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Authors: Emily Barr

The Sisterhood (35 page)

BOOK: The Sisterhood
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I whiled away the rest of the hour looking at the children and trying to decide which one would be most like my own baby. At quarter to four, I said 'Ten minutes to go,' loudly, and ignored the muttered 'Shit' and 'Fuck' that rustled around the room. At four, I told them to put their pens down. At half past four, I walked out of the building, into the unrelenting heatwave and central London.


There were people everywhere. There were always people everywhere. Children clustered outside the school in groups, mainly getting out of my way when I barged imperiously through. The sun beat down on the top of my head. I felt sweaty, smelly. Everything was hot and grimy. I wanted to be at home, sitting in my bathtub, holding the shower head over my head, anointing myself with cool water.

'Hey, Liz.' He fell into step with me, smiling his menacing, calm smile. 'How was school?'

'Steve.' I wasn't sure what to make of this. 'What are you doing here?'

He looked casual in shorts and a cotton shirt. Steve was the sort of man who carried shorts off with aplomb.
Of course he is,
I reminded myself.
He's gay.

'Came to say hi.'

'You could use the telephone. People often do that.'

'But I needed to see you.'

My heart sank. I could not imagine why Steve would need to see me, unless he was about to make me put the flat on the market, or magic up a fortune to buy him out.

'Well, if I'm not going home, I need to sit down.'

'Yes, I needed to sit down, too.'

I looked at him. 'What do you mean? You needed to sit down? When?'

He smiled back. 'When I got a call from the CSA.'

'The CSA?'

'Here.' Steve stepped out and flagged down a passing black cab. It stopped, and I hesitated before I got in.

'Where are we going? What are you up to? I can't afford cabs any more.'

'It's on the house. St James's Park, mate, cheers.' He got in and reached out a hand for me. 'We're going to sit under a tree and talk a few things over.'

We sat in silence. The driver took one-way streets and got us there quickly, working against the traffic. The tension between us was impossible to ignore.

The park was heaving. I waited for Steve to pay, looking at the bleak front of Buckingham Palace and noting that my life would probably be worse if I lived there, but in a different way.

'The Child Support Agency,' he said, picking up where he'd left off twenty minutes earlier. We walked slowly 'You know who they are. You must do, because you told them I was your baby's father, and that you needed maintenance payments.'

I gaped. 'I did not.'

Steve kept walking. I had to run slightly to keep up. 'So how come they called me? Of course you did.'

'But I didn't.'

'Lizzy, I wish you'd just be upfront. I said that if I was the dad, I'd do my bit. I meant that. But you said I wasn't, and now you've told these guys that I am. Are you trying to screw me for money, or what?'

I shook my head. 'You're playing a game with me. What's it about? Is it about money?'

playing the games. You want my money, but you don't want me involved. You want to stay in my flat—'

flat,' I cut in.

'In our flat. And you want a nice little slice of my income. But you don't want anything to do with me.'

I shook my head. We walked on in silence. The atmosphere between us was poisonous. I was silently furious with Steve, for doing whatever it was that he was doing. When we reached the park, I was exhausted. I waddled over to a patch of grass under a tree, and plonked myself down. The park was filled with a mixture of tourists and newly released workers. It was crowded, and as far as I could see all the benches, and every square inch of shade, were taken. A skateboarder passed us at top speed. Steve leapt, unnecessarily, out of his way. I smirked.

'Oi,' he said. 'Less of that.' For a fraction of a second, it was like it used to be.

'Steve,' I said. 'I didn't call the CSA. I promise. If you think I'd do that, you must think I'm completely, utterly mental.'

He lay back on the ground and looked up. I followed his eyeline and stared at the layers of leaves above our heads.

'The notion had crossed my mind.'

I lay down next to him. 'The CSA are famous for screwing up, aren't they? Did the person you spoke to give you a case number or something? I'll ring them now.'

'She didn't leave any details, actually. Just said it was advance warning and if we couldn't sort it out between ourselves, she'd be back in touch.'

'That sounds a bit odd.' I shrugged. 'Then again, I don't know how anything works, these days. I can barely get myself a matching pair of shoes, most mornings.'

I called directory inquiries and wrote down the number they gave me.

