Shrouded by sadness

Even though the sun still shines and I have love all around me
There is a cloud that will not go away with the wind
will not disappear after the rain
And always blocks part of the sun
But he is with his father and will always be in my heart.

Walking through my days
Living for my present life
Sadness that won’t end

©2020 CBialczak Poetry

************************************************************************************************************

Today is July 1st which will eventually lead to July 16th and one year that my son died.

On my trip down to Florida I stopped at a gas station. At the pumps next to me were two guys on motorcycles. One was on a Harley, one a street bike, like my son’s. I don’t know what made me think of doing it but before I got back in my car I said, “Hey, Be careful. Drivers don’t watch out for motorcycles.” That was it. I just felt like I had to say that at that moment.

On my trip back from Florida a guy on a street bike was riding in front of me. He changed lanes and then ended up behind me. He was there for quite a few minutes. He then switched lanes again and passed me. I saw him ride off into the distance through my tears.

I am so grateful for the people who love me and those who help move that cloud a little to the side each day.

“the memories we bury”

Today I am thrilled to share with you all, H.A. Leuschel’s latest novel, The Memories We Bury, “An emotionally charged and captivating novel about the complexities of female friendship and motherhood.”

From June 29th to July 5th, you can purchase her book for ONLY $0.99 on Amazon! You can also try to win a digital copy of The Memories We Bury by entering the giveaway below!

The Memories We Bury

Publication Date: April 17th, 2020

Genre: Contemporary/ Psychological Suspense

An emotionally charged and captivating novel about the complexities of female friendship and motherhood.

Lizzie Thomson has landed her first job as a music teacher, and after a whirlwind romance with Markus, the newlywed couple move into a beautiful new home in the outskirts of Edinburgh. Lizzie quickly befriends their neighbour Morag, an elderly, resourceful yet lonely widow, who’s own children rarely visit her. Everything seems perfect in Lizzie’s life until she finds out she is pregnant and her relationship with both Morag and Markus change beyond her control.

Can Lizzie really trust Morag and why is Markus keeping secrets from her?

In ‘The Memories We Bury’ the author explores the dangerous bonds we can create with strangers and how past memories can cast long shadows over the present.

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/51248269-the-memories-we-bury?ac=1&from_search=true&qid=XvZZSaGStp&rank=1

Purchase Link: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B084SN5KV7

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About the Author

Helene Andrea Leuschel gained a Master in Journalism & Communication, which led to a career in radio and television in Brussels, London and Edinburgh. She later acquired a Master in Philosophy, specializing in the study of the mind. Helene has a particular interest in emotional, psychological and social well-being and this led her to write her first novel, Manipulated Lives, a fictional collection of five novellas, each highlighting the dangers of interacting with narcissists. She lives with her husband and two children in Portugal.

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The Memories We Bury

EXCERPT

Chapter 1– Lizzie, 10 September 2016

I am standing on shaking legs, my arms wrapped around my chest, shivers running down my spine. I do not know where I am, what I am doing standing alone by a dark lake. I feel a desperate fear that threatens to leave me helpless, aimless and without memory of what has happened. I look around me, another shudder coursing through my thin body. I stare down at my naked feet, now sinking into the mud, my attempt to escape the thick slick earth increasing my dread that no one can hear my desperate scream for help.

I sit up with a heavy gasp, my nightdress moist with fear, triggered by a nightmare in which a hooded giant, his steps vibrating under my feet, had chased me. Just as I was about to hide behind a bush  close to a lake, a rough hand grabbed my head, pulling at my long hair, then lifted me off the floor like Jane in King Kong before dropping me into the still grey water and pushing me under the dark surface.

Nightmares are the remnants of confusing, unsettling years, although I am getting better at shaking off the anxiety that triggers those dark images of losing control.

‘Calm down, Lizzie. Deep breaths,’ I whisper to myself, relieved to hear that I’ve not woken my young son. Now, get up, lazybones. This is your special day… let nothing or no one spoil it. I admonish myself, smile, and within minutes stand under a hot shower, washing away the last remnants of my dream and, with it, the debilitating impression of never being enough. It’s a curious statement at the best of times. How can anyone ever declare to a fellow human that they are not enough for them, not doing enough, not talented, pretty or strong enough? I grew up with this feeling of not being enough. For a long time, I even imagined that it was fine, that it was normal, and that all the other children in my school experienced the same insecurities, the constant urge to thrive, to better themselves. We were malleable and flawed little beings and the adults were perfect, knew everything there was to know and had an answer to every question.

It’s embarrassing how naive I was, because it only dawned on me later that things were different for most of my classmates. The realisation made me feel hollow at first, but I felt hope a year later when I started to shine at something. During my final year at primary school my teacher had discovered a musical prodigy she said, and I kidded myself that I had reached the end of the road, that all my efforts had paid off at last. Relief coursed through my veins at the astonishing sight of my mother’s sudden admiration for me. At last her daughter had a talent she could boast about at the school gates. Her enthusiasm gave me hope for a few years and it was exhilarating to find a purpose that gave me a sense of worth, and with or without the approval of my mother, music became my haven.

I smile now thinking about those years gone by – the years during which I could cement a small layer of confidence and direction into my life. They gave me the opportunity to see that if I set my mind to it and worked hard, I would reach and touch happiness. However only few people valued me for who I was, no matter whether or not I could play Mozart. My grandad was the first to do so, followed by my father, my first music teacher and then, much later, Juanita and Cathy, two fellow students I met at university.

As for my relationship with my mother, it was a tiring and confusing journey. There was always something at odds. A good example are my school photographs. Either it was a strand of hair standing up, a hair clip squint, my expression too stern or my smile tainted by braces. The palms of my hands would always be sticky, my fingers trembling when holding up the envelope containing yet another faulty set of photos to my expectant mother. Each time I hoped that at least once she would see what my teacher had called ‘a pretty smile’, ‘sparkling eyes’, or my ‘lovely hair’ because I never gave up trying to please her. Every single year when the school photo day had been announced, I vowed to plan every detail so the session would, at last, prove to be a success. My uniform was carefully ironed, the tie knotted with extra care, the hair washed the night before, and I’d practise my smile and posture in front of the mirror for ages, rehearsing it until my cheeks hurt and I feared my face would freeze in an eternal grin. My father and grandfather always gave me a gentle, imperceptible nudge, which I knew was their attempt to make up for my mother’s constant criticism that they could not oppose. I believe now that she had an invisible power over all of us. That power held us by unseen strings which made us lower our eyes, go mute, or weaken any resolve or resistance we may have had. Only the sound of music could override it. I’d only have to follow its thread, let it fill me up, and I’d note that intense emotions would dissolve like ice cubes in a glass of water, still there but nowhere to hold on to, diluted to small particles.

