When the phone rang, Rose was watching a sit-com about a group of twenty-somethings living in a cul-de-sac in a Welsh ex-mining village. It was ‘Pick of the Day’ in the newspaper but she couldn’t get a fix on the plot. The answerphone’s electronic greeting invited the caller to leave a message.It was Lily, sounding like she’d been sipping helium from a balloon. “Rose, are you there? Rose? If you’re not there you must be at work, so I hope you’re okay. I came round earlier but you weren’t in… so anyway, I wanted to tell you that I’ve done what you said. I’ve made an appointment with the doctor on Friday. I’m going to ask how to get pregnant, I mean obviously I know how, but he might have some tips on how to improve my fertility, perhaps a supplement or a special diet, and …”
Lily chattered on, something about an apron and roses and their mother… Rose’s mind blanked out, she had hardly enough energy for herself. She longed for silence.
But Lily’s voice was small now, very young.
Rose sighed, then picked up the phone. “I’m here, Lil. Sorry, I was in the shower and didn’t hear it ring.” Oh what a shameful lie.
“Oh hi! Hi! I was leaving you a message, I wanted to tell you that I’ve done what you said, I’ve got an appointment with the doctor. I’m worried that…”
What about me, Rose wanted to shout at her. Aren’t you worried about me? Don’t you get it? I’ve been surrounded by lies all my life, who can you trust if your parents lie to you?
“… there’s something medically wrong with me.”
Of course, Lily was worried about herself. “Seeing a doctor is the best thing,” Rose said a little coldly, “well done. And it’s good that William’s taken time off work.”
“Oh no, he’s not coming with me. He doesn’t… I haven’t… he’s so busy working for promotion, did I tell you about that? So well… I’ll get myself checked out first.”
“Don’t you think he’ll want to share it with you?” asked Rose, more gentle now.
“Oh no, not really, I don’t think so. William’s not good at health things, the body and such, you know. He avoids going to the doctor at all costs, when he has a headache he pretends the pain doesn’t exist.”
“Whatever. I think you should talk to him tonight and get him to go with you,” she said firmly. “After all, it affects both of you. Just remember, Mum and Dad told us lies for years. Do you seriously want to have secrets that serious from William?”
Silence, then a small, “No.” Then more silence. Eventually, “Mum did lie, didn’t she, about where you came from.”
“Yes, she did. Secrets are poison, Lily. Don’t do it.”
They were silent for a moment.
“Where were you today? I rung and rung but work said you were out and your mobile went to messages and your answerphone at the flat was on. I was so worried I came round.”
“I was here. I took the day off.”
“Well I rung the doorbell for ages. And I knocked.” Her voice sounded petulant now.
Oh God, thought Rose, feeling the particular kind of guilt that only Lily could produce. “I must have been asleep. I was awake half the night so I’ve been dozing on and off this afternoon. Earplugs.”
More silence. If Lily said that to her, she wouldn’t have been convinced either. Rose rushed to fill the guilty gap. “I looked at Mum’s other diaries but there’s nothing about the adoption in them. Just lists and recipes and housewife stuff.”
“Does she… does she write about her menopause?”
Rose was going to say no, then realised she didn’t actually know. She’d only skipped through them searching for things about her adoption. “I don’t think so. You should read them yourself.”
Lily said hurriedly that of course she wasn’t worried about the early menopause thing, it couldn’t apply to her after all she was too young, had never been ill in her life, not since she had meningitis as a baby, etcetera.
The word ‘baby’ reminded Rose of the photo. “Remember Mum’s purse that I took yesterday?”
“There was a photo hidden inside. A baby. I think it’s me.”
“Or it might be me.” There was a slightly sulky tone in Lily’s voice now, Rose recognised it as the Younger-Sister-Not-Wanting-To-Be-Left-Out syndrome.
“No, the baby’s got dark hair. Anyway, there’s a name written on the back. It’s in pencil and some of it’s rubbed away. It says ‘Al… born 29th …gust… 1968.’ It’s not Mum’s handwriting.” She couldn’t keep saying ‘Mum’, it didn’t sound right any more. But, Mum was still Mum.
