When the phone rings, I am cheered to see the caller ID is my Uncle Lawrence. It is early in the year for his usual catch-up call. September is closing with falling leaves and damp days chilling my spirits. He usually calls near to Christmas time to fill me in on all his family news and ask about mine. That was before my diagnosis. Since my illness, he’s called at least once a month. We’ve been more like brother and sister growing up as he is only nine years my senior. We’ve grown apart as adults since I moved from the north to the south of England, but on hearing his voice I am thrown back to the closeness and I can feel his love like an embrace reaching to me across the miles.
‘Hi, Laurie! Happy birthday! Did you get my card?’
‘Hi, Pam. Yes, I did get that very saucy birthday message. Rita didn’t want to put it on display, it was so rude! Where did you find it?’
‘Oh, some friend of Grace’s makes them, and I thought you’d appreciate the humour.’
‘I did! Thank you. How are you?’ he asks.
‘I’ve had better days, but I can’t complain. I’m still here!’
‘Good for you that’s the spirit. Don’t let the cancer get you down, eh?’
‘I’m a long way from beat, Laurie. I had the last round of chemo yesterday, and it knocked me for six, but I’ll improve in a day or two. At least I know what to expect now.’
‘I wish I could be there to help, love. I know it’s hard for you since Nigel left. How are you coping on that score?’
‘I’m getting there.’ I don’t want to talk about the rat that left me stranded not long after I was diagnosed with cancer. Nigel said it had been on the cards for months, but I hadn’t seen it coming. As far as I knew, we were happy enough. At least as happy as any other married couple that had been together for as many years as we had. His announcement, so soon after learning I had breast cancer, was like the second atom bomb going off in my world, and I’m still breathing the fallout dust from the double strike.
‘That’s my girl.’ Lawrence’s voice has a smile in it, and it warms me. ‘How are the twins?’
‘Oh, you know.’ I laugh, remembering their latest escapade. ‘They dyed their hair last week. I think they were fed up with the tutors at university getting them mixed up. Elena has gone bright-auburn, would you believe?’
‘Don’t tell me, Grace has dyed hers a whacky colour, hasn’t she?’
‘Purple!’ I splutter. I feel good laughing with Lawrence. Laughter lightens my spirit. It seems so long ago since I felt genuinely happy about anything.
‘Well, that’ll make her conspicuous in a crowd.’ He chuckles down the line.
‘She never was a shrinking violet, was she?’
‘Are they helping you through this, Pam?’ Lawrence’s voice softens. ‘I know they still live at home. Are they making life easier for you?’
‘I’m happy that they decided to go to a local university, and they do what they can, Laurie. You know how teenage girls are. They have their lives to live. I don’t want to be a burden on them.’
‘You should try teenage boys!’ Lawrence’s deep laugh echoes through the receiver. ‘Alan and Glen will be the death of me, I swear!’
‘What have they done now?’ I smile, anticipating the story my uncle will have ready to tell me. He always thinks of something light-hearted and cheerful to talk about when he calls these days. It’s as if he knows I need to hear about happy family news and funny anecdotes to take my mind away from the daily round of heartache and pain that has become my life.
‘Oh, the usual. Glen thinks he’s old enough to go clubbing with Alan. I know he’s almost eighteen, so there’s not much I can do about it, and Alan encourages him into all kinds of mischief. Last week they tried to sneak a couple of girls into their bedroom!’
‘What did you do?’ I am shocked by this snippet of information. Lawrence’s boys aren’t hooligans, but they do take liberties.
‘I read them the riot act, but it’s like water off a duck’s back with those two.’
‘What did the two girls do?’
‘Giggled and hid behind the boys.’ Lawrence tries to sound stern, but I can hear the smile is there again in his voice. ‘One of them threw up on the lawn.’
‘They’d all been drinking, I suppose?’
‘They wouldn’t have considered trying in on with me if they’d been sober. I called the girls a taxi, and ordered the boys back inside.’
‘Did they do as you told them?’ I know they wouldn’t have. Lawrence has no control over his boys.
‘They jumped into the taxi and went off with the girls! I don’t know what I’m going to do with them.’
‘When did you see them again?’
‘Two days later! They were a bit quiet around me for a while, but you know what they’re like, Pam. They’ll be back out clubbing at the weekend as if nothing happened.’
‘They’ll grow out of it, Laurie. It’s a phase they’re going through.’
‘I know, Pam.’ Lawrence sighs heavily.
‘You were just as bad!’
‘I was not!’ His denial is emphatic.
‘What about that time Gran caught you and Ruth, what was her name? You were in Granddad’s potting shed with your trousers around your ankles according to Gran’s version of events.’
‘Don’t remind me!’ I can picture Lawrence’s eyes rolling. ‘Ruth Williams! What was I thinking?’
‘I think we all knew what you were thinking, Laurie.’ I laugh, and it feels so good to feel my ribs shaking with something other than pain. ‘Ruth was easy. Anyone knew she’d open her legs for a whisky and orange, and you wanted what all young men of seventeen dreamed about having.’
