Read an Excerpt
An Unexpected Guest A Novel
By Korkeakivi, Anne
Little, Brown and Company Copyright © 2012 Korkeakivi, Anne
All right reserved.
An Unexpected Guest
Time rained down on Clare. 8:30 a.m. on the clock hanging above the breakfast alcove. Twenty-five years of pretending Ireland never existed.
She would have to step again into that air terminal. Stare into the dark waters of the River Liffey. Look over her shoulder at every instant.
“The ambassador has just been diagnosed with viral pneumonia,” Edward had whispered last evening, sliding his BlackBerry into his inner jacket pocket, as they entered a cocktail reception for the Franco-British Entente Cordial program. “And the permanent under-secretary’s flight touched down at Charles de Gaulle forty-five minutes ago. He’s requested the dinner in his honor tomorrow night be shifted to our place.”
“How many people?”
“Twelve. With us included.”
The permanent under-secretary could have easily asked Edward—who, as British minister in Paris, was deputy head of the embassy—to take over as host in the Salon Bleu. If the P.U.S. wanted dinner moved from the ambassador’s residence to their place, he was seizing the opportunity to size Edward up in his own territory. The P.U.S. was in charge of ambassadorial appointments.
She’d touched Edward’s solid wrist. “I’ve got it.” She’d given him a thumbs-up and begun mentally planning. She’d been happy.
She hadn’t yet known what country the P.U.S. had in mind.
Now she was drinking her morning coffee in the Residence’s spacious white kitchen, calmly making a list for this evening. She did not glance at Edward, reading through a pile of briefs beside his tea and toast and marmalade. She continued drinking her coffee and eating her own toast quietly, as she did every morning. She did nothing that might betray her anguish.
If tonight’s dinner went well, Edward would be named the new ambassador to Ireland.
“Word is,” Edward had said after they’d gotten home last night, unwinding his tie from his neck, “Michael Leroy is being named to Israel.”
“Michael Leroy? The ambassador in Dublin?”
“Not after August. Apparently he’s wanted Tel Aviv for ages. Not enough chaos for him in Ireland currently.”
She’d allowed her nightgown to fall over her head, obscuring her expression just long enough to erase it, and slipped in between their bed’s cool sheets, pulling them up close to her chin. Edward didn’t know with what care, during the two decades they had been married, she’d avoided stepping foot on Irish soil. He didn’t realize she’d ever even been to Dublin. Edward knew when she woke she would brush her teeth both before and after breakfast. He knew that even in the flurry of preparations she would not tell Amélie, their well-meaning housekeeper, what a pain it was to communicate in Amélie’s broken English. But Edward knew nothing about her really, because he knew nothing about her life before him. He knew only the part she’d chosen to show him.
Thanks to her serene efficiency all these years—not just in entertaining but also in deception—Edward had probably thought he was handing her a present.
“So,” she’d said, “Dublin will soon be vacant.”
Edward had kissed her forehead. “Yes, Dublin will soon be vacant.” He’d turned off their bedroom’s overhead light, and she’d heard his measured tread move down the hall towards the study. He’d have meetings to prepare for now that he would be replacing the ambassador throughout the following day.
“Portobello Road, number eighty-three,” she told the cabdriver after she climbed into the cab at the Dublin airport, taking care to cradle her tummy in a protective fashion. When they pulled up in front of the unmarked brown building, the River Liffey seething below, she hoisted her long frame back out of the cab in an awkward motion, almost forgetting her suitcase, and hastened over the heaving paving stones to ring the entrance bell. “I need a room,” she announced to the jug-eared red-faced boy who appeared at the door and stared at her without saying a word, looking her up and down until his eyes landed on her stomach. “I need a room,” she repeated, insisting, a sudden desperation to get the whole thing over with as swiftly as possible rising up inside her. She heard the tires of the taxi bumping away along the cobbled road but didn’t look backwards.
* * *
Edward was ready for his own ambassadorship. He’d devoted his entire adult life to the British Foreign Office and had served as the British minister in Paris, second only to the ambassador, faithfully and effectively for the past three years. He had done the prerequisite tours in hot spots—Lebanon, Kuwait, and Cairo—earlier in his career, and had spent a tour each in London and Washington, with Irish Affairs as part of his workload. He’d married her, an American woman whose maiden name was Fennelly. All that was left standing between him and the top slot in Dublin was the dinner she was now charged with hosting.
“Everything all right, then?” Edward said, taking off his reading glasses and standing up tall from the breakfast table. “Are we on course for this evening?”
“I have it all under control.”
“Of course you do.”
He kissed her, and she smiled as he closed his briefcase, and smiled as he drew on his suit jacket. She smiled until she heard the front door of the Residence click shut behind him. Then she stopped smiling and placed both hands on the breakfast table.
Here were her choices. She could put on a perfect dinner and end up moving to Dublin, where, if someone didn’t actually recognize her and call her to account, she at least ran the risk of going crazy. Already in the past couple months, she’d begun imagining she saw Niall’s face in every crowd again.
Or she could purposefully make a mess of this evening’s event and destroy the chances of her loyal, deserving husband.
Clare checked the clock again. 8:37 a.m.
