[From below comes the noise of a door slamming.]
― Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House
I have to go.
I love you. Tell Ella and Willa I love them too. And take care of Louis. If you need help, ask Fay, she’ll know what to do.
Please don’t try to find me.
The world is waking up. Or it’s trying to, anyway.
It’s waking up in the small town of Holdingwell.
It’s waking up on Willoughby Street.
It’s waking up in Number 77, the tall red-brick house with scaffolding that stretches up to the roof.
At the top of the house, dawn tugs at a teenage girl. She rubs her eyes, sticky with the soot of make-up. Her bed is littered with A4 paper; strips of neon highlighter smudge the words. At the foot of her bed sit a pair of battered running shoes. The girl sinks deeper under her duvet and prays to the alarm on her phone: Just give me a few more minutes …
On the landing, a little girl hovers outside her father’s bedroom. She spent the night out here, comforted by his sleeping body on the other side of the door. They’ve made a deal: no more sneaking in in the middle of the night, not unless it gets really bad. If you don’t pander to them, the dreams will go away, says her father. You need to train them, like we trained Louis. But the little girl isn’t sure. She’s never heard of anyone who could train a ghost.
On the other side of the door, the father reaches out for the woman he loves. Nothing but cool, empty sheets. He rubs his eyes and reaches for his glasses, and listens to the house waking up.
A bark from the kitchen.
His little girl’s footsteps on the landing.
His teenage daughter’s alarm.
In the tall red-brick house, a big dog lies heavily in his den under the stairs, his fur as curly as an old lady’s perm. He drools, his mouth slack with sleep. He smells a shift in the air. He’s smelt it all night, weaving between dreams of lampposts and the Chihuahuas from across the street and the bone he’s going to get tonight because it’s Friday.
Across town, in the Pediatric Ward of Holdingwell General, the Mother who Stayed washes her hands. She rubs her palms, scrubs under her nails, and laces her fingers under the scalding water. Her raw skin flushes pink and she wonders whether one day she’ll rub so many cells off her hands her skin will give way to flesh and bone. She closes her eyes and releases a long breath to ease the nausea. She thinks of the May bank holiday – a whole weekend away from the hospital. Sleep. Peace. Home.
Back on Willoughby Street, two old ladies lift their net curtains and look at the tall red-brick house. On the doorstep, under the full bloom of a cherry tree, they see the Mother who Left put down her trumpet case and look up at the house she hasn’t seen for six years.
Six-year-old Willa presses her nose to her bedroom window. She looks down through the scaffolding at the front garden.
The clatter of the recycling box on the paving stones drew her to the window. Sometimes, the clink of a jam jar tells Willa that a wild animal has come looking for food. There are more wild animals on Willoughby Street than most people realise: crows that swoop down for trays of chips from the kebab van and fat sewer rats with their skinny tails and otters with their old-man heads that duck in and out of the lake in Holdingwell Park. And Willa’s favourite: the foxes that stalk through the garden at night – flashes of red like they’re on fire.
Mrs Fox will be there for her birthday on Sunday, Willa can feel it. Mrs Fox and her new cubs. And that will make it the best birthday ever.
But on this Friday morning, Willa doesn’t see any of the wild animals she loves. Instead, she looks down at the long red hair of a woman who stands a few feet away from the front door. The woman stares up at the windows of the house as though she’s looking for someone. Willa catches her eye and smiles; the woman takes a step back and bows her head.
With his big grey muzzle, Louis nudges open the bedroom door and lumbers over to Willa’s feet. He knows he’s not allowed upstairs, but that’s only when Mummy’s watching, and Mummy’s at work. Willa bends down and kisses his big furry nose. Louis is not a fox or any other wild animal, but Willa still loves him more than anything in the world.
‘Willa, we’re late!’ Ella, Willa’s fourteen-year-old sister, crashes into the bedroom in a cloud of sweet perfume.
Willa loves the smell and she loves the big yellow bottle in the shape of a trophy that sits on Ella’s bedside table: it’s called Shalimar, which means strong and beautiful – that’s how Willa thinks of Ella.
‘Come on, Willa, I’ve got a maths test this morning.’
Ella never used to care about tests, not until she was made to repeat a year. She’s going through a bad patch, Daddy said.
Mummy called a family meeting so they could all help Ella, but Ella never showed up.
Willa doesn’t move. There’s something about the woman with the leggings, the baggy jumper, the wheelie suitcase and the black music case that makes her want to stare for a bit longer.
Miss Rose Pegg, one of the twins from across the road, steps out of her front door with a watering can. A Chihuahua yaps at her feet.
