The phone is ringing. In her sleep Kitty hears her own voice on the answering machine, husky, as her husband laughs at the serious tone of her message in the background. Then there is the beep, and another voice, a voice tinged with a panic that is familiar.
"Kitty, it's Violet. I'm sorry to ring you in the middle of the night, but it's Mummy. Something's happened."
She sits up, scrabbles for the phone in the dark.
"Violet?" she says.
She packs methodically, already in a different place, distancing herself from her bedroom, the cartoonish skyline that she has loved from the moment she first saw it as a little girl. The city is sleeping, although it has the reputation of being one that never sleeps.
She looks at her husband's broad back, every inch of which she cherishes.
"Coffee," he says as greeting, disappearing to their kitchen.
She laughs. She has always been able to wake, her brain engaged from the moment she opens her eyes. He needs to be cajoled from sleep, with coffee and tendresse, something she has joked with his mother about. His mother maintains it's a Southern affliction, a by-product of sugary heat, dawns so hot they make the pavement steam.
"The sleepy South," his mother calls it.
They sit next to each other at the round walnut table. He drinks coffee and she drinks tea.
"What time is it?" he says. "I feel like we only just went to bed."
"It's four-thirty," she answers. "The flight's at seven."
"You're sure you don't want me to come? I can figure it out. I hate the thought of you being there on your own."
"I won't be on my own. The others are all there. I'll be fine. It's what I'm good at, remember? Good in a crisis, that's me." She smiles at him.
"I don't think crisis management suits you. You were made for calm. You're my little Buddha." He cups her stomach gently.
"At least her timing was good. Three months more and I couldn't have got on a plane if I'd wanted to." She looks at her belly with rue. "Poor baby. There she was minding her own business in New York, and now look. Let's hope it's character building, and I won't have scarred her for life before she's even out of the womb."
At Kennedy she turns to him.
"Mark?" she says. "About the baby . . . You don't think I'll damage her before she's even left the gate? I wanted it all to be so perfect."
He wraps her in his arms.
"What's perfect, Kitty? Life is flawed. She has to meet her loopy relations sometime. Why not now?
Life is full of imperfect, my old sweetheart. Just say the word and I'll park the car and get on that plane with you."
"I'll be fine. You can't take the time if we want a summer holiday," she says, gathering herself.
As he drives away she looks at him from the kerb like a child with big serious eyes, and he feels his heart lurch.
She steadies herself, places her hand on her stomach as if for luck, and walks into the terminal, her overnight bag hanging from her arm like a charm.
Her grandfather, Bestepapa, had hands that were true as butcher's blocks, and his voice was like the beginnings of a bonfire.
"Will you be quiet
, small child?" he roared, his huge hand banging on the wooden table, a full stop to the meandering chat around him. "A hen house; I live in a hen house! All of you women talk too much . . . peck, peck at my poor ears! Men do not like this endless feminine banter. Men like women with mystery
, don't you know?"
Starling chatter lulled, the chorus (Kitty's mother, aunts and grandmother) practised looking like enigmatic women with secrets, until someone, likely her Aunt Elsie, spoiled it by laughing.
"Sexist," Kitty muttered, her second favourite word. Since she turned eleven it had been replaced by "alacrity."
Her mother and her younger sisters were considered to be spectacular beauties. Not just valley beautiful, but beautiful all the way to London. The telephone rang for them incessantly.
is it? Which one do you want? Speak up, young man. How do you think I can bloody help you if I can't bloody hear you?" Bestepapa made a distinctly unhelpful face. "Ah. You want Marina. Well, you'll have to call back, we're about to have dinner." He finished with his antidote to lecherous pursuit: "She does have children, you know."
Kitty thought the routine was riotously funny. Her mother and her aunts did not.
Her mother said, "You know, Papa, you can't keep us here forever."
"But I can try," he answered. "You're safe here."
One out-of-wedlock baby born to his eldest teenage daughter was quite enough for him. Kitty saw it in the grim set of his mouth as he hung up the phone.
"Why is she crying now?" he asked her grandmother, who was stroking her mother's shuddering back as Kitty watched from the hall.
"She is sad, Harald," Bestemama answered, always with Scandinavian simplicity.
