IGNORING GRAVITY #38

She drove straight to Kingston. Bizzie’s house was alight with electricity, curtains thrown back, from the front gate, Rose could see her grandmother sitting in an armchair doing a crossword in the newspaper. She leant against the gate, the lichen slightly dew-damp under her elbows, knowing she was delaying, fearing what she might see in her gran’s eyes. She took a deep breath and walked up the path she had walked up a thousand times before, except for the first time she was frightened.

Chianti [photo: David Austin Roses]

Chianti [photo: David Austin Roses]

She sat in the chair opposite Bizzie, looked at her straight, and told her about Mrs Greenaway. It was a five minute monologue, the sixth minute was silent.

“Kate?”

“Yes.”

Bizzie’s eyes were full of sadness, they didn’t lie, she hadn’t known of her daughters’ secret. “You’re sure?”

“Positive.” Rose understood the need to disbelieve. “Here.” She handed over the form given to her by Mrs Greenaway, the form from hell. “You never knew?”

Bizzie shook her head then took off her reading glasses, polished them with the yellow felt cloth from inside her glasses case, and settled them back into the pink grooves either side of her nose. She read the form slowly once, then again. She didn’t look up. “Oh, Kate.” Her head bent, tears started to fall onto her skirt, a silent rainfall of dots on dark green tweed.

Rose knelt at the side of her grandmother’s chair and leant her head against her shoulder, rubbing her cheek against the tickly pink wool of Bizzie’s cardigan, wishing she could rub away the words on the form, wishing she could take the paper back, wishing she’d never found that dammed diary. Anything to stop her Gran crying.

After a while, Bizzie sat up a little straighter. “I never knew Kate had a baby and to think… that baby was you.” She looked at Rose over the rim of her glasses, smiling a wobbly smile.

“Tell me about her.”

“Well now, you have to understand that Kate was a mystery, even when she was little. So mischievous, always in trouble, she slapped a girl in the playground once, an older girl. That was all manageable, the headmistress said she was spirited and that was a valuable quality, which sounds all well and good for a ten year old but is different at 15. She started going to demonstrations, said she was an activist, came home smelling of cigarettes. We were pleased when she started acting, thought it would settle her a bit, get her into a different circle of friends. And it did. But after Fields of Gold we hardly saw her at all, she was always rehearsing, performing, in such demand. We didn’t want to stand in her way. It upset me not to see her, but she did love acting so.”

Rose didn’t understand half of what Bizzie was saying, but she didn’t want to interrupt. Bizzie’s eyes kept drifting to the form as if hoping the printed words had morphed into something else, a council tax bill, a bank statement.

“So this is why we didn’t see her at the end, when she died.” She dropped her head and spoke into her hands. “We thought she was ashamed of us.”

Rose patted the pink fluffy shoulder. “Oh Gran, no-one could be ashamed of you.” She reached out to prise the form from Bizzie’s hand, wanting to take it all back, wanting this to end now, wishing she had never come here.

But Bizzie’s fingers were clenched so tight the paper was as creased and crumpled as her face. She shook her head vigorously. “Oh but Rose you don’t know. She led such a wild life. Your Grandad and I were too old-fashioned for her. She’d telephone every now and then from some new town.” Bizzie pointed at the form. “Enfield. What was she doing in Enfield?”

“I thought you might know.”

“She lived in so many places, dear, but I never knew she lived in Enfield. Sometimes she lived in North London, sometimes she was on tour, acting at different theatres, Bournemouth one week, Carlisle the next. She was like a gypsy. In London she shared a house with lots of people… actors, students. Diana said they were hippies… she…”

“Hippies? Did Mum go there, did she see them?”

“Oh I don’t think she ever went there dear, but she spoke to some of them on the phone. Your Mum said it was an illegal squat full of dirty hippies and that they had no right to be there.”

Typical of Mum, thought Rose fiercely, condemning a place she’d never seen, people she’d never met. “What did Kate say to that?”

“She would shrug and make a joke, put on a voice. Diana hated that, she was always telling Kate to talk properly, that it was like trying to have a conversation with an alien. She was good at doing accents. I don’t know if I’m talking to you or some part you’re playing, Diana used to say, but Kate would just laugh and call her a snob. She had a lovely laugh, did Kate. A lot like yours, now I come to think of it.” Bizzie took off her glasses again and dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. “I wish we’d seen more of her but wishing never makes anything happen. She did call in here one day out of the blue and then fell asleep on our bed in the afternoon. A few months before your grandfather passed… I wonder if she was pregnant then.”

