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Chapter One

Greg had warned her that Boston summers were hot, but he
never said it would be like this, sweltering and humid – like
Bangkok, like suffocation. Joe will boil if she leaves him for
long, even with the car doors open. There is a silvery line of
drool trailing from the corner of his mouth, a babyish touch
on his nine-year-old face, but she resists the urge to wipe it
away. She has to look at the house before he wakes up. She
has to prepare herself for whatever lies behind this astonishingly unattractive mock Tudor frontage so that she can
convey confidence and optimism, show him that this move
is a great adventure, not a reckless mistake.
The house is on a corner plot in a wide, deserted street.
Its front garden curves round one side of the property, with
a wooden swing set and a drive leading down to a garage
under the back of the house. Greg described the street as
‘almost a cul-de-sac’, but it is not a cul-de-sac really, it is a
curved residential road that joins two other residential
roads that lead to more residential roads. She recognizes it

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all from Greg’s grainy Skype tour, but in the flesh everything looks broader, taller, heftier.
She had imagined them renting a picturesque New England home with white cladding, a wooden porch – a porch
swing perhaps – an apple tree and a mailbox with a little
red flag. This house has none of those features. It has a porch,
but it is red-brick with a pitched roof that dominates the
front. The upper half of the building is stucco, hatched with
Tudor-style timbers. There are tall, dense, prickly-looking
trees, possibly leylandii, separating it from the house next
door. Greg is very clear that this place is ‘a find’. Familysized rentals, he says, are a rarity in a suburb where people
buy and stay.
She touches her belly, resting her fingers on its new
slopes. This will be their baby’s first home and when they
are old they will look back at photos of them all standing on
this porch, frozen forever against these dark-red bricks.
‘It’s perfect,’ he’d said when he called from Boston to tell her
that he’d given the realtor a massive deposit without consulting her, without even emailing her a picture. His face
blurred in and out of focus on her phone screen. He was in
a public place, probably the cafeteria at Children’s Hospital.
She could see people in the background carrying trays or
coffee cups, many wearing scrubs. ‘You’re going to love it,
Tess, I know you will. There’s a great elementary school, a
big park, a cute little main street with a couple of cafés, a
bar, an artisan bakery, a market, a yoga studio. It’s all very
green and pleasant, absolutely no crime and only twenty

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minutes from downtown on the freeway. It’s the perfect
little town.’
‘I thought it was a suburb?’
‘We call suburbs towns.’
She noted the ‘we’. After fifteen years in London, Greg
had seemed to feel no affinity with his homeland. His only
remaining American traits were his accent, his handwriting
and an ongoing despair at British customer service. But
now, suddenly, it was ‘we’.
‘You weren’t answering your mobile, but I had to grab it.’
A baby wailed somewhere near him, an abnormal, plaintive
sound, disturbingly thin and off-key. ‘There were three
other families due after me this morning; it was going to
go. But you’ll love it, honey, I promise. It’s not too far from
Children’s – maybe a fifteen-, twenty-minute commute max.
There’s three beds, three baths, a big yard for Joe. A ton
more space than we have now—’
‘Three baths?’
He grimaced, his eyes half shut, and it took her a moment
to realize that the connection had failed, leaving his handsome face frozen in a sinister, pixelated rictus, halfway to a
smile.
She had always thought Greg liked her tall house on the
outskirts of town, with the cornfield behind it and views of
the Downs, improbably green in springtime, lightening to
biscuit through summer and, as autumn wore on, darkening and thickening into wintery browns. When he moved in
he had been charmed by the sloping floors and the woodburning stove, her own photographs hanging next to her

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father’s paintings, shelves crammed with books, old Polaroids tucked behind ceramics, Joe’s pictures peeling off the
fridge, things balancing on other things and the light pouring in. He had said he did not want to change a thing.
Her chest tightened at the thought of everything she’d
be leaving behind.
‘Greg? Are you still there? Greg?’ But he didn’t respond:
FaceTime had definitely hung.
She is sweating already as she walks up the path. The effort
of moving oxygen into her lungs feels overwhelming, as
if a hot hand has closed over her mouth and nose. Close up,
the brickwork is haphazard, with some bricks sticking
out at angles and some larger than others. She remembers
Greg zooming in on this feature in his after-the-fact Skype
tour, saying that the technique was fashionable in the
1920s,  when the house was built. It looks to her like a
­structural defect, but he will have read about Massachusetts
archi­tecture somewhere, probably when he was at medical
school here, and stored this fact away in his massive mental
database.
She is going to have to trust him that this house is a find.
Perhaps he is picking up cultural nuances that she can’t.
The front door looks like something out of a fairy tale: oversized, its dark wood studded with brass. She rifles through
her bag for the keys. Somewhere behind her a bird rasps a
repetitive ha-ha . . . ha-ha . . . and a mower hums. She feels as
if she is hovering above herself, bewildered at how she can
possibly be standing here, on the brink of this new life.

