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It was a running joke in the office that Steve had to be the last to leave. It was the same with the navy-blue name board above the ground-floor window: "Steven Ross and Associates," it read, "Designers."
"And who might those associates be?" Titus said. Titus had worked for Steve for three years. He was twenty-seven, short and square and vigorous, with the elaborate courtesy of manner that sometimes results from an old-fashioned English upbringing. "Because it doesn't appear to be me."
"It's a name," Steve said, pretending to read some papers. "It's just a name. To register the company."
"Not my name," Justine said. She was straight out of art college and rolled her own cigarettes. She winked at Titus.
"Might be one day," Steve said. "If I think you're worth it."
She liked that. She didn't want straight flirting, but she wanted a challenge from Steve, she wanted him to see that even though she still bit her nails she had drive and focus. When she came for an interview, he'd looked through her portfolio in complete silence and then he'd said, "Good." It was her seventh job interview and nobody had done anything before but sigh and say they hadn't actually got a vacancy after all. She lived for months on that "Good."
Steve stretched himself slowly, luxuriously upright on his stool-Swedish, ergonomically designed-and contemplated his small and satisfying empire. He looked at the original elm floorboards-enormously wide: whatever size could the trees have been?-and the angular outlines of Titus's desk and Justine's desk, and the serene, almost clinical area where Meera did the accounts and administration with heart-lifting orderliness. Steve tried very hard not to indulge himself over order, not to nag about neatness. He endeavored to remember that the precision which seemed to be such a balm to his soul should be properly and appropriately applied to work but should not-emphasize that not-spill over into the rest of life.
It was Nathalie who had alerted him to this. Years ago, before he even found this collapsing urban cottage with all its demanding potential as a workplace, he'd tried to persuade her to move in with him.
She'd looked at him doubtfully.
"Thing is," she'd said, "you're a bit-well, a bit careful." He'd been wounded.
"You mean fussy," he'd said, "you mean anal."
She sighed. She ran her forefingers under her eyes as if she thought she'd smudged her mascara.
"I don't just take trouble with things," Steve said insistently, "I take trouble with people. I pay attention to people."
Nathalie closed her eyes. Steve leaned towards her.
He said unwisely, "Of all the people I've ever met, you need me to do that. You need me to pay attention to you."
Nathalie's eyes snapped open.
"That," she said sharply, "doesn't sound like careful to me. That sounds like control."
He'd been chastened. He could remember the feeling still, the hot air of righteous self-justification rushing out of him in a deflating instant. He'd recalled his mother saying, over and over during his childhood and growing up, about some small choice that was absolutely, reasonably, hers to make, "I don't think your dad would like it."
"Sorry," Steve had said to Nathalie. He was full of a thick shame. "Sorry."
There was a photograph of Nathalie in the studio, trapped inside a rectangular Perspex block and fixed to the wall close to Steve's desk. She was wearing a denim shirt and she was holding her long dark hair up with both hands on top of her head in a loose pile, and she was laughing. Beside her was another Perspex block containing a photograph of Polly. Polly was five. She had Steven's soft curly hair and Nathalie's sooty-edged eyes. In the photograph, she was looking straight ahead from under the brim of a flowered sun hat, serious and determined. She had just started school, registered as Polly Ross-Dexter because Nathalie wouldn't give up her surname, and Steve couldn't have the school thinking that he wasn't Polly's father. There'd been a struggle about which name should go first, and Nathalie had only relented in the end on grounds of euphony. This was not a victory, Steve reflected, that had given him any pleasure at all.
He let his gaze travel upwards, from the evidence of Meera's organizational skills to the haphazardness of those of the seventeenth-century roof builders. He'd often tried to work out the stresses among the beams up there, the reasons for their positionings, whether these had been from deliberate calculations or from something altogether more ad hoc, more let's try this, let's try that. It hadn't been a very grand cottage after all, perhaps the house of one of the Huguenot weavers who had fled to England after persecution in France and adapted their competence with silk to an equal competence with the wool that had made Westerham prosperous in the days before the spa waters were discovered and the town became gentrified. When Steve came upon the cottage-he was twenty-seven and humming with notions-it was slumped, decaying, between its more elegant early-nineteenth-century neighbors, and was being used as an indoor reclamation yard, piled with old doors and chimneypieces and floorboards. Its restoration had required a loan from the bank that he was still painfully paying off. When he took it out, he'd wanted to say to Nathalie, "That's hardly being careful, is it?" but he hadn't quite dared to, he hadn't wanted her to have the chance-which she might well have taken-to say, "And exactly who is this great carelessness for?"
Of course it was for him. He could bluster about the benefits it would bring for them both, for any children they might have, but he would always have known otherwise, deep in his heart of hearts. He was the one, after all, who lived in the skin of the boy who'd grown up in a back bedroom of the Royal Oak pub out on the Oxford Road, whose father had been so angry at his desire to go to art college that they hadn't spoken for over two years. His mother had crept about between them appeasingly, bringing food parcels to the bedsit the college had helped him find, and always getting back to the pub before opening time.
He'd thought he wanted to be a photographer-that's what he'd set his heart on doing. He'd had fantasies about going back to the Royal Oak and slapping down on the bar, under his father's nose, a national magazine, or a Sunday-newspaper supplement with a double-page spread of beautiful black-and-white shots taken by none other than Steve Ross. But something had interfered with that plan, something had occurred during that first foundation year when everyone else was faffing about making installations out of mirror tiles and painting murals with twig brooms. He'd spent one single morning in the design studio and had known that somehow he'd come home. He'd loved it, completely, immediately; he'd seen the point of the simultaneous precision and creativity, he'd grasped the extraordinary psychological effect of tiny adjustments, in placing or proportion. It was clean, pure, clever, and it was for him. He'd promised himself, cycling to college on the morning of his nineteenth birthday, that he wanted to be-was going to be-a designer with his own studio. He was going to show himself. He was going to show his father.