"Well, what does she have to be sad about, woman?! She is beautiful and she has this one, and the other two . . ." He motioned angrily in Kitty's direction. "Give her a gin and tonic, and let's be done with the tears. Exhausting stuff, all of this crying."
Marina flashed him a look of sodden fury.
"Come on, you," he said to Kitty. "I've had enough of this. Let's take Ibsen for a walk in the bluebell woods."
Ibsen was his mongrel, fast as a blade. His sleepy-eyed demeanour belied a sly murderous instinct. The farmer at the top of the lane crossed himself when he saw him.
"Do I have to wear shoes, Bestepapa?" Kitty said.
"No. It's good to harden up your feet for the summer."
He loped out of the front door, sighing as his hip gave a twinge of protest. Kitty skittled out after him like a shadow.
"What are you reading at school?" he asked her. She was in the third-form reading group, though she was in the juniors.
"Go Ask Alice
," Kitty said. "It's about a teenage drug addict."
"No lovely Fitzgerald? No Steinbeck?"
"I think they're trying to warn us against perilous ways," she said, rolling her eyes to indicate that she thought perilous ways were beneath her.
"I had an aunt who was a drug addict in Sweden. Well, actually a pair of aunts. Opium smokers the both of them, raddled their brains . . . Never understood it myself. I'd much rather have a lovely gin and tonic any day."
"So would I," Kitty said.
"That's the stuff." He leaned on his stick, and they walked in warm silence up to the woods, Ibsen hungrily regarding the chickens, who gazed at him, their black eyes sharp like stones.
Hay House was the very centre of Kitty's universe. She grew up with the fields in her eyes and the woods in her nose. Her mother said Hay was her Never Never Land, and why would she ever need somewhere else? A house with a mortgage, and a roof that might one day fall in? Kitty thought it sounded horrible, and understood her mother's choice to stay at Hay in their whitewashed cottage in the garden with the yellow roses that hugged the outside wall, falling asleep under a roof that was as sturdy as their Irish nanny, Nora.
Kitty's brother and sister, Sam and Violet, were twins. They had a different father. Theirs was a magician called Barry. Kitty's was the husband of someone who wasn't her mother and his name was Mr. Fitzgerald.
She heard the grown-ups say her mother was his kept woman, which didn't make sense to Kitty, because he hadn't kept her. He paid for Kitty's school, and sent her vast amounts of pocket money which she never knew what to do with.
Her mother called Mr. Fitzgerald her "one great big love." Their affair began when she was very young but because he absolutely couldn't marry her (the contributing factor being Mrs. Fitzgerald, a solid pre-nuptial agreement, and the iron grip of the Vatican on his conscience), he was perfectly happy when she gave birth to Kitty (Mrs. Fitzgerald was unable to have babies) and because of having "pots of money" (said in a whisper) he was perfectly happy to give her mother some of it.
It was an arrangement that worked, at least for them. Kitty read Daddy Long Legs and thought it might be about her. She was compelled by shadowy, mysterious men; in particular, detectives.
When she watched her favourite programme, Bergerac, on television, she couldn't decide whether she wanted him to be her father, or kiss her passionately, as they chased criminals together. It was what Bestepapa called "a conflict of interest."
Nora came into Kitty's life when she was six months old, and her mother had banged the door shut on her affair with Mr. Fitzgerald. Her mother said Nora saved her life at this time. She did not say how but Kitty knew it must be true, because Nora was the kindest person in the world and very tolerant. Her mother made Nora laugh mostly, but when she made her angry, by having "FANCIES," such as, "Nora, I think we should all go and live in the medina in Marrakech," or, "Nora let's give the children a firework party just because it's Monday, and they do hate Monday," Nora went silent and pursed her lips and refused to leave her room. Her mother left flowers outside in the hall and made butterscotch Angel Delight to curry Nora's favour. In general this worked.
When her mother ran off with Barry the magician and married him after three weeks, Nora was so angry she didn't address one single word to Marina for a whole month. Kitty knew this was torture, because Nora's silence was more powerful than any shouting, or the infinitely preferable quick sting of a smack. When she was spectacularly bad, within five minutes she wished she hadn't been, because to be put in Nora's Coventry for fifteen minutes was to sit in a cold damp room with no light. Kitty was very well behaved.
