The rough clay figure of a turtle that looks at Rosemary from the shelf above her desk is a gift from her daughter after returning from her year abroad:
‘Here, this is for you, Mum. I bought it in a village near Quito.’
The girl’s round face looks up at her from the floor where she has been rummaging in her large rucksack. She has always been like that; she can’t wait, things can’t wait. Rosemary takes the gift and bends down to kiss her daughter on the forehead, her lips feel the smooth unblemished skin, moist with the excitement of arrival, and she smells the familiar tang of unwashed hair and patchouli. The girl stays kneeling, smiling, willing her mother to open the gift, as if it is the culmination and whole purpose of her year-long absence.
Rosemary is holding the small gift in her hand and remembers her daughter coming home from school, brimming with excitement, waving a drawing or a clay pot or a poem in front of her. She begins to unwrap the tissue paper, letting the crumpled pieces fall to the floor, until she is left with the little clay creature cupped in both hands. She brings it up close to her face. She is unsure what it is.
‘Darling… Thank you.’
‘It’s a tortoise.’
‘Sweetheart, it’s quite lovely.’
‘Its head waggles. If you put it on your desk near the edge the head hangs down and moves. It’ll keep an eye on you while you’re working.’
The girl springs to her feet; she is an inch or two taller than her mother. She takes the tortoise from her and holds it up.
‘See. It waggles.’
‘Oh, yes. Lovely.’
Then Rosemary feels the weight of her daughter’s head settling on her right shoulder, the girl’s nose and mouth snug in the space where shoulder and neck meet, so that the warmth of her breath penetrates the collar of her blouse. They both wrap their arms around each other and for a while stay motionless.
‘I’m so happy I’m back, Mum.’
Rosemary feels her daughter’s right arm ease off and she smiles to herself as, out of the corner of her eye, she catches her peering at her watch.
The turtle will always remind her of departure gates, the moment she said goodbye to her at the airport and watched her disappear:
The chimes of the airport tannoy are too loud. Rosemary is nursing a cup of tea at the café. The announcement is meaningless, the male voice reverberates and echoes. Her daughter finishes her coffee with a slurp and stands up.
‘I better go.’
She watches as she heaves the large rucksack onto her back – such a thin little neck, such spindly legs, however will she manage?
‘I’ll ring you, Mum.’
‘There may be times I’m nowhere near a phone, okay?’
‘I know, darling.’
She gets up and understands that it is pointless saying anything. It has all been said. Those dark eyes are determined and the smile is confident, telling Rosemary not to make a scene. No crying please, Mum, it says. Rosemary opens her arms wide and hugs her awkwardly because of the rucksack.
‘It’s like hugging a tortoise.’
‘Well, I’ll bring one back for you, Mum.’
Ding, dong. Another announcement resonates in the large hall. They both stand back and look at each other. The girl smiles, blows her mother a kiss, turns and walks towards Departures.
The girl turns, waves, then continues on her way. People hurry along, their legs, so many legs, an unsettling syncopation. Somebody stumbles.
‘Bye, darling,’ she blurts out.
The rucksack is so large, all Rosemary can see are the two legs beneath, nothing else. Not the unruly black hair that falls across the forehead. Or the tiny mole above the right eye. Or the left ear that sticks out that little bit more than the right (Mummy, the girls keep calling me Skewy).
‘Bye, darling,’ she shouts out, surprising herself.
No response. She watches the figure grow smaller and smaller until she can only just make her out in the group of people that bunches up at Passport Control.
Then she is gone.
Letting her child go for the first time filled her with dread:
Alone and on the way back from Heathrow she sees ‘Birdlip’. She has always seen the sign and often wondered but never turned off the main road to find out. It is 10.50 in the morning and her daughter has been at least thirty minutes in the air. There is no traffic, the day is overcast but mellow, with a gentle uniform light that suits the unruffled landscape. She has the rest of the day ahead of her, she has no plans, no timetable. The future is anaesthetised.
She turns off and follows the narrow lane as the flat Vale of Evesham reveals itself below. A sign says ‘Barrow Wake Viewpoint’, so she turns right and parks. After a while she gets out of the car and walks towards the edge and the panorama before her: at her feet the urban jumble of Gloucester with its cathedral towers rising into the air, the bulge of May Hill with its crown of conifers, further away the Malvern Hills, and further still, receding into blue, the Black Mountain.
Somewhere in the middle distance, between Gloucester and the Malvern Hills, is the home she will return to, with its untidy garden at the front and its narrow lawn that leads downhill to the meadow and to the meandering river just beyond. For a long time that was the world she and her daughter knew best, until the pull of her teenage peers persuaded her away and only Rosemary was left to walk the dog. In half an hour she will be there, parking the car and pushing open the metal gate to enter an empty house. Every meal alone, from now on, with an occasional invitation to a local drinks party or an over-organized bridge game at Lizzie Goodbody’s (There are only two gifts we should give our children, Rosemary: one is roots, the other is wings).
