A black cab dropped them off at his family’s London townhouse in the middle of a side street smashed between Notting Hill and Kensington. They stepped out. It was early, not yet eight-thirty, and cool outside, with the smell of June in the air, wet grass and the honeyish odor of new flowers. There was a pocket-sized garden in front of the house, and Matthew held open a black wrought-iron gate for her and they walked toward the door along a chipped flagstone pathway, its crevices bursting forth with white chamomile buds. Cascading over the portico, a mess of mature wisteria, its violet clusters hanging in their faces like soft weightless grapes. The front door was darkest green, almost black, the paint glossy as the skin of a child’s balloon, so much so that she could see her reflection, see her myopic eyes widen, and she checked herself and tried to look pleased but not too eager, not too impressed. Matthew pulled out a plain gold key, and put it to a brass plate above the handle, twisted it round. It made a deep clicking, resonant, clean, satisfying, not like any lock she’d heard before in Pennsylvania, not anywhere else in America. The door opened away from their bodies, toward the insides of the house, and she looked up at Matthew. They exchanged a meaningless glance, his eyes kind. She couldn’t believe this was his home. Where he’d grown up.
The two of them lay underneath a great down duvet, their bodies buffeted by a headboard covered in toile de jouy, a hunting scene.
A patchy, red oriental rug spread out like silk at his feet, and beyond that, cream wool carpeting and a marble-topped glove table, its wooden legs festooned with a carved garland of laurel leaves and cherubs wrapped in ribbons. It was the only ornate piece of furniture in the voiceless hall, and it was burdened with a bowl of fleshy, nearly spent tea roses and the dry, yarny fingers of sweet peas. A rubber-banded pack of letters lay unopened upon it, along with several pink newspapers folded neatly and an upturned shell full of odds and ends: restaurant matchbooks and loose change and bits of paper.
The house was empty of life. Stuffy. They walked upstairs to Matthew’s room, its jade green walls covered in beagles and horses, and forced open the windows. The air rushed through and she felt it on her cheeks, in her hair still stale from the overnight flight. She followed him up the stairs to his parents’ bathroom and he left her alone and she opened a wardrobe for a towel and saw, hanging, the long spotted arm of a lady’s fur coat. She reached out — the fur was bristly and slick and rich — and lifted the hem into her palm and squeezed. She’d never seen leopard skin in the flesh, and was startled to find it hanging in a bathroom closet. She’d seen one in a movie recently, a melodramatic crime thriller set in Italy in the fifties in which the characters had raced around on scooters, looking glamorous and making earnest faces while the homicidal lead assumed another, wealthier identity. She touched the coat again. It was real, the whole thing, and it was stiff as an old leather jacket, like a cheap one she’d bought in a thrift store back on South Street in Philadelphia and had never worn.
She took out her contact lenses and curved her way down the staircase and stopped at the second floor landing where the walls were blurred dark with paintings and put her face up to an oval, close until she could smell the oil and turpentine, could see the marks of the brush in each hard stroke. A pretty young woman stared back and she looked not unlike Matthew with her linen skin, her bay brown hair tinged with black, her green eyes flecked blue and gold. The woman rested her hands in her lap. They were tiny and tightly gloved, nestled like white eggs against the skirt of a stiff, straw-colored taffeta dress.
She felt her way to the bedroom and undid her towel and crept into bed next to Matthew. The two of them lay underneath a great down duvet, their bodies buffeted by a headboard covered in toile de jouy, a hunting scene. Her mind couldn’t sleep and she lay in the sheets, her eyes running along the fabric trees and the birds in flight and the fear-eyed galloping until her lids began to grow heavy, until she found Diana the huntress, who stood there, fixed, woven into her cloth grove of oaks, bow pulled back, arrow taut.
