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Authors: Emily Barr

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BOOK: The Sisterhood
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The whole world would look different if I was wrong. Everything would be hopeless. I would have failed completely.

I wouldn't be able to live with myself.

I looked around for Tom, but I knew he wasn't there. He had made me do this thing, and then he had gone, again. I was on my own. I looked up at the branches, dark against the evening sky. I imagined what it would be like to hang from the tree, to swing in the breeze. I wondered whether that would make them sorry.

 

 

chapter forty-seven
Liz

 

We sat in the sunlight, and the horror of what she was saying hit me.

The sickening thing was that, for a couple of minutes, I almost let myself believe her. She was so certain. For a moment, I let myself reinvent everything. I let myself look at a world in which my mother had not died, but run away. In this world, my father was so bitter that he pretended she was dead. Even when I grew up and he met Sue, he stuck to his story.

In those few moments, I knew that if Mary was my mother, I would have nothing to say to her. The abandonment would have been worse than my real mother's death. Helen was certain she had pulled off an incredible feat that was going to bring nothing but happiness to all concerned, but she was hopelessly wrong. If she had done what she believed she had done, there would have been nothing but bitterness and recrimination ahead. And yet, I would have given anything to meet my mother. I wished Helen was right. I was glad she wasn't. I swung between the two states. I felt them both at once.

I made myself breathe deeply. I concentrated on the facts.

'Helen,' I said. 'Greene was my married name. I told you I was married for a few years, when I was younger.' That was a fact. That proved she was wrong. In a way I was glad. In another way, I was heartbroken. I kept glancing at Mary, trying to imagine her as my mother.

'But you wouldn't take someone else's name. You definitely wouldn't keep it once you were divorced.' There was a grim determination in Helen's voice. I couldn't look at her.

'My maiden name was Sidebottom,' I said. 'I couldn't wait to get rid of it. There was no way I was taking it back.'

'Your dad isn't William Greene?'

At this, I almost smiled.

'Marcus Sidebottom. He'd probably have preferred to be William Greene. But he's not.'

My mother was still dead. She had been dead for thirty-seven years, and that was not something that was likely to change. If Helen had been right, if my mother had left me and Dad to our own devices, and waltzed off to live in a castle in the south of France to have a new family, I would never have been able to forgive her. I preferred it the real way. I told myself this firmly. I was glad that my mother was Catherine Sidebottom, and I was glad that she was dead. I tried hard not to imagine the way things might have been otherwise. I had got over the loss years ago. I had never known her, and so I had never really missed her. I reminded myself of this.

Helen ran away. Both her parents stared after her. Her mother got up to follow her, and then Jean-Pierre looked at me in some bewilderment, shrugged, and followed them both. I waited for a while. I looked at the salad, but I wasn't hungry. I wished I could drink. After a while, I got up and went to bed. My mind was spinning. I needed to go home.

For the moment, I couldn't bear to try to piece together everything that had happened. I hadn't met Helen, by chance, on a website. She hadn't happened to come to London. We hadn't had a relationship that evolved gradually. It had all been part of her plan, ruthlessly mapped out from the start solely so she could bring me here and present me to Mary.

I spent all night staring into the darkness, seeing everything in a new light, feeling my increasingly strong Braxton Hicks contractions.

Early in the morning, I tiptoed downstairs. The house was silent and dark, many of its shutters closed. I didn't know whether Helen was here, or in her own house, or whether she was somewhere else entirely. I had no idea what state she might be in, but I was sure that it wasn't good. I wondered whether she might have tried to harm herself. I hoped that her parents knew how to calm her and control her. I was worried about her, because I knew that she'd meant well. But I did not want to come face to face with her. I was making a conscious effort not to be angry until I was safely away from here.

I found my way to the kitchen, and switched on the light. It had a dim bulb, and the room looked sickly and yellow. Everything was meticulously tidy.

Although it was six o'clock, I was already hot, and my womb was tight. I knew that I needed to rest, for the baby's sake. I opened a few of the immaculate wooden cupboards, searching for a glass, but all I found were piles of plain white plates, and cups and saucers, and a stash of tins of tomatoes, chickpeas and green beans. Then I found wine glasses, and next to them, finally, some blue tumblers. I drank three glasses of tap water and realised that I was starving. There was a fruit bowl on the small kitchen table, so I took a banana and wondered whether it would be cheeky to open some shutters.

