New York, 2009
“Someone’s left me a house,” said Julia. “In England.”
It was a Sunday morning and her father was ensconced in his usual place at the kitchen table. It was the Cadillac of kitchen tables, blond wood, worth more than Julia’s rent for the month. A woven mat held a vase of flowers, three white lilies against a spray of ferns, deceptively simple.
Visiting her father’s apartment always made Julia feel as though she were stepping into an illustrated spread in Town & Country. Her ancient blue jeans and button-down shirt were decidedly incongruous against the silver appliances and careful flower arrangement.
“Your aunt Regina’s house,” said her father without hesitation.
“Aunt who?” Julia didn’t have any aunts, or at least none she knew of. Her mother had been an only child and her father might as well have been. She was vaguely aware that he had a half sister—or maybe a half brother?—in Manchester, but they’d never had anything to do with that part of the family, not so much as a Christmas card.
“Your mother’s aunt,” said her father briefly, shaking out a section of the Sunday paper. “Regina Ashe.”
He didn’t meet Julia’s eyes. Well, that was par for the course, wasn’t it? In all these years, they had never spoken about England, about that gray prehistory that Julia revisited only in nightmares.
Sometimes, she dreamed of it still, the flash of lights, rain on a windshield, heard the screech of tires and her own cries. She would wake up trembling, her arms wrapped around her shaking body, crying for her mother.
“Am I meant to know who that is?” Julia kept her voice carefully light, trying to hide the way her hands trembled. She wandered over to the percolator on the counter, giving herself time to compose herself, striving for normal, the normal she had so carefully cultivated over the past twenty-five years. “That was the name on the letter. Regina Ashe.”
“She was your mother’s guardian,” said her father.
His voice was very clipped, very British. Rather than diminishing over the years, her father’s accent had become even more pronouncedly BBC the longer they stayed in the States. He groomed it as one might a well-tended head of hair. Julia couldn’t blame him. There was a peculiar status accorded to Englishmen in New York.
It was distinctly annoying, particularly because her childhood accent had had the reverse effect on her peers. She had wasted no time in shedding it.
Transference, the psychiatrist Julia had seen in college had called it, and a long string of psychobabble that would probably have made more sense to her if she had taken the intro psych course like her roommate. The basic gist of it was clear, though. She had sloughed off that old self, that little girl who had lived in London, who answered to “Julie,” who lived with both parents in a flat with a garden, and become an American girl named Julia. It was a coping mechanism.
Julia had nodded politely and hadn’t gone back. She didn’t need someone to tell her the obvious.
“Right,” Julia said. “Her guardian.”
The Sunday Times crinkled as her father turned the page. From the counter, all Julia could see was the back of her father’s head, gray, carefully cropped, the tips of his ears, the wire rims of his glasses.
Her mother had a guardian who had a house. It sounded like something out of a French exercise. Avez vous la maison de la tante de ma mere? But Julia didn’t want the house of the aunt of her mother. All of that was over, done, a long, long time ago. She was American now, as American as yellow cabs and gum on the sidewalk. Her life was here, and had been ever since that awful October they had picked up and moved lock, stock, and barrel to New York.
Julia opened the glass-fronted cabinet, helping herself to a mug from a neatly stacked row. The mug was white, with blue flowers, very Swedish, very modern. Everything in her father’s kitchen was very Swedish and very modern, except for those items that were very Danish and very modern. The coffeemaker was silver, bristling with more buttons than an international space station. There was something soothing about its belligerent modernity.
“I thought it was one of those Nigerian bank account things,” Julia said, trying to make a joke of it, wishing it were a joke.
“The house isn’t in Nigeria,” said her father, turning and giving her one of those looks over his spectacles, the look he gave to particularly dim doctors-in-training. “It’s just outside London.”
“I know that,” said Julia irritably. “It’s—oh, never mind.”
If her father didn’t know what a Nigerian bank account scheme was, she wasn’t going to explain. As far as she could tell, his grasp on e-mail was limited to dictating his correspondence: at work, to his secretary; at home, to Helen, Julia’s stepmother.
Julia had remarkable respect for Helen. The fact that she’d managed to cater to Julia’s father’s whims for nearly fifteen years now without emptying the coffee carafe over his head was a miracle in and of itself.
Julia took her cup back around to the table, setting it down carefully on one of the woven mats thoughtfully provided for just that purpose.
“Assuming this is for real.…” she began.
Her father raised his brows over the tops of his glasses. “Assuming? You haven’t contacted them?”
