Nine Months (Month 7)

Nine Months Month Seven

Kelly is a 36-year-old man trapped in the body suit of a 25-year-old pregnant woman.

Kelly and Bill head north to meet the mother who abandoned them. Back in London Fiona, Matt and Saff come to terms with the attack.

Month Seven

The house looked like any other - a modernish 80s style house. The front garden had a low hedge and a large oak tree. I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe something with turrets and a moat? The witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel?

“Well, this is it,” Bill double checked the GPS on his phone to be sure, 6 Farmdale Crescent.

“Uh huh,” I just looked up. It all seemed so… normal.

Bill helped me out of the car and up the drive. There was a potted little bush by the front door. It was clipped so neatly at first I thought it must be plastic. Only when I brushed it with my hand was I sure it was living. Bill rang the doorbell.

“Hello,” She stood there. Her hair was still blond, probably dyed now. Her high cheekbones were still visible although her hips had got thicker. “Bill?” Half of me wanted to hug her, the other run away.

Bill didn’t seem to be able to speak, he just nodded.

“And…” She was looking at me. Damn, why had I thought this would be a good idea?

“This is Kelly,” Bill’s voice was forceful, he put his arm around my shoulders.

“Oh,” she seemed confused, then realisation dawned on her, “You better come in.”

The hallway was bland. Cream coloured walls with cheery photos of smiling family members on them. I noticed two girls grinning into the camera, I had to look away.

“Sorry,” she looked pained, “but would you mind taking your shoes off?”

I looked down dumbly before agreeing. I had to sit on the second step of the stairs while I did so. Bill helped me stand.

“Come through, I thought we’d be more comfortable in the conservatory.”

The garden outside the window looked large and tidy. It contrasted with Fiona and Matt’s back garden back in London. While the grass back home had a large brown patch where a younger Matt had worn it down playing football, the grass here looked like it had never been stepped on by human feet. The flowerbeds were neat and shaped, unlike our irregular overgrown ones. Our garden was the site of ongoing cat gang wars. This one looked like even the birds needed full club membership and a tie to visit.

“How’s your husband?” I asked just to have something to say.

“He’s away with his rugby friends. The girls have sleepovers after school.” She said quickly, answering questions we hadn’t asked.

“Do they know about us?” Bill pressed. He had anger in his voice. I put a hand on his. Despite how it might look, he was still my younger brother.

“Perry knows I have two sons from an earlier marriage. He doesn’t know you are here.” There was a long pause, “How about tea?”

“Do you have anything decaffeinated?”

She looked down at my belly, “Rooibos any good?”

We could hear her moving around in the kitchen as we sat there. It all seemed so surreal.

“How are you holding up?” I whispered. Bill looked at me, his face looked pale. He smiled weakly. I squeezed his hand.

“OK,” he said. We looked around as a tray clanked behind us.

“Can I help with that?” Bill half stood up.

She pointed at the table. “It’s OK dear. I can manage. If you could just clear a space.” Bill moved some magazines and she put the tray down. “Now biscuits. I think I have some hobnobs.”

“That’s fin…” But she had already walked away.

So we waited, and waited. Fifteen minutes, then twenty. Bill looked like he was about to fall apart.

“Perhaps she needs some help,” I patted his hand, “I’ll go take a look.”

The kitchen looked expensive, like a photo from a design magazine, but it had none of the character or style of Susan’s. I found her in the doorway smoking a cigarette. She threw it away quickly when she saw me.

“It’s a bit late hiding it from me now. I tried my first cigarette over twenty years ago.”

“I’m sorry,” she rubbed the top of her nose, a gesture I did when I was stressed. “I just don’t know what to say. This is not how I imagined it,” she allowed herself a small smile. “You especially.”

“No, it’s not how I saw it happening either,” I said, as I rubbed my belly. We both laughed.

“Do you mind me asking how it happened?”

I was tricked by my wife. “It’s complicated.”

“I imagine. But it’s what you want?” She looked like she wanted to say something more.

I rubbed Humphrey again, “It is now.” Was that true? “I think we should go back in. Bill is near to wetting himself. And we stopped him doing that months ago.” Again we laughed. She seemed so small.

We talked for hours, mostly about nothing. The state of the railways, the weather. She looked the most happy when we discussed Julia and the boys. Bill happily flicked through his Facebook profile while she made all the right cooing noises. He would show her the phone but wouldn’t look at her. At one point, she looked at me and said, “You’ve got all this to come.”

Bill went upstairs to find a toilet and a serious expression came over her. “When did you know you wanted to be… I mean you weren’t happy as a...?”

I sighed and threw her a line, “I don’t think we ever make big decisions. It’s not like we wake up one morning and say; ‘this is what I want to do with my life’. It’s more that lots of little decisions add up to the big ones.”

She smiled, “I know what you mean.” Looking out of the window I watched a squirrel running across the lawn. What did it make of this neat and tidy little world? At that moment Bill re-entered the room.

“I was wondering,” she asked, “Do you… do you want to call me mum, or mother… whatever.” She rubbed her knuckles. I noticed Bill doing the same.

I was taken by surprise so Bill answered sharply, “No,” then he said, “Sorry,” although I knew he wasn’t. “How about Peggy to start and see where we go from there?” She seemed happy with that.

We continued talking for a while. We never brought up her daughters and neither did she. Finally Bill gestured that we had to go, “We need to check into our B&B by 3pm,” he explained.

Peggy looked surprised. “Oh, where is it?” She seemed relieved when we said an address on the other side of town. She said, “there’s a lovely pub right near there, if you’re interested.”

Bill had one foot out the door, when I said, “But perhaps we could take you out for dinner later?” I looked to Bill for confirmation, he didn’t disagree.

“That would be lovely,” she beamed.

On the drive to the B&B, I noticed several pubs along the way. The one she suggested was the furthest from her, yet not that near the B & B.

That night, when we picked her up, Peggy was waiting for us at the end of the drive. She was wearing an elegant green a-line dress that made me feel underdressed. I’d chosen the designer jeans Fi had bought me and a top she’d told me I looked ‘cute’ in. I was wearing a black cardigan over the top. The night air being colder up here. She smiled warmly when I got out of the car. I offered her the passenger seat but she told me not to be silly.

The restaurant was a gastro pub on the edge of the river. On the opposite bank was a small copse of trees. If It had been a little warmer, I’d have suggested eating outside. Peggy stopped us outside the door and got us to stand together, she took a quick snap on her phone. “For the girls,” she explained, “When they’re ready to know.” Or she was ready for them to know.

As we sat down Peggy looked directly at me, “So,” she said, “I want to know how this happened. I’m not judging, I just want to understand.”

I took a deep breath, and then I told her the whole story. Jamie/James. Losing my job. Staying with Fiona. I left out Matt, figuring he could wait till the next instalment. I didn’t want to have to explain who he was and have her say something. I would have flipped out.

