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The Paper House

If Caroline could just chat her way through the next five dinners, maybe Tom would never get to more serious topics: what to do about their parents, their brother, her.
Fiction by Margot Livesey

Suddenly the train burst into the light and they were crossing a body of water. The Charles River, thought Caroline. Tom had pointed it out yesterday as they drove back from the airport. She had arrived in a gust of warm air to find the streets of Cambridge filled with young people in shorts. Today, beneath gray skies, everyone was back in winter clothes. You brought the bad weather, her brother had said, and, for a moment, she thought he meant it. She was still gazing at the river - much more bucolic than the Thames - when the loudspeaker announced Charles Street station and she gathered herself to assume the role of a good tourist. Beside her an elderly woman in a raincoat bent to retrieve two carrier bags and a squat suitcase.

"Do you need a hand?" asked Caroline. "This is my stop."

The woman - her hair was a lovely silvery white - only drew the bags closer. Perhaps, above the noise of the train, she hadn't heard? Caroline repeated her offer.

Abruptly the woman turned. "Go away," she hissed. "Or I'll call the guard."

That evening when Tom asked about her day - he had given her an itinerary, each item listed with estimates of time and distance - Caroline described the incident. "She made me feel like a thief. I was just trying to help." She didn't tell him what she'd realized later, in a hallway of the Prudential Center: that the woman, with her shining hair and rosy cheeks, was the image of their mother.

Tom listened patiently; they were waiting for their entrees in a somber Italian restaurant. "She's just not used to nice English girls," he said. "Did you see the statues of the ducklings? What about Beacon Hill?"

Who is this man, thought Caroline, in his natty blue suit? After more than a decade in Boston, her little brother seemed so fit and foreign. For years they'd met only at Christmas, but last month he'd surprised her by appearing at the funeral of an elderly cousin; he was changing planes in London on his way home from a dentistry conference in Frankfurt. As the prayers ended, he leaned over to ask about their parents. "They told me they'd be here," he whispered, eyebrows rising in a neat frown.

Although she was worried, too, Caroline was annoyed by his anxiety. "Something must have come up," she whispered back. "They were fine when I phoned on Tuesday."

As they filed out of the church, she asked about Boston, and Tom once again invited her to visit. Since her divorce, he'd been urging America as the panacea of all ills. "Easter is lovely. We have beautiful blossoms."

"Oh, so you have a garden," Caroline said, knowing full well that he rented a fourth-floor flat.

"Once a schoolteacher, always a schoolteacher. I mean, `we' the inhabitants of New England. And I can fix that incisor for you," he had added, smiling, and steered her down the steps of the church. The poor teeth of his British relatives were a constant source of merriment.

Caroline had made the usual insincere promises - why would she want to visit a country where even teenagers carried guns? - and helped him to flag down a taxi.

Now she hastened to regale Tom with the more obvious highlights of her day. "The ducklings were sweet. A couple of children were riding them. And I saw that other statue, the one that says there shall be no more pain."

It had been the only moment when she'd felt some kinship with her brother, that he'd sent her to look at this odd Gothic monument, the turbaned man bending over a swooning youth, like a scene out of the Arabian Nights. An inscription commemorated the discovery that inhaling ether caused insensibility. "Believe it or not," read Tom's note, "a dentist was responsible."

The waitress brought their food, and he raised his glass. "Bon appetit. To a great holiday."

"Bon appetit," echoed Caroline and began to talk about Beacon Hill, the gaslights and old squares. If she could just chat her way through the next five dinners, maybe Tom would never get to more serious topics: what to do about their brother, Malcolm, a policeman in Durham, who since the death of his wife was drinking like a fish; what to do about their parents, growing increasingly frail in a remote Cornish village; and most pressingly - after all, here she was in his spare room - what to do about Caroline herself, who, the week after the funeral, had been suspended from teaching. "They gave me the boot," she had told him on the phone. "Can I really come to Boston?" The next day, Tom left instructions for the Freedom Trail, but when she saw the rain bouncing off the rooftops, she decided on the wet-weather alternative: the Museum of Fine Arts. "Don't miss the Velazquez and the Sargent," Tom had written. "Try the cafeteria downstairs for lunch."

