When my mum invited me over for lunch, about a month after my trip out into Herefordshire, she’d said to come over in that tone of voice where turning the invitation down would not be an option.
I wasn’t quite sure what the invitation was about, but I also wasn’t stupid enough to say no. So I went over to my parents’ flat on Saturday afternoon.
Whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t finding my mum alone in the flat, no sight of my dad anywhere, and no jazz playing to indicate his presence.
“Is Dad home?” I asked as I stepped inside, going in for a hug.
"At rehearsal with the band," my mum said as she hugged me back, which was a surprise to hear, as my mum generally made a point of attending every rehearsal she could. And then my surprise went and turned to utter shock when she added, "I wanted to talk with you, so I sent him off with James in the van."
The ambush was well and truly on. “Um,” I said intelligently, and my mother kissed her teeth, exasperated already.
“Go and make some tea then, will you?”
A reprieve then, but no doubt a brief one. While I put the kettle on, I could feel my mum’s eye on me, even as she talked about my cousins in university, the ones who were going for more sedate careers than I had. I listened and made assenting noises whenever there was a pause, and all the meanwhile, my mind was racing, trying to figure out what I could’ve possibly done to deserve a talking-to in person, never mind my mum waiting to drop the bomb like this. It couldn’t be having Abigail over at the Folly on Sunday afternoons, my mother approved of that, to the point where she’d helped smooth things with Abigail’s dad. I’d pitched in money to fix my dad’s teeth, and the surgery had been scheduled for a month from now, so that couldn’t be it.
The only idea I had was that somehow my mother had gotten wind of me dating Beverley Brook, and if so, there was no help for that--not that I planned on hiding Bev from my family indefinitely, but we weren’t at the stage of me bringing her round my parents’ flat for dinner and listening to my mother’s broad hints about grandchildren either. At least not yet.
Though if my mother did know about Bev, we’d better get ready for that stage and quick.
At last the tea was done, and once I’d poured us both mugs of tea, I sat across from my mother at the kitchen table, and I waited for her to speak.
She takes a sip of her tea, sets the mug back down on the table, and says without any preamble, “So I saw Lesley’s parents yesterday.”
Whatever I’d been preparing to hear, it certainly wasn’t that. Or to have my mum watching me with narrowed eyes as she waited for my reaction.
“Oh?” I said, my voice faint. In my very limited defense, I really hadn’t seen that coming. “How, um, how are they?”
My mother ignored this inane question, as was her right, and got straight to it. “Why didn’t you tell me what really happened to her?”
I could feel the tension creeping into my shoulders, and I set my own mug down on the table in front of me. “I told you she’d left the force.”
“You made it sound like she got tired of her job and went off to find something else to do,” my mother replies, indignant. “You never said anything about her turning evil.”
I flinched at that, couldn’t help it, and my mother didn’t miss that either. I didn’t bother trying to deny anything--not the notion that Lesley had turned to the dark side (because for all intents and purposes, she had) or that I’d deliberately misled my parents when they’d asked, weeks after Skygarden, how my mate Lesley was doing. Instead I said, “I didn’t realize you were in contact with her family.”
My mother was still watching me, but she waved a hand at this. “Well, they’re on the Facebook, aren’t they? They came up to London to see a specialist, her mother wrote to me online asking if we could meet while they were in town. They’re your friend’s parents, they’re nice people, so I said sure.”
I didn’t rub at my face in despair, but it was a near thing. My parents and Lesley’s had got on well enough at our graduation from Hendon, but I never dreamed they were friendly enough to look each other up when they were in town. Why should I have? If it’s not in London or Sierra Leone, it’s just not relevant so far as my mum’s concerned, and Lesley’s parents have always kept close to Essex, so far as I knew.
Stupid social media nonsense.
“So what happened when you met up with the Mays, then?”
My mother pressed her lips together, unwilling to be put off. “First, you tell me what really happened with her. The whole story, now.”
There was no point in pleading that the story was classified, my mother would’ve smacked me round the head for suggesting the Met’s authority trumped hers. And besides, it wasn’t true--the basic facts of Lesley’s betrayal were common knowledge. I could’ve told my mother at any time, I could’ve told her right after Skygarden--but I hadn’t wanted to, and so I didn’t.
But the piper was being paid now. My mum’s attention, once it was fully on you, was like a spotlight--there was no hiding from that glare.
So I took a deep breath, and I told my mother a highly sanitized version of the events at Skygarden. Not the part about me deliberately running through a building that was wired to explode, not the part where I jumped off the roof in pursuit of the Faceless Man--but the part about me catching him, putting him in handcuffs only for Lesley to taser me and walk off with the suspect, that I told her.
I tried to keep my voice steady throughout the whole thing. I couldn’t tell from her face whether I’d succeeded.
My mother stayed fairly impassive throughout--she inhaled sharply when I got to the bit about the taser, but she kept quiet until I was done talking. Once I’d finished, though, she shook her head and muttered darkly, “I wish to God you’d become an architect instead of doing this.”
It wasn’t the first time she’d lamented my choice in career, but it was the first time she’d done it since I’d joined the Folly. I didn’t touch on that though, I just bit at my lip and admitted, “There was...trouble at work, after Lesley left.” My mother kissed her teeth at this, scoffing, and I said next, “With the interviews, and everything...I never got a chance to really check in, with her folks.” And DPS had strongly suggested I keep my distance. “How are they?”
