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Authors: Emily Barr

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BOOK: The Sisterhood
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While he was away, Mother was sad. She never talked to me. She never played with me. She didn't want anything to do with me any more. Papa tried, but he was no good at it. I wandered around on my own, and I started living inside my head.

When he came back, I was seven. I was setting out on my walk, and suddenly, there he was, a little boy, running to catch me up. He had a scabby knee and the face of an angel. I waited for him.

'Hello,' I said.

'Hello,' he replied. 'Where are we going?'

'To the woods,' I said, and I took his hand. He let me guide him. 'You're Tom,' I said, as we walked down the path at the side of the vine field.

'Yes, I am.'

I was pleased to see him. He was three, but he could talk. We walked to the woods together. We talked about Mother and Papa. He already knew it all.

'I'm glad you came back,' I told him, as we sat down in a clearing and looked at each other.

He smiled. I was his big sister, and he loved me. He was the only one. Although he never said it, I knew that if I told anyone about him, he would go away.

 

I opened my mouth, my face still pressed towards the car window. I screamed and screamed and screamed. I screamed until my voice started breaking up, and then I carried on. I blocked everything else out. The car stopped. I didn't notice what they were doing to me. I didn't care.

Hours later I found myself in bed. The room was pristine and white and creepy. I felt drowsy. I knew they had drugged me.

I would give in, for the moment. But soon, I would start to pretend. I would say what they wanted me to say. I would do what they wanted me to do. Soon, I would get out. I was on my own in the world. I had to look after myself, because no one else cared at all.

I began to make a plan.

 

 

chapter fifty
Liz

I was on the delivery floor for days. My epidural was topped up again and again. They kept examining me, then shaking their heads in disappointment. I was not, it seemed, doing very well.

My French was rubbish, but I could get the gist of what they were saying. When they asked me harder questions, which seemed to concern my medical history and what the hell I was doing in France so close to my due date, I just shook my head and spoke to them quickly in my own language. After a few hours, a midwife was found who could speak English and I gave her a patchy rundown of my life.
I
missed out all the interesting bits.

At first I was in a dingy little room with a tiny television bolted to the ceiling. The wallpaper was bobbly and there was nothing to look at apart from the clock, which was behaving erratically. I had never felt so lonely. When I demanded pain relief, they took me somewhere else, to a shiny reassuring delivery room with every piece of equipment money could buy. First I got off my face on gas and air. That took the edge off things. I was not expecting to relax, but suddenly I started giggling. Then some blood test results came back, and I was allowed an epidural.

I sat on the edge of the bed, hunching my back, and tried to stay still through a contraction which hit me in the stomach like a ten ton weight thrown from close quarters. I managed to keep still, because I knew that there was a man standing behind me who had a needle in my spinal column. I felt the cold spreading through me, and suddenly, it was all right.

Time dragged by. I wanted some pain back, after a while, to stop me thinking about Helen. A few times I almost asked for Mary, but I managed to stop myself, because I knew I didn't really want Helen's mother by my side. By the time they said my father had arrived, I was naked, so I felt obliged to leave him in the waiting room. By that point, I knew I was doing this on my own. I was glad that Mary had managed to phone him, pleased that he'd arrived. If he was there, many hours must have passed.

If Dad had come to see me yesterday, when I'd needed him, I would have let him in now. If he'd come to see me yesterday, I didn't think I'd be in France. Because he had put Sue first, I made him wait. All the same, I was pleased that he was nearby.

I gritted my teeth and ran through some recent events in my mind. I thought I had pieced things together. I wondered whether Matt knew that I was, supposedly, Helen's sister. I imagined him laughing about it, confiding the details to selected customers.

None of this was real. I refused to believe I would soon meet my baby. I barely believed there was a baby. I could not conceive of its being born healthy, and after what I now knew about Tom, I was terrified of losing it.

I drifted, feeling the contractions faintly, allowing anybody to do anything they wanted to me. I had imagined my birth to be a haze of waterpools, scented candles, incense and soothing music. Instead I had a blood pressure band on my arm, and it inflated itself every few minutes. There was a monitor on a belt round me, constantly. I was lying on my back on a bed, and, to my surprise, I didn't want to be doing anything else. I resigned myself to staying here indefinitely, in a strange, constricted half-world.

