Evie Morton sat chewing her pen, staring out of the window.
She'd heard of writer's block but this was ridiculous. She'd so looked forward to her first Adult Education class for Memoire Writing and now she couldn't get a single word down on paper. All around her, women scribbled their lives industriously, heads down and hardly pausing.
"Having trouble getting started, Evie?" The tutor, Anthea Wilson came up behind her. "Remembering forgotten parts of one's life can be difficult. Facing things that happened to you is often painful, but at the same time, extremely cathartic. But sometimes putting your life into the third person helps you to see your life in a more objective way."
"You mean, like 'She did this and she did that?' Instead of 'I did this, I did that'?"
"Exactly. Try that, you might find it easier to get going. And as I told you all, don't begin with where you were born or what you ate for breakfast when you were six. Begin your first chapter with an incident or event that changed your life, and go on from there. Write your emotions, your feelings. That what makes a good memoir different from an ordinary autobiography."
Evie took a deep breath and started to write. And it all came tumbling out onto the page, all the stored-up memories.
'Evie was nine when her mother left forever.
She came home from school one Thursday and knew instantly there was nobody there. The house had a still, threatening air about it, the silence thick around her ears. She stood in the hall and called, "Mum?" Knowing there'd be no answer.
Her first thought was that her mother was in the hospital, knocked down by a bus on her way to the shops. Or maybe she'd been called to the hospital and it was her father who had been knocked down.
She pictured her mother coming home, holding out her arms and saying, "My poor darling child, your daddy is dead!" and tears almost choked her.
She put down her satchel and walked outside to wait for her mother. Would she come by bus or take a taxi? Mrs. Anderson had never learned to drive.
Evie sat on the steps and watched the cars passing and when her father's blue sedan turned into the driveway, she had a moment of real shock, as though he'd come back from the dead.
He got out briskly and locked the door then took the steps two at a time. He bent to kiss her briefly.
"Hello sweetheart, what are you doing outside all alone?"
"Mum's not here," she said blankly
"Right. Well, let's get some lights on and see what's what."
The first thing they saw was an envelope on the kitchen table, addressed simply "Harry."
Her father slit it open quickly and read it, sinking down onto a kitchen stool gradually as he did so. His face went a peculiar shade of grayish-white and after a few moments, he said indistinctly, "Right. Well, we'd better get our own supper tonight then."
"Is Mum sick? Is she in hospital?" Evie heard her voice squeak with anxiety.
"No, no. Your mother's fine. She's just gone off for a couple of days. A little holiday, that's all."
"With Auntie Margie?"
"No – I'm not sure…maybe."
This was so odd that Eve knew something was badly wrong but his face was tight and closed and she couldn't ask.
Later of course she worked out that her mother hadn't gone off with Auntie Margie, but with a man called James Buchanan from the office where she worked. And not just a short distance away, but across the sea to America, where James had been offered a job. He'd left his own wife and two little children in their smart house in Bexley and they'd both gone together. Scarpered. Done a runner.
"I didn't know she even had a passport."
Evie's father mourned to Auntie Margie, who came round as soon as she could on a mission of discovery. Somehow word had got round that Bella Anderson had left her husband and daughter and just taken off.
"My own sister! I can't believe it of her." Auntie Margie was quietly thrilled, Evie could tell. "Mind you, she was always full of nonsense. Ditzy."
Not ditzy, thought Evie. Happy, fun to be with. Things that Aunt Margie would never be.
"Have another sherry, Margie," said Mr. Anderson who was getting quietly drunk for the third night in a row.
"Just this once, then. And that James person? Did you ever meet him?"
"At their Christmas do last year. He was one of the directors and I can't say I took to him. He looked like he had a broomstick up his – well, very stiff and correct. Not my type and I didn't think he was Bella's, but I see I was wrong."
"Not that I want to speak ill of her, but that one was always very fond of money. A director sounds right up her street."
"Oh god, Margie, I thought she loved me! I thought we were happy!" Her father started to cry and it was so awful to watch that Evie tiptoed from the room. They hadn't noticed she was there in the first place
She couldn't understand why her mother hadn't written her a special goodbye note, explaining things. Telling her she'd send for her as soon as she could.
