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Authors: Emily Barr

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BOOK: The Sisterhood
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Round a corner, I stumbled upon some real outsiders. Three of them were sitting under a railway bridge, their legs covered by an old sleeping bag. The smell of them took me by surprise. The only homeless person I saw in France was a man who stood opposite H&M with a cardboard sign, and who greeted every passer-by politely with a
'Bonjour, madame'.
These men were different. They were frightening. I stared at them. They were outlines in the darkness.

'Spare some change?' called one, as I walked past. I tried not to look at him, but couldn't stop myself. I stared. He looked young, but his face was grey.

All right, darling,' added another, an older man with a beard. 'We won't bite.'

'Not till we get to know you a bit better,' added the third, who could, in the gloom, have been anywhere from twenty to sixty. They all laughed.

I felt sick with fear. I plunged my hand into the pocket of my smart coat, and took out all the coins I had. I stepped gingerly closer to them, and dropped the coins on to the corner of the sleeping bag.

'There you are. Sorry,' I said, and turned and walked away as quickly as I could. I listened to my shoes clicking on the pavement. I hadn't got far before they started shouting at my back.

'What kind of money do you call this?' roared one of them. I thought it was the bearded one.

I half turned my head. I stopped and looked round. 'Euros,' I told him. I had a stash of British cash, but no coins. 'Sorry.'

'S'OK, love,' shouted the young one. 'We take euros!' They all laughed.

I hurried away, feeling stronger. I related the encounter to Tom in my head, triumphantly, as I carried on taking random turnings, crossing busy streets and trying to look like someone who knew where she was going. My back-pack was pulling on my shoulders, and I kept hitching it up. After a while, I did up its belt, even though I knew it looked stupid over my coat.

By now, I was properly scared. I knew that I had to find my hotel. I knew that I wasn't going to find it by walking randomly. I was stupid. I didn't know what to do with myself. I hadn't eaten anything all day, and I was beginning to feel dizzy.

I headed down another street. To my amazement, there seemed to be a wide river in front of me.

'Is that the Thames?' I said, aloud, gazing at it.

'Sure is,' said a young man in a suit, passing me without breaking his stride. I gaped at him, and he winked.

I stood beside the riverside wall, and stared across the water. The Houses of Parliament were right in front of me. According to the big clock, it was quarter past six. To my right was the huge wheel, lit in blue. A bridge stretched across the river before me. Everything was lit up in the night. The lights reflected off the water.

Here I was, in London. I was cold and tired, but probably no longer lost. At the very least, I had the landmarks to work it out. I took a map book out of one of my rucksack pockets, sat down on the nearest bench, and looked around, searching in the light of a street lamp for the name of a street to look up.

Two young women sat on the end of my bench. They looked funny, because they both had frizzy brown hair, but one was very thin, and the other was very fat.

The fat one smiled.

'You lost?' she asked. I smiled at her accent.

'A bit,' I admitted. I wished I knew how to talk to people. I tried to think of something else to say. 'I've got to find my hotel.'

'Oh, yeah? But you're English. You sound English.'

'I'm half English, half French. This is my first time in London.'

'Half French? Yeah? We're Australian.'

Are you? I thought so.'

'Yeah. Where's your hotel?'

I took out my purse and unfolded the internet printout. I put the purse next to me on the bench and showed them the address. The other girl, the skinny one who hadn't spoken, stared at me, sizing me up. She came to sit on the other side of me. She took the map book and flicked through it.

'Here you go,' she said, with a smile. 'There's your hotel. Norfolk Square, Paddington. But you can come with us to our hostel, if you like. It's in Earl's Court. Seventy quid a week. You'll pay that per night in a hotel. You'll meet loads of other backpackers and shit. Seriously, it's better than a hotel, because if you stay in some crappy hotel no one will talk to you. Come to the hostel, and you'll make heaps of friends.'

I thought about it. The girls seemed friendly. I wasn't used to human interaction, and I tried to imagine what it would be like if I went to their hostel. It would be horrible, I was certain of that. I pictured twenty bunk beds to a room, and grime everywhere. I imagined stinking toilets. I looked around me. London was daunting, and it was night. These women were friendly. It would be nice to have companions.

