Gladys’ body was taken straight to the morgue and it swiftly dawned on me that I had nowhere to go. I could hardly go back to Gladys’ apartment; it belonged to the Council. The only thing left for me there was a shed load of dead squirrel teddies, and I certainly didn’t want them after what I found out. There was no point getting the rest of my clothes either; I could hardly carry them. I rode the bus into town and signed into a homeless shelter that night.
The next day, I dropped Gladys’ keys off at the Council offices and they kindly said that they would pay for a funeral, which I was very, very grateful for. I was so grateful for the homeless shelter too. While I was there, some of the staff taught me how to use a computer and write a résumé. They even hugged me when I cried and told me everything would be okay, and they lent me some smart clothes so I could search for a job.
In the meantime, I had to let Gladys’ friends know about the funeral, but I had no contact numbers for them and it wasn’t as if I could return to Gladys’ flat to find them. Gladys had never written any numbers down in her life, always scared that someone would break in and steal them. I really should have asked who the hell she thought would break in, steal her phone numbers and phone her friends, but I never did.
I left a note at Ye Olde Person’s Pub, or the Duck and Parrot, I mean the Dog and Duck, whatever, and dropped in every night to try and find the ladies, but to no avail. On the morning of the funeral, I dressed smartly and the staff at the homeless shelter gathered around me.
‘Maybe the ladies will just turn up?’ one of the women said.
‘I hope so. I even put up posters with a picture of Gladys and big letters saying “GLADYS IS DEAD” and the time of the funeral, all over Liverpool city center but I’ve heard nothing. I don’t know what else I can do.’
One of the workers at the homeless shelter leant in the doorway. ‘Grace, there’s a man in reception sporting a pair of caterpillars on his face’
‘You mean Dennis? Be right there.’
‘Hello, Grace,’ Dennis said. ‘Now, I’m here because of Gladys. She came to see my dad, Clive, who worked in the Council offices some while ago, did you know?’
‘No, I didn’t. What about?’
‘Me, are you sure?’
‘Yes, absolutely. Grace, Gladys actually owned the apartment that she lived in. She used a rent-to-buy scheme that the Council put in place in 1979. I think she would have been working as a secretary back then. Grace, she left the place to you. I have a copy of the will for you and some keys. It’s all yours.’
I gripped the edge of the reception desk. ‘Are you kidding?’
‘No, Grace. It’s all yours. Sorry, I couldn’t tell you any sooner. I was sworn to secrecy.’
My hands shook as I scanned the will. ‘1980, she wrote this in 1980. But she only found me when I was twenty-five, in 1994. How’s that possible?’
‘Sorry, I’m not sure. There was a handwritten note with it. Sorry, I didn’t bring it, it said on it that you didn’t know about the will though, or that Gladys was your mother, that we must never inform you of this, only to do so in the event that something happened to Gladys. It seems she had really been looking out for you.’
‘She did, she really did.’
‘I’m glad you got to know her before she died. And I’m sorry it’s taken a little time to get this will to you. Are you okay?’
‘I think so, I think I am.’
That afternoon, I found myself in the front seat of the church, waiting for the funeral to start. The place was packed with people I didn’t know who had turned out to show their respect for Gladys. It turned out those posters I plastered around Liverpool had pulled on a few heartstrings. I still couldn’t see any sign of the ladies though. I used my sleeve to rub my eyes as the music started. I couldn’t believe it—Gladys’ friends were not here and there was nothing else I could do.
Suddenly, the doors burst open and the ladies ran down the aisle and bear- hugged me all at once. This time I really didn’t mind.
‘I’m not happy she’s gone,’ I said as I bear-hugged the ladies back. ‘I’m just so happy you’re all here.’
‘You know, do you know?’ Agnes said.
‘That she’s my mother, yes. Wait … you all knew?’
‘Grace, we have known for so long. She has been dying to tell you but didn’t know how. When she found out about her heart condition, then she—’
I pulled away from the ladies. ‘She knew she had a heart condition?’
‘Yes, my dear. That is why she took you to Hollywood, to tell you. She knew she didn’t have long left. She scrimped and saved for so many years so that she could take you. Oh, we told her not to lie about winning on the lottery but she insisted she wanted to take you to a place where you’d be truly happy first. You know, one last time, in case anything bad happened.’
‘But she knew and she didn’t tell me. I wouldn’t have gone if I’d have known.’
