The Family Friend

He was a family friend; he had been at university with the girl’s father, or scrummed on the same team, something like that. The girl had been asked to dinner out of common courtesy—she was starting her first job, alone in a strange city; he could offer her the companionship of a family kitchen, and anyway, she was a good tennis player and the court’s lines had just been repainted and he always loved an opportunity to show off his prowess with a racquet, even at his age (especially at his age). He told her on the telephone that she should just let herself in when she arrived at the house and told her where they hid the key; he was always home later than he expected because of the pressures of his work, and his son usually had swimming or rugby or cricket after school and a bad habit of dawdling. She was grateful for the invitation to supper. Most nights since she’d arrived she had spent eating soup in her tiny flat with the radio on and she was beginning to wonder if she would be alright. The woman she worked for didn’t like to speak much and whole days went by where the girl would realise that no words had passed her lips.

She found their house with some difficulty—it was in a suburb she had not been to before, hallowed and leafy as one would expect from the suburbs, and the house itself promised a weighted life of grace that her own lacked. She parked her car and, balancing the plum tart she’d made against one hip, tried the front gate, which gave to the pressure of her hand. The front garden overflowed its prim boundaries, threatening to consume the path she was following to the front door, a garden full of rosebushes left to track their own course in the world and hibiscus sticking out red tongues, and blue gums sucking up the lion’s share of the water, and barely an indigenous shrub to be seen. She liked the garden. It had something oxymoronic about it, a cultivated wilderness of foreign plants allowed to go native. The house itself was large and open-faced, with bay windows and not a single burglar bar. Only the very wealthy, she thought, can afford not to have burglar bars. And the position of the hidden key—its edge visible from beneath the pansy pot beside the doormat—confirmed that this family had earned the carelessness that is the prerogative of the rich. She rang the doorbell, twice, just to make sure, then put the tart on the ground, slipped the key from beneath the pot and opened the front door. The hallway was scented with the spice of cut gardenias, which she found floating in a glass bowl of water, pruned of their glossy leaves; a woman’s touch, she thought. The maid’s? The daughter’s? The girl left her handbag on an antique wooden chair beside the coat-rack and carried the tart through the living room (brocaded fabric and candle holders and claw-footed sofas) and into the cavernous kitchen, where she could tell immediately most of the living in the house was done. It was large, certainly, but unassuming, and the gingham curtains glowed and the hanging brass pots and pans gleamed with the rays of the dying sun. The days were beginning fractionally to lengthen.

She did not dare go upstairs to look around as it seemed beyond the boundaries that are set up between family and visitor, but she did wander about the downstairs sprawl of the house, mostly to look at photographs framed and hung on walls or propped on yellowwood chests. She had wondered before she’d arrived if there would be family photographs or if, by now, they would have taken them all down or turned them flat on their faces against the tabletops. But there were many of them, all a little dusty so she guessed that nobody had yet had the courage or the energy to contemplate taking them down, or even to take a photograph and streak away the dust with fingertips before putting it back in its place. Having never experienced grief herself, the girl wanted to know what it felt like. She knew it didn’t always take the same form, that in another home she would have found the frames meticulously dusted or the photographs removed from sight, but she wanted to know the particularities of the emotion, what it felt like for just one family of four, now three.

And though she knew it should not matter—that grief was not partial to these things—it struck her that this family was more worthy of grieving because they were beautiful. Or at least she was beautiful, the mother, a woman who even in a photograph the girl could not take her eyes from, a curve of cheek and gloss of hair and wideness of mouth that made the girl ache inside—for seeing beauty is both pleasure and pain, even to someone who has a degree of it herself, and the girl would be described as such by somebody spotting her walking up the path holding her plum tart in her arms. There were a few pictures, in particular, that fascinated her. There was a photograph of the couple, perhaps taken before they were married, stalled on a tandem bicycle in high winds: her long, straight black hair streamed behind her into his face (she was sitting on the front seat), so he was barely recognisable, but through the strands you could see he was laughing, and making no attempt to move the hair from his eyes. He was probably, the girl thought, glad of a chance to have her so close to him, to have her hair in his eyes and mouth, to taste and smell her in ways that she perhaps would not have let him otherwise. In the photograph, she had both her bare feet up on the handlebar—slim, bony feet and slender ankles revealed by the wind tugging at her hems—and smiled her wide but beautifully aloof smile with her eyes closed and her face to the sun. Beside this was their wedding photograph, in black and white, with the lace of her dress all the way up to her throat and down to her wrists, and her hair pinned with pearls. He looked relieved in this photograph—relieved, the girl wondered, because he had finally claimed her as his and his only? For he was not what the girl would have thought of as conventionally attractive; yes, he was tall, and had a full head of lovely blonde hair, but he had unfortunate teeth which gave him the air of a rodent, and eyes that bulged ever so slightly. But women will give men the benefit of the doubt, and look past these things to other talents, of which, she had heard, he had many.