Julia stared down into her cooling coffee. The surface was rapidly scumming over. That would have been the logical thing to do, wouldn’t it? Due diligence. It was so easy these days; just a few clicks on a keyboard and you had names, addresses, details.
Instead, she’d left the letter sitting on her kitchen table, in the limbo that was her life these days, in between a box of Cheerios and a three-month-old stack of magazines.
“I get a lot of junk mail,” she said defensively. “People send all sorts of crazy things.”
“I know,” she said sharply. “I know, okay? I would have followed up if I’d thought it was anything serious.” If anyone had bothered to tell her that she had an aunt Regina or that that aunt Regina owned a house. “I wasn’t aware I was in line for an inheritance.”
Her father ignored her sarcasm. “How long has it been?”
“Only a week.” Or two. The weeks blurred together. It had been in the pile of junk mail, in between a credit card come-on offering her cheap cash—only 18 percent interest for the rest of her life!—and an invitation to the NYSPCC’s summer party, jungle themed, sarong optional.
Once, she would have taken care of it in five minutes. Once, she had rushed through her day, propelled by adrenaline and caffeine, the hours racketing into one another like bumper cars, never enough space between meetings, always running late, always something more she should be doing.
That was before she had lost her job and time had stretched out like taffy.
She hated that phrase, “lost her job,” as though she had accidentally misplaced it somewhere between her desk and the ladies’ room. She hadn’t lost it. It had been ripped away from her, another casualty of the subprime crisis, the tanking markets, the recession.
Julia tugged at the elastic that held her ponytail, pushing it more firmly into place. “I’ll call them on Monday.”
“Call who?” Julia’s stepmother let herself in by the service entrance on the far side of the kitchen, dropping her keys in the pewter bowl that sat on top of the washing machine. From her arm swung a Dean & DeLuca bag, smelling deliciously of fresh bread.
Helen had the hard-won slimness of late middle age, her hair dyed to that particular shade of Upper East Side ash blond. Not too blond—that would be trashy—but just blond enough. It was a shade that went admirably with camel-colored pants in winter and brightly colored print shifts in summer.
Helen had been a lawyer once, in-house at Sotheby’s, but she had quit when Jamie was born. Julia wondered what Helen did with her days. There was a cleaning lady who kept all that glass and chrome sparkling and Jamie and Robbie were well past the age of needing constant care, unless one counted picking up their sneakers, which seemed, whenever Julia was in the house, to multiply and scatter themselves over broad areas.
Julia wondered whether time stretched out for Helen the way it did for her, whether Helen found herself inventing errands or drawing out trips to the grocery store, just to give herself something to do. She couldn’t ask, though. They didn’t have that kind of relationship.
Her father spoke without preamble. “Julia’s inherited a house.”
“Supposedly,” Julia added quickly. “It might still be a scam.”
“It isn’t,” said her father with assurance. “I remember that house.” In case she might read anything of memory or nostalgia into that statement, he followed it up bluntly with, “It’s probably worth a fair sum, even in this market.”
“That’s nice.” Helen bent to give Julia the obligatory kiss on the cheek, checking out the contents of her cup on the way up. “Your father gave you coffee?”
Julia lifted her stained cup in illustration. “Any more and I’ll be bouncing off walls.”
Helen looked suspiciously at the coffeepot. “Shouldn’t that be decaf?”
Her husband ignored her. Julia suspected it was deliberate. Since the last stent, her father was meant to be on a low-sodium, low-caffeine diet—or, as her father put it, low on everything that made life livable. He had a surgeon’s contempt for the prescriptions of lesser medical professionals. If it couldn’t be cured by cutting and slicing, it wasn’t worth noticing.
Her father nodded smugly at the paper on the table. “I bet that’s put Caro’s nose out of joint.”
“Your mother’s cousin. You played with her children when you were little; don’t you remember?”
“No,” said Julia slowly. “No, I don’t.”
She had been told it was natural, after a shock, for the mind to circle wagons, erecting a wall against unpleasantness. But was it natural for it to continue to do so, a quarter of a century on?
Julia covered her confusion with bluster. “Either way, I don’t see what this house in Hampstead has to do with me.”
“Not Hampstead,” said her father. “Herne Hill.”
Julia shrugged. “Same difference.”
“Not really,” said her father, and there was something in his eyes that Julia couldn’t quite read, as though, for a moment, he was somewhere else, long ago and far away. He picked up the discarded real-estate section. “If it were in Hampstead, it would be worth more.”