‘Exactly. That is why she never told you. My dear, you are all she has ever talked about over the years. She loved you so much. Even when you were adopted she never left you for a moment. After your foster mother died, she thought she had lost you. She searched everywhere for you and then finally one day …’
And then the penny dropped.
At Gladys’ flat, I rattled the keys in the lock, burst through the door and began scrambling through her dresser drawers. I dragged document after document out of the drawers but I couldn’t find anything. Then I remembered. In the front room, underneath one of the cabinets, there was a cupboard.
I dived into the cupboard, hurled all of the photo albums onto the floor and began to sift through them. Over and over, page by page, photo by photo, there she was: the smiling woman with the glasses. My head suddenly cleared, a rush of memories shooting into the forefront of my mind, like a clear snapshot playing out in raging colour. Outside my foster mum’s house, the smiling woman with the glasses, at my school play, the smiling woman with the glasses, in the park, the smiling woman with the glasses, after piano rehearsal with my foster mother, when I looked out the window, the smiling woman with the glasses sitting on the garden wall listening in, and then the one single memory that made the tears pour from my eyes … at my foster mother’s funeral, sitting quietly at the back of the church, the woman with the glasses.
She’d never left me at all; my whole life she really had been there. She had lost me though. After my foster mother’s funeral, aged sixteen, I moved out and had to fend for myself. It was only aged twenty-five did we ever meet again.
I don’t remember how long I sat there crying, in between an indescribable mix of pain and happiness, but eventually the doorbell rang. I wiped my eyes and dragged myself down the hallway. I had no idea who could be calling at this time. On opening the door, I studied my weird neighbour’s face. He had a bunch of flowers in one hand and a meowing cat in the other. I used the cuff of my sleeve to wipe the remaining tears away.
‘Em, em, em, these are for you,’ he said, fumbling with the cat and shoving the flowers in my hands. ‘And I just wanted to say how much I liked Gladys. Erm, erm, so, like, I’ll be going now, bye.’
Ordinarily, I would have shut the door in his face, especially after what he did to Mr Nutty McNutnut, but at that very moment in time, for the first time in my life, I really needed someone to talk to. I stepped back and opened the door really wide. ‘Cup of tea?’
In the kitchen, my weird neighbour sat down and placed Fluffy down on the floor. At first, I began to boil the kettle and pull out a couple of mugs from the kitchen cupboard, then he said something that made me turn back to face him.
‘You know, I really am sorry about your mum,’ he said.
‘My mum? How did you know she was my mum?’
‘Oh, she’s not your mum?’
‘Well, she is my mum, but even I didn’t know that.’
‘Em, em, well you do look pretty similar. I just presumed.’
‘We do?’ I smiled. ‘Oh, I suppose we do, a bit.’ I suddenly remembered how Gladys made me feel when she made me a cup of tea. I pulled the teapot out and dug out the Jaffa Cakes.
That afternoon I discovered that my weird neighbour was pretty all right for a weird neighbour. His name was Tony. He didn’t own an expensive car, but then again, I wasn’t forty. He did agree with me that Dog’s Breath was actually a pretty decent wine, and it turned out he really was French, that bit was true. And he also owned up to having a pretty terrible sense of humour, and reckoned that the date we had in the Haggis Café was a pretty epic revenge plot after what he did to Mr Nutty McNutnut. He said he’d finally met his match. I said nothing.
After making friends with my neighbour, finding a job was first on my list. I decided to do the unthinkable and forego free slides and apply at one of the tech companies, with my now glowing résumé. I removed the fact that I was terrible at organising, due to recent events, and put my recent work as a Hollywood executive down.
The receptionist was a bit shocked to see me though. ‘Are you sure?’ she said as I arrived.
‘Absolutely,’ I said back to her as I slammed my résumé on her desk.
I discovered in the interview though, that I’d actually applied for the job as a barista in one of their internal coffee shops. I didn’t get that job though, which I was quite relieved about, because the first thing I thought about when they said the word “barista” was that Tesco job I landed —a shiver tingled down my spine as I recalled my first day. Getting barred from every coffee shop in the world would be hell.
But they were very happy to see me, especially when I told them what had happened. They were super-impressed with my box office smash, Stuck in the Cellar, too. And you wouldn’t believe it, but it turned out that I did actually have a very specific set of skills that they could use; I thought I was just full of shit, but they said that it was clear that I could talk my way in and out of anything and that, if I used that to my advantage, it’s possible that I would make a great saleswoman. I literally cried like a baby when they told me that. Who knew?