Matthew collected his car from storage the next morning. It was a small Italian car, a silver Fiat convertible, and it sat dwarfed between a Ferrari and an Aston-Martin. Matthew’s father had bought thirty of them from a rental agency in Germany as an investment, and Matthew had asked to keep one though he never used it, being a student in the U.S. for most of the year. Matthew started the engine and launched them both out of the garage, and two hours later the city’s green parks and crescents of neat white townhouses gave way to crisscrossing motorways and squat ugly high rises and shabby pubs and factories, and then to flat country, a grand house visible here and there, its land cut through in a swathe of perpetually moving black highway. She had drifted off to sleep when Matthew turned off to exit. She woke to see a grassy bank partially obscured by a drape of trees, full of tented motor homes.
“Where are we?”
“We’re almost there, ducks.”
“Is this a trailer park?”
“No, a gypsy caravan.”
He glanced over at her warmly, full of adoration.
They drove through a little village with thatched houses and a single intersection, sped by rolling fields dotted with crumbling churches and herds of brown and white cows, past crowds of wild rabbits flowing en masse over seas of clover. Matthew turned the car onto a bumpy dirt road engulfed by high walls of privet, and she gripped her seat with both hands as he flung them about corner to corner, dove the Fiat into the shoulder, releasing the uriney odor of crushed boxwood.
The house appeared out of nowhere. There was a small sign carved in stone: Mill House Farm. And then a long pea-gravel drive that stretched itself toward a lake reflecting the largest house she’d ever seen, a great Georgian brick manor. It was something out of a dream, an enormous block of gingerbread piped in ivory fondant. The sun hit it from behind, darkening the bricks and window casings, throwing shadows across the lake, and from the reflection alone, she counted eighteen eight-over-eight windows. Mill House Farm. So preposterously, fantastically modest.
She’d seen her life closing around her, the beginnings, the middle and the ends of it curtained closed…
Her reaction caught her off guard, embarrassed her but her body stiffened with excitement, a kind of panicky glee as if she had won a contest, a lottery. The house, the idea that she knew someone who lived there, that she had been sleeping with someone who lived there, potentially commingling DNA with someone who had grown up there, who stood to inherit the whole thing, the drive, the lake, the bricks, the three hundred and eighty-eight window panes (and that was just the front of the house), and however many acres and she gazed with awe at the excess of glass, all so opaque in the afternoon light, at the lake that shimmered in wavelets off to the south and thought of how she’d been late the month before. She’d been at school in Philadelphia and for four fraught days Matthew had calmly outlined their future, the future of their child and how they’d buy a townhouse in the city as an investment and how she wouldn’t have to work, how he would marry her right away and take care of her and then they would move to London after he finished his MBA because that was where the child must be raised and the possibility, all of the possibilities, had scared her to death. She’d seen her life closing around her, the beginnings, the middle and the ends of it curtained closed, she saw choices which weren’t hers and when she’d gotten her period Matthew had been disappointed enough to cry, while she had cried because she’d been handed her freedom back like a set of lost keys recovered. But now, now that she stood before the house, the curtain seemed to close again in a way that filled her with a drowsy, frantic, skin-tingling warmth. The possibilities, all of the lovely possibilities, really, they stood before her, and they took her breath away.
Before she knew it Matthew was leading her through a checkerboard hall, the watery blue ceiling so high it seemed to scratch the atmosphere, to be part of the sky itself and she stepped carefully across the black and white diamonds, the leather of her plain flats quiet against the marble. She saw a grand piano, the same muted ebony as the black diamonds, pushed up against a lemon wall hung with charcoal drawings of young boys with baby teeth and wispy curls and lacy collars, and oils of wooden-backed men with powdered hair, their hands tucked across their hearts underneath gold-buttoned pink hunting jackets. There were handfuls of matching chairs scattered around the front hall, little French chairs pushed up against the walls, chairs you would never think of sitting in, chairs that in museums had little red strings pulled across their tatty seats with little white cards that read PLEASE DO NOT SIT HERE. Matthew took her by the hand, led her up the flying staircase further into the depths of the house. Everything, the heavy silk curtains, the threadbare rugs at the foot of each door, the long blind hallways papered with prints and paintings and china, it was all so worn down in such a lovely, vaunted way. There were rooms paneled floor to ceiling in walnut and oak, little rooms within rooms that led to more rooms down more hallways. She could imagine living here forever, being lost in this maze of a house, forever. This kind of life, it was in books she’d read as a child. And wasn’t it every child’s dream, to find themselves, and then promptly lose themselves, forever, in a house such as this one? Yes, she could imagine living here, forever.
