The Last of August, p.1Brittany Cavallaro
For Emily and me, in Berlin
“Do you know what love is? I’ll tell you: it is whatever you can still betray.”
THE LOOKING GLASS WAR, JOHN LE CARRÉ
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Books by Brittany Cavallaro
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IT WAS LATE DECEMBER IN THE SOUTH OF ENGLAND, AND though it was only three in the afternoon, the sky outside Charlotte Holmes’s bedroom window was as black and full as it would’ve been in the Arctic Circle. I’d forgotten about this, somehow, during my months in Connecticut away at Sherringford School, even though I’d grown up with one leg on either side of the Atlantic. When I thought of winter, I thought of those reasonable New England nights that arrived punctually just after dinner, disappearing into morning blue by the time you’d stretched awake in bed. British winter nights were different. They came on in October with a shotgun and held you hostage for the next six months.
It would have been better, all told, if I’d visited Holmes for the first time in the summer. Her family lived in Sussex, a county that hugged England’s southern coast, and from the top floor of the house they’d built you could see the sea. Or you could if you happened to own a pair of night-vision goggles and a vivid imagination. England’s December darkness would have put me into a mood all by itself, but Holmes’s family manor was stuck up on a hill like a fortress. I kept waiting for lightning to break the sky above it or for some poor, tortured mutant to come stumbling out of its cellar, mad scientist in hot pursuit.
The inside didn’t do much to dispel the feeling that I was in a horror movie. But a different kind of horror movie—some art-house Scandinavian deal. Long dark uncomfortable couches that weren’t designed to be sat on. White walls hung with white abstract paintings. A baby grand lurking in a corner. In short, the kind of place that vampires lived in. Really well-mannered vampires. And everywhere, silence.
Holmes’s rooms in the basement were the messy, living heart of that cold house. Her bedroom had dark walls and industrial shelving and books, books everywhere, organized alphabetically on shelves or tossed on the floor with their pages flung open. In the room beside, a chemistry table crowded with beakers and burners. Succulent plants, twisted and knobbled in their little pots, that she fed a mixture of vinegar and almond milk each morning from an eyedropper. (“It’s an experiment,” Holmes told me when I protested. “I’m trying to kill them. Nothing kills them.”) The floors were scattered with papers and coins and busted cigarettes, and still, in all the endless clutter, there wasn’t a single speck of dust or dirt. It was what I’d come to expect from her, except for maybe her stash of chocolate biscuits and the entire hardbound Encyclopedia Britannica, which she kept in the low bookshelf that served as her nightstand. Apparently Holmes liked to pore over it on her bed, cigarette in hand. Today was volume C, the entry “Czechoslovakia,” and for some unknowable reason, she’d insisted on reading the whole of it out loud to me while I paced back and forth in front of her.
Well. There might have been a reason. It was a way to avoid our talking about anything real.
While she spoke, I tried to avoid looking at the Sherlock Holmes novels she’d stacked on top of volumes D and E. They were her father’s, filched from his study. We’d lost her own copies in a bomb blast this fall, along with her chemical experiments, my favorite scarf, and a good deal of my trust in the human race. Those Sherlock Holmes stories reminded me of the girl she was when we met, the girl I’d so badly wanted to know.
In the last few days, we’d somehow managed to retreat backwards from our easy friendship, back to that old territory of distrust and unknowability. The thought made me sick, made me want to climb the walls. It made me want to lay it all out at her feet so we could begin to fix it.
I didn’t do that. Instead, in the grand tradition of our friendship, I picked a fight about something completely different.
“Where is it?” I asked her. “Why can’t you just tell me where it is?”
“It wasn’t until 1918 that Czechoslovakia liberated itself from the Russo-Hungarian Empire and became the country as we knew it in the twentieth century.” She ashed her Lucky Strike on the coverlet. “Then, a series of events that transpired in the 1940s—”
“Holmes.” I waved a hand in front of her face. “Holmes. I asked you about Milo’s suit.”
She batted me away. “During which the state did not precisely exist as it had before—”
“The suit that definitely won’t fit me. That costs more than my father’s house. The suit that you’re making me wear.”
“Until that particular territory was ceded to the then–Soviet Union in 1945.” She squinted down at the volume, cigarette dangling from her fingers. “I can’t make out the next bit. I must have spilled something on this page the last time I read it.”
“So you reread this entry a lot. A little Eastern Europe before bed. Just as good as Nancy Drew.”
“No one. Look,” I said, growing impatient, “I understand your wanting me to ‘dress for dinner,’ and that you can say those words with a straight face because you grew up with this level of unbearable suffocating poshness, and I don’t know, maybe you like that it makes me uncomfortable—”
She blinked at me, a bit stung. Every word out of my mouth today was crueler than I wanted it to be. “Okay, fine,” I said, backtracking, “so I’m having a very American panic attack, but your brother’s rooms are locked down more tightly than the Pentagon—”
“Please. Milo has better security than that,” she said. “Do you need the access code? I can text him for it. He changes it remotely every two days.”