With a good job that I was absolutely not going to screw up under my belt, I started practising every morning before work and every evening, coupled with the help of a piano teacher twice a week. Everything that my foster mother had taught me on the piano came flooding back, and it wasn’t long before I started applying for my dream job at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. After rejection after rejection, a few months down the line, they finally gave me a spot in one of their shows.
But still there was one more thing left to do—the hardest one of them all. I gripped my handbag to my chest as I knocked on the door of my favourite house, the one with the blue door and new microwave. I heard a pitter-patter of feet and then a smiling lady opened the door.
‘Hello,’ she said.
‘Em, em, I mean, hello. Is Brian there?’
‘Sure, just a second.’
I straightened my hair as I listened to her footsteps walk away. Suddenly, two small children popped their heads around the door and grinned at me. ‘Hello,’ I said. I stared at their perfect little faces, with floppy blonde hair and tiny hands that gripped the door. They were beautiful.
The next thing I knew the door had swung open and Brian stood in front of me. I don’t know what I had expected really, but as his face dropped and a dark look swept his eyes, I just knew.
‘Hello, Squirrel,’ I said.
‘Leave, just go the hell away,’ he said, slamming the door in my face.
My body jolted as the door slammed and I looked down at the ground.
A surge of silence and emptiness squeezed the air out of me as tears welled in my eyes. It was the feeling that I was so afraid of, hitting me like a sledgehammer and taking with it the very last remnant of happiness that I had been clinging so dearly onto.
I knew exactly how he felt: I didn’t blame him for one single second.
But now it was gone, the final curtain had fallen on that tiniest of parts I was playing in his life.
Before this moment I could pretend. Pretending brought me a sliver of comfort in my self-made misery—even if the only part I ever played was to peer in his windows every now and again so that I could follow his life.
But that wasn’t fair to my son, was it? By only peering into the windows of his house and never letting him know the true me, I had denied my son that single shred of comfort that he deserved. The knowledge that he was, since the moment he was born, truly wanted.
This is what Gladys must have felt like. This was the terror that she must have felt when faced with losing me. This is why she did what she did. This is what the heart-wrenching rejection and pain that Gladys must have felt on the evening before she died alone on that bench felt like. That night where she wrote me a beautiful poem, where she brought me to the most perfect place on earth, where I rejected her, shouted at her, ran away from her. I left her to it, sitting on that bench all night crying. How could I have done that to my best friend in her final moments.
I spun around, gasping for air, my back to the blue front door and my thoughts screaming at me.
And then, suddenly, as involuntary as you could possibly imagine, I did something that I never thought I was capable of or understood how to do—I meditated.
I cleared my mind, grounded my feet and breathed deeply as the noise of the birds in the distance came back into focus. My mind suddenly cleared and I found myself in the zen garden walking toward Gladys. She was sitting on the rustic bench, looking out over the Yosemite with her back to me.
As I reached her, I stepped tentatively around the bench to face her. She was sat bolt upright, her hands resting on her lap, eyes firmly shut and her face beaming with happiness as the morning sun rose over the Yosemite igniting her smile. She didn’t need to say a single word to me. For once in my life, I just got it. I sat down beside her and closed my eyes. Finally, I had arrived.
After a few moments, I continued walking down the path and onto the street when I heard a patter of feet running down the path towards me.
‘Wait!’ shouted a woman’s voice. ‘Just wait.’
I turned back around. The smiling lady held her hands out. ‘Just a second, Grace. Please, he just needs a minute. Let me talk to him.’
She ran back inside and I listened to some muffled voices before a slower set of feet clunked down the path and emerged from the garden. Squirrel stepped out and stared at me.
‘You left me,’ he said.
I fought to hold the tears back. ‘I am so sorry, Squirrel. I thought it was for the best.’
‘I was eight and you left me.’
‘I couldn’t cope, I thought I was giving you a better life, and I really hope that I did. My life has not been so great, I have messed so many things up. I just hoped that you might forgive me. Please.’
I watched as tears formed in Squirrel’s eyes and he looked at me.
‘Look who I have,’ I said as I rummaged around my bag.
Squirrel smiled and rushed forward. ‘Mr Nutty McNutnut. You still have him.’
I used my hand to wipe a tear from Squirrel’s face. ‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Did you know that he’s actually a real squirrel that’s been stuffed?’
