General Fiction posted January 22, 2014

Not yet exceptional. When the exceptional rating is reached this is highlighted
A woman with an uncertain past.


by PhilipCatshill

In the myriad of leaflets they have on those racks just inside the library door, you'd think they'd have something on what to do with my time, now mother is in a home. I fancy the idea of becoming a world famous mystery writer, though I haven't yet to put pen to paper.

"I'm sorry," says the library assistant, "I don't know of any writers' groups in the area. You might find one on the Internet." She mumbles something and ushers me towards a bank of computer desks in the centre of the room. Then, as an after thought, she adds, "I take it you have a library card. You will need it to log on."

"No," I shake my head. "Never been a member."

"No problem," comes her flighty reply. "I'll just get you to fill out an application form."

Immediately I protest, "I detest forms."

The girl assistant, for little more than a girl is what she is, says, "Oh so do I, but never mind. I'll help you with it." She lays the form on the desk and stands there with a ballpoint poised over the space for first name.

"Alex," I say.

I know what's coming. She is about to say, "And is that short for..." so I pre-empt the question and snap, "and that's not short for anything. For some macabre reason my dad took to his grave and my mother has forgotten with age and senility, my parents called me Alex, just Alex." She mumbles something. "I can't hear you," I say. She gives me an apologetic smile, and flips her hand through her shoulder length hair.

"I've never had long hair," I say, "but even in her nineties, mother still has. Even with fingers gnarled by arthritis, she still manages to cock her head on the side and do that flick thing with her hair, just like you just did."

The girl smiles. "I do it all the time."

Surname and address never pose a problem, but then I have to face that question. The girl looks up. Go on, I challenge her in my mind. Take a guess - Mr Mrs or Miss, but aloud I say, "Where's the box for prefer not to say."

She screws her eyes together and studies my face intently for a moment or two, making it obvious that she can't decide.

"An approximate age will do," she smiles, tactfully skipping to the next item.

I answer, "Let's just say I saw my fortieth birthday before the rest of the world celebrated the millennium. Fifty too came and went if you want the truth." Sixty came along in the millennium year. Now I'm mumbling just the way she did. "Seems I hear myself doing a lot of that these days" I say.

"It's the same with me," she says. "Sometimes I don't know I'm doing it."

"I wish I had thought to ask about my name." These days, mother is as batty as hell and takes up a bed in a nursing home. I visit of course, though I doubt whether she recognises me, so she's hardly in a position to solve that mystery. I asked her once. "Why did you call me Alex?" She drooled out, "Who's Alex?"

"Yes, you told me," the girl interrupts my thoughts. I lean my head to the side and I give her a quizzical look, which mirrors the look she's giving me. "I wrote it down. Look." She thrusts the form towards me.

"Sorry," I say. "I detest forms. I think I've probably answered the same a thousand times. It's not short for anything. It says Alex on by birth certificate, and that's my name."

"Shall we move on?"

I glance at the form. Sure enough, straight after the now customary: are you black, white or any of the colours in between, there's that other question. The one I dread. "Tell me," I insist, "What in the world has sexual preference or orientation got to do with borrowing a library book?"

She lowers her head. "You don't have to say."

"Too damn right I don't have to say," I snarl back. Too damn right, I think, but then again, I'd write it in capital letters, I'd shout it, scream it or "come out" as they say these days. I'd broadcast my sexual preference far and wide, if only I knew what it was.

The girl is looking down. She doesn't need to read my thoughts; I'm mumbling them loud enough. The way she's colouring up, it's pretty obvious she's heard.

"There's never a box for unknown," I say. I went to an all girls' school and pranced around in a gingham dress and ankle socks like the rest of them, but I left at fifteen, and left the schoolgirl behind. I put on a pair of slacks and haven't worn a dress since. I see she's crossed out Mr, so I guess she must have tuned into my mumbles. We're down to a choice of two. She glances at my hand. I reckon that confirms it. Yep, there it is. I'm a Miss. I've always been Miss.

This is the point where she either steps back in disgust, or gives that all knowing smile. "I'm not a lesbian," I said. Half the library turned. I lowered my voice, "I'm not a lesbian," I whisper.

The girl leans closer. "I am, I think," she whispers back.

First time in my life, I take a step back. I can feel my bottom lip quivering but not a sound leaves my lips. Then she lifts her hand with its wedding ring. "It's my mothers..." she says, but breaks off to wipe a tear from her eye. I don't know what to say. "It's nothing to be ashamed about," she says. "Not in this day and age."

"I'm not ashamed," I snap at her. "I'm not a lesbian either." I don't know what I am. Don't you think I got to this age without wondering a time or two? I tried it once.

"Sorry," the girl says in a whisper. "Only I didn't catch... did you say you had tried it? Do you mean with a man or ..."

"Does that go on the form?" I ask.

She smiles. "No, let's forget the form. I'm going to take my break," which she says more to the second librarian than to me. The next bit is definitely for me. "You can tell me the story over a coffee, if you like."

I follow like a lamb to the coffee shop a couple of doors down the street. I can't remember the last time I had coffee in a coffee shop. It is almost self-service; by that I mean you grab a tray and shuffle along in a queue, helping yourself here and there to whatever takes your fancy. She takes a chocolate eclair.