An old hand at the subway by now, Caroline wedged herself into a corner seat and dutifully read the Michelin guide. Three stars for the museum, a comprehensive collection organized into eight departments. She entered through the modern West Wing to discover the ground floor thronged with school groups. Walking past the bright modern paintings, Caroline focused more on the teachers than the art. How kind and jolly they seemed as they shepherded their charges. Of course, people had probably thought that about her when she escorted pupils to the theater or round Bloomsbury. No one would have taken her for a woman who wouldn't lift a finger to help her aged parents.

Upstairs she entered a large, gloomy hall where European paintings hung in rows, several deep. The lower Velazquez showed the infant King Carlos Balthasar and a dwarf against a rich purple curtain. Why did all those old masters love painting drapery? Caroline was studying the 2-year-old king - he had the same deep-blue eyes as her brother - when a crowd of footsteps approached. She was engulfed by another school party.

"The dwarfs were court favorites," announced the teacher, a smartly dressed black woman. "Records show that in summer each dwarf received a weekly ration of snow from the Pyrenees - their version of Ben & Jerry's. Look how this one holds an apple and a rattle, pretending they're an orb and scepter."

Caroline glanced to her right, where a sleek Indian girl was taking notes, then to her left. The air flew from her lungs at the sight of the boy watching her. With his sharp nose and curious eyes, he could have been Stewart's brother. For a few seconds, it was as if the entire hall were full of people wanting something, needing something. Then the teacher moved on to El Greco, and Caroline reminded herself that Stewart was at school in London.

In the cafeteria, she sat by the window with a cup of tea and a muffin, watching the rain darken the birch trees. Tonight they were having dinner with Bethany, Tom's girlfriend, and tomorrow was Saturday, which meant that Tom would not be leaving the flat at 7:30 a.m. but acting as Caroline's personal guide. He planned to show her the North Shore: a fishing village and some hut that artists, bizarrely, liked to paint. On Sunday, weather permitting, they would go to Concord. Two whole days for him to fix her. He would drill out the decay, make her as good as new, and no one would know the difference.

"Sweetie," Caroline heard someone say, "please don't do that." At the next table, two women in track suits were trying to talk among three young children.

But this was something that couldn't be fixed. The day after the funeral, their mother had phoned: Could Caroline come home to help with their father? He was suddenly worse.

"Mum, I have a job, pupils, exams. I can't just drop everything."

"I know, darling, I know." Her mother's voice broke and rallied. "Don't worry, we'll manage."

And Caroline had found herself promising to see what she could do. Her mother was still thanking her as she hung up. That was what Tom didn't understand: how easy it was to play the good son across 3,000 miles of ocean. He could phone every week, pay for a cleaning woman, visit at Christmas with no danger, not the slightest, of being trapped. The same for Malcolm, sitting in his grim little cottage in Durham. They were men, they had real jobs, they were far away. Whereas for Caroline, if she once crossed that threshold . . .

"Ms. Simpson!" One of the women from the next table was standing over her, beaming. Caroline regarded the freckled face without a shred of recognition.

"You don't remember me? Marjorie Styles. You had me for English."

"Marjorie," Caroline exclaimed, hoping to hide her amnesia, and they were off on the merry-go-round. What Marjorie was doing here - married; what Caroline was doing here. She joined the messy table and met the friend, the children, two of them Marjorie's.

"Ms. Simpson was the best teacher I ever had," said Marjorie. "She changed my life."

The friend was still exclaiming as Caroline, babbling good wishes, backed away. One more second and she would have asked the unforgivable: Was she really a good teacher?

The next morning, Tom had them on the road by 9:30. The doors of his gleaming car snapped shut like the gates of a prison. No escape now, Caroline thought. But for the first few miles of the drive north, he chatted brightly about his and Bethany's plans to buy a house. "We might try to find a place up this way." He waved toward the skyline. "I've always wanted to live by the water."

"Again," said Caroline.


"We grew up by the sea. If you remember." On stormy nights, the sound of waves pounding on the nearby cliffs had filled the silences at the supper table.

"Of course I remember. Though this is very different."

Looking around, as a sign to Beverly flashed by, she could only agree. The scrubby oak trees, the billboards and malls, even the telegraph poles were different. Tom was talking now about a friend who'd been made professor of crowns and bridges, a patient who'd been hit by a baseball. After 20 minutes of dental gossip, it was almost a relief when he said, "So, do you want to tell me what happened?"

