I am so pleased to get to the end of April, from a Claire perspective. This has been a hard month for the daily blog. The 2 or 3 hours it takes every day to write the two parts of the blog, source pictures, check facts, edit, proof read and post, have come at a high cost. I know my family have been neglected, my house has suffered, my writing has suffered. If I hadn’t decided right at the beginning not to do any more editing after each post was live there is no way I would collate this month’s posts into an ebook. Some of them are so short they’re barely worth a heading. And the last two or three are reeeaaaallly long, as if making up for the overall fall in word count. Not intentionally. I think I just realised that I spent the month getting by and I needed some story to make it a stand-alone volume worth the purchase of a cover picture.
Anyway, today’s post is record length, to try and wrap up April, so I’ll keep the top half short.
There’s no cliff-hanger.
The allocation of days didn’t get me to my next cliff-hanger so I’ve tried to end on a nice upbeat note instead. I’ve also changed the front cover format to one that better fitted the photograph I decided on. That might mean a redesign of the others – all hampered by that first photo for January, which is only available in landscape!
As a small aside, if you are downloading the free ebooks and enjoying them, please do take time to rate them on Smashwords or even write a review if you’re feeling chatty. I know it isn’t award-winning literature that I’m writing – what first draft ever is? – but it would be nice to get some feedback on what has been done so far. There’s part of me that is tempted to put Claire to bed and start my new MG project instead. I could get a lot of first draft written in 3 hours a day, instead of researching youth hostels and children’s trips out!
Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:
Claire watched Sky lean over the glass barrier and reach down to stroke a seal. Her arms were too short and she nearly toppled over into the water. Concerned, Claire stretched out a hand, but the girl had already dropped back onto her feet. Her blonde hair streamed out as a sharp wind blew in off the sea. She had tried to convince Sky to let her tie it in a ponytail, but apparently she hadn’t the knack of it.
“Mummy doesn’t pull so much. You’re hurting me!” had been her response. Claire had decided a couple of hair grips would have to do.
She reached over and stroked the soft, golden hair. I wonder when hair stops being so silky-smooth. Or maybe she’s just blessed with beautiful hair. Not like my unmanageable mane.
Trying not to attract Sky’s attention, Claire carefully scanned the sea of faces surrounding them. She knew it must be past eleven, because the seal-feeding had started. Please don’t let me down. I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing.
Salty spray carried on the wind stung her eyes, making them water. The smell reminded her of long, carefree, holidays.
Not that Hunstanton on a Friday morning bears any resemblance to the South of France or Miami or any of the beaches I’ve visited in the last few years. I wonder what the Maldives smells like. I bet the briny tang there doesn’t have to compete with ketchup and hotdogs, cheap perfume and decapitated fish.
Claire watched as the woman in charge of feeding tossed several bloody carcasses into the water. The seals, so cumbersome on their platforms, dived gracefully and darted forward to retrieve their food. Claire’s mind drifted back to the day before, and the conversation in the car park of Norfolk Lavender.
As much as you can’t judge a seal by how it is on land, you can’t judge a break-up by the ranting of one person. There had been a look in Chris’s eyes that had made Claire believe his version of events. Besides, I know Ruth. That’s exactly what she would do. The only reason she has let me take Sky, and isn’t ringing every five minutes, is because the chemotherapy is taking all her energy. Even so, she received text messages from her sister several times a day, wanting to know where they were and whether her daughter was happy.
I wonder what Ruth would do if she knew about the phone call I had this morning. Chris had rung before breakfast, asking if he could meet up with Sky before they left the area. While her niece was occupied watching Dora Explorer on the iPad Claire had arranged for them to meet at Sea Life. It felt safe, a place where father and daughter could talk.
The sound cut through the low hubbub of the crowd and a rippling revealed Chris’s location as he made his way through the press of bodies. It took a moment for Claire to realise he was pushing a pram. Oh god, he’s bought that damn woman and the baby. What an idiot.
Her face was thunderous as the man approached. He stopped and looked up, his face beneath Claire’s, as she stood on a platform with Sky. Eyes burning, Claire looked meaningfully at the pram and then over Chris’s shoulder, as if expecting to see the woman he left her sister for lurking in the distance.
“It’s alright, Bryony isn’t here. I wanted to bring Eloise. I thought Sky should meet her half-sister.” His voice was muted, but Sky was only an arm’s reach away and she turned at the sound.
“Daddy! What are you doing here?” Her face lit like a firework then fell dark as she remembered his behaviour the day before. Chris threw Claire a glance and she flushed, before raising her chin in defiance.
“No, I didn’t tell her you were coming. What if you’d decided not to show?”
Chris nodded, accepting her reason, and reached his arms up to Sky. She hadn’t noticed the pram and her father swiftly pulled her into an embrace before waggling his eyebrows at Claire. He nodded down at the pram then signalled to say he was leaving the child with Claire while he took Sky off to talk.
Claire felt paralysed with shock. What the hell? Her eyes tried to scream at Chris. You can’t leave me with your baby, for Christ’s sake! I know nothing about babies. She wasn’t sure about him going out of sight with Sky, either, but figured if he’d left his other daughter behind he was unlikely to abduct Sky.
