The Last Laugh: A Novel

The Last Laugh: A Novel

by Lynn Freed


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374286651
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 07/03/2017
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 1,340,358
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Lynn Freed is the author of seven novels, a collection of short stories, and two collections of essays. Her honors include the inaugural Katherine Anne Porter Award for fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, two PEN/O. Henry awards and a National Endowment for the Arts grant.

As a retired board-certified music therapist, licensed counselor, and veteran of the Michigan Opera and several community theaters, Jennifer Dixon has explored the power of words and music to motivate, inspire, provoke, soothe, and heal. She brings this unique perspective to her work as an audiobook narrator.

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WE'D PUT PASSION BEHIND US, we said, I more loudly than the others. Not that men had lost their charm, we said, not really. It was just that the blinders were gone, the sport, the spring and sway of the dance, the careless unreasoning madness of it all. Anyway, we said, passion had accomplished its chief work, at least from a biological point of view — children and grandchildren. What we wanted now was peace. Ourselves to ourselves. No service, no duty, no motherly or grandmotherly obligations.

If we'd kept all this to ourselves — if we hadn't run amok with the idea of freedom and escape — we'd probably have got away with far less trouble. But, of course, we didn't keep things to ourselves; we were enjoying the effect too much, even on our children. They were astounded. Then resentful. Our passion, they'd assumed, now lay with them, now that they were parents themselves — they'd reeled us in at last. And even if, from time to time, they suspected we might prefer our time to ourselves, they'd never imagined it would come to this. Can you believe them? they asked each other. Can you believe what those mad old bags are up to?

Well, here we were now, three mad old bags and a bottle of ouzo out on our stone terrace, the sun setting far below over the Aegean.

"Gott!" said Dania. "Why did we wait so long?"

She was always asking this, always answering herself, as well. "We had to grow up ourselves," she would say.

But growing up wasn't the point; money was. Without it, without what we'd accumulated over the years one way or another, none of us would have been able to budge, certainly not to an island far enough away to make spontaneous visits by the children unlikely.

The island had been my idea. I'd come here on a sort of honeymoon with Clive and had known even then that I would return one day without him. So now here I was, almost fifty years on, and it was just as I'd left it — heat, sea, salt air, octopuses strung out along a line at the port, and, up here, the white houses, blue doors, beaded curtains, cobbled streets, the bougainvillea and church bells, and the fishmonger's cry every morning.

Bess kicked out her plump tanned legs. "Grow up?" she said. "What the hell for?"

I'd brought her into the arrangement when Flora, our natural third, got cold feet. Bess was a new friend — more than a friend, as she'd been quick to inform me. Her mother, she said, had had an affair with my father, and her grandmother with my mother's father, and so we were half sisters in one way and God knows what in the other, and all this I'd only found out when she'd phoned out of the blue about a year before to say she was now in California, living with her daughter, and didn't I remember her from South Africa? Didn't I remember when her grandmother once brought her to our house for tea?

Well, no, I didn't, not at first anyway. But then, yes, I thought I did remember a bold, plump girl emptying her tea into her saucer, and my mother, straight and stiff and silent, watching her wipe her mouth across her sleeve.

I smiled out into the fading light. For six weeks things had been going smoothly. This we put down to the guidelines we'd all agreed on before we left. Sooner or later, we'd said, the children would get over their resentment and start coming to visit, and did we want to be running a B&B? With a nursery school attached? Okay, we'd said, here's what we'll do: pool some money and rent the house down the hill for the month of June. Then they'll just have to work out some sort of time-share arrangement among themselves. On condition they understand that up here there'll be no cooking, no babysitting either. What about that?

Wonderful! we said. Excellent! All the wheedling and pleading out of earshot, and, oh God, the threats never carried out, the time-outs and squatting to reason eye to eye when one good smack on the bum could bring it to an end. They're terrified of their children, we decided, appeasing them like little household gods. Perhaps they consider it insurance against being consigned to an ice floe when their own time comes, we said — well, ha ha to that!

"And anyway," I said, kicking off my shoes, "here we are. And none of us, not even Dania, is suffering a moment's guilt."

"Guilt!" cried Bess. "What the hell for?"

She had a point, although all our lives Dania and I had subordinated husbands, children, lovers to our careers. We'd met when our first books came out — mine a detective novel, and hers a treatise on the psycho-social efficacies of infidelity. Bess, on the other hand, had made a career out of lovers, taking off for months at a time, leaving her children to Gladness.

Gladness was another matter. She was the daughter of one of the Zulu maids in Bess's grandmother's hotel, where she and Bess had grown up together. Once Bess was married and living in London, it was Gladness she'd really missed — Gladness her grandmother had sent over to be with her when Agnes was born.

