The last taboo: A love story

HE INSISTS ON a hotel room. You want him to stay with your family – you, Graeme and daughters, Sal and Janie. I want you to stay with your sisters. You almost say this on the phone but change it to half-sisters in your head and that doesn’t sound right either so you banish it to the place in your brain that overflows with unspoken things. 

‘They’re really looking forward to meeting you.’ 

That’s not right either. Your voice is timid and too wobbly and you’re afraid of how it must sound travelling down the telephone line. Or are you connected by beams bouncing off satellite dishes? 

He would know. That’s his job, something to do with telephones and phone lines, something you don’t really understand and will have to ask him about when he arrives. You hope it’s not satellite beams. Somehow voices encased in copper wire or travelling down underground cables seem safer, more private. You still don’t want anyone to know.

‘Just us,’ he says from almost a thousand kilometres away. ‘For the first time. Don’t you think?’

You like his voice. But that odd little laugh, what does that mean? 

You tell yourself you always hear more than is intended; it comes with being too sensitive, you’ve been told that most of your life. You banish your fears along with the half-sisters. You want it to work. You’ve waited so long that you will do whatever he wants. 

IN THE SUBURB where you live on the eastern edge of the city, your neighbour has a pomegranate tree that grows close to your front fence. For years you’ve watched its cycles of growth, the tapering of its green leaves and the budding of its orange-red flowers into fruit. When you took your first class in botanical art and discovered the Greek myth about the creation of seasons, it was never Persephone who triggered any recognition: it was Demeter, wandering the earth day and night, searching frantically for her lost child: it was her anguish you recognised as your own. 

BIRTHDAYS. MOTHER’S DAY. Christmas Day, too. Was this when he’d get his first bike, first football, first car? Did he fall off, fall over, drive into a fence post and dent the duco? Who was there to steady and encourage as he tried again? And always: Did he know about you? Did he ever think of you? 

You waited. You waited until he was old enough. You waited until that day in the ’80s when they changed the law. You wrote to the department and waited for their reply. Then you wrote to him, and the department forwarded your letter on. How you struggled over that letter – your first connection, the right tone, how much to disclose, how to engage without pushing him away. And again you waited some more. For a reply. For photographs. To hear that he wanted to see you. 

He didn’t. Not yet, wrote Marion Taylor, surrogate mother, saviour and usurper who had raised him for nineteen years. But now you had an address and knew he’d grown up near the sea in the north; now you could imagine a sunburned boy, scaly-nosed, a surfer with bleached blonde hair. Was he happy? Could you hope for that? There was no mention of a father but you saw this as an oversight on Marion’s part. He’ll contact you when he feels more ready, she wrote in her country woman copperplate, all neat cursive, crossed t’s and dotted i’s. 

‘He needs to grow up a bit,’ said Graeme as you lay beside him, limp with rejection and regret. ‘He’ll come round. It’s his loss if he doesn’t.’

You sent him a card for his twenty-first birthday, although you knew the department had strict rules about relinquishing mothers, birth mothers, first mothers, biological mothers, real mothers, other mothers – so many names for just being his mother – making contact without mutual consent. He didn’t respond. Marion wrote telling you about his party, his friends, the speeches, the set of golf clubs he’d been given, because he’d just taken up the game. 

She meant well, you knew that. Graeme meant well, too, when he poured you another red: he understood, that’s what he always said. Your marriage survived because of his understanding – and the safety valve of his absences. More and more, you couldn’t wait for him to be off again to his consulting and engineering in the Pilbara and Kimberley, sometimes as far afield as Bougainville. You couldn’t wait for the space you craved to dream and hope.

Waiting became your secret burden. It haunted you when you washed dishes and made beds, sat beside you when you keyed data into spreadsheets at the clinic. It came with you when you walked the dog in the park, drew your eyes to young men carrying books and bags, made you notice the way they wore their jeans slung low on their bums, how they were forever pushing, bumping, touching, laughing. You inhaled their scent as they passed, boyish and bittersweet. 

You waited until his twenty-third birthday. It had been easy enough to piece together the clues of city and occupation, to phone head office and ask for him by name – too easy really. You thought you’d have time to think, to prepare. But suddenly he was there. 

‘Ben Taylor.’ 

Your grip tightened on the receiver. He sounded exactly like his father, like Jim. Why weren’t you expecting that?

‘Taylor,’ he said, impatient now. ‘Who’s this?’

Still you couldn’t speak. A frail-voiced phantom spoke in your stead. ‘Claire.’ 


Had he hung up? 

Had you missed the severing clunk? 

He was still there. 

‘Give me your number, Claire. I can’t speak now. I’ll call you back during my lunch break.’ 

You scrabbled for a pen. You wrote down your own number as you spoke the digits to him. What were you thinking, doing? Was it a ruse on his part? Would he call back? ‘I’m sorry…’ you said.

‘I’ll phone at one,’ he said, not unkindly, in charge from the start.

YOU HATE THE hotel he has chosen, the mirrored walls and pink marble floors, the piped muzak that lulls you into compliance before you’ve even crossed the lobby. And it takes only the rich clink of cutlery from the atrium café for you to feel that familiar pulse of panic: you’re from the wrong side of the river, the wrong side of the tracks – you don’t belong here.

You find the bathroom behind the lift tower. You crave a cigarette but don’t want the smell on your breath. In front of the mirror, you fluff at your hair. The colour is too brassy, and despite a treatment that cost a fortune it’s still too curly, too wild. Your eyes are wild too, your cheeks too red. Why did he want to meet here?

You are washing your hands when a woman pushes open the door. She has the whole wall of basins and mirror to choose from, yet she smiles and stands next to you. She reminds you of the pretty blonde girl who lived on the farm next to Jim, a boarding school friend, part of his tennis set. As you escape, a stab of memory returns: when you first met her, you wanted her – no, expected her – to be rich and bitchy and easy to dislike. But although everyone knew she wanted Jim for herself, she was unfailingly polite and kind and nice. 

Is anything as it first seems?

YOUR MOTHER BELIEVED in fairy tales. Despite her own marriage demanding a daily dose of blindness and denial, for you she contrived a version of Cinderella with the rich farmer as the prince. 

‘He’ll have to marry you.’ 

You poked your finger into the canary’s cage. Claude’s beak was soft and stubby, more nuzzle than bite. You wanted him to bite. 

‘He will marry you, won’t he?’

‘I don’t want to marry him.’ 

‘Don’t be ridiculous. He’s got pots of money. Why not?’ 

You didn’t state the obvious: you were barely sixteen and Jim just eighteen. Or that Jim would not want to marry you, not if he knew everything about you: how could he? Nor did you say you wanted to keep your baby, or that now you had a good job in the bank, you could do so if she would help. 