Once a melody had penetrated my every cell, it would make my hand reach out to a flat surface to tap the rhythm, my toes moving up and down as the notes drifted through the air, passing through my ears and my skin and continuing to vibrate through my body. In my head, it was like there was no room for anything else but sounds coming together as melodies, harmonies and rhythms. I couldn’t extricate myself from the notes, or compress them, so that there would be room for reality. Avid readers escape in a book, whilst I get lost in music, a private and safe place to be, which later would connect me to people who thought there was meaning and beauty in a musical phrase.

A classmate once teased me with the comment, ‘Oh, guys, here we go again, Lizzie’s on Pluto,’ referring to the fact that my eyes would glaze over, disconnected from a group activity. He was right in his assumption. I wasn’t aware of my body nor my surroundings, my senses focused on a musical journey in my head.

‘Right, enough daydreaming for today, Lizzie,’ I say.

I can sense a draught tickling the back of my neck like cold fingers touching my skin as I stand in front of my clothes rack. I shiver and traipse to the window to close it, and am startled by the sudden stomach-churning noise of a car horn being peeped outside. My sensitivity to sound is exhausting and I sigh, irritated by the obvious impatience someone on a road nearby can share with people as far away as me, standing a few floors up in a modern apartment building in Glasgow.

Once dressed, I walk into Jamie’s bedroom and smile at the sight of his small body balled up and hugging his teddy, seeking warmth after he must have thrown his covers off the bed during the night. I gently place the cover over his legs and upper body again, then walk into the kitchen to make myself a much-needed cup of English Breakfast tea.

Birthdays make me reminisce about the past… today pulling me back to events from just a few years ago. I’ll never forget what I could have lost. The harder I try to bury part of my memories, the fiercer is the tremble they create below the surface when I as much as take a glimpse into their direction. However, once out in the open, they become as ineffectual as a breeze that does nothing more than lift the fine wisps of hair at the back of my neck. I now know how to shut out their threat. You can throw back up a bad meal, briefly feeling hollow and weak, but know it is over, done and soon forgotten.

I recall a scene as if it was yesterday. Why is it I seem to remember events that hurt me better than experiences I’d rather hold on to because they made me happy? There must be some logic to it; I just haven’t worked it out yet.

‘Lizzie, have you done your homework?’ My mum’s voice bellowed from the living room across to the kitchen table where a few moments before I was bent over my schoolbooks, reading and writing. My heart started to thump, as I crouched next to the table, packing the books away in my school bag for the following day.

‘Yes, Mummy. I’m done.’

‘You could have said, Lizzie,’ my mum shouted back, the remote control I knew to be in her hand directed at the TV screen, because she suddenly cut the sound off. She controlled the TV as she controlled everything in our lives – that is my dad’s, my grandad’s and mine. We lived under constant threat of insult and when I’d been doing my homework at the kitchen table, it was no different. My mother had tutted about me needing longer and longer to finish up my work since joining secondary school, impatient to claim the kitchen table for dinner. ‘I wonder whether you are slow, Lizzie. You take ages to finish your work.’

My bedroom was too small to fit in more than a single bed and a slim shelf rack where I kept my precious collection of trinkets, books and mementos. My clothes hung off a metal movable rail, that in my mind I transformed into a tool to whisk off fancy outfits for a catwalk fashion show. If there hadn’t been the row of carton boxes underneath, containing my underwear, socks and stockings, my imagination could almost have fooled me. My few belongings turned into pieces of clothing that were dazzling and colourful in my mind’s eye. At other times, I imagined travelling to faraway places or a different home.

‘I’m finished, Mummy. Look… I’m getting all my books together, so we can set the table.’

You can set the table,’ she said, her voice snappy and cold.

‘Okay,’ I whispered, drawing a breath, relieved that no more comments followed.

No matter how hard I tried as a young girl to please my mum, it was only the sudden discovery of my musical prowess that relaxed her pursed lips and gaze of constant disappointment.

Until my talents became a subject of discussion, the four of us would eat and chat at dinner times. Well, to be exact, my mother could talk and my dad and grandad listened and nodded whilst I concentrated on finishing every morsel of food on my plate, to avoid my mother reproaching me for being wasteful or ungrateful.  Eventually, my grandad would always lean over to me and pat my head and ask how my day at school had gone. I remember one exchange from my childhood, when I beamed back at my grandad and replied, ‘I had a great day. We played with the skipping rope – so fun.’ I always loved how he took an interest in me. He smiled back. Next, I lifted my eyes to my mum only to stare into coldness.

I shiver at the memory now, and at the sense of the loss I suffered – and still feel – on the day she brought me the news about my grandad’s passing. For the first time in my eleven years of life, I let go and howled, cried until my pillow was soaking wet, the sharp pain in my chest only easing months later when I realised that visiting his grave started to offer me solace, and opportunities to chat to him and imagine his answers. I promised him I’d do my best to carry on and make him proud. Nothing ever ripped me apart in the same way as losing my grandad. Setbacks in life would only remind me of how much I yearned to return to that world where I had a person by my side who cared about me, and never spoke intending to hurt me.

‘Why do we send you to school? You can’t even make proper sentences – SO FUN.’ The last two words my mother spat out, belittling my childish innocence.

‘Mags, don’t be so harsh. She’s eleven for crying out loud.’ My dad shot the words into my mum’s direction, angry and frustrated, causing my grandad’s thick eyebrows to lift with surprise. ‘Why can’t we have a nice, friendly conversation for once?’ I recall this one incident because it was so rare that he stood up for me. She’d gone three days not addressing a word to him thereafter, the silent treatment we all dreaded the most.

Thanks, Dad, I’d say in my head, but understood that, despite his attempt to ease the problematic relationship between my mum and I, I’d pay for it later – when I least expected it. A conflict always resulted in my heart racing in my chest, and tears rising to my eyes at the mere prospect of another tirade. I would brush the tears aside with the back of my hand and swallow as hard as I could to suppress the realisation that I did not know how to avoid the impasse.

By the time my mother would start talking to me again, my own words had dried up in my throat because until the ceasefire she’d given me no choice but to listen to what a pain I’d been, a heavy burden, a slow learner, clumsy and noisy, so odd that she even believed sometimes that I wasn’t hers. My body was heavy afterwards, my feet eager to make no sound when I’d disappear into my room, closing the door, and get ready for bed while my eyes brimmed with hurt and hot tears streaked my cheeks.

Many of her words stayed buried deep in my heart, forming the memories that would provide me with the brittle foundation of my past and would follow me through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood.

I’m aware that I’m painting a bleak picture of my mother. She was not always the harsh, unhappy and bitter woman. I remember her hand holding mine when I was feverish, her hard silhouette becoming what I could only dream of when I was healthy and not bedbound – a gentle and almost affectionate person, a softened variety of her former self. It was as if my helplessness and the danger of losing me to some viral infection or childhood disease awoke locked up maternal instincts in her. I can still hear her soothing voice, her insistence that I should drink a little sip of water, or try and sit up for the chicken soup she’d prepared for me. There were times she would half carry me to the bathroom to undress me and settle me into the lukewarm water she’d run for me. I believed she loved me in those moments, able to convey the affection that she could not show as soon as my recovery was certain again. Those moments are all attached to a line of memories in my mind, like a string where pieces of clothing of various sizes hang side by side in a messy line. Some are blown away by the wind, irretrievable and lost, yet others, like these moments of intimate gentle care, etched into my brain forever.

