Born in South Wales in the mid 1960’s, Sarah Dyer left home at the age of 17 to work in London. She has always written fiction but until studying for her Masters in Creative Writing (which lead to her liberation from her 14 year marriage) she was terribly shy about sharing it. Exploring emotional truth and the concept of belonging (Hiraeth in Welsh) within her fiction, her prose and poetry celebrate the feminine. Sarah has lived in Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Aberdeen, though is settled now in Edinburgh with her two sons and rescue dog.
The long glass doors lead onto the veranda and I slip through, reaching into my bag for a cigarette. I have forgotten already I don’t smoke. For the duration at least. Instead I breathe the damp air, which has a welcome sweetness here and watch a red squirrel bounding through the drifts of fallen leaves. Now you see me, now you don’t. I envy that squirrel. Despite myself, I am almost happy to be home. The gentle landscape, the dance of the local accent, the faintest tang of sea from down the valley, the soft Welsh light. It’s like being wrapped into an old shawl; cosy and familiar yet suffocating.
I hear the distinct pop of champagne corks from inside and know that Kate will be relishing the fact that I will, of course, be driving us back. The metallic ring of fork against crystal, like a delicate bell calling the faithful to worship, quietens the drone within the ballroom and I turn away from the gardens.
Dominating one end of the ballroom is a great gilded mirror, through which I see Kate with Granny Maud. They share a private joke whilst my father stands at the other end, starting his speech. Kate stifles a giggle. I smile too. Maud’s sloping shoulders move almost imperceptibly; she is having difficulty keeping her composure. I see now that Kate is quite like Granny Maud. Do we always choose partners who are familiar types? ‘Better the devil you own,’ as my mother would say.
When I was younger I would visit Granny Maud on my pony. The four mile amble through country lanes allowed for a small harvest of wild strawberries, cob nuts or a bunch of feathery catkins to present on my arrival.
I would tether the pony to the metal hoop on the shed wall that Grandpa Fred had fixed there years before, at the back of their neat semi-detached house. That village was prettier than our post-war one, and had a ruined castle; the perfect place to play hide and seek or pirate raids or knights and damsels with my cousins. Though I was always the dragon by choice.
I helped Granny Maud in the vegetable patch behind the house, weeding the rich brown earth and collecting warm eggs from the hen house in the shadow of the castle walls. So unlike my mother’s manicured lawns and neat, clipped shrubbery. Granny Maud would tell stories about her time as a nurse during the war. The excitement of living through the Blitz in London; of running to the air-raid shelter in her dressing gown and slippers; of making cakes with dried eggs and beetroot; of dancing on regardless at the Cafe de Paris; of sharing fear, horror and stockings with Dorchester Daisy. After the war, Granny Maud returned home and married Fred. Fred had been a miner rather than a soldier and kept his own horrors close. Family whispers told of Fred climbing over the bodies of his dead father and brother to get out of the mine when it collapsed in ’42. Maud and Fred had had seven children, very close together, all in that neat three-bedroom semi. ‘That’s what you did in those days,’ she said. Fred had died when their youngest was only a babe; lungs, irritated by the black dust, had filled with fluid and he drowned. He was thirty years old. Granny Maud never remarried. ‘He was the only man for me,’ she had said. I only knew him through stories as faded as the photographs on Granny Maud’s mantle.
I take the glass of champagne offered by a waitress and toast, along with everybody else, but do not drink to the celebration of my parents’ golden wedding anniversary. I suppress the constriction in my throat but it is no matter. People will see this display of emotion as pride in my parents’ achievement. I used to, had to, be tough but my courage, like my cigarettes, have been left in a cupboard at home. My mother affects annoyance. ‘Oh, you are all so naughty! I had no idea! What a surprise!’ Yet she is overdressed for a quiet Sunday lunch in the country. During the meal people, vague, familiar and related, stand to toast the happy couple, telling tales of younger, wilder days to a laughter track from the 1970’s. My stories are quite different. Christmases shattered like glass baubles, rages thundering through my dream time and my mother always clearing, sweeping and excusing. I clutch at Kate’s hand beneath the table. It is enough.
‘Walk with me, Mum,’ I say, after we have eaten the meal of roast rib of beef in all its unpretentious finery followed by my father’s favourite nursery pudding. She says to me, ‘You’ve put on weight, darling.’
‘Thanks Mum! Not, “how are you?” “Glad you came”, but, “you’re fat”!’
‘I didn’t mean that. I worry about you being too thin, you know that. You work yourself too hard. You look much better like this.’
She cannot know, surely? Though it is true my mother, for all her faults, has an uncanny knack of knowing when I am hiding something. We pass the place where the squirrel played its solitary game of tail-tag and carry on, following the path as it snakes its way towards the sea. The light has changed. Shafts of bronze and magenta pick the silver out of thin clouds and with it comes a chill breeze, the first promise of winter. The old horse-chestnut tree is laden, heavy with conkers.
‘You brought that girl with you.’ Here she goes.
‘Her name is Kate.’ How many times?
‘When will you settle down, darling?’ My mother looks at me, her eyes a mirror of my own, but worn, edges creased, never saying the same thing as her smile.
