Her Mother’s Lies – Rona Halsall

A golden sun hung low in the sky, making the mountains glow, lengthening the shadows. Blood pulsed in Martha’s ears, drowning out her thoughts. Fear gripped the back of her neck as she walked up the hill, leaving Caernarfon town centre behind her. She checked the numbers of the houses on the long terrace to her right, looking for number twentysix. Her father’s house. It’s fine. Everything’s fine. You don’t have to do it. This could be a reconnaissance trip, she told herself, sussing out the neighbourhood while she was waiting for her friend Izzy to arrive in the morning. She adjusted her black baseball cap, pulling it lower down her forehead, tucking blonde strands underneath, where she’d bundled her long hair. She didn’t want him to be able to recognise her, just in case she decided to run away, afraid after all to do this. She moved to the side, to allow a young mother to go past with a double buggy that took up the whole pavement, careful not to catch her eye. She focused instead on the road ahead of her, bordered with hawthorn hedges, leading out of the town and into the countryside. She wanted to look like she knew where she was going, without a care in the world, and had dressed in a way that was presentable but unremarkable: black Converse shoes, blue skinny jeans and a black coat that she used for work, good and waterproof, with a fleece lining. It was early April and she knew the weather could be fickle, wanted to be sure she’d be warm enough.

Her eyes flicked to the right and she stopped, adjusting her bag on her shoulder while her heart thundered in her chest. That’s it! That’s his house. She looked for a vantage point, somewhere she could have a moment to psych herself up without being too obvious, and spotted a bus shelter a little way up the road. She quickened her pace and slipped inside, leaning on the Perspex structure while she pretended to search for something in her bag. When she was sure there was nobody else around, she adjusted her position and looked back down the road. Number twenty-six was a tidy, mid-terraced house. Two up and two down by the looks of things, the pebble-dashed exterior painted cream, the windows edged with a racing green that matched the gate and the front door. There was a tiny, gravelled front garden with a few plants in pots dotted around, some daffodils in a narrow wooden trough, their petals tatty round the edges now, nodding in the breeze. The windows were dark, and she could see no movement, no indication as to whether he was inside. She checked her watch.

Half past six. Would he be back from work? Did she dare go and knock? What harm would it do? she asked herself, torn between the desire to see him and the fear of rejection. Fifteen years. Will he remember me? Martha could visualise the last time she saw her father so clearly it might have happened yesterday. And whenever she revisited her memories, she still felt the lurch of her stomach, the flare of emotion that filled her chest. She’d never got over it, his instant desertion. Was it the lack of a goodbye that made her feel so hollow? The idea that she meant so little to him that he didn’t keep in touch – not a phone call, a letter, a postcard even. Just silence. A gaping hole in her life where her father had been. How could he? she’d asked herself on an almost daily basis since.

How could he do that to his nine-yearold daughter? Now she’d come to get an answer to that question. Her life had stumbled to a halt, and her problems could be traced back to him leaving. He owed her that answer. Then maybe, just maybe, she’d be able to put the trauma of his leaving behind her and get on with her life. She swallowed her fears and marched across the road before she could change her mind, eyes scanning the windows of his house for evidence of movement. There! In the bedroom, was there a shadow? Her heart rate picked up, her hands greasy with nervous sweat. She reached for the gate and pushed it open, walked a handful of steps until she was standing at the front door, all clean and shiny gloss paint, unlike the front door of the house she shared with her mum, which was ancient and buckled, letting the winter draughts trickle into the hallway. This house was spotless. Perfectly maintained, just like the house they’d lived in until she was nine. He was often to be found up a ladder, she remembered, or with a power tool in hand, doing little jobs around the house, with her as his helper, passing things to him, helping him tidy up, while he answered her endless questions about what he was doing and why.

