Five hours later, Rose stood on the steps of Way Forward PR in Chiswick where she’d just left a breakfast press briefing about the New You range of slimming products. New You: the all-natural, organic way to detox and not go hungry.
In her hand was a carrier bag containing the press kit. Product samples [sachet of powdered milk shake, energy bar and vacuum pack of dried savoury rice], press pack, scented candle to help her feel positive about her body image, notepad and ballpoint pen stamped with the New You logo. Standard press reception fodder: Rose would take the bag back to work and it would go into the goody drawer. When the drawer was full, Sam’s secretary would fill up carrier bags and hand them out to the features team. This would be followed by a frantic trading session as the boys swapped the lipsticks in their bags for the disposable razors in the girls’ bags. It was one of the perks of working on the features desk. Rose hadn’t bought soap, or pens, since she’d worked at the Herald.
Now, bag in hand, she stood on a street corner and looked around to get her bearings. Cars queued at traffic lights by Turnham Green church, right for Chiswick High Road where Lily worked. Rose desperately needed to talk to her, to tell her about Kate face-to-face, so she dug out her mobile.
“Lunch? Great,” said Lily. “I finish at one, so we’ll have time for a lovely long talk.”
Rose wasn’t sure that ‘lovely’ was the right adjective.
“Oh and Rose,” added Lily, just as Rose thought the conversation was ended; was wondering how to fill in two hours before 1pm and the next press reception. “You have got the diaries for me, haven’t you?”
“Yes, of course.” Rose kept her voice neutral. She’d totally forgotten.
A quick glance at her watch told her there was just time to go home and get back. She was back to Chiswick with still half an hour spare so she walked around the small green sandwiched between the church and the corner with the traffic lights, and sat on her second religious bench of the day. She sent Lily a text saying where she was, then let her mind wander to the conversation this morning in the graveyard.
Her attraction to the idea of an adoption blessing was nothing to do with religion. It was about being surrounded by her family, her real family who accepted her as she was and didn’t want to her to be something else. She started to flick Diana’s diaries. A faded blue hardback book looked the oldest but was fastened by a metal lock which she couldn’t open so she flicked through the others, the breeze turning the pages for her, random mentions of her name catching her eye.
Wedding anniversary. 8.30 Aldo’s. The lasagne was lovely but I could have it made it at home a lot cheaper. Got a babysitter. But argued with John about having a conservatory put on the back of the house.
There was still no conservatory at The Weavings.
Took the girls to see The Nutcracker at Kingston Arts Centre. Lily loved it and is begging for ballet classes. Rose was silent throughout. At least she didn’t complain.
Rose still disliked ballet.
Doctor Waters says it’ll take six months to recover from the hysterectomy and recommends I go back to work part-time. John and I agreed I should resign from British Water. Perhaps I’ll get a job at the Oxfam shop on Welbeck Rise. Rose buys books there so it must be well-run if she likes it.
Rose still bought second-hand books from Oxfam, but had never known that her Mum valued her judgement. She wondered what else her mother had felt but never said.
Car horns blew, brakes screeched, shouts and whistles.
“Oi, look where you’re going.”
“Get your eyes tested.”
“Bastard.” A truck driver stopped at the traffic lights gesticulated out of his window, his middle finger pointing to the sky.
Bastard. Rose had sworn enough times but had not once thought about the real meaning of the word: baseborn, illegitimate, misbegotten, unwanted. She was a bastard. Never again would she use that word. For the first time she felt a label was stuck to her forehead and she couldn’t change it, not a scarlet letter A for adopted, but a red letter B.
Don’t think about it.
The traffic moved on. The sun was hot, her eyes closed. So she jumped when her mobile rang. It was Bella wanting an update on the counsellor meeting.
“Oh my goodness,” she said after listening to Rose’s summary. “Perhaps you’ll never really know the full story. And that’s okay, Rose, its okay to not know.”
“But I want to know.” There was a pause, while Rose reflected on how childish that had sounded. “I’m going to find my father next, order my full adoption certificate. That’ll tell me his name.”
“Weelll… not necessarily. These forms aren’t always conclusive when it comes to the father’s identity.”
“Because it was customary to automatically put down the husband’s name as Birth Father. Unless the husband specifically objected or the birth father got an affiliation order.”
But Kate must have put my real father’s name down on the form, she thought. He would have signed this affiliation order. He must have. Kate wouldn’t lie about something so important.
She’d see what Lily thought about it.
“Good luck telling your sister. And Rose, be gentle. It’ll be a big shock for her.”
