‘I wasn’t a very good mother to you, was I darling?’
I stared at her in astonishment.
‘I wasn’t like any of the other mothers. You didn’t fit in. I know how important that is to children. You wanted a sock-darner and cake-baker, someone who had your tea ready on the table when you came in from school.’
I noted how little there was to choose between Lilias’s neglected child and the classic domestic tyrant.
‘I should have bottled my own jam and knitted you Fair Isle sweaters.’
‘Kids with homemade clothes got picked on.’
She smiled briefly. ‘But you wanted me at home.’
‘I wanteda home,’ I admitted. ‘I could have compromised on how often you were in it.’
‘Ah,’ she said.
Yet she didn’t give me away. She passed the parcel, but when the music stopped she always took me back. I could have been put up for adoption at birth, or later, once the novelty had worn off. She could have skipped the Easter holidays, whittled down her summers with me from six weeks to three. All it would have taken was a British Council tour of former colonies, and the precedent would have been set, but she stuck to the child-friendly British Isles. Which must mean something.
‘My poor deprived darling―’
I heard the satire in these words but they touched me all the same.
‘It just wasn’t possible.’
We both knew what she was talking about, but I never thought she’d actually say it.
‘Every child wants a father, of course. It’s only natural. But I was surprised how single-minded you were. Most little girls would have wanted a sister or brother as much.’
I held my breath. I could feel him in the room, he had never been closer, but one misjudged word could banish him forever.
‘If I talked to the ASM for five minutes you’d be tugging at my skirt. “Is that my daddy?” It was terribly embarrassing.’
Through the open door I heard the cat snagging its claws on the linen sofa.
Carefully I said, ‘I needed a wee bit more than a photograph.’
‘It was all I had, darling.’
‘You had three years with him. You could have told me, I don’t know, what made him laugh, his favourite food.’ Maybe even his name, I thought, but we’d had that argument too many times for me to reopen it now. ‘Something more definite than that he made his living pretending to be other people.’
‘That is something definite, darling. You just don’t like it.’
The cat reappeared in the doorway and leapt onto the mattress, where it sniffed at the plate of biscotti. I scooped it up and dumped it back on the floor.
‘I’ve never really understood why. It’s in your blood. You’ve got the voice and the height and there are always going to be character parts. You’d have made a good actress. Only you’d have to have learned how to feel.’
I thought of a couple of feelings I might express there and then.
‘Did he know how to feel?’ I said. ‘My father?’
She gave a mirthless laugh, ‘I suppose you could say that.’
I had been waiting all my life to hold this conversation, and now that the long-bolted door had cracked open I was paralysed by how much there was to ask. Why now? Was she clearing her conscience before it was too late? Or just playing out the scene because, well, she wasan actress?
‘Can I have it?’ I nearly didn’t ask, and it was the catalyst that changed everything.
‘Have what, darling?’
I felt the static crackle across her skin.
‘I gave it to you,’ she said.
‘No: I wanted it, but you said he’d given it to you so you should keep it.’
Of all Lilias’s vocal tics I found did I? the most infuriating. A stalling tactic while she groped for her next line, it meant nothing, and at the same time it was the most revealing thing she said. Behind its urbanity lay a limitless indifference to the truth.
I knelt on the floor and peered under the bed. The theatrical trunk was still there, along with a crumpled tissue and a tube of KY jelly. I leaned in among the dust balls and grabbed one of the handles.
She raised her head from the pillow, ‘You won’t find it in there.’
I hauled the tin box across the floorboards, coughing in the lemon-scented dust that rose as I lifted the lid. When I was a child, this trunk had been my most illicit pleasure. Even now I felt it. The thrill of bypassing the smokescreen of her presence. All this archaeological evidence of my mother’s actual self.
It was just as I remembered. The red Leichner tins, the gold-edged invitations smudged with lipstick, the bundle of programmes secured with pink ribbon, the crumbling newspaper reviews.
She pushed back the duvet and swung her legs to the floor, ‘Freya.’
‘Just making sure,’ I said.