Peggy seemed especially worked up about James. A part of me liked it. Her being on my side that is.

“Why would she do that to you?” she said. I couldn’t quite place the tone. It was somewhere between accusatory and understanding. “Sorry,” she said, patting my hand. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. You were put in a hard situation. Believe me, I understand that,” which made me feel more awkward, and defensive of dad. But it didn’t last as she pushed me for details of my current domestic life.

Bill joined in, teasing me about Fi while Peggy smiled indulgently. For the first time it felt like we could be a family. Not a close one, but that might come.

She was interested in Bill’s work. Even Bill wasn’t that interested in his job. When I mentioned my book she smiled zen-like and told me that I’d always had ‘a creative auror’. Just like her.

We were on dessert when I finally asked the question, “Our turn. What happened? After you left I mean. Where did you go?”

Peggy put her spoon down, “That’s a big question. First there was Ron. He’s who I left your father for.”

“You mean us as well,” Bill’s voice was calm but his words pointed.

“It wasn’t like that.” She couldn’t look at us. “Ron was an actor, with regional reps. We toured a lot. I was always going to send for you. I mean I knew you’d be safe with Ed. He was good man. I was sorry to hear about him passing.” I wondered where she’d heard it from. Bill’s emails?

“So why didn’t you send for us?” I put my spoon in my mouth. There was nothing on it.

“Things went bad. First Ron couldn’t get work. Then he started drinking. After a while he left and I was on my own.” Her voice went quiet, “There were a few bad years…”

I reached out and touched her hand. She looked up at me, tears in her eyes, “I knew you’d understand,” she squeezed back. I didn’t know how to take that.

“Things got better after that. I was doing a little modelling work,” Bill raised his eyebrows looking at me, I glared at him to keep quiet, “Nothing serious, just in car sales rooms, Cheshire Life, things like that. That’s where I met my Perry. He helped me out of debt and one thing led to another.” She stopped for a while, composing herself, “But I never stopped thinking about the two of you.”

“She never did anything about it though,” Bill said as we drove back to the B&B. No, I thought.

We got back to the room and said nothing. We turned on Sky Sports. I watched the men run past but, if you had asked me, I couldn’t have told you who was playing or what sport. It was a welcome distraction from what neither of us wanted to discuss.

Bill got up. “I should call Julia,” he said half-heartedly. “I told her I’d call and tell her how it went. How’d it go?” he said with a mirthless chuckle, as he left the room.

I called Fi. She picked up on the second ring. “How was it?”

I sighed. “Weird.”

“Weird how?”

“I dunno. There’s the obvious weird,” I said, laughing and patting Humphrey, as if she could see. “But, it’s more than that. I mean we’re all nervous but not just that. It feels like, if I went there now, she’d be gone again.”

“That’s to be expected, I think. I mean there’s precedent.”

“No, that’s not it,” and I explained her whole history. Fi just kept saying, “hm,” and “huh,” through it. “Huh, what?” I said, after the fourth one.

Fi said, “Huh nothing. Sorry. How’s Humphrey?”

“He’s fine. Ow, he kicked. I’m not letting you off the hook. Huh what?”

“Just huh. She sounds lost. So, she was a model too,” she teased.

“Shut up,” I said, laughing.

“Did she lure men to her net?”

“Ha ha,” I said. “I’m in a very fragile place emotionally you know,” I joked. I wasn’t joking.

“How’s Bill doing?”

I sighed. “Not well. He’s not saying anything but I know him. He’s angry. I don’t think he thought what this would be. He’s on with Julia now.”

“What’s next?”

“I dunno. We’ll see. I mean she’s not going to be nana, coming round on birthdays and all that. I mean maybe she’ll be Aunt Peggy, if that. I mean you can’t expect us to just let her back in after all these years. Bring the family around. We can have one big Christmas dinner. Me, you, Matt, Bill, Julia, the boys, Peggy and whoever the hell she brings around with her. Shame Dad’s not here for this. See if this poor bastard Perry is still here. Maybe, he’ll bring my sisters.” I spat out the word and then paused. These poor girls were no more complicit than Bill and I were. Then I realised that I couldn’t remember their names or if Peggy had even said them. Or if we had even asked. I started to cry. “Sorry, Fi.”

“Kells, I’m sorry. It’s OK. I wish I was there with you.”

“Me too,” I sniffled.

“Imagine me holding you,” she said. “Can you do that?”

“Yes.” I could feel her arms around me and felt better. Stupid hormones.

“It’s going to be OK,” she said. “I love you, Kells.”

“I love you, Fi,” I said, as Bill walked in the room. He waved. “Bill says hi. Fi says hi back. Anyway, I love you,” I said, hanging up while Bill made kissy faces.

“Bloody girl,” he said, with the first grin I had seen since we left London.

“Sod off. How’s Julia?”

“Fine. Said the boys are bouncing off the walls. Asked when we’d be back. Said she was putting the boys up on eBay,” he laughed.

“How’re you doing?”

“Eh,” he said, in a way that told me he was done. “You?”

“Eh.”

He looked at my eyes and I at his. They were both red-rimmed. We both started to say something and stopped. Just then, my phone buzzed. I had a message - from James.

‘How’d it go? Are you OK?’

I wasn’t ready to answer her. ‘It went as to be expected.’ The lie was easier than the truth.

‘Do you want to talk about it?’

‘Not right now.’

‘OK. I love you.’ Really, I thought? Really? You love me? Which is why I’m a pregnant girl. Who you tricked into getting pregnant. Then didn’t tell and almost killed the baby. Then left destitute. Like a bloody fucking soap opera. And you love me?

I must’ve looked crazy because Bill sat down and put his arm around me. “You OK, Kelly?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Yeah, you look,” and then he looked at my phone. “Bloody Jamie?” he laughed. “Day wasn’t full enough for you yet?”

“Er, uh…”

“Jesus, Kelly. It’s one thing to cheat on your wife with your girlfriend. But you can’t cheat on your girlfriend with your wife.”

I started laughing. “What the hell does that even mean?”

We were both laughing uncontrollably. Eventually, he said, “I have no fucking idea. I have no idea who’s who anymore. Bloody man becomes a woman, his wife becomes a man. The he-she moves in with a she and then the she-he shows back up. Oh, and look! Here’s the mum who disappeared. I feel so bloody left out. It’s just me with the same bits and the same wife I started with,” he laughed.

“Fuck off. You’d make an ugly girl.”

“Yeah, look at you. Technology’s amazing. Fuck putting a man on the moon.”

We both kept laughing until we went to sleep.

