Sophie unlocked the front door and entered the kitchen after a successful training session with Luke and the rest of Hang Five. She'd finally mastered a directional change that Luke called a 'Frontside Snap', which she'd been struggling with the past couple of weeks. However, the feeling of elation she had from managing to execute the trick almost perfectly had had her practically skipping the whole way home, and she still felt as if she was walking on air as she came in the front door to be faced with her aunt, Julia.
Sophie shut the door and turned around. Her elation gradually ebbed away when she saw the serious look on her aunt's face. She glanced at Emily, who was sitting at the kitchen table, hoping to glean anything from her as to the expression on her aunt's face; but she was staring hard at a book on the table, evidently going over some schoolwork. Sophie walked towards the stairs; as she did so, her aunt gently caught her on the arm and spoke quietly into her ear.
"Sophie, can I talk to you in the front room for a moment?"
"Uh, sure," said Sophie nervously. It was unlike her aunt to be so severe and butterflies began to flutter in Sophie's stomach. What could have happened? Had she received a bad report from school or something?
She followed Julia into the front room and waited anxiously while her aunt rummaged among a small pile of papers on the coffee table next to the sofa. She turned back around and smiled when she saw Sophie's stressed and nervous expression.
"Don't worry, I'm not about to tell you off," reassured Julia. "But this afternoon while you were out, I got a call from somebody who wants to talk to you."
"Oh... right," said Sophie, wondering where this conversation could be going. Could it be her father ringing to see how she was doing? No, she decided, he wouldn't ring just to talk to her. He'd made it clear in the five years since her mother had left that he couldn't wait to be rid of her. She highly doubted he'd have had such a change of heart. "Who was it?"
"Sophie..." Julia hesitated. "Sophie, your mother called."
Sophie felt like the floor had just fallen from beneath her feet. Her mother? Her mother had rung?
"My... my mother?" She stammered.
"Yes," said Julia gently. "She gave me her phone number in case you wanted to ring her back." She gave the young seventeen-year-old a slip of paper with a number written in neat handwriting across the middle. Sophie recognised her aunt's rounded writing and stared at the digits on the page. Her hand that held the paper seemed to grow hotter, as if the weight those numbers carried expressed itself as physical heat.
"Sophie," said her aunt. "You are under no pressure to respond straight away; you can think about it for a few days or-"
"No, I want to talk to her." Sophie swallowed. "I think I'll go up to my room if you don't mind."
"Of course not."
Julia watched as Sophie left the front room and she could see the heaviness of the girl's past and what it might hold for the future weighing on her shoulders. She hoped that the girl would be able to reconnect with her mother again, but deep inside Julia hid the fear that Sophie would want to leave her and Emily and possibly even Cornwall, to go back to her mother. Julia hated herself for being selfish, and she knew that her sister's illness hadn't been her fault, but she and Emily had been there for Sophie over the years and seen her grow from the terrified young girl she'd been the first time she'd come to stay into a shy but mature teenager while she stayed with them. Every summer, Julia had dreaded watching Sophie leave Cornwall to go back to her father in London and become the scared girl with the haunted look in her eyes all over again. And since Sophie had come to live with them permanently, Julia had seen a new confidence appear in her eyes that had never been there before, as if she'd finally found the place where she fit in and was surrounded by people who truly loved her. Despite everything Sophie could have with her mother, Julia feared losing the feeling of family- more than she had seen when Sophie was with her father and sister- that had built between them, and, still worse, she knew Emily would break down if she lost her cousin and her best friend. Although her daughter was outgoing and confident, Julia knew that deep down Emily would mourn if her cousin moved away so soon after getting here.
She sighed and sat down on the sofa. Whatever happened either way was out of her control, and if Sophie decided that she wanted her mother to be a part of her life again, then Julia would support her fully in whatever decisions she made. She thought about how lucky it was that Sophie's mother- Karyn- had chosen to ring her first- but then, she supposed that she would hardly be likely to phone her ex-husband, and Julia had always been close to her sister.
