Salvage

Before she was adopted by a loving family and raised in a leafy Home Counties town, Cass Montgomery was Cass Jones. Her memories of her birth family disappeared with her name. But when her adopted family starts to break down, a way out comes in the form of a message from her lost brother, Aidan. Having Aidan back in her life is both everything she needs and nothing she expected. Who is this boy who calls himself her brother? And why is he so haunted?

Aidan's a survivor. He's survived an abusive stepfather and an uncaring mother. He's survived crowded foster homes and empty bedsits.He's survived to find Cass. If only he can make her understand what it means to be part of his family. . .

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2. CASS

Grace sank into the seat in front of me. ‘What was all that about?’

‘All what about?’ I snapped, and she said, ‘Oh, come off it, Cass! Why was that boy shouting goodbye to you? Will Hughes? The one with the hair and the clothes and the bag and the glasses? He’s gorgeous. Ruby was devastated when he dumped her.’

‘It wasn’t him,’ I said. ‘It was Jordan Strachan. He plays in the county orchestra. We’d been discussing Mozart.’

Grace grimaced. She thought orchestra was hopelessly boring, but she admitted it would look good on my university application form.

‘Why aren’t you in Starbucks with all your admirers?’ I asked.

‘Because I wanted to see that you were all right, of course. I’m going to come back to your house and make you hot chocolate and you can tell me how things are going. I feel so bad for you, and we haven’t talked at all, and I want to be there for you, Cass. After all, you’re my best friend.’

Grace and I decided we were best friends when we were six. I liked her because she had a pet rabbit and she liked my orange hair. But recently I’d been feeling that our bond was based on a shared history of Brownies and summer camps, parties and prep school and, to be honest, we had hardly anything in common any more. I’d been looking forward to going to university and making new friends more like me. Quieter. Serious. Not given to asking personal questions.

‘That’s so nice of you,’ I told her, ‘but you know, I’ve got that history essay to finish, and then there’s youth choir. I haven’t really got time tonight.’

Grace pouted, but she didn’t argue. She’d done her bit. My friends were being very supportive, but in a competitive way. I put it down to the general ethos of high achievement: we put the ‘best’ into the phrase, ‘Best Friends Forever’.

Grace, Victoria, Megan and Alice kept picking away at my nicely frozen numbness, like Arctic explorers tackling a glacier, and I really didn’t want it to start cracking or melting somewhere inappropriate, like a history lesson or during senior orchestra. Or even somewhere appropriate, like my bedroom or the girls’ toilet. I needed to maintain a personal Ice Age, and I had to avoid the global-warming effect of concerned sympathy.

I knew I’d made a good decision when I got home and found Mum sobbing over a pile of photo albums on the kitchen table.

‘Mum! What are you doing?’


She looked up at me and I was shocked. Her hair lay flat against her head, limp and greasy. Her skin was blotchy and her eyes red-rimmed. I knew she was upset, obviously she was upset, but seeing my smart, confident Mum unravel like this . . . well, anything could happen. A hurricane could lift our house and blow it away. An oil tanker could smash into our front garden. Mum always wore make-up; she went to the hairdresser every week: ‘An MP’s wife has to look the part,’ she’d say. Who was this stranger?

I hated Dad for destroying her like this.

‘We were a happy family, Cass, weren’t we? I’m not making it up?’

I sat down beside her, moved her wineglass out of reach. ‘Of course we were happy,’ I told her. ‘We had everything. Of course we were.’

Together we looked at the pictures. Holidays: Tuscany, Vancouver, Devon. The house in France. Mum, wearing a big sunhat, waving at the camera. Dad, in sunglasses, reading the Daily Telegraph. My stomach clenched when I saw him. What was he thinking, getting involved with an intern? He was actually old enough to be her father. It was disgusting. He was disgusting.

More photos. Cass with her swimming certificates, her oboe, in the choir. Christmas. Christmas. Christmas. Ben’s christening. Baby Ben, big eyed and serious. Me, all dressed up for my first day at prep school, ginger plaits and a straw hat. Thank goodness my hair has darkened a bit since then. I still have the freckles, though.

‘Of course we were happy,’ I told her. ‘Look, no one’s died. Lots of people’s parents split up. We’ll be fine.’

‘We’ve let you down,’ she said. ‘It’s not the same as if ... we took you on, we promised you a proper family . . . I feel so bad.’