Evie was hurt by this. She and her mother had had a special loving bond, or so she'd thought, but she must have imagined it because if someone loved you really and truly, they didn't just pack their clothes and leave without a word.
Bella Anderson hadn't taken all her clothes, only her best ones. Her cupboard still smelled of her, a musty fog of Miss Dior and talcum powder clinging to her second-best skirts and long winter coat with the hem that needed stitching.
In the beginning, whenever she felt exceptionally miserable, Evie stood with her face pressed to the clothes and inhaled her mother and remembered how they'd gone to the shops together and how her mother had always swung her hand up and down as they'd walked.
Evie was now technically a latchkey kid because although her father had hired Mrs. Osborne to do for them, she was usually gone by the time Evie came home, leaving the meal cooked and needing a reheat in the microwave later.
One day about a month afterwards, or was it longer, a postcard from her mother waited for her on the carpet as she opened the front door
There was a picture of an alligator, its evil yellow eye staring straight at her from a filthy scummy swamp.
"James and I are staying in a terribly smart hotel! We have stacks of pancakes with syrup for breakfast every morning! And an enormous TV with so many fun programmes to choose from! You'd adore the cartoons.
Lots of love, Mummy
PS Isn't he a fierce fellow!"
For a long time after that, Evie pictured James Buchanan as an alligator, suave and dead-eyed and ready to snap open his jaws and swallow her in one gulp.
But her mother seemed to assume that Evie knew all about James, as though he were some sort of uncle, as though everything was normal. There was no apology for running away, no explanation of a grand passion or a foolish and regrettable rush of blood to the head, no begging forgiveness. No anything.
Evie was so sure the postcard was going to be news of her return that the light-hearted chitchat was a body blow.
A cold hard stone formed in her chest and she slid the postcard in the drawer under her knickers and never mentioned it to her father.
She had no idea what the arrangements were between her parents, or even if there were any. He never said they were getting separated or divorced. He simply never spoke about her, so neither did Evie.
But Mrs. Anderson kept up an infrequent, if one-sided, splutter of information from America.
She sent photos of herself with James, both of them smiling into the Florida sun, their eyes in deep shadow, and Evie was surprised to find James was balding and plump, with a moustache. Not at all like an alligator.
Later James was replaced by another man called Brad, and then another called, improbably, Randy.
In the photos, her mother's dresses changed, become shorter, then longer. Her hairstyle went curly, then straight and severe, then cropped. She became thinner, then later almost stick-like, although she continued to look elegant and laugh gaily into the camera. On the back she wrote one-liners: "Bahia Beach is fabulous you'd love it!' or, "Went shopping in New York, what a great city!" or "One day you must come to Mexico with us!"
But Evie knew she never would. And sometimes when she was in high school, her mother's pictures stopped coming.
She hardly noticed.
By now, her father had met Maureen, and she'd moved in with them. Maureen was overweight and cheerful and treated Evie like a younger sister, teasing her and never trying to discipline her, which suited Evie.
She was fifteen when Maureen and her father married a year later in a quiet civil ceremony, and she realized that at some point, her parents must have divorced. ,
"I'm not going to try and be your Mum, sweetheart." Maureen's pleasant face was creased with concern. "And I'd hate to be called your step- mum so you just carry on calling me Mo, alright? But remember I'm here for everything you need, okay?"
"Okay, Mo," said Evie, and gave her a hug. She really was a very nice person and her father was a lot happier, so the way things turned out suited everyone.
Or so it seemed.
Evie finished her degree in Social Science and started working for the local council, trying to find suitable homes for children in need.
During Psychology 101 she'd been surprised to discover that her sleepless nights spent blaming herself for her mother's disappearance, searching for something she might have done to offend and cause her to leave, were standard for abandoned children.
So was wrapping herself in her mother's coat and lying on the bed, willing her to come back again. Bargaining with God, promising him a lifetime of good behaviour if he'd just send her mother home where she belonged
All that anorexia and depression which left her drained and tearful during her teenage years, could all be put down to Bella, it seemed.
Poor darling Mo, who bore the brunt of all this.
These days, at work, she dealt with so many cases of abused and traumatized children, abandoned and unloved, that she began to realize how lucky she'd been to have her father's constant presence, and later Mo's as well. She did what the books advised, and moved on.
