In a Name

Fiction
Mary Chambers


Photo Credit: Kat Stan/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The street was an island, a village in the middle of a city, an expensive haven of art galleries and clothing boutiques. Here, suddenly free from the traffic that had occupied all my attention as I drove, was an archway leading to a mews, a lady cycling in a black straw boater, a child on a scooter in green school pinafore. From a glossy Arabic patisserie wafted the odour of rose-scented pastry; the café next door gave out the acrid reek of roasting green beans.

The buildings were narrow and high, with a presence that only central London buildings possess. Most of them had been divided into tiny flats. On wrought-iron balconies, twin chairs were arranged, suggesting brunch for two on a Saturday morning.

Viola was here, somewhere behind the blue door that led to the flats above the hairdresser. How could she exist here, I wondered, in the midst of this calm and order? My half-sister Viola was chaos and crisis. What I found behind that blue door would bear no resemblance to the hanging baskets on the streetlamps, to the exquisitely arranged creations in the cellophaned, beribboned window of the patisserie. How could she even afford to live here?

She had never invited me to her home before. She drifted in and out of our lives at will—always on her terms and never on her territory. My house, the cafe near my office, Hyde Park with my children at the weekend. She was ten years younger than me, and although our door had always been open to her, Viola kept her own life fiercely separate.

I had heard nothing of her for months. But today she had called me at work. “Come and see me. There’s something I want to show you.” And she had given me the address. “Today,” she insisted. “Can you come today?”

And so, obedient as always, I had come.

“Polly.” Her voice through the intercom was distorted, giving nothing away. “Come on up.”

Her flat was right at the top, an artist’s garret, up three narrowing flights of creaking stairs. She was waiting for me, her face pallid in the half light at the top. A spare, boyish figure, as she had always been, but when we hugged she was somehow rounder, fuller, a damp warmth of human scent that was not her usual odour of turps and linseed oil.

“How are you, Vee?”

She went into the flat ahead of me, not answering. The last time I had been in a flat of Viola’s must have been in her days at St Martin’s. Canvases, half-constructed sculptures in chicken wire and plaster bandages, a detritus of dirty clothes and discarded plates of toast. This might have been the same mess, transported only a mile or two across town, although through several years in time. A drift of laundry and shopping bags, papers, empty mugs, and a coffee table strewn with orange peel. A canvas stood on an easel by the window: a woman in a blue dress, bloated with pregnancy and glowing as if with a secret that only Viola’s paintbrush knew. Other work adorned the walls: pages from sketchbooks, taped up with masking tape. Splashes of colour, swirls of life, Viola exploring one medium after another.

On the sofa, a packet of nappies had split open and spilt onto the floor. The baby slept on the cushions, her arms flung up above her head like an abandoned doll. A baby so new that the vernix still crusted in the folds of her skin, the yellow plastic hospital clip clinging to her drying umbilical cord.

“I wanted to show you.” Viola crouched down and touched a finger to the baby’s cheek. She looked up like a child showing off something she had made. “I couldn’t tell you. I haven’t told anyone yet. I wanted you to see.”

My mouth was suddenly dry, all words startled away from me. I would wake up in a moment and this would not be true—that I was there with Viola, that Viola, lonely independent Viola, was the mother of a baby.

“She’s mine,” declared Viola with a sudden defiance, as if I had asked a question. But that, I did not doubt. My sister had never lacked the capacity to surprise me. It would have surprised me less to find myself ten years old again, and the baby Viola herself, the same sharp pale features, the same shock of soft dark hair.

“But Vee—do people know?”

“You mean the midwives. Yes, of course—they did that, didn’t they?” She pointed to the brown stump of drying umbilicus. “And they showed me how to feed her.”

“Are you breastfeeding?” How could I imagine my sister doing anything so maternal? And yet, at the same time, how could Viola do anything else?