“Why?”

“Oh, her face had fattened up, and when you’re newly pregnant you’re tired all the time. I was.”

“You didn’t ask her?”

“Oh no. She had quite a temper, you see, the shouting, well you wouldn’t believe it. It was such a treat for her to visit us that I didn’t want to spoil it by starting a row. But I shouldn’t have left it.” More dabbing, then a sniff, then a weak smile at Rose. “So so.” And Bizzie clapped her hands together in time to a rhythm only she could hear, catching the words from her memories. “So so.”

Rose forced herself to stay silent, to wait for Bizzie to remember.

“You’ll find when you have children, Rose, that they come to you for two things. Advice and money. They always take the money, seldom the advice. Kate got a bit too big for her boots. Yes, she did Rose,” Bizzie said quietly, as Rose shook her head, “she thought the world owed her a living. I wanted to visit her at the hippie house but your Grandad wouldn’t have it. ‘If you don’t want to hear the answer, Bizzie, don’t ask the question,’ he said. And then he died. Now I wish… when they found her body they took it away. The doctor said she died because she drunk too much vodka and then took pills and that her face was badly mis-shapen. The coffin had to be closed. So I never saw her again. Your Mum and Dad went together to identify her but John wouldn’t let Diana see her, he did it on his own. He never talked about it after.”

Kate died of an overdose? Rose hadn’t thought her head could reel with the unexpected again tonight. She tried to focus on Bizzie who, Rose realized with a shock, had lost her husband and youngest daughter within a year.

“… but Kate hated taking medicine, even for a headache. She made such a fuss over taking a pill, putting it on the back of her tongue and then drinking a whole glass of water to make it go down.” Bizzie mimed the action as she talked, throwing her head back sharply and gulping.

“I do that.” Rose’s head moved backwards too, knocking back an invisible paracetamol, trying to swallow non-existent saliva. “Gran,” she hesitated, knowing she had to ask, unsure how to do it, “… the adoption advisor suggested that Kate might have given me up for adoption because she knew she was really ill, because… she was going to die.” Or, because she was suicidal?

Bizzie shook her head firmly. “What a lot of poppycock. She’d have told us if she was sick, I know she would, surely she’d have asked for help.”

But she didn’t tell you she was pregnant, thought Rose sadly. She so wanted to picture a smiling Kate, not a dead Kate surrounded by empty bottles of pills and vodka.

Bizzie sniffed, pulled a white cotton handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at her nose. “After all these years I still don’t understand. She and Diana had their fights but they always helped each other.”

Rose almost laughed outloud at that. Patently they didn’t.

“No, it was an accident fair and square.” Bizzie blew her nose, hard.

Was it though? Rose added a mental note to find out if there’d been a post-mortem. Then Lily’s voice broke into Rose’s thoughts, berating her for making Bizzie cry, so she turned back to her grandmother who had stopped crying but was looking older than her 79 years.

“I’m sorry I’ve upset you again Gran, it’s the last thing I wanted to do.”

“Nonsense, dear. I’m sorry too. I wasn’t brave enough to tell you that you were adopted. I never dreamt Kate had a baby… I don’t know what to think of it.”

Neither did Rose.

Bizzie smiled shakily and held out her trembling arms and Rose leant her cheek against the soft pink shoulder again, breathing deeply of that familiar scent of Camay. Bizzie stroked her hair and Rose could feel her breath warm on her scalp.

Her grandmother’s voice was soft in her ear, the same tone she’d used to soothe away little Rose’s tears. “Well, we know one thing at least. You are an Ingram. I am your real grandmother. We are your family.”

“Yes.” And Rose suddenly realised that her adopted family was her birth family after all. Well, half of it anyway. “Yes, you are.” And they hugged, tighter than Rose could remember every hugging anyone. She closed her eyes, breathed deeply and was five again, safe for the moment in her grandmother’s aura.

“And that is worthy of celebration.” Bizzie stood up a little shakily. “Get the glasses from the cupboard, dear,” and she pointed to the oak dresser. “I’ll get the sherry.”

*

“Tell me about Kate,” Rose asked for the second time, waiting as Bizzie studied her face for a moment. She wished she could plug straight into her Gran’s memories of Kate, her face, her smile, her talents. They both took another sip, Rose’s sherry was almost gone, Bizzie’s glass was half full.

“I don’t think anyone understood her.”

“Not even Mum?”

