#176 Ancestral Chains
‘Dad’s dead.’

The words come from Sam. My half brother and Dad’s only son.

‘Did you hear me Kate?’

‘Yes I heard you.’

I put down my duster and perch on a chair. Without looking, I reach for the notepad I always keep by the phone and start making a list. Lists are the backbone of civilisation. Actions must be taken and crossed off so that progress can be made.

‘When did it happen?’ I ask.

‘Half an hour ago. It was…I tried to help-‘

‘You were with him?’

‘They’d come over for tea – him and Angel. She’s a complete mess, hasn’t stopped crying. She’s staying at ours for the time being.’

‘How?’

‘Sorry?’

‘How did it happen?’

‘Heart attack. Still to be confirmed, but I’m pretty sure.’

‘Right. Have you told everyone?’

‘I called my Mum first, then Liz.’

I crossed two things off my list.

‘Kate, are you okay?’

‘Yes. Well, no but…have you called an undertaker?’

‘Yes – Macmillan and son. They’re the guys that did Granddad’s. They’ll pick up the body.’

‘They weren’t that good with Granddad. Never mind, I’ll just have to keep an eye on them.’

‘Are you sure you’ll be okay doing that?’

‘Yes. Well, only if it’s fine with everyone else. I mean if you want to do it-‘

‘No, you’ll do it better. I’ll speak to you soon.’

‘Bye Sam.’
I put the phone down. I should be crying. I know it’s wrong that I’m not. But I haven’t cried properly since Mum died. And I knew that was coming. I must be in shock.
The phone rings again.

‘Katie? It’s Barb love,’

Barbara – Sam and Liz’s mum and my father’s first wife.

‘Hi Barb, how are you?’

‘Tired. You’ve heard?’

‘Yes, Sam just called.’

‘I knew this would happen, knew he’d go first. I just didn’t think it would be so soon. I’m having a drink, G&T in his honour. It was his favourite, well, way back when it was anyway. I just wondered how you were doing?’

‘Me? I’m fine.’

There is a long pause. That wasn’t the right thing to say. I should have lied.

‘I’m just a bit…shocked,’ I say, ‘Sam’s given me the name of the undertaker, so I’m going to be organising everything. Don’t worry. It’s all going to be taken care of.’
There is a longer pause.

‘All right love,’ sighs Barbara, ‘let me know if you need anything.’

The second conversation ends. I think Barbara feels maternal toward me. She always hugs me when we meet. She used to even before Mum died. I let her because it seems to make her happy.
As I check the Yellow Pages for a headstone engraver, the phone rings for the third time.

‘Kate, oh Katie. Sam told you, yes? Oh God, Kate I’m smoking.’

Liz – my half sister, Barb’s daughter and Sam’s full sister.

‘Dad’s on a mortuary slab and I’m blackening my lungs with noxious fumes.’

‘He’s not on a mortuary slab Liz, he’s probably in a fridge. Why don’t you just put it out if it’s that bad?’

‘Because it’s helping. Lucas has taken Trinity to the park to give me space. Good job. He’d only lecture me – it’s not even organic tobacco.’

Liz and I do not have much in common. She wears long skirts and doesn’t drink tea.

‘When does your flight get in?’ I ask.

‘Um…early on Tuesday. It’ll be about four-ish I think. We’re staying at Sam’s.’

‘Right. I’m arranging the funeral, so don’t worry about that.’

‘Okay. Fine. Kate?’

‘Mm?’

‘How are you?’

‘Me? Everyone keeps asking me that.’

‘It’s just…your Mum…’

She trails off and I hear her drag on the cigarette.

‘I’m fine Liz, you know, considering. I’m not travelling halfway round the world with a five-year-old, am I? And I’m not dead either.’

‘All right Kate,’ she says, ‘I’ll see you soon.’

I try to carry on with my list but I am not having much luck. It seems my brain has gone sideways. My father is dead, I say to myself, my father is dead. It’s not going in.
The door bell rings. I frown and stand up. All my family are accounted for and none of them are coming here. It’s too late for the postman. So who can it be?
I put down the notebook, and open the door. Outside is a young woman, three years older than me, nine months pregnant and crying.
Angel – my father’s third and final wife.

*

I get Angel a cup of tea and sit her on the couch. She seems tiny despite her vast belly. A widow and a single mother all in one day. I suppose her head isn’t in the right place but I can’t understand why she’s here.

‘Angel-‘

‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry Kate. I’m sorry.’

She starts crying again. Oh dear.

‘It’s okay, come on, it’s all right. Look I know you’re very upset right now, but I thought you were staying with Sam and Emma?’

‘I was. I got a taxi. They…seeing them together and being where we were when he…I just…and your Dad said that if anything ever went wrong, I should come to you. That you can manage anything.’

Come to me? Even above Sam the solicitor? That’s another thing to wrap my head around.

‘What about your parents?’ I ask.

She looks up at me. Not viable option. I’m not good at this kind of thing but I move next to her and put an arm around her. She rests her head on my shoulder. It seems to help.

