IGNORING GRAVITY #49

Rose was first into the office the next morning. The movement of something pink registered in her peripheral vision: a Post-It note stuck to her phone fluttered in the breeze from the portable air conditioning unit. ‘Maggie rang,’ it read.

Barbara Austin [photo: David Austin Roses]

Barbara Austin [photo: David Austin Roses]

Maggie had been in Italy on a travel assignment so she didn’t know about Nick, the kiss, about loads of things a girl’s best friend should know. They always shared. The first time Maggie had sex, the first time Rose had sex, and the time Hallam Tye knocked Rose off her bike and in recompense had invited her to the premiere of A Sunny Afternoon in the Snow which turned into an exclusive interview for Chill’s film column.

What if Susan and Kate were best friends at school like Rose and Maggie ? She logged onto Friends Reunited and clicked on the drop-down index, selected the school then the year. Kate went to school with a lot of Susans. She sent 13 e-mails to the possibles. Each e-mail said the same:-

“I am trying to trace a girl called Susan who was at St Augustine’s Primary and then Lady Grace’s School for Girls, Richmond, Surrey, with my mother Kate Ingram during the 1950s and 1960s. You shared a house together in Islington. If I’ve found the correct Susan, then I am delighted and I hope you will be too! If not, I’d be grateful if you could let me know so I can continue my search.”

Now all she had to do was wait. This feeling of limbo was common to researching, waiting for someone else to do something, but Rose still hated it. The longest she’d waited for a reply was two months. The feature was for Chill, all the cutting-edge stuff she’d ever written had been for Chill. After almost giving up twice, she’d eventually broken into an animal research protestors group. It was a nasty collection of people who made their point by leaving dead kittens and puppies on the doorsteps of scientists’ homes at going-to-school time so their primary-school-age children would find them. That story had been Chill’s page one lead in a special issue about the ethics of protesting. The theme was ‘How far is too far?’

Rose looked at the advance features schedule pinned to her corkboard – rashes, burns & scalds, nipple discharge, sinus pain and earache were next on her list – and sighed. How far is too far?

She checked her inbox. Nothing. Bored, she looked out of the window. It was a sunny morning, the green of the verges, trees and grass of the tiny park opposite the Herald’s building seemed brilliant, full of life, and she longed to be outdoors. That was it, that’s what she would do. There was no reason she couldn’t go to the squat. She sat up straight, excited.

She’d go to Islington, to 12 Child Street. Ask around a bit. Be nosy. Check out the house. Perhaps take some photos for visual reference.

If she hadn’t gone back for her camera, she would have got away with it.

“Miss Holden. I was beginning to think your contract had changed to home-worker. I sincerely hope you’ve got your handbag with you because you’re nipping out to buy coffees for everyone, and not because you’re intending to leave the office for the day. Remind me, what’s the date of your disciplinary review?”

Shit, thought Rose, shifting from foot to foot.

“Monday, Miss Holdeen. It’s on Monday.” Sam’s upper lip was damp with perspiration.

Her feet tried to escape, tapping heel and toe, heel and toe, but she was rooted to the spot by the anger in Sam’s voice.

“What’s that noise?” he snapped.

Rose pressed all her weight into the floor through the soles of her shoes and the tapping stopped. She so wanted to tell him her name was Rose Haldane.

“I want that menopause feature on my desk, and the list of picture requests with Joan, by 4pm. Today.”

Rose gasped. She’d just lost 24 hours and the green outside the window looked even more tempting.

“And make mine a double espresso.” Sam clapped his hands together. “Listen up everyone, Rosalie is going to Café Blanc for takeaway coffees. Her treat.”

Journalists only move quickly in two situations: the sniff of an exclusive story and the chance of a free drink. The lack of alcohol content was academic. At this time of the morning the priority was caffeine. As Rose was surrounded by hacks putting in their latte, cappuccino and espresso requests she watched a satisfied grin spread over Sam’s pouchy jowls. Bastard, she thought, I’ve only got a fiver in my purse. Oh well, I’ll have to put it on a card. And then she had a moment of panic: had she paid last month’s bills, which card had any credit left on it?

Five minutes later, with a list of 13 assorted requests for coffee, three teas and two hot chocolates, she hit the ‘down’ button on the lift.

“Want a hand?” It was Frank.

Thirty minutes later they dished out the coffees around the office. Frank smiled at Rose and she smiled back, grateful for his knack at turning up at the right moment. Like Nick did. Oh God, Nick. The kiss.

