Sunday, 18 December 2011

Home for the Holidays (from American Daughters)

There was nothing better than coming home. Especially in the quiet somnolence of an early Sunday morning. John huddled against the cold in the corner of the cab as the taciturn taxi driver, trying to get the heater to work, took to the splendid isolation of the bus lane on an empty M4. It was that dismal time of the year before the winter solstice. The rain lashed against the windows as the wind buffeted the taxi. It was still semi-dark. The gunmetal sky above the glare of the obnoxious orange street lamps refused to surrender to the dawn.
He thought back to New York where it had begun to snow the night before, barely covering the ground in Central Park with a light powdering, which he had thought must have been altogether heavier up in Robin’s beloved Green Mountains. He had managed to catch an early evening flight out of Kennedy. Two days ahead of schedule. He had thought he would need at least the Monday to tie things up in New York, but when he returned to The Plaza early on Friday afternoon he found his PA had telephoned from London leaving a message. He was able to dash over to the lawyer’s office and witness the signing of the contracts for the loan of the artefacts to the museum. On the Saturday, after realising he could now put weight on his leg again and dispense with the crutches, he had a breakfast meeting with the curator about the shipment and the protocols the Colombians would require for the opening of the new exhibit.
‘Expect the boys from the DEA to be all over you at the customs clearance,’ he jokingly warned. ‘Narcotics have entered the States more than once concealed in fake artefacts.’  
His only regret was, later in the day, receiving the anticipated telephone call from Hilary confirming that she and her sister would not be coming over for the holidays. He could sense the fierce protection of his ex-wife in this.  That was that then, he thought. Time to move on. He made one last attempt at continuity.
‘When will I see you again?’
‘I don’t know. It’s up to you, really. Try calling the next time you’re in the States. You know where we will be.’
‘Yes, up to your neck in math.’
‘Don’t remind me.’ She sounded relieved that he had taken their refusal so easily.
He had seen it coming. ‘Stick to your guns, then.’
‘I will.’
‘And Robin?’
‘Gone up to Blueberry Hill today, a few miles beyond Breadloaf into the mountains. It’s one of her favourite hikes. She’s speed walking, prepping for her cross-country. She said that snow was on its way. She said she could smell it in the air. I guess she’ll come through fine.’
Easier, John thought, without having to confront her father.
‘You’re both great! Take care. I love you.’
There was a pause, a hollow silence on the line.
‘Yes. You take care too.’ Hilary was showing she was in control and she was not going to reciprocate the effusion of her father’s expression.
Nevertheless he had succeeded in making contact after all this time, something to be proud of, and something to tell Livia as part of his surprise of being early. He loved surprises. He could see her in bed, the crisp white Egyptian cotton sheet covering her up to the golden sheen of her hair, her svelte body coiled into itself. She would have tossed off the duvet at some point in the night. 
He was certain she would be more than surprised that he had finally acted with his daughters. They had talked about it many times and she was often critical of his reluctance to take the necessary step. He had always said that the timing was important, but the longer he had put it off, the when diminished and the how extended its significance. Now it was done, and though defeated in his wish to get his daughters over to London, he was not destroyed. Quite the contrary. He took a triumphalist attitude to his action. The trip had been, with this one exception, an unqualified success. His Sunday in the bosom of his London family would finish off the recovery of his self-confidence.
By the time the taxi slowed, as it rattled along the narrow, exposed, elevated section of the A4, he was making plans for the rest of the day. At the anticlimactic end of the motorway, passing over the dull brick houses and light industrial landscape of Brentford between the tall and often vacant office buildings, the dark, gunmetal sky ahead had ceded to a paler, bluish aluminium and the rain had been blown to a stop by the wind.
His stepson, Andrew, frittering away a gap year, was unlikely to surface before noon, no doubt as a result of clubbing well into the early hours. So he could invade the master bedroom and spring a surprise on his wife. He enjoyed the spur of the moment gesture that would disturb her equilibrium. He’d be happy to see her and she him. And they could spend one of their lazy Sundays together. He hoped she’d have got in some bagels and cream cheese. In the early days of their marriage he used to order them delivered to their door by that solicitor with the bossy wife who ran the delivery service and that faux-American bar in South Ken which Andrew seemed to enjoy. And they could encamp in bed and . . . .
