Authors: Emily Barr
I wouldn't get into trouble. Nobody ever talked about anything in our family. We were not really a family at all. Mother would notice that someone had been into her special box, and she would know it had been me. It would not occur to her that Tom, the golden boy, could have done such a thing, and she would be right. He wouldn't. She would be colder to me than ever, but she would never, ever mention it. I ripped away the rest of the tape, threw it on the wooden floor, and reached inside the box.
It seemed I had found her Achilles heel. Most parents kept photographs of their children in albums, or in frames. My mother preferred to seal hers in a box and hide it in the back of her wardrobe. Nonetheless, here was the evidence: she did think we were worth recording after all. I held the picture by the edges, amazed that she had kept this photograph of me, toddling around the garden, clutching a teddy I still owned and looking grumpy. My white-blond hair was cut in an uncompromising fringe, and I was wearing a strange little smock. There were six pictures of me, up to the age of about five. There were pictures of Tom, too, as a tiny baby. In a couple of them, he was propped on my lap while I clutched him protectively. I slipped one of those shots into the back pocket of my jeans.
Then there was a photo with Mother in it. She was sitting up in a hospital bed, with a tiny baby in her arms. Obviously, she wasn't smiling. She wasn't looking at the camera, either. She was just staring away into a corner, looking grim.
It took me a few seconds to realise that the baby was neither me nor Tom. Mother was incredibly young. In this picture, she looked about the same age that I was now, and the colours were strange and faded. She had funny hair that was long and straight and parted in the middle: hippy hair. I could do mine like that, if I wanted to, which I didn't. And there was a man standing behind her, but when I looked closely at him (it was a crap photo; he was in the shade) he was definitely not my papa. I looked again at the woman. That was her, all right. Mother had had a baby, with somebody else.
'Hey,' I said to my brother. 'Hey, Tom. Look at this.'
The other stuff in the box filled in a few gaps. There were a few more pictures of the baby, mostly with Mother looking at it in a bored and disappointed manner. The poor child was togged up in lacy knitted jackets and ribboned bootees. There was a newspaper cutting with a birth announcement, circled by an ancient red pen, marking the following arrival: 'GREENE: To William and Mary, a girl, Elizabeth Rosemary.' The birth date was 21 October 1969. The baby was born at the Royal Sussex Hospital in Brighton.
Mother's name was Mary but I had never heard the name Greene in my life. I had also never heard her mention anyone called Elizabeth.
Tom sat on the floor and examined everything I passed to him. He leaned forward, intent on his task, and his fringe flopped forwards over his face.
'This is weird,' he noted. 'Do you think the baby died?'
I shook my head. I hated the idea that a baby could die.
'No,' I said.
'Why not? If it didn't, that would mean we'd have a sister. We'd know if we had a sister.' He looked at me, big-eyed. 'Wouldn't we?'
'Yes, because Mother is such an open person, she could never keep a secret. Particularly not from us.'
'Yes, because Mother is such an open person, she could never keep a secret. Particularly not from us.'
'But she couldn't hide a child.'
'She could have had it adopted. That's what people used to do, if they didn't want it or whatever. And if it had died, there'd be a death notice with this birth one. Maybe.'
'Have you checked?'
'No.' I tipped out everything that remained in the box. Five envelopes were held together by a rubber band. I took off the band and threw a couple of envelopes over to Tom. They were all addressed to Miss Elizabeth Greene, c/o Mr William Greene, with an address in Brighton, Angleterre. They didn't have stamps on.
I opened one. I didn't care now that she was going to know that we knew. In fact, I was glad.
The letter was typical of her.
Happy birthday to you. I hope this finds you well.
I am sorry not to be there with you. I am, however, sure that your father is looking after you properly. Please find enclosed a birthday present of five pounds. I hope your father buys you something nice with it.
I do think about you and miss you. I hope we will meet again one day. In the meantime, I wish you a very happy second birthday.
With best wishes,
That was my mother all over: warm, affectionate and supportive. She had not had the baby adopted, and it hadn't died. She had just left it with its dad, for ever. We read the letters, put everything back as authentically as we could, and rushed over to my cottage to get on to the internet.
