When Richie Rossiter, once a famous pianist, dies unexpectedly, Chrissie knows that she must now tell the truth to their three daughters: their parents were never married.
Yet there is one more shock to come when Richie’s will is read. It seems he never forgot the wife and son he left behind years ago—Margaret, who lives a quiet life of routine and work, and Scott, who never knew his famous father.
Now two families are left to confront their losses and each other, and none of them will ever be the same.
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Looking back, it astonished her that none of them had broken down in the hospital. Even Dilly, who could be relied on to burst into tears over a shed eyelash, had been completely mute. Chrissie supposed it was shock, literally, the sudden suspension of all natural reactions caused by trauma. And the trauma had actually begun before the consultant had even opened his mouth. They just knew, all four of them, from the way he looked at them, before he said a word. They knew he was going to say, “I’m so very sorry but—,” and then he did say it. He said it all the way through to the end, and they all stared at him, Chrissie and the three girls. And nobody uttered a cheep.
Chrissie didn’t know how she had got them home. Even though Tamsin and Dilly could drive, it hadn’t crossed her mind to hand either of them the car keys. Instead, she had climbed wordlessly into the driver’s seat, and Tamsin had got in—unchallenged for once—beside her, and the two younger ones had slipped into the back and even put their seat belts on without being reminded. Unheard of, usually. And Chrissie had started the car and driven, upright behind the wheel as if she was trying to demonstrate good posture, up Highgate Hill and down the other side towards home, towards the house they had lived in since Amy was born, eighteen years ago.
Of course, there was no parking space directly outside the house. There seldom was in the evenings, after people got home from work.
Chrissie said, “Oh bother,” in an overcontrolled, ladylike way, and Dilly said, from the backseat, “There’s a space over there, outside the Nelsons,” and then nobody spoke while Chrissie maneuvered the car in, very badly, because they were all thinking how he would have been, had he been there, how he would have said, “Ornamental objects shouldn’t be asked to do parking. Gimme the keys,” and Chrissie would—well, might, anyway—have laughed and thrown the keys at him ineptly, proving his point, and he’d have inserted the car neatly into an impossible space in no time so that they could all please him by saying, “Show-off,” in chorus. “I make my living from showing off,” he’d say. “And don’t you forget it.”
They got out of the car and locked it and trooped across the road to their own front door. There were no lights on. It had been daylight when they left, and anyway they were panicking because of the ambulance coming, and his frightening pallor and evident pain, so nobody thought of the return, how the return might be. Certainly, nobody had dared to think that the return might be like this.
Chrissie opened the front door, while the girls huddled behind her on the porch as if it was bitterly cold and they were desperate to get into the warmth. It occurred to Chrissie, irrelevantly, that she should have swept the leaves off the porch, that it badly needed redecorating, that it had needed redecorating for years and Richie had always said that his granny, in North Shields on Tyneside, had scrubbed her front doorstep daily—except for Sundays—on her hands and knees. Daily. With a brush and a galvanized bucket.
Chrissie took the keys out of the door, and dropped them. Tamsin leaned over her mother’s bent back and switched on the hall lights. Then they all pushed past and surged down the hall to the kitchen, and Chrissie straightened up, with the keys in her hand, and tried to put them into the door’s inside lock and found she was shaking so badly that she had to hold her right wrist with her left hand, in order to be steady enough.
Then she walked down the hall, straight down, not looking in at the sitting room and certainly not in at his practice room, where the piano sat, and the dented piano bench, and the framed photographs and the music system and the racks and racks of CDs and the certificates and awards and battered stacks of old sheet music he would never throw away. She paused in the kitchen doorway. All the lights were on and so was the radio, at once, KISS FM or something, and the kettle was whining away and all three girls were scattered about, and they were all now crying and crying.
Later that night, Chrissie climbed into bed clutching a hot-water bottle and a packet of Nurofen Extra. She hadn’t used a hot-water bottle for years. She had an electric blanket on her side of their great bed—Richie, being a northerner, had despised electric blankets—but she had felt a great need that night to have something to hold in bed, something warm and tactile and simple, so she had dug about in the airing cupboard and found a hot-water bottle that had once been given to Dilly, blue rubber inside a nylon-fur cover fashioned to look like a Dalmatian, its caricatured spotted face closing down over the stopper in a padded mask.
