Twenty-three: Spies Have To Kill Time, Don't They?
To say that we were all immediately plunged into a state of shock would be an understatement. Grandmother Claire's jaw did not drop, but her eyes were huge behind her glasses; Marca's jaw was firmly in place and she stared at me triumphantly, as though her following Aunt Andersol to the doctor was like she had more information than any of the rest of us, all of whose jaws dropped and bounced off the floor like giant hailstones.
The mystery of Aunt Andersol's strange behavior was more or less solved, but there were certain questions remaining, such as How did this come to be? and Who's the father? and When were you going to tell us about this? I knew full well that we kids were not going to be privy to the discussion, and that the adults, once they knew the answers to those questions, would clam up and tell us only what they deemed was wholesome and necessary.
I grabbed Michel and whispered in his ear to run up to Father's Office and get my recorder from the top of the desk beside my notebook. Mother had bought the miniature recording device for me the Christmas before so that I could dictate notes to myself while on the school bus, not understanding that if I were to do so, the recorder would be removed from my person forcibly by some insensate lout, and the words broadcast to the student body for their insensitive enjoyment.
He was back in what seemed like seconds, handing me the recorder subtly, whispering, "I put one of my stickers over the green light."
He was a genius. I'd been trying to figure out how to hide the recorder so that the indicator light would not give it away; in use, the light was green, when the memory was full, or the battery low, the light turned red and flashed. I grasped his head and kissed him loudly on the cheek.
Michel leaped away in disgust. "You cakehead!" he cried.
Our mother frowned at his outburst. "Could we postpone dessert until a little later, please?" She was not about to leave Aunt Andersol's side, nor was Uncle Bodie; Aunt Sully went to direct staff, then returned to ask Grandmother Claire if she would prefer to take her dessert now, or with the rest of the family later.
"Later, later, of course," Grandmother said. "And I will also later have a tray of these appetizers, with small slices of turkey, as well as dessert." She gripped Aunt Sully's arm. "And let me know what happens here, will you?"
"Of course," said Aunt Sully, kissing Grandmother's cheek.
Grandmother headed off towards her elevator, and her computer, Oesha in attendance.
Uncle Bodie drew his sister from her seat and guided her into the big study, gently seating her on the long sofa. Mother sat on her left. Uncle Bodie said to her, "Why couldn't you tell me?"
Aunt Andersol began to cry again, and her brother pulled her to rest on his chest, where she dripped tears on his shirt. He put his cheek on the top of her head and held her, while my mother put her head on Aunt Andersol's shoulder, with her right arm around my aunt's waist.
I sat down in a chair not too close to them, wondering if this time they would forget that I was in attendance, as they had so many times in the past. My recorder I set on the end table beside my chair, close to the lamp, slightly hidden behind a jade carving of the "Smiling Buddha". Marca had drifted in and sat in the shadows in the corner chair farthest from the windows; Kelsa and Michel pattered in and sat on the rug.
Marca might have gotten away with her presence; I might have, too, but the younger twins piping voices reminded the adults that we were present. My mother abruptly and coldly announced, "Kids, out. Entertain yourselves, and don't cause trouble."
Michel and Kelsa took off like a shot. Marca and I remained stationary until Mother snapped, "Out!"
Marca and I rose with dignity ( I hope it wasn't mistaken for sullenness) and left the room. My recorder stayed behind, digitally rendering all that was said in the study for the next two hours.
To pass the time, I went to the stables under the dark, cloudy sky and talked to Gary, the head groom, letting him know that my aunt and I would be riding in the morning, and perhaps my younger brother and sister, too. I gave my horse some pieces of carrot from the nosh table; his name was Mackerel (for his dappled hide) and he eagerly accepted the offering. Mackerel was from the same breeding line as Aunt Sully's horse; she had taken over my father's horse after he died. Both of them were warmbloods, big and sensible, dappled grays with cream-colored manes and tails.
Some people might think employing grooms and keeping horses to be an extravagance, but the grooms were connected via phone to the groundskeepers. When the storms of a few weeks ago had hit us, it was the grooms, on horseback, who notified the groundskeepers of problem areas. The horses could go into areas of the estate that motorized vehicles could not. People on horseback could inspect every inch of the land, without the need for roads. And all the horses had been taught to drag logs, and to pull a cart.
My younger brother and sister's ponies were not so tall, though either one of them could carry an adult without too much effort. Both of them were white, a color my mother insisted on, worrying about idiot hunters trespassing on our property in the winter.
Marca and Oesha shared horses with my mother and Uncle Bodie. Marca rarely rode; she really needed a fiery steed who was completely obedient; one horse in a million could be that, Gary said. Marca needed a warhorse, not an estate trail-horse. Oesha couldn't have cared less than a half a paper matchstick for riding; her horse was the only mare in the stables, a big girl who was so phlegmatic that she was perfect for both Oesha and for Uncle Bodie, who was not an experienced rider.
