WHEN SHE GOT home from the butcher’s, her mother was circling the ficus with a watering can. Without looking up, she reached for a yellow leaf and said, “Can you take Duncan swimming?”
“Why can’t Dad take him? I’m going round to Moira’s.”
At once she was dismayed—the last thing she wanted was to draw attention to her father’s activities—but her mother, moving on to the ferns, said he was driving the fencing team to a competition. “I really need to do my Greek homework,” she added.
“It would be a big help, darling.”
In her relief, Zoe said she would devote her afternoon to unpaid child care. Already she was looking forward to spending time with Duncan; perhaps she could tell him about Rufus. They gathered towels and costumes and emergency Kit-Kats. She brought her hair dryer in case the one at the pool was broken. Duncan stopped to say goodbye to Lily.
“Come on,” she said. “We’re going to miss the bus.”
They ran down the rainy street, backpacks thudding. She let Duncan set the pace until the last corner when, at the sight of the bus, lights glowing, she sprinted ahead. “My brother’s just coming,” she told the driver. As soon as he scrambled up the steps, the bus jerked forward. Duncan was smiling, and she could feel herself smiling too. If they’d left five minutes earlier, she thought, they’d have made it easily, but they wouldn’t be so pleased. As she slid into an empty seat, she saw Ant ride by on his scooter. “There’s Ant,” she said.
“Do you miss him?” Duncan sat beside her.
“I miss his scooter.”
“Now you have a job, you could save up to buy one.”
“I’m only working six hours a week. Besides, Mum would have kittens.” On her right shoulder she felt the chill of the window, on her left the warmth of Duncan.
“Do you ever wonder about my parents?” he said.
Did he somehow know about their father? Then, with a jolt, she heard the “my.” He was asking not about Hal and Betsy but about those shadowy people whose DNA he shared. “No,” she said.
“I’ve been wondering about them.”
The bus thudded over the first of the speed bumps outside the primary school. “But you’ve never met them,” she said. “They could be on this bus, and you wouldn’t know.”
He stood up to scan the other passengers. One or two people looked back, their attention caught by his serious gaze. He sat down again. “I don’t think so. Put your hand on your knee.”
She put the hand nearest him, her left, on her thigh, palm down. Duncan did the same. She saw her skin, that color called white, which in her case was some mixture of pink and beige, and her fingers, each a different length, the red tooth mark Leo had made, her nails a little ragged. Duncan’s skin was closer to the color of tea without milk. His fingers were longer and thinner; there was a smear of blue paint on his index finger; his thumb was a different shape.
“So?” he prompted.
“Your birth mother was Turkish. She was living in London when she had you. That’s all I know.”
“What do you see when you look at your hand?”
“I wish I had longer fingers and could grow my nails.”
“Your hands are the same as Mum’s. Dad’s and Matthew’s hands are more like Granny’s.”
He was right. Narrowing her eyes, she saw her mother’s hand, holding the steering wheel, pruning a rose, peeling an apple, writing Greek letters.
“How would you feel,” Duncan said, “if I wanted to look for my first mother?”
She raised her eyes from their hands to his face. “Did something happen? I know Matthew and I sometimes give you a hard time, but we don’t mean it. I thought Lily made things better.”
“She does, but not everything. The night after we found the boy, I was looking out of my bedroom window, and I saw my first mother standing under the laburnum tree. I haven’t thought about her in years, but there she was, in our garden. I mean,” he added hastily, “not really. There were just trees, bushes, but there she was, in my head. Now she keeps coming back. Maybe I shouldn’t look for her. That’s what Mum thinks, not until I’m older. But what if I look in five years, and she’s died? Or moved to Australia?”
That night she too had stood at her bedroom window, looking at the lighted windows and televisions of their neighbors flickering through the leaves. He’s out there somewhere, she had thought, whoever hurt the boy in the field. “When I was younger,” she said, “I used to fantasize about your mother. I thought she could be a brilliant artist, or a scientist, or a member of parliament. I’d look at women on TV, thinking they might be her.”
