Jenny sat at the kitchen table, still and quiet, waiting for the phone to ring, waiting for Nick to call back and say everything would be all right, that he was on his way home. Joe had called an hour ago, and now she needed to speak to Nick, to tell him what Joe had said. Why hadn’t he called back?
The bright July sun streamed in from the garden, and it was not a London day like any she might have imagined. She placed her hands palms down on the polished surface, the gouges and dents from decades of use sanded so they were invisible unless you knelt down until your eyes were level, so you could look across, and then they were like the furrows in an ancient English field, ploughed a thousand times but still there, hidden until the sun catches them and casts shadows at the beginning or the end of a winter’s day. She ran her fingertips across the grain, feeling the whorls on her skin catch on the smoothness, the faint trace of linseed oil and underneath it the oak felled a hundred years ago for an artisan in a Kentish workshop.
They had bought the table from an antique dealer in Chelmsford on their first weekend, in November, back in the autumn last year. The northern autumn. Jemima had told Nick they should drive out there, it was a great place to pick up some nice pieces for the house without paying city prices. They spent the day walking around the town, listening to the accent, so familiar to them from the imported home improvement and wife-swapping shows on television back home, but at the same time jolting to hear for real. It was as if they hadn’t quite believed people really spoke like that. It was hard to know when the dealers were still bargaining or when they were making their final offer. Just off the High Street they found a shop so full of beautiful furniture Jenny could almost imagine living in it, abandoning their suburban terrace and setting up home there. Cabinets with fine dovetailed joints, and a roll top desk so magnificent an empire might have been run from it. She couldn’t bring herself to pay what the man was asking for the table. Three hundred pounds, that was nearly nine hundred dollars, so they made their excuses and kept their eyes on the floor as they retreated to the street.
‘You were looking way too interested,’ said Nick, shading his eyes as the low, autumn sun half-blinded them outside the shop. ‘It was a dead giveaway. You’ve got to pretend you want something else. Remind me not to pick you for my poker team.’
‘Easy for you to say,’ said Jenny. ‘Lawyers are always pretending. You’ve had lots of practice. You should have played the bad cop.’
‘Hm,’ said Nick, looking back at the shop window. ‘But if you want to make a plan?’
‘Now you decide to help,’ said Jenny. ‘OK. So, I’ll play the dumbstruck female, you play the strict holder of the chequebook. Or maybe the other way around?’
‘Back in we go then?’
They paid too much for the table, but Jenny loved it, and even though it was just a table, it was beautiful. English oak. It sounded so historic, so appropriate, so respectable. They had the money. Nick’s relocation allowance seemed like a fortune. Ten thousand pounds for furniture and other ‘essentials’, as well as business class tickets from Wellington to Heathrow. He didn’t even have to provide receipts. The money had just arrived in his bank account. It felt like when she’d first had a student loan. Did anyone really do what they told you, put it in the bank and eke it out over the whole semester? One of her friends had gone straight down to Cuba Street and bought a leather jacket. It was all part of leaving home and getting a real life, he said. It’ll be OK, we can get part time jobs or something if we start running short. Jenny didn’t say that, actually, she was still living at home and didn’t feel like she was getting a real life, not just yet, not like him and the rest of them taking first year ‘Introduction to Political Science’ at Victoria, who’d left Ashburton or Wairau or Gisborne and moved to the capital, and were now slumming it in filthy student flats, suddenly free of their parents for the first time.
So they found themselves on the other side of the world setting up home together as the leaves on the oak and plane and ash trees turned brown and fell, leaving the branches bare and the pavements slippery. On the radio the announcer said there were delays on the east coast main line because of ‘leaves on the line’ and she suddenly realised what they meant. She’d always thought it was some kind of joke from gentle British comedies made at Ealing Studios in the fifties.
Jenny had enjoyed it, the home making, more than she had thought she would. Not that she had thought about it very much. They had avoided talking about it during the eight short weeks between Nick getting the job and the long flight to London, when there were passports and visas and insurance to sort out, friends and families to see, and what seemed like a thousand other small but important things to do, but once they were actually there, it felt like a natural next step in their relationship, and that was a relief. They’d had to choose tea towels and bath towels and a sofa and saucepans. They’d had to choose a bed, for god’s sake, and the sheets to go on it.
After they’d paid for the table, Jenny realised she hadn’t given a thought as to how they would get it back to the house, or what they would do with it when the time came to leave. She wasn’t thinking about leaving, not really, but the way she felt about their move to London, the excitement of it, the adventure, was partly to do with the idea that it wasn’t forever. As long as it was temporary, it was exciting. If it were suddenly open-ended, indefinite, if she couldn’t be sure there would be a day when they’d get on the plane back to New Zealand, it would somehow feel different, as if a layer of gloss had been taken off, and you could see the flaws underneath. Nick would definitely want to go back, wouldn’t he? All kiwis do, when they start thinking about having a family. You never hear anyone say, oh yes, we’re definitely staying in London for the lifestyle and the education system and the fresh air.
They had to arrange for the table to be delivered. When it arrived Jenny couldn’t believe it would fit through the door but the delivery men worked their magic, leaning it one way and then the next, somehow threading the legs through and twisting it at the same time. At one point they seemed to have it jammed, and if you looked very carefully you could see a slight crease in the doorframe where they’d eased it through. Now it was firmly anchored in the middle of the kitchen as if it had been there forever, as if it had sent roots down through the tiled floor into the earth with a determination that it would not be moved again, and Jenny sat there with the sun streaming in and the phone not ringing, and Nick not calling back.
