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Her father wasn't well. They kept saying she shouldn't worry too much, but she should still come back to London. He had had an operation emergency kidney transplant; he'd been bumped right up the list. He was lucky to get one, considering his lifestyle, his age, everything. They kept saying that, too. Kate had even been tested, to see if she could be a donor. She couldn't, which made her feel like a bad daughter.
It all happened so suddenly. It was Monday afternoon when she got the call telling her it had happened, the previous day, after a kidney miraculously became available. He'd been unwell for a few years now, the diabetes and the drinking and the stress of his new life, he was busier than ever but how had it got to this, got so far? Apparently he had collapsed; the next day he'd been put at the top of the transplant list. That afternoon, Kate's stepmother, Lisa, had rung to let her know.
"I think he'd very much like to see you." Lisa's rather nasal voice was not improved by the tinny phone line.
"Of of course," Kate said. She cast around for something to say. "Oh God. How...how is he now?"
"He's alive, Kate. It was very sudden. But he's got much, much worse these last few months. So he's not that well. And he'd like to see you. Like I say. He misses you."
"Yes," said Kate. Her throat was dry, her heart was pounding. "Yes. Yes, of course."
"He's going to be in intensive care for a few days, you know. Can you come next week? You can get the time off at the office, I presume." Lisa made no other comment, but a variety of the comments she could make hung in the air, and rushing in next to them came millions of other guilty thoughts, all jostling for attention in front of Kate till she couldn't see anything. She rubbed her eyes with one hand as she cradled the phone on her shoulder. Her darling dad, and she hadn't seen him for eighteen months, hadn't been back to London for a real visit in nearly three years. How the hell...? Was this emergency, his rapid decline, was it her fault? No, of course it wasn't, but still, Kate couldn't escape the thought that she had made him ill herself, as certainly as if she had stuck a knife into him.
Out of the window, Manhattan looked calm and still, the gray monolithic buildings giving no clue to the arctic weather, the noise, the hustle, the sweet crazy smell of toasted sugar and tar that hit you every time you went outside, the city she had grown used to, fallen in love with, the city that had long ago replaced London in her affections. Kate looked around the office of the literary agency where she worked. It was a small place, only four full-time members of staff. Bruce Perry, the boss, was in his office, talking on the phone. Kate could see his head bobbing up and down as he violently agreed with someone and what they were saying. Doris, the malevolent old bookkeeper from Queens who openly hated Kate, was pretending to type but in reality was listening to Kate's conversation, trying to work out what was going on. Megan, the junior agent, was in the far corner, tapping a pencil against her keyboard.
"Kate?" said Lisa, breaking into Kate's thoughts. "Look, I can't force you to come back, but..." She cleared her throat, and Kate could hear the sound echo in the cavernous basement kitchen of her father and Lisa's flashy new home in Notting Hill.
"Of course I'll come," Kate heard herself say, and she crouched into herself, flushed with shame, hoping Doris hadn't heard her.
"You will?" Lisa said, and Kate could hear incredulity and something else yes, pleading in her voice, and she was horrified at herself, at how cold she was capable of being to Lisa. Her father was ill, for God's sake. Dad.
It was time to get a grip and go back home. And so Kate put the phone down, booked a flight for Saturday evening, getting into London on Sunday morning. Then she went into Bruce Perry's office to ask for two weeks off. No more. She wasn't staying there any longer than she had to.
Bruce had grimaced a bit, but he'd been fine about giving her the time off. Perry and Co. was not exactly the fast-paced business unit it might have been, which is why Kate had got her job as assistant there in the first place. In fact, to the outside eye, but for one author, Anne Graves, it would seem to be a mystery that they managed to stay in business, employing as they did five people, and with no books sold to any major publisher, no scripts sold to any studio, for years and years, so it would seem.
"Where will you stay?" Bruce asked. "Will you go to your dad's?"
"No," said Kate firmly. "I've...I've actually got a place there." Bruce raised his eyebrows, and Kate could see Doris put down her ledger and look up, intrigued.
"Your own place?"
"It's...kind of," Kate told him. She cleared her throat. "I part own it. I was renting it out, but they've just left. Last month."
"Good timing," said Bruce, pleased. "That's great!"
"Yes," said Kate. She wasn't sure that it was good timing, the ending of Gemma's rental lease coinciding with her father's emergency kidney transplant, but still, look for the silver lining, as her mother was always telling her. She shook her head, still trying to come to terms with it. "Wow," she said out loud. "I'm going back to London. Wow." She bit her thumb. "I'd better see if I can get hold of Dad. Lisa said he'd be awake in a little while...."
"Well, what will we do without you," Bruce said, more for effect than sounding like he meant it. He stood up languidly. "Hurry back, now!"
"I will," said Kate, although she was kind of sure she could simply not ever appear again and all they'd need to do after a few weeks would be to hire a temp to filter through the fan letters to Anne Graves. "I'm sorry to leave you in the lurch like this "
"Oh, honey," Doris said, standing up and coming over. She patted Kate's arm. Kate reared back in horror, since usually Doris wore a murderous expression when she came near her. "Don't you worry about that. My niece, Lorraine, she can cover for you. She'll do a real good job, too, you know it, Bruce."