The drive home the next day was a quiet one. I had downloaded several radio shows from i-player and we listened to them. We were both lost in our own thoughts. I kept playing the conversation over and over in my head. “I knew you’d understand,” and “I know what you mean.” I was glad she did. I know I didn’t.

---

I walked into the cafe, a once former pub on Columbia Lane in Shoreditch now made into a tapas bar.

When I called James to set up this meeting, they had suggested that we meet at the apartment where they were now staying. I had settled on “they” as my pronoun of choice, for now. Fi and I had discussed it and I had no interest in meeting them anywhere non-public. I didn’t tell Fi, for fear of upsetting her, but a part of me didn’t trust them not to imprison me against my will. On the one hand, that was ridiculous, the stuff of bad television. On the other hand, they had left me destitute when I displeased them and I was now seven months pregnant. I could barely get myself out of the door when no one was blocking me.

I saw James sitting there, nursing a glass of red wine and looking around. They were wearing a dark suit and a blue shirt of mine that they had always said, “made me look sexy.” I looked at my ever-growing belly and had to stifle a laugh. I took a deep breath and waddled over, trying to maintain my calm. Humphrey had been kicking up a storm on the bus and I didn’t want to upset him.

“Hello James,” I said, with as little affect as possible.

They leapt up. “Kelly,” they said, trying to kiss me on the lips. I turned my head, so they only brushed my cheek. They looked hurt but regained composure, “you look beautiful.” I had purposely worn jeans and a blouse, to look as neutral as possible. Well, as neutral as a woman with a belly large enough to have its own MP could.

I laughed, “I look like a beached whale.” I struggled to fit in the chair.

James said, “You’d be much more comfortable in the apartment. I have an Eames chair, you know the leather one you always wanted.”

“I told you. Neutral ground.” Before they could protest, I said, “you look well, James.” They had grown a beard and let their hair grow long. “Is that some post-wrap beard or something?”

They smiled. “Everyone else is growing one, I figured I’d try.” I had no idea who everyone else was and didn’t care. “Do you like it?”

“Sure. It looks good on you.” It did. They were the kind of man who could pull off a beard. I had Peggy’s pale complexion so beards always looked wrong on me.

“Thank you for coming,” they said. “I still don’t understand why you made me come to Shoreditch.” They were being petulant already. This would either be a very long or very short afternoon.

“I work here. I was in for a meeting. It’s a lot easier for you to get around than me. Besides, I told you. Neutral ground.”

“OK,OK,” they said, holding up a hand. “Fair enough. Siggy says hi. She says thank you for sending her the pictures and the sonograms.”

I thought for a second, remembering her lost baby. I felt bad, wondering if she thought I was somehow throwing it in her face, that I didn’t want to get pregnant and was, while she couldn’t. “Tell her she’s welcome. How are she and Egon doing?”

“They’re fine,” James said, with a smile. When they smiled, I could see the old twinkle in their eyes. It reminded me of the good times we had, of a trip to Tuscany. I remembered driving the countryside in a Fiat with a balky gearbox. I remembered waiting in a trattoria in San Gimignano, drinking wine and laughing, while a mechanic fixed the car. I had to hold back a smile. “Egon always asks after you.”

“Tell him thanks. So, how was filming?”

“Long. Boring. Lots of time just waiting around. No one teaches you that in acting school. How to sit around doing nothing for hours while they block shots and set up lights. You can only play on your phone for so long before you go crazy. Or eat everything they put out.” I thought about the photo shoot and shuddered, thinking of Felix. “Is everything OK, Kelly?”

“I’m fine,” I lied. “Sometimes, I get these chills. You have no idea what this,” and I patted my belly, “does to you.” I hadn’t said it to make a point, but the look on their face told me that I did.

“You’re right. I don’t.” I couldn’t tell from the look on their face whether that ignorance made her upset, grateful or both. “How are you doing? How was everything with Bill?” They seemed genuinely concerned.

“Weird. That’s the word for it. Weird.” I described how nervous Peggy was. How her house seemed like people stayed there, but didn’t lived there. How she never exactly apologised for what she did to us and excused her life. I left out how she asked about us, me and James that is. “It was tougher on Bill, I think. He has no memory of her at all.”

James made all the right noises and nodded and ‘no’ed’ at the right times, but I couldn’t tell what they were thinking. “Do you forgive her?” That was a strange question, I thought. “I mean, do you think you’ll see her again?”

“I dunno. We’ll see. I guess. Maybe. I dunno.”

“I can’t imagine not being part of your life,” they said, looking at me hopefully.

I thought about Peggy and how she kept trying to make us the same. We weren’t. I thought about what Jeremy said and, looking at James, knew that I’d want them to be a part of the child’s life, if they wanted to be. I didn’t want Humphrey to wonder what his dad was like. “I would never keep you out of our child’s life.”

They looked concerned. “What about our life?”

I thought about us, Fi and me, her arm around me while we slept. The way she took my hand when we crossed the street. The "I love you" for no reason. “James, I will be honest with you. I don’t know. You hurt me. You can’t just come back and think that we’re OK.”

“I’m sorry that you feel hurt,” they said. I hated when they did that. They would say I’m sorry about your feelings. Not what they did, just how you felt about it. “You have to know that was not my intent.”

What would you do if you wanted to hurt me, I thought, but I didn’t say that. Instead, I said, “you know what, you’re right.” They smiled. Then I followed with, “your intent doesn’t really matter. Your actions do. And your actions, however intended, hurt me. And you can’t just come back and expect that everything will be OK with us. If you’re not OK with that, let me know and I’ll let Siggy know when the baby is born.”

They looked dumbfounded then recovered. “When did you become so cold, Kelly?” I could see tears forming in their eyes.

I took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, James. But you hurt me deeply.”

“We both hurt each other,” they said, playing the mutual blame game.

I started to ask what I did to hurt them, but couldn’t. When I looked at their eyes, I saw the Jamie I knew. The one who laughed at my jokes, who knew my deepest secrets, the one who I had shared my life with for ten years. “James, I need time. I don’t know what we will be but I know I need time. Can you respect that?”

They touched my hand. “I can do that for you.”

“Thank you. Let’s take it slowly.”

“Of course. You really do look beautiful. It agrees with you. How does it feel?”

"My ankles are swollen. My back hurts. My tits leak," and they laughed. I smiled, "Fucking child. I don't sleep. I feel great." They looked ashen. "Seriously, I do. It's really amazing. It is really a miracle."

They looked at me. "Wow."

I smiled. "Not what you expected, huh?". Just then, the baby kicked. You could see it through my blouse.

"What's that?". They said excitedly, putting their hand on my stomach. I was so used to it by now, that I didn't even care that they did it.

"That's Humphrey. He kicks a lot, especially when I'm agitated."

"Humphrey?"

"Long story,” I said. I wasn’t going to bring up Fi, if they didn’t. I decided to return to their favorite subject - them. “So, tell me about the movie.”