She was looking closely at another photograph, of the couple with their first child, a daughter, who was a few years older than herself, when she heard the gate open and saw through the bay window the family friend balancing his briefcase on his knee as she had balanced the plum tart. He was in his suit but with his tie loosened and his jacket slung over one shoulder and sleeves rolled up. She went to the front door to open it for him and he seemed glad to see her, and, once he had put down his briefcase and jacket in the hallway, gave her a hug and a kiss and held her at arm’s length to take a good look at her.

‘The last time I saw you,’ he said musingly, ‘was at your father’s fortieth! And you must have been . . .’ He paused.

‘Fifteen,’ she replied, ‘and now I’m twenty-four.’

He smiled, and she regretted what she had said; guessed that he thought she was trying to impress on him that she had been a girl when last he saw her and now was something else. It was just that she knew she often came across as coltish, that people always assumed she was younger than she was. ‘Did you not want to remove your coat?’ he asked, solicitous but not fatherly. ‘I can turn the heating on if you’re cold.’

She let him take her coat, turning her back to him so that he could grip it around the lapel to slide it off her shoulders.

‘Please, come through to the kitchen,’ he said, ‘have a glass of wine.’

She followed him obediently back through the living room and into the kitchen, now out of sun, and perched on a three-legged stool at the counter as he lit candles and lamps and began to take down pots and a cutting board from where they were displayed above the stove. He handed her a bottle of wine and a corkscrew, and busied himself setting water to boil and crushing garlic and opening tins of artichokes and plum tomatoes.

‘Can I help?’ she asked, gesturing to the cutting board and the unpeeled onions.

‘No,’ he said, ‘just sit there and tell me about your life.’

She took two wine glasses down from the rack against one wall, poured the wine, and said, ‘I’m not used to having to do that. Usually I’m the one asking questions.’

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘but I’m a lawyer. Questions are my specialty.’

She sipped her wine. ‘I’m working for a graphic designer, just a one-woman company, really, there’s not that much for me to do.’

She stopped and he looked up. ‘And you’ve found a place to live and all that?’

‘A small flat,’ she said. ‘I live on my own.’

He nodded and threw the garlic into the pan of oil. ‘It’s not always easy,’ he said. ‘Before I married, I was obsessive about things: the cups had to be stacked in a certain way, and the dishtowel had to be washed every second day, and I couldn’t bear having a pack of something—beer, juice—in the fridge with the plastic wrap still covering it.’

The garlic made the kitchen smell like home and the girl took another deep sip of her wine and laughed with the family friend but did not volunteer any of her own idiosyncrasies. There was a sound at the door then, and from the hallway came the clattering of a teenage boy returning from school and sports practice. They heard him approach over the wooden floors still in his pronged rugby boots, clack, clack, clack until he appeared at the entrance to the kitchen, grubby but fresh-faced.

‘I don’t know if you remember my son,’ the family friend said. ‘He would have been making a nuisance of himself at the party.’

The son was polite; charming for a 15-year-old, and he stepped forward to shake the girl’s hand before he realised his own was caked in mud and retracted it. She laughed and took his hand anyway. He had about him the mystery of loss that made her feel as if she were the younger of the two. She looked closely at his face—his eyes, especially— trying, as she had with his father, to read the signs of his grief. There was nothing except a slight inwardness around his eyes, a drawing in, a pinching of something. She had not seen this on his father’s face.

The son excused himself to shower, and when he returned, joined her at the counter, drawing up another stool across from his father at the stovetop. He smelled good, a soft boyish scent of changing rooms and fields, of chalk and soap. He took the glass of wine she had poured for him shyly, with a quick glance at his father’s bent head.

‘How did the game go, my boy?’ his father asked as he poured a packet of pasta into the boiling water.

‘We lost again.’ He drained his wine glass while his father’s back was still turned.

‘Your team’s not doing well?’ she asked him.

‘Horribly,’ he said, ‘we haven’t won a match since . . .’ He stopped. ‘Since Mom died,’ the son said quietly.

His father put down the spatula beside the frying pan. ‘Oh my boy,’ his father said, ‘my poor son.’

The girl watched as a tear sloped down the tip of the son’s nose and into his glass. She saw the veins on the father’s hand, raised and green above his brown skin, as he squeezed his son’s arm.