“Diana least of all. Like chalk and cheese they were. If I hadn’t give birth to both of them in the bed upstairs, I wouldn’t believe they were sisters.”

Rose put down her empty glass. “Mum never talked about Kate, of course we knew she existed but we didn’t know anything about her.”

“Diana was a very proper little girl, an indoor girl. Kate loved the outdoors. Kate loved singing and dancing, she seemed to fill whichever room she was in. Diana would struggle to find a quiet corner to read or crayon. Things changed when Kate started acting in the drama group at school, she was out more, at rehearsals. Diana seemed happier then, as if she’d reclaimed the house as hers. They were together every day but I don’t think they talked much, really talked I mean.”

Bizzie was staring into nothing, her eyes glazed with the effort of remembering. “Then Kate went on tour, they kept such impossible hours and moved so often we never really knew where she was. She was always phoning from a different town. Really Maureen spoke with her the most.”

“Maureen?” It had never occurred to Rose that Maureen might have information about Kate. Maureen, her Mum’s best friend, the girl next door, the bridesmaid at her parents’ wedding, Maureen who had married a dentist and still lived in Richmond.

Bizzie hadn’t notice Rose’s distraction. “Kate was such a free spirit. Your grandfather said we should let her have her wings and fly away, that she would discover the world and fly back home again like a homing pigeon. It terrified me, she was so young… oh dear.” Her voice faded as her eyes misted with tears.

Rose wasn’t convinced about her Granddad’s pigeon theory.

“Diana thought we were silly, letting Kate go touring like that in Hair. Perhaps we were…”

Kate was in Hair? Naked on stage? Rose didn’t know whether to feel admiration for Kate’s bravery or sympathy with her Mum’s prudery.

“…reckless. But she wasn’t a child.”

“Right,” said Rose. A new picture of Kate had sprung into her head, daring, adventurous and yes, brave.

“Ask Maureen, she’ll tell you what it was like.”

“Would she…” Rose could hardly get the words out, “… would she know about Kate’s boyfriends?”

Bizzie sighed again, she was sighing a lot and with each sigh a piece of Rose’s heart wilted. “Asking won’t hurt, I suppose the girls must have talked, it’s clear now that they didn’t tell me everything although I thought at the time they did.” She laughed and Rose detected a hint of sadness. “I’m not sure about anything any more, Rose. I don’t think I knew either of my daughters very well. Here I am, and they’re both dead. That shouldn’t happen.”

Rose took Bizzie’s cool hand in hers and soothed the knotted blue veins and wrinkled knuckles as her grandmother talked on.

“I always thought Diana was the sensible one, but then she got it into her head that your Dad would leave her if she didn’t have a baby and she wouldn’t listen. Not to anyone. And then she announced they were adopting a baby and she came home with you. She said… she said she’d adopted you from…”

Rose held her breath.

“…from a poor girl in a home in Lewisham.”

“Lewisham?” Where did Lewisham come into it? Was there a theatre in Lewisham?

Bizzie shook her head. “I simply don’t know what to think anymore Rose, but I am sure of one thing. Diana did her best for you. She gave you a proper upbringing. You’re a lovely young woman, Rose, and I’m proud of you. Diana was too.”

Rose swallowed hard, and clutched her grandmother’s hand. She wished her mother had told her that, just the once.

*

Thanks to Bizzie, Rose now had a photo of Kate. Bizzie thought it had been taken the last time Kate called at the house in Richmond, en route between The Importance of Being Earnest in Watford and A Taste of Honey in Portsmouth. She was sitting on the back doorstep, a striped scarf knotted around her neck. She was smiling. Her knees bent beneath her chin, her hands clutching a floral mug, her long dark wavy hair parted in the centre and pulled back behind her ears a bit like a young Ali McGraw. She looked happy. For Rose, it was like looking at her own reflection in the mirror.

Me, but not quite me. Like a non-identical twin.

She could trace the line of Kate’s nose in her own. Cut her mother’s hair short and let the natural curls bounce unchecked, and the two of them could be carbon copies. If Bizzie was right… Rose did a few rough calculations… it meant the photo had been taken almost three months after Kate fell pregnant. Within a year, she was dead.

Teardrops rolled silently down Rose’s cheeks.  She longed to tell Kate she was sorry. Sorry they had never met, sorry for all the unhappiness.
© Sandra Danby

…in IGNORING GRAVITY #39: Rose searches for Kate’s grave…

This is the 38th 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.