Twenty-four hours and two frozen pizzas later, Rose put down the last library book. She rubbed her temples. Well, at least Mum and Dad hadn’t made her sleep in a cupboard. Reading Harry Potter made two things clear. First, don’t believe everything people tell you about your parents. Second, never trust your initial assumptions.Why must she always think the worst? It might be a happy story, or at least not an unhappy one.
Because they might have died of a crack overdose, said that sharp cynical voice in her head.
It’s better to know the truth, whatever it is, than not to know, said Strong Rose’s calmer voice. Even if they’re dead.
Of course they’re dead. It’s the only thing that makes sense.
Rose thought it made sense too.
Harry made a third thing clear, she thought suddenly. Everyone who met Harry told him he had his mother’s eyes.
Whose eyes did she have?
When Rose arrived at Café Blanc, Monday lunchtime, there was no sign of Maggie. She bought a bottle of mineral water and bagged a table outside. She loved this place, it smelled so good. Coffee but something sweet, vanilla perhaps, vanilla syrup, and onions from the toasted paninis. Freshly made, not wrapped in plastic with a use-by date. Rose’s stomach rumbled, she hoped Maggie wouldn’t be long. She couldn’t afford to be one minute over the hour or Sam would add it to his list of complaints at the impending appraisal.
This Monday lunch was a tradition, interviews allowing. Rose pulled Great Expectations out of her Mulberry tote. She’d started reading it in bed last night and though she’d read it for O ’Level she’d forgotten it, forgotten that Pip was an orphan brought up by Mrs Joe, forgotten that Pip knew what happened to his birth family. He’d looked at their gravestones. She made a mental note to take flowers to her Mum’s grave, she hadn’t been for weeks and felt the tug of duty. But there was a corresponding tug, the one that said ‘she lied’.
She hadn’t got to the bit yet about Miss Havisham. When she’d read the book as a teenager, this example of rejected love had made her scoff. No woman should be so reliant on the love of one man, she’d told her damp-eyed classmates.
“Great book.” Rose looked up to see Frank standing in front of her, rucksack in one hand, tray in the other. At the unmistakeable smell of roasted onion and emmental toasted panini, Rose’s stomach rumbled again.
“May I?” he gestured towards the empty seat.
“Just for a minute, I’m waiting for a friend.”
He shrugged and gestured towards her paperback. “Dickens was a journalist too, you know. Started at 16 as a court reporter, taught himself shorthand from a book. He was a parliamentary correspondent, wrote travel articles, plays, you name it.” He tapped the cover of Rose’s book. “This is good, Bleak House is better.”
Frank’s eyes were deep liquid black, like Guinness, and they were looking straight at her. Does he know I’m thinking about his eyes, not about Dickens? He was waiting for her to speak. “I’m waiting for Maggie, my friend, she works at Xtra.” Why am I gabbling?
She smiled but then realised she was flirting. Frank really wasn’t her sort of man. “Why don’t you sit here for a moment until she comes?” Why did I say that?
“No, s’okay.” He turned and went inside.
Out of the corner of her eye, Rose watched him join a table of the Herald’s sales reps. There was some loud laughter, then Frank looked back at her and smiled to reveal a row of brilliant white teeth. Pavé slabs of white enamel. Teeth ran in families, she’d bet his parents had strong teeth too, and wondered about the incisors and molars of her parents. Were they full of amalgam like hers? Tonight the adoption advisor would tell her the names of her parents and she’d be able to find out what sort of teeth they had.
“Oh, I thought I was never going to get here.” Maggie sank into the spare chair. Her attempt at dressing ‘creative Fleet Street journalist’ had collapsed and she looked more like fashion student doing wacky. She dumped a pink leopard print rucksack at Rose’s feet. “What a morning. I’m doing a vox-pop on Oxford Street. I hate that. Asking strangers how many people they had sex with this weekend. It’s demeaning, but oh boy do they boast. I am better than this, I know I am. Why do they always give me the shittiest jobs?”
Rose opened her mouth and shut it again quickly. Best not to answer that one.
“Someone up there doesn’t like me,” said Maggie, “not after last night. I went out with some girls from work and ended up going to bed with our art editor’s flatmate. Bad news. He seemed okay in the pub but he fucked like a baboon, in and out in seven seconds, maximum 15 pelvic thrusts and then he was gone. I have got to get my sex life sorted out. It’s not a sex life, it’s sex moments.” She paused for breath.
Rose always felt as if she’d been hit by a whirlwind whenever Maggie first arrived. “You need to get a new job Mags. You’re even speaking like an Xtra article now.”
Maggie started dragging an orange sweatshirt out of her rucksack, pulling out a pair of black court shoes, popsocks, a dotty blue and white chiffon blouse, and a green baseball cap. “And I just know it’s going to rain this afternoon, look at those clouds. I’m going to get drenched.” She put the cap on her head.
