“I’ve sorted it,” you say, flinging yourself down on the seat beside me as the engine revs, and the ancient school bus chugs into motion. Your whole face blazes with triumph.
“Big Bad Billy. He’s just a pussycat really.”
I snort in disbelief. “Really? That’s not what you said yesterday.”
You shrug your scrawny shoulders and lean in close. “No, but yesterday I hadn’t figured it out.”
“Figured out what?” I lay down my book, trying not to let my scepticism show. “Ok, Rusty. Spill. What did you do?”
You can’t hide your glee. “Aha, that’s just it. I’m Rusty no more.” With a dramatic flourish, you whip off your beanie hat which had been pulled firmly down to your eyes, and I can’t restrain a gasp.
Sunshine beams in through the window and bounces off the pale gleaming skin once covered by your mane of fiery red hair.
“Can’t bully me for being a ginge now, can he?” you say cheerfully.
“No,” I manage, “But it’s not him I’d be afraid of. Your mam’s gonna kill you.”
You look out the window. “Yeah,” you say after a while. “I’m so gonna get killed. Then she’ll ground me for a month.”
And we both burst out laughing.
“You’re not my real mother!”
She recoils, as if I have stabbed her with a knife, not just the sharp edges of my words. Her pale lips tremble, the voice they issue so frail I can barely make it out. “I nurtured you, reared you, devoted the best part of my life to you. What does that make me, if not your real mother?”
But my feet have already jumped the precipice; there is no going back. “She gave me life. There is no greater gift a mother can give a child.”
“That’s not true.”
“You just don’t want me to find my real parents. You want me all for yourself. You’re selfish, and afraid.”
An uncharacteristic hardness settles into the line of her jaw. “Alright, then. I set you free.”
It is not the reaction I expect, and I flounder, speechless for once.
“Get your coat. I’ll show you.”
I have no choice but to scrape up my courage and follow her out the door.
I eye the gravestone, the bare plot, untended and unloved, and wipe the tears savagely from my face. Sometimes, the stories we make up for ourselves are preferable to the truth. Sometimes, the most twisted imagination can’t compete with reality.
She died young, my birth mother, her life stolen by the drugs she craved so badly for most of it. I had been taken from her as a baby when she was caught trying to sell me in a pub, a desperate attempt to raise funds to fuel her addiction.
Five hundred euros was all I was worth.
I turn away, burying myself in my real mother’s arms. She holds me tight, stroking my hair, and murmurs so softly I almost don’t catch her words.
“It was the best five hundred euros I ever spent.”
I find it quite by accident, squirrelled away at the back of his undies drawer. I place it gingerly in the centre of the bed and stare at it, mind racing: he’s having an affair.
Iconic black and gold packaging. Chanel. I pick the lipstick up, remove the lid and twist. Bright pillar-box red. Used. So she’s a harlot with expensive taste. I fling it in the bin.
I spend the afternoon pacing, vacillating between vehement fury, and cold self-pity. When he walks through the door, I descend on him like a hurricane.
“What’s this?” I hiss, shoving the offending item under his nose.
He blinks, not at first understanding, and then I see fear chase the shock of recognition across his face.
“Who is she?”
“It’s not what you think,” he stammers, and I sneer.
“Of course not. Is she a colleague?”
“No. Yes, well, more of a friend really.”
“How cosy. And how long have you two been carrying on behind my back?”
He sighs, and lets his briefcase slip from his hand. It lands with a hollow thump on the wooden floor.
“About three years, but I’m not having an affair.”
“Three years?” That sucks the air from my lungs. “I can’t believe it. How could you? I never had a fucking clue.” Suddenly, my legs don’t seem strong enough to support me, and I follow the briefcase to the ground.
He comes over all solicitous then, but I shriek at him. “Like you care. Don’t touch me.”
“You’re not listening to me. I’m not having an affair.” He sounds exasperated. He rummages in the briefcase and brings out a photo. I don’t want to look, but curiosity forces my gaze.
She is blonde, of course, and buxom. Quite heavy set, plain features, thin lips daubed with bright red lipstick.
“Huh. Downgrade,” I say. She’s not pretty, yet I am jealous. What does she have that I don’t? Why is he willing to throw away our marriage for her? Then my anger explodes, and fades into tears.
He sits on the floor beside me and holds me, and I let him.
“The woman in the picture is Cassandra. We’re not having an affair, but we are very close. I wanted to tell you for a long time, but I didn’t have the guts.”
“I don’t understand,” I wail. “If you’re not having an affair, then what’s going on?”
I feel him take a deep breath. He is psyching himself to tell me. This is it. The confession. The truth.
“The lipstick’s mine. I’ve been cross-dressing for three years.”