But even when she was past thirty, mother of Alison and happily married to Steve Morton, Evie sometimes caught a glimpse of a woman with blonde hair swinging jauntily down her back, and she'd hurry forward her heart racing.
Of course, it was never Bella, and she'd be angry with herself for even thinking it could be. She told herself she'd have nothing to say to her, should they ever meet again. Which was extremely unlikely.
And so when her mother phoned her one evening, she was struck dumb.
"Evie? Guess who, darling child!"
She knew immediately who. The light, breathy voice with the American overlay made her throat dry up and her knees buckled, sending her sliding to the floor.
"It's Mummy! I'm back home again."
Bella made it sound as though the past twenty-five years had been a weekend shopping trip. Evie half expected her to add, "And I've brought you a treat!"
Instead, her mother rattled on. "Daddy gave me your number. He said you'd very surprised and I'm sure you are. Well, he was too, of course. He told me all about Maureen and she sounds just the ticket for him. I'm so glad he's happy, poor old Harry. But you and I must meet, darling, let's have tea together. As soon as possible, I'm not here for long."
Evie had the feeling of being swept along a rushing turbulent river, white water rafting on a torrent of words that threatened to drown her.
"It's my half day tomorrow," she croaked in a whisper. "We could meet then."
"Ooh yes, at Barrages! Remember in the old days, we used to have tea there and you always had strawberry ice. And a plate of those sinful cakes! "
Barrages Tea Lounge on the top floor of the department store. She and her mother rewarding themselves after one of Bella's exhausting shopping sessions. Evie had forgotten the white linen tablecloths, the clink of fine china cups, and the tinkle of the pianist hidden discreetly behind the potted palm. She'd not been into Barrages since then.
"No," she said. "Why not come to our house for supper, about seven." She would need Steve to be there.
"You're going to cook for me? Imagine that! Wonderful, darling. See you!"
Evie switched to auto-pilot, feeding the cat and putting clothes into the washing machine, her mind a blank. Then a phone call from her father jarred her back into life.
"Hello sweetheart. She phoned you yet?"
"Who'd have thought it, her turning up like this?" Harry Anderson was indignant. "She insisted on having your number, I hope it was okay that I gave it to her?"
"Of course," said Evie. "But do you know why she's come? What she wants?"
"She didn't say, but my guess is she feels it's time to make amends. She must have some regrets, after the way she treated you, just going off like that."
"And you too."
"Yes well, I've got Mo, bless her. But I'll never forget your little face during those first few weeks after she left. Broke my heart. I wouldn't blame you if you told her exactly how you felt."
But Evie didn't know how she felt, and when she told Steve that her mother had suddenly come back, he put his arm around her, concerned.
"Do you want to meet her?"
"Of course, I do. But it'll be as if I'm meeting a complete stranger. And yet, she's not, she's my Mum. I hardly remember what she looked like although she sent photos every now and then when I was growing up. I suppose – I'm excited."
Evie considered calling Mo, but the comfort of Mo's earthy common sense couldn't do much to stop the sick feeling of dread inside.
The next evening she dressed with care, clipping on the diamond studs which Steve had given her for their fifth wedding anniversary. She wanted to show her mother – what? That she'd married a successful man who loved her? That somehow, even with her stream of American admirers, her mother could never be as happy and content as she was?
Steve came home and opened a bottle of good red wine. He tried to look relaxed but when the doorbell rang he leapt up, giving her a quick kiss.
"Let me get it," he said.
Evie stayed in front of the fire, rubbing her ice-cold hands. She heard voices and then her mother came in.
Evie's first thought was, "But she's so old!" And then she looked into the cornflower-blue eyes, ringed with thick black mascara, and saw the old familiar sparkle, like a trapped animal peering out.
Bella was just past sixty but the years had been harsh to her. In the photographs, she'd appeared reed- slim but in the flesh, she was scrawny and angular. Her once silky blonde hair was now an uncompromising bright yellow, chopped into a firm page boy and held back with a scarlet butterfly hairgrip. Her face was smooth and unlined, almost tight and her smile was more of a grimace than anything. She's had a facelift, thought Evie, walking forward and accepting her mother's embrace.
Bella wouldn't let go and kept hugging and hugging her, leaving Evie no alternative but to do the same although at first, she felt stiff and awkward. Her mother was making snuffling sounds into her neck and to her alarm, Evie found she too was in tears. She hadn't intended to cry.