Rose smiled, the overall effect had now changed to trainee plumber wacky. She paused while Maggie crammed everything back into the rucksack.
“A cholesterol-laden lunch will make you feel better. What do you want?”
Both agreed they were ravenous and could eat a pig. So they chose prawn triple-decker sandwiches bulging with mayonnaise, buttercream-filled buns for that essential afternoon sugar boost, and a large pot of proper tea. For a few minutes they ate without speaking. It was companionable. Rose chewed and tried not to think about tonight’s meeting with Mrs Greenaway, whose name suggested someone like her first primary schoolteacher. She swallowed the last mouthful of cake and felt sick again.
Maggie chewed, a blob of buttercream hovered on the tip of her nose. ”Sorry I didn’t ring you back this weekend. My cousin got married on Saturday in Scotland, I never want to drink whisky again, and my shift started at five yesterday. I had such a hangover. For God’s sake don’t read any of my articles this week, if I wrote them yesterday they’re rubbish. They always are when I work on a Sunday night.”
“I know the feeling. I don’t want my byline on that Farmer’s Lung feature I wrote on Thursday.”
“I am not even going to ask what Farmer’s Lung is.” Maggie laughed, but the laugh dried in her throat and she reached across the table to take her friend’s hand. “So, how are you now?”
At last, it was Rose’s turn to talk. But she wasn’t quick enough.
“Heh, there’s a guy at a table over there who keeps looking at you.” Maggie pointed. “He’s quite cute.”
Rose pushed her hand below the table. “Sssh, keep your voice down. And it’s rude to point.” Oh God, she thought, I sound more like Mum every day. “That’s Frank, from work.”
“Ooh, so that’s Frank.”
“Mags don’t stare.”
Maggie chuckled. “He could be worth cultivating.”
Rose knew she was enjoying teasing. “No, not unless you like arrogant, macho, groin-emphasising, smarmy gits.”
“Ooh, so you do like him.”
“I thought you wanted to know how I am.”
“I do, I do.”
Rose didn’t waste time wondering what kind of friend Maggie was to talk about herself for the first 20 minutes and then tease her so excruciatingly. She just felt relieved to finally have someone independent to talk to. “I had an adopt-fest weekend.”
“An adopt-fest. I read about adoption, watched films about adoption, dreamt about adoption. I watched the Wizard of Oz on Saturday.…”
“The Wizard of Oz? In God’s name why?”
“Dorothy had no parents. She was brought up by her aunt. But I tell you something, I’d forgotten the scary bits. The Wicked Witch of the West. I actually dreamt last night that she was my real mother. I woke up at 2am, my heart thrumming like a train, the Wicked Witch sent me to work on a weekly newspaper in the Outer Hebrides. Well, you can imagine how that went, can’t you? Train sick, bus sick, boat sick. So it was the middle of the night and I was wide awake, feeling sick.
“Bed sick? Even you can’t get motion sick in bed, surely?”
“Believe me, the bed was spinning.”
“So?” prompted Maggie. “What did you do? Read another adoption book?”
“No, I channel-hopped. I found Peter Pan on a children’s satellite channel. Oh Mags, I don’t remember it being so sad. I cried when Peter told Wendy no-one sent him any letters because he didn’t have a mother. I cried when he went back to his bedroom window but it was shut and another little boy was asleep in his bed. And I cried when the lost children, the pirates and Captain Hook all wanted Wendy to be their mother.”
Maggie swallowed a large lump of cake and stared. “That’s a lot of tears for someone I’ve never seen cry. Not cry properly, I mean, ignoring that time you hit your thumb with a hammer putting up the blind in your bathroom. Is it still wonky or did you straighten it?”
Rose stuck out her tongue.
“Oh nice,” Maggie pulled a face. “Best make a mental note not to stick your tongue out when you’ve just eaten a bun filled with buttercream.” She took another bite. “I thought you didn’t like children, Rosie Posie, so why are you crying over them? You’re not identifying with children, are you?”
“Nooo, just the wrong time of the month, I guess.” Rose leant forward and wiped buttercream off Maggie’s nose with a paper napkin.
“Damn, isn’t it always?”
They laughed and Rose felt a stretch in her under-used smiling muscles. It felt good. She drank the last of her tea. “I tried all last week to talk to Dad, I rang three times yesterday but he’s never there. He’s always done this vanishing thing, it used to drive Mum mad. I even followed him once, years ago. He went to the corner shop and bought a Party Seven, then took it to the allotment and drunk it in his shed. Mum wouldn’t let him have beer at home, she said it was unrefined. I’d imagined he was a spy. So finding out about the Party Seven was a bit of a letdown.” She held onto her mug, letting the last dregs of warmth leach into her fingers. Suddenly she felt cold inside. “He got the sack last week.”