My father would attempt to reassure me she was a difficult woman, but deep down vulnerable and loyal. It was his excuse for saying, ‘I couldn’t stand my ground nor protect you, Lizzie, I’m sorry.’ Later his words would be more cutting. He said that my grandad had depended on his and my mum’s kindness to allow him to stay with us. Dependency can make you helpless, he’d added.

It’s impossible to remember all of one’s past and thank goodness for that. Nor can anyone conjure up the exact details of any one exchange with another person, even if it appears crystal clear in the mind’s eye. Still, I believe that certain memories can be as vivid and real as the reflection in a polished spoon because you’ve never dared to tell anyone. They reflect an image as sharp as a photograph.

With all that said, let me begin and tell you how I ended up in my little apartment in Glasgow, teaching the piano and looking after my nearly three years old son, Jamie.

I’m thirty today. I toiled over two different cake mixtures yesterday, one vanilla flavoured, the other mixed in with chocolate and nuts, and baked two separate layers. When they had cooled, I prepared the buttercream I smoothed between them, and covered the cake in chocolate icing. I’d licked one finger and lifted a small spoon for Jamie out of the bowl to let him try.

‘Is yummy.’ His approval made me wink and smile, as did his two reddened cheeks, that showed he’d been concentrating hard on finishing one of many colourful paintings to celebrate my birthday. Twelve of them were already adorning the wall in the kitchen, ensuring that no matter how driech the weather was, my day would always start with looking at an explosion of colours.

My eyes settle on a postcard picturing Arthur’s Seat, stuck to the fridge by a small magnet. Edinburgh’s eminent hill with its bird’s eye view over the city nestled below me whenever I scrambled up to the top, the wind whistling through my bones, stirred my homesickness for the beautiful town where I grew up. A pinch jolted through my chest at the memory of my grandad’s big dry hand which would hold mine to keep me from slipping on the wet grass. ‘Keep going, wee lassie, I’ve got you,’ he’d say. I smile at the thought, and am resolved to take Jamie to Edinburgh again soon. As if awakened by telepathy, I hear Jamie’s call from the bedroom.

Chapter 2– Morag, 10 September 2016

I have never sent the letter but have unfolded it so many times it has frayed at the edges. Each time I read the lines and try anew to understand them, they swim away like fish in a lake trying to escape my feet as I trudge through the water.

I curse myself for keeping the damned letter after all this time because it is a constant reminder of the past, but I can’t make myself throw it in the bin. Will I ever make peace with it? Lizzie and Jamie have both left me, hence another reason to get up in the morning has long gone. I shake my head, still trying to comprehend the loss, even though it is now almost two and half years since Lizzie discarded me and moved away.

My own sister has ceased to show any sympathy about my distress and hence is of no help either. She’s made of tougher material than me, I guess. After a long and successful career in the police force, she took early retirement and dedicates her time to growing organic fruit and vegetables on a smallholding in the Pentland Hills, near Edinburgh. Lorna does at least stand by me though, as she knows about the strong bond I had with Lizzie and Jamie and that I’ve done everything for them. However, does she understand the loss I’ve had to endure? Lorna has never been a mother and no doubt a life in the police has lessened her ability to empathise over matters such as these.

‘Morag, what do you expect? Bad things happened; you know that,’ my sister said the last time we spoke over the phone.

‘You don’t understand, Lorna. Lizzie and Jamie were like family to me. It’s been over two years and… it’s still devastating.’

‘Yes, I can see that, Morag. May I remind you that you should know why that is by now. You need to focus on trying to patch things up with your own kids.’ Her voice sounded frustrated as it did at the end of every phone call.

‘I guess you’re right. There is not much else I can do than hope she comes to her senses.’ I could feel the exasperation at the other end of the line because it seemed like my sister had left or stopped breathing. It was a silence that meant disapproval about my last comment.

‘Morag, I must go, I have lots to do in the garden. Just try to get them out of your mind once and for all and…’ my sister said, stopping mid-sentence. I assumed that she didn’t want to go over the same story yet again. She needed to end the call before it got unbearable for both of us. ‘You’re lucky, Morag, that you still have me,’ she added and hung up, leaving me with my hand frozen with a surge of anger, the phone still pressed to my ear. Lucky? Nothing could be further from the truth.

I can’t forget the adorable squeals the wee chap used to emit when I stood in the kitchen feeding him his mixed vegetables, or played Peekaboo with him. Babies and toddlers are easy to please. Young children don’t judge anyone, being an open receptacle for anything and anyone, and with Jamie, my life had felt filled up with his. I’d jumped over my own life when my children were born. It had come naturally, and again with Jamie, I did not hesitate for a second either.

Life is empty without him.

I stand and walk over to the windows to pull the curtain aside for what seems the umpteenth time today, dismay replacing hope at the realisation that my two best friends and neighbours are here no more. Even after all this time, I still have bad days, and this is one of them. Tears prick at the corner of my eyes and I wipe my wet cheeks with my fingers before I can find a tissue, and sob until my whole body aches and exhaustion replaces the sadness. I must spend some time in the bathroom later today to fix my face if I still want to look decent for my afternoon tea with Caitlin, my dear loyal friend.

Assuming the role of a mother to Lizzie and a grandmother to Jamie was what had fuelled every single cell of my body.

I stand up and turn to the coffee machine, wearily lifting a capsule of the strongest kind from the small metal rack. I picture Jamie in my mind, who’d marvelled at the capsules display stand. One day we’d invented a game of pass the capsule, and his eyes lit up as I pretended to make them disappear under a dish towel or into the centre of my hand. His eyes would focus and his face would turn serious at the realisation that the item had gone missing, and then he would break into a smile when I made the capsule appear in front of him again. He’d grab for it with such clumsy and innocent delight that I never tired of repeating the game, just to see his face light up. The power I held to focus his attention was addictive. We had that special connection, like a magnet drawn to another.

But all is in the past now. History. I have to admit to that bitter fact. My sister Lorna is right. What did I expect? That they would appear in front of me, throwing themselves into my open arms? I don’t believe in miracles, so that is one more option erased from my list.

I settle at the kitchen table with a small blueberry muffin and stir some milk into the cup of coffee steaming next to it. The comfort of food is something I shared with Lizzie. We understood each other there, and I loved sharing my culinary skills with her. We’d talk pie and cake recipes for hours, discuss ways of adding flavour to a simple tomato sauce for pasta dishes or how to make sure Jamie would never turn his nose up at vegetables because we’d prepared them with aromatic fresh herbs and olive oil.

