When I woke up the next morning, after less than 5 hours’ sleep, the first thing I wanted to do was go to the chemist for a morning-after pill. A year before, I hadn’t even known what they were, such had been my dependence on condoms (and my mild, but persistent, distaste for oral contraceptives) and now, I wanted nothing more than what a quick search had informed me was a little pill called Levonelle. Fine, tremendous. If I needed to take a pill, I’d take a pill. I filled in a brief form online, and decided I’d order 3, instead of 1, just in case.
After placing my order and checking that I could pick it up from the local pharmacy, I fed Rilla, changed us both into clothes for the day, and headed downstairs, back straight, head up, eyes as clear as strength of will and a drop of saline solution can make them. When I entered the Ashbrookes’ breakfast ‘nook’ (it’s twice the size of a room that can reasonably claim that title) it wasn’t quite 9 a.m., and only my da was downstairs. He was nearly done with a plate of what had probably been a full English, and sipping what would definitely be his 3rd or 4th cup of manfully black coffee; but since no one else was up yet, I knew I wasn’t in trouble.
How pathetic is that? How could I still be concerned about what he thought? Not even ‘still’ concerned—more, concerned for the 1st time in my life—and irritation with myself kept my spine and my voice stiff as I greeted him with a slightly sulky, “Good morning, Da.”
Putting down the paper he was skimming, my da looked up, and actually didn’t say anything sarcastic. “Good morning, ladies,” he said, holding out his arms for Rilla, and when I protested that he was still eating, he said, “Nonsense, I’ve had too much already, give me the little lass while you get some hot food down you,” and then his chatter degenerated into coos, ahhhs, and baby-voiced comments about what a pretty baby Granda’s girl was.
There was a little bell to ring for service, I shit you not, and I knew the Ashbrookes employed a cook, if not full-time, then certainly for occasions when guests were staying over—instead of using the bell, I sauntered into the kitchen, forcing my body into a more relaxed posture, and once I was in the kitchen, I asked the plump, middle-aged, caricature-of-a-cook woman for some French Toast with butter, syrup, and a side of sausages, before sauntering back the way I came.
“Are you sure you don’t want to finish, Da?” I asked him, reaching towards Rilla. “I have to wait a few minutes for my breakfast anyway.” When my da declined, saying he wanted to spend more time with Rilla before flying back to Ireland that afternoon, but making a face that clearly said he wasn’t sure leaving me to my own devices, with a baby, was a good idea, I shrugged, and grabbed a banana from the fruit bowl in the centre of the table. As I ate it, I studiously avoided looking at Da; I ate it just slowly enough that it looked slightly obscene, but too quickly to occasion comment. As I swallowed the last mouthful and got up to chuck the peel, I said smilingly, “Well, that’s 1 of my 5-a-day taken care of,” and strode into the kitchen, irritation turning my steps into strides.
I tossed the carcass of my banana into the bin, before crossing over to the oven. (Not oven—enormous, forest green, double Aga, to be precise.) “Thanks, I’ll just grab that from you now,” I said to the cook, snatching the plate she was just lifting onto a tray, and reaching past her for the smaller plate containing my sausages. “Would you mind bringing me a glass of orange juice and a pot of coffee?” I added, in the same imperious tone I’d have used if I were saying, You, slave, my goblet of wine, pronto.
Ignoring my bad manners—the hired help have to do that, I’ve found, if they want to keep their jobs—the cook nodded and murmured something like, “Of course, right away, madam,” a term which would have amused me on any other morning. By the time I sat back down, had gobbled down half my food and guzzled all my orange juice and 3 cups of sugary, milky coffee, I was feeling marginally less annoyed. Marginally. I managed to respond more or less civilly to my da’s banal chitchat, including his questions about when I was heading back into the city, and whether or not I’d come out to Glas Geadán with Rilla, at some point in the next few months. I responded civilly, right up until he added, “Your stepmother would love to meet Rilla.”
As usual, any reference to the woman set me on edge. Also, that was more than I could take—or believe. “Then why didn’t she come to her christening?” I snapped.
“Anais,” Da said, looking pained, “You didn’t invite her.”
I just stared at him, for a long moment. “Are you serious?” I said finally. “Are you seriously going to try to pin this on me? Just because she couldn’t be bothered to fly across a 100-mile stretch of water, I’m to blame? Don’t you dare. You know that if you’re invited, I don’t care if you bring her along.”
With a look that was entirely sadness, or at least utterly devoid of anger, my da said softly, “Anais, darlin’, that’s not the same as being invited.” He took a deep breath before continuing, “In all the time we’ve been married, you’ve never once invited your stepmother to anything. It’s no wonder she’s quit tagging along—the wonder is that she bothered at all, the first few years we were together.” Another sad look. “I guess she thought you’d forgive her, eventually.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but that was it, Da had said his piece, and he didn’t need to listen to what I had to say. “No, Anais,” he said, a little more firmly. “You know as well as I do—as well as your stepmother does—that you’re not wanting her around, intruding on your life. So, out of respect, she’s kept her distance, and it’s pained her, especially since the little one was born. But I’m wanting Rilla to have everything you had growing up; I’m thinking she’ll be the better, for going to visit her grandparents regularly; and I’m thinking it’s maybe time for you to return your stepmother’s generosity and kindness with some of your own. You’re a grown woman now, Anais. You should be acting like it.”
And with those words of wisdom, my da left the room, and left me feeling more like a naughty child than I had in years.