'How's your life?' I asked, impulsively, before I dialled.

Steve propped himself up on his elbows. He was wearing a white shirt with a round collar, and it was sporting several green stains.

'My life?' he asked. He looked at me warily 'Do you really want to know?'

I was practically inhaling Steve's company. I had missed him so much, and I wanted to know everything about him, no matter what it was.

'Yes,' I promised. 'I'm not trying to trip you up. I want to know. Tell me.'

He still looked unsure. 'It's really good,' he said. He checked my reactions. 'I feel like ... well, myself. I am truly sorry for putting you through the mill. But this is who I'm meant to be.'

'Do you have a partner?' This was the most surreal conversation I had had for a long time.

'No. There are people from time to time.' Suddenly, he couldn't help smiling. 'But it's the freedom. I don't want a partner. I don't want a marriage. I won't be trotting down the aisle in a white frock any time soon, or ever. I'm just me. This is how it was supposed to be.'

I took a deep breath. 'That's great.'

He looked at me. 'That's very big of you. I'm not sure that I'd have been able to deal with it if the situation had been reversed.'

I laughed. 'Of course you would. If you were still straight and I ran off with a woman, you'd just ask to watch.'

He opened his mouth to protest, and I cut him off by calling the Child Support Agency.


When I got home, I felt as if a weight had been lifted. The man I spoke to had no idea what I was talking about. He had no record of either of us. I'd insisted on passing him to Steve, to be sure he believed me.

'Who called me then?' he asked afterwards.

I shrugged. 'I don't know. And I don't care, either. Someone made a mistake along the way.'

He looked at me closely. 'Be careful, Lizzy. This all seems a bit weird to me.'

I agreed that it did, and persuaded him to forget about it. I didn't have time to dwell on matters like that.

I desperately wished this was Steve's baby. Even though it wasn't, he had tentatively suggested that he might be a presence in its life. That made me strangely happy. We would be unconventional, but it might still work. I still loved Steve, which was bad, but I liked him too. I wanted my baby to know him. He was concerned about me, and he wanted to know all about Helen and where I'd met her. I didn't dare tell him we'd found each other online, so I said something airy and vague, and he looked at me suspiciously, but let it drop. And Kathy was back as well. Perhaps, after all, things were looking up.

The house was empty. I went upstairs, to change out of my work clothes. At the top of the stairs, I paused. Helen's bedroom door was ajar. I knocked on it.

'Helen?' I said, but I knew she wasn't there. I pushed the door slightly. I was not sure why I wanted to look in there. I seemed unable to stop myself. This, after all, was my spare room. I told myself I was thinking about baby furniture. If Helen was working this evening, she wouldn't be home until well after midnight.

I stood inside the room feeling like an intruder. It was meticulously tidy. The bed was neatly made, without a crinkle. Helen's many fabulous outfits hung on the clothes rail, and the rest of her clothes were folded neatly on shelves. There were a couple of books on the desk, one in English and one in French. I picked up the French one. It was familiar. In fact, I had seen Sandrine reading the same thing last week, in the staffroom. 'Anna Gavalda,' I said to myself. She must be a popular author. I put it down.

Another book was poking out from under her bed. Although I knew I shouldn't, I reached out and picked it up. It was a scrapbook, a nice one. Each page was a different colour. And, as I flicked through, I realised that each page featured an outfit, cut from the fashion pages of different magazines. Each outfit had been carefully cut out, and glued on its own page. Above it, Helen had neatly written the magazine's name, and the date. The first page was 'Heat Magazine, 4 March'. The picture showed Fearne Cotton (unfortunately I had watched enough bad TV over recent months to let me recognise her) dressed in tight black trousers, a white top with blue flowers on it, and a blue cardigan. Underneath it, in Helen's neat writing, was a list. At the top of the list were the words: '9 March, "Matt's Place", first meeting with Liz. 8/10'. She had, it seemed, worn the ensemble twice more after that.

I flicked through. The book was nearly full. I began to realise that everything on the clothes rail, everything on the shelves, was catalogued in this book. On the last page was the long dress and cream cardigan she'd worn when she went out with Matt, but in the picture Sienna Miller was wearing them. Helen had recreated the look entirely, even down to the 'banana pumps' on her feet. That outfit had been given a resounding ten out of ten, and considering that she'd stayed out till the following evening, and returned subdued with an enormous Waitrose shop, I wasn't surprised.

