The Empty House

“So, how was Suffolk?” 

Chloe was still busy taking off the multiple layers of wool, technical fabrics and reflective gear that enabled her to cycle into central London from her flat in a hipster enclave some way to the east. Mathilde, already seated at the tiny table in a corner of the cramped and somewhat steamy Bloomsbury café, found herself wondering, not for the first time, about her old friend: her ability to manoeuvre in these small spaces without knocking things over, the fact she was still as slim as she had been when they were both at school, the self-confidence underpinning that casual, unabashed imprecision.

“Norfolk, actually” said Mathilde. “North Norfolk. Right up on the coast.”

“Skinny decaf flat white, not too hot, and can I have a gluten-free flapjack, and is there somewhere I could put this?” 

The waitress cradled Chloe’s various belongings in her arms like cherished infants and turned her gaze pointedly to Mathilde.

“Strong latte, please. Thank you.” Mathilde’s coat was hung over the back of her chair. She worried that it was in someone’s way, although it probably wasn’t.

“Sorry, yes, Norfolk,” said Chloe. “I knew that. Rupert’s got family there, right?”

“Dead family. There are whole churchyards up there bursting with them. Unfortunately, the ancestral home was redeveloped — ‘redeveloped’ in the sense of being flogged off, knocked down and made into that ghastly thing that won the RIBA prize, you know the one I mean — so we stayed in a hotel. It was nice enough, even though we were the youngest people there by at least three decades. The breakfasts were enormous, which the boys obviously enjoyed.”

“Oh wow, great!” Chloe’s face, ostentatiously free of makeup, beamed luminous positivity in the general direction of her old friend. “That’s amazing!”

“It was good to get away. Rupert was on the phone a lot, but for once he didn’t get called back to work, so that was something. We went on various excursions — old houses, big houses, that sort of thing. Old churches, too. Sam and Toby insisted on going swimming in the sea, which was nice for Rupert — he had done the same thing when he was little, you see.”

“Incredible! Wow, that must have been really special for all of you!” 

Chloe had hoped, as it happened, to move the conversation swiftly on to more Chloe-centred content — her forthcoming presentation before the parliamentary committee, her training for the triathlon, and of course the granular detail of her never-ending divorce — but there was something in Mathilde’s face that made her pause for a moment. 

“It was special, right? I mean, like you had a good time?”

Mathilde cradled her mug of latte between her long-fingered, rather weathered hands, as if taking part in some sacerdotal rite, and stared vacantly at the smooth taupe surface of the coffee, deciding what to say.

“It must have been so cool to have some time together as a family, right?”

“There was a thing that happened.”

Read the rest of this entry »