---

It had been a long day. I didn’t normally go into the office on a Thursday but there had been an important meeting scheduled with the client. After a day of talking, I was happy to sit back and listen to Jeremy discuss his date with Victoria. It had been their third one. He’d even admitted to her that I wasn’t his little sister. Must be serious.

Outside the window, the weather was changing. September had arrived and the long hot summer was over. Matt had started his final year at high school and the flat felt empty in the days now. As we drew up in front of the house, I was in for a surprise.

There was a girl sat there. She had long dirty blond hair that covered her face, wore an oversized army coat and sat next to rucksack that looked bigger than her. I couldn’t put my finger on it but there was something familiar about her.

“Who’s that?” Jeremy asked.

“I don’t know, one of the kids Matt and Saff work with I guess.” I hoped this girl wasn’t in any serious trouble. And if she was, Matt had no connection.

“Well, best of luck old girl,” I glared at Jeremy, he laughed, “Take good care of little Jeremy,” he said, patting my belly (which amused him to no end), “and let me know when Ben McCall gets back to you.”

As I came close, the girl stood up. She was tall for her age but still, by my estimate, no more than thirteen. “Hello?” I said.

“Erm,” she seemed lost for words.

“Are you here to see Matt?” My heart in my mouth.

“Are you my sister?” She stammered.

I was about to tell her no when I remembered a grinning face in a photo on a wall in Cheshire. “Issy?” I asked. She nodded. “What are you doing here?”

“I couldn’t take it anymore. Not her and her rules,” she spat. I tried not to smile. “You know what it’s like.”

“Sadly no.” Her face fell and I felt the cold wind blowing. As the months progressed, I found myself colder in spite of all the extra weight I was carrying. “But you should come inside.”

I took a good look at her in the corridor. Her legs and arms were thin but long. She’d been through a growth spurt recently.

“How did you get here? How did you know my address?”

“I looked on mum’s phone and it was only £15 on the MegaBus.” Well, she was resourceful.

We sat at the kitchen table and talked. From reading between the lines I guessed she was being bullied at school.

“You aren’t going to tell mum, are you?”

“I have to tell her you’re here, Issy. She’ll be worried sick.” Her expression fell. “But perhaps you can stay the night at least. Then we’ll see what your mum says,” ‘yours’ not ‘ours’. “I’ll see if we can work something out.” She relaxed a little.

I went into the garden to make the necessary calls. “Hi Fi,” I said, trying to hide my concern.

I failed. “Kelly, is everything OK. Is Matt OK?” She sounded on edge.

“It’s nothing like that. Don’t worry.” I stopped. I didn’t know where to start.

“What’s up Kelly? It isn’t James is it?” She sounded more concerned.

“No. You remember me telling you about Peggy and how she has two girls.”

“Uh huh.” There was doubt in her voice.

“Well I got back from work and the eldest, Issy is on our doorstep. Apparently she’s run away.”

She sighed. “Run away? Is everything OK?”

“I get the impression she’s being bullied at school. And she doesn’t get on with Peggy. Can she stay the night? I’ll call Peggy and sort something out for tomorrow.”

There was a long pause, “Of course she can stay. She can have your old room. Let Peggy know she’s safe but don’t say anything about her returning until we’ve had a chance to talk to her and find out what’s really going on.”

I hadn’t thought of anything like that. Or perhaps I hadn’t wanted to.

“OK. Thanks for being understanding. I love you.”

“I love you too. You don’t have to thank me, this is your house too and she’s your family. I guess that makes Issy Matt’s aunt,” she said with a laugh. The image made me laugh as well.

After taking a deep breath, I called Peggy. She was shocked to hear Issy was there. She’d dropped her off at school that morning. I told her not to worry, Issy was safe and I’d speak to the girl and let her know what was happening. Peggy didn’t sound too keen on waiting but there was little she could do.

“Your mum was surprised, she thought you were around at your friend Claire’s.” Issy sat on one of the kitchen chairs, her legs pulled up against her body.

“Claire isn’t my friend. Not since she met Alice,” she said, tearing up. Ah, I thought. We were getting closer to the truth.

Through the tears, I gained a clearer picture of what had been happening. Apparently there was this boy at school, one Issy said she had a crush on. Claire and Alice had been egging her on, telling her that her feelings were reciprocated. When she’d approached him, he reacted like, well, a typical boy. She was mortified while Claire and Alice had laughed. When she told Peggy, “she couldn’t deal with it. She got nervous like I did something and just told me to stop talking to them. Ever.” She looked confused.

Matt was home first. I heard the thud of his football kit hitting the wooden floor in the hallway.

“Matt,” I called out, “Can you come in here?”

The bruises had gone now but you could still see the scars where they had broken his skin. I wondered what Issy made of him. Matt was followed into the living room by Saff.

“What’s up O.M.?”

“I want you to meet someone,” I had hoped Saff wouldn’t be here. “This is my, well, my half-sister Issy.”

“Oh,” Matt looked surprised. “I didn’t realise we were having visitors.”

“Neither did I.” He, Saff and I laughed, although Issy looked embarrassed.

“So you’ve run away? Cool,” Saff came around Matt and spoke directly to Issy. I was torn. On one hand, I was glad Issy was making friends; on the other, I didn’t want to encourage her behaviour. Before I could say anything, Saff had taken Issy’s arm and led her to the sofa. “What music are you into Issy? Matt, give me your phone so we can use Spotify,” she said, reaching for it before he had a chance to react.

Ten minutes later, Matt and I were in the kitchen while Saff and Issy were singing along to Little Mix in the living room space.

“What’s going on Kells?” I hadn’t seen Matt look so worried since the hospital.

“It seems like your girlfriend and your aunt are bonding Matty.” I couldn’t help laugh as his face went pale. I put a hand on his arm. “She’s doing it for you Matt. Remember that.”

I sent Matt out for crisps and made some dips for us all. Once he returned, we sat around and talked. Saff and Issy spoke at a million miles per hour. I was pleased by how much Issy wanted to know about our lives.

“Is it strange being,” she looked at me but couldn’t find the words, “well, I mean, I heard my mom tell Perry she had two sons and then I looked at her phone and saw the picture and I mean you’re….” and she looked at Matt and Saff for help.

“Transgender?” Best to own it I thought. Plus, the nanosuits were more than she needed to know now. “I couldn’t tell you. I don’t know what not being transgender is like.” I hadn’t thought before I spoke. Was that true? It felt like it was. It didn’t feel like I was different from how I had been, more that I had discovered something new about myself. Like discovering a secret room in the house you’d lived in since childhood.

I looked over at Saff who said, “Matt told me. Sorry. I didn’t say anything. I figured it was your story, not mine. No one else knows.” She smiled, “Besides, you’re O.M.”

