A girl turned up on our doorstep today. She was wearing a beanie, a duffle coat, skinny jeans and Cons. She said, hello, my name’s Rachel. I’m your cousin.
Dad was standing behind me drying his hands on a tea towel. I said, you know mum hates it when you do that. He shrugged and said, sorry, who did you say you are again?
Rachel repeated what she’d said, and dad scrunched up the tea towel and replied: but I don’t have any brothers or sisters.
I shook my head and said, she’s got mum’s nose, dad.
Dad said, oh, and: Cheryl, mum, your Aunt, Auntie Cheryl’s not here right now, but she’ll be back soon if you want to come in and wait.
Rached smiled and said she was sorry, but she had a train to catch in a couple of hours, and had to get back to her hotel to pack. She had just been in town yesterday for a job interview, and thought she’d drop by to see if Cheryl was here. I should’ve phoned, but you’re ex-directory.
Dad said, no, come in, Cheryl’ll be back in a mo. I can give you a lift to the station. He said he’d never met any of Cheryl’s family. This was a nice surprise. Yes. A nice surprise.
In the kitchen, he made her a cup of tea, and got some Bourbon biscuits out. I said, we haven’t finished the digestives yet, mum’ll go spare, but dad ignored me and asked Rachel about her job interview.
She said it was for a position at my old primary school. Someone there was retiring. I asked if it was Mrs Kemp, and she said the name rang a bell. I told her I hoped she got the job, Mrs Kemp was horrible. When she tells you off, she puts her index finger under your chin, and lifts it up until your eyes are looking straight at the ceiling. I used to think it was a prelude to her slitting your throat. I asked if she was really retiring, or whether she’d finally snapped and murdered an eight-year-old.
Rachel laughed and said she didn’t know. Dad apologised for me and asked her about mum’s family. He said he didn’t know any of them, and that Cheryl had said most of them were dead. The rest she’d lost touch with.
Rachel said a lot of them had passed away, but her mum, my Auntie Linda, was still around, and grandma. She got her phone out, and showed us some pictures. When she got to a picture of her brother, my cousin David, the front door opened, and we heard mum call, I’m home, could someone give me a hand with the shopping bags?
We all went through to the hall, me first, then dad, then Rachel. I said, Rachel’s here, mum, and dad said, there’s someone here to see you, our speech overlapping. Mum looked at me and dad. Then she looked at Rachel, who appeared from behind dad. Mum said, yes?
Rachel said, I’m Rachel, your niece. I’m Linda’s daughter, Auntie Cheryl.
Mum put her shopping bags down on the carpet and said, I’m sorry. I don’t have a sister. Who are you?
We looked at Rachel, and she repeated that she was my mum’s niece. She came here for a job interview, and thought she’d drop by. Her mum had told her where she lived. She hadn’t seen her since she was a baby.
Mum picked the shopping bags up, and said to dad, I don’t know what she’s talking about. I don’t know what she’s doing here. Could you please tell her to leave?
Dad tried to say something, but she ignored him and made to go through to the kitchen. Rachel said, wait, wait, I’ve got some pictures, look, and got her phone back out, saying, look, here, there’s me with my mum, and that’s you in the background, isn’t it, with grandma? Dad and I looked at the phone. Mum looked at the wall. The woman in the picture had the same nose, an Eighties perm.
I said, it does look like you, mum, and she turned to Rachel and said, what gives you the right to come here uninvited? To just turn up like this, as if you were a friend stopping by for afternoon tea? Who do you think you are? Tell me, who do you think you are?
Rachel didn’t reply. Mum said, I suppose you want a drink now too, right, and went through to the kitchen and said, well, looks like you’ve already got one. Oh, and Graham opened the Bourbons for you too. How lovely! Can’t have you eating plain old digestives, can we? Well, sit down then. Do you want a top up?
Mum sat down at the kitchen table, and we followed her in. She said, so how’ve you been then? You have grown since I last saw you, haven’t you? How old are you now?
Rachel said, twenty four.
Mum: And what’s this job interview you mentioned? That sounds exciting.
Rachel told her.
Mum: oh, so we’ll be seeing more of you then?
Rachel said if she got the job, but she might not accept it.
Mum picked up a Bourbon, bit into it and said, and why ever not? We could see each other all the time. Your mother could visit unannounced too. And Grandma. We could spend Christmas together. Or go on holiday. We could be one big happy family again.
Dad said, Cheryl.
Mum: what, dear? Do you want a Bourbon?
Dad: Cheryl. That’s enough.
Rachel said, I’m sorry I didn’t phone ahead. I just came round on the off-chance. I’m sorry I’ve put you out.
She put her phone away, and said, sorry, it was nice to see you. She looked at me and dad too. Then she said: I better go. I have a train to catch.
Dad asked her if she wanted a lift, but she said no, it was okay, her hotel wasn’t that far, and she’d be sitting down on the train for the next three to four hours anyway. She took one last look at mum before dad showed her out. Mum ignored her and bit into another Bourbon. I was about to asked her what that was all about when dad came back in and said, she’s gone. Happy?
Mum looked over at the counter where the tea-towel was scrunched up next to the kettle. She said, how many times have I told you to use a bloody hand towel to dry your hands?