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December 17, 2016
The Study, 34 Gloucester Terrace, Camden, 4:05 p.m.
From: Andrew Birch
To: Ian Croft
Date: Sat, Dec 17, 2016 at 4:05 p.m.
Subject: copy Dec 27th
Copy below. If this one goes without me seeing a proof, I will be spitting blood.
PS: Do NOT give my "like" the "such as" treatment. It's fucking infuriating.
PPS: It is houmous. Not hummus.
THE PERCH, Wingham, Berkshire
Food: 3/5 ¥ Atmosphere: 1/5
By the time you read this, my family and I will be under house arrest. Or, more accurately, Haag arrest. On the 23rd my daughter Olivia, a doctor and serial foreign aid worker, will return from treating the Haag epidemic in Liberia-plunging us, her family, into a seven-day quarantine. For exactly one week we are to avoid all contact with the outside world and may only leave the house in an emergency. Should anyone make the mistake of breaking and entering, he or she will be obliged to stay with us, until our quarantine is up. Preparations are already under way for what has become known, in the Birch household, as Groundhaag Week. Waitrose and Amazon will deliver what may well be Britain's most comprehensive Christmas shop. How many loo rolls does a family of four need over a week? Will two kilograms of porridge oats be sufficient? Should we finally get round to Spiral, or attempt The Missing? The Matriarch has been compiling reading lists, playlists, decluttering lists, and wish lists, ahead of lockdown. Not being a clan that does things by halves, we are decamping from Camden to our house in deepest, darkest Norfolk, the better to appreciate our near-solitary confinement. Spare a thought for millennial Phoebe, who now faces a week of spotty Wi-Fi.
Of course, every Christmas is a quarantine of sorts. The out-of-office is set, shops lie dormant, and friends migrate to the miserable towns from whence they came. Bored spouses cringe at the other's every cough (January is the divorce lawyer's busy month-go figure). In this, the most wonderful time of the year, food is the savior. It is food that oils the wheels between deaf aunt and mute teenager. It is food that fills the cracks between siblings with cinnamon-scented nostalgia. And it is food that gives the guilt-ridden mother purpose, reviving Christmases past with that holy trinity of turkey, gravy, and cranberry. This is why restaurants shouldn't attempt Christmas food. The very reason we go out, at this time of year, is to escape the suffocating vapor of roasting meat and maternal fretting. Abominations like bread sauce have no place on a menu.
The Perch, Wingham, has not cottoned onto this. Thus, it has chosen to herald its opening with an "alternative festive menu" (again, nobody wants alternative Christmas food). Like all provincial gastropubs, its decor draws extensively on the houmous section of the Farrow & Ball color chart. Service was smilingly haphazard. Bread with "Christmas spiced butter" was good, and warm, though we could have done without the butter, which came in a sinister petri dish and was a worrying brown. We started with a plate of perfectly acceptable, richly peaty smoked salmon, the alternative element being provided by a forlorn sprig of rosemary. The Matriarch made the mistake of ordering lemon sole-a flap of briny irrelevance. My turkey curry was a curious puddle of yellow, cumin-heavy slop, whose purpose seemed to be to smuggle four stringy nuggets past the eater, incognito. We finished with an unremarkable cheeseboard and mincemeat crme brle, which The Matriarch declared tooth-achingly sweet, yet wolfed down nonetheless.
Do not be disheartened, residents of Wingham. My hunch is that you, and your gilet-clad neighbors, will relish the chance to alternate your festive menu. We Birches must embrace a week of turkey sandwiches. Wish us luck.
Andrew sat back and paused before sending the column to Ian Croft-his least favorite subeditor at The World. The Perch hadn't been bad, considering its location. It had actually been quite cozy, in a parochial sort of way. He might even have enjoyed the night in the chintzy room upstairs, with its trouser press and travel kettle, if he and Emma still enjoyed hotels in that way. He remembered the owners, an eager, perspiring couple, coming out to shake his hand and talk about "seasonality" and their "ethos," and considered modifying the lemon sole comment. Then he left it. People in Berkshire didn't read The World. Anyway, all publicity et cetera.