“Kelly’s not the only one,” Matt smiled at me. “Transgender that is.”

“You, but you’re…” she trailed off and turned bright red, then smiled. Saff giggled, but stopped when her phone started buzzing. She looked up at Matt and anger passed across his face.

“I, I, need to take this. It’s her…” She ran off into the garden.

“She calls whenever she suspects we’re together,” muttered Matt, his eyes focused on the garden.

“Give her space,” I consoled him. Issy was watching the conversation like a spectator at a tennis match.

“Saff’s mum doesn’t.” I looked over at him and he just shrugged,

I looked at Issy, and all I could say was, “she’s very religious and doesn’t approve of Matt.”

Issy crossed her arms, “Are all mums bad?”

“Sorry, I’ve taken up more than my quota of the good ones,” Matt smiled at me. It was my turn to blush.

Saff was still out in the garden half an hour later when Fiona turned up. “I’ve brought Chinese, I hope that’s OK?”

Judging by Issy’s expression it was. “Mum never lets us have takeaway!” I wasn’t surprised.

“Perhaps keep this between us then,” I suggested. I’m not sure what was making her happier, the prospect of pork balls or keeping the secret from her mum.

“Is everything OK?” Fiona gave a meaningful nod towards the garden. Saff was sat on a plastic chair, she had my coat wrapped around her. I could tell there had been tears.

“The usual,” I replied darkly.

“Right. Shall we put this all on a tray?” She nodded to the living room space that was only separated from the kitchen by a bookcase. “We can eat off our knees and Netflix and chill?”

I spat out a mouthful of satay chicken while Matt, and even Issy, burst into laughter.

“What, what did I say? Netflix and chill is a thing right?” Fiona looked perplexed. I touched her arm and whispered in her ear. She went red, “Oh, oh dear…”

It was a further ten minutes before Saff joined us. She slumped down on the sofa next to Matt and stole a chicken dumpling. I passed her some tissues, her makeup had run.

Later, after I’d settled Issy down in my old bed, I was in the corridor heading to the living room. I stopped outside the door hearing Matt and Fiona talking.

“…. Why can’t she stay!”

“Matthew, you know why. You are both only 15.”

“You know what her mum’s like.”

“She’s staying with Ruth.”

“But she’s knows that and she sends people around. She’ll do the same tonight.”

I could hear a heavy sigh from Fiona. Through the crack in the door I could see her back hunched over, “Look, I’ll call Richard. If it’s OK with him, she can sleep with Kelly in our room and I’ll take the sofa,”

Matt started to protest but Fi stopped him, “My final offer.”

I counted to ten and then entered.

That night I couldn’t sleep. I lay there, Saff’s arm dangled over me, her gently snoring in my ear. I thought of Fiona. We had been sharing the same bed for a while now and I missed her. The weight of her body, even how she took the covers with her when she rolled over. I nudged Saff’s arm off me and she turned over grunting. It was Friday tomorrow. Perhaps Issy could stay the weekend before we drove her back?

The next morning, Peggy called. “Kelly, thank you for watching Issy. I’m very grateful. We’ll be down tonight to get her. I hope she hasn’t been a bother.”

I looked over at her, eating an omelet and watching videos on YouTube on Fi’s iPad. She seemed perfectly happy. “She’s been terrific,” I said, giving her a smile. “She and Saff were having a ball last night.”

“Saff?” she said, “Who is Saff?”

“Saffron. Matt’s girlfriend.” Then I remembered. I hadn’t told her about Matt. “Sorry, Matt is Fiona’s son. He’s 15.”

She laughed, a nervous laugh. “Three children in the flat? You and Fiona must’ve had your hands full. I don’t think I could handle that.” You couldn’t handle two. Of your own.

“They were great,” I said, “A little loud, but great. It’s not like they were toddlers or something.”

There was a silence on the line and then another laugh. “You have that to look forward to.”

I looked at Issy. She seemed relaxed and I could see why she was in no rush to get back. “Um, the traffic getting into London on Fridays and Saturdays can be a mess. It would be no bother if you wanted to come get her Sunday.” Issy gave me a huge grin and nodded.

“Um, I don’t know if that’s a good idea.” I could tell that she wanted to say yes, but was trying to keep up appearances. “Let me call Perry and I’ll get back to you. He’ll probably drive.”

Within fifteen minutes, she called back and said that, “Perry thinks it’s a good idea.” Sure, Perry. “Make sure she does her work, they post it on-line. We’ll see you on Sunday.” When I told Issy, she was over the moon. When I called Fi, she laughed and just said, “I could’ve told you that would happen.”

Issy did her homework all day while I reviewed Susan’s edits. As of late, she had told me how much I had grown in the time she knew me and, with a chuckle, “not just in the obvious way.” In the afternoon, we went shopping. Issy giggled every time I introduced as my sister. Matt was at football practice all afternoon so Issy helped me with dinner, my now-legendary (to me, at least) sweet potato chili.

I was dumping in a handful of cayenne pepper when Issy said, “aren’t you going to measure that?”

I laughed. “It’s chili. You go by feel.”

“Mum doesn’t. Everything is very specific,” she said, with an eye roll. “If she misses something…” Her voice trailed off.

The next morning, I woke early and took Issy to a local cafe. I had a craving for bacon. We sat by the window watching the world go by. The cafe was situated near to Epping Forest and, as such, was a beacon to hipster cyclists. Over the top of her orange juice, Issy watched them coming and going.

“So, what’s really going on, Issy?”

“I told you,” she said, looking away.

I put my hand on hers. “We’re sisters,” I said, with a smile. “You can tell me.”

She giggled a little. I couldn’t decide if it was because she had another sister or because she knew the truth, such as it was. “It’s mum. It’s Claire. It’s Alice. It’s everything. I mean I didn’t even like that boy, to be honest. Claire and Alice were over, and Mum heard them tell me how I should go over to him and how he liked me. So, then they left and she kept telling me how wonderful it was that a boy I liked me and how I should talk to him, and what to say, and how proud she was that I was becoming a young woman.”

I wasn’t surprised, to say the least. “You don’t seem proud.”

“I mean she’s not proud when I get As or when my teachers tell her how good my art is. But, a boy? That’s what matters.”

I paused, “Do you like boys?” She looked at me. I fumbled, “I don’t mean it like that. I mean like are you interested in romance and all that. With whoever you like. I don’t judge.” I do, however, sound like an arse.

She smiled and then said, “I don’t know. I mean like it used to be they were all on one side of the playground and we were on the other and now they’re not. And it’s all Claire and Alice talk about and I don’t want to, but it’s all that matters to mum. We all have to be just perfect. Hair just so, clothes just so. And I just want to do what I want to do and she won’t let me.”

