Fiona’s father fills the sink with hot soapy water, eschewing her offer to use Luc’s rubber gloves. She was astounded when he’d insisted on washing the dishes. Since when has he done household chores? she wonders. The possibility that maybe she doesn’t know him very well enters her conscience.
— Great dinner, Fiona, her father says. I love a roast chicken. It’s been eons.
Doesn’t Lorelei cook? she thinks. Then checks herself for having such a politically incorrect thought.
— I’m glad you liked it, Dad. It’s one of Gavin’s favs, too. Did you notice how he makes a well in his mashed potatoes and fills it with gravy? He used to call it a volcano when he was little, and he’d pour the gravy in it until it overflowed! It’s so cute that he still does it.
— He’s at that half-way stage, one foot in adolescence, one in childhood, says her father. He’s a very nice boy. So like you at that age: studious, serious.
He begins washing the glasses then rinsing them under steaming water.
— I’m glad we have this time, just the two of us, he says. Although it’s not good that Luc has to work in the evenings. Still, it gives us the chance to talk about that letter you sent.
— About your will.
— Yes. It was nicely written by the way. Believe me, I’ve seen lots of these.
— Writing is my profession, says Fiona.
No need to mention the mediator’s help, she thinks.
— Yes. Well, I talked it over with Lorelei, because of course she’s affected the most. We had quite the discussion.
He pauses in his washing, turns the tap off and faces Fiona.
— Actually, we had a big blow out over it. The upshot is that it’s not just about her; she wants to be able to look after her children too, which is understandable. But as I pointed out to her, they have their own father. They aren’t my kids, so I feel my responsibility is limited in that regard.
Fiona’s heart quickens, seems to expand to fill her chest. Her kids! What about us! she thinks. Is he leaving us a legacy of bitterness? She can’t look him in the eye, and concentrates instead on drying a wine glass.
— She has how many kids? Fiona asks with an effort at calmness. Ask simple questions to buy time, she thinks.
— Three. And they don’t really seem very capable of looking after themselves. Two went all artsy, but they don’t really have the talent, which has to be supremely disappointing to them. One’s a chronically unemployed actor and the other does weird digital photography — which costs a fortune to produce, what with the fancy computers and programs and giclée reproductions and all — and it never sells. I mean who’d buy something that can be endlessly reproduced?
He holds up his soapy hand.
— Don’t get me started.
— And the third? Fiona asks.
— He’s a perennial student. Thirty-three and still working on his doctorate — nine years now. And of course the funding has long since dried up.
— And you’re supporting all three? Fiona asks, thinking of all the years she and Luc saved for the house, all the compromises they made.
— To some degree. Mostly Lorelei takes care of them. She makes a decent salary teaching, and even if she has to take early retirement because of her arthritis, she’ll still have a good pension.
— So, what’s the problem?
— She’s worried that after I’m gone her pension won’t cover everything, propping them up financially, plus her own living expenses and travel and whatnot. I assured her that wouldn’t be a problem, that there would be plenty. Then it emerged that what she’s really worried about is what will happen to them later, after she dies. She wants to make sure they’re well taken care of.
— And so her kids take priority over yours? says Fiona bluntly.
— It’s not that simple, Fee.
— Isn’t it? she asks, meeting his eyes. It seems pretty straightforward. You have a son who is mentally ill, who can’t support himself. And it’s not like he chose this. Like he wanted to be an actor, but failed, or a visual artist. He’s ill. Right now he’s living in a temporary half-way kind of house, but he’s only allowed to stay six months. That’s not long enough. And if he doesn’t get financial help he’s going to wind up living with Mom again, which would definitely set him back. He’s so isolated there. And I know him, he’ll just fall back into old habits.
— If it’s so dire, why hasn’t he said anything to me? her father asks.
— He’s not comfortable doing that. He doesn’t think you care.
— I do care.
— Well, look at it from his vantage point Dad. From mine too, come to think of it, she adds quickly. We get the annual phone call at Christmas and a cheque in the mail. That’s it. No call on our birthdays even. And it’s been like that practically since you left.
— I had Neil out one summer.
— Yeah, and you left him alone in your apartment all day while you were working and half the night while you out with Lorelei. Some fun for a fifteen-year-old.
— I can’t be responsible for entertaining him, he says defensively.
— No, maybe not. Anyway, that’s all water under the bridge, she says. The fact is he needs you now.
— You have to look at this from my perspective too, Fiona. Your mother didn’t exactly make it easy for me to see you. I was just the money machine. I was given one week a year with Neil. That’s it. And then that ended.
— You’re the one who moved across the country, says Fiona.
— Yes, I did. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t have seen him more often. I offered to fly him out so many times and she always said no. She wouldn’t even put him on the phone so I could ask him if he wanted to visit. I admit I could have done better that one summer. I blew it, okay. Is that what you want to hear?
— I don’t need to hear it, says Fiona. It’s Neil you should talk to.
— And what about you? he asks.
*The definitive roast chicken dinner
Five pound roasting chicken (free range)
Salt and pepper
1 lemon, cut in quarters
½ onion, peeled and cut in thirds
Handful parsley, washed
6 parsnips, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
6 carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
8 potatoes, peeled and quartered
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup butter
¼ cup (or more) milk
1 chicken bouillon cube
flour to thicken
- Take bird out of fridge two hours ahead of time. Get to room temperature.
- Preheat oven to 450 °F.
- Wash inside cavity, pull out excess fat and other stuff. Dry inside.
- Shake salt and pepper inside cavity. Stuff with lemon, onion and parsley. Fold pinion (small part of wing) under the bird and tie legs loosely with cotton string (not plastic!).
- Insert thermometer in thigh.
- Position in a roasting pan and roast 15 minutes (turn fan on high; there will be smoke!).
- Meanwhile, parboil the parsnips and carrots for five minutes.
- Turn oven heat down to 400 °F. Add potatoes and carrots around the bird.
- Roast bird until thermometer reads 160 to 180 degrees.
- When the bird is nearly done, cover potatoes with water in large pot, bring to boil. Add salt and cook until tender. Drain, retaining water, and mash with butter and milk.
- Move the bird from the pan to a platter, cover with tea towel and let rest 20 minutes.
- Turn off oven. Put vegetables in an oven-proof dish and place in the oven.
- To make gravy, drain fat out of roasting pan, keeping 2 or 3 tablespoons. Place roasting pan on stove, over medium-low heat. Scrap edges of pan, add crumbled bouillon cube and flour to thicken. Cook thick paste a minute or so. Gradually whisk in potato water. If the gravy is lumpy, strain it in a sieve. No one needs to know!
- Carve chicken, serve with parsnips and carrots, mashed potatoes and a green vegetable or salad. Pass gravy at the table.