The pregnancy, which was horrendous. Not like before. Not like the first time. Somehow with Emily everything was different. Unless, equally possible, it wasn’t and Emily, her little girl, was just a fluke. A pearl chaffed into perfection.
But the sickness. Certainly the sickness was new, something she’d not experienced with Jake. It hit her early and instead of passing only gathered intensity. She was hospitalized. Twice. The second time for almost a fortnight. It became so bad that Neil suggested termination. No, that’s not right. He didn’t suggest anything. He alluded, insinuated. Tried to coax her so that the decision—the responsibility—would become Susanna’s. And looking back, as Susanna has relentlessly, that was the moment, she would say, that their relationship finally broke apart. It had been crumbling anyway. By the time Emily was conceived it was as much a memory of something tangible as a thing itself: an edifice ready to fall at the slightest tremor.
Termination, though; the mere suggestion of it . . . For Susanna that was the beginning of the end. It was like the time Neil had confessed his fears about Jake’s sexuality, except worse, more fundamental, because prejudice was something Susanna could at least account for. What Neil said was he was only thinking of her well-being. That it was nothing to do with the fact that he hadn’t wanted a second child in the first place; had argued for months that it was precisely the wrong thing to do. Which maybe it was, but that didn’t alter how desperate Susanna was for her baby to be born. Her little girl, as things turned out. A baby girl.
Susanna wasn’t some radical. She was as pro-choice, she felt, as it was possible for a mother to be. But after everything they’d been through Susanna couldn’t believe the thought would even enter Neil’s mind. Kill it, was what he meant. Murder her baby.
She overrode Neil in the end, of course she did, and the joy of Emily’s birth for the most part rinsed away the pain. Of the pregnancy, that is. Of labor. But afterward, and until Neil and Susanna went their separate ways (separate? Try opposite. Diametrical) Susanna had night upon night of sleepless fear. It had finally dawned on her that she was living with a stranger. Husband, father: impostor.
Bottom shuffling. Ha! They both did it. Meaning maybe there were some commonalities after all. Except Jake’s method of movement was like a lurching, sitting-down limp, whereas Emily was always more elegant. It was almost graceful, the way she skulled across the floor, if you could describe dragging your bum across the linoleum as a thing of grace. That was the thing, though. She almost floated. Zen-like. A pink-skinned, talcum-powdered Buddha.
Emily with a photograph of Jake. Older now. Six? Seven? And the Jake in the picture, coincidentally, not that dissimilar in age.
“Who’s this, Mummy?”
Susanna turning to look. Realization dawning as she sees.
“Where did you get that?”
“Hey. Give it back.”
“I said, where did you get it? You shouldn’t be going through my drawers, Emily. I’ve told you before about going through my things.”
“I wasn’t. I just found it!”
Even if Susanna hadn’t been able to read Emily so easily, she would have known her daughter was lying to her. There were no photographs of Jake anywhere in their house that weren’t at least two sealed layers from being found. This one, Susanna knew—the way a librarian knows the location of the books she minds, a curator the story of each exhibit—was in an envelope in a shoebox in her junk drawer. Junk being a euphemism for hallowed treasures, a label she’d only chosen in the first place in a bid to deter Emily.
“Mummy? It’s mine, I found it, let me see.”
“It’s not yours, young lady.” Susanna felt anger in spite of herself. Fury without warning or good reason.
She tried again.
“It’s not yours, Emily. It’s Mummy’s. It’s . . . precious,” she settled on, for want of a better word.
“But I want to see. Show me, Mummy, please.”
She hesitated at first, but then gave in. What harm, she remembers thinking, could it do?
For a long time, Emily just stared, trying to decipher what had made her mother so cross.
“But who is it?” she asked.
Susanna looked from Emily to the photograph. She allowed her thumb tip to graze her son’s cheek. “Just a boy,” Susanna responded. “No one you know.”Susanna looked from Emily to the photograph. She allowed her thumb tip to graze her son’s cheek. “Just a boy,” Susanna responded. “No one you know.”
And she distracted her daughter with a plate of biscuits.
Their perfect day. The absolute happiest Susanna has been in what she has learned to think of as her life, part two.
It was just her and Emily. No one else. No bystanders even who betrayed in glances that they knew exactly who Susanna and Emily were. No imagined scrutiny either, which for a long time had been almost as much of a problem. More even, her counselor would have said. Her counselor being Patti Moorcock. Introduced to Susanna by her bereavement counselor and the person who in turn introduced Susanna to her new career. For two, three years Patti had been Susanna’s mentor, confidante, friend. Perhaps the only true friend Susanna has ever really had. There’s Ruth too, of course, but as much as Susanna adores Ruth there’s still that secret that will always exist between them, which by omission has ripened into a lie—and has, in Susanna’s mind, downgraded their relationship to an illusion. A light show. Something beautiful yet insubstantial. Something she knows will eventually come to an end.
