It was her face, I suppose, the way she looked at me; panic mixed with relief. It wasn’t an expression I was used to. In fact, I was braced for her usual “when will you learn to grow up” rant or her equally ineffective sigh of disappointment. But instead, as I pushed open the door to the room that had inevitably become our battlefield, she sat silently perched on the edge of Greg’s armchair, her hands tightly clenched in her lap.
‘Look, I’m sorry, all right?’
She pursed her lips and nodded, her wide eyes not holding my gaze as they normally would, but darting towards the space behind the partially opened door.
‘What is it?’ I dropped my rucksack at my feet, dirty clothes spilling from the broken zip, and reluctantly entered the room.
A woman, sat beneath the window at the other end of the coffee table, appeared in stages; first her handbag, distressed black leather that spread itself flagrantly across our pale sheepskin rug; then the shoes, awe-inspiringly high, with pudgy little toes squashed into red satin casing; and finally that smile, small, nervous, beaming at me from beneath a mountain of bleach blonde hair and overdone make-up.
‘Hello,’ she said, swallowing visibly. ‘I’m Debbie – sorry, Deborah,’ she shook her head quickly, as if shaking off her old name in order to re-establish the new one. ‘And you are?’
Affronted, firstly by her lack of knowledge and secondly by the insinuation that I would need to introduce myself in my own home, I arranged my features into a practiced look of indifference. ‘Lauren,’ I said, ignoring her outstretched hand as I headed back towards the door.
‘You’re a friend of Isabelle’s, are you Lauren?’
I stopped, turning slowly as I picked up my bag.
‘Actually, Lauren’s my daughter.’ The first words to come from my mother’s lips since I’d returned were unusually self-conscious and her breathing had become noticeably erratic.
‘Oh, I thought…’ Deborah’s eyes flicked towards the ceiling where the giggling sounds of my younger siblings echoed from upstairs, ‘…I hadn’t realised you had three.’ She paused and I recognised the briefly preoccupied gaze of someone locked in a mathematical struggle.
Opening my mouth to provide her with answer, I was cut short by Mum’s suddenly overloud voice: ‘She’s sixteen,’ she said, her tone strangled yet weirdly challenging, ‘I had her when I was the same age.’
‘Oh, I see. I didn’t mean -’
‘She wasn’t planned, obviously,’ continued Mum, oblivious to the uncomfortable squirms of her guest, ‘but there was never any question that I would keep her. My husband,’ she pointed to the picture on the mantelpiece of herself and Greg on their wedding day, ‘isn’t her biological father, but he adopted her when she was eight and they get on really well, don’t you sweetheart?’
‘Uh, yes, I suppose so.’ I don’t know which surprised me more, the fact she was calling me sweetheart or the uncharacteristic openness with which she informed Deborah –an apparent stranger – of the history of my infant life.
‘Good,’ said Deborah, with a succession of over-zealous nods, ‘you seem to have a really lovely family, Isabelle.’ She smiled again and began to run a hand across the tight fabric of her formal black dress.
Mum said nothing, her gaze now stoically fixed on a small stain on the sheepskin rug.
‘So, I’ll just uh…’ I pointed towards the door, desperate to leave and yet itching to see how this strange scenario panned out.
Deborah stood up. ‘I should go,’ she said quietly.
‘Fine.’ Mum’s expression remained blank, but her triumphant tone was so gratingly familiar that it uprooted a barely-settled resentment within me and I found myself turning on the spot.
‘Deborah…uh, why don’t you let me make you some coffee?’ I said.
‘Oh…uh…well, I’m not sure…’
‘Lauren-’ Mum was on her feet, her eyes silently reproving.
‘How do you take it, Deborah? Milk? Sugar?’
‘Just black, thank-you,’ said Deborah.
I smiled, ignoring the burn of my mother’s glare. ‘Great, back in a sec.’
In the kitchen, I clattered about with immense satisfaction. True, I did not know what this woman had done to upset Mum so much, but nor did I really care. Over the past few months our relationship had taken a serious nose-dive; Mum’s persistent paranoia and constant scrutiny of everything I said or did had become almost unbearable, and had led to many a walk-out on my part and a tirade of hurtful criticism on hers. Not once had she apologised; not once had she relented. And so, as far as I was concerned, this woman was a fortuitous weapon in my flailing resistance against her.
‘We’ve got a little caravan so we can go wherever we want really,’ Deborah was saying when I re-entered the living room a few minutes later, ‘but we often just go across to Burnham-on-Sea. Do you go away much?’
Mum nodded, though her words seemed reluctant, ‘We went to Majorca last summer and in April we’re off to Paris.’ She paused, her face puzzled as I handed over her coffee.
‘I didn’t know how to work the coffee machine so…’ I shrugged, ‘…it’s an espresso.’
My lack of kitchen-based skills was not meant as an intentional assault, but I had hoped the result might rile her. Instead I was surprised to see her stifle a laugh. Frowning, I slumped onto the sofa, my next course of attack briefly forgotten.
