It’s Cello who calls me first. In the middle of the night. She tells me she didn’t expect me to answer, so I apologise for doing so.
“I used to feel like you owed me,” she tells me. “I blamed you for leaving me and I sort of kept a list of mental grievances and I thought if I ever got to meet you then I’d be entitled to something from you. Attention, or money, or something.”
“Huh,” I say.
“Sorry,” she says. “I guess it was easier for a long time to think that everything bad that ever happened to me was either your fault or Mum’s. I’m older now. So I guess my problems are just mine. Sorry. I shouldn’t have called you. It’s not your fault I don’t always want to be alive.”
“Maybe it is,” I said.
“It can’t be your fault when you didn’t even know.”
“Maybe it’s genetic. You can blame me. I don’t mind. Make it all someone else’s fault. I do that. I think it helps sometimes.”
I invite her over to my house even though it’s 3am and I don’t expect her to agree. She comes over anyway.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” I ask after she arrives.
“Yes please,” she says.
“I did quit,” I tell her, opening the balcony door. “For more than ten years. Hard not to take it up again after I found out about you.”
“I quit all the time,” she says.
So we share a cigarette on my tiny little balcony, then went back inside. She looks at my books and my records and CDs, while I stack up some of my dirty dishes and put them by the door. I apologise for the mess, because that’s what people do but she tells me that she finds it reassuring to know that other people are untidy too.
She picks up my Ukulele. The good one with a sticker of an elephant which is peeling off. “I used to always wonder why mum pushed us so hard to do music lessons. When it’s not something she ever cared about herself,” she says.
“What do you play?” I ask.
“Cello mostly. Hence… Cello. Keyboard… but mostly things with strings.”
“Nice. I’d love to hear you some day.”
She plucks a tune on the ukulele. “She always wanted us to play. But never cared about hearing it. But nothing important to me was ever important to her. Sometimes I thought she made it that way on purpose. I couldn’t ever really connect with her. I tried so hard. I tried so many times. But she never listened. Not even the way you’re listening now. My mother doesn’t understand me at all.”
“I’m sorry.” I lean back on my bed. “That must have been hard.”
She keeps playing. “I wrote some songs once. When I was a teenager. I worked so hard on them. And I was so proud. The first time I wrote anything I actually thought was any good. And I gave her this cassette tape I’d made. Shitty recording probably but it was so precious to me and I gave it to her so she could listen to it. I wanted her to hear me. And I asked her what she thought and she just said she was sure it was nice. That’s it. And then I wanted the tape back and she said she lost it…”
“—Cello,” I say.
“…It was my only copy and she said it was ‘nice’ and then she fucking lost it…”
“—She didn’t lose it…” I stand up and look for an old external drive I’m sure I still have. “Cello. She didn’t lose it. She gave it to me. I ran into her one day. I thought it was just by chance but… anyway there was something playing in the car and I told her I liked it… and she gave it to me.”
She stops playing and looks at me.
“I’m sure I digitised it at some point. I might still have it…” I find the drive and plug it in. Neither of us say anything as I look through the files. I find mystery tape from gillian track one and play it.
“I sort of worried for a moment that it might not have been as good as I remembered,” she says. “I’m much better now. But it’s okay. Not bad for sixteen.”
“Not bad at all,” I say. We listen through to the end and then I start the playlist again. “Your mother’s tone deaf. Did you not know?”
She shakes her head. “She never told us anything, you know. I can’t talk about that. That’s what she said. I hated her for withholding that. For not giving me anything about you. No name. No photo. Not even a location. Then it turns out… there was this tiny thing. She wanted me to be musical. I never knew why. I guess that’s why. To have something from you, even if I didn’t know it.”
“It still seems extremely unfair.”
“I still don’t understand why she kept us from you. Kept you from us.”
“I do. I don’t feel like she was right to… but she was probably right about why.”
“Do you think you’ll ever forgive her?”
