Authors: Emily Barr
Now I left him on the computer, and dragged my feet along the gravel path that separated my old shed from the big house. The vines were half hidden in thick, low cloud. It was hard to see exactly where the sky began. There was no sign of the sun. The cold instantly made my jumper and jeans irrelevant. I might as well have been naked. The parents had become so exasperated by my turning up frozen last winter that, for my birthday, they bought me an expensive coat. When I wore it, I felt like a spy. It was beige, or rather 'camel', and it was an incredible disguise for me. It reached halfway down my calves, and its belted waist and wide, luxurious sleeves made me into someone else entirely. I adored it. Unfortunately, my relationship with my parents could not have accommodated my raising my hands in joy and exclaiming, 'I love it!' This meant, perversely, that I only wore it if I knew they weren't going to see me. I couldn't bear to let them think that they had got something right.
Mother was waiting at the top of the nine steps that led up to the front door. I looked at the front of the house as I approached. It was bleak and enormous. The outside was grey and weatherbeaten, and although it could look all right in the summer, when the flowers were out in front, in the winter it was austere and grim. There were rooms and rooms in there that were never used, which were dotted with ugly pieces of dark brown furniture covered in dust sheets. The parts they did use had barely changed since my earliest childhood, and I knew, although I never went back there, that my bedroom was fully intact, and probably always would be, with its pink bedlinen and posters of musicians I'd never really known but had put up in an attempt to become like the other girls at school, to fit in. This was in spite of the fact that I'd barely ever brought a friend home. I knew the atmosphere in our house was weird, and I'd instinctively kept home and school apart. Tom did the same. He had millions of friends but, even though we lived in a chateau, they never came to visit.
'Helen!' Mother widened her eyes in exasperation. 'Where is your
, Helen? Come on in.' She tutted at me, and, as I reached the top of the steps, she reached for my hand. 'You're freezing,' she scolded. I shrugged, avoiding her face. I knew she didn't really care. She tried to act like a mother around me, and I had always known she was faking it. Now that I knew that she had abandoned a baby before me, I could understand why she was like this. She was one of those women who was never meant to be a mother. I wondered why she'd had two more children after running out on Elizabeth (Lizzie, Betty, Beth). Having failed so spectacularly the first time, she should have steered well clear.
I stepped into the hall and stared into her face, trying to divine whether she wished she had aborted me. Abortion was legal when she was pregnant with me. It had even been legal when she got pregnant with Elizabeth. She shouldn't have kept having unwanted babies when she could have flushed us all away.
She was looking at me, a strange expression on her face. Mother was fifty-eight but she didn't look old yet. She was tall, with long fair hair, like me, though she wore her hair in a severe chignon and I left mine loose. She should have been pretty, even at her age, but she was tense and her face was lined with pent-up worry and anger. I could never have asked her how she was feeling. I did wonder, though.
We stared into each other's face, unspeaking. I wondered whether she was looking at me like she was because she knew that I knew her secret. Abruptly, she turned her back, and I followed her into the dining room, which was formal and oppressive, with portraits of people we didn't know on the walls. Her heels clipped across the parquet floor. My trainers squeaked.
'Hélène!' My father was sixty-five, and he was the one who looked old, because he was.
' I said, and let him hold my shoulders and kiss each of my cheeks. He handed me an aperitif, a glass of sweet wine, and stood and looked at me. They both did. I turned away. Self-conscious, I took a deep gulp of wine, and felt it go immediately to my head. They always made me drink in the middle of the day. It made me so drowsy that I had to go home and sleep all afternoon.
'What have you been doing this week, Helen?' asked Mother, crisply.
As if you didn't know, I answered silently. As if you didn't stand at the window watching my comings and goings.
'Not much,' I told her, meekly. 'And you?'
'You know what we've been doing. All the usual things that we do. But what about you? You don't seem to have been out and about. Do you have a plan?' She touched my arm. 'Have you thought any more about university?'
I smiled, and shook my head. This was what I wanted to say: 'You can't wait to get rid of me, can you? You can't even have me in the house for five minutes without asking when I'm moving out.' I tried to let my eyebrows say it for me.
