The Necklace – Chapter 1: opening pages

In later years Cat thought of her tenth birthday as the day her mother started to love her. She remembered that as a small child she had leaned into the circle of her arms, felt the caress of her long, auburn hair on her face, and smelt the scent of her eau de Cologne. She remembered it clearly. It was a vivid, extremely sensual memory, so it must have been habitual, this reclining against Rute’s body. But, even then, associated with it was a sense of unease; Rute’s face, above her, was remote, as if she was thinking of something else. Or someone else. Maybe, once upon a time, there’d been a sister or brother for whom Rute was grieving, but whose death couldn’t be mentioned and whose names she sometimes called her in her more absent minded moments, ‘Leebling’ or ‘Leebchen’; foreign-sounding names which Cat had never encountered in school. But although Rute never laughed out loud Cat could remember how she looked when she smiled, how her face seemed to lighten as if from within, and she’d planted an apple tree in the garden so that Cat could have a swing.

These days Rute was awkward with her and undemonstrative; she rarely smiled, she rarely spoke and she rarely left the house. She would brush Cat away with a dismissive wave of her bony hand, like a pestering fly that had trespassed into her kitchen. ‘Caterina, some of us do have work to do, you know! Oh, go up to your bedroom; read a book or something.’ Something, anything, so long as Cat got out of the way. Her bedroom bookended her days; there she could be herself, and her mother rarely darkened the threshold.

Time might have levelled her accent, as sand is dragged smooth between two waves of the sea, but ‘leave’ was always ‘leef’, ‘have’ was always ‘haf’, ‘work’ always ‘verk’, and her speech was littered with German phrases. ‘You nervos machen me,’ was in regular use, as was Gott willens, usually when she doubted He would.

Their evening meal was the time when they might have shared the happenings of the day, but instead Rute presided over the table with monosyllabic indifference, broken only by her tired, inconsequential demands. ‘Fetch down your washing if you have any’. Or ‘Have you tidied your room this week?’ Or ‘Caterina, how many times I tell you, don’t leave hairs in the basin!’ Sometimes Cat would deliberately answer back. ‘I’ll do it later. And the hairs were probably yours.’ Just to elicit a response, some emotional reaction. Yet when it came, when she saw the expression on her mother’s face, she always regretted provoking her.

‘You don’t know how lucky you are, to...’ but then Rute would break off, stifling the words with a weary throwaway gesture of her hands, as though nothing could possibly matter enough to argue about it. Especially, thought Cat, if it meant having a conversation.

‘You always say that. So how am I lucky?’

Rute had a necklace which she habitually wore, a long string of gold and silvers bars punctuated by delicately-moulded silver rosettes, and when she was distressed she’d reach for it, twisting it round and round her fingers, and looping it over her hands.

‘Oh Caterina, please don’t be rude to me.’

Yet she was a good mother, thought Cat, whose clothes were always washed and ironed for her, her meals – concoctions of the cheapest ingredients from the corner shop, augmented by spices – cooked for her, the house kept clean. Unlike some of the other mothers she’d seen at the school gate, who she couldn’t imagine doing anything of the sort. Why should she complain, when her own mother did everything necessary for her? She’d somehow stopped loving her, that’s all.

So what had she done wrong? Why was she being punished in this way? What could she possibly have said or done to offend Rute so much that she seemed to actively dislike her? She searched her mind, but she knew it was nothing she had said or done. Her mother had no feelings, she thought angrily, either for her or anyone else. It wasn’t asking much, was it – a bit of affection, a gentle word here or there? It wasn’t as if anything might be taken away from her if she did! She never hugged her or called her ‘darling’, as Cat had heard other mothers call their children – even those slatternly ones at the school gate called their kids ‘dearie’. It was what Cat wanted, almost more than anything else, to be called ‘darling’, even in exasperation. ‘Darling, I did ask you, fetch down your washing, would you?’ That would do. Or, ‘Darling, you said you’d tidy your room today, didn’t you?’ Which would also do. Then she could respond, call her ‘darling’ back – oh, how she would love her! How, knowing she was loved, she would make her mother feel loved! She could ask her, then. ‘Ma, darling...’ she would say – and then all her questions could come pouring out; they’d sit close together again, Rute’s long auburn hair gentling her face, and she’d lay out the answers for her as someone might arrange food on a plate for her delectation.

She couldn’t initiate it, ‘darling’ not being within her vocabulary; it had to come from Rute in order to be given back. Else, how false it would sound. ‘OK, so what do you want now?’ her mother might say with a dry laugh. Cat had heard that, too, in the street.

She had a whole list of things lined up to ask, if truth be told and if Rute had cared enough to answer her, such as why they lived the way they did, with no wider family or friends calling round, or why, when they went to the park or to the shops, they were always alone. Or why she had no father – which was the other thing she desperately wanted to happen, to be told where or why not. To have a father might be rather disconcerting – a man’s presence in the bathroom, his socks, his crumpled newspaper, his smell; but not to have a father was equally disturbing; an unknown, father-shaped space, a father-shaped gap at Parent’s Evenings. To love, and be beloved.