Oh God. The guilt of an adoptive parent. It’s always there, unspoken mostly, but lurking in the background. They’re trying to make it up to you, because everyone knows they really would have preferred to make a family the normal way. The home-grown way. Although, mind you, Ben is their biological son and he’s as unlike them as it’s possible to be. We’d make a fabulous nature versus nurture case study for some scientist.

In my opinion, nurture wins out. What did I inherit from my birth parents? Freckles and red hair. What did I get from Mum and Dad? A whole long list of stuff, everything from religion (C of E), politics, education, aspirations, the way I speak, the way I write, the way I cope with stuff: I put on a brave face and I get on with life. Which is what Mum should have been doing, and what I fully expected her to get on with.

I wondered how Dad’s new baby would turn out. The one he’d made with Annabel’s nice fresh eggs. Granny Matilda (that’s Dad’s mum) suggested once that maybe Ben’s problems were due to Mum being forty-two when he was conceived. Granny Matilda is famously tactless. When I was ten she told me that it was very fortunate I’d turned out so well, ‘because I don’t think your real family were nice people at all’. And I’ve heard her telling Mum they’d have to watch me when I got to sixteen because that’s how old my birth mum was when she had her first child; she was eighteen when I came along. ‘Don’t be silly,’ Mum had replied, but Granny Matilda said, ‘Blood will out. The mother was clearly promiscuous.’ I think Mum agreed with her because I’d had all the lectures about contraception a million times, even though at 16 I’d never even had a serious boyfriend. Or a non-serious boyfriend, come to that.

Anyway, as it turned out, Granny Matilda was the one who brought up a son who wasn’t able to be faithful.

Mum gave a huge sniff, ruffled her hair and said, ‘I look like a fright. I must pull myself together. So sorry, darling.’

I shoved the tissues at her. ‘Mum, none of this is your fault.’

‘Oh, Cass, sweetie. Thank you.’


‘If Dad hadn’t been so ... if the Party Chairman people hadn’t made him decide so quickly . . . ’


‘The press had got hold of it,’ Mum said, blowing her nose. ‘The same thing happened to Rosemary Hayes, do you remember? David Hayes got the call that the press had got wind of his affair, and he announced he was leaving while they were watching Last Night of the Proms.’

David Hayes used to be Foreign Secretary. His wife, Rosemary, was one of Mum’s friends. She’d been furious when Rosemary didn’t even get to come to the Party Conference any more. ‘So unfair,’ I remember her saying. ‘Don’t they realise how much work the wives do on the home front? They should get some sort of a redundancy package when their husbands leave.’

Now Mum was in the same position. Annabel would go to Conference. Annabel would open the summer fête. Annabel would have to make friends with all the local Party workers – most of whom were Mum’s best friends. I felt an uncomfortable and entirely unwelcome glimmer of sympathy for Annabel, which I stifled right away.

‘You should call Rosemary,’ I told her.
 ‘I can’t bear it. She’s become a born-again evangelist of divorce. “You should have done it years ago,” she’ll say. “I’m having the time of my life!”’

I didn’t see that this would do Mum any harm at all, but I gathered she wasn’t ready yet.

‘What about, you know, those counsellors you can go to?’ One of my biggest shocks had been discovering that Mum hadn’t actually been all that surprised about the affair. ‘Why didn’t you try that?’

‘Oh, don’t be silly, darling. Have everyone in the world know our business?’ Mum pulled out her compact and powdered her nose, with short, sharp stabbing movements. ‘I just hoped he’d be, you know ... discreet. After all, he had his own flat in London. There was no need to ... to ...’A big gulp of wine.

‘To get her pregnant?’

‘He was still deciding what to do about that. It wasn’t too late. No, the real mistake was taking the job as minister for families. It made him a sitting target for the press. And once it’s out in the open . . . well, the spin doctors believe in quick decisions. And he chose her.’

‘Do you hate them?’ My voice trembled shamefully. ‘Do you hate him?’

She managed a tight smile. ‘I’m so wet, darling – I can’t bring myself to blame him. I mean, you know, an MP’s life is difficult. They work such long hours, spend so much time alone in a flat. I suppose ... well, to be honest ... I turned a blind eye. I didn’t ask questions. But I thought he’d be satisfied with that. I didn’t think he’d ever break up the family.’

All these years I swallowed the lie that my parents were blissfully in love; I never even thought to question it. And actually he was probably having loads of affairs. No wonder he insisted on having his own flat near the House of Commons, even though his constituency is only thirty minutes from central London by train.

