It was autumn when my daughter died. Yellowed leaves had shrouded her crumpled corpse by the time they found her in the grass verge between the pavement and the park. According to the coroner, it was the sludge of fallen leaves that had killed her, made her slip and bang her head in the panic of the attack; mugged for fifty quid and her mobile phone.
Some thought I was brave, some thought I was cold, the way I kept going, but I was neither. Forty-nine and no longer a mother, I clung on to the old routines by the tips of my lacquered nails. I knew how to set the alarm and totter in heels to the bus stop. I knew how to operate a till. I’d already learnt to cook for one but I’d never adapt to a world without my daughter in it.
A family of two since her father abandoned us when she was a toddler, it had been a wrench when she’d moved out. But I was glad to step back and let her navigate her own life. I lapped up the airbrushed anecdotes she fed me over kitchen-table chats in our dressing gowns at Christmas and birthdays. After her death the changing seasons had no meaning: even on the brightest day, grey clouds hovered between me and the sun.
When I heard the message on the answerphone, I thought I was going mad. It was a Thursday, the one night I worked late. I was tired, more tired than usual, although not tired enough to hallucinate. I played it through a dozen times and then I sat on the sofa, still in my coat, still in my heels, staring at nothing.
The voice was a stranger’s but the words were hers. My mind panned through the possibilities, homing in on the glimmers of hope amongst the dread. Her death had been an elaborate charade so she could disappear. She’d witnessed a crime and the police had given her a new identity. She was on the run with a man with a dubious past. Her long-lost father had claimed her; she’d been kidnapped and I had twenty-four hours to raise the ransom. Anything would do, so long as it meant it hadn’t been my daughter’s body beneath that blanket of autumn leaves.
I listened again. The voice was jaunty: “I found your postcard. Let me know if you want it back.” Then, as if reading from a script, my daughter’s words.
A caravan perched above chalky cliffs, a picnic among the dunes. Still young enough to shape the sand into fairy-tale castles, yet old enough to battle the camping-gas stove to bring me morning tea in bed. An imaginative child, romantic, she fancied she saw porpoises cresting the waves.
It was Miranda’s idea to rinse out a fat-necked smoothie bottle and post her message out to sea. She swapped her pocket money at the on-site shop for a selection of picture postcards and a biro with multi-coloured inks. She spent an entire rainy afternoon figuring what to write.
“It can’t be too complicated,” she said. “A Chinese lady might find it.”
I doubted it would make it as far as the next bay, but I couldn’t shatter her illusions. “If you give them our address they can write and let you know where it’s got to.”
“I know, I’ll put our phone number,” she said. “That should be easier for a Chinese lady to read.”
Perhaps it was out of apathy that I’d kept the landline. Perhaps I was also a dreamer, waiting for the Chinese woman to resurrect my child. The voice on my answerphone was male, however, and Scottish rather than Oriental, but it was definitely quoting Miranda’s words.
If this card should chance to roam
Please be kind and help it home.
He’d sent it on the first stage of its journey. Now it was up to me to do the rest. I shed my coat, slipped off my shoes and picked up the phone.
It was a while before I was well enough to travel up to Scotland. Ian had offered to put the bottle in the post, but the risk of losing her again was too terrible to contemplate. Besides, I needed to stand on the beach where he’d found it. I owed it to the memory of that holiday, to the girl who’d lent her optimism to the sea.
I’d put on weight in those weeks I was on sick leave, languishing on the sofa, stuffing my face with chocolate and not quite watching terrible TV. I slept through the alarm, or forgot to set it. I didn’t have the energy to varnish my nails. I was pleased my daughter’s message had reached dry land, yet it was as if they’d discovered her leaf-strewn body all over again.
Ian sounded amused when I first rang him, but he couldn’t apologise enough when I explained. Even in his consternation his voice was soothing, the type of accent you’d want on the end of a helpline, radiating empathy and warmth.
I must have looked a fright in my frumpy cagoule and flatties when he met me at the station, but Ian was too much of a gentleman to let it show. He drove me to the beach, handed me the bottle, pointed out the cafe in the distance where he would wait. He told me to take as long as I required.
I’d imagined tramping miles along the shoreline, collecting shells and bits of jetsam to build a shrine. I’d imagined sobbing, collapsing, scrubbing sand through my hair. Instead I pulled up my hood against the wind and hunkered down on the rocks. As a crab scuttled away into a recess, I pictured Miranda with her fishing net in pursuit. Yet, had she lived, she’d be beyond that now.
I unscrewed the lid and pulled out the postcard. I let it rest in my palms like a prayer book, as I stared out to sea. A trawler pricked the horizon and, in the middle distance, seagulls swarmed. I tried to conjure porpoises as I waited for nostalgia to grab me, to swallow me up and deposit me among the waves.
I stared until the sea had merged with the sky, but my soul was unmoved. I turned my attention to the picture postcard. We’d spent hours selecting the best of the bunch, yet the ranks of beached sun loungers failed to tally with my memories of that holiday. It could’ve been anywhere.
I flipped over the card. The purple ink was faded along the fold and the neat round letters could have been formed by any earnest child. Even the words, although carefully chosen, were unoriginal. Hardly the essence of her.
I stuffed both card and bottle in my pocket. I’d come all this way to be reunited with my daughter but she’d already left.
I was hankering after that coffee but I couldn’t turn up at the cafe so soon. I rose and, slip-sliding across the seaweed-strewn rocks, headed for the bank of marram where a zigzag path let me meander through my thoughts. It was daft to concern myself with what Ian thought of me, but I was loath to give him the impression I didn’t care. Yet what would he be judging? There’s no right way to grieve.
I remembered a quarrel the Christmas after she’d left home. Apart from the terrible twos and teenage door-slamming, it was the only argument we ever had. She berated me for not finding myself a boyfriend after her father had upped sticks. I was flabbergasted: I’d no pretensions to be the perfect mother but I’d never expected criticism for putting her needs before mine.
“Don’t you see,” she snapped, “what a burden that puts on me?”
I was too old for romance now, too set in my ways. Ian seemed stuck in a similar groove. I’d expected someone older when he mentioned on the phone he was a widower. Someone with wispier hair.
I cast a final glance towards the ocean. The view had scarcely changed: the lonely trawler and the squabbling seabirds. I turned to face the land. Across open pasture, I could make out a low-rise building with a couple of rustic benches under an awning to the side. I needed that coffee and Ian could think what he liked.
I trudged through the rough grassland. Here and there, among the spikes of coarse grass, I caught a glimpse of pink. Some child, I thought, leaving a trail of sweet wrappers; her mother should have checked her. I looked again: those ruby spots weren’t litter but tiny clumps of delicate flowers fighting their way through the green.
As I neared the cafe the flowers thickened to a rosy carpet. Butterflies danced in and out and, up above, a curlew called.
I lowered my hood, let the pale sun stroke my hair. What was the name of that flower? I wondered. Was it thrift? Perhaps Ian would know.
I quickened my pace. Spring had crept up on me without my knowledge or permission. Yet, now it had come knocking, how could I refuse to let it in?
Anne Goodwin writes fiction, short and long, from flash to novels, and a blog that hovers somewhat closer to reality. She loves fiction for the freedom to contradict and continually reinvent herself. The portal to her writing world is through her website http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/. She also tweets at @Annecdotist.