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The speed of it all has been dizzying. In just a few months
she has gone from the secure routines of Joe’s school
runs, play-dates and Saturday football, and her own photographic  assignments and projects, to estate agents and
house movers, flight bookings, school places, visa forms,
paediatricians, ‘OB/GYNs’, health insurance, American bank
accounts, ­rental agreements. And now it is done. They are
here.
Joe’s school place has been taken by a child from Somerset; a Dutch family will move into their house today; her
studio in the collective has been taken by a feminist conceptual artist who fills handbags with lard; and her old Ford is
now owned by a maths teacher. This is what death must be
like: your space in the world simply closing over, like a pool
of water when you lift out your hand. A wave of nausea rises
through her: morning sickness, heat, jet lag – perhaps all
three.
She really can’t find the keys. She straightens, her head
spinning, and looks back at the hire car. It squats like a silver insect, wings spread as if it is about to buzz and hum
and take off with Joe inside. Behind it, on the other side of
the road, a heavy red-brick house sits on a plot hacked out of
the hillside. Steps zigzag up a steep rockery to the front
door. She imagines it creaking, heaving, sliding off its foundations and cruising over to flatten the car, the fence, the
mock Tudor house, before moving inexorably down the
slope, through the leafy streets beyond.
She bends back to her bag, digs deeper. Her T-shirt is
sticking between her shoulder blades now, and her jeans

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have shrink-wrapped themselves to her thighs, the waistband already too tight, even worn low like this, under her
belly. At eighteen weeks she is already much bigger than she
was at this stage with Joe. She should have travelled in something cooler, but it was raining when they left England, the
kind of August day that makes British people dream of
emigrating.
Nell was there to wave them off in the taxi – they both
knew an airport goodbye would be too hard. ‘Look after
yourself,’ Nell’s voice wavered, ‘and Joe  – and this baby. I
can’t believe I’m not going to be there when it’s born.’
‘Just come and visit soon, OK?’
‘I will.’ Nell pulled back, swiping at tears. ‘And if it
doesn’t work out, if for any reason it doesn’t work out, just
remember you can always come home. Nothing’s irreversible.’ She stopped herself and tried to smile, pushing back
her dark curly hair, the dimples on either side of her mouth
deepening. ‘But of course, you know, it’s going to work out
just fine! It’ll be great!’
It was the first time that Nell had let any doubts show.
Over the past few months she had made a phenomenal
effort to be a supportive friend. But from the outside, this
whole thing must seem reckless and impulsive.
When she agreed to marry Greg she had not even known
him a full four seasons.
For a moment this small fact yawns up at her, exposing
the lunacy of standing here, alone and keyless, thousands
of  miles from home, while he is at a conference in San
Diego.

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She has been waking at dawn every day lately, her head
crowded with doubts about the wisdom of moving Joe, leaving all her work contacts, giving birth in a foreign medical
system, in a country in which 90 per cent of the population
owns a gun. And as Greg slept next to her, she would try to
calm herself by going back over the reasons she had chosen
to do this – other than loving Greg.
With David posted to New York, it made sense for Joe to
be in the same country as his dad. And it was surely good for
any child to experience a different culture. She would build
up new photography contacts in America, the hospital had
world-class obstetricians and Greg was right, this suburb
was officially one of the safest places to live in the whole of
the United States. But despite this list, in those early hours,
there seemed to be so many possible fracture points, so
many things that could go wrong.
She shoves objects around the bottom of her bag. She can
picture the key envelope on the kitchen counter as she did
the final walk-through this morning. Greg is not flying into
Boston until tomorrow. She straightens her shoulders. If she
has left the keys at home, then she’ll just have to deal with
it. She has a credit card. This is civilization. She imagines
getting back into the hire car and driving Joe around, looking for a hotel, motel, B & B, trying to make it all seem like
fun.
She glances at her watch. It is mid-afternoon in California. Right now, Greg will be in a room full of cardiac
surgeons and he will not hear his phone even if it is switched
on. She tips her bag upside down. Tissues and cereal bars

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spill out on the doormat, a Simpsons comic, her paperback,
her scarf, receipts, lipstick, hairbrush, hair ties, hand cream.
And then there it is, the smooth envelope. It must have been
lying flat on the base of her bag.
KEYS. Greg’s assertive capitals feel somehow accusatory.
Get. A. Grip. Tess.
She scrapes everything back into her bag and fits the biggest of the two keys into the lock. It is stiff and she has to
wiggle it around.
She pushes open the front door. The harsh scent of cleaning fluid hits the back of her throat and she is thrown
straight back – it is the smell of her childhood, of clinics, of
institutions; she can feel her father’s warm hand around
hers, hear their shoes squeaking as they walk down tooquiet corridors. For a second she stands very still, waiting
for these feelings to subside. It has been a long time since
this happened. She shuts her eyes.
Then opens them. The hall is cool and dim with white
tiles, white walls, a steep wooden staircase ahead, a vast,
parquet-floored room on her right with a wide brass fireplace, another room – a dining room – on her left and a tiled
­corridor leading past the stairs to the back of the house, presumably to the kitchen. Hot air is seeping in behind her.
Joe really will boil in the car. She has to get him out.
She turns and steps back through the porch and out
again into the heat, blinking under the white sun. She hurries back down the path away from the silent, waiting house
with all the empty, disinfected rooms that she has yet to
enter.

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