An image of her father sprang to mind: a stocky man with sinewy arms, knotted with veins, thinning ginger hair, ruddy cheeks and a wide mouth. Quite the opposite to her, she’d always thought, with her slender frame, oval face, horsey teeth and noble nose. People often asked her if she was Scandinavian, and maybe a part of her was. But her father was definitely a Scottish Celt, his family coming from Oban on the west coast. Not that she knew any of his relatives, or even much about his past. He was estranged from his family, she’d been told when she was old enough to wonder about it, and she’d never found out why. Martha tried to imagine how he would have aged, assumed that his hair would have more or less disappeared by now, his face reddened, his nose become a bit more bulbous. It was hard to know really, but just thinking about him was stirring something in her, a hope that she hadn’t wanted to acknowledge for fear that it was false. She rang the doorbell, heard the chimes inside and waited, rubbing a sweaty palm on her jeans, ready for… what? A handshake? An embrace? A look of— Footsteps thudded down the stairs, making her step away from the door, thinking that maybe she should just go. This is a stupid idea.

She should have waited for Izzy, knew she would feel braver with a bit of moral support. But before she could turn and run, the door was pulled open and there he was. Her father and not quite as she’d imagined him. He was thin, his cheeks hollow, bags under his eyes. He’d once been a muscular man, fit with the rope access work that he did, abseiling down buildings to do repairs and inspections. Now they were the same height, his posture not quite so erect, but although the strength of him had diminished, the essence of her father was still there. She was in no doubt that she’d got the right house, that this was the man she’d once called ‘Daddy’. Now she was unable to call him anything, her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. They stared at each other. ‘Hello,’ he said, a polite smile on his face before his eyes widened.

He gasped and took a step back, his hand covering his mouth. ‘Oh my God! Oh my God,’ he mumbled as he backed into the hallway and slammed the door shut. She heard the scrape of a bolt, the rasp of a security chain being fastened in place while she stood where he’d left her, on the path, staring at the door. He recognised me. And locked himself in. Or locked me out. Whichever way, she decided, as her fantasies of a joyful reunion spluttered and died, he wasn’t pleased to see me. Martha rubbed at her temples with her fists, an angry buzz filling her ears, her body hot with indignation. How dare he? How dare he slam the door on me? She turned and stomped down the path, out onto the pavement and past the last two houses on the row. That’s when she noticed the little alleyway running up the side of the house and realised it probably led round the back.

She nodded to herself. Thinks he can get rid of me that easily, does he? Oh no. That’s not going to happen. Not after all this time. Not when I’ve made such an effort to get here. And not when he’s the reason my life has turned to shit. If it only amounted to an opportunity for her to give him a piece of her mind, a chance to purge herself of all the hurt he’d caused, then it would be worth the trip. But she wasn’t leaving with nothing. No, no, no, he’s not going to get off that easily. He needed to understand what his leaving had done to her and how it had ruined her life.

She deserved to have her say. She sneaked down the alleyway and, sure enough, there was a narrow access road running down the back of all the houses, joining to the main road further down the hill. Some of the properties had garages at the back, and all of them had enclosed yards. The back gate to his house was a tall, solid slab of wood, painted the same racing green as the front door, the number displayed on a little slate plaque on the wall, so there was no mistaking she’d got the right one. She tried the latch and it opened. Hardly daring to breathe, she slipped into the yard. Before she could stop and work out whether this was a good idea, she’d bounded up the three steps to the back door of the house and turned the handle. She hadn’t expected it to open and she stumbled inside, her head smacking into a cupboard on the wall, her hand knocking a pot of kitchen utensils all over the floor in a cacophony of clattering metal and smashing crockery. It was not the stealthy entrance she’d hoped for, and before she could turn and run away, the kitchen door flew open and there was her father, his face red, eyes looking like they might pop out of his head. Their eyes locked, her heartbeat so frantic she could feel it banging in her chest, her breath rasping in and out as if she’d been running.