"Coincidence." I say as a chocolate eclair finds its way onto my plate.

"Oh temptation," she says. I let her pass me. She takes out a purse,

"I'll get them," I say, but she's there anyway, so pays.

"Thanks," she says.

"I don't mean to pry," the librarian says as soon as she takes her seat.

"Yes you do," I retort and stuff the end of the eclair in my mouth. She cocks her head back and rakes her hand through her hair. Just like mother, I mumble. She does that with her hair all the time. "Mother," I say, "Mother who couldn't even remember my name, festering away in a home still telling everyone who'd listen that her only daughter was untouched. 'Too ugly,' mother would say. 'A man would have to be blind to want her.' Only, he wasn't blind."

"You're not ugly," the librarian says. "You are different, but not ugly."

"I was mumbling again, wasn't I?"

"I do that all the time," she replies. "I say my thoughts aloud; sometimes without even realising I'm doing it. Were you telling me about your lover?"

"He wasn't a lover," I reply. "He was just a man looking for a screw and I obliged. That's all. I was a policewoman, At least that's what we were called in the sixties."

"You were in the police?" There was a note of incredulity in her voice. "I tried to join, but they've cut back on recruiting."

"I wasn't there long. I'd hardly got out of training before I left. There were fifty policemen and eight women shut away in a police training centre out on the moor for thirteen weeks. By the end of the first week, I reckon the men thought even the sheep were attractive."

She laughs then. "I hope you came before the sheep."

I shrug. "Can't say. The police - well, they frowned on divorce in those days, so they put this policeman there as an instructor while he sorted out his marriage. We chatted a couple of times. He said I was about the only one in the world who'd listen to his problems. Then after a week or so, he said he valued my friendship but needed a... Well, you can guess. Hardly the most romantic chat up line, I thought, but then, what did I know? I told him I wasn't interested but he gave me that sad eyed look, so there you go; I let him persuade himself into my bed. That's it. My one solitary experience."

"Sorry to be personal," she says, "but I never seem to enjoy - you know, doing the sex thing."

"No," I say. "I can't say I did. In fact, while he was humping away, I was thinking I'd rather be watching TV. He got angry when I told him. I said I'd had more fun painting the bathroom ceiling. Both jobs had left a lot of mess that needed cleaning up afterwards. After that, he went home for the weekend and never came back."

Silence follows for a moment or two while we slurp through milky coffee and finish our cream cakes.
Then she says, "Why did you leave the police?" I'm overwhelmed then. "I'm sorry," she says. "I didn't mean to upset you."

I'm crying. "I've never told anyone..."

She holds my hand, "Tell me," she says.

"I was..." I can't get the words out.

"Pregnant," she says.

I nod. "No one ever knew," I sob. "I took myself off to Canada and stayed awhile with my cousin. She was married but couldn't have kids, so when the baby came along, they just registered it as their own. She was an adorable little girl. I named her though. I gave my baby a name and walked away, and never saw her again"

"What did you call her?"

"Emmaline because it was so feminine, I thought no matter what she looked like, no one would ever wonder."

My tears drip onto the table making little splashes on the Formica tabletop. The librarian's tears splashed next to mine. "Oh, God," she cries. "That's my name... Emmaline and that was my mother's name."

"Was?" I query.

"Yes, I am so sorry," she cries. "My mother was born in Canada, but my parents..." She's howling now. Even the coffee shop proprietor is shedding tears. "My parents," the girl sobs, "were killed in a car crash two months ago."

"Your mother was Canadian?" I'm almost stammering. "When... " I hesitate. I change tack. "My baby was born on..." I say a date.

"Oh God," she sobs again. "That was her birthday... I think... I think you might be my grandmother."

"Your grandmother..."

Emmaline says, "That's why I mumble... Oh God, I never knew." She cries again. "I can't go back to work like this."

We make our way to her car and she drives us to the house. "There's no one there..." she breaks off and cries again. After a couple of hours of ever flowing tears, she says, "Please stay."

I say, "I'll come back tomorrow."

I'm there early.

We go through her mother's things. I go back the next day and the next, but on the third day, Emmaline returns to work. As soon as she leaves, I use her late mother's door key. I'm going through photo albums, papers and things, getting to know my way around, learning her secrets, finding her friends. It doesn't take long to work out what her passwords might be. Then I'm hitting her on-line savings accounts. Thousands leave her account for mine. When I'm done, I figure I've outstayed my welcome. It's time to move on.

Next day I'm miles away.

I look through the obits in the local paper.

Verity - sadly missed, beloved wife and mother.

No one ever thinks to close these social media accounts when someone dies. It never ceases to amaze me the information people boast about themselves. Within an hour through the Internet, I find the late Verity on virtually every social media site there is. I know her friends, her habits, her birthday, how many puppies her dog gave birth to; even her favourite movie star.

Just a few hours of research, leads me to the daughter.

The first meeting is always the tricky one. I've done this often enough to know within minutes whether the scam will work. The daughter is defensive. I figure it's time to drop the trump card.

"Verity," I say through my tears. "I called my baby Verity on the day I gave her away..."

It never fails.

This is a work of fiction, however, this type of scam happens far too often. People do prey on the bereaved, and far too often, they get away with it.
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