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THE ORIGINAL DADDY’S GIRL

Sylvie Fontaine was a daddy’s girl. The original Daddy’s girl, as folk said, in that contradictory way we all have of calling a cliché original. He hadn’t been present at her birth – it was one of those things, she arrived early, though not early enough for her ever to be at any risk, and he was working away that weekend. Though he broke the speed limit to hot-foot it back, his first child had already been delivered by C-section two hours previously, and though she was in the neo-natal unit for observation just as a precaution, the kind, quiet Scottish nurse assured Adam Fontaine that she was absolutely fine, just a bit small, and already as pretty as a picture – with a healthy pair of lungs on her too! 

    At regular intervals, when she was old enough to understand, he said he sometimes thought he’d never forgive himself for not being there, and how much of it was sincere, and how much just for her to give him one of her odd, solemn, devoted looks, and say seriously, taking his hand in hers, “But Daddy, it’s not your fault!”

    In his heart of hearts, Adam knew it, but seemed determined to atone for it his whole life long. Still, the bond between them was deep and genuine, and even the most hardened cynic would have been hard-pushed to not be touched by the sight, as she turned from a baby into a toddler (prone to the odd tantrum, but with a habit of stopping in the middle of them of her own free will with an expression that said “this is silly” to a child of the two of them walking hand in hand, and somehow his long strides and her short ones managed to keep in step without the one needing to hesitate or the other to rush. They were often lost in a conversation that seemed to take place in some private world. 

    Sylvie wasn’t a tomboy, but she felt sheer bliss when her Daddy took her to a football match, and Adam had little time for ballet, but his daughter’s love of it made him a willing expert on the five positions and the correct way to wear a tutu. There was quite a strong physical resemblance – as Sylvie’s toddler chubbiness faded she had the same high cheekbones and strong chin, and both had dark hair and hazel eyes. But that mattered to others far more than it did to them.

    Her mother, Lisa, was philosophical, though at times it was frustrating. It helped, when her second child, Bertie, an uncomplicated, sturdy little lad, was definitely – and there was the whole unfairness of the thing! To call someone a Daddy’s girl was fine, but Mummy’s boy had negative overtones, to put it mildly. It wasn’t right. 

    It wasn’t as if at least not in her childhood, that Sylvie had a bad relationship with her mother. There was a normal enough degree of mutual affection, and they rubbed along pretty well. But Lisa knew perfectly well that so far as Sylvie was concerned she was second best. It would have been simplistic to say that she was the disciplinarian and he was the happy-go-lucky one. In some ways he was stricter with Sylvie than she was – though more often than not, his disappointed look was enough to make her immediately, and gladly, be on her best behaviour for him, though he always said he loved the fact she was spirited and feisty. And though she was quite firm about things like wearing sun-screen and having good table manners, Sylvie wasn’t an over-stern mother. Sylvie didn’t resent her mother. But she was, increasingly, bored by her.   

    So far as most people were concerned (though some had sharper eyes, but kept their sharper remarks for their own immediate family, and even then guiltily wondering what others said of them) they were a solid, close family unit. A devoted mother and father, two different but equally lovely children, who lived in a detached house with a garden and a Labrador called Lily who was just manic enough to be entertaining but not enough to be remotely threatening to anyone. True, you couldn’t help but notice that each child appeared to have a favourite parent – which was normal enough at their age – and that each parent appeared to have a favourite child, which was probably less “acceptable” but a lot more widespread than most cared to admit. And depending on how people viewed things themselves, Sylvie and Adam were more “unusual” and Lisa and Bertie more “conventional” – or the former more “flighty” and the latter more “sensible”. But it seemed to work out well enough.

    Sylvie wasn’t at all a destructive child, and not even a specially clumsy one, but she did tend to be heedless and so breakages were inevitable. She couldn’t help but noticing the different way her parents reacted. Her father would almost always say “Never mind, pet, these things happen, and we can soon get you another one.” This, in itself, was true. They weren’t wealthy, but fairly comfortably off, and it certainly wasn’t going to bankrupt them to replace the victims of minor breakages. Lisa, on the other hand, was inclined to sigh and to say, not unkindly, at least not most of the time, but with a weary and frustrated note to her voice, “Sylvie, I wish you could be more careful!” and make an attempt at mending, whenever she could. There was, by the way, a certain irony in that – because counter to the stereotype in such cases, she was the one whose own background and upbringing was the more affluent. Going back, her ancestors may well have had to scrimp and save and make do and mend, but certainly not in Lisa’s lifetime. Sylvie simply couldn’t understand why she was so angry about the toaster giving up the ghost and vented about something she called “built in obsolescence” when Adam, quite sensibly (so much for Lisa and Bertie being the sensible ones!) pointed out that it was probably cheaper to buy a new one than have it repaired anyway, and this one was past its sell-by date.