“Of course,” she repeated. “That’s what they’re for, aren’t they?” She pressed her hands to her breasts. Through her splayed fingers I saw that the fabric of her shirt was wet where she had leaked, and I recalled the unfamiliar dampness of our embrace.

“Vee,” I began, but I hesitated. How are you going to manage? I wanted to say. Or Are you sure this is a good idea? But it was too late for that—the baby already a precious sleeping fact on the sofa before us. Who is the father? Where is he? Does he know? There were a thousand questions I could ask. But in the end, none of them seemed to matter—just the baby, and Viola herself, who was suddenly more than an artistic vortex around which chaos whirled—Viola, centred on this tiny perfect being that she had created.

“Vee, she’s beautiful.”

Viola looked at me with relief, and when she smiled, the smile transformed her, softening the angles of her face and giving her the same glow that she had somehow managed to catch in the painting by the window.

“She is, isn’t she? I love her, Polly. I never knew you could love anyone so much—until now.”

The baby snuffled and stretched, working her tiny mouth as she began to stir into waking.

“She’s hungry.” Viola gathered the infant into her arms, folding herself into the spot where the baby had been lying.

I sat on a stool and watched as Viola fed her daughter. She held the baby as I remembered her holding herself when she was a teenager—hugging herself, locking herself in, shutting the world out, her arms forming a barrier that kept her—and her child—in a safe place, beyond which the mess and the chaos did not matter. Within that embrace the two of them were together, like two parts of a single being.

“Have you given her a name yet?”

“Not yet. I’m thinking. It has to be just right, doesn’t it, a name?” She looked at me sharply. “How did you choose? How did you ever decide that Jack was going to be Jack and Georgia was going to be Georgia? How do you give a person something so fundamental as a name?”

I shrugged. Jack had always been Jack. And Georgia—Georgia’s name had grown with her as she grew in my belly. Georgina, we had thought. But Georgina had never been quite right, and when she was born she could only have been Georgia.

“It felt right. We just knew. You’ll know when you find the right name.”

Viola shook her head, gazing down at her daughter’s tiny face.

“That’s the difference between you and me, Polly. You always just know. You’re a real woman, aren’t you? You have instincts and you know how to respond to them—and you run a house and hold down a job, too. Multitasking!” She screwed up her face as if the word had a sour taste. “I’m not like you. I can’t do any of those things. All I know is what to do with paint. That’s the only time I ever just know.”

I had never before known Viola to comment on the differences between us, although James and I had occasionally pondered them. Viola wandered in and out of our home and our lives; she would wallow in the company of my children for an hour, showing them how to make pinch pots out of clay, or weaving Georgia’s hair into hundreds of tiny braids—and then she would go, picking up her aloofness at the door and departing, apparently with relief, back to her own carefully guarded separateness.

“You know how to do that,” I said, indicating the suckling baby.

“This?” Viola touched a hand to her breast again. “This isn’t knowing—it’s just being. Just being a woman.” And she wouldn’t believe me when I tried to tell her that not all mothers found it so easy.

When the baby had finished, Viola turned her to face me, nestling her into the crook of her elbow.

“That’s your Aunty Polly,” she addressed the child chattily. “You’ve got an Aunty Polly and an Uncle James, and a Jack and a Georgia. You’ll get to know all of them soon.” She paused, staring at the baby as if filling her eyes with her, taking in every tiny detail, the same way she observed the details that made up her art.

Then, as if coming to a sudden decision: “Here,” she said. “You take her.”

She leapt up, holding the child out to me, and somehow I too was on my feet, my niece in my hands. I was not expecting her and I almost dropped her; Viola had to put out a steadying hand to give me time to collect myself. “Take her,” she repeated, as I adjusted my hold. “Quick, take her and go, before I change my mind.”

I stared at her. Surely she could not mean what she seemed to mean?

Viola was already propelling me towards the door. “It’ll be better that way,” she insisted—but her voice broke as she said it. “You’ll be a better mother to her than I can ever be. You’re already a mother. You’ll know what to do. They won’t take her away from you. You’ll let me see her.”

