THROUGH THE WINDOW of the bus he watched the sun, glowing palely above the leafless branches of the elms and beeches. He was wondering how he would paint the sharp winter light, when the bus rounded a bend. A bright parenthetical shape appeared beside the sun. Something’s happened, he thought. He kept his eyes fixed on the sun dog until the first houses hid it from view. Hardly able to contain himself, he walked to the front of the bus. When it stopped, he jumped down the steps and ran all the way home. Not pausing to take off his jacket or drop his bag, he followed Lily up the stairs. His mother was standing beside her desk.
“Did you find her?” he said.
Her lips formed a word beginning with a letter like a person with outstretched arms, ending with a letter curled like a snake. Yes. Yes.
His mother reached out her hand, and he took it. Then they were both sitting on the floor with Lily beside them. “It was the second-to-last phone number,” she said. “I didn’t want to dial it because I didn’t want to get to the end of the list. As soon as you left this morning, I forced myself to call. The first time I got a busy signal. Twenty minutes later a young man answered. I said my little speech about trying to find Esmeray. The young man said, ‘You mean my sister. Let me see if she’s here.’
“When a woman said, ‘Hello. This is Esmeray Yildirim,’ I forgot all the things I’d rehearsed. I said, ‘My name is Betsy Lang, and thirteen years ago my husband and I adopted a three-day- old baby boy.’ When she said ‘Is he all right?’ I knew I was talking to your birth mother.”
“My first mother,” he corrected, still trembling.
“Your first mother. I said you were fine; you’d been wondering about her. I told her we lived in Oxfordshire; that you’d like to talk to her. She said you could phone her today. Tomorrow she goes to Ankara for Christmas.”
She had been waiting; she, too, had been waiting. “Where’s her number?”
“Here.” She handed him a piece of paper. “And I pinned a copy to your noticeboard.”
Without even looking at the number, he was on his feet.
His mother stood up, too. “Are you going to call her?” “If that’s okay.” Even the delay of that brief sentence pained him.
“You don’t want”—she hesitated—“to think about what you’ll say?”
“I’ll know what to say.” Lily nudged his calf. “Don’t worry, Mum. I just want to hear her voice. She’s not going to say ‘Come and live with me.’ If she does, I’ll tell her you’re my parents, this is my home.”
But there was still some obstacle. He stared at her, bewildered. Had she found his first mother only to not let him talk to her?
She was looking over his shoulder at the cacti. “I haven’t had a chance to tell your father,” she said quietly. “Maybe you could phone him first?”
As she left the room, closing the door to give him privacy, he felt a rush of protective love. She could never know, but it made sense that he would speak to his father, who was about to have a secret baby, before he spoke to his first mother, who had had a secret baby.
He heard hammering and then his father. “Hello. Blackberry Forge.”
“Dad. Can you talk for a minute?”
“Duncan! Let me step outside.”
Why did his voice sound so strange? As the hammering faded, he understood: his father was petrified.
Then his father was back. “I can hear you now.”
“Mum’s found my first mother.”
“She found her? That’s amazing. Amazing. I don’t know what to say. I never thought.... I’m happy for you, Duncan. Very happy. Once you started asking about her, I hated that we might not find her.”
“I’m going to phone her. I wanted you to know.”
“You must tell me all about it when I get home. Good luck. Good luck.”
Duncan pictured his father waving, wishing him Godspeed on his long voyage. He put down the phone and reached to stroke Lily. She looked at him steadily, not quite smiling. He studied the phone number, written in his mother’s clear handwriting: Here was the doorway he had searched for, night after night. He began to press the buttons on the phone. The dial tone became the ringing tone. On the fourth ring a woman said “Hello?”
He was holding the phone so tightly his hand hurt. “This is Duncan Lang.”
“Duncan Lang. What a good name. I am Esmeray Yildirim. Thank you for phoning me. You’re very brave.”
Hearing his first mother echo his mother, he was suddenly sure everything would be all right. “Not very,” he said. “Something happened in September, and I started dreaming about you.”
