She carried the phone with her everywhere. Even when she took a shower she placed it on the top of the toilet cistern, propped so that she would see if the screen lit up. She left the curtain open, and then had to mop soapy water from the floor.
She was distracted and edgy all day with little to do. The cleaner came in on Wednesday, and it was pointless to polish or brush before that.
She called into a charity shop in Palmerston Road, and asked them to arrange to send someone with a car. The boxes of Charlotte Mary’s leftovers were bulky, and it would be undignified and awkward to struggle through the streets with them. The woman behind the counter was helpful and pleasant, and Lily wondered for a moment how you arranged to do that sort of work. Maybe mixing with other people, helping a good cause would unpeel the layers of despair that were growing heavier with each day. She knew she wouldn’t do it though and shrugged the musings aside.
A young woman called in the afternoon and helped to carry the stuff from where Lily had piled it by the front door. They stuffed it into the boot and rear seat of her car. Each box had been dragged or carried from the sun room, and she had cried again at the finality of it all, the lost chances, and the squandered love.
She stood on the path and watched until the car turned at the end of the road, the little indicator flashing brightly against the grey day. Then she went back into the house which was now, for the first time, devoid of Charlotte Mary, except for her great sin buried in the basement, and part of the fabric of the building.
When the phone rang, she dragged it from her pocket, her heart pounding, until she read the number of the Funeral Directors. “Hello, this is Muriel. How are you Lily? How are you getting along?” She was sickly sweet, this woman, and Lily wanted her to go away.
“I’m fine thank you. Yes, just fine.” She knew she sounded cold, but felt wrung out, empty inside and had no reserves to draw on except automatic response.
“Good. Well that’s good, that’s the spirit. You just have to move along don’t you. I am calling because I have had confirmation that you can collect the ashes, whenever it’s convenient. The times are given in the information booklet. We did give you the booklet, didn’t we?”
“Yes, I have it. Thank you.”
“Well, that’s about it I think. Did you purchase an urn?
“No, I don’t think so, I didn’t know that was my responsibility.”
“Oh dear, that was in the booklet.”
“I didn’t see that, I didn’t read the thing. So, what will happen?”
“You could call them, but if not they will provide a temporary container. You shouldn’t worry, it will be taken care of. So, Lily, I do hope you were happy with our services. If you have time there is a place on the web site for client feedback and we would be very grateful. Of course, if there was anything that didn’t quite reach the standard you expected, we would prefer you to discuss that with us, rather than make negative comments. Were you happy?”
It was outrageous, she tried to adjust to changing attitudes but this was too much. Lily floundered for a response, and in the end simply said “Thank you,” and disconnected the call.
Though she knew it was unlikely, she took the phone to bed with her and laid it on the pillow, but surely no-one would call at ten or eleven at night. She lay in the front bedroom, amongst the familiar shadows and the strange emptiness until it became unbearable, and then slid from the big bed, pulling the duvet with her. She went down to the living room. There she curled against the arm of the settee, drooping and drifting in half sleep until the birds began to chatter in the garden hedge. The pair of great crows that came every morning to a roof opposite, drove her from the room with their screeching.
She was stirring sugar into her second mug of coffee when the ringing called her back, dashing in her bare feet across the hall carpet, to snatch up the vibrating mobile from the coffee table.
It was an unknown number and she steadied herself against the wall as she answered. “Hello, Lily Bowers.”
The voice was deeper than she was expecting, rough and obviously male. “I want to speak to… Charlotte Mary Stone. I was given this number.”
She had forgotten, in the excitement she had forgotten the name that she had left with the agents. She panicked, what was she to do?
“Oh, yes, yes, this is Charlotte’s phone, can I help you.”
“I don’t know. I just had a message to call this number. I don’t have a clue what it’s about. Can I talk to her?”
“She’s not here just now. Who am I speaking to please? Could I take a message?”