All of a sudden Rosemary feels brittle and exposed, as if her daughter’s departure has peeled off the protection she had against these women and left her exposed to their prying appraisal and to those searching looks which, until now, she has avoided by devoting herself primarily to her girl, then to her work and lastly to minding her own business.
The receding landscape draws her eyes to the horizon. Wales beyond, she supposes, and then the Irish Sea, then Ireland and the immense Atlantic, and her only child however many thousands of feet above. Perhaps asleep or looking down at that blue expanse, she’s seated in a large winged tube that is rushing towards the Americas at God knows what speed to deliver her to some airport, she can’t remember which. There she will catch another flight that will take her south to her destination, a country which she, Rosemary, knows nothing about, and where no contacts exist. Out of nowhere, images emerge of impossibly high mountain ranges, snow-tipped and framed by turquoise skies, and of deep impenetrable jungles, of decaying shanty towns, of steep twisting roads with speeding and overloaded buses, of dark good looking young men, of her daughter, her trusting daughter.
The forty-minute drive home deepens her foreboding – even the mindless Radio 4 comedy sitcom cannot help – and when she pushes open the front door, only the grateful dog welcomes her. She walks straight into her daughter’s room and sits on the bed with the pillow held up to her face, breathing in the familiar traces and knowing that with each day they will diminish and eventually disappear. The dog sits at her feet expecting a walk.
‘Oh, Mr Wags,’ she says softly, ‘what shall we do?’
When after two weeks she lost news of her whereabouts, the dread turned to horror:
Rosemary does not know what to do. The last phone call was from a town high in the mountains. It is not that she expects her daughter to call precisely every seven days, but she has never taken this long to get in touch. Nine or maybe ten days have been the longest stretch without hearing her voice, and she knows that there may be no access to a phone wherever she is. Nevertheless, two weeks….
She has reluctantly gone over to Lizzie’s to ask for advice, with the thought that a mother whose two boys have travelled and come back will know something that she does not.
‘It’s pointless to worry, Rosemary. They all do it, they can’t help it, they are young and heedless and, frankly, inconsiderate. Apparently, when they come out the other side, mature adults and all that, they can be quite rewarding.’
The country’s embassy in London, after numerous phone calls, has confirmed that there is nothing they can do to help given that this cannot be considered a missing person issue after such a short time, that if there are no reports of any misadventure then the presumption must be that all is well, that it is a very safe country to travel in. Despite what people may say.
After a day of frustration and confusion, she finally manages to get a call through to the UK embassy in the capital, only to be told much the same thing.
The following day, there are reports of an earthquake in the North of the country, and she sits rigidly in front of the television as she watches the BBC news. Only fleeting images are offered, and it is a secondary item. No casualties are mentioned.
That evening, as she sits in the kitchen, the telephone rings and her body freezes. When she gets to her feet she stumbles to the phone and picks up the receiver with trembling hands, but her throat tightens and she cannot speak, she can only hear a strange whimpering sound, like an animal’s, that she slowly realises is hers.
‘Any news?’ It’s the stentorian voice of Lizzie Goodbody. In a strange way the voice offers Rosemary some sort of solace.
‘You sound bloody awful. Hang up, sit down. I’m coming over.’
When Lizzie appears, she is holding a bottle of wine. They both sit at the kitchen table and drink. When it is finished, they are both quiet. It is warm outside so the kitchen door is open and they can hear the cattle in the adjoining meadow snort softly in the dark. Rosemary has told Lizzie about her daughter, the difficult birth, her desperate love for her, David’s disappearance, her lack of joy, for which she apologizes. Lizzie, in a spirit of reciprocation, has taken a deep breath and told her about her loveless marriage, her ambitious though distant elder son, her heroin-addicted second boy. When she stands up to leave, Rosemary, for the first time ever, rises and hugs her.
Later that night she goes to bed but cannot sleep. Her heart is palpitating, the dog is whining, and she is feeling dizzy. She gets up for a glass of water. The telephone rings. Dry-mouthed, she picks up the receiver.
Years later, she understands that even the tiny fingers that made the souvenir must have held on to a mother but let go years later, beguiled:
She holds up the clumsy clay figure and examines it closely. Yes, it is definitely a turtle, not a tortoise, its limbs are flippers, and it has a sort of tail – obviously designed for the aquatic life. Its dangling head looks at her, nonplussed and a little forlorn. It has been with her now for about six years, looking down from its shelf above her work desk. A lot has happened in that time, or perhaps no more or less than usual. Perhaps it is only that what had to happen, has happened. The child that made the clay turtle has probably left her village and gone to the city, leaving her mother back home, perhaps visiting her occasionally. Rosemary likes to think so.
‘Turtles travel thousands of miles,’ she says to herself, still holding the figure to the light. Her own daughter’s restless travelling takes her to all parts of the world as a travel writer, but she passes through once in a while, exuding delight at the world around her, disorganised as ever, but open, unbound and free. Rosemary’s heart admits to a pang of envy.
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