I couldn’t believe she was dying. Not my mother. She was only in her forties and in all my twenty five years I had never known her have anything worse than the occasional cold. But the doctors were adamant. The cancer had been swift and aggressive. Five weeks before, she had been Ailsa, the strong mother I had always known. Now I sat by her hospital bed. I had never seen anyone die. She lay clinging to my hand struggling to speak. I bent my head down to hers.
‘Don’t try to speak, Mummy.’
Her hand pulled me closer. ‘Little kadessa, I must. No, no,’ she continued as I was about to protest, ‘I must.’
I had always been her little mouse. It was apparently a nickname that had come down from mother to daughter since heaven knows when. I saw it would be useless to try and stop her talking. Of the three of us, she had always been the strong one, the one who took the decisions. I had often wondered if that was why my father had left us when I was seven. Her certainty had always been frightening.
I squeezed her hand. ‘What is it?’
Now I was convinced she was rambling and she saw it in my face. ‘Our family. Secrets.’
‘I don’t understand, Mummy.’
‘It’s all down to you, Leila.’ She reached up and stroked my face. ‘Your lovely hair. Your father used to call it your raven’s wings. That is why he chose your name.’
‘Leila? Why, what does it mean?’
‘Dark time. Dark time. A curse. Save yourself and your children. Promise me.’ Her husky voice trailed away and I laid her back down. For one awful moment, I thought she had gone, but she was still fighting. Fighting what I wasn’t sure.
I sat for another hour by her bed before she came to again. Her eyes widened as they moved past me to the door. I swung round but there was nobody there. Mummy gave a cry and put up her hand as if to ward off a blow, then she fell back on the pillow. I held an arm round her and helped her to drink some water. She looked directly at me. ‘Promise,’ she said, then closed her eyes for the last time.
The nursing staff were lovely, but somehow distant and practised. Someone brought me some awful stewed tea in a plastic cup. I didn’t want it but I drank it all the same. I felt a mixture of sadness, relief and guilt. Sadness that I would never again hear her voice or that sudden crescendo of laughter when something caught her unaware. Guilt that I had only grudgingly consented to come home, not realising just how ill she was. How could any cancer go from beginning to end in five short weeks? Guilt also that I had not been at home more, listened more, done anything and everything more. And relief that she was now out of pain.
The days passed in a confusing whirl and it wasn’t until two days before the funeral that I thought to try and contact my father. Good job I’m a librarian. He took some tracking down, but I finally found him at some place in the Canadian Rockies “finding himself” in a retreat. Luckily, the place had a phone. His response was typical of the man Mummy had described. The man I had not seen since I was six.
‘You don’t need me to come back, do you? You can manage, can’t you? I’m right in the middle of this thing. Do you need me?’
I felt my back flex with anger. ‘Why would I want you? You go right on thinking of yourself all the time, just like you always have. You’ve never been here for me. What makes you think I need you now. I just thought you might be vaguely interested in the fact that your wife has died. I thought it might impinge on your self-obsession for a few seconds and make you realise that there are people in the world other than you.’ At which point, I almost broke the phone slamming it back into its cradle.
I felt numb all through the funeral. I chose the hymns and prayers and a reading. I felt absolutely nothing. I knew Mummy’s friends couldn’t work out if I was grief-stricken or uncaring.
It was only when I saw her coffin lowered into the grave that I cracked. I felt an arm go round me and through the curtain of my hair, I saw a tall 30-something man with light brown hair. As soon as I straightened up, he dropped his arm.
I had invited people back for the tea, sandwiches and cake that Beryl had prepared that morning. I sat in the corner not talking to anyone, a cup of untasted tea in my lap, looking at the floor. I saw a pair of black trousers approach.
‘Miss Halliday?’ It was the man who had put his arm round me. I didn’t trust myself to look at him, so I nodded and pretended to drink some tea. ‘I’m Jack Bourne, your mother’s solicitor. I am so sorry.’
Somehow I found my voice, but I wasn’t feeling very gracious. I thought he was touting for business and I remember thinking that if I’d been a man, I would have punched his lights out. ‘Yes?’
‘I need to see you to discuss your mother’s will.’
‘I have a copy of Mummy’s will, thank you.’
‘I’m sorry, Miss Halliday. The one I have is dated two weeks ago. What date is the copy you have?’
I marched to the desk, found the will and handed it to him without looking. I still have no idea why I was so unpleasant to the poor man. All I knew was that I wanted all these bloody people to go away and leave me alone. I heard a rustle of paper.
‘Yes, I thought so,’ I heard him say. ‘I’m afraid the one in my office supersedes this one.’
‘Really?’ I wasn’t interested.
‘Miss Halliday. Look, this is very important.’ He handed me a card. ‘Please could you ring me tomorrow or the day after. We need to talk. Make an appointment with my secretary. No, tell you what..’ He scrambled in his jacket pocket and took out his diary. ‘Can you come and see me on Tuesday at 9.30, please? There are things we have to discuss.’
‘What things? Mummy left everything to me. What is there to discuss?’