Last night at the reception, after she’d learned she had twenty-four hours to put on the dinner that could make all the difference for her husband’s professional future—but before she’d understood Ireland was the country at stake—she’d shaken hands and kissed cheeks exactly as much as necessary, then withdrawn to a powder room. Balancing against a marble sink, cupping her phone in one hand, she’d reeled off instructions with the precision of an airline hostess intoning safety measures. First to their cook, Mathilde. Then to Amélie—remembering to ask whether Amélie’s cousin might be available to offer an extra set of hands in the kitchen. Third to Yann, an embassy waiter she particularly trusted. “Donc, vous annulez,” she’d told him when he’d protested he already was slotted for another assignment. The butler, Gérard, was away in the south of France—unlucky timing, but they’d had nothing planned for these nights and it was his niece’s wedding. She couldn’t call him back to Paris. She would cover his organizational work, and Yann would do the greeting and managing of the guests. Amélie’s cousin would help serve. And Amélie would supervise the wine and tableware deliveries. Mathilde—she stayed in the kitchen.
Her dinner staff lined up, Clare had tapped out an e-mail to the embassy, requesting that the official plate embossed with the queen’s emblem be sent over in the morning, not too late, and then another to Edward’s secretary, requesting the guest list, with annotations about recent personal events and food preferences. She’d extracted the notepad she always carried and begun a to-do list—butcher, wine, flowers, etc.—careful to think as well of anything the butler normally would handle. Last, she’d sent an e-mail to the publication office at the Rodin Museum to say she’d likely have to delay dropping off the translation she’d just completed. This was her other job, the one she got paid for—she translated art books and catalogs.
She’d done all this in slightly over ten minutes, then returned to the reception hall in time to switch off her phone and listen to Edward give the absent ambassador’s welcoming speech. She’d kissed more cheeks amongst the circulating hors d’oeuvres, greeted more acquaintances, asked about more children, wives, and husbands. She’d been the picture of calm and competence. As she’d lain in bed later that night, trying to process Edward’s news about the embassy in Dublin, she had carefully tugged on this earlier sanguinity, reeling it back in until her breathing slowed, her heart stilled. She’d willed sleep to come to her.
Clare folded her breakfast napkin. If she could keep her cool last night, she could keep it this morning. She could keep it through the day, and through the dinner. She could even keep it in Dublin. She had experience controlling fear.
She replaced the top of the sugar bowl. She twisted the lid back over Edward’s jar of marmalade and gathered the plates from their breakfast, placing them on a tray. Mathilde would be coming in soon to start cooking. Amélie was already primping the formal living room. She tipped the remains of Edward’s pot of tea into the sink, then that of her cup of coffee.
She would not think about St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin, where rain had once splattered the remains of her humanity. She wouldn’t think about Dublin at all. She would put her all into helping Edward. She’d spent more than twenty years piling grain upon grain of obfuscation, and she couldn’t go backwards. Either she organized tonight’s dinner with the skill Edward knew she possessed or she’d have to tell him the truth about herself. She didn’t plan to tell that to anyone.
Clare scanned the guest list for possible food allergies, religious restrictions, or special diets and, finding none, set it down on a counter. A gust of spring wind stirred the chartreuse buds on the linden tree outside the kitchen window, and unfastening the hinge, she opened the window so the scent of blossoms could enter. After weeks of gray and drizzle, the sun was shining on Paris. Morning light spilled over the cobbled courtyard below. Tiny sprigs of green peeked through the crags between the stones, blades of grass too young to be cut down by the concierge’s weaponry. Somehow, overnight, the wisteria had fanned out in a flash of purple against the side of the building, like the imprint of light seen after squeezing one’s eyelids shut.
“You’ll catch a chill like that.”
Clare drew her head back in. “Good morning, Mathilde.”
“Hmph.” Mathilde, who was half Swiss and half Scottish, and always prepared for a sudden snow- or rainstorm, pulled a heavy wool coat off and hung it in a closet by the service entrance. “You have the menu for me?”
A menu had already been planned for the ambassador, but the Salon Bleu, where dinner was to have been held at the ambassador’s residence, was a pageant of sweeping ceiling, gilt wall ornaments, blue satin upholstery, and the tinkling of crystal, with a richly colored rug the size of a small sea. The dining room in the minister’s residence, while handsome with its mahogany furniture and dark-green painted walls, and large enough to seat twenty at dinner, felt intimate by comparison. In other words, what would have succeeded amidst the splendor of the Salon Bleu wouldn’t work for the minister’s more discreet residence. Moreover, Clare wanted a meal that would show off Mathilde’s particular culinary talents and make subtle reference to Ireland. If she was going to help Edward, she was going to do it right.
She refined her thoughts as she spoke. “New asparagus from Alsace, wrapped in jambon de bayonne, to start. Your lovely Chilean sea bass crusted with almond and bathed in leek and lemon cream as the main course. Salad, and I’ll get whatever we need for the cheese course when I go to buy the flowers. You decide the dessert. Whatever you think fit—your desserts are all brilliant. Just please make it seasonal.”
“You can’t do the Chilean sea bass. Too controversial.”
“Overfishing.” Mathilde shrugged. “Vietnamese farmed basa. I can cook it up the same way as the Chilean, and it tastes almost the same. I’ll dress it with potatoes in fresh pesto.”
“Perfect.” Clare heard the ring of the phone in the study, the sound of the housekeeper’s slippers padding their way down the hall. She paused to listen for the name of the caller.
“Oui, wait, please.” Amélie’s voice carried into the room. “I will go to the Madame, James.”
James? Had she heard Amélie correctly?