The main thing was the bit about his own life. He felt he had made his family sound suitably jolly. The truth was, he wasn't much looking forward to a week at Weyfield, the chilly Norfolk manor house Emma had inherited. He never quite knew what to say to his older daughter, Olivia. She had a disconcerting way of looking at him, deadly serious and faintly revolted, as if she saw right into his soul and found it wanting. And Emma would be in a tailspin of elated panic all week, at having Olivia home for once. At least Phoebe would be there, a frivolous counterpoint to the other two. Sometimes he felt like he and his younger daughter had more in common than he and Emma-especially now that Phoebe worked in the media. Hearing about the hopeless TV production company where she freelanced, and where all the men were in love with her, always made him laugh. He was about to shout upstairs to Phoebe to ask if she'd like to help him review a new sushi place when an unread e-mail caught his eye. It was from a name he didn't recognize, indicating some unsolicited rubbish from a publicist. But the subject, "Hello," made him pause. It read:
From: Jesse Robinson
To: Andrew Birch
Date: Sat, Dec 17, 2016 at 4:08 p.m.
I understand that this message may come as something of a shock, but I wanted to connect because I believe you are my birth father. My late birth mother was a Lebanese woman named Leila Deeba, who I imagine you met as a reporter in Beirut, 1980. She had me adopted soon after I was born, and I was raised by my adoptive parents in Iowa. I now live in Los Angeles, where I produce documentaries, primarily on health and well-being. I will be in Britain over the holiday season, researching a project, and I would very much like to meet you, if you'd feel comfortable with that.
PS: I'm a big fan of your columns!
"Are you all right?" said Emma, coming into his study. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
"Really?" said Andrew. "I'm fine. Just fine." His laptop was facing away from her, but he shut it anyway. "I've just filed my column. And how are you?" Andrew had always been surprised by his own ability to sound composed, even genial, when his mind was reeling.
"Fab!" said Emma. "I look forward to reading it. I'm just nipping out to John Lewis. I need to get some last things. Well, not last, but some more things for, um, Olivia's stocking. And I, I should get some more wrapping paper . . . " She tailed off, looking over his head at the clock. Andrew registered that his wife was speaking too quickly. But shock was still pounding through his body. She said something about what time she'd be back, and left. Andrew sat, reading the e-mail over and over again. Here it was, the voice he had been half dreading, half expecting. He thought back to that sultry night in Beirut, 1980, the one he had tried to convince himself had never happened. And then he thought of the strange little letter that Leila Deeba had written him, eighteen months ago, which had been forwarded from The World's offices. He still had it, hidden from Emma. "My late birth mother was . . ." So the glorious, firm-bodied woman he had fucked between hotel sheets was dead. He stood up and stared out of the rain-flecked window. "Frosty the Snowman" came floating up from the basement kitchen. How had he reached an age when a woman he had slept with could be dead-and it wasn't even remarkable? It was a bleak train of thought, and he forced himself back to the present. What, if anything, ought he to reply to this man? And, more to the point, what on earth was he going to tell Emma?
Dr. Singer's Practice, 3rd Floor, 68 Harley Street, 4:59 p.m.
Dr. Singer's waiting room, high above Harley Street, seemed to have been designed to cushion the blow of bad news. Everything was soft, carpeted, beige. There was always a plate of untouched biscuits by the tea and coffee, and piles of soothingly trashy magazines. Looking at a spread of a soap star's wedding, Emma wondered whether OK! was kept afloat by private doctors and their creepy diagnoses. Don't hope, Emma, she kept telling herself. Ever since childhood she had made the same bargain with fate. If she wanted one outcome, she had to make herself expect the opposite-to really, truly expect it. Then, the other outcome would come true (the one you'd wanted all along). It was like paying insurance-prepare for the worst, and all will be well. Of course, when her daughters were afraid, she told them to "hope for the best" and "cross that bridge when you come to it." That was what mothers were supposed to say. Although only Phoebe confided in her, these days. If Olivia had any worries, she hadn't shared them for years. Perhaps, thought Emma, she could draw her older daughter out over the quarantine.