One of the girls had put some tea by her bed. And a tumbler of what turned out to be whiskey. She never drank whiskey. Richie had liked whiskey, but she always preferred vodka. Or champagne. Richie would have made them drink champagne that evening; he always said champagne was grief medicine, temper medicine, disappointment medicine. But they couldn’t do it. There was a bottle in the fridge—there was almost always a bottle in the fridge—and they took it out and looked at it and put it back again. They’d drunk tea, and more tea, and Amy had had some cereal, and Tamsin had gone to telephone her boyfriend—not very far away—and they could hear her saying the same things over and over again, and Dilly had tried to pick some dried blueberries out of Amy’s cereal and Amy had slapped her, and then Chrissie had broken down at last herself, utterly and totally, and shocked them all into another silence.
That shock, on top of the other unbearable shock, probably accounted for the whiskey. And her bed being turned down, and the bedside lamp on, and the bathroom all lit and ready, with a towel on the stool. But there was still a second towel on the heated rail, the supersize towel he liked, and there were still six pillows on the bed, and his reading glasses were on top of the pile of books he never finished, and there were his slippers, and a half-drunk glass of water. Chrissie looked at the glass with a kind of terror. His mouth had been on that glass, last night. Last night only. And she was going to have to lie down beside it because nothing on earth could persuade her either to touch that glass or to let anyone else touch it.
“Mum?” Amy said from the doorway.
Chrissie turned. Amy was still dressed, in a minidress and jeans and ballet slippers so shallow they were like a narrow black border to her naked feet.
Chrissie said, gesturing at the bed, at the whiskey, “Thank you.”
“S’okay,” Amy said.
She had clamped some of her hair on top of her head with a red plastic clip and the rest hung unevenly round her face. Her face looked awful. Chrissie put her arms out.
Amy came and stood awkwardly in Chrissie’s embrace. It wasn’t the right embrace, Chrissie knew, it wasn’t relaxed enough, comforting enough. Richie had been the one who was good at comfort, at subduing resistant adolescent limbs and frames into affectionate acquiescence.
“Sorry,” Chrissie said into Amy’s hair.
Amy sighed. “What for?” she asked. “You didn’t kill him. He just died.”
For being here, Chrissie wanted to say, for being here when he isn’t.
“We just have to do it,” she said instead, “hour by hour. We just have to get through.”
Amy shifted, half pulling away. “I know.”
Chrissie looked at the Nurofen. “Want something to relax you? Help you sleep?”
Amy grimaced. She shook her head.
Chrissie said, “What are the others doing?”
“Dilly’s got her door shut. Tam’s talking to Robbie.”
“Still,” Amy said. She looked round the bedroom. Her glance plainly hurried over the slippers, the far pillows. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Nor me,” Chrissie said.
Amy began to cry again. Chrissie tightened the arm round her shoulders, and pressed Amy’s head against her.
“I know, baby—”
“I can’t stand it—”
“Do you,” Chrissie said, “want to sleep with me?”
Amy stopped crying. She looked at the extra pillows. She shook her head, sniffing. “Couldn’t. Sorry.”
“Don’t have to be sorry. Just a suggestion. We’ll none of us sleep, wherever we are.”
“When I wake up next,” Amy said, “there’ll be a second before I remember. Won’t there?”
Chrissie nodded. Amy disengaged herself and trailed towards the door. In the doorway she paused and took the red clip out of her hair and snapped it once or twice.
“At least,” she said, not turning, not looking at her mother, “at least we’ve got his name still. At least we’re all still Rossiters.” She gave a huge shuddering sigh. “I’m going to play my flute.”
“Yes,” Chrissie said. “Yes. You do that.”
Amy flicked a glance at her mother. “Dad liked my flute,” she said.
Then she went slowly away down the landing, shuffling in her little slippers, and Chrissie heard her starting tiredly on the stairs that led to the second-floor conversion that she and Richie had decided on and designed so that Dilly and Amy could have bedrooms of their own.
She did sleep. She had thought she neither could, nor should, but she fell into a heavy, brief slumber and woke two hours later in order to fall instead into a pit of grief so deep that there seemed neither point nor possibility of climbing out of it. She had no idea how long she wrestled down there, but at some moment she exchanged her embrace of the Dalmatian hot-water bottle for one of Richie’s pillows, scented with the stuff he used on the gray streaks in his hair, and found herself crushing it, and groaning, and being suddenly and simultaneously aware that there were lines of incipient daylight above the curtain tracks, and that a bird or two were tuning up in the plane tree outside the window. She rolled over and turned on the light. It was six thirteen. She was six hours and thirteen minutes, only, into the first day of this chapter of life which she had always dreaded and, consequently, had never permitted herself to picture.