Lizzie had never reached my level of expertise, but her eagerness had been endearing, and she never stopped showing her admiration for me. She even mentioned once that I could be a contestant on the Great British Bake Off. I toyed with the idea for a short time, and then shrugged my shoulders, despite the tempting image coming into my head of what it may feel like being crowned the best British baker. The second-best feeling, I answered with a smile, the best being a mother and grandmother.

My thoughts have calmed me, and the tasty muffin has added to my improved mood. I settle down in the living room and leaf through one of the oldest albums I’ve kept since my parents died. They contain family pictures taken during some of the few holiday trips abroad and photos taken of my sister and me in school uniform.

My eyes linger on a photo depicting my parents in stunning Christmas attire. My mother had picked her finest black dress, set with small sparkling crystals, which exposed her neck and revealed an ample chest. She’d tied up her blonde hair in a high bun, with one wavy strand escaping above her left ear. The diamond studs in her earlobes, a delicate silver chain around her neck, and subtle make-up and pink lipstick gave her appearance a perfect finish. Next to her, my father looked haughty but I had to give it to him he was the most elegant man I’d ever set eyes on. He had a physique that accommodated most styles. His shirts were always original and in fashion, and his regular visits to the hairdresser meant that he’d always look the part. It would be hard to judge which one of the two was the better looking.

I turn the page and spot a picture of Lorna at the age of four. She seems confident and proud to be holding an infant in her arms. She is my senior by eighteen months. Back then I’d looked up to my sister as if she’d been my mother. She gave me warmth and security and even now, as ladies in our sixties, the roles have changed little.

We grew up in a family where all the members competed for energy. Our parents reprimanded us with harsh words and severity we did not deserve most of the time. To the outside world, my parents were sparkling individuals, admired like you’d admire a vintage Bordeaux wine. I know this is a strange comparison but it conveys the idea that they wanted to stand out, for their special attributes and, to some extent, I get that. Appearances can blind you.

Our garden was impeccable, the house tidy to an inch of its life – even in our early years as toddlers, a visitor would never know that two little girls had entered my parents’ lives because they’d made sure that every room was as neat as a pin and that we could come in at specific times only, when there were guests. I can still hear the whistling slaps coming my way if I couldn’t answer the times tables fast enough, and worse, stumbling over my answers and even worse still, not knowing them. Little did my sister know that one day she’d be joining the police force, and claim that our harsh upbringing had been the best preparation for passing the tough entrance exams. I never beat the eternal optimist in Lorna out of her. Whether nature or nurture were at work to shape her, remains an open question but I am sure she carried a strong gene of positivity.

However, I still have to scoff when I recall Lorna’s thanks given to our parents. It was ludicrous. She turned out okay, she’d add, and whether that was despite of or because of our education, no one would ever know.

We all make ourselves believe what we want to believe. Challenging the only person who ever stood up for me as a child would be cruel, so I bit my tongue then and always will. My sister’s right. I am lucky she is still by my side but that does not change the fact that every morning looking out of the window towards the neighbour’s house, I am reminded that Lizzie and Jamie have left, and that even after all of this time, I still can’t deal with their absence.

Chapter 3 – Lizzie, 29 November 2013

Sweat was pouring down my back, and I struggled to put one step in front of the other. Where was my mum when I most needed her? A sister would have been nice, too, or an aunt. Picturing them in my head, they were smiling, tender, whispering soothing words into my ear, holding me up under the armpits, and rubbing my aching back.

I had to suppress a scream after accidently bumping my chest into the doorframe reminded me of how heavy and sore my breasts had become. With clenched teeth I moved over to a chair to hold onto and steady myself. I conjured her up again in my mind – my mother with her tired, pale but soft gaze whenever I was ill. Her harsh nature would have slipped off her like the skin of a snake, revealing her softer self for long enough to help me through this moment if she’d still been alive. I sighed and shuffled towards the sofa to sink into its soft cushioning.

An imaginary person standing next to me slowed down my beating heart, pushed the panic out of my nervous limbs, and suppressed the fear I felt for my little one, rummaging inside my body, pushing down on my bladder, making my stomach heave with the acidity that rose into my throat and mouth. I braced myself for the imminent waves of pain. The baby had no room left to move, had stretched my skin to a tight bulky protrusion, and my slim legs in stark contrast stuck out of my warm maternity dress below. ‘If Markus doesn’t take us, Morag will’, I whispered, stroking my tummy.

I leaned back into the sofa and thought of Morag, my dear neighbour and friend, a woman who’d made me feel so special from the moment we’d met. I closed my eyes and let myself believe that it was okay to dream of her as a mother, replacing the old image of my real one swatting me away as if I’d been a fly buzzing into her ear.

Morag’s hand was warm the first time I held it, her eyes attentive and her demeanour gave me the impression that she was genuinely interested in me. She’d been busy in her front garden where she’d snipped at her neat rose bushes and trimmed hedges. Her dark eyes were alive, matching her words. ‘It’s so wonderful that I will have steady neighbours again.’ She beamed. ‘We’ve met before, haven’t we?’ She turned to Markus and held out her hand, who shook it heartily.

‘Yes, I checked on the house on a few occasions. It’s been a good rental investment, but I look forward to moving out of the city centre and enjoying it… with my lovely wife.’ He’d laced his arm around me and squeezed me into his toned chest.

My eyes lingered on a framed picture, pulling me back to reality. It was my wedding photo that reflected a different person to the one I was becoming. I was already a trained music teacher when I first met Markus, filled with the passion for my craft. I was what you’d call a typical introvert because I avoided crowds and interactions with people and shied away from eye-contact. Music had been the ideal vehicle through which I wanted to communicate with the world.

I’d spent our first year together moving between Markus’ rental accommodation on Holyrood Road, near Edinburgh’s historic Royal Mile, and my childhood family home in Craigmillar. From Markus’ living room window, I couldn’t peel my eyes away from Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano, offering me a different view every day. Whether fog or rain were blurring the shades of the city’s prominent green hill one day, or sunshine and blue skies making my eyes spot hikers and dog walkers mounting the strong rock on other days, I marvelled at the sight each time. ‘I would never tire of this view, Markus,’ I said, sipping my coffee and standing at the window.

‘Yeah, a cool spot, isn’t it?

I had to agree. We were close to Edinburgh’s oldest landmarks and just minutes away from the city’s bustling centre. ‘My grandad would have loved this,’ I said, with an ache in my throat.

‘Now, you’ve got me,’ Markus said, wrapping me in a big hug at the mention of my beloved grandfather.  The start of our relationship had been a period of spontaneity, fun and first love for me. I’d been living with my dad until he suffered a fatal heart attack three years earlier, the last remaining member of my family gone. Falling in love with Markus had helped me move on. I’d inherited my parents’ small family apartment, and despite its setting in one of the less affluent parts of Edinburgh, I was glad for the financial independence it offered.

