The day the world changed, Anna saw it happen. She had taken the Fifth Avenue bus to 57th Street, on her way across town to a breakfast meeting, when the first plane went over, unnervingly low, and she watched the inevitable impact from a distance. Fifteen minutes later, still dazed with disbelief, she and her publisher witnessed the second strike and the ensuing terrible implosion of the twin towers. In that brief space of time civilisation altered. Over three thousand people were lost, many of them vanished without trace. It was to be weeks before Anna would sleep properly again, months before she finally banished the dreams.
She was late with her book, which wasn’t going well. A trauma like this was the last thing that she needed. She would lie awake all night with a pounding heart, reliving, over and over, those harrowing images. In the early hours, as the light began filtering in, she would finally lapse into a fitful doze, only to be woken in what seemed like mere seconds by Sadie, demanding breakfast. Sometimes she just gave up and went back to her desk and tried to get on with her work. From her study window, at the top of the four-storey house, she could see a vista of flickering screens. The city that never sleeps was on overtime.
Paige, with her pragmatic lawyer’s mind, told her briskly that she was overreacting. It had been a catastrophe affecting the whole world; now it was time to put it on hold and get back to ordinary living. Too much brooding was simply not healthy, a way of letting the terrorists win.
‘Not possible,’ cried Anna, in despair. Her father had lived through far worse in his youth but throughout her own life she had always felt protected. It was going to take an almighty adjustment before things returned to normal, assuming they could.
‘That’s the trouble with you creative folk,’ said Paige in her down-to-earth way.
‘Meaning I’m some kind of spaced-out nut?’
‘No, just that you live in your own encapsulated world.’ Implying that Anna really ought to get out more. She was fast becoming a hermit.
But the book was like an albatross dragging her down; her imagination simply was not functioning. Not in any positive way; all she could come up with now verged on the sick.
‘Give yourself the weekend off and come with us to the country.’ Both Paige and Charles worked harder than most yet equally liked to play. Their house in Quogue was the epitome of good living but Anna couldn’t spare the time even for that.
‘A couple of days won’t hurt,’ Paige assured her, but Anna dared not ever relax. The tenuous thread of her seventh novel was threatening to disintegrate. And where would she be should that ever happen, with this expensive new piece of real estate to maintain? The movie money had proved a terrific plus but the financial commitment stretched way into the future. She was far too savvy to depend on another movie deal happening again. Living off one’s wits proved an endless treadmill and, for some reason she could not fathom, the books got no easier to write.
‘It is just that your standards improve,’ said Paige, but Anna refused to believe that.
‘Once it is finally finished and delivered,’ she threatened, ‘you’ll not be able to get rid of me at weekends.’ Tennis and barbecues and lounging around the pool. Cocktails with the well-heeled Hampton set, every sybarite’s dream. She and Paige had been friends since their student days, part of a very tight set. The sister, Anna occasionally reflected, that she’d always rather wished she might have had. Their lives had gone in divergent directions yet still, after almost fifteen years, they remained every bit as close. Paige, with her sharp mind and dynastic beauty, had captured the glorious Charles in their final year. No children (no time) but a brilliant marriage and a lifestyle that could not have been bettered.
‘Gotta go,’ said Paige, as ever in a rush. ‘Catch you again on Monday. Don’t overdo it.’
Sunday lunch with her father had become a sacred ritual, about the only time these days that Anna took trouble with food. She would ride the subway down to Tribeca and walk the last three blocks to his street, to the shabby but spacious family home in which she had been raised. These days it was looking well past its best, with cracks in the masonry and a sagging front stoop. The spindly plane trees cried out for attention and the neighbourhood overflowed with full garbage sacks. There were black kids playing in the street outside and they whooped with delight when they saw Anna.
‘Yo, Anna. How’re ya doin’, man?’
‘Good,’ she yelled, kicking back their ball. Many of them she had known since infancy; a few were her father’s pupils.
George Kovac, in his heyday, had been a world-class musician, solo violinist with the Philharmonic, feted, since the age of nineteen, on concert platforms all over the world. His exit from Poland had been sudden and dramatic; he had had to abandon everything, which meant more than just his money and possessions. Now, recently turned eighty and increasingly arthritic, he had relinquished his international career to teach the local children of the community. His pupils were from deprived backgrounds and without proper schooling; occasionally he discovered one with outstanding musical aptitude. George was a genius at coaxing out that talent, charging them only a pittance for tuition. Putting something back, was how he termed it. Better than sitting on his backside, simply growing old.