“I’ll be a hopeless widow,” she used to say to Richie, and, if he was paying attention, he’d say back, “Well, I’m not giving you the chance to find out,” and then he’d sing her something, a line or two of some Tony Bennett or Jack Jones ballad, and deflect the moment. He’d always done that, defuse by singing. Once she thought it was wonderful. Recently, however, in the last year or two, she thought he found it easier to sing than to engage. Oh God, if only! If only he had engaged! If only he’d done even that!
She drew her left hand out from under the duvet, and looked at it. It was a well-kept, pretty hand, as befitted a well-kept, pretty woman. It bore a narrow white-gold plain band and a half hoop of diamonds. The plain band was not new, in fact it was quite worn, having been on Chrissie’s finger since shortly after Tamsin’s birth. She remembered the occasion exactly, since she had bought it herself, in order to wear it in hospital, and put it on her own finger. The diamonds, however, were new. They were quite big, bigger than they possibly might have been had they been dug out of the faraway depths of South Africa. Instead, they had been made, ingeniously, in a small factory near Antwerp, by a process which simulated what nature might have managed over millennia, but in only three weeks. They were, Chrissie told Richie, known as industrial diamonds. He had looked at her hand, and then his attention went back to his piano and he played a few bars of Gershwin, and then he said, “You wear them, sweetheart. If they make you happy.”
She said, “You know what would make me happy.”
Richie went on playing.
She said, “I have to be Mrs. Rossiter, for the girls. I have to be Mrs. Rossiter at school. I have to wear a wedding ring and be Mrs. Rossiter.”
“Okay,” Richie said softly. He began on some mounting chords. “Course you do.”
“Wear the diamonds,” Richie said. “Wear them. Let me pay for them.”
But she hadn’t. She told herself that it was principle, that a woman of independent mind could buy her own manifestations of the outward respectability required at the school gates, even in liberal minded North London. For a week or two, she registered the glances cast at her sizable diamonds—and the conclusions visibly drawn in consequence—with satisfaction and even tiny flashes of triumph. When Tamsin, who missed no detail of anyone’s appearance, said, “Oh my God, Mum, did Dad give you those?” she had managed a small, self-conscious smile that could easily have passed for coquettish self-satisfaction. But then heart quietly overcame head with its usual stealthy persistence, and the independence and the triumph faded before the miserable and energetic longing for her status as Mrs. Rossiter to be a reality rather than a fantasy adorned with meaningless—and engineered—symbols.
It wasn’t really just status either. She was Richie’s manager, after all, the controller and keeper of his diary, his finances, his pragmatically necessary well-being. She had plenty of status, in the eyes of Richie’s profession, as Christine Kelsey, the woman—girl, back then—who had persuaded Richie Rossiter that a bigger, younger audience awaited him outside the northern circuit where he had thus far spent all his performing life. Richie only answered the telephone for pleasure and left all administration, and certainly anything technological, to her. No, it wasn’t really status, it really wasn’t.
It was instead that hoary old, urgent old, irreplaceable old need for commitment. In twenty-three years together, Chrissie could not shift Richie one millimeter towards divorcing his wife and marrying her. He wasn’t Catholic, he wasn’t in touch with his wife, he wasn’t even much in touch with his son by that marriage. He was living in London, in apparent contentment, with a woman he had elected to leave his wife for, and the three daughters he had had by her and with whom he was plainly besotted, but he would make no move of any kind to transfer his legal position as head of his first family to head of his second.
For years, he said he would think about it, that he came from a place and a background where traditional codes of conduct were as fundamental to a person as their heartbeat, and therefore it would take him time. And Chrissie at first understood that and, a little later in this relationship, continued at least to try and understand it. But his efforts—such as they had ever really been—dwindled to invisibility over time, corresponding inevitably with a rise in Chrissie’s anxiety and insistence. The more she asked—in a voice whose rigorously modulated control spoke volumes—the more he played his Gershwin. If she persisted, he switched to Rachmaninov and played with his eyes closed. In the end—well, it now looked like the end—she had marched out and bought her industrial diamonds and, she now realized, surveying her left hand in the first dawn of her new widowhood, let him off the hook, by finding—as she so often did, good old Chrissie—a practical solution to living with his refusal.
She let her hand fall into the plumpness of the duvet. The girls were all Rossiter. Tamsin Rossiter, Delia Rossiter, Amy Rossiter. That was how they had all been registered at birth, with her agreement, encouragement even.
“It makes sense to have your name,” she’d said. “After all, you’re the well-known one. You’re the one people will associate them with.”
She’d waited three times for him to say, “Well, they’re our children, pet, so I think you should join the Rossiter clan as well, don’t you?” but he never did.
