Authors: Michelle Reid
grew up on the southern edges of Manchester, the youngest in a family of five lively children. Now she lives in the beautiful county of Cheshire, with her busy executive husband and two grown-up daughters. She loves reading, the ballet and playing tennis when she gets the chance. She hates cooking, cleaning and despises ironing! Sleep she can do without and produces some of her best written work during the early hours of the morning.
?’ Claire repeated in dismay. ‘You want me to give Melanie away to strangers?’
Standing there, white-faced and shaking in the shabby sitting room of her equally shabby little flat, Claire stared at her aunt as if she had just turned into a real live she-devil. In truth, she was having trouble believing that any of this was really happening. In the last few tragic weeks it felt as if her whole life had been wrenched out from under her.
Now this, she thought wretchedly. ‘I am going to pretend you never said that, Aunt Laura,’ she said, cuddling the sleeping baby just that little bit closer as if trying to shield her from what was being proposed here.
‘No, you’re not,’ her aunt countered sternly. ‘You’re going to listen to me. Do you honestly think I would be suggesting this if I believed you were coping?’
coping!’ Claire angrily insisted.
Wearing a pin-neat chic little two-piece grey suit and with her perfectly made up face and elegantly groomed blonde hair, Laura Cavell only needed to send her coldly fastidious eyes on a brief scan of their surroundings to completely denounce that declaration.
The place was in a mess, every available space cluttered with all the usual baby paraphernalia—the floor, the chairs, the unit tops in the attached tiny kitchen. It was only October but the notoriously unpredictable British weather was already wintry. Yet what small amount of heat there was coming from the electric fire was being blocked off behind a clothes-horse laden with wet baby clothes. The washing had to be dried somehow and Claire had no other way of doing it now she could no longer afford to use the laundrette in the high
street. So the windows were steamed up, the air inside the chilly little room damp with hanging condensation.
Claire herself looked no better, her once outstandingly pretty face ravaged by too much grief, by too much worry, and by too many disturbed nights caused by a baby who only seemed to sleep when she was holding her.
‘I only asked you for help with my rent, for goodness’ sake,’ she mumbled defensively, feeling like a stray cat that had dared to beg at a queen’s front door.
‘And sometimes people have to be cruel to be kind,’ her aunt replied with a cold little shrug of her elegant shoulders. ‘If that means I have to use ruthless methods to make you see the error in what you’re trying to do here, then so be it.’
Which, Claire presumed, was her way of saying that she wasn’t going to part with a single penny. But then, Aunt Laura had never been known for her charity.
‘Melanie isn’t even your child, Claire!’
‘But she is my sister!’ Claire angrily flashed back. ‘How can you want to have her taken away from me?’ It was a cry from the heart—a copiously bleeding heart that had known too much pain and grief over the last half year.
Her aunt winced—but her stance didn’t alter. ‘Your
-sister,’ she corrected her. ‘You don’t even know who her father is,’ she added, her red-painted mouth pursing with real distaste as she glanced down at the dark-haired, olive-skinned baby cradled in Claire’s arms.
‘What difference is that supposed to make?’ Claire demanded, her blue eyes widening in affront at the rude remark. So, her mother had a fling with a Spanish waiter—so what? she wanted to shout. At least she’d still been able to attract a man—which was something after what she had been through with Claire’s father! ‘Melanie is still my flesh and blood, and I am still hers!’ she declared, only just managing to bite back the angry reminder that her aunt was supposed to be their flesh and blood also!
Not that it had ever shown. Claire’s mother had always
said that Aunt Laura had no heart to speak of. She was hard, she was tough, and the fact that she held down a very important job playing PA to the top dog at one of Europe’s biggest merchant banks meant that she was also totally dedicated to her career.
The moment that Claire had dared to ask for help, she must have been racking her brains looking for a solution that would put an end to what she must be seeing as the beginning of years of hassle. So, to a woman who had found it very easy to sacrifice love, marriage and the prospect of her own children for the sake of that career, telling her own niece to give her sister away came easy to Aunt Laura.
Claire felt sick to her stomach.
