Sasha is just about managing to hold her life together. She is raising her teenage son Zac, coping with an absent husband and caring for her ageing, temperamental and alcoholic mother, as well as holding down her own job. But when Zac begins to suspect that he has a secret sibling, Sasha realises that she must relive the events of a devastating night which she has done her best to forget for the past nineteen years.
Sasha’s mother, Annie, is old and finds it difficult to distinguish between past and present and between truth and lies. As Annie sinks deeper back into her past, she revisits the key events in her life which have shaped her emotionally. Through it all, she remains convinced that her dead husband Joe is watching and waiting for her. But there’s one thing she never told him, and as painful as it is for her to admit the truth, Annie is determined to go to Joe with a guilt-free conscience.
As the plot unfurls, traumas are revealed and lies uncovered, revealing long-buried secrets which are at the root of Annie and Sasha’s fractious relationship.
For how long do we remain undamaged? We are marked men the moment the midwife leaves a handprint on our rear ends. It’s just the luck of the draw as to whether you benefit from nature, nurture or something far worse. Whatever the fates throw at you, some of it sticks, building to create the final set of armour plating we hide behind as adults. Like fingerprints, each one of us is different, and we mutate as we collide with random others in our path through life.
I heard a strange clang as I turned the corner to my attic office. I glanced around before I took another step, but I could see nothing in the hallway, and the room itself appeared empty. Dropping my handbag to the floorboards with a deliberate thud, I spotted a pair of scissors lying open by my keyboard and one of my drawers was half-open. A file I usually kept on the desk was on the floor. I edged into the room. The scissors looked slightly bent and the lock on my grey filing cabinet appeared to be scratched, as though someone had tried to force it open. I crept over to the window and rattled it, but it was tightly shut.
‘Jesus, Zac, you frightened the life out of me. What the hell are you doing hiding behind the door?’ I jumped and the tea I was holding leapt out in a perfect arc and landed in my handbag. ‘Damn… I didn’t realise you’d be back so early today,’ I said, half- smiling at my son and half grimacing at the thought that my phone was probably soaked, and possibly ruined.
‘I just thought I’d surprise you.’ Zac paused to assess how cross I was. ‘I had an unexpected free period, so I got back early.’
‘You should have texted me. I could have picked you up from the tube on my way back from my meeting,’ I said, grabbing a wad of tissues from the box on the filing cabinet and swabbing my phone. I pressed the home button to check it was still functioning.
‘Oh, it was no bother.’Zac was already out of the door and heading down the stairs, his long legs hurdling two steps at a time.
‘What did you need up here, by the way?’ I called after him. My papers were strewn in what to the untrained eye might appear seemingly chaotic, yet was actually well-organised in its own fashion, and I didn’t like anyone else to touch them. The filing cabinet always remained locked and I had the only key.
‘Oh, nothing. I was just looking for some sticky tape to fix the cover on my book.’
‘You’ve got some on your desk in your bedroom. If you tidied up a bit, you might even find it.’ I waved my scissors at him as he reached the bottom of the staircase. ‘Zac, did you do this? They’re totally bent out of shape.’
‘No’, he glowered, plugging in his wretched earphones. One day, he would have to have them surgically removed. I followed him down the stairs and yanked his earphones out again as he pushed open the door to his bedroom.
‘But look, Zac, my scissors are dented. Are you sure you didn’t touch them? It’s very odd, because it looks as though someone might have used them to try to get into my filing cabinet.’
Zac scowled. ‘I didn’t bloody use them, OK? Are you accusing me of breaking and entering?’ He turned away from me and slumped face down on the bed, pulling a pillow over his head.
‘Zac, I’m not accusing you of anything. I’m just asking… and don’t swear at me. Show some respect.’
He laughed, lobbing the pillow at me, which missed. ‘I’ll show you respect when you show some to me.’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘Zac, what on earth are you talking about? First, you frighten the life out of me, and then you get defensive the moment I ask you a question. I really don’t have the time, nor frankly, the energy for your nonsense today. And somehow this conversation seems to have turned from me asking you if you’ve dented my scissors, to you accusing me of something, which is what, exactly?’
‘Why don’t you tell me?’ Zac glared at me, unblinking.
‘You’re not making any sense, Zac and you know I don’t enjoy riddles, so spit it out.’
‘Ooh, that’s a good one,’ he replied, sitting up and staring straight at me as though I were now his sworn enemy. ‘You do like riddles, as it turns out, so why don’t you spit it out?’