‘How come you know so much about it? You’d only be eight at the time.’
‘I was an observant kid and a good listener. Mum and Gran picked the meat off those bones for a few weeks; I can tell you. I learned a few things about lads by listening to them talking about what you and your mates got up to.’
‘What an education!’ Lawrence laughs again; his rich, chocolaty chuckle melts my insides.
‘It was better than the one I got from the book Mum gave me about the birds and the bees.’
‘The one that she cut all the pictures out of?’
‘That’s the one!’ I grin, remembering the old, green, hard-backed book. I’ve no idea what the title was, but the frosty, no-nonsense text was meant to give me all the information a young pre-pubescent girl would need to know about the facts of life. ‘The pictures would have helped make sense of the words, but with you and your mates around, who needed books to learn about that stuff?’
‘I don’t think we were as bad as the lads of today.’ Lawrence tries to defend himself.
‘Don’t you believe it!’ I tell him firmly. ‘Alan and Glen would have to go a long way to outdo your bunch of reprobates.’
‘Mam would have said, “What goes around, comes around,” wouldn’t she?’
‘I can hear her now,’ I giggle. ‘She’ll be up there laughing at you trying to control those two boys of yours now.’
‘I wish I could talk to her, Pam.’
Lawrence sounds sad, and it is my turn to comfort him. I know he misses his mum. I miss her too. ‘She wouldn’t have any advice for you; she didn’t know how to cope with you, did she?’
‘We got away with a lot, didn’t we?’
‘You did, but you turned out all right in the end, didn’t you? Gran and Granddad did a great job raising you all.’
Lawrence goes quiet on me, and I can feel he is deep in thought. We’ve always had this strange kind of connection, something like I’ve seen with my twin girls. It’s not exactly telepathy, but more of a sixth sense about each other. He knew I was ill before I told him. He said he’d guessed, but I knew he’d felt it on some deep, inner level. I know when he’s troubled, and I sense it now, that he has something important on his mind.
‘What is it Laurie?’ I encourage him to talk to me.
‘Eddy told me something at the weekend, and I don’t know what to make of it.’
Eddy is my older uncle, born a couple of years after my mother. ‘What did he tell you?’
‘Do you know anything about a secret sister I’m supposed to have?’
‘You mean Nancy?’
‘You do know!’ Lawrence blurts. ‘I should have known you would know all about it. Why did you never tell me?’
‘I thought you knew!’
‘So did Eddy. He couldn’t believe no one had ever thought to tell me I had a sister that I’ve never met.’
‘You have met her, Laurie. She was at Gran’s funeral.’
‘So Eddy said, but that was five years ago, I can’t remember everyone who was there that day. We were all so upset, and the last thing on my mind was playing host to a crowd of people I barely knew.’
‘I know, love. We all felt the same. I didn’t meet her either. In fact, I wouldn’t know her if I passed her on the street, but Mum told me afterwards that Nancy had been there.’
‘How long have you known about her?’ Lawrence’s voice sounds strained. I can feel he is struggling with his emotions.
‘Mum told me about her a few days after Gran died. I thought she’d told everyone the story. I knew she’d waited until she felt it couldn’t hurt anyone to know the truth. After all, once Gran and Granddad were gone, what did it matter?’
‘It matters to me, Pam! I can’t understand why Janice didn’t tell me.’ I hear Lawrence take a deep breath.
‘Pity we can’t ask her. I’ll never understand why you two fell out. She was my mum and your sister. We should have always been close, but you two weren’t speaking at the time Gran died, were you?’
‘We had a stupid argument. I can’t even remember what it was about, now.’
‘I’m glad you made it up with Mum before she died.’ I wish Lawrence would tell me what the row had been about, but I guess I’ll never know now. Mum passed away two years ago. She didn’t win her battle with cancer, and remembering her suffering scares me. I don’t want to experience the mental pain she went through. The hospice staff controlled the physical pain for her, but her mental anguish was terrible to watch. She knew she was going to die and wasn’t ready to leave us.
‘Do you know anything more about how I happen to have a sister that I’ve never met?’ Lawrence interrupts my morbid thoughts.
‘I think Mum told me most of the story, but there are some big blanks to fill in.’
‘Tell me what you know, and then maybe I can try to find out more from Eddy to fill in the blanks.’
It is my turn to take a deep breath. I gather myself for the ordeal. The story is a sad one, and one that colours my grandmother, Lawrence’s mother, in a very bad light. I can’t dress it up in fancy words. The truth is stark and unforgiving. I decide to tell him in simple terms what I know.
‘Gran had an affair during the war when Granddad was away fighting. She had a baby girl and gave her away.’
‘Go on,’ Lawrence encourages. ‘I know you have more to tell me. It wasn’t as simple as that, was it?’
Our special connection is working overtime. Lawrence can sense that I know a lot more, and I try to prepare myself to tell him everything.