Authors: Isabel Ashdown
‘You stay there,’ Wren said, trying to keep the tension from her voice as the pressure travelled along the base of her neck, fingering out around her jaw. ‘I’ll be finished in a sec.’
When she was alone with Phoebe she was able to shrink the more demanding elements of their existence together, but in company she felt them with all the more force, all the more clarity. It was as if the volume increased when there were others there; as if Phoebe’s presence swelled into the room, using up the air, making Wren smaller, making her fade. But no, this was a wrong thought: Wren loved Phoebe limitlessly, loved her soft chubby creases and her tiny shell-like fingernails, loved the way she pressed her
face into the curve of her neck, unsteadily digging perfect toes against her thighs to burrow in closer, to gum her mouth against her ear, her cheek, her chin. So close that she might almost crawl beneath Wren’s skin and become part of her again, reabsorbed into her mother’s body until she no longer existed in the world, her presence nothing more than a myth.
Wren unpegged the last pieces of underwear from the line and dropped them into the laundry basket that sat beside the picnic blanket. A bra – an ugly great maternity bra with clumsy popper fixings – landed on the blanket at Phoebe’s side, and in a heartbeat the baby grasped it in her fist and brought it to her mouth. As the label brushed her upper lip, her thumb found her mouth, and the infant’s eyes closed. Her fidgeting ceased and she was lulled into a soft murmur of suckling contentment.
‘Did you see that?’ Laura laughed, looking up at Wren in wonder. ‘It’s a bloody miracle!’ She pressed her face against Phoebe’s soft belly and blew a raspberry, provoking a gurgle of happiness from her thumb-plugged little mouth.
Wren stood at the edge of the blanket, in awe of the physical ease they shared, at the invisible bond between the two. Laura’s hands roamed over the baby’s body, tugging her legs, smoothing her fine hair, tickling her pudgy hands, and Wren looked on, with no envy at all. What she felt was bewilderment: why should
be the mother, when Laura was the one who knew how it worked – the one who wanted it so much? Laura was a natural.
‘I’ve got Pimm’s,’ Wren said, trying to be visible again, to find her voice. ‘Do you fancy a glass?’
Laura turned her attention from the baby, her face a delight. ‘You
need to ask?’ She flopped back against
the blanket, throwing her arms wide, stretching out in the sunshine, the bright light bouncing off her sunglasses. ‘Pimm’s and sunshine and my two favourite girls in all the world. Life doesn’t get much better than this.’
Phoebe is not all that certain what she was expecting. Perhaps the Wren of Laura’s old black and white college photographs – the slender student with shiny long hair and china-doll shoes? Perhaps the pale and enigmatic mother cradling her baby bundle in a hospital bed, a muslin cloth draped over her shoulder? Or the 1960s child on a beach, so like Phoebe herself it’s startling, bucket dangling at her side?
Whatever it was she anticipated, the woman who answers the door doesn’t correspond at all.
Wren – for Phoebe can’t yet begin to think of her as ‘Mum’ – faces them blankly, her eyes locked on Laura, seemingly refusing to turn them in the direction of Phoebe. She’s dressed in a bizarre combination, as if the top half of her is going somewhere nice for afternoon tea, while the bottom half is dressed for armed combat. Her closely cropped hair stands in irregular greying peaks that suggest she may have cut it herself, and there’s so little left of the Wren Phoebe knows from the family history that she is momentarily convinced Laura has got it all wrong, brought them to this stranger’s house in error. But the tension between the two women suggests otherwise: in this, there is history.
Two dogs accompany her. One sits at her feet, sweeping the floor with its tail and panting up at Laura; the other is curled over Wren’s shoulder like a newborn baby. The second dog shifts in her arms, tucking its head beneath her chin to gain a better view of the visitors.
‘Wren,’ Laura says.
‘I thought you’d gone,’ she replies, her focus still firmly fixed ahead. Her voice is soft and hesitant, as if speaking takes great effort.
Laura reaches out, lightly touches her elbow, trying to steer her attention.
‘This is Phoebe, Wren. Your daughter.’ She speaks kindly, allowing her fingers to linger a moment on the orange silk of the blouse.
Resolutely, the woman anchors on Laura, moisture rising to her eyes for lack of blinking. ‘You shouldn’t – ’ she begins, and she takes a small step backwards, sand sprinkling from her heavy boots with the movement.
Phoebe turns to Laura, tries to speak for herself, but no words will come. There was always the chance that Wren would turn them away, that she wouldn’t want to know. But still, this moment has taken her by surprise.
Don’t expect too much
, Laura had warned.
In fact, don’t expect anything – and if she does welcome you, it’ll be a bonus
. Phoebe had told her she wasn’t afraid of Wren’s response: if she didn’t want to know, wasn’t it her loss, not theirs? But standing here in the crisp sunlight of Wren’s front door, faced with the alarm in her birth mother’s eyes, with the prospect of being sent away empty-handed (or empty-hearted, if such a concept existed) – she finds she
care; she is afraid. What would she tell Dad? That she failed, that it’s
Wren ran away from, not him – no matter how many years he has spent trying to convince her otherwise?