‘You’re such a gorgeous woman, Lizzie. The moment I spotted you and watched your fingers travel over the piano keys, oh my word, I knew we had to be together.’ His eyes had a cheeky gleam when he’d spoken these words, and at the end, his hand had travelled to his top jacket pocket to extract a small box. I’d been tongue-tied about being offered my first gift of precious jewellery. He’d hooked the delicate necklace around my neck, before sweeping me off my feet to make me laugh.

Half a year later, it was an engagement ring he slipped onto my finger, as he’d grinned into my astonished face. ‘Markus!’ I’d said, clutching at my chest.

‘I’m a romantic at heart.’ He looked at my hand, and kissed it where the sparkling gem was covering my skin, causing my eyes to well up. ‘This is to show you that I mean every word I said months ago. We should give notice to the tenants in my house in Dalkeith, you move out from your place – not just some sexy underwear and the odd blouse that have found their way into my wardrobe’, he winked. ‘I want us to have a real home.’

‘A real home,’ I said, and nodded as if Markus had read my mind.

‘Yes, and I know we spoke about kids and all, but maybe we shouldn’t rush in that department yet, okay?’ Heat rose to my cheeks at the mention of children.

My father died relieved that he lived long enough to see me receive my teaching diploma and that he’d been able to leave me with a debt-free patch to live in. He’d been the last person I’d called family.

A gasp escaped my throat as another contraction pulled me back into reality, piercing my lower spine like a knife, taking my breath away. My false ideas about natural and women have been through this pain for thousands of years vanished into thin air as I moved over to the rug, lowered myself towards the floor, and once I was on all fours, let out a groan. I’d read many accounts of childbirth, its painful progress described in minute details on insightful websites. However, the reality was far worse than I could have ever imagined.

‘It’s too early for us to become parents,’ Markus had said.

‘You knew I’d forgotten to take the pill…’

‘Yes, don’t remind me; what a disaster.’ He’d sighed and slumped back into a chair, looking as heavy and grey as the clouds darkening our living room that day.

From that moment, I’d been on my own with the baby, only getting the odd reluctant yet kind query from Markus when I’d been up in the early morning vomiting and struggled to ready myself two hours later for work. Sometimes he seemed to awaken from a slumber and apologize for his lack of presence. The baby had become an ice cube stuck between us. It would melt over time, I hoped, and vanish as soon as Markus held his child for the first time.

I hummed to myself for a while, willing the reprieve from pain to last longer, and tried to explore what a steady tone may achieve during the height of a contraction. It helped me control my fear and prepared me for the next onset of tight muscles that contracted through a life of their own. I crawled over to the coffee table and reached for my mobile again, the small white headphones still plugged in from my previous listening session. The screen was blank, no new messages.

I’d started contracting the night before but dismissed them for Braxton Hicks contractions. By 9:30 I noticed that they were getting as regular as the beats on my metronome and I sent a text to Markus who’d left early that day, with no response. I called his direct line at work and then his mobile again, both of which rang off without an answer. It was 10:15 and my husband was out of reach. I dialled his number again and got through to his colleague who reassured me that Markus should be back from a meeting any time soon. ‘I’ll try to get through to him, Lizzie. Is there someone else who can help you in the meantime?’ Yes, you moron, but I want my husband here, not someone else. I didn’t utter the words aloud, but said, ‘Yes, sure,’ through clenched teeth and hung up. Another contraction cut through me as sharp as a razor and left me bathed in sweat. There was no time for anger, as much as it hurt to feel stranded like a whale on dry sand.

It was a shock to realize that after weeks and months of his loyal phone calls during the day, he was unavailable when I most needed him. Markus had come around to the idea of a family – or so I thought – pleased I’d given up my teaching job in town, sold my parents’ home and provided some stability to his former chaotic lifestyle by creating a homely and welcoming place to come back to in the evening.

I placed both hands on my tight belly and exhaled loudly, noting with dismay that whenever I had tried to get in touch with Markus, he was never available or only responded hours later. It had always been on his terms. Frustration made me want to throw the vase he’d offered me for my last birthday off the table. I’d asked for a vase yet had been incredulous at the choice he had made. He had looked pleased with himself and his eyes had seemed innocent when he asked whether I liked it with that endearing eagerness to please in his voice. Markus had thought the best place for the hideous black item should be the centre of the coffee table where, until then, I’d left my books or some magazines.

‘So, is that a way of telling me you don’t like my magazines and books lying out?’ I’d asked cheekily, watching his eyes roll in response.

‘You don’t like it?’ He grimaced with a mock impression of a sad face.

‘What? No, it’s lovely… unusual… interesting,’ I’d mumbled, conditioned a long time ago to never criticise, and noted that he had not answered my initial question.

‘I knew you’d like it,’ he said, slapped his hands on his thighs and got up to pour himself a beer.

I eyed the wretched item, but before I could satisfy my sudden urge to dethrone it, another contraction was pulling me to the ground and I knew I had to act fast because despite all the maternity books showing that a first birth was slow and its journey often scattered by false alarms, my symptoms were challenging the statistics now.

‘Hello, Morag,’ I breathed down the line, my hand sweaty as it held the phone too tightly. I urged my body to finish the sentence before another contraction would mute any sound escaping my mouth. ‘I need you…’

‘Lizzie? Are you OK?’ Morag’s voice cut through my sentence and because I only managed a gasp, she continued, ‘I’ll be right over, hold on tight, pet.’ I burst into tears, and managed a silent nod before the line went dead. Morag had been keen to make me her friend and, by the looks of it, even make me into another of her children, so urgent and intense were her maternal reactions to help and protect me.

Remembering my father’s casket being lowered into the ground not that long ago still brought back a dull ache at the centre of my stomach. I’d stood at the foot of his grave, the heels of my soggy boots sinking into the mud, realizing that I’d never found a common ground with either of my parents. It wasn’t your fault, my dad had whispered to me on his death bed. You’ve been a wonderful daughter to me. I’m sorry that we’ve not been such good parents. However, I still felt it had been my fault that I’d never invoked the tender feelings in my mother I so yearned for. I could still picture her proud smile when I came first in a local music competition or was given a prize at school, yet that smile was distorted by the pain she could inflict, inked into the image like a botched tattoo. My mother’s hands went clammy, her voice changed in tone and her eyes blinked when she left the safety of her four walls, and nothing would change this – no loving, patient husband or a quiet and obedient daughter like me. To break through that complex web of insecurities, it would have needed a great deal of determination and self-knowledge which I didn’t have as a child.

And now there was Morag.

I checked again for a text from Markus, and leaned over to rest my head and my arms on the nearby sofa. The coming and going of the pain had filled my morning and now it was lunch time, and still there was no sign of my husband.

