There is nothing better than spending a sultry, summer afternoon in the cool darkness of the Maxwell Plum. We’re the only customers here, Jack is at nursery, and the twins are napping in their double pushchair beside our table. If I shut my eyes like this, thereby ignoring both the twins and my thirty-something reflection in the window, I can almost believe I am twenty-two again. Of course, I didn’t know any Americans when I was twenty-two, so the three other accents at the table aren’t authentic, but—
Wait — you thought I was with Oliver? Heaven preserve us. I’ve come here to get away from Oliver and his irritating, logical arguments. The three ladies I’m with now — Willow, Anna, Maggie — will give me nothing but sympathy. They are absolutely, completely the best friends I’ve had since my days in University halls, and for that, I’m grateful. Very grateful. Sooo grateful. And I get more grateful with each top-up of Chardonnay.
You see, sometimes, only girl-time will do. Girls will listen, nod, listen some more, fill your glass with more wine, and offer anecdotes of similar experiences to the one you’re bending their ears about.
They will never, repeat never, say, “For God’s sake, Libs, quit moaning. I’m not paying more than $140k for that heap of dry rot, and the owners are not accepting less than $200k, ergo we are not buying it. End of story. If you want a solution, go and look at those nice new houses in Banbury and stop being such a damned hopeless, stupid romantic. There’s nothing romantic about leaking roofs and rotten floorboards.”
“And even though he knows I’ve got my heart set on this house, that’s what he said. That’s what Oliver said,” I say, leaning back in my chair and stifling a small hiccup, my eyes still closed to keep up the illusion of being twenty-two. “I know you guys would never say that and call me a stupid romantic.”
Girls are more supportive than that.
Or at least, they should be, but as I open my eyes, I see my three friends looking at me with one expression.
Concern? Or is it amusement?
“What?” I say. “What’s wrong?”
Maggie’s lips twitch.
“You’re not used to liquid lunches these days, are you, my dear?”
“She drove here, right?” Willow asks Maggie. “Because I can totally drive her and the twins home and pick up Jack and she can get her car later.”
“It’s a nice afternoon! I walked!” I’m not happy at this unsupportive conversation about me that’s taking place as if I weren’t here. “And it’s not my turn to carpool today, so someone else is bringing Jack home.”
“Thank God for that,” Willow says. “Because you’re barely fit to push that stroller home, let alone drive anything with an engine. And there I was,” she says, turning to Anna, “thinking all Brits could hold their drink.”
Anna gets up from the table and heads towards the restaurant’s kitchen.
“Perhaps it’s time we put the wine away and switched to coffee. What do you say, Libs?”
* * *
“Tell us again. You want to buy The Forge, the old house at the bottom of Main Street?” Maggie draws patterns with a spoon in her coffee foam. “The one with acres and acres of land? I know it. The owner, the one who died recently, she was a friend of mine.”
“That dotty old lady? Really?” Willow sniggers. “I heard the rumours about her, how she’d dance naked in the back garden and talk to the trees and flowers and stuff. A real tree hugger.”
“And that,” Maggie says, a stern expression on her face, “is why you should never pay attention to rumours. I used to work for that ‘dotty old lady’ as you call her. She was my employer, before I bought her craft shop and all those teapots. I expect Anna remembers her.”
Anna shakes her head.
“You must do,” Maggie persists. “You remember when I opened Maggie May’s, when you were in high school here, when you and Sara were attached at the hip.”
Sara again. Maggie’s mystery daughter who swans off to the Seychelles to get married but won’t come to see her mother in her hometown.
Anna’s still shaking her head. “I’m sorry,” she says. “So much of that time is a blank. I think I’ve blocked it out.”
Maggie places one hand over Anna’s, on the table. “And I don’t blame you one bit,” she says in a gentle tone, which makes me wonder what happened to Anna at high school. “It’s a shame, though. Cathy was a great character.”
“Cathy!” I exclaim, feeling slightly more alert now. I have no idea what Anna puts in her coffee, but it’s good stuff. “The cat-shaped teapots in your kitchen!”
“The same.” Maggie beams at me. “Well, she was in her sixties when I bought the shop from her, and she must have been well into her nineties when she died last year. The poor soul had been suffering from dementia for about ten years. Didn’t recognise her own son four years ago, but knew what people were doing, all right, when they tried to put her into a nursing home. The last six or seven years, she’s been in that house with a team of nurses and carers coming in every day. And when they didn’t keep a close enough eye on her, that’s when she’d strip off and run around the back garden and talk to the trees. She got frostbite once, doing it in the winter. Senility is a very cruel fate for the old.”
