On Tuesday, Monday’s lie was feasibly extendable. It took Rose a fraction of a second to decide. She extended it.
In Richmond her father’s car, a ten-year old VW with a dent on its right wing and a crack in the front number plate, was parked in the drive. She walked up the path, tapping the gatepost twice as she passed. She peeked through the garage window and there was her mother’s car, a silver Fiesta, polished as new. Dad should sell it, she decided, or sell the VW and use this instead. But perhaps now was not the time to suggest it. Rose put two drops of Rescue Remedy on her tongue, took a deep breath and tried the back door. It was unlocked.
This was a safe place, she’d grown up in this house. She stepped into the kitchen, wishing she could hear her Mum’s ‘uh-uuh’ call of greeting, missing the blue pottery jug which for years had sat in the middle of the kitchen table filled with a hotch-potch of flowers and glistening green leaves from the garden. The jug was sitting atop the fridge stuffed with seed packets. Nothing physical in the room had changed since Sunday but the emptiness seemed deeper.
“Hello,” she called. Nothing. “Hello.”
“Down in a minute,” a faint voice drifted from upstairs.
She knew he would be holed up in his den in the loft, a human island amid a sea of gardening magazines and seed catalogues.
Rose tried to think positively. He was here, not at the allotment collapsed amongst his runner beans, not dead of a heart attack.
“Put the kettle on will you?”
The kitchen table was piled high with stuff. Piles of alphabetically-arranged files of Kalamazoo client cards, a new laptop in its cellophane-wrapped box, an empty box for a mobile phone. What was that about? Her father didn’t do technology. His company insisted on sending him on computer awareness courses but he stuck with his creased and grease-stained record cards which featured comments such as WOS [waste of space] and WKR [wanker] and SOB [short of a bob]. Rose had figured out the abbreviations years ago, she doubted her mother had ever understood.
While the kettle rasped into life, Rose stood at the mantelpiece and looked at her parents’ wedding picture. It stood in the same place it had all of Rose’s life. Usually it made her smile, but now she felt betrayed. She laid the photo on its face.
As she turned away, her father walked into the kitchen. He looked as if he had a hangover, flu and a migraine all at once. A faint smell of camphor, stale beer and unwashed male followed him into the room.
“Sorry love, I was on the phone.” He scuffed his feet along the floor in his 20-year-old moccasin slippers. “This is a surprise, pumpkin.” His smile didn’t fit his mouth.
She heard his casual words with disbelief. Her voice, when it came, didn’t sound like her voice at all. She spoke with a desperation she hadn’t owned up to before, not even to herself.
“Dad, I’ve been trying to speak to you since Sunday. Didn’t you get my messages?” She was frightened by how cold her heart felt.
He shook his head from left to right. “No love, sorry. I’ve got a new answering machine,” he waved vaguely in the direction of the dresser. “Can’t get the damn thing to work, the light flashes but I can’t get it to replay any messages. ” The kettle boiled and he turned away to pour the water into the teapot.
“But you never came home. We waited, we even went to the allotment.”
“Blimey Rose, since when did you turn into your mother? I’m not 10 years old. I went to The Bull with Ron Fosdyke, alright? He bought me a pint for helping him paint his shed.”
“Alright, it was more than one. I slept on his sofa if you must know. I am 58, you don’t have to wait up until I come home.” He turned towards her with an empty mug in his hand and a smile, which faded as soon as he saw Rose’s eyes scanning the detritus on the kitchen table, now seeing a letter marked ‘private and confidential.’ A ‘Sorry to See You Go’ card.
Rose had seen her father cry only once. Seeing it again, seeing him so vulnerable, made her feel old.
“Yes.” He passed her a mug. “I got called into a meeting yesterday. I’d been expecting it… they took my mobile away, gave me an hour to clear my desk. As if I was guilty of something. I was supposed to meet some of the lads last night for a drink, but I couldn’t face it. After all those years, just brushed aside like a bit of fluff.”
He took a swig of tea. “Failure to meet sales targets, failure to maintain margin, failure to use the central computer database, failure to keep up with the times, failure to… to do any of the things I was told to do when they warned me three months ago, that if I didn’t I’d be out. So here I am, out.” Another swig of tea.
She didn’t know what to say, so took a sip of tea. It was the same strong Darjeeling with too much sugar in it that Lily had given her on Sunday after finding the diary. She almost retched and pushed the mug away. She looked at her father, he’d known for three months that he might be sacked, been worrying about it, not sleeping, drinking more, eating Sunday lunch with her and Lily… and she hadn’t noticed anything was wrong. Rose felt ashamed. Since her mother’s death he’d gobbled indigestion tablets like they were Smarties and there was an angry patch of eczema on his cheek that wouldn’t heal. But Rose had put all this down to grief, symptoms that would pass with time.