But that day. Her and Emily’s perfect day. A walk on the beach, sugared doughnuts while sitting on the pier. Talking. Just talking. Emily was ten at the time and soon enough, Susanna knew (was acutely, painfully aware), conversation with her mother would be something she would shy away from. Yet that day she was garrulous, cheerful, open. She answered when Susanna asked, laughing and smiling as she did so.
And it wasn’t one-way traffic. Emily asked questions of Susanna as well, seemed genuinely interested in what Susanna had to say. It was silly really, Susanna taking such pleasure in a conversation. Except it didn’t feel silly. To Susanna it felt like the opposite: the pinnacle of what a parent is able to do. Talking to your kids. Listening to them. Loving them by blessing them with your full attention.
“You know God?” Emily came out with, veering from a conversation about roller coasters—the type of tangent only a ten-year-old will attempt.
Susanna was taking a sip of her daughter’s Coke at the time, which they’d bought to wash down the doughnuts. At her daughter’s question (statement?) she found herself struggling to contain her mouthful.
“I do,” she replied at last, swallowing and running a finger across her chin. “Although not personally.”
It was a feeble joke—a Mum joke—but Emily, bless her, gave a giggle. “Mu-um,” she chastised.
“What about God?” Susanna asked her, frowning slightly to suppress a glimmer, which she feared Emily would misinterpret.
“Do you reckon She’s really real?”
Again Susanna had to suppress her smile. “She?”
“Sure. Or He, I guess.”
“Well . . .” No, was the true response. She wanted to believe, and after Emily was born had considered allowing herself to, but ultimately couldn’t permit herself the self-deception. “I suppose it’s possible. Plenty of people would say they didn’t have the slightest doubt.”
“But you don’t agree. You don’t believe She does exist.”
Susanna’s policy of always trying to be honest left her no wriggle room and anyway Emily had discerned the answer already.
“No, I don’t. Although if God’s real I’d bet money He’s a man.”
Emily, as they ambled, looked at her sideways. “What does that mean?”
Susanna shook her head. “Nothing, darling. Just a joke, that’s all. Not a very good one.”
Ordinarily Emily would have insisted her mother explain it, deconstruct it so she could examine its precise makeup. Emily’s mind, though, was evidently on higher matters.
“But what if She is real?” Something in Emily’s voice caused Susanna to frown genuinely. Fear? Not quite. But anxiety of some sort certainly. “What do you mean?” Susanna asked.
For a moment Emily didn’t respond.
“Emily? Is something worrying you?”
Her daughter shook her head. “Not worrying me, exactly.”
“I’d be sorry, that’s all. If God exists and no one believes in Her. I mean, not no one. But lots of people. You know?”
Susanna stopped walking and turned to face her daughter. A breeze slid gently across the pier and she had to tuck her hair back to keep it from blowing in her eyes.
“You feel sorry,” she said. “For God.”
Emily stopped walking too. She half frowned, half squinted against the sunlight. “Well, yeah. And sad, I suppose. Because it would be lonely. Wouldn’t it? If you were God and no one believed in you?”
God, Susanna loved her. Ha. How about that for a prayer, a statement of what Susanna believed in. I love you, Emily. I believe in you.
“I don’t think you need to feel sorry for God, darling,” Susanna said. “I think, if God exists, I would imagine She’s feeling pretty pleased with Herself.”
“Because of the world.”
“God’s pleased with Herself because of the world. Because of all the cool stuff that’s in it. Is that what you mean?”
“Well . . .” Again, it wasn’t. But if it should have been, would Susanna’s agreeing count as lying? “What I meant was,” she clarified, sidestepping, “it must be pretty cool being God and that’s why She’s probably quite happy. You know, being able to summon lightning bolts at will. Having people worship you every Sunday. Living, basically, on a cloud.” She looked down as Emily gave another giggle.
“But yes,” Susanna went on, “I think you’re right. I think if there really is a God then overall She deserves to feel proud. There’s a lot of unpleasantness in the world but there’s a whole lot of brilliant stuff too.” Susanna took her daughter’s hand, felt Emily’s fingers coil around hers. “Often . . . Well. I suppose it’s just easy to forget that.”
For six, seven paces they walked on without saying a word. Then Susanna caught her daughter smiling.
