Vanessa tried to avoid the word divorce. It just didn't sit well with her. This wasn't some traumatic latchkey-kid situation. She was thirty and her parents had recently taken a wrong turn in the months leading up to their Ruby Wedding anniversary. That jewel now blushed like a reluctant beacon marking the parting of their ways, rather than glittering in celebration of their unity.
She had tried to talk them out of it, of course, because it didn't seem right. They'd never given the impression that they were particularly unhappy, or particularly happy for that matter. 'Mum and Dad'; it was taken for granted that they were one unit. They just 'were.' So when they'd announced that they were getting divorced, Vanessa had told them not to be so ridiculous. It seemed to her like a collision of inappropriate concepts. Parents splitting up? Not hers. Trying to comprehend it was as intangible to Vanessa as inventing a new colour.
But the odd concept of separate parents soon became a reality. The marital home was sold, and they now lived independently. Her mother in a cottage on the South coast, and her father in the ground-floor flat of a converted Victorian house in Maidenhead, just a short drive from Vanessa's own modest starter-home.
Vanessa fought down the uneasy lump that lunged into her throat as she rummaged through the bowl in her kitchen looking for the bunch of keys labelled 'Dad.' He'd gone away for the week to visit some friends up North, and would she mind dropping in to water the plants and push the wheelie-bin out on Tuesday evening?
Actually, she did mind. It troubled her that she had separate keys for each of their houses. It rankled that he'd gone away without Mum. It broke her heart that the house in which she grew up (and still thought of as home) was occupied by strangers. Popping in to 'Dad's' flat felt alien, and all the more so because of the odd bits of furniture and memorabilia that he had taken from home. Everywhere you looked there was something - a picture, a chair or a bookcase - that was so familiar but so out of context that it made her feel disorientated and overwhelmingly sad.
But, of course, she'd said yes. How could she not?
She steeled herself as she turned the key in the lock and entered the communal hallway. It was a nice flat in a nice house, the residents all seemed nice and someone had piled the letters addressed to George Coombes on a small table just inside the front door. She gathered the letters up and opened her father's front door.
Vanessa's mother had always berated George for his habit of leaving lights on and doors open wherever he went, and it was with a heavy heart that she flicked several of the lights off as soon as she walked in. If he'd travelled with her mother, all the lights would have been off except for a couple of lamps on timer switches. This small act of forgetfulness tugged at Vanessa and nudged forward the impression that this was actually her father's home now, rather than just a pile of bricks-and-mortar in which he happened to live. She ventured a glance at a picture on the hallway wall, by the living room door. It was an innocent enough landscape in watercolour. A nice - if dull - picture, in fact, but it looked wrong. It had lived for years on her parent's landing wall where its colours jarred horribly with the ten-year-old regency striped wallpaper, but had been so familiar as to be invisible. Here it seemed more tasteful against the rental-magnolia walls. Its muted colours brought to life by its unfamiliar surroundings. It felt wrong that she was even bothering to look at it, because for years she had just walked past it without a glance.
She wondered whether that's how it had been for her parents. Had they become invisible to each other? Did they just exist together without ever really bothering to notice one-another? Was that what this was all about?
'For Christ's Sake,' she said aloud, 'It's a picture. Don't go into one.'
She pushed open the living room door. The light was on in there too, but her hand froze before it could reach the switch. There, on a desk in the corner, was a coffee cup, and there was hideous pinky-red lipstick smeared around the rim. There had been a woman here.
Suddenly everything made sense, and it was just so tawdry that she wanted to cry. Her father, at the age of nearly sixty, had simply had an affair. That's all it was. No complicated marital discord to understand. No noble and tearful parting of the ways. No question of each of her parents deciding they'd be better off alone. He'd just taken up with some floozy with - apparently - god-awful taste in lipstick.
'Is there someone else?' Vanessa had asked her mother when she got her alone, after they'd told her of their plans. 'Another woman?'