“Donc, asparagus and ham, basa in leek and lemon cream. It’s no bad,” Mathilde said, offering a begrudging nod, “for a spring menu.” She crossed her arms over her ample chest. “All right, then, if you don’t have anything else, I’d best get started. Nae the way one is supposed to do these things. A V.I.P. dinner on one day’s notice.”
Jamie had barely ever rung in the morning since he’d begun at boarding school last autumn. Once, when he’d forgotten to finish an essay for history: “Come on, Mom,” he’d said, “just a short little e-mail, saying my computer exploded or something.” Another time, when he’d been called down to the headmaster for throwing a currant bun (that hit a teacher). He normally timed his daily call for early evening, when Clare was most likely to be in but Edward not yet. At fifteen, he didn’t want his father to know how unhappy he was away from home, nor how dependent he was on his mother to stick it out.
She checked her watch: 9:10 a.m.
Jamie couldn’t have gotten into some new trouble on this day of all days.
“I’m truly sorry,” she said to Mathilde, “especially after I’d given you the day off. Thank you again for coming in. You’re a treasure.”
Mathilde snorted and began tying on her apron.
“Madame, eet’s James,” Amélie said, extending the phone towards her.
“Oh!” She accepted the handset from the housekeeper with a careful smile on her face. “That’s nice. Thank you, Amélie. I think I’ll just take this back in the bedroom.”
She walked the long hall back to her bedroom, half shut the door, and sat down on the edge of the mattress. The plastic of the receiver felt cool against her cheek, unyielding. It was tricky with Jamie. He wanted her help, and she wished she could do more for him. Things certainly were not going well at his boarding school. But nothing annoyed him more than unsolicited interference from his parents. “Jamie?”
There was a pause. “James.”
“James. Is everything all right?” To herself she thought, Please, at least don’t let any bones be broken. Or any school property.
“Yeah, sure, Mom. Two hundred thousand people died in Iraq this morning. But it only rained three inches in London this week.”
She transferred the phone to her other hand and frowned. “Two hundred thousand? That seems like rather a lot.”
“Okay, two. Does it really make a difference?”
“Well, to the other one hundred and ninety-eight thousand, probably. But I see what you mean. Even one is one too many. So, is that what’s up? Are you having nightmares again?”
He sounded so close, she could have sworn he was calling from downstairs. “Oh, Mom,” he said and groaned. “Can you stop with that? I should never have told you.”
“It’s okay, Jamie. I’m not going to tell anyone.”
“Did you tell Dad?”
“No. But is that why you’re calling?” At the other end of the apartment, the service doorbell rang. A delivery; she could hear the soft tones of Amélie’s voice again. A man’s voice; she couldn’t distinguish whose. She checked her watch. It had to be the wine.
She’d missed how Jamie had responded.
“Mom?” he was now saying. “So? Has anyone called?”
“Oh, Jamie. We have a really big day here. Just tell me. Have you gotten into trouble at school again?”
There was silence on the other side of the line.
She had a moment of panic. “I didn’t mean that. What’s the matter?”
“I just told you.”
She sat up, alert. Jamie had called a few nights earlier, asking permission to send an e-mail in her name requesting access to the school’s science lab after hours. Something about some homework he and his roommate, Robbie, were doing together. “I’ll write it,” she’d said, but he’d objected. “It’s just a note, Mom. Just tell me the password for the family account. Otherwise, I’ll have to give you all the times and stuff when we want to get in there.” Afterwards the thought had kept coming back to her: since when did Jamie go out of his way to do homework?
“Well, tell me again.”
Her son sputtered so hard into the phone, she had to draw her ear away. “Look, Mom,” he shouted, “I’m just saying, whatever they tell you, it’s not right that only one person carry all the blame! It’s not right!”
She tugged on a lock of hair. “Listen, honey—”
“I gotta go, Mom. I just wanted to speak to you first. Before they do.” His voice broke. “I wanted to tell you I’m…I have to come home.”
Christ, she thought. That’s it. He’s going to be suspended. “Jamie—”
But he repeated, “I gotta go. Bye,” and hung up.
She waited, as though some part of her younger son might still linger, ready to talk more, before she clicked off the phone. She’d been apprehensive about sending Jamie to boarding school; their older son, Peter, had been at Edward’s alma mater in Scotland, Fettes, for two years and professed to love it, but Jamie called Fettes “Fat-Ass” behind Edward’s back. “I know you were pleased with your years at Fettes,” she’d said when Edward had first brought the idea up the winter before, “and Peter has done fine there. But Jamie isn’t Peter. Edinburgh only gets seven hours of daylight in winter, and Fettes does have those red-striped blazers. And the bagpipes…”
Edward had squeezed his hands together once in front of him, as he always did when he was about to capitulate. Clare had seen the movement and had suppressed a smile. For a moment, she’d been happy to think Jamie would be spending another year at home and at the International School in Paris.
“Very well,” Edward had said. “I thought he might do well to be near his older brother. But if not Fettes, he will still have to go somewhere. We’ll be leaving Paris soon, and in these last years before university, a child’s education must have continuity. Besides”—and he’d paused to reach for The Guardian—“the security risk will be smaller at a British boarding school. There will be gates, there will be grounds, there will be less of a spotlight on him than on a diplomat’s son rambling the septième arrondissement with a schoolbag over his shoulder.”