They had the house to themselves that afternoon. His parents had been in the north for a car rally and were to come back that evening. The four of them would have dinner at nine. So she and Matthew played tennis and walked his terrier through the fields behind the house, and she pulled him down into the knee-high grass and she could tell it had made him nervous and shy, and she could feel his heartbeat in his palm and it thrilled her, and they kissed and the dog barked and ran off after a rabbit, a hedgehog, and they made love. The grass stung their backs, and afterward they threw on their clothes, her bra and underwear dangling from her fist, and ran back toward the house, to the large pool set off in a far garden, and they unrolled its cover laughing in big fits and she peeled off her clothes again piece by piece with large comic gestures and dove in and he followed and they floated around, a knot of limbs and mouths and laughter.
In the evening they walked to the pub. She felt the gravel under her feet and walked as if she were tipsy, her muscles tired from the sun and the walk and the tennis and the swimming and all of the love. Her ankles gave way and she clutched onto his arm, her free hand running along the endless row of privet, plucking stems and clutching the waxy leaves. She ripped at them, tore them up. He grabbed at her wrist, his eyes wicked and playful. He pried open her palm.
“Darling, let these poor leaves go. You’re torturing them.”
“No. I won’t.” She pulled her shoulders away from him, his hand still clutching her own.
“And why not?”
“I don’t know. They’re my prisoners. My little prisoners of war.”
She opened up her palm to him, released the bruised green stems.
“Do you want them,” she asked, “I’d give them to you, you know. I’d give all of them to you — all of my battered, torn little bits.”
He folded up her palm, patted it in a careless kind of way that made her heart jump, that scattered the leaves to the ground.
“There it is, just ahead.” He lifted both their hands and pointed to a lonely brown field pegged with power lines and long sloping boughs of wire. A brick square sat off to the side, a few cars parked in front. Inside they shared a bench at a low wormwood table and he asked what she wanted and she said nothing, that she was too sleepy, that it was too early.
Maybe her accent had reminded him of something, told him that she was a stranger, and not being from England, that she was unbound, free.
On the way out they ran into a young man. He had just arrived and like an old friend Matthew called out to him, Geoff, Geoff! and the man nodded back, addressed Matthew as sir. Would you mind terribly taking us to the house? Matthew asked. She watched as Geoff hesitated, stiffened the cords of his neck, acquiesced wordlessly. She and Matthew climbed into the back of the truck and watched the pub and the power lines and the brown field now yellow with the setting sun fade away into the darkened tunnel of privet. She asked who Geoff was and Matthew explained that he was Bill the head gardener’s son. Bill’s father had been the head gardener before that, and his grandfather and great-grandfather before that.
Geoff stopped by the side entrance near the kitchen and she watched as his legs kicked out from the truck’s door. He held them there for a moment and then he apologized and pulled himself back behind the wheel and circled them back to the large formal yard of gravel where an old Bentley convertible was now parked, completing, she thought, the picture of privilege. Geoff held her arm as she stepped down, put his hands into the cut of her waist, and she caught his eye and something passed between them that unsettled her. He was attractive, broad-shouldered and sturdy, and for a second she imagined him punching Matthew out with a single blow until all of his unwitting arrogance streamed out of him like blood. And then she was ashamed at herself for imagining such a thing and looked away. Maybe Geoff could tell, like she knew herself, that she didn’t belong there. That she and Geoff had more in common than she and Matthew ever would, that she belonged with a man like Geoff, raising his ruddy blond child in a cottage that belonged to the estate, one they could never rightfully own. Was it a knowing look he had given her? A kind of wink?
But then she said to him, Thank you. I’m O.K., and her accent, perhaps unexpected, made him drop his hands. Maybe it had reminded him of something, told him that she was a stranger, and not being from England that she was unbound, free.