‘Your dad’s an inspiration,’ was the opinion of Anna’s friends, who would frequently make the trek downtown in order to seek his wise counsel. Shambling and craggy, with thick greying hair and eyes fast losing their power, he still remained an imposing figure who cared more for his neighbours’ wellbeing than for his own.
Today she was cooking her mother’s chicken paprika, ever a favourite with George. The pans in his kitchen were the ones her mother had used. Occasionally Anna would sneak in a replacement, knowing that he preferred things as they were. The house itself was steeped in memories as though time had stood still. Even the noise from the street outside was muffled by solid brickwork and the heavy drapes that hadn’t been dry-cleaned in years. The dust and aromas of several decades hung in this room undisturbed, as though Anna’s mother’s presence were still in the house. She had been a beautiful and inspired flautist who had died suddenly and unexpectedly. Now George spent his days, when not actually teaching, slumped in his decrepit easy chair. Like him, it was sagging and had shaped to his angular frame but he fretted if anyone chose to usurp it. It was all that remained of the old life, she supposed. Anna knew enough to leave it alone.
This Sunday, as always, she served lunch in the dining-room, the only time the room was ever used. The rest of the week her father fended for himself, eating in the kitchen standing up. Anna carefully folded the heavy hand-made lace cloth, relic of a distant age when the world had been at peace, and replaced it with a cheerful cotton one from Macys, more practical and easier to keep clean. She set the table with the tarnished silver that had been her mother’s only dowry. How little the two of them had had to set up home, yet the love that had lasted through the years burned as brightly since her death. George shuffled in and looked around with approval, then unlocked a display cabinet and selected two of the long-stemmed hock glasses they used for festive occasions. Ceremoniously he uncorked a bottle of wine, placing it on an antique silver coaster.
When Anna carried in the steaming casserole he sniffed appreciatively and virtually smacked his lips. He regularly went through this courteous little charade though she knew all too well that her culinary skills would never be in her mother’s class. Her mother, dead these eleven years, had been an exemplary housekeeper. Anna envied the love he still had for her, hoped that some day she might strike lucky and find something like it herself.
‘So tell me about the house,’ he said, once they were seated and served. Despite his pretended disapproval of the profligate way she was spending, he was secretly proud of his only child who had grown into such an independent spirit. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, was Anna’s philosophy, though her father devoutly believed in that rainy day. Carefully she detailed all the things she was doing, new furniture, new fittings, even some structural work. Nothing, it seemed, was she keeping from the old life. She was like an eager bride-to-be only doing it all on her own.
‘Your mother would not approve,’ he said, sadly shaking his head, though she saw from the twinkle in his eye that he was only teasing. She had always known, since her earliest years, exactly what she wanted, and putting money into property these days seemed the most sensible investment. Especially now, with the stock market on its uppers. There were endless reports on the financial pages of thousands of solid investors facing ruin. Yet her father couldn’t help worrying on Anna’s behalf; George, who had arrived in the States with nothing, had always been obliged to scrimp and save.
‘But that was then and this is now.’ She lived in quite different times. And, due to the excellent education he had given her, came from an altogether more affluent class. ‘The movie deal is just a bonus,’ she explained, ‘like a flukeish lottery win.’
He laughed and ruffled her hair with pride. ‘My daughter, the money maven,’ he said fondly. ‘Just be sure that you don’t overdo it. No point running to me when you go bust; I have very little put away.’
‘My regular earnings are something quite apart,’ Anna explained, not for the first time. ‘I promise you, I still have a savings account.’ She had loved the Lexington Avenue apartment, but moving to Madison was the ultimate dream. She had always wanted a house of her own and now, fortuitously, had achieved it.
The apple dumplings were another perennial favourite, then Anna cleared the table and tidied up. She made the coffee and carried it into the parlour where George was already settled with the papers. Occasionally she worried about him living here alone but he had been in this house all his married life and refused now to be uprooted. Although this quarter of lower Manhattan was no longer considered very safe, George remained one of its fixtures. Here, at least, he was known and respected, still a commanding force in the community. She trusted to the goodwill of his neighbours to let her know if ever anything should go wrong. As it was, they spoke several times a week and, on rare occasions, she even succeeded in luring him uptown. Since she had paid so much money for a house, his curiosity had been piqued. Not even at the height of his professional career had he earned such a sum.
They listened to a concert after lunch and idly discussed the week. Anna confessed that the book was dragging, that she found it increasingly hard to concentrate. She told him about the flickering screens, proof that her neighbours were sharing her disquietude. All over the city were new insomniacs, fearful of what might come next.
