When the Lindens arrived in Los Angeles it was raining. Not drizzling, or even pouring, but streaming down outside the glass doors of the arrivals lounge in thick, grey sideways slices. Water sluiced along the airport roads, tumbling in the gutters, spinning in the wheels of the taxis that splashed up to collect the lucky people at the head of the queue.
Dan and Jemma stood and stared out through the sheets of glass. ‘Blimey,’ they said, almost in unison and Dan put his hand up to his mouth and laughed.
‘I’m cold.’ Their eldest child, Honey, shivered in her pink T-shirt and Dan knelt down to rifle through the bags, removing as he did so numerous insubstantial outfits which they’d packed with the expectation that the five of them, lifted out of a grey London morning, would be enjoying an endless bright blue Californian afternoon.
Dan and Jemma had rented a house in the hills. The house had been recommended by a friend of Dan’s, although at the last minute his wife had interjected: They can’t stay up there! They’ve got to be by the ocean. In Santa Monica.
‘But Santa Monica’s extortionate, and you don’t even get a pool,’ Dan’s friend had told her, ‘and what’s the point of LA if there’s no pool?’
Jemma and Dan had listened nervously. They’d already said yes to the house in the hills, paid their deposit, filled in numerous forms for insurance, gas, electric and telephone, and so neither of them mentioned Santa Monica or the ocean again. Instead they talked about the pool. ‘The pool, the pool,’ they repeated like a charm and the children tugged on their swimming costumes, blew up their arm bands, and ran shrieking up and down the draughty, carpeted stairs of their north London home.
The higher they drove the more heavily it rained. It clattered on the roof of the taxi and washed in sheets over the windscreen, and occasionally when the driver stopped to call the number they gave him for directions they could see the water rushing past them down hill over the cobbled streets. ‘Got it, got it,’ he assured their landlord who was waiting with the key, but then almost immediately they became lost again, roaring along narrow roads, catching glimpses of lit-up Spanish villas and rain soaked ferns and the same few street names over and over again.
By the time they found the house, in a tiny cul-de-sac obscured by darkness and a large half fallen bush, Ben and the baby were asleep, although Honey was still up, staring out intently at the night. ‘Careful,’ the driver warned as Dan stepped into a foot of gushing water. The landlord opened the yard door and stood watching them from underneath a white umbrella as they struggled with their luggage and their children, unloading them into the chilled hush of the hall.
The house was immaculately furnished, with fragile lamps and highly polished surfaces, and although it had a den, a dressing room and a study, it seemed to only have one bedroom. ‘But it does have a pool,’ Jemma said brightly, and they pressed their noses against the black panes of glass and stared out into its choppy, rectangular depth.
All night it rained. Dan could hear it crashing against the glass windows of their cold white room while Grace kicked and snuffled in the bed between them and Ben and Honey shifted uneasily on lilos that they’d lain down in the dressing room next door. At three Grace woke and began to gurgle happily as if it were late morning, which of course it was, for her, and Dan turned on his side and pretended to be oblivious. Jemma fed her and shushed her and even pleaded a little with her to be quiet and then sighing, got up and took her away. Not long after, he heard Ben begging to be allowed to go in the pool, and then Honey screaming that she was mean, mean, mean for not letting them even try it. ‘It’s dark,’ Jemma protested, remarkably cheerfully, and some time later, although it was still dark, he heard the garden door creak open and the sounds of the three of them, Jemma, Honey and Ben, squealing as they ran out into the rain to dip their feet into the water. ‘It’s freezing!’ Honey complained. ‘You said it would be warm!’ And he heard the slam of the door as they hurtled back in.
Eventually when he really was asleep, Jemma slid in beside him. Her body was chilled, and he jolted unpleasantly as she pressed herself against his back for warmth. ‘Grace is having a nap and the others are watching Sponge Bob,’ she whispered, and Dan tried to remember where he was. Oh God, it all came back to him. What if they don’t like me? What if I can’t get a single audition, let alone a job, and then by the time I get back to London they’ve forgotten who I am? He felt so sick and miserable that when the baby woke from her nap, forty minutes later, Jemma had to kick him in the shins to rouse him.
