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Mum's Diary
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Ken Orford

Modern Fiction


Thank God that’s over. I rest my head back and let the old armchair envelop my body. I loosen my black tie and rest my eyes on the yellowing ceiling. No wonder Janet’s dad had loved this chair – it really is damn comfortable. I look over at the three of them – so alike and yet so different.

No matter whether you’re six or sixty, it’s always tough to lose a parent. Janet and her sisters had now lost both in the space of a year. Her mum had always seemed strong and fit, whilst latterly her dad had a whole string of medical problems and illnesses. Not surprising for a forty a day man. He always said they’d kept him going through the trials and tribulations of running his own business – and bringing up three daughters. That last always said with a smile and a sigh. By the time he sold the business off and retired, the cigarettes and the pressure had taken their toll. He was a shadow of the hard-as-nails man I’d first, nervously met over twenty years ago. But it was mum who’d gone first – she’d soldiered on through pain no-one realised she had until it was too late. The tumour had done its irreparable damage and she faded quickly after diagnosis. A blessing really, but it had nonetheless hit Janet’s dad hard, and he seemed to just give up after that.

So here we are. The last of the family have left after the inevitable “we must meet you at something other than a funeral or wedding,” and the agreements that they’d be in touch, with phone calls everyone knew would never be made.

“Get me a drink, Ellie.”

That’s Michael, Ellie’s husband. Eleanor, Ellie for short is the oldest, and as she’s the tallest of the three, the extra height enables her to carry off the excess pounds pretty well. Her elegance belies the lack of confidence that’s obvious to anyone who knows her well. She’s always been in the dominating shadow of husband Michael. My view? She’s terrific, he’s an arsehole. She’d be twice the person she is if she dumped him. But she never will. Oh she’s not physically abused, or even mentally – but the toughness and confidence of her father seemed to have passed her by, and Michael preys on that.

Without hesitation, Ellie gets up and asks if anybody else wants one. The nods and murmured “Yes’s” prompt Janet to offer to come and help.

Jackie, the youngest of the three, is lying sideways in one of the winged armchairs. Her legs are dangling over one arm, and her short, dark hair contrasting with the light beige of the chair’s fabric. Everyone joked she must be the milkman’s – both her sisters have wavy, blond hair. She might not have had her father’s looks, but she definitely inherited his drive and flair for business. At present Jackie is “between husbands”, having gone through two so far.

The drinks arrive and Ellie dutifully sits at Michael’s feet. Janet sits on the arm of my chair and wraps her arm round my shoulder. I break the silence:

“So what are you guys going to do tomorrow when Mike and I have gone back to work?”

Jackie snorts and reminds us we aren’t the only bread-winners. She says she’s got tomorrow off to help her sisters and then it’s back to PR Agency she runs. Janet sighs:

“I don’t think clearing out mum and dad’s stuff will be much fun. But it’s not a job you can give to someone else. So while you’re protecting the public we’ll be here.”

I say that I wish I could stay and offer some support, but I have a press conference about how ASBO’s have reduced crime on one of the patch’s most troubled estates. I tell them I’ll get back as soon as I can.

“A policeman’s lot is not a happy one …!” says Jackie with little humour.

“Unfortunately Deputy Chief Constables do bugger all policing, so I don’t feel like a policeman any more.”

The conversation drifts on about how they’ll go about clearing the place until everyone agrees it’s been a long day, and we all go off to bed.

The Press Conference is a reasonable success; a minor miracle considering the shambolic briefing I got (must give someone a bit of a rollicking for that), and I head off to provide support and some muscle power for Janet and her sisters.

The place is a maze of black bags – rubbish for the tip in that group, recyclables in that pile, Oxfam shop stuff in those bags over there. God, they must have worked their socks off. I find Janet and give her a hug. The red eyes show they’ve all shed some tears – not surprising really, having to go through stuff that you recognise from your childhood. Janet explains they just kept at it to keep the tears at bay. All I can do is nod, and give her another hug.

I point to a pile of boxes and papers sitting on the table:

“What’s that lot?”

“Oh you can put those in the car. We found them in the loft and I volunteered to go through them and make sure there isn’t anything important there. You know – winning Premium Bonds from 1969 – that kind of thing.”

