All the Daughters

Rose and Louise were roommates in their first year at college. Rose plastered the walls with CND posters and album covers of The Clash and Teardrop Explodes and Velvet Underground. She drank disgusting powdered fair trade coffee and wore tie-dyed skirts she’d made herself with black Doc Martin boots. She was into unshaved armpit hair and Feminist Readings of the Text. But last time Louise saw her – five, maybe six, years ago – she’d turned into a Yummy Mummy. There she was, in her pretty suburban garden with a husband and two children – one of each sex -  and a look so radiantly smug that it made Louise want to slap her.

It was July and baking hot. They sat outside and drank elderflower presse. Louise remembers the conversation – how stop start it was – how unsatisfactory - how Rose kept glancing about the garden, leaving her sentences hanging unfinished. How she’d ask questions – about Orkney, about Louise’s novel, about how she’d managed to find an agent – and then every time Louise warmed to a theme Rose would interrupt to address one of her children. ‘Esther – careful on the steps...’  ‘Sam, keep your sun hat on sweetie...’ ‘In a minute darling, I’m just talking to Lu-lu...’

 

Louise was offended that Rose hadn’t read her novel especially as it had been out for almost a year by then. Rose said motherhood had wrecked her concentration, that she fell asleep by nine o’clock at night, that she’d taken six months to read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin because she’d nod off after a few pages and then have to re-read the same bit again the following night to remind herself what was happening.

While they talked, Esther was playing on the lawn with a plastic tea set, pouring water into tiny blue cups. Louise remembers how she tottered towards them with one of the cups precariously balanced on a saucer, spilling half the contents down her chubby toddler legs, Rose squealing, ‘Oh thank you Es-ther,’  cutting right across something Louise  was saying about redefining post-modernism. She remembers that Rose’s sing-song tone was beginning to grate. ‘Have you got a cup of tea for Lou as well?’  And then Esther bringing Louise ‘tea,’ which she dutifully pretended to drink, stirring sugar with an imaginary spoon as she struggled to form a coherent sentence.

 

Rose’s elder child Sam  - sporting a hat like someone from the French Foreign Legion -  had been whiney because of the heat (Rose said) but also (more plausibly) because Louise wasn’t sufficiently interested in Dinosaurs A-Z, a book he kept thrusting in front of her. He’d shown her pictures with his hand covering the labels, saying insistently ‘Guess what this one’s called?’ If she didn’t look rapidly enough at the reptile on show, he’d reach up and press his palms against her face, angling her gaze towards the open page. Louise was hopeless – didn’t know her Apatosaurus from her Gallimimus. Still doesn’t. After half a dozen failures she guessed ‘Bored-a-saurus’ and Rose, looking hurt and unamused had scooped Sam onto her knee and proceeded to blank  Louise while she recited a litany of dinosaur names. Louise remembers thinking how relentless children are – how they suck away all your energy. How they consume you and distract you. How ideas, words, time leak away and everything is now, is instant, is ‘Mummy LOOK!’

 

Rose had looked well though – disgustingly, absurdly well. Sun-kissed hair, tanned legs (shaved too Louise noticed), plumper than when she’d last seen her and a glow of contentment that  would, if Louise had  let it, have tipped her into aching self-pity.  There was a moment that afternoon that Louise went back to several times in the months that followed. One February day in Kansas she even tried to capture it in a poem. Esther had just eaten a nectarine and juice was streaming down her arms. She clambered onto her mother’s lap and pressed her fingers one by one into Rose’s mouth. Rose, oblivious to all but Esther, sucked her daughter’s fingers with a look of such elemental intimacy that Louise felt herself an intruder, a voyeur. Then, when Esther’s fingers were all clean, Rose licked her sticky face, like a she-bear grooming her pup. Louise called her poem ‘Invisible’ which seems a bit melodramatic now. But that was how she had felt.

Later, when Esther fell and bumped her head, Rose silenced her yells by unbuttoning her shirt and presenting Esther with a raspberry-coloured nipple. Louise had thought breastfeeding was for tiny babies, not blonde haired girls big enough to run round the garden shouting ‘Mummy watch!’ and with a full set of pearly white teeth.

 

That’s how Louise imagines Rose now,  lounging in a striped deckchair with Esther, naked apart from a grimy pink T-shirt, sprawled across her legs, arms the colour of hazelnuts, sucking blissfully as she twirls wisps of Rose’s hair around her thumb. Louise remembers watching with wonder as Esther fell into a sleep so miraculously heavy her bones might have been made of lead, Rose unclamping her lips and rolling her onto a blanket on the grass where she went on sleeping, like a gorged wasp. ‘Magic,’ Rose had said with a grin, half wry and half believing herself to be a goddess. Rose, re-buttoning her clothing, had glanced up to meet Louise’s stare with a momentary look of sympathy. ‘Poor childless woman’ her face said. Poor unfulfilled Louise with unsucked breasts.

Louise recalls how she left before supper after Sam, inconsolable from a wasp sting to his foot, howled continuously for half an hour.

‘Are you sure you won’t stay?’ Rose had said, ‘Jonathan will be home soon. I’m sure he’d love to see you...’

She’d left Rose clutching a child on each hip, and driven away – back towards London – with a sense of relief at the intact quietness of her solitary car. Feeling free and unfettered. But feeling angry too. Angry at the way her successes had seemed suddenly trivialised – shrunk in size. Angry at the sharp stabs of envy, cutting into her like shards of glass. Angry at the unspoken air of superiority affected by Women With Children towards Those Without.

 

Page 11-15 © Sue Mayfield

 

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Books for adults