And so, she had come up with the Barrow School, because it was in London and near an airport, and a friend of Jamie’s from their posting in Washington, Robbie Meriweather, had just been sent there while his father was relocated for the World Bank to Jakarta. She’d asked Robbie’s father to write a letter supporting his candidacy and, when Jamie was accepted, had had the two boys placed in the same dorm room.
But being reunited with Robbie hadn’t spared Jamie from homesickness, nor had being just an hour’s flight away from Paris. Home-sick? Could she even call Paris his home? Jamie had been born while they were posted in Cairo, but that city had never been home to any of them. When her thoughts returned to those couple of years, Clare felt Cairo rather than remembered it: the weight of her belly, then the weight of James in her arms as she’d walked him up and down the halls of their apartment, trying to calm him. The hooded eyes of their nanny whenever she’d hand James over to her, the siss-siss sound the woman made between her gapped front teeth. Stepping outside, the sun beating down, bludgeoning the back of her neck and shoulders, the smell of mint and tea and excrement heavy in the still air, the assault of car horns and shouting. Back inside the haven of their apartment, more painful sounds: the ring of phones bearing Gulf War updates, the penetrating silence of whispers and furtive conversations, and, always, the wails of the baby. James had cried steadily for the first six months of his life, his little hands screwed into tiny balls, fighting a war of his own. Why didn’t you go home to have him? the other expat wives had asked. But even then, where was home? Hers or Edward’s? Though she was married to a British foreign servant, Clare was still an American.
“Not homesick, heartsick,” Edward had corrected Clare the last time she’d brought up James’s struggles at Barrow. His studied patience had weighed on her like a heavy blanket. “Heartsick for the indulgences of his munificent mother.”
Jamie should have gone to Fettes. At least Peter would have been there to take care of him. Peter was solid, like his father. If Edward did get posted to Dublin, she’d spend more time in their London apartment and arrange for Jamie to come stay with her weekends. She would help him.
For a moment, Clare almost felt positive about Dublin. Then she remembered, and a wave of cold rode over her.
* * *
She entered St. Stephen’s Green earlier than agreed, hastening past the fountain with three stoic-faced Fates perched on a slab of stone in its center, tightening her navy sweater around her waist. Who’d think Dublin could be so chilly in August? In Boston, the heat had shown no sign of letting up; by now, even the roses had drooped from heat exhaustion. When she arrived at the memorial to Yeats, she sat down on a bench and pulled the sweater on. A man wandered in—not him—and she hunched over her now flat stomach.
A tiny yellow-and-green finch flitted down onto the bench beside her. He twittered, cocked his head left, then right, eyed her, flew away. She waited. Couples walked by, college kids like herself toting knapsacks, gray-haired men gripping newspapers, a mother with three small children. Even as the park began to fill with workers going home for the day, she waited. She couldn’t believe the person she’d become, and yet the last thing she could do was go backwards.
Still she waited.
Clare folded her hands over the telephone. If Jamie hadn’t been suspended yet, he would be in class now, and they weren’t allowed to have cell phones in class—or anywhere outside their dorm rooms. If she rang him straight back, she could get him into still more trouble.
She rose from the bed and opened the door all the way. There was something happening in the front of the Residence—she could hear Amélie arguing. She had to get out there and ensure things stayed on track for the dinner.
Amélie met her at the mouth of the Residence’s hall, shadowed by a short man in a gray jumpsuit.
“Madame,” he said, folding his arms over his chest, “on régle avant que je pars.”
“Zis man,” Amélie repeated, shaking her head with the special disgust she reserved for deliverymen who spoke even less English than she, “he wants zis house pay him.”
If the butler were here, he’d be handling this—not Amélie and not Clare. And he would do it with his usual aplomb. But what was the point of thinking about that? Gérard wasn’t here. And it wasn’t fair to expect Amélie to manage in his place. Clare would manage.
“Mais non, monsieur, je vous en prie…,” Clare began, trying to explain to the deliveryman their special circumstance. Since they were holding the dinner in the ambassador’s stead, the cost of the wine would go on the ambassador’s residence’s account rather than on theirs, although she’d still have to keep a record of it.
“C’est pas normal,” he interrupted.
“Mais si, monsieur.” Unlike the ambassador’s wife, whose residence had its own huge wine cellar of Pol Roger Champagne and Bordeaux and Burgundies, Clare regularly used this purveyor for the minister’s residence, where they didn’t entertain in such enormous numbers and thus didn’t keep such large quantities of wine always handy. The wine merchant knew her well enough to know she wasn’t going to try to cheat them, even if she were able. “C’est normal pour aujourd’hui.”
The man shrugged and made an abrupt about-face towards the front door. He did not wait for Amélie to let him out or steer him to the service entrance; he twisted the doorknob himself. “Très bien, Madame,” he said. “Je sais où vous habitez.” And with this vague threat, and a dismissive flick of his wrist, he swung the door open, leaving it to thwack shut behind him.
Amélie shook her head and returned to her work in the dining room. Clare made a mental note to check that they had a full selection of single malt whiskies in stock, as well as a few bottles of Somerset Alchemy Fifteen-Year-Old Cider Brandy. If only she’d heard everything Jamie had said.
The phone was still in her hand, and she walked to the study. The last time Edward or she had tried to pin Jamie down over some school infraction, it had taken more than a week to pry any details out of him. The more they would ask, the less he would tell. She sat down behind the study’s large walnut desk and rapid-dialed the Barrow switchboard. Jamie wouldn’t like it, but she’d call the headmaster directly. At least she would both skip the whole part where she had to get Jamie to talk and avert any possibility of the school ringing Edward. If Jamie was being sent home, this was serious.