“You said She,” Emily declared, triumphant in a bashful sort of way.
“Ha.” Susanna looked into the wind, used a palm to wipe away a tear. “So I did,” she said, turning back. And she held her daughter’s hand tighter.
The opposite. The nadir. The worst day, at least since Susanna, part one.
Although really it boiled down to a single incident. They were, what? Out shopping, she supposed. The precise details of their outing have receded in her memory into irrelevance. Again, though, it was just her and Emily, and Emily at the time had been in the pushchair. She was three months, two weeks and four days old. Susanna worked it out after. Would she remember? That was what Susanna fixated on. Which on the one hand seemed ridiculous, given that her own earliest memory (sitting on a paddleboat with her father, ice cream dripping onto her knees) came from a time when she was four years old. But they say children are shaped by events that occur even when they are in the womb. They say a child’s entire personality is molded by what they experience in their first few months. Meaning Emily would surely remember something, even if only in the deepest part of her.
She was so unprepared, that was part of it. It was over, she thought. The worst had happened but they were getting past it, and she simply assumed the rest of the world was moving on too. Assume makes an ass of you and me. That was one of Neil’s favorite sayings. Also, at the end of the day and, worst of all, it is what it is, which in five words was about as close as you could get to distilling his philosophy on life. A verbal shrug was what it amounted to, and it made Susanna want to hurl something every time.
Boys will be boys, that was another one. Another shrug. Another abdication of responsibility.
“I know you.”
It was that pronouncement that caused Susanna to turn.
“Excuse me?” she said to the woman who’d approached them. This was on the street. The pavement somewhere. Outside Tesco?
“I said, I know you. I recognize you from the television.”
Tesco, that’s right, and they had been shopping because Susanna recalls how at that stage she was wrestling with the carrier bags. There were tins, packets, bags of loose vegetables that were coming untied, and Susanna was struggling to hook the carriers on the handles of the buggy. Things kept spilling out, though. She remembers a can of peaches rolling toward the stranger’s foot, the woman spotting it and ping it beneath her toes. And then, a second later, knocking it with the side of her boot toward the gutter.
“Hey,” Susanna protested—but feebly. Scared now. Not just of this woman, who was shorter than Susanna, and slighter. Younger too. She must have been twenty-seven, twenty-eight, definitely no older than thirty. And she had a child herself. That was the worst part. There was a little boy holding her hand. Watching. Learning.
“You’re scum. That’s what you are. Scum.”
OK, so maybe she was scared of the woman but she was scared of the situation more. It was like one of those dreams, where you find yourself in public naked. That was how she felt—utterly, unbearably exposed.
“You may have fooled them but you didn’t fool me. I know. I know.”
Susanna glanced about her, afraid of how many of the shoppers bustling around them would be listening. “I think you’ve got me confused with someone else.”
She tried to move off then, leaving her shopping where it lay. And maybe it was that—the willing abandonment of what was rightfully hers—that the woman took as an admission of guilt. She became emboldened, dragging her son so that together they blocked Susanna’s path.
Red hair, green eyes, a chin that jutted like an accusing finger.
“She yours?” the woman said. That chin of hers flicking toward Emily. Emily staring up at them from the pushchair.
For an instant Susanna considered claiming Emily was her niece, her goddaughter, anything. Yet even by that stage she’d instilled in herself that devotion to honesty. Telling the truth seemed such a clear principle by which to live her life: sacred, almost, in its purity. If she was truthful, upfront, always, how could anyone ever hold her to blame?
So yes, she intended to say. She’s mine.
As it was she didn’t get that far.
The woman spat. Not at Susanna. She raked the mucus to the back of her throat and then heaved it full force into Emily’s buggy.
Susanna shrieked. Her first and only honest-to-goodness shriek. She’d felt occasion to make the sound before but it was only on seeing her daughter sprayed by a stranger’s vitriol that her anguish found voice. She was aware the little boy started to cry, sensed a passerby veer away from her in alarm. She remembers the woman—the spitter—barging past her, hindering her for a moment from succoring her child. And Emily’s face when Susanna bent to her: shocked, yes, but too innocent to be properly afraid.
And then, after that, the memory blurs, the way her vision did from the onrush of tears. She doesn’t recall getting home, has no idea what happened to the shopping. She remembers being at home, and crying obviously, endlessly, and immediately dunking Emily in the bath. She remembers scrubbing at her daughter’s face, how red Emily was from the flannel. And she remembers her daughter screaming—from the pain of it: her soap-scraped skin.