“Fancy having a glass of vino at Pozzi’s after work?” asked Frank and Rose’s head nodded without her telling it to. Well what the hell. He’s helpful, good-looking if arrogant. The telesales girls always flocked to the coffee machine or the photocopier when he was nearby, giggling, sneaking glances at him from beneath their fringes, pretending they liked the crap coffee, standing with their feet in that V-shape that celebrities always pose in when they’re on the red carpet and want to show off their dress and breasts for the cameras. He was even nice to the work experience trainees who most people ignored. She’d seen him talking that mousey new marketing girl in the canteen yesterday. Sometimes she thought Frank was a chameleon, presenting a different version of himself depending on who he was with. Usually with her he was Cheeky-Chirpy Frank who sometimes took the teasing too far. With Sam he was All-Lads-Together Frank, with May he was Keep-Your-Head-Down-And-Get-On-With-Your-Work Frank. She found herself wondering what Boyfriend Frank would be like. Would he kiss her back? There was only one way of finding out. So she smiled at him. It felt strange. It was a boyfriend smile, not a colleague smile. She stopped smiling.

His gratitude was rather unsettling, in fact very un-Frank-like.

“Really,” he smiled, “that’s great. I’ll…I’ll see you there, shall I? No… that’s stupid, I’ll pick you up from your desk.”

As he walked away, Rose could hear him repeating one word.

“Great, great, great.”

Well, she thought, it’s just one drink. Not marriage.

There was one quick call she had to make before concentrating on the menopause feature. Mrs Greenaway agreed immediately to call the Enfield Foster & Adoption Centre telling them to expect a phone call from Rose Haldane and authorising them to release to her any relevant archive records pertaining to Katherine Jane Ingram and Alanna Jane Ingram. Apparently Enfield Council was at the forefront of digitising its records and there was a good chance that 1968 was available online. Rose pottered around for ten minutes, tidying her desk drawer, re-arranging already tidy piles of notes, and cleaning her computer screen and keyboard with a disposable wipe.

Finally Mrs Greenaway rung back. “It’s arranged for you, Rose. They’ve given you a user name and code, you’ve got access to their records on a one-off basis for today only until 5pm.”

Rose wrote down the website address and access codes. It seemed unbelievably simple.

“Good luck, my dear,” said Mrs Greenaway. “Remember, you’ve got access just for today.”

Taking a deep breath, Rose logged onto the Enfield Social Services database and clicked on ‘Archive’ and found ‘1968 Statement Books.’ She clicked on August, then August 29th. And there it was. Five lines on a page full of writing, the page clearly torn at the edges and mouldy in the bottom right corner.

Date of birth: 29th August 1968. 9.43am.
Mother: Ingram, Katherine Jane [room 4].
Child: female. 5lb 3oz. Name: Alanna Jane.
Father: not known
Address to which child released after birth: adoption confirmed to Mr & Mrs J Haldane, The Weavings, 14 Manor Drive, Richmond

Rose shivered. She read the next entry.

Date of birth: 29th August 1968. 2.59am.
Mother: Mellor, Joan Mary [room 9].
Child: male – 5lb 6oz. Name: none.
Father: Mellor, Reginald James [uncle of the mother]
Address to which child released after birth: adoption tbc

Did Kate know Joan? Did they comfort each other in the maternity ward that same afternoon, both without their babies? This poor little boy, fathered by Joan’s uncle, where was he now? Does he have any idea about his origins? Rose shivered again.

Date of birth: 31st August 1968. 3.15am.
Mother: Fawcett, Cherry [room 7].
Twins: two females 3lb 3oz and 3lb 10oz. Names: none.
Father: a serviceman
Address to which child released after birth: adoption tbc. Babies underweight, release delayed.

The list was endless. Names of babies and mothers separated at birth, conceived by mistake, by violence, in ignorance, in a desperate attempt to keep a man’s interest, given away in an effort to be a respectable single girl again.

Rose logged off and tossed the access code into her in-tray. The Statement Book was without doubt the coldest, hardest thing she had read yet. The last thing she wanted to do was write about fertility and childbirth, but Sam had walked past her desk twice while she was online. She pulled her menopause notes towards her, she didn’t know how she was going to finish it by 4pm.

Three hours later she surveyed the one remaining sushi in the lunch box balanced precariously on the pile of medical textbooks on her desk and wondered whether the green bit was cucumber [which she tolerated] or avocado [which she hated]. She dowsed the whole thing in soy and balanced a huge slice of ginger on top. Every time she ate sushi she felt virtuous afterwards. It was a clean meal, no additives.

She checked her inbox. There was one new e-mail with an enticing message, ‘Contact from Friends Reunited’. At last.

“Hello Rose,
I’m sorry, I’m not the Susan you’re looking for. Good luck with your search.
Sue Reardon [Nee Smith]”

With a sigh Rose turned back to her research with a highlighter pen in hand.  Whether you were or weren’t menopausal all hung on the follicular stimulating hormone. As the ovaries started to fail the brain sent out more FSH to stimulate them into working harder. So if your FSH level was high it was a good bet that your menopause had started. Rose wondered if Lily’s doctor had done a FSH test. Things could start to go awry 10 years before menstruation stopped, usually in your fifties. But about 1% of women suffered from premature menopause or ‘premature ovarian failure’. A telephone interview with an early menopause sufferer from Cardiff, the same age as Lily but whose symptoms sounded completely different, made Rose wonder if Lily’s problem was more to do with a fear of losing William than wanting a baby. Lily had confessed last night on the phone that her conservatory looked more like a potting shed. William was not amused, she said. The downstairs loo was full of seed catalogues and gardening magazines. Was Lily subconsciously trying to drive William away?

