I broke a house rule and entered Peony’s bedroom without her permission. This strict prohibition had been put in place by Peony’s father some fifteen years ago and, like many of his pointless edicts, still hovers around in the ether of the place. I’ve no idea why we stick to it.
“You won’t need a cardigan… Oh!…. who?”
Peony’s bedroom, formerly white and plain and a bit too Shaker for my taste, was now a child’s playroom, pale blue with orange rugs and cushions, animal prints and a cot bed shoved beside her own. Sitting on top of it was a child. His legs were crossed, his expression suspicious.
The child looked up at Peony for some kind of explanation.
But it was my turn first.
“Jawohl?” she saluted, very much enjoying my consternation.
“On to the landing for a moment, if you would.”
And once there I hissed: “Who does he belong to?”
“Belong to?” she spluttered, horrified. “Mum, he’s a human being, not a pet or a toy. Human beings can’t belong to anyone else.”
“Peony, he’s a small child. Small children must always belong to someone else.”
She brightened at once at the news.
“Oh in that case, he belongs to me.”
I could feel something inside give way, like my skeleton was not enough to hold me up any more. I needed something stronger, a perpetual winch, a winch of morale.
“Peony,” I pleaded. “I had no idea. How could you have had a baby and hidden it from me? It must have been so lonely for you, such a desperate time. Why didn’t you talk to me about it?”
And you could see her working through my words mechanically and arriving belatedly at the end of the sentence and promptly finding the whole thing hilarious.
“Oh Ma! Don’t be mad. He’s not mine in that way.”
“Then whose is he?”
“Well he’s Justine’s, of course. I would have thought that was obvious.”
“How on earth would I have come to that conclusion?”
“He’s got a name, you know,” she told me, as though she were the sensible, mature one, keeping an eye on correct procedure.
“And what is it?” I asked, unsure if getting that familiar was advisable.
“His name is John.”
“Oh don’t be ridiculous. No child is called John any more. It quite simply doesn’t suit a child and especially one as beautiful as this. At least tell me it’s a Jon without an aitch.”
“No it’s a proper Anglo-Saxon John. We thought it would be funny. Like having a dog called Ken, I suppose. It’s so comically wrong.”
“I don’t believe I’m hearing this. I didn’t even know she had a child.”
“Oh yes,” she replied earnestly. “She’s had him four years.”
“Yes, ever since he was born. I get how it works.”
“His dad is a famous American actor.”
Again: “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“He is! It’s absolutely true. Justine used to go out with him. Really well-known. I just can’t remember his name at the moment. You know the one.”
“No I don’t and anyway what does it matter? This is a child. A human. Not a plaything.”
And this is where, not for the first time, my daughter managed to disarm me by turning her callow exterior around, like those spinning blocks with a character on every surface, and presenting me with her compassionate, heroic side.
“Justine can’t look after him, Mum. She never could. She made a huge mistake and she’s too dependent on drugs and alcohol to cope with the world. I’ve always known that and I should never have supported her but she’s my mate and we’ve always been there for each other. Whether you like it or not, this child needs love and stability and a home. He needs a normal life, not the shocking hand-to-mouth existence he’s known so far. And she doesn’t want her really judgmental parents getting involved. And that’s why she’s arranged for me to have joint legal guardianship over him. The papers are going through now. We’ve had meetings with Social Services and guess what? I passed with flying colours. Cool.”
I opened my lips to speak but I couldn’t trust myself not to cry. Peony waited for me to get my mouth to work.
“Anyway, he’ll be school-age soon so we can pack him off there every day, bless him.”
I rubbed my temples, pushed them together to hurt myself into thinking straight. But I just felt overwhelmingly sorry for myself.
“Come on,” she said and stepped back to the threshold of her room. “Let’s take him for a walk with Ken. He likes Ken.”
“Peony, wait!” (My voice sounded puny.) “How long will we have him?”
She hovered and turned back to me, then shrugged.
“It’s fun choosing universities, don’t you think?” she said.