Nora was tiny like Tinkerbell, with steel-blue eyes and the softest earlobes you would ever touch. She was exceedingly good at crossword puzzles and even better as a secret keeper. Unlike her mother, who couldn't keep a secret to save her life, though she tried.
Kitty never saw Nora cry, not even when their dog Pelly died. She grew quiet instead. When they went to smart places, she wore pearls and a splash of Ma Griffe and navy-blue jumpers from Marks & Spencer with brown slip-on shoes. She said they were practical. Her mother sometimes called her "the husband." "I don't know," she said when someone asked her something. "You'll have to ask the husband--she rules this roost." Kitty sort of knew that this was true.
Sam and Violet were seven years younger than Kitty, who didn't count them in the grand scheme of things, because she thought them babyish and beneath her, in the way that older children do.
Her mother met Barry the magician on a rainy day at Kitty's friend Bella's sixth birthday party in Shropshire. She was married to him for one year. He had brown velvet eyes, a thirst for whisky, and was always broke. His final trick was to leave her mother with a great bellyful of twins. When Sam and Violet were born, he joined the circus and Kitty's mother said she couldn't cope with his "wandering ways." In the end, he went off with a woman lion tamer named Lou with strong-woman thighs. Her mother snorted whenever Lou or her thighs were mentioned.
Sam and Violet's childhood was from a Victorian children's book. They went to nursery and finger-painted and sang, appearing neatly before supper in the big house, scrubbed and sweet, their round faces a canvas for the shower of kisses poured forth by the grown-ups. Kitty was allowed to have supper at the big table, and they ate in the playroom. Bestepapa thought babies and small children were tiresome, and complained often that girl babies shrieked like fishwives. He said, "They're all right in small measures, but definitely small."
Bestepapa adored Nora, and was the only person that dared to question her on salacious matters; the rest of them feared her wrath too much.
"Have you had lovers, Nora?" he asked one night, slurping his oxtail stew with marathon gulps.
Everyone held their breath waiting for the tight-lipped-Nora rage that was bound to follow.
Nora smiled a slow, secret smile.
"Ooh yes, Mr. Larsen, of course I have."
This was news to Kitty. She imagined Nora a sacred vessel that none had sailed in. She envisaged an anonymous manly hand, creeping swarthily through Nora's steely curls. It made her feel anxious.
"And how many lovers have you had?" Bestepapa's eyes, bright and Arctic-blue, beamed into her.
Bestemama started to cough, and asked whether anyone thought it was hot.
Nora fanned her hand airily.
"I'm never hot, Mrs. Larsen. Going back to your question, Mr. Larsen, which is obviously not one for small company, I'd say yes. Then I'd tell you to mind your own beeswax. All right?"
Bestepapa roared with laughter.
"Good show," he said. "Good show."
Nora smiled again her foreign, girlish smile, and Kitty was plagued by thoughts of her in amorous clinches with every man in the village.
Before she went to bed Kitty was allowed to watch half an hour of television with Nora in her little sitting room. Nora was the programme dictator. She liked videos from the National Geographic
and things about history. Kitty thought Nora was the cleverest person she knew.
"Nora?" Nora had painted her nails maroon, and Kitty knew this was new evidence of her femme fatale status.
"You're not planning to run away, are you?"
"Oh, no imminent plans. I'll tell you when I am. If Sam and Violet give more trouble like they did tonight over bedtime, I may."
"No, but you're not going to run off with Gareth Jackson from the farm, are you? Because I think he likes you. When he talks to you he goes bright red like a big fat sunburnt bum."
"Is that what you think?" Nora's eyes twinkled.
"No. I'm going to stay and look after you lot till you're big, if you haven't sent me to an early grave."
She smiled, and wiping the frown from Kitty's forehead with a finger, said, "Oh you've got your mother's imagination, that's for sure."
Kitty loved being told she had the traits of her mother, even if they were small.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Playing with the Grown-ups by Sophie Dahl. Copyright © 2008 by Sophie Dahl. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.