Three is a good and safe number. I close my eyes and whisper the words three times so no one can hear. They sound like a sweet sigh. If Mum notices she might worry and the days of worry are over. I say this three times too, just to make triple sure, remembering how the words have to be spoken on the outbreath.
As I exhale, cold air blows in through the letter box into the hallway, making it flap against the front door. An ill wind, ill wind, ill wind. I look round to check Mum is still in the kitchen and bend down to examine the letter on the doormat, even though I recognized the large attention-seeking scrawl the instant it landed. Why, why, why is she writing to Mum after all these years? I don’t touch it. Yet.
I hear Mum giggling. It’s always a great sound. I can tell she’s on the phone with my brother, Max, because he’s so good at making her laugh. Much better than me. Even when I tell her entertaining stories about the Russian boy I’m tutoring or something that’s happened at uni, there’s caution in her response—as if she still doesn’t dare trust in my happiness. Parents are the worst for holding you prisoner to the person you used to be. Or rather Mum is. Dad stopped being the resident jailer a long time ago. I used to accuse Mum of being neurotic but now I understand that Dad’s cool was a way of avoiding responsibility. Besides, it’s in his interested to believe in happy endings and new beginnings because he got his.
Mum has an uncanny ability to notice tiny changes in me. She’s like a meteorologist for my moods, collating and crunching information to predict subtle shifts in patterns. And she rarely makes mistakes. But, as she used to tell me back in the days when nothing was solid and reliable, you learn more by the things you get wrong than the things you get right.
I’m not sure I agree. If you are in Paris, for example, and you look the wrong way when you step out into the road you could get run over and even if you aren’t killed you might end up quadriplegic. Generally death and disability don’t provide good life lessons. If Max said that, Mum would fall around laughing. If I said it she would want to swab my soul for signs of impending darkness.
A big part of my mother’s job is to observe people. She’s a doctor, a breast cancer specialist, and she has spent years making sure that her emotions don’t leach into her face. She’s always trying to explain why empathy trumps sympathy. Patients need their doctors to appear under control, she says, especially when the news is bad. Any other response is self-indulgent. But I can tell when she’s emotional because she chews the inside of her right cheek.
My attention turns to the letter. The inside of her cheek would be savaged if she saw this.
My mind is made up: it can’t be ignored. I pick up the padded manila envelope and turn it in my hands, noting the following: 1) it is postmarked Norfolk, 2) she has written in baby-blue ink, 3) truly, truly, truly a good and safe number, she has included something heavy that feels like a small spoon. And 4) it is sealed with Sellotape. People only do that when they have given a lot of consideration to the contents. I also note that I make four observations rather than three. Good work, Daisy, I congratulate myself, although almost immediately I’m aware that counting is a retrograde step.
I head towards the shelf in the hall and randomly grab a hardback book that is big enough to conceal the envelope. Dust flies everywhere because Mum isn’t the kind of woman who cleans to relax. It falls open on a well-thumbed page. “Anxiety Disorders in Teenagers,” reads the chapter heading.
Since Dad walked out on us when I was fourteen, Mum has become our responsibility. “Look after your mother,” Dad always used to say when he dropped us back home from a weekend at his house after they split up seven years ago. Note I never called his house “home.” The first time he said this, Max—who was only eleven at the time—told him to fuck off. He didn’t like the implication that we didn’t look after Mum, or the fact that the person saying it was responsible for causing the pain that meant she needed looking after. Dad told Max not to be so rude but it sounded half-hearted. And besides, Max had started crying as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Sometimes back then Dad cried too and I had to comfort him. Things have been calmer over the past four years. Or at least I thought they were. Until this letter.
I head into the toilet and lock the door behind me. It’s designed so you can open it from the outside if necessary. There are four holes above the lock where the old bold used to be. I peer through one of these to check Mum is still in the kitchen. It’s an old habit because I used to spend a lot of time in here: it was the one place no one could disturb me. At least I no longer check the lock three times. Reviewing myself in the mirror I see my face reflect the gravity of the situation back to me. When I’m emotional my lips always go cartoon rubbery. I run my finger across the hole at the bottom right-hand corner of the mirror where there is a tiny slice of glass missing. My fault. But let’s not get into that now. The mirror came from the house in Norfolk where we used to go on holiday when we were children. “Back in the day,” as Mum says breezily. She is all about living in the present. Even though she has spent the best part of a decade involved in the same clinical trial.
