Keller was late to the party, later even than the Phillips had come to expect. He’d neglected to wrap Rachel’s gift before leaving and had to stalk the house for paper and ribbon, settling on a vaguely festive red bag mashed inside a kitchen drawer.
The hallway mirror told him the chowder stain across his breast was more apparent than he’d realized. It was his only jacket; he’d have to find a dark corner of the ballroom and hope no one came too close. Then, as a grace note on the evening’s already stammering shuffle, he found his station wagon still loaded with cement mix. By the time he unloaded everything and pulled into the road his collar was soaked, his skull squeezed tight. He wished he’d remembered a flask.
He dragged the wheezing car up the last incline before the estate, his eyes on the thick sheet of purpling clouds above. The sky’s initial misgivings had darkened to a full-scale tantrum, sending rushes of wet wind through the trees. Through struggling headlights, a furious bristling of green sailed down across the road. A crash came against the roof; Keller heard glass fall to the road. He lifted his face from the crook of his elbow. The passenger’s window was shattered through, the seat covered in shards. He brushed Rachel’s gift clean and climbed into the road. The branch seemed hardly thicker than his wrist; it had done well to achieve such destruction. The wind flung his jacket open, pushing drops of rain inside his trousers. A switch of lightning sent a long orange wink through the road markers. One, two, then the sound of thunder, close enough to give him pause. He dragged the branch to the road’s edge and climbed back inside the car.
The rain was easing as he pulled into the estate. The gateman frowned over his clipboard at the state of the wagon, the thickets of his eyebrows leaping high in surprise. He radioed ahead for someone to help get the car cleaned up. Keller lifted a hand and came through the open gate.
It never ceased to be strange, the idea of Marla living on the old Phillips estate. It had been close to sixteen years, but still: it was strange.
To everyone’s surprise, Hugh Phillips had spurned his on-off sweetheart Jacqueline Schiff—daughter of Eric Schiff of Schiff Chemical—and asked Marla Keith to the seventh form ball instead. Equal parts flattered and mystified, Marla spent four months’ worth of weekend dry cleaning wages on a suitable dress. Keller himself had gone along to the seamstress and could personally attest to the fright in her eyes as his friend handed over the envelope containing so many Sunday afternoons of chemicals that had stripped her hands to a pale red.
As it turned out, she needn’t have worried; the dress had paid handsome dividends by anyone’s measure. Marla now enjoyed life membership to the district’s best clubs and regular trips to Italy and Monaco. Each of her visitors was made to drive past a chain of small lakes on their way to her residence, the water dotted with swans lit by lamplight into diamond-feathered shapes.
Eventually Keller approached the tall rows of windows glowing among ivied brick and pulled to a stop with a shriek of his brakes. A young valet appeared wearing a dubious expression, as if expecting unpleasantness. A second red-jacketed figure emerged from the entrance with a brush and shovel. It was Larry, the head gardener.
“Evening, Mr. Keller.” Larry tapped the valet at the elbow for him take his leave. “Heard you had some trouble on the road, there.”
“Good to see you, Larry.” Keller lifted a hand in greeting. “Branch took a wee disliking to me. Nothing too major.” His reflection looked bloated and pale, as if he’d escaped from somewhere institutional.
“Come around the side, I’ll get us cleared up.”
He pulled the car into to a dry spot by the service entrance and began collecting the larger chunks of glass from the seat.
“I’ll take care of that,” said Larry. “Go and join the party. Miss Rachel will be opening her gifts shortly.”
“Thanks, but it’s no trouble.”
Keller pricked his finger on a shard of glass, drawing his hand away sharply. A thin ribbon of red slid across his fingertip.
“How have you been keeping yourself, Larry? Patty doing well, the kids?”
“Very well, thank you, Mr. Keller. She wanted me to pass on her compliments on the piece in the garden, the diving boy.”
“You tell Patty I appreciate that. I’m glad to hear someone’s enjoying him.” He stuck his finger in his mouth.
“Don’t pay any attention to Mr. Phillips.” Larry spoke low, sweeping the brush over the seat. “I know for a fact Mrs. Phillips is very happy with it.”
“Well, that’s better than nothing.”