The grooms were an expert lot. Gary had been caring for horses since he was a child at Belton Farms in Pasa Robles, and his chief assistant was an ex-jockey and shoer from Bay Meadows to the south. Morton Halfley had left the track after seeing a limping thoroughbred dosed with pain-killer and sent out to run, only to be put down on the track at the end of the race with a grotesque compound fracture of a front leg. Maida, the third groom, came from India. Mother had met him on one of her travels, and was impressed with his acumen with animals. She sponsored him to the United States so that he could become a citizen, and gave him a job at the estate. Maida was the one who trained the horses to drag logs and brush behind them. He had endless patience, an understanding of what horses could put up with, and a sense of the practical that harkened back to pre-industrial ages.
I liked the idea that our horses were not just for riding, that they could also work. As Maida put it, "These are not just pretty toys when they learn to work -- now they become partners." Gary and Morton had viewed Maida askance when he arrived at the estate, according to Aunt Sully, but came to appreciate his way with the horses; they accepted Maida completely, when, as both a joke and a birthday gift, he taught my father's horse to lie down so that the rider had only to swing a leg across him, tap him on the neck, and the horse would stand up. Aunt Sully said that Father laughed so hard he got a stitch in his side, but he did seat himself on the prone horse. When the horse scrambled to his feet, Father had to grab the mane to keep from toppling off, which made him laugh again. At that time, I would have been about three years old, and not allowed in the stables, but after I heard the story I remembered it every time I saw my father's horse. On a number of occasions I tried to get Aunt Sully to demonstrate the trick, but she told me it was the most undignified thing she had ever seen a horse and rider subjected to and was not about to lend herself to such a spectacle.
Before I left the stables I spent some time petting the horse, trying to imagine what he must have looked like with my father astride him. What had Father worn as riding-clothes? Did he wear a helmet? Tall boots? What had happened to his boots, if he had them? Didn't anyone ever take a picture of him on his horse? How often did he ride? What would he have thought of the day's surprising news? I hoped that Kelsa and Michel would stay home in the morning; I had a lot of questions for Aunt Sully that I had never thought to ask before.
As I walked back up the lane towards the house, I knew I had to retrieve my recorder from the study. My stomach twisted with the fear of having been discovered deliberately recording the conversation of adults. I could be in deep shit and just not know it yet.
If Mother knew I'd bugged her conversation, she'd never trust me again. But then, I had attempted to bug the adults' conversation, so she shouldn't have trusted me in the first place.
Maybe the bugging had been unnecessary, and Uncle Bodie would have taken us aside and explained everything. But if the adults were going to be aboveboard and open, Aunt Andersol wouldn't have been slinking around in secret, would she?
What if the recorder worked, but the conversation was so sordid and horrid that Michel and Kelsa shouldn't hear it? Maybe I should listen to it in private and report only what they could safely hear. Except that was what Mother was doing, and that was unacceptable to any of us kids. Remembering what Kelsa had told me about the girl in her class being raped by a high school senior, I stopped worrying about content in the conversation.
I went in the wide front door of the house and walked quietly along the hall that led onto the sitting room, the kitchen hallway, the formal dining room, and the downstairs study. Peeking in, I saw Mother and Uncle Bodie snuggled on the sofa nearest the television, watching a recording of Monday Night Football. They were alone, and seemed relaxed. Aunt Andersol was not present, nor Aunt Sully and Uncle John. In order to pick up my recorder, I would have to cross the room, find an excuse to stand and chat until they turned their attention back to the game, then bend and snag the device unobtrusively.
Perhaps I could sit in the chair and watch the game with them for a while, and just casually reach over and pocket the thing when a touchdown or an interception riveted them to the screen.
I walked into the room and headed for the chair. Uncle Bodie acknowledged me by looking in my direction, and with the hand that wasn't draped across my mother, put a finger to his lips and then pointed at her. She was soundly asleep, leaning against him. I knew at once that I had my opportunity, and said in a low voice, "Is she all right? I mean with the pregnancy and all?"
Just as I had predicted, he turned away from me to gaze fondly at her. I silently lifted the recorder and put it in my pants-pocket as he said, "She's doing great. Everything is just fine with her and the babies. She's going to have to have a C-section, most likely; her doctor thinks that would be safest. All the tests have come back perfect, though."
A wave of relief flooded me, easing a worry I didn't really know was there. "And Aunt Andersol? Is she okay?"
"Yep," he said. "Everything's good with her, too. Maybe we'll see more of her now -- she was just kind of embarrassed."
'Kind of embarrassed?' She'd deserted the family for weeks because she was 'kind of embarrassed'? Why wasn't Uncle Bodie shouting, "How cool can this be? I'm going to be a daddy to twins and an uncle to twins!"
Well, maybe he didn't because Mother was asleep and he didn't want to wake her.