‘You’re only twenty-one years old, damn it!’ Aunt Laura sighed out impatiently when she caught a glimpse of Claire’s expression. ‘Until a month ago you were still a student. Now you’ve dropped out of university but you have no job,’ she listed. ‘No means whatsoever to support yourself, never mind a small baby! And now you tell me you can’t even afford to pay the rent on this awful place!’
‘I will find a job soon enough, I’m certain of it,’ Claire stated proudly.
‘A job doing what?’ she was instantly challenged. ‘Waiting at tables like that—child’s father did? Cleaning floors? Skivvying for others when you could be doing what your mother wanted you to do, and getting your degree? And who is going to look after Melanie while you do scrub floors?’ her aunt pushed on remorselessly. ‘It takes a lot of money to employ a good baby-minder, Claire,’ she warned. ‘Your mother’s estate barely left enough to bury her.’
The derision in that final remark cut Claire right to the quick. ‘I have rights! I must have rights!’ she cried. ‘Surely the State will help me!’
‘Of course,’ her aunt agreed. ‘But only as much as it absolutely has to do. The days are long gone when the State was prepared to pay up without much of a murmur. They
encourage self-help these days—which is just another way of telling you to go away and get on with it,’ she derided. ‘And Melanie has rights too, you know; you seem to have overlooked that. Do you think
is going to thank you for bringing her up in poverty when she could be living with the kind of people who could give her everything?’
With the sheer brutality of her aunt’s words scoring deep grooves into her already lacerated soul, Claire reeled away in an agony of mind-numbing confusion.
Would it be better for Melanie if she gave her up? she actually found herself wondering. Suddenly she was starting to see the future through the baby’s eyes. And her aunt could well be telling the truth; Melanie would have no grounds to thank her for condemning her to the kind of life she could provide for her.
Silently she moved across the room to go and place the sleeping baby in her crib in the corner. She was so thin now that the pair of jeans and stretch-cotton blouse she was wearing were hanging on her body. Only a couple of months ago they would have been as tightly fitting as you would have expected any healthy young woman’s clothes to be.
But a couple of months ago Melanie had not been born. And Claire’s mother had still been here, happily looking forward to giving birth to a new life, which she’d seen as the path to a whole new beginning, after what the previous few years had put them through.
Just three years ago Claire had been the only child of two utterly doting parents. Then her father had died at his own hand when he couldn’t face the fact that his business had failed, taking just about everything they owned along with it. They’d lost their home, their furniture—even most of their clothes had to be sold to pay back their debtors. By then they had moved from the Holland Park area of London into rented accommodation here in the East End.
Victoria Stenson had never really recovered from the way her husband of more than twenty years had bailed out of life,
leaving her to pick up the pieces. On top of all that, she’d had to watch so-called friends melt clean away as her circumstances altered. Claire had had to leave her private school to finish her final year of education at the local state school. She too had had to watch her friends disappear in much the same way her mother had done.
It had been a tough, painful time that left Victoria Stenson feeling very disillusioned and bitter. She’d had to find a job, which, having spent the last twenty years of her life being taken care of, wasn’t at all easy. Oddly enough, it was Aunt Laura who’d helped then. She’d found her sister a job working in an up-market fashion boutique where her natural flare for style and what suited people had come in useful.
But then, Victoria Stenson had been a very classy lady. As a tall and slender natural toffee-blonde, at forty-two years old she had still been a very attractive woman who proved to be very good at her new job. So when the lady who owned the boutique had suddenly taken ill and could not go on a planned trip to Madrid to check out one of her fashion suppliers, she’d felt no qualms in sending Victoria in her place.
The rest was history. By the time she’d come home again, Claire could not believe the change in her mother. She’d looked almost happy; more relaxed, more—at peace with herself. A couple of weeks later she’d found out why.
‘I’m pregnant,’ her mother had announced. And eight months later little Melanie was born. Small, sweet, olive-skinned and with a crop of black hair that they’d both found so comical when compared with their own fair colouring. It was love at first sight for all three of them.
