Another Woman’s Child – Kerry Fisher

I’d never admitted to anyone what happened that night. And I’m a woman who processes her stuff by telling everyone. The woman on the supermarket checkout probably knows as much about me as my mum did. It might have confirmed what they all thought of me anyway. The party girl, the good-time girl, the no-surprises-there girl. I was nearly thirty and long-term love didn’t look like it was going to happen for me. And I really wanted kids. So it wasn’t what I imagined, nothing like that fairy tale I think we all have in us right from the word go, that there’s one unique man out there who, somehow, through a miracle of timing, serendipity, God’s will or whatever, will stumble across us, realise we’re the one and be desperate to combine the best bits of himself with the best bits of ourselves. Preferably when we’re financially stable with a good idea which direction life is heading in. No. I can categorically say that little fairy tale disappeared quicker than the trail of Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs. But once I knew I was pregnant – and it took me a bit of time, helloooo, Ginny, wake up girl! – I kind of made peace with the fact that what happened that night was a secret I’d have to take to my grave. That no one could ever know. Ironic really that I’ve been saved from decades of secret holding by dropping dead at forty-seven (unless I learn to walk on water) rather than at the ninety-five I’d hoped for. But, of course, that’s a double-edged sword.

I’m the only one who can tell Victor the facts about his dad. But should I? Will it help him? Will he want to know? It’s funny the thoughts I’m having. I’m even sort of glad Mum died early so she hasn’t had to live through me dying too. She’d probably have added that to the list of things I’d done to let the family down. She’d already had to bear the disappointment that I didn’t become a lawyer. ‘I’m still writing about the truth, Mum. Journalists do investigate things, just in a different way.’ I’d nearly curled up and died when Mum had rushed out to buy five copies of the first magazine I’d worked for, only to discover that my contribution was interviewing women about their favourite sex toys. ‘You are a disgrace to this family.’ Nonetheless, she told all her friends I was ‘a very important writer’.

Her disappointment about Victor still hurt me though. ‘A baby? With a white man?’ As though skin colour was the thing that mattered above whether the father had been a kind and decent person with good morals passing down his DNA. I’d phoned her from Canada, warming her up with the excellent news of my promotion to publishing editor of two prestigious women’s magazines. It didn’t quite have the effect I was hoping for, as her response was: ‘Why couldn’t you get a job at the BBC?’ It had been so tempting to bang the phone down and not tell her my other bit of ‘news’. I couldn’t back away from it though. It was one of those now-or-never conversations. Delaying wouldn’t change the outcome of my mother’s reaction and I needed the grey cloud of doom hanging over me to dissipate, so that my baby didn’t absorb disappointment into his bones before he’d even left the womb. I’d been hanging onto the fact that as she’d been asking me since the day after I graduated when I was going to get married – ‘I don’t want to be too old for grandchildren!’ – that she might overlook the lack of wedding ring and celebrate the baby. But she’d done a whole dramatic wail down the phone. ‘You have finished me.

You want to kill me.’ I’d ended the conversation promptly. The evening ahead, the pinnacle of my career so far, should have been a grand excuse for champagne celebrations. Instead, I sat huddled up, drinking green tea in my armchair, imagining Mum and Dad’s faces, struggling to adjust to welcoming my white husband into the family. For the time being, it was better than imagining the disbelief that would follow as they adjusted to not welcoming any husband at all into the family. When I finally confessed months later that there was no Mister in the picture, Mum sniffed and said, ‘Let’s hope the baby don’t turn out too white.’ In the event, my beautiful boy had skin several shades lighter than mine and the bluest of eyes, but, to my mother’s relief, was ‘still more black than white’. When I admitted defeat and came back from Canada when he was two months old, Mum couldn’t resist him. I needed family to help me. By the time he was six months old, my mother had put herself in charge of two very important roles: making sure he ate pounded yam and egusi soup and never missed church.

The best thing of all as far as she was concerned was that for the rest of her days, she could blame any bad behaviour on his whiteness. When he refused to latch on, fussed and fretted until Mum and I had practically worn out her hall carpet pacing up and down, regurgitated his milk all over her sofa, her only comment was, ‘It’s the Canadian blood in him.’ She never asked me about his dad directly. For all I know, she convinced herself that Victor was the ultimate proof that the Virgin Mary wasn’t just a fluke. Thank God my brother, Gabriel, provided her with the big wedding she’d hankered after, though with the peachiest, creamiest, most English-looking blonde you could conjure up, rather than the Nigerian daughter-in-law she’d been rooting for. ‘What is it with you two?’ Gabe had emigrated to Australia shortly afterwards, but at least he had the good grace to qualify as an engineer – a fact she would bring out every time she got on the bus. ‘You got a lot of smoke coming out that exhaust. My son could sort that. He’s an engineer.’ I never witnessed this statement leading to any respect from the Cardiff bus drivers, who were more interested in hurrying her through the relentless counting out of her twenty pences, but you had to hand it to her, it didn’t stop her trying.