I manage a smile and utter that we should be so lucky. With the back seats down in the Range Rover, I load up some bags and do a run to the tip. On my return, Jackie announces she’d better be off, gives hugs and kisses all round and invites us all over for dinner on Saturday. That will brighten everybody’s mood. Jackie’s dinner parties are always brilliant. As well as her dad’s business brain, she, like Janet, inherited his flair in the kitchen. He didn’t cook much, but what he did was simply brilliant. Janet always says I fell in love with her Lasagne before I fell in love with her. Jackie’s dinner parties are also a bit of a hoot because we get to see what misfit she’s collected as her latest bedmate.

But Jackie’s departure, and along with it her sparky, upbeat humour, leads me to suggest it’s time that Janet and Ellie call it a day. Ellie looks tired, and for once as old as her years. She’s standing in the living room and behind her I can see a photograph of her father. Maybe it’s the lack of make up – Ellie is never seen in public minus make-up – so maybe it’s that which makes the resemblance so uncanny. She really is her father’s spitting image. So with another round of hugs, Ellie climbs into her Porsche Chelsea tractor (Mike’s got to keep up his image), and we head home.

It’s often said that how come, with over two hundred TV channels at our fingertips, there’s never anything to watch. I’ve even flicked through the sixty hours of recordings on the V plus box – still nothing. Behind me, sitting at the table, Janet’s is going through the contents of the cardboard box. I have to say I’m impressed , I can think of very few people who would have tackled it so soon and not put it all off until another day. But that’s typical of her, another trait she inherited from her dad.

Something must be absorbing her. Until the last fifteen minutes or so, she’d asked me a question or made some comment (“Good God, here’s an old Building Society book that looks to have three grand in it” or “Do you think anyone’s interested in an old ration book?”) But for the last quarter of an hour or so, she’s been quiet. I decide it’s coffee time, and just as I‘m about to ask her if she wants one, or something stronger, she lets out a whispered “Oh my God!”

I ask her what the matter is, and she just lifts her head and looks at me. Her eyes are unfocussed. Her mouth is an “O”. Her expression is a mixture of shock and disbelief. She starts to mouth some words but no sounds come out. Then she shakes her head slowly:

“I think you’d better read this …”

She holds out a notepad - the type you’d have found in any school in the 50’s and 60’s. It has a hardback – mainly blue with white, wavy diagonals. The yellowing pages are ruled with a red margin. It looks like Janet was about a third of the way through it. I instantly recognised the writing. It’s been on every Christmas, birthday and anniversary card we got from her mum and dad over the years. It’s also pretty obvious what the book is – her mum’s diary. Well, not so much a diary – more a 1960’s equivalent of a blog. I say that because the passages aren’t dated. Well, some have a day - “Thursday 12th” type of thing, but it’s not consistent, and there’s no clue about the year.

Janet points to a passage:

“I think I need that drink – you read, I’ll get them.”

I can hear the clink of glasses and tinkling of ice as I read the elegant writing. It would be more at home on parchment, not in some scruffy old notebook:

The doctor’s confirmed it. I’ve missed two periods and I am pregnant. I don’t know what I’m going to do! John can do the arithmetic as well as the next man – he’ll know. He’ll know the baby isn’t his. He’ll know it was conceived while he was away in Sunderland. He only came back one weekend, and was too tired to do anything. Maybe that’s why it happened. I felt so lonely, so abandoned. I know he was working hard for our future. But oh God, what am I going to do?

I read it, and read it again. I looked over at Janet who handed me the scotch. She sipped her Bailey’s looking at me over the rim of the glass.

“It’s me,” she said, her eyes filling up with tears.

“How do you know? Does she say so?”

“Oh come on, you’re a policeman. And I believe you’re quite a good one. Look at the evidence.”

I look at her, my eyes asking the question. But I know the answer that’s coming.

“Ellie looks more like dad than dad, for God’s sake. So it’s not her. And Jackie has got all dad’s brains, all his nauss. Christ she can even cook like him – and she was always his favourite.”

“Does your mum say it’s you?”

She looks at me, and reluctantly shakes her head.

“Not in anything I’ve read so far.”

“In that case, it’s what us cops call ‘circumstantial evidence’. Won’t stand up, babe.”

I look at her, there is the slightest hint of a movement and in the blink of an eye she is in my arms. I can feel the wetness of her tears, as she talks about what if it is her. What I want to say, but instinctively realise that now is not the time, is something about how the important thing is how you were all a family. Your mum – and your dad – loved you all. They gave up lots for the three of you, and they were justifiably proud of their daughters and their grandchildren.

“What are we going to tell El and Jack?” The words are little more than a whisper.

I take a breath.