He accepted the girls as if it was entirely natural that they should be identified with him, and his pride and delight in them couldn’t be faulted. Those friends from the North who had managed to accept Richie’s transition to London and to Chrissie professed exaggerated amazement at his preparedness to share the chores of three babies in the space of five years: he was a traitor, they said loudly, glass in hand, jocular arm round Chrissie’s shoulders, to the noble cause of unreconstructed northern manhood. But none of them, however they might covertly stare at Chrissie’s legs and breasts or overtly admire her cooking or her ability to get Richie gigs in legendarily impossible venues, ever urged him to marry her. Perhaps, Chrissie thought now, staring at the ceiling through which she hoped Dilly still slept, they thought he had.
After all, the girls did. Or, to put it another way, the girls had no reason to believe that he hadn’t. They were all Rossiters, Chrissie signed herself Rossiter on all family-concerned occasions, and they knew her professional name was Kelsey just as they knew she was their father’s manager. It wouldn’t have occurred to them that their parents weren’t married because the subject had simply never arisen. The disputes that arose between Richie and Chrissie were—it was the stuff of their family chronicle—because their father wanted to work less and play and sing more just for playing and singing’s sake, and their mother, an acknowledged businesswoman, wanted to keep up the momentum. The girls, Chrissie knew, were inclined to side with their father. That was no surprise—he had traded, for decades, on getting women audiences to side with him. But—perhaps because of this, at least in part—the girls had found it hard to leave home. Tamsin had tried, and had come back again, and when she came home it was to her father that she had instinctively turned and it was her father who had made it plain that she was more than welcome.
Chrissie swallowed. She pictured Dilly through that ceiling, asleep in her severe cotton pajamas in the resolute order of her bedroom. Thank heavens, today, that she was there. And thank heavens for Amy, in her equally determined chaos in the next room, and for Tamsin amid the ribbons and flowers and china-shoe collections down the landing. Thank heavens she hadn’t prevailed and achieved her aim of even attempted daughterly self-sufficiency before the girls reached the age of twenty. Richie had been right. He was wrong about a lot of things, but about his girls, he had been right.
Chrissie began to cry again. She pulled her hand back in, under the duvet, and rolled on her side, where Richie’s pillow awaited her in all its glorious, intimate, agonizing familiarity.
“Where’s Mum?” Tamsin said.
She was standing in the kitchen doorway, clutching a pink cotton kimono round her as if her stomach hurt. Dilly was sitting at the table, staring out of the window in front of her, and the tabletop was littered with screwed-up balls of tissue. Amy was down the far end of the kitchen by the sink, standing on one leg, her raised foot in her hand, apparently gazing out into the garden. Neither moved.
“Where’s Mum?” Tamsin said again.
“Dunno,” Dilly said.
Amy said, without turning, “Did you look in her room?”
Amy let her foot go.
Tamsin padded down the kitchen in her pink slippers.
“I couldn’t sleep.”
She picked up the kettle and nudged Amy sideways so that she could fill it at the sink.
“I don’t believe it’s happened.”
Cold water gushed into the kettle, bounced out and caught Amy’s sleeve.
Tamsin took no notice. She carried the kettle back to its mooring.
“What are we gonna do?” Dilly said.
Tamsin switched the kettle on.
“Go back to the hospital. All the formalities—”
“How do you know?”
“It’s what they said. Last night. They said it’s too late now, but come back in the morning.”
“It’s the morning now,” Amy said, still gazing into the garden.
Dilly half turned from the table. “Will Mum know what to do?”
Tamsin took one mug out of a cupboard. “Why should she?”
“Can I have some tea?” Amy said.
“What d’you mean, why should she?”
“Why should she,” Tamsin said, her voice breaking, “know what you do when your husband dies?”
Amy cried out, “Don’t say that!”
Tamsin got out a second mug. Then, after a pause, a third.
She said, not looking at Amy, “It’s true, babe.”
“I don’t want it to be!”
“None of us do,” Dilly said. She gathered all the tissue balls up in her hands and crushed them together. Then she stood up and crossed the kitchen and dumped them in the pedal bin. “Is not being able to take it in worse than when you’ve taken it in?”
“It’s all awful,” Amy said.
“Will Mum—” Dilly said, and stopped.
Tamsin was taking tea bags out of a caddy their father had brought down from Newcastle, a battered tin caddy with a crude portrait of Earl Grey stamped on all four sides. The caddy had always been an object of mild family derision, being so cozy, so evidently much used, so sturdily unsleek. Richie had loved it. He said it was like one he had grown up with, in the terraced house of his childhood in North Shields. He said it was honest, and he liked it filled with Yorkshire tea bags. Earl Grey tea—no disrespect to His Lordship—was for toffs and for women.
