WITH ITS ORIGINAL gold lettering, MacLeod & Son, above the door and its black-and-white-tiled entrance, the butcher’s was one of the oldest shops in town. Zoe had not been inside for years, but save for the new display cases, it looked exactly as she remembered. She took a cautious breath. Despite the trays of chops and steaks, sausages and mince, the air smelled of nothing in particular. While the boy ahead of her bought a pound of sausages, she studied the scotch eggs, neatly coated in breadcrumbs.
“Hello, Zoe. How are you?” Like her father, Mr. MacLeod played for the town cricket team; his garden was a highlight of Garden Day.
“Hi. I saw your sign.” She pointed as if he might have forgotten the Help Wanted sign in the window.
Mr. MacLeod stepped out from behind the counter—his apron was reassuringly white—and explained that he needed someone to work from eight to two on Saturdays, to help customers, and to clean and stock the cases. But what about her studies? Her parents?
“My brother has a job at the Co-op. They’ll be fine. Can I fill out an application?”
He laughed. “I know who you are, Zoe Lang. Your gran used to work here. Why don’t we try a couple of Saturdays? Tell your dad I’ll see him at the Salon meeting on Thursday.”
When she announced her job at supper, her mother’s fork came to a standstill. “Darling,” she said in her careful voice, “what about your exams?” Across the table, her father’s forehead furrowed.
She marshaled her arguments: her birthday was in just over a fortnight; Matthew had started at the Co-op when he was sixteen; they were always saying she needed to learn to manage money. “And Mr. MacLeod said Granny used to work there,” she added.
“But you don’t eat meat,” Matthew said. “Why would you want to work at a butcher’s?”
“You don’t eat everything you sell at the Co-op.” Beneath the table, Lily nudged her leg.
“Zoe,” said her father, “last year you almost failed Latin. You need to focus on school.”
Normally she would have protested: Who used Latin in ordinary life? She was good at the subjects that mattered. Now she only wanted them to agree. “I promise I’ll do my homework. It’s only six hours a week.” She gazed at her parents imploringly, in turn. Which of them would yield first?
“Well,” said her mother, “let’s see how you manage for a week or two.”
Before her father could disagree—he was still frowning—she passed on Mr. MacLeod’s message about the Salon meeting. It was Matthew who had proposed the old-fashioned name for the town’s annual fundraiser. Each year the committee picked a theme for the Salon and everyone paid to attend, either as audience or performers. Last year people had reenacted scenes from famous films. Matthew and Benjamin had chosen the diner scene from Five Easy Pieces. Their parents had played the hero and heroine in I Know Where I’m Going. Zoe and Duncan had applauded.
After supper, as they did the washing-up, she suggested that the three of them make a pact not to lie for a week. She had been mulling the idea since Ant called her a liar. She expected Matthew to laugh and say “Weird.” Instead he looked up from the frying pan he was scrubbing and asked, “What counts as a lie? Mum’s always talking about how easy it is to manipulate witnesses. If you ask how fast the car was going when it hit the wall, people say twenty miles per hour. If you ask how fast it was going when it smashed into the wall, they say forty-five.”
“Those people don’t know they’re lying.” Duncan dried a spatula. “It’s more like they’re color-blind.”
“I’m not asking you to testify in court.” She slid a plate into the dishwasher. “I’m suggesting we try not to tell deliberate lies.”
“So”—Matthew rinsed the pan—“ if Benjamin asks what I think of his new song, do I have to say I can’t stand it? Or can I say I like “Broken to the Bone” better? Both are true, but the first is truer.”
“Isn’t lying better than hurting Benjamin’s feelings?” Duncan said.
They both looked at Zoe.
“How can you call yourselves friends,” she said, “if you can’t tell each other the truth?” Even as she spoke, she remembered telling Moira she looked fantastic in her new skirt.
BY MONDAY EVENING DUNCAN HAD declared a ban on questions. “If you ask a question,” he said, “people ask one back. Then you’re stuck.”
Their pact was hardest for him, she thought, because he was the most truthful. “You don’t have to do this,” she said. “It’s just something I need to prove to myself.”
“I know that,” he said, “but it’s interesting. I can see why there are monks who never speak.”
Zoe had already upset most of her friends when on Wednesday the biology teacher called her and Frances, who sat in the next desk, up to the front. With her fuchsia lipstick and sleek hair, Ms. Hailey was one of the few teachers it was easy to imagine having a life outside of school. “It’s not surprising you both got the right answers,” she said, looking from Zoe to Frances and back again, “but it seems very strange that you made the same mistakes.”
“I wasn’t copying,” said Zoe. “May I be excused?”
At lunchtime neither Frances nor her friends would speak to her. Even Moira didn’t understand. “You mean you told on Frances because of some stupid pact?”
“I didn’t say anything about her.”
