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|Publisher:||The Wild Rose Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.78(d)|
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They say if you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen. But actually, when I heard the news, I wanted to crawl back and put my head in the oven.
Not really, of course. Figure of speech. But still. Everything stopped then and the world divided into before and after.
The first time Tilda phoned, flour dusted my hands. Mindy, scowling at the sliced apples, said, "If they really want something, they'll call back."
The caller ID had my sister's number on it, but I could call Tilda back after work. Pies took precedence. Orders were flowing in at Camilla's Creative Catering as the fall season began. I wrapped the pastry-filled pan in plastic and put it in the refrigerator, took off my apron, and went to my desk. On the computer, I created a custom menu for a prospect, hit send, and then hurried to the shower.
How clever I'd been to rent a space with a bathroom so I could change from spattered chef to smooth business owner. Dried off and dressed, my skirt slightly askew but with no runs in my pantyhose, thank goodness, I headed for the door with my hair still wet.
The phone rang a second time.
"Get that, Mindy, would you?"
My assistant held up her hands, covered in apples, sugar, and flour. The phone stopped.
"Why don't people text or e-mail?" Mindy slid her upper arm across her forehead.
"Check who called. I have to go."
"It's an art opening, Camilla. You could have just taken the order over the phone." Mindy's hair stood in tight curls and perspiration gleamed on her coppery skin.
I pressed the elevator button. "You know the personal touch is our trademark. I told the gallery owner I'd like to get a handle on the color schemes by seeing the artist's work."
Mindy was always second-guessing me. Let her get the clients then! My attention to detail brought the business. And to be truthful, the Anglophiles in Boston loved my accent. It must be the rounded vowels, the perfect English grammar. I had the tones of Downton Abbey's Upstairs, while providing the services of Downstairs, at least in the cooking department.
I waved to Mindy and descended to the street.
Under the blue sky of a clear New England September afternoon, seagulls circled. I inhaled the scent of the sea mingled with the gasoline stench of snarled traffic on the expressway and the pungent smell of Chinese food from the restaurants that bordered it. I took the car to a rundown part of town, near where the ships docked. Weeds sprouted at the curbside, while scraps of paper and cigarette butts mixed in with the gravel and brown grass of the abandoned lots in between industrial buildings.
A gray metal door stood flush to the street and opened to my touch. In the foyer, bicycles leaned against a grimy wall. I looked for an elevator and saw only a rickety stairway.
As I clambered up to the fourth floor of the old warehouse, I scrolled the phone and saw another message from Tilda. No time to talk to her now! I pushed a doorbell and heard it jangle. Footsteps sounded from across what must be a large and echoing room. A tall man in a streaked t-shirt and dirty jeans came to the door. He had dark eyes and a fashionably shaved head. He might have been handsome if he hadn't greeted me with a frown.
"You've got twenty minutes," he said.
"I know you're busy. Jake?" I repeated his name, but he did not put out his hand to shake mine.
"I told the gallery owner I always need to see the venue, and in your case, the art, before I plan the event."
He gestured with a sweep of his hand to a jumble of canvases piled in one corner, brushes in coffee cans, shelves bowing under the weight of supplies, a paint-spattered bench, and diagonal to a large window, a huge half-finished painting. The sharp, piney smell of turpentine flavored the air.
"If you let me see what's going in the show, I'll get out of your hair," I said.
Jake walked me into an adjoining room, a storage area without windows. He switched on a light. A dozen canvases stood neatly lined up against the walls. About six feet tall and almost as wide, they glowed with hidden color. The impression was of many sunsets, though an actual landscape or skyscape was just suggested.
I heard myself gasp. "How do you get such translucence?"
He beamed. "Yes, that's the effect I wanted. It's actually metallic paint underneath the surface of another color, repeated over and over. Here, I'll show you."
He led me back into the studio and picked up a palette knife. He swiped it across a portion of the work I'd interrupted. A band of gold appeared underneath the red. He repeated this in several places, stood back, and observed his work.
"Now I'll let that dry for a while, and have another stab at it later." He moved about the studio, pulled out another big canvas that had been prepped in a blue wash, and removed a colored sketch from a battered file drawer. He studied the sketch for a moment and began to paint.
"I won't take any more of your time." I stood transfixed.
He muttered something and turned to his painting, and I took his lack of a goodbye as an invitation to stay. The muscles of his torso rippled under his shirt as he transferred the paint from can to canvas, deliberate as an athlete.
"Painting's much more hard work than I remembered," I said. "Not that I've painted since school." A sense of kinship bloomed. My work was hard labor, too.
He arched his back in a stretch. Perhaps he'd ask me for a drink. But he said nothing.
"Well, thanks for showing me your work." I stepped toward the door. "It's been helpful to know your style. I'll be back in touch with some ideas for the gallery opening."
