She knew it was a huge thing she had done. Building up to it drained her. She wept silently at night, hardly slept. She knew he wouldn’t understand. He wanted his shirts ironed and food in the fridge. That’s what it amounted to.
When the moment came she had had to summon the energy to go through with it. She trembled, but she was absolutely certain she could only become herself if she ended the marriage. Her friends divided in front of her. A few understood, others were abandoning her.
She had talked for a long time over several weeks explaining it to Barry. They had noisy arguments. They could separate and later on perhaps divorce. But she had to be on her own. She pleaded with him to be just to her.
“Just? Just? What does that mean, Flo?”
“Let me be independent.”
“Why should I? What about being just to me? We’ve made a marriage, we’ve had the two girls, they need justice too. You’re being selfish at our expense.”
It wore her out, his incomprehension. She nearly gave in, and wavered. But she stayed the course. “It’s over, Barry. I’ve lost all my feelings for you. That’s it. Do you want to live with someone who’s empty?”
“Our friends won’t understand.”
“And you’ll make sure they don’t I expect. But I’m not married to them.”
That was a moment when she thought he would smash something. He was a big man, and she was slight. He could pick her up and throw her down. He swayed on his feet and looked round at the things on the occasional tables; it was touch and go. There was a small stone ornament from Singapore which would do damage; he felt it for a moment. She held her breath and kept steady. Then he turned away and went upstairs and banged about.
That night, lying in bed, alone in the house and wide awake, she remembered her grandfather sitting her on his knee and singing,
Oh Flo! Such a change you know;
When she left the country she was shy.
But alas and alack, she came back,
With a naughty little twinkle in her eye.
She comforted herself in the dark. “Well, why not?” she thought.
When she told them her daughters were appalled, and upset and bewildered. It wasn’t easy for them at all.
Jess, at Durham University, wailed, “Mum, I’m just about to take finals. I won’t be able to think.”
Fran, a trainee lawyer in a Brixton flat said, “I’ll go and see Dad. He won’t survive. I don’t see why you did it, it’s unkind.”
As she sorted out her life they watched from a distance alarmed and disoriented, not knowing which of their parents to support.
“Dad lives in a complete mess,” Fran told her. “It’s dire. But he says he’s beginning to like it now. He hadn’t realised how much he hated your tidiness. Sorry Mum, but that’s what he said. And you know you’re obsessive. None of us could match your standards. Actually I don’t want to; it makes you hard to relax with.”
“I like a clean house.” She didn’t want to know his views of her.
“Mum, you’re manic. You walk along the street picking up the postman’s rubber bands from the pavement. There’s a drawer full. Give them back to the post office. And you won’t have a cleaner.”
“I can do it much better myself, Fran.”
“That’s not the point.”
Jess decided not to go home, and planned to travel with friends. “What are going to do with your freedom? Is there a man lurking in the undergrowth, Mum. Tell us the truth. Why did you do it?”
There was no man. And she knew why she had done it. For herself and for no one else.
There was one thing that kept her sane and which masked the shock, which still gave sleepless nights. She was discovering her ancestors. She wasn’t sure how she had started but it was probably when Fran or Jess had asked her about their grandparents. She realised how little she knew about her family origins. So she learned how to get certificates and census records, she read the family history magazines. She began to make serious discoveries. It became obsessional and she could shut out the present.
Fran had been interested when Flo first began exploring. But now seeing her mother’s developing addiction she said, “It’s just escape Mum. What can ancestors do for you? Nothing; they’re dead. They aren’t alternative lives.”
“You’re so hard on me. I must have inherited something from them. I don’t mean money; I mean looks, character, tendencies. Don’t you think that’s possible? Perhaps there’s an ancestor who was like me, had the same impulses.”
“Suppose there was; it doesn’t let you off the hook or tell you what to do next. You were hard on Dad.”
“I was dying. It was sterile; there was nothing left.”
“Finding out about your great grandma won’t help. She’s dead. She won’t lift a hand for you.”
She had to let the girls be angry with her in their own way. It was wearing, but in spite of them she was getting somewhere. She was serious with the computer and the records she could inspect on-line. She could imagine her ancestors, recreate them. How many of them found marriage impossible? Was she a throwback? The research suited her; she could keep files, make diagrams, write meticulous notes in her small clear script, and construct an index. Best of all she could go on journeys, which weren’t shopping trips, make visits to archives and record offices and walk the streets and see houses where people in the family had once lived, and stand in the aisles of churches where they married or were baptised. Yes, genealogy would do. Instead of worrying about Barry and the girls, she could worry about finding the marriage entry of her two-times great grandmother.
