Coral slipped past the open door of her father’s study before he could ask what she was doing. She breathed out. Excitement fluttered through her as she looked at the envelope in her hand, the chipped varnish on her nails glinting against the paper. The curls and swoops of her handwriting made the institutional address feel whimsical, full of promise.
Her father’s bald head shone in the lamplight, just visible through the slats in the bannister. He was probably typing his sermon for Sunday’s service on his Dell PC, a sensible computer for a sensible man. It was in one of the MDF drawers next to him that she had found the address.
From the gloom of the downstairs hallway, she emerged onto Marbury Road, each house identical to the one she stepped out of, purposefully, red hair streaming behind her. She marvelled at how people who hadn’t grown up here navigated this labyrinth of streets, each house a carbon copy of the one next to it. But Baxby suited her parents down to the ground. Except they weren’t her parents. And this was what the letter was about.
The sole piece of evidence of her life before being adopted was a photo of her as a newborn, that photo of her in a plastic hospital cot, the cone of her tiny head covered in red hair. It was the hair that must have given her real mother the idea for her name. And her name was all she had of her mother, all she could hold on to.
For Harold and Dawn, her adoptive parents, it was enough to live in Baxby, to watch their BBC drama on Thursday evenings, to get takeaway on Friday nights. Trips to London were rare and they never went abroad, though they could afford to. But it wasn’t enough for Coral.
Coral believed in magic, in wordless, airborne things. She had tried to explain this to Harold once, things like how photos could never truly capture people, because people were transient, only existing in time, like moments, different from one second to the next. Though afterwards she wished she hadn’t opened her mouth. He would never understand.
She slipped the envelope into the letterbox and let it drop. Finally she was sixteen, legally within her rights to order her adoption records here in Scotland, able to act on the thoughts of her mother that burned inside her, a fire that could never be put out.
This was about being known. Known by someone who could meet her eye and nod, and in that nod for things to be implicit. I know exactly what you mean, that nod would say, that is what life is about. We share secrets because we are alike. We march to a different drum, dance to a different beat, and our hearts sing along to a tune that others don’t hear. That nod would say we see beauty that others don’t, so much beauty that we don’t know what to do with it. We try to explain it in a picture or a poem or even a song. And people call us unfocussed– teachers, elders– but all we want to do is express that beauty, share it somehow. Her mother would have that sparkle in her eye. She was sure of it.
Harold and Dawn rarely spoke of her mother. When probed, they evaded the subject. It was as if they wanted to deny her existence altogether. But Coral had roughed out a sketch of her life from titbits of information scavenged from overheard conversations.
Sariah Cummingway was her name. She had won an accolade at school for her artwork. At the time of giving birth, she had been very young. By now, Coral figured she must be an art director at an ad agency, or another creative role in London. Daydreams of the minutiae of Sariah Cummingway’s life swirled in and out of her mind on most days. Her handbag was a favourite. She imagined it to be the sort she might have delved into as a child, pulling out objects of interest– a perfume bottle, a lipstick. Her mother’s things would have a certain scent, of rose perfume, something French in its undertones.
Coral set herself up for a long wait, finding determined diversions—drawings and walks to the park to smoke cigarettes and read manga comics. The GCSEs were finally over. School was out for the summer, and kids could be found in the park wearing bikinis and listening to iPods in the roasting heat. But Coral was wishing the holidays away, checking the post daily. One time, Harold caught her running downstairs as the post hit the doormat. Coral said she was waiting for a delivery from ASOS.
The adoption records arrived sooner than expected. She ripped open the envelope and scanned the paperwork. The information was scant, and there were no details listed for her father, but there was an address, and that was all she needed. She climbed the stairs two by two and sat at her computer to check the electoral roll. Her mother still lived there. Coral couldn’t have dreamed it would be this easy.
The judder of the tube carriage swayed Coral’s slight frame from side to side. She had told Harold and Dawn she was staying with Harriet. Why should they know where she was going? They were unsupportive of her quest.
Occupation : Dancer. That’s what the records had said. As the train screeched through the tunnels, Coral’s mind was a blur with images of Sariah the theatre ballerina, whirling through the air, movements fluid, so unlike the matronly bustle of Dawn’s rounded features.
She slid the passport photo from her purse. Her mother’s face was beautiful against the crimped blue curtain of the photo booth, red hair shining in the light of the flashbulb. Sharp cheekbones protruded from under a blunt fringe and a map of freckles were scattered across her nose. A reticent smile lifted the corners of her mouth, as if beneath that smile lay the secrets of the universe.