Larry smiled. “Need me to tape over the window? There’s some boxes just inside.”
“I wouldn’t bother. Thanks, Larry. It’s not a long drive.”
They nodded, and Keller stepped inside behind a row of cooks working the grills. The kitchen smelled of tuna and rosemary, mixed with the salty waft of garlic and soy. He came through to the lobby, ducking out of the way of a girl carrying a tray of salmon tarts and knocking his hip into a table. An animal noise sounded behind him, low and plaintive. A dark cloth was spread over what looked like a small box. He lifted it and made out a blue plastic carrier, its mesh door shut tight. Inside, two discs flickered like wet oranges in the dark. A meow came from the cage; he brought his face closer. It was a young cat, older than a kitten, but not yet fully grown. It reached its head towards him, its grey-blue fur like autumn cloud.
“Hey, fella.” He slid a finger through the mesh. The cat sniffed and licked at him, its tiny tongue barbs rasping at his skin. Its name tag read Blue.
“Excuse me? What exactly are you doing?” A voice came from behind him, followed by clumping steps. The cat’s eyes darkened with alarm and he receded to the back of the cage. Keller turned to find an older woman staring at him from inside a stiff crimson dress. He recognised her from the papers; he was looking at Mrs. Victoria Ascot, wife of Wilson Ascot, of Prestige Developments.
“Mrs. Ascot.” He settled the cloth over the cage and extended his hand. “Rick Keller. Is this your cat? He’s a beautiful animal.”
“Keller. The sculptor, yes?” She took his hand with a dry clicking of pearls. “He’s a gift for Rachel. A British Blue, purebred.”
“Ah. That’s clever.”
“Yes, well.” She looked at his shirtfront, her eyes lingering on the damp creases in the fabric. “He’s a fine animal, and easily agitated.”
“I know the feeling.”
“I beg your pardon?”
He smiled and bowed. “I have a gift of my own to deposit, Mrs. Ascot. I trust you’ll excuse me.”
The hall was filled with the low chatter of a crowd behaving itself. Guests stood in clusters, nibbling at little things; a string quartet played quietly in a corner. The lighting was mercifully dim; he would get away with the stain after all. He motioned to a boy carrying a tray of champagne flutes, drained one, and grabbed his sleeve to keep him in place while he took a second.
“There you are.” He lifted an arm around Marla’s shoulder and drew her to him. “Where’s the birthday girl? I’ve got a little something for the pile.” He held up the gift, still damp from the broken window.
“What’s happened?” She leaned back to examine him. “You’re soaked.”
He ran a hand through his hair. “I caught some weather on the way in. I’m surprised no one else ran into it.”
“Everyone’s been here a while, Rick.” She helped dust off his shoulders.
“A lucky thing.” He regarded her black dress, her silver necklace. “You look great, Mrs. Phillips. Every inch the queen consort.”
“Shut up, you git.” She poked him in the belly.
“I just had the chance to meet a friend of yours, Ascot’s better half. Real salt of the earth character, she is.”
“All right. We don’t need any of that tonight.”
“Did you talk to Hugh, at least?”
Marla looked out over the room, waving to a woman with young boys in matching bowties. “It’s delicate. There’s an issue with the council, something to do with the permits. Hugh’s sorting it with Ascot’s people. It’s not the time to bother him.”
“You told me to go ahead with the commission, Marl. You said it was done, both of you. I’ve set the meshes and everything. I was getting ready to pour last week, then I get a call from Wilson’s people telling me they’re looking at other options.” He leaned closer. “I can’t afford to . . .”
“Hey, uncle Rick.” Rachel appeared at his side. He lifted an arm around her shoulders; she looked beautiful.
“Evening, birthday girl. I trust you’re having a raging time with these folks?”
Rachel smiled and gave a diplomatic shrug.
“Are you ready to receive your gifts, sweetheart?”
“I don’t want to do it in front of everyone, mother. Can’t I just write cards?”
Keller lifted the paper bag. “I brought you a little something. I’ll save you the suspense—it’s a book of stories by this chap Borges, a blind Argentinian. Your mother tells me you’ve been getting into some of the good stuff.”
“Thanks, uncle Rick. That’s so thoughtful.”