By Thursday Matthew and Benjamin had argued about a point in fencing. Duncan had told Will that a TV program he liked was stupid. They agreed to abandon the pact.
“I don’t believe anyone always tells the truth,” said Duncan. “It’s too hard.”
The idea that everyone was lying some of the time made the world feel slippery and unsafe, but the experiment had worked. She knew now that Ant was wrong. She was just an ordinary liar, nothing special. Even Duncan had to make small adjustments in order not to be driven out of town.
The next day she discovered one of her father’s adjustments. She was at the chemist’s, buying shampoo, when the cashier asked if she’d collect Hal’s photographs. She put the envelope in her bag and forgot about it until she came across it that evening. What impulse made her open it? The first photo was of a sunset over the sea; the second of a woman standing on the beach, laughing, her hair blowing in the wind, her jeans rolled up. The photographer’s shadow lay at her feet. Zoe recognized the beach—it was in Wales, near the cottage they sometimes borrowed from friends—and she recognized the woman. One afternoon last spring, when she and Moira were shopping in Oxford, she had seen her leaving a café with her father. She was tall, as tall as Hal, wearing a black T-shirt with a pullover slung around her shoulders, jeans, and running shoes. She was saying something to him, smiling, and he was smiling back. She looks nice, Zoe had thought as she and Moira headed to the next shop, and thought no more about it. Her parents had lots of friends she hadn’t met.
Now she recalled how back in September, before they saved the boy, her father had suggested going to Wales for the weekend. But her mother was busy, and she and her brothers had plans.
Finally he had packed some clothes, his book about clouds, and his camera, and gone on his own. He had returned, voluble and relaxed, on Sunday evening and made a delicious roast chicken. And all the time, she thought, he had been with another woman.
Across the hall Matthew’s radio wailed; from downstairs came television voices. Her parents were watching a program about the Renaissance. She could interrupt some genial historian, gesturing at the frescoes in a Florentine church. “Look at this,” she could say. Or she could leave the photographs on the kitchen counter. But as she flicked through the rest of the photos—mountains, clouds, a mug of coffee on a windowsill, clouds—she knew she would do neither. She had gone out with Ant for two months; still she’d been irked when, the week after she broke up with him, he had offered Moira a lift on his scooter. And irked, in a different way, when Moira refused. Her parents had been together for twenty years.
A new song, more melodious, came on the radio. Suddenly she stopped daydreaming and thought about her mother, the person who was sitting on the sofa downstairs, who worked hard, who wanted to be a good person, who loved walking and now ancient Greek and who, they all understood, despite her skilled job, her good salary, her gift for reasoning, depended on their father in hidden ways. If she found out ... Even in her thoughts, Zoe could not finish the sentence. Moira and several other friends had parents who were divorced. They made having two bedrooms sound glamorous. Here, in her one bedroom, she thought her father hadn’t just cheated; he had committed treason.
The next morning, she waited until he was alone in the kitchen. “Hey, Dad”—she held out the envelope—“ the woman at the chemist’s gave me your photos.”
“Thanks.” He was drinking coffee, reading the paper. He opened the envelope absently, drew out the photographs, and quickly—she had put the woman on top—slid them back. “Tell your mother I forgot something at the forge,” he said, and headed for the door.
Alone, she sat down in her father’s chair; his coffee cup was half full, still hot. She imagined him wedging the photos behind a horseshoe, or a row of tattered account books. Then she was no longer in her body, no longer in the kitchen of her home, but in some other limitless space, where she could simultaneously appreciate the wrinkled apple in the fruit bowl, Lily’s toy bear, the tea towels hanging limply on the radiator, the silvery drops of water in the sink, the leafy ficus in the corner, her father’s absence. And, briefly, they were all connected.
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LILY MADE THINGS better—he could answer more of Ms. Humphreys’s questions; the house didn’t feel empty—but even she could not prevent his family members from traveling toward their separate destinations. Night after night he woke to find himself searching for the beautiful room. Once he was in the parlor, another time standing over Zoe’s bed; happily, she did not wake. Before he went to nursery school his parents had told him that they were his parents, but that Betsy had not given birth to him. His birth mother was Turkish; she had given him up for adoption because she was young and poor. His birth father was unknown. Duncan had accepted these facts like a fairy tale in which he himself played a small part. Once upon a time there was a poor girl who had a baby boy. Then his parents came and found him. They brought him home when he was three days old, and he lived happily ever after. For years he had not thought about his first mother, but now he knew that when he sleepwalked, searching for the beautiful room, it was because she would be there, her skin the same color as his, her hands or her ears or her lower lip like his.
His mother was in her study, sitting at her L-shaped desk, leafing through a pile of pages. She did not look up as he and Lily settled themselves on the floor beneath the windowsill with its row of cacti. The oldest cactus was the same age as Matthew; each spring it produced half a dozen small, fat leaves, yellow green at first and then, within a month, dimming to the gray green of the main plant. When a person came too close, the plant shot tiny stingers to protect itself.