The church bells rang out, a peal of ascending and descending notes, an inevitable rising and falling of the scales. Rose screwed up her eyes against the sun to look at the bell tower. The jumble of bells and sun and traffic made her head ache. Nearby a gardener pushed prunings into the mouth of a large yellow machine. The whining monster chewed up the living wood and spat it out in neat chips ready to mulch Lily’s garden. Rose’s head pounded. Her history had been chipped and spat out too. She took an ibuprofen with a large swig of water from her bottle, then closed her eyes, waiting for the pounding to stop.
“What lovely marigolds. I’ve planted some by my tomatoes so they repel the greenfly.”
Lily was standing beside her, holding a parcel wrapped in tissue paper the colour of a Granny Smith. “Here, this is for you. It was damaged when we unpacked the boxes so I bought it for £1.” She was always giving Rose damaged goods or sale items. Inside the tissue paper was a notebook. On the cover was a picture of a two-headed goose with a human body.
“I thought you could use it for your notes, when you’re interviewing someone.”
“Err… thanks.” Rose tried to picture the look on Nick Maddox’s face if she’d produced this at the interview. But Lily had thought of her, so she smiled. “A goose?”
“It’s Hapy, the Egyptian fertility god of the Nile flood.”
Fertility god, right. Rose tucked it into the New You carrier bag. The last thing she needed to do right now was challenge Lily’s obsession with fertility.
They chose a pizzeria and sat down at a table in the front window.
“I was glad you rang,” said Lily in that tone of voice which Rose knew usually preceded a complaint. “I really want to tell you about my new strategy to get pregnant.”
Rose wondered what it could be. Visualising giving birth while having sex?
“I’ve started taking this special honey to improve my fertility. I want to give myself a boost… but… well, for maximum benefit William should really take it too but he… you know, I haven’t found the right time to tell him about it yet. Perhaps I’ll slip it into his food somehow.”
In Rose’s experience all men hated honey. James had steadfastly refused to eat anything that came out a bee’s bottom. Rose nodded in what she guessed were the right places and said “really” in an encouraging way whenever Lily stopped for breath, which was rare. She had a way of talking which was difficult to interrupt politely, taking breaths in the middle of sentences, not at the end, so there was never a long enough pause in punctuation for Rose to speak. Even Rose, with her training in interview techniques, found it difficult to manage conversations with her sister.
Finally Lily took a breath.
“I did ring you five times this morning,” Rose knew her voice had a Lily-like whine but was unable to cancel it out. “I saw the adoption counsellor last night.”
Lily swallowed her mouthful of chilli pizza quickly. “Are you alright?”
“The diary is right.” Rose hesitated remembering Bella’s advice to take it gently. “Mum didn’t give birth to me.”
Lily stared. “So who…”
“My real mother was Aunt Kate.” Maybe that wasn’t gentle enough, maybe she should have gone around the houses a bit.
Lily’s jaw dropped. “Ooooh myyyy Goooddd.”
This was the phrase they had adopted as teenagers as their favourite expression of shock. Rose enunciated each word clearly with capital letters and full stops for emphasis, more ‘OH. MY. GOD’, while Lily shrieked the three words as one high-pitched continuous note. She was shrieking now.
“But…” Lily put down her knife and fork, “… it’s great. It means we’re cousins.” And she burst into tears. “Ever since we read Mum’s diary I’ve thought we weren’t related at all. This is brilliant news.”
A pile of damp tissues soon gathered in the centre of the table. Their pizzas abandoned, Rose talked soothingly while Lily calmed a little. Rose didn’t cry. She thought tears were a sign of giving in and she wasn’t going to give in to anyone or anything. So she focussed on comforting Lily, patting her arm.
“Every night since I found out… I’ve been dreaming,” Rose said. “I’m sitting up in bed wearing my favourite nightie, you know, the one I had when I was ten, the pink brushed nylon one with the embroidered roses on the yoke. Yours was …”
“…yellow with embroidered daffodils. You’ve had the same dream every night for nine nights?” Lily’s voice sounded a little more normal and people had stopped staring and were eating their pizzas again.
“The door opens, someone comes in and tucks me into bed. That’s what changes, who it is. One night it’s Mum. The next night it’s someone famous.”
“Quite often it’s Ma from Little House on the Prairie, there’s the smell of apple pie baking in the oven. But don’t you see it doesn’t matter who it is. My subconscious is fantasising about my birth mother.” Rose pushed her pizza away, her appetite gone. “It’s because my memories are all wrong.”
“Oh Rose, your memories don’t change about things that really happened.”