Papa frowned. 'Think about getting some work, Hélène,' he said, in French. 'If you had a job in Bordeaux, I could drive you in, in the mornings, and I could pick you up afterwards. It wouldn't be a problem. You can go to university next year, in Bordeaux. You had good results. You need to meet people.' He looked at my face. 'We want you to be happy,' he added. I watched him looking at Mother, saw the expression that passed between them, and I hated them both.
Mother pitched in. 'Sylvie's daughter, you know, Ophélie? She's started working at one of those clothes shops in town. She said she could look out for something for you if you'd like her to.'
I shrugged, incensed. 'If she likes,' I hissed. Then I took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and breathed in again. 'Actually,' I said, 'I might go somewhere further afield. I might go abroad. We've never been abroad, and I want to see what it's like.'
Mother pursed her lips. Papa took a step towards me. I stepped back.
'Where, abroad?' he asked. He looked alarmed.
'Perhaps to England. I do speak the language, after all.'
Mother shook her head. 'You don't want to go there,' she said, flatly.
'Because you've never been anywhere on your own. You wouldn't last five minutes.' She looked at me, and her expression softened slightly. 'I'm glad you're curious, all the same. I had itchy feet at your age. There's nothing like it.'
I narrowed my eyes at her. 'Did you actually travel?'
Mother smiled to herself. 'Further than you could possibly imagine. Until I met your father.' Again, they looked at each other. Again, I felt excluded and unwanted.
'You can't have gone very far then,' I pointed out, 'because France is next door to England.'
'I came the long way round,' said Mother.
I put my empty glass down on the table. I was giddy with alcohol. Although I hated confrontations, Elizabeth Greene was more important than anything in the world, so I was going to break our unspoken rules.
'Do we have family in England?' I asked loudly. 'Is there anyone I can go to see? Cousins or anything?'
Before I'd even finished speaking, she was shaking her head. She looked cross.
'No, Helen. There's no one.'
'What about your parents? My grandparents. What happened to them?'
'Oh, they didn't approve of my lifestyle. You know that. Travelling was bad enough — nice girls didn't do it in those days. Marrying a Frenchman was worse.' She and my father shared the smug despicable smile of the long—married. 'We never kept in touch. I've told you that before. They disowned me and I never felt the need to go crawling back. Good riddance, say I.'
'Can't I go and find them? Build some bridges? They'd like to meet their granddaughter. It's one thing for them not to want to talk to you, but it's not fair for them not even to know that I exist.'
She took a deep breath, and used her no-arguing-back voice.
'No, Helen,' she said, 'you absolutely cannot. Sit down. I'll serve up.'
I hated my mother's cooking. Everything was meaty, and there were too many vegetables. Today she had cooked pork, with cabbage and peas and roast potatoes. I watched, half disgusted, as she and Papa poured a thick red wine gravy over everything. The French didn't do gravy, but my parents certainly did.
I set to work, knowing I had to force down at least half of what was on my plate. Our cutlery scraped, and we cast around for things to talk about. I barely said a word. The parents made forced conversation about the garden and the weather. If Tom had been there, it would have been all right.
I stared at the grandfather clock that stood against the opposite wall, and jigged my leg, excitedly, under the table. As soon as I found my sister, my whole life would come into focus. I tried to imagine Mother's reaction when I came back with her lost baby. It would be the best present she had ever had. Tom was right about my plan. I was going to surprise everyone. I would find my sister, and make friends with her, and bring her back. No one would imagine I could pull off something like that, but I knew that I could do it.
I pictured Mother's face. Finally, the tension was going to fall away. She would be open. She would be joyful. She and Elizabeth would be reconciled, and I would have a sister, a soulmate. Everything was going to change. My parents were going to love me.
They carried on talking, in their bored, formal way, about the vineyard, and about last year's wines, and about the neighbours. I let it all drift past. The parents were on reasonable terms with everyone in the village. I hardly knew anybody, because I never knew what to say to anyone, and they all thought I was snobbish and cold. Nobody invited me anywhere. I had gone to International School because Mother wanted English to be my first language. Tom and I both wished we had gone to the local school. That way we would have known everyone, and we would have felt properly French. As things stood, I was neither French nor English. There was nowhere that I belonged, apart from here, in this weird, messed-up family, in this big, wasteful chateau.