Tamsin’s hand shook now, opening it. “Will Mum what?”
“Well,” Dilly said. “Well, manage.”
Tamsin closed the caddy and shut it quickly away in its cupboard. “She’s very practical. She’ll manage.”
“But there’s the other stuff—”
Amy turned from the sink. “Dad won’t be singing.”
“If Dad isn’t singing—”
Tamsin poured boiling water into the mugs in a wavering stream. “Maybe she can manage other people—”
“Who can?” Chrissie asked from the doorway.
She was wearing Richie’s navy-blue bathrobe and she had pulled her hair back into a tight ponytail. Dilly got up from the table to hug her and Amy came running down the kitchen to join in.
“We were just wondering,” Tamsin said unsteadily.
Chrissie said into Dilly’s shoulder, “Me, too.” She looked at Amy. “Did anyone sleep?”
“She played her flute,” Dilly said between clenched teeth. “She played and played her flute. I couldn’t have slept even if I’d wanted to.”
“I didn’t want to,” Tamsin said, “because of having to wake up again.”
Chrissie said, “Is that tea?”
“I’ll make another one—”
Chrissie moved towards the table, still holding her daughters. They felt to her, at that moment, like her only support and sympathy yet at the same time like a burden of redoubled emotional intensity that she neither knew how to manage or to put down. She subsided into a chair, and Tamsin put a mug of tea in front of her. She glanced up.
“Thank you. Toast?”
“Couldn’t,” Dilly said.
“Could you try? Just a slice? It would help, it really would.”
Dilly shook her head. Amy opened the larder cupboard and rummaged about in it for a while. Then she took out a packet of chocolate digestive biscuits and put them on the table.
“I’m trying,” Dilly said tensely, “not to eat chocolate.”
“You’re a pain—”
“Shh,” Chrissie said. She took Dilly’s nearest wrist. “Shh. Shh.”
Dilly took her hand away and held it over her eyes.
“Dad ate those—”
“No, he didn’t,” Amy said. “No, he didn’t. He ate those putrid ones with chocolate-cream stuff in, he—”
“Please,” Chrissie said. She picked up her mug. “What were you saying when I came in?”
Tamsin put the remaining mugs on the table. She looked at her sisters. They were looking at the table.
She said, “We were talking about you.”
Chrissie raised her head. “And?” she said.
Tamsin sat down, pulling her kimono round her as if in the teeth of a gale.
Dilly took her hand away from her face. She said, “It’s just, well, will you—will we—be okay, will we manage, will we—”
There was a pause.
“I don’t think,” Chrissie said, “that we’ll be okay for quite a long time. Do you? I don’t think we can expect to be. There’s so much to get used to that we don’t really want—to get used to. Isn’t there?” She stopped. She looked round the table. Amy had broken a biscuit into several pieces and was jigsawing them back together again. Chrissie said, “But you know all that, don’t you? You know all that as well as I do. You didn’t mean that, did you, you didn’t mean how are we going to manage emotionally, did you?”
“It seems,” Tamsin said, “so rubbish to even think of anything else—”
“No,” Chrissie said, “it’s practical. We have to be practical. We have to live. We have to go on living. That’s what Dad wanted. That’s what Dad worked for.”
Amy began to cry quietly onto her broken biscuit.
Chrissie retrieved Dilly’s hand and took Amy’s nearest one. She said, looking at Tamsin, gripping the others, “We’ll be fine. Don’t worry. We have the house. And there’s more. And I’ll go on working. You aren’t to worry. Anyway, it isn’t today’s problem. Today just has to be got through, however we can manage it.”
Tamsin was moving her tea mug round in little circles with her right hand and pressing her left into her stomach. She said, “We ought to tell people.”
“Yes,” Chrissie said, “we should. We must make a list.”
Tamsin looked up.
“I might be moving in with Robbie.”
Dilly gave a small scream.
“Not now, darling,” Chrissie said tiredly.
“Shut it!” Amy said suddenly.
“I just thought if we were making plans, making lists—”
Amy leaned across the table. She hissed, “We were going to make a list of who to tell that Dad died last night. Not lists of who we were planning to shack up with.”
Chrissie got up from the table.
“And the registrar,” she said. She began to shuffle through the pile of papers by the telephone. “And the undertaker. And I suppose the newspapers. Always better to tell them than have them guess.”