“See?” Keller looked to Marla. “See how easy that was?”
She rolled her eyes and took Rachel’s arm. “Your father wants you to receive them in front of everyone, darling.”
“Fine.” She slouched off to the gift table and set the gift amongst the boxes and envelopes.
“You’ll embarrass her, Marl. Kids remember that stuff.”
Marla sighed and glanced around the room. “I know.”
“Does she know she’s getting a cat?”
“She has an idea. It’s all she’s been asking for. No interest in clothes, horses, nothing. Even said she’d go without her phone if it meant having a cat.”
“Well, it’s quite the animal. Even comes pre-exposed to harpies, which should be helpful.” Marla laughed, her eyes crinkling up in their old way. Keller leaned closer. “Listen, I don’t want to make this a big thing, but if Ascot goes back on the commission I’ll be out of pocket in a big way.”
She sighed. “I’ll talk to Hugh, all right? Just, please don’t make a fuss.”
Hugh’s broad frame appeared from the crowd.
“Rick, glad you could make it.” They shook hands.
“Evening, Hugh. Great party.” He felt Hugh staring down at his shirtfront; he took a breath and drew himself straighter.
“Looks like you’ve been in the wars.”
“Just a little weather.”
Hugh smiled, gesturing to Marla. “You won’t mind if I steal my wife away to play hostess?”
“By all means.”
They stepped away towards the stage, and Keller looked for a fresh flute.
Keller ended up in animated discussion with an art teacher from Saint Mark’s. After a while he began to enjoy himself, forgetting all about the commission and the broken car window.
Just before nine, Hugh silenced the quartet and gathered everyone to the gift table. Keller reached for another glass and got himself ready.
Rachel took a seat next to the table, her face arranged for politeness as Hugh handed boxes over. She opened a cashmere sweater from the local bank manager, then a gleaming pair of riding boots from Hugh’s accountant. After a tray of oils from the art teacher, Rachel pointed to Keller’s red package. Hugh picked it up with a submerged grimace. Rachel peeled away the wet paper, feigning surprise at the book and casting a warm smile in Keller’s direction.
“If I could have everyone’s attention.”
The crowd turned to Mrs. Ascot, arms held aloft, pearls shining against her neck like ice against a leg of ham. She gestured towards the lobby door. A wiry man that Keller recognised as Wilson Ascot came through carrying the blue box, slate eyes staring ahead. He stepped up to Rachel and handed her the carrier, drawing squeals of delight.
“He’s gorgeous!” She reached a hand to the mesh door.
“Now, dear, he’ll need time to get used to you.” Mrs. Ascot moved to her side. “Best not to take him out just yet.”
Rachel held a finger to the mesh, coaxing the cat forward.
“Could we not get a shot with you holding him?” asked Hugh. “It would be a shame not to have a photo, Victoria. He’s such a beautiful animal.”
“Well, I . . . perhaps I could hold him. He’s used to me.”
Mrs. Ascot unclasped the door of the cage and reached gently inside. After a few seconds of encouragement she brought the cat out, its eyes darting sideways, tail flicking in agitation. Rachel held a hand to its belly, running her fingers through its fur.
“All right now, dear.” Mrs. Ascot kept a firm grip around the cat’s haunches, looking proud. “Just a minute, then he’ll need to go back in.”
Hugh gestured to the photographer, a chubby boy fresh out of high school. The boy reached into his satchel for a larger flash, and was fitting it to the camera when it slipped from his hands and clattered to the floor. The cat squirmed in fright inside Mrs. Ascot’s hands, sliding its teeth into her knuckle. She wailed and dropped it to the floor.
“You silly shit!”
Rachel reached down with quick hands, but the cat shot away from her, ears flat against its skull. It lunged between Hugh’s legs, heading along the wall towards the lobby door.
“Daddy!” Rachel screamed.
“The door!” Hugh barked at a girl carrying a tray of pastries. She saw the cat bounding towards her, and knelt down to try to gather it. The tray tipped sideways and crashed to the floor; the cat loped around her and into the lobby. Voices sounded in a mess of confusion.
“It’s gone out through the kitchen!”
“Someone get Larry,” Marla turned to Hugh. “Tell him to look outside.”