I took a sip of my coffee, decaf although I could’ve really used caffeine. “Peggy,” I couldn’t call her mum, “had some bad times,” is all I could come up with.

“Whatever. I mean how can you defend her after what she did to you?”

I pushed around the last of my eggs with my fork and thought about it. “I’m not. I guess, in her head, she’s saving you from all that. Not saying she’s right, just that’s where she is.” And how she justifies everything. I started to get upset and then said, with a smile, “she’s not here today. Just you and me. I’ve got some edits to do and, when you finish your work, we’ll do something.”

We spent the rest of the breakfast and the walk home talking about the book. She was fascinated in a way that no one else in my life was about the process of writing. Not the parties or the publishing, but how I came up with ideas.

“So, how do you decide what Ingrid is going to do next? Like, do you have this outline written down - like, in this chapter, this is going to happen?” Her eyes lit up with every question, it was infectious. Matt and Fiona were interested but not to this level. That or they lived with it day to day.

“Sometimes. But sometimes when you start heading to one place, you end up someplace else completely different and you realise that was the place you were supposed to be all along.” I smiled, “You have to let it take you where it wants to go.”

----

The next morning around 10 AM, I heard a car pull up outside. From the purr of the engine, I could tell that it was expensive and new. I looked out the window and saw a man getting out of a Land Rover Evoque (we had bid the campaign a few years ago, unsuccessfully), about 45 years old, 6’2” with dark hair. He was about 15/16 stone and was wearing a pressed shirt and khaki pants. He was alone, unsurprisingly. “Issy, I think Perry’s here.”

Issy groaned. She, Saff and Matt were playing FIFA on Xbox in Matt’s room. Well, Matt was playing while Issy and Saff played on her phone.

The doorbell rang. I waddled to get it but Fiona beat me to the punch. “Hi,” Perry said, “I’m Perry Gilford, Peggy’s husband. I’m guessing you’re not Kelly,” he said, with a laugh.

Fi laughed. “Uh no thankfully. I’m Fiona Walters,” and she hunted for the words to say.

Before she could say anything, he said, “Peggy told me. Don’t worry.” I waddled up and he said, “Well, judging from the looks of you, you must be Kelly. Very nice to meet you,” he said, sticking out his hand. He had the build of a centre and the bland good looks of the car salesman he was.

I smiled, “Same. Where’s Peggy?”

He smiled and said, “Ah, this was a little more than she could handle. Besides, someone had to watch Lisa.” I felt bad asking the question. It wasn’t his fault.

Fi flashed me a smile. “Oh,” I said, “I would’ve liked to have met Lisa.”

He smiled. “And she you, but we’re trying to discourage what Issy did. I hope she wasn’t a bother.”

Fi said, “She was perfect.”

Just then, Matt, Saff and Issy came out of his room. Issy said, “Hi, Perry. This is Matt, my nephew.” Matt smiled and rolled his eyes, having heard this from everyone the past two days. “And this is his girlfriend Saffron.”

Perry turned to Fi and said, with a laugh, “This is quite the menagerie you have here, Ms. Walters. Three teenagers and this one barely a woman herself.” He smiled at his double entendre.

She laughed, “Tell me about it. Matty, introduce yourself.”

Matt was wearing a Liverpool t-shirt he had just bought. He stuck out his hand, “Hello, sir, I’m Matt Walters.”

Perry shook his hand. “Footballer?”

Matt grinned. “Yessir. I’m a striker, sometimes midfield.” Saff and Issy rolled their eyes. Guy talk.

Perry looked him up and down. “Put a little muscle on you and you’d be a hooker. Play a real sport,” he said, with a grin.

Matt, with an ease I envied, said, “But the NHS doesn’t cover lobotomies and mum says they’re too expensive.” Perry burst out laughing and said, ‘bloody wisearse.’

Issy said, sadly, “I’ll go get my rucksack.”

Perry smiled, “Why don’t you kids go do something for a little bit? I’d like to talk to Kelly for a minute.” Issy grinned and ran off with Saff. Matt looked at Perry, shrugged and walked after them.

“Smart boy you have there. Excuse me Fiona, do you mind if I borrow Kelly for a minute?” Fi looked at me, smiled and nodded. We went out to his Land Rover. I struggled to lift myself in. He came around and offered me a hand, looking me up and down. We got in. I sniffed and was overwhelmed by the smell of new leather.

He smiled. “Nothing like the smell of a new vehicle, eh? I mean, with the new addition, you could stand to replace yours,” he said, pointing at Fi’s Vauxhall Astra. “I mean this is the sort of vehicle for a growing family like yours.” I raised an eyebrow and he broke out laughing. “Have to try, y’know.” I laughed and he said, “Sorry Peggy’s not here.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” I said matter-of-factly. “I’m not upset.”

“I hear you, mate. Peggy’s a complicated woman. Beautiful but complicated. She tries. She and Issy are always banging heads.”

I debated saying something but decided that it wasn’t my place. Instead, I went with, “it’s the age.”

He smiled knowingly. “That’s it. She was happy to see you and your brother. She just has trouble dealing with, er, difficult situations. And this,” and he laughed, “no offense, is a difficult situation.”

I laughed out loud and pat my belly. “You think so, huh?”

He laughed. “That suit is bloody amazing. If I didn’t know, I’d never guess.”

“Thanks,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say. He was Peggy’s husband and a rugby playing car dealer on top of that. I remembered the rugby team in University. We always thought of them as posh-twats getting boozed up and making a mess for others to clean up. Every society has its version of original sin. America has race, Ireland religion, the UK has class. That’s not to say all those problems don’t occur everywhere, just that the ‘original’ is the prysm you see the others through.

He laughed. “I mean, Peggy told me how it happened. But, man to man, how did it happen? How did you end up here?” I told him the story of how I lost my job, how Jamie had ordered the suits and how there was a mix-up and he interrupted me. “No offense, mate, but that sounds like bollocks to me.”

“I’m not lying,” I said, getting defensive. Humphrey started kicking.

He put his hand on my shoulder. “I know you’re not. But, there’s something off here. I won’t claim to understand how these things work, but something’s not right, y’know. She orders a suit to be pregnant and they screw up and somehow you get pregnant. Again, I don’t understand technology, it took me weeks to show people how the built-in GPS works, but it just seems like this is something that would take time to do, to make a suit that makes you pregnant. I can’t see how you can just order it and have it a day later.” I must’ve turned pale because he suddenly said, “Look, Kelly, if you’re happy, good on you. You and Fiona seem happy. Hell, a lot of my business is couples like you,” he said, with a grin. “And you don’t know me from a hole in the ground…”

I stopped and thought about it. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had always thought about it but I was so focused on getting through each day that I ignored it. Now that I thought about it, my head started spinning. I put my hand on the door handle and my head against the window. Then, I fumbled to open it, wanting air. I opened the window and gulped it in. Perry put his hand on me, “You OK, Kelly?”

