Working title – BEST BY FARR
I think I may have disappeared. When Martin hands me a lifeline, I grab it.
I wouldn’t have said it a month or a year ago but right now, as I’m tossing up between the black patent leather lace up brogues or the brown leather sneakers, I’m prepared to call it; that husband of mine is a gem.
‘I’ve booked you in,’ he tells me a fortnight ago, ‘to that French cooking school. The one in the Loire Valley. The one Simon sent his wife to last year.’
Well, I don’t know Simon and I certainly don’t know his wife, but hello, he had me at French.
‘Consider it an early birthday present,’ Martin says.
Of course, I am profuse in my thanks. I say, ‘A fortnight in a residential cooking school in the Loire Valley sounds like something right up my alley.’
Martin explains that’s not quite profuse enough. We negotiate what profuse thanks looks like and I deliver profuse thanks.
Big showy presents are not the usual thing for Martin. Last birthday he picks up some perfume in his lunch break and tops that off with flowers from the petrol station. And then we can’t do dinner because he has an important project he hasn’t signed off on – on account of the time he’s spent at the perfume counter where he buys ‘the gear that cost an arm and a leg’ – so he has to go back to work and I have sardines on toast in front of the telly. And then he tells me, when he does eventually get home, ‘You’ve got breath like a seal.’ Well, yeah, I do, of course. That’s sardines, for you. I’m eating them for bone health, got to think about that at this age.
So, when he goes all out with this astonishing early birthday present, it shows me he’s in tune with how I’m feeling. I breezed through all the other zero birthdays but this one – the big five-oh -is not such a piece of cake. Urrgh, understatement. I’m struggling. See what I mean about him being a gem. Now, but not always. Just so we’re clear on that.
After Martin drops this exciting news to me, he goes on with a great long list of reasons why he won’t be able to come with me and how he’s going to miss me desperately – every day, mind you – but how he’ll consider himself the winner when I come back with all these new skills and a vastly improved repertoire of dishes.
‘We will host some dinner parties, you and I, when you come home,’ he says, and I swear he’s rubbing his hands together in glee at the thought of hanging out in the kitchen with me.
Suits me fine that it’s just me, not a couple-thing we’re doing. Imagine taking a husband to a cooking school. Imagine taking a husband like mine to a cooking school. For a start, Martin struggles even with boiling water. I can’t imagine how he thinks he’s suddenly going to turn into Marco Pierre White, just because I’ve gone to a cooking school. Somehow, poor Martin’s missed out on any semblance of domesticity which, incidentally I blame his mother for, but who am I to grumble?
Well, I do, of course, but old dog, new tricks, and all that and I think, come on Kate it’s only a kettle, put it on yourself and make your own cup of tea.
Mum always says, ‘Well at least he’s not a gambler.’ Like as if there are only two kinds of men to choose from; the inept at the oven or the inept at the blackjack table.
The Triple Threats are as mad as a meat axe even thinking about me having such good fortune.
‘Lucky duck,’ says Julia and pulls a face when she hears.
‘You always land on your feet,’ says Shaz.
Julia, Shaz and I have been thick as thieves since we found ourselves in the same jazz ballet class a million years ago. Everything became a microphone in our hands as we high-kicked and twirled our way through our childhood, delivering a dramatic scene or a song and dance routine we’d choreographed ourselves to anyone who looked the tiniest bit receptive.
I think it was Shaz’s mum who gave us the collective nickname. Of course, our focus shifted once hormones replaced the hoopla, but the name stuck. We made sure of that. It feels good to belong to a gang.
‘So, come with me,’ I say to my cronies, my coven of witches, my gang, but I already know that’s impossible.
Who can just up and leave with only two weeks’ notice, not to mention the crazy cost of flying across the world to an expensive cooking school to learn what, how to make a crème patisserie without lumps?
See how ridiculous it sounds.
And besides, I’m the only one who takes even a modicum of interest in cooking. The girls cook to keep their families alive, that’s it. For me, it’s more creative and nourishing, an expression of love and care. That sounds silly; please delete all reference and stop judging me so harshly. I’m not really that sort of person.