I started slowly down the stairs and paused at a landing with a window. I had been amazed, transported to an inner space, a centered calm, by watching Jake paint, seeing how surely he translated what was in his head to strokes on the canvas. I could see the ships at rest in the harbor. It was a still day, so still that for a second the harbor below looked like a painting by Canaletto, the passers-by little figures marching across the composition, not quite like a camera's image but placed just so by the artist's sense of rightness. Then the feeling was gone, and I heard the noise of the city, muted by the water, pulling me back to the everyday world.
I planned the art show opening as I drove home. When I opened the door to my apartment it felt stifled and hot. The sun was lowering, losing its power to illuminate the dust on the wood floor and the sparse furniture.
The landline rang. I leapt for it, almost tripping on the coffee table. The sun had slanted across the wooden floor, making a yellow strip across the mellow oak loom up to my face as, lunging for the phone, I found myself sprawled across the sofa, my head toward the ground. The blood rushed downward, and I pushed myself up with my free hand. Sitting down, my head spun.
"I tried to reach you three times today," Tilda said. "Didn't you think I might have something important to tell you?"
When had he actually slipped this world? Had I been wielding the rolling pin, planning the menu for a wedding, or curled up in my husband-less bed? Whenever it was, I had been absent. I should have tried to reconcile with him. Now I never could.
I should have seen it coming, should have realized after I moved across the ocean that I'd be away when important things happened in the family. But of course, you can't sit around waiting for milestones to happen. Perhaps, I mused now, sitting on the plane flying toward the sunrise — I'd had to shell out a fortune for the last minute British Air ticket to go to the funeral — I'd been so eager to throw myself into becoming the best caterer in Boston because it gave me an excuse not to go home.
Tilda and Geoffrey didn't communicate much. We were English after all. Someone described English expressions of emotion as "oblique." No one ever used the phrase, "I love you," in our family. That would be regarded as too cheap, too saccharine. My sister and brother kept their phone calls and even emails to Christmas and birthdays. I did the same. Not even birthdays, sometimes. Not that I wanted to remember mine. I'd be coming up on thirty-five this March, divorced and without the child Vincent and I said we wanted but never got around to having. One of my many regrets.
I pushed the button on the airplane seat to make it recline, but that gave little relief to the pain that was spreading from my head to my neck and on to my shoulders. The overnight flight was always difficult, but even if I had been home tonight, I would not have been able to sleep. I'd had to leave Mindy in charge for a week, and I had my doubts about her abilities. But it was more than that. With Vincent gone, Daddy gone, I had to wonder — it was a complicated kind of grief — I had to wonder why I was staying in Boston. Vincent had been the pull, originally, and Daddy had been the push. Love withdrawn from both of them had made me into the caterer I'd become. I worked to stifle loss by feeding strangers. But maybe, just maybe, all the love I really wanted had been at home, all along, if I could just unearth it.
Unearthing it was the thing, though. Love buried itself under duty in my family. And then, if the person you really love is first welcomed, then treated like the worst smell, what are you supposed to think?
"Anything to drink?" It was the flight attendant hauling the cart. A gin and tonic with a sliver of lime would be nice. In fact, it would be very delicious, and its taste would be worth the sink of depression that followed. Because I was sad at the moment, and I deserved the release of a good cry. But being English and stuck in the middle seat in the economy section of the aircraft on its way to Heathrow, all I could do was smile, and settle the glass gently on a paper napkin, then lift it to my lips with hands that shook. The drink sent shivers of pleasure through my palate. Maybe I'd order another, though I usually restricted myself to wine. One glass. Got to keep the figure.
I tried once more to adjust the headrest. Would Billy come to the funeral? He might. He just might want to say a final goodbye to the man who'd ruined his life. But then, maybe that was all in my head. Perhaps it had been for the best, really. It was an amazing coincidence, it occurred to me now. I was rolling pastry when I met my first lover, and I was rolling pastry when my father died. Not that anyone could anticipate that bashing a piece of dough with a wooden cylinder would change your life. You trudge or hurtle through the days, depending on your mood, and you can't possibly know what ordinary actions signify until much later, when the pie is baked and the four and twenty blackbirds fly up to the sky.
The sun streamed through the stained glass windows as we stood for the hymn. Outside, the college playing fields stretched away toward the river, wavy bits of green beckoning through the glass. As I surveyed the familiar pews, I remembered long ago Sundays when I ached to be outside and heard the soaring sound of the choir in my head again. Here, in England, in Cambridge, my early memories of this serene, ancient, beautiful town mingled with memories of what I'd tried to escape. I pulled my sleeves over my wrists.
The church was packed. Of course it would be. All Frederick Fetherwell's university and medical colleagues were here, and some of the neighbors, along with a few relatives. All dark suits and feathered hats. Could any of them be counted as my father's real friends? He had no hobbies. He was too busy, of course, with his work taking all his time. All those people at the memorial service, saluting a life of achievement, would any of those people truly mourn his death?
