First impressions: What Red Was by Rosie Price

‘Can I come in? It’s kind of an emergency.’

Through their four years at university, Kate and Max are inseparable. But loving Max means knowing his wealthy family, the Rippons, and all their generosity, social ease and quiet repression... and when her life shatters apart in a bedroom while a party goes on downstairs, she has to make a choice; speak out or keep quiet. Read an extract below from the moment when Kate and Max first meet.

'I’m comfortable with my masculinity,’ he said. ‘Let’s do it.’

Even more than Max, his mother seemed to Kate to be from another world

After he left, Kate got up and put the kebab, which had finally defeated her, in the bin under her desk. The air in her room was stale and she went to the window to breathe. In the courtyard below she saw Max, walking in step with a dark-haired woman. She was wearing a long camel coat, tied at her waist, and she carried a leather bag in one hand. Kate watched Max turn round, walking backwards now, pointing up at their building, to where his room was. The woman turned too, and Kate stepped back a little. She was wearing sunglasses, so Kate couldn’t tell where she was looking, but after only a moment she turned away and linked her arm through Max’s.

Even more than Max, his mother seemed to Kate to be from another world. For a moment, she tried to imagine her standing among the other parents at her secondary school leavers’ night. Somehow she couldn’t see this woman making her son pose for excruciating photographs; neither could she see her making small talk with her own mother, Alison, who had arrived after all the other parents in the overalls she wore to her weekly pottery class. Probably Max’s school had thrown some glamorous party in London, rather than the ‘summer ball’ that had taken place in a local farmer’s barn. Later that day, when Kate asked Max how his breakfast had been, he gave her unnecessary detail, starting with the particularly streaky bacon he’d had with his eggs. This time, she interrupted, and asked him straight up.

‘What does your mother actually do, in film?’

‘She’s a director,’ said Max.

‘A famous one?’

‘She’s done some big films.’ Kate persevered. ‘Like what?’

Max paused. ‘Inheritance,’ he said, dropping the deflection. ‘L’Accusé, Miel, Blue Bayou.’

‘Shit,’ Kate said. ‘I’ve heard of those. I’ve actually seen some of them.’

‘You should have told her. She’d love that.’

Kate did not point out to Max that because he had not introduced her to his mother, she’d had no opportunity to tell her that she liked her films. She already felt as though her questions had become intrusive. But when she got to the library, instead of working on her essay for the next day, she searched ‘Blue Bayou director’. Zara Lalhou – it was a name Kate recognised. In the subsections of Zara’s Wikipedia page appeared Max and his older sister, Nicole; their father, William, a vascular surgeon; their west London home; her extensive filmography.

When Max texted to ask how her work was going, Kate closed the web page and cleared her history. But later, when he was out at a dinner, she closed her curtains, got into bed and watched Blue Bayou on her laptop. This was one of Zara’s later films, and one of her most commercial – English language and Hollywood-produced. Kate had seen it when she was fifteen, around the time that she had started going alone to the cinema after school, when she couldn’t face going home. Now that she was watching the film for the second time, she couldn’t believe she had forgotten the palm trees bent beneath a summer storm, the sea glittering black in the early hours, the force of the despair that drove the main character into the water. At the end, Kate shut her laptop without closing down the screen, and went to sleep thinking of the woman standing and looking at her reflection in the panoramic window of her Miami apartment, not knowing, not caring, who could be looking in.


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