It was light again when the woman did yet another internal and asked, in English, whether I wanted to push. I didn't, but I gave it a go, anyway. She went to fetch someone else, and I felt that pushing might be good, so I did it again. They came back and made encouraging noises, so I did it for a third time, and this time I felt it. Then I was possessed by it. My body could do nothing else but push. Suddenly, I was about to break in two. Then something slipped out of me, and it whimpered.

 

The midwife was holding up a baby, showing it to me. It was tiny, and red, and it had a full head of black hair.

I caught my breath. This was the thing that had been growing and kicking for all that time. It was a person, someone who hadn't existed in the world moments ago. I stared at it.

'It's a girl,' I said. I realised I was sobbing, but I stretched my arms out for my daughter. I cradled her close to me. She looked at me. When our eyes met, I saw that I knew her already.

'Oh,' I said to her. 'It's you.'

She just gazed back, searching and serious. Her innocence made me howl.

'Mummy's here,' I whispered, through my tears. I didn't want anyone to hear. 'Mummy's here,' I told my daughter. 'Mummy's here.'

They took her away to check her. I could see that they were concerned, because she was tiny, and premature. A female doctor with ginger hair checked her over. The doctor kept looking over at me and smiling.

She wrapped the baby up and handed her to me.

'She is good,' she said, in English. 'You feed her?' She pointed to her own breast, and I nodded.

I held her. The baby looked at me, and I knew that she knew it was me. She stopped crying when I took her. After a few attempts, she was suddenly sucking enthusiastically.

I was sitting up in bed, feeding my baby. I looked at the clock. It was eight o'clock, but I didn't even know which eight it was.

'Matin?'
I asked, pointing at the clock.

They smiled, and said yes. They wanted to know her name, so they could make her a wristband. A woman stood waiting for my answer, her biro poised above a tiny pink band.

'Eloise,' I said. The name came out of the blue. I'd heard a nurse saying it earlier and thought it was pretty. I could call her Ellie. The medical staff all smiled their approval. 'Eloise Catherine,' I said.

Then she was wearing a bracelet with 'Enfant GREENE Eloise' written on it.

Everything about her was perfect. She had tiny fingernails, which had grown inside me. Her eyebrows were surprisingly bushy. Her hair was black and smooth. I stared at the patterns in her ears. All the time I had been obsessing about the details, I'd had no idea that I was making ears. The world was a different place, and I was a different person.

 

When Dad arrived, I was in my own room. They said I had to stay for at least ten days, and Ellie had to be checked all the time, but I was allowed to keep her in the room with me as long as I fed her every two hours and pressed the buzzer if anything seemed wrong. They said my friends were paying the bill and that I could reclaim most of it later, from the British government, anyway. I presumed that Helen's family were my so-called 'friends' and decided I would happily let them pay.

Our room was pink. The walls were pink, the tiny en suite bathroom was pink, and even the baby's changing mat was pink. I realised that I was bleeding heavily, and, as the anaesthetic wore off, my stomach hurt more than it had when I was in labour. I didn't care. I wondered why nobody had told me that, as soon as I was holding my baby, everything else in the world was going to become irrelevant. They told me to have a shower, but I couldn't bear to leave her side, so I kept putting it off.

He was ushered in by a nurse.

'Lizzy!' he cried, and he came to sit on the bed. 'Lizzy, I'm so sorry you've been through this by yourself. Come here.' And he pulled me close to him. I managed to move my legs, with some effort. 'And who is this?' he asked, spotting her over my shoulder. His face was transformed. 'Oh, goodness me. Who, indeed, is this?'

I grinned. 'This is Eloise,' I said proudly, and I picked her up carefully and showed her to him. She was sound asleep, and didn't stir as I lifted her. 'It's Ellie,' I said. I couldn't take my eyes off her.

'Welcome to the world, Ellie,' said my father, and we sat there, the three of us, in awestruck silence. I had my family, and I didn't want anything to change.