'You're up early.' It was Mary, looking at me with piercing eyes. She strode around the room, letting the daylight in and straightening things that weren't at all out of place. Her face was lined and haggard: she didn't look as if she had slept at all. 'Got everything you need?' she said briskly. She switched off the light.

I opened my mouth to ask about Helen. 'Actually,' I said, instead, 'could I have a cup of tea?'

She made tea for us both, in a pot. While she was making it, she kept looking at me. She was clearly distraught, but trying to hold herself together.

'It's nice to do this in the English way,' she said tightly, pouring a little milk into two cups. 'I hardly ever bother any more. Shall we go outside?' She left the room, tray in hand, without waiting for a reply.

I caught up as she strode across the lawn. The dry grass crackled underfoot. The leaves on the trees were shrivelling. Everything looked as if it were crying out for water.

She took me round a corner, and I saw the pool. It was an oasis in this parched garden. Mary's mouth was closed in a line. Her lips had vanished, the blood pressed out of them. She put the tray down, and held a hand briefly to her forehead. Her breathing was suddenly shaky, her eyes closed. I was suddenly scared. I felt certain she was delaying telling me something terrible.

'Where's Helen?' I asked, quickly.

After a few seconds, she inhaled deeply and looked at me.

'Liz, I'm so sorry,' she said, her words tumbling over one another. 'I don't know what to say to you. I mean, she's pulled you into this and it's nothing to do with you. You didn't need to be a part of it. You just happened to have the right name and be the right age. And I knew. I knew she'd found my box. If she'd just asked me, I would have told her, and that way, if she'd gone haring off, at least she would have gone to New Zealand. At least she would have found the right person. Though what damage she could have done that way, I shudder to think. You know, while she was away, it did cross my mind to wonder whether she might be making inquiries, but because she was in London I never—'

I put a hand on her arm, and interrupted her.

'Mary,' I said. 'Stop. It's OK. Where is she? Is she all right?'

She stopped. We looked at each other. There was pain on Mary's face that I hoped I would never know.

'No,' she said. 'She's not all right. And it's not OK, is it?' she said. 'She's pulled you into this and it's not OK.'

'Well. No, it's not. But I can bow out of this now. I need to get home today. But where is she?'

She nodded vigorously. 'There's a flight at two or so. I'll get Jean-Pierre to make sure you're on it.'

'Thanks. And once I'm back, I can disentangle everything.' I looked at her, and suddenly decided not to share the list of things that, I was realising, Helen must have done. She had said it herself: 'I was desperate to bring you here.' She had pretended to be the Child Support Agency, twice. She had texted Julie from my phone, with a weird and random 'confession' that Julie had actually believed. I was strongly suspicious that she had done something to make Anna hate me, and whatever it was, she had done it effectively. She'd even stood on Anna's doorstep with me and smiled sweetly at Jeremy, as he told me I couldn't come in.

'Where is she?' I said, again. I tried to shut my anger away.

'She's sleeping,' said Mary, sucking in her breath and looking anxiously towards Helen's little shack. 'I'm terribly worried she's going to do something stupid. We couldn't get a word out of her last night. She didn't even acknowledge we were there. We succeeded in dosing her up with enough sleeping pills to subdue a small elephant, but she didn't look at us or speak to us at all. I'm afraid we'll have to get the doctor out this morning. I don't know what to do with her. She scares me. She scares me witless.'

I looked at her, and she looked at me. For a moment, I felt that this flawed, scared woman really was my mother, and I felt a flood of warmth towards her. From the way she was looking at me, and my stomach, I thought she was thinking of her first daughter.

'Oh, Liz,' she said. 'I wish it was you.'

I sipped my tea. 'But you have Beth,' I said. 'You know her. That's what you said.'

