With David gone, Grace made sure Sindi was in a safe spot, then dug into her handbag and took out the envelope. She flattened it against the table in the entryway and stared at it. She still didn’t recognize the handwriting, but this letter could only be from one of two people: Patrick or Johnny. Both spelled trouble, a spilling of the past into her present.
She brought the letter to her face, put it to her nose – nothing was revealed by sniffing it. On the verge of opening it she lost her nerve and stuffed it back into the handbag. There her fingers latched around the familiar shape of a slim cardboard box. She had started smoking again – a habit she had picked up in her last two years of high school.
After checking that Sindi was still okay on the floor, Grace moved stealthily out the back door into the small courtyard behind the house where, through the window, she could still keep an eye on the child, who was lying there wriggling contentedly.
Grace struck a match and lit the cigarette, inhaled deeply as she closed her eyes, and savoured the way the warm smoke travelled through her body, loosening its kinks. After the first calming puff, she pictured the smoke filling her lungs, circulating through each limb, passing through every membrane and into her bloodstream. In her mind’s eye, tiny particles of poison trickled from bloodstream to breast into breast milk and flowed through her milk into Sindi’s innocent mouth. She sighed as she exhaled a cloud of smoke. She detested this habit of hers, but she didn’t know how to stop.
The smell of the cigarette mingled with the aroma of David’s stew on the stove, creating an acrid stench. And suddenly Mary was there. Grace saw her leaning over her pots, a wooden spoon in one hand and a cigarette tipped daintily away from the food in the other. Mary could come like this, unbidden, in moments Grace least expected, evoked by the smell of ginger or the sight of a rose, bringing a smile at first and then a longing so fierce it felt like a hand squeezing her heart.
Grace sucked on the cigarette as if it was her dying breath. When she was done she wrapped the stub in a tissue, went back inside and flushed it down the toilet. She scrubbed her hands, brushed her teeth and ran talcum powder through her hair to remove any lingering traces of smoke. She stuffed the cardigan she was wearing at the bottom of the laundry basket and changed into a clean outfit. By the time David reappeared with a carton of milk she was smiling happily from the living room floor, Sindi in her arms, the picture of maternal bliss.
They ate lamb stew for supper, in silence, while Grace bopped Sindi on her lap. After dinner Grace cleaned the kitchen and then she scooped Sindi from David’s lap to prepare her for bed. First they played a little on the bed, cuddled together, and then Grace bathed and fed her, marvelling, once again, at the most beautiful creature she had ever seen. She rocked Sindi and sang to her softly, feeling a guilty relief when David settled down in the next room with a pile of marking.
Tonight she’d have Sindi to herself in the last hour before sleep claimed her. Tucked up in bed with the child, Grace whispered a story about a girl who was so adored by her mother that she plucked the moon out of the sky and presented it to her as a gift. She held Sindi close and watched her eyelids slowly droop across the full moons of her large brown eyes.
When David next appeared in the bedroom he gently removed the baby from the bed and placed her into her crib. Grace stirred, looked up at him, and gave him a sleepy smile. How lucky she was; how far away her life had moved from chaos to peace. She could not have asked for a better partner in life. It was as if the gods had decided that she had suffered enough and had granted her these gifts to blossom in love – a husband who would cheerfully die for her, and a beautiful daughter who had infinitely expanded her capacity for love. Grace resolved, for the millionth time, to be more cheerful, more grateful. To be kinder to David. To stop smoking. She hated the grip of this addiction, hated even more that she was harming Sindi’s health through it. Grace had read the books, knew the statistics and correlation between pregnant mothers’ smoking habits and cot death. She hated this secret that lay between her and David.
Secrets. And now there was another secret nagging at her, one that had the potential to unravel a series of other omissions she had brought into their marriage.
The letter in her handbag could upend everything.
Could it be from Patrick, she wondered. But her father was supposed to be in prison for life. And wouldn’t a letter from an inmate bear the prison’s stamp?
Grace knew that the act of opening that envelope would open up a new world – or, rather, an old one, one she didn’t want to re-enter, and from which there might be no return to the contentment of today.
So could Patrick be out? They had not followed the trial proceedings all those years ago and Grace didn’t know what the sentence had been. She had just assumed that he would be locked away for life. He had murdered a woman, after all. But with talk about amnesties in the air, who knew? What she did know, though, was that she did not want to hear from him. She didn’t want to know. You are dead to me, Patrick de Leeuw, she thought. You died long ago when you murdered my mother. She wasn’t about to let him ruin her life a second time. What would David say? The whole childhood she had invented for him was a lie. Grace wanted Patrick de Leeuw not to exist, and as long as she left the letter unopened in the bottom of her bag, she could pretend that he didn’t.
Grace was wide awake when David crept into bed beside her. He rubbed her arm. She turned away. He tried again. “You still didn’t tell me how your day was,” he said.
“I did tell you, David. It was utterly uneventful.”
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