Cuckoo

Published May 20, 2021 by Naomi Rettig

I sit in my car chewing on nicotine gum and watching the mourners seep into the church. I don’t recognise anyone. Leaning back and closing my eyes, I toy with the idea of driving off somewhere else, anywhere else. My overnight bag is in the boot. I could. I wouldn’t be missed.

There’s a tap on the window. I open my eyes. Keith. My brother-in-law is attempting to smile, his face almost pressed against the glass. I stare at him and press the button. The window drifts down. His wobbly face twitches. It seems he doesn’t know whether to start talking while the barrier is lowering or wait.  He waits. I chew. The whir of the window stops.

‘Kate. Hello.’ He exhales, expelling the essence of peppermint and meat. Cheap sausages, I think.

‘Hello Keith.’ I don’t smile, hoping my sour face will encourage him away from my personal space. It doesn’t.

‘How are you?’

‘I’ve just driven six hours to come to my mother’s funeral in bank holiday traffic with a hangover.’

‘Oh. Yes.’ He straightens up and recedes from my window, fidgeting with his tie. ‘Are you coming in with us now?’ He glances across the car park to my sister and their two adolescents. It’s odd seeing her dressed in black. I only see her wearing florals, bright yellow, or tacky Christmas jumpers. Josh and Max are in matching black suits. One is tapping away on his phone. I think it’s Josh. They’re both the same height now.

I take out my gum, wrap it in a tissue, and pop it in my pocket. Keith hovers as I lock up then we walk across in silence.

‘Hello Kate.’ My sister smiles. It’s a tired smile. She looks old.

‘Jackie.’ I smile back, but I’m not sure it translates to my face. My Botox hasn’t had time to settle.

She takes a deep breath. ‘Let’s go in.’

The service is short. A brief history of Mum’s life accompanied by sniffing and snivelling from Jackie. Keith and the boys look like they’re waiting for a bus. Friends of Mum give their condolences to Jackie outside the church. I don’t think many of them know who I am. I’m a stranger. To everyone.

Jackie says thanks to the vicar then turns to me. ‘Do you want to follow us in the car to the wake?’

‘I’m going to give that a miss.’

Jackie’s face wrinkles. ‘Why? You’ve come all this way.’

‘Exactly. I’m tired from the drive. I’m just going to the house.’

‘Fine. Do what you want, you usually do.’ Jackie sighs. ‘I’ll call in later.’

‘I’ll probably be asleep.’ I walk off to my car, judgement smothering me.

I pull up outside Mum’s house. I see a curtain in the house opposite quiver as I lock the car. Nosey neighbours in their narrow semi-detached houses with their narrow semi-detached minds. Yes, it’s me, the bad daughter, the one that left and only comes back unwillingly for birthdays and Christmas.

Closing the front door, I drop my bag on the floor and stand still listening to the almost silent house. That bloody clock is ticking loudly. Leaving my bag in the hallway, I follow the noise of the clock into the lounge. Mum’s beige threadbare wingback chair is still shaped with the indentation of her. The burgundy walls are still depressing. The flowery curtains are still deciding what decade to fit into. I wander around the room, looking at all the cheap ornaments on display like I’m in a mundane museum. Photos in mismatched frames are everywhere. Most of them Jackie’s kids in various stages of growth. I stop at a picture of Jackie and me. We must be about ten. Linked arms, smiling on a beach. Morecombe, I think. We do look like twins. That was when I believed we were. About a year later, my nan told me I was adopted.

I sit on the sofa, taking the photo with me. I trace my finger over the two smiling girls with matching swimsuits and matching brown bobbed hair. Nan had told me not to tell anyone I knew. She said it would upset Mum too much. It hadn’t even been a real adoption. Apparently, while Mum was giving birth here in this house to Jackie, I was left on the doorstep. I often wonder how my life would have been different if, instead of Mum and Dad registering me as the twin to Jackie, they had handed me to the authorities. I knew Jackie was the favourite. I understood why. She was the golden child, and I was just a cuckoo.

I realise I’m crying. Not big ugly crying but tiny veins of tears trickling down my cheeks. ‘Oh, Mum.’ I say out loud to her chair. ‘Why didn’t I tell you that I knew? Why didn’t you tell me?’

The clock ticks. That bloody clock. I discard the photo frame on the sofa and wipe my face with the tissue in my pocket. I forgot I wrapped my gum in there and proceed to wipe it over my eyes. ‘Shit.’ Removing gum from my eyelashes, I stride over to the clock, remove the batteries and fling them to the floor. ‘Shit, shit, shit!’

‘I never liked that clock either.’ A voice says quietly behind me.

I reel around. ‘Jackie! Why aren’t you at the wake?’

‘I went, but it didn’t seem right that you were here alone.’ Jackie puts her handbag onto the armchair by the door.

‘I’m fine. You can go back if you want to.’

‘You don’t look fine, and I don’t want to.’ Jackie picks the batteries up from the floor. ‘I don’t think Mum liked the clock either.’

‘Then she should have got rid of it.’

Jackie places the batteries on the mantelpiece next to the now muted mahogany clock. ‘Think she felt a duty to Nana Babs to keep it.’

‘How ridiculous.’

