Eighteen years? That meant my mother was an adulteress, for that was surely before my birth, and the sperm donor was still there, still living in our home.
“And the sperm donor, did he know?”
“My darling, you really must try to find another word for that man”
“I will not call him papa, or even father”
My mother’s pause just then said far more to me than any words could have. Eighteen years ago. My age, of seventeen, and add to it nine months.
“Come into the bed with me, Sophie. I cannot talk face to face about this, but perhaps, as a story for bedtime, as Roland did…”
I changed to my bedclothes, as did my mother, and I crept into her bed and under the duvet, to rest my head on her shoulder in her embrace. As a tiny child, I listened to my mother’s bedtime story.
“There was, one time, a queen”
Her voice trembled slightly. “The queen had not always been such, of course, but she had met a handsome prince, and she was very young, and not the most sensible of girls, and the prince liked to feast and roister. She grew very, very fond of him, despite his frivolity, and felt that she had found the man of her dreams. One morning, however, the princess, for that was what she was, awoke to find that she had been robbed of her maidenhood following too much wine. That was the end of her virtue, because her friend did not come for her the next month, and not the month after.
“This was a time long ago and far away, and things were done differently. The princess could not live in peace with a child and no father, and she loved the prince, so they were married before that child could show too much, and thus they became king and queen of a tiny kingdom in a tower in Caen. I say ‘king’, because…”
Her voice broke, and I felt the tears coming down from her cheeks. I tightened my embrace.
“Because he believed that he was the ruler of everything. All that entered the kingdom was his, and he never brought anything himself, apart from…”
I felt sobs breaking within her, and waited patiently.
“Apart from the baby, who was born a little time later, and was a handsome and noble prince despite the baseness of his father, who soon turned to beating the queen whenever he was frustrated at the gaming tables or in the taverns he haunted”
“Yes, my sweet, Now hush. This is not an easy thing. The queen was unhappy on her throne, though she loved her new prince with everything she held within her. One day, then, as she walked with the boy to his school before going to the place where she had to work as a slave to bring home the wealth that went straight back out to the tavern, she met a handsome merchant. He was tall, and courteous, and complimented her on the prince…”
Maman was now weeping steadily, her voice breaking at some words. I clung to her in our distress, for my own tears were flowing.
“And the queen, so lonely, so hurt, was flattered by his attentions of the handsome merchant, and yet she remained a foolish woman, because once more her friend disappeared that month, and for eight more. The merchant knew of this, and begged the queen to divorce from the king and join with the merchant, and that was the third stupidity of that silly young girl.
“She had listened to the Father, and marriage was marriage, so she said that she could not. The merchant was kind, and handsome, and in his despair he had no difficulties in quickly finding another princess to ease his sorrow…and…”
She paused, and her voice changed. “And after all that, the drunken piece of shit runs off with that whore from the PMU, and if only…”
There was a cry of rage from her, and shortly thereafter Rollo came into the bedroom.
“It is all right, brother. I will explain in the morning. Please?”
He just nodded, and left us slowly. ‘Brother’. Clearly not fully so, in blood, but in everything else, my brother. That could never be stolen from me.
“You can forgive me, my sweet child?”
“Maman…without the sperm donor, there would be no Rollo, and the world would be poorer, no? Do we not love him more than life?”
“Oh my God, yes!”
“And then look at Margot, yes? If you had gone with Guillaume, what would Rollo have done?”
“There are other girls…”
“Do not speak such idiocy! You can truly see Rollo with another?”
She squeezed me tight. “No, not now, my darling one. You are right. It is just, twice I did that thing, and…you forget another thing, something else so precious to a mother, and that is her daughter. I am just so shamed by this, and I do not know how I may make it right”
“Guillaume…Father…Papa knows of all this?”
“Yes, he does. When Margot met you that first day, he was confused, but then she explained when she had found the truth in you, and Guillaume…all he said to me was that if he was given any talents in life, they were the ability to sire beautiful daughters and to find wonderful women to love, and that he had managed two of each. Sophie, you must promise me. Margot is not to know of this until her papa feels that it is the correct time. Do I have your promise?”
I embraced her as tightly as I could. “What else could I do? I have one question, though: would you marry my father?”
“Oh dear Lord in heaven, as soon as he asked me! Oh my sweet, you do understand: these are not wasted years, for you are right, they have brought us Margot. Now, school in a few days, and then we shall have them both here for dinner, yes? We can practise the allioli and the pa amb whatever. And…oh, darling, you will be eighteen so soon, and…”
Her voice was uncertain, but I knew of what she spoke, and it was the surgery.
“Yes, Maman, I do want it. I would go to University as a whole person if it is possible”
She laughed out loud, relief in her voice. “You do realise that a little over a year ago I could not have imagined that? My child, my baby, at University? Have you chosen?”
I made myself more comfortable, and then thought. “Maman, I would talk of it, but first, you and I will rise from this bed and wash our faces like sensible women, no?”
She laughed again. “And you would pass the night in my bed?”
I smiled at my dear mother. “Of course; where else would I be as safe?”
Shortly after we settled down for the rest of the night.
“Maman, I would like to study English. I think I have the talent for it, and Madame Calvet agrees. We examined a number of prospectuses together, and we made a list of the ones we thought best. It is amazing, and amusing, which ones we chose as perhaps the best for me. One was Caen…”
“And would the other be somewhere warmer?”
My mother began tickling me, laughing as she did.
“Stop! Stop! Yes, you are right!”
“There is no University in Argelès!”
“But there is one in Perpignan, Maman. I am being truthful; we made those choices before we went there. It was just Fate, surely?”
“And we just happen to meet somebody to be your new grandmother while you are there? Do you perhaps make appointments on the telephone with Fate? That being said, why not here, at home?”
I lay quiet for nearly a minute, gathering my thoughts. “Maman, this is my chance for a completely new beginning. I go to Perpignan, especially if things can be arranged for…my piece early, and it is all fresh. The people I know there are all friends of Sophie. Nobody has heard of Serge”
I knew that not to be true; Roser had clearly guessed, and that had been due to my stupidity in taking the doctor’s note with me instead of requesting a supply of the hormones that would have sufficed for a month. I gathered breath.
“Maman, in Caen there would always be the chance of an encounter with people who have known me in the past, known Serge, rather. I would not be complete, I would be vulnerable. A new place, a new start”
Her voice was gentle. “Dear sweet one, problems must be faced at some time, not run from”
“Yes, I know, and I will face them, but I will do so when I am strong and confident, and that will be when…things have been removed from me. Can you understand that? I must dispose of one enemy before I can face the others”
She kissed me, and I slept in my mother’s warmth for the first time in what seemed an eternity.
Rollo was gone in the morning, for work with an early start. In only two days’ time I would enter once more into routine, and then, astonishingly, we would be heading again for a Christmas as a family, our second in our new home. Not so new any more, of course. Christmas, Spring, time to work what persuasions I could on Mme Chinon and pray to the Lord that there would be a decision in my favour, and a bed in a hospital for me.
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