This blog was featured on 10/08/2018
Francesca Hornak: An Excerpt
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
October 2018
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
October 2018

Our October Guest Editor, Francesca Hornak, is releasing the paperback version of her 2017 hit Seven Days of Us and gave She Writes an exclusive excerpt to share with you. Buy the book now to learn how one family's Christmas-time quarantine will change the holiday forever. 

Andrew

The Study, 34 Gloucester Terrace, Camden, 4:05 p.m.

FROM: Andrew Birch

TO: Ian Croft

DATE: Sat, Dec 17, 2016 at 4:05 p.m.

SUBJECT: copy Dec 27th

Ian, Copy below.

If this one goes without me seeing a proof, I will be spitting blood. Best, Andrew

PS: Do NOT give my “like” the “such as” treatment. It’s fucking infuriating.

PPS: It is houmous. Not hummus.

THE PERCH, Wingham, Berkshire

Food: 3/5 • Atmosphere: 1/5

By the time you read this, my family and I will be under house arrest. Or, more accurately, Haag arrest. On the 23rd my daughter Olivia, a doctor and serial foreign aid worker, will return from treating the Haag epidemic in Liberia—plunging us, her family, into a seven- day quarantine. For exactly one week we are to avoid all contact with the outside world and may only leave the house in an emergency. Should anyone make the mistake of breaking and entering, he or she will be obliged to stay with us, until our quarantine is up. Preparations are already under way for what has become known, in the Birch household, as Groundhaag Week. Waitrose and Amazon will deliver what may well be Britain’s most comprehensive Christmas shop. How many loo rolls does a family of four need over a week? Will two kilograms of porridge oats be sufficient? Should we finally get round to Spiral, or attempt The Missing? The Matriarch has been compiling reading lists, playlists, decluttering lists, and wish lists, ahead of lockdown. Not being a clan that does things by halves, we are decamping from Camden to our house in deepest, darkest Norfolk, the better to appreciate our near-solitary confinement. Spare a thought for millennial Phoebe, who now faces a week of spotty Wi-Fi.

Of course, every Christmas is a quarantine of sorts. The out-of-office is set, shops lie dormant, and friends migrate to the miserable towns from whence they came. Bored spouses cringe at the other’s every cough (January is the divorce lawyer’s busy month—go figure). In this, the most wonderful time of the year, food is the savior. It is food that oils the wheels between deaf aunt and mute teenager. It is food that fills the cracks between siblings with cinnamon- scented nostalgia. And it is food that gives the guilt- ridden mother purpose, reviving Christmases past with that holy trinity of turkey, gravy, and cranberry. This is why restaurants shouldn’t attempt Christmas food. The very reason we go out, at this time of year, is to escape the suffocating vapor of roasting meat and maternal fretting. Abominations like bread sauce have no place on a menu.

The Perch, Wingham, has not cottoned onto this. Thus, it has chosen to herald its opening with an “alternative festive menu” (again, nobody wants alternative Christmas food). Like all provincial gastropubs, its decor draws extensively on the houmous section of the Farrow & Ball color chart. Service was smilingly haphazard. Bread with “Christmas spiced butter” was good, and warm, though we could have done without the butter, which came in a sinister petri dish and was a worrying brown. We started with a plate of perfectly acceptable, richly peaty smoked salmon, the alternative element being provided by a forlorn sprig of rosemary. The Matriarch made the mistake of ordering lemon sole—a flap of briny irrelevance. My turkey curry was a curious puddle of yellow, cumin-heavy slop, whose purpose seemed to be to smuggle four stringy nuggets past the eater, incognito. We finished with an unremarkable cheeseboard and mincemeat crème brûlée, which The Matriarch declared tooth-achingly sweet, yet wolfed down nonetheless.

Do not be disheartened, residents of Wingham. My hunch is that you, and your gilet- clad neighbors, will relish the chance to alternate your festive menu. We Birches must embrace a week of turkey sandwiches. Wish us luck.

Andrew sat back and paused before sending the column to Ian Croft—his least favorite subeditor at The World. The Perch hadn’t been bad, considering its location. It had actually been quite cozy, in a parochial sort of way. He might even have enjoyed the night in the chintzy room upstairs, with its trouser press and travel kettle, if he and Emma still enjoyed hotels in that way. He remembered the owners, an eager, perspiring couple, coming out to shake his hand and talk about “seasonality” and their “ethos,” and considered modifying the lemon sole comment. Then he left it. People in Berkshire didn’t read The World. Anyway, all publicity et cetera.

The main thing was the bit about his own life. He felt he had made his family sound suitably jolly. The truth was, he wasn’t much looking forward to a week at Weyfield, the chilly Norfolk manor house Emma had inherited. He never quite knew what to say to his older daughter, Olivia. She had a disconcerting way of looking at him, deadly serious and faintly revolted, as if she saw right into his soul and found it wanting. And Emma would be in a tailspin of elated panic all week, at having Olivia home for once. At least Phoebe would be there, a frivolous counterpoint to the other two. Sometimes he felt like he and his younger daughter had more in common than he and Emma—especially now that Phoebe worked in the media. Hearing about the hopeless TV production company where she freelanced, and where all the men were in love with her, always made him laugh. He was about to shout upstairs to Phoebe to ask if she’d like to help him review a new sushi place when an unread e-mail caught his eye. It was from a name he didn’t recognize, indicating some unsolicited rubbish from a publicist. But the subject, “Hello,” made him pause. It read:

FROM: Jesse Robinson

TO: Andrew Birch

DATE: Sat, Dec 17, 2016 at 4:08 p.m.

SUBJECT: Hello

Dear Andrew, I understand that this message may come as something of a shock, but I wanted to connect because I believe you are my birth father. My late birth mother was a Lebanese woman named Leila Deeba, who I imagine you met as a reporter in Beirut, 1980. She had me adopted soon after I was born, and I was raised by my adoptive parents in Iowa. I now live in Los Angeles, where I produce documentaries, primarily on health and well-being. I will be in Britain over the holiday season, researching a project, and I would very much like to meet you, if you’d feel comfortable with that.

Yours,

Jesse

PS: I’m a big fan of your columns!

“Are you all right?” said Emma, coming into his study. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Really?” said Andrew. “I’m fine. Just fine.” His laptop was facing away from her, but he shut it anyway. “I’ve just filed my column. And how are you?” Andrew had always been surprised by his own ability to sound composed, even genial, when his mind was reeling.

“Fab!” said Emma. “I look forward to reading it. I’m just nipping out to John Lewis. I need to get some last things. Well, not last, but some more things for, um, Olivia’s stocking. And I, I should get some more wrapping paper . . . ” She tailed off, looking over his head at the clock. Andrew registered that his wife was speaking too quickly. But shock was still pounding through his body. She said something about what time she’d be back, and left. Andrew sat, reading the e-mail over and over again. Here it was, the voice he had been half dreading, half expecting. He thought back to that sultry night in Beirut, 1980, the one he had tried to convince himself had never happened. 

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