Daisy and The Chalet Woman (Pt 3)
When she came back and the coffee had been delivered, I said, ‘What are you going to do?’
Kati didn’t answer.
‘It isn’t her fault she doesn’t like cats.’
Kati poured thick, dark coffee from the cezve. ‘I know.’
‘What’s she like otherwise?’
‘Like a girl who’s been brought up with pine scented toilets and fairy lights round the picture rail.’ Kati sighed. ‘It’s like having Tinkerbell to tea.’
‘And what does Mike make of her?’
She shrugged. ‘He’s besotted. Of course he is. She thinks the sun shines out of him. All her dreams come true. She’s found her dad and hey, he’s young, he’s good looking, a bit alternative. Wouldn’t know a polished gnome if it bit him.’ She sipped her coffee. ‘Only trouble is, he comes with the wicked stepmother. ’
‘Don’t be silly.’
‘It makes you wonder,’ Kati said, ‘exactly how things look to other people. I’ve always thought we made perfect sense, Mike and I. The woman with no children and the man looking for a mother who actually gave a shit. Unlike his own. But perhaps other people don’t see it like that.’
I said, ‘Perhaps they, like myself, are just the teensiest bit uncomfortable with the idea of you two as a mother and son with benefits.’
Kati laughed. ‘Sweetie, all erotic relationships are really some other sort of relationship, deep down. Just as all other relationships are really erotic relationships, underneath.’
‘Perhaps you should invite Chalet Woman to stay,’ I said. ‘Half a day with you and she’d have her daughter out of there on the next bus.’
‘How could you say such a thing?’ Kati asked, thoughtfully pouring the last of the coffee from the cezve.
A couple of days later, Kati’s number came up on my phone.
‘I want you to come to dinner.’
‘Kati, it’s a dreadful line. I thought you said you want me to come to dinner.’
‘Fuck off. Next Friday. Mike’s cooking.’
‘What’s the occasion?’
Kati said, ‘Daisy’s mum’s coming over.’
‘Bella, sweetie, Bella. As in donna. Bring a bottle.’
I took two, just to be on the safe side. I had a feeling I probably wouldn’t want to remember the evening.
I hadn’t been in the house since the arrival of the new cleaning regime, and the first thing I noticed was the smell. There was no cat. There was no smoke. There was the usual hint of must, but underneath it, subtle yet unmistakable, the distinctive scent of pine. I stood uncertainly in the hall, the hoovered carpet now proven to be a not unpleasant shade of chestnut. Overlaying the must and the pine was the inviting aroma of Mike’s boeuf bourguignon.
I had the same cold feeling I had experienced in the coffee shop, watching as Kati disappeared inside tendrils of smoke.
‘Go on through, sweetie,’ she said, behind me. ‘Musn’t keep them waiting.’
They were sitting together on the settee. Daisy and the Chalet Woman, legs neatly crossed and hands folded in laps. They were astoundingly pretty. Both had perfect oval faces, framed with identical shades of softly blonde, wavy hair. Their large, identical blue eyes were fringed with long lashes, their lips were full, their necks those of the best bred of swans. Immaculate French nails adorned long, delicate fingers, and I had no doubt at all that when they stood up, the legs of both would go up to their ear lobes.
They smiled and nodded.
‘I’ll take the wine,’ said Kati. She shoved me towards an armchair. ‘You sit down and make yourself comfortable, sweetie. Have a chat with Bella and Daisy. Back in a minute.’
I lowered myself into the chair.
‘Well,’ I said.
‘Have you come far?’
Chalet Woman shook her head.
‘Not too much trouble with the traffic?’
‘At least the rain’s held off.’
‘Goodness!’ I cried, craning my neck towards the kitchen. ‘Something smells nice!’
‘My dad’s a brilliant cook,’ whispered Daisy.
I turned back in astonishment. She was peering at me with those enormous blue eyes, through those unfeasibly long lashes.
‘Yes, yes, he is,’ I said enthusiastically. ‘He really is. Isn’t he?’ I asked Chalet Woman.
‘I wouldn’t know.’
We sat in silence.
Chalet Woman smoothed her skirt. ‘I gather you’re an old friend of Katarina’s.’ Her voice was rich and low, with a slight hint of the West Country.
‘Yes. Yes. Indeed.’
‘Before she knew Mike?’
‘Yes, although they seem always to have been together now. Can’t imagine one without the other.’
‘Right,’ said Chalet Woman.
Kati came in with a tray of full wine glasses. ‘Here we are. The Prosecco was on specials at Sainsbury’s.’ She beamed at us. ‘Isn’t this nice?’
Daisy glanced at Chalet Woman and whispered, ‘Only half a glass for me, please, Kati.’