I turn my face from side to side to let the light fall on it at different angles and tousle my fringe and short dark hair in an effort to appear effortless in a French sort of way. Kit likes it like this. In fact, I think it’s fair, if miraculous, to say that Kit likes pretty much everything about me. The timing of this parcel isn’t great because he is about to arrive to meet Mum for the first time. She’s been angling for an introduction since I first started going out with him eight months ago, but I wanted to wait until I was completely sure about him.
I close the loo seat and sit down. I’m not proud of what I do next. But who hasn’t done the wrong thing for the right reasons at least once in their life? I honestly thought this would be the end of something, not the beginning. I carefully peel off the Sellotape and the padded manila envelope flaps open. I just knew Lisa wouldn’t have licked it. She’s as careless with things as she is with people. I breathe in and out, as deep as I can, one hand holding the envelope, the other resting on my diaphragm as it rises to make sure that my abdominal muscles are contracting properly on the inbreath. I know more about breathing than any yoga teacher.
In my defense I should say that at this moment I did try to reseal it with the same piece of Sellotape that I had peeled off a second ago. Privacy is a big issue for me. And there was no doubting who was meant to be opening it: Rosie Foss. It still surprised me to see Mum’s surname because until my parents got divorced we all shared the same one. At the beginning Max and I made a big thing of this. We wanted to become Foss so she wasn’t alone with her new name like she was alone with everything else. It felt strange to no longer have the same surname as my closest living relative but Mum argued, quite convincingly, that she had been Rosie Foss for most of her life before she married Dad and that at work she had always kept her maiden name. Max politely pointed out that just for the record, at thirty-nine years old, with two children, Mum most definitely wasn’t a maiden. Mum had cracked up at this. Max doesn’t have to try to be a light person. He was built that way.
I think about all this as I try to stick the envelope back down. But of course Lisa has used cheap Sellotape. She’s always dropped hints about how she and Dad don’t have enough money, which annoys me so much because Mum has always worked so hard and Lisa hasn’t had a job since she moved in with Dad. Part-time yoga teacher doesn’t really cut it. Irritation makes me clumsy and the letters emerges tantalizingly from the top of the envelope so that I can see the uneven line of huge kisses beneath Lisa’s signature.
I pull it out, taking care not to crease the flimsy paper. It’s two pages long when it could have been one but Lisa’s scrawl is big and confident, which is probably why I am even more surprised by what follows.
The reason for contacting you is simple: I want to see you one last time. I want to ask your forgiveness for the pain I caused you and tell you something that you need to know before it is too late.
My dear Rosie,
I am writing to let you know that I have recently been diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. (You know better than anyone that there is no Stage 5.) I thought the lump was a cyst or something left over from breastfeeding all those years ago. Do you remember those lovely, lazy days on the beach in Norfolk? But a recent biopsy proved otherwise and unfortunately the cancer has spread. I do not expect your sympathy. The reason for contacting you is simple: I want to see you one last time. I want to ask your forgiveness for the pain I caused you and tell you something that you need to know before it is too late. I am enclosing the key to the house so that you can let yourself in. I haven’t told Nick about this letter and am increasingly too tired to get out of bed to answer the door. I have decided to keep my illness private for the moment and would be grateful if you could respect this final wish.
With fondest love, as always,
X X X X
My emotions with regards to Lisa used to be pretty three-dimensional. Variations on the theme of animosity, angst, and anger. Pretty textbooks stuff. Since I met Kit, I have let go of the anger without even trying. As it pumps through my body again I realize that I haven’t missed it. I can’t stand the way Lisa assumes Mum will go running to her and cave in to her demands after everything that has happened. I even feel annoyed she has got breast cancer because that territory belongs to Mum. And then a further wave of rage that she has turned me into someone whose first response to a dying person isn’t sympathy.
Why is she doing this after all this time? As far as I can see in my dealings with Lisa, she has never shown any sign of remorse for stealing Dad. But mostly I see this emotionally manipulative letter as a big threat to Mum’s hard-won equilibrium. It will make her rake up the past and relive all the sadness and disappointment just so Lisa can feel better about herself. And I will do anything to protect Mum from harm. She is one of the most genuinely caring people that I have ever come across. She’ll probably even try to help Lisa. Not that I want her to die, because then Max and I might end up having to look after Dad.
But just as quickly a new emotion takes hold. This is one I haven’t felt for years. My skin feels clammy and my ribs no longer rise when I breathe. I’m properly anxious. Because I am as sure as shit that I know what Lisa is going to tell Mum.
I try to distract myself with the things that I don’t feel: 1) sympathy for Dad, 2) sadness for Lisa, 3) regret at having opened the letter.
