Daisy and The Chalet Woman (Part One)
My friend Kati is an evangelical smoker. This is not because of a death wish or lack of will power but because, she says, being of Russian heritage she has an inbuilt genetic resistance to the concept of public health. She is fortunate, though her lungs are not, that she works from home as a translator and writer, so her human right to emphysema has never been compromised by stupid petty bourgeois legislation.
I rarely visit Kati at her house. Apart from the fear for my own internal organs, there are the hours that have to be spent afterwards washing my body, my hair, my clothes, and even the contents of my handbag, to make them tolerable to anyone’s nostrils. Kati and I usually meet in town for coffee or, if either of us has been paid recently, for lunch. These are not tranquil occasions. Kati’s hands are nervous and irritable without a filter tipped companion, and her eyes make fervid dashes for the door between each nicotine starved breath. Eventually Kati takes pity on her body parts and the whole ensemble troops out for an inhaled fix which will sustain them for about fifteen minutes. I never feel deprived of Kati’s company during these interruptions; the song of conversation may be paused, but the melody of stale cigarette smoke lingers evocatively on.
Kati is in her late fifties now. Her husband Mike is thirty-two. Of course he is frequently mistaken for her son, which delights her beyond measure: ‘That people think I could have created anything so transcendently beautiful!’ Kati has never had children of her own, feeling that although she’d never hurt one, and it’s possible to get very fond of other people’s, life is really too short for the time and effort required to rear one exclusively.
About six weeks ago I had a call from Kati inviting me to lunch at her house. I hesitated, not only because of the passive smoking, but because Kati does not cook. Mike’s the chef, and it was obvious from what she said that he wasn’t going to be there.
‘Do you want me to bring anything?’
‘No, sweetie. Don’t be afraid. They’re doing three for two on the deli counter at Sainsbury’s. It will be untouched by my own fair hands.’
I took a bottle of wine (not that Kati is ever short of a bottle of wine) and arrived on her doorstep just after noon on the appointed day. She and Mike live in a large terraced house within sight of the city walls. It was an unfashionably located wreck when they bought it. Now it is a fashionably located one. DIY is another concept which defeats Kati.
I stood on her cracked, weed-strewn forecourt and pressed the tasteless plastic doorbell. Everyone else in the street has smartly painted wooden doors and polished brass knockers and numbers. Kati and Mike’s front door is a bubbled glass 1970s treasure and they have yellowing melamine numbers screwed onto the wall. A thick, faded, stripey curtain hangs inside the door. Kati says it keeps the drafts out, and she doesn’t like people being able to see in past the bubbles.
She opened the door, cigarette in hand. ‘Hi sweetie. Hope you’re hungry. It was three for two on patisserie as well.’
I picked my way along Kati’s bald, litter-and-cat-hair-strewn brown carpet and into the lounge/dining room. The carpet stopped at the door; Kati and Mike made a brief stab at home improvements when they first moved in and stripped and stained the floorboards in this room. The rest of the house remains pretty much as it was, not having previously been decorated since the seventies. It always smells a little bit of must, a little bit of damp, a little bit of cat, and overwhelmingly of cigarettes. That day being a fine day, Kati had ventured to open the window which looked out onto the back yard, so at least the left over smoke wasn’t stinging my eyes.
The cat was on the dining table investigating the little plastic deli pots.
Kati waved her cigarette at it. ‘Bugger off, cat.’
I’ve never heard it called by name. I asked Kati once what it was called and she said ‘Felix, sweetie. They’re always called Felix. Every cat I’ve ever had has been called Felix.’
‘But it’s a girl.’
‘You think it bloody cares, dear?’
The cat reluctantly disembarked and stalked off into the kitchen. We sat at the table and I helped myself to hummus and taramasalata and pitta bread and olives and assorted concoctions involving couscous and pasta. There was a bag of ready washed mixed leaves and a brand new bottle of Newman’s Own French dressing. Kati poured generous glasses from an ice cold bottle of Pinot Grigio.
I was worried. The invitation itself was out of character, and the provision of anything more than a lump of cheese and a stale roll was beyond experience. And Kati had put her cigarette out before we sat down.
‘How’s the book going?’ I asked. Kati is working on a new translation of Mary Poppins into Russian.
‘Fine. Fine. They keep asking me what I’m going to do with supercalidoodahbuggerfishcakes and I keep telling them, it’s not in the bloody books.’
She sat, stroking her wine glass, not eating, not smoking, just looking out of the window at the chaos that was her back yard.
I put down my pitta bread. ‘OK. What’s going on?’
She continued stroking her wine glass.
‘Mike’s got a daughter,’ she said.
‘Mike’s got a daughter. She’s seventeen. Her name is Daisy.’
‘Mike’s got a daughter?’
She’s seventeen and her name is Daisy.’ Kati sighed, gave up and lit a cigarette. ‘He was fifteen, on holiday at Butlin’s with his mum and his little brother and whatever boyfriend his mum was with then. It was his first experience.’
‘And… he never knew?’
Kati shook her head. ‘No idea.’
‘But surely the girl…her family…’
Kati gave me a look of impatience. ‘Come on. Mike’s never gone for anyone his own age. It was the woman who cleaned the chalets. He went back to get his beach ball.’
I pushed my plate away. ‘Jesus Christ, Kati.’
Kati blew smoke with vigour. ‘You can see why she didn’t say anything. She already had two kids. She’d have lost her job with no reference. She was a single parent - she couldn’t afford to lose her reputation as well as her income.’
‘So why now? And how did she trace him? And how does he know…how can he be sure…?’
‘DNA test. He’s definitely the daddy. The girl’s been asking who her father is. The other kids’ dad was Chinese, so it was kind of obvious she wasn’t from the same tree. As for tracing him…Chalet Woman knew his name and where he was from. They had that much conversation, and Leighton Buzzard’s not that big a place. She hired a private detective and they soon picked up the trail.’
‘What does she want?’
Well that,’ said Kati, ‘is the fucking question.’