IGNORING GRAVITY #48

By the time she knocked at Maureen’s door at 7pm, Rose felt calmer. There was a knot in her stomach which she wasn’t sure was anticipation at solving Susan’s identity, Maureen had promised to talk about Kate and Susan, or hunger.

‘We can't do it without the Rose’ by Joseph Beuys [photo: tate.org.uk]

‘We can’t do it without the Rose’ by Joseph Beuys [photo: tate.org.uk]

She’d wanted to ask about Susan as soon as her foot was in the door, but hearing Diana’s voice in her head – “be polite!” – Rose devoured the dish of pasta spirals in tomato and sardine sauce which Maureen set in front of her.

“I didn’t realise how hungry I was.” Rose wiped her dish clean with a chunk of crusty bread. “I love tomatoes. Any sort of tomatoes, those little plum ones are great in a salad or the big fat ones you have with mozzarella, and tomato sandwiches in the summer with a sprinkle of salt. Mmm, lovely.”

“Your… “ Maureen cleared her throat before continuing, “… your mum loved tomatoes too.” She stood to clear the saucepans from the hob.

“No she didn’t, they upset her stomach. Too acid.”

“Not Diana. Kate.”

“Oh.” To hide her confusion, Rose laid her knife and fork neatly side-by-side on the plate, imagining Kate eating pasta spirals in tomato and sardine sauce. Kate was Kate, not Mum.

“What was she like, Maureen?”

“Kate was mysterious, there were always people around her but I expect not many of us really knew her.” Maureen filled the teapot with hot water, covered it with a quilted tea cosy, and cut two slices of fruit cake. “She had the most beautiful long wavy dark hair you’ve ever seen. She would tie it back in a sort of loose plait that was so hippy. I envied her hair.”

“I’ve got a photo of her with her hair braided in ribbons, she looks like a flower girl.”

“Perhaps she was that day. The next day she’d be something else. I think she played lots of roles, depending on how she felt or who she was with. She was always practising, changing accents, repeating lines. Diana said she was a class snob, trying to speak like a dockworker, trying to look like a socialist, denying her middle-class roots. But however she spoke Kate turned heads, people wanted to talk to her, not because she was beautiful… I don’t know, she had an aura about her.”

“So was she a hippy?”

“I’m not sure what that really means, but she was certainly the hippest person I knew. She was into crystals and meditation, she re-used the backs of envelopes as notepaper and made a rag rug for her bedroom. Way before her time, Kate was. She wore her heart on her sleeve and was completely opposite to Diana. You never knew what Diana was thinking unless she wanted you to know, she should have been a politician. Kate wanted to go to India but couldn’t afford it so she burned incense sticks instead. Diana said she’d burn the house down one day.”

Rose laughed. She could imagine the look on her mother’s face as she said that. “You went to the squat, didn’t you?”

“Once, yes, when she first moved there. The house wasn’t up to much but it was no worse than my student digs in Brighton. Dirty mugs, bikes in the hall, weeds in the back garden, you know the sort of thing.” It sounded like Rose and Maggie’s student flatshare in Bristol.

“What were her friends like?”

“Well, there was that one girl I told you about, Susan. She seemed nice enough, long blonde hair, braided like Kate’s, maxi skirt to her ankles, bangles all the way to her elbow. I remember watching her walk up those narrow stairs and wondering how she managed not to get her feet tangled up in the hem.”

“You haven’t remembered her surname then?”

“Sorry, love, I haven’t.”

The knot in Rose’s stomach released, leaving a vacuum. She hesitated before speaking again. It felt awkward, as if she was interviewing Maureen for work. “How are Kate and I alike? Or perhaps we aren’t.” Don’t be so nervous, it’s only Maureen, she won’t get upset.

Maureen sat back in her chair and studied her, Rose felt as if her face was having a CAT scan. She wanted to hear so much that she looked like Kate.

“Your hair’s the same, these crinkly waves,” Maureen reached across the table and touched a curl above Rose’s left ear just where Nick touched her yesterday. “But your eyes are a different colour, hers were dark brown not hazel like yours…”

Rose’s hand went to her eye, stroked her eyebrow.

“… but when you smile you get the same crease there.” Maureen brushed Rose’s cheek with her fingers.

Rose felt a wave of delight. “I always thought my likeness to Mum was translucent.”

“Yes, you are more like Kate than Diana. Kate was much taller than you though, she was about 5ft 10in I think. But you’re both skinny. Kate could eat like a horse and not put on a pound. I think that’s another reason why Diana was irritated by her.”

“Mum was irritated by lots of things. It was hardly Kate’s fault if Mum had a slow metabolism and couldn’t lose weight.” Rose remembered her mother’s rule about sugar. No Sugar Puffs. No Frosties. No Tony the Tiger. Only Ready Brek and Weetabix.

“No, but remember Diana settled down early to suburban family life while Kate gallivanted around the countryside.”

“Stuck at home with a baby, Kate’s baby, me. Anyway it cuts both ways, doesn’t it?” Rose was thinking aloud. “Kate was probably jealous that Mum was married and settled with a home.” Rose thought of Lily’s home in Barnes, of the cool hall with its large mirror, the welcoming kitchen table with its carefully mis-matched designer chairs, the garden full of shrubs and flowers, and thought Kate might have felt the same way about her sister’s home. In comparison to what she had.