Instead you said: ‘His mother doesn’t like me. I’d have to live on the farm with her looking down her nose at me and hating me forever.’ 

Your mother’s carefully made-up face began to crack. She said you were looking a gift horse in the mouth and that you didn’t know what side your bread was buttered on. And when horses and bread didn’t work, she said you’d always cut off your nose to spite your face – what was wrong with you? Then she called on the Church and said you’d sinned against her and God, and you’d have to go away because you were a disgrace to the family name – which elicited a snigger from you that made Claude forget his nibbling and whistle vociferously. 

When your father was told, he lifted his hand and knocked you sideways against the wall. You tasted blood and turned back, daring him to do it again. 

‘Don’t, Merv. Don’t!’ pleaded your mother.

‘Slut,’ he said, slamming the door, making the canary flutter and shriek. Later you heard the chink of beer bottles in the shed…later still his footsteps in the kitchen, his whispered apologies at your door, begging to come in. 

THE JACARANDA IS in full bloom. You have given in to the riot of lavender blues and purples and spent the afternoon in the back yard, measuring, sketching and colour matching. You’re still not sure what you’re doing with this drawing but you have a general idea that you’d like the blossoms to come cascading down from the top of the frame. Not thinking about the finished composition has freed you up to really observe the juxtaposition of delicate flowers against gnarled and twisted bark. 

One of the things you love about botanical art is how it has taught you new ways of seeing – the puffed matt finish on a rose petal, the freaky ugly beauty of a celeriac root, the clusters of frilled bells that coalesce in jacaranda blooms. With Graeme away again, and the girls easy about when they eat, you sit under the tree until late in the day, aware that you’ve never really seen it before.

Jacarandas have a special meaning for you. He was born in November when they were in bloom, weeping onto the streets, washing the pavements in blue.

THE LIFT IS mirror-lined too, and as you climb to the forty-fifth floor, countless other Claires stare at you with eyes intense, excited, terrified. What do you say to a son you held in your arms as a baby and are now meeting as an adult for the first time? Your heart is pumping too loud, too fast. You step into a corridor of creamy plush carpet and shiny black doors that feels as cold as a hospital ward. 

What if he’s already regretting his decision to come? What if he doesn’t like you? If you walk away now, it could be two lives saved, the status quo retained.  

WHEN HE WAS born you were not meant to hold him. Other girls at the Mater told you a pillow would be held in front of your face and you’d not even catch a glimpse of your baby. But he came so quickly, there was no time for the usual doctor, the one who punished you with brutal fingers when he did your pelvic examinations. The doctor on duty was young and there was no time for a general anaesthetic, no time for holding up pillows. And when you saw your baby, red and wriggling and wailing, you wailed too. 

‘Let me hold him. Give him to me. Give him to me.’ The young doctor hesitated. Sister Julian had just left the room, expecting you to labour long and hard. ‘Please,’ you begged. ‘Please. Just for a moment.’

Nothing prepared you for the savage joy of having him in your arms, or for the sudden sensuous prickling of your breasts. Later you would hold two daughters, and although each would bear its own unique bliss, nothing would ever diminish your memory of this. He nuzzled for your breast, instinctively, urgently, tiny lips sucking air. Your tears baptised his wet head. Jamie, you whispered, Jamie you named him. You held him for barely two minutes before they took him away.

IT IS SUMMER when he visits. The flames of your neighbour’s pomegranate have flickered into blossom. Hot northerlies sweep down from the hills and petals fall like embers onto the footpath, are picked up in great squally gusts and blown about the street before falling like blood spots onto your freshly washed sheets. 

You have been waiting months to paint a pomegranate flower and, later, its ripened fruit. You imagine the pod split open with its multitude of seeds filling the lower part of the frame, its purple pulp and ruby juice depicting an archetypal womb. But the pomegranate is also a symbol of death. When Persephone ate its seeds, she lost her girlhood innocence and became guardian of the underworld, custodian of its secrets. How can you show that too?

As you leave home to take the train to the city, you see you’ve left it too late; in the hot winds, your neighbour’s tree has been denuded. 

AND NOTHING PREPARED you for the grief. You still remember having your breasts bound, the sour smell of milk leaking through. The empty ache in your arms.

On the third day you signed the papers, unsure if the nuns had drugged you at the time. Later, one of the other girls would tell you it was deliberate; they caught you on the ‘baby blues’ day when you ached with guilt and despair. 

After a week, you were on the train home. ‘Tell yourself it never happened,’ said Sister Pauline. ‘Get on with your life. Go home and forget.’

There was no forgetting. For a time, you hid in the high country, working long shifts as a waitress in a hotel. On your days off, you walked mountain paths and stood on rocky cliffs with an empty pod of a belly, staring into an abyss of eucalyptus blue. Once you climbed over a railing and thought you might jump. It was after you’d heard that one of the girls from the hospital – the thin one with stringy dark hair who’d spoken barely a word after the birth of her daughter – had been found with her head in her mother’s gas oven. And still you couldn’t cry. 

You didn’t know grief had physical symptoms. Your bones ached. Your heart ached. Mostly your arms ached with the memory of holding him. You learned to walk with the stiff limbs of a robot, stooped and mechanical. You learned how to speak and listen and hide everything about yourself. You became a different person. 

Somehow Jim found out where you were and drove half way across the state to see you, and although you told him you’d given away his child, still he begged you to marry him. He said he would find a way to get your baby – his baby – back. Together you could start again, that’s what he said.

You almost believed him. Then you saw the shadow of your father standing behind him. ‘No,’ you said. ‘It won’t work. Not now.’ 

Two weeks later, he drove into a semi-trailer on a country road. The truck driver survived to tell the police that Jim’s ute had veered into his path at the last moment. The police said there were often accidents on that stretch of road: there were no suspicious circumstances.

YOU ARE LEANING against the wall, smoothing your hair before knocking, when further down the corridor, a door opens. You straighten, pretending to search through your bag for a door key. You smile at the man and woman as they pass. When you see them enter the lift, you draw a ragged breath. On the wall next to the door, there is a framed sepia print of a family picnicking near a lake at the turn of the century, men in straw boaters and women with corseted waists, all with puzzled expressions frozen in time. 

Initially, Marion sent you two photographs of your son, one black and white, one colour. The black-and-white was of him with his brother, two skinny boys on a veranda. The wall behind was cream brick, working-class and solid. There were sheer curtains at a picture window, a pot-plant drooping beside a door. You were forced to face the fantasy that had sustained you through the years: he had not been adopted by a wealthy family with all the opportunities you imagined. And in the letter accompanying the photos, Marion mentioned, as casually as you might mention a lost sock, that her husband had died in a work accident when Ben was nine years old. 