"There's not much to say." Caroline followed the flight of three ducks skimming the treetops. "I lost my temper, shook a boy, he told his parents, they went nuts."

"Was he hurt?"

"Of course not. He's a hefty 16-year-old. I only grabbed his shoulders for a minute."

"Was there provocation?"

"He made a stupid crack, about homework." For the life of her, she couldn't remember Stewart's words. "You know, this isn't fatal. They'll hold a formal hearing. The head has already told me I'll be given a warning and reinstated."

Tom made a little noise; they passed a minivan. "Let me ask you something," he said. "Are you happy?"

If she could, she would have grabbed the wheel and steered them into the nearest tree. "What an American you've become, thinking everyone ought to be happy. Happiness doesn't come up much. Mostly I just get on with it." Her tone was pure acid; there was a certain pleasure, letting the bitterness spill out.

But her brother wasn't intimidated. "Caroline, if you're fed up with teaching, you can train to do something else. I'll help you."

Along the side of the road, two men jogged single file. "Have you noticed," she said, "in Cambridge there are no old people? It's a bit sinister, everyone's so young and fit."

"Of course there are old people, just not as many. It's a university town."

"But you forget," she said. "You forget that Mum and Dad aren't as young as they used to be."

"Actually, I don't. I phone every week and get a rundown of their aches and pains. Given Dad's Alzheimer's, they don't seem to manage too badly. Why did you shake the boy?"

"Are you and Bethany going to have children?" she countered.

For the first time, his good humor faltered. "I hope so. We'd like to, but . . ."

She swept on. "You know what I realized recently? All three of us are barren. Not a bonnie bairn between us."

"Not barren," said Tom indignantly. "We just haven't taken the plunge yet."

"You're 35, I'm 37, Malcolm's 40. The day after the funeral, Mum phoned to ask if I would come home to help with Dad. She has to tie him to a chair when she goes to the shops."

She stared out of the window - there, now he knew - and saw they were winding along a side road lined with well-kept wooden houses. "Where are we going?" she asked.

"To The Paper House. Did you say yes to Mum?"

Caroline studied a bicycle, the old-fashioned kind, leaning against a wall. "I said I'd see what I could do."

"But you have a job. You can't just drop everything."

Hearing her own words in his voice, Caroline was struck by how stingy they sounded. Wasn't the whole point of a job that someone else could do it? But before she could speak, they were pulling up in front of a small, darkish house. "The Paper House," read a sign hanging from the eaves.

"This is all made of newspaper," Tom said as he ushered her inside. "Well, not the floor and the roof but the walls are paper, 215 layers, and so is the furniture."

They moved through the porch into a single room. Caroline gazed around her in delight. A clock, a desk, a radio cabinet, a lamp, were fashioned out of newspapers, though so filmed by age and varnish that only the headlines were readable. "Who on earth did this? What a cuckoo idea."

"The chap who built it was an engineer who read three papers a day. He began the house as a hobby and one thing just led to another."

She moved to examine the piano; it was covered in rolls of paper. "You know, in the museum I ran into a former pupil. She said I was the best teacher she'd ever had."

Tom looked over from the desk, made from newspapers about Lindbergh's flight. "I believe that."

"But recently I've felt like a broken record, playing the same message over and over to the same unreceptive kids. Don't," she said, seeing him about to speak, "don't say we can fix this."

He was stepping across the small room. "Did you accost the boy before or after Mum called?" He seized her shoulders and began to shake her, gently at first and then, when she didn't answer, harder so that her teeth, with their many fillings, rattled.

"After," she said, and he let go. She steadied herself on the table with the postcard display.

"You don't have to do this," Tom was saying. "You can always change your mind. We can phone tomorrow and tell them the school needs you. We can pay for help."

They could phone, if only there was a paper phone in this paper house, they could do it this very minute - Tom would do the talking for her. But even as he spoke, offering escape plans, Caroline understood that the decision she'd thought she was wrestling with, as she visited the sights of New England, had already been made weeks ago in a shabby London classroom. Soon she would be back in the house of their childhood, by the other sea.

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