‘Martha! What are you doing in here?’ He looked shocked, his voice sharpened by anger. ‘Get out!’ She straightened up and winced when her fingers found the sore spot on her forehead where she’d headbutted the cupboard, fury roiling round her insides; not just angry with him, but with herself for making such a mess of this reunion. I should have waited for Izzy, she thought again before gritting her teeth and deciding that it was her battle and she was more than up to the task. The kitchen was a small rectangle with a round table and two chairs pushed against the left-hand wall, and a built-in cooker and hob in the middle of a long worktop to the right, where she’d come in. It was clean and tidy, not like the kitchen at home, where every surface was covered with a jumble of stuff that never got cleared away. She resented his tidiness, resented everything about his perfectly maintained house. She glared at him and closed the back door behind her, leant against it, her arms folded across her chest. He stayed where he was, just inside the kitchen doorway, as if there was an invisible forcefield between them. ‘Yeah, I thought you recognised me.’ Her voice was rough with bitterness.

‘Daddy.’ Just saying the word brought a tremble to her chin, but she didn’t want him to see, couldn’t admit to the pain he’d caused. For now, all she was willing to give him was the force of her anger. He stared at her for a moment, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down, his hand clutching the door handle so tightly his knuckles were a row of white dots against the redness of his skin. When he finally spoke, his voice was not much more than a whisper. ‘I’m not…’ He sighed. ‘She hasn’t told you, has she?’ He squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose. She watched the muscles of his jaw tense, then his eyes blinked open and he took a deep breath, his eyes wandering round the kitchen before he met her puzzled gaze. ‘I’m not your father.’ Her mouth dropped open and her hands grabbed at her clothes, pulling them tighter round her body, like they might offer her protection.

He’s disowning me? ‘What do you mean?’ Her voice had risen a few octaves and she cleared her throat, tried again. ‘Course you are. Just because you left doesn’t mean I’m not your daughter any more.’ She cursed how feeble she sounded. How needy. Her jaw set as she struggled to control the hurricane of emotions that whirled inside her. His face had gone pale, a sheen of sweat on his bald head. And there was something in his eyes, an expression she didn’t recognise for a moment. Fear? No, surely not. Why would he be frightened of me? ‘You can’t be here, Martha.

’ His voice wavered. ‘I need you to leave.’ She gave a derisive huff. Like I’m going to go that easily. She watched him cross to the window and peer out, checking up and down the alleyway. ‘I should have known you’d be a bloody disappointment. Not a word for fifteen years. Just walking out like that without…’ Her voice cracked, tears not far away, and she swallowed a couple of times, trying to gather herself. ‘Without even saying goodbye. Have you any idea—’ ‘No, no, Martha, we’re not doing this.

’ His voice was firm. ‘You can’t be here. Not now. You have to go.’ He pointed outside, as if that would work, like his finger was a magic wand that would make her turn and open the door. She gathered herself to her full height, hands on her hips, defiant. ‘I’m not going anywhere. Not until I know why you left. Why you haven’t been in touch. Why you stopped… loving me.

’ The words made her breath hitch in her throat. She’d said it. She’d only gone and said it. Her worst fear: that he’d gone because he didn’t love her any more. Tears stung at her eyes, chest heaving as she glared at him. ‘It wasn’t… I didn’t…’ He caught his breath and looked away, his hand reaching for the top of his head, smoothing his skin as though he’d forgotten he no longer had hair. She watched him, every little move so familiar, reminding her of the days when he’d been her father, when he’d been the centre of her world. The pain bored deep into her heart, all the sadness she’d kept bottled up gushing through her veins, filling her thoughts, until her body shook with the effort of keeping it inside. When he finally looked at her again, his face was blank, his voice matter-of-fact as if he were talking about a bus timetable rather than parentage. ‘There’s nothing for you here.

I’m nothing to you, Martha. Not who you think I am.’ Their eyes met. ‘Ask your mother who your real father is. But I’m telling you, it’s not me.’ She stared at him. He nodded. ‘Ask her.’ His expression told her he was telling the truth and the world she had built inside her mind, the one where he was her dad and she would always be his daughter, crumbled to dust. She’d told herself he would want to help her.