Reading that letter, you gripped your stomach in physical pain. How had your child –Jamie, Ben – coped with this death in his young life? Did he sense on some deep level of knowing that it was the loss of a second father? How did he live with it now? 

Guilt – new guilt, raw guilt – spread through your body like a virus: if you’d married Jim, would he have driven into the semi-trailer and died? If your son had grown up on the farm with his real father, could he have had a better life? And why hadn’t you married Jim? Your memory baulked and blurred. Your own father had died years ago now and nothing seemed as clear-cut as when you were younger, nothing as black and white as it had to your sixteen-year-old self.

The colour photo was clearer; Ben was older and stood alone, closer to the camera. Your eyes feasted on him as they had for those few short minutes after his birth. Your arms ached with the memory of holding him as they had ached for the past twenty-three years. 

This was the photo you first showed Graeme and the girls. ‘He looks nice,’ said Janie. ‘He looks like you,’ said Sal. But you knew he was the image of Jim, stockier, but achingly similar. 

You copied that photograph and framed it. The original you kept in your wallet, next to Graeme and the girls. This was the photo you showed your mother in the retirement home, where – with your father now gone and a short-lived second husband recently buried – she was being energetically courted by a widower, as dithery as your daughters with new boyfriends. 

‘This is Jamie,’ you told her. And when she squinted and looked confused, you added, ‘His name’s Ben now. Your grandson.’

How often we dream of moments like these, when retribution will be cutting and fast. But you had no such satisfaction. She held the photograph for too long and studied it too intently. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, handing it back. ‘He looks nice. Have you met him yet?’

‘Next week.’

‘Things were different then.’ 

Was this by way of apology? You were unforgiving in your blame. You wanted her to ask to meet him so that you could punish her with your refusal: he was yours and you would not share him with anyone. But she didn’t ask and, once again, everything passed into silence.

FOR THE FIRST time you notice the spy-hole in the door. It reminds you of the glassy eye of a bird, the scrawny grey pigeons your father kept in the cages in the back yard, their early morning cooing. You remember him carting them off in boxes, their excited flapping and scrabbling when they returned to the roost, always long before he arrived home himself. 

What if your son is standing behind the spy-hole, checking you out? What if it doesn’t work out? You think of sliding out of sight but you don’t: you lift your hand and knock. 

Afterwards – weeks afterwards when you can bear to look through a chink in the door and glimpse what happened there – you will phone the adoption-support agency, anonymously, of course. A woman will reassure you that it is not uncommon; that it sometimes happens between fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, between brothers and sisters – perhaps even happens often. How would anyone know without accurate statistics, and who’s going to admit to it anyway? 

The woman will tell you it has a name. This will reassure you for a moment, but you will forget the name before you’ve even hung up the phone. It will help, a little, knowing it has a name, but not a lot. Once something is given a name, it is real and there is no escaping the shame.

HOW DOES A mother greet a son she has not seen for twenty-three years? Are there rules for such occasions? Accepted etiquette?

There is a moment after he closes the door when you’re both standing in the entry hall with barely room to move, and neither of you knows what to do. Your face feels tight with shyness, your mouth dry. But there is a strange recognition pushing into your brain: you are looking at yourself; you are looking at Jim; why hadn’t you expected this? And suddenly you are in each other’s arms. You’re laughing and crying into his shirt and the smell of him is Jim and all those lost years, and there’s a lingering baby smell too, milky and clean, how can that be? Beneath the flimsy fabric of his shirt, you can feel his heart pounding and you realise he’s as nervous as you. And when he pulls back, when the hard-pressed warmth of him has gone, there is an awful yearning loss. He’s not the baby you held in your arms all those years ago. He’s a stranger, a man. You will never hold that baby again. 

‘Sorry,’ you say, sniffing and blinking, searching in your bag for a tissue. ‘Sorry.’ 

He smiles. He has grey eyes, your eyes. And as you follow him into the room, you see he’s barely taller than you, compact, broad shouldered. And
his hair is dark with your reddish glints, longer than Jim ever wore his. And his blue shirt is fresh pressed as if he’s dressed carefully for you. And he moves with the same jaunty step that first attracted you to his father. 

He’s beautiful. You think this as he brings a box of tissues from the bathroom, and the thought hurts so much that you look away and try to wipe the hurt from your eyes. ‘Sorry,’ you say again. There’s so much you’re sorry about. 

‘Good to meet you, Claire.’ 

He says this suddenly, formally, as if it’s some kind of official welcome he’s just remembered to deliver. And it sounds so funny and inappropriate, that you look at each other and laugh. 

You have the same laugh!

You’re ready to respond in a jokey kind of way – Good to see you too, Ben – but you’ve thought of him as Jamie for twenty-three years and Ben doesn’t come easily so again you turn away to hide the excitement that churns in your stomach, and the happiness that makes your breath fluttery, all of it mixed up together behind your tight face. 

‘What do you think?’ 

You follow the sweep of his gaze around the room. Window walls and a balcony, heavy drapes, settee and chairs upholstered in beige, a king-size bed with padded headboard and maroon spread. You hate rooms like this. You’re into cosy and clutter. It’s like a stage set meant to impress, and then you realise he’s looking at you like a child who’s brought home his best painting from kindy, he wants your approval, he’s waiting for a mother’s praise – eager and terribly uncertain. 

You murmur something suitable and cross to the window. ‘It’s a wonderful view,’ you tell him. The brown river below, parklands and gardens scorched by early summer heat, toy traffic moving soundlessly, a train snaking into city central, even a splatter of tiny white sails on the bay. 

Suddenly his shadow is at your side and you’re aware of a slow softening all through your body, a melting of muscles and tissues and bones held tight for years. At the same time, your breath seems to get stuck in your throat, you can’t breathe, not properly. With one hand, you reach for the window, afraid you might pitch right through the glass and fall all the way to the street. 

And those thoughts again: Why did he want to stay here? Why didn’t you insist on him staying with you? Did you really try hard enough? 

‘I hope you don’t mind me not staying with you.’ 

How weird is that? Is he reading your mind? ‘Didn’t think I could get a handle on too much at once. You know what I mean?’

Of course you understand! You tell him this, and tell him again, of course you understand. And the whole time you’re berating yourself for being so stupid. How could you have not thought about how hard it must be for him? So locked up in yourself! 

‘But I’m taking you home for dinner tonight,’ you say. ‘That’s all right isn’t it?’

‘Might have to keep you here all to myself,’ he says with a grin. ‘Got a fair bit of catching up to do, wouldn’t you say?’ 