Julia gave him an irritated look. “Thanks, Dad.”
He gave the paper a shake. “You’ll have to go over there and do something about it,” he said, as if she were one of his dogsbodies at Mount Sinai, one of the legions of residents who hopped to when he called. “It’ll probably take some time to clean out.”
“I can’t just pick up and go,” Julia protested.
“Why not?” he asked, adding, with casual cruelty, “It’s not as though you have anything else to do, is it?”
Julia stared at him, white lipped. “That’s not fair.”
He’d never forgiven her for not following him into medicine. Particularly because she had the grades for it. When she’d told him she was going to business school, he’d carried on as though she had suggested a fine career in pole dancing.
“Am I wrong?” he asked, and she could hear the implied I told you so beneath his words.
Julia bristled. “Do you know what the jobs statistics are like right now?” It wasn’t like she was just sitting flat on her ass at home. She had sent off enough résumés to paper a small home. At least, at first. Before inertia and depression had set in. “Everyone’s firing; no one’s hiring.”
“My point precisely.” Her father neatly folded the paper. “There’s no reason for you not to go to England. It’s free money, just sitting there.”
“Would anyone like more coffee?” said Helen, with a second wife’s instinct for defusing tension. “Julia, there’s skim milk in the fridge, or cream if you want it.”
Julia bared her teeth in a simulacrum of a smile. “No, I’m fine.”
She wasn’t fine. She hated that she had nowhere to go during the day and that her savings account was steadily dwindling, eaten up by the mundane necessities of living. She hated that her father was right.
Nine months of hanging around her apartment in Winnie the Pooh pajamas eating peanut butter out of the jar hadn’t done much for her. She didn’t have anything else to do, not right now. The job hunt, such as it was, could be conducted long-distance.
Even so, she disliked the casual assumption that she could just pick up and go.
“My apartment—” she began.
“We’ll keep an eye on it,” said her father. Julia caught Helen’s eye. They both knew what that meant. Helen would keep an eye on it. “It’s not going anywhere.”
“Yes, but I don’t know why you think I should,” said Julia in frustration. “My home is here.”
Her father had made very sure of that. Her UK passport had been traded in for a US one; she still had that first US passport in a drawer somewhere, a little girl with taffy-colored hair in braids and eyes made glassy by the flash of the light.
Her father snorted. “A studio?”
“That’s a junior one-bedroom, thank you very much,” said Julia tartly. “It may not be on Fifth, but I happen to be fond of it.”
Her father, like most self-made men, was big into status symbols. Like this apartment. And Helen.
Julia could still remember when they’d lived in a high-rise in Yorkville, with paper-thin walls and the smell of burnt food perpetually in the air. Her father had shed all that like it had never been. To hear him now, you would think he had always lived on Fifth, always brewed his coffee in chrome splendor, rather than a battered old plastic coffeepot that smoked when it heated.
“Well, I think it’s wonderful,” said Helen quickly. “The house, I mean. Like something out of a novel. Maybe you’ll have ghosts.”
“Great,” said Julia. “Just what I needed.”
“Isn’t there a saying about looking a gift house in the mouth?” said Helen lightly, rummaging in the cupboards. She dropped a tea bag delicately into a cup of hot water. The pungent smell of mint filled the kitchen.
“What about Greeks bearing gifts?” retorted Julia. “I don’t remember that turning out well for anybody.”
Helen gave an unexpected chuckle. “I don’t think you’ll have a house full of Trojans.” When they both looked at her, she said apologetically, “Jamie just made a diorama of it for his Latin class.”
Julia grinned reluctantly. “You mean you made the diorama?”
Helen looked apologetic. “You know how he is with glue.”
“It was Greeks in the horse, not Trojans,” Julia’s father said dismissively. He looked at Julia over his spectacles. “Don’t be a fool, Julia. Houses don’t come along every day.”
“Mom?” Jamie’s voice echoed down the hallway, cracking the tension like a marble against ice. “Moooooommmm? Have you seen my—”
Whatever he was missing was lost somewhere in the sounds of electronic explosions from the den.
“Robbie!” barked Julia’s father. “Turn that bloody thing down!” just as Helen called, “Just a minute, Jamie!”
Julia unobtrusively slipped out of her chair and went to set her cup in the sink, uncomfortable at being caught in the crosshairs of someone else’s family life. Jamie had been all of two months old when Julia had left for college; Robbie hadn’t even existed yet. They were both bright, good-natured, pleasant boys, but they’d never felt quite like hers. They were part of her father’s second life, like the blond pine table, like the blue and white dishes, like this apartment, acquired after Julia had gone off to college, a new start for a new life, a new wife, new children.