She would surprise her. Perhaps later they would go for coffee in one of the nice cafes in Brixton Village she’d found on Google. They would have so much to catch up on.
As Coral surfaced from Brixton station, a junkie shuffled along the pavement talking to himself. Smoke sidled from joss sticks on a stall manned by a lad in a skullcap and robes. Coral kicked a cigarette butt with her Doc Martens, the sunlight shining on her pale legs. This was London. Its twists of reality stirred something in her, lives playing out in all their tarnished glory.
It was still early, and she had time to kill, having decided half eleven was a good hour for an unsolicited visit. She looked around wide-eyed at a man selling reggae CDs in a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop, at people crowded around a fishmonger’s, at arches under the railway containing small businesses– a nail salon with a bright green frontage, a hair shop specialising in afros. A whiteboard advertised jerk chicken for three pounds available from a van, and a train rattled into the station on the bridge ahead.
‘Watch where you’re going,’ a busty Jamaican lady frowned at her as she passed.
At 11am, she began her ascent up Brixton Hill, the address clutched in her hand. A car went by, a bass rhythm buzzing from its speakers. She turned right down King George street, past a boarded up pub. Dried-out weeds poked from the paving of front gardens. Paint peeled from windowsills in the sunlight. And before she knew it, she was standing outside number 94.
Her eyes took a moment to appraise the scene, the stuffed bin bag just outside the door, the thick closed curtains downstairs. She thought she could see a light on upstairs, an orangey red glow through a piece of fabric.
She hadn’t expected to feel this nervous. With a small mirror from her rucksack, she checked her reflection, moving a strand of hair from her face. The gipsy earrings and tasselled top shimmying across her skin in the breeze would have made her stand out in Baxby, but here she was anonymous, just another soul wandering these streets. If Harold and Dawn had seen her they would have made her change. Clothes that showed too much flesh were ‘leading others into sin,’ according to them, as if she was somehow to blame if a pervert looked at her.
Her gaze darted from the mirror as the door opened unexpectedly. A man appeared, his stooped figure descending the steps from the front door. Coral scolded herself for never considering that her mother might be married. The man glanced furtively from one side of the street to another, and turned back to the door. His hand burrowed in a jeans pocket and produced a couple of ten pound notes. It was only as he crumpled them into a hand protruding from inside that Coral realised that somebody else was present, their face hidden by the shade of the door. The man took off down the street, and Coral’s attention was drawn back to the door as the hand chucked a cigarette butt to the ground, and the face was visible for a flash.
It was a woman. Coral couldn’t make out her features from where she stood, just the sunken shadows of her eyes. Her black hair had the bluebottle tinge of boxed dye, dry ends splaying onto her shoulders. A leopard print nightgown dangled from her braless form.
The distraction of seeing these two characters, lodgers, Coral presumed, had settled her nerves, and it was with a sense of calm that she walked to the entrance and knocked.
The door opened. The woman leaned against the doorframe and let out a sigh, wrinkles deepening as she squinted into the sunlight.
‘Yeah?’ Her voice was horse, barely there.
‘I’m looking for Sariah Cummingway?’ The breeze had stopped and the heat was stifling, rising up from the tarmac.
The woman seemed in no hurry to answer. She lit a cigarette, lips crinkling in an o shape as she blew out the smoke. Orange make-up glittered on the tight flesh of her shoulders.
She frowned, lips downturned, ‘You’re looking at her.’
It was as if a strong wind had taken Coral’s breath away. Time had rendered her mother unrecognisable.
‘I’m… I’m Coral.’
In the seconds standing at the door, Coral made a violent adjustment to her expectations. This could still be ok, she decided. She may not be glamorous, but her mother would still have things to offer. They were flesh and blood.
‘Coral…’ said Sariah, her voice trailing off. Her eyeballs had a glassy sheen as she stared over Coral’s shoulder, pupils like pinpricks in the grey-blue lakes of her irises.
‘Your daughter,’ Coral added, hoping the word might change things. ‘I came to see you.’
‘I don’t have any money. That’s what you’re after, isn’t it?’ she said, then lost her footing, gripping at the doorframe to support herself. ‘Chip off the old block,’ she muttered.