Those eyes again, so much like your own. Sal’s eyes too; and again that lurch in your gut. You’re suddenly so happy and dizzy that you sink down on the sofa and gulp enough air to ask for a drink, for water.

He dives for the bedside table. ‘We can do better than that.’

Champagne is not your favourite drink. But he’s already removed the bottle from an ice bucket that you hadn’t noticed before, and you don’t want to spoil it for him. You watch him untwisting the wire, the way a lock of hair falls over one ear. The same as Jim’s. And yet you’re also looking at a complete stranger, a boy, your baby, a man. It’s totally confusing. For one faint moment you feel as if you might already be drunk but the cork pops, making you jump, making him laugh. Again it’s like hearing yourself laugh, and that makes you laugh with a sudden rapturous joy. Can it really be happening? Has he really come back to you? 

He pours carefully. The froth stops obediently at the top. He looks at you, his eyes now difficult to read. ‘To us,’ he says, clinking glasses. 

You drink too quickly, thirstily. Bubbles rush up your nose and into the tear-filled space behind your eyes, making you blink again. You notice fine black hair on his arms. He tops up your glass and returns to sit on the bed, arranging two pillows behind his head. 

You are sitting on the sofa. His feet – crossed at the ankles, brown shoes, polished –are within reaching distance of your hand. How to begin? You want to tell him everything. You want him to understand, to forgive you. You want him to understand his father, his death. But there’s something about his eyes watching you over his glass and the little smile on the corner of his lips that makes your heart race like a schoolgirl. So instead you ask about him and he tells you the safe things. He used to play footy but since he’s moved to head office he hasn’t got into a team. ‘Real football,’ he says, ‘not Aussie rules.’ 

‘Me too!’ You both laugh at the idea of you playing soccer and you tell him that Graeme and the girls follow Hawthorn but you’ve always been a soccer fan. Isn’t that strange? You notice the way he looks away when he’s thinking, then turns back to speak. It’s exactly what you do! 

He says his job’s okay but it’s not what he wants to do all his life. There are plenty of girls but no one special, not since the last one. Again he looks away before saying he’s not interested in dates and diamond rings, plenty of time for that. 

Your face heats up. You are so relieved; how could you share him? Not yet, not when you’ve only just met. 

He tells you he’s glad he grew up in the north and you feel a stab of rejection that makes you swallow hard and look away yourself. But you remind yourself that you gave him no choice, and of course he doesn’t mean to hurt you, it’s just a thoughtless remark. 

He says he loves the sea. He says he can’t be away from it for too long or he begins to feel as if he can’t breathe.

You stop yourself gasping out loud. It’s exactly what you’ve said to Graeme for years. Let’s move. Let’s move closer to the sea so that I can breathe. 

You’re having trouble breathing now. Although you’ve had barely a half glass of champagne, you’re as lightheaded as a girl on her first date. That’s okay, you tell yourself; in a very real sense, it is your first date. Why wouldn’t it feel a little surreal?

He tells you he’s into movies. Mad Max, Raiders, Star Wars. What about you? Before you can answer, he says The Blues Brothers has to be his all-time favourite. Have you seen it?

‘Three times. I love it!’

‘Me too.’ He grins, puts down his glass and hums, and as he gets to his feet, the hum turns into a tune, his fingers click out a rhythm and suddenly the tune has words. We-e-e-ell I heard about the fella you’ve been dancin’ with all over the neighbourhood… You can’t believe it! He’s bopping around the bed and his voice is Ray’s voice, all bluesy and rockin’, and he knows all the words, and the words keep coming. Come o-o-on…let me see you shake a tail feather… 

Then he’s bending and flapping and doing all the crazy tail-shaking movements, and you’re suddenly laughing and clapping along too, you’re entranced. Next he twists up to the sofa, reaches for your hand and pulls you to your feet, still singing like Ray and bopping like Belushi and you join in easily, twisting high, twisting low, arms spinning. How crazy is this? 

Alright! Do it right! Do the fly! You can’t remember the movements but you follow him easily. The bird! The duck! The swim! The monkey! Now you’re flapping too, flapping and head pecking, strutting and swimming and you’re both shakin’ tail feathers and laughing so much that by the time he gets to the mashed potato and boogaloo and boney maroney you collapse on the bed, gasping for breath.

‘Claire’ – he drops down beside you, panting too – ‘you are one great twister.’

‘First prize. Town Hall dance, 1961. Won a yellow transistor.’

‘I’m impressed.’ 

He’s so close you can smell the sharp tang of his sweat, hear the gurgle of laughter in his throat. You’ve been aware for some time that you can no longer remember Jim clearly but lying there on your back beside his son there’s a sudden sharp image: Jim at a dance in a country hall, taking the mike from some visiting band and doing a hip-swinging Elvis boogie to the cheers of everyone there. 

‘You’re so like your father,’ you tell him. 

‘Am I?’ He sounds pleased. 

‘He could sing. He loved a good jive.’

He doesn’t reply. Slowly your breath settles and you hear his breathing slow too. Why are you on the bed? You’re not aware of thinking this but you will ask it of yourself later. Again and again you will ask yourself: Would it have happened, if you’d sunk onto the sofa after your crazy dancing instead of onto the bed? 

Suddenly your mouth feels dry and grimy. You should get a drink. But as you lift yourself off the bed, he puts a restraining hand on your arm and there is a sudden, crippling numbness in your legs that makes it impossible to move. You lie down again. Thoughts, crazy thoughts, swirl through your head. You’re his mother. You don’t know him, not really, you’ve only just met. Don’t be stupid, he’s your own flesh and blood. You remember the aching weight of him in your arms. Does your baby, this man, have the same memory of being held by you? You are thinking all of this, and none of it as he turns on his side and smiles at you. Your world shifts sideways for an instant. You turn to face him.

IT STUNS YOU how many flowers are poisonous – oleanders, belladonna, angel’s trumpets – these might be common knowledge, but who would suspect the delphinium or sweet pea, chrysanthemum or daffodil? Not to forget Convallaria majalis, pretty little lily of the valley, the most poisonous of all. And wasn’t an entire army wiped out in ancient Greece after eating honey made from bees feeding on rhododendron trees?

You remember reading this in Steiner’s Encyclopaedia of Plants, a gift from Graeme when you first took up botanical art. You remember it on your way home, your son beside you on the train, his knee sometimes knocking yours. You remember it over and over as a way to forget everything else.

IF YOU’VE LIVED long enough with a secret, a lie, it’s not difficult to wear a mask when required. Your life is often a performance: you have learned how to observe it as a stranger might. Arriving home, you turn your key in the door and are met by the smell of roasting chicken and Buffy barrelling through the living room, as eager as Graeme and the girls hurrying from the kitchen. 

