Tilly frowned at the book she was trying to read. She'd made it through the introduction and half of the first chapter, and even though it had only been a few days since she'd put it down, she was having a hard time remembering what arguments had already been presented. She remembered from the first time she'd read it, back when she was pregnant with Owen. It seemed to her that the text had been a lot less dry then.
Maybe it got better towards the end.
She scan-read the first half of Chapter One again, and had just started reading fresh pages when the phone rang. She threw her bookmark in the book and picked up the phone.
"Mrs. Zondernaam? It's Beth. Your daughter-in-law."
"Oh hallo Beth, how are you?" Please don't let this be about Emily and those damn e-mails.
"I'm fine. How's your, uh, job?"
Tilly rolled her eyes. "It's fine. It's a little boring right now. We'll see how long I want to keep it."
"Oh, so you're going to quit?" Beth sounded far too eager for Tilly's liking.
"Eventually, of course. But right now I've just got started."
"I'm so glad you're going to quit. That will be a big relief for Owen and I."
"I said, I'm not quitting quite yet."
"I said I would quit eventually. Not yet."
Tilly heard Owen bellow "What?" in the background. From the humming sounds she could hear over the phone, she guessed that Beth was in the kitchen running the dishwasher and Owen was in the family room. Probably he was watching TV with the girls.
Beth's voice was distorted, like she'd covered the phone with her hand, but Tilly could still hear her. "She's confused. First she said she was quitting her job, but now she says she isn't."
"I never said I was quitting my job right away," Tilly half-shouted into the receiver.
There was a click, and no more sounds came out of the phone. Tilly swore under her breath. Apparently Beth had remembered about the mute button.
I will wait until I hear a dial tone or until five minutes are up, she thought, glancing at her CD player/radio/clock to note the time. She started to open her book again, but it was too awkward for her to do with one hand. The book slipped to the floor. The bookmark fell out and floated to a spot exactly underneath the centre of the coffee table.
Tilly closed her eyes, trying to think of something happy.
"Hello? Hello? Mrs. Zondernaam? She hung up," Beth's voice was saying.
"I'm right here," said Tilly. "I'd appreciate if you'd tell me you're going to put me on hold."
"I didn't," said Beth. "I used the mute button."
"From this end, it's effectively the same thing."
Tilly waited for Beth to say something. She knew she wasn't on hold again, because she could hear the dishwasher hum and, a bit more distantly, a television programme. Ha! she thought. Caught her, and this time she can't say I'm confused.
"Mrs. Zondernaam," said Beth, with the slow, cold voice of someone who is about to punish a very ill-behaved adolescent, "your son and I would feel a lot more comfortable if you were to live in a location more... appropriate for your age."
"There are lots of seniors in this building, and everything I need is a short walk away. Very economical, don't need a car, lots of people on hand if I ever need help with anything, which is rarely."
"But if you were somewhere where supervised care was available when you needed it, when the time comes that you need it..."
"Beth!" The "-th" sound came out the Dutch way and made Tilly spit a little. "I am sixty-seven years old. If I were seventy-seven and infirm, I would think this was an appropriate conversation. Since neither of those things are true, you must stop. You're welcome to talk about this in ten years' time or when I break a hip. Not before."
"You could go the same community my parents are in," said Beth. "My father loves the golf course, and my mother always attends all of the lectures on money management..."
"I don't golf, and I don't need to be lectured on how to save money. Now, did you want to talk about anything else? How are Mercedes and Emily?"
"I'm not done talking about this, Mrs. Zondernaam."
"I am. How are Mercedes and Emily?"
Tilly waited, but only the dishwasher and the TV show made any sound over the line. "Is Owen there?"
"He stepped out."
Liar, thought Tilly. She remembered a rule of Marcus's from when he was working on a big sale. Eventually, during negotiations, there would be a silence in the conversation, and whoever tried to fill it would always wind up losing any advantage in the deal. All right, she was losing. It was time to cut and run.
"Well, I better let you go, Beth," she said. "I appreciate you're trying to take care of me, but I really don't think that's appropriate for me quite yet. Say hallo to everyone for me."
"I just wish you would consider it," said Beth. "Bye." The connection cut immediately.
Tilly replaced the phone on its cradle and closed her eyes.
"Don't let her get to you, Tilly." The language was Dutch, and the voice was directly behind her. Tilly started and twisted around to see one of the men who had been at her parents' doorstep all those years ago. At least, he was dressed like one of them, grey boiler suit, black bow tie... In one hand he held his flat cap. In the other, he held up her bookmark.
"Don't lose your place now," he said, and put the bookmark carefully on the coffee table. Tilly stared down at it as if it had come alive, then back at where the man had been, but he had disappeared.
But the bookmark was on the coffee table, not under it like it had been before. Tilly made herself get up and look around the apartment. No-one was there, and the chains were on the door.
She sank back into her armchair, shaking, and let herself cry.