    True, there was the business with the necklace, and that did give Sylvie, thirteen at the time, a certain pause for thought. Her grandmother, who had passed away the previous year, and to whom she’d been very close, had left her a pretty necklace of coral beads with little fake pearls and crystals inbetween. Though Sylvie didn’t care much for jewellery (the silver bangle her father had given her the previous Christmas was an exception of course) she genuinely loved that necklace, because it was so pretty, and more importantly, because it reminded her of her Nan. And for once, even Lisa had to admit, it wasn’t her fault at all that it got broken – she handled it with respect, but the string was old and frayed, and one September day, the beads went all over the place. Though she wasn’t much of a weeper (she made an exception for Watership Down which was odd, as she wasn’t that fond of rabbits) she broke down in tears. And she knew that this time it was no good her Dad saying don’t worry, I’ll get you another, because there wasn’t another, and even if there was one that superficially looked similar, it wouldn’t be the one her Nan had worn. He just said, “Oh, chicken, I’m so sorry, but these things happen!” For once “these things happen” wouldn’t do. Even as he spoke, Lisa was on her hands and knees, tracing the scattered beads.  “I may be able to do something, Sylvie,” she said, quietly.

    And she could. She managed to trace every last one of those beads, and looking carefully at a picture of Nan wearing the necklace, restrung them painstakingly in exactly the right order on strong twine. As Lisa was neither that artistic nor (though she hid it well) especially patient, it really was a labour of love, and for once, Sylvie’s hug when she saw the restored article was whole-hearted and her shining eyes and the little catch in her voice when she said, “Oh, Mum, thanks!” were unfeigned and utterly sincere.

    But perhaps the difference between them was that Lisa clung to that incident and turned to it for comfort when, as the years passed, and Sylvie turned from a winning child into a young woman who, if not conventionally pretty, would always turn heads, she was both more subtle and less sparing in her impatience and sometimes, frankly, scorn for her mother. But Sylvie herself had, to all intents and purposes, forgotten it. She still loved the necklace, but as Lisa thought, sadly, she probably never gave a thought to that day when she had crawled on her hands and knees and those hours when she had pored over a photograph.

    Still, nobody could deny they had been lucky in both their children. Their school careers had been relatively uneventful, and both had done well, though, not surprisingly, Sylvie was a sporadic crammer, and Bertie was a plodder. She was, as he admitted, the brighter of the two, but he was the harder working. He was in the sixth form and had decided he wanted to be a doctor. Though he might find the academic side of it harder than most, Lisa, at least, didn’t doubt he would succeed, and be a good doctor, too. He had already said he didn’t aspire to be some high-flying consultant, just a good, honest family doctor. Lisa wholly approved of that and thought it was an honourable and decent career choice. Adam muttered something about “Salt of the earth, a decent doc,” but though, in his own way, he did love his rather stolid son dearly, he could have wished that if he had decided to go in for medicine he’d chosen something more interesting. More ambitious. But the lad wouldn’t stand a chance anyway. Sylvie wasn’t actually nasty or sarcastic, but still made it plain she thought it was boring – she had long since abandoned the childish intonation of bo-RING but there was an echo of it there. “My good, reliable bro,” she said, “It’ll be handy to have someone to come to if I ever get bunions, God forbid!”

    “I think that might be a chiropodist you’d need,” he said, with a rare counter-barb of his own.

    “Whatever. You might be better suited to that anyway!” Afterwards she felt a bit guilty about that, after all, there was nothing wrong with being a chiropodist, and Nan’s chiropodist, Amir, had certainly made her last years more comfortable. But Sylvie never felt guilty for long, and anyway, she had her own life to lead. She was already in her second year at university, reading Drama and English Literature. There had been a bit of a battle about that, as her own first wish had been to go to drama school, but for once her father backed up her mother and said that at least as many great actors had been to university, and it would do no harm to have a “degree behind her”. She might have made more of an issue of it if she hadn’t had somewhat ambivalent feelings herself. She had always been slightly stage-struck and had taken the lead in school plays more than once, but she also loved to read, still, and had to admit that she would probably prefer the time not spent in actual drama reading and writing essays than chanting syllables and doing improvisations as she vaguely supposed (though possibly more from A Chorus Line, one of her favourite musicals) might happen at drama school. What she didn’t know was that Lisa had said to Adam, “If she’s really intent on it, I’m not going to try to stop her. I’d even accept us helping her out financially. But I want to see just how important it is to her.” “Oh, you’re a hard woman,” he said, and though Lisa could generally read people quite well, she would have been hard pushed to say if he had meant it to be affectionate and it had come out otherwise, or the reverse.

    Despite having spent her entire young life being indulged, especially, but not exclusively, by her Dad, Sylvie was only sporadically smug and never stupid. Nor was she the first person to discover that being the star, both academically and theatrically, at a small school in a market town, by no means meant you were likewise regarded at a large university – in her case, and she slightly surprised herself by the choice, not to mention, though he kept it to himself, slightly disappointing Adam, who had dreams of his ewe-lamb going to Oxford, a sprawling campus university. But she weathered the storm, and was a popular student, both with her peers and the staff.

