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  • Published: 29 March 2022
  • ISBN: 9781784744632
  • Imprint: Chatto & Windus
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 256
  • RRP: $35.00

French Braid

The Sunday Times Bestseller

Extract

This happened back in March of 2010, when the Philadelphia train station still had the kind of information board that clickety- clacked as the various gate assignments rolled up. Serena Drew stood directly in front of it, gazing intently at the listing for the next train to Baltimore. Why did they wait so long to post their gates here? In Baltimore, they told people farther ahead.

Her boyfriend was standing beside her, but he was more relaxed. Having sent a single glance toward the board, he was studying his phone now. He shook his head at some message and then flicked on down to the next one.

The two of them had just had Sunday lunch at James’s parents’ house. It had been Serena’s first meeting with them. For the past two weeks she had fretted about it, planning what to wear (jeans and a turtleneck, finally— the regulation grad-student outfit, so as not to seem to be trying too hard) and scouring her mind for possible topics of conversation. But things had gone fairly well, she thought. His parents had greeted her warmly and asked her right away to call them George and Dora, and his mother was such a chatterbox that conversation had not been an issue. “Next time,” she’d told Serena after the meal, “you’ll have to meet James’s sisters too and their hubbies and their kiddies. We just didn’t want to overwhelm you on your very first visit.”

Next time. First visit. That had sounded encouraging.

Now, though, Serena couldn’t even summon a sense of triumph. She was too limp with sheer relief; she felt like a wrungout dishrag.

She and James had met at the start of the school year. James was so good-looking that she’d been surprised when he suggested going for coffee after class. He was tall and lean, with a mop of brown hair and a closely trimmed beard. (Serena, on the other hand, came very close to plump, and her ponytail was almost the same shade of beige as her skin.) In seminars he had a way of lounging back in his seat, not taking notes or appearing to listen, but then he would pop up with something unexpectedly astute. She had worried he would find her dull by comparison. One-on-one, though, he turned out to be easy company. They went to a lot of movies together and to inexpensive restaurants; and her parents, who lived in town, had already had the two of them to dinner several times and said they liked him very much.

Philadelphia’s train station was more imposing than Baltimore’s. It was vast, with an impossibly high, coffered ceiling and chandeliers like upside-down skyscrapers. Even the passengers seemed a cut above Baltimore passengers. One woman, Serena saw, was followed by her own redcap wheeling a cartload of matching luggage. As Serena was admiring the luggage (dark-brown, gleaming leather, with brass fittings), she happened to notice a young man in a suit who had paused to let the cart roll past him. “Oh,” she said.

James looked up from his phone. “Hmm?”
“I think that might be my cousin,” she said in an undertone.
“Where?”
“That guy in the suit.”
“You think it’s your cousin?”
“I’m not really sure.”

They studied the man. He seemed older than they were, but not by much. (It might just have been the suit.) He had Serena’s pale hair and her sharply peaked lips, but while her eyes were the usual Garrett- family blue, his were a pale, almost ethereal gray, noticeable even from several yards’ distance. He was staying where he was, looking up at the information board now, although the luggage cart had moved on.

“It might be my cousin Nicholas,” Serena said.
“Maybe he just resembles Nicholas,” James said. “Seems to me if it was really him, you could say for certain.”
“Well, it’s been a while since we’ve seen each other,” Serena said. “He’s my mom’s brother David’s son; they live up here in Philly.”
“So just go ask him, why not.”
“But if I’m wrong, I would look like a fool,” Serena said.

James squinted at her dubiously.

“Oh, well, too late now anyhow,” she said, because whoever it was had evidently found out what he needed to know. He turned to set off toward the other side of the station, hitching the strap of his overnight bag higher on his shoulder, and Serena went back to consulting the board. “What is the gate number usually?” she asked. “Maybe we could just take a chance and head on over there.”

“It’s not as if the train will leave the minute they announce it,” James told her. “First we’ll have to line up at the top of the stairs and wait awhile.”
“Yes, but I worry we won’t get to sit together.”

He gave her the crinkly-eyed smile that she loved. “Isn’t that just like you” was what it meant.

“Okay, so I’m overthinking this,” she told him.
“Anyhow,” he said, switching the subject. “Even if it’s been a while, seems like you’d know your own cousin.”
“Would you know all your cousins, out of the blue?” she asked.
“Yes,” James said.
“You would?”
“Well, sure!”

But he had lost interest, she could tell. He sent a glance toward the food court along the opposite wall. “I could use a soda,” he told her.

“You can buy one on the train,” she said.
“You want anything yourself?”
“I’ll wait till we’re on the train.”

But he missed her point. He said, “Grab us a place in line if they post the gate while I’m gone, okay?” And off he went, without a thought.

