Upstairs they sat on the floor surrounded by the detritus of their mother’s married life. Lily sat cross-legged, her skirt arranged neatly around her knees, not speaking, twisting her hair again. To give her a little space, Rose concentrated on the striped handbag. She emptied it out onto the carpet: bus tickets, tissues, purse, lipstick. Rose doubted her father had opened the bag since it was returned by the hospice. Men of his age had a thing about handbags as if they were full of mysterious Women’s Things. She sniffed the blue leather purse hoping for a whiff of Youth Dew but smelt only dust and worn leather and the metallic tang of coins.Lily looked up. “Do you really not know Sylvie Watson?”
Rose shook her head.
“Don’t you read the gossip pages of your own newspaper?”
“Hardly.” Rose sneaked a glance at Lily whose head was again bent over a box. “Lil, do you really think William will leave you if you don’t have a baby?”
Lily sighed. “Yes. No. Not really… but he does get irritated with me. And when we do it, I can’t seem to think about anything else but babies. Afterwards, I lie in bed flat on my back with my legs on the top of the headboard and try not to move, half an hour is best.”
Rose, in an effort not to giggle or appear judgemental, almost dribbled the next words. “Does it work?”
“It gives his semen the best chance you see… to make it to an egg,” Lily rushed on. “I read it in a book. Apparently that’s why women always want to sleep after sex, its nature’s way of increasing the conception odds.”
“Oh please, spare me the details. You should talk to William and go to see the doctor.”
“Alright alright. I’ll do it. Stop nagging.”
“Okay.” With a sigh of relief, Rose picked up a photo album off the top of a pile and handed it to Lily. Lily flicked through the pages, falling on some photographs with a laugh and others with a groan.
“I did my first business interview this week. A managing director…” Rose hesitated, wondering how to describe Nick Maddox.
“And you like him.” Lily studied Rose. “Your eyes have gone all soft.”
Rose immediately scowled. “As if. No, he was arrogant, so full of his own ego. You know the type?”
Lily nodded. “But he got to you, didn’t he? Admit it.”
“Oh alright, yes he did though I don’t know why. And then he rang to thank me for the interview.”
“That’s it? Just to say thank you. He didn’t ask you out?”
“What are you going to do about it?”
“I can’t chase him, Lily, I interviewed him. It’s not proper journalistic etiquette.”
“I didn’t know journalists had etiquette.”
“Oh Rose, look at this.” She held a photograph of their mother and Aunt Kate. The sisters stood side by side at a barbecue. Rose recognised the style of dress her mother was wearing from the contents of the wardrobe now: a round-neck, knee-length pale-coloured shift. Rose would have laid bets that it was lilac. Kate’s long wavy dark hair was plaited with beads and she wore a paisley crinkly skirt with tiny bells sewn along the hem. Rose could almost hear them.
“I wish Mum was here, she’d know what to do.”
“I know she would.” Rose knelt beside her sister and hugged her as they both wept silently. There seemed no simple position in which to hold Lily comfortably so she sat as she was, ignoring the tearing pain in her cramped muscles.
Eventually Lily pulled away. “I always get emotional at the wrong time of the month. I’m okay.” She picked up the bundle of correspondence tied up with blue ribbon. “Do you think we should give these to Dad to read?”
“It’s okay to read postcards. Every postman does.”
Lily read out the message of the first postcard.
“Ashmoleum Garden Hotel, Oxford
12th August 1966
Sales conference started last night. V boring. Getting a lift back with Clive Finch on Friday.
PS. Had coffee with Kate. ‘An Inspector Calls’ is at the Playhouse here. Tried to put your side of things but she refused to listen.
“Aunt Kate must have travelled a lot, acting,” said Lily.
Rose shrugged her shoulders. She remembered the photograph, the beads in her aunt’s hair, the bells on her skirt then looked at the heap of her mother’s clothes. What did Mum and Aunt Kate have in common?
The postmark on the next card was smudged but it looked like December 1967. The picture showed the inside of a church.
“I’m sure Mum would have preferred a postcard of a garden,” said Lily
“Cathedral Close, Canterbury
15th December 1967
Fixed up more appointments so won’t be home on Thursday. Kate’s here doing panto but I probably won’t have time to meet her.
“No love you, or miss you,” said Lily, “that’s what married life does for you. William tells this joke: the quickest way to turn a woman off sex is to marry her.” Her laugh was hollow, her head bent over the postcard.
Rose thought it was a mean joke.
She sneaked a glance at her watch, it was getting late. She watched as Lily wrestled with the next suitcase and extracted a pile of multi-coloured school exercise books.
“Wow, diaries? Bags I read the one where she was dating Dad and they had sex for the first time.”
Rose shuddered. “I can’t imagine Mum doing it at all.”
“Everyone thinks their parents never did it, but we exist so they must have done. At least twice.” Lily handed a yellow exercise book to Rose then opened the shorthand notepad and started reading.
© Sandra Danby
…in IGNORING GRAVITY #20: Rose falls off the edge of the world…
This is the 19th instalment of ‘Ignoring Gravity’ about identity detective Rose Haldane. To start reading from the beginning, please click on the category ‘My Novel: Ignoring Gravity’ in the right hand menu.