You see everything through your son’s eyes. Photos and notices stuck to the fridge –Sal’s tennis lessons, Graeme’s footie fixtures, a plastic fairy that Janie refuses to throw out from a long ago birthday cake. And Graeme with his grey-peppered hair, belly swelling into a paunch, his handshake turned into a clumsy hug. Sal’s direct gaze, the reddish lights in her long hair. Janie’s uncertainty, her shy smile. All of them so welcoming, so kind.

You choke on your good fortune. What you have lost, you have found. You are so proud. At the same time, you cringe inside with repulsion at what you have done. You make bargains with gods you don’t believe in. Please please don’t punish me, it won’t happen again. I’m sorry, sorry, please, please.

He enters into an unspoken pact of pretence. His readiness to please, to chat and charm, leaves you grateful, and alarmed. Only you can see the guarded, cloudy look in his eyes. 

His photograph is framed in pride of place on the sideboard, next to the others. But no matter how hard everyone tries, he is not part of the stories shared over dinner. He wasn’t with you on the camping trip that Christmas you tried to cook a chicken in the sand. He won’t be here next week when Buffy has the lump on her leg removed. He is your son but you are not his mother, he is a stranger to you.

After dinner, Sal shows him your paintings framed in a row on the wall above the sideboard, a persimmon, quince and pear. He leans in close to study them. Suddenly, his arm is around Sal’s waist. In a brotherly embrace? Or is he laying false scents? You lean against the table, mind whirling. You want the lingering caress of his hand on you, not on your daughter. You disgust yourself. You want to fast track the whole day and begin again.

‘Funny looking pear,’ he says.

‘It’s a quince,’ says Sal slipping away. 

You have a bitter taste in your mouth from the afternoon’s champagne. You have a creeping sensation of terror at what you’ve unleashed. You drink too much, thirsty for the acid hit of forgiveness. At times you laugh too loudly, almost a little crazily. Graeme and the girls forgive you. They think it’s happiness, tiredness, an over-reaction. Whatever they think, it’s not the truth. 

Later, despite arguing with Graeme over how much you’ve had to drink, you will insist on driving him back to his hotel. When you arrive he’ll want you to come up for a drink. You will refuse but you’ve been deprived for so long that you no longer know what to do. He is your baby; you are in love; isn’t that normal? Not like this, this is wrong. But it doesn’t feel wrong. How can that be? And as you struggle, he will laugh and charm – he will tickle you, for god’s sake, in the dark of the car park – and eventually you will go to his room. For the last time. That’s what you’ll tell yourself. For the last time. 

SUNDAY WILL PASS in a blur of family and city sights. He will pretend as well as you – better than you – and you will hate him because he can. In the late afternoon, you will make an excuse and let Graeme drive him to the airport. 

After he has gone, Janie will drape herself over your chair and stroke your hair. ‘What do you think, Mum?’ And when you can’t find words for the confusion inside, she will cuddle you innocently. ‘Shall I run you a bath, Mum?’

There was a time when you liked your body. You’ve always been taller and leaner than your sisters, who have your mother’s shape and colouring, while you have your father’s wide forehead and fine hair, his rangy limbs. It’s not surprising Lauren Bacall was his favoured star, or that he tried to find her in you. 

You lock the bathroom door and stare at yourself in the mirror. Your face is hollow-eyed with guilty red patches on your cheeks. Your body repels you. You may not have grown satyr horns or cloven hoofs, but there is no way to disguise your hideous crime, it shines on your skin like slime. Yet behind the disgust there is desire, desperate and wild. You lie in the bath for a long time. When you hear Graeme return, you want to slide under the water and die. 

‘Not surprising you’re tired,’ he says later. ‘You must be exhausted. All these years. It’s an anticlimax isn’t it?’ And then: ‘He seems like a nice guy.’ 

NEXT DAY, TWELVE long-stemmed red roses are delivered to your door by a girl who asks your name and rushes away as if she can’t wait to be rid of them. You read the card with shaking hands. So glad we’ve met at last. 

While you’re arranging them in a vase on the kitchen bench, Graeme comes in from the garage where he’s been working on Bert, the MG he’s been doing up for the last ten years. He affects mock surprise. ‘I’ve forgotten your birthday!’ Then he lowers his nose and has a deep sniff. ‘Why don’t roses smell anymore?’ He pats your bum as he passes. ‘Nice, darl. Nice of him.’ 

That evening Graeme returns from walking Buffy around the block with a yellow rose hidden behind his back. ‘Stole it from Mrs B’s,’ he says as he hands it to you with the boyish grin that won your heart twenty years ago when you thought your heart was beyond mending. ‘Smell that.’ He places the rose under your nose and you inhale its lemony scent. ‘Can’t have him showing me up, can we?’ 

YOU TRY TO deny it but you can’t get through a day without hearing his voice. You phone him and he says it’s the same for him. You know it’s wrong but it won’t go away. 

You make lunches for Janie and work at the clinic and wait for Graeme to come home, more and more hoping he’ll stay away longer. You listen to Sal’s complaints about a lecturer: ‘He expects us to know everything. Have you heard of a Religion of Humanity? Some guy called Comte invented it. Do you think anyone lives entirely for others?’

You nod vaguely. There’s a squashed, tight feeling in your heart that chokes off your breath and makes it hard to speak, to think. You’re living for only one other. When will you see him next? Sal shakes her head at you and walks away. 

It was never like this with Graeme, never so deep, so intense, so achingly desperate. You are head over heels in love. 

When not curbed by work, you are restless and moody and mad with desire. You sketch and draw and paint at a terrible pace. Within days you’ve finished the squash and deepened and darkened the shadows on the agapanthus. You give into the seduction of an apricot rose and begin laying in colour there too. The Floressence exhibition is almost six months away but in barely four weeks you have three pieces ready for the framers. 

Yet beneath the frenzy, there is a nagging terror. The terror of loss. The terror of being found out. 

THE VAST MAJORITY of flowers are hermaphrodite – larkspur, magnolia, peony, poppy – they all share the same sex organs. When you are sketching, you study them intently, the stamens and waiting stigmas, the anthers and pollen-tipped pistels, the bulging ovaries. Like people, every flower holds the pattern of its own seeding. If you look closely enough – really look – you sometimes think you might find a way to grasp its microscopic secret. You might understand its pattern. 

How it happened. How it could happen. 

HE WANTS TO come for another weekend. You imagine the smell and touch of him, and hate yourself for it. ‘Only if you stay with us,’ you warn nervously. 

‘Thought we could drive down the coast. Meet up with the rellies.’