We’re empty nesters now, The Triple Threats, have been for some time. When we talked about it as something that was going to happen, in the future, we imagined it being just one period of adjusting. You know, like after a day or two, it’d be done with. Turns out we were wrong; big time wrong.
Like everyone these days, we’re on a spectrum. A continuum of change, where you lurch backwards and forwards, sometimes thinking it’s the best thing that ever happened to you, other times you feel a bit bereft and useless.
I mean who are you when no one needs you? And what about all those things you’re gunna-do, but can’t because of the kids. What happens when there are no excuses?
One thing we did figure out early on, it’s best not to mention the scary aspect to anyone whose birds are still sitting around in the nest with their unused flying feathers wrapped tightly around their adult bodies. All you’ll hear are derisive snorts as they write you off either as the timid type or the smug sort. And who wants to be either of those?
And while it would be great if The Triples came, it would be distracting.
Julia’s into counting steps and working up a pretty little sweat, and Shaz is into sleeping – a set of twins gave her four under three and she has a sleep deficit, she says, that will see her through to her nineties.
It will be good to be going by myself. Just me, being me, or being whoever the hell I feel like being when I am there. No one will know me as Will and Tilly’s mother, or Martin’s wife, or any of the other labels which belong to me. I’ll just be Kate Farr, in whatever guise I want.
I decide on the sneakers. From what I can see when I google the Loire, there are quite a few hilly bits and plenty of cobblestones. Sneakers, in leather – voila the difference – will look smarter than your average garden variety, and when you’re only taking one pair of shoes away for a fortnight, they’ve got to be comfy. I put them on, do the final heft with my red trolley suitcase – yessirree, that sure feels about seven kilos and will make it as carry-on. One more check that my passport is in my shoulder bag and I’m ready.
Mum’s standing at the doorway to Martin’s and my bedroom, jangling her keys and giving me the hurry-on, peering twenty million times at her watch. The one dad gave her for her 21st, never missed a beat, as Dad has been saying as long for as I can remember, even more now he’s in the secure unit at Sunny Glades. Sometimes it seems like his catch cry, like an old-time comedian – take my mother-in-law, please or the equally hilarious a funny thing happened on the way to the show. And then there’s the da-da moment, the punch line. Except Dad is mainly just the dada moment now, a comedian without a joke. Never missed a beat, he’ll say quite often and about nothing in particular.
Mum takes my suitcase and starts manoeuvring it down the passage while I take one last sideways glance in the mirror, sucking my tummy in as I do. Shoulder-length strawberry blonde hair with highlights (thank you, hairdresser); a plumpish face, a light smattering of freckles; a wide smile, straight teeth (thank you, teenage braces), blue eyes, cute ears. Not bad, I think, not bad for 49. Then I breathe out and relax my posture and everything sags. Double chin, crepey neck, soft tummy, saggy arms, no thigh gap, and I mutter to my reflection, who are you kidding.
‘Did you see your dad, Kate?’ Mum calls out over her shoulder.
I meant to. Really, I did and I’m tempted to just sneak in a little white lie. How easy it would be to say, yes, yes, I fed him lunch yesterday. Dad would never give the game away, he doesn’t even know who I am most times I pop in. But I could never lie to Mum. She’s got one of those inbuilt detectors that can spot a lie from a million paces.
While you can count on Dad to chime in at any old time about that beat that’s not being missed, you can count on Mum for her evergreen honesty is the best policy.
And like Dad, each time she says it it’s like it’s just occurred to her.
Mm, I wonder as I shut the front door behind me and give it a double check, maybe Mum is losing her marbles too.
‘Did you?’ she asks again. ‘Did you see your dad?’
‘No, I ran out of time.’ I can’t lie to mum even something as simple as this. ‘I’ll ring from the airport. I’ll have time for a good chat.’
A good chat. We both know what that means. Long silences, odd bits of things and then lots of inane chatter; and that’s from us, filling in the gaps, not wanting to hear the echoes of what we’re losing.