Matthew’s parents hadn’t come outside to meet them. They found his mother sitting in the hall at the piano facing away from the keys, her small legs curled underneath the bench. She stayed seated until Matthew came toward her, and stood up as if in slow motion, brushing her hands down the front of her long denim skirt. They looked at one another shyly.
“Well, hello, Mother,” he said.
They stood immobile, evaluating one another. She didn’t touch him. It seemed she couldn’t, physically, though something about her — maybe the way she coiled her arms about her upper body, almost hugging herself — something about her desperately wanted to. She was his mother after all. They were both small, she much smaller, and just as pale-skinned and dark-haired as her son.
Matthew’s father walked in long and reedy and came straight over to her, she who had been standing alone, awkwardly observing mother and son. He grabbed her hand and leaned in and she felt the burn of his stubble as he kissed her on both cheeks and he went to Matthew who was biting the sides of his nails and smacked his hand from his mouth.
“Stop that, darling. Looks like you’re getting fat. He is, isn’t he, Kitten? You’re not fattening him up, are you, Annie?”
“I hope not — I don’t think so.”
“Daddy, it’s Ann, not Annie.”
“Well,” he said to Matthew, “where have you been all this afternoon? Have you taken Annie to Windsor yet? Have you shown your beautiful girlfriend around in your convertible, you ponce, eh?”
“Has he, Annie?”
“No,” she said. “No. We went for a walk.”
“Yes, I see. You should take advantage while you’re here, of the sun and fresh air.”
“Daddy, we’ll be going back tomorrow.”
“I see. Well, we shouldn’t keep Mrs. Bell any longer now, should we? Have you much of an appetite, Annie? I suppose you must after all of that fresh air and exercise. You must be careful with your skin, though, I suppose, in the outdoors. You’re quite blond, aren’t you? Do you get much fresh air, back in Philadelphia?”
“Yes. I mean, we live in the country. Or, that’s where I grew up. Where I’m from.”
Matthew’s father seemed pleased, and led her into the mint-colored dining room with its white moldings and fireplace and china cases and heavy chintz curtains that pooled to the floor, exploding with flowers and parrots and miniature farmers collecting tea leaves in peaked straw hats. The table was clothless, bare, set with crystal and two large sterling candelabra with apricot flesh candlesticks that matched the china. Mrs. Bell had dressed a chicken and had made roasted new potatoes from the garden and fresh peas sautéed with lettuce; the food sat on a wheeled cart in the corner of the room. At the end of dinner, Matthew’s father gently interrogated her about whether or not she’d gone to boarding school. “No, I was a day girl,” she had replied (leaving out the part about the scholarship), skied (“Cross-country”) and played tennis (“Not very well. But I’ve had a few lessons”).
She and Matthew had met the previous year when a friend had dragged her from her dorm room at Bryn Mawr to a party downtown full of Wharton MBAs. She had been quietly, painfully lonely for months, stewing in Ghirlandaio and Raffaello and Botticelli and retreating into Dante. Her summer boyfriend, a Florentine who knitted sweaters, had called and announced that he was marrying his fidanzata.
Matthew had been playing pool and she hadn’t noticed him — he was short and boyish-looking — instead, her eyes had been following a well-dressed Italian from Verona whose family was apparently in the gold business. But the Italian hadn’t paid her any attention and walked out of the room without saying goodbye, so when Matthew came over with a friend of a friend she had smiled and listened politely. He wore a gold ring, a family crest involving something vulpine, a wolf or a fox, on his right pinkie, which both repelled and intrigued her, and somehow, later that night, she had ended up in his apartment, in his room, the floor of which was covered with money and wire hangers and a mountain of balled-up dry cleaning bags. She was surprised to find that he lived in such a decrepit-looking building, what anyone would commonly call a dump — tumbledown, uneven as if it were in a permanent, half-paralyzed limp, drooping and melted to the earth like a blown-out candle. The florid Victorian moldings dripped with too many coats of nicotine-stained paint, the entrance’s hardwood boards were sanded down with city dirt and road salt, strewn with unclaimed packages. She looked up to the bare light bulb that hung from the ceiling — a single, fat black fly flitted around it, batted its miniscule wings into the raw light, ceaselessly — and Matthew motioned her up the long, curving staircase where at least twenty spindles were missing, rotted or sawed off indiscriminately. The staircase seemed to smile at her, a street person’s grin of dead, missing teeth.