But once Dan was in the kitchen with Grace under one arm, he was cheered by the sheer Americanness of everything. The size of the fridge, inside which was a two-litre carton of fresh orange juice and a giant bag of bagels, the size of the cooker with its industrial grey hob, and the sheer width of the wide-screen television before which his children sat like puppies, their eyes round, their mouths open. He peered out at the pool. It filled every available space of garden and could be reached from French doors in the ‘den’. Once it stops raining, Dan told himself, I’ll swim in that pool every day, one hundred lengths, until my body is hard and lean and employable.
But it didn’t stop raining. ‘Is this normal?’ they asked the landlord who appeared shortly after nine to tell them how to work the washing machine and the dryer, how to sweep out the gas-fuelled imitation log fire and adjust the temperature in the pool when – if ever – that became applicable. ‘Not normal at all.’ He shook his head and he flicked on the television news to show them how some of the neighbouring houses, clinging to the hill by steps and stilts, were beginning to slide down the mountain. ‘Four people out there already lost their lives,’ he said . ‘And this rain’s still not letting up.’
He lent them his umbrella and offered to drive Dan to a car-hire centre.
‘I won’t be long.’ He turned to Jemma who’d been mentioning since seven that it would be great to get out, somewhere, anywhere, for breakfast, or lunch, or whatever meal they were on now.
‘Dan . . . ’ she hissed, widening her eyes at him, but he pretended not to notice and quickly turned away. ‘I’ll be half an hour at the most.’
The car-hire centre was clean and spacious. There were large gleaming saloons and magnificent four by fours. ‘I need a family car, with a baby seat, and a booster seat . . . Do I get a discount if I take it for . . . ’ he swallowed, ‘a while?’
‘You sure do.’ The man smiled at him, his teeth so white they were opaque. And by the time he’d chosen and filled in all the forms, the car salesman, who’s name was Duane, had wished him not just a Nice Day, but a Fantastic Day, with such genuine enthusiasm that Dan felt quite uplifted. Once behind the wheel, he couldn’t resist it , he took the car for a quick spin, and then finding himself driving past a supermarket he decided to stop and buy provisions. The supermarket was enormous, a whole aisle for sliced cheese! And after filling his basket with fruit and vegetables he became distracted by the hardware section where he bought cheap raincoats, a pack of cards and a teething ring for the baby. Then on the way back he forgot the street sign was hidden by the fallen bush and drove fast past it at least five times. When he finally arrived home it was after twelve.
‘How is everyone?’ he asking, rushing in through the rain, shaking himself and stamping in the hall.
Jemma’s face was stony. ‘Fine.’ She handed him the baby and slammed out of the room.
‘What’s up with Mummy?’ he asked in a conspiratorial way, and Honey hung her head and said Mummy was cross because she’d taken Grace into the garden. ‘I only dipped her feet in the pool up to her toes. I wanted to see if she’d like it.’
‘And did she like it?’ Dan lay the baby along the length of his knees and kissed the dense pads of her socked feet.
‘Not really. I think it’s too cold for her. She screamed and screamed and cried.’
‘Right.’ Jemma was back. She looked as if she’d been crying, too. ‘Let’s go. We need to get out of this house. Now.’
‘For God’s sake.’ Jemma frowned when she saw the car. A great black SUV that all three children had to be lifted into.
Dan raised his hands to show the decision had been beyond him. ‘It’s all they had,’ he told her. ‘And if it goes on raining we’ll need something powerful to get us up and down this goddamn mountain . . . ’
Jemma threw him a disbelieving look as she climbed into the front.
The inside of the car smelled so new, so sleek and shiny that it made Dan smile. The windscreen wipers whipped back and forth, the lights on the dashboard twinkled. ‘Hang on,’ he said and he ran back into the house and returned with a cd which he slipped into the player. Green Day swelled and roared above the weather. The children squealed and even Jemma couldn’t resist a smile. ‘Where to?’ he asked, as if everything, from now on, was up to her.
‘Let’s just drive around and find somewhere nice to eat.’ There was a map in the glove compartment and Jemma stretched it over her lap. ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ she read.