“You know the best thing about confirming that I’m Kate’s daughter is that I know now I am an Ingram. You, Bizzie, Granddad Howard, you’re all definitely my relatives.”
“But not Dad?”
“No, of course not. He’s a Haldane. I don’t know anything about the paternal half of me.”
Lily’s face was still pale. Rose hated seeing her little sister look so bereft. Concentrate on the positive, she thought. “I know half my medical history now so that’s good. I’ve been worrying that I might have inherited a genetic disposition to cancer or something.”
“Well thank goodness there’s a happy ending.” Lily tidily arranged the last bit of pizza on her fork.
Happy ending? “But this isn’t the end. I’ve only found half my family.”
“Rose, be careful.” Lily took her napkin off her lap and started to fold it. “I think you’re getting obsessed with this whole thing. Of course everyone’s upset for you, but this continual searching is damaging. Dad doesn’t know what to say to you and when I spoke to Grandma earlier she was in tears. She wouldn’t say why except that you were there late last night and phoned at dawn this morning. I think it’s time to stop.”
“But it’s only…” Obsessed? Lily’s calling me obsessed? Pots and kettles.
“Lily, it’s only ten days since I found out.”
“No, let me finish.” Lily twisted her napkin in her hands as if making some sort of free-form origami table arrangement. “You’ve found your real family. Us. Aren’t we real enough for you? You’re healthy with a good job, a nice home and a family that loves you. There’s real pain out there. People alone, with no money, no family at all. If you knew what it felt like not being able to have a baby you’d…”
Oh, I wondered how long it’d take to get round to babies, thought Rose wearily.
“No. It’s not enough,” she scrunched her napkin into a ball and tossed it onto her plate, “because it’s only half the picture. I can’t stop searching, I might as well ignore gravity. I’ve found half my family. Half, 50% not 100%. The Ingram half that I’ve found is great, it’s all of you. But half my heart, my genes, by DNA is still missing and I have to find it. I’m sorry if I’m upsetting you Lily, I don’t mean to, but this is something I simply need to do. I didn’t ask to be adopted, it happened to me. I’m the victim here.” She hadn’t admitted that before, she didn’t like the idea of being a victim; she was a fighter.
“You’ve already got a father. He’s called John, he lives in Richmond and he’s lonely. He’s lost his wife and job and thinks he’s going to lose you too.”
“He hasn’t lost me.” But he is a quitter, she added to herself, a drunk who runs away from reality, who has been drinking alone in his shed since my childhood. She hated thinking this about her father, but it was true. Then she remembered she hadn’t told Lily about the scene at the allotment last night. Now was not the time. “Why do you think I’m so wrong to need my birth father?”
“I, I, I. Me, me, me. It’s not just about you, Rose. You are wrecking our family.” Lily was shouting now, unconscious of the glares from other tables, waving her hands as if conducting Mozart’s Requiem.
Rose took Lily’s twisted napkin out of her hands and threw it on the table. “I’m not trying to wreck anything. But, just think, I might have other sisters and brothers. I might be an aunt.” As soon as she said it, she knew it was a mistake. A big one.
Lily pushed her chair back as if to get up and leave, but didn’t move. Her face was screwed up and red.
Rose suddenly felt very tired. The conversation wasn’t supposed to go like this. She’d done it all wrong. “Lily I’m sorry I said that. I’m sorry you’re not pregnant.” Perhaps if your husband was at home more often you’d have more sex. For a horrible moment Rose thought she’d said the last bit aloud. But she hadn’t. It was the penis thing all over again.
“Look.” She reached across the table to take Lily’s hand. “The birth of a baby is a time of celebration, you of all people will appreciate that. How do you think it feels to know that my birth caused regret, conflict, arguments, guilt?”
“I need to find out who I am and I’d like your support. But if not, I’ll do it on my own.”
“Why? You’re still Rose Haldane, aren’t you?”
“Not really. I’m an Ingram, not a Haldane.” Rose tried to keep her voice calm. If Lily didn’t understand this, would anyone? Her tongue was dry and her mind was empty and meanwhile Lily was standing up and shouting.
“…and you just go off and do things that affect us without a word, but you expect us to know what you’re doing. We’re not telepathic.” And with that, Lily grabbed her bag and turned for the door.
“Don’t forget these.” Rose called after her, and pushed the pile of diaries across the table.
Lily turned back, scooped up the diaries without a word, and left.
Rose sighed heavily. Well that hadn’t gone to plan.
© Sandra Danby
…in IGNORING GRAVITY #41: Lily reads something she didn’t expect in her mother’s diary…
This is the 40th 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.