I looked at the dresses and skirts hanging on her clothes rail. I looked back to the book. Everything was there.

There was a pile of handwritten letters, still in their envelopes, all addressed to Helen. I didn't want to read them, but having got this far, I felt I might as well. I wondered, vaguely, who was writing to her. Helen was the only person I knew who conducted correspondence through the medium of the Royal Mail.

All the letters had London postmarks. Against my better judgement, and giving darting glances towards the door, I peered inside one of them. It was tightly packed with neat handwriting.

'Your brother, Tom,' it said at the end.

This was odd, because Tom was supposed to be in France. I wondered what he was doing in London, and why Helen had never told me he was here. I wondered why he hadn't called her, why he hadn't come over to see her.

I looked at the envelopes again. I had known it all along, but now I noticed.

I didn't want to jump to conclusions. But Tom's handwriting and Helen's handwriting were very similar indeed.



chapter thirty-eight


29 June

Liz was looking at me. I didn't like the expression on her face, so I smiled and whistled and started spraying the kitchen surfaces. I hummed. I jigged around. I created my own world. If I kept myself busy enough, I might be able to forget what I was doing.

'You know that guy,' Liz said. 'Adrian?'

I waved my hand dismissively, and thanked my lucky stars that Liz had too many other things going on to bother to take up the cause of his perverted behaviour.

'All in the past,' I said. I attempted to whistle the tune 'Happiness'. Matt liked to play that in the café, because he said it was the most sarcastic song ever written.

'He called the other day.'

I stared at her, then looked quickly away and tried to put on my casual demeanour. 'He called here? The cheeky sod. I'll get Matt on to him.' Adrian was the least of my worries, but I did feel bad about him.

'Uh-huh. I'm sure Matt would leap into action to defend your honour.'

I thought she was being ironic, but I wasn't sure. I tried to picture Matt getting righteously upset on my behalf.

'What did he want?' I asked.

'He wanted to tell you they've filled your room. You can stop paying.'

'I'd already stopped paying. I sorted that with the landlord. Silly Adrian. How did he know I was living here? Where did he get the number?'

'He didn't say.' She smiled, a bit of a mean smile, I thought. 'Maybe Matt told him. Matt is, after all, quite the expert at spreading news around the neighbourhood.'

'Matt wouldn't.' I thought about it. 'Although he must have done. Perhaps it was Joel.'

'Helen,' said Liz. 'Adrian seemed very confused.'

I wanted to change the subject. 'Oh? Do you want a cup of anything? Coffee, tea? Biscuit? I might make some biscuits today, actually. My mother makes them and they're always nicer than shop-bought ones.'

Disappointingly, the idea of homemade biscuits failed to divert her from her course.

'He said he'd barged in on you accidentally when you were naked.'

I rallied myself. 'Accidentally? My arse.' I decided to try my bright smile. 'Which is exactly what he got a good look at.'

'He's very plausible, isn't he? Anyway, I told him where to go. Told him not to contact you again or I'd call the police.'

This was what I had feared. I owed Adrian a big apology. Perhaps when this was over, when I came back to London to run my kitchen, I would try to explain it to him.

'Did you?' I said. 'Thanks, Liz. So, chocolate or raisin biscuits?'

She was still looking at me as if I might be mad.

'I like your skirt,' she said.


'Where's it from?'

'Um.' I looked down at it. It was from
but that wasn't what she meant. 'Zara,' I told her. I swung round. It was a full skirt, and when I swung my hips, it made me feel like a flamenco dancer. 'I like it too.' I smiled as hard as I could, to convince her that everything was all right. Today was the day. I desperately hoped that I was going to be able to do what I needed to do. It had to work. The stakes had never been so high.

I had decided that Tom was right. I had to do it, had to force her to come back this weekend. I couldn't drop the plan, because it wasn't about me. It was about Liz and Mother. I longed to sit Liz down now and make her listen to the truth, but I couldn't. I would have done it in an instant if it wasn't for Tom. But Tom was unstable and erratic, and I didn't want to lose him.

BOOK: The Sisterhood
13.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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