She stepped out of her steaming bath water later that night and picked up the bottle of Soothing Rose lotion she’d bought at Cool Beauty yesterday. Mmm roses, she thought, the heady scent of summer. But the top wouldn’t budge, not even when she tried to loosen it with her teeth.
Shivering now, she wrapped herself in a towel. Somewhere there was a pair of pliers. Leaving a trail of water across the floor, she checked in the hall cupboard, then the drawer in the dresser. She finally found them in her toolbox at the bottom of her wardrobe squashed between her Dorothy stilettos and favourite tan cowboy boots. With one tug, the threads at the neck of the plastic bottle gave way and the top was released. Her stomach lurched at the overwhelming stink of artificial flowers, chemical copies, not real roses. Rose stoppered the bottle quickly. It had smelled alright in the shop, but perhaps everything had changed now she was Alanna Ingram.
Wrapped in her bathrobe, dozing uneasily in front of an ancient repeat of ER, dreaming of twin sisters who continually morphed in and out of each other’s bodies, Rose was stirred by a knocking. Her heart stopped for a moment as she thought of opening her door a week ago to Nick in orange Lycra. Rose still wasn’t sure she could fancy a bloke who wore orange.
There was a knock again and with effort she refocused her head on now. Someone was on the first floor landing, outside her door and she hadn’t buzzed them up. Cursing the lack of a spyhole, Rose put on the chain and peered through the gap as she opened the door. Outside stood a familiar yet unfamiliar woman, her left hand wrapped in a red towel.
Rose opened the door. “Yes?” Blood dripped onto the hall carpet.
“I’m so sorry to trouble you. I’ve had an accident,” she held up her hand. Then she smiled at the look of miscomprehension on Rose’s face. “I’m Michelle. From downstairs.” She waved vaguely at the floor with the towel-wrapped hand and Rose watched a fleck of blood fly through the air in an arc and hit the banister.
“I’ve tried to stop the bleeding but it’s getting worse…”
Like I hadn’t noticed, thought Rose, who then felt instantly awful for thinking something so awful. For someone bleeding so much she seems very calm, thought Rose. Then she realised Michelle was looking at her expectantly.
“… so I think I’d better go to hospital. The only thing is, I’d just put Lewis down before it happened…”
Ah, thought Rose.
“… and he went straight off to sleep. He’s not been well this week, bit of a sniffle so I don’t really want to wake him and take him with me.” Her eyes appealed directly to Rose’s. “I wondered, would you mind sitting with him while I go for stitches? I’ve got a taxi waiting outside. Please? I won’t be long.”
“Of course, I was only watching ER.” Rose nodded calmly at Michelle who was saying that Lewis was a good boy, never an ounce of bother. Rose pulled on a t-shirt and jogging pants and followed Michelle downstairs. Through an open door Rose glimpsed a duvet bundled up on a child-sized bed in a dark room.
Oh. My. God. How am I going to do this? I’ve never spent one hour alone with any child.
Michelle hurriedly showed her into the kitchen, opened the fridge and pointed to a blue plastic drinks bottle decorated with space ships. Rose swallowed and nodded as if babysitting was one of her regular activities.
Oh. My. God. It’s not going to wake up is it?
She helped Michelle gather her handbag, her phone and bundled her into the taxi.
Oh. My. God.
She fumbled with the unfamiliar TV, found ER and sat down on the unfamiliar sofa, trying to ignore something sticky on the chair arm which transferred to her elbow. She held her breath for a moment, then exhaled slowly. She’d been here five minutes and all was fine. Looking after children was not difficult: she had a degree, she did a professional job, how difficult could it be?
Rose’s heart sank. She turned slowly.
“Hello Lewis, remember me? I’m Rose, the lady from upstairs? Your mummy’s had to go out for a while and so I’m staying here with you.” She was talking rather too loud and slow, and smiling too much, but couldn’t stop herself.
Lewis stood in the doorway and looked at her, his right hand rubbing a dark grey rag against his cheek. He rocked slowly from left foot to right. Rose looked at the round blue face on the rag which she saw now was a blanket, a steam engine with wide-open eyes stared solemnly at her. Thomas, she assumed.
“Would you like to take Thomas and go back to sleep?”
No answer. His thumb was in his mouth now.
“Shall we go and pop you back into bed?”
‘Pop’. She never said ‘pop’, and she smiled as she realised she sounded just like Bizzie. She’d be saying ‘so so’ next.