I started to feel as if I was in alternative universe, where I didn’t quite speak the language. I’d been there many times before – it’s called parenting a teenager – but this felt different. This time, I really needed an interpreter. Zac lay on his unmade bed, prone and half camouflaged in a pile of dirty washing, wiring himself back into his iPod.
‘Zac,’ I called, pulling an ear bud out of his head yet again, ‘is something upsetting you? Has something happened at school?’He just stared at me, unblinking, defiant. ‘Look, if you don’t want to talk now, come and find me when you do, but right now, I need to feed Stanley, reply to a snotty email from my wretched new client, and then I need to decide what to cook for dinner.’
It must have been a combination of the magic words ‘feed Stanley’ and ‘dinner’, because at that precise moment, Stanley arrived behind me – even though, technically, he wasn’t allowed upstairs – tail wagging, brown eyes wet with hunger. With every movement, he signalledimminent starvation. He was, after all, a golden retriever.‘OK, Stanley, let’s go. Kibble awaits.’ As I turned, I caught a rancid glass of chocolate milk with my foot, which Zac had left on the floor some days ago, sending dregs of foul smelling liquid all over the cream carpet. Well, it was a stupid choice of colourfor a teenaged boy’s floor, but anyway. Stanley waited expectantly at the top of the stairs.‘Christ, that’s all I need. What the hell was that doing there? Zac, get up and fetch me a towel, will you?’
Zac couldn’t hear me, because he’d stuffed his earphones back into his lugholes yet again and was too busy staring at some inanity on Twitter to notice that anything was amiss. The chocolate concoction was soaking rapidly into the cream carpet, so I bolted downstairs and returned with a couple of towels, stopping to wet them in the bathroom.
Running the tap, I glanced up at myself in the mirror. Deep, dark shadows underscored my eyes and my mascara had flaked. I hoped I hadn’t looked like this in my meeting. The client I’d just seen must have thought she was conversing with a zombie, or someone who’d had a traumatic experience on the way to meet her. I reassured myself with the well-known fact that bathroom lighting is never flattering, but these days, I wasn’t too sure which light was. What I really wanted was to be able to wander around in soft focus, like older actresses in films. Living life through a filter would improve so many things. I wrung the towels out before heading back to tackle the carpet. I sank to my knees and scrubbed away at the stain for several minutes, with Stanley standing over me watching, head cocked to one side like a benign inspector. I carried on for a while longer and got the worst of it out. When I stood up, my knees complained of being locked in one position for too long.
It was then that I noticed the mess under Zac’s desk. There were books, leaflets, football magazines, balls of paper, files, empty ink cartridges, tangled headphones, other assorted wires and pieces of Blutak, all forming anthills of detritus. In the far corner, there was a photograph. It looked like it was an old baby photo of Zac from years ago. I wondered what on earth that was doing there.‘Zac. Zac!’ I shouted, yanking the perennial earphone out of the left side of his head, attempting to reconnect him with reality.
‘What now?’ Zac scowled.
‘Stop being rude, Zac. Please. Look at all this mess underneath your desk. Find a bin bag and get rid of some of this rubbish, will you. I don’t know how you can work in such a dump.’
‘It’s my room and I can keep it how I want. I’m seventeen years old, not five. Stop telling me what to do.’ Zac kicked his legs down hard onto the bed like a toddler having a tantrum. Filthy laundry bounced underneath him, emitting unpleasant odoursof teenage boy.
‘And it’s my house, so sort it out. I’m going downstairs to make dinner. Come on, Stanley. It’s definitely time for kibble now.’ I wheeled around and Stanley took his cue. He led the way out of the door, tail wafting, turning to make sure that, this time, I was following him towards his bowl. Zac replaced his earphones and slammed the door shut behind me. I needed to remember to buy some new scissors and maybe think about putting a lock on my office door.
I’m not sure I agree with Kant. He asserted that people only lie out of selfishness to get what they want, and for that reason, one should never lie under any circumstance. But surely there are occasions – many occasions, in fact – when it is preferable not to tell the truth, or at least to fudge it, bend it or possibly deny its very existence. Childhood is built upon a bed of lies – Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy, the Bogeyman. Yet we do not all grow up to be corrupt individuals, bereft of any understanding of right and wrong. We lie to protect our children, to shelter them from emotional harm. Can you honestly tell me that you have never told a little white lie to save the feelings of others? I know I can’t. The question is, in hindsight, was it the correct thing to do?