Sophie's mind raced as she walked up the stairs. After all these years, her mother wanted to get back in contact with her. Her elation at her success during surfing practice had completely disappeared from her mind. All she could think of was her mother. She pushed open her bedroom door and perched on the edge of her bed. For several minutes, she merely stared at the piece of paper in her hand, the written numbers on it going blurry. She blinked. The numbers shot back into focus. The time for sitting and deliberating was over. Either she spoke to her mother, or she didn't.
Sophie picked up her phone and dialled the numbers in. She hesitated briefly, then pressed the green button and held the phone to her ear. The ringing tone echoed in her ear for what felt like forever and at first Sophie thought that nobody was going to answer. The seconds seem to stretch out and Sophie was about to hang up in disappointment when a tiny click indicated that somebody had picked up the phone.
"Hello?" An unfamiliar woman's voice rang through the phone.
"Mum?" Sophie choked out the word as a lump began to form in her throat.
"Sophie?" Her mum's voice came back; hushed, whispery, nervous, excited, all at the same time. "Sophie, it's really you?"
"Yes," she said. "It's me, Mum."
"Sophie, can you ever forgive me for these past six years? I know I haven't been around to be the mother to you I should have been, but I've regretted every moment of it."
"Of course I can, Mum," said Sophie. Her chest began to hurt as all those memories that she tried to keep locked away came flooding back. Tears sprang to her eyes, but she furiously wiped them away with the back of her hand. "How did you know how to contact me?"
"I didn't," admitted her mother. "I only knew that I couldn't ring your father and your aunt- my sister- was the only person I could think of who might possibly have any contact with you. Do you still see Emily?"
"Yeah, I do," said Sophie, realising at the same moment that her mother didn't know Sophie was living with Julia and Emily. A question for her mother struck her: "Where are you living now?"
"As your dad probably said, I left London, and I've actually moved back to Cornwall, close to where we used to live when you were little. Do you remember the house we had in Penzance? The one near the harbour?"
"Yes." Sophie swallowed as distant memories of her childhood before London came rushing back to her. She could remember the tall, narrow white house that she had lived in with her parents before her sister had been born. The way the row of terraced houses reminded her of sardines packed tightly into a can came back to her and she pictured her old street clearly in her mind.
"I'm living in an apartment a couple of streets away from that at the moment," explained her mother, breaking her reverie. "I've had to save up just to be able to scrape by on the mortgage payments, but it was worth it to be in Cornwall again."
The lump in Sophie's throat refused to go away and she stammered as she attempted to voice her next question. "Mum, why- why did you leave?" Her voice was almost a whisper by the time she reached the end of the sentence.
"Did your father never tell you?" Sophie detected a hint of quickness and suspicion in her mother's voice.
"No," she admitted. "All he ever told me and Lynsey was that you were ill and you moved to the countryside to get better. When you never came back, I asked once and he shouted at me. I never asked again after that."
"Oh." Her mother paused. The silence stretched out as the woman on the other end of the phone began trying to form the words to explain her absence for all those years. Unfortunately, the worst thoughts began running through Sophie's head as her mind threw all kinds of possibilities at her.
"Mum, did you have an affair?" she burst out, and then regretted it. Her free hand flew to her mouth. "I'm sorry, I didn't..."
"No, it's fine," said her mother softly. "The truth is that seven years ago, I was diagnosed with liver cancer. I would have told you because I thought you were old enough to understand and you deserved the truth, but your dad was adamant that we kept it a secret from you and Lynsey, although she wasn't old enough to understand anyway. I started going to chemotherapy sessions twice a week at the hospital and I had frequent blood tests and biopsies to keep an eye on the growth of the tumour. The first few months the tumour didn't get any better or any worse, but after half a year or so, the cancer began getting worse. I started bruising more easily and began to develop jaundice, which you noticed fairly quickly. I wanted to tell you but your father was still adamant that we kept you in the dark, and we ended up having a serious argument, so I left to stay with my parents for a few days. I guess that's when things began to fall apart. I came back after I'd cooled off, and I hoped your father had too. He seemed tense but agreed to have a talk the next day about how we were going to continue with things from here. We left you and Lynsey with my parents while we went to the hospital to discuss our next options. The doctors told me that if I continued on the treatment I was on, it was unlikely the tumour would get any better; indeed it was more likely to get much worse. The only choices were to operate to remove the tumour or to have a liver transplant. I had an MRI scan and the doctors told me that they thought the tumour was just small enough to remove safely in an operation, but they warned me that there is always the possibility of an unseen complication. He explained the risks and we decided that I would have the operation."
