You try calling someone “Daddy” whom you’ve never met in your life.
Rat has this pad of pink bubble gum–scented stationery with mice on it that’s all the rage at her school. Kids will trade a mammoth marble or a jawbreaker just for one page. Rat’s got a whole damn pad of it she’s just bought with the money her English father’s sent her for her birthday. And now she’s already wrecked three pages trying to write this damn letter thanking him for the twenty francs he’s sent her. First she’s ever heard from her father. More money than she’s ever had in her life. Chr papa, mrsi . . . cher Papa, mersi. cher ppa . . .
You can see Rat’s difficulty in the monkish elaborateness with which she is transmogrifying her capital letters, turning the C into a snake with a hissing tongue, the P into an archer with a bow, the whole set-piece of greeting and gratitude grinding to a halt, firstly, because Rat doesn’t know how to write a letter, and secondly, because never having met her father or heard from him before, she hasn’t a clue what sort of child he would like her to be.
“Can I see the card again?” Rat asks, hoping for guidance. A picture of a clown sitting on a cake, and on the inside, in English, “To Celia, Happy Birthday, love Daddy” in an anonymously cursive script.
“Where’s the envelope? Can I keep the stamp?”
“It came with something else, some bank business. I threw it away,” says Vanessa.
“I didn’t even know he knew when my birthday was,” Rat says, wondering.
“Get back to your letter, girl.”
Rat groans. Looks up again, after a moment. “Are you sure it’s okay to write him in French?” She knows the answer already.
“Sure, sweetheart, your daddy speaks good French. He went to boarding school in Switzerland.”
Rat considers other options, diversionary tactics. “Maybe I should send him a photo, so he knows what I look like.” There’s a snapshot of herself Rat likes that’s tacked up on the living room wall. She’s on the boardwalk at Canet Plage, in her Rollerblades, wearing a denim skirt which their neighbor Cristel helped her make from an old pair of jeans. She is unsmiling. She looks tough, challenging, but pretty.
“Sure, sweetheart. Why not?”
“Why don’t I just send him the photo and skip the letter?”
Her mother makes as if to swat her on the side of the head, play-angry. “Go on, lazy brat, write.”
No need to feel sorry for Rat for having a father she’s never met, who only gave up denying she was his when the DNA test proved it. Lots of kids Rat knows are way worse off. There was a story on TV about a man who didn’t feed the dogs when his wife went away on vacation, so the dogs ate their toddler.
Besides, hard to see how there’d be room for a man in their lives. Rat and her mother are close as sisters, sometimes twins. Vanessa is so small—child-size, really—they can wear each other’s clothes. When one of them has nightmares or there are people staying over or they just happen to feel like snuggling, Vanessa comes to sleep in Rat’s bed.
“How’re you coming along?” Vanessa asks now.
Rat grimaces, clutches the letter close. “Don’t look.”
Her mother pushes aside Rat’s sheltering hands, and examines the mangled cross-outs.
“You’re a real case,” she says, fondly. “Here.” Vanessa writes out three lines for Rat to copy. “Dear Daddy, Thank you for the birthday money. Love, Celia.” Easy-peasy.
Rat tries to summon up the diligence to replicate these lines, but her concentration’s shot. She hunches her shoulders, stretches, picks her nose, yawns.
“You finished, sweetheart?”
“I can’t do it,” Rat grumbles. “I hate writing.”
“Just get it done with, Ratkin.”
Vanessa reads the letter, folds it, and stashes it in her big patchwork carryall. “Okay? You’re finished.”
But Rat is hunched, sulky with failure.
Vanessa rumples her daughter’s hair, bends down to blow into her ear, to tickle her. No reaction.
“You’re done,” she repeats. Waves a hand in front of Rat’s eyes. “What are you going to do with the money?”
“Come on, grump. Let’s go to the beach,” Vanessa says. “You can buy me an ice cream. A Magnum.”
“No way,” says Rat. “I’m not spending my birthday money on an ice cream.” But already she’s on her feet, searching for her sweatshirt, the bucket in which she collects sea glass and shells.
The thank-you letter that Rat was obliged to write to her father sticks in her mind as an unsettling anomaly in a life otherwise devoid of any such old-fashioned rites of good manners. Or, indeed, of any communications from her English relatives.
Some years later, when it strikes her that a father might come in handy, Rat asks her mother why they’ve never heard from him again.
And Vanessa, who is in a lousy temper, feeling unappreciated by her now teenage daughter, laughs shortly and says, “Did you really believe that?” There never was any birthday money from Rat’s daddy, she explains. It was Vanessa who in the fullness of her heart invented this offering the year Rat moved from preschool to primary and was getting bullied by older kids at recess. “I did it to cheer you up,” she says.
