‘Mom? Are you all right?’
Adam was in the doorway, wearing his soccer kit. His dark blond hair fell in a fringe straight into his eyes. Emily liked it best this way, when it was too long and it needed a haircut, though it drove Adam crazy.
‘I’ve had a letter,’ she said. For a second she considered hiding the letter, but then she put it on the kitchen table in front of her. ‘It’s from your grandfather.’
He put down his sports bag. ‘The one in England?’
‘I didn’t know he writes to you.’
‘Is that why you never talk about him?’
She bit her lip. ‘I didn’t . . . I thought you assumed that you didn’t have any grandparents.’
Adam pulled out the chair next to hers. ‘Everyone has grandparents. I thought maybe they were dead, like Dad’s mom and dad.’
He said it in a matter-of-fact way and Emily swallowed. ‘Sometimes I don’t talk about things that hurt,’ she said. ‘It’s easier not to think about them.’
‘But if they’re not dead, why does it hurt? And why haven’t we ever seen them?’
Adam’s eyes were blue, sometimes bright enough blue to dazzle her when she caught a glimpse of them. At fourteen, he was a bundle of potential: quick, bright, fast on his feet, with a temper that melted away as soon as it was roused. Everyone said how much he was like his parents: clever like his mother, cheerful like his father, with Emily’s light hair and eyes and Robbie’s manner of feeling comfortable in himself.
‘I write to them every year,’ she told him. ‘That’s why they knew where to write to me now.’
‘So they know about me?’ Adam frowned, and Emily reached over and hugged him.
‘Sometimes people just have to stay distant,’ she said. ‘It has nothing to do with you, sweetheart. Nothing at all.’
‘Don’t they want to meet me?’
‘If they knew you, they would love you. Nearly as much as I do.’ She held him tight. She knew, one day, that her son would be too old to be held and squeezed. Her friends’ children had mostly grown out of it by now; they flinched when their parents tried to kiss them at the school gates. But Adam had always been a cuddler. Even now, in the evenings, a newly minted teenager, he would fold up his long skinny limbs and curl up on her lap to watch television with her.
‘Anyone would love you,’ she told him.
‘Do they have any other grandchildren?’
‘I don’t know. My sister may have had children by now.’
‘I could have cousins that I don’t even know.’
‘How . . . would you feel about that?’ she asked him carefully.
She watched him think about it. ‘It would be weird?’ he said at last. ‘But maybe nice? If I got to meet them one day.’
‘I don’t know, Adam.’
‘What’s the letter about?’
‘Aren’t you hungry after your practice? I can make you a sandwich.’
‘I’d rather know what the letter is about.’
She nodded, but she let him go and turned her chair slightly so that Adam could not see the writing in the letter. She picked it up again and read.
It has been many years, but I think it is only fair that I should tell you.
‘Oh,’ she said.
‘What is it, Mom? Is it good news? Are they going to come and visit us?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘No, nothing like that. My mother has died.’
‘He doesn’t say how,’ she said to Robbie, later, in front of the wood stove in the living room. She had a glass of red wine, and he had a glass of iced water. Even in the dead of winter, he liked his drinks very cold. ‘He’s a doctor. You’d think he’d say how my mother died.’
Robbie had been reading over the letter. ‘He doesn’t say much at all. Then again, you can’t pack that much information in three lines.’
‘Eighteen years,’ she said. ‘I still remember the last time I saw him and my mother.’
Robbie had been there. She didn’t need to explain. He took her hand and squeezed it.
‘You tried,’ he said. ‘But they might have made the best decision. Considering everything. I don’t know if we could have been as happy together if there hadn’t been a clean break – some things are better forgotten.’
‘But I never saw her again, and now she’s dead. When I said goodbye, I didn’t think it was going to be forever.’
‘I’m sorry, sweetheart.’
She sighed and leaned against him. ‘You said your own goodbyes too. We both made the choice. But I didn’t . . . she was only sixty-eight.’
‘Your father must be in his seventies.’
She nodded. ‘And Polly is forty-two. My little sister.’
‘And Adam is fourteen.’
‘He wanted to know if he had cousins. He said he would like to meet them.’
Robbie exhaled, slow and long.
‘Remember when he was six and had an imaginary brother?’ Emily said. ‘And called him William?’
‘I didn’t think he actually minded, though. Being, for all practical purposes, an only child.’
‘I used to imagine I had a little sister, before Polly came along. Every child has an imaginary sibling at some point or another. Even if his wasn’t entirely imaginary.’
‘I didn’t have one,’ said Robbie. ‘But he’s got a better imagination than I ever did.’
‘He’s thought about my family in England. He’s wondered about them. Maybe I should have told him something.’
‘What could you have told him?’
‘I don’t know. Something.’ She took the letter from Robbie’s lap and smoothed it between her fingers. ‘Why do you think my father told me? He didn’t have to.’
‘He says he thought you should know.’
‘But why?’ She turned over the letter, as if looking for more writing on the back of it, more than the three scanty lines on the front. ‘Does he want to see me again? Does he want to connect in some way?’
‘He doesn’t say that.’
‘But does he?’
‘I think,’ Robbie said carefully, ‘that you shouldn’t read more into the letter than is there.’
She traced over the signature with her finger. Yours sincerely, James Greaves. ‘He would have thought about how he signed it. About how distant to be. You met my father; he’s one of the most courteous and social men I’ve ever known. But he would have been careful. He’d say less than he meant, not more.’
‘So you’ll write back?’
‘I’ll try to call him, tomorrow after work. I don’t know if he’ll speak to me. I don’t even know if they have the same phone number as they used to.’ She leaned her head against Robbie’s shoulder and twisted her ring around her finger. Two clasped hands, a circle complete with only two. Round and round in a circle, self-contained, forever.
Self-contained and complete. But how many people did that circle exclude?
Her last appointment of the day was an postnatal patient, a young woman, with her first baby. She was a single mother – one of the things that had changed the most in Emily’s practice since the 1970s was how routine it had become to see single mothers. The shame was gone – and thank God for that.