Lewis just stared at her. Hang on a minute, he wasn’t looking at her, his eyes were focussed slightly to her left. She looked over her shoulder at the TV. Lewis was watching two people in white coats in the middle of a big snogging session. Damn, she’d missed the beginning of a new episode.
She looked back at Lewis. He was transfixed by the snogging. “Come on Lewis, let’s get you a drink before you go back to bed.”
He nodded, slowly. She turned off the TV and took hold of the hand holding the blanket. The thumb seemed clamped in his mouth.
Fifteen minutes later she was sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by full glasses, cartons and bottles. Lewis hadn’t liked the orange squash she’d poured into his space ship bottle, or the milk, or the tap water, or the apple juice, or the cola or lemonade. She was seriously contemplating trying him on Somerset cider next. Lewis sat opposite her. She still hadn’t managed to make him speak. He just stared, his eyes wide and unblinking, as if he could read her thoughts.
Time to take charge, she decided. No more options, he needed a command. “Lewis, make up your mind which drink you want. Then it’s definitely time for bed. Come on young man.” She stood up to demonstrate movement.
Taking charge didn’t work. After a struggle which involved Lewis going rigid, arms and legs outstretched like a starburst, and Rose first scolding, then pulling, next pleading, finally shouting, she left him sitting at the kitchen table and returned to the TV. ER’s credits were rolling, next up was an old re-run of Friends. Ten minutes later, the sound of falling beakers in the kitchen reminded her she wasn’t at home. Lewis was sitting in the same chair, soaked in every single type of beverage, drawing pictures in the wet mess on the table top.
“Right, that’s it.” Rose carried him squirming and wriggling into the bathroom, stripped off his sticky blue pyjamas, sponged him with a damp flannel, waved a towel over the slippery wet bits then carried him to his bed where she attempted to clothe him in a faded dinosaur t-shirt and red bottoms which she found on what she guessed was the ironing pile in the hall.
“No.” He struggled as she tried to force his suddenly baseball-bat like limbs into the narrow arm and leg holes. How could he be so small and so strong? How did clothing manufacturers seriously expect a three-year-old’s arm to fit in there? Wasn’t there some sort of drug she could give him which would send him to sleep?
“Want Harpot,” he shouted.
“Oh no you don’t, I’m not falling for that again, young man. I’m not getting all your t-shirts out of the drawer for you to try on and then change your mind. You can wear this one, it’s perfectly clean.” At the precise point that Rose’s tone of voice changed from frustration to anger, Lewis’s lungs opened into full-on bawl. As he jumped up and down on his bed, she sank to the floor beside it and wondered how Michelle coped as a single mum, she must be shattered all the time. Logic didn’t work, kindness didn’t work, brute force didn’t work.
After a final struggle which resulted in Lewis wearing the dinosaur t-shirt back to front, she went to the fridge and found a wine box, skulking behind a huge tub of Postman Pat raspberry yogurt. She filled a tumbler and sat on the sofa. Lewis could scream, as far as she cared. She was only a temporary member of the mother’s club and her membership would be rescinded indefinitely after this.
I screamed as a child and it didn’t hurt me, did it?
She was halfway through her second glass and feeling slightly calmer when Lewis appeared in the door again, this time with a book in hand. Rose wearily patted her knee and he climbed onto her lap and opened Mr Sneezy. From the first page he had the better of her, he knew every word and corrected every mistake she made. It was endlessly repetitive. When she accidentally turned over two pages at once because Ross and Rachel were snogging, Lewis spotted the gap in the story and made her go back. He shuffled his bottom into her lap and laid his head against her shoulder, Rose smiled and a punch of sadness hit her in the pit of the stomach. Kate had never got to hold Alanna like this.
She sniffed Lewis’s hair, expecting baby shampoo but getting apple juice. Ignoring her sticky nose, Rose shed tears for Kate and for herself. They had both lost something so huge, the removal of something valuable, followed by a great gaping hole every morning where a mother or daughter should have been. A hole that was still there.
Lewis snuffled in his sleep and as she shifted his heavy warmth slightly on her knees to relieve pins-and-needles, Rose surrendered to the feeling of companionship. Perhaps it was time to stop chasing an enigma.
© Sandra Danby
…in IGNORING GRAVITY #46: Nick tells Rose he thinks she is brave…
This is the 45th 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.