I try some breathing techniques but I can’t focus, so I allow myself a bit of tapping. Just three times on the bone below each shoulder. Repetitions in multiples of three. I stop at 21 because 24 is a multiple of a number I don’t like. It helps. I don’t need to do my toes, heel, or the side of my foot. You have probably noticed a lot of my life now revolves around what I don’t do rather than what I do. My ribcage settles.I try to distract myself with the things that I don’t feel: 1) sympathy for Dad, 2) sadness for Lisa, 3) regret at having opened the letter.
“Daisy,” I hear Mum shouting. “Can you get the door?”
Kit must have arrived. I look through the hole. Mum’s halfway into the hall. With a wooden spoon in one hand and a packet of butter in the other, she looks uncharacteristically domestic. She doesn’t notice when a sweaty lump of butter drops on the floor. For someone so well versed in infection control she is surprisingly slovenly around the house. Her bedroom floor is always littered with clothes and her toothpaste never has a lid. Max says she lives like a student. But I love her for it. “Just coming,” I call back. She turns round and frowns at the toilet door, and I guiltily realize it spooks her because it reminds her of times past.
Judging by the black grains of rice that cover the spoon, she has reached what Max and I call “the resuscitation of rice” stage of lunch. The smell of charred rice burning at the bottom of a pan that has run dry of water is to my childhood what the madeleine was to Marcel Proust. Actually, Dad said that. When they were still together and did funny banter. They split up in January 2008, almost exactly seven years ago, although according to Dad the marriage was over long before. I once asked Dad when it finished for him, and how come Mum didn’t realize when she was living under the same roof. He said he couldn’t recall the exact instant, which struck me as strange coming from a scientist who specialize in the nature of memory formation. I wish I were as good at forgetting as Dad. I remember everything.
I put the two sheets of paper face up on the toilet seat and take a couple of shots of the letter with my phone. I make a song and dance of flushing the loo and running the water in the basin and put it all back exactly as I found it, except for one thing. I take out the key and slide it into the back pocket of my jeans. I’m not sure why I do this. Later Max pointed out that I had a thing about locking doors when I was ill. But I promise this is an impulsive rather than compulsive act.
Then I notice something else at the bottom of the envelope. It’s an old photo of us all, taken in Norfolk, during the last holiday we spent together before the upheaval. When Mum and Lisa were still best friends. We are in the garden of the house where Mum grew up. “My second home,” Lisa used to call it. Until it became her first home. Dad’s part of the divorce settlement. There are fistfuls of irony in this story.
I have never seen the photo before. Lisa must have been running out of printer ink because it’s sickly yellow. But it’s not the color that makes me feel queasy. I recognize the liverish lawn of my grandparents’ house, dried out by the sun, and the garden shed in the background. It must have been taken on a timer because somehow all eight of us are in it. Mum and Lisa are center stage, arms carelessly flung around each other, as though they are the married couple. Mum was fatter then. Lisa has always been thin. Mum is squinting at Lisa, whose eyes are shut, which is unfortunate because eyes are the windows of the soul and perhaps Mum would have known what she was up against if she could have seen into them at that moment.
Dad stands beside Mum but no part of his body is touching her. His right arm is around Max, who was probably ten when the photo was taken. His dark curly hair rests comfortable against Dad’s thigh. Back then he loved Dad unconditionally. I am standing stiffly between Lisa’s son, Rex, and his dad, Barney. I look tense because I was tense. Barney’s hands are behind his back and his chest is puffed out so it appears as though he’s standing to attention but he’s probably hiding a beer can. His lopsided grin confirms my theory. Lisa’s daughter, Ava, is on the edge of the frame. We used to be friends but not anymore. After everything that happened, we were never going to make a model blended family. I touch Lisa’s face with my finger and find myself scratching at it with my nail. Let it go, Daisy, Kit would say if he saw me. Let it go. But I can’t. I keep scraping until she disappears. If I told him what happened he might understand. Because that was the summer my childhood stopped.
I come out of the toilet. Mum is offering Kit the hand that holds the spoon. He has the self-possession not to look alarmed. He’s very calm, my man. Instead he deftly takes the spoon so they can shake hands.
“I’m Rosie,” says Mum, giving Kit the same reassuring but professional smile she uses on patients.
“It’s so nice to meet you,” says Kit. His blond hair flops over his face, surfer style. He glances over to me and does that thing where he raises one eyebrow. That’s all it takes. I realize this is meant to be one of those awkward moments but it really isn’t. The good thing about having a super dysfunctional family is that there isn’t a lot to live up to.
Excerpted from “Chapter 1: Daisy” of The Betrayals by Fiona Neill, published by Pegasus Books. Reprinted with permission. All other rights reserved.
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