ANNIE DELANCEY STOOD IN THE WARM, QUIET KITCHEN and slowly peeled apart the last two pieces of streaky bacon. As she fit them into the large skillet where the other pieces were already buckling and sizzling on the heat, she felt an overwhelming sense of happiness. It was Saturday. Her family was here for the weekend. She would do pancakes.
She glanced around at the neatly laid table, smiling with pleasure at the vibrant golden daffodils lighting up the cen- ter, competing with the glass jug of freshly squeezed orange juice and the square of yellow butter on its white china dish.
Her son Ed, now twenty-six, worked unholy hours as the manager of a restaurant/bar in Islington, and she hardly saw him, so having him home was a treat for her. But this visit, she knew, was not so much to hang out with his dear old mom as to avoid his freezing Stroud Green apart- ment, where the furnace was on the blink. When she’d heard he was bringing his girlfriend, Emma, she’d asked Marsha—her second child and barely a year younger than Ed—to come over for a late breakfast.
She took the maple syrup from the cupboard and set it on the table, then moved to the window and gazed out at the well-kept, mature garden with satisfaction. It was beau- tiful the way the pale spring sun lit up the frosty landscape. She and Richard had planted out the garden, mostly from guesswork, when they’d first moved into the house just before Ed was born. And it had worked, despite the inevi- table restrictions of a long, narrow London garden. They had tweaked and improved over the years—mostly Rich- ard’s doing—adding the inevitable wooden decking a few months ago. This was now bordered with earthenware pots of various sizes, planted up with herbs, ivy, narcissus, and some dark-purple and yellow-gold-laced primulas—all slow to bloom because of the late frost.
“Mmm, great smell.”
Annie hadn’t heard her husband come in. Rich- ard was leaning his tall frame close to the pan, sniffing appreciatively.
“Shouldn’t these be turned?” he asked a little anxiously, prodding the bacon with the metal tongs.
Indeed, the bacon was already crisp and on the verge of being burned. Annie grabbed the tongs from her husband and began to salvage the contents of the pan, decanting the meat onto a plate lined with paper towels before putting them in the warm oven.
“Shall I tell them it’s nearly ready?” he asked, pointing to the ceiling.
“Leave them,” she said with a smile. “They’ll smell the bacon if they’re even halfway conscious.” She looked at her watch. “Mash should be here in a moment.”
And sure enough, on cue, the front door banged and she heard footsteps on the stairs leading down to the kitchen.
“Hi, darling . . . you look frozen.” Annie put the oven gloves down and turned to embrace her daughter. Marsha’s cheeks were pink from the cold, her blue eyes bright in her oval face, her long pale-blond hair drawn back into an untidy ponytail. She shivered, slinging the mail she’d retrieved from the door- mat onto the kitchen table before rubbing her gloved hands together. She eyed the breakfast preparations hungrily.
“Maple syrup . . . I know what that means!” She gave her father a hug and took off her black coat, unwinding her red wool scarf before thinking again and wrapping it back around her neck.
“Shall I wake them now?” Richard asked again. And this time Annie nodded.
Lucy was first down. Annie saw her wince as her bare feet hit the chilly terra-cotta floor tiles, tugging over her hands the sleeves of a navy sweater that covered her tartan paja- mas. Lucy was rounder than her sister, with wavy auburn hair and soft brown eyes, and Annie always marveled that she and Richard had produced two such different daugh- ters; different in looks as well as personality.
“It’s freezing,” Lucy complained.
Her father smiled. “My sweater not keeping you warm enough then?”
She glanced down and looked a little sheepish.
“Just borrowing it, Dad. None of mine are big enough.” “It’s only my best cashmere. I don’t want syrup down it.” Annie rubbed buttered paper around a clean pan, and
then removed the saucer she had put over the jug of pancake batter. She loved the whole process of cooking. The careful preparation, the smells and the warmth and her pleasure in feeding her family. Ladling a small amount of batter out of the jug, she waited till the pan was smoking before pouring the mixture carefully onto the hot surface to form a num- ber of creamy-yellow rounds.