“Probably,” I say. “I save all of my grudge-holding for my mother I don’t have a lot of resentment to direct elsewhere. I didn’t forgive my grandmother before she died. I regret that. How about you? Will you forgive her?”
“For some things. Not for everything.”
“Who do you blame?” she asks, “you told me it’s nice to have someone to blame.”
“Oh my mother. Everything is her fault. I say that like it’s hyperbole but she’s really a terrible person. I know you’ve got your issues with Gillian. Which is fair. She’s done some shitty things. I don’t think she’s evil though.”
“Is your mother?”
“Oh yes. Cartoonishly so. She hates me. Like… genuinely hates me. Thinks I’m being queer at her on purpose to ruin her life. I was an inpatient once. Mental health unit. She phoned me just to tell me that she wished I’d succeeded. What an awful thing to tell someone.”
“Oh yeah. I don’t know how to tell you what she’s like without it just sounding like I’m exaggerating. And the worst part is I still let her. I tell myself that it’s just so that I can spend her money in ways she’d disapprove of. But I think I’m just still holding out hope that maybe, somewhere deep down she has a heart. Stupid.”
“What keeps you going?” she asks.
“My relationship with my mother.” I smirk.
We both laughed, then giggled as we tried to be quiet.
“Any time I really get there… any time I get that low. I think of her face and how relieved and happy she’d be. I never want her to be that happy. I have to stay alive and keep her as miserable as possible. Deeply fucking toxic, I realise.”
“Sounds like it.”
“My father killed himself. I found his body. I was eight. For a long time I thought it was that. I thought that’s what fucked up my brain. Didn’t help, obviously. But I don’t know. Like you said. I’m older now. Maybe my problems just became mine at some point.”
“I had such optimism for a while, you know? I thought for a long time that once I got all the gender stuff sorted out I’d be happy with myself and I’d be fine. Don’t get me wrong, it helped a lot. A lot. Enormously. But it’s not just that, I guess.”
“If it was just one problem, you could probably solve it.”
“I wonder… if my father lived and my mother was… not some kind of evil hell beast. Maybe there’s still just something in our genetic code. Maybe we’re just wired that way. Maybe we would still be sitting here. Two people who want to die sometimes. Sorry. That probably makes things much worse. You can go back to blaming me if it’s more helpful. I don’t mind.”
“No,” she says. “I don’t think I was just blaming you and mum. I think mostly I blame myself. Maybe I could at least stop doing that.”
And we sit and listened to music and then we stand on my tiny balcony and talk until the sun comes up.
“Do you want to be friends?” I ask. “You were already grown up when I met you and I’m a trashfire of an adult, honestly. I really don’t want to be your parent. But I like you. I’d like to hang out again.”
“Yeah,” she says. “Let’s be friends.”
So Cello and I are friends and Alan Sebastian texts me puns. He blocks my mother on my phone for me.
Gillian doesn’t call. Cello says she won’t. I think about calling her a lot of times before I do.
I think I would have put off calling her indefinitely if Alan Sebastian hadn’t invited me to his wedding. If I don’t speak to Gillian before then, I know I definitely won’t go. So I call Gillian—just to keep the wedding thing uncertain, instead of a definite no.
And when I call her she tells me she has something to give me, so I catch the train back to the weird little town where Gillian had run away to and stayed. I cry on the train when I remember how much Gillian loved Nanny. And I realise that somehow I’ve forgiven them both.
And when Gillian opens the door she hands me a stack of photo albums. “I thought… if you want to look at them… when they were kids. You don’t have to just… so you have them. You can keep those. I made copies.”
“Do you think…” I take a deep breath. “Do you think you’d want to… look at them with me?”
She looks at me and she’s surprised and relieved, “I could put the kettle on?”
And she smiles at me and my heart skips a beat. And I’m seventeen years old and we’re hiding in the music room in Nanny Bas’s part of the house where my mother never looks for us, and I’m thirty-four listening to her music in the car, and I’m forty-nine screaming at her in her living room, and I’m fifty-three standing outside her front door.
And I walk in.