She held his hand and suggested they sit side by side in front of the dressing table mirror. She looked carefully at their reflections. She knew it was probably foolish to think that her third cousin would have any resemblance to her. He had a different complexion, the shape of his head was square with a prominent forehead and dark curly hair thinning on top, while she had a long face and wore her fair hair shoulder length. She had blue eyes, he had brown eyes. She leaned forward to the glass and considered their chins; perhaps they had the same narrow tip, and she was sure their eyebrows rose to a similar line. She studied their reflections intently. Then she picked up the old photo of her great grandmother from the table and peered at it as closely.
“Well,” she said, handing it to him. “What do you think, Morton? What bit of us is the same? We must share something.”
He laughed. “We’re diluted. It’s no good Florence. We share great great grandparents, and that’s all.”
“There must be more.”
“I doubt it. It’s been fun finding you. I’ve liked that.”
“It wasn’t difficult. Winthripp isn’t a common surname.”
They sat side by side looking into the mirror. She was trying too hard; they didn’t look alike, there was no dominant inherited physical feature. She was more enthusiastic than he was. He wasn’t trying at all, but looking in the mirror at her breasts. He put his arm round her. It was nice to feel his skin; her first lover in the new life.
“I think we could go back to bed,” he said.
It was really quite extraordinary that he had turned up. She had put together her own family tree through her mother’s side back several generations to her great great grandparents, and tentatively beyond them. She wasn’t sure whether she was looking for the right people. She had a few reminiscences remembered from her parents, but there was no one wealthy; in Victorian times there were infant deaths, a greengrocer in Islington, an admission to a workhouse infirmary, the secretary of a friendly society, a laundress, and then lo and behold, George Winthripp married to her great great grandmother Amelia. She he had never heard of her third cousins and not Morton.
She concentrated for a while on George Winthripp. He was ‘a performer’ it appeared. The census records showed him on tour in the provinces, his wife, ‘Miss Amelia Mansbridge’. Flo discovered that they were billed in burlesques and entr’actes. George Winthripp had had a son, her great grandmother’s brother, who was also on the halls. Trawling the internet Florence found a site where researchers looking for family connections could advertise Flo posted a note herself, and there she found Morton, or rather, he found her. Morton’s mother was George Winthripp’s great granddaughter. Flo was excited. They agreed to meet at the Metropolitan archives in Islington, suitably neutral and safe. They went out to eat and talked for a long time. They had this similar addiction; they specifically didn’t want to talk about their immediate past but wanted to delve into their distant shared family history.
Soon they agreed to go together to Yorkshire and visit the Borthwick Collection. Amelia Mansbridge was born in Hutton-le Hole; they could see the parish records, possibly touch the paper on which her baptism had been written. It had been the first time Florence had shared something so enjoyable with a man. And he was her cousin; they shared something else, deeper, going back in their make-up. She could feel it. She didn’t have to try with him. He saw things instinctively as she did, even after four generations.
“I’m not in the theatre myself; but I love it,” he said. “My son’s in a group, a band. I suppose that’s the modern version. Anyway I’ve got some old clothes handed down; the stuff they wore. Great granddad was a flaneur they called it, a man of the boulevards, “The Man who Broke the Bank…” You know it? “Burlington Bertie?”
She didn’t. But she liked going on their visits; staying in small hotels out of the way, quietly. And to save money they very soon shared a room, and then a bed, and he made love with her as an astute player, a connoisseur of pleasure. He might not be an actor but he had the panache of a performer. She understood it was instinctive, it came down to him from the past, and she responded as her ancestors might have done; it was somewhere within her too. After her recent almost sexless years with Barry she woke up again and surprised Morton.
Jess and Fran noticed at once. “She’s in love,” they said. And, as children are, when they are forced to consider that their parents are sexual beings, they were shocked to realise that she might be having good sex.
“How can she, so soon after Dad.”
“Is she going to have him to live with her?”
Morton was kept out of sight. Florence didn’t want him to visit her; she didn’t want to visit him. He was already divorced. That must run in the genes too. But sitting in her kitchen with him or in his was too much like reality. What she liked was poring over registers in museums, and eating meals in restaurants and making love in moorland bed-and-breakfasts before going down into Leeds or Bradford. Their nineteenth century ancestors liked touring with their troupes of variety actors. That was what she and Morton were doing.
And he was tidy just like her. She never forgot on their first night sharing, how he took time methodically to fold up his clothes neatly over a chair beside hers even though their desire was calling out. She liked that about him, the genes were similar.
On a visit to Scarborough they took a suite on the seafront. She had journeyed up from London to meet him there. He had rather more suitcases than usual, and two hatboxes already installed in the room when she walked in.
