David and I were going through her stuff. It was a month after my mother’s funeral and he had called me up to organise it -clearing her house . I had been dreading it .
“Sue are you ready to sort out the house “ were the first words I heard that day when I picked up my mobile phone as I looked out of the kitchen window , thinking up about doing some tidying up in the garden.
Julia, my mother came into my thoughts everyday now -more often it seemed than when she was alive. Being out in the garden would only make me revisit the memory of her talking about how to plant an English cottage garden, when I first moved into this house;
“David, don’t wait for me to be ready -because you know I’ll put it off as long as I can. I know I’ve got to face it soon. Why don’t you just tell me when you can make it down here. Then you can stay over, and we can spend a couple of days to make sure the place is absolutely clear; ready to hand over to the estate agent?”
He didn’t answer straight away, he never did. It always felt like he was waiting for me to tell him everything about how I felt. Finally he did agree and we settled on a couple of days the following week. I needed that much time to prepare myself to face going into that house and not seeing her pottering about in the kitchen. I couldn’t have imagined that it was David, who was going to have so much more to face up to than me, after the discovery we made going through her things.
David turned up on time with his estate car on the day we had planned. I opened the door and let him in while I dashed about grabbing housework gloves and black plastic binliners – I didn’t know what we would find upstairs – I hadn’t been up there for years. I couldn’t remember the last time Mum had talked about her friend from the agency coming round to give the place a good spring clean.
David laughed at me when he saw the expression on my face. “ Don’t worry, I don’t suppose we are going to find anything to surprise us. She hardly lived a life of wild abandon did she?” he added cynically.
It was a rhetorical question .The wildest thing I could remember about her, was the laughter that erupted and rippled through her wednesday afternoons with her best friend Pam as I returned home from school. I could hear her and Pam laughing together in the kitchen from down the street. I was never allowed to know what they were laughing about. Pam always said “You wouldn’t believe us if we told you!” Then the pair of them would start laughing even more loudly than before.
David drove us to the house and as I unlocked the front door , I flinched at the memory of how I had found Mum lying dead in the hallway – with a stillness that told me immediately she was gone. As the door opened I look down the hall, but there was no one only a sense of absence. It was just stillness, apart from an open window rattling remotely from behind a closed door upstairs. The air in there wasn’t stale the house was just vacated, not open.
David jolted me back. “Come on Sue let’s make a start upstairs – I expect most of her stuff to go through will be in her room. After all she made us completely clear the loft after Dad was taken by his heart attack”
“You’re right -we will never get it done if you let me just go off into a trance “ I said as I followed his lead and started up the stairs behind him.
The door to her room was closed but not locked. David entered the room with me peeking over his shoulder but the room was just as I expected. I t was very neat and tidy. There was even the book on the bedside table with a bookmark sticking out of it. She was always a reader, and I wanted to turn the book over to see what the last book she probably ever read was. The bed was made, and a breeze was blowing the net curtains as David pulled down a couple of suitcases from the top of the wardrobe at the other end of the bedroom. He passed them to me one after another. Neither case was locked so I opened them straight away. I felt disappointment that there were no faded envelopes tied together with ribbon that David and I could open and discover some great romance that she had enjoyed in her life. We hadn’t seen much romance between our parents as we grew up – it just looked like a strong friendship that passion had slipped away from until there was nothing left but a sense of duty to each other. David was talking about the clothes going straight round to the charity shops in the high street, as he passed the plain dresses and lilac cardigans across to me so that I could fold them. I felt there was a secret about her to be discovered – perhaps it was just me feeling sorry that I had not tried hard enough to get to know her better when I finished uni and got a job in the next town. I felt that I might learn something out about her from that house. Perhaps it was normal to grieve like this when you lose your mother. Dad had gone over ten years ago, but although I missed him it was no longer painful to regret that he was no longer around to share in my triumphs and failures. Dad wasn’t as close with David. It was seemed more like a kind ofstrength that he gave my brother- an” I’m there if you need me for anything, or to explain what you have to deal with, growing up understanding”. I was folding the clothes to fill up all the space in the first suitcase, when David found the shoe box.
I wonder what she’s kept hidden away in this, right at the back of the wardrobe I heard David say quietly. I turned round to see what he had found. It was a shoe box – there was a label on the front, with the illustration of a lady’s dancing shoe from a time when my mum would have been in her mid twenties. It was about the time she started seeing my Dad, I guessed. David passed the box to me. Looking back on it that was the moment when I held the truth about him in my hands.
“This looks like it’s a fashion item from back in the day” David said, lightly mocking the print on the label. Printed alongside the title Electra was an illustration of a lady’s dancing shoe with the slogan ‘to dance in every moment ‘ underneath it.
I carefully took the lid off the box and partly wrapped in faded pink tissue paper saw a pair of the most beautiful shoes I had ever seen. They were a deep blue that showed some signs of fading, probably caused by their age. I couldn’t stop myself from taking one of the shoes from the box. I saw straight away they had never been worn -there wasn’t a mark on the sole of the one I held in my hand. A piece of paper fell out of the shoe and David watched where it fell, then knelt down and picked it up. “This might give us a clue” he said passing it to me. That was a mistake, because I couldn’t make out clearly everything what was printed on it. I could only see that it was a receipt for the shoes and they came from “Fine Times”, the boutique where Pam, mum’s friend had been the manager once. I handed the receipt back to David.