They broke apart and Bella said briskly, "Well! Isn't this lovely, darling child. So much catching up to do. Is there a little drink for me, I wonder, Steve? I for one certainly need it."
She accepted a glass of wine from him – "French merlot? How divine! All we drink is Californian," - and sat back in Steve's easy chair, smiling at them both.
"So. Here I am," she said. "Turned up again like a bad penny. And here you are, Evie."
Where else would I be? This is my home.
Evie dabbed her eyes, angry with herself for this silly weakness, and drew a deep breath.
"I've been wondering why you've come back here," she said flatly. "Why you wanted to see me. After all these years."
Why did you run away? Why did you leave me?
"Must I have a reason to visit my daughter? I just wanted to see how you've grown up. If you're happy."
Bella looked at her, her head on one side like an inquisitive bird.
"Well, I am, very happy. I have a good job and Steve and I have been married for ten years." Just like you and daddy were before you took off...
"No kiddies then?"
"Yes, we have Alison. She's nearly two."
"So I'm a granny! That … that makes me feel old! Can I see her?"
"She's asleep," said Evie. "But you can see her, of course."
She led the way through to Alison's room, where Bella peered over the cot sides at the sleeping toddler.
"What a little angel," murmured her mother. "Such long eyelashes. Is she a good baby? You weren't. You cried all the time."
"Did I?" Am I supposed to apologize for that? "Alison's very good. She's slept right through the night since she was about a month old."
"That's nice," said Bella vaguely, and thrust her hand through the cot slats to finger a golden curl. Alison muttered and stirred and she hastily withdrew her hand.
"How about supper?" asked Evie. She'd spent the afternoon preparing a Moroccan lamb dish with couscous.
It turned out that Bella was vegetarian so she accepted a spoonful of couscous and fiddled with it while making deep inroads into the second bottle of wine.
"So, how long are you planning on staying, Bella?" Steve helped out.
"I'm just passing through, really. I'm joining Bob in Moscow."
Evie cleared her throat. "Who's Bob?" Somehow, she couldn't get the word out. Mum.
"Bob Stanford. A lovely man, I'm sorry you can't meet him. He's with a trade delegation from Arkansas and I'm flying to Russia tomorrow. I've always wanted to see Moscow."
"What happened to Randy?"
Bella looked blank. "Ohhh- Randy? Yes, a sweet man. He was a good friend but that was some time ago, darling."
Water under the bridge. A ship that passed in the night? Evie expected her mother to come up with a suitable cliché but she didn't.
The entire evening passed in awkward bursts of inconsequential small talk and ended straight after dessert as Bella said she had to catch an early plane.
Right up until they opened the front door for her mother, Evie hoped she'd say something, anything, to give some clue to her maternal waywardness. Some indication that she had a few regrets. But nothing.
She felt herself stiffen as Bella reached for her and air-kissed both cheeks.
"Lovely to catch up, darling child," she murmured. "You and Steve must come and visit us one of these days. And bring my angel Alison with you of course."
"We'll certainly think about it," said Steve heartily, his arm tight around Evie as they waved her taxi goodbye.
"So that's over," said Evie and started to laugh a bit hysterically. "Thank heavens, we'll probably never see her again."
They didn't. But a fortnight later, a set of wooden Babushka dolls arrived from Russia for her little angel, and when Bella died five years later, she left Alison her entire estate. Which was considerable.
The lawyer's letter arrived just as Evie was leaving for her first memoire writing class and there was just time to go round and show it to Mo. Since her father died the two of them had become very close.
"Lucky little kid," said Maureen, who busy making a cake for Alison's school bring-and-buy at the time. "I suppose your mum must have done quite well from those men passing through her life. All that alimony."
"She's a lucky little kid because she's got the best granny in the world, right here," said Evie, planting a kiss on Maureen's cheek. "And I've got the best Mum, step or no. I'll tell Alison about the money one day. And about her other grandmother, the one that ran away. I don't want her thinking that all grannies do that kind of thing, so I'll wait until she's a lot older."
Evie put down her pen and flexed her fingers. She felt lightheaded with the sense of release and beamed up at Anthea.
"Finished that chapter?"
"Quite finished," she said.