    Even on matters of health, the family seemed to split along “party lines”, with Lisa and Bertie prone to coughs and colds and rebellious stomachs, and Adam and Sylvie enjoying robust health.  When it came to childhood inoculations, Sylvie sailed through them with no ill effects, and Bertie had the rashes and fever. Of course it wasn’t quite that simple. But when Adam and Sylvie were ill, and it did happen, they tended to be (as Adam himself put it) total drama queens for a day and then it was as if it had never happened, whereas Lisa and Bertie stoically sniffed their way through miserable weeks or lived on bland food for even longer. 

    Depending on your view, Adam either proved the experts wrong or was desperately unlucky. Probably a mixture of both. Though there was no family history of it, on his side of the family, and he was, if anything, a little below average weight and ate a diet that, if not exemplary, was healthy enough, in his fifties he was stricken with diabetes. By this time, by dint of his own hard work and doggedness, there was a doctor in the family, but Bertie was spending a year out before taking over Dr Meredith’s practice (the local long-standing and much loved GP was retiring and had said that though it couldn’t be done officially, Bertie could totally rely on it) and working for an aid charity in Sierra Leone. But it’s questionable if he’d have seen any warning signs, because Adam barely displayed them – he may have needed the loo more, tired a little more easily, but as he reluctantly admitted he was “entering his prime” as he wryly put it, and there was always (if she were around – she’d had a temporary job as a drama teacher for the last three years) Sylvie to tell him he looked more handsome than ever, which wasn’t entirely untrue. It came out in a routine medical, and his initial reaction was a mixture of the entirely understandable “Why Me”? and a surge of panic, and a determination to act as if it had never happened. He did, reluctantly, tell Lisa, downplaying it as much as he could and telling himself it was entirely so she wouldn’t be too worried. Unlike Adam, she didn’t panic, but unlike him she realised that acting as if it had never happened was, to put it mildly, unwise. He finally worked out his means of dealing with it as treating it as a minor annoyance he acknowledged to placate the doc, and took the pills he was prescribed, and pointed out, truthfully enough, that his diet was healthy anyway. To placate Lisa, he did go to one meeting of the Diabetic Group (he said the very word with a sardonic twist to his mouth) at the hospital, and was perfectly polite while he was there, even contributing to the discussion, but then decided he’d had enough of their earnestness and that curious combination of scaremongering and assuring folk they could live a perfectly normal life. They sent a couple of letters, but in the end, as he had hoped they would, decided that he was an intelligent adult and must make up his own mind on the matter. 

    The accident was the most trivial of things. In common with many small market towns, they preferred to beautify shop fronts than to keep the pavements in good condition, and Adam tripped on an uneven paving stone. Apart from his dignity – and he automatically turned on a charming and disarming smile and theatrically said “clumsy me” before even looking if anyone had witnessed it! – he was hardly hurt at all. Nothing broken, nothing even sprained, just a grazed knee. He dabbed at it with a tissue and raided the First Aid box at work to find a couple of plasters. It had already stopped stinging, or more or less, and for a couple of days he barely even gave it a thought. True, it was annoying. He’d always prided himself on having what his mother, Sylvie’s Nan, had called “good healing flesh” and this time it was failing to oblige. Lisa liked a quiet life, but not at any cost, and when she noticed he had put two more plasters on and was wincing despite himself, she demanded he showed it to her, and said, “I mean it.” As Sylvie and Bertie could have told him, that wasn’t a phrase she used that often, and when she did – well, she meant it. Her Uncle Peter had been a diabetic. She didn’t talk about it that often, but she remembered.

    Once more, Lisa didn’t panic, or showed no obvious signs of it, but she virtually manhandled him to the car and to Dr Meredith’s surgery, and Dr Meredith dispatched him to the hospital. After a couple of days he was allowed back home, but with strict instructions to both him and Lisa and regular appointments with a community nurse.

    Lisa mulled over what to do about the children, as she still thought of them. She decided not to tell Bertie yet, but not to put it off much longer. Sylvie was so much nearer to home, and so close to her dad, and – come to think of it, was coming home for the weekend anyway. “She had to know, Adam,” she said, firmly.

    He sighed and nodded. Both of them tried to downplay it, and initially, typically, Sylvie’s reaction was feeling rather angry and hurt that her Dad hadn’t told her though she knew it was for the right reasons.

    She hadn’t been meant to see it, but arrived home earlier than she should have done because she got an unexpected lift. She let herself into the house calling, “Guess who?” and broke off, as she saw her Dad, sitting with his right leg outstretched on a stool, and her Mum, who had always been fastidious, gently and calmly tending to his ulcerated leg, determined that there was no way he was going to lose it the way her Uncle Peter had, quietly assuring him that it was absolutely fine and of course she didn’t mind. Even more fastidious than her mother, Sylvie couldn’t help a wave of nausea, but it was replaced by her own wave of panic and then with a wave of love, overpowering love, and it was for both her parents equally.

    She realised, and it was a realisation that was chastening and yet intensely moving, that long before she had come on the scene, and with an enduring, quiet, patient love that was, as the timeless words of the wedding ceremony said, in sickness in health, her mother had been, and always would be, her daddy’s girl. And he, in his turn, dearly loved them both.

October 18, 2019 07:13

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