 

 

chapter fifty-one
Christmas

I was wary of the letter. It was bulkier than a card. I knew there was a folded-up piece of paper in there too. The last thing I wanted to land on my doormat was a handwritten letter with a Bordeaux postmark. I opened it, all the same.

As I scanned the closely written pages, I saw that Mary was being relentlessly upbeat.

'Helen's doing wonderfully well,' she wrote. 'We're so proud of her. She's put on some weight and got a job in one of the clothes shops in Bordeaux, where she really is in her element. She feels terrible about everything she did in London. She's very embarrassed about it and wants to write to you to apologise, but I wasn't sure how welcome that would be. I told her I would write first to make sure you wouldn't mind hearing from her. She is anxious to know that she hasn't left you any lasting problems. As am I: we all hope that you and your wonderful daughter Eloise are well and enjoying life, and that you both have plenty of friends around you.'

It went on and on like that. I wondered whether I was being cynical: I couldn't help assuming that Mary was seeing what she wanted to see. I looked down the pages for a mention of Tom. There he was: 'She's working through her feelings about her baby brother, which are, of course, very complex as he was extremely real to her for many years. This is a hard thing for all of us to understand. She's been to the grave, which was very difficult for her, and according to her therapist, Jean-Pierre and I should have taken her to his funeral, and brought her to his grave, all along. Then, apparently, that particular delusion wouldn't have happened.'

I shook my head. 'Of course it bloody wouldn't, you ridiculous woman,' I muttered.

It was still shocking for me to think about Tom as a tiny baby. In my head, he remained a lazy fifteen-year-old who was devoted to his big sister. It was horrible to realise that the Tom Helen had talked about had been an illusion, a ghost of someone who never grew up, who never even sat up or ate food. I shuddered and put the kettle on, still reading. Being thrust back into the world of the Labenne family was making me rather sick. Because all my anger at Helen was mixed up with shock and sympathy, I hadn't realised quite how much better my world was without her. Everything had been immeasurably simpler and more enjoyable since our return from France, but I'd been focused on Ellie, and had assumed that it was mainly her doing. Having a baby was hard work, and I hadn't slept much, but that didn't matter at all. I was different, and my world was different, because she was in it: in this new world I was happier and less grumpy, and I didn't have time to sit and worry about things.

I smiled over at my daughter. She was sitting in her brand new high chair, a cheap one from IKEA, banging on her tray, looking up at me and grinning expectantly. I was still amazed at her, this little creature, who was vigorously, cheerfully, enthusiastically her own person. Before she was born, I had envisaged a weird and rather frightening hybrid of Rosa and me, but Ellie was something completely different. She had thick black hair, like Rosa, and I thought she had something of me about her mouth, but that didn't mean anything. She was Ellie: someone new.

I handed her a broccoli stalk and watched her turning it over with both hands, examining every millimetre before she held it upside down and sucked on it. On Anna's advice, we were doing something called 'baby-led weaning' which meant that I didn't have to mush everything up. I just handed pieces of food to Ellie, and she fed them to herself. I watched her, proud. Anna and Gabriella had been doing this for months, and I'd been desperate to join in for ages. We had started two weeks ago and, as I watched Ellie, I felt sure I had made a good parenting decision, for once. Julie had recently started spooning purees into Jack's mouth, and I was sure that my way was better.

Jack had been born two months after Ellie, but because she'd been premature, and perhaps because Roberto was a lot bigger than Rosa, they were the same size. Jack was bald and enthusiastic, crowing with delight at the sight of anybody, particularly another baby. We went to see the family in Haywards Heath often, and put the babies side by side on the rug, looking in amazement at these two small people who would be the family's future. Julie and I were friends again, though she had been the hardest person to convince. In the end I'd had to get Mary to send Julie an email confirming that Helen said she'd walked in on Roberto and me and thought we were kissing, so had sent the text from my phone. As soon as she read that, Julie's face cleared and she nodded.

'OK,' she said. 'Sorry. Fair enough. Little Miss Nutcase does it again.'

BOOK: The Sisterhood
11.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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