“What do you mean, Vee? Who’s going to take her away?”

“That’s what they do, isn’t it? Don’t they take babies away from unsuitable mothers? Nobody in their right minds would leave a child with me—I’ve never even babysat for one of yours! Look at me, Polly. What have I got? A studio flat full of stinking noxious chemicals. No job, no reliable income. What would I do with a child?”

The room had been full of questions ever since I entered it, and once Viola had started she couldn’t stop adding to them. “What if she cries and I don’t know what to do? What if I hurt her? What if I lose my temper and drop her out the window? I could have a moment of madness and push the pram out in front of a taxi—if I even had a pram, that is. They’ll take her away from me—they ought to, just for thinking those things—and it would break my heart.”

She was crying now—still trying to push me towards the door, but at the same time stretching out a hand to touch the baby again—half reaching for her, half holding back, like a puppet pulled about by too many strings.

“Vee,” I said firmly. “Nobody is going to take your baby away.” And I said it with confidence. “You might think those dreadful things, but you think them because you love her and you don’t want them to happen to her.”

“How do you know?” demanded Viola.

I thought of Georgia, sobbing and inconsolable night after night with colic. Of Jack, the baby who never slept. Of moments of despair, when James was at work and all I wanted to do was sleep. I could quite happily have propelled a little warm body from a third storey window—so I had thought. But I had never done it.

“You won’t,” I insisted. “Vee, I used to think those things too.”

She stared at me. “You? Really, Polly?”

“There were days when I couldn’t stop thinking like that.”

This made her pause, but after a moment she brushed it aside. “But you had James. James was there for you. What about me? There’s nobody here to stop me!”

You’re here,” I said. “You’re here, and the baby’s here, and you’ll stop yourself, because you love her. It wasn’t James that stopped me—James wasn’t always there. It was Georgia herself, Georgia and me together, somehow having to make it work.”

“You never told me.” Her tone is accusing.

“You never asked—nobody ever asked.” I hadn’t even told James of those terrible, almost forgotten moments. I hadn’t told anybody. “But I only thought it, Vee. Thinking doesn’t make you a bad mother—it’s what you do that matters.”

My senses were full of the baby in my arms: her warm weight against my chest, the milky smell of her, the comma-like curl of her fingers around mine. It would have been so easy to take her with me. Walk out of the flat, get her into the car—get a car seat from somewhere—and take her home. My family would make room for her: Jack would dote on her, Georgia would mother her, James would raise his eyebrows and remark on Viola’s inadequacies but would never dispute giving her a home. She would fill a space that almost seemed to be there, in my heart, ready and waiting for her. But she was not mine to take.

I placed the baby in Viola’s arms and Viola enfolded her, drawing her child back into herself with a tiny sob of relief.

“You do know,” I told her. “You know exactly what to do. You know how to love her—and it starts with knowing that whatever you might imagine, you’ll never let anything hurt her.”

Viola pressed her lips to the baby’s soft hair. “I do love her.”

“We’ll always be there if you need us. For both of you.”

She nodded.

“I’ll bring you some baby clothes. And I think Jack’s Moses basket is still in the loft.”

It was time to go. If I stayed, I might change my mind—might accept this gift that had been pressed on me, and run away with it. If I stayed, Viola would voice more questions. There would be more words to linger in the air and haunt her.

I would come back later. I would come often.

As I started down the stairs, Viola said my name. I looked back. The pale light from the skylight cast a silvered halo onto her dark hair.

“Lara,” she said. “Her name is Lara.”

pencil

Mary Chambers lives in Reading, UK, in a house between two rivers. She’s self-employed as a proofreader and copyeditor, and writes fiction in the gaps between reading other people’s writing and caring for her two children. In the 2020 lockdowns she self-published a children’s picture book, Alina Saves The Moon, with local artist-illustrator Leslee Barron. She is currently working on a historical novel. Email: mary.katalun[at]googlemail.com

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