After you received Marion’s first photographs, you contacted Jim’s mother, now well into her seventies and living in a retirement village not far from the family farm, long sold, with Jim’s only sister also living close by. In bringing them Ben, you know you’re seeking redemption. But aren’t you also offering your son a familial connection where you can’t provide a father?

At first they are wary. To you, they are unfailingly polite but nothing has changed: you sense their well-bred disapproval. Although the words have never been spoken, you know they blame you for Jim’s death. If you’d married him, everything would have been different. And the question never asked: Why did you refuse him? 

But after less than ten minutes, they are smitten with Ben and you are rapturously relieved. While his aunt makes tea, he studies the photograph albums that his grandmother has ready. Sitting beside her on the sofa, he asks: How old was he here? And: When did he start riding a horse? And when his grandmother says: Almost before he could walk, you hurry to the kitchen to help Anna with the tea, afraid of hearing more. 

You return to find him admiring his grandmother’s collection of perfume bottles displayed in a glass-fronted cabinet. When he asks if they’re Lalique, and she beams and tells him they are, you almost drop the teapot you’re carrying. How could he know about French glass? You’ve hardly heard of it yourself.

Over tea, he asks polite questions of his aunt – questions you’ve never dared ask yourself – and he elicits answers that surprise you with their ease and candour. Her work? A part-time physio at the local hospital. Yes, she loves it. Married to the local GP. No, she shakes her head, no children, they tried and couldn’t. A scant second of silence and the barest glance your way. We thought about adopting, but… Sorry, she says with genuine warmth, no cousins for you.

You watch him run his fingers along the velvet settee and a malicious thought worms into your head. Is he appraising its resale value? Assessing his inheritance? He eats too many shortbread biscuits and for the first time you notice he’s developing a double chin like his grandmother. You find yourself thinking: If he was my son, I’d have taught him proper manners. Then you catch sight of his eyes: they are enormous, like a frightened child, afraid of doing something wrong. You want to reach out and envelop him in your arms, hide him away from others. He is yours, yours, and you will forgive him anything. 

Back in the car, you give his arm a playful punch. ‘What do you know about Lalique glass?’

‘There’s a lot you don’t know about me, Claire.’

You extract the knife from your heart and drive on, taking your eyes off the road to glance his way only when you’re well out of town. His profile is set and serious. Then he turns his head to the window and studies the straw-brown paddocks whipping by. 

‘Is this their land? Before it was sold?’

‘Maybe. Probably. They had so much.’

‘How many acres?’

‘I’m not sure. Thousands.’

‘So it could’ve all been mine.’

The knife digs deeper. A wave of despondency descends on you. So much regret. So powerless to change anything. The road begins to wind through low hills and rocky cuttings towards the coast. You focus on the running white line and try to blank your mind.

Further on, he relents. ‘One of my friends has a mother who collects glass, mostly Sowerby Pink but she also has a bit of Lalique. She taught me a thing or two.’ He pauses. Or do you imagine that? ‘About glass.’

That night you stay at a motel in a town further down the coast. You show him the beach and the waterfall in the bush behind the string of holiday houses. You eat in a foreshore café strung with fishermen’s nets and lobster pots where the fish is freshly caught and tastes of unsullied seas. Afterwards, he reaches for your hand across the table and when you snatch it away and glance furtively around, he laughs. He says no one would know. He could be your toy boy. Who cares? 

‘SO WHY DIDN’T he marry you?’ He asked this driving home along the coast road. You have been expecting it, and dreading it. Over the years you’ve learned to deflect questions about your past with such dexterity that it comes without thinking. You’re ready to deflect his question too. But he adds: ‘Not good enough for them?’ 

How easily the wound is torn open. ‘Why do you think that?’ Your voice too sharp.

‘Sorry, I don’t. It’s just the old girl’s a bit of a battleaxe, isn’t she? A bit of a snob?’ 

You need to protect yourself, you know this, but perhaps it’s different when the question comes from your son. Perhaps the load of lies that you’ve carried for so long has become too heavy to bear alone. Perhaps you’re just too tired. The words are out of your mouth before you can bite them back. 

‘He wanted to get married. It was me who didn’t want to marry him.’

A flush of relief, a glitter of sea. Too late you realise this may be a test you’ve just failed. The coastal scrub rips past the window, blue, green, a seagull on a blackened tree stump, another fluttering above. You don’t dare glance at him. 

When he speaks, there’s a sneer in his voice, he can’t hide it. ‘You mean you could have been lady of the manor, living the good life and you didn’t want it?’

You feel yourself blush. Shame washes over you. And guilt. And fear. Have you ever felt anything else? You sit there diminished, hating yourself, asking yourself: What’s wrong with a lie if it protects everyone involved? ‘We were too young,’ you say lamely. ‘It wouldn’t have worked.’ 

You risk a glance at his lips, thinned, angry. You’ve never seen him angry before. Again the fear. What if he goes?

He slows to drive through a holiday town. A bridge, an inlet, bright plastic tents on a sandy beach, children floating on duck rings. 

‘So,’ he says as he accelerates up a rise where the speed limit changes, ‘he wanted to marry you? But you thought it was easier to give me away. And fuck up everyone’s life? Is that what you’re telling me?’

‘It wasn’t like that.’ 

‘So what was it like, Claire? You didn’t love him?’ His voice quiet and bitter. ‘Why not join up the dots for me?’ 

Your nails cut into your hands. Once you knew exactly why you hadn’t married Jim, but you’re older now and nothing is clear anymore. ‘In India they’ve got almost a hundred words for love, for all the different meanings. Here we’ve only got one…it was different then…it’s hard to explain…’ 

‘So I was just the result of a screw.’

‘That’s not true…’

‘If you’d wanted me, you wouldn’t have ditched me.’

‘I was forced to give you up. There’s a difference.’

‘If he wanted to marry you. Where’s the force in that?’ 

You can’t speak. Your lips are trembling too much. You don’t need him to hate you: you hate yourself enough for everyone. You feel powerless sitting beside him and regret letting him drive. What can you say? You want to tell him that not marrying Jim had been a muddled way of making a stand against everything that was rotten and wrong in your life. You want to say you never felt good enough for Jim, for anyone, or anything. But your thoughts are too tangled and when you turn to the window, a huge swell is rolling in from the south, folding into belly-up surf before crashing and shattering onto the beach. You remember the night in the motel room and the sound of the sea drowns out everything else. 

HE WITHDREW FOR a time and you almost went mad. It should have given you time to think, to stop, but like all love affairs, it thrived on him not being there. The madness of missing him. The longing and despair. But after every meeting, he would inevitably leave. Again and again you gave him up: again and again you waited. 

