'Yes, I'm posh, and Tess was born in Bethnal Green in the East End of London.'
'So she's a c.o.c.kney, right?'
'Good heavens, Dr Riley, aren't you clever to know that?'
'Yeah, my general knowledge is spectacular. I could take on any kindergarten kid and very likely win.'
'You're modest, too.'
'You're feeling better now you took that aspirin?'
'Yes, I am much better, since you ask.' She sounded quite surprised to think she should be feeling better. 'Thank you very much indeed for looking after me.'
'It was my pleasure, ma'am.'
I saw she'd put her rock up on the dash.
'So now, about that rock,' I said. 'You open up your door and then you pitch it out real hard.'
'Professor Riley, you ain't nothing but a spoilsport,' she retorted, mimicking my accent and sounding like a British female version of Huckleberry Finn.
'Yeah, that's right. But now you listen up. The airport cops find rocks or other items which could be used as weapons in your baggage, you'll find yourself in trouble. People have been shot for less.'
'I can't believe the airport police would shoot me for smuggling out a pebble.'
'Maybe, maybe not, but I sure wouldn't rile them, anyway.'
'The police aren't armed in the UK, you know.'
'You're kidding me.'
'They don't carry firearms unless they're in a siege or something.'
'It would not be wise to take that rock.'
'Okay, okay, you win.' She opened up the door and pitched her pebble. 'Tess and I, we made a picnic. There are cans of c.o.ke and Dr Pepper in a cooler. Maybe you could go and have a rummage in the boot and get a couple out? Why are you grinning, Pat?'
'You belong in Downton Abbey, Lady Rosie.'
'Yeah, Professor Riley, I sure do.' She glanced at me and smiled. 'Well, I done told you I was posh.'
'Did you get to read Ben's book?' I asked her as we hit the highway to drive back to Red Wing. This ride was something else. It flew along the blacktop. It would eat up the sixty or so miles we had to travel inside of an hour easily. I could have driven it all day and through the night.
'Yes, most of it,' she said.
'What do you think?'
'It's good. It's very readable, and he tells a strong, involving story. I can see why lots of people like it. At first, I wondered if it would be just a lightly-fictionalised account of a poor boy from the boondocks growing up and going off to college, making something of his life in spite of his pathetic mother and revolting father, but it's much more than that. I hope his real parents weren't as ghastly?'
'Ben's folks were great. Dirt poor, but they were lovely people, warm and always generous with what they had, and very kind to me.'
'Well, I suppose it's fiction?'
'Yeah, he made it up.' I didn't tell her Ben had painted a living, breathing, all-too-real portrait of my father. But not of my mother the woman in the novel was a s.e.x-crazed idiot who drank and wh.o.r.ed and let her kids go hungry and was nothing like my mother. Ben would not have dared to write a word about my mother. He knows I would have punched him in the head.
Or maybe not, because I don't do stuff like that.
I'm not my father, after all.
'How are you feeling now?' I asked, my flesh still scorched, still burning from the imprint of her arms around my neck.
'Much better, thank you,' she replied.
'You're still in pain?'
'No, the aspirins did the trick. I'm not in pain at all.'
Stop it, stop it, stop it.
I pushed my poor stubbed toe against my shoe to make it hurt, to feel the pain, to distract me from the other pain, the pain of Charlie and now the pain of Pat.
I do not, cannot, must not like this man.
I wanted to go home. I wanted to be back in the UK, away from this this foreign married father, this most unlikely, most unsuitable of men. I wanted to go back to the apartment, to hide inside my room and yet I didn't.
I wanted most of all to be with Pat.
We left the Mercedes in a parking lot then went into the cafe where we found Ben and Tess. She looked zonked out but happy, probably because she'd made her plastic melt again. She was surrounded by at least a dozen carrier bags.
'Good time in Winona, guys?' asked Ben, who must have been working all the time we were away, if the half dozen empty coffee mugs and side plates full of crumbs meant anything.
'Yeah, it was okay,' said Pat indifferently. As well he might, I thought. He'd probably been bored out of his mind. I hoped he wouldn't say I'd hurt my foot. I didn't want them all exclaiming over me and Tess telling me to take my trainer off, to let them have a look and all that stuff.
'Rosie?' Tess was looking at me curiously.
'Yes, I had a lovely time,' I told them, nodding like an idiot and smiling through my many kinds of pain.
'Yes, Ai had a lovely taime,' she mimicked. 'Ooh, so what have you been doing, then?'
'We saw Sugar Loaf,' said Pat. 'We hiked a trail.'
'We could see for miles and miles across the valley, all along the river,' I continued stupidly. 'We should have had binoculars because the visibility is excellent today.'
'What did I say when you and I first met you British and your meteorology? The visibility is excellent today. You must have had a ball.'
Ben grinned then winked at me. You really ought to sort that tic, I thought. One day you're going to wink at a policeman or a steroid-addled gangster and you'll get your head kicked in.
'Tess, what did you buy?' I asked.
'Three pairs of boots for me for winter and some loafers and some Oxfords for my husband,' she replied. 'All his shoes are rubbish. Or rather he's a shoe-free zone. He's got a hundred pairs of manky trainers, a load of sad old flip-flops and almost nothing else. As for his tartan shirts and chain store jeans ...'
She'd noticed, then.