Maybe lend her some money to tide them over until she found a new job. At the very least she’d hoped he’d be there for moral support, so she wouldn’t feel quite so alone in her troubled world. She’d wanted another parent to call on, someone to help her see a way forward, offer words of encouragement. In her mind, he was not only the root cause of her problems, but also part of the solution. Her mouth opened and closed, the words refusing to form. How could I not know? How could I have been kept in the dark about something so fundamental? Her head filled with the sound of blood pulsing in her ears, her mind unable to grasp the shift in her understanding of who she was. It’s not right, it’s not right, it’s not right. Like a child again, raging against injustice, she screamed and ran towards him, arms flailing, her anger giving force to her blows as her fists landed on his chest. He stumbled backwards, too shocked to protect himself, tripped over a chair and slammed to the tiled floor in a clatter of falling furniture. The heavy smack of flesh hitting a hard surface hung in the air.

She stared at his prone body, shocked at the fury that burned inside her and what she’d done. He tripped, she told herself. He did this to himself. He lay there, writhing and groaning for a moment, before turning towards her. Moving with the speed of a sloth, he got himself up onto all fours, his breath rasping as he glared at her. ‘Just get out!’ he yelled, spittle spraying through the air, his face growing redder by the second, eyes bulging out of his head. ‘Now! Go on. Go.’ She took one more look at his furious face, turned, opened the back door and ran. TWO Three days ago The rain started as soon as Martha stepped off the bus and began her twenty-minute walk home.

Her legs were leaden, her heart heavy after the terrible news she’d received earlier, the consequences of it only now starting to sink in. She swore as the wind whipped her hood off and freezing rain blasted her head, trickled down her neck. She shivered and flipped her hood back up, holding it in place while she plodded down the road, her body bent against the weather, cursing her mother for deciding to live in the arse end of nowhere. It was known as ‘the forgotten corner of Cornwall’, situated on the south-east coast of the county, where the roads were narrow and tortuous, the bus service sporadic and the main town of Truro fifty miles away. The only redeeming factor was the relative lack of tourism in the area, so at least it wasn’t crawling with strangers in the summer like the rest of the county. The coastal town of Looe was only a few miles away but getting there on public transport was no easy matter. There was a train service from St Germans, a few miles in the other direction, but she’d have to walk there and that took the best part of an hour. Even Plymouth, further to the east and in the next county, wasn’t that far to travel to work… if you had a car. Which she didn’t. They used to have a car, but five years ago, after her mum had been banned for drink-driving for twelve months, she’d got rid of it, saying she wasn’t safe to drive any more, her eyes weren’t as good as they should be, driving made her anxious, she couldn’t afford to run a car, and a whole string of other excuses.

It had been a bitter blow to Martha because she’d been learning to drive and saving up to take her driving test again. She could have used the car herself, but the opportunity had disappeared without any discussion whatsoever. It had been the source of many an argument, especially as it was Martha who had to put up with a long and tortuous journey to and from work every day. She muttered under her breath as she trudged down the road, her temper increasingly in tune with the weather the closer she got to home. Their cottage was nice enough: a little semi-detached, stone-built property, with three bedrooms, a good-sized garden at the back and a garage and driveway to the side. The front garden had flower beds and a small lawn and used to be lovely when her mother had enjoyed gardening. Now, her health problems meant she struggled to do much with it, and although Martha did what she could when she had the time, it was overgrown and unloved. Ivy climbed over the front of the house, tendrils starting to creep over the windows and curl under the slates on the roof, making them lift. It was a problem that Martha noticed every time she came home but didn’t have the means to do anything about. She needed a ladder and they didn’t have one, and she was too embarrassed to ask Neil, who lived at the neighbouring farm, for help yet again.