Tamsin sat up straighter. She said, “What about Margaret?”
Chrissie stopped shuffling.
“Margaret,” Tamsin said.
Amy and Dilly looked at her.
“Well,” Tamsin said, “she ought to be told. She’s got a right to know.”
Amy turned to look across the kitchen at Chrissie. Chrissie was holding a notebook and an absurd pen with a plume of shocking-pink marabou frothing out of the top.
Chrissie nodded slowly.
“But Dad wouldn’t want that!” Dilly said. “Dad never spoke to her, right? She wasn’t part of his life, was she, he wouldn’t have wanted her to be part of—of—” She stopped. Then she said angrily, “It’s nothing to do with her.”
Amy stood up and drifted down the kitchen again. Chrissie watched her, dark hair down her back, Richie’s dark hair, Richie’s dark northern hair, only girl version.
Amy didn’t turn.
“I shouldn’t have mentioned her,” Tamsin said, “I shouldn’t. She’s no part of this.”
“I hate her,” Dilly said.
Chrissie said, making an effort, “You shouldn’t. She couldn’t help being part of his life before, and she’s never made any claim, any trouble.”
“But she’s there,” Dilly said.
“And,” Amy said from the other end of the kitchen, “she was his wife.”
“Was,” Tamsin said.
Chrissie held the notebook and the feathered pen hard against her. She said, “I’m not sure I can quite ring her—”
“Nor me,” Dilly said.
Tamsin took a tiny mobile phone out of her kimono pocket and put it on the table.
“You can’t really just text her—”
Chrissie made a sudden little fluttering gesture with the hand not holding the notebook. She said, “I don’t think I can quite do this, I can’t manage—” She stopped and put her hand over her mouth.
Tamsin jumped up.
“I’m okay,” Chrissie said. “Really I am. I’m fine. But I know you’re right. I know we should tell Margaret—”
“And Scott,” Amy said.
Chrissie glanced at her.
“Of course. Scott. I forgot him, I forgot—”
Tamsin moved to put her arms round her mother.
“Damn,” Chrissie whispered against Tamsin. “Damn. I don’t—”
“You don’t have to,” Tamsin said.
“I do. I do. I do have to tell Margaret and Scott that Dad has died.”
Nobody said anything. Dilly got up and collected the mugs on the table and put them in the dishwasher. Then she swept the biscuit crumbs and bits into her hand and put them in the bin, and the remaining packet in the cupboard. They watched her, all of them. They were used to watching Dilly, so orderly in her person and her habits, so chaotic in her reactions and responses. They waited while she found a cloth, wiped the table with it, rinsed it and hung it, neatly folded over the mixer tap on the sink.
Chrissie said absently, approvingly, “Thank you, darling.”
Dilly said furiously, “It doesn’t matter if bloody Margaret knows!”
Chrissie sighed. She withdrew a little from Tamsin.
“It does matter.”
“Dad wouldn’t want it!”
“Well, do it then!” Dilly shouted.
Chrissie gave a little shiver. “I’d give anything—”
“I’ll stand beside you,” Tamsin said, “while you ring.”
Chrissie gave her a small smile. “Thank you—”
Chrissie turned. Amy was leaning against the cupboard where the biscuits lived. She had her arms folded.
“I’ll do it.”
“I’ll ring her,” Amy said. “I’ll ring Margaret.”
Chrissie put her arms out.
“You’re lovely. You’re a doll. But you don’t have to, you don’t know her—”
Amy shifted slightly. “Makes it easier then, doesn’t it?”
“Look,” Amy said, “I don’t mind phones. I’m not scared of phones, me. I’ll just dial her number and tell her who I am and what’s happened and then I’ll say good-bye.”
“What if she wants to come to the funeral?” Dilly said. “What if she wants to come and make out he was—”
“Shut up,” Tamsin said.
She looked at her mother.
“Let her,” Tamsin said. “Let her ring.”
“Yes,” Tamsin said. “Let her do it like she said, and then it’ll be done. Two minutes and it’ll be done.”
“There won’t be an ‘and then.’”
Amy peeled herself off the cupboard and stood up. She looked as she looked, Chrissie remembered, when she learned to dive, standing on the end of the springboard, full of excited, anxious tension. She winked at her mother, and she actually smiled.
“Watch me,” Amy said.
© 2010 Joanna Trollope
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Other Family includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Joanna Trollope. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Richie Rossiter was a respected singer and songwriter when he died, leaving behind the woman he shared his life with and their three daughters. But he had never forgotten his first wife and their son. And in his will, he left matters in a way that not only compounded the shock of his death but also forced his two families to confront both each other and his true feelings about them all.
