Authors: Emily Barr
From then on we were almost back to normal. Except that it was better than normal, because a week afterwards, Jack was born.
When Ellie and I arrived home from France, Anna had quickly forgiven me for Helen's post on Babytalk that denounced her, under her full name, as 'a crazy Mexican whore'. 'I couldn't see how that wasn't you,' she'd said, 'and I was so emotional with the birth and the baby, that I couldn't bear to have you near me. I always said that girl was trouble.' And she had.
Julie and I were both going back to work in the New Year. I was half dreading it, but half excited. Kathy and Sandrine had been to visit us often, and Ellie and I had been in to the staffroom to say hello, and instantly found ourselves swept into the part of the room I'd always overlooked: the Mummies' section. That, I found, was full of women who asked me exactly the right questions, and who were full of good advice. There were pictures by their children on the walls, and I'd never even noticed. I was looking forward to going back, and making some new friends. Ellie was going to a local childminder and I hoped that we would both cope. I had no idea what it would really be like, being separated from her, four days a week.
I looked at Ellie's fat little cheeks and watched her smearing broccoli pieces all over her face. Soon Adrian would be here, and we'd have a drink and head to the Tube, the three of us together, as if we were a family. This was something Helen and Mary would never know about. It was the good thing Helen had done. When Ellie was a couple of months old, and we were starting to settle into our new life, I'd called Helen's old flatmate to apologise for accusing him of sexual harassment on Helen's behalf (no wonder, I reflected, that Helen had refused to let me confront him with her, when it had obviously been a strategy to get me to offer her Ellie's room). He'd suggested a drink, and to my astonishment I now found myself with a boyfriend. He was ten years younger than me, and I wasn't picturing myself going up the aisle any time soon, but he was funny and sweet and he seemed to love Ellie almost as much as I did. Best of all, he wasn't Steve, and I didn't think about Steve when I was with him.
Yes, in a strange way, Helen had done me some favours. If she hadn't pretended to be the CSA, I wouldn't have had that afternoon in the park with Steve. Although I hadn't realised it at the time, that was when I started to get over him. We were friends now. He adored Ellie, and often said he wished we'd had children together. He had also said that I could stay in the flat for five years, because he couldn't bear to think of the baby without a secure roof over her head, and I'd accepted that offer with alacrity. I'd recently met his boyfriend, Pablo, and had liked him, in a grudging way. We were both moving on. I was feeling very grown up.
And if Helen hadn't sent Rosa to me, distraught and furious, then we wouldn't have started to sort things out between the two of us. Rosa, it turned out, was quite good at being a funny aunt figure to Ellie. She came to see us every week or two, and now that she had relaxed with me, we were almost able to laugh at ourselves and our bizarre little family. It was still early days, and I could not imagine a time when I would let her take Ellie out on her own, but the situation was already easier than I had ever imagined it could be.
Even Matt was doing well without her. He'd moped around, angry with her and with himself, for a few weeks, but he'd soon found another business partner, a Japanese woman who was about to open a 'fusion' kitchen in Matt's back room. I was looking forward to trying it out. They both seemed to be living in his flat, so I presumed that Helen was replaced in every sense.
I would reply to Mary. I would tell her nothing. I would tell her to tell Helen that we were fine and that she didn't need to write. I didn't want anything from Helen arriving in my home.
'A-rrrRah!' Ellie shouted, flapping an arm up and down in a bid for my attention. I leaned in and kissed her head. She threw her broccoli stalk at me. I picked it up from the floor.
The buzzer sounded.
'Hello,' I said into it. 'Hi, Adrian. We're doing broccoli. Come on up.'
I put Mary's letter into a drawer. Now, I was going to relax. I took the wine out of the fridge and got down two glasses. I was sure I was allowed to have one glass and still breastfeed.
He stepped into the kitchen, and hugged me tight. I knew he was making a face at Ellie over my shoulder, because I could hear her giggling.
'Merry Christmas, A,' I said, because I could never say the name Adrian and keep a straight face. For some reason it didn't remind me of my ex-husband any more. These days, I thought of Adrian Mole.
'Merry Christmas, Lizzy Sidebottom,' he replied.
I looked at him, and at Ellie, and I decided to forget all about Helen and her family. We were all so much better off without her.
The cab draws up outside a slightly battered wooden house with a blue sign outside that says 'Ponsonby Backpackers' in big white capitals. I thank the driver, still smiling, and heave my backpack on to my back. At least I look the part.
My hair is black now, because I am starting again. I have black hair, and I'm dressed like someone from the sixties, in a floating cotton dress with flowers all over it. I have flowery slides in my hair too. Mother told me about her travelling exploits when she was in between Beth and me, and she has inspired my style. She's made me more ambitious about my travelling, too. My legs are bare, because even though I knew it was winter here, I assumed it would still be warm enough. I might have to buy some jeans or something soon, because it's not warm at all. The air feels cleaner than it does in Europe, but the wind is positively cold.