And while you waited, again you wondered: Why had he insisted on a hotel room for that first visit? The thought was quickly dismissed along with everything else that made the madness possible. But now, when a hotel suited you both, reality intruded. 

‘What’s wrong with him staying here?’ asked Graeme, home from the Kimberley for three weeks and you desperate for him to be gone again. ‘Not good enough for him?’ 

‘He gets a special rate.’ You were so good at lying; you’d had years of practise. ‘Something to do with work.’ 

Another time it was Sal. ‘How come he only wants to see you? I thought I was getting a brother, now I don’t know what I’ve got.’ Feeling your face heat up, you panicked and turned your back, fumbled plates in the sink. Had she guessed? Your heartbeat thudded a warning. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said from behind. ‘It’s not as if I care.’

YOU COULD NEVER decide if he planned it the first time or if it just happened. How much was passion and how much was punishment? Eventually you remembered the name: genetic sexual attraction. But what exactly did it mean? That we choose lovers and partners in our own image? As Mick found his androgynous self in Bianca? Was that what you found in Ben, and he in you? A mirror of each other? Was it the ultimate narcissism? 

Sometimes you wondered if your desire for him was less for the man than for the baby you’d never held or stroked or smelled. And sometimes – not often – but sometimes when you could glimpse beyond your desire and disgust with yourself you wondered if you both wanted, in some warped way, to become united as one, mother and son. 

If so, it was fated to failure. After gestation the baby is always born: there is never any permanent union. After lovemaking there is always the parting, always the loss. 

BEFORE YOUR FIRST meeting, you had a rosy picture of how wonderful it would be to have him back, how your ever-present fears of the past would dissipate. Instead, you discover new terrors to replace the old. What if his plane crashes? What if he tells someone? What if he refuses to see you again? 

He doesn’t. He returns again and again, but like all love affairs it begins to wane. You notice the way he speaks to staff at restaurants, perfunctory and rude. One day he says your hair is too long, why don’t you get it cut shorter, it would be more suitable for your age? Sometimes you catch him studying you, his eyes naked and wistful and horribly confused, the eyes of a child. You feel so sorry for him that it tears at your gut as a mother’s love must. It’s your fault, you know that: you blame only yourself. 

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, you tell yourself a hundred times a day. It’s your mantra, your plea for clemency: I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. 

Other times, the very nearness of him is suddenly unbearable. You want to run from him, from your wickedness. Is it the same for him? And yet always it’s the terror of losing him that keeps you there. 

ONCE, WHEN SEVERAL of your paintings were selected for a joint exhibition, you watched a woman stop fleetingly in front of one, a seemingly simple rendering of three pale pink tulip buds in a vase that had taken months of meticulous effort to complete. ‘Nice,’ she said to her friend, another middle-aged woman wearing sensible shoes and a tartan skirt, ‘I like that one.’ 

Even in praise, how easily your work was dismissed. Except for fellow artists, did anyone see the complexity hidden behind glass and frame? The dream conceived and carried in secret until it was ready for birthing? The research and observation as the idea firmed within you; the clarity and hope as you made your first sketches; the joy and excitement of pencil on paper; the first try, the second, the seventh? And then the hard daily task of colour matching, paint mixing, the first delicate strokes and painstaking layering of colour and light, the tricks, the mixes, the tiredness at night? How could anyone fully understand? 

And how could you expect understanding of what you have done with your child? So easily conceived, so cruelly abandoned and raised by another. Your piece of work. Your son.

AFTER A WHILE he began to confuse money with love. At first you loaned him small amounts, then more, hiding it from Graeme, until it could be hidden no more. 

‘What’s going on?’ he demanded one night when checking bank statements at the kitchen table. 

It was almost a relief to be found out, to shout out your guilt. ‘He’s my son! My son! We help Sal and Janie. Why shouldn’t I help him?’

Then you discovered he’d borrowed from both his grandmother and aunt. He earned good money. Where was it going? Why did he need more? You argued and he cut off from you for weeks, months. 

Just thinking about him began to exhaust you. Once you had no understanding of how a child in the womb could be influenced by the power of thought and word, sound and feeling, but now the world had come to understand these things and you worried about everything you did that might have warped and crippled him. 

The voices that reached his developing ears: your arguments with Jim. The sudden, yawning silence of his father’s absence. What did he feel as you travelled north, the fear in your heart held close to his? Did he sense you wanted him to stay in your womb forever rather than face that moment of loss? And what did he feel when the cord was cut and he was torn from you? Was it imprinted in his tiny baby body, his brain, his soul? Did your distress become his? 

Again and again, you asked yourself: How could this have happened? How could you have let it? More and more when Graeme was away and Sal out late and Janie in bed, you had another glass of white, and another, before moving onto the red. Soon an empty bottle, sometimes two, sat accusingly before you: it was so easy to do, it became almost routine. 

At the same time, you became obsessed with Dionaea muscipula, its Venus jaws and hair-trigger leaves. You researched it during the day and at night you lay awake, hearing its slang name in your head like a song – tippity twitchet, tippity twitchet, tippity twitchet. But this fixation didn’t turn into a painting as your plant passions usually did: instead, you were increasingly haunted by the thought of what you’d become: you the trap and him the fly that feeds the devouring carnivore. 

Yet still you lived in a fog of desire, both excited and repelled by your need of him, by memories that made you blush, by thoughts of his touch, then revulsion at the exhausting focus of your life that excluded everything else. 

When could you see him again? 

SLOWLY YOUR ART began to dry up. It had always been your safe harbour, your sanctuary and salvation. Now every pencil stroke was wrong, colours refused to blend, you had no touch with tone. Everyone had bad days, you knew that, and they were always succeeded by days when everything came together in a glorious rush of brush stroke and colour. But as autumn moved into winter, over and over you made the same errors and had to erase and start again. Your desk became a mess of torn paper and discarded drawings, your paints dried up. 

Passing the greengrocer one night after work, you stopped to admire the flowers on the pavement and decided to cheer yourself up by buying a bunch of jonquils to add to the tulips Sam had brought home the night before. Their fragrance filled the house with inspiration but after one desultory attempt you tore up the paper and poured yourself a red. 

THERE HAD TO be a price, a sacrifice. One night you arrive home from work to find Sal packing clothes and books into her backpack. 

‘I’m moving out,’ she says, not looking up. ‘I’m sharing with Jen and Lisa, closer to uni. Dad’s given me the bond. I can’t stand it here. Everything’s changed.’

‘You could have talked to me about it.’

She straightens, her eyes hard and challenging. ‘When have you ever talked to anyone about anything?’ 

‘That’s not fair.’

‘Isn’t it?’ There’s disgust on her face, or do you imagine that? Always an astute child, you realise she’s grown into a young woman while you’ve been preoccupied with your son. What does she know, or suspect? You wait, feeling faint, feeling guilty and filthy and desperate to escape those bold accusing eyes. 