The four of them settled at the large oak table, a steaming pile of pancakes between them. Richard slowly pressed the plunger down on the French press. “We’re not waiting for Ed and Emma?”
Marsha shook her head vehemently. “No way!”
“How was the party?” Annie asked her elder daughter. Marsha shrugged as she loaded her pancakes with
“OK, the usual media mob. But yeah . . . I met an inter-
esting guy. He had things to say beyond who you know and your latest project. Makes a change—you wouldn’t believe the morons out there.”
Annie looked at Richard and raised an eyebrow. This was more information than Marsha usually divulged about her evenings out. A grunt or two, a mind-your-own-business look, a vague “got smashed,” was all they had learned to expect from the twenty-five-year-old.
“Cute?” Richard ventured, expecting to receive a scorn- ful roll of his daughter’s eyes.
“Sorry, who’s cute?” Lucy, still half asleep, asked. She had a habit of zoning out during family conversations.
“Nobody,” Marsha muttered, then grinned. “You should see your faces! Every time I mention a man, you all seem to hold your breath.”
“Tell me about him, Mash, I missed it,” Lucy insisted. “Nothing to tell. I liked him, but he wasn’t my type.”
Lucy groaned. “Always the case, eh? They’re either fas- cinating but look like a geography teacher, or they’re drop dead gorgeous and brainless idiots.”
“No way did he look like a geography teacher.”
“So are you going to see him again?”
Marsha shook her head. “It wasn’t like that. We didn’t
swap numbers or anything, just sat and talked for ages. He’s bound to have a girlfriend somewhere.”
Annie noticed a certain wistfulness in her daughter’s tone. Marsha hadn’t been serious about anyone since Ben, her college boyfriend, who’d gone to Japan to teach English for three months and had fallen for a Japanese girl, break- ing her daughter’s heart.
Richard was checking through the pile of mail. “All for you.” He pushed it toward his wife. She found a credit card statement, a promotional letter from the gym, next week’s copy of The Economist in its plastic wrapper. “You said you’d canceled this,” she said, waving the magazine at her husband. “They just pile up and we never read them.”
“I do—occasionally,” he insisted.
The last letter was a brown envelope with a red stamp saying, very indistinctly, Kent Social Services. She turned it over, puzzled. Her name and address were handwritten in blue ink.
“Morning . . . morning, all!” Ed jumped down the last three stairs, coming into the kitchen with a fanfare. Emma trailed sleepily behind him. Despite the chill, he was dressed only in a pair of patterned boxers and an old gray sweatshirt. Emma, luscious and big-breasted with perma- nently tousled dark hair, huge, soulful brown eyes, and por- celain skin, was almost swamped in the folds of Ed’s navy terrycloth robe.
“Hope you haven’t eaten everything.” Ed looked anx- iously at the ravaged breakfast table.
“Serves you right if we had,” Marsha retorted.
Annie was surprised at the sharpness in her tone. She had worried from the start about Ed going out with his sis- ter’s lifelong best friend and now roommate. But her worry had been for her son—Emma’s reputation as a player when it came to men had been established as far back as her teens. She hadn’t thought of the toll the relationship might take on Marsha. Her eldest children had been almost like twins growing up—Lucy a bit of an outsider. Was Marsha feeling left out now that the two people closest to her were so wrapped up in each other?
“How was last night?” Emma was asking Marsha.
“She met a cute guy!” Lucy answered for her.
“Shut up! I didn’t. He was cute, beautiful in fact, but I
told you, he wasn’t my type.”
Emma shook her head at her friend. “Nothing new there
then! Can’t remember the last time you had the hots for someone . . . well, I can, but . . .”
“Just because you fancy everything that moves,” Marsha interrupted.
Emma laughed. “Yeah, it’s easier that way.”
“Thanks, I’m flattered,” Ed said, frowning.
Emma leaned forward and planted a sloppy kiss on his
cheek. “And so you should be.”