‘You can have the spare room,’ I say.

Then we sit in silence as my shoulder gets wet.

*

Angel sleeps all of the next day and all of the ones after that. I call Sam and he says it might be the shock. He offers to come and get her. I decline. I can manage.
After two days Angel leaves the spare room and takes up residence on my couch instead. Each morning, I leave her watching shrill day time television and make dinner when I come home. She eats a small amount and I tell her about my day. She seems to like that. I try not to think about what will happen next.
The following Friday I insert her into the car and drive to the local church. The ride is silent, until she takes off her sunglasses, looks at me and says,

‘You’re an orphan.’

This is the first real thing she has said to me since she arrived at my house and the last thing I expected from her.

‘Sorry?’ I say.

‘Your mum’s gone too. So you’re an orphan.’

‘I don’t think orphan’s the right word. Adults don’t get to be orphans. That’s for children.’

‘I don’t see why. They were still your parents. It still hurts.’

I try not to think about Mum. I try not to think about the time before my father left, of those snatched moments between the arguments when we were just like the families I watched on TV.

‘I haven’t thought about it.’

‘You haven’t cried either.’

She stares at me. I wish she would put those sunglasses on again. I’m not going to turn into a fountain in front of her. Fortunately, we have reached the church, where Sam and his wife Emma are waiting outside.

‘Mum’s inside with Liz and the rest,’ says Sam.

He peers at Angel.

‘Hi, Angel – how are you?’

She does not speak.

‘Emma,’ I say, passing Angel over, ‘can you take Angel inside? I’ll follow.’

‘She seems better,’ says Sam.

‘Yes she’s wonderful,’ I say, and everything tumbles out, ‘she doesn’t speak, barely eats and watches far too much ‘This Morning’. Sam, I don’t know what I’m doing!’

‘She doesn’t need you to know what you’re doing, she just needs you to be there.’

‘For how long? And what about the baby? She’s this close to giving birth and then there’s a child involved!’

‘Kate, calm down you’ll give yourself a heart attack!’

We both fall silent. I’m embarrassed. A few more mourners pass into the church. The day is warm and beautiful and so wrong for a funeral. There should be rain clouds and ill winds.

‘Do you know Dad told her – he said if anything ever went wrong she was to come to me? He only called me at Christmas and my birthday and he told his pregnant wife to come to me if something bad happened.’

‘I don’t know what to say, Kate. He obviously trusted you.’

‘But he never said anything.’

I’m shaking, trying to hold things in. I’ve been so good, so good, and my father has managed to topple my tower again, even from beyond the grave. Sam touches my arm.

‘That was Dad,’ he says, ‘for what it’s worth I agree with him. And you won’t be on your own Kate. For better or worse we’ve all got each other. That’s Dad’s legacy of a sort.’

Sam looks around the churchyard.

‘We’d better get inside.’

*

The casket looks too small. There’s no way he could be in there. I still don’t cry and I feel everyone staring.
As we follow the coffin into the beautiful, still air, Angel grabs my arm. She pulls off her sunglasses. Her eyes are wide.

‘I think the baby’s coming.’

She lets out a gasp and there’s water on the ground. The rest of the funeral party turns to see what’s happening.

‘Looks like he’s arriving,’ says Barbara, bounding over.

‘But it’s too early,’ cries Angel.

‘Nevertheless my dear, he’s on his way.’

Angel grips my arm tighter.

‘Stay with me Kate,’ she says, ‘I’m scared.

I pat her hand and try to be reassuring.

‘Don’t worry,’ I say, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’

With a grip like hers, there’s no way I could.

*

It takes six hours for the baby to arrive and Angel keeps hold of my hand the whole time. There’s lots of yelling and crying and then, it’s over.
I look at the baby in his crib, quiet and still, with a crop of dark hair. He doesn’t look like my father. As I watch he begins to cry a little, a keening sound that goes straight to my primitive heart. Angel stirs. She needs to rest. I pick my little brother, a small, squirming hot water bottle on my chest. I start to rock him and he quietens. This surprises me. I sway in time to silent music, staring out of the window, where the light is dimming and orange dots the ground.

‘Big world sproglet,’ I say, ‘I’m sorry your Dad’s not here to help you through it. He was there for a bit for me and it wasn’t a bad bit. Not all of it anyway.’

‘He’s awake?’

Angel is looking at me with heavy eyes.

‘Sorry, I tried not to disturb you,’ I say.

‘It’s okay,’ she says, ‘is he awake?’

I take a peek.

‘Seems to have calmed down.’

‘He likes his big sister.’

Kate – big sister.

‘He needs a name,’ she says, ‘we talked about names, but we never agreed on anything. I should just pick one.’

‘He’s okay for now. Let him be nameless for a while. Names add baggage. It can wait.’

‘Kate, you’re crying.’

‘I’m thinking,’ I murmur, ‘I need to make sure everything’s sorted before you come back home. I need to make a list.’

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