So now she wanted Gladness here, with us. She wouldn't interfere, she assured us, we could find a room for her in the village, what was wrong with that? The thing was, she said, Gladdy was lost without her — they were lost without each other. And Dania should just get over her squeamishness; she wasn't living on a kibbutz anymore.

Dania lifted her eyebrows at me.

But the truth was I didn't want Gladness either. Bess and I might both have grown up in South Africa, but that was then, and now, in this life, even Eleftheria coming in to clean and sweep every morning felt like an intrusion. The thought of Gladness hauling herself up the hill every day, the Greeks eyeing her as if she were going to run off with their washing — well, no!

"She's the one I feel guilty about," said Bess, "not Agnes or Wilfred. She's devoted her life to me."

"Look it," Dania said in the low, measured voice she used on her patients, "what if she spends here a visit with the children? In June? Help them with the little ones, maybe?" She gave her therapeutic smile.

"But that's the problem," Bess wailed. "She's too old to be a nanny now! And, anyway, she's a bigot."

Dania glanced at me. You understand what's going on here? "She's bigoted about Greeks?" she asked calmly.

"No!" cried Bess. "About blacks."


"Wilfred's child — the one they just adopted — he's black. That's why she wants to move out."

"Gott!" The glance again. "And what about Wilfred? She doesn't object to a homosexual?"

"No!" said Bess miserably. "She was his nanny. You don't understand! If there's anyone I feel guilty about, it's her! She hates London! She's always hated it! And now this!"

I rarely suffered guilt myself but, when I did, I thought I understood its deep stab of regret. "Wouldn't she prefer to go back to South Africa?" I suggested. "Doesn't she have a daughter there?"

"She wouldn't prefer that at all!" cried Bess. "She's dead scared in that country now, everyone just waiting for a chance to rob and murder you. Patience has no time for her unless she wants money, and the grandson's in and out of jail. So, don't you see? Gladdy's home is with me, wherever I happen to be. And that's here, now, with us."

She shifted her chair away from us, into the last beam of sun. All her life, it seemed, she'd been used to getting her own way, and if she couldn't, she sulked. When neither Dania nor I took any notice of the sulking, she was left a bit bewildered without its power.

Looking at her there, it occurred to me that a woman in her late sixties who behaved like a child might be more of a problem than any child itself.

I'D KNOWN FROM THE BEGINNING, of course, that we'd be getting on each other's nerves from time to time. We'd all known this. So, despite the fact that we were all talkers — because of it, really — we'd decided in advance to try to contend with such irritations in silence. Talking things through, the current fashion, only served to produce resentment and anger, I suggested. And even Dania — who, after all, made a living listening to people talking things through — had to agree.

But then there I was the next morning, biting back my irritation not only with Bess, who, once again, had consumed all the baklava in the middle of the night — leaving the tin on the table for the ants to find — but also with Dania and her relentless boasting. Over the years I'd tried everything I could think of to get her to give it up. Just the night before I had talked about the boaster and name-dropper I'd once suffered at an artists' colony. "He was a room clearer," I'd said. "People vied not to sit at his table."

"Oy! Oy!" Dania cried. "Name-droppers!"

"But also boasters," I said. "They go together."

"Of course!" she said knowingly. "Of course!"

So it was hopeless. And now here she was again, breakfast over and me excusing myself to go off and write my column, saying, "Look it, Ruthi! I've got sixteen books and ninety-two articles" — she was still including translations although I'd told her time and again that they didn't count — "so why I should write any more? Ruthi! It's time here to relax!"

Bess watched us in silence. In a moment of exasperation, I'd made the mistake of confiding to her my irritation with Dania's boasting. I adore her, of course, I'd said, but —

And she hadn't leapt in. Bess could be surprising in this way — unjealous, untricky. Anyway, she was far more concerned about Dania's peasant skirts and gypsy jewelry. She seemed to consider bad dress a character flaw closely associated with higher education. I, who was just as highly educated, had somehow been spared, said she, probably because I didn't hold the education as dear. And, meanwhile, couldn't we at least entice Dania away from that ghastly musk perfume she was so devoted to? What about giving her the bottle of Chanel No. 5 Bess had bought at duty-free?

Bess herself was devoted to high fashion and had given up on formal education the day she left school. Every week she summoned Dionysos, the taxi driver, to take her down to the port for her manicure, and every two weeks for a pedicure that involved a tank of small flesh-eating fish. She also checked impatiently at the post office for her copies of Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, both the U.S. and U.K. editions. When one finally came in, she'd hurry back up to the house, lay her bulk out along the window seat, glasses down her nose, and be deaf to whatever was going on around her. Once she had scoured the magazine, she'd move on to fashion sites on the Internet, clicking, ordering, canceling, looking up to say, "There's a perfect swing jacket at forty percent off here for you, Ruth. Greeny beige. Very you."

