Still Me

Page 6


‘There’s no problem,’ said Mr Gopnik.
‘Daddy –’
‘There’s no problem, Tab. Ilaria, please could you set the table for four? Thank you.’
Ilaria’s eyes widened. She glanced at me, her mouth a thin line of suppressed rage, as if I had engineered this travesty of the domestic hierarchy, then disappeared to the dining room from where we could hear the emphatic clattering of cutlery and glassware. Agnes let out a little breath and pushed her hair back from her head. She flashed me a small, conspiratorial smile.
‘Let’s go through,’ said Mr Gopnik, after a minute. ‘Louisa, perhaps you’d like a drink.’
Dinner was a hushed, painful affair. I was overawed by the grand mahogany table, the heavy silver cutlery and the crystal glasses, out of place in my uniform. Mr Gopnik was largely silent and disappeared twice to take calls from his office. Tab flicked through her iPhone, studiously declining to engage with anybody, and Ilaria delivered chicken in a red wine sauce with all the trimmings and removed serving dishes afterwards with a face, as my mother would put it, like a smacked arse. Perhaps only I noticed the hard clunk with which my own plate was placed in front of me, the audible sniff that came every time she passed my chair.
Agnes barely picked at hers. She sat opposite me and chatted gamely as if I were her new best friend, her gaze periodically sliding towards her husband.
‘So this is your first time in New York,’ she said. ‘Where else have you been?’
‘Um … not very many places. I’m sort of late to travelling. I backpacked around Europe a while ago, and before that … Mauritius. And Switzerland.’
‘America is very different. Each state has a unique feel, I think, to we Europeans. I have only been to a few places with Leonard, but it was like going to different countries entirely. Are you excited to be here?’
‘Very much so,’ I said. ‘I’m determined to take advantage of everything New York has to offer.’
‘Sounds like you, Agnes,’ said Tab, sweetly.
Agnes ignored her, keeping her eyes on me. They were hypnotically beautiful, tapering to fine, upward-tilted points at the corners. Twice I had to remind myself to close my mouth while staring at her.
‘And tell me about your family. You have brothers? Sisters?’
I explained my family as best I could, making them sound a little more Waltons than Addams.
‘And your sister now lives in your apartment in London? With her son? Will she come visit you? And your parents? They will miss you?’
I thought of Dad’s parting shot: ‘Don’t hurry back, Lou! We’re turning your old bedroom into a jacuzzi!’
‘Oh, yes. Very much.’
‘My mother cried for two weeks when I left Kraków. And you have a boyfriend?’
‘Yes. His name’s Sam. He’s a paramedic.’
‘A paramedic! Like a doctor? How lovely. Please show me picture. I love to see pictures.’
I pulled my phone from my pocket and flicked through until I found my favourite picture of Sam, sitting on my roof terrace in his dark green uniform. He had just finished work, and was drinking a mug of tea, beaming at me. The sun was low behind him and I could remember, looking at it, exactly how it had felt up there, my tea cooling on the ledge behind me, Sam waiting patiently as I took picture after picture.
‘So handsome! And he is coming to New York too?’
‘Um, no. He’s building a house so it’s a bit complicated just now. And he has a job.’
Agnes’s eyes widened. ‘But he must come! You cannot live in different countries! How you can love your man if he is not here with you? I could not be away from Leonard. I don’t even like it when he goes on two-day business trip.’
‘Yes, I suppose you would want to make sure you’re never too far away,’ said Tab. Mr Gopnik glanced up from his dinner, his gaze flickering between his wife and daughter, but said nothing.
‘Still,’ Agnes said, arranging her napkin on her lap, ‘London is not so far away. And love is love. Isn’t that right, Leonard?’
‘It certainly is,’ he said, and his face briefly softened at her smile. Agnes reached out a hand and stroked his, and I looked quickly at my plate.
The room fell silent for a moment.
‘Actually, I think I might head home. I seem to be feeling slightly nauseous.’ With a loud scrape, Tab pushed her chair back and dropped her napkin on her plate, where the white linen immediately began to soak up the red wine sauce. I had to fight the urge to rescue it. She stood and kissed her father’s cheek. He reached up a free hand and touched her arm fondly.
‘I’ll speak to you during the week, Daddy.’ She turned. ‘Louisa … Agnes.’ She nodded curtly, and left the room.
Agnes watched her go. It’s possible she muttered something under her breath, but Ilaria was gathering up my plate and cutlery with such a savage clatter that it was hard to tell.
With Tab gone, it was as if all the fight left Agnes. She seemed to wilt in her seat, her shoulders suddenly bowed, the sharp hollow of her collarbone visible as her head drooped over it. I stood. ‘I think I might head back to my room now. Thank you so much for supper. It was delicious.’
Nobody protested. Mr Gopnik’s arm was resting along the mahogany table now, his fingers stroking his wife’s hand. ‘We’ll see you in the morning, Louisa,’ he said, not looking at me. Agnes was gazing up at him, her face sombre. I backed out of the dining room, speeding past the kitchen door to my room so that the virtual daggers I could feel Ilaria hurling my way from the kitchen wouldn’t have a chance to hit me.
An hour later Nathan sent me a text. He was having a beer with friends in Brooklyn. Heard you got the full baptism of fire. You all right?
I didn’t have the energy to come back with something witty. Or to ask him how on earth he knew.
It’ll be easier once you get to know them. Promise.
See you in the morning, I replied. I had a brief moment of misgiving – what had I just signed up for? – then had a stern word with myself, and fell heavily to sleep.
That night I dreamt of Will. I dreamt of him rarely – a source of some sadness to me in the early days when I had missed him so much that I felt as if someone had blasted a hole straight through me. The dreams had stopped when I met Sam. But there he was again, in the small hours, as vivid as if he were standing before me. He was in the back seat of a car, an expensive black limousine, like Mr Gopnik’s, and I saw him from across a street. I was instantly relieved that he was not dead, not gone after all, and knew instinctively that he should not go wherever he was headed. It was my job to stop him. But every time I tried to cross the busy road an extra lane of cars seemed to appear in front of me, roaring past so that I couldn’t get to him, the sound of the engines drowning my shouting of his name. There he was, just out of reach, his skin that smooth caramel colour, his faint smile playing around the edges of his mouth, saying something to the driver that I couldn’t hear. At the last minute he caught my eye – his eyes widened just a little – and I woke, sweating, the duvet knotted around my legs.
To: [email protected]
From: [email protected]
Writing this in haste – Mrs G is having her piano lesson – but I’m going to try and email you every day so that at least I can feel like we’re chatting. I miss you. Please write back. I know you said you hate emails but just for me. Pleeeease. (You have to imagine my pleading face here.) Or, you know, LETTERS! Love you, Lxxxxxx
‘Well, good morning!’
A very large African American man in very tight scarlet Lycra stood in front of me, his hands on his hips. I froze, blinking, in the kitchen doorway in my T-shirt and knickers, wondering if I was dreaming and whether if I closed the door and opened it again he would still be there.
‘You must be Miss Louisa?’ A huge hand reached out and took mine, pumping it so enthusiastically that I bobbed up and down involuntarily. I checked my watch. No, it really was a quarter past six.
‘I’m George. Mrs Gopnik’s trainer. I hear you’re coming out with us. Looking forward to it!’
I had woken after a fitful few hours, struggling to shake off the tangled dreams that had woven themselves through my sleep, and stumbled down the corridor on automatic pilot, a caffeine-seeking zombie.