‘I am settled, Mum.’
‘I mean properly. With a man.’
‘I don’t want a man, thank you.’ I am petulant, like I’m again refusing second helpings of her long-ago attempts at cordon bleu.
‘You just haven’t tried hard enough.’ She makes it sound like my school report. Could do better. ‘What about that gorgeous boy…’ She always calls them boys. ‘Richard. He was lovely. You were always falling in shit and you really came out smelling of clover with that one. He saved you from that pillock with the dyed hair…’
‘Andreas.’ I don’t need reminding.
‘Andy Pandy more like.’ My mother enjoys her joke. We round the corner and the sea comes into view. The island with the crumbling tower is cast into relief by the descending sun, it looks like a stooped old woman, sad and alone.
‘That was four years ago. Richard had a filthy temper.’ And then I met Kate. Now we both smell of clover, as she puts it, but of the four-leafed kind.
‘Well maybe you should have been nicer to him. Some things just have to be tolerated. At least he was wealthy.’
‘He really wasn’t a nice person.’
‘So? He could have taken care of you.’
‘I don’t need to be taken care of.’ I’m not a needy child. At least, not any more. My mother, on a roll, continues. ‘You were always too independent, too selfish. You need someone to put you in your place. What a shame, he would have given you children. Me, grandchildren. You wouldn’t have to work…’
‘Mum! Stop. Please. I love my job. I love Kate. I have no intention of giving up either, whatever happens.’
‘What do you mean, “Whatever happens”?’ Too late. She is staring at me and I can see the cogs grinding slowly, determinedly in her head.
‘It doesn’t smell like nothing to me.’ OK then, here goes.
‘Kate and I are expecting a baby.’
The sentence hangs in the air like my mother’s predicted smell. She takes a while to close her mouth. Her lips become thin, like they used to when I was a child and had been caught stealing apples, or older, when I had forgotten the time and returned home late. I wait for her response. The silence becomes an impermeable barrier between us, the longer we remain silent, the taller and broader it gets. I wish I hadn’t said anything, hadn’t come today. But Kate said, once the truth is out, like last time, people will just get used to it. Yesterday’s news. My mother is so still that I fear she has stopped breathing. We are locked on either side until one of us can break the surface tension. I cannot do it, cannot do anything until my mother acts, reacts.
‘Oh,’ she says, finally. The world comes back into focus. ‘So you are pregnant.’ A statement, not a question but I reply, ‘Yes.’
‘Who’s the father?’ There is a deeper furrow between her brows.
‘That doesn’t matter. The baby is mine and Kate’s.’ I sound grown-up.
‘Doesn’t matter! A man has a right to see his child!’
‘It was an anonymous donor. Through a clinic.’ I am calm like the surface of the sea, although underneath I am turbulent, an eddy going nowhere except down.
‘Surely there can’t be such a thing. There has to be a father.’
‘Oh, Mum. There is a biological father somewhere, but he makes a donation not knowing who he’ll father. It’s part of the contract.’
‘But you don’t know how it’ll turn out. What it’ll be like.’ She is talking about our baby. A life. Like it is a cake.
‘But we never know that, do we?’
My mother tuts and shakes her head.
Living in the city, I used to think it was the sea I missed the most, but actually it is the sky. I breathe in deeply, filling my lungs so that I can take some of that precious sky east, back to London with me. Safe inside, with our baby.
‘It’s not right,’ she says. ‘There’ll be hell to play when your father finds out.’
I have an urge to laugh. My mother and her skewed idioms. It is a weakness of her’s I adore and I warm to her despite everything. I think, I am going to have a baby. With Kate. I am going to be A Mother.
‘You are going to be a granny!’ I laugh out loud at this.
‘Oh!’ She shudders. ‘I suppose Maud knows already?’
‘No,’ I say firmly. ‘You’re the first.’
‘Oh, Bel, why do you try me so?’ She is the victim. Her eyes, made rheumy by the chill, salty air, blink.
‘Mum, try to think of it like this. You wanted me to have a career, so I do that. You wanted me to get married and have children and I’m doing that.’
‘Marry? You can’t marry her, you silly girl!’
‘I’m sure the law will change one day, and when it does…’
‘It’s all wrong,’ she says. ‘Just….all wrong.’
I want to say – it is wrong to exchange your freedom for a man who cannot truly love you, who spits venom when he thinks no-one is watching, who puts others first. But I say nothing. My mother shivers as if she can feel what I am thinking. I take my pashmina and wrap it around her shoulders, holding her. She feels as frail as a baby bird but stiffens under my embrace, resisting.
‘It’s getting chilly, we should go back.’ I am suddenly tired.
We walk back in bruised silence. I have silences with Kate, they are comfortable, accommodating, accepting but this is the silence of my youth. Kate waits for me on the veranda with Granny Maud. My mother opens her mouth as if to say something but Maud takes her by the arm and guides her gently into the ballroom, delivering her to a circle of waiting guests, all smiles. My mother’s mask is already back in place and she laughs at the photograph album someone has produced.