off.
“Take the damn breast, then.”
They do. Then they do more chemo. More radiation. Carnaby and Annabelle visit her in the hospital, but Josephine refuses to let Annabelle see her this way, and insists that Carnaby leave her in the waiting room. Eventually, they have to stop visiting altogether. She doesn’t mind. She misses her daughter horribly, but she’s fading into the bedsheets, and she wants Annabelle to remember her ballerina mother, her artist mother, not her chemotherapy-ridden mother.
Five weeks after the mastectomy, her doctor comes to her, sits down next to the bed, and says, “I’m so sorry, Josephine.”
They give her six weeks, if that. Josephine checks herself out of the hospital, unwilling to die in a strange place. Camilla comes to London and drives her home, where Annabelle is waiting anxiously. Josephine hugs her tightly to her lopsided chest, loving the feel of her baby girl against her, and looks up at Camilla.
“Argentina,” Camilla says tightly. Josephine can’t spare the energy to care.
Carnaby isn’t expected home for another week or so, and Camilla stays with her the entire time, helping her organize things. She draws up her will, leaving everything to Annabelle, with a few trinkets directed toward Camilla. Nothing goes to Carnaby, she makes sure of that. All proceeds of her artwork, if sold, are to go to Annabelle’s trust fund. Josephine takes a sort of vicious pleasure in removing Carnaby from her death as thoroughly as he removed her from his life. She also makes clear in her will that she’s to have a Jewish funeral. Weddings are just another day. Funerals, however, guide your passing into the next world. Josephine will not compromise on this. She adds, at the last minute, that she wants Annabelle to attend St. Trinian’s.
“I want her to know her family,” she tells Camilla, after the lawyer has come and gone with her will. “And I want her to get a good education.”
Camilla raises an eyebrow. “Josephine, I think the medications are affecting your brain. Not to insult my own school, but you know our scores are in the toilet, right?”
Josephine laughs until she’s coughing, her chest aching. “Not that kind of education, Millie. I don’t want her to make the same mistakes I did.”
Camilla’s eyes soften, and she takes Josephine’s hand.
Carnaby arrives home only a few days later than he originally intended, a sort of feat for their household. Camilla, who has not seen her brother since their mother’s funeral, leaves hours ahead of him, and so does not see Carnaby’s attempts to play devoted husband. Josephine waves him away, irritated.
“I don’t have the energy, Carnaby,” she says. “Leave me alone.”
And he does.
She spends the last months of her life painting. She paints whatever occurs to her: portraits, landscapes, abstract pieces, anything. She figures Carnaby will release them in his gallery after her death. They’ll make his gallery enormously popular, after all. The art world has already been reeling from news of her illness.
Mostly, though, she paints Annabelle. Someday, she hopes Annabelle will see them and know her mother loved her.
Josephine Leroux Fritton is twenty-nine. She is still ambitious, but does not have the time in life to do anything about it. She is still successful, but knows that she may be more so in death. She is unhappily married to a cad. She never danced the Firebird, and her moments of bliss were limited. She is dying.
She loves her daughter.
When she shuts her eyes for the final time, she only considers one of these important.