The best thing about moving to a house only a mile and a half away is that you can do your own packing and take the boxes there yourself.
And the worst thing about moving to a house only a mile and a half away is that you can do your own packing and take the boxes there yourself.
Chuck, you see, nice, reasonable man that he is, has given Maggie the keys to his mother’s house and told us to move our stuff in before the official handover date. “Make things easy for yourself,” he said.
Fantastic — or so Oliver and I thought at first. We could take our time and move everything in stages, starting with the least critical items. But after a couple of days of wrapping china in newspaper and getting our hands and clothes covered in printer’s ink, we began to see why most sensible people fork out a big pile of dollar bills and pay someone else to do it.
We used cardboard wine crates from the local liquor store to pack everything in, then, after only four trips over to the house with the car filled with Napa Valley Cabernet Shiraz boxes, Oliver announced he was leaving for a business trip to Vancouver.
“I’ll be back on the eleventh,” he said. “That gives us four days to get everything together. No problem! Piece of cake!”
What, pray, does Oliver know about cake? About as much as he knows about packing, I’d say.
Before he went, we’d barely made a dent in it — packing, not cake — and now, with less than a week to go before we hand the keys back to Melissa, it’s all down to me to pack the rest up and move it across town. Not the big important pieces like bed, chests, tables, or sofas, you understand, but the fiddly, inconsequential things like clothes, toys, non-perishable food, ornaments, books, CDs, Oliver’s extensive collection of rocks and dead beetles that he catalogued when he was twelve and can’t bear to throw away…
Piece of cake. Right.
“I’ll help,” Maggie said to me, after she saw Oliver trundling his carry-on case towards the taxi marked Airport Shuttle Service.
I protested out of politeness, but not enough for her to change her mind.
“No, I insist,” she said. “It will take you twice as long on your own to transport the boxes, because you will have to take the children with you. This way, I can stay with the children while you drive over to the house on your own.”
Well, when she puts it like that… Sometimes a girl has to take whatever kind of me-time she can get.
* * *
Maggie sits on the floor of our living room and wraps up a Dresden china figurine in the sports section of the Boston Globe. I don’t like the ornament, and one part of me is hoping that it will get broken in the move, “accidentally”, of course. My mother’s aunt gave it to us for a wedding present, and while it was very kind of her, Dresden china isn’t our style. Great Aunt Esther might as well have given us a set of antimacassars or an aspidistra.
“Chuck left me a big folder of paperwork relating to the house, to give to you.” Maggie carefully places the Dresden in a cardboard crate and moves onto the next item — a pair of Wedgwood candlesticks from my grandmother. “Old paperwork. Old deeds, plans, that kind of thing.”
I confess, I’m not paying too much attention to Maggie. I’ve just found Oliver’s badminton racquet case with the stuffed tiger in it, and I can’t help but remember the awful chain of events it precipitated last year, shortly after the twins were born.
“Mmm. I haven’t looked at it, because the house will be yours, not mine, but it could be interesting. For example, while the official date of the house is 1830, I remember Cathy saying that she thought there might have been another building there before. Something to do with the basement being only a few feet high and her not being able to stand upright in it. I’m not sure what her reasoning was, but maybe you’ll find the answer in the folder.”
I jam the badminton racquet and all its emotional baggage in a suitcase.
“Your friend Cathy must have been very tall, then,” I say. “The basement’s like any other. Dark, creepy, and full of noisy machinery. I can stand upright in it, no problem.”
“No, not that part. I mean the part behind the furnace.”
Maggie falls silent, and at first I think she’s admiring Granny’s Wedgwood candlesticks, but then I realize she’s been distracted by the packing paper and is reading about the dramatic arrest of a New England Patriots player accused of murder.
I think hard about the basement in the house we’re buying. I remember the furnace, because it was surprisingly new in such an old place. But it was next to a wall. There was no more basement space behind it.
I tell Maggie this, and she tears herself away from the gory details of local sports scandals.
“Oh no, you can’t see it now. Cathy had some work done on the house, back in the late seventies. Had the basement sealed off behind the furnace, because it was neither use nor ornament since you had to bend over double to get in there.” She places the Boston Globe-wrapped candlesticks in the box with the Dresden shepherdess. “Or at least, that’s what she… Goodness me, are these your wedding photos?”
