Proof of inheritance
It had been death that had decided her; the time was right, now that the doctor had died. The questions had been too long in her mind, wheedling into corners unbidden.
It had been so straight forward, the journey here, starting by reading the old letters from the doctor to his friend, up in the North of the island. Strange to read about herself, all those years ago. She had forgotten swathes of history, removed layers of very existence, and had not even realised. Cassie had been so excited by her find amongst the doctor’s effects, she slowed herself down to read the document carefully, “ … you are impetuous, Don, to take the child in so swiftly, but how could you have seen her taken by the home, or possibly even worse, stay there? What I never can understand about these authorities is how they come to their decisions? From what I gleaned, the neighbours had been troubled for more than a while, and God forbid how she would have turned up if they’d turned a blind eye. Aye, for whatever the reason, she is your destiny, poor mite, and I wouldn’t be troubled about her muteness for now. Time will tell, man. Time will tell.”
Mute, she had been without a voice for some months after the doctor had taken her in; Cassie had forgotten that. The words had always been there, she had always had words, but she played them inside her head, a running commentary, a bit like listening to the radio. She had never understood why the adults had rushed her to speak, it had seemed silly to her then. It still seemed inexplicable much of the time; there was too much gabble in the world. They had rubbed along well together, her and the doctor, both reserved, easy in each other’s silences. He had never troubled her to make noise, stir the air, still and comfortable. What troubled Cassie then, troubles her still, the discomfort of constant humming, chattering, clattering, the distortion of the disturbance to harmonious calm. Too fraught. Too noisy. Too clamorous. Indeed, there could not have been a more fortuitous placement than with the doctor. There had been times when Cassie was still a child, the doctor’s sister would arrive bearing gifts. She was always accompanied by three, sometimes four of her ever-growing entourage, keen for Cassie to have company, kids her own age with which to play. She’d had a go, running amongst the trees, brandished branches, fought over hard won rights to go first at skimming pebbles over the loch. But Cassie was borrowed, she knew that. The nieces and nephews had been told to treat her like a sister, and in turn had told Cassie ‘ you can be our sister,’ understanding that the telling itself belied the fact.
The fact remained, as yet unknown to Cassie, she was a sister. Had been a sister. A tiny, upturned nose in the middle of a tidy little face. So tiny, she could have squashed it, just like that. And the bleat of the little mouth, so faint, it thrilled through her, calling like the wild. There was a hole there, right inside her heart, she felt it. Everyone’s heart gets pock marked, she knew that too, but hers was a black hole, a meaningless, bottomless pit of antimatter.
“This is you, see. My father took lots of you, standing there, in the back porch. He’d be watching for you, when he came around the corner. In the end he got out the camera to prove it. You were out there rain or shine. He’d pick you up and bring you in out the cold. I wasn’t much older than yourself, months maybe.”
“ So why did he take pictures, that’s odd isn’t it?” Cassie took the photograph proffered by the woman, tentatively.
“It was different then, less fearful of consequences I suppose. It didn’t seem wrong, just thought taking photos would be a good idea, proof, he wanted to show the authorities you see. He couldn’t bear to see the neglect, that was all.”
I’m here then, back where I came from, and talking bold as brass candlesticks to May. Not that I remembered her. Nor her me. But she was straight there, once I’d let her know why I was knocking at her door. Families stay put around here, go back generations, some fly away, but as many don’t. I think that’s why I feel so uncertain. No roots. I lack the reassurance of a family tree. I’m a sister too. I didn’t know that. All my life I have looked for some sense of recognition, wanted the companionship of inherited characteristics, a line onto which I fitted, somewhere. Jesus. A baby brother.
Slowly, I finger the black and white stills. All look pathetic, a handful of frozen time, all telling the same story. May told me there had been a young woman- my mother, the baby-my brother, and a man. Not young, not old. No one knew where he or she had come from, they had rented the cottage until the autumn the doctor had come and taken me away from them.
“I’d think of you now and then, wondered what had come of the baby. Maybe we should have done more. I can’t say. I remember my mother telling of the day they got the doctor to you. Daddy had raged at the woman from the police, they’d told him to mind his business. He’d even threatened the man, and he was not a fighter my daddy. He was a quiet man, soft really. But he saw red when they told him that.” May was standing next to me, she felt close, being here felt queer and thrilling, and scary all at the same time. May knew more about my life then, than I did. Weird.
“ Why did I get sent away then, if they told him to stay out of it? It makes no sense.” Maybe I was a retard, or evil, maybe I had scared the baby. Who gets rid of a child? None of it made any sense. I peered at the pictures, hoping for some sort of recognition, some familiarity that pulled me back, showed me the girl I had been. I had forgotten her; I had parcelled up the past and wrapped it up so securely there was no way in. Someone said the past is a foreign country, but for me it was a universe away, spinning in a different galaxy.
