There aren't a lot of private communal areas in our house so Ollie guides the police to the dining room and pulls out a couple of chairs. I follow, pushing my newly folded laundry into a basket. The piles collapse into each other like tumbling buildings. The police sit on the chairs, Ollie balances on the arm of the sofa, and I remain sharply upright, stiff. Bracing.
"Firstly I need to confirm that you are relatives of Diana Goodwin—"
"Yes," Ollie says, "she's my mother."
"Then I'm very sorry to inform you," the policewoman starts, and I close my eyes because I already know what she is going to say.
My mother-in-law is dead.
Ten years ago . . .
Someone once told me that you have two families in your life—the one you are born into and the one you choose. But that's not entirely true, is it? Yes, you may get to choose your partner, but you don't, for instance, choose your children. You don't choose your brothers- or sisters-in-law, you don't choose your partner's spinster aunt with the drinking problem or cousin with the revolving door of girlfriends who don't speak English. More importantly, you don't choose your mother-in-law. The cackling mercenaries of fate determine it all.
"Hello?" Ollie calls. "Anybody home?"
I stand in the yawning foyer of the Goodwins' home and pan around at the marble extending out in every direction. A winding staircase sweeps from the basement up to the first floor beneath a magnificent crystal chandelier. I feel like I've stepped into the pages of a Hello! magazine spread, the ones with the ridiculous photos of celebrities sprawling on ornate furniture, and on grassy knolls in riding boots with golden retrievers at their feet. I've always pictured that this is what the inside of Buckingham Palace must look like, or if not Buckingham, at least one of the smaller palaces—St. James's or Clarence House.
I try to catch Ollie's eye, to . . . what? Admonish him? Cheer? Quite frankly I'm not sure but it's moot since he's already charging into the house, announcing our arrival. To say I'm unprepared for this is the most glorious of understatements. When Ollie had suggested I come to his parents' house for dinner, I'd been picturing lasagna and salad in a quaint, blond-brick bungalow, the kind of home I'd grown up in. I'd pictured an adoring mother clasping a photo album of sepia-colored baby photos and a brusquely proud but socially awkward father, clasping a can of beer and a cautious smile. Instead, artwork and sculptures were uplit and gleaming, and the parents, socially awkward or otherwise, are nowhere to be seen.
"Ollie!" I catch Ollie's elbow and am about to whisper furiously when a plump ruddy-faced man rushes through a large arched doorway at the back of the house, clutching a glass of red wine.
"Dad!" Ollie cries. "There you are!"
"Well, well. Look who the cat dragged in."
Tom Goodwin is the very opposite of his tall, dark-haired son. Short, overweight and unstylish, his red-checked shirt is tucked into chinos that are belted below his substantial paunch. He throws his arms around his son, and Ollie thumps his old man on the back.
"You must be Lucy," Tom says, after releasing Ollie. He takes my hand and pumps it heartily, letting out a low whistle. "My word. Well done, son."
"It's nice to meet you, Mr. Goodwin." I smile.
"Tom! Call me Tom." He smiles at me like he's won the Easter raffle, then he appears to remember himself. "Diana! Diana, where are you? They're here!"