Child Street was in a grid of terraces built as accommodation for workers at the Islington works which supplied bricks for the rebuilding of the City of London after the Great Fire. Rose tried to imagine Kate walking along this road carrying newspapers on a Sunday morning, running to the tube station round the corner, staggering home from the pub after one too many lager and limes with the girls. She tried to see what Kate saw every day.
The monotony of red brick was broken in a couple of places by pre-fab concrete cubes, legacy of the post-war rush for housing. Not far away on the other side of the road a house shone out, its bricks and balustrade painted bright white; so bright in fact that Rose expected to smell new paint. The silvery grey of the lime tree outside added to the overall bleached effect. It was a style Rose liked. She hoped this was number 12, it was the sort of house she’d like to live in if she could ever stretch to a bigger mortgage. She would decorate it throughout with mocha walls, clotted cream carpet, caramel leather sofas and dark wood furniture. But the number on the ice white door was 14.
The doorstep of number 12 was clean and simple. Did the current inhabitants know its history as a squat, she wondered. Rose knew Kate had left Westmead Home for Ladies without Alanna, the day after the birth. Alanna was taken home by Mrs Diana Haldane. That was the way things were done then.
Rose looked at the front door and knew in her heart that she had been conceived there. She pictured Kate, her long hair braided with thin yellow ribbons, her feet dusty in flat thong sandals, leaving a trail of patchouli scent and a jingle of bracelets in her wake. She imagined Kate climbing out of her orange Mini laughing with friends, their heads nodding in time to Yellow Submarine. She rung the bell, caressing the scratched brass button with her fingertip. It was the original, she was sure Kate had touched it, this was not a perfect shiny modern reproduction.
She fell forward slightly as the door opened leaving her finger suspended in mid-air. She smiled at the woman who stood on the doorstep who looked about Rose’s own age except for her eyes, which by right belonged to the face of a very tired 70-year old at the end of a long day.
“Hello. I’m Rose. Rose Haldane. My mother lived here, in the Sixties. I wondered if I could have a look around?”
“Well, I don’t know …”
“It’ll only take a minute. I never knew my mother you see, she died when I was a baby.” As Rose said it, she knew her request was weak. Would she let in a complete stranger? Er, no. She tried to look sad but stopped quickly, it felt more like a gurn.
The woman was frowning.
“I was adopted, you see…” Work it Rose, she thought, work it. “… so I never knew her.” She sniffed, then pulled Alanna’s black-and-white baby photograph out of her handbag.
The woman’s cheeks softened and her mouth relaxed, and suddenly Rose saw a thirty-year old with tired eyes who was pretty in a fluffy kind of way.
“This is you?” Her hand stretched out to touch the small photo.
“Yes. I just want to get a sense of her, see if I can connect with her. I know she lived here, it’s the only concrete thing I do know. It’s so difficult… not knowing her…” She sniffed again, it sounded more life a flu-sniff than an upset-sniff.
“Oh, you poor thing, come in.”
Not believing her luck, Rose stepped into the narrow hallway and immediately understood the woman’s hesitation. Behind a closed door not far away she heard a baby crying angrily and when she looked more closely at the woman there was a large damp stain on her left shoulder. A huge glass vase, at least two feet tall, stood on a console table in the hall. ‘Congratulations’ said a small white card propped against it. The lilies were over-ripe, their waxy yellow leaves and sticky orange stamens scattered over the table-top, source of one of the two dominant smells which Rose instantly identified. The other smell was synthetic lavender coming from a plug-in room freshener beside the skirting board, the kind that ‘freshened’ the room automatically every hour. Were babies that smelly?
“I’ll make some tea. Come into the kitchen.”
The hall walls were lined to waist-height with original ceramic tiles, art nouveau swirls of blue and green. Kate would have seen them every day as she walked out of the front door. Rose reached out to touch them but snatched her hand back as the woman returned from a doorway off the hall, tying a baby to her chest in a papoose. She shooed Rose into the kitchen, chattering continuously as if demonstrating the house’s good points to a prospective buyer, while she made tea.