‘Morag!’ I called out, relieved to see her silhouette appear in my line of vision. We’d insisted to trust her with our extra set of keys because I was turning into a heavily pregnant woman and Markus into an increasingly absent husband. You never know, Morag had said, nodding with approval, my expertise as a former nurse might come in handy.

Morag came close enough for me to smell her familiar floral perfume mixed in with something else, sweet and almost spicy. She must have been in the middle of baking one of her awe-inspiring cakes for a charity event or other social gathering because the smell carried an aroma of pleasant, sweet scents. It made my nose tickle and I sneezed before I could greet her.

‘Bless you, dear,’ Morag said, and placed a hand on my bulging tummy. ‘So, do you think our little one is ready to come out?’

‘I think so, yes. Gosh, it’s so good you’re here.’

‘You’re lucky I was still at home. I started the baking late today, but no worries darling – I’ve saved the dough and have already finished the cupcakes. It’s all under control.’ Her voice was chirpy and fresh while I felt sweaty and dishevelled next to her apparition of perfection, her styled silver hair, and clothes that matched with her shoes and handbag. As usual, she had starched her blouse to within inches of its life.

‘I couldn’t bake to save my life,’ I said.

‘Yes, and you look like corn ready to pop,’ she added, with her eyes wide, and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing.

‘That’s a good one, Morag, you come out with some crackers.’ I emitted another giggle before the next contraction transformed it into a deep groan, noticing that Morag’s face also changed from bright to solemn. The urge to scream overwhelmed me as the next wave of pain pushed its way through my body but ended up as a choked whimper.

‘Take it easy. Shallow breaths. Relax as much as you can,’ Morag said, while her right hand stroked my lower back in circular movements.

‘Aaaah.’ I exhaled slowly, the contraction subsiding and the warmth of Morag’s hand reaching through my skin.

‘Yes, dear. I know – I’ve been there… a few times. Can you believe that? And there were no epidurals and gas or whatever they give you now to help with the pain. Oh, sorry lassie, no reproach intended.’ She stepped away from me, clasping her hands together with the determination that I recognized as resourceful, and ready to take on a task. ‘Anyway, I’ll get everything ready. Our wee one is in a hurry!’ she said. ‘I’ll fetch the overnight bag… I guess you left it in the bedroom?’ I nodded, wiped my moist forehead and sipped some water from a half-filled glass Morag suddenly held in front of my face, to ease my parched throat. While I heard Morag’s busy footsteps move about the house, I heaved myself up and walked to the kitchen sink, cupping some water to refresh my face and drinking a few more mouthfuls straight from the tap.

‘Are you okay?’ Morag called from the upstairs landing. I exhaled through my mouth and braced myself for the next wave of discomfort, shouting, ‘Okay’ up to where Morag continued to rummage about. ‘We’re almost ready, love,’ Morag said as she reappeared downstairs, flitting between the kitchen to fill a small water bottle and the bedroom where she picked up a clean T-shirt for me. I was sweating and she commented that a looser top would help cool me down. ‘Here you go, and there’s a damp cloth to freshen you up a bit.’ The distraction stopped me from crying out as the next contraction made me grip the sides of the sofa, and I willed myself to breathe evenly. The intensity that had come and gone like a dark force within astounded me, because its grip squeezed and released my muscles without warning.

‘So, where is your husband?’ Morag asked, poking her head around the corner, and there was an undertone of disapproval. I mumbled some feeble excuse about work but knew I couldn’t fool her. She nodded with pursed lips. ‘Ah. I thought so,’ she said, her face like a loch’s flat and impermeable surface yet presaging unknown depths beneath. She was difficult to read because most of the time she had friendly chats with Markus even though I had a niggly feeling that she wasn’t too keen on him. ‘Don’t worry, the two… well, the three of us I should say, will be fine. Your husband is working hard, I’m sure,’ she conceded, shrugging into her coat and carrying mine over to the sofa to help me into it.

I’m not sure whether Markus deserves you, she’d once said.

But Morag, you don’t know him, I’d replied, hoping that I didn’t sound too reproachful.

I’ll give him one thing, pet. He’s found a lovely, gentle soul in you. So, there is hope, I suppose, she’d said, and her eyes had glazed over, lost in her own thoughts.

We were about to close the main door behind us when Morag shouted, ‘Hang on, hold your horses,’ and ran off to fetch what she’d forgotten. ‘The hot water bottle will ease the contractions when you sit in the car, my lovely. Let’s go,’ she said, hugging the fluffy item against her chest. ‘Aw, how exciting, Lizzie. You’ll be holding a baby in your arms soon. I can’t imagine anything more special than that.’ She smiled at me, prickling with excitement. ‘I remember that first encounter so well. The beginning of motherhood, everything ahead… a fresh start.’ She reached out her hand and patted my forearm. ‘I’m there for you. You’re such a slight little thing…’ Her last words floated in the air and I smiled.

‘I don’t know how I’d manage without you,’ I said, averting my eyes and looking down at my bump.

‘It’s a pleasure, Lizzie dear,’ Morag responded, while I flinched and clutched at my tummy instinctively. ‘Oh, another contraction already? Hmm, if only Pete could see me now,’ Morag exclaimed, her comment a reminder she’d been a widow for ten years and had told me she still struggled to come to terms with the lonely days at home, despite having joined a vibrant seniors’ book club, and contributed to many social events throughout the year. ‘Now I have you, my life is complete again. Thank you, darling,’ she’d let slip another day, before hoovering the floors for me and preparing a fish pie that was soon baking in the oven for dinner. ‘My children seem to be oblivious of my loneliness. They have found their life partners but after all these years, still no grandchildren in sight.’ Seeing the sad look in her eyes, I thought better than to mention that bearing a child surely was a personal choice. If I had, she’d have turned and walked away plumping up my sofa cushions, straightening my curtains or rearranging my jars and cans in height order in the kitchen. In the Little Miss book series, she’d have inspired the Miss Tidy title, no doubt.

When I previously asked her what she thought of me taking a break from work, she commented that ‘putting my career on hold was the best decision in my life. Why have a child if you plan to give it to a stranger to look after? Trust me, you won’t get bored. You have your whole life in front of you to work but only one chance to see your baby grow. And who will decorate your house, cook and look after the garden, make it a real home?’ Her eyes had lit up and without me even noticing it, we were shopping at Dobbies Garden Centre, preparing the baby’s bedroom together, and she taught me how to manage a household with expertise and a level of finesse I’d never known before. She kept me on my toes and weeks had passed before I realised that I’d neglected my two best friends, sending Cathy and Juanita short text messages only.

So sorry for not being in touch. Morag is awesome, like a mum. You must come over to see for yourself xxx.

‘Did your mum teach you all this?’ I’d asked Morag one day, but to my surprise the question only earned me a deep frown and a shake of her head.

‘My mother led a life of her own,’ she ended up saying to break the awkward silence. It was all she ever said about her mother, a relationship that I suspected was as mired a minefield as mine had been.