As he carried Sky away through the huddle of people craning to watch the seal feeding, Claire stared down at the pram and swallowed the taste of sick swimming in her mouth. I need coffee. The café is by the door. If I wait there I’ll see if he takes Sky out the building.
Reluctantly, Claire walked round to the front of the pram and looked inside. The baby was asleep, its little face smooth and perfect in slumber. You sleep on, little Eloise, there’s a good girl.
Claire gulped down the hot coffee and ignored the caffeine as it buzzed through her veins on a direct path to her brain. It was her third cup and her hands were shaking slightly, like autumn leaves rustling in the breeze. She didn’t notice because she was too busy trying to stop Eloise from shrieking. The tranquil infant resting deep within the pram had lasted as long as her first latte. She had been forced to remove the infant and jiggle her on her knee while she drank the second. By the time the third arrived, Claire was ready to pass the baby to the next stranger who glared at her, and make a run for it.
“What. Do. You. Want?” She bit the words out quietly through gritted teeth, knowing full well Eloise couldn’t respond even if she understood the question.
Claire searched through the bag hanging off the pram, hoping for a dummy or a bottle of milk. Something – anything – to silence the screaming child. She found a bottle but it looked like it held only water. Peace descended briefly as she offered the bottle to the child, but it was replaced moments later with an ear-splitting yell, as the offending bottle was pushed away. Another rifle through the bag produced a tub of powder, but for all Claire knew it was teething crystals or talc for the baby’s bottom.
How dare Chris go off without leaving any instructions?
Abandoning the coffee under the growing ire of the other customers, Claire placed the baby in the pram and wheeled it back into the depths of the Sea Life centre. She could feel people staring as she pushed the wailing child through tunnels, past tanks of turtles and sharks, and out towards the penguins. I’m an idiot. I should have agreed how long Chris could spend with Sky and where to meet afterwards. His arrival with the baby had caught her by surprise.
Eloise’s cries dropped to a gentle roar with the motion of the buggy. Claire muttered soothing words in her general direction as she searched the crowds for sight of her niece. Panic fluttered in the pit of her stomach and she couldn’t decide what she feared most – not finding Sky again or being left with the baby.
She turned a corner and saw a giant pirate ship half sunk into the sand. A woman dressed as a pirate was standing with a group of children, handing out treasure. Claire caught sight of loose-flowing golden tresses and released her terror in a rush of air.
“Sky! Where’s your father?”
“Over here,” a voice responded, and Claire turned to see Chris watching the children, his face inscrutable.
“What the hell are you doing tucked round here? You’ve been ages. Your baby has been screaming for half an hour and I don’t know how to make her stop.”
Chris looked up, shielding his eyes from the sun with one hand. “Oh, I figured you’d be fine. Women love babies.” He saw her expression and his face paled. “Don’t they?”
“Not this woman, thank you very much. We’re not all earth mothers you know. I understand more about a profit and loss ledger than I do a screaming infant.”
“Oh. Better pass her here then.”
Chris reached for the crying bundle of purple skin and snot and cuddled her against his shoulder, while deftly searching through the bag for the bottle of water and tub of powder. He held the bottle between his knees and unfastened it, then flicked open the tub of powder and tipped it in. Within seconds the lid was on, the bottle was shaken and a small amount applied to the back of his hand. Before Claire had time to sit down, baby Eloise was nestled in the crook of her Daddy’s arm happily gulping down milk.
“Okay, I’m impressed.” Claire smiled at Chris, feeling her anger drain away.
“I’ve had practice. Bryony couldn’t feed Eloise herself,” he shuffled uncomfortably, “… though she wanted to. We share the load. I could probably mix a bottle in my sleep.”
“So, have you and Sky had a chance to talk? She looks happy enough.”
“Yes. And thank you. It must be fate that let me bump into you yesterday. I have missed her.”
“Why didn’t you go and visit, when you thought the cards weren’t getting through?” Claire observed his profile as his eyes never ceased watching Sky.
“I didn’t want to rock the boat. I had no idea what Ruth had told her, about me and Bryony. And how to tell her about a half-sister she probably doesn’t want?”
“Have you told her now?”
Chris nodded, then looked down. The bottle was nearly empty. Claire was amazed at how quickly the baby had drained a full bottle of milk. As the last dregs disappeared, Chris raised the baby to his shoulder and gave her a practised pat on the back. A loud burp escaped the child, much to the amusement of the children nearby.
Sky turned at the noise and saw her father cradling the baby. Claire watched her reaction, ready to step in if need be. She looked shocked, then a smile spread wide across her face and she raced up to where they sat against the fence.
“Is that your baby, Dad? Yours and Bryony’s?”
“Yes, Sky. This is Eloise, your half-sister.”
Sky reached out and stroked the baby’s face, before turning to Claire, her eyes swimming with tears.
Oh dear. She’s just found out her father doesn’t hate her, and now she has to give him up to a new sister. Angry feelings squirmed in her stomach and she felt regret swarming up inside her, accusing her of causing Sky more pain by inviting Chris here. Then Sky reached forwards and planted a kiss on the baby’s forehead. Eloise giggled.
“I have a sister! Claire, I thought it would always be just me and Mummy. But I have a sister!” And the tears streamed down her face. Shining, happy tears.