The morning began as so many do in winter, with lowhanging fog and a smattering of frost. For weeks the sky has been the muted silver of a much-thumbed coin, but today the sun has broken through, laundering my little Cambridgeshire village with light.
As I walk the ten or so minutes to the pub, I relish this new brightness which has brought with it so much colour – red berries in a thicket of holly, a battalion of purple pansies in a window box, and perched on the wall outside the church, a blue tit, its head cocked inquisitively to one side.
I see David as soon as I cross the threshold of the White Swan. He is easy to spot, with his round bald head and those John Lennon-style glasses, which he wears balanced precariously on the end of his nose. In all the early family photos of him, Anna and myself, David has thick, black curls, much like my own, but his hair started to thin rapidly the year he turned forty, and now, at fifty-eight, there’s barely a strand remaining. Strangers used to comment on David’s hair when I was a child, telling me how fortunate I was to have inherited it. I always smiled away and allowed them their assumptions – in fact, I enjoyed hearing them. In the eyes of those people, I was a normal daughter, from a normal family, living a normal life.
I once read that the average human life has seventeen possible starting points. Some believe it begins at conception, others the moment of birth, while for a few the transition into adulthood marks the real beginning. I suppose our life is a story, and we are its author – therefore it’s down to us to decide which chapter means the most to us.
My own life began eight days after my fourth birthday – the day I found out I was adopted. I can’t remember how it felt before that, just being Evangeline Nash, a child who had no idea she had been given away by the one person who was supposed to cherish her the most, a mother whose name I don’t even know. In the quietest moments of the night, in that pause before the dawn arrives, I still search inside and try to find myself – the person I should have been.
‘There she is!’ David exclaims as I walk towards him. ‘You look lovely – what a nice dress.’
‘It’s a jumpsuit,’ I say, lifting one leg to the side like a tightrope-walker before accepting his enthusiastic hug of greeting. ‘They’re flattering, but an absolute nightmare when you need a pee.’
Stripping off in the ladies’ loo aside, it made a nice change to wear something other than leggings and a sloppy jersey today, so I’m touched that he has noticed the effort. It has been a good long while now since I have ventured out for lunch, and I even went so far as to apply a smear or two of make-up.
In the eyes of those people, I was a normal daughter, from a normal family, living a normal life.
We spend the first few minutes discussing the mundanities of David’s life – his car MOT and the ongoing battle between the neighbour’s dog and his rose bushes. I remark on the ludicrous number of Christmas decorations that are up in the pub, and we deliberate over whether to order the Swan’s famous macaroni cheese or its triple-stacked BLT from the menu. I don’t argue when he offers upfront to pay, even though it stings to accept. I will get back to a place where I am earning again, but at the moment, it still feels a long way off.
‘So,’ he begins, when we both have a Diet Coke in front of us, ‘your big date is tonight, isn’t it?’
‘It is,’ I agree. Then, seeing him arch an inquisitive brow, ‘Why are you making that face?’
‘I’m just happy for you, poppet, that’s all. Billy is one of the good guys.’
David often makes these proclamations, telling me his opinion rather than asking me for mine. Anna told me once that he can’t help it – before he became a fulltime author, he spent so many years teaching that his mannerisms and speech patterns were altered.
‘Well, don’t get too carried away,’ I inform him, allowing myself the flicker of a smile as I picture Billy. The idea of being on a date with him later is sending my mind down a helter-skelter, but it’s too late to cancel on him now.
‘It’s just a drink,’ I remind David. ‘Not a Happily Ever After.’
‘Yes, of course, I know that. I don’t want you to feel that I . . . Well, that is to say . . . What I mean is . . .’
David coughs to mask his discomfort, then reaches into the inside pocket of his blazer and extracts a small cloth. When he removes his glasses to polish them, however, he promptly drops them on to the floor, then bangs his head as he begins rooting around beneath the table.
I would usually have been amused by such a display, but as it is, I find his obvious unease disconcerting. David was once the person I relied on to have the answers to all my questions, but nowadays, he falters whenever he speaks to me – even over a subject as benign as my date with an old friend. In his eyes, I have transformed from my robust self into something fragile, a delicate china ornament that must be handled with the utmost care at all times, just in case I crack.
Since Anna died in a horse-riding accident last Christmas Eve, it has felt increasingly like David’s playing a part; he is A Father and Widow Who Is Coping, rather than his real, presumably wobbly self. Would it be different if he had fathered me in the traditional way? If we were related by blood, would we have a mutual understanding that allowed each of us to better support the other? I wish I could do more to help him, but then, I wish he could help me more, too.
Once the glasses have been restored to David’s face, I do my best to steer the conversation away from the subject of my dating life, and the two of us end up sharing a laugh as we recall a comical habit from my childhood. I was very fond of pulling my jumpers up over my face and pratting around the house unable to see, which led to many a collision with not only the furniture, but also two long-suffering cats and, while seated at the dining room table once, a plate of macaroni cheese hot from the oven. That one was messy.
It’s only when I stop and bring my eyes up to meet his that I see the fear in them. He has something else that he needs to tell me, but suddenly, I don’t want to hear it.
I have just put my knife and fork together across my empty plate when David drops his bombshell, beginning with the fairly innocuous comment that he’s worried about me.
That makes two of us.
‘I’m fine,’ I say automatically, only to chastise myself for the lie. ‘What I mean is, I will be fine. I just need a bit more time, that’s all.’
I twist a thick wedge of hair furiously around one finger, wincing when it starts to shred.
‘It’s been almost a year,’ David continues, and immediately I feel the all-too-familiar stinging sensation behind my nose.
‘Oh, Genie.’ David sighs and reaches across the table to pat my shoulder. ‘I’m sorry, sweetheart. I shouldn’t have brought it up.’
I shake my head and look down at my knees rather than at him. I have already learned that seeing my own pain reflected back in his expression does nothing at all to lessen it.
‘It’s OK,’ I mutter. ‘I don’t want you to feel like you can’t talk about it.’
David sits silently while I discreetly cry out this latest batch of tears, his fingers rubbing soothing circles on my hands. It’s only when I stop and bring my eyes up to meet his that I see the fear in them. He has something else that he needs to tell me, but suddenly, I don’t want to hear it.
I move my hands out of his grasp and lean back, gripped by an urge to flounce away from him, just as I would have done as a teenager. I tormented David and Anna from the age of thirteen right through to eighteen, sneaking out after my bedtime, drinking, smoking, even dabbling once or twice in recreational drugs. And I delighted in inviting boys home and locking my bedroom door behind us – a practice that was strictly against David’s rules. How bold I felt, when really, I was lost. It’s obvious to me now that I was oh- so angry at my displacement within the world, when what I should have been was grateful – happy to be as cherished as I was by my adoptive parents
‘I can’t just sit here and watch while you allow your life to fall completely apart,’ David says quietly, his tone sympathetic rather than severe. ‘This is the first time you’ve been out for a meal in months,’ he adds, gesturing around. ‘And what about your job – are you ever going to go back?’.
‘Genie,’ he begins, and I know what he’ll say next: money is not the problem, never has been since he wrote all those books about another girl called Evangeline; since he turned my forlorn start in life into the Evangeline And . . . series for other children to enjoy. It’s that Evangeline who has kept a roof over our heads, who settles the utility bills, puts food in the fridge and pays for the artwork on the walls of our home. She is the real star of our family.
‘It’s time we had a chat about your real mother,’ David blurts out.