‘A lot of my friends are too scared to go out. Staying home has become the fashionable thing.’
George, who had seen his whole heritage destroyed, took each day as it came. His pleasure was derived from the simple things of life; his daily walk to the grocery store, his music, his chessgames, the children and, of course, Anna. He was inordinately proud of his talented daughter, had read each of her novels more than once. His sole regret was that her mother had not lived to witness the flowering of her wonderful talent.
The old grandfather clock in the hall chimed four. ‘Pa,’ said Anna, ‘I really have to go.’ She still had a mountain of domestic chores to deal with before she felt she could get back to her writing.
‘Take care, child,’ he said, seeing her to the door, then stood and watched her walk away until she turned the corner.
Rather than taking the subway all the way, Anna chose to walk from 42nd Street, instinctively averting her gaze from the gap in the skyline left by the missing towers. It was a blindingly hot November afternoon and, since she spent most of her time at a computer, she badly felt the need to stretch her legs. She had forgotten about the marathon. Even as late as this, almost sundown, some runners still straggled by in ragged clumps, cheered on by an enthusiastic crowd, many waving flags. It was like an endless street party, block by block; people in shirtsleeves came pouring out of their doorways, carrying glasses and yelling with zealous enthusiasm. The Stars and Stripes was everywhere, draped over buildings, on the hoods of cars, fluttering from lampposts and fire hydrants. The Times had published a full-page reproduction which was taped to the inside of countless windows. A strange, sad tribute to the thousands who had gone. A moment of unfamiliar patriotism.
By the time she reached home, Anna was exhausted; thirty-two blocks in this unseasonal heat. And yet the unaccustomed exercise had done her a power of good. Her skin was flushed, her eyes were bright and her muscles had a healthy tingle. She stood on the sidewalk, groping for her key, and felt the familiar pride of acquisition. The front of the building was still covered with scaffolding, from when they replaced the guttering and repainted the cream stucco façade, but the door itself was a work of art, solid oak with a black wrought-iron knocker. She had bought the place off a Japanese bank who had used it solely for corporate entertaining. When they suddenly relocated back to Tokyo, Anna had snapped it up at a bargain price. Here, in this much coveted district, 74th Street between Madison and Park, real estate values had long been sky-high, the more so since what was happening in the stock market. Scared investors were moving their assets fast into bricks and mortar and Anna, by pure luck, was already a jump ahead. This house represented all she had ever wanted. It made her feel positively grown-up.
She was at the computer, doing her daily stint, when Larry Atwood, her architect, walked in. Sometimes he got on her nerves with his free use of her key but he always explained that he hated to disturb her. Not that hearing his authoritative voice offstage wasn’t sufficient distraction. She could not resist popping down to see him as he handed out daily instructions to his men. There were four of them, working on separate shifts, and they seemed to have been with her for ever. She had managed to get them to turn down the radio but that didn’t deter them from whistling and guffawing. Or stopping for endless coffee breaks, even whole afternoons. They had knocked through the wall between kitchen and breakfast-room, to open up the space that she desired. And the original mouldings on the ceilings had been restored; the house was slowly reclaiming its elegant past. Sadie was in there, with dust on her fur, rubbing her beautiful head against their legs. She was constantly angling for attention, this cat. Anna picked her up and nuzzled her neck.
Larry, for once, was wearing a decent suit instead of his usual jeans and sturdy trainers. Off to a meeting at City Hall, he explained, to do with planning permission for another job. He was an outgoing, laughing man with mackerel eyes; Anna had known him since Yale. And, because of their long-time friendship, he was charging her less than he might. Despite her new-found prosperity, she was grateful.
‘Everything on schedule?’ she asked. As if.
Larry laughed and nodded. ‘Shouldn’t be too long now till we finish. I’m sure you can’t wait to be shot of the lot of us.’
Anna simply smiled and shrugged and put on a fresh pot of coffee. She knew her role in this all-male commune, would indeed be heartily relieved when they had gone. But she had to admit that their work was first-rate. Step by step, the formerly down-at-heel brownstone was being transformed into a magnificent home. She had lived here now for the past four months and the restoration work had at first seemed unending. She found herself camping upstairs on the upper floors, venturing down only when she knew that they had gone. But out of a cloud of brick dust and confusion, her dreams were taking on substance. Soon she would be able to show it off to her friends. She was dying to know what they’d think of this latest achievement.
‘When can I fix the house-warming party?’ she asked. ‘I don’t suppose there’s a chance that it might be inhabitable by Christmas?’