If she didn’t want to hate him, that left it up to me. I surprised myself how much hate I could generate all by myself.

‘Mum, I’m going to make you a coffee. Have you had anything to eat?’

‘I didn’t really fancy any lunch.’

Mum had lost about a stone in the last few weeks. Normally dropping a dress size would be a reason for great celebration for her. Now, she’d hardly noticed.

I rummaged in the freezer, looking for something to warm up for her. It was full of homemade stuff, packed into foil boxes. Macaroni cheese, Irish stew, shepherd’s pie . . . oh God, not shepherd’s pie.

Mum had just taken a shepherd’s pie out of the oven when it happened. Dad’s phone rang, and he accidentally put it on speakerphone. So we all heard his personal assistant say, ‘Jesus, Oliver, you’re in big trouble. The Sunday Mirror has got hold of a story that you’ve got your intern pregnant.’

Dad dropped his phone onto the red-tiled kitchen floor. The screen smashed, but Gareth kept on crackling into our silence. ‘Oliver? Are you there? Sorry to hit you with this, but this is a crisis.’

Dad trod on his phone – his brand new iPhone – and Gareth shut up, but we knew it was true. If it hadn’t been true, Dad would have laughed and said, ‘Whatever will the journalists think of next?’ and started dictating some sort of denial, or calling his lawyer. Instead, he stamped on a perfectly good phone. His face went pink and his mouth opened and closed, goldfish-like

When Gareth’s voice finally stopped, all Dad could do was look around the table at us – at all of us, but mostly at Mum, standing in her oven gloves, clutching the steaming dish of pie – and he said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it to happen. I didn’t mean you to find out like this.’

‘But we did,’ said Mum, in a strange, far-away, un-Mumlike voice, which jolted me as much as the time in Italy when I drank an iced triple espresso in one, just to see what it was like. Then she dropped the shepherd’s pie with an enormous bang, globs of mince and mashed potato exploded everywhere, and our family was over, just like that.

We all stared at the mess, the meat and potato all over the floor and the walls and the table. Then Ben made a little noise in his throat and ran from the room, and Mum went after him.

My hand was on my glass of water, and I couldn’t let go. My muscles seemed to be in spasm. Just for a moment I imagined lifting the glass, throwing it at Dad. Not just the ice and water, splashing his smooth face, but the heavy glass, too. Would it smash? Would it damage him? Just for that moment I scared myself. Then my hand went limp and I could move again and I got a wad of kitchen roll and started furiously scooping up shepherd’s pie from the floor.

Dad tried to talk to me, but the sounds coming out of his mouth weren’t anything like his usual smooth fluency. He was blustering and stuttering and I hated seeing him like that. ‘Go away!’ I hissed at him. ‘Go and see that Ben’s all right!’

I wiped and scrubbed and tried to eliminate all the random splodges of mashed potato. If the kitchen was clean again, then there was hope that our family could survive. But even if we did stay together, I knew I could never clean away this memory. We were stained and spoiled for ever.

Since then, Dad had told us that he was staying with Annabel, but he hadn’t actually moved his stuff out yet. He was everywhere: his papers, The Economist – the house even smelled of his expensive aftershave. I kept meaning to buy some air freshener, just to eliminate him from one of my senses.

Right then, bent over the freezer, I felt weary and old and sad. There was no way that I was going to be able to sing that evening. As I warmed up macaroni cheese for Mum and Ben and me, I texted the choir director, told him I wouldn’t make it to rehearsal. Two minutes later, I sent another text quitting altogether. I was only doing it for the personal statement that was going to get me a place at Oxford, after all. Singing didn’t seem to fit in my life any more.

Over supper, I worked hard to get Mum and Ben talking about neutral things, like television programmes and books, and what to buy Granny for Christmas. I did my economics essay, helped Ben with his geography. Then I kissed Mum goodnight – she was watching a box set of Downton Abbey and seemed reasonably stable – went into my room and checked Facebook.

Twenty messages, and a friend request from Will Hughes. It would look snooty to refuse, and I don’t put much on Facebook anyway, so I accepted him. Then I scrolled through the messages. Friends and acquaintances checking how I was, sending me love, poking their noses into my business. Fake, fake, fake, I thought as I scanned them.

And then I froze. There was a name I knew and yet I didn’t know.

Aidan Jones.

I swear my heart almost jumped out of my chest. I opened the message. I felt sick.

‘Cass,’ I read. ‘I think I might be your brother.’

 

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