I swallowed. Nobody spoke for a few minutes. I could hear Papa chewing his meat. The sound turned my stomach. Mother looked at me, and looked away again. She drained the red wine from her glass.
'Helen,' she said, in her formal little voice. 'Could you possibly manage to pass me the peas?'
I sighed. 'Yes, of course,' I said. As I passed them, I forced myself to speak again. 'How far away would you let me go?' I demanded, avoiding eye contact. 'Could I go to Paris?'
They looked at each other, in shared, suppressed amusement.
to go to Paris?' asked Mother, carefully.
I looked at her, and then at Papa.
'I don't know,' I told them. 'I haven't decided yet.'
By the time I returned home, waving away the parents' predictable suggestion that I stay in the big house with them all afternoon, the cloud had closed in. The fog was so thick that I couldn't see my own cottage. I stumbled because of the wine. The gravel path was the whole world. I looked back. It was good to see the chateau swallowed up. The day was still and damp, and I stood for a moment to savour the cold.
Tom was standing at the door of the cottage. As soon as I was close enough for him to hear, he shouted.
'I think I've found her!' he yelled.
I ran. 'How? Where?' The door banged shut behind me, and I raced to the computer, the end of my nose cold, my fingers frozen.
'Look,' he said, pointing. There was a site up on screen. 'Babytalk,' it said at the top. 'Pregnancy Forum' was written underneath.
A baby website?' I asked. 'Pregnancy?'
'She registered last night. Look.' Tom double clicked on a message, and it filled the screen. We read it together.
'Hi,' it read. 'May I join you? My name is Liz. I'm 37 and I seem to be headed for single motherhood in August. Are there any other single mothers out there? This pregnancy was not planned and I'm overwhelmed and still trying to come to terms with it. Hoping to hear from somebody — anybody. Thanks, Liz.'
'She hasn't been doing this for long,' said Tom, with a smile. 'Look at her username. LizGreene. It took me about five seconds to find her.'
'We don't know it's her,' I objected.
'That's why you've just registered. You have a new identity, H. From now on, you're Frenchmaid. Look, I've written you a profile. So you're on here because you're broody, even though you're young. OK? Start asking questions. We'll soon suss her out.'
I sat down. Nervously, I clicked on the 'reply' button under her message.
'Here goes,' I said to Tom, and I started typing.
'Hello Liz!' read my message, by the time I posted it. 'I'm not in your situation but I want to lend you some support. I'm sure you will be fine though it probably seems difficult at the moment. Can your own mother help you out? Any time you want a shoulder to cry on, I'm around. Love, Frenchmaid.'
'What do you think?' I asked Tom. He nodded, and I clicked the 'submit' button..
In the evening, she responded.
'Thanks for your message,' she wrote. 'Your support means a lot. Unfortunately I don't have a mother — my dad brought me up on his own. He and my stepmother don't know about the pregnancy yet but you're right, I'm sure they'll do what they can. I'm in London and they're in Sussex, which actually isn't too far away. Thanks again. I guess I'll cope when the news sinks in. Liz x.'
We looked at each other.
'She hasn't got a mother,' I said. Tom was right behind me. I turned round and looked up at him. 'Her father lives in Sussex,' I added.
'Then I would say,' he told me, 'that she is our best bet.'
I nodded, thrilled. 'I'd say she's our only bet.'
My life had a purpose. I had a mission.
I hoped the café was open on New Year's Day. Matt used to have a sign up that promised, 'We never close,' but after a few weeks, he crossed out the word 'never' and changed it to 'rarely'.
I put my hands in my pockets, pulled my scarf tightly around my face, and stomped up the street. It was eerie, the silence. Curtains were drawn; in some cases, sarongs were nailed to window frames. Some windows didn't have curtains, but there was a gaping darkness behind them. Everybody except me had stayed up long after midnight. Everyone else was groggily sleeping it off.