An excerpt from

Keeping Mum

Dark Angels

IRIS
They say you should walk towards the light. Well I didn’t. I fled. I ran away from it. I pushed the light back and it splintered in my hands like glass. I thought I might be dead because there was no blood. I raged, I wept. I shouted. There was no pain. I screamed. There was no noise. It wasn’t time. It wasn’t right. But still, I did not know that I was dead. Still, I hoped that I was not. I wasn’t ready.

So now from a distance I must watch this private life of mine unfurl, spilling secrets over the children, over Solomon, like a rose bruised in a storm. I never intended to hurt them with the truth. I believe in the power of secrets. I believe that they can protect the ones you love. I believe that secrets can hold you down to earth when all you want to do is fly away.

When Rebecca was a newborn baby and the boys were at school, day and night swam together. I would lie beside her in a darkened room, inhaling the top of her head, listening for the lengthening of quick, shallow breaths. Her puckered, jerky hands clasping my index finger. I wondered if she could hold us together. If she would be enough, this tiny life of ours?

Later, I learned that children can also rip you apart. They can stand in between you, block out the light, drown out the words, mop up the love. Rebecca wasn’t about us, or our love or our hope. She was the shape of love. That was all. The empty shape of love, dangling by a thread, swinging and twisting. And she couldn’t make us whole. Nobody could.

There is a symbiotic association in the plant world called mycorrhiza. Such a satisfying word, sounding like the clearing of a throat. The plants give sugars to the fungus, the fungus gives nutrients to the plants. Most plants can’t grow without their fungus, their roots are wrapped in each other. I never had that with Solomon. We didn’t want each other, didn’t even need each other. I thought I didn’t need anybody. But I was wrong.

ROBIN
Adie exhales a jetstream of blue-grey smoke and hands me the pipe. About fucking time. Just as I’m fixing to take a draw the phone rings; instinctively I roll across the sofa and pick up. Since Drew got sent down last month I’ve had feelers out for a new contact and I somehow felt sure this would be the call to say, yes, my man is holding and it’s good and he wants – nay, demands – you buy his gear right now. Instead I hear a woman’s voice, familiar but not in an everyday way.

“Hello Robin? Oh I’m so glad I’ve caught you. This is Julia, you know, Richard’s wife.”

Oh God, probably the last person I want to speak to. All the time I’ve known her she’s dropped not-so-subtle hints about her wild years as a teenage party girl (usually accompanied by a conspiratorial giggle and those air quote gestures I really hate). I’ve never had the heart to tell her shagging half of Sevenoaks doesn’t make us soul mates.

I take a huge hit and hold it down – we could be talking for hours and I’m not delaying my gratification for anyone. Plus Adie will want the pipe back in a mo and I want my share. But even as my brain reels from the tsunami of THC I’m wondering why Julia is calling. She’s never been in touch before. I sense trouble.

“Mmm, yeah, hello Julia, it’s…er, Robin here.” Fuck, why did I say that? She knows who you are, you idiot, she called you.

Brief silence, in which I imagine Julia generously trying to interpret my garbled response in any way other than the obvious.

“Well, the thing is, it’s… well Robin I’ve some terrible news. I’m afraid your mum has died suddenly. In Scotland. I’m so sorry.”

It’s funny what you focus on in Life’s Big Moments. I remember when Hannah told me she was pregnant all I could think about was a bit of fluff on the carpet in front of us, until I ended up vacuuming while she sobbed and stormed out. I wonder what happened to her? Now all I could think was, “Scotland? What was she doing up there?” I dimly recall conferences in the past but I’d no idea she was still in demand north of the border.

“Oh my God. That’s…that’s terrible. Just…terrible.” Nice one Robin, exactly the sort of thing you’re supposed to say. But if I’m honest I feel…well, nothing. Our relationship had been strained since before I was a teenager and we’d hardly spoken for years. Still, that doesn’t mean I wanted her dead. Not like that Russian bloke Mark and I scored off last week in Kennington; now he really deserves to die, in fact…

“…so obviously there are arrangements to make and things we need to do as a family to bring her home.” “We”? “Family”? Ironic, considering I’m running in the opposite direction. Still, just agree and hope she goes away.

“Yes, yes…obviously. Obviously!”

Another perplexed silence. “Are you…alright Robin? You don’t sound…well.”

“No I’m, er, fine, yeah fine, Julia, under the…circumstances. It’s just such a shock. I …I can’t think clearly.” That last sentence, at least, is true. I’m really starting to lose it here.

This only seems to encourage my sister-in-law. “Oh I’m not surprised, Richard is in pieces – I bet he fucking is, loves a bit of drama, my bro – and you’ll have your own grieving to do – will I? Don’t be too sure – but we were wondering – uh-oh, here we go – if you could go up to Scotland with him the day after tomorrow? He doesn’t want to just take Rebecca – Child of Doom is coming along? No wonder Rich doesn’t want to go alone, Our Sister of the Perpetual Scowl isn’t anyone’s ideal traveling companion – and he felt sure you’d want to play your part.”

Which just shows how wrong you can be. Let Mr Perfect go. It’ll give him a great opportunity to worry, furrow his brows and wipe away the occasional noble tear. And he is a doctor, used to death and bodies and stuff; what use would I be? The only corpse I’ve ever seen was that poor girl in the New Cross squat, and that gave me nightmares for a month. But never mind that right now, I’m absolutely fucking fucked. I’m going to have to lie down before I fall down. I’ll deal with this later, really I will…

“The two of them will be flying to Inverness from Luton Airport at 11.10 on Tuesday morning, so shall I tell him you’ll meet him at the EasyJet information desk at say 8.30? You can get some breakfast and talk. Robin? Robin, are you there…?”