'... now he's a famous novelist, he needs to be more stylish and look like he's successful. So next week I'm going to buy him loads of decent clothes and also take him to an upscale barber, sort his hair out. I'll restructure him.'
'Mercy me,' said Ben.
'You won't know yourself,' said Pat and then he started laughing and it was the s.e.xiest, the most attractive sound I'd ever heard in all my life.
I was in deep trouble, obviously.
I told Ben no, I wasn't coming up to get a coffee. I had stuff to do.
I let him exercise his wit at my expense for maybe thirty seconds, tell me once again that as a full professor I didn't need to teach at all, let alone grade students. I could hole up in a cosy laboratory with a bunch of other smarta.s.s geeks, get on with my research ...
I said goodnight.
As I drove to my apartment in my mobile trash can man, I missed that Merc already, it had been some ride I put on some Gershwin, my favourite composer, the guy who wrote the soundtrack of my life.
Lexie always teases me for liking old-style music. She says I was born fifty years too late. But when I listen to Rhapsody in Blue or 'S Wonderful, the music takes me someplace I can lose myself, forget myself, stop being me, and sometimes that's exactly what I need to do.
Now I had to get away from Rosie as well as from myself. But when I put on Rhapsody in Blue, she strolled into my head. She took my hand and led me to that special place where nothing matters, nothing hurts, where there's no darkness in the soul, where everything is light.
I thought: am I in trouble.
'I guess we ought to take you to the hospital,' said Ben, looking at my bruised and bloodied foot. 'You need an X-ray.'
They'd noticed I was limping, even though I tried to hide it. They insisted I should show them what I'd done. Tess had got my foot up on a stool and taken off my trainer so now I was Exhibit A. 'Rosie, honey, what a mess,' she said. 'The nail's split right across and all this blood is coming from the nail bed.'
'Jolly well observed, Nurse Tess.'
'I bet it's agony.'
'Yes, it's just a little sore.'
'Your whole foot is swollen.'
'But that's the histamine reaction, isn't it?'
'I suppose it must be. Do you think your toe is broken?'
'No!' I shook my head emphatically. 'I can move it, even though it hurts, and if I'd broken it, I'm sure I'd know.'
'I think it's like Ben says. You need to go to hospital and get it all checked out. I'll take you to the local A and E.'
'I don't want to go to hospital!'
If they took me to a hospital, if we had to go to A & E, or whatever they call it in the USA ER and I had to hear those sounds and see those sights and smell those smells again, I knew I'd have hysterics. I'd become a sobbing, whimpering mess and everyone would think I'd lost my mind.
I don't do hospitals.
'There's no need to go to A and E,' I told them. 'I'll just slob around for a few days then I'll be fine.'
'You'll tell us if there's any problem, if the pain gets any worse?'
'I'll tell you, honestly.'
'You'd better, Rosie.' Tess got up. 'I'll find some antiseptic, clean this up and then I'm going to make some chicken soup.'
'You'll regret you stubbed that toe,' said Ben. 'Tess, do you have a packet mix for soup? Or are you fixing to head out there with your little hatchet, knock some unsuspecting chicken on the head?'
'Why don't you shut up?' Tess threw a cushion in his face.
'You should be aware that violence is the response of undeveloped minds, babe,' he replied and threw it back.
All Sunday and all Monday, I hobbled round the place like some old crone, trying not to hit my poor bashed toe on anything.
The bruises soon came out and my whole foot turned black and purple, green and red and indigo and yellow. My heart was hurting, too. So I spent a lot of time in bed, where I ached and felt extremely sorry for myself and listened to the gloomiest, most miserable music I could find.
Tess went to Target, bought a chicken, boiled it up, dismembered it and brought me bowls of home-made chicken soup with greyish, gluey lumps and cartilage and bones in it and sat there while I ate it. So soon I felt much worse.
When I was little and not feeling well, my mother made tomato soup with croutons a hug in every spoonful. This was purgatory in every swallow.
But it must have done the trick because by Tuesday I was getting better. Or at least my toe was getting better. I was trying to ignore my heart, which thumped against my chest and tried to scramble up my windpipe every time the phone or doorbell rang. I told myself to stop being so silly, that I was far too old to have a crush on anyone especially a married father anyone.
As for my foot the swelling had gone down. The bleeding stopped. As long as I wore sandals, I found I could forget my mangled toe and broken nail. 'Yes, I'll come out tomorrow,' I told Tess while we were having breakfast. 'I want to see F. Scott Fitzgerald's house.'
'Oh, there are half a dozen of them, not just one, and they're all well just houses, nothing special,' said Tess dismissively. 'Of course, his lordship thinks they're holy shrines. He made me read that book, what is it called?'
'Anne of Green Gables?'
'No, that Gatsby thing. I've never been so bored in all my life. Ben says it's fantastic, but it's just about some nasty people having a bad time. So, anyway I thought we might go and have a facial and maybe get our nails done? That'll be a lot more fun than looking at old houses where some weirdo alcoholic used to live. I'm going to the shops this morning, can I get you something?'
'No, I don't need anything at all,' I said. That's unless you can deliver Patrick Riley gift-wrapped, I added to myself.
'I'll be back for lunch, then. There's loads more chicken soup wants eating up.'
'Maybe you could freeze some?' I suggested hopefully. 'I'll pour some into Tupperware containers, shall I, stick it in the freezer?'
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