“A good dream, or a bad dream?” She spoke as if either was interesting and acceptable. “A good one—you were in a beautiful room—then bad ones when I couldn’t find the room.”
“So you kept looking for me. The room I am in now is not beautiful, but it is comfortable.”
“What do you see from the window?”
“It’s a big window, almost from the floor to the ceiling. I can see the usual things—trees, roofs, pigeons. But right now I’m not looking out of the window. I’m sitting on my bed, talking to someone I haven’t seen in thirteen years.”
“I’m in Mum’s study. The window looks out on our road. One person has walked by since I dialed your number.”
“Your mother sounds nice.”
“She is. She’s a solicitor. And Dad is nice, too. He’s a blacksmith. I have an older brother, Matthew, he’s in his last year of school, and a sister, Zoe, who’s sixteen. And we have a dog, Lily.” Lily raised her head.
“A good family. I share this house in North London with my brother and two friends. We all work.”
“What is your work?”
“I’m an air hostess. I visit different cities and explore, which I like. I also serve food and drinks to many people, not all of them polite, which I like less.”
“Do you paint, or draw?”
“No, but I make clothes. Sometimes people buy them. You must paint.”
“I do. It’s the one thing I’m good at.” He asked which colors she liked, and she said there was a bluish green—sometimes statues turned that color—that she loved. And deep red. What about him?
He thought of the deep-red robe rippling beneath Leda and the swan. Perhaps they could visit the National Gallery together. “I like both those colors.”
“In a few minutes I’m going to have to go. I still have some Christmas shopping to do. I don’t know if your mother told you, but tomorrow I’m going to Ankara to see my parents, and the rest of my family. So how shall we end our first conversation?”
She did not say our family; they each had their own. The important thing was that she said “first conversation.” Still he had to ask, “Can we talk again?”
“After I come back, in the New Year. We both need—”
She did not finish the sentence, but he understood. They needed to think what they would be to each other. There was no name for their relationship; no road, already paved, to walk down. “Can I ask you three more questions?” Without waiting for an answer, he did. “What should I call you? Do you have other children? What is your address?” “You should call me Esmeray. I don’t have other children. I hope I will one day. I live at 39 Aberdeen Road, London N5. Thank you for phoning, Duncan. I hope you have good dreams tonight. Bye-bye.”
As the phone went dead, he realized he had forgotten to ask if she had given him a name. Next time. He wrote the address beneath her number, dropped the phone, slid to the floor, put his arm around Lily, and closed his eyes. After his long voyage, he had arrived. He had spoken to his first mother. She had said his name. He had said hers. She liked that blue-green color. She could see trees and chimney pots from her tall window. Then someone was stroking his back. And he remembered he had a mother who was right here. That she had listened when he asked for help, even though she didn’t want to, even though she was afraid. He sat up and smiled at her.
“Mum, you’re great.”
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HE DIDN’T WRITE. He didn’t phone. Why should he? They had said goodbye without promises or ultimatums. If he wanted her, he would come back. What else meant anything? He was wandering through the Louvre. He was climbing up to Sacré-Coeur. He was sitting in the café where Sartre and de Beauvoir had met, and always there was a woman beside him, a woman who knew more than Zoe, who led a larger life, who could claim both a husband and a lover. Yet everything that had happened between them was still there: vivid, undeniable. When they were walking by the river, he had described a new kind of logic, fuzzy logic, in which there were more than two choices. The world wasn’t divided into X and not X. There was maybe X and almost X and almost not X. At the library she had come across a quotation from Spinoza: “Fear cannot be without hope nor hope without fear.” Perhaps that was an example of fuzzy logic. Since Ant’s accident, her daydreams were haunted. She imagined Rufus carelessly crossing the street, hit by a car, or leaving a cathedral, struck by a falling gargoyle. No one would tell her. No one would know she had mattered.
At Holywell Manor she dropped off an envelope; inside no note but a leaflet for the Salon of Second Chances. Then she bought some sausage rolls at the Covered Market and caught the bus to the hospital. Anthony’s mother had given her directions to the orthopedic ward. As soon as she stepped inside, the bright lights and busyness made her feel better. “Room thirty-one,” the nurse said when she asked for Ant. Two corridors later she paused in the doorway of a drab room. One bed was empty. On the second, the sheets were raised into a tent beyond which were the head and shoulders of a person, a boy person, lying against several pillows.
