Second Prize

Second Prize Story Winner
2018 Cooney Insurance Short Story Competition

The Child

By Lynda Taylor

There was a knock at the door of the beige wooden cottage on Marine Parade. A magnolia tree stood in the front yard, casting dappled shade across the recently mowed lawn. From her room, Adriana heard her father swing into the hallway, open the solid oak door and greet the expected stranger.

It was back when the cherry pink magnolia blooms announced the arrival of spring that Adriana first heard Zane’s name. She’d known something was up as soon as the TV got switched off after dinner. And because she’d been asking for a mobile phone for her 14th birthday – then just 10 days away – Adriana guessed that her parents were about to talk through some rules. Owning your own phone is a big responsibility and we just want you to be safe, Blossom.

Curled up in the big chair with massive rolled arms, Adriana looked across at her parents sitting close together on the couch. The dishwasher hummed and swished and light rain pattered softly against the window panes. Lillian cleared her throat and began talking about when she was a girl, growing up in Ohakune.

“Your Poppy worked for the Railways, Adriana, and tended to live pretty much his whole life according to a timetable. If Nan didn’t have his tea on the table by 6.15 every week night, he got really grumpy. He wouldn’t talk and he’d be off out to his shed as soon as the meal was over.”

Adriana rubbed her eyebrow. Why is Mum talking about this now? This is, like, totally boring.

“And a watchful eye was kept on me and your Auntie Coral, especially when new people shifted in next-door after Mrs Page died. A married couple with two boys, a bit older than us girls. The boys’ parents had their own photography business and did family portraits and weddings. Back then there was no such thing as wedding videos. Anyway, Dan and Lionel’s parents didn’t seem to be home very much and the boys would come over and spend hours in the shed with Poppy. They’d tinker with his woodworking tools, making things, and then Nan would call them in for lunch or afternoon tea. Sometimes Poppy would share a beer with them. Looking back, I think Dan and Lionel were kind of like the sons Poppy never had.”

Adriana had begun picking at a chip in her nail polish, but looked up when her mother stopped talking.

“Go on, Lilly,” said Malcolm, slipping an arm around his wife and rubbing her shoulder. Lillian nodded slowly and pressed her lips together before continuing.

“There’s no easy way to say this, Blossom. But on the night of Lionel’s 21st I drank lots of punch and I’d never had alcohol before. Apart from Poppy having the odd beer, my parents didn’t drink. Lord, I was as naïve as they come. And when Lionel took my hand and we sneaked away from the party, I thought he just wanted to kiss me. I was tipsy, for sure, but I also had myself convinced that I was in love. So, well, the thing is… nine months later, when I was 17, I had Lionel’s baby.”

A shard of sunlight squeezed through a gap between Adriana’s bedroom curtains and teased the side of her face. With hands clasped behind her head, she lay still and sifted the previous evening. Her thoughts turned to her father as she heard him make his way to the kitchen, switch on the kettle and take two cups from the cupboard. This was Malcolm’s unswerving Saturday morning routine. He took a cup of tea to Lillian, who remained in bed, and Malcolm drank his at the kitchen table. Dad hardly spoke at all last night. How does he feel about Zane?

Adriana blew out her cheeks, tossed back the sheet and swung her long legs over the side of the bed. The room was as warm as a sun-ripened peach. She yawned and stretched and her gaze fell on the tiered ladder-shelf under the window. The ladder-shelf had been made by her grandfather from native timber and at the top stood three carefully placed dolls. There was Bianca the bride doll, a gift from her Auntie Coral some years ago, Miri, a wāhine with a baby on her back, and Tildy, a Tuppence doll which had once belonged to her mother.

A gentle tap on the door caused Adriana to turn away from the dolls.

“Hey Mum,” said Adriana, patting the bed beside her. “Come sit with me.”

“How are you doing, Blossom?”

“I was looking at Bianca, Miri and Tildy and thinking that I would hate to part with them, even though I’m too old to play with dolls. But Nan and Poppy made you give up your real live baby.”

“Hmm,” said Lillian. She covered her daughter’s hand with her own.

“Please don’t be hard on your grandparents. It’s important to keep in mind that in 1973 in small town New Zealand pregnant teens and unmarried mothers brought shame on their families. Thirty years on, things are very different, there isn’t the same judgement. I found myself expecting a child when I was barely more than a child myself. I certainly didn’t know anything about taking proper care of a baby. Lord, just take a look at dear Tildy, with her straggly hair, shabby dress and one shoe missing. Poor thing has a dot of Blu-Tack under her left foot to keep her from toppling. I didn’t take care of her very well, did I?”

Adriana shrugged her shoulders. “She’s still smiling.”

“That she is,” said Lillian in a brittle voice.

“So, Mum, when I heard Dad in the kitchen this morning, it got me thinking. When did he first know… about Zane?

“When your Dad asked me to marry him, that’s when I told him. It was a risk, I knew I could have lost him, but I didn’t want any secrets between us. Zane would’ve been 10 years old at the time. Not that I knew his name. But I never forgot his date of birth.”

Lillian took a deep breath in and slowly let it go.

“This probably doesn’t make sense to you, Adriana, but sometimes I felt as if the teenage pregnancy thing happened to someone else and not to me. Perhaps I wanted to believe that because your grandparents were so upset and disappointed in me. At any rate, adoption was arranged and my baby boy was gone. Soon afterwards, we shifted to Levin and never again was there any mention of my pregnancy or the child.”

Tears threatened to spill from Lillian’s eyes and although her chin quivered, she continued.

“I was in a state of shock when Zane’s letter arrived. It was so unexpected… Plus it was hard on your Dad. But I really want to meet Zane. I can’t deny it.”

With sudden quiet smoothness, Adriana leaned in close and laid her head on her mother’s shoulder. There was an easy silence, as light and comfortable as a freshly laundered cotton nightgown.

The pohutukawa trees along the Parade blushed and cicadas sang, as Zane strolled from the Shoreline Motel to the home of his birth mother. He smoothed his hair with his hands, before unlatching the gate, and breathed deeply of the salt-laden air. It was Malcolm who answered Zane’s knock and the two men shook hands. Zane was then shown through to the lounge room, where he was introduced to Lillian.

Malcolm sniffed and cleared his throat as he walked to Adriana’s room. She snapped her phone shut, wheeled her chair back from her desk and stood up at the same time that Malcolm poked his head around the door jamb.

“Well, Blossom, are you ready to meet Zane? He’s certainly looking forward to meeting you.”

Swallows twittered and fluttered outside the window. The thrilling weirdness of meeting her half-brother for the first time caused expectancy to well up thick and hot in Adriana’s chest. Without speaking, she threaded her fingers through her father’s and they stepped into the wide hallway.