"Mrs. Birch?" said the receptionist with the cartoonish lips (did she drop by the cosmetic surgeon on the ground floor during her lunch breaks?). "Dr. Singer's ready for you." Emma walked into his room. It was a grim combination of heavy mahogany furniture and medical equipment. Behind the curtain she knew there lay a narrow couch covered by a roll of blue paper, where she'd first shown Dr. Singer the hazelnut-sized lump in her right armpit.
"I'm afraid it isn't good news," he said, almost before she had sat down. "The biopsy showed that the lymph node we were concerned about is non-Hodgkin's lymphoma." Emma wondered if he had found this the most effective way to tell people that they were dying. No beating about the bush, straight out with it before they'd taken off their coat. He kept talking, explaining that further tests were needed to determine whether the tumor was "indolent" or "aggressive." Funny to define tumors like teenagers, she thought, as he moved on to "treatment options," fixing her with his pebbly eyes. Emma sat nodding as he spoke, feeling disembodied. Why hadn't she tried harder not to hope? She must have assumed, deep down, that everything would be fine, and now it wasn't fine at all. "As I said, we need to do further tests and wait for those results before making any decisions, which is likely to be after Christmas, now," said Dr. Singer, "but either way you'll need to start treatment in January. OK?"
"Does cancer wait for Christmas, then?" said Emma. It was meant to sound lighthearted, but it came out slightly hysterical.
Dr. Singer (no doubt used to patients saying odd things) just smiled. "Anything you wanted to ask?" he said.
Emma hesitated. "Just one thing," she said. "My daughter's been treating Haag in Liberia, and she'll be quarantined with us over Christmas. Is that a risk, I mean, in my situation?"
"Haag?" said Dr. Singer. For the first time she saw him look ruffled. "Well, yes, my advice would be that, in view of the biopsy, you should avoid any risk to your immunity-particularly something as serious as Haag." He shut her file, as if to signal that the consultation was at an end. "Have a good Christmas. Try not to worry."
Emma pushed open the door to 68 Harley Street, with all its little doorbells for different consultants. It was a relief to leave the hot, expensive hush of the lobby, and be out in the December air. Across Cavendish Square she could see the reassuring dark green of John Lewis. She had arranged to meet her oldest friend Nicola there, after her appointment, because, as Nicola said: "Everything is OK in John Lewis." Emma had secretly thought that La Fromagerie in Marylebone would be nicer, but now that the bad news had come, dear old John Lewis seemed just right. Nicola was the only person who knew anything about Dr. Singer and the lump-the lump that had just become cancer. Emma hadn't told Andrew, or the girls, because there hadn't been anything concrete to tell them, or to worry about. Usually Emma delighted in department stores at Christmas. But today, the lights and window displays and people crisscrossing her path were exhausting. She just wanted to be sitting down. She had already sent Nicola a text: Bad news, because she couldn't bear to see her friend's face waiting, poised between elation and sympathy. It took forever to reach the fifth-floor caf-every time she got to the top of one escalator she had to walk miles to the next one. Then they couldn't speak properly for ages, because they had to push their trays around a metal track, like a school canteen, asking nice young men for Earl Grey and fruitcake. Nicola kept a hand on Emma's arm the whole time, as if she were very old, and kept shooting her sad little smiles. Nicola does love a crisis, thought Emma, and then felt guilty.
At last, they were seated. "Right," said Nicola, "tell me." And as Emma explained how she was to have more tests tomorrow, which would come back after Christmas, and would quite likely need chemotherapy in the New Year, she heard the diagnosis taking shape as the story of her sixtieth year (Lord, how could she be so old?). By the time she had been through it several times, her mind had stopped galloping, and she felt more able to cope. Nicola was full of fighting talk, promising Emma, as she grasped her hand, that she could "beat this thing" with her friends' and family's support. Emma swallowed a last mouthful of jammy cake and managed a smile. "I'm not going to tell Andrew and the girls until after the quarantine," she said.
"What? Why not? But you must! You can't be shouldering this all alone!" Nicola's voice shot up the scale with dismay.
"I can't. Olivia won't come home if I do. I know it. He said it was a risk, to be spending Christmas with her. But I have to, Nic. She has nowhere else to go."
Copyright © 2017 by Francesca Hornak. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.