Annie saw her elder daughter turn away, and knew she
had been right.
“I’ll make some more pancakes in a sec,” she said as
she turned the letter over and pulled at the brown flap. “Oh, Mommyyy . . . you spoil us.” Ed bounced around the table and draped his arms around his mother in a tight hug.
She returned his embrace, so happy to have him home. But he wasn’t looking well, she thought. He’d never had much color, inheriting her own blond hair and the same gray-blue eyes, but now he looked almost pallid. No sunlight with all those ridiculous hours he puts in, she thought, noticing the padding that had recently appeared around his waist. He wasn’t tall like her and his father, more stocky, but he was too young to start putting on weight.
She returned her attention to the letter, drawing a single piece of paper from the envelope.
“What’ve you got there?” Ed peered over her shoulder. But after a cursory glance, she instinctively closed the let- ter and pushed it under the pile. What she had glimpsed was almost incomprehensible. Like an automaton, she got up and went to the frying pan, stirring the batter, reaching for the ladle, heating the butter. Only when Ed and Emma had their own pile of pancakes, and she had retrieved the remaining bacon from the oven, did she find an excuse to leave the room, knowing that if she didn’t have a moment alone, she would explode.
“Anyone seen my phone?” she asked, casting a vague glance around the kitchen.
The others all shook their heads.
“Probably in the bedroom,” Richard suggested.
“I just need to check the deliveries went out all right. I’ll
be back in a minute.”
She headed quickly for the stairs, the letter stuffed in
the pocket of her gray tracksuit bottoms. Once clear of the basement, she ran up the two stories to her bedroom and shut the door with exaggerated care. She sat on her bed, her hands cold and shaking as she opened the letter again. This can’t be true, she told herself.
She took a few measured breaths and reached for her cell, which lay on the bedside table.
“Jamie, it’s me. Are you around for a coffee? . . . I can’t get away right now, everyone’s here for brunch, but what about later? . . . Three’s fine. The usual? . . . Great . . . No, I’m OK, honestly . . . I’ll tell you when I see you. Bye . . . bye.”
Her voice sounded hoarse, but she was surprised any words came out at all.
The phone call seemed to have drained all her strength, and she lay back silently on the bed, clutching the letter in one hand, her cell in the other. She felt almost ill, her heart clattering dangerously in her chest, but after a few moments she forced herself upright. Checking in the bedroom mir- ror, she saw that she looked deathly pale. They can’t see me like this. She rubbed her cheeks, took a few deep breaths, brushed her fair hair vigorously, and then made her way downstairs. Ed and the girls were deep in conversation; only Richard glanced up.
“Everything OK?” She must have looked blank because he added, “with the deliveries?”
“Oh, Carol wasn’t answering. I might drop around later, just to check.”
Richard smiled. He had long ago accepted her passion for her work. When Lucy started school, Annie had set up a small business making celebration cakes. It was a carryover from the job she’d taken, age nineteen, cooking director’s lunches. This was in the days when company directors still had nicely brought-up girls come in to prepare meals for themselves and their clients. It had been her mother’s idea, and she did as she was told—at that stage in her life she hadn’t felt she had many options. And it was at one such company, an accountancy firm, that she had met Richard Delancey.
Much later, Delancey Bakes had started in the kitchen of their Dartmouth Park house but moved to small prem- ises in Gospel Oak when orders began to flood in and the hot, sweet smell of baking took over the family home. In those days, she did much of the baking and decorating her- self; Richard’s accountancy firm in Tottenham Court Road did the books. These days she employed four people and a deliveryman, but all the cake designs were exclusively hers. Her elegant creations had become famous in London and the South, a Delancey cake was a must-have for any cred- ible wedding, party, christening or anniversary. But even now, she kept a keen eye on every detail of the business, and prompt, efficient deliveries were crucial.
She went to fill the kettle. “Who wants more coffee?” She needed to keep herself busy and calm the panic bursting inside her head.