When Matthew got her to his room, they talked, he put on music, he slipped off her shoes one by one. Her naked feet touched the coin-and-paper-bill covered floor, all the scattered remainders of his emptied pockets. Wilted one-hundred thousand lira notes and palm-softened fifty dollar bills brushed her skin; cold twenty pence rounds and squat two pound disks stamped with the Queen’s profile stuck to her toes and heels. They sat on his bed and he launched into a story about how he’d been in an accident as a child, something horrific, something he couldn’t wait to tell her, something she’d had to cover her mouth with her hand as he told her in order to keep from breaking out into nervous laughter. He’d been run over by a coal truck, he said, on a country road when he was seven. He lifted up his shirt and tugged down his trousers and his underwear just past his left hip and her eyes widened and she gave a little gasp. The skin there was puckered and wrinkled with scar tissue, and she reached out and touched him. He gave a phantom flinch and watched her as she went ahead, shyly, surprised to feel that it was just as smooth as the skin above and below. She pulled her hand away, and he took it, cupped her fingers with his free hand into a little ball, and asked if he could kiss her, which made her irrationally nervous, and then he leaned in and brushed his lips against her own. He touched her gently, pushed her long bangs away from her eyes. He laid her back onto his pillow, mirrored her with his body, and she could smell his skin, the light musky scent she had picked up earlier on his neck, mingled with the remnants of some kind of opulent cologne. His sheets, ordinary pale blue cotton, rustled around them both, filling their ears as they began to move their limbs around each other, and the sound soothed them like waves, like wind pushing itself through trees in leaf, and with each breath, they fell into one another, in a sort of collapse, deliberately, tenderly, with eyes shut. She fell, more and more, in love.
When she woke the next morning, her eyes scanned the room. There were pictures of a very old Bentley convertible, of Matthew in jeans and tall green boots and a waxed cotton jacket, a wool scarf knotted around his neck and an auburn field behind him, a little honey-colored terrier at his feet. On top of his desk, layers of papers and books, everything scattered and a mess. Several birthday cards. On the floor, a pair of scuffed, street-worn Italian shoes, on the back of a chair, a wool overcoat with a cigarette burn in the sleeve, and everywhere, oversized car magazines from Europe, dog earred and with finger-bruised, greasy covers, and novels, tons of novels, good novels.
She heard the minutes scratch by on the mantle clock tick tick tick and the hours, each one a deep painful ringing that made her want to scream and run from the room.
He went to shower, and she wrapped herself in the duvet and looked through his clothes. Six pairs of very expensive Italian jeans, half of them with the tags still on, the prices printed out in Francs. And his shirts, he wore dress shirts, it looked like everyday — at least forty hung stiff and starched on hangers, stuffed into the tiny coffin of his closet: heavy blue piques and brushed cotton-cashmere flannels and English plaids and several worn-looking white-tie shirts. She touched one of the piques. She felt for the label, which was sewn in as delicately as the stitching on the cuffs and collar. “Made in France,” it said. She held the hanger to her body. The sleeves weren’t very long. The shirt would fit her, and she would look nice in it. A pair of sterling collar stiffeners came loose, fell to the floor and bounced along the cluttered carpet out of view. She bent down, gripped the fat marshmallow bulk of the duvet in one hand and felt around for the silver. She heard his footsteps down the hall. She snapped her body upright, her bed-tangled hair flipping back in a rush, and turned toward him coolly, with an appraising, deflective look.
“I was just noticing your pictures,” she said, pointing across the room to one of the photos, which sat, guileless, atop a chest of drawers. “You have a dog.”