She heard someone pick up.
“The headmaster’s line is engaged,” the school’s receptionist told her. “Would you like to hold?”
She tapped the broad face of the desk with a fingernail. “That’s all right, thank you. I’ll call back in five minutes.”
She set the phone down and opened the laptop in front of her. As it booted up, she took her notepad out of her cardigan pocket and surveyed her to-do list. Drat Barrow. They should never have sent Jamie there. He hadn’t been a brilliant student at the International School, but nothing like this. The computer screen blinked at her, then stabilized, and she clicked on Outlook.
Like rows of black ants, a slew of new e-mail messages appeared.
Towards the top:
Madame Moorhouse, It is with urgency that I request to know whether you are in knowledge that the Permanent Under-Secretary has expressed great desire to meet M. de Louriac’s son, Frédéric? Monsieur de Louriac le fils and his fiancée, Agathe Gouriant D’Arcy, are in Paris from Bordeaux for this one night. I wait your communication. With my sincerest respect, Mme. Gens, secrétaire de direction, M. Rémy de Louriac, The Ballaut Group.
Clare scrolled down the screen.
A few e-mails farther down, from Edward’s secretary:
Good morning, Mrs. Moorhouse. We received a call from M. de Louriac’s personal secretary this morning…
More portions of fish would have to be ordered, Mathilde would have to adjust her measures.…Why hadn’t Lydia called instead of sending an e-mail? Clare felt in her sweater pocket; she didn’t have her phone on her. She might not have taken it out of her purse the evening before. After Edward had dropped the bomb about Dublin, she hadn’t thought about checking e-mails.
She pulled the laptop towards her and began typing.
Madame Gens, c’est avec grand plaisir que nous accueillerons ce soir Messieurs de Louriac, père et fils, et Madame de Louriac, et l’invitée de M. de Louriac fils…
She finished the note, pressed “send” on the keyboard, and added “order more ham and more basa” to the bottom of her to-do list. She also added “rethink the seating arrangement” and “request two more official place settings from the embassy.” The de Louriacs had owned the same landed estate in Aquitaine since the fifteenth century. De Louriac senior had been the P.U.S.’s tennis partner during the P.U.S.’s years in Paris. They were what passed for intimates in the diplomatic world. Also, he controlled Ballaut, the titanic French aeronautics concern, which was of vital interest to the British government at this moment. Edward had explained it briefly to her yesterday on their way home from the reception. She had not probed the details. They would be fourteen total now at dinner.
9:40 a.m. Time to call Barrow again.
As she reached for the handset, sunshine slashed through the broad windows of the study, impaling her hands against the study desk, translucent in the sharp light, an older woman’s hands. Were they her hands? A touch of freckle sprayed across the top of the right one, the skin so thin the tendons were almost visible. The knuckles rose into a puckered ridge.
Was it possible that someone had once kissed each of these knuckles, telling her how he dreamt of her hands when they were separated? She’d sat down beside him at the kitchen table and watched him drink his Coke and noticed the curl of hair rolling down the back of his neck. He’d plunked down his bottle and, without asking, slipped his palm under hers.
“You surely have beautiful hands, Clare,” he said.
His eyes were so blue that they left her feeling as though she’d stared too long up into the sky. She looked away and was unable to see anything.
She was tall and fair-haired, good-looking without being striking, and plenty of boys had been happy to have her as their date for a movie, on a hike, to a house party. “Why don’t you ask Clare? She’s okay,” she could imagine them saying about her. But she was never part of the golden circle of popular girls, and the boys in the suburbs of Hartford were as vague about their attentions as they were good at playing lacrosse. Not one of them had ever called anything about her beautiful. None of them even seemed to have opinions.
She began to unfurl her fingers, for him.
Clare drew her hands back from the phone, hid them behind her back, brushed them against the front of her cardigan. And if she hadn’t followed Niall into her aunt’s kitchen all those years ago? If he hadn’t touched her hand and she hadn’t looked into his eyes? Would she still have ended up agreeing to help? Would she now be in this predicament?
She pressed the rapid-dial button for Barrow on the phone again. She was not going to think about Niall, especially not now. This time she told the main switchboard she would hold; while she waited, she fired off an e-mail to the fishmonger, as well as one to the butcher, ordering the extra portions. She was Clare Moorhouse, wife to the British minister in Paris, cool, collected, the picture of composure. Still on hold, she sent e-mails to the pantry at the ambassador’s residence, requesting the two additional place settings, and to the ambassador’s secretary asking whether either of the two new guests had any dietary requirements. She modified both her guest and her to-do lists.
The switchboard put her through. “Mrs. Moorhouse. Of course,” the headmaster’s secretary said. Clare thought she could hear her reach for the pearls she always wore around her neck and click them together. “Mr. Hennessey just stepped away. But he will call you and your husband back straightaway. As soon as he sorts out this other…business.”
“Mrs. Thomas, I have a busy day. I will be out most of the afternoon. And my husband will not be available at all. Perhaps, we could talk now?” Hearing the secretary’s hesitation, Clare continued, careful to be as definite and no-nonsense as possible. This was what worked best with Barrow. “I just spoke with James, and he’s very upset. He really has been trying to make an effort. He may make his mistakes here and there, but he means well.”