"Great idea!" Bruce said happily.
He went back into his office, whistling, as Kate swung back around toward her computer. She bit her lip, not sure whether she wanted to laugh or cry.
Kate walked home that night, the twenty-odd blocks that took her back to her mother and Oscar's apartment, a slight feeling of unease hanging over her about the task that lay ahead of her, and the conversation she would have to have with her mother and stepfather. It was a milder March night than it had been thus far that year, and though it was dark and the clocks wouldn't go forward till Sunday, there was still a sense that spring was in the air. She walked up Broadway, following its slicing path through her beloved Manhattan. She didn't try to think about anything, just walked her usual walk, drinking it all in. This was her home. Here she could walk the streets and be part of the glorious, jostling mass of humanity, anonymous even if she wore a pink wig and rode a giraffe. No one here cared, no one here recognized her, knew her. Here she bumped into no old school friends, work colleagues; here she saw no ghosts getting in her way. Just the wide stretch of the road, leaving midtown behind her, as she headed up past Lincoln Center, watching the lights get dimmer, a little cozier, seeing people out running, walking their dogs, living their lives in the thick of the metropolis that was what she loved best about New York.
She knew she was nearly home when she got to Zabar's. The huge, cheery famous deli was as busy as ever. Families doing latenight shopping, solitary coffee drinkers hunched over a paper in the cafe. Warmth, light, color bursting out of every pore. Kate stared in through the window. They were advertising gefilte fish for Passover, only a few weeks away in mid-April. I'll be back by then, she thought. Only a couple of weeks. Really, that's all it is.
Dad's going to be fine, she told herself as the traffic purred beside her and she looked wildly around, wondering where she was for a moment. She thought about him for a minute, considering with terrified fascination what it would be like to see him again. Her father, so tall, so commanding, so handsome and charismatic, always the center of the room what would he be like now, what would his life be like after this operation? What if the kidney didn't work? How had it come to this, that she could push down the love she had for him, push it down so far inside her she had been able to pretend, for a while, that it was all ok?
But she knew the answer. She'd become an expert at the answer, since she'd left London.
Deep inside her came a stabbing pain at the top of her breastbone. Kate gently rubbed her collarbone, as her eyes filled with painful tears. But she could not cry, not here, not now. If she started, she might never stop.
I'll go back, see Dad, make sure he's OK, check on the flat, try and find a new tenant.
And I'll see Zoe.
At the thought of seeing her best friend after all this time, Kate felt the hairs on her neck stand up, and though the memory of what had happened still sliced at her, she smiled, a small smile, until she realized she was grinning through the window at a rather bewildered old man with thick white hair, who was trying to read his paper in peace. Kate blushed, and hurried on.
It was Oscar's sixtieth birthday in a few weeks, and Venetia, Kate's mother, had given him his present a brand-new baby grand piano early, back in January. As Kate arrived at the apartment building, on Riverside Drive, the window of Venetia and Oscar's apartment was open, and Kate could hear the sound of the piano floating down to her on the sidewalk.
"Hello there, Kate!" Maurice, the doorman, called happily, opening the door for her into the small marbled foyer. He pushed the button for the elevator. Kate smiled at him, a little wearily.
"How are you, Maurice?" she said.
"I'm just fine," said Maurice. "I'm pretty good. That spray you told me to get, for my back well, I bought it yesterday, I meant to say. And it's done a lot of good."
"Really?" said Kate, pleased. "That's great, Maurice. I'm so glad."
"I owe you, Kate, that's for sure. It just went away after I used that spray."
Kate got into the lift. "Good-o. That's brilliant."
"Hold the elevator!" came a querulous voice, and Mrs. Cohen, still elegant, tall, refined in a powder blue suit, shuffled into the lobby. "Kate, dear, hold the elevator! Hello, Maurice. Would you be a dear, and "
"I'll get the bags from the cab," said Maurice, nodding. "You wait here."
There were times when the geriatric street theater of the apartment building made Kate's day; there were other times when she would have given fifty dollars to see someone her own age in the lift. Just once. When they were installed in the lift, bags and all, and when Kate had helped Mrs. Cohen to her door and put her bags in her hallway, she climbed the last flight up to her mother's apartment, hearing the sound of the piano again as she reached the sixth floor.
Venetia was born to be a New Yorker; it was hard to believe she'd ever lived anywhere else, really. Of course, Kate could remember her in London, but it seemed rather unreal now. The mother she'd had until the age of fourteen, when, the day after Kate's birthday, Venetia had left her and her dad, was like a character Kate remembered watching in a film, not her actual, own mother. She had to remind herself that it was Venetia who'd picked her up from school every day, Venetia who'd smoothed her hair back when she'd been sick after eating some scrambled eggs when she was eight, Venetia who'd collected her from the Brownie camp in the New Forest a day early after Kate had cried all night for her. The idea that she and Kate's father had lived together that Venetia had taken Kate to watch Daniel play at the Royal Albert Hall, that she had entertained myriad numbers of Daniel's friends in their cluttered basement in the tall house in Kentish Town, had wiped tables down, collected wine bottles up, fielded calls from agents and journalists and critics and young, lithe music students had long disappeared. She was a New Yorker now, and more important, Kate thought, she was the star of her own show.
