Ibuprofen, birth certificate, and an apology were Rose’s three priorities when she woke too few hours later. The ibuprofen was easy, but the Direct Gov website was still ‘undergoing a few problems which we hope to resolve soon so please visit us later’ and every attempt to speak to Nick failed. Gatekeeper Amanda was polite when she took Rose’s first message of the morning, her voice growing curter with each successive call.By 11am she was nowhere near catching up the backlog which was why she was working at home in the first place: peace, quiet, no interruptions, complete concentration, etc. That was the theory. But the 500 words she managed to squeeze out about psoriasis were rubbish and would have to be rewritten from scratch which meant she would miss her deadline. She longed for espresso, the really strong espresso that was only available from the Coffee Crema van round the corner from Southfields tube station.
As she stood in the queue, her mind wandered away from itchy skin to Nick. Nick, who preferred peppermint tea. Peppermint tea, the same taste as toothpaste, Polo mints, chewing gum, after-dinner mints.
Forget Nick. Think about your father instead.
She pictured two hands putting her birth certificate into a large brown envelope. Except they were Nick’s hands. She pictured a pink tongue sealing the flap with a slick lick from left to right. Except it was Nick’s tongue. She pictured fingers sticking the stamp in the top right-hand corner. Except they were Nick’s fingers.
You won’t hear from him again after last night’s burp, she told herself sternly. Focus on now. A teenage girl, loaded down with Top Shop bags, bumped Rose’s arm, spilling scalding espresso on Rose’s right hand. Then Lily rang with no news, to say she was trying. Rose scowled; didn’t Lily know that the definition of news was something happening, not something not happening? The Direct Gov website working: that would be something. Nick ringing her back: that would be something. He was everywhere she looked, in the man jogging by, in the face creams displayed in a pharmacy window.
Go away Nick. Not now. I can’t afford to think of you now.
The fresh air was nice and her headache started to ease. She sat on a bench in a quiet corner of the library garden to drink her coffee, and stared at a war memorial she’d never noticed before. A grubby concrete statue of an angel holding a grey dove in each hand. She read the names of local men who’d died for their country. There must be 300 names, many surnames repeated, all old enough to be Grandad Howard or Grandad Haldane, both long dead, or her birth father’s father. Three granddads.
The names of the soldiers swam in front of her eyes… Private John Worth, Private David Worth, Sergeant Christopher Worth… she saw a clear picture: her fingers opening the envelope, unfolding her certificate…
…then there was music somewhere distant, repetitive music, and the laughter of a mother and toddler sitting on the library steps sharing an ice-cream and reading The Gruffalo, repetitive laughter, then the recognition that it was her mobile ringing. The two pigeons flew away leaving the angel to look kindly upon the fallen.
Please let this be Nick. Rose picked up a pretty pebble from the path and smoothed it in her hand. It felt lucky. She could do with some luck.
It took Lily three phone calls, ten minutes of Beethoven, four of Abba, and six separate explanations before she was put through to the right department, and only 10 seconds to confirm that Rose was right. There had been a mother & baby home in Enfield in 1968 but it had closed in 1969. A client services assistant at Enfield Council said the files, she called them statement books, would have been passed as a matter of protocol to the adoption agency concerned, AA Adoption Agency. Lily wrote it all down carefully. But AA Adoption Agency had merged with another agency and changed its name, said the client services assistant, and Lily was now waiting for someone from the council to ring her back with the new name. She was proud of what she’d discovered in such a short time, it was just asking questions.
Was this what Rose’s job was like? For the first time, Lily thought she understood what Rose did every day. She normally thought of journalism as ‘writing’, she’d never considered how Rose knew what to write in the first place. Eager to tell Rose how useful it was to think of questions in advance and write them in a list before telephoning anyone, she picked up the phone to call Rose.
She put the phone down five minutes later. Rose had been full of thanks, not a single sarcastic comment and quick to say ‘great’, ‘well done’, ‘thanks’, ‘you’ve been a great help’. And she sounded like she meant it. Lily wondered if they’d get on better as cousins rather than sisters, more like real friends. Being cousins meant they could choose to like each other rather than feeling obliged to be ‘sisterly’. When Lily thought of the word it was in quote marks because she wasn’t sure quite what sisterly meant. She’d only ever known one sister, Rose, but she knew other women who spoke to their sisters five times a day, lived a street apart and spent every spare moment together. There were so many types of sisters, step-sisters, half-sisters, adoptive sisters, no-one seemed to have a simple family. She was the only one at Good Times not divorced, and the only one without children. At that thought she clenched her fists so tight her fingernails left indentations in her palm.
She would marinate the leg of lamb and hope the council would call her back soon. It was a nice feeling, helping Rose, and it stopped her worrying about William whose domestic demands and food requests were becoming time-consuming. It was almost as if he wanted to keep her busy. She pressed two garlic cloves on top of the small pile of grated root ginger already in the marble mortar, added a dash of lemon juice, a slug of dark green olive oil and some chopped rosemary, bashed it with a pestle then poured the lot over the lamb. As she massaged the oil deep into the flesh with her fingertips, she tried to remember the last time William had called her ‘his beautiful girl’. Their honeymoon… then once after a night at the theatre… and… and… that was it. She remembered the play, two tortured couples unfaithful, deceitful, manipulative. She hadn’t enjoyed it, but William had taken her by the hand as they left and said ‘that’ll never happen to us, beautiful girl.’
