Today's Reading


Chelsea, Late 1980s

My name, like my father's name, is Henry. This duplication was the cause of occasional confusion, but as my mother called my father darling and my sister called him Daddy and pretty much everyone else called him Mr. Lamb or sir, we got by.

My father was the sole beneficiary of his own father's fortune, made from slot machines. I never knew my grandfather—he was very old when my dad was born—but he was from Blackpool and his name was Harry. My father never worked a day in his life, just sat around waiting for Harry to die so that he could be rich in his own right.

He bought our house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea the very same day he got his hands on the money. He'd been house-hunting during Harry's dying days, had his eye on the place for a few weeks, was terrified that someone else was going to put an offer in on it before he could claim his inheritance.

The house was empty when he bought it and he spent years and thousands filling it with what he used to call objets: moose heads looming off paneled walls; hunting swords hanging crossed above doorways; mahogany thrones with barley- twist backs; a medieval-style banqueting table for sixteen, replete with scars and wormholes; cabinets full of pistols and bullwhips; a twenty-foot tapestry; sinister oil portraits of other people's ancestors; reams of gold-blocked leather-bound books that no one would ever read; and a full-sized cannon in the front garden. There were no comfortable chairs in our house, no cozy corners. Everything was wood and leather and metal and glass. Everything was hard. Especially my father.

He lifted weights in our basement and drank Guinness from his own private keg in his own private bar. He wore £800 handmade suits from Mayfair that barely accommodated his muscles and his girth. He had hair the color of old pennies and raw-looking hands with tight red knuckles. He drove a Jaguar. He played golf although he hated it because he wasn't designed to swing a golf club; he was too solid, too unyielding. He went on shoots on the weekends: disappeared on Saturday morning wearing a tight-fitting tweed jacket with a trunk full of guns and came home on Sunday evening with a brace of wood pigeons in an ice box. Once, when I was about five, he brought home an English bulldog he'd bought from a man on the street using the mint-fresh fifty-pound notes he kept rolled up in his jacket pocket. He said it reminded him of himself. Then it shit on an antique rug and he got rid of it.

My mother was a rare beauty.

Not my words. My father's.

Your mother is a rare beauty.

She was half German, half Turkish. Her name was Martina. She was twelve years younger than my dad, and back then, before they came, she was a style icon. She would put on a pair of dark sunglasses and take herself off to Sloane Street to spend my father's money on bright silk scarves and gold-encased lipsticks and intense French perfume and she would be photographed sometimes, her wrists encircled with bag handles, and put in the posh papers. They called her a socialite. She wasn't really. She went to glamorous parties and wore beautiful clothes but when she was at home she was just our mum. Not the best mum, but not the worst, and certainly a relatively soft spot in our big, masculine, machete-adorned Chelsea mansion.

She'd once had a job, for a year or so, introducing important fashion people to each other. Or at least that was my impression. She had little silver business cards in her purse, printed with the words Martina Lamb Associates in hot pink. She had an office on the King's Road, a bright loft room over a shop, with a glass table and leather chairs and a telex machine, rails of clothes in clear plastic and a vase of white lilies on a plinth. She would take me and my sister into work with her on school holidays and give us crisp piles of tantalizingly white paper from a ream in a box, and a handful of Magic Markers. The phone would ring occasionally, and Mummy would say, "Good morning, Martina Lamb Associates." Sometimes a visitor would be buzzed in via the intercom—my sister and I fighting over whose turn it was to press the button. The visitors were shrill, very thin women who only wanted to talk about clothes and famous people. There were no "associates," just our mother and the occasional wide-eyed teenage girl on work experience. I don't know what happened to it all. I just know that the loft office disappeared, and the silver business cards disappeared, and Mummy just carried on being a housewife again.

My sister and I went to school in Knightsbridge—quite possibly the most expensive school in London. Our father was not afraid of spending money then. He loved spending money. The more the better. Our uniform was shit brown and bile yellow with knickerbocker-style trousers for the boys. Thankfully, by the time I was old enough to be humiliated by the attire, my father had no money left to pay for school fees, let alone for corduroy knickerbockers from the Harrods school uniform department.

It all happened so slowly, yet so extraordinarily quickly, the change to our parents, to our home, to our lives after they arrived. But that first night, when Birdie appeared on our front step with two large suitcases and a cat in a wicker box, we could never have guessed the impact she would have, the other people she would bring into our lives, that it would all end the way it did.

We thought she had just come to stay for the weekend.

This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.

Monday, April 6, we begin the book INTO THE FIRE by Gregg Hurwitz.

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