Kati managed to keep hold of the tray. ‘Well, you just drink what you want, sweetie, and I’m sure one of us will finish it off for you.’
Mike, tall, dark, in his usual skinny t-shirt and jeans, came in from the kitchen. ‘Hi! Hi. OK? Everyone OK?’
‘Well now,’ said Kati, raising her glass. ‘Let’s have a toast. Mike?’
‘Yes,’ said Mike. ‘Let’s.’
Kati looked at him, then raised her glass even higher. ‘To Felix!’
‘What?’ said Mike.
‘Felix, sweetie. It’s Latin for happiness. Come on! Felix, everyone!’
‘Felix,’ we mumbled, and sipped our Prosecco.
‘Do you cook, Katarina?’ Chalet Woman asked.
‘No, sweetie, no, I don’t. Why would I, when I can watch my beautiful husband do it?’
Mike shifted his feet.
Chalet Woman smoothed her skirt again. ‘I find it very relaxing. And Daisy loves it.’ She looked at Mike. ‘Must be in the genes. It’s a great way to bond with kids. Daisy and I always have great fun, cooking together.’
‘My mother loved cooking,’ said Kati. ‘We hardly used to see her at Christmas. I think that’s probably why I don’t. We always rebel, don’t we, against what our parents do, as soon as we get the chance.’
‘I’ll just…’ said Mike. ‘The kitchen…’
Mike had put all his culinary artistry on display. The boeuf bourguignon was preceded by pan seared scallops, with the promise of an immaculately wobbled panna cotta to follow. We tippled our way through white and red Burgundy, and Mike flashed before our eyes the bottle of orange Muscat destined to accompany the panna cotta. Chalet Woman said, ‘Lovely to have a different wine with each course, Mike. And you can always Vac-u-Vin what you don’t drink.’
Kati said, ‘Not much call for that round here, sweetie.’
‘No,’ said Chalet Woman. ‘I suppose not.’
Kati held out through the scallops and the bourguignon, but in the recovery interval before the panna cotta she placed one hand lightly on Mike’s shoulder and fished the cigarette packet out of her pocket with the other. ‘Just a quick minute, sweetie, before pud.’ She smiled at Chalet Woman on the other side of the table, and gently fluttered her fingers against Mike's t-shirt.
The light was beginning to fade. I watched her make her way to the end of the yard, past the chipped old high level lavatory cistern she had once thought would make a unique Planter, should she ever discover what it was people Planted, and the garden bench with the back slats missing, which she had vaguely thought about repairing, painting green, and putting next to the Planter. I had never noticed before how the brick and concrete of the yard bleached the light of its depth, and how flat a figure looks without even its own shadow.
Mike stood up to collect plates. Daisy too scrambled to her feet. She had said virtually nothing throughout the meal, sipped a little of each wine, and rarely taken her eyes off Mike.
‘I’ll give you a hand,’ she whispered.
‘Oh no, it’s…well, if you don’t mind. Daisy.’
‘Of course not. Dad.’ She padded into the kitchen behind him.
Chalet Woman looked out of the window. ‘People often manage to do a lot with these old yards, don't they?’
I said, ‘Did you know Kati is translating Mary Poppins into Russian?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Daisy told me.’ She gave a bright smile. ‘I wonder what supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is in Russian?'
‘It’s nothing,’ I said. ‘It isn’t in the books.’
Rivulets of Burgundy irrigated my brain, sweeping words towards my mouth. ‘What is it that you want from Mike and Kati?’
She raised her head on its sinuous, muscular neck. ‘I don’t want anything. This is all about Daisy.’
‘Really?’ I asked.
She looked back out into the yard. ‘Do you know how much time I had actually spent with Mike before he came to see us the other week? About twenty five minutes. From the time he walked into that chalet from the time he walked out again.’ She glanced at me. ‘I assume you know the story?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘That’s not counting the odd minute I might have seen him on the days he didn’t forget his beach ball. I avoided him afterwards.’
‘I can imagine,’ I said.
She laughed. ‘No you can’t. You can’t imagine the kind of loneliness that makes it seem all right to seduce a fifteen year old boy. I’m assuming you’ve never tried bringing up two kids on your own with no family or anyone else to help you?’
‘No,’ I said.
She sighed. ‘I always told Daisy it was a holiday romance. That was all I told her. How do you explain to your daughter that in many people’s eyes her mother is a child abuser?’
‘Well,’ I said. ‘I’m sure that’s not…’
‘And all her life, I’ve known that one day, that wouldn’t be enough. That she would have to find out. And all her life, I’ve tried to put that day off. All her life, I’ve tried to be all the parent she needs. But I’m not.’ She gazed out at the yard. ‘When I realised she was determined to find him, I had to tell her. I had to tell her that her dad was younger than she was, when she was conceived. I couldn’t let her find that out for herself.’
‘Well,’ I said. ‘It doesn’t seem to have… she doesn’t seem to have been upset.’
She gave me a look of disgust. ‘Of course she was upset. My daughter’s a virgin. She doesn’t smoke, she barely drinks, I’ve done everything I could to make sure she didn’t end up crying her eyes out while she cleaned up other people’s holiday mess, feeling so lonely that…’ The delicate head quivered on its graceful stalk. ‘What do I want from Mike? I want him never to have walked into that chalet. I want him to have disappeared off the face of the earth. I want not to have been a practice run for the rest of his life, a life with someone who never tied herself down with kids and clean houses and who can spend all her time translating bloody Mary Poppins into Russian. I don’t want to know that I’m going to lose my daughter because yes, your friend is right, kids turn away from their parents as soon as they get the chance.’
‘Kati doesn’t want to take your daughter,’ I said. ‘And I’m sure Mike doesn’t either.’
‘They don’t have to want to. They just have to be here. They just have to be different.'
Through the window, I saw Kati coming back through the yard. The evening light had gathered its last strength, warmed by the red brick of the walls, reflected upwards by the flatness of the concrete. The yard and its occupant looked vibrant and alive.
‘Come on then, sweetie,’ Kati called to Mike from the back door. ‘Bring on the wibbly wobbly.’
When the last spoonful had been scraped, Daisy whispered, ‘That was brilliant. Dad. You ought to go on Masterchef. That was the best meal I’ve ever had.’
Mike looked fondly at his daughter. ‘Oh, I’m sure not. But thank you. Daisy.’
A soft flow of Muscat gently lapped at the parts of my brain Burgundy had not reached. ‘Oh, I bet your mum could give Mike a run for his money, Daisy.’ Kati looked at me, but the Muscat’s soft tongue would not cease. ‘I’m sure she’s a great cook.’
Daisy looked down at her empty plate.
‘After all,’ declared the Muscat, ‘we never really appreciate our mothers, do we?’
‘Coffee,’ said Kati. ‘Don’t you think?’
I do know that we opened both my bottles after that, and I have a vague memory of standing in the kitchen saying to Kati, ‘You can’t judge. You really shouldn’t judge,’ perfectly clearly, except that Kati was frowning and saying to someone behind me, ‘I better go in the taxi with her, they won’t make head nor tail of what she’s saying.’ When I woke up next morning, in my own bed, claggy with make-up, fully clothed but with my shoes off, there was a note on my bedside table. After a moment I focused on Kati’s handwriting: Et tu, Brute.
By the afternoon I was ready to phone her.
‘It’s not et tu at all,’ I said. ‘But sorry. Sorry. Sorry for the wine talk. Whatever it was.’
Kati said, ‘She and I had a conversation last night, after Mike and Daisy had gone to bed. And you’d been secured in a place of safety.’
‘Sorry. I said I’m sorry. How was your conversation?’
Kati said, ‘I know we’re never going to get rid of her. Daisy and Chalet Woman are part of our lives now. Mine and Mike’s.’
I smiled. ‘You’ll see it through together. You always do.’
‘Don’t be so bloody Pollyanna,’ she snapped. ‘This isn’t going to be easy. I’m going to have to go through the rest of my life with the original imprint.’
Kati said, ‘Twenty-five minutes, and after that he was never able to contemplate being with anyone other than an older woman.’
‘Oh,’ I said.
‘And those bloody necks. They’d better not come for Christmas. Might get mistaken for the goose.’
‘No,’ I said.
Kati said, ‘I don’t trust her. I don’t trust either of them. They’re both players, and both good at it. She had you fooled.’
‘But it’s Mike’s daughter. Whatever I think about it. I’m not going to give up because of it. I’m not going to raise the umbrella and sail off.’
She said, ‘It’s a question of working out the ground rules. The rules of combat.’
‘Kati, it doesn’t have to be…’
‘Like Bella doesn’t want Daisy to call me Kati. She feels it’s disrespectful from a teenager to an… older person. And she doesn’t want her to call me any variation on mother, obviously.’
‘So what is Daisy going to call you?’
Kati chuckled. ‘We agreed on Babu. It’s short for Babushka. Russian for grandmother.’
I was silent.
‘I’ll say this for Bella,’ Kati said, ‘she’s not bad on her family dynamics. Oh, and that cat round the corner has had another lot of kittens. I’ve put my name down for one, when it’s ready to leave its mother. I think we could do with a little Felix, don’t you, sweetie?’
And that’s another story.