The woman on reception only looks about twenty-five, and she welcomes me with a smile and a half-distracted air. She tells me they only have thirty beds, but they can easily fit me in. I take a single room, which reminds me of the first bedroom I had in London. It is crammed with cheap furniture, and hardly any carpet shows. I throw my bag on the bed, and I like the way it looks there.
Luckily for me, the woman just wants a bit of cash up front. I don't have to use my credit card yet. When I do, Mother and Papa will realise that I'm not in Madrid, and that I'm not on a Spanish course. It took me a year of pretending before they agreed to let me go. They drove me there and settled me into a spare room in the middle of a noisy Spanish family, and the next morning I went to the airport and flew to Gatwick. It was odd to be back in London, but all I was doing was changing planes, so I got a coach to Heathrow, and flew to Hong Kong. Then I caught a Cathay Pacific flight all the way here. Now I ought to be exhausted, but I'm too excited for that. I expect that Mother and Papa know I've gone, by now. I'm sure they must have called every day to check up on me.
I go back downstairs, because I can't wait any longer. I stand in front of the woman while she finishes a conversation on the phone, about the week's shopping bills.
She turns to me. 'Where in England are you from?' she asks. 'My husband's family are English. And I can tell you, this place is constantly full of you guys.'
'I'm actually from France,' I tell her, 'but I lived in London until recently. North London.' I am proud of my stay over there. Even though I got things slightly wrong, I wouldn't change a thing. I met Matt there, and fell in love with him. I think I love him more, now that I will never see him again. He is perfect, in my mind. All the same, he was much too cross with me when I vanished, and sent me a crazy email after Liz got back and told him all sorts of bad things I had supposedly done. I ignored him. I love Matt, but he is from my past, and I have proved to myself in the past year that there are many other men out there. Many other men who desire me, who are driven crazy by my sexiness and my allure.
I am an independent woman and my whole trip to London was an important part of the process, and now I am here.
'Can you help me out with some directions?' I ask politely. She says that of course she can, and she tells me that the street I am looking for is around the corner, ten minutes' walk away at the most.
'Wonderful,' I tell her. 'Thank you.'
I go straight there. I follow the woman's instructions, and find the house. On the way, I pass cafés and bars and restaurants, and I wonder whether I could get a job in one of them. I do have experience, after all, though probably not references.
I stand outside the house for a while, on the other side of the road, and look at it, and I am pleased. Unlike Liz, Beth lives in a whole house. It is lovely. It's pale green, and it's wooden, made of overlapping boards, and it has a pretty veranda, with wooden railings and wrought-iron decoration. The garden is green and there are trees all round the house. I think that I like New Zealand.
There is a red car parked outside. It's not a flash one, just something normal. I can see three of the house's windows, but I can't see inside any of them.
After a while, I take a deep breath, march up the drive, stand on the veranda, and ring the bell.
I know at once that I have the right person. Beth is my height. She has my blond hair, Mother's blond hair, but hers is short. She is slim enough, and pretty enough. She's wearing jeans and a nice, black top with a chunky necklace. She looks like a woman who is comfortable in her life. She doesn't look like someone who would bother to agonise about the mother who abandoned her, years and years ago.
She smiles at me, but she looks a bit fed up.
'Hello?' she says. I don't answer, because suddenly I'm too scared. 'Can I help you?' she asks. She sounds English, but she has a tiny bit of a New Zealand accent.
I smile my biggest smile. 'I hope so,' I tell her. 'I hope you don't mind my knocking, but I'm new in the area and I was wondering if you know anyone with a room to let? I'm looking for somewhere to live. I just love this area.'
She looks surprised. 'You're English?'
'Yes. Sorry, I didn't know where to start. I'm a bit lost, and your house looked nice, and your car was here, so I just ...' I look at her expectantly.
She doesn't say anything for a while. I clench my fists and will a good reaction.
'Um.' She looks around. She doesn't know what to say, because this isn't something that normally happens. I smile at her, then look away, trying to look lost and harmless. 'Actually,' she says, 'I'm English too. Where are you from?'
I know the answer to this one.
'Brighton,' I say, innocently.
'No way! That's where I grew up. Look, I do actually have a friend who's going overseas next month. She was looking for a tenant for six months or so.'
'Oh, really? Could I contact her?'
She is still sizing me up. I stand there, doing my best to look like the right sort of person.
'I'm Isabelle,' I tell her.
She nods. 'I'm Beth,' she says. 'Why don't you come in?'