Rat is so shocked her normally sharp tongue momentarily fails her. She feels made a fool of. She feels tampered-with, defiled in her innermost sanctuary, the place where she dreams about people who to her waking life are marginal.
“You made me write a letter you were never going to send?”
Vanessa shrugs. “I thought it might help you. You had things you needed to say to your father.”
“Like thank you?”
It’ll be years before Rat discovers that although her English father doesn’t send her birthday presents, he does pay Vanessa child support—a monthly sum which by London standards is probably pretty basic, but which, for the Pyrénées-Orientales, where they live, is royal.
Vanessa is a rich woman, but nobody knows, least of all her daughter. The monthly payments which are intended for Rat’s maintenance pile up in a Crédit Agricole account, separate from their regular account, which is always bumping on empty. And meanwhile, Vanessa and Rat live hand to mouth like everybody else they know, off a combination of welfare benefits, undeclared earnings, and gleaning.
To her friends, Vanessa is wide-open generous. The generosity is genuine. Vanessa would give you her only winter coat, and it wouldn’t be a game. It’s as if she’s unconscious of the fact that, unlike her friends and neighbors, she’s got serious money in the bank—if she knew, she would buy a new car, instead of rattling around in a broken-down Renault 5. Poverty is also something mental, and Vanessa honestly feels skint.
And Rat, later on when she learns about the child support and thinks it over, doesn’t begrudge her mother the money that should logically have been spent switching her to private school after she flunks out of eighth grade because the public high school at Canet is so big and rough that you spend all your mental energy figuring out how not to get beaten up. Or even just taking them on vacation somewhere nice.
Rat doesn’t mind, because thanks to Vanessa’s teaching, she’s learned to fend for herself. Later on, when she meets people who’ve been born rich, they will seem to her like dogs without a sense of smell. Bank accounts belong to the realm of the unreal. What’s real is your quick wits.
Vanessa is a brocanteuse: she buys and sells old goods. A natural-born forager, says she. The walls of their apartment are plastered with the kind of things she loves: printed cocktail napkins from a bar in Spain, a leopard-skin carnival mask with gold whiskers, photo spreads from old magazines.
Many of these photographs, laser copied and blown up, are of Rat’s English granny, her unknown father’s mother, whose name was Celia Kidd. Rat’s real name, too, is Celia. She was named after her granny, but everybody except for teachers calls her Rat.
Celia Kidd was a top model in London in the 1960s. There is a black-and-white blowup of her on the kitchen wall from British Vogue, a tall slinky girl, slim as an otter, with white skin and enormous eyes, wearing a poncho made of white feathers, and seemingly nothing else. Her gaze is merry and slightly mocking.
Rat’s father, Gillem McKane, was her only child.
Rat’s favorite photograph is of Celia and Gillem together, when he was a little boy not much older than Rat. It’s a two-page color spread, and it comes from a time when Celia Kidd was married to a British film director.
Celia, older than in her modeling days but still ferociously beautiful, is wearing a brocade fur-trimmed tunic. She is stretched out on the sofa, her long legs dangling over the armrest. Gillem is sprawled on the floor at her feet, drawing a picture. You can’t see his face, because he’s looking down. But he’s got long black hair, and he’s wearing a shirt with a frilly collar. In big letters printed along the side of the photograph, it says in English: “Mrs. Harbison’s drawing-room is midnight blue, a favorite Empire sofa is upholstered in hot-pink velvet.”
Celia and Gillem’s lives were so star-studded you would never have thought they would cross with Rat’s mother’s.
But later on, when Gillem was in his twenties, there was a period when he and his mother used to spend their summers in the Pyrénées-Orientales. They rented a big house on the cliffs above Collioure, which was the village where Vanessa and her parents lived. Celia Kidd would pack the house with her glamorous friends. And for a month in August, Collioure, otherwise rather sedate, would suddenly look as glitzy as Saint-Tropez.
Rat loves hearing the story of how her parents met.
One Saturday night, according to Vanessa, Gillem walked into the nightclub where she and her girlfriends hung out.
“Did you know who he was?” Rat asked.
“Of course. Everybody knew him. Celia’s son. He used to ride around town on his motorbike, usually with some drop-dead blonde hanging off the back, who me and my friends’d be doing hexes on—shrivel up and die, you old witch. He was gorgeous. And then that night, it was like, Oh my God, there’s Gillem. And he’s all by himself!”
“So you asked him to dance . . .?”
“We danced, we talked. He had this really cute English accent. I asked him where his girlfriend was, he said she’d gone back to London. I said, Oh, so my voodoo spells worked.”