My mother gestured with her hands. “They’re destroyed, how else can they be? Their daughter went off and became a criminal, for God’s sake.” I looked at her, and she sighed and relented. “I met them for lunch at one of those new restaurants where nothing they serve you has wheat or milk or any real flavor to it at all--”
My mother’s complaints about British cooking were legendary at this point, so I just nodded and let her continue. “They came in and it was obvious something was wrong, right away they didn’t look right. They looked…” My mother trailed off, shaking her head before continuing. “Anyway, we barely got through the meal before I asked after Lesley, and then they looked at me like I’d just spat in their faces.” I winced, and my mother gave me a pointed look--see what you let me walk into?--before she went on. “And then it comes out, what that girl did.” My mother shakes her head. “They couldn’t even get through the story without crying.”
Jesus. “They cried?” My stomach was twisting from guilt, the same way it did whenever I thought about Lesley’s parents, her sisters, except even more magnified now. “What, I mean, how did you--”
My mother threw her hands up again. "Well, what can you do with people like that? People back home, it's easier, you can sit with them, hug them, grieve with them. Here, they get so embarrassed at themselves that you become embarrassed too, so you hand them your napkin and pat them on the back until they stop weeping."
"Oh Jesus," I muttered, rubbing at my face with my hands.
“Although,” my mother said, in that dark tone from earlier, “--now that I know what really happened, I wish I could’ve asked them what is wrong with their daughter, that she goes and stabs my son in the back--”
“She just tasered me, Mum,” I said, but my mother was too far gone to be quibbling over details like that.
“--leaving you in the wreckage of a bombed-out building, and all to run off with the man who blew it up in the first place!” Her eyes were bright with anger, her hands cutting through the air from the force of her outrage, and the worst part was that it was all true, I couldn’t argue with anything she’d said. It had all happened just like that, Lesley really had done all those things.
“Don’t say it like that,” I tried, anyway, because, well. Because I had to.
My mother looked at me as though I’d gone mad. “And why the hell not?”
“You don’t know what it was like for her. Losing her face like that, the career she’d planned for--and the suspect, he likely promised her she could get her face back, if she started working for him.” My mother looked incredibly unimpressed at this, her nose wrinkling slightly as if she smelled something bad, and I told her, my voice sharper than I meant it to be, “If it had been me that happened to, if I’d lost my face--”
“What, you think you would have done what she did? Don’t be stupid.” My mother waved her hand dismissively at this, sitting back in her seat as if the thought was too absurd to even contemplate for longer than a second.
But I’d been contemplating it for a lot longer than that, for months I’d thought of nothing else, so I knew what I was talking about when I said, heavily, “But I would’ve. I would have done the exact same thing--”
“No, you wouldn’t have,” my mother said, staring right into my face like she could drill this into my head. “You don’t have it in you to do that. Ever.”
There was no room for doubt in her voice, and I felt my shoulders slumping, because even now that I was grown, I didn't know how to argue with my mother. “That’s nice of you to say, Mum, but--”
“What’s nice got to do with this?” she demanded, scoffing at the thought. “You’re my son. I gave birth to you, I raised you, I know you. You wouldn’t have done it.”
I went quiet at that, at her certainty that I was better than I believed I was, that I had it in me to somehow resist the bargain that Lesley, the best of my generation, Seawoll’s golden girl, had made. Truthfully, I still didn’t believe it, but. It felt good, hearing her say that. Having someone believe the best of me like that, with a faith that couldn't be shaken, no matter what.
My mother nodded in satisfaction, clearly believing she’d won the argument. She picked up her mug but didn’t sip at it, instead holding it in her hands as she looked me over. I could feel my nerves pricking up, because I knew that look, and I knew this conversation wasn’t over yet.
“What?” I asked.
My mother looked at me for a moment longer, her mouth pursed just so, her dark eyes focused on me, before she finally spoke. "I want you to hear this,” she told me, quiet and firm, and right then, a herd of unicorns from Herefordshire could’ve come storming through the door and I still wouldn’t have dared to look away from my mum right then. “Listen to me--if anything, anything like that happens to you, I'm not going to be satisfied with crying in a restaurant. I'm going to go right into that fancy house and kick your boss in the teeth, and I won't stop there either."
I didn't say anything, because what could I say? If something did happen to me, I had no doubt she'd keep her word--and Lord help Nightingale on that day if it came. But I couldn't give my mother what she really wanted, which was me saying, "Don't worry, I'll be fine." I'd just escaped the Fairy Queen in Herefordshire by the skin of my teeth and Bev's shotgun, and before that I’d nearly been blown up at Skygarden. I couldn't give her any guarantees that I'd be okay, not now, not ever.
Because that was the job. I’d made my oaths and I would stick to them, the best that I could.
So instead of giving her the easy lie, I wrapped my hands around the mug, letting the warmth seep into my fingers as I tried to give her the best version of the truth. “Don’t worry, Mum. I know what I’m doing.”
My mother didn’t look entirely pleased by that, judging from the twist to her mouth, but all she said was a muttered, “Since when has that ever been true.” I gave her the hopeful half-smile that I’ve been using to placate her since I was small, and when she kissed her teeth and sat back in her seat, muttering, “I still wish you’d become an architect,” I knew that it was a victory, of sorts.
“Yeah, I know,” I said gently.
My mother looked at me for a second longer, and then slowly got to her feet. “Come on. I’ll heat up some food, you can eat lunch before you go. You’re too skinny these days, clearly you’re not eating enough at that posh house.”
“There’s plenty of food there, believe me,” I said, because letting an untruth like there not being enough food at the Folly stand would be like daring the universe to smack me down. “Nothing like your cooking, though.”
My mother snorted, but she was pleased by that, I could tell.
When I left the flat, about an hour or so later, it was with a Tupperware container full of leftovers, admonishments to use Facebook to communicate with our relatives in Freetown more, and the echo of my mother’s goodbye kiss on my cheek.