This was the first time they’d taken a trip together, even this little day trip. Serena was slightly disappointed that he didn’t share her travel anxiety.

As soon as she was alone, she drew her compact out of her backpack and checked her teeth in the mirror. Dessert had been a sort of fruit crumble with walnut bits in the topping, and she could still feel them lingering in her mouth. Ordinarily she’d have excused herself after lunch and ducked into the powder room, but time had gotten away from them— “Oh! Oh!” Dora had said. “Your train!”— and they had all left for the station in a flurry, James’s father driving and James sitting next to him, while Dora and Serena sat together in back so that, as Dora had put it, “we gals can have a nice cozy chat.” That was when she’d said what she’d said about Serena’s meeting James’s sisters. “Tell me,” she had said then, “how many siblings do you have, dear?”

“Oh, just a brother,” Serena said. “But he was nearly grown before I came along. I’ve always wished I had sisters.” Then she had blushed, because it might have sounded as if she were talking about marrying into James’s family or something.

Dora had sent her a little tucked smile and reached over to pat her hand.

Serena had meant that literally, though. Ensconced in her parents’ small household, she had envied her school friends with their swarms of relatives all mixed up and shrieking with laughter and fighting for space and attention. Some had step siblings, even, and stepmothers and stepfathers they could pick and choose at will and ostracize if things didn’t work out, like rich people discarding perfectly okay food while the undernourished gazed longingly from the sidelines.

Well, you just wait and see, she used to tell herself. Wait until you see what your future family’s going to look like!

The train to Baltimore was five minutes delayed now, according to the board. Which probably meant fifteen. And they still hadn’t posted the gate number. Serena turned to look for James. There he was, thank goodness, walking toward her holding a drink cup. And next to him, lagging slightly behind, was the man she’d thought might be her cousin. Serena blinked.

“Look who I picked up!” James said as he arrived.
“Serena?” the man asked.
“Nicholas?”
“Well, hey!” he said, and he started to offer his hand but then changed his mind and leaned forward, instead, to give her a clumsy half-hug. He smelled like freshly ironed cotton.

“What are you doing here?” she asked him.
“I’m catching a train to New York.”
“Oh.”
“Got a meeting tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, I see,” she said. She supposed he meant a business meeting. She had no idea what he did for a living. She said, “How are your folks?”
“They’re okay. Well, getting on, of course. Dad might have to have a hip replacement.”
“Oh, bummer,” she said.
“What I did,” James told Serena, rocking slightly from heel to toe, “I noticed him by the newsstand, so I stopped a few feet behind him and said, very low, ‘Nicholas?’ ” He looked pleased with himself.
“First I thought I was imagining things,” Nicholas said. “I kind of glanced sideways, not turning my head— ”
“When it’s a person’s own name they’re quicker to catch it,” James said. “You probably wouldn’t have heard me if I’d said ‘Richard,’ for instance.”
“My mom’s having hip trouble too,” Serena told Nicholas.
“Maybe it’s genetic.”
“Your mom is … Alice?”
“No, Lily.”
“Oh, right. Sorry. But it was you I sat next to at Grandfather Garrett’s funeral, I think.”
“No, that was Candle.”
“I have a cousin named Candle?”
“You guys!” James said, disbelievingly.
“Kendall, her name is really,” Serena went on, ignoring him.
“She just couldn’t say her own name when she was learning to talk.”
“You were there, though, right?” Nicholas asked.
“At the funeral? Oh, yes.”

She’d been there, but she’d been twelve years old. And he had been, what? Somewhere in his mid-teens; a world of difference back then. She hadn’t dared to exchange a word with him. She had studied him from afar as they all milled in front of the funeral home afterwards — his self-contained expression and his pale gray eyes. The eyes came from his mother, Greta, a standoffish woman with a limp and a foreign accent, or at least a not-Baltimore accent. Serena remembered those eyes very well.

“We were supposed to go to lunch with everyone after the service,” Nicholas was telling her, “but Dad had to get back for a school play.”
“Speaking of getting back …” James interrupted. He jabbed a thumb toward the board above them. “We should head to gate 5.”
“Oh, right. Okay, we’d better be going,” Serena told Nicholas.
“I’m so glad we ran into you!”
“Good seeing you too,” he said, and he smiled at her and then lifted a palm toward James and turned to walk away.
“Tell your family hello, hear?” she called.
“I’ll do that,” he called back.

Serena and James gazed after him a moment, although a line was already forming next to the sign for gate 5.

“I have to say,” James said finally, “you guys give a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘once removed.’”

 


French Braid Anne Tyler

A stand-out new family novel from the critically acclaimed, Booker-prize shortlisted author of A Spool of Blue Thread

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