“I’ve found her, Rosie!”
For as long as I can recall, Alice seems to have been wearing a mask. Now it’s dropped away, and I see the Alice I remember from way back. This Alice is dancing around, grinning widely, and waving her mobile phone just out of my reach. It’s as though she can’t bear to share this gem, this renewed contact with our mother.
“Let me see,” I protest, punching her in the ribs until she gives in, and we both peer at the phone screen. “Café in Queens Park – 3.00pm tomorrow x Mum.”
“Yay, Alice! Mega brill!” I shout, high-fiving her.
Alice has spent months, if not years searching for our mother. She’s trawled the internet at the local library, studied newspapers and telephone directories. At first I was involved in her research, but as my interest drifted away, she eventually ploughed on alone. Now she’s really proud of herself.
“I found her on the electoral register, so I sent a letter with our mobile number, asking if we could meet up. It’s been weeks now – I’d almost given up.”
For several months after Mum first left us, she remained part of our lives. She’d ring home at 11.30 every Saturday morning, and Dad would make sure we were home then. He said it was important we kept in contact with her, though later I wondered whether he was using us as bait, to attract her home again. Still, we yearned for that weekly contact, made lists of all the things that had happened at school, and told her how we were missing her, asking her when she was coming back. And it always ended the same way… with her sobbing down the phone, telling us she loved us and missed us. I just didn’t get it; if she missed us, why didn’t she just come home? We wanted her back, and if the time Dad spent sitting at the kitchen table with his head in his hands was anything to go by, so did he.
And then the calls began to dry up. First it was the occasional week when we’d all be hanging around for hours, waiting for the phone to ring, and then it would be a couple of weeks at a time. And eventually the calls stopped altogether.
After a few months I didn’t bother staying home Saturdays – I didn’t see the point of it. All that sobbing, all those declarations of love – it meant nothing when she could make things right if she wanted to.
But Alice never gave up.
“You’re being too hard on her, Rosie, it’s different for grown-ups – more complicated. You’ll be sorry if you miss her call, won’t you?”
Even now, five years after Mum left, you’ll still find Alice hanging around the house every Saturday morning. Maybe it’s because she’s older, and she has more memories of our Mum than I do, that she misses her so badly. I was seven when she left, but Alice was ten, and maybe those extra years with Mum made her loss so much greater than mine.
Don’t get me wrong, I miss Mum too, but it wasn’t all sunshine and roses before she left –something Alice seems to have forgotten. We spent many nights listening to the angry voices downstairs, the occasional smashing of pots, the sobbing and slamming of doors as Mum flounced out of the house into the yard. Some nights I’d stand shivering at the window, watching the orange dot of her cigarette turn bright crimson as she inhaled, marvelling at the smoke that streamed through her nostrils into the frosty night air. She rarely stopped to put her coat on before storming outside, and with her over-washed cardie pulled tightly round her tiny frame, she looked for all the world like a baby dragon, huddled in the barn doorway.
We’re still studying the phone when Karen walks into our bedroom, and Alice quickly hides the phone. I’m not sure we’d get into trouble for making contact with Mum, because Karen’s quite easy-going really, but I know Alice prefers to keep her at a distance. She doesn’t want us to get too involved with her. Maybe she thinks Karen will disappear just like Mum did. Or maybe she hopes she will, if Mum comes back.
I like Karen though; she makes Dad happy. They don’t have rows, she helps around the farm and she doesn’t seem to mind living miles from anywhere, like Mum did. The only drawback is that Karen comes with her own ‘baggage’ as Alice calls it, in the shape of a noisy three year old called Robbie. There was a lot of talk about ‘our new family’ when Robbie was born, but really the only new family here is Dad, Karen and Robbie. They form a little triangle, and me and Alice, well, we’re not exactly outcasts, but we definitely seem to be on the outside of this cosy little trio.
If Karen susses we’re up to something right now, she pretends not to notice.
“Would you two mind just keeping an eye on Robbie for half an hour while I take your Dad’s sandwiches out to him? He’s forgotten them.” Dad’s ploughing the top field today, and it’s too far for him to come home at lunchtime, so at times like these Karen makes him up a packed lunch, crusty slices of home-made bread, cheese and pickle, and an apple or two from our own orchard. I’m not being awful, but when Mum was here, Dad had to make his own sandwiches. A lot of the time there was nothing in the fridge and he’d end up making Marmite butties. The recollection still makes me cringe.
Alice sighs, and pushes herself off the bed. I don’t know why she’s always so ‘ungiving’ with Karen. I enjoy looking after Robbie, and it’s not like Karen expects much else from us. We have to keep our own room tidy, but that’s about it, really. When Mum was around we each had a whole list of chores to complete every day, and there was big trouble if we didn’t do them properly.
“What do you think we should wear tomorrow?” Alice asks later, dangling a furry rabbit above Robbie’s head.