Since I had left school my life had been deadly boring. I was stuck in the countryside in the middle of
France, with no job, parents whom I hated and who hated me, and a little brother who was at school most of the time. Nobody took any notice of me. They all thought I was meek and dull. Nobody, apart from Tom, knew what I was like inside. I had been longing for something like this to happen. I had been desperate for excitement, and now it had arrived. I had known that something would happen, eventually.
It was time to get to work. It appeared that we had a sister. It would be rude of us not to try to find her.
My hands shook all the time. I was used to that, now. I was used to the feeling that I was always one step away from vomiting with misery. I was used to arranging my features into the rictus grin of someone who was 'coping really well', and I was used to people taking my assertion that I was fine at face value, because it was easier for them if they could say, 'Liz is doing brilliantly.'
I marched into the bar and sat down on a sofa next to a low table. This was my neighbourhood bar, somewhere that Steve and I used to come to at least once a week. It was a rare thing in London: a genuinely local café with such a loyal clientele that when Costa opened a branch opposite, a few years ago, everyone boycotted them and Costa closed six months later. I was comfortable in here. This was the sort of place where anybody, even a lone woman, could sit without feeling conspicuous. It was a café by day, a bar by night, and was run and staffed exclusively by a man called Matt. Matt was a shocking gossip, and nurtured a community feeling by telling his regulars all about each other's private lives. I dreaded to think what mileage he was getting out of Steve and me.
He smiled and waved.
'What can I get you, Lizzy?' he called across the room. 'Double arsenic and tonic?'
'Fuck off,' I said, and cheered up a little in spite of myself. 'Large glass of white. And a bowl of deadly nightshade on the side.'
'Coming right up!'
I sank back into the sofa. It was all right here. It was better than being at home. The lighting was low, and the sofa was soft, with thick cushions. There was a small candle in a glass holder on the little table. The floors were boarded with thickly varnished wood. That old Air album was playing discreetly in the background. This room was as close as it could get to being someone's living room, but with a bar at one end and a handsome man serving drinks.
I tried to breathe properly, tried not to be sick. That feeling had not let up over the past two weeks. It was as if I was living a dream. I was reeling from it: Steve, and a boy. I woke up in the mornings thinking about them. At night, I lay awake trying to forget them. Despite my best efforts, I pictured them together. I did it all the time. I imagined them naked, in bed, somewhere in London. I had no idea where Steve was, nor whether he was in some monogamous relationship with his young lover, or whether he was out pulling men all the time. I imagined them in our bed, fucking furiously. I couldn't get them out of my head. I hoped, irrationally, that Steve had turned the picture of my mother away while he was screwing.
My doctor had prescribed me pills to help me sleep. I took them all the time. They kept me spaced out, but they didn't stop me imagining.
When Steve had come for his things, a few days after Halloween, I had managed to string a sentence together, through the fug.
'Why did you bring him here?' I had asked dully 'Why not go to his place? He didn't look as if he had a girlfriend.'
Steve had looked at the floor. He'd shuffled his feet and cleared his throat.
'Erm,' he had said, in the end. 'That'll be because Miles lives with his, er, family.'
'Parents, you mean.'
'I do mean, yes.'
I hadn't had anything to say to that. I hoped Steve had taken my silence to be cutting and judgemental, rather than woolly and confused.
I took off my coat and draped it on the arm of the sofa. Drops of rain began to splatter on the huge window. London in November could be grim. Christmas was going to arrive suddenly, and after that the cold grey time would stretch out until spring. I felt a spasm of terror. That cold grey time was mine. I could spend it how I wanted. People kept telling me that there were things I could do. 'At least there aren't children involved,' they said. 'What a blessing. You should go travelling. You could go to Asia or Africa.' But I don't fly, I told them, on principle. 'So go overland!' they said. 'Join an expedition.' And so on. And I knew I could. I could leave my job, sell up, go travelling, learn something new. Instead, I would probably carry on working at a job I was rarely much good at. I would drink. I would wait to feel better, and I would, perhaps, one day try to cut down on my Valium. I was craving company, because living on my own was turning out not to be much fun. I had grown up doing things on my own, and here I was again.
