Well, here we are.
After all the trials, tribulations, tears, and tantrums, Oliver and I — and Jack, George, and Beth, of course — are finally in Our House.
Our house. How wonderful to be able to say that again.
I can’t begin to describe the feeling of being in a house that we own, or at least pay a mortgage on, rather than being in a house owned by a sociopathic landlady with the hots for Oliver.
It’s not perfect, of course. These last few days, the northeast of the country has been sweltering in ninety-five degree constant sunshine, with no cooling thunderstorms to break the heatwave. When you live in an old, cedar house such as ours — Ours! That word again! — air-conditioning under such circumstances is a good idea. Working air-conditioning, that is: the kind that kicks in when the thermostat reaches a certain level and cools the air down again. While the AC unit we have makes a big deal about kicking in, with lots of vibrations and shaking of the foundations, it doesn’t pay much attention to the part of the process where it’s supposed to pump cold air through the house. There’s only one room where it works, and that’s the dining room with the French windows at the back of the house. In fact, the room seems to be a cold air terminus, getting all the cold air while the rest of the house has none. We alternate sitting in that room to cool down, and sitting in all the others to warm up again.
So “Replace AC Unit before next summer” figures pretty highly on the house-repair list, which is growing at an average rate of four items per day.
“I can’t see it getting any smaller,” I say to Maggie, who has popped round for one last morning coffee before she disappears to the Keys for a month. At the moment she and I are in the Cooling Stage, sitting in armchairs in the icy dining room.
“It will,” she says. “It might never disappear completely, but I’m sure the list will shrink.”
I don’t find this as comforting as she probably intends it to be.
“It was in tip-top condition when Cathy had all her faculties,” she goes on. “She was always having something or other done to it. Which reminds me…” She delves into her tote bag, and pulls out a bulging manila file. “Here’s the paperwork from Chuck.”
I take the file from her and look at a few of the most recent papers on top. There are receipts for repairs to the central heating — we’ve yet to see how the house stands up to the frigid chill of a Massachusetts winter, and the number of repair bills here doesn’t look encouraging — and yellowed instruction booklets for kitchen appliances that were state of the art in 1975. Nothing that seems relevant to the immediate tasks of unpacking our belongings from Sonoma wine boxes and cleaning every room in the house. And goodness me, there are a lot of rooms.
“I’ll go through that properly later,” I say, then ask, “Did you bring Fergus? I haven’t seen him.”
“Jack took him to play in the back yard.”
I look through the glass of the French window and nod, satisfied. That’s the other great thing about living here. Despite the house having twelve acres to its name, there’s a fenced yard that the children can safely play in. Just like the back garden at home in Acacia Drive, only twenty times the size.
“I’ll miss Fergus while I’m away,” Maggie says.
Call me slow, but it hadn’t occurred to me that Fergus wouldn’t be jaunting off to Key Largo with his new owner.
“Who’s looking after him?” I ask. “Anna?”
Maggie shakes her head. “The Pooch Hotel. I’m dropping him off this afternoon. It’s very nice, they look after the dogs well, I’m sure he’ll be fine—”
“But it’s for a month! Kennels for a month will cost you a fortune!” I’m horrified that the dog I persuaded her to take off my hands is eating into her retirement fund like this. “Why on earth didn’t you ask me to have him for you?”
Maggie wriggles in her seat. “Moving house and everything? I couldn’t possibly impose upon you at such a time.”
I smile at her, feeling a rush of affection for her that, God help me, I rarely feel for my own mother without being quickly overridden by irritation.
“You could never impose,” I tell her. “Not on me. Call the kennels this minute and cancel Fergus’s booking. Any cancellation fee will be cheaper than paying for the full month.”
She looks relieved, I think, but still goes through the ritual of “No-I-couldn’t-possibly-Are-you-sure-Well-all-right-then.”
“Of course I’m sure,” I say. “Who better to look after him than his previous owners? Jack will be thrilled. Go get his things right now, before you change your mind.”
* * *
I’ve been dying to hear more about Maggie’s holiday plans, ever since she told me that she was vacationing with her newly rediscovered ex-husband, Derek. But Maggie’s a private person, and there’s no point trying to wangle information out of her if she’s not ready to give it.
Today though, perhaps as a quid pro quo for me looking after Fergus for a month, she’s ready to spill the beans.
“Derek won’t be in Florida with me all the time,” she says, once she’s returned with Fergus’s basket, personalised dishes, and a mound of dog toys. She spoils him, and I hope he’s not expecting the same five-star treatment at the Patrick Pooch Hotel. “He’s only visiting for the middle two weeks. He was going to get a hotel room, but I told him that was silly, I’ve got an apartment with plenty of space.”
She sets Fergus’s dishes on the floor of the mud room — we’ve moved back into the non-airconditioned part of the house to get warm again — then straightens up.
“I only hope I won’t regret this. Forty years ago, I was ready to kill him after five minutes in his company, and here I am now, offering him two weeks in my spare bedroom.”
I’m relieved to hear he’s in the spare bedroom, given Maggie’s racy reputation of her younger days.
“I felt sorry for him, though,” she continues. “At Sara’s wedding, I mean. He’d lost his wife, Cassie, only four months before, and he seemed utterly lost. It was such a long time since I’d seen him and I was reminded of the very first time we met. In my wilder days,” she says, and laughs.
I’m standing at the sink in the mud room, washing dishes that are covered with ink from the newspaper we packed them in. I hold my breath, hoping she will tell me more and not stop with a story half told, as she so often does.
“It was quite the whirlwind romance,” Maggie says, staring out the window at the garden, although her eyes are unfocused and I can tell she’s not really watching Jack and Fergus playing on the lawn. “I was visiting the States for the first time, hitchhiking my way down the east coast. One young man stopped to give me a lift in his Corvette, then foolishly gave in to my nagging and let me drive it. Derek pulled me over for speeding.”
I cough. “Derek was a cop?”
“A state trooper. He gave me a warning, then insisted I come sit with him in his police cruiser. I thought he was going to drive me to the station and have me deported or something. Instead, he asked me out to dinner. We were married a few weeks later, and I never used my return ticket back to England. In the years after, though, I often wished I had.”
Yet here she is today, planning a holiday with her ex.
“What’s changed?” I ask.
Maggie doesn’t answer for a while.
“I suppose,” she says at last, “I’m hoping that our thirty-odd years apart have been more helpful than our five years together.”
* * *
When Maggie has said goodbye and gone to finish getting ready for her trip tomorrow, I call Jack and Fergus in from the garden in a futile attempt to disprove the theory that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.
Jack runs himself a glass of water from the fridge then takes it into the dining room, shouting at Fergus to follow him.
“Fergus is thirsty too, Jack. He’ll be with you in a minute.”
I fill Fergus’s water bowl, and he drinks for a long time. Then he trots across the kitchen and stops at the doorway that leads into the cool dining room, where Jack is brandishing a Matchbox car at Beth and repeatedly asking her if she knows what sort of car it is. (Beth, it appears, to Jack’s disgust, does not.)
“Go on,” I say to Fergus. “Go to Jack.”
But Fergus just sits on the kitchen floor and whines.
And even when the temperature on the kitchen thermometer hits 85 degrees, he still won’t enter the beautiful — if rather chilly — dining room.
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