“I’ve got a surprise, my dearest,” he said with a flourish, as he kissed her hand and then her lips.
“Cousin, what’s all this luggage,” she said.
“Aha. Behold. A hat.” He opened a box and there was a shiny top hat. He picked it up and put it on, with a smart tap on the crown. From a corner of the room he collected a long cane, and jauntily he stood, one foot in front of the other, and holding the cane at an angle.
“The rest is in the suitcase, a frock coat, a wing collar, waistcoat, jacket, wing collar, cravat. I’ve a disc of the songs. But it’s your turn. We’e going to be top of the bill you and I. Can you sing?”
He opened the other box and pulled out a wide brimmed hat strewn with artificial flowers, and heaped up to a flat crown itself trimmed with a weave of leaves and florets.
“Darling Morton, what joy. We’re being reincarnated. I can smell the cigars, hear the orchestra, see the footlights.”
“But better, my sweet. There is a dress, a dress of my forebears, handed down, and, I see now, the fates must have kept it, just for you.”
He opened a suitcase and there, folded with interleaved tissue paper, was a long Edwardian dress, which, when it was carefully taken out and held up, had wide furbelows swirling at the feet, and a full bodice and lace trimmings. The silk even now had the sheen of its original opulence.
“Put it on, and I’ll call for champagne. And don’t forget the parasol.”
So it was that they stood and looked at themselves in the mirrors; their careful swagger, their postures, and the costumes which took them into another more exaggerated era.
Flo said, “I want this to go on for ever. We’re family. I feel like we’re repeats of the great great grandparents. Can’t you feel it, the old genes surging, George and Amelia, just off to sing?”
“Is that what you were looking for when you started looking into the family?” Morton said.
“I don’t know. I suppose I was interested to see how I came about; whether some people had better lives, or I can explain myself because of what they did.”
“Do you want to live through imagining their lives rather than your own?” he said.
“They had chances, or luck, I’m here because of all that. If someone had made some other decision about their life it would have all been different for me. So what were the things which led up to me.”
“You could blame your ancestors for things you don’t like about yourself. You could find excuses for your life.”
“Or understand things I didn’t understand. Like this, dressing up, being on top, taking the stage. And being English.”
“Aha!” Morton said. “Of course we secretly like to know if we’ve got foreign blood, Irish, Scots, or something more exotic. It would explain why we’re passionate, clever, musical, different from other people. We do want to be different. I’m different I feel.”
“But I’m bog standard, nothing wild in me.”
From a suitcase he found a player and two speakers. He put in a disc. “This is for you,” he said. “Lily of Laguna, my lady love.” The strains of an old orchestra and a singer filled the room. She was carried into a different world and she went into his arms and they danced slowly past the widows overlooking the sea, past the champagne bucket, past the heap of hatboxes and open suitcases, on and on.
“I know she likes me, I know she likes me, because she says so…
She is the Lily of Laguna, my lily and my rose.”
At home there was a lot of unopened post, and telephone messages from tenants and her lawyer. But Florence had never been so happy. She didn’t care, even that she couldn’t seem to sell the house.
Jess and Fran came to see her. Jess hung back but Fran seemed to be determined to confront her. They sat round a table.
“This is unlike you, Mum. You’re not yourself,” Fran said.
“But I am. I’ve discovered where I come from. I’m almost exactly myself.”
Jess wouldn’t look at her. “Who is he? This man. What do you know about him?”
“He’s my third cousin, and yours once removed I think.”
“Has he got a job? Is he married? Are there children?”
Florence shook her head. “I expect so. I think so. He’s divorced.”
Jess moaned. “Oh Mum what does that mean; what are you doing?”
Fran said, “It’s a fantasy. You’re not living in the real world. You’ve stopped looking at us, and Dad’s lonely. Why have you done this to all of us?”
“Questions, questions.” She wanted them to go away and let her get on with this new habit. Of course she might have asked Morton a lot more about his own life and had the answers, but she didn’t want to. He and she were in a separate world sharing the distant past. And now here were her daughters; she had cared for them and seen them into independence. She should talk to Barry about them, but in this developing life she hadn’t had the time, or the will. She was becoming used to the freedom she had discovered and she might have understood their distress, but couldn’t, didn’t want to have to listen to it. She would send them money, talk on the phone but they would have to wait for her.
She made an effort. “I’m finding my feet darlings. You must let me. I can’t sell the house yet. I won’t abandon you; it’s not about eviction. I haven’t done anything really shocking, plenty of wives leave their husbands, and mothers their children.”
Fran stood up. “But not our mother; not you.”