“For meeting Mum? Does it matter?” All I’d need would be a clean tee shirt and a pair of jeans.
“’Course it matters,” says Alice. “We want to impress her, don’t we?”
“Do we?” It never occurred to me. I’d just be pleased to see her. At least I thought I would.
“I might wear that green fluffy top, and my orange leggings.”
Privately, I think Alice looks like a carrot in that outfit, but I won’t mention that. These days Alice can be a bit touchy. When I mentioned this to Karen she said it was probably just hormones or something. I haven’t got any of those yet.
“How long will we be?” I ask. “I’ve got my swimming lesson at 5 o’clock.”
Alice explodes like a fire-cracker.
“We’re seeing our mother for the first time in five years, and you’re whinging about swimming lessons?”
“Well it’s not our fault we haven’t seen her for five years,” I snap, surprising us both. “It’s not like we’ve gone missing or anything. She knew where to find us, you know.”
Karen is puzzled when she returns to discover that Alice and I aren’t talking to each other. Alice is mad at me and is lying on the sofa wearing her headphones, whilst I amuse Robbie. She’d have gone upstairs if she could, but she knows she’s ‘the responsible sibling’ here, even if she has mentally checked out.
Later on, I offer to lend her the Scooby-doo bracelet which matches her carrot outfit, and we’re friends again, though both of us are shaken at our unexpected spat. Normally we get on like a house on fire, but then normally I don’t answer back. Maybe I am getting some hormones.
The next day we catch the bus into town, and make our way to the park just before three o’clock. There’s a handful of people at the tables outside the cafe, and I bag an empty one while Alice goes to check inside.
“She’s not here yet,” she says, in a disappointed voice.
“Should we go for a walk and come back later?” I’m worried that if we sit here, someone will expect us to buy a drink, and we don’t have much money after paying our bus-fare.
“No, she might think we’ve come and gone,” says Alice.
So we sit there, and watch the kids on the slides and swings, occasionally scanning the park entrance, but there’s no sign of Mum.
“What can I get you young ladies?” says a cheery voice behind us.
We both jump. It’s the waiter.
“We’re waiting for someone,” says Alice, sounding quite grown up.
“Well, how about a drink while you wait?” he says, pointedly.
“We’ll share an orange juice,” Alice says, flustered as she rummages for her purse.
The waiter sighs and returns with one orangeade and two straws, holding out his hand for payment. I’d hoped that Mum might arrive before we had to pay, but Alice reluctantly counts out her coins and he disappears.
“I’ll ask Mum for the money when she gets here,” she says, seeing my expression.
At that moment Alice’s phone beeps, and she grabs it, her face falling.
“She can’t make it,” she says, her face tight with disappointment. “She’ll try tomorrow.”
“Try?” I screech indignantly. “You’ve just spent our bus-fare home, I’m going to be late for my swimming lesson and she’ll try to come tomorrow?”
Alice says nothing, and I feel a rush of pity for her, at the same time wondering why I don’t feel similarly disappointed at this news.
We dunk my swimming cozzie in the lake on the other side of the park, and wrap it up in the towel so it looks as though we’ve been swimming. For additional effect, Alice combs some muddy water through my hair, and then we use the money for my swimming-lesson to pay our bus fare home. There’ll be enough lesson money left over to pay for our return journey the next day, but Mum had better turn up this time, because we can’t afford another orange juice.
The next day we’re relieved to see Mum sitting outside the café as we approach. Alice runs headlong towards her, almost sending tables flying in her haste. People stare, and I hang back, feeling uncomfortable. She throws her arms round Mum, who watches me warily over Alice’s head, as I dawdle up to the table.
“It’s lovely to see you both,” she says, “how you’ve grown. You look like a regular carrot in that outfit, Alice.”
“I think she looks lovely,” I say defiantly, as Alice flushes.
“Of course she does,” says Mum, ordering a beer and two orange juices, “you both look like proper little ladies.”
She lights a cigarette and I remember all those nights I used to watch her in the yard. It doesn’t really seem all that long ago, now, and I notice she still tilts her head back as she inhales, before blowing two streams of smoke down her nose. I wonder whether you avoid lung cancer if you do that. Or whether you get nose cancer instead. It seems like a daft thing to do, whatever.
Alice keeps up a running commentary about school, exams and our Girl Guide stuff, whilst I absorb every detail of Mum’s appearance. She looks older than I remember, and her hair is blonder, spiked up with gunge of some kind. She’s wearing leggings, suede ankle boots and a short denim jacket over a long green tee shirt. It sounds weird, but it’s a good look on her.
