Her senses were turning on one by one, so she must exist, mustn’t she? The weight of her eyelids stopped her eyes from opening. The goosebumps. This was what it must feel like to be buried by an avalanche.

The Dark Lady [photo: David Austin Roses]

The Dark Lady [photo: David Austin Roses]

Then arms were around her, hugging her, the warmth of another body, arms which settled her gently against something as soft as snow. “You’re okay, Rose, you’re okay. Stay here. I’ll make some tea. Breathe deeply.”

Rose felt her head nod. It was disconnected from her body. Nothing was connected. She breathed in and out, not knowing how long a second lasted. Then warm lips were brushing her cheek, a hand stroked her hair, and something hot touched her hand. She struggled to open her eyes. Lily, white with worry, was gently pushing a hot mug against her hand. Breathe in, breathe out. One thing at a time. The yellow exercise book lay open at Lily’s side, the pain etched across her cheeks told Rose that she too had read that diary entry and come to the same conclusion. She knew the pain in Lily’s eyes was a reflection of that in her own. She focussed on moving her hand to hold the mug.

Breathe in, breathe out. The tea was half-gone before she realised it contained more granulated than Darjeeling. She grimaced.

“You’re in shock, Rose, and Mum always said tea is good for shock. Drink up, drink up.”

There was a pause as they both sipped.

“Perhaps… perhaps Mum was pregnant with you and went a bit la-la. It says in my baby book that your brain dissolves in the first few months of pregnancy.”

Rose raised an eyebrow, and Lily rushed on.

“Or it was a short story, or homework for that memoir-writing class she went to, the one at the Cancer Therapy Centre.”

Rose sighed heavily and put down her mug. The tea was disgusting. “I wish you were right, but the evidence disagrees. One: it’s Mum’s handwriting and the book is old, the ink is faded. Two: the dates tally with my birthday. Three: it fits with something Grandma Bizzie said yesterday, that Mum was desperate for Dad to love her. Desperation can make you do odd things.

“Four…” She ticked the points off on her fingers. “I can’t think of a fourth.”

“So,” Lily’s words were cut short by a dry sob. She swallowed. “Mum and Dad aren’t your parents and we’re not sisters. I can’t bear it, Rose.”

“Hey, none of that.” Rose leant forward to hug her sister in a cushion of reassurance, as she always had. “Of course we’re sisters. We grew up together. We endured piano lessons with Miss Gofton. We embroidered daisies on handkerchiefs for that terrifying teacher at Youth Club. This is just a stupid diary.” She could think of more appropriate words than ‘stupid’; ripe words, satisfying words to say, to shout in anger.

“The daisies were pretty.”

“Yes.” Rose thought life was too short to embroider anything. “That doesn’t matter now. The fact is, we don’t know what’s true and what’s not.”

“Dad’ll know.”

“Yes, well Dad’s not here right now, is he?”

“What about your birth certificate? That’s proof, isn’t it?”

“Mum kept it with the exam certificates.” As she spoke, Rose knew she should have her own birth certificate. Well that was easily solved, she’d ring Somerset House and get a copy.

Lily was still talking. “But you must have it, you need it to get a passport.”

“Don’t be daft, I haven’t got a passport.”

“Ah.” There was a pause. “So you still get…”

“Yep, every day. Car sick, boat sick, train sick, bike sick.” She’d even got sick riding the red tricycle she got from her parents for her fourth birthday.

“And they don’t mind at work?”

“Are you mad? I haven’t told them.”

“But what if they send you abroad? You know, the Cannes Film Festival, Paris Fashion Week…”

Rose laughed and noted with curiosity that she was still able to. “It’s not that sort of job.” Just the thought of getting on a plane made her flush from top to toe.

Gradually Rose’s heart rate slowed to its regular rhythm. She put the yellow diary on the dining table. Both girls looked at it out of the corners of their eyes, not wanting to pick it up, longing for their father to come home from the allotment and tell them it was rubbish, to make them laugh about their dramatics. The carriage clock on the mantelpiece donged like Big Ben and made them both jump. Six o’clock. He must be back soon.

“We are so stupid,” said Lily. “If you haven’t got your birth certificate, it must be here somewhere. Mum always kept things safe.”

They found exam certificates, school portraits, a green first prize rosette Rose won for running 30 yards, swimming badges fraying around the edges, old school reports and exercise books full of essays. No birth certificate, no adoption papers, no more diaries.