‘Really?’ Dan peered out.
‘No. I just had to say it.’ She took a breath. ‘Venice Beach.’
‘You’re confusing me.’ Dan sped through a junction.
‘Beverly Hills. West Hollywood.’
‘Look, we’re on Santa Monica Boulevard.’ Dan pointed. ‘Shall I keep going?’
Jemma stared at the map. ‘It leads right to the sea. That would be fun.’
An hour later they were still on Santa Monica Boulevard. The traffic stopped and started, grinding slowly forward in the rain. Dan kept his eyes open for a restaurant. Burger bars and fast food chains lined the deserted streets. ‘I thought everyone was meant to be so healthy out here,’ Jemma squinted.
‘Not everyone. Just Brad Pitt. Everyone else is fat as fuck.’
‘Fat as a duck I said.’
‘How about there?’ Jemma pointed but it wasn’t a restaurant at all, just an antique shop with a table laid for supper, rosebud crockery and a bowl of glass grapes. They drove on, the windscreen wipers working powerfully, Green Day playing over again.
The children were unusually quiet, stunned by the time change, the rain and the music . ‘If we don’t stop soon, they’ll go to sleep,’ Jemma worried. ‘And we’ll all be up again tomorrow at 2 a.m. Or some of us will.’
Dan turned off Santa Monica Boulevard and sped along smaller streets, crossing junctions and searching left and right until with a screech of brakes he pulled up at a sign for pizza.
But it was too late. All three were fast asleep. Dan and Jemma looked over at their children. Honey with her halo of gold curls, her black lashes laying like a fan against her skin, Ben, his thick mouse tufts unbrushed for several days, one ear bright red where it had folded over against the seat, and the baby, Grace, still bald, her face unformed, a silver line of dribble hanging from her chin.
‘Shall we go back to the house?’ he said. ‘I bought some food. We could make lunch there and then wake them up.’
They glanced at the pizza restaurant. A row of men in beige security uniforms sat at the window on stainless steel stools. ‘Or not wake them?’
Jemma slid her hand onto his knee. She lowered her voice to a sultry purr. ‘We could have a quick sleep first.’
‘Exciting.’ Dan mimicked Ben’s current favourite word, and more slowly, with the music lower, they drove home.
It was a week before Dan had his first casting. His American manager, Finola, called to say that things were Great. They were going Really Well. A lot of people had seen his series on BBC America and she’d been sending out his show reel, talking him up, and now, finally he had a meeting with a casting woman from CBS. ‘But how are you managing?’ she asked, concerned. ‘With your little ones, and all this rain?’
‘Fine, fine,’ Dan told her. ‘We’re used to it.’
But it wasn’t true.
‘What’s the point of this place if it isn’t sunny?’ Jemma shook her head. Dan overheard her telling the baby, ‘If it rains one more day, we’re going home.’ He didn’t ask her how she planned to break the news to the Dutch osteopath and his family who’d rented their house for half a year, or to Finola who swore she was working round the clock to get him seen. ‘It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the fucking pool,’ she stormed. ‘The children never let up for a moment, whining and pleading to be allowed to swim.’
‘Just let them,’ Dan muttered, but he had to agree that it was freezing, the surface of the pool awash with debris, palm fronds and the dried brown tendrils of a plant that looked like spiders.
The day of the casting Dan woke early. At first he imagined it must be nerves, but then he realized that it was silence that had woken him. The downpour had finally stopped and the window was filled with a thick grey rainless light. Miraculously the children were still sleeping, Grace with her warm pink face visible beneath Jemma’s arm, the others on their make-shift beds in the room next door. Very carefully he tiptoed into the kitchen. He took a breath. It was the first time in a week, the first time since the car-hire centre that he’d been alone. He opened the French doors and stepped out into the garden. The air smelled good. Musty and foreign. He knelt down and dipped his fingers in the pool. The water was still cold, but hopeful and intoxicating and above him hung one tall palm in its leaves a far off flower.
Dan was startled by a shriek. ‘We’re going in!’ There were Ben and Honey, tugging off their pyjamas, screaming and hopping with joy.