“Yes, that’s Jasper,” he said. His torso was beaded with water. “He’s a Norfolk.”
“Oh.” She had no idea about dogs. “We had an Irish Setter, growing up.”
“Oh, yes. They’re quite handsome.”
“Yes,” she said. “And crazy. Or I guess, ‘unpredictable.’ ” She smiled. She couldn’t help it. He had really kind of caught her, but he wasn’t going to say anything. Not even a sly remark, a joke, something to laugh about later. She didn’t quite understand. But she went with it. Maybe this was how you acted. How one acted, if one had piles of money, littering one’s carpet. She wanted to be a part of it, whatever it was. The jeans, the shirts, the photographs. The coal truck tragedy.
He held out a clean towel for her, a cheap one with a tag from a local department store. “The shower is free, if you’d like.”
After dinner his parents went for a walk and she and Matthew stole off to the library. They curled up on a small sofa, threw the mess of ancient needlepoint pillows to the floor and made out, pawed at one another, messed up each others’ hair, felt through each others’ clothes to their naked skin.
“Do I have to sleep in that room,” she asked, “all the way on the other side of the house?”
“It’s only for one night.”
“But it’s too far away.”
“You’ll be fine, darling.”
“You won’t stay with me?”
“You could sneak out in the morning.”
“No.” He knelt at the fireplace. The night had turned cold and damp, and he lit a match and tossed it into the grate. His hands were on the bellows, and he puffed little bursts of air into the weak flames.
The doorknob twisted and Matthew pushed himself off the sofa and she reached for the buttons of her shirt and combed her fingers through her hair and wiped her mouth.
Matthew’s father appeared in the frame and lurched into the room, followed by the diminutive, shy shadow of his wife.
“Oh there you are. We couldn’t find you.”
She looked at the clock on the mantle. It was late, the hands nearly pressed together into midnight.
“Oh, you’ve got a fire going.”
“Isn’t it a perfect night for a fire,” said his mother. “Quite cool. It isn’t quite usual, is it, for this time of year.”
“Do you mind if we join the both of you,” asked his father. “Warm up for a bit?” He sat down next to Ann, and pulled a needlepoint cushion from behind his back, set it onto the floor.
“Shall we play a game, perhaps?” his mother asked. “Matthew, have a look in the cupboard.”
“Oh, I know,” she said. “Let’s play the Peter Rabbit game. We must do.”
“Really, Kitten, you want to play that one?”
“Yes,” said Matthew. “All one ever does is go round and round in circles.”
“Well, I suppose you’re right. But it’s such a nice game.”
“What do you think, Annie — Ann?” asked the father.
“Oh, I don’t know. It sounds fine.” But she thought it was bizarre and she waited for Matthew to plead their exhaustion, to wish them goodnight.
“Ann’s not quite convinced.”
“No, no. I’d love to.”
Matthew pulled a yellowed cardboard box from a cabinet, and Ann mirrored Kitten as she slid to the floor, cradled her stockinged ankles in her little hands.
“Who would you like to be, Annie?” asked the father.
“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t want to take anyone’s favorite.”
“Nonsense. Take any you’d like. Here.” He passed the pieces to her, six delicate diecast metal animals: two rabbits, a cat (which she surely wouldn’t touch), a duck, a squirrel and a hedgehog.
“I’ll take the hedgehog if that’s all right.”
“Of course. Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle it is.”
“Yes, love Mrs. T.W.,” she said, and they all looked at her.
The game went on for ages, interminably. She heard the minutes scratch by on the mantle clock tick tick tick and the hours, each one a deep painful ringing that made her want to scream and run from the room. Kitten, she wouldn’t give up. The pieces circled round and round, just as Matthew had said they would. No one seemed able to win. Finally, Matthew’s father stood up.
“Kitten, really, this is useless.”
Ann looked up to him with red eyes, but Kitten sat up, ruffled.
“No, darling, someone should win,” she whispered. “Someone must win. We mustn’t give up, all at once.”
His father looked at Ann and sat down. They went around in loops with their little metal animals three more times until Matthew threw down his rabbit.