‘Yoo-hoo,’ she calls over to the woman on the doorstep.
But the woman on the doorstep doesn’t turn round.
‘What are you looking at?’ Ella picks up Willa’s school bag and stuffs it with Willa’s Fantastic Mr Fox lunch box.
She comes over to the window and eases the bag over Willa’s shoulders.
‘Why’s she not ringing the bell?’ Willa adjusts the straps of her backpack so that it sits high on her shoulder blades.
Ella leans into the window and sucks in her breath.
Louis puts his paws on the windowsill and growls.
‘What is it?’ Willa asks.
Ella stands back.
‘It’s no one.’
But Ella’s face doesn’t look like it’s no one.
Willa feels a crash in her tummy like when a baddie in a film cuts the cord of a lift and it plummets a hundred floors in one big whoosh.
As she looks back down at the doorstep Willa scratches the star-shaped scar under her eye. It’s hot and itchy. She doesn’t care what Ella says – the woman definitely doesn’t look like a no one.
Best Day Ever: Mum’s Come Home! #dreamcometrue
Willa turns away from the window and says:
‘She’s got my hair.’
‘No One Woman.’
Ella switches off her phone.
‘It’s red, like mine.’ Then Willa peers over Ella’s shoulder. ‘Who were you texting?’
‘I was tweeting.’
‘What were you tweeting?’
Ella shoves her phone in the pocket of her school blazer. What’s she going tell Willa? She thought she’d have time to prepare her, to explain who Mum was and where she’d been and why Fay was pretending to be her mum and why Dad and Fay acted like a couple when Dad was still married to Mum.
‘Nothing. It’s for my project, Willa.’
She glances out of the window again. Mum looks smaller than she remembers. And there are grey bits in her hair.
Ella kneels in front of Willa and zips up her fleece.
Louis has still got his paws on the windowsill. He must remember Mum too. He loved her as much as Ella did and Dad did – and Willa did, even though Willa was too small to remember. Ella pats Louis’s paws: ‘Get down from there, Louis.’
Louis barks, then slumps down at Willa’s feet.
‘The Missing Persons Project?’ Willa asks.
‘Have you found a missing person?’
‘Sort of. Come on, Willa, we’ve got to go.’
This is what Ella wants to do: tear downstairs, pull open the front door, throw her arms around Mum and tell her how much she’s missed her and how much she loves her and how glad she is that she’s home and she wants to ask her where she’s been and whether she’s okay.
Try to be a bit less impulsive. Try to think things through more. Fay’s pep talk at their family meeting last Sunday night. Her advice for handling Mr Pain-in-the-Backside Stuckton, Ella’s maths teacher. Fay was a pain the backside too. Mainly when she was right. God, Fay – what was she going to do when she found out Mum was home?
Ella had imagined Mum’s return a zillion times and it had never been as messy as this. She takes a breath. Stay calm. Think things through. Christ, be like Fay.
On the way out, she’ll shoot Mum a look to show her she can’t talk because of Willa. And then she’ll come home as soon as she can. When Ella was little, she and Mum only had to look at each other to know what the other was thinking. That wouldn’t have changed, would it?
‘Come on.’ Ella takes Willa’s hand and yanks her down the stairs. Louis follows them.
‘Shouldn’t we say goodbye to Dad?’ Willa asks.
If they say goodbye to Dad then he’ll walk them to the door and he’ll see Mum and he’ll give everything away and Willa won’t understand.
‘What about your trumpet?’
Ella’s trumpet is in the kitchen. With Dad.
‘My lesson’s been cancelled.’ Another lie.
‘Your lesson’s never cancelled.’
‘Well, it has been.’
Ella loves Willa more than anyone, but God she can be annoying.
‘Come on, Willa.’
Willa kneels down and puts her arms around Louis’s big belly. ‘See you later, Louis.’
Later. By the time Willa comes home from school, her whole world will have changed. And from the way Louis is looking up at Ella, it’s obvious he knows too.
Norah stands outside her old home and looks up at the scaffolding that stretches up the front of the house. The roof’s covered in a sheet of blue tarpaulin, its corners held down by bricks. So it’s still not fixed.
She listens to the sounds coming through the open window.
A squeal of laughter and feet stomping down the stairs and Adam calling from the kitchen:
‘Get a move on, girls, or you’ll miss the bus.’ A stronger voice than she remembers.
The front door flies open and little girl with a jagged fringe and a copper bob steps out.