To her left, she felt a chill; Duncan had shifted to the edge of the seat. His first mother was not hers to speculate about. “Sorry,” she said.
They were passing sodden fields. In one a herd of black-and-white cows clustered around the gate, heads down. “So, you wouldn’t mind,” he said, “if I tried to find her? Mum said I should ask you and Matthew. That it’s a family decision.”
“How do you even start trying to find a person in London?”
“You’re good at finding things. What would you do?”
His brown eyes were fixed on her. She had the piercing thought: I couldn’t bear it if you stopped being my brother. “If you start looking for her,” she said, “would you be able to stop? Or would you become obsessed, like one of those people trying to find the source of the Nile who goes on and on, even when there are lots of snakes and no water? If searching for her took over your life, that would be hard for the rest of us.”
“I think I could stop, especially if you all asked me to.”
He spoke slowly in the way he did when he was examining various possibilities. And then—it was just as Rufus had described, with nothing that resembled a decision, no if A, then B—she heard herself say, “We could look her up in the phone books at the library.”
“You mean now? Without Mum and Dad?”
At once she understood the enormity of her suggestion. What if they opened a phone book and there, in the long columns of print, his mother was waiting? She started to say the library might not have the current London directories, but Duncan was already shaking his head; he’d think about it.
Swimming up and down the pool, her thoughts set free by the monotony of breaststroke, she considered various wretched possibilities. What if finding his mother changed Duncan? What if he wanted to live with her? Or what if—she remembered the woman in the turquoise tracksuit—his mother was living in dire poverty? Or had some awful illness? Or was a bad person? She imagined her parents struggling with requests for money, or help. How could they continue living in comfort, knowing that Duncan’s mother was suffering? None of these, she knew, as she stared at the wavering blue floor tiles, were arguments she could make to Duncan. With one sentence about the phone books, she had almost wrecked everything.
In the changing room she took as long as possible. Wearing only her underwear, she dried her hair meticulously. Then she put on the rest of her clothes and applied mascara, trying to make each lash distinct. When she came into the reception area, Duncan was sitting beneath a poster of a woman doing the butterfly, her taut shoulders beaded with water.
“Do we have money for hot chocolate?” he said. “I don’t want to go to the library. I need to talk to Mum and Matthew, and sort things out in my head. Is that okay?”
She put her hand on his shoulder to steady herself. “That’s okay.”
Outside the rain had stopped. Sunlight was bouncing off shop windows and car windscreens. Will and another boy from Duncan’s class were walking on the other side of the street. They waved and he waved back. In the café they sat near the fire and studied the menu.
“I haven’t seen you two in a while,” said the waitress. “What can I get you?”
They both asked for hot chocolate. “Did you get caught in the rain?” She nodded at Duncan’s still-wet hair.
“A little bit. We were swimming.”
“Good for you. Well, the sun’s shining now.”
“Wouldn’t it be odd,” he said when the waitress was out of hearing, “if there was no weather? What would we talk about?”
Slowly they were returning from the dangerous place she had taken them to. “At the equator the weather is all the same,” she said, “but I bet people still find things to say: I saw a cloud last week. I think there was a breeze yesterday. Have you heard from Lily’s owner?”
“Her former human. No. He said he’d visit when he was home for Christmas.”
“I wonder if he got a part in a play. Is he good-looking?”
Duncan regarded her curiously. “I’m never sure I know what that means. Are Luke and Ant good-looking? Luke has more regular features, but Ant’s face—the way he presses his lips together when he disagrees with you—is more interesting. Gordon has an interesting face. When he spoke, I could see his feelings. The house was horrible, and I think his parents were horrible too—he told me they didn’t like Lily—but he seemed really nice.”
“Maybe you could make a painting of her for him?”
“Whatever you did to your eyelashes makes your eyes look bigger. That’s a good idea. You can talk to Mum about all this,” he added, “if you need to.”