They’d brought Melanie home here to this small flat with its two small bedrooms and tiny kitchen and bathroom. A couple of weeks later Victoria had gone back to work. It was August, and Claire was on her long summer break from university, so it had worked well that she could care for Melanie while her mother was out. They would have to find a baby-minder later—they had been aware of that—but for now they
were both happy to share the caring between them and all in all things were beginning to look up for them, they’d thought.
Then tragedy had struck yet again. Victoria Stenson had suffered a massive haemorrhage that she’d never recovered from, leaving Claire shell-shocked and utterly grief-stricken, with a baby to care for and nothing much else to help her to do it.
Outside a car horn sounded. Behind Claire, her aunt Laura took a glance at her wristwatch and frowned. ‘I’ve got to go,’ she murmured impatiently. ‘Oh—for goodness’ sake,’ she then snapped out. ‘Will you leave the child alone for a moment and listen to me?’
As if she could actually feel her aunt’s animosity towards her, the baby let out a soft yelp. It was purely instinctive for Claire to reach down and brush a soothing caress across the baby’s petal-soft cheek, and as she did so a well of love came surging up inside her.
It wasn’t fair, she thought tragically. It just wasn’t fair what life was throwing at her! She wanted to keep Melanie with her! She wanted her mother back. She wanted her father back. She wanted her life back how it used to be before all of these horrible things began to happen.
‘What are our options?’ she questioned thickly, tears clearly not far away.
Behind her, her aunt sensed success coming closer and smothered a smile of satisfaction. ‘There are waiting lists longer than you can imagine of childless couples who would be very grateful to you for—’
‘I don’t want gratitude,’ Claire cut in, straightening to slice the older woman to ribbons with a razor of a look.
‘No.’ Wrong move, Aunt Laura realised. ‘People who would give her a loving home, then,’ she quickly backtracked. ‘And a loving family life with all the security that comes along with that.’
But I would not have a place in her life, Claire thought bleakly. And tried to imagine strange arms cradling her sister,
strange hands caring for her, feeding her, clothing her—loving her …
A cold sense of despair went chasing through her system, her eyes blurring as the tears tried to follow.
‘There are discreet ways of going about it,’ her aunt was saying. ‘Private agencies that only accept the very best of society onto their books. The kind of people who would make sure Melanie wanted for nothing for the rest of her life. Surely it is at least worth considering the idea—if only for Melanie’s sake …’
For Melanie’s sake. Having found the right button to push, the super-sharp PA to one of Europe’s top bankers was now using it ruthlessly.
‘You could go back to university and finish your degree,’ Aunt Laura continued. ‘I would be prepared to help you to do that, because I think it’s the right thing for you to do. But not this, Claire,’ she murmured, with another contemptuous scan of their surroundings. ‘I will not help you to wreck two lives when both you and Melanie deserve better than this …’
‘I’ll—think about it,’ Claire heard herself whisper. But even as she said the dreadful words it felt as if someone was reaching down inside her and ripping her bleeding heart from her breast.
‘Good,’ her aunt murmured approvingly. ‘While you do that, I will approach some of the agencies for you,’ she offered. ‘See what is required and how m—’
The car horn sounded again, cutting her off mid-word. And, on a small sigh of irritation, Laura Cavell glanced at her niece, saw the dreadful misery now apparent on her pale face—and relented a little. Opening her small clutch purse, she withdrew a slender leather wallet.
‘Look, take this …’ she said, sliding a folded wad of paper money out of the wallet which she placed on the arm of the sofa. ‘It should see you through until I can get back to you
in a couple of days. By then I will expect you to have made a decision.’
Staring at the money, Claire nodded. ‘Thank you,’ she breathed, but they both knew she didn’t really feel grateful.
‘Please try to think with your head, not your heart, Claire,’ was her aunt’s final volley as she walked to the door.
Then she was gone, leaving Claire standing there staring at the money she had left behind her.
Her thirty pieces of silver, she likened tragically, and had to wrap her slender arms around her body in an effort to still the icy chill that suddenly ran through her blood.
Because that’s what this money is, she acknowledged as she made herself walk forward and sit down beside the wad of notes. The price of betrayal of those we love most.
With her heart throbbing dully in her breast, she reached out with a hand and picked up the folded wad with the grim intention of finding out how much that betrayal was worth these days.