‘Hang on you two, it’s only 6.45!’ But Dan didn’t have the heart to stop them.
‘Don’t move,’ he said instead and he ran in and grabbed Ben’s arm bands, unpacked and waiting since the first day. As fast as he could he blew them up. Honey was in first. ‘It’s not cold!’ she said defiantly, although her teeth were chattering. Ben screamed as he jumped, and then screamed louder and longer as he hit the water. ‘I’m not cold either,’ he promised once he’d recovered from the shock. Dan pulled a chair outside and watched them, ducking and fighting and flicking water at each other until their lips were blue.
Jemma made porridge, although like everything, it tasted different – finer, softer, further removed from the original oat. Her face was creased and heavy with a rare night of unbroken sleep. ‘I think we’re over the worst.’ She rubbed the children’s towelled bodies to bring back blood and she smiled hopefully at Dan.
After breakfast Dan tried on his suit. Did men wear suits in California? He didn’t know, but he couldn’t help admire himself in the charcoal cut of it. He moved back and forth before the mirror, sucking in his cheekbones, sticking out his chest, checking the imperfect creases of his trousers. ‘No hands! No hands!’ he warded off the children as they rushed towards him and he heard Jemma sigh.
‘I thought the meeting wasn’t till twelve.’
‘Yes. But I need to find it first. It’s somewhere in West Hollywood and I thought I’d go for a coffee before . . . get my bearings. Take stock.’
Jemma handed him a muslin and then the baby, both of which he took reluctantly. ‘I’m going to get a shower.’
As soon as she was back she dressed the children and then began to pack a bag. Rice cakes, water, tangerines, bananas.
‘Where are you going?’ Dan asked, still holding Grace, hardly daring to take his eye from her in case she threw up over his shoulder.
‘I thought we’d come with you. We can find a Starbucks or something and wait.’
Dan was appalled. ‘No . . . really.’ He imagined running from the flock of his children, scattering rice cakes and baby milk, muslins and frappucino, arriving red-faced and dishevelled at the marble steps of CBS.
‘We can’t stay here all day.’ Jemma didn’t meet his eye. She didn’t want an argument and they both knew she’d waver if she saw the fury in his face. ‘Jemma, it’s why we came. For me to get work!’
‘I know.’ She bustled at the sink, putting the porridge pan on to soak, wiping down the surfaces. ‘I can’t spend another day in this house . . . ’ she swallowed. ‘No school. No nursery.’
Dan put Grace on the floor, where she sometimes could and sometimes couldn’t stay upright on her own. She sat for a second and then fell forward, her face squashing into a rubber mat.
‘Sweetheart.’ He took hold of Jemma’s shoulders. ‘I won’t be gone all day. It’s stopped raining now. You can take them for a walk or something.’
‘Dan,’ she looked at him and her face was white. ‘What’s more important to you. An episode of Entourage or finding your wife and three children lying at the bottom of that pool?’
‘For God’s sake. The Drama! Why did you give up acting again?’ He picked up Grace who had found an ancient oreo and was forcing it into her mouth.
‘Bugger!’ Grace spat the oreo out down the front of Dan’s suit. He put her down again and she began to cry. He wet the muslin and began to dab at the cloth, and then, accepting defeat, he walked into the den and shouted at the others to switch off Cartoon Network, NOW, and get into the car.
The Starbucks on Wilshire was huge. Dan sat in an armchair, the stain still visible on his left lapel, and read the International Guardian while Jemma slumped on a sofa, eating a biscotti, and breastfeeding the baby who had a scattering of crumbs over her ear. The children ran riot at the other end, climbing onto and then jumping off a horseshoe of chairs which were luckily deserted. Occasionally Dan looked up from his paper to check that the staff weren’t calling the LAPD for reinforcements, but the noise was conveniently drowned out by the sound of the cappuccino machine whirring and buzzing for the line of takeaway orders.
‘Right.’ It was 11.30. ‘I’ll be off.’
‘See you back here then,’ Jemma smiled wanly up at him. ‘Give me a call when you’re on your way.’