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HE WASN’T LYING, he told himself, when he said he was collecting for Oxfam, but as soon as his mother said “Good for you. Phone if you need a lift,” he knew he was. As he practiced French conversation and discussed the origins of World War I, he imagined finding the man. At first glance, he’d be quite ordinary. He’d have taken off his suit jacket, replaced it with a sweater. He’d be drinking a beer, or a mug of tea. Then, as he began to talk, there’d be something strange about him. He wouldn’t meet Matthew’s eyes, or alternately, he’d stare at him fixedly; his hands would dart in and out of his pockets. What would he give to Oxfam? An old cardigan? A set of bowls?
How would Matthew know it was him? Perhaps he wouldn’t. Then as he left, he’d notice a garage, or a wide gate across the driveway, and when he checked, quickly shining his torch, there would be the baby-blue car with the number plate beginning DUN. He wouldn’t stop collecting, though; he’d knock at the next house and the next, finish the street so as not to arouse suspicion. Then he’d run to the nearest phone box to call Hugh Price.
Once again Tomas proved surprisingly well organized. He had a shopping cart and a roll of black rubbish bags. Matthew could put donations in the bags, and load them into the cart. When it got too full, he could leave the bags under the bench at the bus stop. Meanwhile Tomas would visit the more distant streets in his van. They would meet back at the bus stop at six-thirty. “Keep a list of houses where you get an answer,” he said, sounding more like Matthew’s manager at the Co-op than a fellow worker.
Almost immediately Matthew discovered that people were pleased to see him, and that most of those people were women. “Wait a minute,” they said, and returned with a couple of sweaters, a tablecloth, a saucepan, a stack of books. “Thank you for doing this,” said one. “Can you come back next week?” said another. The shopping cart filled rapidly. Twice he circled back to the bus shelter. Twice a Caucasian man of roughly the right age answered the door. The first spoke English with a strong French accent, and the second was so pleasant—he worked at a garden center. Would Oxfam like some trowels?—that Matthew discounted him. He saw no baby-blue cars of any kind.
By six thirty, when he returned to the bus stop, it was fully dark. Standing beneath the nearest streetlight, he leafed through one of the donated books: a photo essay of a safari park. He was eyeing a gleaming hippopotamus—Rachel had told him they were related to horses—when the van pulled up.
“Did you find anything?” Tomas said.
“Lots of good stuff.” He gestured at the pile of bags. “Several people promised things for Thursday.”
“But did you see a car? Did you see a man who seemed suspicious?”
“You remembered to look?” Tomas flung open the back doors of the van. “You did not get caught up in people’s rubbish?”
“The stuff people gave me isn’t rubbish,” Matthew said indignantly. “It’ll fetch decent money. I marked the houses where people want Oxfam to send a van, and those where no one was home.”
“This is not about Oxfam.” Tomas took a step toward him. “It’s about my brother, and the man who hurt him.”
Matthew stepped back, out of range. To his relief, two men were approaching on the far side of the street. He was not alone with this person who might fly apart at any moment. He wedged the safari book into his backpack, a gift for Rachel, picked up one of the bags, and carried it over to the van.
“I wouldn’t be helping you,” he said, “if it weren’t for Oxfam. Did you find the car? The man?”
In the dim light he made out a mass of black bags filling the van. Despite himself, Tomas had collected an impressive number of donations. Matthew set his bag on top of the pile, where it slumped awkwardly. As he went to retrieve another bag, Tomas sank down in the back of the van. “I thought looking would bring us closer,” he said. “But all these chats with stupid housewives, and we are just as far away.”
After a school outing to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Matthew and Benjamin had spent an entire afternoon following the example of the two courtiers, tossing coins. He began to explain the gambler’s fallacy. “Even if you get heads a hundred times in a row, the odds of getting tails the next time are still fifty-fifty.”
“But we are not tossing coins,” Tomas said. “We are knocking on doors, and there are a finite number. This man lives somewhere. I hoped we’d find a clue. That something, or someone, would tell us where to look next.”
As they loaded the last of the bags into the van, Matthew thought he was right; the gambler’s fallacy did not apply. He too had believed that if they knocked on enough doors, one was sure to yield the answer. Now he grasped the magnitude of their task. They were not two courtiers tossing a coin but two courtiers emptying a lake with a wineglass.