“It really is useless. I think we should leave it, Mummy.”
“Do you think so?” she asked to the air in front of her. “I suppose I am tired. I suppose we all are, aren’t we? Such a tiring day. Shall we say goodnight, then?”
“Yes, let’s do,” said her husband.
“Leave the game out, will you darling? Remind me to write a note for Mrs. Ward.”
They stood up, all of them, stiffly and with stiff limbs. Matthew’s mother looked at him earnestly and she opened her mouth to say something but all that came out was a small, low goodnight. His father put his arm around her shoulder as if to herd her out of the room, the good little sheep, and he moved her along toward the door through which they had come. Matthew looked on after her and his father told them to turn off the lights in the great hall before they went to bed, to not worry about the alarm because he’d set it off before dinner, and his mother turned her head over her shoulder and she looked as if she might cry and she said again, to Matthew, goodnight.
The door closed and she fell back on the sofa, lolled her head against the pillows, gave a lazy relieved smile to Matthew whose eyes held a fog and she reached for him to try to kiss him and he only petted her hand in a distant sort of way. She looked into the fire then and hung her arm down the side of the sofa until her fingertips grazed the edges of a book. She rubbed the spine absently and then she looked down at it and finally pulled it onto her lap. A photo album.
“Oh. Should I put it back?”
“No, not at all. He’s quite a good photographer.”
She flipped through the black pages, the pictures put in carefully with photo corners. Landscape, landscape, landscape. And then, a girl, tallish, blond, pretty. In profile, cool and proud-looking, then at the beach, covered up in a towel, making a goofy face at the camera; then in a miniskirt, her back slid down against a warehouse door, her bottom on the pavement. And then his father, surprisingly handsome, his arm around her, smiling so wildly, so enthusiastically that his mouth must have ached in pain.
“Who is this, this girl?”
“Oh, Daddy’s girlfriend.”
“His girlfriend. Before Mummy, obviously.”
Page after page the same girl, more and more beautiful. “He took a lot of pictures of her.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“This album, your mother doesn’t mind it?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Does he ever see her?”
“This girl, this woman.”
“Do you mean now? No. Of course not.”
“But he looks at her pictures. This is his chair, isn’t it? And the album, it’s right here.”
“I suppose so, darling. But he married Mummy, didn’t he, and that’s that.”
They drove back to London the next day, and went to an art gallery, a play, out to dinner. When they got back to the townhouse they were full and exhausted and still drunk on champagne. They tumbled up the stairs and took turns taking showers in his parents’ bathroom. Matthew went first and came down wobbly, barely wrapped in a towel, his hair dripping down the back of his neck and she laughed and snapped the white cotton off him with one small tug.
“I think I might read,” he said, unperturbed, and he walked off down the staircase, naked.
She was still laughing when she turned on the shower. The water was cold and she let it run, and she let her robe fall to the floor and threw back her hair and fluffed it with her hands and pulled back her shoulders, looked at her breasts in the mirror. They were round and pleasing and in her drunkenness she held them in her hands and then she looked away, embarrassed and bored by her vanity. She got up and stuck her hand in the shower. Still cold. Warmer, but still cold. And then she saw the wardrobe with the leopard coat but she looked in the linen closet instead. She searched carefully through all of their cosmetics and toiletries once again. Someone had athlete’s foot, someone was incontinent. They bought supermarket brand shampoos and conditioners. They preferred body wash to bar soap. They kept disposable razors and castor oil and talcum powder and rubbing alcohol and old sunscreens, took no pills or medications, wore no deodorants. She made her way around the bathroom, picked up bottles and read the backs of pictures and sniffed ancient perfumes. And then she went back to the leopard coat. She opened the wardrobe and expected it to be gone. But there it was, heavy and dead and unmistakably spotted black and blond against ivory. It was so sad, she thought, and she hated Matthew’s mother for having it — it must be hers, given to her by her mother. She’d seen pictures of Matthew’s grandmother at the house, and she seemed like the sort of woman to own a leopard coat — in the pictures she was fox hunting, and driving jeeps in Africa, shooting pheasants and elephants with a red lipstick smile and honey blond hair.