I shifted in my seat. Tilda sat to my right with Rupert, straight as a rod, and their two small daughters. Geoffrey stretched his long legs out at the end of the front row, alone, for he had never married. Frederick Fetherwell's children lined the pew in order of birth, and naturally, I was squeezed in the middle.
I hugged myself in my wool coat, although the day was not cold. "We're orphans, now, Geoffo," I whispered. "Isn't that the weirdest thought?" Geoffrey squeezed my hand. "Dust to dust, Mille."
"Shh!" Tilda hissed.
From the corner of my eye I stole a look at my sister. Wasn't she the slightest bit unnerved? Now that our father was about to join Mother in the grave, we siblings, Geoffrey and Tilda and I, all in our thirties and still young, seemed closer to our own deaths than we'd been the week before. It was as if a barrier had been removed from the truth.
"I should have had the end seat," muttered Tilda. Her tight skirt hampered her as she tried to exit the row to give part of the eulogy. She stumbled and almost fell over my feet. Rose giggled. I turned to my niece with a finger to my lips and repressed my own smile. Squabbling over the best seat was something my sister and I had always done. Tilda seemed never to have recovered from the trauma of being displaced, a three-year-old when I arrived. Geoffrey, as the only son, would speak next. I had not been asked. I could have had something to say, but perhaps it was for the best.
Finally, the service ended, and the congregation spilled out into the afternoon. At the graveside, I reeled as the loamy clods of earth hit the casket. As the polished wooden box disappeared under earth and rock, all the emotion I spent over the years in conflict with Frederick Fetherwell mixed with grief and eddied somewhere in my psyche like a muddy stream. I raised my face to the sky, and as if sending a message, the clouds congealed in a dark mass and rain started to splatter on the mourners.
People milled, shook our hands, and kissed our cheeks. Then we siblings led the way to the college refectory, where tea and sandwiches waited. Murmurs pooled in the room. I heard many a "So sorry, such a fine man, a great loss," and smiled weakly in response. Within ten minutes, noise rose to the rafters as the congregation, released, relished the fact that they all still stood upright and most importantly, could eat. I could not help casting a critical professional eye over the catered spread. Not bad, not bad at all. In addition to tea, champagne was circulating on the trays, along with quite good canapés.
Still, I felt somewhat sidelined. Tilda and Geoffrey had picked out the polished mahogany for the casket, the music, and the eulogies. Tilda had made the arrangements with the college's housekeeping and catering department, and I was impressed with this show of support for the family. I imagined the money to pay for it all came out of the estate, or perhaps the college itself had put it on. I thought to ask Tilda, but she would tell me this was a crass question, not the right time to ask it, even if catering and event planning were what I did for a living. I took a glass of champagne and listened to the toasts, made by various members of the college community, praising my father.
Someone had placed a black-and-white photograph of Frederick Fetherwell beside the vase of white lilies next to the condolence book. Gazing at it, I was reminded that Daddy had been a fairly handsome man, with a strong jaw and a full head of hair. Over time that hair had faded to match his gray eyes. Without the photograph to jog my memory I couldn't really remember what he looked like. I thought of him in bits and pieces, like a mosaic; the way his steel-framed reading glasses slid down his long nose to rest just below his cheekbones, the warm, dry feel of his hand. Not that Daddy had taken my hand since I was a very small child. He'd been a man of moderate height, moderate girth, and he always wore a suit.
I turned away and saw the beaming face of my oldest friend coming toward me. Lucy! She was a little fuller around the middle than I remembered. Her green eyes now had tiny lines around them, but the warmth in her voice was unmistakably hers. I fell against her breast, and she held me tight.
"I can't stay," she said. "But please, please, come up to London and see me before you go back. So much to catch up on. Years."
I promised I would. I sipped a cup of tea. The heady steam of that full-bodied, strong-scented British beverage, served with milk and a touch of sugar, comforted me. England wasn't so bad, after all.
A woman with smoke-gray hair and a kind, lined face, came over. She kept her coat buttoned, as if she were on the verge of leaving.
"I'm so sorry, dear," said the woman. "Your father was a fine doctor. I worked for him for many years."
A distant memory flooded back. "Barbara? Daddy's nurse at the practice? It's so good of you to come."
"Yes, yes, of course. I'm retired now, as was your father. I understand you live in America nowadays."
"Yes." I didn't feel like explaining.
But Barbara was all smiles.
"I'd love you to come and see me some time. How long are you here?"
Excerpted from "Lipstick on the Strawberry"
Copyright © 2017 Margaret Ann Spence.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Estranged from her English family, Camilla Fetherwell now lives in the United States and owns a successful catering business. Returning home for her father's funeral, she reunites with her first love, Billy, whom she hasn't seen since her father broke up their teenage romance.