Laura sighed, didn’t speak until she sat down. ‘Mum you don’t have to.’
With her cup held firmly in both hands, Martha sipped at her tea. ‘I’m sorry it’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other.’
‘I’ve not gone anywhere Mum . . .’
‘I know, but I’ve been busy, and what with Christmas.’
‘I can imagine,’ Laura said.
‘No, it was okay, just a bit hectic that’s all.’
She couldn’t be honest with Laura – what happened at home would always stay at home. It was better to keep the conversation away from Thomas and back on them. ‘How is Tabitha doing at nursery?’
A folded-up piece of paper removed from her pocket Tabitha’s drawing was handed over. As their hands touched, Laura didn’t relinquish her gentle hold. A shared expression and Martha’s focus returned to the picture.
Tabitha had everyone in her drawing – including a snowman with a red nose. As she scanned over the picture, she grinned at the enormous bodies compared to their heads. Everyone wore a different coloured outfit, but Martha wore the same yellow scarf she was wearing now.
‘Can I keep it?’
‘Tabitha drew it for you, and she told me not to forget this.’
Laura opened her bag and handed over a mince pie. It was in a tiny box, marked Nanny.
Martha bit into the pastry. It was a bit stale, and the crumbs scattered around her lips. With the end of her scarf, she wiped her mouth. As she put it on her lap, she noticed the foundation spread across like war paint.
Hastily, she grabbed some powder from her pocket and dabbed at her cheek.
Laura shifted closer to Martha. ‘We need to talk.’
‘It looks worse than it is – I had a little too much to drink at Christmas.’
‘No Mum, it was his doing! Each time I see you it’s like more of you is gone. He’s a bully! You know he is! Bit by bit you’re letting him win.’
‘Not anymore,’ Martha said.
Laura’s eyes narrowed. ‘You’ve said that before Mum.’
‘But this time I mean it.’
‘Why should I believe you?’
‘Because I’m taking back what’s mine.’
‘You’ll just push me away again, just like you did Theresa, Lucy and your cousin James!’
‘How do you know about Lucy or James?’
‘I found them, or rather Lucy found me, and they told me about Thomas. Your life before you met him. He takes your real family away from you and leaves you with bruises and fear. I can’t watch this go on any more Mum. I’m your daughter – your flesh and blood – so is Tabitha. We love you, yet you go to the one who hurts you the most!’
‘What do you want of me Laura? I won’t leave your father. Nobody sees the good in him like I do. Lucy and James were the same, they didn’t see that I had to grow up quick.’
‘When they talk about you Mum. I don’t see what they did and that hurts.’
‘I’ve done a lot of thinking, especially in the last few days. Your father, well, he struggles with emotion. His mother’s fault, my fault or it could even be his. I don’t know. All I know is this has to stop. I won’t leave him – your father needs me more than you can understand.’
‘He needs nobody Mum. Can’t you see you’ve always been stronger alone.’
‘Maybe, but it’s not all about your father. I love you Laura, and Tabitha. She is so like you, even down to the dimples in your smile.’
‘Then why do you stay?’
‘Truth is I don’t know, but I will make a promise to you now. Your father can do what he likes, but I will see you more often. I’ll put aside some time to spend with Tabitha while you’re at work. I won’t miss another moment of her growing up.’
‘What if Thomas doesn’t like it?’
‘I’ve wasted too many years hiding.’
‘Mum, I want nothing more than you being a bigger part of our lives, but I don’t want you hurt,’ Laura said.
With all the effort she could muster, Martha set the cups on the tray, and pushed back to a standing position. She walked to the counter and all the empty items handed over. She took hold of Laura’s hand. Why hadn’t she thought of this sooner?
‘What are you doing Mum?’
Outside, the drizzle caused a slight mist to shelter the oncoming wind. Thomas had no right to complain. The time for riddles was over. Mrs Carmichael was getting into a taxi, and Martha waved. She linked her arm in her daughter’s. ‘Good afternoon Mrs Carmichael, nice weather for the time of year.’
Laura’s grin, like a permanent marker on a whiteboard, couldn’t be wiped away. ‘Mum, what did you just do? What if she goes straight to Thomas?’
‘If she does, I’ll just remind your father of a few things. He wants to keep his mistress, but that will only happen if I keep you.’
‘Mum, what if you get hurt?’
‘I won’t because I’ve done it wrong all these years. I kept you a secret thinking he would change his mind eventually. You don’t remember but he loved you once. You were tiny, and babies don’t, but that doesn’t mean the tree didn’t fall. Now I see that won’t happen, but it doesn’t mean we can’t have a proper relationship.’
‘Mum, what’s got into you?’
‘Wasted years I suppose. Don’t look so worried Laura. I haven’t gone mad. It’s just a lot has happened over the last few weeks.’
‘What about Lucy, and James?’
‘Baby steps Laura, let me get to know you properly first.’