The headmaster’s secretary cleared her throat. Clack went the pearls; now Clare was sure she heard them. They must have thumped against the phone receiver. “Indeed,” Mrs. Thomas said.
“Mrs. Thomas, I can assure you we take both James and Barrow very seriously. I’m very worried.” She hesitated. “The minister is, too. I’ve spoken with him.”
The secretary was quiet for a moment. “It would be better if you talked directly with the headmaster. But I can tell you that Barrow does not intend to ask for James’s removal. Some type of punitive action has to be taken, a suspension, but there will not be a request for permanent withdrawal. But really, you need to speak with Mr. Hennessey.”
“Mrs. Thomas,” Clare began, buying time to think of the right way to phrase a question without sounding too blunt and, thus, American or ignorant, things that might prejudice them further against Jamie. She didn’t want Barrow to know she hadn’t got out of Jamie in detail what had happened, that Jamie wasn’t easy to handle in his home life either.
The sound of a crash echoed through the dining room into the study. Mathilde! Either the fishmonger or the butcher must have called back on the kitchen line to confirm Clare’s e-mails, and Mathilde was upset that Clare hadn’t gone in there right away to inform her about the additional guests. This could mean trouble for tonight’s dinner. If Mathilde felt really put out, she was liable to burn the fish, or the equivalent, in retaliation. Mathilde’s temper was as impressive as her cooking.
“Mrs. Thomas,” she said. She could hear the pad of footsteps. That would be Amélie fleeing the pantry. “Please tell Mr. Hennessey that James’s father and I will try him back this afternoon. He doesn’t need to try me.”
She hung up the phone and extracted her pad. Call the headmaster at Barrow again, she added to the bottom of her to-do list, right after Check on the single-malt whiskey and the British brandy. She wouldn’t try to get it out of the secretary. That wouldn’t help anyone.
That call about the science lab—she should have followed it up. Winter term, Jamie had been caught cheating on a science test and he’d been on academic probation ever since. Indeed, the only reason she’d agreed to let him write that e-mail in her name was that she hadn’t wanted in any way to discourage him. Jamie had had trouble with the science teacher, Mr. Roach, from the start. Already in the autumn he had given Jamie a week of detention for spilling some chemical material. “He’s dangerous,” Mr. Roach had said. “He doesn’t think through what he’s doing and could cause real damage.” He’d ragged on Jamie ever since—probably half the reason Jamie had cheated on that test. Jamie had never done anything like that when he was still at the International School. He knew Mr. Roach was looking for any excuse to fail him. And no one else at Barrow would be sticking up for him.
She sighed and stood up. At least he didn’t seem to have hurt himself. Not this time.
“What a busy morning!” she said to Amélie, passing her en route to the kitchen, preparing herself for what she would find in there. She’d have to set Jamie’s problems aside for the moment to sort out whatever had happened to upset Mathilde; the tiniest perceived slight could set Mathilde off, and her means of revenge were typically disproportionate. About two months after Clare had hired her, Mathilde had gone so far as to produce an authentic haggis in response to being asked to do lamb for a member of the Kuwaiti royal family. It turned out she hadn’t liked the way Clare had left a note for her instead of speaking personally to her about the menu.
“Well, you wrote ‘lamb,’ n’est-ce pas?” Mathilde had said, thumping out the crust for a shepherd’s pie when Clare had gone to speak with her the following morning about having served their royal guests animal entrails mixed with oatmeal. Flour rose like an atomic cloud around her. “You wrote ‘traditional,’ nae? How am I to ken what you mean if you canna take the time to speak with me directly? And,” she added, “it’s no that simple either, producing a good ’aggis here in Paris.”
Now that’s a contradiction in terms, if ever there was one, Clare had thought, and for a brief moment, she had considered simply hiring a new chef. But Mathilde had already made them the envy of dinner hosts all over the city, and in Paris that was no mean accomplishment. Moreover, Edward liked Mathilde’s cooking. Maybe because of her curious heritage, Mathilde had an uncanny talent for creating rewarding culinary experiences out of the type of mild simple dish that best pleased Edward.
So Clare had made a study of how to work with Mathilde, learning to check in often but gently, without ever appearing to interfere. And, above all, never to underestimate Mathilde’s sense of self-importance. As for the other stuff—the fits of temper, grunts, and snorts—Clare ignored it. She needed Mathilde. Especially on a day like this.
“What a formidable diplomat your mother would make,” Edward had joked to the boys this past New Year’s Eve after she’d earned a spontaneous rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” from Mathilde over a cooling pot of cabbage, “If only she showed the slightest interest in politics. Really, it’s thrown away, spending her days translating museum catalogs.”
“I think it was the bottle of Madeira I brought in while she was cooking,” she’d said, but secretly she’d been pleased with her accomplishment.
“Oh, Mathilde,” she said now, entering the kitchen. The cook was standing by the back door, her apron flung across the kitchen table—a favorite symbolic gesture. Clare picked up the apron and smoothed it as though she were petting the head of a child. “I’ve just had to add two more guests! Thank heavens I can count on you to manage.”
“Two additional? Right good of you to let me know.”
Clare held the apron out. “I put in the extra orders right away. I know you have enough on your hands without having to start calling around to the fishmonger.” When Mathilde didn’t move, she added, “Oh, I know you’ll make me look a better hostess than I deserve. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Husbands and wives were teams in the Foreign Service, although only one got to wear a mantle, and a spouse’s ability to put on a good dinner was a crucial part of the package. No one at the Foreign Office would soon forget France’s President Chirac pronouncing food from Finland the only thing worse than British cooking. If humoring Mathilde’s conviction that she was the most important personage in the Residence kept the kitchen working smoothly, Clare was happy to oblige.