“Well, we don’t have to tell them anything. After all, what they don’t know …”

She pulls herself away to arms length and shakes her head.

“No, we have to tell them. We have to work out which one of us it is. After all, I think if it is me, I’d like to know who my father was.”

After a bit more discussion we agree. Firstly, we’ll both read the diary and see if there are any clues as to which one of the three it is. Then we’ll tell Ellie and Jackie on Saturday what we’ve discovered, and take it from there. I don’t get much sleep that night because even in the brief spell she’s asleep, Janet is restless and tossing and turning. I just try to hold her and cuddle up next to her, to reassure her that I’m there for her; to just be a bit of stability in what’s become an unstable world.

Friday evening sees me in my study with a notepad and Janet’s mum’s diary. It starts with what seems to be one of her first meetings with the man she refers to as “him”. The whole book, which is less than one third filled, is devoted to their relationship. Her feelings about the effect it is having on her marriage is briefly mentioned, but it’s all about “him”. I jot down any clues about when it might have been, what year it was. But there’s hardly anything. I find it odd that there isn’t any mention of any of the girls, of the effect it might have on her family. So that would point to the Ellie, as the oldest, being the one. But like Janet I find that hard to believe – she really does look like the man we thought was her father.

At the end of almost two hours, Janet comes in:

“Any clues, Sherlock?”

“Sorry Watson, I’ve a few things to follow up, but I’m not hopeful. It’s very focussed on your mum and on the guy. There are hardly any external references. Weirdest of all is that there’s no reference to existing children.”

“Oh God. If it’s Ellie she’ll be devastated.”

I nod agreement:

“Well, let’s see what turns up. After all, when we talk tomorrow, you may all agree to let sleeping dogs lie.”

Janet raises her eyebrows and conveys the fact that she doesn’t believe that for a minute. I go through my scribblings with her, and after a bit more discussion, we decide to call it a night.

Jackie’s dinner party is a bit different to the usual. Firstly, there’s no misfit boyfriend to grill, and then there’s the feeling of apprehension that Janet and I have about the conversation that will come over coffee. But Jackie’s main course is as brilliant as ever. Also, we all knew it was her dad’s favourite dish. I wonder again about Jackie, and the nurture versus nature argument. Maybe she has her dad’s flair for business and her dad’s touch at cookery because she was his favourite. And rather than inherit those things, she learned them by being with him so much. Maybe he was compensating, showing that he could love a child he knew wasn’t his. But that didn’t seem right either. Knowing what a hard man he was, and his traditional upbringing, it just didn’t seem to fit.

The coffee is eventually poured, along with the Bailey’s and the Brandy. Janet, who’s sitting opposite me glances at me biting at her lower lip, she takes a deep breath and says:

“You remember that box of stuff I volunteered to clear out?”

“Don’t tell me, we’ve got a winning Premium Bond!” jokes Jackie. Then she sees Janet’s face and realises this is something serious. Janet continues:

“Well, in it I found an old notebook of mum’s. And she…” her voice starts to crack up, so I decide to take over:

“It seems your mum had an affair.” At this point I had expected some exclamations, but the room is so quiet you can even hear the fridge in the kitchen. Everyone’s eyes, even Michael’s, are riveted on me.

“But more than that; she got pregnant.” I let that sink in for a moment, and continue, my voice getting quieter by the sentence.

“Janet and I have read every word in the book, and there are no indications as to when this happened. Except that it was definitely after your dad and her got married.”

The questions come thick and fast. Janet and I answer them as best we can. Ellie starts to cry. The book gets handed around and I realise, everyone’s looking at me. They expect me to tell them – what I’m not sure. I take the plunge:

“Look, I’ve got a few things from the book that I can work on. Why don’t you give me a week to see if I can dig up some details – that is, if you want to find out.”

“You mean, find out which one of us is a bastard? Because let’s face it, it’s me. I mean, look at me!” Tears are starting down Jackie’s face, and she is obviously feeling a lot of pain. As she’s next to me, I grab her hand and say:

“If everyone’s in agreement you want me to dig deeper then I will. I’ll even try to find out who the father is.”

The tearful trio exchange glances, and it’s Ellie who has suddenly found some strength:

“Yes. Yes please. I think we’d all like to know. Find out as much as you can.”

The week is a busy one – in both my regular work, and in my private project: who is the daughter, and who, as they say, is the daddy? I’m heavily involved in the latest government initiative on knife crime, and have devoted little direct effort to finding out about Janet’s mother’s dark secret – apart from firing off a few lines of enquiry.

