There was always something gloomy about Sundays. There was a bitter taste in the air, something like static in the atmosphere, where tension crackled from tongue to tongue. I’d grown up with such tension, learnt to expect it, even, in a household of odd proportions. My mother never let herself be alone with the house. She had once supposed that it was haunted, when we first moved in, and nothing I had ever said to convince her otherwise had truly dissolved her anxiety. So on Sundays, the place became a home for my mother’s friends and relatives; it became a harbour for gossip and gossip alike.
My sense of being an outcast most likely started with them. They came with barrels of questions, making sure that they would be able to lean forward on their elbows to see me, blonde- or what was left of blonde- locks reflecting off the glaring kitchen lights. The mutation was obvious most in their eyes, not a flicker of brown among them; hair-colour could be faked, but there was not way that they would make the trouble to attempt to hide their true eye-colour.
I’d always thanked the stars that my mother was dark-haired to match me. It felt like the only connection we had, but I had once taken it as a sure-fire sign that I had to be part of their family. That’s what I had thought. I brought the lie to myself, happily believing it whilst, eyes closed, I moved my years on.
For that particular Sunday to have fallen at the beginning of the Summer holiday, and a mere week after my birthday celebrations, was good luck. The sun was warm, but it did not yet burn, and the gloom of the day was restricted to indoors.
In fact, I was in lower spirits than usual. The afternoon poured its warm gaze in, but did nothing to convince me that the most recent words of those who called themselves my relations had just been to spite me. I hadn’t seen that their remarks were just the same as normal:
“Why don’t you dye your hair something brighter?”
“You should be doing more sport- and not just at school.”
“Why are you not more like your mother, in the end?”
Each person’s remark was indistinguishable from another’s. Yet, the words still sparked a series of pessimistic thoughts across my mind.
My mother herself had gone out to the shops, and I slipped away from my distant family, leaving them to speculate over controlling my life by themselves. In one of the living room cupboards, a dusty one that held my school reports under the music player, I knew, lay the boxes of old photographs that my mother had inherited from those relatives of hers who had passed away. When she wasn’t in the house, I had begun to make my way slowly through them, chuckling at the past, grainy images of people who I might have otherwise never known.
Moving out a new box that day, it didn’t take my curious fingers long to flick through the new one, once again labelled ‘family’. There seemed to be no variations whatsoever with my mother’s system.
The first picture was of my mother. I laughed at the limp chestnut mop that adorned her head, blue eyes peering out from behind a fringe. She’d since lost any gleam that had been contained in those eyes, telling me that it had been stolen by the love of her life when he’d walked out on her and their baby daughter: me. I bore the guilt of the father I’d never known, but I’d never strived to find him; to dig up old memories, I had thought, would be useless.
Having unpacked all the sheaves of photos one by one, I spotted a little brown album tucked into the bottom of the box. No dust had collected on its leather front, there were no marks from the other papers placed on it. There didn’t seem to be any sign of the fade the other pictures displayed.
With nimble fingers, I unlatched the pop-lock of the leather book, and turned onto its first page. A little picture of a baby had been cellotaped into the circular space that the book provided, pink hearts and flowers a frame.
Though, then, I didn’t know why my heart raced at the picture, other than the fact that I couldn’t look at a baby without maternal instincts kicking in, I flicked the pages onwards, cooing at what lay on them, whilst I had only spent a second of my time glancing at the date printed on the opposite page.
A lock of pale brown hair was stuck to another circle within a double page of the album, this one containing only one picture, less clear, but certainly of the same baby girl dressed in pick with bows of the same shade of icing-colour in her messy locks. Someone had tried to scoop the brown into pigtails, but the hair had wanted- and succeeded- escaping without much effort. She was sitting in the sunlight of a small, city garden and giggling at the photographer.
The caption underneath read ‘Lily’s first tooth, smiling’, written hastily in joined calligraphy, and, indeed, a little incisor poked out of the red gum of the child’s mouth. My eyes glazed back over to the lock of hair on the corresponding page. Its caption was ‘Lily’s hair’. Flicking through the book, I could see that captions were thin on the ground, but that, from this page onwards, captions began to spring up.
I turned a page, and was confronted by Lily again. She sat inside this time, her hands tightly clasped around a soft-toy; in every photograph she was getting older, but there were not many pages of the book left. About to turn the page, the soft-toy caught my eye: a blue bear with buttons for eyes…my Bluey. He had been my favourite toy for as long as I could remember, and my mother had once told me that he was unique, despite throwing him out the following year, defeating my protests by her argument that he was getting ‘old and filthy’.
I looked down at the caption. ‘The New Millennium and Lily, aged two years.’ A frown patterned my features.
For a while I just sat in wonder at the images. Most of the album was the same, crammed with pictures, mementos, handprints. That child must have been pretty important to have a whole book dedicated to herself.
Suddenly, the latch clicked to signal my mother’s return home, her arms laden with orange and green plastic bags, mostly likely non-reusable, stuffed with an array of delectable goods and some other necessary house paraphernalia.
She let out a little gasp as she spotted the cabinet and her private boxes open beside me. Although I felt the guilt rise up inside me like bile, I did nothing to hide my curiosity.
“Mother…” I asked, watching her frozen expression in the spotlight, just as guilty as mine, “who’s Lily?”
She sighed and shook her head quickly, analysing my expression and the way that my eyes peered at her insistently, as she began to pace around the room. Just as I was about to open my mouth and ask some kind of demand for her response, she replied, her voice dry.