Both of them were looking at me expectantly. I had to make a decision.

Liz would not be impressed if I smelt bad, and if I hung out with penniless travellers. All sorts of people came to London with no money. I was frightened of the idea of them. I did not dare to live amongst them.

'I've already paid for the hotel,' I said quickly. 'Thanks all the same, though. I appreciate your offer.' I bit my lip, longing for the day when I would suddenly, mysteriously, know how to say the right thing, how not to sound like a stuck-up bitch.

They looked at each other, smiled, and shrugged. 'That's fine,' they both said together.

'Enjoy your trip,' added the skinny one.

I stood up. 'Thanks,' I said. 'You too.'

The skinny woman handed me the map book, and the fat one gave me my purse. 'Here you go,' she said. 'Now, you take care.'

I managed to hail a taxi. The driver knew the road I wanted before I'd even started to explain where it was.

It wasn't until I tried to pay him that I discovered that the girls had taken all my money. I had only just got here, and already I had lost two hundred pounds.

 

 

chapter eleven
Liz

2 February

I gave the taxi driver a huge tip. I never normally over-tipped, but this man hadn't tried to speak to me, and hadn't had the local radio station turned up too loudly. He hadn't taken a roundabout route in order to charge me more money, and he had refrained from telling me to cheer up. Specifically, he had managed not to speculate that something or other might never be going to happen.

As I stood by his window, in the rain, I gave him an extra five pounds, for a ten-pound journey.

'Much appreciate it, darling,' he said, smiling. Then he ruined it by adding, 'Cheer up, hey? Might never happen.'

I glared. 'I liked you because you didn't say that,' I told him. I put out my hand to reclaim the tip. Already, the raindrops were dripping off my nose.

He shrugged and quickly put the notes away. 'Sorry, then. Forget I spoke.'

I strode up the short garden path to the front door, stamping through two puddles on the way. My work skirt felt too tight, already, and that was with the button undone. My heels clipped on the paving stones, making me sound like a teacher on the warpath.

Dad and Sue lived in a terraced house in Haywards Heath. It looked like every other house in the row, but inside I knew it was a temple to eccentricity. The first clue was in the front door — the only purple one in the street, possibly in the town. I pressed the doorbell, and inside, I heard the strains of 'If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands'. To my intense mortification, Sue had installed this when I was fifteen.

'It brings a smile to the faces of visitors,' she had explained blithely. For the next few years, I hovered by the front window whenever I was expecting anyone, ready to fling the door open before they rang.

'When it was just me and Dad,' I remembered telling her, 'things like this didn't happen.'

'I know,' she said, wilfully misunderstanding me. 'You poor darling.'

Sue opened the door, and I smiled, pleased to see her reassuring, familiar face, praying that she would react well to my news. She had negotiated my teenage years adroitly, never pretending to be my real mother, skilfully treading the line between parent and friend. I welcomed her from the start. Having a mother figure made me instantly feel normal. I spent my primary school years miserably crafting a mother's day card each year with the rest of the class. I would conscientiously cut out flowers, and stick them on to the front of a carefully folded piece of card. I would write strange words like 'Mummy'. I would sign my name. On the way home, I generally threw my handiwork into a bin, for Dad's sake.

The day when I triumphantly bought my first ever mother's day card from the local newsagent was a milestone in my life. Sue and I both cried when I gave it to her. Dad looked on, bewildered. I thought about how nice it was, now that there was someone in the household who was able to express emotions, and cried even harder.

The only complaint I had ever had with Sue was the fact that she brought Roberto with her.

'Lizzy!' she said now, and gave me a bony hug. Sue was wearing a floaty dress from Hampstead Bazaar, and her hair was long and dyed jet black. It was held back from her face with a row of sparkling slides. She looked witchy with her dark red lipstick and black kohl eyes.

'Come in, darling,' she said, and ushered me in. 'Your father's in the sitting room.'

I followed, my heart suddenly thumping. I walked carefully, operating in a heightened reality. I was bruised from my confrontation with Kathy. I knew that Dad and Sue were kinder, but I cared about their opinions more. They could easily hurt me and the baby with their reactions. I needed them to be on side.