But on Thursday afternoon I have a spare half hour over lunch, and there’s a breakthrough. At last I have figured out what year the diary was written, and I can’t believe it took me so long. Then it’s down to a bit of old fashioned police work. Given the hectic schedule my boss and secretary have conspired to give me on Thursday and Friday, it’s a minor miracle that by Friday afternoon I have a good idea of what happened. But there’s still a piece missing.

Janet calls on Friday just before I leave, ostensibly to ask what I want for dinner tonight. I tell her we’ll go out, and she casually asks if I’ve had any success. I answer with a “Yes, some” and refuse to tell her any more. We go to our favourite local Italian restaurant and her questions get more and more anxious. I tell her I am still missing some information and that hopefully by dinner tomorrow I will have an answer for them.

The next day I make an excuse to go into work, as much as anything just to get away from Janet’s questions. The last piece falls into place and I get home at the same time as Jackie arrives for dinner. By the time I’ve showered and changed Ellie and Mike have arrived. The question about who is their mother’s love child is the elephant in the room. We talk London 2012, credit crunch, Grey’s Anatomy – anything but their mother’s life forty years ago. In the middle of a pause in the strained conversation my work mobile chirps. I excuse myself and take the call. When I come back Janet gives me a quizzical look. I smile:

“It’s okay, I don’t have to go in.”

We sit down to dinner and I decide to relieve the tension.

“Look, I do have some news for you all, but I’d prefer to leave it until we’ve had dinner. I’ll tell you all everything I’ve learned – and it is quite a lot, over coffee.”

The rest of the meal is a bit strained as everyone makes polite conversation. Eventually we get to coffee and liqueurs and everyone pauses and turns to me. I take a deep breath and look around. I put both hands around my Brandy snifter and start:

“Last week I agreed to try and find out the details behind your mum’s diary. Well I didn’t think I would have much success but I have surprised myself. The first breakthrough came from the diary – as you know there were few dates and days, so working out the year was impossible. That is until in one of the more uninteresting sections, she refers to going to church – so that means the day was Sunday – and she gives the date. So that narrows down the year to two possibilities – 6 years apart.”

“So what are the years?” Janet’s voice sounds desperate.

“Hang on,” I say. “I then set about to find out which of the two possible years it was. I went to your dad’s old company and asked if they had any records from the 60’s. Amazingly all the invoices and contracts are still there. So I looked through the details of the two possible years until I found a contract for a company in Sunderland. After that it was a case of getting the details about the birth. That was a slog as your mum’s diary finishes at the point she told your dad. So we really have no idea when the baby was born. But I found the birth certificate, and the identity of the man who fathered the baby is clear for all to see.”

At this point I take out the photocopy, but before I can unfold it the door bell chimes. I stand up to get it and as I leave I can hear puzzled questions. All three have obviously seen their Birth Certificates. So what’s going on?

I come back into the room, and hold the door open. The woman I let in looks strikingly like Jackie – same nose and eyes, but the blonde hair is all Janet – an almost identical cut.

“I’d like you to meet Ann Hargreaves. Ann is your half sister.”

Janet is the first to react. She gets up and moves to shake Ann’s hand, then stops and puts her arms around her, and whispers:

“Hello, I’m Janet” A pause and Ann’s arm reach out and hug her half sister. When they unfold their arms both have tears in their eyes, and then Jackie and Ellie put their arms round the two them. There is a lot of streaked make up as they start to make up for the years they have missed.

For the next hour or so Ellie, Janet and Jackie tell Ann about the mother she never knew, and she in turn tells them about her father, their mother’s lover. He had never married and Ann’s grandmother, who had brought her up, once told her it was because he loved her mother until the day he died. 

As I sit back and look at the four of them, so alike and yet so different, I marvel at the fact that they are already behaving like a family. I also have the opportunity to fill in the gaps and the information I learned from the man who was their father’s number two back in the sixties. By ten thirty the story I’ve pieced together has been told, and a few more tears have been shed. During the time the girls’ father was away on business, their mother bumped into an old school friend. They renewed their friendship and grew close. It turned into an affair. Their father, like many men of his generation was shocked by his wife’s betrayal when she told him. He would not agree to her keeping the baby and demanded she give it up, and have no more contact with the child or her lover. Ann’s father took responsibility for her, and she was raised by him and her grandparents. Ann’s father died two days before Janet’s mum passed away last year. 

© Ken Orford, 2008

©, 2010