“At his age, that’s really difficult. Look, you should go to him. He needs you. Just go and sit on his doorstep till he comes home.”
“I don’t want another argument.”
“You just need to be there.” Maggie looked at Rose in that knowing way which Rose knew meant she was reading the meaning behind her verbiage. She’d been looked at by Maggie that way many times before. “You don’t want to talk to him at all, do you?”
“Of course I do.”
Maggie balanced backwards on the back legs of her chair and studied her.
Rose watched her rocking to and fro. If Rose had done that her mother would’ve told her off for damaging the chair.
“You always avoid confrontation. That’s why you put up with Sam pissing you around at work. That’s why you make yourself unavailable to boyfriends just before they finish with you. That’s why you avoid their calls and delete their e-mails. Confrontation, Rose, sometimes it has to be done.”
Rose huffed. So calling Sam impotent was non-confrontational, was it?
Maggie sighed and leant forward on the table. “Just go and see your Dad, alright? Tell him you love him. That’s my last word on the subject.”
Rose wasn’t sure she did love him right now, but she nodded anyway. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d told someone she loved them. “Okay, but not tonight.”
“And why not?”
“Tonight,” Rose said so loudly that a woman with frizzy hair at the next table turned round. “Tonight, I get counselled.”
“To find out where I was born, my original name, my birth parents’ names. Hopefully there’ll be files on me, records.”
Maggie reached a hand across the table and covered Rose’s fist. It felt warm. “Do you want me to come with you?”
Rose shook her head. This was doing research, she could do this bit.
Maggie hesitated. “Have you thought your mother might have been a… a… bit of a goer, a regular Ceres, a fertility queen. It was the Sixties. You might have brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. A huge new family. Auntie Rose.”
Auntie Rose. Lily’s face swam into view. Rose blinked, hard. “Oh believe me, I’ve thought of every type of relation it’s possible to have.”
Maggie pursed her lips. “I feel awful for being away this weekend when you needed me. Ring me, okay, anytime. Even if it’s just to cry.”
“I’ll be okay.” Rose glanced at her watch. She was due back at her desk in 10 minutes. She smiled at her friend. “So what about you, what did you do last week apart from bonking?”
“Nothing, really,” said Maggie, who suddenly started picking at a fingernail.
Maggie kept her nails immaculate, today they were coral with white tips. Rose raised her eyebrows and waited.
“Well, I wasn’t going to say anything…” She was picking her thumbnail now. A fleck of coral drifted onto the table. “It’s not as if families are your favourite subject right now.”
“Spit it out.”
Maggie’s words rushed out of her mouth. “I talked to my Gran at the wedding, and she told me some interesting stories, family stories. Family history. You can even get special software to do all the family tree charts. No fiddling around with Word or Excel. So, I’m going to get it.”
Rose felt cynical but tried not to sound it. Not all families were as fucked up as hers. “That’s… great.”
“Yeah, anyway it’s got me thinking about the past and I wondered… what do you think about organising a uni reunion?”
Wow, I didn’t see that one coming. “Isn’t the whole Friends Reunited thing a bit passé?”
“Come on, it’d be fun, catching up with Smelly Mel.”
“No thanks.” Rose reached beneath the table for her bag. She had to write 1,000 words about wheat intolerance by 4pm this afternoon and it wouldn’t write itself.
“Oh look,” Maggie pointed at Rose’s cup. “Oh, I know what this is. A mushroom in your tea leaves means an unexpected event, maybe a new relationship. You’re going to find a new man, Rosie Posie. You must have someone new lined up.”
Rose picked up the cup and poured the slops into the saucer and the mushroom disappeared. “You’ve just written a feature about reading tea leaves, haven’t you? You do know it’s all a load of rubbish?”
“Aah, come on Rose. It’s just a bit of fun.”
And they laughed as they gathered their bags and walked the three blocks to Maggie’s bus stop, Rose tried to forget about the ‘tea-au-fate’ and focussed on wheat.
Pasta… Weetabix… cakes… biscuits… bread…
“Oh, my bus, gotta go.” Maggie ran and jumped on the Oxford Street-bound number 53 just before the doors closed. The bus pulled out into traffic and disappeared, just as the sky emitted the most enormous throaty roar of thunder.
Rose didn’t see the bus go. She was looking at a display in a bookshop window. When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro. Orphan, she thought, I’m an orphan, aren’t I? And her legs suddenly felt as if she’d run 10 miles.
Five minutes later she left the shop, bag in hand. The shelf that James had vacated in her flat was filling up, fast.
© Sandra Danby
…in IGNORING GRAVITY #35: Rose misses Maddox’s call…
This is the 34th 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.