I think I might have said the wrong thing to Zac. I’m sitting here in the conservatory chatting to him and we’re watching the sparrows eat the breadcrumbs, which Zac has spread out for them on the garden table. They nibble at them in short, sharp bursts, glancing around in case some larger bird might arrive to spoil their feast. He’s a good boy, Zac, coming to see his Grandma every so often. I make him a cheese sandwich and give him milk to drink and he tells me about his day and I tell him about mine. I don’t have a great deal to say, but fortunately, Zac does. He’s a very chatty boy. He explains what he gets up to at school and what he’s studying, although I usually forget what he’s told me five minutes later. He’s very handsome, rather like his Grandad. He reminds me very much of Joe, only he’s much taller. He’s got the same thick dark hair, deep brown eyes and a smile which warms your insides. When he walks in, I think, Joe is back. Hi, Joe, I don’t remember you being so tall and how much younger you look. You look younger than you did when we first met. Then Zac says, ‘Hello Grandma’ and I realise it’s not Joe. How I miss Joe.
I’m showing Zac one of my old photo albums with ancient pictures of Joe and me with all our celebrity friends back in the day. My stereo is belting out ‘Downtown’ by Petula Clark. I do love Petula. She’s so neat and tidy, you know, elegant. I met her once, but I can’t remember where.‘Look, Zac, this is Jackie Lamarr, one of the most famous actresses in the Sixties. She was in that thriller with – you know – what’s his name. I can’t quite remember. Never mind. Look at her fabulous fox fur and those diamond earrings. Not hers, mind you. Always rented. She never had a penny to her name. Terrible gambler, you know. And this is Billy Burns, who read the BBC News, in the days when all the newsreaders looked smart and spoke properly. Not like today when you can’t understand half of them.’Zac smiles, but I don’t think he can remember any of these people. Before his time, I suppose.
Then I show him some pictures of Joe in his heyday. Joe has a photograph taken with every guest he invites onto his show – he insists on it – and we take many more photos later, at the after-show parties. Joe parades up and down with his dark hair slicked back, wearing the smart navy blue suit with a slight sheen to it and a thin red tie with his matching handkerchief peeping out of the top of his jacket pocket. I show Zac pictures of me as well. In one of my favourites, I’m wearing a shimmering silver floor length evening gown. He tells me how stunning I look. A real glamour puss, he calls me. I feel my cheeks redden.
In another album there are photos of Zac’s mum, Sasha, pouting at the camera. Such a vain little girl, always posing. There are hundreds of photos of Sasha and Joe together. Joe adores her. They are inseparable. Well, they were, Zac reminds me. He tells me how much Sasha misses Joe. She doesn’t miss him as much as I do, I tell him. A child can never miss their parent as much as a wife misses her husband. How many times have I told her that? She is so self-indulgent. Zac tells me how he wishes that he could remember his Grandad. I show Zac photos of Sasha and Jeremy. Zac laughs at the clothes his mum and dad are wearing with their high shoulder pads and enormous glasses. He is shocked to see that Jeremy has a full head of shaggy brown hair.
I show Zac some of his baby photos. ‘Here’s you, Zac, with your Grandad Joe. You were such a beautiful baby.’ He picks up the photo of a bare baby lying face down on his plastic changing mat, smiling up at the camera. Joe is standing next to him with an air of uncertainty, as if he’s frightened that the baby is about to do something which he can’t handle. Zac turns the picture over and frowns.
‘Grandma, this date says 1996. I was born in 1998.’
‘Oh, that’s the other one,’ I say.
‘The other one?’ Zac is staring at me oddly and pulling at his fringe, rolling his hair into tight twists. ‘What other one?’
I stop. I think I’ve got a bit confused. I know there’s something I’ve muddled up here. Something I’m not supposed to say. I fiddle with the buttons on my cardigan. One of them is coming loose, but I can’t sew it back on any more. My hands won’t work the thread. ‘I don’t mean the other one. I mean you, love.’
‘But I wasn’t born until 1998. This says 96.’
I need the toilet and start to get up, using the arm of the chair to heave myself forwards.
‘Oh, I don’t know, Zac. You know Grandma’s stupid. I probably wrote down the wrong date. Now fetch me my stick, would you?’He’s staring at me, but I shuffle past him, reaching for the wall to steady myself.
Zac leaves just after I shuffle back to my chair. I know I’ve said the wrong thing. I must remember to tell Sasha. I’ll ring her later, when I’ve had a short rest. I settle down in my chair, using my hands to wrench my knees onto the poof, before pulling the blanket over them. That’s better. I reach for the TV remote. The racing is on. The horses are so handsome. I’ll just watch the races for a bit. Just for a moment, until I get my breath back.
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Deborah Stone read English Literature at Durham University. She lives in North London with her husband, two sons and her dog.