Once, she had been quite a beauty, that was clear from her photos — an olive-skinned, black-haired beauty with wide, dark eyes and an ironic twist to the mouth. In fact, she was not unlike my father — our father, I kept reminding myself — the skin, the nose, and her face was still unlined at sixty-nine thanks to the fat and the face-lifts. Strolling past the weathered island women with their buns and hairy moles and little mustaches, she looked almost youthful in her white linen tents and ballet flats, her smooth skin oiled and gleaming.

I was the only one of us who hadn't had a face-lift, although Dania claimed that vanity had had nothing to do with hers. "I had to push back my head to see," she said. "I was looking at everything through slots."

She meant "slits," of course, but I'd learned over the years not to correct her English — she didn't take it well. Anyway, it was too divinely wrong to bear straightening out. "Scrap the bottom of the barrel," "pied-à-tête," "skin thin." She spoke the way she drove and sang and cooked — with a disdain for details others might consider necessary, but which she managed quite well without, thank you. She'd driven tanks in the Israeli army, sung and danced and cooked and written her sixteen books and ninety-two articles, and, See? she would say, emerging from the kitchen triumphant. Who needs all that fuss with live tomatoes? I did it with cans!

"I'll just do this column," I said, "and then I'll be able to relax."

"Three hundred words, Ruthi? You'll come through it as usual with flowing colors!"

The column was my fault. I'd suggested the idea to the new features editor at So Long Magazine as a sort of lark — a diary of our year, I'd said, never imagining they'd want it weekly, or that they'd call it "Granny à Go Go." So now, week to week the deadline haunted me. No sooner did I finish one column than I was worrying about the next. And the worst of it was that I was supposed to leave out everything that wasn't "à go go." How, after all, could I write about the boasting or the baklava? Or Hester's voice on the phone, tight with resentment, the knot that formed under my ribs as I tried in vain to warm her back to me? Or even Gladness? Especially Gladness? How could I write about a beloved old Zulu nanny for an audience rich in embracers of good conscience?

Well, I couldn't. I wasn't writer enough for the task. Or woman enough. I wanted my daughter's blessing and my friends' love. And if they got on my nerves, the lot of them, I seemed to count on not getting on theirs. So, it was hopeless — all that bravado in leaving, and now this: boasters and bingers and a deadline that hung like a stone around my neck. The whole thing was a luxury, I decided, all of it, even my discontent, which, doubtless, would be gone by tomorrow.

I closed the door to my room and opened the laptop.

à gg, Greece

My favorite time of day for a drive down to town is the evening, the sun setting over the bay and the last of the ferries unloading its passengers. Winding down past ancient olive trees, I remember to add olives to my grocery list. And feta. The farmers who come to the port to sell their wares will be gone by now, but the local shops will be opening for the evening and I'm thinking of trotting past the ceramicist to see whether he's lowered the price on the octopus platter I've been eyeing for my daughter —

I PUSHED ON, PUSHING THE piece up the hill again and into the kitchen for the sort of evening meal we never actually cooked — marinated lamb on the spit, roast potatoes with rosemary, Greek salad. Bess couldn't cook, Dania knew only cans and casseroles, and I was damned if I'd land up in an apron night after night.

Recipe for marinade
I SENT IT OFF, AND then pulled out the gorgeous marbled notebook I'd bought in Florence years ago. The thought had been to begin a journal, forgetting, as I stood in the shop turning the thing in my hands, that I wasn't a natural journal keeper. And now, every time I opened it, there seemed nothing I could say that would warrant marring the thick creamy paper. Anyway, for whom would I be writing it? Myself? That seemed a silly, self-conscious thing to do. Not to mention grandiose. And, in some way I couldn't define, illegitimate.

And yet I was sorry now that I didn't have a record of the past, if only to look back on the gripes and miseries and triumphs, to see how small they might seem at a distance. Or, perhaps, to render them small by putting them into words. I didn't know, really. It could be like looking through old photo albums, which I did quite often, the photos losing their life the more familiar they became.

And then, one day, Dania suggested that writing down the difficulties I'd had with Hester over the years might help put them into manageable shape. Particularly here, at such a remove. It would be like laying a ghost, she seemed to be saying, although God knows how she'd have mangled that metaphor if she'd got hold of it.

I unscrewed my pen and wrote "Hester #1" on the first page, underlining it, marring the book for good.


Excerpted from "The Last Laugh"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Lynn Freed.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Dramatis Personae,
The Last Laugh,
Also by Lynn Freed,
A Note About the Author,

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