She picked up her coffee and took a sip. It was cold, and she realised she didn’t know how long she’d been there. She tipped it away and, as if she was on automatic pilot, she refilled the espresso maker, and heated the milk, and made another one. She found herself standing at the top of the stairs, cup in hand, the summer sunlight slanting out of the bedroom through the crack between the door and the frame, catching the tiny specks of dust in the air as they floated through the plane of light. She couldn’t remember getting up from the table, or when she’d stopped thinking about the day they’d bought it. She’d always imagined they would go back to Chelmsford one day and revisit the antique shops looking for a desk, or perhaps a cot.
Jenny should have tried to get hold of Nick straight away, the moment she’d put the phone down on Joe. It wasn’t that easy. She had been taking her time with the paper and enjoying the quiet of a suburban morning, thinking about perhaps going for a walk in the sun before starting at the childcare centre. It was just after eight when Joe had called, nine in the evening in New Zealand, and she knew instantly who it was. ‘Hey, Jenny. How’s you?’
‘Uh, you do realise what the time is here? Nick’s away at work.’
‘Actually it was you I was hoping to get.’
An adrenaline rush. Can’t do anything about it. Deep breath, one two three.
‘It’s good to hear your voice. How are, I mean, how is everything back home?’
‘All good, yeah more or less. You?’
‘All good here. London is London I suppose. Nick’s busy running around as usual. Went to Paris last week, got back Friday.’
She did her impression of Jemima, not that she imagined Joe knew who Jemima was, but it made him laugh just the same. ‘It’s all go here, we’re single-handedly saving people from all those oppressors and dictators, it’s very important work you know,’ she said.
‘Nice. Yeah right. Sorry, shouldn’t be cynical. Paris, eh? And he didn’t take you with him?’
‘No chance. Too busy, he says.’
‘Bastard. You tell him next time he should take you as well. I would.’
‘It’s always so rushed and last minute with Nick. He never knows when these things are going to happen. He says we’d hardly see each other if I went with him.’
There was a pause before Joe spoke again. ‘I guess I’d better tell you why I’m calling. It’s Peter,’ he said.
‘What’s going on? He hasn’t left Jessie has he? Or has she left him?’
‘Nah. Jenny, it’s a bit more serious.’
‘That’s why I called. To tell you. Wanted to say it in person, you know, rather than leaving a message.’
‘OK. Come on then.’
‘Joe. You OK? Joe?’
‘OK. Jenny. He’s coming to see you at the weekend.’
‘What, you mean the end of next week? You sure? It’s not like he can just pop round now is it. Have you got the dates right?’
‘No, I mean this weekend. Three days away. I’m putting him on the plane Thursday night. He’s telling everyone it’s a business trip.’
‘Why? You’re about to tell me aren’t you?’
Jenny heard Joe take a couple of deep breaths.
‘Ok. Might as well just say it. He’s got the big C,’ said Joe. ‘Cancer. Prostate. Stupid fella never went to the doctor. Too embarrassed to have some stranger’s finger stuck up his arse. It’s spread. He’s probably not going to make it.’
Jenny stopped. She stopped thinking. She stopped listening. It was as if the outside world had rushed away, or had been muffled or coated in some kind of shield, and she was no longer part of it. As if on some kind of autopilot, she told Joe she was sorry, asked him how long Peter had known, how long Joe had known, all the usual formalities which were easy to recite. Joe did the same. He’d known for just a week. Peter had kept it quiet until he’d told Joe and the rest of the family that he was making the trip to London to see Jenny and Nick. Jenny and Nick, Joe had said, and Jenny wanted to say to him, but he doesn’t even really know me, does he, but she held back. Joe was still talking.
‘He’d kill me if he knew I was telling you now, but I thought him and Nick might fight,’ said Joe. ‘So if you can do anything, make it easier, I thought if you knew it might help.’
‘Joe. It hasn’t been, you know, that easy with Nick recently.’
‘You and Nick? You’re all right aren’t you, you’ll be OK?’
‘I’m not sure. Not really,’ said Jenny. ‘I hope so, I think. Joe, we haven’t really talked about Aroha’s party.’
She felt Joe pull away. He was on the other side of the world but she felt it as if he were sitting next to her. She wanted to talk about it, how she couldn’t forget it. How, instead of fading away as she’d expected, the memory had become more vivid as the months had passed. Now it had even started to invade her dreams. But Joe didn’t want to. He said his father was dying and she was living with his brother, and it wasn’t the right time. Five years ago a younger Jenny, lacking the confidence to ask for what she wanted, might have pulled back as well, but now she asked Joe when would it be the right time?
Joe was silent, and then he said he didn’t know. ‘But there will be a right time, won’t there?’ said Jenny.
‘I don’t know, Jenny,’ said Joe. ‘Peter’s smart, you know.’
‘Peter? What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘He knows stuff, it’s almost like he absorbs it from around him sometimes.’
‘What do you mean? That he knows about what happened at the party?’
‘There isn’t really anything to know, is there?’ said Joe. ‘I mean, not really.’
‘Not really? Are you serious?’
‘Look, I’ve got to go now, we’ve got some stuff to do for Peter before the trip,’ said Joe. ‘I’ll call you again soon, let you know what’s happening. With Peter, I mean.’
We, Joe said. We as in we the family? Or we as in Joe and a partner? What business was it of Jenny’s anyway? The thing with Joe was nothing, that’s what he’d just said.