‘I’m afraid it isn’t quite so simple. The new will has a couple of, shall we say, surprising clauses, that we really have to talk about in order to decide how I am to proceed. Please, Miss Halliday. I realise that now is the worst possible time, but time, I’m afraid, is part of the problem.’
I sighed and foraged in my handbag for my diary. Tuesday was clear. Every day was clear. The only thing looming was the need at some point in the next few days to go back to work. Back to Portington and Miss Fellows who I hated. ‘Tuesday is fine,’ I said.
‘Good. If you need me in the interim, just call the number on the card.’
I could see Beryl hovering. ‘Thank you, Mr Bourne. What is it, Beryl?’
‘I’ve washed up, Leila. Everyone’s gone, so I’ll go, too. I’m only next door if you need me, love.
Mr Bourne got the message. ‘I must go, too,’ he said. ‘I will see you on Tuesday.’
We watched him climb into a long, low sleek car which purred away so quietly that I hadn’t realised he had started the engine. Beryl sniffed. ‘Trust a solicitor to have plenty of dosh to spend on a fancy motor,’ was her parting shot. ‘Are you going to come and collect the dog?’
‘Oh, God. Bimbo, I’d forgotten him. Yes, I’ll come now. No, I’ll get changed first and then come and get him. No point in getting these clothes covered in dog hair.
I ran upstairs. The wretched dog was just one thing too many to worry about right now. I would have to get him re-homed. No way could I have a dog and work fulltime. I slipped my jeans and a clean tee-short on and then went next door to collect him.
He was a big golden retriever and Mummy had called him Bimbo because she said he was blond, beautiful and brainless. He also ate huge quantities, another reason I would not be able to keep him. I was not in the best of moods as I poured a couple of mugs of his dried food into the stainless steel bowl. He sat trying to be patient, but his rear end was fidgeting like a sprinter waiting for the starting gun to go off. Dinner, I had learned, was the highlight of Bimbo’s day. Other highlights included breakfast and any time his biscuit tin came out of the cupboard. He troughed his dinner and asked to go out.
Whilst I waited for him to come back in, I turned my attention to that morning’s post. There was an express delivery that Beryl must have taken in when I was dressing for the funeral. I opened it and found a note attached to a cheque. “I know you don’t think much of me and perhaps rightly so, but while I can’t be there, my money can. Take this to cover any expenses and contact me via the bank if you need any more. Despite everything, Leila, you are still my daughter.” The amount on the cheque stopped me in my tracks. I must have counted the noughts at least five times. If I put this in my account, I wouldn’t have to work for three years. I closed my eyes visualising Miss Fellows’ reaction when I told her where to stick her job. Was this what money did for little mice?
By this time, the quiet woofs from the other side of the back door had turned into annoyed insistent woofs. Bimbo did not like to be kept waiting. He stalked past me and went into the sitting room. I followed apologising to him. Apologising to a damn dog. I would really have to take a grip. Perhaps Mummy was right. It was time to stop being her little mouse, take control of my life and become as strong as she had been. And my father’s money would start the process. I walked over to the roll-top desk, found my cheque-book and slotted his cheque into it. I would put it into my account on Tuesday when I went to see Mr Bourne.
As I was closing the desk, I noticed a small leather bag pushed to the back of one of the pigeonholes. I pulled it out. The thin, creased leather seemed very fragile as I tried to undo the drawstring at the top and open it. I tipped the contents on the desk. A broad rose-gold wedding ring rolled across the wood and I just managed to catch it before it fell on the floor. But there were other things stuck in the bag. I prised out a small black and white photograph, wrapped in paper and a rose-gold locket. I couldn’t get the locket to open, but it was extremely pretty. It took me a few moments to realise that the pattern on the locket was the same as that on the ring.
I undid the photo and looked at the paper wrapped round it first. There were words on it, but they were so faint, I could not make them out. The photo itself was of a girl, about the same age as me, possibly younger, standing in front of a long low brick building. It was so blurred and faded with age, that, in the soft light of the room I could not make out any of the details. I turned it over. There was one word which I thought began with a V, but I couldn’t swear to it.
I picked up the ring. It fitted my left-hand ring finger as if it had been made for me. It was then that the events of the past few days caught up and I felt a weariness so intense sweep over me that I had to sit on a chair to stop myself from collapsing onto the floor. I took the ring off with difficulty and looked again at the photograph. I squinted, trying to make out the details but decided that I needed my mother’s magnifying glass.
I carried the photograph and the glass into the kitchen. The fluorescent light was much stronger in here. Trying to rub the tiredness from my eyes, I examined the photo again. The building looked dirty. Perhaps a barn or something like that, I thought. I turned my attention to the girl. Under the magnifying glass, she sprang out at me. I dropped the glass and the photo with a cry which brought Bimbo running into the room. He put his nose into my hand and I stroked his soft fur.
I could feel tears coming into my eyes. This was too much. Everything was too much. Then sense prevailed and I realised that I had to be more tired than I thought. I stared at the photo and the magnifying glass, both sitting on the table where I had dropped them. This was silly. This was how little mice behaved. I was not a little mouse. Not any longer. I went over to the table and picked up the photo and the glass again. I could see my fingers trembling as I brought the girl into focus. There was no doubt. No doubt at all. I was looking at a picture of me.