The next morning, six-and-a-half hours after she’d left it, Rose stood again outside her father’s house. All was quiet, the open curtains revealed an inner emptiness. Lily had closed the kitchen curtains before they’d left last night. He’d been home then. It felt like spying. Her father’s favourite mug, yellow with a bumblebee and ‘To Bee or Not to Bee’ on it, was draining by the kitchen sink.
He’s not dead. Her stomach gave a little twirl of relief which felt almost like hunger.
Rose ran to the allotment, tapping the lamppost on the corner twice as she went. When she was little she’d discovered that if she tapped a lamppost on her way home from school, or a tree or the gatepost by the garage, it meant her father would be in a good mood that night and might play footie with her after tea. She climbed onto the bottom rung of the padlocked allotment gate, squinted into the bright sun, and cursed her lack of sunglasses. Her father liked to do a bit of early morning weeding before work. Not today.
The receptionist at Woodbright Engineering’s Welcome Desk was polite but firm. Yes, Mr Haldane was here today but he was in a meeting all day and not available without a prior appointment. Rose recognised the blocking technique. It was nothing that the Herald wouldn’t do if a woman with mad hair and what looked suspiciously like pyjamas underneath her jeans and sweater, rushed into Reception making demands about an employee.
By the time Rose got back into the car the morning rush hour was passing. Her head ached and her arms were covered in the stubborn sort of goosebumps that refuse to shift no matter how intense the rubbing. She needed a hug, she needed her father to tell her everything was a misunderstanding. She needed to crawl into the womb of her family and be fed toasted crumpets and strawberry jam.
When she got home, the red light of the answerphone was blinking but there was no message. Stupid machine. She picked it up, tore its plug out of the socket and threw it in the kitchen bin. The post was on the doormat. She opened a letter about her critical illness policy and slowly the fact sunk in that she’d lied on every application form she’d ever filled out. She sat at the kitchen table and put her head in her hands. This kind of form always asked for your mother’s maiden name and your family’s medical history. Would all her policies be void now? The critical illness policy joined the answerphone.
Rose had three hot showers throughout the course of the afternoon, but the goosebumps were stubborn and she continued to shiver. It was less than 24 hours since she’d read the yellow diary and every time she thought about it, she ate something. The kitchen bin overflowed with empty tins of Ambrosia creamed rice, screwed-up Milky Bar wrappers, half-eaten slices of toast and strawberry jam, and damp tissues.
The diary sat on the coffee table, its corners curling and grubby. The certainty with which she’d called herself Rose Haldane had evaporated. Her mother was not really her mother. Her father was not her father. Lily was not her sister. Bizzie wasn’t her grandma. And that was only the Ingrams, the Haldanes didn’t figure in her calculations as her father had no living relatives. Her relationship with everyone was false. Her real parents could be dead or they could be criminals.
She picked up the soggy tub of ice cream and stirred the half-melted mess inside. One more mouthful and she really would be sick, but that would at least make good the lie she’d told at 8.45am. She’d felt such a fraud – as of course she was now, not Rose Haldane at all – in the past whenever she’d phoned in sick she had actually been ill.
“Flu?” May’s assistant had said. “Poor you. I hope someone’s looking after you. Spoiling is the best cure for flu.”
Rose had put the phone down rather quickly as tears pricked her eyes. She desperately need her mother’s traditional sick cure of poached eggs on toast. She was a mess, a few kind words from someone she didn’t really know and she was in tears. There was no-one else to poach eggs or hug her. Brad did a creditable job of nudging her wet cheeks with his head. She wanted a hug from her Dad. She rung his mobile again, no answer. She retrieved the answerphone from the kitchen bin, plugged it back in.
Another trick learned from her mother was ‘keep busy, do not succumb to self-pity,’ so she filed the critical illness policy in the blue ring binder where she kept all her statements and flicked through the different sections. Car Insurance. Rates. Gas bills. Credit card bills. Bank statements. Her name leapt off every page.
Dear Miss Haldane, Re. renewal of car insurance, we enclose….
Dear Miss Haldane, Further to your letter of…
Dear Miss Haldane, Thank you for sending the cheque for £33.22 in payment of…
It was like a slap in the face.
I may not know my surname any more, I may not be a Haldane, but I am a journalist and a real journalist would not sit here crying.
A journalist investigated, dug deep to find truth, so that’s what she would do. If in doubt about her subject, Rose liked to start with background colour, hints and hearsay. Once she’d done that, the facts usually became a little clearer.
She reached for her mother’s striped blue holdall, and took out the purse. It looked exactly as it had yesterday. Yesterday, when she’d been sure that Diana was her mother; yesterday, when she had been so certain that whatever your differences with your mother she would always be irreplaceable. Today, that sentiment felt naive.
She unzipped the purse and tipped it upside down. Out fell the same bits and pieces that had fallen out yesterday. But there was something she’d missed: a tiny compartment, barely big enough to slip in two postage stamps, too narrow for a finger. Rose could feel the slightest bump of something inside. With tweezers, she pulled out a faded photograph, folded in two. She gently smoothed out the crease. She had never seen this picture before.
On the back was some writing in smudged pencil. ‘Al… born 29th …gust… 1968.’
But 29th August 1968 is my birthday.
The baby’s nose looked like every baby’s nose, the rosebud mouth could belong to any newborn, Rose wasn’t even sure it was a girl. Lily would know. She had a natural way of admiring babies and new hats and new haircuts, saying the right thing at the right time, masking doubt or giggles. The social graces were in Lily’s genes. Rose bullshitted every day at work, disliked social dissembling and found it hard to tell lies of the ‘oh isn’t your baby beautiful’ type when the child was clearly a relative of Winston Churchill.
The handwriting on the back of the photo was unfamiliar too. Not her mother’s staccato script.
‘Al… born 29th …gust… 1968.’
The doorbell rang but Rose didn’t move.
Al… What names began with Al…? She couldn’t think of one.
Now someone was knocking at the door. It was the fourth time today: first, an eager young Polish guy keen to do her decorating; second, a pushy podgy man who wanted her to change mobile phone networks; third, a delivery for next door. This time she didn’t even bother to raise her eyes to look at the caller’s portrait on the entryphone. The phone rang but Rose let the answerphone take it. It was the library, chasing a book a month overdue.
Al… what? Alexandra. Alan. Alison. Alice. Rose held the photo closer to the reading lamp, willing the baby to tell her its secrets.
“Who are you?”
© Sandra Danby
…in IGNORING GRAVITY #24: Lily, worried that Rose isn’t answering her phone, gets on a bus for Wimbledon.
This is the 23rd 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.