1. We meet Chrissie as she is grieving Richie’s death. Her first thoughts are about her ring, a physical sign that Richie and she were never married. Why does she cling to this thought? How does this frame the story and influence the reader’s initial view of Richie?
2. Richie and Chrissie have three daughters: Tamsin, Dilly, and Amy. Chrissie admits he was better than her at connecting with them. Does Chrissie seem like a good mother to her daughters throughout their struggle? In what ways does she change or improve as the story continues?
3. We never meet Richie, as the story begins after his death. How does this affect how the story is told? Would you have a more balanced view of him if he had been able to tell some of his personal history?
4. At one point Margaret thinks that life consists of getting used to a great many things that were a result of other people’s choices, rather than one’s own (page 22). What does this say about her view toward Richie and his other family?
5. Margaret and Scott appear to be apologetic when they attend the funeral. Why do they feel that way? Did they have the same right to be there as Chrissie’s family? Why or why not?
6. How did you react to the initial confrontation between the two families after the funeral? No one spoke, and they just looked at each other until Chrissie walked away. Is this what you would have expected to happen? Was there anything you thought should have been said?
7. Describe the different lives of the two families. Margaret viewed Chrissie as London posh, while she was a simple Northerner. How do these stereotypes influence how the families treat each other?
8. England is a major character in the story. How does the country and English propriety play a role in how the characters act?
9. Margaret wore her wedding ring for twenty-three years, well after Richie had left her. She told Scott she never thought Richie would return. Do you think that’s true? Why did she continue to wear the ring?
10. The lawyer Mark Leverton remembers having read that African tribesmen and millionaires were “about as happy as each other,” because they all had a sense of achievement and identity (page 54). Do you believe this to be true? What do you think that idea meant for Richie? For Margaret?
11. Was the inheritance split fairly? What do you think Richie was trying to say by giving his early songs and piano to his first family?
12. As she learned about her part of the inheritance, Margaret said she didn’t want anything; she just wanted to know Richie remembered her. Do you think Richie ever forgot his first family? Are there feelings he had for his first family he never had for his second?
13. How do you feel about the friendship that develops between Amy and Scott? Could the other girls ever have that type of friendship with Scott?
14. Why didn’t Margaret take Bernie Harrison’s initial offer to buy her agency? At sixty-six, it seems like she might start thinking about retirement. What kept her from giving in?
15. What do you think of Amy’s choice to move to Newcastle? Do you think she will be successful?
16. By the end of the story, how have the characters changed? Will Chrissie be okay on her own? Has Margaret found the happiness she was looking for?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Richie was a piano player and singer/songwriter. Head to a local karaoke bar or open mike night and sing some standards yourself. Or try hooking up a karaoke machine and belting out your own favorite tunes at home.
2. Enjoy a proper British tea with your discussion. Try Earl Grey or Yorkshire, as mentioned in the book. See which type you like best.
3. Have you ever been to England? Learn more about British culture by watching some classic BBC television or even traveling to Britain yourself.
4. Are your parents still together? Have they divorced or split up? Discuss your own experience dealing with your parents and their relationships.
A Conversation with Joanna Trollope
This novel was originally published in the United Kingdom. How do you think it will translate to an American audience?
I think this novel will have the advantage of being comfortingly familiar to U.S. readers in its depiction of grief, and family relationships and rivalries, and the huge complications thrown up by the consequences of a will—and interestingly unfamiliar, even slightly exotic, in its depiction of England and Englishness. For example, if I’m reading, say, a book by Sue Monk Kidd or Jane Smiley or Barbara Kingsolver (all of whom I much admire), it is a definite plus for me that, although a lot of emotions and reactions are familiar to me as being universally human, the Americanness, or Southernness, of the settings and turns of phrase and food and climate gives the novels an exciting novelty that makes me look at the human situations afresh. I would hope that that is what U.S. readers of The Other Family might feel.
Why did you choose to begin the story with a death and revolve everything around a character that we never get to meet?
Richie’s death itself is not crucial to the narrative or themes of the book. It is the consequences of that death that I wanted to examine, so I’m afraid the poor man had to go before we could meet him. . . . And I wanted, too, as happens in real life, to show his character emerging from the points of view of all the people who loved or had loved him. Everyone has reason (except, possibly, Tamsin and Dilly) to feel he has let them down, yet everyone was affected by his easy charm and affectionate nature. He is deliberately shown as a bit elusive because he was that sort of man—and we all know men like that!—and because he is frustratingly dead and can’t answer the questions so many of his family are burning to ask him.