Dan walked twice round the block to shake all thoughts of his family off. ‘Hey there! Great to meet you.’ He practised his American accent. ‘Fantastic day.’ But when he finally came face-to-face with Pammy, the casting woman at CBS, he put out his hand and his greeting was as mild and British as an advert for Marmite. ‘So nice to meet you.’
‘And you.’ She beamed. ‘Come. Sit down.’
Pammy had seen his show reel and was full of praise. I really think we could use you out here,’ she nodded, and she began to outline for him a new series that was coming up. ‘How’s your American accent?’
‘Good. Pretty good.’ And Dan knew if he had any guts he’d break into one right there and then. ‘I was in Streetcar. I played Stanley Kowalski . . . on the radio . . . ’ he tailed off.
‘That’s just great!’ Pammy beamed. ‘So you’re out here with your family I hear.’
‘Yes.’ Dan nodded. ‘My wife and . . . we’ve got three kids, Honey who’s seven, sweet as anything but a bit of a handful, and Ben . . . ’ Just in time he noticed her flickering eye.
‘Well, I expect Finola explained this is just a general meeting. And as soon as there’s something more concrete we’ll have you right back in.’ She paused as if remembering something. ‘If only you’d been out here last month. ’
‘Well. Not to worry.’ Pammy was standing up, brightening. ‘We’ll see you again soon.’
‘All right. Bye then.’
‘Have a great day.’
‘And you. Have a . . . ’ he coughed. ‘Great day too.’
Dan stood out on the street. He took a deep breath and steadied himself, just for a minute. Maybe this is it, he thought, a lifetime of general meetings, and he imagined himself having endless great days, in his increasingly stained and filthy suit. Before calling Jemma he dialled Finola’s number.
‘How’d it go?’
‘Fine. Pretty good. She talked to me about something called Flamingos.’
‘Oh that.’ Finola sounded disappointed. ‘That’s not ever going to happen. But did she like you?’
‘Umm. She seemed to. Yes. It was great.’
‘Great!!!’ Finola sounded reassured. ‘Well, I’ll call you as soon as there’s more news.’
Dan walked slowly towards Starbucks. They could just about manage, he calculated, for three months, and then if nothing happened, they could always fly home, and . . . and stay with his mother in Epping. A car beeped and he spun round. He felt self-conscious, the only person walking, and he was sure that cars slowed a little to stare at him as they passed by. The day was warming up, the sun visible finally through the breaking clouds. ‘Hey, how’s it going? ’ he muttered in his Stanley Kowalski, and he swore that from now on he would swim a hundred lengths and spend an hour with his language tapes working on his accent.
‘How did it go?’ Jemma was on the pavement, overseeing running races between Ben and Honey as if they were in a 1950s slice of black-and-white film.
‘Great,’ he said. ‘It went real swell.’
Jemma glanced at him.
‘I’ve no idea how it went. Apparently CBS can really use me. But the chances are I’ll never hear from them again.’
Dan’s phone rang in his pocket. ‘Or maybe not.’ It was Finola and he grinned at Jemma, his spirits lifting, as he clicked it on.
‘Hey listen, Pammy’s just called. Apparently you mentioned you had a real cute seven-year-old daughter, well they’re looking for a little British girl for the lead in this new thing, it’s a mixture between Running with Wolves, and you remember that Amish film? Well, she just thought . . . would Honey be available for a casting later today?’
‘Let me think . . . ’ Dan swallowed. ‘Actually, Finola, I’ll have to get back to you about that. OK? I’ll call you back.’
‘What was that about?’ Jemma was looking at him.
‘Nothing.’ Dan shook his head. ‘Nothing at all.’ He put his arm around her. ‘Right,’ he shouted to the children who were squatting , professional as sprinters on the pavement. ‘Ready, steady, GO,’ and he watched them charge towards him, their feet pounding, their arms outstretched, each wanting to be the first to grasp at the charcoal lapels of his good suit.
‘Rice Cakes and Starbucks’ is an extract from Esther Freud’s novel Lucky Break, published by Bloomsbury.
Photograph by Wagner Machado Carlos Lemes