Mary sounded distracted. She kept looking towards Helen's house as she spoke. 'Oh, yes, we exchange letters from time to time,' she said. 'It's all rather formal. She doesn't see me as her mother — how could she? She never will. I wouldn't expect her to. I try to handle things as best I can. But I'm working blindfold most of the time. There's not exactly a template, is there? How does an estranged, runaway mother relate to the baby she abandoned? How, I presume, does the child deal with her anger — her hatred, in all probability? Sometimes I feel we'd be better off letting the relationship drop completely. I don't think any good can come of it. It's not a healing thing.'

'You don't want to meet her?'

'I've seen photos. That's enough. I'd dearly love to be her friend, but things don't work like that. I'm certain that, were we to meet each other, all her anger would come out. How can she not despise me? I ran away, and I never even regretted it. Not until a long time afterwards.'

I put myself in Beth's shoes. It would take a big person to forgive Mary, and to want to be her friend. I didn't say that.

'But Helen's the urgent thing,' I said instead, and Mary nodded vigorously. 'She needs help. What's the matter with Helen, Mary?'

Mary closed her eyes. She said nothing for a minute or so.

'Me,' she said, in a quiet voice. 'I'm what's the matter with her, Liz. I'm the worst mother in the world.'

'Of course you're not,' I said dutifully. 'But that's what I don't understand. I mean, you and Jean-Pierre obviously care for her a lot. She has two parents, unlike me, unlike Beth. And a stable background, an amazing home, a good education. She has her brother. She speaks two languages. She's beautiful, and when she relaxes she can be lovely, and funny — and she has no idea of the effect she has on men. So, where does it all come from? The weirdness, the obsession, I mean?'

I watched Mary looking around, at the pale blue sky, the few birds skimming past overhead, the glistening water of the pool and the old tiles around it. I waited for her to say something, this woman who was not my mother. I could see that I had said something wrong, because her face tightened still further, and she seemed to close off from me.

'You said something yesterday about her brother,' she said, in a small, distant voice. She was looking, again, towards Helen's house. 'What do you mean?'

'I mean Tom,' I said. Mary said nothing, so I carried on. 'She talked about him a lot. She said he was her only friend in the world. He came to London, but I never met him. They wrote letters to each other ...' I knew things were terribly wrong, but I carried on. 'She spoke to him on the phone. I heard her. She told me that he would be here, but I've been assuming he was still in London.' I looked at her. 'Tell me,' I said.

The early morning sunlight was making everything silvery yellow. The pool looked icy and inviting.

'We always thought Helen had some sort of imaginary friend,' she said, looking at the water. 'She's done it for years. She acted so oddly, laid extra places at the table, muttered things into empty space. She walked around the grounds having animated conversations with herself. But I never had the faintest idea that it was her baby brother. Oh, my poor girl.'

I didn't want to know the answer, but I asked the question, all the same.

'Why is he imaginary?'

Mary was starting to cry, and she was trying very hard to control herself.

'It's all my fault, Liz,' she managed to say. 'I'm a mess. I've been a mess since the moment I found out I was pregnant with Beth. I've done it all wrong. I wasn't a fit mother for Beth, because I spent the first six months of her life working out how I could leave her, and I haven't seen her since. I was not a fit mother for Tom — I can't have been — because when he was a few weeks old, he died. He died in his cot.'

I bit my lip, and clutched my baby with both hands.

'And I haven't been a fit mother to Helen, because after that, I didn't want anything to do with her. That, I imagine, is why she rushed off to find you. For years, I could hardly bear to look at her. She reminded me of everything I'd lost. And I didn't want to be too close to her, in case I lost her too. And I have lost her, I think. And the terrible thing — the thing she doesn't understand, however hard I try to tell her — is that it passed. I love Helen very much. I adore her, but she can't believe it, now. Perhaps it's self-defence. We both love her like nothing else in the world. She's all we've got. But it's too late, isn't it? She's been damaged.'

I nodded, and put a hand awkwardly on Mary's shoulder. She was stiff, but then she suddenly relaxed. She was sobbing in my arms, when Helen appeared.

'Hey, Mum,' she said. 'Pull yourself together.' She was trembling, and she looked tiny and frail in a small dress and outsized sunglasses. She looked as if you could snap her in half with a flick of your wrist.

BOOK: The Sisterhood
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ads

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