“I’m, uh, fine,” I said. “Sorry about that.”

He looked at me and said, “I’m sorry. Ignore me. It wasn’t my place to say anything. Peg is always on to me think before I speak.” I looked at him. He seemed like a good guy, the sort of local car dealer who volunteered his time for local charities, who sponsored the local youth teams. He seemed fond of Issy and it had to be hard to be a father to two girls who weren’t his own. He certainly didn’t seem to harbor any ill will towards me and it had to be strange. To meet your wife’s grown son - who was now her daughter, her pregnant daughter.

I didn’t know what to say. He really was trying to help me. I went to put my hand on his arm and pulled back, not knowing how he’d take it. So I smiled, “Don’t worry about it. No offense taken and I won’t tell her.”

He laughed, “Thanks. And seriously thanks for taking in Issy.”

I said, “She’s a good kid. She’s welcome anytime. Next time, maybe all four of you can come. Make a day of it.”

He smiled and said, clearly measuring his words, “Yeah, we’ll make a day. Maybe we’ll meet at the Eye. Lisa wants to ride the Eye. Does that work?”

“Sure.” I doubted it would happen. We’d see Lisa, Issy and Perry.

He looked at me again. “She does care for you and Bill. She just has,” and then he looked out his window for a minute. “I think it’s time for Issy and me head back.”

We went in and got Issy. She dragged her rucksack out and threw it in the back. She gave me a big hug and told me she loved me. She thanked Fiona and Matt and gave Saff a hug. Saff took her number and promised to send her links to some video even Matt didn’t understand. Perry thanked us, ‘for me and Peg,’ and promised we’d meet Lisa soon. As they pulled out of the drive, I thought about what he said and about what James said. I decided to put it out of my mind for now.

---

That Monday morning was cold. We hadn’t yet put the central heating on a timer and I woke with my legs and arse freezing cold. Glancing over it wasn’t hard to work out why. With her father away for work, Saff had stayed over again. She was wrapped up in the duvet, looking like a sausage roll. I glanced at the clock on my phone, 6:20am. I wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep.

I tiptoed down the corridor and into the living room. Fiona was curled up on the sofa still blissfully asleep. She looked so peaceful, it made me smile. Not wanting to wake her I went into the kitchen and poured myself some dandelion lemonade. After turning on the heating and the coffee machine I sat down and opened up my laptop. There was the usual nonsense that I’d never open. Halfway down was an email from Rich. I opened it and nearly jumped up, ‘Publisher wants to meet… does early next week suit you?’

Silently I danced around the kitchen punching the air, then Humphrey started kicking and I had to sit down. I looked over at Fiona. She had fifteen more minutes left to sleep. It’d be cruel to wake her. I sipped my drink and navigated to the Guardian website. The news was the same as ever, Trump had tweeted something stupid, the French had a new president everyone apart from UKIP liked and Theresa May thinks we need a strong and stable government. I put the kettle on.

About fifteen minutes later I heard Matt shuffling into the bathroom, then the shower starting. Fiona began stirring, I placed a mug of strong black coffee on the floor next to her.

“Thanks,” she mumbled, squinting at me through sleep covered eyes.

By the time I had dressed myself the house was in chaos. Matt had both Fiona and Saff waiting, noisily, outside the bathroom. Fiona was knocking on the door. I knew she had an important meeting that morning.

“What?!” Came Matt’s voice.

“People are waiting!” Fiona stated

“I’ve only just got in the shower,”

“You’ve been in there twenty minutes!” I knew Saff was exaggerating but moments later I heard the shower turning off. A few minutes after that Matt appeared out of a cloud of billowing steam. Matt had a t-shirt on and a towel wrapped around his waist. Despite his lean muscular torso you could see the shape of the breasts he normally hid. Saff giggled and turned so red I thought her head might melt. Matt looked flustered and pushed past. I wanted to say something but figured he needed space.

As I headed into the living room I heard Fiona begging Saff to be quick.

Matt and Saff left together. I got the feeling Matt was still sulking. Fiona rushed past me, kissing me on the cheek. And then it was just me. I hadn’t told Fiona about the email. For some reason I wanted to keep it to myself, at least until I knew the details.

I went to my laptop. Before I could open it I noticed a text on my phone from Issy. It was written in a mixture of emojis and text speak. Reading it was like trying to figure out a magic eye picture. After a few minutes, I worked out that I was now the favourite sister (poor Lisa) and that her trip to London had gained her some cred at school. I sent back a smiley face, two thumbs up and three xs. After that I sent an email to Rich, saying any day apart from Wednesday was doable and asking for more details. I took a deep breath and opened up Susan’s latest notes.

Around 11:45am my phone started to buzz. “Hello?” I answered.

“Hello, Kelly? Ms Cooper?”

“Saff?” She sounded younger on the phone, “Is everything OK?”

“I need help,” she was close to tears, “I tried Dad but he must be in meetings. They came to school. School says I need an adult.”

“Who came where? Why do you need an adult?” I composed myself, “What’s happening Saff?”

“My uncle and mum, they came to school to take me away. Mrs. Williams stopped them but they had to call the police.”

I looked at my laptop, thinking of everything I needed to get done before meeting a publisher, “Give us a minute. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“Thank you sooooo much!”

Mercifully, the school was only a short walk away. I moved as quickly as I could but even that wasn’t very fast. Schools looked different than I remembered them. When I’d been there, in the dog days of the Major years, all the computers were kept in one, lockable room. You spent half the year in IT learning to type on typewriters. As I walked around the school I could see classrooms, each of which had interactive whiteboards, projectors and more.

The reception looked like the reception for some small tech company. Gone were the wonky plastic chairs and noticeboards with fading pictures cut from local newspapers.

“Hi,” I said to the middle aged woman behind the desk. It was a minute or two before she looked up. She smiled but didn’t seem all that friendly. “I’m here for Saffron Mitchell?”

“And you are?”

“Oh, sorry. I’m Ms Cooper,” I extended my hand to her, “Kelly Cooper,” she didn’t take it.

“You are a relative of Saffron’s?”

I shook my head, “More a friend of the family really.” While she didn’t tut, I could tell she wanted to.

What she did do was pick up her phone and call through for Mrs Williams.

“She will be with you in a minute,” the receptionist said tersely.

“Is there somewhere for me to sit?” she looked at me funny, then I realised that with the high desk she couldn’t see my belly. I took a couple of steps backwards.

“Oh, my dear! Of course, please come around here!”

The receptionist’s demeanour changed completely. She found me a chair behind the reception and by the time Mrs Williams had joined us ten minutes later I been shown pictures of her five grandchildren on Facebook.