“Can’t you appeal?” But as she asked the question she knew it was futile. If a company wanted to get rid of someone, it was easy to make it happen and there was little an employee could do in the face of court threats. Rose wondered if Lily knew about the redundancy and felt a frisson of triumph that she knew something about their father before Lily did. Lily would take over now, nurse their father’s emotional strength, encourage him to get a part-time job, perhaps doing garden maintenance for her rich neighbours in Barnes. Actually, he would probably like that.
He shook his head and turned to the teapot, topping it up with hot water from the kettle and adding another teabag. “I’ll survive, worse things can happen. I’ve got my health that that’s what counts. But you didn’t come to see me on a Tuesday morning to talk about me. What is it love? You haven’t been sacked too, have you?” His smile wobbled around the edges.
“No, no, it’s not work.” Rose’s fingers held the creased baby photograph tightly in her pocket. Should she say something now? Maybe not. He looked like shit, he must be feeling like shit. But… she felt like shit too. And he had lied to her all her life. By omission.
“Did you know Mum kept a diary?”
His shoulders sagged like an airbed with a slow leak. He slowly stirred the tea in the pot. He shook his head.
“We found a stack of them, in a box, at the back of her wardrobe.”
“In one of them, she writes about how she couldn’t get pregnant and so she adopted a baby.”
Silence. He was looking down into the teapot as if searching for answers, but he was leaning so far forwards Rose thought he would fall in. She walked around the table and took the spoon out of his hand. His loose fingers gave it up without protest. She pushed him down into a chair, topped both mugs up with tea, then swept the table clear. She sat opposite him in her usual chair, the table dividing them.
“Dad. I’m not blaming you or Mum, but I do need to know the truth.”
“What,” he spoke so quietly she had to lean forward to hear, “does it say?”
“That she can’t get pregnant, that she finds a girl who is pregnant and can’t keep the baby. They do a deal… a deal about the baby.”
His dark brown eyes bored down into the table.
“Am I that baby?” Her heart was pounding so loud she thought he must hear it.
He stroked the dents made by Lily with a dinner knife when she was six, and the tiny heart that Rose tattooed in ink next to her place. Now she reached across the table and stilled his arm, then pulled the tiny photo out of her pocket.
“Dad, is this me?”
He took a deep breath, so deep she could hear his lungs expand. His eyes were fixed on the photo. “Yes. You were… pretty, very special, we both thought you were very special.” Very Special. Two words which he pronounced as if they should be in quote marks or have capital letters, two words straight out of a book for parents on what to say when your daughter asks you if she was adopted.
“If I was so special, why have you never told me?”
Her father was whispering now. “Special.”
“Sp…spe…cial?” Rose’s voice rose uncomfortably close to shrill, her words sputtering out like water from an air-blocked tap. “I can’t believe you haven’t told me. Were you going to let me die an old woman having lived a lie?”
“No, of course not. It’s just… we never… never found the right time.”
“Well you could have tried.”
They sat, looking in opposite directions.
“Was everyone in on the secret?”
He was rocking slightly in the chair now, shaking his head.
“You must have known Mum kept a diary?”
“No… no, I didn’t…why would she write it down?”
Thank God she did, thought Rose. If she hadn’t, I would still be living a lie.
“What about Grandma?”
He looked up, his eyes glazed. “I don’t know if Bizzie keeps a diary.”
“No… did she know about me?” Not Grandma Bizzie, please, no.
“Rose, not now. I can’t deal with this now.”
The same grey shadow had fallen across his face as when he stepped forward to throw a handful of earth on top of her mother’s coffin. Rose tried to push that memory aside. “Where did I come from? I mean, am I English?”
“Yes, of course you are.” He was starting to sound a little exasperated.
“But how do you know? Did you meet my parents? What were they like? Do I look like them?”
“Rose. Slow down. You’re firing questions at me like a machine gun.” There was a tiny flicker underneath his right eye now. “It’s… it’s come as a bit of a shock.”
“A shock. Well how do you think I feel?” Any higher and Rose’s voice would shatter the sherry glasses.
Her father hung his head. “This is all too… much. And I’ve got to…” His eyes drifted to the boxes of Kalamazoo cards. “I’ve got to return stuff to the office.”
“Okay, fine.” Rose stood up and pushed the chair away with such a jerk it clattered against the fridge. “I’ve got things to do too.”
She couldn’t get out of the house quick enough. Trembling with adrenalin, her eyes wouldn’t focus and her fingers wouldn’t work. She tripped over the kerb then dropped her car keys twice before she managed to open the driver’s door. She didn’t bother with the Rescue Remedy dropper, she swigged it. She drove so fast she scared herself, unable to control her foot which was a brick on the accelerator pedal. She was flashed and hooted at for what seemed like miles until she swerved left and stopped in an empty corner of a DIY superstore’s car park.
He didn’t deny it. I haven’t misunderstood the diary. I’m not being hysterical. I was adopted.
It was fact and she knew what to do with facts. You checked them and researched them and they led you to the next fact and the next and the next.
© Sandra Danby
…in IGNORING GRAVITY #29: in which Rose gets answers from Grandma Bizzie that she didn’t expect…
This is the 28th 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.