The house next door was a holiday cottage, the owner of it also their landlady, Anna, but she didn’t visit very often these days, having retired to Spain, and Martha didn’t like to bother her with problems they should be able to sort out themselves. She pushed open the garden gate, her eyes fixed on the wooden board in the front door, where there used to be a pane of glass before her mum had broken it last month when she’d slammed it too hard. The sad truth was there was no money to get it fixed. Between them, Martha and her mother earned just about enough to feed and clothe themselves, and pay the monthly bills with nothing left over for home maintenance. If she didn’t drink so much, it would be easier, Martha thought as she fumbled her key into the lock and pushed open the door, dreading telling her mother her news. It had been a horrible, horrible day and her emotions were raw, like a burst blister rubbing in a shoe. Having to explain it all was an ordeal she could hardly allow herself to contemplate. Just getting herself home had been tough enough. None of it was her fault – that was the truth of it. But it’s me who’s going to suffer, she thought as she stepped into the hallway and shut the door behind her.

Maybe I’ll wait. Tell her tomorrow. She stood still for a moment, listening. Silence. That was never a good sign. Martha’s mother, Fran, worked from home as a freelance illustrator, and if she was working, there was always music playing in the background. If she was cooking, the TV would be on in the kitchen. If there was silence… it didn’t bode well. Carefully, Martha took off her waterproof jacket and hung it on a hook behind the door, then pulled off her boots and stood them on the rack. Her stomach griped with hunger because she’d forgotten about lunch in the awfulness of the day, and now… she sighed.

Who knew how the evening was going to pan out? She took a deep breath and readied herself before poking her head round the door of the lounge. Fran was curled up on the settee, mouth open, a patch of damp on the fabric of the cushion where her head was resting. She was a large woman in all dimensions: tall and wide and round, her body bloated, mostly from drink. Her wavy blonde hair was cut short, greying at the temples, her skin shot through with broken veins. Martha scanned the coffee table, but there was only a mug, no glasses or bottles, and she allowed herself to hope for the best. ‘Mum,’ she said, peeping into the mug, relieved to see the milky remains of a cup of tea. Fran mumbled, but her eyes stayed closed. Martha crouched in front of her. ‘Mum, I’m home.’ Daft thing to say, she told herself, because it was obvious, but it’s what she always said when she came home, as though she was saying that everything would be all right now she was back.

This time, though, she knew there was going to be trouble. This time, they had a major problem to sort out. Fran’s eyes blinked open, blue and bloodshot and bleary. She stared at Martha for a moment before giving her a sleepy smile. ‘Hello, poppet. You’re early.’ Martha perched on the settee, wondering if she had the energy to explain, or whether it would be better after they’d eaten, when she’d have the stamina to deal with her mother’s reaction. Fran’s arm flopped round Martha’s waist and she pulled her close, eyes blinking as she tried to wake herself up. ‘What do you fancy for tea?’ Martha managed a quick smile, careful not to meet Fran’s eye. ‘I’ll make it if you like.

’ Fran rubbed her hands over her face. ‘Would you?’ She sounded relieved and Martha wondered what sort of day her mum had had. Whether she had any work on at the moment, or whether she’d dozed away the afternoon. Maybe she did this every afternoon. Martha wouldn’t know because she was never home this early. She worked for the local vet and always did the afternoon and evening shift because there wasn’t a bus service that would get her to the surgery in time for the early morning start. Often, it was eight o’clock by the time she got home. But today… She stood and walked through the dining area, which was mainly Fran’s workspace, with just a corner of the dining table free of clutter. The kitchen was in an extension at the back. Rain splattered against the window and water dripped into a bucket that was positioned by the back door, the flat roof in serious need of repair.

Martha was sure she’d mentioned it to Anna last time she was down, and she said she’d get quotes for re-felting it, but nothing had happened. She sighed at the thought of having to remind her. Her mum wouldn’t say anything, didn’t even seem to notice the repairs and maintenance that needed doing, her mind always off in some dreamworld, creating goodness knew what. They were very different, her and her mum. Martha was practical and scientific and always needed to know why. Fran was arty and dreamy and impulsive. It wasn’t always a good mix, and as she’d grown older, Martha had shouldered an increasing amount of responsibility around the house. If she was being honest with herself, she felt she was sacrificing her youth to care for her mum. Not that she didn’t want to look after her, but she just wished, sometimes, that there was someone else to help. A packet of mince lay on the worktop, defrosting.