“Hello Ms. Cooper.” Mrs Williams was surprisingly young, probably no older than me (my real age). She had short blond hair, wore a simple but smart red sheath dress with a black jacket and shoes. When she took my hand, she looked pleased to see me but stressed.

“I’m sorry to make you walk further but my office is quieter.” She pointed up to a clock, “Break starts in five minutes, best we get there beforehand.”

As I sat in her office I understood why. The sound of pupil’s footsteps above us reminded me of an avalanche. I have a great respect for teachers, I couldn’t do it.

“Has Saffron told you what happened?”

I shrugged, “Her uncle turned up? Wanted to speak to her?” Force her not to testify.

“It’s a little more than that. At about 10, this morning Saffron’s uncle and her mother turned up wanting to take her away. They claimed there had been some sort of family emergency and that she had to come with them.”

I groaned.

“Well, quite. Luckily all Saffron’s teachers are aware of the situation and what happened to Matthew. Sorry, you are Matt’s mother?”

“Well, yes. One of them.”

Mrs Williams smiled, “Not an unusual story around here. So I’ve called the police who are speaking to Saffron’s mother and uncle and of course we wouldn’t let her go with them. However we do have a problem.”

“Oh?” it seemed pretty straightforward to me.

“Legally there’s nothing we can do once school hours are over. Technically, Mrs Mitchell is still her mother and there are no injunctions against her seeing her daughter. I was hoping we could talk to her together. Perhaps if she could see her daughter,” she must have seen the furious expression on my face as she leant back, “under supervision of course, perhaps we can head off a worse situation.”

I sighed. I wished Fiona was here, she’d know what to do. I was still an amateur at all this. “OK, but I want to speak to Saff first.”

Saff was sat looking dejected in an empty classroom. A young woman, a teacher I guess was keeping her company. Had teachers got younger since I was a kid, or did it just seem that way?

“Look at me, one flight of stairs and I’m a sweaty mess.” She hardly looked up. “How are you holding up?” This time she did acknowledge my presence, if only to give me one of those looks teenagers give you when you’ve said something stupid. “Sorry to ask.” She nodded her head slightly. “Tough day?” Again she nodded. “Can I ask, do you want to see your mum?”

“I don’t know,” her voice was small, like a little girls. It was only then that I realised how much this must have taken out of her. “If I do, Matt will be angry with me. And she’ll try and force me not to testify.”

“Matt’s been angry with you?” I remembered how moody he’d been in the morning, she nodded. “Well look, he’s a teenage boy. They can’t always help it. It’s their hormones.” That earned me a begrudging laugh.

“How about we see your mother together? Perhaps we can work something out?” Saff nodded.

The young teacher tapped me on the shoulder. “Could I have a wee word?” She spoke with a Scottish accent. We went over to the corner.

“My name’s Samantha,” she looked over at Saff, “Mrs Ann to the kids. I’m Saffron’s form tutor. Call me Sam.”

“Nice to meet you Sam. I’m Kelly. How’s she holding up?”

Sam sighed, “Not brilliantly. The family have been using some of the kids to get messages to her. Saffron used to be such an outgoing girl. Now, she keeps herself to herself when she’s not around Matthew.”

“The poor girl,” I said. Until today, I had been so focused on Matt that I didn’t realize that she had been beaten too. Maybe not physically, but she was the football between her family and ours. I didn’t mean for it. I was only trying to help but, since it happened, she lost her mother too.

I don’t know what I was expecting to see when I met Ellen. A monster breathing fire and brimstone perhaps. Instead, I saw a small dark skinned woman, 5’2”. I could see where Saff got her delicate features from. She had that well worn expression of mothers trying to do what’s right for their kids. If her idea of what’s right wasn’t so warped, I’d have felt sorry for her.

She came over and offered me her hand. “I’m Ellen Mitchell.”

I didn’t want to touch her but I looked over at Saff. She looked scared and hopeful. For her, I said, “I’m Kelly Cooper. I’m Matt’s aunt.” Mrs. Williams gave me a quick look and nod of comprehension.

We walked into the staff room. I started to walk to the far side of the room, when Ellen offered me the closest chair, saying, “I remember what it’s like.” It was hard to reconcile this small, polite woman with the hateful monster that encouraged Amadou.

We sat down in the staff room, opposite each other. Saff sat in between Sam and me, while Mrs. Williams was next to Ellen. A female police officer sat a short distance away.

“OK,” Mrs Williams started, “I’m sure everyone here has Saffron’s best interests at heart. I want us to see if we can talk this through, just us girls.”

I felt uncomfortable, wondering if they could all see through me, to see who I used to be beneath the suit. I wondered if Saff, in a moment of weakness, had disclosed my secret. I looked over at her, her face impassive as she stared at the floor. I knew she wouldn’t betray me and relaxed.

We talked, mostly them. It was heartbreaking in many ways. Ellen kept reminding Saff of her childhood, how she used to play with her cousins. She said, “I don’t understand why you are letting this incident get between you.”

After the fourth mention of the incident, I yelled, “it wasn’t an incident. Your shithead nephew and his shithead friend beat Matty into hospital. He could have lost his kidney, been brain damaged. You’d have known that if you came to see him.” She didn’t acknowledge me but instead jiggled her leg and looked at the wall. Mrs. Williams and Sam looked at each other then the officer, who was taking notes the whole time. Saff shrunk into the chair, pulling her legs to her chest. “Sorry, Saff, but I just don’t understand how she can think we should just let this go.”

Ellen got upset and yelled back, “You are a child yourself.” I laughed to myself, thinking if only you knew. “You have no idea what it’s like. Come to me in fifteen years, when it’s your son, your daughter. You don’t know anything yet. This is family. You don’t understand.” I thought about what Bill had said in the car. “Saffron, please, remember mamoo,” I figured that was her grandmother or something. “What would she say if you went against the family.” My mind wandered. It seemed to do that more and more recently. I thought about James and our meeting. How they had used past memories to draw me in.

When we asked Saff, she looked at her mother and said, forcefully, “I will not go there if they are there. And I will not be alone with you and your brother.” Ellen looked hurt at that, as if Saff was denying her family by refusing to say her uncle’s name. In spite of her hate, of myself, I found myself feeling for her. I kept rubbing my belly, to soothe Humphrey. And me.

Eventually, we came to a solution. Saff would visit but only when Richard was around and her cousins and uncle away. I was shocked that they were out on bail. When Ellen left, she didn’t look me in the eye but said, “I hope the rest of your pregnancy goes easily. And you never have to face anything like this again.” I didn’t what ‘this’ meant.

After everyone left, the officer said, “Bloody Bail Act. Don’t worry, miss, we have our eye on them. Your son is safe.”

Sam took Saff to her next lesson. It was the last of the day, so they let me wait in the staff room so I could walk Saff home.



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