WHEN HE SAW the postcard of Big Ben by his plate, his first thought was: She found me. Somehow his first mother had known about his search and written to him. But on the other side was the neat printing he had last seen in the window of the newsagents.
“I didn’t know you knew people in London,” Zoe said.
She was at the sink, rinsing a glass. From the slant of her neck, the curve of her lips, he knew his sister had found what she was looking for. She had begun to treat her family with careless kindness. Then, as she filled the glass with water, he revised his thought: not what, whom. Only another person could have changed her so much. He pictured Europa riding Zeus. Don’t let him carry you away, he begged.
“Gordon’s coming back,” he said. “He wants to visit Lily.”
“That’s nice,” she said vaguely.
As he set the postcard on his bookshelf, he thought about London, the city where it had been purchased and written and posted and where, perhaps, his first mother still lived. He’d been there half a dozen times, most recently when Mr. Griffin had taken a group of them to the National Gallery and led them through five centuries of art at breakneck speed, holding forth in front of his favorite paintings—A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph by Cosimo, The Ambassadors by Holbein, Whistlejacket by Stubbs, Saint George and the Dragon by Uccello, The Arnolfini Portrait by Van Eyck—chivvying them past the bad ones. When they came out of the gallery, a band was playing gospel music in Trafalgar Square. Perhaps, Duncan thought now, his first mother had been there that day, dancing in the crowds.
He studied his portrait of Lily. He had tried first painting her on a solid ground, like Whistlejacket, Stubbs’s famous horse, but that had made her look monolithic and, oddly, bad-tempered. Situating her in the garden seemed too random. Most recently he had painted her seated on the rug in front of the living-room fire. Granny’s father had brought the rug home from India, and Duncan had spent hours lying there, reading. The soft greens and blues, with the occasional flashes of red and yellow, reminded him of the mermaids’ garden beneath the sea. He set the picture on his easel and laid out his paints. Despite strenuous pleading, he was still confined to acrylics. All the paintings I love, he had told his parents, are made with oils. His mother argued that they were messy and expensive; his father, that the fumes shrank your brain. You’re thinking of turpentine, Duncan had said. People use paint thinner now. They had promised him a set of oil paints for his next birthday.
As he flecked colors into the rug, trying to create the complicated greenness, he wondered if this was another mistake. Would Lily appear to be floating on a magic carpet? What if he made the rug a single dark color: crimson? forest green? Then she would be sinking rather than floating. He thought again of Morandi’s bottles. Perhaps what he needed was some additional element that interrupted the rug: a corner of the fireplace? a chair?
He went downstairs and studied the chairs at the kitchen table, plain wood with slightly curved legs, and in the parlor, straight legs with decorative knobs. He sketched both, shading them carefully with little pencil strokes. He had never noticed before that chairs, like people, have arms and legs.
TWO NIGHTS LATER HE WOKE with his hand in the knife drawer, and knew it was time to act. The next morning he waylaid his mother in the hall and asked for his first mother’s name. “I’ve spoken to Matthew and Zoe,” he said. “They understand.” He stood waiting, pen and paper in hand, for the magical words.
But she was still moving toward the umbrella rack. “Duncan, I’m already late. Can we talk this evening?”
Before he could respond, she had chosen an umbrella and was gone. He felt a spark of anger—why hadn’t she stopped to tell him?—and took refuge in a cherished image: a shimmering pyramid of eggs in a market in Bayonne. He remembered standing, watching the pyramid slowly dwindle as customers came and went. Maybe, when he finished painting Lily, he would attempt the eggs; he could imagine Morandi painting them. That evening he was sketching the legs of a chair in the lower corner of the canvas when there was a knock at his door.
“You’ve captured Lily perfectly,” his mother said.
“It’s for Gordon, her former human.”
“I’m sure he’ll love it.” Silent in purple socks, she approached. “She looks like she’s about to smile. Your art teacher told us you’re very gifted.”
“Mr. Griffin? He never praises anyone.”
She cocked her head like Zoe, although of course it was the other way round. “Well, he made an exception in your case. He told us that we ought to let you do art for as long as you want.”
He was still struggling with the bewildering idea that they “let” him do art when he saw the sheet of paper in her hand. He reached for it.
“Duncan, you won’t do anything without telling us?”
“No. I just want to know her name. It feels weird that I don’t.”
“Weird” stood in for the weightless feeling that had swept over him when he realized that her name wasn’t in his brain; it seemed to reassure his mother. She let go of the paper and stepped back, watching as he took in the two words neatly printed at the top: Esmeray Yildirim. He sounded them out awkwardly, syllable by syllable, then repeated them, thinking even as he did so that perhaps his first mother said them in a totally different way.
“So I might have been Duncan Yildirim?”
“She probably wouldn’t have named you Duncan.”