“Sorry I can only make out the words Fine Times “ He took the paper from me
“I think it’s a birthday present she bought for herself – the date on the receipt is her birthday”
Then he stopped, and looked at me-we both knew when her birthday was – but nobody we knew could have afforded the price paid for those shoes printed on the bottom of that receipt. He read it out slowly as if doing so would give us some clues about her past. I wanted to be able to imagine her as a happy young woman not the grey faced body I said goodbye to that morning in the hall.
“You remember what Pam said at the funeral “If it helps you can always give me a call and we can go for coffee and have a chat about your Mum. We have been friends since school.” I went out of the bedroom to fetch the house phone from downstairs -Pam’s number would definitely be in the memory. As I ran back up the stairs with the phone I remembered again how Mum and Pam sat in the kitchen. The door open onto the garden was always open to let the fresh air in; to mask the cigarette aroma from the full ashtray on the kitchen table in front of Pam. Dad said once she must smoke like a chimney but I always wondered if Mum sneaked in a crafty one in her afternoons of laughing with Pam. When I got back to the bedroom, David was sitting on the bed looking at the shoes as if they might start talking. He asked me to phone Pam straight away.
“It will sound better coming from you – just remember to say that she can have all the coffee and cake that she wants if she can tell us about these blue shoes.” He said to me urgently.
Time is different when you’re waiting for an answer . I was about to put the phone down on the bed when I heard Pam’s voice questioning on the line. “Who is this?”
Mum’s number must have come up on the phone screen
“It’s Sue, Julia’s daughter, my brother and I are at the house. Do you think you could meet up with us for coffee and cake – we’ve found a pair of blue dancing shoes…”
“I ‘ll see you both in the blue rose tea rooms opposite the burger bar, which used to be the Fine Times boutique in my day. Say about three. I’ll bring all you need to know with me. That’s what your mum told me she wanted. Till tomorrow then, bye” and she was gone. David heard all this as I had put the phone on speaker.
We carried on that afternoon, emptying out bedside cabinets and dressing table drawers, but there was no other mysterious window to peek through and hope to see a glimpse of our mother’s past. We imagined enough about the history of the blue shoes to keep us chatting all afternoon. By early evening, we decided to go back home to mine with a big bottle of red wine and some pizza . Somehow we hoped to numb the sadness we felt at the goodbye we were giving mum’s life in the still stopped house.
Pam looked after herself very well. She dressed classically but her hair and make up were very modern and she could pass for a woman ten years younger if you didn’t look too hard. She was already seated with a coffee and a large slice of gateaux untouched on a plate in front of her when David delivered me punctually through the doors of the blue rose tea rooms. She welcomed us both, and caught the eye of the waitress expertly as we sat down. Two large cappuccinos arrived promptly on the table in front of us while Pam put her hand deeply into the Gucci handbag wedged down the side of her chair. When the waitress had gone after taking our orders for cake she smiled quickly before turning her attention fully to David. She had two envelopes in her hand by then. I could see a white one which had Mum’s handwriting on, and a blue one which was definitely older. It also had something written on it but I couldn’t see it very clearly.
“David when you have read both of these, promise me you will forgive her” He looked at Pam as if he would forgive his mother anything and had always done so.
She had certainly forgiven him for every wrong he had committed (intentionally or unintentionally ) since I could remember, as the very jealous younger sister.
She continued still holding the envelopes in her hand as if she was about to present a prize.
“All you need to know is in these two envelopes “ She stopped and smiled at him as if she wanted him to remember, how she gave him this message. I looked at him and could almost hear his curiosity overwhelming his impatience, to find out what was in the two envelopes.
“You do look so like your father” she said and then gave both the envelopes to David who opened the white one first.
“It’s from Mum he said as his eyes scanned the paper he had taken from the envelope.
Then he read it a second time as if he was translating it carefully from another language. It felt as if he wanted to make sure he was absolutely certain about the meaning of his translation. Then he spoke, reading aloud some of the words on the page in front of him.
“Put yourself in my shoes “ he said a couple of times, then put the paper down on the table. I moved the cream cake out of the way.
He looked at me, and said “Mum says, he wasn’t my dad and that I was the result of a one night stand with a guy in a band, after a concert she went to with her, and he glanced at Pam. Then he leaned over to me
“Your Dad stood by her and promised to bring me up as his ….because he loved her” he said in a quiet voice, almost as if he was confessing a secret about his own life, which he was in a way.
My face went numb- that’s the first thing that happens to me when I go into shock. I don’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t that.
“Open the other envelope now, David” Pam said, as if it contained a birthday surprise. He couldn’t rip it open quick enough. He read all of it aloud as if by doing so he could believe and accept what the note contained totally. This is what I heard my half brother read
I woke up and you were gone. I didn’t buy it when you said you couldn’t dance to our music because of your shoes. So I’ve bought you the best pair of dancing shoes from Polly’s boutique -then you can think of us every time you dance. With love from me to you