“Well, as I say I haven’t a clue what this is about, something about an old friend. I don’t have any friends, old or new for that matter called, Charlotte. I haven’t got a lot of time to waste on stuff like this. If it’s some sort of sales scam then, well sod off really.”
“No, no wait. It isn’t a scam, I’m sure it’s not. She wouldn’t – well we wouldn’t do that. Who am I speaking to please?”
“Terry Robertson. Look if it’s about a flat then you have to go through the agent, I don’t deal direct with tenants, that’s why I pay all that money in fees.”
“No, it’s not that. We don’t need a flat. Look, if you are Mr Robertson, well I don’t mean if, I’m sure you are. Oh sorry, you’ve caught me unprepared. Look, I do know what this is about. Charlotte Mary was trying to trace an old friend. She had an address in Bath and it turns out that you are the owner. I’m sorry there must have been some mistake.” As she said it disappointment flooded through her and she sank to the chair, deflated. “It was a woman that we were trying to find. A, C Robertson.”
“Well, there are no women, not any more. There was my nan and my mum but they’ve gone now, both of them.”
He didn’t question that she didn’t know the name, only the initial, but in a more thoughtful tone he continued “Well maybe it was my mum. Look not wishing to be rude, but how old is this Charlotte, my mum would have been fifty eight but she died a couple of years ago. Is that who your friend was looking for, Carol her name was.”
“I am so sorry to hear that she died. I wonder though, would you mind if Charlotte gave you a call.”
“Well, I don’t see the point to be honest. Mum’s gone and I don’t know your friend.”
“No, I realise that but there is something Charlotte specifically wanted to talk about, something from the past and well, I think it might be of interest to you.”
“Oh, if it’s to do with reunions, family history all that sort of stuff I’m not interested thanks. No, I don’t think there’s any need.”
She had to stop him, he was about to ring off. “No, it’s not that. It’s to do with erm, it’s to do with a legacy.”
“How do you mean?”
“Something that Charlotte was given by your mum, to keep. Well I am almost sure it was your mum. That was the address we had, the one in Bath. Did she live in the house in Southcote Place?” She could tell by the change in his tone that she had his interest.
“Oh now, that’s intriguing isn’t it. Yes, that was where they all lived, until we had it converted. So, when can I call her, or maybe she could give me a bell.”
“Could she meet you?”
“Yes, I suppose that would work. Are you in Bath?”
“No, we’re not but she’d be more than happy to travel to Bath to meet you if that’s convenient.”
“Alright then, I have to say I’m quite tickled by the idea of having something of my mum’s. What about tomorrow? I have to go through anyway.”
“Yes, excellent. That would be fine. Where would you like to meet. About lunch time perhaps, would that be convenient. Maybe somewhere you could have coffee.”
“Tell you what, how about twelve o clock in the Crystal Palace. Do you know it?”
“No, not really.”
“Well it’s easy to find. Down behind the cathedral in the square with that big old tree. Anyone will be able to tell you.”
“Right, fine. We’ll see you tomorrow, oh well no, not me I won’t be able to come but Charlotte, I mean Charlotte.”
“Great.” And he was gone. Lily slid to the floor and lowered her head to her knees. For a while thoughts jumbled against each other but as they settled and straightened she began to smile. She’d done it, she’d found her, maybe just maybe. And then she reconsidered, she hadn’t really. For after all this, she was dead. Nevertheless, Charlotte Mary, with the little box and the old paper bag had seemingly led her to the baby’s mother and his brother. The thought was strange and unsettling, perhaps a half-brother but nevertheless a blood relative of their little dead boy, someone with his DNA. It made him real again in a way that she hadn’t expected. She went down to the basement to tell him, to whisper in the darkness about his mummy – his other mummy and how sad it was that she would never know what had happened to him, but “Maybe” she said, “Maybe you are together, perhaps it works that way and you found her after all.” She lit the new candle she had brought and then climbed back upstairs and curled under the duvet to wait for morning.