And Neil yelling, “Stop! For Christ’s sake just stop it, won’t you?”
Susanna thinking he was yelling at Emily.
It finally dawning on her that he was talking to her.
Running, in the middle of the night. To her brother’s at first, where she knew if she remained she would be found, but it was only for one or two days, assuming Peter would let them stay even that long. He would rather not have helped them at all, that much was obvious, but when a family member turns up on your doorstep at three o’clock in the morning, an infant wrapped shivering in their arms, what choice really does that leave you?
Emily frightened, upset. Susanna doing her best to comfort her. To comfort herself as well. To reassure herself that she was doing the right thing. One more lie, was what she told herself. A big one, a whopper, but without it she didn’t know how they could go on. She’d managed to convince herself, before, that the truth would set her free. She finally realized, paradoxically, that only a lie would. And it was Neil in the end who’d forced her hand. Neil’s fault this time, absolutely and categorically. At least Susanna had the balm of knowing that.
Again though, would Emily remember? At five months old now, what impressions would she retain of the life they were leaving behind? And how much would Susanna eventually choose to tell her? That was the real question, and another challenge to Susanna’s vow of honesty.Again though, would Emily remember? At five months old now, what impressions would she retain of the life they were leaving behind? And how much would Susanna eventually choose to tell her?
Everything, therefore, was the answer. Eventually Susanna would tell Emily everything. Who her father was. Why they’d left. Her real surname, her mother’s real first name. Just not yet, obviously. When she was . . . how old? Six? Nine? Twelve?
It became a refrain. A get-out clause. She was being honest because the lie was only temporary. Not even a lie. An omission. Like her omission with Ruth, which Susanna permitted because it was tied to the lie she’d allowed herself. That one, final lie that she and Emily so desperately needed.
And besides, she would tell Emily one day.
Just not yet.
Teenagerdom. The early years. And how Emily had flourished. Who says a daughter needs a father? Who says working single mothers can’t cope? And OK, so maybe Susanna never quite fulfilled her promise to herself, allowed Emily to continue living in ignorance instead, but that was another aphorism, wasn’t it? Ignorance is bliss. Aphorism or truism—Susanna isn’t sure there’s a difference. All that matters in Emily’s case is that the lie proved good for her. The lie helped her daughter thrive.
And Susanna too. She completed her training, even set up her own practice. Admittedly there were things that . . . haunted her. But compared to her former life—compared to strangers spitting at her daughter, for heaven’s sake—the challenges of her current circumstances are ones Susanna feels able to cope with. Like Emily herself. Her daughter is a teenage girl, Susanna an older mother, so inevitably they’ve had their share of difficulties. Yet difficult, in Susanna’s mind, is relative.
Yesterday morning. The last time Susanna saw her before Emily went off to school, and then slept over at her friend’s house. The breakfast rush, the bathroom crush. Once Susanna stood taller than her daughter, so that as they shared the mirror in front of the sink Susanna could position herself to the rear and still see over the top of Emily’s head. These days they have no choice but to squash in side by side, swapping places when they need to. It’s become a dance, a morning ritual that Susanna has learned to treasure.
Her favorite part is when Emily squeezes the toothpaste. It’s a small thing, silly really, but every morning, almost without fail, Emily will hold the toothpaste tube and deploy a dollop on to Susanna’s brush. Sometimes Susanna will be standing there with her toothbrush in her hand. Other times she’ll be fiddling with her hair and Emily will simply get her toothbrush ready for her.
Susanna tried explaining to Ruth once why that small act makes her so happy. There are a thousand reasons, is the problem, most of which she found impossible to voice. The biggest, though, the one she did express, was that it makes Susanna feel like she is loved. More than flowers on her birthday, more even than her daughter declaring that she loves her out loud. Toothpaste on her toothbrush. Nearly two decades living with Neil and Susanna would never have guessed it could be that simple.
But yesterday. The morning had started as normal. Emily seemed normal. Didn’t she? She was cheerful. If anything, more cheerful than usual, and—
Was that part of this?
Was that part of why?
Sex. Yet again it came down to sex. Not sex sex necessarily but girls, boys; boys, girls . . .
Emily. Oh Emily. Susanna’s precious little girl. Susanna considers Ruth her only friend now but Emily is her friend and so much more. If something’s happened to her. If anything threatened to . . .
Susanna has died for her daughter once already. If she were to lose her—if somehow they were to lose each other—Susanna would die all over again.
From THE LIAR’S ROOM, by Simon Lelic. Used with the permission of the publisher, Berkley Books. Copyright © 2019 by Simon Lelic.