Venetia and Oscar's apartment was straight out of Annie Hall from the framed Saul Steinberg prints and posters of the Guys and Dolls revival that Oscar had done a couple of years ago to the copies of The New Yorker on the coffee table; the view out over Riverside Drive in the long, low room that served as a sitting room, dining room, den and Oscar's office (he worked at home mostly; he was an arranger, a composer and a conductor); the pictures of Kate in silver frames that she always found hugely embarrassing: her as a baby, sucking her toes, sitting on a lawn somewhere (Kate never knew where; there was no lawn in the Kentish Town house); her smiling rather rigidly outside her college after getting her degree; with her mother, the first time she came to New York to visit, when Kate was fifteen, just after Venetia had married Oscar. And there was one she always wanted to take down, just because: Kate, beaming, holding the first issue of Venus, the magazine she'd worked on in London. There had been other photos, other remnants of Kate's life. They had been taken down no one wanted to see them, now.
As Kate opened the door to the apartment, the smell of onions, something cooking, hit her. Her mother was in the tiny galley kitchen singing; Oscar was playing "Some Enchanted Evening" on the piano in the long room.
"Hi!" she called, injecting a note of jollity into her voice. "Something smells nice."
"Hello, darling!" Venetia appeared in the corridor, wiping her hands on her apron. "I'm making risotto, it's going to be lovely." She kissed her daughter. "Thanks for calling. It'll be ready in about fifteen minutes. How was your day? Did you get hold of Betty? She rang earlier. She was wondering if you wanted to meet for a drink on Friday."
Kate disentangled herself from her scarf, and from her mother, backing away toward the door to hang her things up. She pulled her long dark blond hair out from her coat and turned to her mother, chewing a lock of hair as she did.
"I'm starving," she said indistinctly. "I'll give her a call in a minute. Mum "
Oscar called from the long room. "Hello, Katy! Come and say hi!"
Kate poked her head around the door. "Hi, Oscar," she said. "How was your day?"
"Honey, I'm home!" Oscar said joyously, launching into a ragtime version of "Luck Be a Lady." "I've been home all day!"
Oscar made this joke roughly three times a week. Kate smiled affectionately at him.
"What a lovely evening," she said, staring out over the Hudson at the purple-gray sunset. "I had such a nice walk back."
Oscar was only half listening. "That's good, dear," he said. "Would you like a drink? Venetia, can I get you another drink, darling?"
Venetia appeared, carrying her gin and tonic. "I'm fine with this one, thanks, darling," she said, carelessly caressing the back of her husband's neck as she passed by. "I'd better lay the table darling, did I mention that I saw Kathy today? And she and Don can't make it to your party?"
"Dad's ill," Kate said. Her voice was louder than she'd meant. The room was suddenly deadly silent.
"What?" Venetia turned to look at her daughter. "What did you say?"
Kate gripped the side of the sofa. "Dad's really ill. He's had a kidney transplant. He's in intensive care."
"Oh my God," Oscar said, looking toward his wife. "That's well, that's awful."
"I'm going home," said Kate. "On Saturday. To see him."
"Back to London?" her mother said. Her face was white.
"Yes," said Kate, shaking her head very slightly, willing her mother to do the right thing.
"My God," said Oscar. He chewed at a cuticle nervously. "Will he be...OK?"
"Yes, yes," said Kate, wanting to reassure them. "I mean it's dangerous, but he's very lucky. I hope so " She swallowed, as black dots danced in front of her eyes, and a wave of panic swept over her at the thought of it, her poor darling dad. "Yes, Lisa thinks he will be...."
Lisa's name dropped like a stone between them. It was Venetia who broke the silence. "You're going back Saturday? What time's your flight?"
"Nine. In the evening."
"Right." Venetia put her drink down; she patted her collarbone, her slim white fingers stroking her skin. "We'll drive you. Oh, darling. How long are you going for?"
"Two weeks, probably," said Kate, coming toward her. She wanted her reassurance, for her mother to tell her it was going to be OK, not just for her dad, but everything to do with it. "I'll be back for Oscar's party, of course I will I'm just going to make sure he's OK."
"Course you do!" said Venetia. She put her arm around her daughter, squeezed her shoulders. "Darling, it's just well. It'll be hard for you. That's all."
There was silence again in the room as Oscar looked from his wife to his stepdaughter. Kate gazed out of the window. The sunset was almost over; it was nearly dark.
"Yep," Kate said. "It will be hard." It felt strange; it felt alien here suddenly. She hated that feeling. "I had to go back sometime," she added, and Oscar nodded and sat back down at the piano. "Just wish it wasn't for this, that's all."
Copyright © 2008 by Harriet Evans