Again. And again. Dad asked me about Victor’s father once, when I knew the cancer had spread. I nearly buckled. It wasn’t the sort of question my dad threw out indiscriminately, unlike my mum, who had flung out queries like background noise – ‘So what did that Canadian say? What excuse did he give for not marrying you?’ – without seeming to require a response. No. Dad really wanted to know. He had braced himself for the answer. For how bad it might be. But I couldn’t allow anything to taint Victor.

I’d looked him in the eye with a supreme effort of will. ‘I don’t think knowing that is going to help you, Dad.’ His insistence that this was a good time to come clean wobbled me. Not least because although I’d come to terms with the fact that I was going to die, if Dad was asking me, it meant he had admitted it too. And the tiny little glimmer of hope I’d held in my heart faded. If Dad with his supreme belief in God and his power to come up with a miracle cure had given up on me, then I really had to accept my time had come. It didn’t stop me wanting to control what I left behind though. What people thought of me. How they viewed my memory. But maybe I had to admit defeat and let people judge the way they wanted to.

Victor never asked who his dad was any more. No one did. But he probably had a right to know, even if the answer wasn’t what anyone wanted. CHAPTER ONE Twenty-five years of Ginny as a best friend and I was still late for her funeral. My husband, Patrick, and I tried to creep into the little church near Cardiff Bay without disturbing the service. My sixteen-year-old daughter, Phoebe – never knowingly underentranced – banged the door shut with such a clatter, one of the candles at the back of the church blew out. Ginny’s father, Tayo, glanced round. It took me a moment to recognise him. He’d been such a big man, a robust engine of noise and merriment, now huddled, frail and grey in a wheelchair. I didn’t make eye contact, didn’t raise a hand in apology.

I wanted to hide, to pretend I wasn’t with Phoebe, that I hadn’t brought up a child who would behave like this, today of all days. But, most of all, I didn’t want to see his pain. Despite our friend, Cory, gesticulating discreetly that he’d saved us seats at the front, we shuffled into a pew at the back. I couldn’t face clacking down the aisle, past the rainbow of people who’d followed Ginny’s orders to wear something colourful. Patrick had the brightest neon-pink tie; I’d dug out one of my maxi dresses, the closest I got to bright, in grey and turquoise, more fitting for a day at the beach than a funeral. Despite my protestations that it was bad manners and plain wrong to ignore the wishes of the deceased, Phoebe had gone full Hollywood grieving widow, the black lacy dress and pillbox hat complete with endless posing and primping until Ginny’s funeral felt less like a tragedy and more like an eBay shopping opportunity. I’d suggested a bright top and a knee-length skirt she’d worn for work experience. ‘Mum, I can’t wear that. I’m a sixteen-year-old girl, not a forty-five-year-old granny auditioning for a part as a nun.’ And suddenly, time was marching on, and we had to leave.

And as always, Phoebe got her own way. The cool wood did nothing to soothe the heat emanating from my body. I breathed deeply, trying to concentrate on the vicar’s words that would never – could never – calm my rage that Ginny had died so young. And more quickly than we’d bargained for. In fact, we’d discovered we didn’t have any bargaining power at all. Neither did Ginny, despite her resilience and determination and her endless waving away of our concern. ‘You were always such a pessimist, Jo. I’m not going anywhere yet.’ But even the mighty will of Ginny, and along with it, the big bark of her laugh, had dwindled to a whimper during April and May. The call we hadn’t expected for at least another couple of months dragged us from our sleep around five-thirty; Victor’s Welsh accent more pronounced with the emotion of delivering the news in the early hours of that June morning.

The sky was already light and disrespectful in the climb towards summer, with all its promise of long evenings and conversations under a balmy sky. It felt so much more obscene than slipping away on a grey January day when the sun struggled to make it over the treeline. I lost the first ten minutes of the service to overcoming my embarrassment at our entrance. It wasn’t until Victor walked to the front that I was able to focus on the words rather than the disapproval of everyone around me that Phoebe’s push-up bra was visible through the lace of her dress. She might as well have broadcast to the world that she’d been caught on video up to no good outside the chemistry labs at school with Ryan Baker. I had no intention of introducing her to Ginny’s dad. Patrick sighed beside me as Victor took a moment to steady himself and began to speak, quietly at first, then with greater conviction as though he thought Ginny could hear him. My heart squeezed with sadness, with anger, that this seventeen-year-old boy would never be carefree again. Never have that naïve certainty that whatever happened, whatever went wrong, there would always be a solution. Sometimes there just wasn’t and the good guys lost out.