Jackie nods. ‘How long are you going to stay here? You can stay with us next door if you’d feel more comfortable.’

I’d feel more comfortable on a bed of nails in the middle of a motorway. ‘I’m fine here. I’m going back home tomorrow.’

‘Oh. I was hoping you’d stay longer.’ She sits on the sofa staring at her hands and then erupts into tears.

I freeze. No automatic instincts kick in. Does she want me to console her? Give her some space? Say something meaningful? I opt for sitting next to her and placing my hand on her back. She still sobs but is now more subdued. I awkwardly stroke her back. We sit with my silence and her soft sobbing. I feel tears formulating in my eyes. I swallow them down. One of us has to be in control.

Jackie wipes her eyes and takes a deep breath. ‘I miss you.’

I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing.

She takes another gulp of air and sniffs. ‘With Dad and Mum both gone, I’m frightened you’ll disappear from my life and leave me too.’

‘You have Keith and your boys. You’re not alone.’ Unlike me. My hand is static on her back. I remove it.

‘But you’re family too. We grew up together.’

One of those statements is true.

Jackie turns slightly towards me. ‘I know we haven’t been close since you left. I know why. But I’d really like us to build bridges.’

My hands clasp themselves like magnets. ‘You know?’

‘Yes.’ Jackie nods. ‘Mum told me.’

My chest feels like my lungs have been punctured. ‘Mum told you but didn’t have the decency to tell me?’

Jackie frowns slightly. ‘I guess she thought it was more relevant to me.’

‘Wow!’ I lean forward, desperate not to faint.

‘Mum told me not to tell anyone, but I thought you knew somehow when you moved away and didn’t keep in touch.’

I focus on the swirly brown carpet. My stomach feels like it’s trying to replicate it. Or decorate it. ‘Nana Babs told me.’ I swallow down bile. ‘And also told me not to tell anyone.’

‘I wish I’d said something to you before now. This secret has been eating away at me.’ Jackie reaches across to her bag and extracts a tissue.  ‘I’ve felt such an imposter around you whenever you came to visit.’ She blows her nose. ‘A cuckoo in your nest.’

I sit up. ‘A cuckoo in my nest?’

‘Yes. I know Mum favoured me a lot of the time, but I think that was because of me being abandoned like that, and selfishly I accepted it. And now I’m so sorry because it pushed you away.’

My heart accelerates like a cheetah chasing an antelope. ‘What do you mean you abandoned like that?’

Jackie stops looking at the awful carpet and turns her focus to me. ‘Did Nana Babs not tell you the full story? I was left on the doorstep. Here.’

I take deep breaths. I don’t want one of my panic attacks right now. ‘But it was me on the doorstep.’

Jackie stares at me, her eyes wide and wild. ‘No. Nana got that wrong. I was the doorstep baby.’ She reaches out and grips my hand. ‘You thought it was you?’

‘Yes.’ My speech feels weighted with granite. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes. Mum and Dad were both O blood groups, but I’m type A. That means they couldn’t be my biological parents.’

I feel Jackie squeeze my hand. A spike of emotions rips through my entire body. I implode and spew out a strangled shriek accompanied by a torrent of tears.

Jackie hugs me and cries too. We sit entwined in grief for what feels like hours but is merely minutes.

Jackie releases her embrace and reaches for more tissue in her bag. She hands one to me and frowns. ‘You’ve got something sticky in your eyelashes.’

I laugh. ‘Oh, nicotine gum.’ I take the tissue and pick out the remaining gum.

Jackie wipes her eyes. ‘I can’t believe you’ve spent all these years thinking you were adopted.’

I finish picking at my eyelashes, satisfied all the gum is out.

‘Why do you think we bought the house next door to Mum?’

I shrug.

‘Because I felt an obligation to stay close and look after her. She took me in and treated me as her own. In fact, better than her own. I felt that I owed her.’

I shake my head, still processing. ‘Meanwhile, I ran away like a selfish brat. Resentful to you for being the perfect daughter with your perfect husband and your perfect kids.’

‘Ha!’ Jackie sinks back into the sofa. ‘Keith thinks he’s romantic if he changes his underwear every day, and the boys are obnoxious ungrateful ignorant teens right now. You have it right with your high flying career and luxury apartment in the city.’

I laugh and flop back into the sofa too. ‘What? My boringly glamorous head of accountancy job and my microwave meals for one. I haven’t even got a cat.’

We sit in comfortable silence in the uncomfortable room. I close my eyes and almost doze off.

‘Why don’t you stay longer?’

‘I guess I could work from here for a few days.’

‘You could always move in here. Permanently.’

I open my eyes and tilt my head towards Jackie. ‘That’s quite a big decision.’

‘I know.’ She nods, then leans back, closing her eyes. ‘Just want you to know that I’d like it if you lived closer.’

I lean back and close my eyes again too. ‘Would Keith letch at me over the fence if I was sunbathing in a bikini?’

‘Probably.’

‘Would the boys get on my nerves with their noisy music over the fence?

‘Probably.’

I peep across at her. She’s still got her eyes closed and is smiling. ‘Can we burn the clock?’

Eyes still shut, her smile expands. ‘Definitely.’

My smile twins with hers. My heart rate reconciles itself.

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