Bizzie was baking jammy oaty slices. They were Rose’s favourites; she’d eaten them a thousand times and knew Bizzie’s method by heart. First she lined a swiss roll tin with shortcrust pastry and brushed it with jam, any sort would do as long as it was red, but home-made strawberry was best. Then she mixed rolled oats with golden syrup and piled the mixture onto the pastry. They came out of the oven twenty minutes later, glorious and sticky. Rose had eaten them since before she could remember. Now she hesitated at the window, watching her grandmother bend to put the tray in the oven, wondering how to break the news to her.
“I know, Grandma.”
“Know what, love?”
“That I’m adopted.”
Moving in slow motion, Bizzie wiped her hands on her pink floral apron, reached behind her for the kitchen chair and sat down. Rose waited. There was a long silence, broken by Bizzie who rubbed her eyes then clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “I told Diana it would hurt you more if they didn’t tell you when you were young but she wouldn’t listen to me. And Howard…” she twisted her gold wedding band, worn almost as thin as wire, “… your grandfather had passed by then. Diana never would listen to me.”
Rose had been holding her breath and now felt a silent sigh escape. “So, you knew?” If Bizzie said it was true, it must be. She never lied.
“Oh yes, love, I’m ashamed to say it is. Secrets only bring hurt. But you never want to fall out with your own children and you were such a lovely baby. Then Lily came along and I suppose it was easier to forget about than upset things. I’m sorry, love. I suppose if anyone was going to take her to task, it should have been me. Maybe if Howard had been alive…” Her voice was beseeching, full of hope for forgiveness, for understanding about how children continue to run your life until you die. Bizzie reached out, stretching her hand across the table.
Rose sat down and took her grandmother’s hand, sticky with jam. Her lovely, soft. comforting grandmother, who had always been there to kiss her scrapes and make them better, had lied to her too.
“Is this why you were asking about The Change last week?”
Change? What change? Oh, early menopause.
“No, that’s just an article I’m writing at work. You know Gran, the more I think about being adopted the more things start to make sense.” Rose reached into her tight jeans pocket and pulled out the photograph.
Bizzie took it and smoothed out the creases with her thumb.
“I found it in Mum’s old purse. Turn it over, there’s something on the back.”
Bizzie reached for her glasses then read the pencilled words and shook her head a little. “It looks a lot like you did at that age.”
That’s good enough, thought Rose. It’s me. This is a lead I can follow.
She put the photo back in her pocket. Bizzie stood up, switched on the kettle, and started putting teabags into the pot. The smell of strong tea made Rose think of her father.
“Can I have a coffee instead, Gran?”
Rose sat at the table, an icicle in the warmth of Bizzie’s kitchen. Her grandmother took the jammy oat slices out of the oven, cut them up and laid them on the rack to cool and slowly, the repetitive familiarity of the scene started to melt the ice inside her. She looked at the familiar china cup and saucer which Bizzie placed in front of her, patterned green with ivy, the silver teaspoon with its delicate scalloped edging, and the jammy oat slice on a matching side plate. It smelled wonderful. It smelled of childhood. Rose wasn’t sure what she wanted at all except that this quiet should go on and on and make everything alright.
“You’ve spoken to your father?”
“Yes, I asked him who my real parents are, but he wouldn’t tell me.”
“I doubt he knew, dear. I don’t. Adoptions done confidentially. To protect everyone.”
It doesn’t protect me, thought Rose. “Can you remember anything? Please?”
Bizzie rubbed her temples. “It was so long ago.”
Try! Rose wanted to shout.
“Let me see, one day out of the blue your Mum said she was adopting a baby and the next day she came home with you. My first grandchild. You were so beautiful. I was just sad that your grandfather never saw you.” Bizzie glanced up at her wedding photo, a framed black-and-white print of her standing on the church steps next to an elegant but severe man with a wave of black hair.
“But I’m not your granddaughter, Gran. That’s the point.” As soon as she’d said the words, Rose wished she could take them back. Bizzie’s cheeks slumped to her jawline.
“Oh Gran, I’m sorry, you’re being really sweet and I’m upsetting you. But I just don’t get it. Why did they adopt me in the first place, why didn’t they tell me the truth?”