Mrs. Ascot called for a doctor, muttering about stitches and antiseptic.
“It’ll be fine,” Keller lifted a hand to Marla’s back. “It won’t have gone far.”
In the rush Marla’s hair had come loose; she looked up through long wisps of black. “Couldn’t you go and make yourself useful, Rick?” She held an arm around Rachel, trying to quiet her sobbing.
Outside, the storm had long passed; it was even warm enough for Keller to take off his jacket. He walked around the hall, past his station wagon with its gap where the passenger’s window had been. Hugh stood on the deck, marshalling the help into teams. Keller followed Larry to the gardening sheds, and together they brought out the floodlights.
They’d been searching not more than twenty minutes when the first of the guests began to leave. Keller and Larry ran the lights across the lawn while the rest of the staff checked the bushes and shone their phones into the trees. A handful of other guests joined in at first, but the novelty soon wore off, and gradually they drifted back to the hall. Not long after that Keller heard tires in the gravel; a row of cars were departing.
Hugh and Marla stood at the lobby entrance, thanking everyone for coming. Behind them, Mrs. Ascot sat fussing over her bandaged hand. Mr. Ascot stood on the deck, staring out over the glowing tip of a cigarette.
“Think I’ll head in for a spell, Larry.”
Larry nodded, shining the floodlights around the base of the hedgerows. Keller’s shoes sank into the plush surface of the grass. In the shrubs, something moved; he stepped gingerly towards it, hands outstretched. A pair of mallards emerged from the thicket, waddling over the lawn with irritated quacks.
He continued towards the hall, thinking how upset Rachel would be. She was a sweet soul; something like this would distract her for months. Hugh and Marla had stepped inside to tend to Mrs. Ascot, leaving Mr. Ascot alone on the deck. Keller tucked his shirt into his trousers.
Ascot lifted his cigarette to his mouth and stared down the steps, eyes narrowed in assessment. Keller wiped a hand on his trouser leg.
“Rick Keller. I’m the . . .”
“The sculptor. I know.”
“A sad thing. Rachel will be beside herself.”
Ascot took the cigarette from his mouth and spat a fleck of tobacco to the ground. “Pays not to get too hung up.”
“It’s an animal. We can make arrangements.” He flicked ash from the cigarette. “Pure stupidity, taking it out like that.”
Keller set his hands on his hips. “Listen, I’m glad we had the chance to talk. I wanted to . . .”
“The commission.” Ascot eyes gleamed flat in the light of the lobby. “It’s done, Keller. We’re going with another fellow, Robinson.”
“Robinson? Hang on, Hugh said . . .”
“I never asked Hugh to venture anything on my behalf. The idea of it, forty-five thousand for a damned sculpture.”
“It’s two months’ work, at least.” Keller felt his voice ascending in pitch.
“Robinson is doing it for twenty-five.”
“Twenty-five thousand? Even the materials . . . listen, there’s no way you’ll get a good piece from Robinson. Didn’t you see his exhibition last month?”
“It’s done. We signed the papers Thursday.”
“Papers?” Keller looked down at his shoes. “I’ve been working for weeks on this, all based on Hugh’s go ahead.”
“Take it up with him.” Ascot nodded over his shoulder. “It’s bugger all to do with me.”
“Mr. Ascot, I . . .”
“Maybe he’ll take it for himself, put it next to the boy with his bollocks out.”
Ascot crushed the cigarette with his heel and stepped into the lobby; Keller stood frozen in place. He reached instinctively to his jacket pocket for his flask, before remembering he’d left it at home.
Inside the hall, the Ascots were preparing to leave. Marla gestured in apology to Mrs. Ascot’s bandages; Mr. Ascot glanced in Keller’s direction and spoke a few sharp words to Hugh. Keller looked around for more champagne.
“What did you say to him?” Marla stepped over and pulled him aside.
“To Ascot. What did you say to him?”
He looked past her to the door. “Is Rachel okay?”
“She’s upstairs. Don’t change the subject.”
“I asked him about the commission, Marl.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake.” She set her hands to her hips.
“If they pull out I’m sunk eight grand at least. Hugh commissioned it!”
“I know Hugh commissioned it, Rick. Who do you think put him up to it?” She stared at him evenly. “Didn’t I say to let me deal with it?”
“Damn lot of good that’ll do now. Ascot said they’ve signed that Robinson prick, he of the melting horses.”
She shook her head. “It’s best if you go.”
“I don’t know what you expect me to . . .”
“Go home, Rick.”
She turned and walked to Hugh, joining their guests with a wide smile. Keller felt a medley of pitying glances.
He made his way through the kitchen, lifting a half bottle of champagne from an ice bucket and drawing a smirk from a ponytailed guy washing dishes.
Outside, Larry was still bent down in the hedgerows, searching for the cat. Keller slid into the car and turned the engine over, pulling into the driveway with a crunch of gravel. Behind him, the residence windows glowed like tiny fires. He tried to remember which was Rachel’s, picturing her sobbing in bed, mascara wet across her cheeks.
He drove slowly alongside the lakes, lifting the bottle to his mouth. On his left, an old canoe swayed against a wooden dock. He thought back to his childhood afternoons with Marla, out rowing on his uncle’s dams. Her favourite trick had been to stuff greasy handfuls of pondweed down his shirt as he held the oars, then hide cackling in the stern of the dinghy, knowing he couldn’t retaliate without tipping them. He tried to recall the last time he had heard her laugh like that. He felt his wheels drifting to the road’s edge. He corrected his line, skidding sideways. A noise sounded from beneath the passenger’s seat, a quiet murmur he almost missed in the crunching gravel. He slowed to a stop and listened. It came again, a soft mewling.
He slid his seat back and leaned down to the side to peer beneath the chair. Two orange discs shone out from the dark, pressed low against the floor of the car. He held his hand out and whispered quietly. The cat crept cautiously forward, rasping its tongue over his fingertips again. He smiled, thinking ahead to the look of joy on Rachel’s face. This would become a story, he realised: the birthday cat scramble, the clever game of hide and seek, all culminating in good old uncle Rick saving the day. He pictured the appreciation blooming over Hugh and Marla’s faces, their features softening as he came through the door with the cat safe in his arms.
A horn sounded behind them, shattering his reverie. The cat’s eyes shot back into the dark. Keller lifted himself and looked through the rear window. A truck had stopped in the gravel behind him, its headlights shining with blinding force into the back of the wagon. He turned his engine over and pulled into the grass, then raised a hand to bring the vehicle past. Behind the passenger window, Mrs. Ascot stared down in naked spite.
Their taillights receded into the dark. Keller imagined the words they were likely exchanging. There were a great many points to be covered: the fellow’s slovenly dress, the unkempt state of his hair. And his car; what business did a man have driving such a vehicle? How regrettable, the Phillips having to count him in their set. Then there was the matter of the sculpture. What misapprehension must the sad fool be labouring beneath, considering himself worthy of such a commission? Best to ignore him; that was the kindest thing.
No doubt there were others at the party exchanging similar sentiments; he had seen their pinched expressions. Even if he did happen to fetch the cat, what would that achieve? Would one moment of gallantry correct the portrait of the hapless bachelor, his fortune’s dimming embers kept alive by the sole generosity of an old friend?
He lowered his hand beneath the seat again, drawing the cat out of the dark. How wonderful it would be to have some company as he took his whisky by the fire, reading of the partnership between Prestige Developments and the Phillips Estate, or later, sitting in his lap as he watched coverage of the Earl Creek opening ceremony staged before the incoherent faces of Robinson’s horses. How glorious, to wake in the half-light of his bedroom with these brilliant orange eyes waiting atop the bedspread, a gentle pawing at his face urging him to take to his work. They never came to visit anyway, not anymore. The risks would be minimal. Young Rachel would be given a replacement cat, supplied by the breeder after a phone call from the Ascots. By summer’s end Blue would be just a scrap of memory.
Keller lifted the champagne bottle to his mouth, then leaned through the window and tossed it into the lake, sending a pair of swans honking across the water. With a wave to the gateman’s furred eyebrows, he turned into the road and made for home. The breeze pushed through the open window as he drove, cradling his face in its cooling mist. It had turned into a fine evening.