"You sit down, Lucy," Diana directs me.
"Oh, I'm happy to help—"
But Diana raises her hand like a stop sign. "Please," she says. "Just sit."
Diana is obviously trying to be polite, but I can't help but feel a little rejected. She isn't to know, of course, that I'd fantasized about bumping elbows with her in the kitchen, perhaps even facing a little salad crisis together that I could overcome by whipping up a make-shift dressing (a salad crisis was about all my culinary capabilities could stretch to). She isn't to know that I'd imagined nestling up to her as she took me through photo albums, family trees and long-winded stories that Ollie would groan about. She doesn't know I'd planned to spend the entire evening by her side, and by the time we went home, she'd be as enamored with me as I'd be with her.
Instead, I sat.
"So, you and Ollie work together?" Tom asks me, as I plant myself next to Ollie on the sofa.
"We do," I say. "Have done for three years."
"Three years?" Tom feigns shock. "Took your time, didn't you, mate?"
"It was a slow burn," Ollie says.
Ollie had been the classic, solid guy from work. The one always available to listen to my most terrible dating stories and offer a sympathetic shoulder. Ollie, unlike the powerful, take-charge assholes that I tended to date, was cheerful, unassuming and a consistently good guy. Most importantly, he adored me. It had taken me a while to realize it, but being adored was much nicer than being messed around by charismatic bastards.
"He isn't your boss, is he?" Tom twinkles. It's horrendously sexist, but it's hard to be annoyed with Tom.
"Tom!" Diana chides, but it's clear she finds it hard to be annoyed with him too. She's back now with drinks, and she purses her lips in the manner of a mother trying to discipline her very cute, disobedient toddler. She hands me a glass of red wine and sits on the other side of Ollie.
"We're peers," I tell Tom. "I recruit for the technical positions, Ollie does support staff. We work closely together."
It began, oddly enough, in a dream. A bizarre, meandering dream that started at my great-aunt Gwen's ninetieth birthday and ended at the house where my best friend from primary school lived, but she wasn't a little girl anymore, she was an old lady. But somewhere in the middle, Ollie was there. And he was different somehow. Sexier. The next day, at work, I sent him an email saying he'd been in my dream the night before. The expected "What was I doing?" banter followed, with an undercurrent. Ollie's office was right next door to mine, but we'd always sent each other emails from the next office—witty commentary about our shared boss's Donald Trump hair, suspicious behavior at the office Christmas party, requests for sushi orders for lunch. But that day, it was different. By the end of the day my heart was skipping a beat when his name appeared in my in-box.
For a while I'd kept my head about it. It was a rendezvous, a tryst . . . not a relationship and certainly not the relationship. But when I noticed him giving money to the drunk at the train station every morning (even after the drunk abused him and accused him of stealing his booze); when he'd spotted a lost little boy at the shopping center and immediately lifted him up over his head and asked if he could see his mum anywhere; when he began to occupy more and more of my thoughts, a realization came: this is it. He's the one.
I tell Ollie's family the story (minus the dream), my arms spinning around me as I talk quickly and without a pause, as I tend to do when I get nervous. Tom is positively enraptured at the storytelling, patting his son on the back at intervals as I talk.
"So tell me about . . . all of you," I say, when I've run out of steam.
"Nettie is a marketing executive at MartinHoldsworth," Tom says, proud as punch. "Runs a whole department."
"And what about you, Patrick?" I ask.
"I run a bookkeeping business," Patrick says. "It's small now, but we'll expand with time."
"So tell me about your parents, Lucy," Diana jumps in. "What do they do?"
"My dad was a professor of modern European History. Retired now. And my mother died of breast cancer." It's been seventeen years, so talking about it is uncomfortable rather than upsetting. Mostly the discomfort is for other people, who, upon hearing this news, have to figure out something to say.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Tom says, his booming voice bringing a palpable steadiness to the room.
"I lost my own mother a few years back," Patrick says. "You never get over it."
"You never do," I agree, feeling a sudden kinship with Patrick. "But to answer your question, Diana, my mum was a stay-at-home mother. And before that, a primary schoolteacher."
I always feel proud to tell people she was a teacher. Since her death, countless people have told me what a wonderful teacher she was, how she would have done anything for her students. It seems a waste that she never went back to it, even after I started school myself.
"Why bother having a child, if you're not going to stick around and enjoy her?" she used to say, which is kind of funny since she wasn't able to stick around and enjoy me anyway, dying when I was thirteen.
"Her name was . . ." I start at the same time as Diana stands. We all stop talking and follow her with our eyes. For the first time, I understand the term matriarch, and the power of being one.
"Right then," she says. "I think dinner will be ready, if everyone would like to move to the table."
And with that, the conversation about my mother seems to be over.
This excerpt ends on page 15 of the hardcover edition.