I think about Karen, with her swinging pony tail, chunky jumpers, stone-washed denims and sandals, and then I wonder which of them is older. Mum’s face looks older but I think it’s because she’s skinnier; Karen has a rounder face with cheeks that morph into rosy apples when she laughs. Which is a lot of the time. I conjure up a picture the three of them - Dad, Karen and Mum – and in my mind they form a triangle too, just like Dad, Karen and Robbie. But this time it’s a right-angled triangle with Karen and Dad on the vertical side, and Mum out over to the right. Way over to the right… so far over I can scarcely see her.
“What are you thinking, my little cherub?” says Mum, smiling at me. “There’s always something going on in that little head of yours, isn’t there?”
Alice tugs impatiently at her sleeve, anxious for her total attention.
“Will you come back home, do you think, Mum?” she asks, and I’m uncomfortable at the naked need in her face.
Mum laughs and pushes Alice’s fringe out of her eyes. “Good Lord no, sweetheart” she says, pulling a face.
And then I think she realises what’s she’s said, when she sees Alice’s expression.
“It wouldn’t work out,” she says more gently. “Your Dad and I don’t get on.”
“But you did once,” says Alice, and I feel ashamed that she appears to be desperately pleading. It’s not cool. And if Alice is anything - it’s cool. Normally.
“People change… I’ve changed,” Mum says. “You have to accept the situation for what it is, and go for what makes you happy.”
“Didn’t we make you happy then?” I say, in a cold voice.
It’s Mum’s turn to blush now. “Of course you did, Rosie, and I miss you both dreadfully. But what I did was best for all of us. You’ll appreciate that when you’re a bit older.”
Nobody speaks for a few minutes, and I trace circles of orange juice in the table top, hoping Alice isn’t going to make a scene. I want to get out of here now. This is a big mistake.
“Anyway,” says Mum, brightening, “I have some wonderful news for you both.”
I’m glad she didn’t say this earlier, before she’d made it clear that she wouldn’t be coming home. Alice’s joy would have known no bounds. As it is, Alice is hiding behind the mask that she’s worn for the last five years – the pinched, stony glare that replaced the cheeky grin she used to have. She says nothing – her message is clear – if Mum isn’t coming home again, then there isn’t any such thing as ‘wonderful news’.
“You’re going to have a little half-brother,” Mum says, pulling her tee shirt tight across her round belly and smirking.
I daren’t look at Alice. But somebody needs to say something, the silence is really awkward.
“We’ve already got one of those,” I hear myself say, in a bored voice.
Mum’s face crumples. “Really….? I didn’t know.”
“Oh yes,” I say cheerfully, “Robbie, he’s almost three now. Right little monkey too.”
“I didn’t realise your Dad had … moved on…” she says faltering, and I want to kick Alice when she looks up hopefully, scanning Mum’s face. “Still, I’m very happy for him… that’s brilliant.”
Alice’s mask returns.
Mum lights another cigarette.
“Should you be smoking, being pregnant and all?” I ask pointedly.
Mum pulls a face and stubs it out. “Just habit, I suppose, I’m trying to give it up.”
She leans back in her chair, silent for a moment. “You know, that news about your Dad makes me feel a whole lot better. I’m really glad I turned up now.”
Alice appears to have given up on conversation altogether now, so I plough on.
“Karen’s lovely,” I say, and I feel Alice staring at me.
“We like her a lot. She’s not a bit like you.”
If it sounds bad, it’s because I intend it to.
“She likes living on the farm; she helps Dad a lot.”
Suddenly it’s as though a light switch has been flicked off inside Alice’s head. She stands up and smooths down her carrot-coloured leggings.
“Well, we’d better be off. Lovely to see you again,” she says, holding out her hand.
I see the surprise in Mum’s eyes before she looks down at Alice’s trembling fingers. I feel nothing for Mum, just a huge wave of sadness for my sister.
Mum looks desperate, and I know she doesn’t want it to end like this. I don’t know how she expected it would end though.
“When the baby’s born, you must come and visit, meet your half-brother… and his Dad. It’ll be like having another family, won’t it?”
Mum eyes are glittering with tears as she leans forward and plants a kiss on Alice’s averted cheek. I move quickly before she can reach out for me.
Alice and I set off down the path towards the bus stop. I’m not sure whether Alice is crying or not, and I feel I can’t look.
“You can always visit her, if you miss her so much,” I say, focusing on the ducks dozing on the lake bank. “It doesn’t have to mean you can’t see her again. It sounds like she doesn’t mind us being part of her new family.”
“Yeah,” drawls Alice, “another happy little triangle we can be on the outside of. Cool beans, hey?”
I look over my shoulder, wondering if this will be the last time we’ll ever see our Mum. She’s lit another cigarette, and is slouched over her smartphone, thumbing the keys as though she’s already forgotten we’ve been there.
Then she glances up, sees me looking and waves, blowing me an air-kiss.
At the same time she exhales two plumes of smoke through her nostrils, and with her glittering eyes, green tee shirt and spiky hair she looks for all the world like a baby dragon.
In fact, she doesn’t look like a Mum at all. And certainly not ours.
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