“The code to his childhood bedroom. He changes it. From Berlin.”
“Well, he’s the head of a mercenary company.” She reached for her phone. “Can’t have anyone finding Mr. Wiggles. Plush bunnies need the same protection as state secrets, you know.”
I laughed, and she smiled back at me, and for a moment I forgot we weren’t getting along.
“Holmes,” I said, the way I’d done so often in the past—out of reflex, as punctuation, with nothing I really planned to say after.
She let the moment hang longer than was usual. When she finally said “Watson,” it was with hesitation.
I thought of the questions I wanted to ask her. All the horrible things I could say instead. But all I said was, “Why are you reading to me about Czechoslovakia?”
Her smile tightened. “Because my father is having the Czech ambassador to dinner tonight along with the newest Louvre curator, and I thought we might as well be prepared, because I rather doubt you know anything about Eastern Europe without my guidance, and we want to prove to my mother that you’re not an idiot. Oh,” she said, as her phone pinged, “Milo’s changed the code to 666, just for us. Charming. Go on and fetch your suit, but be quick. We still need to discuss the Velvet Revolution of 1989.”
At that moment, I wanted to take up arms myself. Curators? Ambassadors? Her mother thinking I was stupid? I was, as usual, in over my head.
To be fair, my own father had insinuated that this would be a diffic
“Well,” my father had said, “if you insist on going to stay with them, I’m sure you’ll have a very . . . nice time. The house is lovely.” He’d paused, clearly searching for something else to say. “And Holmes’s parents are . . . ah. Well. You know, I heard they had six bathrooms in that house. Six!”
This was foreboding. “Leander will be there,” I’d said, a bit desperate for something to look forward to. Holmes’s uncle was my father’s former flatmate and longtime best friend.
“Yes! Leander. Very good. Leander will surely act as a buffer between you and . . . anything you need a buffer for. Excellent.” Then he’d trotted out something about my stepmother needing him in the kitchen and hung up, leaving me with a whole new host of doubts about Christmas.
As soon as Holmes had brought up the idea of us spending the break together, I’d begun imagining us somewhere like my mother’s apartment in London. Sweaters, and cocoa, maybe watching a Doctor Who special by the fire. Holmes in some bobbly knit hat, dismembering a chocolate orange. We were, in fact, already sprawled out on my living room couch when Holmes told me to stop avoiding the subject and just ask my mother if I could go down to Sussex. I’d been actively avoiding that conversation. “Be diplomatic,” Holmes had said, then paused. “By that I mean, plan out what you want to say, and then don’t say it.”
It was no use. Holmes and my father had predicted her reaction more or less exactly. When I told her our plans, she began shouting so loudly about Lucien Moriarty that the usually unflappable Holmes backed herself bodily into a corner.
“You almost died,” my mother concluded. “The Moriartys almost killed you. And you want to spend Christmas in their enemy’s stronghold?”
“Their stronghold? What do you think this is, Batman?” I started laughing. Across the room, Holmes buried her head in her hands. “Mum. I’ll be fine. I’m almost an adult, I can decide what to do with my holiday. You know, I told Dad not to tell you about that whole near-death thing. I said that you’d overreact, and I was right.”
There was a long pause, and then the shouting got somewhat louder.
When she capitulated—which she finally did, with extreme prejudice—it came with a price. Our last few days in London were miserable. My mother sniped at me for everything from the cleanliness of the living room to the way my English accent had returned, with a vengeance, on my return to London. It’s like that girl even took away your voice, she told me. Maybe I had pushed my mother a little too far to begin with; she certainly wasn’t happy I’d brought Holmes to visit in the first place. I think it would’ve been a relief to both of them had she stayed behind, but I had a point I wanted to make—I was tired of my mother’s disdain for someone she’d never met. Someone who was important to me. For my sake, my mother should be able to accept my best friend for the brilliant, thrilling girl she was.
That worked out about as well as you’d expect.
Holmes and I spent a lot of time out of the house.
I took her to my favorite bookstore, where I loaded her up with Ian Rankin novels and she bullied me into buying a book on European snails. I took her to the chip shop on the corner, where she distracted me by giving a detailed-and-probably-bullshit account of her brother’s sex life (drones, cameras, his rooftop pool) while she ate all my fried fish and left her own plate untouched. I took her for a walk along the Thames, where I showed her how to skip a stone and she nearly punctured a hole in a passing pontoon boat. We went to my favorite curry place. Twice. In one day. She’d gotten this look on her face when she took her first bite of their pakora, this blissful, lids-lowered look, and two hours later I decided I needed to see it again. It was so good to see her happy that it made up for the embarrassment I felt that night, when I found her instructing my sister, Shelby, on the best way to bleach out bloodstains, using the curry dribble on my shirt as a test case.