Norah’s holds her breath. She looks just like me, she thinks. The same red hair. The same transparent skin and brown eyes. When Norah left, Willa still looked like Adam – blue eyes, fine blond hair. They say that all babies look like their fathers, that it’s an evolutionary trick to keep men from abandoning their families: when fathers see themselves reflected in their babies, they swell with the pride of ownership. Maybe one day evolution will catch up and recognise that mothers, too, have to be persuaded to stay.
She wants to reach out and take Willa’s hand but Ella pushes her forward. For a second Ella looks up and catches Norah’s eye; she gives her a nod, smiles and then looks down again.
Norah feels her eldest daughter’s name rising in her throat, but before it reaches her mouth it disappears. She moves out of their way.
When Willa gets to the gate, she looks back at Norah. Norah’s chest contracts; there’s a scar under her left eye.
‘Come on,’ Ella says, yanking her away, and the two girls skip through the gate.
Willa runs ahead of Ella and posts something through the Miss Peggs’ letter box and then the two of them disappear down Willoughby Street.
Norah lets out a breath. She didn’t expect a great reunion; she knew things would be hard when she came back, but just skittering past with no words?
‘Ella – you’ve forgotten your trumpet!’ Adam comes out swinging a black case.
He never helped to get Ella ready for school, didn’t have a clue about timetables and routines. On the rare occasion when she put him in charge, she would come back to find the house in a mess, Ella forgotten at school. When it was just the two of them their bohemian muddling-through hadn’t mattered, but kids changed things – or it should have.
I love you, isn’t that enough? Adam used to say when she asked him to help. Some couples fall apart because their children become their world; Adam barely noticed the girls.
Standing on the bottom step, Norah looks up at him. He’s taller than she remembers. Straighter too. A navy suit, his blond hair tamed into a side parting, grey creeping in by his temples, his chin clean-shaven. And his glasses have gone.
Would she have recognised him if she’d walked past him on the street?
His eyes dart between Norah and the pavement. ‘You saw the girls?’
Norah nods. ‘Yes. Briefly. They were in a rush.’
‘Did you say anything?’
His shoulders relax.
Norah looks at the trumpet case in his hands. ‘So she plays?’
When Norah left, eight-year-old Ella would follow her around squeaking out tunes on her yellow plastic trumpet, a gift from her godmother, Fay. She’d beg Norah her to give her lessons and to take her to concerts. One day I’ll be as good as you, won’t I? she’d asked.
Adam’s brow contracts. Has he forgotten what she looks like? Should she introduce herself? Offer to shake his hand? Stretch out her cheek for a kiss?
Hi, I’m your wife.
I walked out on you.
How’ve you been?
Should she say sorry, to get the ball rolling?
As Norah steps forward Adam stumbles back through the doorway. Still clumsy.
He clears his throat. ‘She’s not a natural.’ He looks down at Ella’s trumpet case. ‘Not like you. But she’s trying.’
‘And Willa.’ Norah touches the skin under her left eye. ‘She’s got a scar.’
She waits for him to expand, but he keeps standing in the doorway.
‘Can I come in?’ Norah asks.
‘Come in?’ Adam looks over Norah’s shoulder, as if he hopes to find the answer coming up the road.
‘Yes. Into the house.’
Into the house they bought together.
Adam sways from foot to foot; she remembers this tic.
What if he says no? What if he leaves her standing there? I’d deserve that, she thinks.
‘Right. Yes. I suppose so.’ He nods and steps aside.
‘Thanks.’ Every word that comes out of her mouth sounds so small.
The house smells of polish and plug-in air-fresher. The threadbare carpet has been replaced with wood flooring – golden and full of light; wallpaper covered in peonies. Softer than roses, someone had once told her. No thorns. Covering every bit of wall space in the hall are photographs of the girls. Taking photographs that made them look like a family – it was the one fatherly duty Adam had lived up to.
She scans the photos taken since she left. Ella on stage with her trumpet; Ella and Willa on the swings in Holdingwell Park, kicking their legs so high it looks as though they’re about to take off; Willa hugging Louis in front of a Christmas tree; Ella grinning over a birthday cake with ten candles; Ella holding up a pair of muddy running shoes. There’s one picture that makes Norah stop walking: Willa blowing on the filaments of a dandelion clock. The scar’s there, larger and redder than the one she saw this morning. It must have happened when she was baby. Norah feels sick. It’s the thing a mother fears most, isn’t it? Her child getting hurt.
Norah swallows hard. My baby got hurt, and I wasn’t here.
Norah blinks the thought away.
‘These are good,’ she says, scanning the photographs.
He blushes and shoots his fingers through his hair, messing up his side parting.
‘They’re just snaps.’ He keeps walking.
Norah keeps looking around.