Sariah seemed to recede behind her eyes, undulating between being there and not there. It was as if she had forgotten that Coral was standing at the doorway. Then Coral noticed her mother’s arm, track marks like she’d seen on TV on the insides of her elbows.
‘I don’t want any money,’ Coral said quietly. She felt lightheaded, ready to pass out in the heat, the sun beating on her back.
‘Then what do you want?’ Sariah’s chest rose and fell in a kind of pant. ‘What would I want with a teenager?’ She expelled a short laugh, shaking her head. Then her eyeballs rolled back and her eyelids half-closed.
On returning to Baxby, Coral thundered up to her room and lay with her face on the backs of her hands, stomach flat against the mattress of her single bed. The dusk sky threw a pink veil over the room as she wept.
She paused, and for a moment her thoughts untangled. What if this woman wasn’t her mother? She was high– unpredictable, untrustworthy. Perhaps she thought Coral had money, so pretended to be who Coral was looking for. Perhaps the adoption company got the address wrong. Just a slight of hand and 94 could be 49, and behind the door of 49 would be a different life.
She listened. The familiar opening theme to Heartbeat rose up from the TV in the living room. Knowing Harold would be occupied for an hour, she crept to his study on a hunt for more information.
At the doorway, she wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her hoodie, and walked to the ottoman in the corner of the room. Her interest in Harold’s things had always been limited to her adoption information, and she had never given it more than a cursory glance. The hinges creaked as she opened it. She was greeted by a neat row of spines– envelopes and thick books without titles. Tugging at the top of an envelope that was wedged between the others, she tried to free it. As she pulled harder, a shower of rectangles fell to the carpet like confetti.
They were photos, photos of her. Coral sat on the floor, knees hugged to her chest, and turned over the ones that had flipped. Here was one of Dawn holding her in the air as a baby, arms outstretched, eyes meeting hers. Coral’s fingers thrummed the other spines and pulled out an album. She stroked its velvet cover and the stitched lettering that said ‘Baby’, turned the pages slowly. Even more of her.
Her hand curled over the edge of the ottoman as she caught sight of a Clarks shoe box inside. She scooped it out. Crammed in the box were yet more prints of her, hundreds of them. She peeled them out one by one, pressing them onto the carpet.
The shoebox was empty now, save from a piece of paper at the bottom. It rustled as she picked it up, unfolded it. It was a typed letter.
Dear Mr and Mrs Wormald,
We can only apologise for the five year wait that you have both endured so patiently. As you know, the adoption process can be a long and sometimes painful one, and we do appreciate your patience in this matter.
Today we are writing with some good news, however. We now have a match for you. Her name is Sariah Cummingway, and she has a one week old daughter called Coral. Ms Cummingway is battling a drug addiction, and has been known to social services for some time. For this reason, Coral is in need of a good home, which I hope you are both still willing to provide.
I would be grateful if you could arrange to come and meet Ms Cummingway and baby Coral at your earliest convenience.
Encompass Adoption Agency
The woman she met today was really her mother. Coral reread the letter, just to be sure, and another fact jumped out from the page; Harold and Dawn had waited five years.
Five years. A rush of something entered her being. And nothing, not her real mother, nor drawing, nor all the new clothes in the world could compare to it, the sense of being home she felt at that moment. The knowledge that however far she strayed, however far across the world she might roam, that she had a home with Harold and Dawn. And that they loved her.
She heard a voice and turned her head.
‘We know you don’t like photos, that you think people are transient and shouldn’t be photographed, so we didn’t show them to you,’ Harold said. He was standing with Dawn at the doorway of the study. Coral wasn’t sure how long he had been there.
She had said those exact words more than two years ago, and been so sure Harold hadn’t listened. Coral knew she wasn’t a lot like Harold and Dawn, but sitting on the floor of Harold’s study, she could see that they were trying their best to understand her. She swallowed her pain down, and a bit of it, just a bit of it, melted away.
Perhaps she would never be known. Perhaps she would travel the world to find friends, lovers, other human beings who could meet her eye and nod an acknowledgement of true and complete understanding. Perhaps that was what life was about, searching for those connections.
‘We like photos,’ said Dawn, ‘We like them very much.’
Harold and Dawn had seen her first steps, her first laughs, and the infant tears on her cheeks. And maybe that kind of knowing was better than living with a junkie who wasn’t interested at all.
Coral looked up at the man and woman that were her parents, the overlapping photos blanketing the carpet around her, a record of those first moments of knowing. And Coral decided that maybe she did like photos after all.