“We decorated last year, we wanted everything to be perfect before I went into labour. John Lewis did it. They were wonderful, really captured the Victorian look. And they finished a week before little Chloe arrived, didn’t they Chloe?” And she dropped a kiss on the baby’s head.
Her words floated in and out of Rose’s consciousness like dandelion clocks on a light breeze, she couldn’t drag her eyes from the papoose. The only bit of the baby’s head that was visible was the crown, wisps of fluffy dark hair. She could feel the beginnings of yesterday’s howl on the escalator at Westminster tube station. Then she remembered Lily’s advice and took one deep breath, then another and another. Better.
She followed Chloe’s mum into the sitting room, being helpful, carrying the tea tray. Chloe’s Dad was reading the evening paper. He nodded, smiled, and reached out for the baby.
“Shall I take her, darling?”
“No, I’ve got her.” And the woman held Chloe closer.
He nodded, picked up his paper, and left.
John Lewis had got to this room too. Rose only needed one glance to know there was no sense of Kate here: new paint, new wallpaper, new carpet and curtains. As she balanced the cup of tea and plate of biscuits in her lap, Rose wondered what she should have expected. She didn’t have time to be sociable. She looked at the woman cradling her baby, she’d made a family home here for her child, she was the opposite of Kate. It’s not fair, thought Rose, I want to hear my ancestral voices in these rooms but there’s no sense of Kate or the Sixties or the squat.
“Your mother died when you were as tiny as Chloe, I can’t imagine how that must feel. Your poor mummy. Poor you.” And she held her baby tighter.
“Yes,” said Rose vaguely as she looked around the room, its cushions plumped, the remote controls in a row on top of the DVD player. Was it the same upstairs?
“Did John Lewis do upstairs too?”
“Oh yes, but the colourways are different. Come and see.”
Rose put down her too-hot tea and followed her hostess upstairs, running her hand up the polished stair rail enjoying the smoothness and warmth of the wood. It felt old. Walnut? Mahogany? Oak? Kate might have touched this rail each morning on her way downstairs to breakfast and each night on her way to bed. Upstairs Rose looked into a new bathroom suite and three bedrooms so tidy they could be photos in a home furnishing catalogue. This was a Stepford house. She tried to look beyond the decor, one of these rooms must have been Kate’s but Rose couldn’t sense which. It was a house of strangers making their own ancestral voices, day by day. The woman led her downstairs and through the kitchen to the back doorstep where they looked out at the garden. The rectangular lawn was edged exactly as if cut by a sharp knife, the decking gleamed, the grass mowed to a precise number one crew cut. Next to a red and yellow plastic child’s playhouse was a swing. It hung from a branch of the old oak which cast shade over the shrubbery, its wooden seat swung gently in the breeze, its rusty chain squawked like a magpie.
Chack-ack, ack, ack, ack.
Rose walked towards it.
“That’s not our swing, awful old thing,” said the woman in a rush, “it’s been here for years. Unsafe, dirty. The landscaper arrives next week to re-design the garden and make it child-friendly. A new swing’s on order and this one will go straight to the tip. Then everything outside will be ready for Chloe’s playtimes.” And she kissed the baby’s head again.
Rose looked at the woman and saw Lily, so eager with her newborn that she was practically buying her university set books.
Chack-ack, ack, ack, ack went the swing.
Kate swung here, Rose was certain. She narrowed her eyes against the late afternoon shadows. There was something there now, she’d swear, swaying on the swing. A shadow? She screwed up her eyes to filter out the light and there was Kate, humming as she swung. Her bare toes scraped the ground, her cheesecloth skirt bunched around her knees as her brown legs ignored gravity to propel herself back and forth. Rose swayed back and forth too, her eyes rooted on Kate, she took a step forwards…
“Well, that’s everything. Another cup of tea?”
A minute later Rose stood on the pavement again feeling hollow. Kate’s spirit had been there and then gone. She closed her eyes and swayed back and forth, trying to recapture the essence of the girl on the swing but there was nothing no matter how much she swayed. She opened her eyes and looked at what now seemed a very ordinary street which really could be anywhere.
© Sandra Danby
…in IGNORING GRAVITY #51: Rose learns about greyhound racing…
This is the 50th 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.