Helen cast Julia a quick apologetic smile. “I’ll be right back. There are croissants if you want one. Just help yourself. I know I don’t have to tell you that.”
Helen slipped out of the kitchen, in pursuit of Jamie’s iPod or gym shoes or the stray wing of a model plane.
Julia looked over to find her father looking at her.
“Caroline would probably buy the house off you if that’s what you want,” said her father quietly. “You wouldn’t have to go back.”
Julia leaned against the counter, the taste of cold coffee sour on her tongue. Her anger evaporated, leaving her feeling nothing but tired, tired and confused. “I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t, aren’t I?” she said. “There’s no good way to deal with it.”
She didn’t understand why this unknown great-aunt would pass up the cousins on the spot for a great-niece who didn’t even remember her name. Memory stirred—fresh-cut grass and the heavy scent of flowers and the cool of water against her fingertips—and was gone again.
“Dad?” Her father looked up from the paper. Julia levered herself away from the counter, the hems of her jeans, always too long, brushing against the tiled floor. “Why would this aunt … Regina leave the house to me?”
She half-expected him to shrug, to punt the question. Instead, he folded the paper meticulously, setting it down on the side of the table, exactly aligned with the grain of the wood. “Your mother grew up in that house,” he said. He cleared his throat. “Your aunt always used to say it would be your mother’s someday.”
His eyes met Julia’s. They were gray, like hers. They had the some coloring, or had once. Her father’s hair had long since gone gray, while hers was artificially enhanced with lighter highlights. Underneath, though, it was the same pedestrian mid-brown.
Her mother’s hair had been black, her eyes a vivid blue. She was everything that was alive and lively. Until she wasn’t.
When Julia tried to remember her mother, all she could scrounge up was an image from an old picture, the colors faded with time, her mother, in a garden, a kerchief tied over her black hair, laughing up at the camera. All around her, the trees were in bloom. There was a lake or a pond somewhere in the background, just the vaguest impression of a shimmer of water.
The picture had stood on her father’s nightstand. It had gone into a drawer not long after their move to New York. Julia had never quite had the nerve to ask her father what he had done with it. Their mutual grief was a palpable silence between them.
“And I was the next best thing?” Julia hadn’t meant it to come out sounding quite so sour.
“Either that,” said her father drily, “or Regina was looking to put Caroline’s nose out of joint. There was no love lost there.”
Julia tucked her hands into the pockets of her jeans, fighting against the urge to curl into a ball like a porcupine, all defensive prickles. She missed the familiar armor of her job, that relentless whirl of work that meant she never had to think about anything she didn’t care to, pushing it aside with the excuse of being too busy.
But she wasn’t busy now, was she? And she needed the money. It had been nine months already since Sterling Bates had let her go, with crocodile tears and false condolences. They had fired her, as was their charming practice, the day before bonuses were announced, reducing her take for the year to a third of what it would otherwise have been. Her severance would run out soon, but the bills were still coming in: mortgage, health care, groceries. She had no idea what property sold for in Herne Hill, whether it had been hit anywhere as hard as the market in the United States, but either way one looked at it, it was an unexpected windfall. She’d be an idiot to turn her back on it, all because of something that had happened a quarter of a century ago.
The past is a distant country, one of her art history professors in college had said. If Julia thought about it like that, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. The England she and her father had left didn’t exist anymore. It was gone; the house was just a house, and there was no reason to let misplaced misgivings get in the way of a tidy profit.
One month, maybe two. Surely it wouldn’t take longer than that? It would be irresponsible to sell the house without seeing it first. And it was really rather idiotic, all these years later, to still tiptoe around the topic of her mother. It had been a quarter of a century. People grieved, dealt with it, moved on.
Julia had been in England since, to London, for work. Surely this wouldn’t be all that different. This would be work, too, not some sort of sentimental pilgrimage.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she said. It was the closest she could come to a concession, to admitting that she had nothing better to do.
Her father nodded, slowly. “Strange … After all this time…” His eyes looked past her, towards the half-open door of the den, where the shadows of Robbie’s electronic monsters could be seen playing out against the wall. “Your aunt always said your mother was the only true heir to the family legacy.”
Julia cocked her head. “What does that mean?”
Her father looked back at her, his lips twisting wryly. “I have no idea. No idea at all.”
Copyright © 2014 by Lauren Willig