The family friend looked up directly at her. ‘I want him to express his grief,’ he said, ‘whenever it comes over him. It’s important. We have to grieve.’

The girl asked her parents when next they called if they had known the mother well. What she wanted to ask was whether she had been as beautiful as she looked in the photographs, but somehow that seemed a distasteful question.

Her mother hesitated over the telephone, said noncommittally, ‘Fairly well,’ then paused. ‘She kept to herself,’ she went on, ‘it was hard to feel you really knew her.’

Her father said, ‘We never really understood what she saw in him. I mean, he was always very clever and I suppose he was social too, but she was exquisite . . .’ He changed the subject.

The family friend had asked her before she left his house after dinner to accompany him as his partner in a mixed doubles alumni tennis match the following Sunday, to be held at somebody’s wine farm. She had agreed, although she’d warned him that she was a bit rusty, and on Sunday morning she stood outside her flat in tennis skirt and sneakers, her racquet slung across her back. It was a late winter’s day, with sharp air and sharper colours, and she let the sun warm her back as she waited. The family friend arrived in a sleek car to fetch her and they drove out through the city.

‘Thank you for dinner the other night,’ she said as she settled into the seat.

‘I’m glad you came,’ he said. ‘I’m just sorry it wasn’t the most joyful affair.’

She let some time pass before she said, ‘Do you mind if I ask how you met your wife?’

He rolled down his window, letting in the crisp air, and leaned his elbow on the edge. ‘In a bus queue,’ he said, ‘of all places. She was ahead of me in the queue and I noticed she was reading the same book as I was, and, even more strange and wonderful, it was a book about coincidence that was quite popular at the time—I can’t remember now who the author was.’

The girl fanned out her tennis skirt on the seat and tucked her hands beneath her thighs to keep them warm.

‘And so,’ he went on, ‘I tapped her on the shoulder and showed her that I had the very same book in my bag, and she smiled the most beautiful smile at me—as guileless as a baby.’ He paused to focus on exiting the highway. The scenery changed almost instantly, from rows of shacks to rows and rows of vines. ‘Her name,’ he said, ‘was the most beautiful name I had ever heard.’

The girl looked at him sideways to see if he was crying, but he was wearing sunglasses and she could not tell.

He introduced her to the other players as the daughter of a dear old friend of his, and a stellar tennis player. She noticed (and wondered, did anyone else?) that he emphasised the fatherly nature of his relationship to her several times over the course of the afternoon, although when they were alone in the car she felt he treated her like an equal, like a stand-in for her father, a dear old friend and not a daughter. They played well together on the court, and came away with the alumni tennis challenge prize: a bottle of champagne that he promised to pop when next one of them had something to celebrate (she had never had real champagne).

On the way back through the city, he asked if she would mind if he stopped in at his office briefly, just to pick up some documents. ‘Come inside if you like,’ he said, ‘have a look around.’

His offices were timelessly swank, wood-panelled and leather-up-holstered and plush-floored, with elaborate chairs in enclaves within offices and fresh flowers delivered and arranged daily. His office was the biggest of them all, with a reception area and desks for two secretaries in the outer part, and his private library next door.

‘It’s an important case we’re working on,’ he said, lifting carefully prepared folders from his pigeon-hole.

‘What’s it about?’ the girl asked.

‘Somebody wanting to build a path through somebody else’s land,’ he said without the slightest hint of irony.

When he dropped her off outside her flat, he said, ‘Please, you must treat our home like your home.’

‘I did notice,’ she said, ‘that you have a grand piano.’

He looked at her in surprise. ‘By all means, come and play our piano!’ he said. ‘You know where the key is now.’

So she did begin to visit them often, and sometimes they were there, and sometimes they weren’t. She would bring her manila folder of photocopied Chopin, or Debussy, or Ravel, and play the grand piano in the living room, and if the family friend or his son came home to find her there, they would always ask her to stay for supper, and after supper, to stay for the night. She slept in the daughter’s room (the daughter had moved out just a few months before) in the attic of the house, enjoying the coziness of the roof sloping down at angles above her head and the vastness of the bath tub in the ensuite bathroom where she would lie and soak before climbing under the daughter’s duvet cover with a box of old family photographs that she’d found in the daughter’s cupboard, and a felt-bound diary with the last entry dated quite recently. She stared at the mother’s face in each photograph, many of which were taken of her gardening, in a sunhat and gardening gloves, and holding shears, and she looked with wonder and envy at the love on the family friend’s face as he looked at his wife across a campfire, or on the shore of the sea, or beside her on a ferry. She read repeatedly an entry she found in the daughter’s journal, dated soon after the mother’s death:

Oh Mom. Do you remember when you were in the bath and I sat on the edge of the tub one night, and you were telling me how much you’d always loved Dad? And how your love for him had grown and grown with time?