He got off his stool now, and picked up his waste bin. It was his last task of every day, and yet another source of amusement to Titus and Justine, this rounding up of waste bins in order to tip the contents into the shredder, "Steve's shredder."
"Can't Kim do it?" Titus said, leaning comfortably against Steve's desk.
Kim came in at nine, three evenings a week, to clean.
"No," Steve said.
"Mmm," Steve said.
"Or," Titus said, folding his arms, "as Kim is probably as interested in the contents of our bins as she would be in a print-out of the Hang Seng index, could it be that she isn't really to be trusted with the shredder?"
"Go away," Steve said.
He tipped the contents of his bin into the machine. It would reliably be only paper. So would Meera's. Titus and Justine's bins however hid banana skins and gum wrappers and old Band-Aids. Occasionally, Titus would also leave the tiny packet from a condom, to see if Steve noticed. Titus's sex life seemed, by all accounts, to be a cheerful affair, mostly conducted with girls considerably taller than he was. Sometimes Steve wondered if Justine would have liked to join them.
He put the bin back under his desk and straightened up. The photograph of Polly was directly in front of him, her don't-you-fool-me eyes on an exact level with his own. She seemed quite happy at school, not troubled by anything; in fact, perhaps not troubled enough since her form teacher, Nathalie reported, had gently said that Polly appeared to have some difficulty concentrating and that they should have her hearing checked. Steve touched one ear involuntarily. Nothing wrong with his hearing, never had been.
Downstairs, in the reception area, the street door banged loudly.
"Only me!" Titus shouted.
Steve moved towards the staircase that led down from the studio.
"I've got someone with me!" Titus called.
Feet crossed the reception area and started up the stairs.
A woman's voice said, "This is so cool."
"Steve will love that," Titus said. "Won't you, Steve? You'll love it that Sasha thinks this place is cool."
Titus emerged into the studio, pink-checked from the cold outside. He wore a vast scarf, muffled up round his neck and ears like a student.
"Sorry to come back," Titus said, grinning. "I know you like us to go when we've gone."
A woman appeared from the staircase behind Titus. She was inevitably much taller than he was, and older, possibly in her mid-thirties, with thick pale hair cropped close to her skull. She held her hand out to Steve.
"Hello," Steve said.
Titus put his hands in his pockets.
"We're on a bit of a mission," he said. "We had an impulse-"
"I did," Sasha said, smiling at Steve. "It was my impulse."
"Can you spare us five minutes?" Titus said.
Steve said, "I was on my way home, to read to Polly."
"My daughter," Steve said. He indicated the photograph briefly. "She's five."
"Adorable. Five. So it's all Barbie and Angelina Ballerina."
Steve smiled at her.
"I love pink," Titus said stoutly. He unwound his scarf and dropped it over the angled edge of Justine's desk. "Explain to him, Sash."
"It's a bit cheeky-"
"Titus is cheeky," Steve said.
"Except that it isn't Titus, it's me."
"I'm doing a project," Sasha said. "I'm doing a course, a counseling course, and I'm doing a thesis on identity, personal identity, where we come from, how we define ourselves. That sort of thing."
Steve thought briefly of the Royal Oak. He looked at Sasha's hands. They were long and supple and she had a plain silver band on each thumb.
"The thing is-" Sasha went on and stopped. She looked at Titus.
"Your project," he said airily.
"Titus told me about your wife."
"Partner," Steve said.
Sasha looked briefly at Polly's photograph.
"What about Nathalie?"
"That she's adopted," Sasha said.
Steve looked at Titus.
"Did I tell you that?"
"I wonder why," Steve said. "I don't usually. I don't think about it."
"Don't you?" Sasha said.
He looked at her. She was very attractive in a bony, bold way, with that pale seal-pelt hair. He smiled kindly.
"No," he said pleasantly, "I don't need to. She doesn't need to. It isn't an issue."
"Sorry," Steve said, "but Nathalie isn't traumatized. She's always said she's glad she was adopted, that she's had the choice of being who she wanted to be."
"I've never felt like that," Titus said. He put his hands in his pockets. "I know exactly where I come from and almost none of it is what I'd have chosen."
Sasha leaned forward.
"I really didn't mean to invade anything-"
"It's so fascinating, though," Sasha said, "that she doesn't mind."
"She used to tease me," Steve said, "about what she called my battles with my bio-folks. She never had those. Battles, I mean."
Sasha looked at Polly's picture again.
"We shouldn't keep you."
"But-but do you think she'd talk to me?"
"What?" Steve said. "Nathalie talk to you about adoption?"
Sasha gestured with her big, flexible hands. The rings made her thumbs look oddly truncated.
"It would be so interesting. It would be such a contrast, you see, such a completely other take on the accepted wisdom, such a refreshing change-"
"From the acknowledged violence of the primal wound."
"Don't get her started," Titus said.
Sasha said clearly, as if quoting, "The abandoned baby lives inside every adoptee all his life."
"Not in Nathalie."
"So fascinating," Sasha said again. She thought for a moment and then she said, "Do you think she'd ever talk to me?"
Steve moved away a little to the panel on the wall that controlled the lighting.
"I can ask her."
"Sure," Steve said.
Excerpted from Brother and Sister by Joanne Trollope Copyright © 2004 by Joanne Trollope. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted April 11, 2012
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