“ Ah, but what happened see, my mother waited, and waited. She watched her as she took off down the road, with the pram. She always had the pram with her, but never yourself. So when the coast was clear, mum ran for Fran, that’s her sister, and together they broke into the house, and they took you. Simple as. They called the doctor then, and told him how it was. They found you in a room, shut in, not even a bed, they said. You slept on two knackered dining chairs put together. Shocking.”
“ And the doctor? What was that all about”?
“ Well the doctor called to the house when the woman came back. Told her straight, he wouldn’t see the child neglected. She told him to take her, couldn’t keep her, he was to take her.”
“So he did. But the baby?” Where did the baby go? All my life I’ve felt a baby shaped hole. Longed to feel recognition. Oh dear. I’m not sure I want to know this. But I do. Want to know.
“All we could gather was the baby stayed. The three of them left sharpish after that. Can’t say where they went to. My mother thought the baby was his, but the girl wasn’t. But that was just guesswork.”
Whoa, this day was turning out to be momentous. In one of the photographs, I can see the edge of a pram; one of those old fashioned big-wheeled ones, and a little hand overhanging. How have I forgotten so much? Where did I go? The me that was a sister, a daughter?
I am glad I am here, with May, discovering something, if not everything. If not much at all, truth to tell. I can tell May is moved by the memories I have unlocked, of her father, and of herself and a stranger who touched their lives briefly. I know she is telling me the truth, that there are no more answers here.
May crossed the room, drew the curtains, and turned to Cassie. There is a finality in her movements, a closing of the conversation. May has told Cassie all she can, and she has been disturbed by the intrusion. She knows this is because there are always questions, unanswerable, that tease into the subconscious. When she had her own children, she would think of Cassie’s mother, the nagging sadness that this was a mother who had lost. Whatever the mother had done, and she was terrible in her neglect of Cassie, she had had taken her away from her, forever, her first-born. She would recall her, when her own children drove her to distraction, and she was in despair with tiredness and inadequacy. Her own father had felt no remorse at getting involved, he had never entertained the idea that there could have been a different outcome. She remembers her parents raised voices, her mother trying to calm him. There would have been no question of her mother overriding him, whatever she had felt. A single woman with two children and a man in the house would have drawn no pity or support back then. She was not from the island, and the islanders were not known for their hospitality to strangers. Life was hard enough for themselves. May felt disquiet, for Cassie, for herself, wondering where the discovery of Cassie’s new knowledge would take her. Her family’s intervention had robbed Cassie of her own family and May was anxious. Cassie caught her looking at the face of the clock, and recognised the sign.
‘I’m so grateful to you May, thank you so much for showing me the photos, and for the history. I can’t believe it was all here all of the time. There’s such a lot to think about, but I promise I will stay in touch. ’ Cassie reached for her jacket, and moved to leave.
I didn’t really know what else to do. The route back to the doctor’s house, my home, was long, and I wanted to set off in the light. I like car journeys, it’s like knitting, the brain is engaged, but part of it is able to sit back and relax. Thoughts sort of come and go, like those bubbles children like blowing from a wand. The doctor was a good man; I have been so lucky to have had him. Who can tell what pattern life would have unravelled for me if I had stayed there? I’m a realist at heart; a mother who gives a child away has her own demons. I can’t see any mileage in uncovering that history. I know now what I know, and its easier, and it’s harder. Easier, because I know how I got lost. Harder because there’s some sense of me that will never reach a potential, of being a sister, perhaps an aunt, even a daughter. I find myself looking hard at faces of younger men, alert to the call of recognition, allowing for decades and months and minutes of missed growth, I wonder what my brother looks like, whether he looks like me. Whether he’s alive, what he likes, whether he knows he had a sister. Perhaps they told him I died. Perhaps I am dead to him. My mother has lived with the knowledge she has a daughter, and I wonder when she considered me, whether my birthdays raised the memories to the surface. I feel compassion for her,maybe because I have felt the compassion of the doctor. He showed me what it means to love, to continue with duties that can seem onerous. She may never have had that shown to her. So many possibilities. Some mysteries have to stay that way, mysteries. I am settling into a new life now, without the companionship of the doctor, even the care of him. I miss him. That’s a lot of what I did, looked after him. And he looked after me. I have a past, an identity with him. The world and his wife seemed to know him, shared their respect for him, he’d seen them through births and illnesses, sometimes death. He was such a good man. More than a father, he was a whole family to me. I’m on my way now, flying into the future. The past is a universe spinning in a different galaxy.