She lifted the coat off the hanger, folded it across her forearms and against her bare body. She held it up, then swept the coat round her shoulders like a cape, and slithered her arms through it, first the left and then the right and by the time she had her right arm through it was too late to realize that the coat had been made for a small, in fact, a tiny-shouldered woman. Her broad shoulders began to push at the seams — but she was too inebriated to fully panic. Instead, she struggled across the tiles, hopped feebly up and down, tried to shake the leopard off.
The shower had turned warm and the bathroom had morphed into a jungle of steam and thick heat. Moist white clouds obscured her reddened face in the mirror, and she pushed her coated hand through the shower door again, tried to turn the faucet off. But the sleeves caught her arms like finger traps and she heard the seams give and tear and she couldn’t reach the tap. The fur, the heavy skin, was hot. It was, in fact, like wearing a dead animal. Sweat began to run down her thighs, underneath her breasts, gluing everything together. The bathroom door opened.
“Is that you, Matthew, running the shower again? Wasting all the hot?”
Matthew’s father stepped into the steam, his street shoes on the marble. He stepped closer, so close that she locked eyes with him and he turned around, quietly and instinctively, and went to shut the door. He locked them both inside the bathroom and came back toward her and stood fixed to the floor. And then he looked at her, and she looked back at him, and his eyes, through all the mist and steam and fog she could see that they were keyed up, she could see his pupils dilate in the bright overhead light and she noticed that his hair was thinning, his skin was uneven, lined around the eyes and forehead, but his eyes were still young. She watched as his mouth opened, a slack sliver of an inhale. He said, simply, nothing.
“I’m stuck,” she said.
“I can see that.”
She looked around. She wanted to call for help, for Matthew. She wanted to turn the shower off. She wanted to crawl back into bed, underneath the heavy duvet, underneath Diana the huntress.
“Let me help you,” he said.
But she couldn’t say anything. She just looked at him, helpless.
“I won’t look,” he said.
“O.K.,” she said, “all right.”
She turned around, her back toward him, and slowly looked over one spotted shoulder at him. Her hair fell across her back, and she heard him sigh and she was still drunk enough to let it confuse her and she shivered with disgust and self-loathing. He walked toward her and she could feel him put out his hand. She could feel his fingers pantomime the curve of her back as he brushed the curtain of her hair, gathered it into one hand and released it over her right shoulder.
“Hold out your arms,” he whispered. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell Kitten.”
She did as he said. It would be over soon, she told herself, at least that was a comfort. All of it, it would be over. Matthew’s father pulled at the slick fur, gingerly at first, grazing her neck with his fingers, and she shut her eyes, mortified. Mortified to be there, to be so vulnerable. The coat tore a dry rip of old musty seams at the shoulder, right where she’d known it would all fall apart and he let it drop down her body, skim past her shoulders, past her back to her waist and she could feel his eyes on her naked skin and it twisted her stomach. She moved away and kicked the coat and grabbed for a towel and stared down at the floor.
He was silent then. She heard his hands drop, brush the sides of his trousers. Her eyes studied the tiles underneath her bare feet, jumped from square to square until she found one long graceful fissure.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m very sorry.”
Her neck ached but she wouldn’t lift her head.
“I’ll take care of it,” he said. “I’ll send it out straight away.”
He’d meant to the cleaners, to a tailor, to a furrier. She wanted him to leave her alone. She wanted him to let her be.
Matthew ended the relationship over the phone. He told her he didn’t want to see her again, not until he didn’t love her anymore. What he told her sounded repeated, forced. He dropped words. All of them intangibles, abstractions like duty and honor and tradition, in muddy, convoluted sentences, and it wasn’t Matthew she heard. It was the pink-jacketed man, the wispy-haired baby, the lady on the landing, his father in the steamy master bath, pulling at the dead coat and letting it fall to her naked feet. It wasn’t Matthew, at least the one she had known, the one he had shown her, the one who had been hers.