Even the dimensions of the rooms have shifted, nudged by new pieces of furniture. There’d been a time when Norah could have walked through her home with her eyes shut. Now she’d need a guide.
‘I like what you’ve done with the place,’ she mumbles as she follows Adam into the kitchen.
‘It’s not me—’ he starts.
‘The house—’ He doesn’t finish the sentence.
No. She didn’t think he’d be responsible for the changes.
Adam puts down Ella’s trumpet case and picks up his briefcase from a white marble counter.
Norah remembers the peeling paint, the wobbly kitchen table, the damp under the stairs, the stained carpets, the leak in the roof of the attic she used as a studio.
One of the walls of the kitchen is filled with framed crayon drawings: all animals, a wobbly Willa signed in the corners. Adam wouldn’t have done that – or the old Adam wouldn’t. When Ella was little Norah put up her pictures around the house with Blu-Tack and they’d stay there, their edges curling, eventually falling to the floor and leaving a small crater where the Blu-Tack had ripped off the paint.
In the middle of the table sits a photography book, along with a notepad and a sheet of paper with the Open University as a header across the top, and next to them an expensive camera plugged into a laptop.
When they’d met, Adam had worked for his father’s photography business. It was old-style: manual cameras and dark rooms and prints. He’d loved taking pictures of Norah. My favourite subject, he’d say. And then the business went bust and he found himself without qualifications.
My dad’s been replaced by a camera phone, he told her on the day his dad closed the shop.
But Adam had a good eye. There’s always room for a photographer with real talent, she’d said to him.
And they’d talked about it, him taking it seriously, doing a course … but that too had got lost along the way.
She turns to face Adam. ‘So, you’ve got a new job?’
The man she used to know spent his days in the navy overalls issued to workers at the recycling plant. It didn’t matter how many times she washed them, she couldn’t get rid of the smell.
Adam pulls at his tie and it draws in close to his throat. She notices the shaving rash by his collar and wants to reach out and touch his skin.
‘Oh – not new, no,’ he says. ‘I’ve been working as a manager at the plant for years.’
A manager. She hadn’t thought he had it in him. Employees. Pay slips. Spreadsheets. The confidence to stand up in front of people and tell them what to do. No, her Adam wouldn’t have wanted that responsibility. Her Adam. Did he even exist any more?
Adam checks his watch. ‘I have to go to work.’
She’d hoped for this: a few hours alone in her old home, time to find her bearings.
As she follows Adam into the hall she notices that the door to the den is open. Her heart lurches.
She steps forward and leans in.
‘He’s sleeping in Willa’s room.’
She lets out a breath. Thank God. And then she notices that where there was once a piece of chip-board, there’s now a proper door leading down to the basement.
‘You use the basement?’
He nods. ‘For my photography.’
‘Oh – that’s good.’
He looks at his watch again. ‘I really have to go.’ He positions bicycle clips on the hems of his trousers, threads a fluorescent harness over his suit jacket, presses his hair down with a helmet and fastens the strap under his chin. He used to ride a motorbike, take her out on the back. They’d leave Ella with Fay, ride to a field outside Holdingwell and lie in the long grass and make love.
He blushes. ‘Keeps me fit.’ He pats his flat stomach. So that’s gone too.
She takes a breath. ‘Can I stay?’
A muscle works in his jaw.
‘I mean, until you get back. Just for a few hours.’ She fiddles with a button on her coat. ‘Or I can go and get a coffee somewhere …’
He still doesn’t answer.
‘Or I could go—’
‘Go?’ He rubs his forefinger up the bridge of his nose, like he used to when he had glasses.
‘I could come back later, when you’ve finished work. We could talk – if you want to talk.’
He rifles through the drawer of a cabinet in the hallway, pulls out a set of door keys. ‘You can use these.’
She doesn’t tell him she still has a set.
As he holds out the keys to her she sees it: the ring on his left hand. Like her, he hasn’t taken it off.
She reaches out for his hand: ‘Adam – you …’
He puts his hands in his pockets and looks up. ‘We’ve got the roofers in all day – there’ll be noise,’ he says. ‘They said it’d be done in time for the bank holiday.’
Norah wonders how different Adam’s reaction might have been had she walked back into the house a few weeks after she left. Would he have shouted at her for leaving him? Would he have taken her in his arms and told her that he missed her?
‘I’d better go.’ He moves towards the door. ‘I’ll try to get off work early – to be home before the girls get back. I need to talk to them first.’
‘Nothing.’ He looks at his watch again. ‘I’ll try not to be long.’
‘You’d better go then.’
He nods. ‘Bye.’
‘Bye.’ She raises a hand. And, just like that, he’s gone.