She typed a quick e-mail to Lily telling her to ask her doctor about the FSH test then scanned and attached the research clipping. She signed off her message with Just do it, Lily. It’s got to be beter to know. XX. She clicked ‘send’ without the time for spellcheck.

Next she wandered over to Candy, the paper’s agony aunt, and ran the situation by her as a possible anonymous sufferer’s case study.

“Maybe deep down she’s frightened of giving birth. I was.” Candy didn’t look at Rose but talked as she typed, her fingers flying across the keyboard, her eyes fixed on the screen. Rose recognised the symptoms of a rapidly approaching deadline. “Or maybe she’s afraid of being a bad mother, lots of women are. They look at the mistakes their mother made raising them and are afraid of repeating them.”

Well Mum certainly made lots of mistakes, thought Rose, but at my expense rather than Lily’s.

Then at three o’clock, Nick rang. He was driving back from Huddersfield where he’d chaired an industry conference. He sounded cheerful, talked about his presentation, the guest speakers, but he didn’t mention The Eagle, so Rose tried to pretend she hadn’t kissed him. But the elephant danced down the phone line with such heavy steps that she twisted back and forth in her swivel chair while her heart thudded.

“Rose? Can you hear me alright?” He was shouting. “It’s a bad line, lots of squeaking. Can you hear it at your end?”

“No.” Rose stopped swivelling.

“Ah, that’s better. Anyway, how are you, what are you doing?”

Feeling stupid for kissing you, she almost said. “I’m trapped at my desk when I want to go to Islington to research Kate. That’s where she lived, in a squat. Islington.”

“Why are you trapped?”

Rose hadn’t admitted to Nick that she was on probation. “Deadlines, and I can’t sneak out while Sam is watching.”

“Ah. Well, sneaking out of the office is not to be recommended.”

Rose grunted, she’d expected Nick to be on her side. Frank was.

“Look, if it’ll help I can go home via Islington and drive along the street where the squat was, have a look at the house. Take some pics on my mobile. What do you think?”

Her mouth went dry. Last night he pushed me away. “I…”

“But if you’d rather wait and go yourself…” His voice suddenly had a polite tone to it, business-like.

“No. Yes. Can you go, please?” Slowly and calmly she told him about Susan No-Name. “Interesting isn’t it, that without a surname you can’t trace someone. It’s as if you don’t exist. It’s your family name. But when you know someone, you don’t think about their surname. You know them by their first name, their given name. So does your identity rest in your first name, or your surname?”

“I don’t know, love. Perhaps your identity is in your heart. Don’t try to rationalise it so much.”

When Rose put down the phone, her face was split in two with a huge grin. Nick had called her ‘love.’

“Remember I need those menopause photo requests in half an hour,” called Joan, the picture editor.

Finally, her feature was finished. She looked at her watch: just time for a latte and a quick check at the list of internal vacancies on the Herald’s intranet while drinking it. Editorial Assistant on the travel desk [office-based, booking flights and hotels for other people’s travel assignments]; Online Editor, Asia Pacific region [office-based computer drone, rewriting copy from foreign correspondents who wrote English as their second language]; Copy Editor [correcting other people’s mistakes]; Style Editor, Saturday supplement  [Rose didn’t feel stylish enough].

Then Nick rang again. He was at Islington library, checking the electoral roll. Rose didn’t want to discourage him and so didn’t tell him this information was available online, she enjoyed the buzz of hearing his voice.

“What the hell,” he said, “it was worth a go. No-one at the squat address was registered for either 1967 or 1968. With hindsight that’s pretty predictable, squatters aren’t likely to vote. So then I checked the current register for Child Street and surrounding addresses and there’s one couple and one lady registered today who were on the 1967 list. Maybe they remember the squat. What do you think?” His voice was eager, just like Lily’s when Rose had said thanks for ringing Enfield Foster Care.

“You’re a genius Nick, thanks. I’ll go tonight on my way home. What are the names and addresses?”

At six o’clock as Rose was packing her bag, her inbox pinged. Two new messages.

Rosie,
This menopause piece is good stuff. Keep it up. Next for you is hormones and how they affect the unborn baby. See attachments. Researchers have discovered that if girl foetuses get more testosterone in the womb, they grow up to be tomboys. 3,000 words. I want it in 2 weeks.
Sam

Wow, no sexist joke. That had to be a first. She clicked on the second message.

“Hello Rose Haldane,
I left Lady Grace’s in the second year and moved to Glasgow so I’m not the right Susan. I remember Kate Ingram vaguely, she was in the year below me. Sorry I can’t help.
Susan Morris.”

Rose didn’t care about Friends Reunited now. She had a better lead and Nick had found it for.
© Sandra Danby

…in IGNORING GRAVITY #50: Rose goes to Islington to find the house where her birth mother Kate lived….

This is the 49th 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.

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