Jess started to cry.
Florence said, “For God’s sake, you two. You’re grown up. You wanted to stay away, go abroad, leave home, work. I’ve kept it together so you can. It’s my turn. Go and get on with your lives and let me have mine.”
The two young women were wide eyed at that rejection. Jess went to her sister and held her hand.
Fran said, “When he dumps you, we’ll still love you.”
“She won’t deserve it,” Jess whimpered.
“That’s not what love’s about,” Fran said.
“Well, we’ll have to see then, won’t we,” Flo said loudly, banging a hand on the table.
Morton rang her often. They planned visits to distant county record offices, to the national archives at Kew, to several graveyards.
The family tree was growing. She transcribed the entries on to a long roll of paper which she laid out on the floor. And although she had gone up the tree starting with her mother she was now filling in some of her father’s family. Having learned that there were newspapers records, on a whim she went to the reference library to look at an index of ‘The Times’. She wondered if there were entries for Winthripp. There were. When she’d looked up the editions on microfiche and read the items she felt threatened; the past wasn’t safe.
She rang Morton. “I must see you. Something’s come up.”
“Oh Flo, I’m so busy at the moment. Can’t it wait until we go to Kent?”
“No it can’t. It’s something we must look at.”
“I’ll try and get away. Shall I book us a room?”
“Brighton. Not Kent. It had better be Brighton.”
Morton said when he took off his coat. “I don’t like the beach here.” The room was at the back of the hotel, there was no sea view. She pulled the curtains and sat on the edge of the bed. He went over to an armchair and flopped down.
“What’s the matter?” he said. “It doesn’t feel right. You just pecked my cheek and now you’ve pulled away. Have I upset you?”
It was true. Ever since she had read the old newspapers she felt different.
“No, but yes. You didn’t tell me about your grandfather. I found the reports of his trial. He was brutal. Your poor mother and grandmother, you knew and didn’t tell me. You just gave me that innocuous looking chart of your side. It’s taken the shine off everything. You could be just the same as him. He died in prison, I looked it up and then I realised I don’t know anything about you. We’ve been fucking and I didn’t know. Things run in families.”
She’d got it out, and as she had been talking she felt as if everything was falling away from her; like a house covered in snow and ice, when the thaw comes the bright temporary facade fractures and slips off in shards. Now the coarse building underneath was exposed. Her fun was finished.
Morton shook his head. “That was seventy years ago. It doesn’t change anything. You never showed any real interest in the rest of my side, it was all George and the stage and beyond. I had sex with you because you wanted me and because you’re attractive. I fancy you. You’re a dreamer and I loved that and I wanted to play it out with you. Don’t you know how hungry you were for some other world, a different place? You had to have me in bed to get into it, don’t you remember that? Anyway the Winthripp family and all of them don’t matter at all. Not one bit. I’m adopted.”
He said it in a matter of fact tone. But it was like a gunshot to her, cracking into the room, into everything.
“You mean, we’re not related?”
“Not by blood, no.”
Florence flared up. This was shocking, like a suicide attack. She was destroyed. She’d been sleeping with this man because she thought he was her third cousin, they shared something special. But he was just anyone. Her speculation about their resemblances was utterly futile and the magic she’d invented was gone, the top hat was empty. The blow was painful, the bruising seeped through her as she sat in this dull room; she’d failed, wasted her time, even if, just briefly, she had been defiantly happy. He might just as well have beaten her up. Now she knew family history was not enough. It gave her no bearings after all. It had deceived her, and she had deceived herself.
She stood up slowly. She would leave and put it behind her. “I’m going now, Morton. I’m sorry but I’ve been rather silly.” She picked up her coat.
He tried to embrace her, but she pushed him off.
She said, “The costumes we wore in Scarborough. Were they really from your stage people?”
He hesitated. “No, I’m sorry, Flo. I’ll be honest. They were theatre hire. I wanted to go along with you. We had such a nice time believing in it, didn’t we? It was such a good story and so enjoyable wasn’t it?”
She sighed. “Yes, it worked for me, then. But I know better now.”
“I’ll really miss it,” he said. “I’ve loved every minute of you.”
She would miss her family tree. But whether she would miss him with it, she had no idea. She’d created someone who wasn’t.
“Have you looked for your real parents?” she said, as she put on her coat.
“Oh yes, in the end I did. My blood mother wasn’t up to much and shut the door when I called. She’d been a barmaid in Portsmouth, and my father was a seaman, a Swede on a cargo ship. They passed in the night so to speak.”
“Like you and me,” she said. I’ll leave you to pay the bill this time.” She went out. He didn’t follow her.