Mathilde rubbed a thick arm. “Spring weather’s murder on my rheumatism. All that air moving around. And me in here by the cooker.” She marched over and closed the window. Then she came and took back the apron.
“I’ll stop in the pharmacy and see if I can’t find something for you,” Clare promised.
In the front hall, Amélie was balanced on a step stool, polishing the crystal chandelier. The glass glistened in the sun streaming in from the study, splashing prisms of light all over Amélie’s sturdy calves. She peeked down at Clare questioningly, and Clare nodded. Crisis averted.
“Behn…,” Amélie said.
“Mmmm…,” Clare said. She felt inside the Regency console in the foyer, where she always stored her handbag, taking in the marine landscape by Turner that hung above it. An early watercolor of breaking dawn, the Turner was even more precious to her than its pedigree might warrant, for reasons she’d never been able to pinpoint; she hung it by the door wherever they lived so it would be the first or last thing she saw as she exited or entered. “I shall be going out now. While I’m gone, can you go through the liquor cabinet, please, and make sure there’s Somerset Brandy and at least twenty-five choices of whiskey? If there isn’t, call Jane in housekeeping at the embassy and ask that a car bring them over.”
“Ze Zomerzet Brandy and twenty-five whiskey.”
“Exactly. I have a few quick errands to run. Unless something unexpected comes up, I will be back within a couple hours.” To make certain Amélie had understood, she repeated, slowly: “I-will-come-back-soon. Nothing-will-happen-when-I-am-out.”
Amélie’s English skills left much room for improvement, but Amélie was keen to improve them and Clare felt she had to support her in the effort, even at moments as critical as this. Maybe, to build her confidence, especially at moments like this.
Amélie squinted at her from above. Clare refrained from repeating herself one last time, in French. It would be so nice to feel sure she’d been understood. “And, if ze new Madame Conseiller does not speak French so well as you? She will cut me!” Amélie had burst out a few months ago, anticipating the end to Clare’s time in Paris. They’d already been there three years, and regardless of whether or not Edward got an ambassadorship, they would be reposted somewhere new soon. That’s how it was in the Foreign Service: never too long anywhere. Amélie knew the score.
“Not cut. Not cut, Amélie.”
“I must make better my English,” Amélie had announced, nodding. “Now, I speak only English. C’est bien?”
So, Clare left the English words hanging between them and hoped Amélie had understood everything. The door to the apartment thumped shut behind her; there was the twang of the elevator cage, starting its way up. She set her wicker shopping basket down on the inlaid tile of the landing and loosened the thick silk scarf she’d knotted over her sweater as she waited for its arrival. Today was a beautiful April day in Paris, filled with promise. Jamie was in trouble yet again, but she’d accomplished what she’d needed for right now. The silver would all shine. Bread dough would soon begin rising in a basket. Fresh herbs would be cut and pounded into a pesto.
She wouldn’t think about where all these dinner preparations might propel her. She had to believe everything was going to be fine.
Composure was a quality like gold in the diplomatic world, and she had built a reputation for having it in spades. She wouldn’t let it now fail her.
Clare stepped out into the gated courtyard that separated the Residence’s building from the pale stone-lined walks of the neighborhood and swung her shopping basket into the crook of her arm.
“Bonjour, Madame,” she said to the woman polishing the front door handle.
“Bonjour, Madame.” The woman stepped to one side and nodded. Clare stopped to button up her cardigan and tried not to feel the woman’s eyes taking in every garment she was wearing, noting that Clare hadn’t had her hair done this week.
Hairdresser—4 p.m. She had it on her to-do list.
Running a diplomatic residence was easy, but living in it was harder. In addition to the loss of privacy was the shortage of free will—so many things that had to be said and done each day, no matter how she might feel about them. Then, the constant menace of relocation and the conservation of a pristine public image. Not to forget the security issues—always be on guard, a fellow ex-pat wife had told her during the Cairo posting, stirring a spoonful of sugar into her coffee cup. A few years after, Clare had picked up the morning paper to see the same woman’s face staring back at her from beneath the fold; she was being held for an undisclosed ransom by kidnappers in Venezuela. The kidnappers had gotten the wife by mistake when she’d picked up her husband’s car after a routine check at the garage.
“My God, Edward,” she’d said, holding up the paper to show him.
“They weren’t Foreign Service. They were oil,” he had pointed out, after taking the paper and studying the article. “Much more money.”
Still, Jamie had had to be sent away, to someplace with gates, someplace culturally welcoming. While the chances were greater that one of them would get hurt falling down stairs in a crumbling building in Paris than that one of them would be kidnapped, the peril of terrorism seemed all the greater for its intimacy and immensity. Nine eleven had changed everything, throwing the already fragile balance between estranged worlds into both disorder and relief. She overheard the hostility in both the tabacs and from well-dressed professionals at multinational cocktail parties. “Americaine?” a key cutter had asked the day before, lifting an eyebrow in a way that conveyed a thousand words of disapproval. There’d been sympathy for a while, but the war in Iraq had changed that.