When I’d announced that the nausea overcoming me whenever she prepared a fresh cup of coffee was because of the early stages of pregnancy, Morag’s eyes had lit up like a Christmas tree and she’d run over to hug me. She’d had tears in her eyes when she let go again and looked into mine, holding me at a small distance away from her, her cheeks flushed with pleasure.

‘You love kids, don’t you?’

‘You have no idea how much, Lizzie,’ she’d said. I’d deduced that because both Morag’s son and daughter had opted to have no children, the yearning would have built up for years, making its landfall at my doorstep. ‘Sometimes, you need to accept that you can’t depend on your family for making your dreams come true,’ she’d said. ‘So, from now on, you can count on me like you can count on a real mother,’ Morag had added, and squeezed my arm.

As the memories came and went, I carried my bulky body to the car, apprehension pitted in my stomach. After laboriously settling into the passenger seat, the reality that I was about to give birth hit me as well as another contraction. I groaned and doubled over, retching at the smell of air freshener dangling from the rear-view mirror.

‘All right love, hang in there.’ Morag patted my bent back, then drove out of the tight garage.

I reached for the window. ‘Sorry, Morag. I need fresh air, or I’ll be sick.’ She frowned, nodded in response while adjusting the mirror, checking that the towel she had placed on my seat was still covering all the edges.

‘Just in case,’ she’d said, as usual a step ahead with planning unpleasant eventualities. ‘In case your waters break.’ She smiled and off we went onto the main road. There was a chill in the air with my window down a quarter of the way and we chatted about the possibility of a white Christmas this year. We listened to the radio, a forecast telling us to expect a very wet weekend, the chatter cut short by my hand turning it off. I needed silence to endure the increased frequency of the pain.

Morag stayed by my side, holding my hand, rubbing my back and talking soothingly into my ear when we arrived on the maternity ward, pulling the trolley bag behind us while supporting me with her other free arm. My eyes burned with tears at seeing her kindness.

My real mother had succumbed to a virulent cancer of the lungs, causing her to live the last months of her life in bitter regret and anger. Why me? she’d asked anyone willing to listen, and added how unfair life had been, which would culminate in an unfair death to top it all off.

I’d been tempted to burst out laughing the first time I heard her lament because it was a comical remark, coming from the woman who’d not only submitted her body to decades of chain smoking but also exposed her husband, daughter, and father-in-law to it. We suffered from her addiction as much as we also understood how hard it would have been to give it up. She’d known no different as a child. I didn’t want her to be in pain, whether or not it seemed almost a logical consequence. She was my mother and something ingrained it in me that I needed to honour her, regardless of whether or not she deserved it. You have only one mother in life, don’t you?

My vision had fogged up with the pain that returned in my lower back. I put all my efforts into steadying my breathing, willing my knees not to shake. My hands were chilled, and I slid them under my coat where they settled onto my tight, warm bulging tummy, a little heater that seemed to have attracted and now contained all of my body’s warmth. I resigned to give in to the inner force at work, an independent power that had settled in a corner of my body and had grown to its biggest size, and was now about to move out.

It was not at all what I’d expected but, I wasn’t sure what I had expected. Explanations from other pregnant women during my antenatal classes were too descriptive or too vague for me to internalize. I only went to two classes anyway, as Markus never made it on time and I gave up rather than face a room full of couples alone, and their inevitable scrutinizing gazes or the risk of being pitied. To Morag’s queries I proclaimed that the classes were boring and not worth both my and Markus’ time. For once, my neighbour had not prodded further, simply nodded. ‘You’re right. There is nothing that I can’t tell you anyway, dear. Don’t waste your precious time.’

When I held my baby in my arms, Morag was the one who wiped my tears and hers out of our faces and, thanks to her, I believed all would be well.

’Well done, darling,’ she whispered. ‘This was a quick birth. I admit I’m surprised. He’s quite a hefty fella, given your little frame.’ The compliment elated me. ‘I’m so proud of you,’ she added, and a mixture of relief and love for my friend’s selfless dedication made me shake with tears. ‘Now, now, come here, my darling,’ she said, and embraced me. ‘The moment Markus sets eyes on our little miracle, he’ll fall in love with his beautiful son.’

My mobile phone bleeped with an incoming call the moment I settled my baby in his cot for the first time. Words tumbled out of my mouth as I heard Markus’ voice at the other end. He listened to my story of giving birth, the wobbly knees, the searing labour pains that had come fast and furious as soon as I had lumbered myself to the hospital lift, with Morag in tow. He reassured me he’d be up in a minute, that he was looking for a parking space. I sighed with relief that he’d not abandoned me. He’d not apologized nor explained his lack of response to my attempts to reach him, yet I’d not let him talk either, so I put the phone down and slumped back into the bed with a sigh and closed my eyes.

Morag was leaning over the cot while my mind adjusted to being a mother. The midwives had all commented on the ward that for a firstborn it had been quick, too quick even to assist with an epidural. I shivered at the memory of having squeezed Morag’s hand so tightly that the woman had winced in pain herself. It should have been Markus sitting by my side and the more time passed, the more it stung, leaving my heart aching. ‘Keep breathing, focus on your breathing. You’re almost there,’ Morag had said, her voice reaching me through the fog that clouded my senses during the most intense part of labour. The baby’s weight had borne down towards my hips and I grasped onto the sides of the bed as if sailing on a ship on a stormy sea. I’d been a vessel whose cargo was being released onto dry land. When he cried his lungs into shape, I threw myself into a life I cannot put into words yet.

Chapter 4 – Morag, January to May 2013

I would always remember when Lizzie first moved in next door, because her shy warm smile had made me tingle with hope and anticipation. I filled my days with activities as a pensioner and widow, was very lucky that I had no money issues and two married children who visited, albeit with no grandchildren in tow. I also had a loyal sister and a childhood friend who I met regularly. Yet, when I first set eyes on Lizzie, I appreciated the fact that I’d been missing something vital in my life – a person who lived close by that I could chat to, exchange daily pleasantries with whenever we fancied, someone I could be useful to and help to find her bearings in the community.

My house was in a cul-de-sac in a modern housing estate on the outskirts of Dalkeith. It was close to the Midlothian countryside as well as to the city centre of Edinburgh and now just a stone’s throw away from a young woman, who at first sight looked like a little bird in need of my care. I felt the potential of raw material looking me straight in the eyes, which was what always attracted me. Like a carpenter building their furniture from bits and pieces, I enjoyed being part of building a person from scratch.

Located in a quiet area, each of our identical-looking properties had a green lawn at the front and a small stretch of grass at the back. I’d sold our family home eight years ago  after my husband died, because it had felt like living in a golden prison. I wanted to move into a more manageable, smaller household with enough space for visitors but cosy enough to be on my own. Nearby bus services, a fabulous garden centre and many parks and shopping outlets nearby allowed me to start afresh.