The little dog takes a step forward and sniffs the toe of Phoebe’s boot. She stoops to scratch it under the chin. ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ she asks without looking up.
‘A boy. Badger.’
Phoebe remains on her haunches. The dogs seem to be a safe subject. ‘I always wanted a dog, didn’t I, Laura?’ She inclines her head, still concentrating on Badger.
Laura nods. ‘She wanted one like that, actually.’
‘Really?’ Wren replies, and Phoebe stands, encouraged, holding out her wrist to show off her bracelet of silver charms, one of which is a tiny short-haired dachshund.
Wren leans in very slightly, her attention on the bracelet, her expression sharp, mistrusting. She reminds Phoebe of a wild goat, edging forward to take food from an outstretched hand. For just a second she raises her eyes to meet Phoebe’s, then instantly retreats as if burnt. Phoebe turns to Laura, silently implores her,
What do we do?
Laura must know. Laura is the one with the answers, surely.
They stand there, either side of Wren’s threshold, each searching for some clue as to what happens next. What to say next…
The first time Phoebe became aware of her unusual family situation was when a little boy called Jacob Pearson informed a group of their classmates that Phoebe’s mummy had run away ‘like a thief in the night’. By the time it had passed through the playground tom-toms and reached the six-
Phoebe’s ears, it had translated as ‘Phoebe’s mummy ran away because she’s a thief.’
‘Your mother didn’t run away,’ Laura reassured her as she tucked her into bed that night, after an evening of sobbing in her arms, ‘and she certainly wasn’t a thief!’
‘If she didn’t run away, where is she?’ Phoebe asked, her chest still rising and falling in small juddering breaths.
Laura smoothed the hair from her damp face.
‘She just had to go and live somewhere else for a while. That’s not the same as running away.’
‘Where did she go?’
Phoebe recalls Laura’s puzzled expression, the way she appeared to scan the edges of the ceiling in search of an answer. ‘Well, I’m not sure, but I expect it’s somewhere exciting, like America or France.’ She left the room and returned holding a photo album. Phoebe scooched along and they sat together on the bed, turning the pages as Laura pointed out pictures of her mother – Mummy with Laura, Mummy with Daddy, Mummy standing at the edge of a river, on the steps of a library, drinking tea in a café. Phoebe stops at a picture of Wren sitting up in a hospital bed wearing a baggy white T-shirt, holding a small pink baby in her arms.
‘Has she got a new baby?’ Phoebe asked, pleased and surprised, her little finger coming down on the photograph.
Laura laughed, cradled Phoebe’s head and kissed her hair. ‘That’s you, you nincompoop! That’s your mummy, and that’s baby Phoebe – the day you were born.’
Phoebe drew the album closer, to better study the picture, her eyes wrinkling up in fierce concentration. It didn’t even look like her. ‘I don’t remember,’ she said sadly, wishing she knew how to miss her mother, and she curled against the soft warmth of Laura’s body and fell asleep.
In a sudden burst of action Laura is inside the cottage, sweeping the dog up off the floor and depositing him into Phoebe’s inexpert arms. Wren bites down on her lower lip, like a person trying to stop words from flying out into the room, and Phoebe looks on, shifting the dog up over her shoulder to stop him from wriggling.
‘OK, Wren, you won’t like this, but I can’t see any other way to deal with it except head-on. I’ve got Rob outside in the car, and we’re going to leave now – just for a couple of hours – and Phoebe’s going to stay here with you.’
Wren opens her mouth to object, but Laura blocks her with a flat hand, already stepping out through the front door, nudging Phoebe over the doormat and into the cottage. ‘We’ll be down on the beach. OK?’ She gives Phoebe one final nod of support, and pulls the front door shut with a soft thud.
In the dim light of the living room Phoebe stares at the inside of the door, her heart pounding beneath Badger’s soft heat. She commands herself to look at Wren, at her mother, and when she turns to face her she sees they are just two women, as alike as they are different, each cradling a small form; benign as new mothers meeting in the park.
Wren gazes at Badger, her attention appearing to linger on Phoebe’s fingers as they gently stroke the velvet fur under his chin. Phoebe waits, waits, waits for Wren to say something, while the silence of the room throbs like white noise.
‘You’ve got my hands,’ Wren finally says, and she lowers her dog to the carpet and heads into the kitchen, where she busies herself at the stove.
On her eleventh birthday, Phoebe took the bus with Laura to Claridge’s, where she was to meet her grandmother for afternoon tea. She had no strong memories of her, this woman – mother of her own absent mother – and had put up a good fight when the invitation initially arrived.
‘I don’t even know her!’ she’d ranted, as her dad went to great lengths to put across the positive reasons she should meet with her maternal grandmother. ‘Why does
she suddenly want to meet me now? She’s never shown any interest before!’
Laura had eventually talked her round, telling her inflated stories of previous visits, reminding her of the few gifts she had sent her: a Lalique mermaid, some monogrammed handkerchiefs, a bag of bonbons from Paris. On the
of her birthday, as they stood at the entrance to the hotel, Phoebe clung to Laura, scared. ‘What if she hates me?’ she asked. ‘What if she’s disappointed?’