Mum drops me off the airport and for about the tenth times tells me how lucky I am.
‘Martin really is a good chap,’ she says. ‘I know he’s not home that much, but by crikey you’ve landed on your feet with him.’
That’s another thing she says often. I make a mental note to be less mum-like with Will and Till.
I wish someone would tell Martin he landed on his feet getting me.
I wave as Mum’s little white sedan pulls out from the kerb, just in case she’s looking in the rear-view mirror. I’ve barely moved along the footpath when I hear frantic tooting and see her car pulled over a little further along. As I hurry across to her, she gets out and waves at me frantically.
‘Quick, quick.’ She has her phone in her hand, her hazard lights on and a parking supervisor heading her way. ‘I just need a police photo. Almost forgot.’
‘A fresh photo. To give to the police. If you go missing, I don’t know, get kidnapped or something,’
She’s joking, right? But no, apparently not.
‘I’ll give them this photo.’ She’s pointing her phone at me now, as I stand there dumbstruck. ‘And I’ll say, this is the most recent photo of my daughter, now go find her.’
‘Oh, Mum, there’s no time.’ But there’s no telling her and she snaps away. ‘Smile, now look serious, now side on,’ she orders, fearless in the face of a ferocious guy in a high-vis vest with a walkie-talkie. ‘One moment,’ she tells him sweetly as she kisses me again. ‘Can’t be too careful with all these terrorist attacks.’
‘Mum, if I get caught up in a terrorist attack, I don’t think I’m going to look much like I do in the photos.’
She waves me off, ‘Bye, love. Be careful.’
It doesn’t take long to find the counter and while I stand there in line along with half of the world’s population, I watch a family get their luggage wrapped in plastic. Their case whizzes around at a dizzying speed with the cling film the only thing between them and a life sentence in an Indonesian jail. When they get to their hotel, they’ll have a devil of a time unpacking but at least they’ll know no one’s been poking about in their things.
Eventually it’s my turn at the check in counter and I hand over my passport, shove my red case on the scales and smile sweetly at the young woman with the tight bun and industrial strength lipstick. I want her to notice I’m not like the fearful people.
I use all my telepathic powers of persuasion. ‘Look at me with this carry-on luggage only, I’m one of you, upgrade me, please.’ I signal this to her wordlessly.
She dallies at the keyboard, smiles knowingly at me and says, ‘You’re in luck. There are quite a few empty seats.’
I’m confident we are on the same page.
‘Enjoy your flight, Katherine Farr,’ she says. We smile and nod and secret looks are exchanged between us as she hands me a boarding pass.
I don’t look at it while I’m at the counter. That would be too crass. We are smooth, her and I, working together, understanding that she has the power to make the next 24-hours very pleasant for me and wouldn’t want a fuss made in return. We are in simpatico. I find myself bowing slightly to her as I leave the counter, three times silently. It’s my way of acknowledging her power and generosity.
I show the boarding pass and my passport to the man at the immigration door and as he glances at it I do too, for the first time, and notice the check-in woman has truly demonstrated not only her own telepathic wizardry but also her fondness for irony. Seat 54E.
The middle of the middle. Down the back. And gate 43. Super. I wish to retract my bowing; she doesn’t deserve it.
I ring dad when I’ve taken up my position at the gate. It rings out. I wait a moment or two and press redial. Someone picks up, there’s a clatter and some heavy breathing and I wait until Dad picks it up from the floor.
‘Hello. I’m off to France now. Remember, I told you I was going to France.’
‘France. Never mind, we’ll never miss a beat. Beverley and I’ll look after her.’
‘Look after who? Dad, who are you looking after?
‘Just don’t think you can come back and get her. She’s ours now. We’ll take her. We’ll take her alright.’
‘Dad, it’s Kate. Are you okay?
‘Yes, yes, it’s Kate. And no one will know. Our secret. Now off you go and leave us to get on with things.’
‘Dad, what are you talking about? It’s Kate. I’m off to France. For my birthday.’
And then he mumbles something that doesn’t even sound like words and he’s gone.