“Zoe. Thanks for coming.”
With his voice came the slow tide of recognition. Only his hair, she thought as she approached the bed, looked the same. Dark shadows circled his eyes, and his jaw was swollen a savage purple, fading at the edges to greenish yellow. She pulled the single chair close and laid the bag of sausage rolls on the bed. “How are you?”
“Bored out of my mind. It was okay being here when I felt lousy, but now that I feel better, I can’t stand it. The cast makes it hard to sleep, and they wake me at six in the morning. A physical therapist is coming tomorrow to show me how to use crutches. After that I can go home.”
“Brilliant. You can come carol singing.”
He grimaced. “Please don’t. Everyone keeps telling me how lucky I am. I was riding home from chess club. Why should I have to be glad I didn’t die? That I’ll need crutches for four months?”
She recalled Rufus saying that the consolations of philosophy were overrated. In the corridor a trolley trundled by. “You’re lucky like someone who survived the blitz,” she said. “Your house was bombed to smithereens but you still have your smelly brown cardigan.”
“Exactly.” With painful slowness he raised himself against the pillows. “You know, they caught the driver of the car.”
“No!” She managed, barely, not to jump to her feet. If Tomas was right, then the man, the man who stabbed Karel, was under arrest. How could the universe have shifted so momentously and she not known?
Ant didn’t seem to notice her agitation. A policeman had come by this morning, he explained; a garage had recognized the description of the car. “I tried to tell him it was partly my fault,” he said. “There’s a huge pothole by the bus stop. I always swerve around it.”
She had a sudden memory of them riding home from school, slowing to go over the speed bumps outside the primary school, passing the church, and then, just before the Co-op, looping into the middle of the road. “But he should have stopped,” she said. “That’s what you do when you hit someone: stop and make sure they’re okay. It’s good they caught him.”
“I suppose, but I’m still lying here. I won’t be able to ride my scooter again until summer. How’s the butcher’s?”
The old Ant would have wanted justice, she thought. Or revenge. But of course, he didn’t know about Karel. For a moment she was tempted to tell him about finding the boy, about the driver of the car luring him into the field. “Have a sausage roll,” she said. “Everyone makes fun of me for working there, but Mr. MacLeod is nice, and Dad is tickled because his mum worked there thirty years ago.”
He sent her to the bathroom for a paper towel. Using it as a napkin, he ate a sausage roll in three bites. Reassured by his greed, she asked if he had seen anything after he was hit. “A white light? Someone waiting to welcome you?”
“What are you talking about?” He reached for another roll.
She thought of telling him about Meresamun, the mummy, and the different parts of the soul, but that would only confuse him further. Instead she said, “Didn’t you see that television program when people who’d almost died described what it was like? How they saw a white light at the end of a tunnel, and a person, sometimes it was Jesus, sometimes it was a family member, waiting to welcome them.”
“I don’t believe in Jesus,” he said between bites, “and I wasn’t close to dying. I never knew you were superstitious.”
“I’m not. Maybe no one wanted to make you welcome.” Until a few months ago she had believed that there was a word for everything. Now life seemed full of occasions that left her speechless.
Ant held out the empty bag. “Delicious! Moira says you’ve met a tall, dark stranger?”
She reached for the hem of her sweater and pulled it over her head, hoping the warmth of the room would account for her flushed cheeks. “I wish. There was someone, but he was just passing through Oxford.” She laid the sweater in her lap. “Do you know Gordon Enright?”
He didn’t. She described Gordon and his visit, laying a trail of bread crumbs that led away from Rufus. “And then he finally got a part because somebody sprained an ankle,” she was saying when Ant’s mother arrived.
“What a wretched evening,” Mrs. Martin exclaimed. “You’re so lucky to be snug inside.”
As Zoe watched, Ant, without even moving, receded into the pillows.