Sue was still being extra careful around me because of the Steve situation. I steeled myself for the task ahead: I needed to tell them my latest dramatic news, to convince them that Steve was not the father, and to refuse to tell them who was.

Right now, nobody knew it but me, Kathy, Anna, medical professionals, and the forumites. Now, it was going to become real. Jem and Helen had been helping me to try to straighten out my plans, but the more time I spent on logistics, the worse it became. I would, of course, take all the maternity leave I was entitled to on reasonable pay, which seemed to be more complicated than I was expecting, but as far as I could work out, I could have nine months before they stopped paying me. After that I would try to go back to work for four days a week, if school would let me.

'Swallow your pride, Liz,' Jem had written yesterday. 'Get as much as you possibly can from your ex.' I liked both Jem and Helen because they didn't write in text speak. I didn't think I could have been friends with either of them if I'd had to trawl through 'u' and 'm8' in their messages. 'I know it's hard. I'm there myself. Do it for the baby.'

I knew that I had to do it. I dreaded Rosa's reaction, but I had to tell her. I remembered her, in the last few moments of our time together. I vividly recalled the horror on her face, and her growing disgust at what we had done. I remembered, all too clearly, the way I had felt. I struggled to tell myself that, if this was her baby, it would mean that our night together had been, in a strange way, positive. I hoped that, if it proved to be necessary, we might both get used to the idea in time. I hoped that, in time, she might want to help support her child. I hoped she might want to get to know him, or her.

I hadn't told anybody about Rosa. All I had said was that it was a careless one-night stand, and that I was doing my best to trace the man concerned.

'In that case,' Helen had responded (to my response to Jem's response), 'you need to work on the basis that you might not be able to get him involved, and you need to make the numbers add up yourself.'

The trouble was that, try as I might, they didn't. My salary had always seemed to me to be modest but adequate. Steve had recently stopped paying his half of the mortgage. That was bad enough. I had looked up nurseries on the internet, and was astonished to discover that I was going to be charged about fifty pounds per day. It was barely going to be worth my while working, and I had no idea how I was going to get to grips with tax credits and benefits. And, assuming that I could just about cover the essentials, what was I going to put in my purse? How was I going to clothe the baby? What was I going to eat? The baby was going to have to be breastfed for years, because I wouldn't be able to nourish it any other way.

I stopped for a second, and attempted to imagine myself with a baby at my breast. It was impossible.

Helen's response had been immediate. Even though she was young, she seemed to have her head screwed on.

'Write it all down,' she'd written. 'If your mortgage is too expensive, move house. If you're in London, what about moving out of town? You're a teacher — there's always going to be a job for you. You mentioned once that your dad lives in Sussex. Is that far from London? Would it be worth relocating so you could be near him? I don't have any experience of any of this yet myself, but grandparents can apparently be the best form of free childcare. Here in France they look after their grandchildren all the time. If you really can't have any contact with the father, then family has to be the best option. Could you make that work?'

That message had brought me up short. She was right. I needed to face this. There were seventeen years left on the mortgage, so my outgoings weren't going to ease off until this foetus was old enough to support itself. Unthinkable as it was, I might have to try to set myself up in Haywards Heath. I might have to ask Sue and Dad to look after my baby.

'PS,' Helen had added, 'I'm in London right now. I got here yesterday.'

I wondered whether, if we met, she would say 'congratulations'. That was all I wanted to hear. I was desperate to hear it from somebody.

 

I duly located my father, in the sitting room. It was a friendly, familiar room, and it had not changed significantly in many years. The floors were wooden and scarred, the sort of floorboards that had never been supposed to be exposed. No one had bothered to sand them down before varnishing them in the most amateurish way possible. I clearly remembered Roberto being paid for this task, in his early twenties, as an excuse for his still living at home. There were candles on every available surface, and there was a lot of purple. On one wall was Sue's framed copy of the Desiderata, while another bore a Tibetan thangka that Sue and Dad had brought back from a walking holiday in Nepal, and a third, bizarrely, still carried a framed copy of Roberto's A-level certificate. I smiled at it. Roberto was thirty-three, and Sue was still proud of his B in geography and his C in maths.

BOOK: The Sisterhood
12.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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