Squirrel scrunched his mouth to one side. ‘Yes, didn’t you?’
‘Honestly, no idea.’
I flattened my ballgown and stood up, searching through the floodlights as hundreds of bodies in the audience rose to applaud my performance at the Philharmonic Hall. I felt a pang of happiness as I caught sight of some familiar faces beaming back at me: Agnus, Betty, Hilda, Squirrel, his wife, both my grandchildren, Dennis Eyebrows, my weird neighbour/boyfriend Tony, Eric, High Mistress Breeze, Stevie, Miguel and Lucie all stood up to clap.
As the crowd continued to roar, I thought back to the day when I think I first met Gladys. I was little over twenty-five and had just got quite possibly the worst fake tan known to man. Anyway, I was literally turning greener by the minute. I can’t quite remember what went down in the shop, but the next thing I knew someone had hurled me from the premises and onto the pavement, where I’d landed with a thud, my carrier bag of food that I’d just been given from the food bank ripping open as it slammed into the ground.
I scrambled onto my knees to gather my shopping as it rolled all over the pavement. Then a hand came down, picking up some of my shopping and helping me up. There, in front of me, stood this smiling lady with glasses and I instantly warmed to her. Thinking back, she seemed stuck for words, lost for breath, but at the time I barely noticed amongst my confusion.
‘Oh, it’s everywhere, I just got it from the food bank too, and I’m completely green,’ I said as I struggled to cling onto my shopping.
‘That’s all right, my dear, use my shopping trolley to hold your food, I will walk you home,’ she said, gesturing to her black and green chequered trolley.
A snake slithered past.
As we walked down the street together, I introduced myself and Gladys chatted away to me as if she’d known me all her life. Her mothering nature kicked in almost instantly.
‘Where are you staying?’ Gladys said, wafting a parrot off her shoulder.
‘At the homeless shelter. The Council are about to get me a place. I’m on the list.’
‘You’re homeless and you’re getting a tan?’
‘Well, this is Liverpool,’ I said. ‘Looking good is obviously a priority and it was only a pound.’
‘If you’re homeless, then getting a tan isn’t really a priority at all, even for a pound, is it?’
I looked down at my feet and scrunched my mouth. ‘It was so cheap though, and I just got some dole money, and I just stopped to look at the goldfish in this pet shop, then I saw a squirrel, and then a tiger, and the next thing I knew I was out the back getting a tan for a pound. And then I realized they’d turned me green so I let some of the animals free to restore karma.’
A sloth riding and alpaca shot past us.
‘But there’s a reason it was so cheap. Now, do you have a job?’
‘Not right now.’
‘You know, I have a friend who works at the Council, called Clive Eyebrows.’
‘That’s a weird surname. Jesus Christ, is that a chicken using the zebra crossing? I know a joke about—’
‘NO. DON’T. It’s a penguin, anyway, Grace. Back to the point. Now, ah, yes, maybe don’t call Clive that to his face. We can go see him if you want. I’m sure he would help you get a council flat.’
‘His son works in the benefits office too, Dennis, we can go see him after and see if we can sort some money out for your new place.’
‘Really? Honestly? You’d do that for me? That would be amazing.’
‘You know, I know there’s a flat free next to my council flat. I live in that apartment block right over there. That one, there. The one with the tiger guarding it.’
‘Over there, you see, where that massive group of people are running away from, screaming.’
‘Oh, I see. By jove, that tiger looks familiar. I feel like we’ve met bef—’
‘You know, if you want, I could go to the Council with you and kick their arses now.’
‘That would be amazing, really, would you do that?’
‘Of course. Right after we shake off that hyena. Wait, where the hell has that hyena gon—’
‘Wait, but I’ve been in so many times, they always tell me the same thing. That I have to wait a bit longer.’
Gladys gripped my shoulder. ‘I might be small, Grace, but don’t let that fool you for a single second.
Outside the Council office, Gladys and I stared through the window.
‘But look at that queue,’ I wailed. ‘We’ll be here all day.’
Gladys rubbed her hands. ‘Watch and learn, sunshine, watch and learn.’
I looked back out at my friends and family in the crowd and then that’s when it truly dawned on me—maybe there really was such a thing as perfection. If there really was, then I was absolutely positive this had to be it. And I was going to make sure that I enjoyed every last second of it.
Then I cocked my head to one side and tapped my chin. ‘Hang on,’ I muttered to myself. ‘Where the fuck is my Nobel Peace Prize?’