The last time I felt this bleak was during my brief marriage. At least when I finally managed to leave Adrian, I'd felt better. In fact I had been overwhelmed by a surge of unadulterated joy that lasted for more than a year. I wondered whether Steve was feeling that way now. I pictured him, high on life or something else, laughing about how fat and nagging I was, telling Miles that I'd put him off women for life.
I took a magazine out of my red handbag. This bag was a present to myself, last week, which probably fell into the category of the pathetic post-break-up behaviour that I was keen to avoid. Yet what was I supposed to have done? The bag was perfect, capacious enough for my work stuff, the right colour for my coat, and it was cheap. Not buying it would have been perverse, and so I bent the rules.
I stared at the magazine and sipped my drink.
Steve hadn't come back, that night. I'd half expected him to reappear, at least to offer some sort of explanation. I could not believe that the man I had hitched myself to for ten long years — the man I adored, the man I still adored after all this — would saunter off down the street with a teenage boy without a backward glance. Yet he had. He called me during my lunch hour the next day, to arrange, stiffly, to come over after work and 'pick up a few of my bits and bobs'. A week later, he was back for the rest.
He had wasted no time in coming out to the world. Most of our friends had announced that they'd suspected it all along.
'We did wonder, didn't we?' said a woman called Camilla, previously one of 'our' best friends, and now somebody I would ignore if I passed her on the street. She looked to her partner for confirmation. 'When a man starts wearing pink shirts, that's when you worry. And he liked Kylie. And he cooked that fabulous salmon en croute.' Her partner, Giles, didn't manage to answer because the baby was being sick into his chest hair, but he nodded. I hated them. I particularly hated them because I knew we made a hilarious anecdote. I pictured Camilla sharing the details of my heartbreak with the women she called 'my mummy friends', a group of them marvelling at my stupidity, and insisting that I 'must have known really'. I was cutting people off, left, right and centre. I was handing all the joint friends to Steve, on a plate. They all wanted gay friends, anyway. They didn't want me. The women thought I would try to seduce their husbands, and the men wondered whether I was HIV positive. I assumed that Camilla and her ilk were lying. I was sure no one else had guessed either. She just wanted to sound perceptive. I didn't care. I reminded myself of that, and wondered whether to calm my rage with another pill. 'I
,' I whispered, finished my wine, and signalled to Matt to bring me another.
I was sick, constantly sick. The worst thing, and the thing that I had, so far, admitted to no one, was the visceral feeling that had hit me, with awful timing, on 1 November. Once I realised that Steve really had gone, I discovered that, after all, I wanted a baby. I told myself that I wanted one because it was no longer an option. I had no idea if that was true. All I knew was that, suddenly, I was stopping mothers on the street and smiling maniacally into pushchairs until the occupant smiled back. I was noticing the softness of small children's cheeks, and the gentle wisps of their hair. I was becoming the sort of person I'd always despised, and it scared me.
I was never going to reproduce. I was under no illusions about that. I had turned, suddenly, into a cliché: a superannuated 'career woman', single and broody. I had read all the newspaper articles about us and I knew that we didn't get happy endings. We turned psychotic in our pursuit of sperm and when it didn't come our way, we either spent a million pounds having donor IVF, or we ran up enormous debts on credit cards in an attempt to compensate for the love we were missing, and ended up bankrupt with nowhere to go to but AA meetings.
It was his fucking cowardice that was eating me up. This was the twenty-first century: being gay was all right. It was not shameful. It was cool. If Steve had suddenly started having feelings for young men at work, then he should have taken the trouble to dump me first. He had an answer for everything, of course.
'I was confused,' he said. 'I wasn't sure what was going on. I didn't want to hurt you. It was the first time it happened.' Under questioning, it transpired that Halloween wasn't the first time, but allegedly it was no more than the sixth or so. In the end, though, Steve didn't really care. He was pleased that events had forced the issue. He had a different life now.