One morning after the girl had spent the night, the family friend made brunch for her and his son. Afterwards, she washed the dishes and offered to take the dog for a walk at the park nearby.

‘Want to come?’ she asked the son.

‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘I have a test tomorrow.’

‘And you?’ she asked the family friend. ‘It’s not so cold today.’

He agreed, and they wrapped themselves in scarves and he found a woman’s coat in the cupboard for the girl to wear. The dog pulled them tumbling towards the park, so that they were warmed-up and wind-swept when they sat down beside each other on a bench, keeping an eye on the dog as it stalked pigeons.

‘How did she die?’ she said, loosening the scarf from around her neck.

He rested his head against the back of the bench and knitted his fingers across his stomach. ‘She had cancer for a long time,’ he said. ‘A tumour in her brain. We didn’t know how long she had to live—the doctors said anything from two months to two years. She lived with it for three years.’ He stopped and lifted his head and searched with his eyes for the dog. ‘It was my son who found her,’ he said. ‘She had collapsed in our bedroom after a shower. He found her kneeling on the floor in her dressing gown, with her elbows propped on the bed. At first he thought she was praying. But she’d had a massive haemorrhage. There was nothing the medics could do when they arrived.’

From the coat came the barest scent of another woman’s perfume.

The girl had to go away for work to the coast for two months. She missed her visits to the family friend’s house, and carefully selected a gift for them a day before her return: a plastic packet full of hand-picked avocados the size and shape of giant gem squashes, and a bottle of raspberry vinaigrette. On the day she arrived back, she called and asked if she could pop around that evening for dinner. There was the faintest hint of hesitation, but then the family friend warmly agreed. The girl spent a long time selecting a dress to wear, and she knew that the bit of sun she had caught had freckled her nose and tinted her hair. She arrived at the house, carrying the packet of avocados, and rang the doorbell. When the family friend opened the door, the girl sensed immediately that something was different. He was sprightly and looked years younger. Impossible, she thought, it has only been two months! His grey hair was thicker, his teeth were whiter. Even the air in the house seemed to be charged with youthful energy.

‘Have you been playing more tennis?’ she asked tentatively.

‘No, not really,’ he said. ‘Sorry my son’s not here—he’s at a party.’

At dinner he was as restless as a teenager, jiggling his leg beneath the table and clearing up as soon as she had finished eating.

‘Have you been spending more time at the beach?’ she tried again, hoping he would say that he’d been getting more sun now that summer had finally arrived.

Again, he said no. He didn’t offer her coffee, as he normally would, and said nothing about her sleeping over in the daughter’s room. He hardly asked her any questions.

Eventually, she said she would be going, hoping he would insist that she stay, perhaps play a bit of Bach for him before bed. But he ushered her out of the house almost gladly and down the path to the garden gate. He clicked it shut behind her.

She stopped and faced him across the gate. ‘What is it?’ she asked. ‘You seem different—has something happened?’

He seemed surprised that she had noticed, then glad she had asked. ‘Well, I wasn’t going to tell you—we’re trying to keep it to ourselves . . . but I’ve met someone.’ He looked at her as a puppy looks at its owner, expecting praise and excitement to match his own.

The girl tucked a strand of hair behind one ear. ‘Who is she?’ she said, trying to stay calm.

‘Another lawyer,’ he said eagerly. ‘She’s absolutely brilliant. And you know what she said to me?’ He paused. ‘That I’m the first man she’s ever felt deserved her.’

The girl did not know what to say. She pretended to search in her handbag for the car keys.

The family friend leaned on the top of the gate with his elbows. ‘The truth is,’ he said in a low voice, ‘I’ve realised that this is the first time in my life I’ve truly been in love.’ He seemed to catch himself suddenly. He ran his hand through his hair, stole a glance at his wristwatch, and said, ‘Come again sometime.’

The girl unlocked her car, put her handbag under the seat, and looked back towards the house. He had already gone inside. She climbed into the car and rolled down the window, briefly oblivious to the night’s threats. The coral tree she had parked beneath was moulting. She sat in the dark, listening to the thuds of lucky beans dropping onto the roof of her car and wondering if she were imagining that she could smell the jasmine that wound itself around the tennis court fence. From an upstairs window of the house, from the room with the piano, light fell onto the thicket of mint thriving next to the garden tap. It was then that she saw it: the bottle of champagne, opened and empty beside the black bin, put onto the pavement for the council to collect early next morning.

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