Another pot of tea.

“Do you want to know?” asked Lily.

Rose had just asked herself the same question and answered slowly but truthfully. “I don’t know.” She might have had a different name. Did that matter? “I am who I am, I don’t need a birth certificate to tell me that.” Was that the Pointer Sisters, or Gloria Gaynor. Again, a feeling of wonder that she could make a joke. She picked up the yellow diary again. Why would parents give a new baby away?

“Don’t Rose. Leave it now.”

But Rose didn’t want to leave it, she read the page again. It said the same as it’d said before. She turned the page, there were no more entries. No more clues. How could her mother stop writing there, why didn’t she explain?

“Oh, My, God. Mum can’t be writing about me.” She wanted to curl into a ball and disappear. “Not me.” The sides of the armchair wrapped around her, holding her upright. The words stabbed her, each one a tiny knife cutting away the memories of her childhood sliced into shards at her feet. Rose looked at the carpet as if she’d never seen it before, hadn’t learned to waltz with her father there, didn’t recognise the patch by the front window where the carpet fibres were impregnated by decades’ worth of pine needles from the real Christmas trees her mother insisted were more stylish than the cheap silver tinsel tree Rose longed for.

Lily stood up. “This is ridiculous. Where’s Dad? I’m going to ring him.” She disappeared into the kitchen.

Rose focussed on the carriage clock, the weights moved round like a merry-go-round, circular, predictable, unstoppable, just like time and time didn’t lie. The thing was, Rose knew what the diary said was true. She felt it. Her eyes searched the sitting room, the room where she’d done her homework with the television turned down to a whisper, the room where Lily and William had stood in front of the mantelpiece and announced they were engaged, the room where she’d hugged her father before they left for Mum’s funeral six months ago. A pair of figurines flanked the mantelpiece, left and right, each with an arm raised in a salute towards the ceiling except the one on the right had only half an arm. It had been like that since Rose was ten when a failed attempt at keepie-uppie had amputated it at the shoulder. Her mother had heard the bang and seen the shards on the floor, and banned football inside and out.

Lily returned. “His mobile’s turned off. He must be on his way home.”

Rose stood up too. “Let’s walk round to meet him.”

She put the diaries in the boot of her car, then they walked to the allotment. The gates were padlocked. It was getting dark.

“Hello,” called Lily, “Dad?”

Rose called out too. All quiet.

They walked home again, checking their watches every few minutes.

“Something’s happened to him,” said Lily, her breath coming out in sharp gasps, “it must have done. Why wouldn’t he just come straight home?”

“He’ll be fine, chatting to someone probably.”

“No, he’s had an accident, he’s stabbed himself with his shears…”

Uh-oh, thought Rose, next she’ll be saying he’s been run over.

“… he’s been run over. We have to go, Rose. Come on!”

So they did the most obvious things. They got in the Mini and drove around, calling his mobile every ten minutes. Nothing. They went back to the allotment, then to each of the nearby pubs asking ‘Has anyone seen John Haldane?’ Nothing. They drove to A&E at Kingston Hospital. Nothing there either. Finally they waited 20 minutes at Petersham police station while a very slow desk sergeant checked his database of incidents. Nothing.

Rose suddenly felt exhausted, every thought was an effort and Lily’s panic was making her sink deeper.

“I tell you what we should do,” she put her arms around Lily and tried to soothe her, her mind still active enough to register a selfish need to be soothed herself. “We should go home and get a good night’s sleep. Dad’s a grown-up, he can look after himself. It can wait till tomorrow.”

“We should at least report him missing.”

“You heard the sergeant, it’s too soon. We can’t do anything for 48 hours. The sergeant’s got our details. But Dad’s fine, I know he is.”

Lily huffed.

They drove to Barnes in silence. Rose declined Lily’s offer of tea and sympathy, just wanting to be home, quiet and alone. But her car wouldn’t go there, instead it stopped in a lay-by halfway to Wimbledon, and Rose pulled on the handbrake. She sat and thought of her mother and father, her mother’s face as the pain of cancer overwhelmed her, her father’s empty eyes as he stood at the graveside. Car horns hooted and lights flashed as she did a u-turn and drove back to Richmond.
© Sandra Danby

…in IGNORING GRAVITY #22: the hours of the night pass slowly for Rose as she waits for her father.

This is the 21st 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.