Laura ran her thumbs over Phoebe’s cheeks, wiping away the tears. ‘Now you’re being ridiculous, pumpkin. How could she not fall in love with you? I did! Come on, I’ll walk you up to the tea room, make sure she’s there – and then I’ll be back for you at four, just like we arranged. OK?’
Her grandmother was already there, seated at a far table, facing out towards the door. Laura raised a hand to gain her attention, and gave Phoebe a little push in the small of her back. Feeling suddenly self-conscious, Phoebe moved towards the table, her limbs stiff with apprehension, waiting for the elderly lady to smile, to acknowledge her in some way. When she arrived at the table, the woman looked at her with what seemed a critical and studied expression, and nodded, giving her permission to speak.
‘I’m Phoebe,’ she said, her fingers feeling for the silky shop label beneath the hem of her new blouse.
Her grandmother rose from her seat and held out her arms, briefly drawing Phoebe to her chest and smiling approvingly. ‘Phoebe, my darling! What a beautiful young lady you’ve turned into!’ She indicated the seat beside her. ‘My goodness! Just look at you. Now, I’ve been giving this some thought, and I think you should call me Grandma Ellie. How does that sound?’
.’ Phoebe smiled, tucking her knees underneath the white tablecloth, relieved that her
seemed so warm and welcoming.
The waiter brought a tower of tiny cakes and pastries, and a pot of tea for two.
‘Help yourself – use those silver tongs – anything you like, it’s all for us!’ Grandma Ellie poured the tea, and told Phoebe tales of her life in Paris, her life with Siegfried ‘who is now sadly passed’, a whirl of dinner parties and diplomats and springtime walks beside the Seine. She regaled her with stories of the holidays they’d taken – to Vienna and Sydney and Montreal, and so many other places – painting pictures so clear that Phoebe could almost imagine she had been there herself. She loved hearing these stories, and yet she longed to ask her,
And what about my mother? Tell me about her, tell me what she was like as a little girl, as a young woman, as a mother to me?
But Phoebe suspected the subject was off limits, noticing the way that Grandma Ellie steered the conversation towards only the positive and the elegant; towards herself.
As they neared the end of their time together, she asked Phoebe to pour them a last cup of tea, instructing her to first add the milk, and how to tilt the teapot gently without
her elbows. Phoebe felt her eyes on her, studying every movement, and hoped she was getting it right. She slid the cup and saucer towards her grandmother with a shy smile.
‘Well, fancy that!’ Grandma Ellie said. ‘You’ve got my hands!’
The other dog scratches at the back door.
‘Can I take a look around your garden?’ Phoebe asks, placing Badger on the floor. ‘I think the dogs want to go out.’
Wren nods and continues to stir the soup, and Phoebe is grateful for an excuse to escape the silence. Is this what she expected to feel? Wren’s manner – her coolness – is shocking to Phoebe, and her own emotions feel muted in response. Does Wren regret leaving – is she glad to see her daughter, after a lifetime apart? Is she disappointed or pleased to see how Phoebe has turned out? Phoebe has no way of guessing, and no way of knowing what to do or say next.
She closes the back door behind her and follows the dogs down through the garden, past the vegetable patches and over the lawn towards the bench and sea view. On the lawn, she picks up a windblown wisteria vine, season-dried and gnarly, which she trails across the grass to amuse the dogs, who run in wide circles as they try to catch their
prey. Round and round Phoebe spins, laughing at their yapping excitement, then dizzily giving in and throwing them the vine. They set to work on either end, emitting low growls of contentment and destroying it in moments, sending dusty flakes tumbling across the garden.
Looking out across the bay, Phoebe wonders how Laura is feeling right now, having left her here – surrendered her to the woman who left her behind. What does Laura feel towards Wren? She’s protective as a lioness at times, if she fears for Phoebe’s safety or happiness, and this is surely one of those occasions when she’ll be biting down on her tongue, trying not to wade in and spill out all the things that have been playing on her mind during the past twenty years – all the criticisms and disappointments she must have felt towards Wren for leaving them behind. Phoebe knows that Laura’s love for her is unconditional; she knows it in her patience and forgiveness, in the quiet way she listens, advises, steps back. She knows it in her warm embrace, her
boisterous banter; in the imperfect home-made fairy cakes that would appear on the kitchen counter every Friday after school, and which still make the occasional appearance to this day. Car-crash cakes, Dad calls them. ‘They may look like hell, but they taste like heaven.’
Phoebe turns back towards the house, and there is Wren, framed in the window, watching her. Her expression is distant and Phoebe can’t be sure if she’s even aware of her returning gaze. What would Wren want to be called? Mother? Mum? Phoebe wouldn’t be comfortable with that, and she’s certain that Wren wouldn’t want it either. More than that, she wonders how Laura would feel, after all these years of mothering and care. Phoebe couldn’t do that to her; she won’t. But never mind – soon there will be a new baby, who will call her Grandma or Nana or Gamma or whatever Laura chooses, and this boy or girl will be Laura’s first grandchild, and Phoebe’s heart leaps at the preciousness of the gift, at the wonder of her secret.