Bizzie’s powdered face was pale and she looked older than her 79 years. “Perhaps they were waiting for the right time but it never came, and the longer they waited the harder it got. Roses all the way, so so. I told your mum you had a right to know and that it wasn’t fair on me to have to lie to you. But Diana always did as she wanted and everyone else, well, we had to like it or lump it. The only ones who stood up to your Mum were your grandfather and Kate.”
She paused. “Your mother did love you, Rose.”
At that moment, Rose was finding it difficult to locate love for either parent. “I can’t believe Dad didn’t tell me.” A sniff turned into a deep snort.
“Now, now. Of course he loves you. We all do.” Bizzie handed Rose a tissue. “Blow.”
Rose felt five years old.
Bizzie watched her wipe her eyes and nose. “You look just like your Granddad when you do that. He used to pull that face when he had to do something he didn’t want to, usually when I asked him to do the drying up.”
Rose smiled: she knew the strands of her DNA and Granddad Howard’s didn’t match up, she must have mimicked Granddad Howard’s face-pulling as a child and made it her own.
“Don’t worry yourself about your Dad at the moment. He’s missing your Mum, that’s all, it’s natural. He said last week he can’t sleep, hates the empty house, he goes down to the allotment at night when he can’t sleep. I’m worried he’ll get muggled.”
“You mean mugged, Gran.” At that moment, Rose didn’t care if he was digging up potatoes at two in the morning. “Didn’t people think it was strange when Mum turned up one day with a baby?”
“People were too polite to ask and Diana carried on as if it was perfectly normal. I wasn’t proud of her, I’ll admit it now. Looking back, I think your Dad let her make all the decisions just for a quiet life. That’s no way to run a marriage. But she was so desperate for a baby, she told me once that… no…” Bizzie gave a small shake of her head.
“Go on, please. I want to know.” It couldn’t get any worse.
“… she said if she couldn’t have a baby she would be a failure. She was worried your father would leave her and start a family with another woman. I don’t know where she got that from, it was Diana who was obsessed by babies not John. She got more and more distressed about it.”
Rose tried to imagine her parents in their twenties, newly married, trying to make a baby. She saw nothing. She saw Lily.
“She was right, wasn’t she? They had two babies and were still married when she died. Dad stayed.”
“That’s a cynical comment and very unattractive, Rose.”
A howl threatened to uncurl in Rose’s stomach. “It’s difficult not to be cynical, Gran.” She took a deep breath and made the howl wind up into a ball. A few more deep breaths and she was able to speak. “And then Mum fell pregnant with Lily so soon after adopting me.”
“Well sometimes when you stop worrying it just happens naturally.”
“Perhaps,” Rose tried not to sound bitter. Bizzie looked very weary, very old, and Rose hated herself for hurting her grandmother but there were some things she needed to say aloud. “I could have had a different life. If Mum had waited to get pregnant, if she hadn’t adopted me, my real mother might have kept me. Or I might have been adopted by a different family.”
“Try not to be so hard on her, love.”
But Rose’s imagination was on a roll, it was so easy to picture it. Growing up in the country in an old yellow-stone house with an orchard and a paddock where she kept a black pony. Two brothers, one older, one younger, her father a farmer, her mother a farmer’s wife who baked cakes and warmed newborn lambs in the bottom drawer of the Rayburn. Freezing winters, tobogganing with rosy cheeks, a snowman with a carrot for a nose. Summer, tadpoles and picnics and paddling in the stream.
“You know, Gran, I spent my whole childhood wanting Mum to be pleased with me, but she never was. Every time she looked at me she must have seen nothing of herself to love.”
“She always loved you.” Bizzie’s voice was very quiet.
“Yeh right.” Rose moved to the kitchen window and looked out. Bizzie came to stand beside her, their shoulders brushing. Outside, a Great Tit and a Blue Tit were at the bird table, squabbling over some wrinkled peanuts. Rose’s eyes felt hot. Bizzie’s shoulder burned through Rose’s jumper, Bizzie who had always been taller than Rose, Bizzie whose back was now bent with the years. Rose turned to her grandmother and hugged her, relaxing into those oh so familiar arms, giving and receiving comfort and warmth.
Rose’s eyes prickled. “I have to find them, Gran, my other parents,” she spoke into the soft woolly shoulder. “Until I do I don’t know where I belong.”
“You belong here, you always have done. Whether you like it or not, we are your family.”
© Sandra Danby
…in IGNORING GRAVITY #30: Rose becomes a night-time stalker…
This is the 29th 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.