She put the lamb in the fridge then looked around for something else to do, avoiding eye contact with the kitchen table. After William had left without breakfast this morning, she’d piled her mother’s diaries in the middle of the table and then circled around them all morning. But now there were no chores left to do.
“Richard of York gave battle in vain,” she sang in her light voice as she organised the notebooks into the sequence of colours of a rainbow. Red. Orange. Yellow. Green. Blue. Indigo. Violet. Unsure of the exact shade of indigo, she did the best she could. She placed the bleached blue book with the lock, THE book with its hints and medical facts about ovulation, second from the right next to violet. It made a pretty pile. She couldn’t put it off any longer. She had to read her mother’s words. After flicking through two diaries yesterday in the cafe, Lily wasn’t at all sure whether she wanted to read more. Diaries are personal, she told herself, full of secrets and confessions, locked with tiny shiny keys, hidden under mattresses and inside shoe boxes. I can’t be angry with Rose for acting on what she read in Mum’s diary, if I read them too. A part of her liked being angry with Rose, at occupying the high ground.
I’m being silly, Mum didn’t have early menopause and neither do I.
“If Rose is brave enough to face the truth,” she told the kitchen at large, “so am I.”
So she turned off her mobile and turned on the answerphone, took a deep breath and opened the red book at the top of the pile. She wanted the one which covered the nine months before her birthday. Red was 1971. Her birthday was June 1, 1969 so Lily put that one aside and opened the next. Another red: 1976. She worked her way down the pile. Second from the bottom was 1968. Orange. Rose had been born on August 29 1968. Lily was born the following year when their mother was 23. Surely 23 was far too young to go through the menopause? Lily’s cycle might be a bit up and down but her periods hadn’t stopped like the article in Stars said Sylvie Watson’s had.
Lily logged on. There were 15 million results for Sylvie Watson. 15 million! How did Rose use the web for research when there was so much to read? She clicked onto a photo and saw the actress with her Vietnamese baby. She imagined a silver-framed photograph on the mantelpiece, William standing under the oak tree in the back garden with one arm around her shoulders and cradling in the other a tiny Vietnamese baby. Cute.
1969, sky blue, was full of notations of baby formulae, feeding routines and weights. Lily’s first smile. The handwriting was not as neat as in the preceding diaries and Lily imagined her as a young mother with two babies less than a year old. She read on. First word. First step.
1970, dark green, would be better. Rose’s first haircut. Lily’s first clearly decipherable word. Cat.
1971, light green. Lily’s favourite toy: tambourine. Rose’s favourite toy: wooden building blocks.
1972, scarlet. A fancy dress party, Lily as a white crepe paper lily, Rose as a scarlet crepe paper rose with crown.
Lily read, then scanned, then flicked until her eyes ached. How did Rose do all this reading and research for work? She’d been sitting at the kitchen table for three hours reading, and she was exhausted.
1975 was the one. Magenta. Diana was 29, the way she described it her neat script was exactly how Lily thought of her own periods. Haphazard. Lily closed the magenta book with a bang. Her mother did have early menopause after all, no wonder there wasn’t a little sister. Anger rose up her breast and into her throat with a whoosh like flames up a staircase. If only Mum had warned me. If only Rose had given me these diaries earlier. If only William had insisted I go to the doctor. If. If. If.
Rose keeps going on about not knowing where her genes come from, Lily thought, swallowing and swallowing, her parched throat burning, well my genes have given me early menopause. That’s what genes do. It’s not just about passing on good stuff, there’s bad stuff too. Now I’ll never push my baby in a buggy, never look into my son’s eyes and see William’s eyes smiling back.
She sat and waited for the tears to arrive. When they didn’t, she took a sip of tea. It was cold. She boiled the kettle again, this time choosing a lemon and ginger teabag, and stood at the kitchen window watching the blue tits squabble over the nigella seeds she’d put on the bird table that morning. She was surprised she couldn’t cry. Usually she cried at the drop of a hat, Rose was the dry-eyed one. ‘Cry Baby’, Rose used to taunt her. But it was Rose who had warned her about early menopause, after all, and those words of warning drummed inside her head now. She should have listened when Rose told her about early menopause, the day they read their mother’s yellow diary. She should have gone to the doctor earlier. A magpie swooped to the bird table and the blue tits scattered.
She picked up the magenta book again, turning its pages, twisting the paper then smoothing out the wrinkles, putting it down and picking it up again. Rose was always talking about facts, how you needed facts to prove a supposition, did she mean supposition or suspicion?
Then unbidden, she saw William’s unsmiling face. She thought of all the fear and suspicion and doubts she’d read in her mother’s handwriting and saw the fear and suspicion and doubts in her own marriage. Things she’d been ignoring, denying, pushing deep into the dark corners of her mind now spun together in the washing machine of her brain on the Extra Intensive spin cycle, twisted and tangled in a knot.
She didn’t know what truth meant anymore.
© Sandra Danby
…in IGNORING GRAVITY #44: Rose finds where Kate was living at the time she gave birth…
This is the 43rd 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.