‘Can’t be helped, the sooner you accept it the better. Don’t matter how handsome or how weak-featured they are, we’re like sunken villages, hidden under sand dunes – or drowned by seas and reservoirs. Sooner or later, they show themselves – same with you. No matter how pretty and fine your face looks, one day you’ll wake up and look like a witch. It’s the Jones genes, can’t run away from facts.’
Ever since I can remember, I’ve envied those families who pass down money and property, or looted treasures – even just hereditary diseases – through the generations. All had an easier time of it than any of us did. No matter which family members you assembled for a photo, however many strands or age groups, the result was always the same. A wedding from 1972, or a night out last week, there it was, staring you in the face. Unmistakable. Unavoidable. Nasum et mentum, which roughly translated means: all nose and chin. Some of us (not me) had got lucky, and were either all nose, or, all chin. Others looked as though they had ducked the curse, and became smug at their own loveliness; only to be heartbroken in their early twenties when they would wake to find their face had played a cruel trick overnight. Perhaps it was worse this way? I wouldn’t know. My nanna always told me I was a beauty (blinded by love and cataracts) but there was a reason my nickname in primary school was ‘Punch and Judy’. Nanna’s front-room had a wall devoted to school photos of her grandchildren. There we all sat, within oval mounts, gingham dresses and V-neck jumpers, all side-on in that pose beloved of school-photographers, smiling like crescent moons. It’s a wonder our line hadn’t died out over the years, why would anyone want to procreate with us knowing the inevitable result? Still, at least we know who we are.
Nanna’s health has been failing for months, but, like the coward I am, I haven’t been willing to face up to it. Being around Nanna makes me fun and daring. She makes me a better person. What now?
Eight days ago, Nanna was short of breath, and Mum called an ambulance. The ambulance men said only Mum could travel with Nanna to hospital, so I waved her goodbye, and said, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be alright.’ I don’t know what I thought would be alright. Nothing was alright.
Nanna passed next morning. Her heart gave out. The doctor said they had ‘tried for more than 40 minutes before calling it.’ What was ‘it’? I asked. Nanna is a person, not a thing. Was a person. Mum said the doctor meant calling the time of death, not insulting Nanna. She’s taken this better than I have.
We’re sorting out Nanna’s belongings. Uncle Steve arranged it so every branch of Jones is represented, nobody can take something without checking it’s ok with everyone else. It seemed a good idea, but now we’re all here, it’s too crowded, and loads of stuff’s already missing. She’s barely cold, not even buried, and her house has been burgled. I sit brooding on the sofa, my left hand on the armrest, trying to feel her hand in mine. It calms me. I know she’s still with me. Photo albums, books, records, jewellery, linen chest, everything she’s ever held dear gets doled out .
‘What do you want, Jessie?’ It takes a moment for me to realise Uncle Steve is talking to me. I look at him blankly.
‘Thinking of her?’ he asks.
What a stupid question. I nod and shrug a smile at him.
‘You were her favourite, you know. She hated Kerry.’ Kerry’s my cousin. Nanna did hate her, and with good reason. She’s a stuck-up little bitch. But she’s got Uncle Steve’s squamous cell carcinoma as well as his profile, so that’s a bad thing to think.
‘I’ll have the wall of moon,’ I say, without knowing why. He nods, turns to my Auntie, asks her the same question. She plumps for the wardrobe and dressing-table. Perhaps I should have aimed higher? Mum picks the sewing-box and ottoman. Dad will be fuming.
The afternoon flies by this way until the light starts to go and we switch on all the lamps. I giggle. It’s like we’re going to do a séance, I whisper to Mum. She doesn’t laugh.
I’ve got all but three photos down off the wall (which is now sporting a new pattern of vibrant pink rectangles on the wallpaper where the frames have been) when I overreach for one of me when I was six-months-old, and it slips from my grip. The frame cracks when it hits the skirting-board. I bend down to pick up the pieces, and see paper tucked behind the photograph. Mum and uncle Steve have opened a bottle of brandy ‘for the nerves.’ They’re playing Nanna’s Tom Jones (distant cousin) albums and singing, so don’t hear my little drama. I gently pull the paper out, and there’s another one. My hands are shaking as I lay them side by side. I sit there, for what feels like the rest of my life, eyes moving left to right to left to right, like I’m at the opticians.
There’s a birth certificate. My date of birth. Not my name.
There’s an adoption certificate. My name. Mum and Dad’s names. My date of birth.
I don’t understand.
I feel like the room is whirling around me. Is this me? Is this the first photo they had of me? Catrin Pugh, is that me? If I’m her, where does that leave Jessie Jones? If they got me from somewhere else, I’m not a real Jones, am I?
I stumble into the bedroom, waving the forms around. I don’t remember what I’m saying, but I’m crying. Uncle Steve’s shaking his head, trying to catch hold of me, Mum’s pale, saying something I can’t hear. My ears are buzzing. Nanna’s been gone a week and my life’s crumbling. I feel as though I’m floating away, my mind feels halfway out of the room. I feel untethered, where do I belong, exactly? Not here, not with these strangers.
Mum reads my mind.
‘Don’t be so bloody dramatic, Jessie, we’re your family, same as always. I’m your mother, the only mother you’ve ever had. This is your Nanna’s house, the only nanna you’ve ever known, and we love you. Always did, always will.’
She looks over to uncle Steve. He nods and leaves the room.
‘I didn’t think she’d keep the forms there. Thought they’d be in with her papers. That’s why I picked her sewing-box, she always kept her bits in there. Thought that’s where they’d be, and we could’ve had a proper conversation when things calmed down.’
‘Calmed down?’ I scream, ‘What, when Nanna’s buried, we can get back to normal, is that what you mean? Nothing is normal now, June.’ Mum reacts like I’ve slapped her. I feel bad, but I wanted to hurt her.
‘I’m your mother.’ She’s speaking in that sotto voice adults use when they’re trying not to lose it. ‘I’ve been your mother since you were tiny, nursed you, washed you, taught you, stayed up with you when you were ill, loved you. I’m your mother, Jessie, a bit of bloody paper doesn’t change that.’
I catch sight of my ugly, red face in the mirror, neck blotchy from crying. Why do I look like them if I’m not a proper Jones? ‘Nasum et mentum,’ I say.
Uncle Steve is back with the brandy and three glasses. ‘You’re a Jones, Jessie,’ he says, ‘can’t run from the facts.’
‘But, I’m not, am I?’ Arms around me, face pressed into my hair, Mum starts rocking me like she used to when I was small. Like she’s always done.
‘You were always meant for me, Jessie, always meant to be here. Our family had a hole, and you were born to fit it. Soon as I saw a picture of you, I knew it was you. Nanna was with us – me and you dad – when we went to see the photos of the babies needing homes. Soon as we saw you, we knew you were a Jones. The woman at the agency could see straight away. She said, “Dew, she’s a little version of you, that one!” Nanna was crying, stroking your photo and baby-talking to you. She loved you from the off, we all did.’
I’ve got so many questions, too many questions. My head’s pounding, I look awful. The sicky feeling I had hasn’t gone, but it’s less. I’m a Jones, aren’t I? Even though I was born a Pugh. It’s not just my profile that marks me out, it’s deep inside, in my core. I’m a Jones. I belong here. We’re one and the same. No piece of paper can ever take that away, not if I don’t let it.