Graeme reassures you. ‘She’ll be fine, you know that. She’s ready for a bit of freedom, it’ll be good for her.’ 

But after he’s been home for a few weeks, it becomes obvious that he is desperate to be free of you. He can no longer match the number of glasses you’re now drinking at night – openly, daring him to say something, sometimes lying about finishing the bottle that was opened the previous night – and his jokey good humour begins to dry up. 

‘You waited all your life to meet him,’ he says the night before he’s due to fly out again. ‘What’s gone wrong, darl?’

Every nerve in your body is instantly alert. ‘What do you mean?

‘You’re not yourself. It’s like you’re not really here. Haven’t been for months.’

You are sitting on the back porch as dusk descends over the garden. You stub out your cigarette in the ashtray and flick the butt into the oleander. You’ve often longed for the freedom and escape he seems to find in the outback, but the vast distances have always left you feeling small and uneasy. And on your only venture into jungle further north, the verdant, crushing density of trees left you desperate for city streets. You resort to the long-held grievance that is still as true as it is easy. 

‘We can’t all flit off to the wide open spaces when the going gets tough, can we? And who’s been left home holding the fort for the last twenty years?’ 

‘That’s what I’m trying to say, darl. From what I can see, you’re not holding down anything much at the moment.’

Six months later, it is no surprise when he leaves too. He says you’ve gone off into la-la land and have no room for anyone else, not even your daughters, and if you’re not careful, you’ll lose them as well. He says he hopes the equation works out – plus son, minus daughters. When he says he can’t compete with your new love, he seems so angry and jealous that at first you think he might have guessed. But over the following weeks and months, he keeps in touch, his concern and support still there despite his formal leaving. It makes you feel worse, this love so undeserved. What would he do if he knew? 

When they’ve both gone, you stay in bed for weeks. The bedroom stinks of cigarettes. You wake each morning with the sour taste of wine on your breath. Yet still you drink. To deaden desire. To dull the memory. To prepare for next time. You drink to hide. You drink to die.

Yet somehow, before Janie wakes each morning, you manage to find your way to the shower and have breakfast waiting for her when she emerges. You return to bed as soon as she leaves for school, getting up in the late afternoon to prepare for her return. She is not fooled, but at least she stays on, mothering you, shaming you. 

YOU DO NOT let him go easily. You travel north to meet Marion and discover that her love for her son – for your son – is as great as yours, perhaps even greater. She serves lunch beneath a pink bougainvillea and tells you Ben built both the deck and pergola. ‘I’m lucky,’ she says, ‘he’s so handy.’ 

You swallow the straw taste of lettuce and bread and murmur something agreeable to hide the reality that you know nothing about this Ben, her Ben. Where did he learn his carpentry skills? You want to ask but don’t want her to see the extent of your ignorance. She tells you about his childhood, his brother, his distress when he lost his father, her husband, Ray.

‘He’s a good boy,’ she says and again you nod agreement, aware of knowing the most shameful of details that no mother should know. Later, in the living room, she shows you a photograph of a young woman and a smiling child, and she can’t hide her surprise when she discovers he has not told you about his daughter, fathered to a local girl almost four years ago. He loves his daughter, she tells you, he supports her financially but can’t visit as often as he’d like. 

A grandchild? Your grandchild! More yours, surely, than Marion’s? 

Heart thumping, you hold the photograph in its silver frame, searching for Jim, for your son, for yourself. You want to ask if you can meet this child who was not given away at birth like her father – who you discover is being raised by her young mother as you might have raised him – but you know Marion can’t make that decision; it can only be made by your son.

He is flippant when you return home and confront him on the phone. ‘Why should I tell you? She’s got nothing to do with you!’

‘She’s my grandchild!’

‘And I’m your son.’ The word echoes down the phone line and waits in silent condemnation for your response. 

‘Is that where my money’s gone?’

‘What if it has?’

‘Don’t I have a right to know? To meet her?’

‘No, Claire, you don’t.’ 

You are speechless with pain. You wait for him to say something, anything, to take away the bitter taste of his words. But as you scrabble to steady your breath, he says quietly: ‘Look, Claire, I’m over this. Maybe, one day you can meet her but not now. It’d be all too confusing. For everyone.’ And while you’re waiting for him to continue, he quietly hangs up.

You begin to cry, ferociously, you can’t stop yourself. It’s as if you’ve been waiting all your life to cry this way. You hear the sound of your sobbing and try again to stop but you have tears enough for every mother on the planet who has ever lost a child, for every child deprived of a parent, for every father robbed of fathering. You cry for your son. You cry for your daughters. You cry for yourself. You cry for Jim. For his parents and sister. For Marion. For Graeme. You cry for the granddaughter you may never know. For your grandchild’s mother. And her mother. You cry for all the lost fathers. You cry a great rippling pond of tears for everyone touched by that long ago birth of your child. And still you cry.

ONE MORNING SOON you will be forced out of hiding. You will stand in a dress shop, disoriented, a little shaky at the knees, helping Janie buy a dress for her first formal. She will parade before you in a sleek satin gown, black and beaded and breathtakingly beautiful, another with red pleats, sharp and sophisticated, another pale blue and as frothy as clouds. Finally, she will settle on a midnight blue silk that swirls as she moves as if she has merged with the moon. And as she stands before you with a gilt mirror angled behind, you will see yourself reflected there. For a moment you will be confused; you will see yourself as that girl; she will spin and smile, so lovely, so young, your hair, your eyes. 

When she returns to the dressing room, and the assistant has moved to her counter, you will continue to study that mother in the mirror. You will feel as if you have been away for a long time in a dark land and have just returned. You will see that not everything in your life is a lie. You are also Sal’s mother and Janie’s mother; that is real. But this image will quickly slide away, it will be just a glimpse, you will not be able to hold onto it. But as you walk home with Janie swinging her shopping bags beside you and chatting in the glassy autumn air, you will begin to let him go. You will do it for his sake, and for your own. 

You will eventually come to accept your position on the fringes of his life. You cannot be his mother, he has one. You cannot be the other, he is your son. You will eventually decide that an end to not knowing was definitely better than never daring to find him, to never knowing at all. You will never forgive yourself. There will never be any forgetting. But sometimes you will think it happened to someone else. 

At the gate, Janie will reach over the neighbour’s fence and pick a pomegranate. ‘Look, Mum,’ she’ll say. ‘Look at the colour. They’re like Christmas-tree balls. You should paint one.’ 

With the fruit glossy and warm in your hand, you will follow her inside. Perhaps you’ll try.

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