Sophie sat in silence for a few minutes. Eventually, she said: "So all these years weren't just some illness? You had..." Sophie could barely say the word. The enormity of the situation suddenly hit her: her mother could so easily have died; something could have gone wrong with the operation, the cancer could have come back...
"Yes," said her mother gently. "I had the operation, but unfortunately that wasn't the only problem. A couple of months before the date of my operation, your dad was working in his office late one night and I was in the living room watching the news while you and Lynsey were asleep. His phone, which he'd left on the coffee table beside the armchair, vibrated with a text message. I knew he was expecting a work colleague to get in contact with him over a business proposition, so I picked up the phone to take it to him. As I left the room, I glanced down at the screen; it wasn't the name of his colleague that flashed up. Instead, it said Shirley."
Sophie clenched her fists when she heard the name. She almost hissed with anger as the realisation of what was coming next dawned on her. Instead, she gritted her teeth and forced the word "Continue" through her lips.
"I opened the message. I won't go into detail- I don't remember the exact words- but she was asking him if he wanted to come round because her brother, whom I learned she lived with, was working late. I stormed into his office, showed him the screen and demanded him to explain. The worst part was that at first he tried to deny it, to insist she was just a colleague he was working on the proposition with, but eventually he admitted that he'd been seeing her for the four months my cancer had been progressing, he'd been seeing this woman. He tried to feed me some crap about how dealing with my illness was taking its toll on him too, but it turned out that really I wasn't satisfying his needs enough because most of the time, I barely had enough energy to walk down the street, let alone anything else. So that night I packed my things and told him I was leaving. I lived with my parents until my operation; then spent a couple of weeks in hospital recovering. As soon as I got out, I stayed with my parents until I managed to find my own place close to work. It was only a tiny flat but it was better than living under the same roof as a man I knew had cheated on me, and I felt like a guilty burden on my parents. After that, I began putting aside all the money I could and one year ago bought this flat in Penzance. It took a lot of sorting out- there was no furniture and it needed a good lick of paint, which was why it was so cheap when I bought it. But my parents helped, and my sister Julia did as often as she could get away from work, so here I am now."
Sophie sat down, letting all the new information process. Her mum had had cancer... but the thought that played in her head over and over again was the sound of her mother's voice reading out the text message from Shirley. Anger swirled furiously and she tried to calm herself down.
"Sophie?" Her mother's concerned voice interrupted her thoughts.
"Sorry, Mum," she sighed. "I was just thinking..."
Sophie hesitated. Now it was her turn to explain the last six years of her life; everything, from dealing with Lynsey to putting up with Shirley trying to be her new mother- something she never was, despite how hard she tried- to moving to Cornwall to live with Julia and Emily. "I've met Shirley," she said tonelessly. "She's been living with us- with Dad- for four years now."
Karyn drew in a sharp intake of breath; then released it again. "I suppose it doesn't surprise me, really." She laughed ruefully, breaking the tension. Sophie smiled, glad that her news hadn't upset her mother. She was sure that was the way she did not want to start their new relationship.
"So did you ever, you know, date, or get married again? After Dad?"
Karyn considered the question. "There was a man, after a couple of years. He was more of an old secondary school friend really. We reconnected, and it felt like there might be something, but we soon worked out that we were just good friends who enjoyed each other's company really." She smiled at the memory. "We still keep in contact, but there's never been another man in my life. They're too much bother, really."
Sophie smiled; then began to laugh.
"What?" asked her mother in amusement.