She checked the fridge and cupboards for other ingredients, finding enough to make something resembling chilli, and she set to work while her mind tried to figure out how to explain to Fran that things were going to be different. Life can be so bloody unfair, she thought, jaw working from side to side as she put a pan on the hob and poured in some oil. Just when you think you’re on the up, it slaps you down again. She stopped for a moment as a burst of emotion flooded her chest, filling her throat. A tear rolled down her cheek, followed quickly by another as she started chopping the onion, trying not to think about her news and what it meant. Her whole body was aching with the effort of keeping her sadness inside, not yet ready to put everything into words, hardly able to believe that it had really happened. Better to tell Mum when we’ve eaten, she decided as she blinked back the tears. I can’t face it yet. And if she had to talk about it, well, the floodgates would really open. She focused on the cooking, blocking everything else out of her mind.

Onions and garlic in the pan. She stirred it for a few minutes then added the mince, stabbing it with the wooden spoon as it browned, meticulously breaking it into the smallest of pieces, her jaw clamped so tightly the muscles started to ache. ‘So, why are you home this early?’ Fran’s voice broke the silence and Martha tensed before she carried on smashing the mince. ‘Oh, it’s a bit of a long story. I’ll tell you later.’ She tipped the tin of tomatoes into the pan and gave it a stir before sprinkling chilli powder and herbs into the mix. Once it was bubbling, she busied herself with preparing the rice, filling a bowl with water, pouring the grains in to soak. ‘You been busy, Mum?’ Fran snorted. ‘Busy? Well, I’ve got a book cover to design, for Anna, but she’s not happy with anything I’ve shown her.’ She huffed, obviously frustrated.

‘Honestly, I get the feeling she’s just going through the motions with this one. Lost interest.’ Martha filled a pan with water and put it on the hob to heat. In addition to being their landlady, Anna was a moderately successful children’s author and long-term collaborator with her mother, who did all the illustrative work as well as contributing suggestions to storylines. It had been a working partnership for as long as Martha could remember, but since Anna had retired, her enthusiasm seemed to have waned. ‘So, that’s all you’ve got? Nothing else?’ ‘Well, now, let me see…’ Fran frowned and perched on a stool, leaning her elbows on the breakfast bar that separated the cooking area from the utility room. ‘Um…’ She pursed her lips and was silent for a long moment, gazing at the fridge-freezer as if it held the answer. Martha rinsed the rice and tipped it into the pan, her heart sinking further by the minute. Then her mother smiled. ‘The Golden Lion.

’ She nodded. ‘They want me to design new menus for them.’ Martha’s eyebrows shot up to her hairline. ‘Menus?’ She didn’t mean to sound so dismissive, but really it was a very small piece of work. Nothing that would earn the sort of money they needed. Fran looked hurt. ‘That’s good.’ Martha tried to backtrack, filled her voice with a hope she didn’t feel. ‘And we’re nearly at Easter. That should help things to pick up, shouldn’t it?’ She glanced over her shoulder, caught Fran’s glare.

‘I’m doing my best. You don’t have to be so bloody scathing. It’s not easy being selfemployed, you know. Feast or famine, that’s how it goes. And I can’t magic work out of nowhere, can I?’ ‘No, I know.’ Martha took a deep breath, knew this was the moment to have the dreaded conversation. ‘But Mum, I need to find a new job.’ Fran sat up straight, her mouth open. ‘You what?’ Martha stirred the chilli, unable to meet her mother’s eye. ‘I’m not working for Pete any more.

’ ‘He sacked you?’ Fran sounded incredulous. Tears stung Martha’s eyes. She shook her head, put the lid on the chilli and turned to face her mum, the story of her day filling her mind. It had been, without doubt, one of the worst days of her life.

.

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