It’s becoming more common for people to have multiple families as their lives progress. Did this story draw inspiration from any real situations?
Not really. All the family situations in my novels, like all the characters in my novels, are made up of a kind of patchwork of my observation of real situations and real people. So these are all amalgams of real characters, and family complexities, but they are not drawn from a single real life family or situation. I would be very uneasy about the morality of ever doing that in any case.
This isn’t your first book that deals with broken families and stepfamilies. What about this subject do you find so interesting? What kind of research did you do?
I’m afraid that unalloyed happiness and success in human relationships, while both may make for a lovely and commendable life, do not make for very page-turning fiction! We read, partly at least, to see knots untied and dilemmas resolved—the tension of a story is what makes it absorbing, as well as its recognizable human truth.
I also want to reflect contemporary life, which has, these days, a great many family complications in it, including broken marriages and stepfamilies. (I do feel bound to point out that the nineteenth century was rife with stepfamilies too, though those were the result of death in childbirth rather than divorce.) And as I believe that the family is where we learn most of our early life skills—how to communicate, manipulate, gain control, lose it, and so on—obviously the complexities of modern family life are of immense importance in how we develop as we grow up. The crucible of our development is very different from that of earlier generations . . . so how could I not be fascinated by it as a topic and believe it to be other than hugely important?
The research varies from book to book, but it always includes talking to people who have known, or are in, the situation I am concerned with—in this case, bereavement and living with what seems an unjust will. People are wonderfully generous about talking to me—maybe because I’m not a journalist? — and often seem almost relieved to express their feelings openly. And, of course, this novel involved trips to Newcastle, a lot of walking round Highgate in North London, and listening to the whole of the Tony Bennett songbook!
The children of the two women are conflicted in many ways—dealing with parents’ lives while trying to live their own. How do you create balance for your characters in these types of stories, which can resonate so widely?
I suppose that what I do is to try to inhabit the head of my characters as I am writing about them—not necessarily always sympathetically but more trying to make them as true to themselves as they would be were they really living, as I can. So I am “being” each person and also trying to give each one a fair hearing, so that the reader has a good chance of making up his or her own mind about each character. The balance just seems to happen now—as, maybe it certainly should, after thirty years of writing!
How do you see the story playing out? Do the lives of Chrissie and Margaret—along with the children—turn out successfully?
I always hope each reader will take the story on, in his or her imagination, after the book is finished. That’s one of the reasons that I never tie up the endings too tightly—I feel that the readers and I have been in this together all along, so I want to leave them a little dreaming to do at the end. Personally, I think Margaret was going to find considerable work satisfaction with Bernie’s agency (and even the possibility of a relationship with Bernie himself, though she had far too much sturdy Northern independence and good sense to fall for him romantically) and equal emotional satisfaction in a slow-burning but strong relationship with Amy. Chrissie wasn’t going to fare so well or so quickly—there was as much for her to unlearn as to learn. She probably had an affair with the landlord of her flat, and then a few more brushes with the wrong men, before realizing, perhaps, that she had the strength not to need validating that way and could live happily alone. But I wouldn’t want to preclude any ideas that readers have about what happened—and they may need to end these stories quite differently!
Which character did you have the strongest connection with?
Margaret and Amy.
The book revolves around music—Richie and Margaret’s careers, the Steinway and Amy’s flute. Are you a musician? What drew you to adding that to the story?
I wish I were a musician! I was drawn to it as a subject because it is plain that music is another language, a very powerful language, and one that can often say what words fail to. So, as a believer in the inimitable power of words, I wanted to look at this extraordinary, often supremely emotional, form of expression and see what bonds it could create and how it could often be even more articulate than words in creating bonds between people who find precise language difficult—as between Scott and Amy.
How has being a teacher affected your writing?
I wonder. . . . Maybe in the preparation—that is, the research—for the novels, and in the feeling of great connectedness that I have with readers, as I once had with pupils?
You’ve worked under a pseudonym before. Why at times do you decide to write under an assumed name? How does that affect your writing?
My contemporary novels are written as Joanna Trollope—which is what I was born—and the historical ones are as Caroline Harvey, a name I arrived at from putting my Trollope grandparents’ first names together. The two names are just to differentiate the two genres—no more complicated than that!
What projects are you working on now?
I’m afraid I’m not very good at talking about work in progress. I have a superstitious fear of the energy of the subject leaking away if I discuss it. But I am halfway through writing the next book, and know the subject matter of the one after that, so there is plenty coming. . . .