As the cab descended into Chiswick he tapped on the glass partition behind the driver. He directed the uncommunicative cabbie to take the one-way system south through Earls Court, a diversion from his planned route along the Cromwell Road. Turning on to the Fulham Road, the cab then motored past the bleak facade of the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital and on through the Beach stretch under the poor illumination of the quaint white street lamps the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea insisted on maintaining in this neighbourhood. It passed the red canopy of Luigi’s deli where both he and Livia liked to shop for authentic Italian specialties, and the Puss in Boots where Andrew would often stop off for a drink on his return from a match at Stamford Bridge, and then gave John the opportunity to glimpse inside Vingt Quatre. It was his favourite stopover for eggs benedict any time of the day or night. The few locals who could drag themselves out of bed early for the Sunday newspapers were already filling up the tables.
John called a temporary halt a little further along the road in the area dominated by an agglomerate of interior design and antique shops. At the corner of Old Church Street, out front of a building that had once housed the Queen’s Elm pub and that had demonstrated its poor karma by degenerating over the years into a clone of a trendy Notting Hill bar, then a fashion boutique and ultimately into an office for a real estate broker, the flower-sellers were busy assembling their stall. John bartered half-heartedly over a dozen lilies with a sleepy-looking young trader in his blue football anorak, jeans and trainers, cigarette in one hand and styrofoam coffee cup in the other. But the barrow boy stood his ground after detecting the occasional American twang in the prospective purchaser’s accent.
John handed over the cash to the stallholder’s assistant, who had wrapped the flowers first in transparent and then in a more decorated paper, and jumped back in the cab. He was pleased with himself. Livia always liked fresh flowers in the flat and frequently came home with an armful from one of the Knightsbridge stands or even from as far away as Pimlico Square. They were adequate if less convenient substitutes for her local stall that had stood under the canopy of the Danish Embassy on Sloane Street until it became a victim of increased security measures.
As he was driven towards Brompton Cross passing Amanda Wakely’s, where Livia shopped when she needed a dress that was truly haute couture, the Christmas trees on the streetlights and the decorations in the shop windows demonstrated a more intense and purposeful effort for the forthcoming festivities. He glanced reflectively at Butler & Wilson, a choice location for Livia’s penchant for costume jewellery, impressively restrained in its decorative approach to the season, and then grimaced at the gaudy approach taken by the ineffably up-market Theo Fennell, where the pink to purple neon and the curtain of bright white mini star lights gave the jewellers an almost garish brothel-like facade which would not have been out of place in Soho.
He made sure the taxi drove him through Walton Street rather than taking the tourists’ route back out onto the A4 and down past the shopping temptations of Beauchamp Place, knowing full well the cabbie would hate being directed so fastidiously. It was perhaps John’s favourite street in London, where the small boutiques were not to be outdone by their more effusive larger retail counterparts in other shopping districts of the city. He laughed at the outrageous competition between the antique shops on the north side for the largest and grandest of wreaths, a pheasant feathered offering covering the whole window of one such emporium the undoubted and outrageous victor. In the middle of them was the more austere frontage of Van Peterson, with its silver and white gold jewellery, where Livia had bought him cufflinks and he had reciprocated with a pendant designed by the man himself and opposite it was Eclipse, their favourite location for pre-dinner drinks before a visit to Turner’s or Daphne just round the corner. If Dickens had been writing today, he thought momentarily, this would be his chosen Quality Street, although he had to admit that the residential section in the middle was somewhat boring and the turnover in some of the boutiques was annoying. 
But it brightened up at The Enterprise gastro-pub on the corner of First Street and beyond, where even the red diplomatic police cars parked outside the station at the kink in the road just beyond Nina Campbell’s added to the festive feel, contrasting with the silver trees outside Scalini’s. On his left before the end of the shops were the two he frequented most: Jeroboams, where in the first blush of their romance he and Livia had disappeared into the bricklined vaults below the street to quaff a special burgundy; and Baker & Spice, the popular patisserie where Livia bought the wonderful bread baked on the premises in the renovated Victorian ovens with whole garlic cloves caramelised inside and sumptuous almond horns for which he had a particular weakness. They turned off at Pont Street and then again south to circle the square where home and the heart were for John.

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