The oars swish through the water, each stroke taking me further away from Mum and the baby. Brown and orange leaves float on the water around the boat. The baby’s screams echo around the valley from the canal bank; she didn’t want to get in – now she does, but it’s too late. My brother bickers with Dad, rocking the rowing boat from side to side. I cling to the seat; water splashes my face.
I scream and sit bolt upright. It’s as if there’s no air in my lungs; I let out a huge sigh and take shallow, fast breaths. My heart is palpitating, and I am soaked in sweat. It’s the same dream, always without an ending.
I towel myself dry in the bathroom and change into a clean nightdress; it’s four in the morning, and I need more sleep. I climb back into bed and try thinking pleasant thoughts; when that doesn’t work, I pick up my phone and search for the meaning of bad dreams. Yeah, like that’s going to help. I remember seeing the rowing boats for hire as I passed the canal yesterday. But all I can think of is just who the baby is?
The following day, I tidy the breakfast dishes away. The radio show host twitters on in the background. The cat snakes his body around my calves and miaows.
‘Yes, I know you miss her,’ Tommy purrs as I tickle his chin.
The phone rings.
‘It’s your turn today, don’t forget,’ Steven barks.
‘Hi, how are you?’ I reply. He lets out a noisy, pent-up breath and ignores my question.
‘Visiting time is at three. Tea is at five; be sure to be gone well before. Matron is a tad tetchy.’
‘She’s not the only one,’ I hear my sister-in-law shouting at him to hurry up.
‘I’ll call you later,’ he hangs up.
I tut and stare at the phone, my brother, charming as always.
Sunbeams filter through the window, reflecting off the gleaming kitchen surfaces. The drone of the dishwasher replaces the sound of the radio.
I leave the house, a cloche hat pulled over my head, hoping to avoid recognition. But the next-door neighbour springs out of her doorway, ‘I didn’t see you at church, is everything alright?’
‘Fine, thanks,’ I step into the road to get around her.
‘Give Olive my love,’ she waves as I walk up the road.
I nod and rush away. In my years abroad, I’d forgotten about the stifling smallness of this town.
Outside ‘The Tasty Plaice,’ seagulls squawk and squabble over chip papers they’ve dragged from the dustbin. The High Street is littered with last night’s empty beer cans and the remains of a few kebabs.
The steps up to the church on the hill start at the back of the town hall. A worn metal handrail is bolted to the stone cottages lining the path to help the frail. The climb is steep, but I’m fit. Vivid, rusty brown Virginia Creeper scrambles across the mortar of the old Kentish ragstone cottages.
It’s a drag of a hill, etched with groups of steps and patches of green between. On the next grass verge, I see the corpse of a gull, motionless and rigid. As if it dropped out of the sky.
Shaken, I pause to admire the view. The bay of Hythe stretches from Folkestone in the east to Dungeness in the west. The sea is calm. In the distance, tiny container ship oblongs dot across the horizon on their way through the English Channel to Southampton. A clutch of small white triangles flutter close to shore, the wind too weak to catch their sails.
I arrive at the Norman church, not long now until I reach the care home, and sure enough, it comes into view with its splendid white façade and imposing views.
The stale odour of decay percolates the warm air inside. It’s depressing to visit Mum here, but she needs to recover before returning home after her fall. Steven says she’s becoming more forgetful and thinks she has dementia; she is rather pale.
Hugging Mum is like embracing a fragile bird; I fear her bones will crack.
‘How are you today?’ I hold her hand in mine.
‘Good. The sun’s shining,’ she points to the window. ‘How’s Tommy?’
‘Missing you, despite the fancy cat food,’ I laugh.
‘Don’t spoil him now,’ she wags her finger, ‘I’ll be home soon enough.’
‘Not long now,’ she says.
I squeeze her hand in mine, ‘I can stay on.’
‘What about your job?’
‘I can take leave or work remotely,’ I smile, ‘let’s get you better.’
‘You don’t need trouble at work,’ she scowls.
‘It’s no bother,’ I squeeze her hand, but she pulls it away.
‘Mum, when I was little, did I go in a rowing boat?’
‘Why?’ She furrows her brow.
‘I keep having this dream about a boat and a baby,’ I tell her the story.
The colour drains from her face, ‘it’s just a nightmare.’
‘But it’s so real,’ I venture.
‘It’ll pass. Now, did you bring those chocolate eclairs?’
Back at the house later, I wonder why Mum blanked me. There’s got to be more to it, just who is the baby? I pull a chair to the hall landing to stand on and pull down the trapdoor to the loft. The ladder is a bit stiff; I need to tug it hard to extend it. I flick the light, and all the spiders dash back into their hiding places. The suitcase is dusty when I shift it and take it down.