The joyous wave of wisteria against the building’s facade caught her eye. Yet, she had to consider herself lucky. Paris was beautiful. The creditability of Edward’s work made hers feel like a treat rather than a duty. And, in the end, what was the use in worrying, particularly on days like this one, when the sun’s rays were borne lightly about by a spring wind and even the plane trees outside their apartment building seemed to be dancing? The breeze caught in her hair and caressed her cheek, coaxing a younger Clare to step out from her middle-aged shell. She could almost feel a heavy braid swing against her back as it had during the days when she was a student at Radcliffe, and for a moment she allowed herself to revel in the phantom sensation. At Harvard, she’d padded her long frame with woven Aran sweaters in honor of her Irish heritage, played Ultimate Frisbee on the campus quad barefoot, and pulled overnighters with her roommate during exam periods. Never one to proclaim her views loudly, she’d nonetheless emptied her pockets for any worthy-seeming cause, offered her floor to anyone visiting the campus for a valid-seeming protest. She’d believed the world could be better. Only after she’d met Niall had she learned to be suspicious, and that was the real reason for her innate apprehension; she was expecting the past to raise its angry head, hoary and covered with the cobwebs of recrimination, to point its finger at her. Neither 9/11 nor Edward and the lifestyle he’d brought her was to blame. If anything, that was why she’d married Edward. She had hoped the profundity of his decency might shield her.
Clare touched the fragile flat bell of a purple blossom with the tip of her finger and turned to address the charwoman, who she knew would still be staring at her.
“Très jolie,” she said.
She adjusted her scarf and basket and continued across the courtyard. Every morning, she managed to push Niall away, his phantasmal arms still clasped tight around her from the night’s dreams. Now, buoyed by the spring breeze, she willed him to leave her entirely, until she was just another well-dressed middle-aged woman in a solid marriage with two almost-grown, healthy children. She wasn’t going to allow Niall to recede quietly into the back of her thoughts today. She wanted him out completely.
She nodded to the concierge, who stood talking with a coworker in a corner of the entrance gateway, both wielding brooms like medieval soldiers ready to sally forth in battle, and let their sudden silence glance right off her. Not gossiping about us, at least, she thought. What would there be to say? By now, they knew she was an American. Other than that, she’d made sure that she and her family would make disappointing fodder for chatter: the children were reasonably well behaved, at least in public; the father spent nights in his own bed; she came home with shopping bags from the right boutiques, neither too many nor too few. The previous inhabitant of their apartment had enjoyed his drink more than was customary even for a diplomat. Worse, his wife, though only in her forties, had been at least fifty pounds overweight and, of marginally aristocratic country stock, had donned galoshes whenever it was wet, which in Paris was often. Even being American seemed mild next to such transgressions.
The Rue de Varenne was empty, as usual outside rush hour, but for the pairs of gendarmes stationed along it like pats of butter on bread plates the length of a formal dining table, assigned to guard the many buildings like theirs on the street that housed governmental offices or official residences. The French prime minister lived in the grandest building of all, at number 57; the Italian Embassy in Paris stood at numbers 47–49–51. The French minister of agriculture and French secrétariat général du gouvernement occupied, respectively, numbers 78–80 and 69. The rest of the seventh arrondissement hummed with visitors, thanks to the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides, but on the Rue de Varenne, her street, tourists stuck to the beginning stretch by the Rodin Museum, wandering on and off the narrow sidewalk before it in the dazed manner so particular to the idle in Paris, returning to reality only at the chiding of a taxi or limousine horn but rarely making it as far even as the front gates of the building that housed the British minister’s residence, just a coin’s throw down from the museum.
From the Residence, the street continued in a long, nearly straight line, the cobblestones of the sidewalk just slightly uneven. Solemn gray and beige stone facades flanked either side of the road in a unified front. Edward had once commented on how well Clare fit in here, and she’d known he meant this as a compliment. She was pale, smooth, beige, a sea pebble of the kind one picks up along the beach and slips into one’s pocket to run one’s fingers over while pondering the meaning of life—or where to eat dinner. She knew it, she had even cultivated it—as much as she had ever manufactured anything about herself, for her development had been more like an act of erosion, a sanding away of all extraneous or undesirable elements, and this was how she felt more and more, as though each year were a grand wave washing away a little more of her. But something in her had begun to balk at the sentiment. Edward’s compliment had left her feeling deeply wounded, and she’d never forgotten it.
Now, however, she looked up and down the Rue de Varenne, not to judge the validity of Edward’s remark, nor to see if anyone was hovering about, as had been suggested as a simple precaution in one Foreign & Commonwealth Office post report, but to soak in the sunshine and attendant feeling of optimism. She left all second thoughts behind her, forced aside anything negative. The only things on her mind were the flowers and cheese and new asparagus from Alsace she needed to buy. She’d heard from other wives that there was a daily covered market in the Marais district that attracted vendors of fresh produce from all over France, but its name, Marché des Enfants Rouges, troubled her; translating as “market of the crimson children,” the name left her with visions of an enormous cage filled with children stained red, as though their little bodies had been dipped in blood. In the almost four years they’d now been living in Paris, and in the three years they’d lived here back in the ’90s, she had kept her distance. She would count on finding the asparagus at Le Bon Marché department store’s food hall, as well as the oatcakes and Irish cheddar she planned to serve as a subtle reminder to the P.U.S. of her heritage and confirmation of Edward’s Irish interests.
Excerpted from An Unexpected Guest by Korkeakivi, Anne Copyright © 2012 by Korkeakivi, Anne. Excerpted by permission.
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