If it weren’t for my arthritic aching joints and occasional wheezy chest, I’d have said that my life had a purpose again, and with more time, I might even have accepted the idea that I’d never be a grandmother. My days were so busy, the weeks and months flying by between Easter and Christmas when my children and their partners filled my quiet house with chatter – until I set eyes on Lizzie that is. From that moment on, I knew I’d been living in limbo for a very long time.

There was a deep-rooted wish I could trace to as far back as my early childhood, a wish that had filled me with happiness more than anything else ever could, and that was that I’d always wanted to be a mother. Like one friend would proclaim she’d like to become a film star, another dreamt about writing a bestseller or finding a cure for cancer, another wanted to get rich, I proclaimed I loved having children, looking after children and talking about children. Left to my own devices, I’d dress my dolls and arrange my room for them, teach them to spell a word, or serve them tea and biscuits in small cups and plates or take them to the playground. I’d pile up pillows and blankets to create an imaginary slide or trampoline. There was no end to my fantasy when busying myself with little people. I felt as if I’d slipped under their skin and had adopted their lives. In my late teens, I’d volunteer for any babysitting opportunity in the neighbourhood and developed a passion for all things medical, which would later direct me to training as a nurse after finishing school.

‘You should specialise in paediatrics,’ said one of my nursing tutors when I enquired about the intricacies of handling the most fragile little humans, premature babies, weighing little more than a bag of feathers. Her suggestion gave me the courage to carry on studying and the idea that I could learn how to reassure anxious parents and hence help their babies grow into healthy individuals spurred me on. The hard work paid off when I was accepted into the Edinburgh Sick Children’s Hospital as a junior nurse, working my way up to become a department head in the neo-natal team.

I met my husband, Pete, during one of his many neurological examinations on our ward, impressed by his eagerness to extend his stay to increase our little preemies’ chances of survival. My heart had beat faster with admiration – not so much because I respected him as a specialist but the realization that we shared the same interest. I hung onto his every word whenever he spoke about ways to aid a little soul’s optimum development. Pete must also have seen something attractive in me, as our romance blossomed, and I’d found the father of my children.

I knew after having worked for six years as a nurse, that getting too involved with a young patient and their family was not conducive to doing the best job. We were taught that you needed to hang up your uniform at the end of a shift, let go of the highs and lows of the job and carry on with your life ‘outside’ of the hospital walls. Pete understood that, and we could assist each other in making these difficult transitions, me shifting my attention further to building a life outside of the hospital after we married and planned to have a family. By the time I’d had Aileen and was expecting Lewis, I’d given up my job, eager to plan for a third as soon as our son could walk. I swallowed hard at the memory.

‘Are you sure, Morag? Another child will be difficult to manage, considering all the running about you already do,’ Pete said with a frown.

‘What shall be, will be. Nature should decide for us, don’t you think?’ I’d said after clinking wine glasses on one of the rare occasions I had tucked our two children into bed earlier than usual and Pete was home before I’d given up on any chance of a tête à tête with him.

Not for one second did I doubt that Lizzie and I would be friends. Maybe it was her warm soft eyes and the fact that her husband often seemed aloof since buying the property two years earlier, turning up to meet new tenants or to oversee a workman carry out a minor repair. Tenants had come and gone in that time and I’d had my suspicions about how legitimate the rental agreements had been.

On the rare occasions I met Markus and we chatted over the fence, he’d mumbled about being an executive marketing manager of some big organisation, the house being an investment. The next time we met, he arrived with his young wife in tow. Much to my surprise.

‘Morag, may I introduce you to my lovely wife Lizzie,’ he said, his hand gesture looking more like he was showing off his fancy newlawn mower rather than his gentle newly-wed, but I let it go, enthralled by the arrival of steady neighbours.

I would have rather expected a big-chested, fake blonde, or a loud and high heeled beauty to arrive with twenty suitcases. Seeing Lizzie appear meant I had to concede that I was wrong about Markus. The young woman that stepped out of the car had looked more like a softer version of US actress Kristen Stewart than a confident, overdressed doll. Her thick, dark hair cascaded onto her shoulders and contrasted with her pale complexion, and Lizzie’s timid wave and smile were endearing. I also noted how quickly she averted her big light grey eyes, her attention drawn towards the sight of her new home. She seemed so sweet and natural in her tight washed out black jeans and a white T-shirt contrasting with her long thick cardigan, tight around her small waist where she had tied a black soft belt with a loose knot at the front.

However pleased I was with the prospect of steady neighbours though, I had to shake my head in disbelief standing in the kitchen later that day, my mind wandering back to what an odd couple they made – the slick Markus, his body language always ready to charm in his classy suits and colourful ties, the way he spoke confidently, boasting with his BMW parked outside the garage, and yet that day running after his pretty, young wife. Lizzie’s gaze looked at him with admiration, clapping her hands together in delight when she entered her new home. ‘Sorry for rushing off, Morag. It was so nice to meet you. See you soon,’ she’d said, looking back to me over her shoulder with a smile.

My intuitions told me that those two people were a mismatch and yet, when I invited them over for coffee and cake the following Sunday, I only saw mutual care and respect.  Markus appeared to enjoy being seen and heard, and would shine his presence into every room he entered almost the same way as an emperor would expect a room full of people to go silent as soon as he was among them. Lizzie was shy and agreeable, and together, their differences appeared to even out.

‘So, what is it you do, if I may ask?’ I’d enquired during our friendly conversation, curious about Lizzie’s occupation.

‘I’m a music teacher at James Gillespie High School in Marchmont,’ she said, and her shyness endeared me. Lizzie went on to tell me that she was covering someone’s maternity leave and that she’d met her husband during one of her evenings playing the piano in a hotel bar, at which point she’d blushed bright red.

A musician, I thought, and deduced that her profession might explain her notable listening skills. I also sensed a vulnerability. Had our chat frightened the little child in her?

‘That’s wonderful,’ I exclaimed, ‘music brings such joy to the world.  There’s also been a great deal of research done on how playing classical music to a developing foetus and new-borns can do wonders for a young brain,’ I said, studying Lizzie’s face.

‘Yes, I’ve read that myself.  I’ll bear that in mind when we get around to that part…’ she said, quickly averting her eyes, which I took as a sign to not pry further. There was tension in the air as Markus had straightened up in his seat. The possibility of a baby living next door, a little one to visit maybe, admire and… look after had made me come alive. I couldn’t get ahead of myself though, so took a few deep breaths to contain the exuberance that seemed to inflate me from inside.

‘In due time,’ I responded, pretending not to notice the awkward atmosphere, which helped subdue my excitement. I remembered my daughter’s face warning me I shouldn’t be so nosy, shouldn’t interfere in people’s emotional lives or ever enter someone’s personal space uninvited.

You should know better, Mum. I heard her voice resonate in my head. You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends, I’d told myself as a response to her attempts at silencing my needs.

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