I scan blurred black and white photos of unrecognisable long-dead relatives. After the 1960s, the images are in colour; I pick up a picture of our family of four sitting on a bench, me and Steven squashed up in the middle, Dad wears black NHS spectacles and Mum’s hair is permed, she’s clutching an enormous handbag on her knee. I laugh at my first school photograph, me with my chubby little face and helmet style haircut and Steven with his freckles and sticking-out ears.
The telephone rings. They’ll call back if it’s urgent.
And there it is, a photo of a baby wearing pink. It’s not me. The date on the back is wrong. I set it aside and continue searching, holding negatives up to the light to ensure I don’t miss anything. I come across an out of focus photo of Dad, Steven, and me in a rowing boat on the canal, taken from the bank. Steven holds the oar dangerously close to my head, and Dad’s trying to get it off him.
The phone rings again.
Photos in hand, I switch on my laptop and log in to one of those genealogy websites I subscribed to a while back when I had good intentions to research the family tree. I even did a DNA test. Without expecting any luminary insights, I click on DNA matches. A new match appears, Amy Stafford, which is odd because that’s Mum’s maiden name. Amy shares 25 per cent of my DNA, but who is she? I search the birth register for her and soon have her date of birth and the option to order her birth certificate. Without overthinking it, I click, and it’s done. Although it seems a bit strange that I can request someone else’s birth certificate.
The following two nights, the nightmare reoccurs; in dramatic technicolour, I am knocked out of the boat and fall deep into the muddy water. I panic, thrashing my arms and wake up terrified. When I get a glass of water and look out of the window, the sight of a veil of mist hugging the trees in the early morning light is calming. Starlings are perched on the telegraph wire stretching over the road like a line of Morse code.
The next time I visit, Mum is a little unsettled. She fidgets with her sheets and complains about the food. She has a headache and is not in the mood to talk.
‘I’ve been looking at the old photographs,’ I say, touching the baby photo in my pocket.
‘Why would you do that?’ she replies.
‘Just a bit of reminiscing,’ I reply.
‘You should look forward, not back,’ she says.
When I leave, it’s with mixed feelings. I wanted to ask about the baby and show her the photo but felt I couldn’t.
Later at home, I’m making tea when the letterbox snaps open and shut, a buff-coloured envelope drops on the carpet, I rip it open. The birth certificate says that Amy was born in May 1978, father unknown, mother – Olive Stafford. I feel a stab in my heart. No wonder Mum was cagey. I wasn’t imagining or making it up; there was a baby that day at the canal. I have a sister.
I sit and dwell upon this new information, but my thoughts are interrupted by the phone ringing. It’ll be Steven again; I ignore it and start searching the internet for Amy and spend a useless fifteen minutes until I realise that’s probably not even her name anymore.
I’m so engrossed in the compelling search for Amy that it takes me five minutes to realise that the phone’s been ringing non-stop. I grab it and answer with a terse yes.
‘Hello, Lisa?’ The voice sounds familiar.
‘That’s me,’ I answer in an offhanded way.
‘It’s the matron from the nursing home,’ she sighs, ‘I’m sorry to have to tell you, but your mother took a turn for the worse, and….’
‘She passed away half an hour ago; we did all we could, but….’
‘No! It’s not true!’
‘I’m so sorry.’
I let the phone drop and fall to my knees and howl.
Afterwards, the guilt weighs me down like a lead jacket. If only I hadn’t mentioned the dream to Mum, she might still be here. I don’t tell Steven about Amy. There’s no need to provide him with further ammunition; it’s enough that I lived abroad. Instead, I allow myself to become caught up in the flowing river of things to do and organise.
Steven is omnipresent, rummaging through Mum’s papers. He says it’s important to find insurance papers and the like. He hands me a bundle of photographs from the drawer and goes back to searching.
‘Baby photos,’ he says, ‘looks like you.’
I study the pictures under the desk lamp. The baby has plump cheeks, and blue eyes, a tuft of ginger hair sticks up from her head, giving her a surprised look. It’s not me. On the back, scrawled in faded pencil, I read, Amy, twenty-eighth of May 1978. My eyes well up; I sniff and wipe the tears with the back of my hand.
On the day of the funeral, the neighbours draw their curtains out of respect. The limousine comes to the house to collect us, and many long-lost relatives appear at the church. Steven talks to people when they offer their condolences, but I find it hard to stop crying. During the burial, crows gather in the treetops and caw incessantly; I glare at them to stop. A woman in black stands on the edges of the gathering, and in an instant, I know it’s her. My half-sister.
Belgium based writer Sheila Kinsella’s short stories draw inspiration from her Irish upbringing. An avid watcher of people’s behaviour, Sheila lures the reader into a shrewdly observed world via imagery.
Sheila graduated with an MA in Creative Writing (Distance Learning) from Lancaster University in the United Kingdom in 2017.