‘I hope you don’t mind me coming to see you,’ Deborah said to Mum as the conversation lulled.
‘It’s just…my husband Dennis thought it would be good for me…’ Deborah’s hands moved rapidly from her hair to her face, then back to her dress, ‘to find you.’
Find you? I’d run a couple of ideas through my head about who this woman could be, but none of them had involved any investigative work on her part.
‘Eases your conscience, does it?’ snapped Mum.
‘Of course not…’ Deborah glanced nervously in my direction.
I wanted to ask what they were talking about, but, knowing my mother’s tendency for explosive outbursts and recognising that the intense glare she now directed at Deborah was a barely disguised preface for combat, I thought better of it.
To my surprise it was Deborah who attacked first, her words not aggressive, but determinedly volleyed, ‘I had to do it, Isabelle. It was better for you, in the long run.’
‘In the long run?’ barked Mum, struggling to remain calm. ‘How do you know it was better for me in the long run, hmm?’
‘Well, look at you,’ Deborah held up her hands, ‘look at how well you’ve done.’ She nodded as if affirming her words to herself, ‘It was the right thing to do.’
Mum’s cheeks were flushed now; she stood and then sat, her expression alternating between wild disbelief and barely restrained anger until finally: ‘How on earth is giving up your own child the right thing to do?!’ she cried.
‘Child?’ I choked on my coffee as Mum’s booming voice bounced off the fireplace. ‘You…what?’
I looked from Mum to Deborah, waiting for an explanation. When none came the silence seemed to amplify a timid sniff from behind the door and our attentions were drawn to the frightened faces of my five-year-old siblings.
‘It’s okay, guys,’ said Mum with forced cheeriness, ‘we’re just having a little chat with this lady. Why don’t you go back upstairs and play?’
They shook their heads.
Mum looked at me, pleading.
Perhaps it was shock that encouraged me to do what she asked; perhaps I just felt sorry for her, either way I dragged the twins back upstairs so quickly that it provoked a bombardment of questions from Alice.
‘Who’s that lady, Lauren?’
‘She’s a friend of Mummy’s,’ I lied.
‘Why’s Mummy shouting at her?’
‘Because she’s upset.’
Alice twisted her face into a frown. ‘Has the lady been naughty?’
‘Well, yes…sort of. She did something Mummy wasn’t happy with and Mummy wants her to know that she’s not pleased.’
‘Like when you don’t put your dirty clothes in the washing machine?’
I smiled, ‘Yes, a bit like that.’
‘Or when you go out and don’t tell Mummy when you’ll be home?’
‘And Mummy shouts at Daddy because she doesn’t know where you are or who you’re with and she cries and tells him it’s all her fault. Is it like that, Lauren?’ We’d reached the bedroom, but Alice stopped in the doorway, waiting expectantly for my answer.
‘Umm…well, yes…I mean, no…’ I hurried her in, gnawing anxiously at my fingernails. ‘Mummy doesn’t always cry, does she?’
Alice nodded firmly, ‘Yes, always.’
My stomach flipped; the lines of our battlefield seemed suddenly redrawn.
Jacob, immersed in some discarded Lego and apparently uninterested in our conversation, cut in to my thoughts abruptly, ‘That lady looks too old to be friends with Mummy.’
‘What? Why do you say that?’
‘Because she’s got wrinkles and stuff…’
I sat down opposite him, happy to drag my mind back to my first sight of Deborah than linger on any uncomfortable thoughts. A short woman, she wasn’t thin, but neither was she fat. Her eyes and mouth were creased at the edges, but there was a youthful air about her and I suspected that the age between herself and Mum was not too dissimilar from our own sixteen years.
‘Mummy will probably forgive her,’ sighed Alice, affecting adult-like wisdom. ‘She always forgives you, doesn’t she Lauren?’
An hour later the front door rattled shut and I peered out of the window to see Deborah walking quickly away down the path. Alice and Jacob, now both completely submerged in their Lego, ignored me as I stepped quietly out of the room and headed downstairs.
Mum was in the kitchen, her head in her hands.
‘Are you okay?’ I asked hesitantly.
‘Do you want to talk about it?’
‘Not right now.’
‘Okay. I’ll just uh…’ I shoved my dirty clothes into the washing machine then loaded the dishwasher with dirty cups. When I’d finished I hovered by the door, hoping she’d sense my actions to be an apology rather than a deliberate attempt to disturb her. ‘How was your espresso, by the way?’
She looked up. ‘Awful, worst coffee I’ve ever had.’
I nodded knowingly. ‘Thought so.’
‘There’s instant in the cupboard, you know.’
‘I’ll remember that for next time.’
A heaviness fell between us then and her voice was small and tearful as she said, ‘I’m not sure there’ll be a next time.’
It felt almost alien for me to put my arms around her, to squeeze her heaving shoulders, and yet, as we sat in the darkening kitchen, the intimacy of it seemed to denote a truce, a laying down of weapons, and it felt, finally, like our war might be over.