Still Me

Page 28


Agnes was different. She was boisterous and garrulous one minute, then weepy and furious the next. I’d been told that she felt isolated, judged, without allies. But that never quite fitted. Because the more time I spent with her, the more I noticed she was not really cowed by those women: she was infuriated by them. She would rage about the unfairness, scream at Mr Gopnik; she would imitate them cruelly behind his back, and mutter furiously about the first Mrs Gopnik, or Ilaria and her scheming ways. She was mercurial, a human flame of outrage, growling about cipa or debil or dziwka. (I would google these in my time off until my ears went pink.)
And then, abruptly, she was someone quite different – a woman who disappeared into rooms and wept quietly, a tense, frozen face after a long phone call in Polish. Her sadness manifested itself in headaches, which I was never quite sure were real.
I talked about it to Treena in the coffee shop with the free WiFi that I had sat in on my first morning in New York. We were using FaceTime Audio, which I preferred to us looking at each other’s faces as we talked – I got distracted by the way my nose looked enormous, or what someone was doing behind me. I also didn’t want her to see the size of the buttered muffins I was eating.
‘Perhaps she’s bipolar,’ Treena said.
‘Yeah. I looked that up, but it doesn’t seem to fit. She’s never manic, as such, just sort of … energetic.’
‘I’m not sure depression is a one-size-fits-all thing, Lou,’ my sister said. ‘Besides, hasn’t everyone got something wrong with them in America? Don’t they like to take a lot of pills?’
‘Unlike England, where Mum would have you go for a nice brisk walk.’
‘To take you out of yourself.’ My sister sniggered.
‘Turn that frown upside down.’
‘Put a nice bit of lippy on. Brighten your face up. There. Who needs all those silly medications?’
Something had happened to Treena’s and my relationship since I had been gone. We called each other once a week, and for the first time in our adult lives, she had stopped nagging me every time we spoke. She seemed genuinely interested in what my life was like, quizzing me about work, the places I had visited and what the people around me did all day. When I asked for advice, she generally gave me a considered reply instead of calling me a doofus, or asking if I understood what Google was for.
She liked someone, she had confided two weeks previously. They had gone for hipster cocktails at a bar in Shoreditch, then to a pop-up cinema in Clapton, and she had felt quite giddy for several days afterwards. The idea of my sister giddy was a novel one.
‘What’s he like? You must be able to tell me something now.’
‘I’m not going to say anything yet. Every time I talk about these things they go wrong.’
‘Not even to me?’
‘For now. It’s … Well. Anyway. I’m happy.’
‘Oh. So that’s why you’re being nice.’
‘You’re getting some. I thought it was because you finally approved of what I’m doing with my life.’
She laughed. My sister didn’t normally laugh, unless it was at me. ‘I just think it’s nice that everything’s working out. You have a great job in the US of A. I love my job. Thom and I are loving being in the city. I feel like things are really opening up for all of us.’
It was such an unlikely statement for my sister to make that I didn’t have the heart to tell her about Sam. We talked a bit more, about Mum wanting to take a part-time job at the local school, and Granddad’s deteriorating health, which meant that she hadn’t applied. I finished my muffin and my coffee and realized that, while I was interested, I didn’t feel homesick at all.
‘You’re not going to start speaking with a bloody awful transatlantic accent, though, right?’
‘I’m me, Treen. That’s hardly going to change,’ I said, in a bloody awful transatlantic accent.
‘You’re such a doofus,’ she said.
‘Oh, goodness. You’re still here.’
Mrs De Witt was just exiting the building as I arrived home, pulling on her gloves under the awning. I stepped back, neatly avoiding Dean Martin’s teeth snapping near my leg, and smiled politely at her. ‘Good morning, Mrs De Witt. Where else would I be?’
‘I thought the Estonian lap-dancer would have sacked you by now. I’m surprised she’s not frightened you’ll run off with the old man, like she did.’
‘Not really my modus operandi, Mrs De Witt,’ I said cheerfully.
‘I heard her yelling again in the corridor the other night. Awful racket. At least the other one just sulked for a couple of decades. A lot easier on the neighbours.’
‘I’ll pass that on.’
She shook her head, and was about to move away, but she stopped and gazed at my outfit. I was wearing a fine-pleated gold skirt, my fake fur gilet and a beanie hat coloured like a giant strawberry that Thom had been given for Christmas two years ago and refused to wear because it was ‘girly’. On my feet were a pair of bright red patent brogues that I had bought from a sale in a children’s shoe shop, air-punching amid the harassed mothers and screeching toddlers when I realized they fitted.
‘Your skirt.’
I glanced down, and braced myself for whatever barb was coming my way.
‘I have one like that from Biba.’
‘It is Biba!’ I said delightedly. ‘I got it from an online auction two years ago. Four pounds fifty! Only one tiny hole in the waistband.’
‘I have that exact skirt. I used to travel a lot in the sixties. Whenever I went to London I would spend hours in that store. I used to ship whole trunks of Biba dresses home to Manhattan. We had nothing like it here.’
‘Sounds like heaven. I’ve seen pictures,’ I said. ‘What an amazing thing to have been able to do. What did you do? I mean, why did you travel so much?’
‘I worked in fashion. For a women’s magazine. It was –’ She lurched forward, ambushed by a fit of coughing, and I waited while she recovered her breath. ‘Well. Anyway. You look quite reasonable,’ she said, putting her hand up against the wall. Then she turned and hobbled away up the street, Dean Martin casting baleful glances simultaneously at me and the kerb behind him.
The rest of the week was, as Michael would say, interesting. Tabitha’s apartment in SoHo was being redecorated and our apartment, for a week or so, became the battle ground for a series of turf wars apparently invisible to the male gaze, but only too obvious to Agnes, whom I could hear hissing at Mr Gopnik when she thought Tabitha was out of range.
Ilaria relished her role as foot-soldier. She made a point of serving Tab’s favourite dishes – spicy curries and red meat – none of which Agnes would eat, and professed herself ignorant of that when Agnes complained. She made sure Tab’s laundry was done first, and left folded neatly on her bed, while Agnes raced through the apartment in a towelling robe trying to work out what had happened to the blouse she had planned to wear that day.
In the evenings Tab would plant herself in the sitting room while Agnes was on the phone to her mother in Poland. She would hum noisily, scrolling through her iPad, until Agnes, silently enraged, would get up and decamp to her dressing room. Occasionally Tab invited girlfriends to the apartment and they took over the kitchen or the television room, a gaggle of noisy voices, gossiping, giggling, a ring of blonde heads that fell silent if Agnes happened to walk past.
‘It’s her house too, my darling,’ Mr Gopnik would say mildly, when Agnes protested. ‘She did grow up here.’
‘She treats me like I am temporary fixture.’
‘She’ll get used to you in time. She’s still a child in many ways.’
‘She’s twenty-four.’ Agnes would make a low growling noise, a sound I was quite sure no Englishwomen had ever mastered (I did try a few times) and throw up her hands in exasperation. Michael would walk past me, his face frozen, his eyes sliding towards mine in mute solidarity.
Agnes asked me to send a parcel to Poland via FedEx. She wanted me to pay cash, and keep hold of the receipt. The box was large, square and not particularly heavy, and we had the conversation in her study, which she had taken to locking, to Ilaria’s disgust.