“That’s your birthday.”
“Al? Al what? Maybe Alberta, like Queen Victoria’s daughter…”
How did Lily know the name of Queen Victoria’s daughter? Rose had always won at Trivial Pursuits and Mastermind and Top of the Form. “Lily I was not called Alberta.”
“… or Alice, Alice in Wonderland. Or Alexis the queen bitch in Dynasty….”
“I sincerely hope not.”
“… Allegra would be nice, that means ‘cheerful’ according to my baby names book.”
“Okay.” Rose was just about to put the phone down…
“Oh Rose, have you talked to Dad?”
“No,” Rose hesitated, wondering whether to tell Lily about her midnight vigil last night, about her trip to Woodbright Engineering. “Have you?”
“No. Gran has, she said he sounded alright.”
“But he’s alright?”
“I suppose so, yes.”
They said goodnight. Determined to relax, Rose turned her mobile off, put in earplugs and lay flat on the bedroom floor, her arms and legs lolling outwards as she did in her yoga class, and tried to drift off. She remembered being wrapped in a blanket, there was a warm smell that she couldn’t identify and had never smelt again. It wasn’t her mother, who always smelled of Youth Dew.
Forget it, she chided herself. Relax.
But then the rain started to hammer on the window as only summer rain can, and the real world rushed in. Loathing herself, she poured wine into a tumbler and checked her messages. There were two.
The first was a rather sharp one from her best friend Maggie saying: “Where the hell are you? It’s 7.30 and I’ve been waiting an hour.” Rose groaned. She’d forgotten the leaving party for Maggie’s features editor at a fancy bar in Hackney. She called Maggie’s mobile but it was turned off so she left a suitably grovelling apology.
The second message was from Frank at work. “Oh go on Rose, let me come round with a takeaway, I’ll make you forget your flu. Feed a cold, starve a fever, my mum always says. So it’s your call. Chinese, pizza, fish and chips, whatever you fancy. Me? You won’t regret it.”
“Yes I will,” Rose muttered as she pushed the delete button.
Suddenly, she wanted to speak to someone who wasn’t family, someone who hadn’t been party to the lie. She scrolled through the numbers in her mobile’s memory, no option except the one she would not stoop to.
She took a big gulp of wine as the phone rang. “Hello, James, it’s Rose. I…”
She held the phone away from her ear at his barking reply.
“Please don’t be like that, I’ve had a real shock and I want to…”
Barking laughter this time.
“You chucked me out, remember?”
“James, please I …”
He snorted. “This is so typical of you. You only ever wanted to see me when there was something in it for you. I’m sorry you’re road is rocky Rose, but love is a two-way street.”
James always spoke in cliches. “Please…” She was saying ‘please’ too much but couldn’t think of a way to shut him up.
“I’ve met someone who wants to see me all the time, not just when it’s convenient for her.”
“Ellie is fully-committed to me, she wants to spend all her time with me.”
Me, me, me, thought Rose, James always says ‘Me’ always in capital letters.
“But you, even the Valentine’s card you gave me wasn’t fully-committed. It was a hologram with…”
“…hearts that faded in and out of focus. It summed you up perfectly.” As he laughed sarcastically, Rose wondered how she could ever have fancied him.
“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, you know Rose. They’re 10 for £5 at every set of traffic lights.” And he put the phone down.
Rose took a deep breath. Whoah. She hadn’t needed that. Tears filled her eyes again.
Why am I doing this to myself, she thought. It’s ridiculous, unhealthy and self-indulgent. I’m acting more like Lily than me.
Brad nudged her arm and rubbed his head against her chin, his fur damp with her tears. She’d always been proud of living alone, she’d banged on to anyone who’d listen that alone didn’t mean lonely, that she would never rely on others for her happiness. She was proud to be self-supporting, self-motivated, self-fulfilled. Until this moment, Rose hadn’t known what lonely really felt like. She needed tea. Her mother’s prescription for all ills. But the teabag tin was empty and the milk smelt off.
© Sandra Danby
…in IGNORING GRAVITY #26: Rose goes to the shop for milk, but meets someone she didn’t expect to…
This is the 25th 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.