There was something so gentle in his words. He wasn’t speaking to impress us or out of duty. He’d gathered up all that love Ginny had poured into him over the years and held it in his heart to give him strength to pay tribute to her. He looked handsome, even in his distress, his white shirt standing out against his dark skin, his body held with the same poise and elegance Ginny had possessed. Next to me, in perfect contrast, was Phoebe, slouching away, her face set as though she was locked in a battle with her hands to resist pulling out her phone and checking her Instagram likes. Nothing about her suggested she understood the magnitude of losing a parent. If anything, she looked like she was weighing up the bonus of missing a day of school against the inconvenience of having to be around me when I was crying so hard I kept making little squeaks of grief. I waited for a flicker of sympathy, some sign that in extreme circumstances she could see beyond herself, recognition that losing my best friend deserved a suspension of hostility for the time it took to bury Ginny and scoff down a couple of cheese straws. But my wait was in vain. Three more months and Ginny would have made Victor’s eighteenth birthday at the end of September.

She’d been determined, wouldn’t countenance the idea she wouldn’t be here, refused point blank to discuss moving to a hospice at any stage. The last time I’d seen her, five days before she died, she’d been propped up on the sofa, relishing the sun streaming in through the French windows. Her fading strength was a contrast to the vigour of her garden, to the warmth, the dazzle and the promise of these days. Just a few metres away, her garden was vibrant with fat roses, the marigolds spangled their orange bursts in the borders. And the lavender. She loved her lavender; it spilled out of the terracotta pots and flopped over the path. ‘You see, Joanna, got myself a piece of Provence right here in Cardiff.’ I still thought we had more time, that we’d be able to take up the promise of fragrant evenings where we might even be able to sit with a glass of champagne – ‘It’s wasted on me, I’ve got a cheap palate,’ Ginny would say. But it wasn’t wasted on her. She was worth every bubble.

My heart ached for how much more there’d still been to say, to give each other. I’d had confidence, that rare faith, the sort that comes along once or twice in a lifetime, that Ginny always had my back. Not in a ‘when it’s convenient for me’ sort of way, but in the most important way of all – ‘when it’s not convenient for me’. I could tell her my most undignified, humiliating or petty thoughts and know she’d never hold them against me. Gloriously, she would defend me against any detractors when – especially when – I was wrong. I felt the familiar swill of guilt, that I’d dithered when it was my turn to be a warrior on her behalf. I hadn’t squeezed her hand and said, ‘Of course, Victor can come and live with us. Don’t even think about it.’ When she’d needed me most, I’d allowed Patrick to derail me. When I’d first broached the subject, he’d thought I was joking.

‘You’re not serious, are you? We can’t even keep Phoebe on the right track, let alone a kid who’s missed a great big chunk of school and recently lost his mum. Not to mention the fact that we’re both flat out at work. It’s just not practical to spread ourselves even more thinly.’ ‘But who would be better placed to help Victor? We’ve got a long history with Ginny. We both know her really well, we’ll have some idea what she would think was right for him.’ ‘Did she make an attempt to track down his dad?’ I’d blown up at him, something that had taken me years to have the courage to do. ‘You’d rather see him shipped off to a “dad” he knows nothing about in Canada, someone who, as far as I can make out, was the “real thing this time” until he turned out to be married? How is that going to help Victor, bursting in on a family with a wife who probably has no idea he even exists? He’s only going to be living with us for two years, then he’ll be off to university.’ Patrick kept shaking his head, the argument coming as it did on the end of several months of Phoebe’s plummeting grades and far too many humiliating meetings with the headmistress that had not gone unnoticed by the other parents in our little village with kids at the same school. ‘What about her brother? Her dad?’ ‘Her brother lives in Australia! Victor’s probably met him twice in his life. Ginny said he’s hardly been in touch at all, so I don’t think he’s rushing to guarantee Victor’s future.

And her dad lives in a sitting room converted into a bedroom because he can’t get up the stairs. Victor would end up being his carer – and he’s done enough of that already.’ ‘Surely there’s someone better than us. We’re not exactly best placed to make sure he keeps his culture and traditions. We never go to church and I know you’re a good cook but you’re not going to make the same stuff as Ginny.’ He knew as well as I did that was a low blow. Of course there were things we’d do differently but I was pretty sure that would be the same with any family Victor ended up with. Yes, Ginny loved going back to her parents’ on a Sunday for obe ata, Jollof rice and plantain. And we all begged her to make suya chicken skewers with her secret recipe of spices, despite Cory teasing her that she was just fobbing us off with ‘Nigerian KFC’. But alongside her traditional dishes, she was also a great fan of pesto pasta and Greek salad.

And we had a church practically next door to us, so I couldn’t see how that aspect of Victor’s life would be so difficult to manage. But nothing I said seemed to convince Patrick. Throughout spring, Ginny pressed me for an answer, then, as she got weaker and weaker, seemed to take it for granted that I’d agreed. Meanwhile, Patrick and I batted the same arguments backwards and forwards without reaching a conclusion, old hurts resurrected and aggravated. ‘You were prepared to spend a fortune on IVF trying to have a sibling for Phoebe and now you won’t accept one that’s ready-made and, in case you hadn’t noticed, an orphan. It might be good for our daughter to have another child in the house. She might behave a bit better if all of our attention isn’t on her.’

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