I riffled through the clutter. A platinum-blonde wig matted with spilled face powder. That tin of Coty L’Aimant talc I had coveted as a dolls’ pillarbox. A Peter Blake sketch on a paper napkin (she’d approached him in a café, told him it was her birthday). Tickets for the Edinburgh Festival and the Oban Ball. The spare keys to all those long-forgotten boyfriends’ flats. A body stocking still in its cellophane envelope. And her love letters, not separated according to sender, but tied together in a fervid, dog-eared millefeuille of desire.
‘What did I say?’
I caught a glimpse of starveling breasts through the djellaba’s slashed neck as she slammed her hands down on the lid. If I hadn’t braced my arms to stop it from shutting she could have severed my wrists.
She sat on the bed, ‘I don’t have it.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘I threw it away.’
She was hopeless at improvisation.
‘Really,’ she said, ‘I didn’t need it any more.’
‘What about my needs?’
‘You were the one I needed it for.’
The picture of my father as Othello had never had a frame. She wouldn’t have tolerated the extra weight in her luggage. And I liked being able to touch the grain of the photographic paper. It was a monochrome print taken on stage but not, surely, during a performance. The lens was too close, the pose too visibly held, the other actor on stage (Iago, I surmised) artfully blurred. I first read the play when I was nine, and saw it performed in the late 1980s, by which time no one would have dreamed of casting a white man in the part. Watching that glamorous, Rada-educated Trinidadian striding about the stage, it seemed to me he was playing both the Moor and the man whose genes I carried. I only saw that production once, but I can still repeat the cadences of It is the cause, it is the cause my soul note for note.
‘What’s this?’ My eye caught something dark amid a sheaf of papers. There he was. Half of him, anyway. The whites of his eyes staring out of that boot-blacked face, his right arm intact, along with most of his torso in its doublet, his left arm severed just below the shoulder. The print had been torn in two, pinched between finger and thumb and ripped in a diagonal line straight enough to suggest considerable force.
I found the other half of the photograph face-down at the bottom of the trunk.
‘I should have thrown it away,’ she said.
I fitted the torn pieces together.
She took a deep breath, ‘Darling, you’re not going to like what I have to tell you.’
I met her eye.
‘But I can see you don’t like me much anyway right now.’ She touched her tongue to her upper lip. ‘It’s not him.’
I kept looking at her.
‘Your father. It’s not his picture.’
I tried to calculate the advantage she would gain from this fiction.
‘I found it in a secondhand book shop. I’ve no idea who it is. I never worked with him, and I couldn’t find him in Spotlight. I think he must have been foreign.’
I could tell my silence was unnerving her, but I wasn’t going to respond until she told me the truth.
‘You were fine till you went to school. Then, too, for a while. It was when you learned to write. They showed me your compositions. I thought they were making a fuss about nothing: all children make things up. Especially if the teacher sets such unimaginative assignments. But there were so many, and they were so similar, scratching and scratching at the same itch. It was quite heartbreaking. You needed someone to love.’
Finally I believed her. ‘So you found a picture of a professional pretender doing some pretending and pretended he was my father.’
‘He could have been an amateur,’ she said.
I wanted to hurl something and hear it smash, to snap my jaws and feel the teeth shatter in my head. I wanted to scream until my ears bled. But I suspected that, in her melodramatic heart, she too wanted me to do these things. And so I did not.
Little girls and their daddies. You see them everywhere these days. Shampooing hair at the swimming baths, rubbing sore knees in the park, leaning sideways to keep hold of a tiny hand. As a teenager I was obsessively interested in the sensory development of the foetus. One day I would be weaving through the crowd and a man’s voice would stir the marrow in my bones. God knows why I told Lilias. She looked thoughtful for a few moments, then told me she went on tour the day after she conceived and, apart from the acrimonious phone call when she broke the news, they never spoke again.
She was watching me from the bed. I realised I was still holding the photograph together.
‘There’s a roll of Sellotape in the kitchen drawer,’ she said.
I uncoupled the pieces and dropped them on the fire.
‘I wasn’t a very good mother to you, was I darling?’