The next day at work Grace went straight to her desk drawer. She reached inside and her fingers felt the edges of the envelope. She tore it open and took out the single, folded page. It was covered in a scrawled, slanted hand.
I hope this letter finds you well. So many years have passed since I last saw you. I know there is nothing that I could possibly do or say to make amends for what I caused you. I am so sorry for what I did. I need to tell you that I am sorry. I think about her every day, and you too. This may be asking too much, but I would so appreciate it if you could give me the chance to see you. I want to tell you how sorry I am. You probably don’t want to see me, but it would mean so much to an old man.
Your father, Patrick de Leeuw
“Your father”. Superfluous. As if Grace could have forgotten this fact. She read the letter several times, as if repetition would reveal some different meaning. Patrick was hardly an old man and calling himself such was manipulative, calculated to tug at the heartstrings. Perhaps being ill, he felt old. Certainly his life was coming to an end.
Grace’s thoughts turned to Sindi. She had not seen her daughter for two months. Was this excruciating pain she felt at Sindi’s absence something akin to what Patrick was feeling? He could not possibly be missing Grace: how do you miss someone you don’t know?
Grace could see how he could miss Mary. Maybe his longing for his daughter was something different. Perhaps it was a longing for a respite from guilt. Did he feel guilt? So many questions. Grace turned the letter round and round in her hands. The handwriting looked shaky. She tried to picture Patrick as he penned the words – at a desk? on his lap? – tried to conjure his features, but could not recall them. Right then she decided to see him, but only once. Once was more than he deserved.
She dialled the number at the bottom of the page.
By now Grace had got into the habit of waiting in the street every day outside the home she and David had once shared, on the off chance she’d see him. Eventually, her strategy bore fruit. Grace caught him one night as he was scooping Sindi out of her car seat.
“Please can we talk, David? Please? For Sindi’s sake,” she begged.
He didn’t speak, just gestured with his head for Grace to go up the stairs to the front door. Sindi gurgled at the sight of her mother, stretching out her arms towards Grace, who reached for her, but was swiftly blocked by David.
“Just go up the stairs, okay. Don’t make another scene out here on the street.”
They entered the house, an unhappy trio, and once inside, Grace finally grabbed her daughter. Sindi clung to her mother’s neck as Grace wept. Her tears of joy, frustration and longing bubbled up and spilled over into the soft creases of her baby’s neck. Mercifully, David let them be.
Once her tears subsided, Grace covered Sindi with kisses, stroked her limbs, and inhaled her soft fragrance. “My baby!” she exclaimed over and over. Sindi had grown so much – it had been two months since Grace had seen her. The child’s features were changing. She looked more like Grace now than when she was born.
David warmed up some leftover mashed potato and butternut squash for her, and Grace stood by awkwardly as he fed her. He was wonderful with her, always had been. Her absence had clearly deepened the bond between them. She wondered if Sindi had missed her. Did she feel the loss? She seemed happy enough here with David. Grace felt comforted by the knowledge that the child had recognised her, and was delighted to see her. She prayed that David would have mercy on her, that he would have a bit of compassion and give her at least some access to her child. Sindi needed her mother, as Grace needed her daughter. She couldn’t imagine a life without her baby in it.
After Sindi had eaten, Grace and David sat down beside each other on the couch in the living room. They watched the baby crawl around the living room floor. She had started to stand up against the furniture, David explained, was walking around the room while holding onto things. It felt strangely familiar, talking like this, having David regale her with tales of the things she’d missed. They even shared a laugh as familiarity warmed the room, but then he became serious again and an invisible shield went up between them.
“So what do you want, Grace?”
It wasn’t really a question, more an admonition to get on with it, state her business.
“David, I want to see her, I have to see her, regularly. We must work out some kind of thing, please. Not just for me. Think about her, David. Please. She needs a mother, she needs me.”
“Well, look at you,” he replied, calmly. “You grew up without a mother, and you turned out just fine.”
Grace flinched, but remained calm. She couldn’t afford to take this attack personally. She needed to remain focused. David was hurt and angry; of course he wanted to strike back and inflict pain.
“Yes, David, I grew up without a mother. Losing her was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I wouldn’t want that to be Sindi’s cross in life. Please, let’s be adults. Let’s work this out for her sake.”
“That could have been easily avoided if you hadn’t gone jolling around – ” He was getting fired up.
Grace held up a placatory hand. “Okay. I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I lied to you. I’m sorry that I went behind your back. I was wrong, very wrong. But don’t punish Sindi for my sins, David. Please don’t do that.”
David looked at his wife. “So let me get this clear,” he stated. “Let me see if I understand this correctly, because you haven’t yet said it directly. Do you want to get out of this marriage?”
“So you’re not asking to come back? You don’t want to give up this man and try again?”
“Are you sure?” For a second the soft eyes of the David she knew appeared from behind his steely gaze. “If you wanted to come back, we could put all of this behind us,” he said.
Grace couldn’t believe he felt this way, after everything that had happened. But she couldn’t, wouldn’t leave Johnny. They had lost all this time together and were only beginning to make it up. How on earth was she supposed to walk away from that? Grace shook her head slowly. “No, David. I’m sure of what I want.”
They sat in silence for a while, David staring at his hands, Grace at the floor. Sindi crawled up and pulled herself up against her father’s knee, crowing and laughing. He picked her up, squeezed her and seated her on his lap. She babbled cheerfully, while around them, the final ruins of family came clattering down.
“So, Grace, what do you suggest we do about Sindi? Surely you don’t expect me to just hand her over to you and this stranger?”
“No, no, I don’t want that. I’ve no right to ask. But we could share her. She could live with both of us, taking turns. Or let her come just for short periods to me. Please. I beg you.”
David guffawed. A malicious, sneering sound left his lips. “No bloody way! That’s no way for my daughter to live. Forget it, Grace. Forget it. I am going to divorce you, and I am going to ask for full custody.”
Fear tightened Grace’s chest. She had gambled and lost. Miscalculated. She tried to persuade David to at least give her some access to Sindi, but he becamincreasingly agitated. Grace begged; she pleaded.
Finally, David said, “I’ll think about it some more, but I really don’t want my child spending time with this man of yours. Now I think it’s time for you to leave.”
Grace had no choice but to scoop up Sindi and give her a final hug. She clung to the child, willing her body to remember the imprint of that sweet skin.
“Goodbye, Mummy’s sweetheart.”
She turned to leave, and Sindi started to cry. The child had no vocabulary yet, but grief came spilling out of her in the only way she knew. Grace shuttered her ears and her heart as she ran down the passage to the front door.
As she closed the door behind her and descended the stairs to the street, her baby’s low cries turned to a full-throttle wail. Oh dear God, what had she done? Breath itself escaped her. She swallowed an unarticulated scream that hammered against her heart: Sindi, Sindi, Sindi!
Tell us: What do you think of the story?