She holds up a cream suede album.
“May I look?” she asks.
I wave my hand graciously. “Be my guest.”
I’ll have to put her in charge of the mugs and glasses. She’s too easily distracted. Still, this has reminded me of something.
“You never showed me the photos of your daughter’s wedding at Christmas,” I say, and wait as she slowly turns the pages of our album. She’s stalling for time, I think. “You promised you would, and then forgot. And we won’t have time next week what with moving, and the week after that you go to the Keys for a month.”
She looks up from the photos. She’s on the page where Oliver and I have our hands on the knife, ready to cut the wedding cake. It was a traditional, heavy fruit cake, and I recall thinking at the time that a circular saw would have been more useful than that dinky, ivory-handled cake knife.
“After we’ve finished packing for the day, how’s that?”
She sounds rather strange, I think. And I’d bet a lot of money, or at least a Dresden shepherdess and a couple of candlesticks, that she’s hoping I’ll have forgotten by the end of the day.
* * *
I make five trips to the house on Main Street, and by the end of the fourth, the sun is bobbing along behind the trees, and the children are getting cranky. To make it easier for Maggie, who is also looking tired and cranky, I decide to take Jack along with me for the last trip. He’s very excited at seeing the new house again, and wants Fergus to come along too, so we have a little family outing — me, Jack, and Fergus — which makes me feel strangely nostalgic, because it’s how we used to be in Milton Keynes, before America and before the twins were even thought of.
At the new house, I dump the boxes with all the others in the living room while Jack and Fergus play in the back garden, then I walk down the hallway to the dining room at the back of the house. The room has French windows that open out into the garden — or at least, they should open out but they’re stuck together with many layers of paint. I knock on one of the small panes at Jack, and beckon him to come back in the house.
After a few seconds I hear his running footsteps on the wooden floor, and he bumps into me as I’m closing the dining room door. He’s alone.
“Where’s Fergus?” I ask. Fergus, now that he no longer lives with us, slavishly and perversely follows Jack around whenever they’re together.
Jack points. “He’s tired.”
Fergus is lying down next to the open front door at the other end of the hallway.
“Fergus! Here, boy!”
He sits up and whines softly, but doesn’t move any nearer.
“Guess that’s a hint that he’s had enough house-moving for today,” I say to Jack. “You know what? I know exactly how he feels.”
* * *
Back at Juniper Street, I deliver Fergus to Maggie, and she murmurs something about turning in for the evening, but I’m not letting her off that easily. I remind her of her promise to show me Sara’s wedding photos and how she’s off to Florida for a month, so she trots over to her house to get them.
When she returns, I have to stop myself from snatching the album out of her hands. I’ve heard so many rumours about Sara Sharpe, this mystery woman of Woodhaven, that I’m dying to see what she looks like. A femme fatale, I imagine… The sultry looks of Nigella Lawson and the seductiveness of Greta Garbo.
I’m disappointed. She’s serious-looking, her hair dark and smooth, as severe as a ballerina’s. On most of the photos, she wears a little frown as if she’s thinking very hard about what she’s doing — and, let’s face it, you shouldn’t have to think hard about a wedding on a beach in the Seychelles. She looks absolutely nothing like Maggie.
“No,” Maggie says. “She’s the image of her father, that’s what she is.” She points at a man in the photo. “Him. Derek. My ex-husband, whom I hadn’t seen for over thirty years until that day.”
“That must have been awkward,” I say. I try to imagine meeting Oliver for the first time in thirty years at Jack’s wedding, and fail utterly. “I suppose that’s one advantage of Sara being an only child. You won’t have to meet him again.”
I hand the photos back to Maggie, and I see that her face has turned pink.
“Are you OK?” I ask. “Do you want me to turn the air conditioning up?”
She shakes her head.
“No, I’m fine.” She throws her pashmina around her shoulders and stuffs the photos into her handbag. “It was, as you say, a little awkward meeting Derek again.”
She looks down, fiddling with the clasp on the bag. “He’s widowed now, poor man. I never liked my replacement, but he obviously did. I felt sorry for him.”
“Not your problem any more, though, right?”
Her face goes a bit pinker.
“I might as well tell you, Libby. My vacation in Florida — I’m spending it with Derek. My ex-husband whom I divorced in 1976.”
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