“I was wondering,” he said, “if you had a photograph of my first mother.”
Even as she spoke, he saw his question reach her. Still he explained, “Not you. The person who gave me to you.”
She made a small sound as if his words had wedged themselves in her throat. “I don’t.”
“Do you know where she lives?”
She pushed the pages away and turned to face him. Her hair was pulled back, and he could see the delicate curve of her forehead. “When you were born, she was living in north London, but that was thirteen years ago, nearly fourteen. Why are you asking? Did something happen?”
He gazed at her, bewildered. Of course something had happened. They had found Karel in the field, his pale face and his scarlet legs. And that night he had seen his first mother in the garden. Beside him Lily gave a small sneeze: Careful.
“She’s just a word,” he said, “and it’s your word. Everyone else in my life I can picture even when they’re dead—I can see Grandpa’s scar, Granny’s nose—but when I think about her, there’s no picture. Zoe has your lower lip, your hands, and Matthew has Dad’s hands. I don’t have anyone’s hands.”
He watched as his mother’s full lips, her large eyes, and thin eyebrows shifted between those emotions he could name—sadness, astonishment, fear—and those he couldn’t. She stood up and came to sit on the floor beside him and Lily. “There are rules around adoption,” she said. “I never actually met your birth mother. She gave you to an agency. They made sure Hal and I would be good parents.”
His imagination had betrayed him. He had seen the two women bending over him, his first mother offering him to Betsy, but the agency could have picked two totally different people to be his parents.
“I’m sorry,” his mother said. “She was only sixteen. She wanted to do what was best for you.”
He buried his face in Lily’s neck. Did she remember her mother, her siblings? When they met other dogs in the street, he could never predict her response. Some, black, close to her size, seemingly kindred spirits, she passed without a second glance; others, once a dalmatian, another time a border collie, she yearned after. If there was a logic to her affinities, he had yet to grasp it.
“Duncan,” his mother was saying, “you’re our son. We love you.” She said other things, about families, about how they didn’t mean to deny his heritage. Remember all those books they had given him about Turkey? The map of Turkey in his room. How—
“I want to find her.” It was the single most valiant sentence he had ever uttered.
His mother stopped moving, stopped breathing. “Then what? You’d want to talk to her? Be part of her life?”
Lily put a paw on his thigh, and he heard the unspoken question: Be her son, not mine? But no, he wasn’t going to be like the little mermaid who gives up her family for the oblivious prince. “I’d like to know what I got from her,” he said, “and I’d like her to know that she made a good choice. Then we can both go on doing what we’re doing.”
Last month in an art supply shop he had picked up two tubes of oil paint and been amazed that one was much heavier than the other. The man behind the counter had explained that the weight of oil paints varied according to the pigments. Did he love some shades of red because they were heavier? He could not see his mother’s face as she sat beside him, but he could feel little darts of emotion, flying in all directions.
“Duncan, think how much you’ve changed in the last five years, and how much you’re going to change in the next five. Why not wait? There’s always time to do this, but once you’ve taken certain steps, they can’t be undone. She may be living in difficult circumstances. Or she may be a very different person from the one you’ve imagined. Hopefully she’s got on with her life, found work she loves, a partner. After you were born—this must be hard to hear—she probably did her best to forget you.”
It was hard. He did not want his first mother to think about him every day, or even every month, but he did want there to be a space in her brain where the absolute fact of his existence was safely lodged. “I just need to talk to her once,” he said. “To know where she is and have a photo of her.” He held up his left hand. “Promise.”
His mother sighed, a long, slow, mournful exhalation. “You shouldn’t promise,” she said. “You don’t know what you’ll feel. I’ll talk to Hal, but whatever we decide, there’s a very good chance we may not be able to find her. London is a big city. She may have changed her name. And you need to think about Matthew and Zoe. This affects them too.”
Matthew and Zoe! They leaped into his brain. With their taken-for-granted hands, would they understand his need to find the person from whom he inherited the color of his skin, or his love of red? “I’ll think about them,” he said. He stood up and his mother did too.
“Would it help if you had more friends who”—she made a groping gesture—“looked like you? Maybe we haven’t worked hard enough to provide you with a community.”
“I like the way my friends look,” he said staunchly. “This isn’t about knowing more Turkish people. I don’t feel Turkish. I feel like everyone else, except when people stare at me. This is about finding one particular person with whom I have a particular relationship. I didn’t want to have this idea. It hunted me down.”
Lily nudged him: Hug her. He stepped forward, and his mother’s arms were around him. He smelled a smell he couldn’t describe but had known all his life, a smell that meant home, comfort, consolation, colors he loved, half-spoken sentences fully understood.