‘No,’ said Larry, calculating rapidly. ‘March, at the very earliest, I would guess.’
The breast cancer committee meeting was boring and painfully slow. Anna got home at a quarter after nine, wondering why she still bothered. Public awareness was all very well but these days she had far too much else on her plate. It dated back to her journalism days when she’d adopted the charity as a fighting cause. She had produced some impressive results in her time; now it was little more than an irksome chore. Mainly she disliked the overbearing chairwoman, a wealthy Sutton Place divorcee with delusions of grandeur. All they ever did these days was bicker and drink a particularly nasty sherry, of which it appeared she kept an endless supply.
‘I guess you’ve done your bit,’ sympathised Paige when Anna, armed with a restorative vodka, rang her that night for a moan. ‘They have nothing better to do, those women, than retail therapy and lunch.’
Anna, guilty at her lack of moral fibre, worried that she should not let them down.
‘Without me there, and the buyer from Barneys, I reckon they’d very soon come to a grinding halt.’
‘You’ve made your contribution,’ Paige reminded her. ‘Without you they would never even have got started. Plus you’ve got a book to finish. You can’t do everything at once.’
‘Maybe I’ll take a sabbatical,’ said Anna, not relishing the thought of having to broach the subject. Mrs Kaufman was a formidable woman who rarely stopped talking long enough to hear what anyone said.
‘Shall I write you a sick note?’ suggested Paige. ‘Asking if you can play hooky for a while?’
Anna smiled. ‘It’s a tempting thought.’ She looked at the pileup of reading she had to get through. Slack off for a moment and it overwhelmed her, like leaves at the beginning of fall. There were times when her life resembled an unmade bed and she didn’t know how to start straightening it. She was also on the committee of PEN, the international writers’ association, of which the AGM was imminent. It was getting too much, her head was spinning. With a further eight months to work on this wretched book.
‘What you really need is a vacation,’ said Paige. ‘I told you, you should have come with us to the country.’
Having freshened her vodka and scrambled some eggs, Anna stretched out in the living-room to catch up. The top two floors were more or less complete and this was the room she liked best. Comfortable off-white upholstered sofas set off the Botticelli flowered rug that she had picked up in the summer sales at half its original price. The handsome Roman blinds, which she had duplicated throughout, were in a neutral heavy linen which, though they would be a devil to keep clean, gave the whole place a feeling of summer brightness that never failed to raise her spirits, especially when, like now, she had come home late. She loved the house with the passion of new acquisition and often felt reluctant to go out at all. Everything in the world that she valued was here on these four spacious floors. Upstairs were her workroom and panelled library, next to her elegant bedroom and en suite bathroom. Occasionally she fantasised about pulling up the drawbridge and spending the rest of the winter here alone. She had always been satisfied with her own company, a reason for her continuingly single state.
Sadie, purring like a sewing-machine, draped herself over Anna’s knees and graciously allowed her to fondle her ears. Mainly what Anna was ploughing through was junk mail and periodicals, plus a pile of newspapers she hadn’t had time to catch up with. Habits died hard and she was still subscribing to several monthlies from her previous life – the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books as well as Publishers Weekly. There had been a time when she could fit it all in but right now her energy was sapped. Were she more strong-minded, she would cancel all subscriptions but then might run the risk of missing out. Now was not the time to sort things out; once the book was out of the way, she would try to tidy her life.
Sighing, she flicked through each wordy publication, pausing to browse the occasional feature; occasionally ripping one out. As she watched the pile of rejects grow, her spirits started to lift. At last, at almost midnight, she was through, with only the Yale Alumni Magazine left. There was rarely anything of much interest there these days but she could not always be sure. Skip an issue and she might miss some news, the death or advancement of one of her close contemporaries. And that would never do; Anna was very much a creature of habit. She skimmed through rapidly, planning a leisurely bath. The writing had gone well today, she felt herself slightly less pressured. Her irritation with the breast cancer committee gradually eased away. Paige was right, it was probably time to resign.
Shoving the somnolent Sadie aside, she put on a Schubert piano sonata that usually did it for her. Background music; her parents would not approve, but it bathed her overwrought nerves with exquisite balm. Paige was right, she took on far too much. She had cleared her life ruthlessly in order to write full-time and already it was silting up with more unnecessary clutter. Across the street the screens still flickered and the Stars and Stripes adhered grimly to the glass. Her appetite for this city was waning; even the dull roar of traffic invaded her space.
It was only then, on the brink of switching off the lights, that her eye was caught by the ad.
© Carol Smith 2003