“Do you think she did give me a name?” The idea that he might have another name filled him with amazement.
“She may have. Or she may have thought naming you would make giving you away even harder.” There was a pause during which she kept looking at him, and he kept looking at Esmeray Yildirim. From the kitchen came his father’s voice, calling “Betsy.”
Alone he said the name ten times to be sure it was firmly back in his brain. Then he couldn’t decide where to put the piece of paper. Should he pin it to his noticeboard? Put it under his pillow? Finally, he placed it between the pages of The Little Mermaid.
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ON MONDAY MORNING the corridors buzzed with the rumors Benjamin had started. Something was happening in the gym at lunchtime: a play? a fight? Matthew listened to the gossip, said “Wow” and “Brilliant.” He could feel himself growing nervous. Coming out of history, he almost bumped into Rachel.
“Matthew?” she said, as if there were some question.
“Hi.” In one quick glance he took in her smudged eyes, her rolled-up skirt, and kept walking. As he set his feet on one square of brown linoleum and then the next, he hoped she’d been impressed by his sangfroid. But if his blood were really cold, why was his heart pounding?
The gym was a long, two-storied space with windows on one side, wall bars on the other. Loops of rope hung down in graceful catenaries—Duncan had taught him the word—waiting to be released and climbed. At one end was a stage used for debates and school plays. He and Benjamin changed into their fencing clothes behind the curtain and stood listening while Hugo set up the boombox and organized the noisy crowd to stand on either side. When “Space Oddity” built to a crescendo, Benjamin slipped out of a side door and made his way down the corridor to the far end of the gym. The music stopped mid-chord; Matthew pulled down his mask and stepped through the curtains.
As he and Benjamin paced toward each other, he saw Duncan standing next to Will; Zoe and her friends were near the wall bars. He recognized almost everyone, and yet the familiar faces were transformed. His friends and acquaintances had become a crowd, hungry for spectacle. Ten paces apart, he and Benjamin stopped, bowed, and saluted.
“Engage,” called Hugo, and they lunged forward.
Matthew aimed for Benjamin’s shoulder, Benjamin went for his chest, Hugo called out the points. The crowd cheered, shouted. Suddenly Matthew’s foil was flying through the air. He ran to retrieve it, ducking under Benjamin’s thrust. They circled round, switching ends, pursuing each other up and down between the rows of onlookers. Several minutes sooner than they’d planned, Matthew lunged forward, flicked the foil out of Benjamin’s hand, and hit him in the groin. In an instant Benjamin’s white trousers flooded with red. He fell to the floor.
“Stop,” cried a voice.
For one horrifying moment, seeing Duncan lying on the floor, Matthew thought that somehow, while pretending to stab Benjamin, he had stabbed his brother. He ran over and bent down beside him. Despite his dark skin, Duncan had turned remarkably pale. His eyelids were fluttering.
“Duncan, it’s okay. Benjamin isn’t hurt. Neither of us is hurt. It’s just red paint.”
THAT EVENING AT SUPPER, DUNCAN said he had an announcement to make. “I want to try to find my first mother, Esmeray Yildirim. I’ve thought about it, and thought about it. A part of me thinks Mum is right. I should wait until I’m older. But if I waited and found out something had happened to her, that I could have met her now, but I can’t later, I’d be miserable. I know she might not want to hear from me, or she might not be a good person, or I might not find her, but I want to try.”
He stopped, looking at each of them in turn, waiting for their response.
“But we’ll still be your family?” said Zoe. “I’ll still be your sister?”
“How could that change? You’re the people I can draw in my sleep.”
It was his fault, Matthew thought. The sight of Benjamin, covered in blood, had scared his brother into a decision. Reflected in the faces of his parents and his sister, he saw his own fears. All four of them wanted to stop Duncan from embarking on this search; all four of them knew that to let him glimpse their reluctance would be a profound unkindness.
“Of course we’ll help you,” said their father, “but there’s a good chance we may not be able to find her. That you’ll have to try again when you’re older.” Neither he nor their mother were eating.
“I understand,” said Duncan. “I just want to do the obvious things—look in phone books, ask people. I’m not going to knock on every door in London.”
Their mother explained that the agency wouldn’t give them any information; it had been a closed adoption. “I’ll ask my colleagues for suggestions,” she said.
“Thanks,” said Duncan. “It’s hard for me too.” As he spoke, his head dipped beneath the table. Lily must be standing guard.
And what would they do with his first mother, Matthew thought, if they found her? They could squeeze her in at the table, let her stay in his mother’s study for a few nights, but could she really be a part of their lives? He tried—and failed—to picture an extra aunt, showing up on holidays, taking a special interest in Duncan. Between his father’s girlfriend and his own imminent departure, there was already too much turmoil in the family. Half of all cases, he consoled himself, remain unsolved.