In short, it was both the best three days I’d ever had, my mother notwithstanding, and a fairly standard week with Charlotte Holmes. My sister, unused to this phenomenon, was completely overcome. Shelby had taken to trailing Holmes like a shadow, dressing in all black and straightening her hair, dragging her away to show off things in her room. I didn’t know exactly what things were, but from the lilting, earnest music coming from under the door, I had a feeling that their soundtrack was L.A.D., Shelby’s boy band du jour. My guess was that Shelby was showing off her paintings. My mother had told me that my sister had taken up art with a passion while I’d been away, but that so far, she’d been too shy to show anyone what she’d made.
Not that I would have known what to say to her about it. I didn’t know a whole lot about art. I knew what I liked, what made me feel something—portraits, usually. I liked things that felt secret. Scenes set in a dark room. Mysterious books and bottles, or a girl with her face turned away. When asked, I trotted out Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson as my favorite work of art, though to be honest, I’d lost the ability to call it up clearly in my head. I tended to spend too much time with my favorite things, loved them too hard until I wore them down. After a while, they became more like a shorthand for who I was and less like things I actually enjoyed.
“Shelby wanted my advice, and I know enough to give her my opinion,” Holmes was saying. I’d asked if she’d been talking to my sister about her art. It was our last night in London; we were leaving for Sussex the next afternoon. My mother had turned my bedroom into a study, so we were where we’d been all week—on a pair of hideaway mattresses in the living room, our bags stacked behind us like a barricade. The sky outside was beginning to lighten. One tradeoff of being friends with Holmes was sleep. As in, you never did again.
“Enough?” I asked.
“My father thought it was an important part of my education. I can go on endlessly about color and composition, thanks to him and”—she scowled—“my old tutor, Professor Demarchelier.”
I propped myself up on one arm. “Do you . . . make art?” It struck me, then, how little I knew about her, how all the facts of her life before this September had come to me either secondhand or in bits and reluctant pieces. She’d had a cat named Mouse. Her mother was a chemist. But I had no idea what her first bought book had been, or if she’d ever wanted to be a marine biologist, or even what she was like when she wasn’t wanted for murder. She played the violin, of course, and so I imagine she’d tried out other kinds of art as well. I tried to imagine what a Holmes painting would look like. A girl in a dark room, I thought, with her face turned away, but as I watched her, she tilted her face toward me.
“I don’t have the skill, and I don’t invest my time in things I’m rubbish at. But I am a fair critic. Your sister is quite good. A nice sense of composition, an interesting use of color. See? There you go. Art talk. Her range is limited, though. I saw about thirty paintings of your neighbor’s dog.”
“Woof is usually sleeping in their backyard.” I smiled at her. “Makes him an easy subject.”
“We could take her to the Tate Modern. Tomorrow morning, before we go. If you wanted.” She stretched her arms out above her head. In the darkness, her skin looked like cream in a pitcher. I jerked my eyes back up to her face. It was late, and when it was late, I had these kinds of slippages.
I had them all the time, if I was being honest. At four in the morning, I could admit to that.
“The Tate,” I said, pulling myself together. Her offer had sounded genuine. “Sure. If you actually want to. You’ve been really nice to Shelby already. I think you’ve heard enough L.A.D. for a
“I love L.A.D.,” she said, deadpan.
“You like ABBA,” I reminded her. “So I don’t actually know if that’s a joke. Next I’m going to find out that you wear a fanny pack in the summer. Or that you had a poster of Harry Styles in your room when you were eleven.”
“You did not.”
“It was Prince Harry, actually,” she said, folding her arms, “and he was a very good dresser. I have an appreciation for fine tailoring. Anyway, I was eleven years old, and lonely, and if you don’t stop smirking at me, I will come over there and—”
“Yes, I’m sure it was his fine tailoring you appreciated, and not his—”
She hit me with her pillow.
“To think,” I said through a mouthful of goose down. “You’re a Holmes. Your family’s famous. You could have maybe made it happen. Princess Charlotte, and the bad-boy spare. God knows you’re pretty enough to pull it off. I can see it now—you in a tiara, doing that screwing-in-a-lightbulb wave in the back of some convertible.”
“You would have had to make speeches. To orphans, and general assemblies. You’d have to have your photo taken with puppies.”
“What? You know I’m teasing. The way you grew up is just beyond me.” I was rambling, I knew it, but I was too tired to put the brakes on. “You’ve seen our flat. It’s a glorified closet. You’ve seen how my mother gets all weird and tight-lipped when you talk about your family. I think she worries that I’m going to go to the Sussex Downs and get sucked in by the decadent, mysterious Holmeses and never come back. And you smile politely and bite back whatever you actually think of her, and my sister, and where we live. Which, let’s face it, has probably taken a ton of effort on your part, because you’re not particularly nice. You don’t have to be. You’re fancy, Charlotte Holmes. Repeat after me. I’m fancy, and Jamie Watson’s a peasant.”
The Last of August by Brittany Cavallaro / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes