Aliki, the rich aristocratic Greek-turned-English woman whose friendship we were cultivating, gave Ariadne – Natvar’s charming little blonde daughter – a yellow tee shirt. It was too big, and I think that’s how I got it, a pale yellow tee shirt, brand new. Valuable. Anything brand new was valuable.
We were living in a furnished apartment off Sloane Square, an unstylish cheap apartment with a stylish, expensive address. Again, Natvar had managed this real estate feat – finding a cheap place at an address that assumed you were rich.
It was our second address in London. The first one was in Kensington, not a posh part of town. It was the spacious apartment they were living in when I arrived from Athens, a few days before Christmas, leaving a mound of unfinished business behind me, but convinced that everything would be easier and better in London. This move from Athens to London was what was needed. It had to be the right next step.
And in the Kensington apartment I did have my own room, a real room, and there was a kitchen you could sit down in. They didn’t meet me at the airport though, after all the lucsiousness on the phone, the honeyed persuasion urging me to come. They did not meet me and the walk from the subway station on the snowy sidewalk, carrying heavy suitcases, was not glamorous. I arrived feeling very ordinary, not the star I had been on the phone. And they took me in and we stood in the kitchen drinking tea, awkwardly trying to revive the enthusiasm of the phone calls and Natvar said sternly, “Don’t think you won’t have to work. London is expensive.” “Of course,” I assured him. “Of course.”
We moved to the Sloane Square place a few months later after the Kensington place was broken into, the front door smashed when Mark – the third member of our reduced family – came home one afternoon, and Natvar now in pitched battle with the landlord over who should pay, me writing long letters on his behalf about why we will not pay, making empty threats with complex sentences, the only weapon at our disposal besides Natvar’s rage.
The second place, the Sloane Square place, has two bedrooms: one for Mark and Natvar, and one for Ariadne. That’s okay of course. Marta can sleep on the couch, keep her clothes in this closet. Natvar opens the door of the empty closet and explains with a wave of his hand how I can fill the shelves here and hang my things there – he is smiling and happy, we have a new place, this Sloane Square address, and he tweaks my ear, calls me “Murtz” and I smile with the pleasure of his attention. The only response any of us gives to his happiness is to mirror it and make it last as long as possible.
At one end of the new apartment is the living room, at the other end the kitchen – both spacious – and connecting them is a straight corridor opening onto two bedrooms and two bathrooms, not so spacious. There is no natural light in the corridor. The best room is the kitchen because it’s big and the table is made of blonde wood and it feels light in there -- even hip and with it, a kitchen other up-to-date Londoners might have.
It is better here than when we lived together in Greece. I leave every morning now for my job and return in the evening. We only have to be together in the evenings and on weekends. And I am bringing in money.
I think that I am happy, that this is what I want, to be with Natvar, Mark and Ariadne, to make a good life with them.
My parents and two sisters don’t know where I am. When we lived in Greece, although my mother didn’t know exactly where I lived, she got the address of Natvar’s brother from Natvar’s ex-wife, and she sent me things, little parcels. A cotton skirt once. That I wore. Something new. Valuable.
Now my mother does not know I am even in England. We are more invisible than ever. This too is good.
My mother told us stories – me and my sisters – in the many times when my father was not present – about her growing up: the farm in Depression-era British Columbia, the one-room schoolhouse, the six brothers and sisters, the capable if unsentimental mother, the educated but angry father with his library of French, German and English leatherbound books. I grew up familiar with this landscape though I never actually saw it. It was not a happy place, this place of her stories, but I did not think of it as an evil place. Just a place I was glad I did not have to live in.
She didn’t tell these stories when my father was present. It was rare to be with both of them at the same time. There was always a tense silence between them, at the very best it dissolved into teasing, a little joke, a brief elbow-dig. But these moments of a shared joke were only moments and always had the feeling of a respite, like a held breath released for a second. When they were in the same room they didn’t talk to each other, not about pleasurable things. If they were in the living room together each might be reading. But even this was rare. They were usually in separate rooms, or separate places – my father in the city, my mother in the country.
I see a weekend. So my father is home. My mother in the kitchen, standing, making lunch. There is a saucepan or two on the electric stove, meat roasting in the oven. A green salad on the counter dressed with oil and lemon juice and a little sugar. Meals have three or four ingredients in our house. There are no sauces, no blends, nothing new. There are boiled vegetables, meat, potatoes, salad. Jello, ice cream or cookies for dessert. My mother prepares food without much mess or flourish. It’s a job she does.
Maybe my father enters the kitchen. Maybe it is Sunday morning and he has been up in the woods behind the house, raking brush, trying to get all the roughness out so that it will be a smooth park.
My father enters the kitchen cautiously. Perhaps he wants a glass of water. Maybe he is hungry, hoping lunch is almost ready or that he can sneak a quick snack.
“It smells very good in here!” he says with artificial cheer, testing the waters. How angry is she this time?
“Well, it’s not ready yet,” my mother replies without looking at him, angry, furious for a thousand reasons.
“Okay, okay, no rush,” my father says in a soothing voice, trying just to avoid her outburst. He too is angry, furious – why can’t she be nicer? He leaves the room.
I set the table in the dining room with its failed antique table that my father bought with so much fanfare a few years ago. The table is divided into two halves that are supposed to fit neatly and invisibly together, but the pegs are loose in the holes and there is always an unsightly opening between the two halves. We ignore it. We still treat it as a valuable table. My parents sit at opposite ends with us kids in the middle and nobody talks much except my father. He cannot bear the silence.