Sophie wiped the tears from her eyes and tried to explain without descending into laughter again. "You remind of me of Julia," she managed. "She's always saying men are more hassle then they're worth." For a brief moment, Sophie was distracted as Luke entered her mind: she couldn't help wondering how far she'd go to stay friends with him, but then she quickly pushed the thought away.
Karyn laughed. "So you still see Julia and Emily, do you?"
"Yes," she said. "Actually, I'm kind of living with them. About half a year ago, I got sick of putting up with living with Dad- he was always being harsh with me but constantly doting on Lynsey, so she's spoiled now and always gets her own way- and I couldn't put up with Shirley always siding with my dad one moment, then pretending everything was sugary-sweetness and absolutely fine the next. So I got in contact with Emily and she asked Julia if I could move in with them. She said yes and here I am." She paused, before remembering another bit of vital information: "We live in St Ives." Sophie waited tensely to see how her mother would react.
"Fantastic," smiled Karyn, and Sophie relaxed again. "Couldn't stray too far from the home roots, huh?"
"Definitely not," agreed Sophie.
"So maybe in a few weeks we could meet up then?" Karyn voiced the question hesitantly; she didn't want to push her daughter into anything too quickly. "We don't have to do this too fast, if you want to wait longer..."
"No, I'd like to meet up," said Sophie. "I'm busy for a few weeks anyway; things with friends and Emily-" she stopped herself quickly before she mentioned swimming; it had become so much a part of her routine, of her life, that she'd nearly slipped and mentioned her extraordinary abilities to her mum. "But we could arrange something for after that? I'm sure Julia would like to meet you too, so we could meet halfway or something?"
"Sure," agreed Karyn. "I'd best go to get some sleep before work tomorrow, but I'll speak to you again soon?"
"Yeah, speak to you again soon," echoed Sophie. She hung up and stared at her phone for a few seconds, her heart racing. Then, euphoria at reconnecting with her mum again took over and she practically skipped down both flights of stairs and into the kitchen.
Julia and Emily looked up expectantly and smiled when they saw the grin on Sophie's face.
"Well?" asked Julia, her eyes twinkling at the answer she knew she'd receive. She didn't, however, expect Sophie to practically jump excitedly into a hug with them.
"She said yes," Sophie said happily. "She wants to meet up in a few weeks when we've had a chance to talk some more. She wants to see you again, too, so I suggested we could arrange to meet part way. She lives in Penzance now," she added.
"Fantastic," beamed Julia in a way so similar to that of her mother earlier. "I'm so proud of you Sophie." The woman pulled her into a hug and laughed. "Now I think it's time both of you got to bed! I think we could all use some sleep."
Sophie glanced at the clock and her heart skipped a beat. Her aunt was right; it was almost eleven-o-clock! She turned and made her way up the stairs, walking calmly now but her heart still fluttering and butterflies of excitement still whizzing around her stomach.
As they parted ways at the top of the stairs, Emily turned and congratulated her. "Well done on getting back in contact with your mum," she smiled. "I'm really happy for you. Just don't go leaving us any time soon?" she joked.
"Definitely not," smiled Sophie. "It'll take more than wild horses to drag me away from you guys."
"And Luke," winked Emily.
"And the others," protested Sophie. "There's Sapphire and Lauren and Jess too..."
"I know you too well, Soph. Don't go pretending Luke doesn't mean something to you."
"Only because he's the first guy I met who actually seems nice."
"One day I will make you confess that you like him," grinned Emily. "Don't worry; I'm only teasing, and if you don't want me to tell anyone, your secret's safe with me. Besides, I'm getting some good practice at the whole keeping secrets thing, what with your special abilities."
"All right, all right," laughed Sophie. "I'm going to bed. But thanks for keeping our secret, Em." She moved to enter her bedroom; then quickly ducked her head back out again. "And also, I would appreciate if you didn't mention it to anyone else. Thanks!" She quickly dived back into her room again before her cousin could press her further.
Emily laughed: she knew it. "Don't worry, I won't!" she called cheerfully before entering her own room and closing the door.