Never trust a madwoman. It was to be the phrase that Meygan would tell me once I had related my London story to her. However, for now, I had not come across such a saying, and I had no way of controlling the force of nature of the shopkeeper.
She fumed. Spittle flew from her mouth as she spoke, and her eyes spun again.
“Please!” Clarissa tried to level with her. “What if we really were customers, would you treat us this way?”
“Not this again,” I told her.
“But you are not. You are liars.”
The lady took another step forward, eyes glinting.
“Do something,” Clarissa hissed to me. “You are meant to be the girl she wants proof of.”
“Umm…” I stepped forward, realising that my hands were up in defence again. “I can’t, not really. But tell me, would my mother have wanted you to act the way you are…Louise?”
Her eyebrows arched; there was no denying the surprise in her eyes. Nevertheless, the woman called Louise wasn’t giving up that easily. The grey in her hair glimmered in the sudden sun. It was from the entrance, in a flash; the door-bell sounded, before I saw the man at the corner of my vision.
His voice was soft, but commanding.
The man watched Louise, staying where he was, settled in the edge of my eyes.
“What’s going on?”
Louise’s own eyes lit up, jabbing the broom in our direction. Clarissa and I jumped back, almost frozen between the two of them.
“Does she look like her?” Louise asked her son.
The man turned his sharp attention onto me, eyes narrowed. His face was impassive.
“She does! Lily?”
“Hi,” I replied uneasily, giving a weak wave.
“Lily, Lily, Lily,” he repeated, walking in a large circle around Clarissa and I, ever unnerving.
Even Clarissa chose to be quiet, here slipping a hand onto my shoulder again. Her eyes settled on the man, a dirty glare shocking.
“Can I help you?” I began to spin.
“Is it really you?” Louise’s son asked, crossing to join his mother. Now she was all smiles.
“For the last time: yes!”
“I know: this must be a shock to find us.”
“Huh?” I boggled.
“You don’t know? I’m your god-father.” He seemed to expect a round of applause.
“I have a god-father?” The woman I had grown up with had never practised or encouraged religion. “Wait. You know my mother?”
“Knew, Lily. I thought-” a look of confusion crossed his face. “She disappeared just after she had you. She didn’t say why. Didn’t she… I mean-”
I knew exactly what words the man couldn’t quite reach.
“-I was adopted. This is what started my search. You don’t know of my name’s origin, do you?”
“No, she never gave us her real name.”
I retold them the story of my initial search, but then I jerked stopped once again.
“What? Highclere is not my surname?”
“That’s not the surname your mother gave me. At least, I knew it wasn’t her real name anyway-”
“She told us the tale of being an out-of-work actress without a proper home,” Louise added. “Your mother could act, but she certainly didn’t do it as a profession.”
“Tell me. Please.”
“Where do we begin? She was a character indeed.”
“What did she- did she look like?” I said timidly.
“Lily, this was years ago. I’m sorry. All I can remember about her is that blonde hair-”
“It had been dyed.”
“And green eyes-”
“Which I’m pretty sure were contacts anyway.”
I hung my head in my hands with a groan.
“This is useless.”
Fighting the tears that pricked my eyes once more, I lifted my head to look at the way that they were all staring at me, even- andespecially- Clarissa, in the way that I just didn’t need.
I felt my legs give way, jelly under me. Hands reached out, two pairs from each, but it was Clarissa who caught me eventually.
“Get a chair!”
Louise had one instantly, knowing her shop as well as she did.
“Well, that woman is elusive,” Clarissa grumbled. “Though why she would be ridiculous enough-”
I took in enough of the silence to know that one of the two adults had quickly shhed Clarissa to be quiet.
“Sorry,” she said in one of the meekest tones I had ever heard her use.
“No, you’re right, Clarissa. All that this has proven about my mother is that she was a liar and possibly a cheat. Why she bothered to leave me with rumours of a legacy, I will never know.”
Having looked up from my hands, I studied the curious curve of Louise’s dark lips.
“There’s one thing, Lily,” she remarked before dissolving back into the confines of the shop. I watched her return, but my drear eyes could not brighten yet.
A minute later, an envelope was thrust into my face.
“She knew that you’d come.”
“Yes. I’d almost begun to forget about it, but she left this with a word to give it to you when you would arrive. She told us to deliver this letter; my gift to you.”
“How presumptuous,” I heard Clarissa remark.
I took the envelope from the outstretched hand and stared at it. There was nothing extraordinary about the ancient exterior or the way its corners had begun to flop. Indeed, it was only the almost-italicised handwriting that caught my eye as being the standout of the piece of paper. With utmost speed, I ripped off the top edge and pulled out the one-sided card-note that had been concealed beneath.
It was a letter. It was dated two weeks after my birthday.
You’ve made it this far- and I barely know you, but I’m pretty sure that you’ll be wanting to give up, just as I was. Don’t ask and I think you won’t tell, but ask and just as surely you’ll have some clues dotted about your position that you’ll interpret with mindfulness. Sense is a fine thing to contain, but I might have simply lost mine years ago. I live dangerously, and it’s not something I’d advise doing. But you’re here, so either I’ve totally cracked, or you’ve gained the danger allele.
Here, add some Y to your list. I’m sorry it’s so informal, but I still believe that you deserve to know a little of your identity; after all, I would have liked to myself.
Inside the letter had been tucked two photographs, grainy. Wonder filled me, excitable notions rising as I scanned the topmost image.
Her features hinted at the familiar, but it soon occurred to me that it was simply because I was seeing myself in my mother’s form. Petite and daintily pretty, the pictures had been taken, faded, in a back-garden. A skimpy dressed clung to the woman, barely more than a girl herself. I stared and stared. The feeling that something was missing or retained from me gnawed; the light helped very little in identifying the shade of her damp-like hair, and the figure was too far away for her eyes to be visible more than marks.
The other picture was unfocused and partly torn. I identified the place where my mother ended and merely the arm of another person remained. The woman, as faded as she looked, was hiding in a corner of the shop, clutching a smudge of blue that must have been Bluey. Flipping the photograph around, I spotted the words ‘Indigo and Simon, Louise’s Shop’.
Clarissa breath whistled through my ear, too warm for comfort. She leant a little further over my shoulder.
“Y? What does that stand for?”
I fingered the images, tracing the round features of the girl who had stood there.
“Young. It means ‘young mother’.”