“I overheard Howard once tell Kate she should try harder to be more like Diana. Only the triers succeed’, he said. It was unkind thing to say and I felt so sorry for her, but she just carried on doing her own thing regardless. Her…”

“But that’s what Mum was always saying to me,” interrupted Rose, “she wanted me to be more like Lily.” Rose knew she sounded like a grumpy ten-year old but she felt better knowing that Kate would know how she felt.

“Oh Howard was just trying to encourage her, in his creaky sort of way. And your Mum didn’t want to change you into Lily, not really.”

In her heart Rose knew Maureen was right, that her Mum just wanted her to be neater and tidier. “I know she didn’t.” She spoke quietly, “but Lily and I are so different.”

“Diana and Kate were too. Not all sisters live in each other’s pockets, you know. Kate’s clothes were so eccentric,” continued Maureen, “she’d wear things that Diana would have used as dusters.”

“Mum’s style was really formal, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, she liked to be smart. She was much more focussed than Kate.”

“What do you mean, focussed?”

“Well,” Maureen cradled her mug in her hands, thinking. “Diana planned everything, and I mean everything. She was the sort of person who weighed everything when she cooked instead of just throwing things in. And she had so much patience, she loved embroidery.”

Rose thought fleetingly of the rose cushion, shoved in a dark corner of her understairs cupboard. “But she couldn’t bake cakes. One year she made a Christmas cake which was so burnt she had to cut a layer off the top before she could ice it. After that she always bought the Christmas cake and told Dad she’d made it.”

“Kate couldn’t cook either, in fact she was a regular Emma Woodhouse surrounded by unfinished things. She was happier watching TV than reading a book, which I thought was odd for an actress. I suppose she had to read so much, learning lines and so on, that reading a book wasn’t relaxing for her. She did love documentaries, travel programmes, I guess they allowed her to travel in her head. And she was so altruistic. World hunger, war, peace, it was the big things Kate worried about, not where her next pay cheque was coming from.”

“Didn’t she have much money then?”

“Oh no, she earned a pittance but it never seemed to bother her. She always managed to have a good time.”

This was her chance, her ‘in’, and Rose grabbed it. “A good time with men? Lots of men?”

Maureen’s eyes were filled with sympathy. “Yes. I’m sure there were lots of boyfriends Rose, but really I don’t know for sure.” She rubbed her eyes wearily. “She certainly never brought a man home to meet her parents, not to my knowledge anyway. She travelled so much that her visits were rare. I know Bizzie and Howard always worried about her driving all around the country in that beat-up old Mini. It didn’t look capable of making it around the corner let alone getting to Bath or Carlisle.”

“Kate had a Mini?” Rose held out her mug for a top-up and accepted a second piece of cake. It had whole cherries in it, her favourite. Bizzie must have made it. “A Mini like mine?”

“I suppose so, the old sort. Tiny. It was orange, not black.”

“I’m amazed she could afford a car.”

“Well, she couldn’t. But when we were 20 we painted the outside of my Mum’s house that summer. To make a bit of cash. Forest Fresh, the colour was called, pale green. Sounds like a toilet freshener, doesn’t it?”

They both laughed.

“We didn’t do it very well but Mum was pleased. She was going to give us £10 each but she had a bit of a win on the premium bonds so she paid us from her winnings. £100 each. It was a fortune to us. I went to Torremolinos with Fred, we’d just started courting.” Maureen blushed slightly. “Kate wanted a car. Diana put hers in the building society account she’d opened to save for her wedding to John.”

Rose remembered her mother’s diary entries, planning the details of her wedding, and wondered how she would feel now to see her family so fractured. Mum would know how to get Dad off the drink, she thought. “Have you seen Dad recently?”

Maureen nodded, chewing cake.

“How did he seem?”

Maureen swallowed then looked at her plate, licked her finger then dotted it over the crumbs, catching each one then licking her finger clean. “Mmm. I thought he was okay, drinking too much but then he’s always been prone to depression. He went through a very black period when you were tiny, it wasn’t known then that husbands could get post-natal depression… well you know what I mean.” She smiled apologetically.

Could you get post-natal depression with an adopted baby? Rose wasn’t sure, but she did recognise this dark picture of her father and instinctively reached beneath the table and tapped the leg for luck.

“I asked Fred to have a word with him about the drinking, not to let it get out of control.”

“I went to the allotment last week and he was too drunk to talk to. I’m worried about him. Mum would know what to do.”

“Give him some time, love. This part-time job at EazySave will help, give him a new routine, meet different people, people who didn’t know Diana and have never heard of Woodbright Engineering. He’s still mourning and his odd behaviour towards you is probably more to do with missing her than with your adoption.”

“Yes you’re right, I hadn’t thought of it like that.”

The clock struck ten. Rose got up to leave and hugged Maureen tightly, it felt just as a hug from your mother should feel.

As they walked together towards the garden gate, Maureen patted Rose’s shoulder. “Don’t you worry about your Dad, Fred and I’ll keep an eye on him. I’ll get into the routine of inviting him round to dinner once a week. Get a decent meal inside him.”

Almost at her car, Rose turned back. “I know it would have been impossible for Kate to act and tour around the country staying in bedsits with a baby in tow, but is that the only reason she didn’t keep me?”

“I can’t think why anyone would give away their baby, Rose. But the truth is that people do, every day. None of us can ever know the secrets inside other people’s relationships, or the contents of their heads.”
© Sandra Danby

…in IGNORING GRAVITY #49: Rose logs onto Friends Reunited and sends e-mails to Susans who may have been at school with Kate…

This is the 48th 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.