She fixes Willow with another stern stare, and Willow looks down, abashed.
“Why won’t her son sell it to you?” Maggie asks me.
I shrug with rather more vigour than I’d intended, and knock over my glass of water which is nearly empty but still contains enough liquid to flood my side of the table and drip onto my lap.
“I don’t know,” I say, as Anna and Willow rush at me with paper napkins. This must be what it’s like to be Jack at every mealtime. “Donna didn’t say. She just said he didn’t accept our offer, and didn’t come back with a counter offer.”
“I wonder why that was.” Maggie rests her chin on her hand and gazes out of the window at a group of high school kids gathering on the village green that splits Main Street lengthways. “It’s not as if he needs the money. Or maybe that’s why. Perhaps he’s hanging in there until he gets a high offer because he can afford to do so.”
“He doesn’t need the money?” Willow voices the surprise of the rest of us. “Who’s got so much money that they flatly turn down $140k?”
“People who win a small fortune on the Powerball lottery and retire to Montana, that’s who. Believe me, that $140,000 is a drop in his ocean of winnings. That’s how Cathy was able to afford her team of 24/7 nursing staff for so long.”
“Wow.” I pat with another napkin at my shorts. They look as if I’ve had an embarrassing accident, and I hope they dry before I have to walk back home. “What does he do in Montana?”
“Chuck’s a hermit. A hermit with 400 acres. He came to see me last time he was here, four years ago — that was after he found out his mother didn’t know she’d even had a son, let alone recognise him. He was very concerned about her and, since he’s such a hermit, was worried he wouldn’t know until it was too late if anything happened to Cathy.”
“Hadn’t he heard of cell phones?” Willow asks.
“There was barely a signal where he lived, he said, and he liked it that way. No interruptions, no telesales. So he gave me his neighbour’s number and told me to call there if there was anything he needed to know urgently. Otherwise, he was quite happy to rely on regular mail for normal communication.”
Anna, Willow, and I all gape at Maggie. None of us can imagine living without a cell phone in reach of our fingertips. And I can’t remember the last time I wrote an envelope that didn’t contain either a greetings card or a cheque.
Through the wine-fuelled haze, the coffee penetrates my brain, and something occurs to me.
“Do you think he has a phone now?”
“I have no idea,” Maggie says. “But he didn’t when Cathy died a year ago.”
“So, I’m wondering,” I say (actually, I’m wondering if I’m still tipsy and have missed a vital point in the argument I’m about to make); “how did Melissa contact him with our offer?”
Silence from the girls. Either I’ve put forward a really good argument, or I’ve said something very silly.
“On the neighbour’s phone?” Anna sounds uncertain.
“Email?” Willow suggests.
“I’m not sure Chuck has ever come in contact with a computer.”
I look from Maggie to Anna to Willow.
“Is this the Chardonnay doing my thinking for me, or is it entirely possible that Cathy’s son doesn’t know he has a potential buyer?”
* * *
Evening hangovers are the absolute worst, but I’m feeling less fragile now, and in any case I think today’s was worth it. Maggie walked home from the Maxwell Plum with me and the twins, and on the way she promised to phone Cathy’s son in Montana, or rather, his neighbour, to see if he’d reconsider our offer on the house.
Meanwhile, I am racking my brains (as best I can, under today’s circumstances) to wonder why Melissa might be telling blatant lies so as not to sell us a house that she’s listed. It means she won’t get the commission, surely?
Oliver comes in from work, two hours late. He’s been at someone’s leaving bash in the Irish pub in Banbury, near the new houses and condos that Donna’s shown us. They’re nice enough, I suppose, but they’re so crammed, with such small lots, that we might as well be living back in Acacia Drive in Milton Keynes.
“Guess who I just saw in the pub?” Oliver says. “Our landlady. She’s got herself a new bloke.”
I wince. Oliver is a bit loud when he’s just been to the pub and has spent two hours shouting to make himself heard.
“Am I supposed to be surprised at that information?” I ask.
“Quite a well-known bloke in these parts, apparently,” Oliver says, ignoring my comment. “Local builder. Rich as Rockefeller, by all accounts. Built those little condos we looked at in Banbury.”
That’s all it takes to make me dislike Melissa’s new boyfriend.
“Yes, he does quite a bit of that kind of thing,” Oliver continues. “Buys falling down houses with lots of land, knocks them down, then puts up a load of smaller new houses. No wonder he’s rolling in it.”
And no wonder, I think, as the bright flash of understanding nearly blinds me and banishes any remains of hangover, that Melissa is dragging her heels about selling us a falling down house built on twelve acres.
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