'No dear, it's nothing like that,' she'd replied. Her mother was telling the truth - she was a hopeless liar - and she'd started crying again, but she had cried a lot on that awful day. She now realised that her mother didn't know, so the separation would have been as confusing to her as it was to Vanessa. Poor Mum, she'd call her tonight.
Vanessa viewed the coffee-cup with hate. She was normally quite a placid person but this was too much. It was not even three months since her parents had split and now this. A woman. With lipstick. Here. Bitch. Homewrecker. WHORE!
She was tempted to smash the coffee cup against the wall. Her father could find his fucking plants dead and his wheelie bin full of rats for all she cared. But she couldn't leave that cup there. She approached it with caution.
It was two-thirds full, and she tried hard not to think about the act of abandon that might have interrupted its consumption. Instead she looked around. Next to the cup was a laptop computer. A laptop! She really didn't know her father any more, and just at that moment, she didn't want to.
Gingerly, like it was unexploded bomb, she picked up the offending coffee-cup and in doing so she nudged a pile of newspapers on the desk. A colour supplement slithered off and onto the keyboard of the computer which suddenly whirred into life. She had assumed it was off, but it had merely been in sleep mode. The screen filled with an email browser and a message from someone called 'Carole' was highlighted. She read the last paragraph before she could stop herself.
'Can't wait to see you next week darling.' It said, 'we're going to have so much fun. I can understand why you haven't told Vanessa about me, she doesn't know you like I do. I'd like to meet her one day you never know!
Love and a big hug.
So, she had a name, and a common one at that. Carole. And who the hell was Carole to be talking about her like that. BITCH!
Vanessa was, by then, quite unclear about what she was feeling, but she was pretty sure that it was something close to hatred. She'd be tearful later, she was sure, but for now she just needed to get Carole's vile lipstick off the coffee cup and get out.
Carole must have come to the flat, and then the two of them had gone off gallivanting somewhere. It didn't bear thinking about. 'Wash the bloody cup and go,' she said aloud.
Vanessa never did wash the cup. She intended to, she walked down the hall with it held at arms length, trying to keep her rage in, but suddenly everything changed.
Her father's flat had a basement, the basement door was open and the light was on. Resting on a step halfway down there was a black torch glowing feebly. At the bottom, wearing dark green and mustard checked woollen skirt and jacket, tan tights, a cream blouse, pearls and one alligator-skin sling back, was her father. He was dead. His neck was broken.
The coffee-cup bearing her father's lipstick lay shattered at feet.
Three days later, Vanessa went back to the flat. She had to, the funeral was arranged, everyone was invited, but someone needed to go the flat, and Vanessa was adamant that it should be her and not her mother.
'You asked me if there was another woman,' her mother had said, the previous day, 'and I said there wasn't. It wasn't a lie, because there really wasn't another woman in the sense that you meant it. But there was Emily. I didn't know that Emily had lived with us for nearly forty years until your father told me. The other woman was your father.'
Vanessa wanted to go back to her father's flat. The ambulance people had been very understanding and so had the funeral directors. 'We understand,' they said, 'let us know what you want.' But she didn't know the person they were burying. The numbness she had felt was caving into a great chasm of sadness and unanswered questions.
She let herself into the flat again, this time turning the lights on as she entered. There could have been no clearer sign that her father was gone, than the need for this small act.
The computer was still on, and with some trepidation she sat in front of it. The flat was cold and so she kept her coat on, and she sat there for three hours.
Her father, she found, had two email accounts. One was for George Coombes, and the other for Emily Makepeace. The email she had read from 'Carole' was addressed to Emily and it was one of many that had passed between them. Carole had been through the same sort of things that her father was now facing, and had come out the other side. Emily had met her through her on-line support group. Their emails went back for over a year, long before the divorce. Vanessa wept as she read of her father's heartbreak at the inevitability of the breakdown of his marriage. He could not go on living as a man. He'd tried and Vanessa could feel the desperation in his words when he wrote to Carole and told her how he had felt that suicide would be easier than tackling the mountain he had to scale.
Carole had offered wise counsel and seemed to be the only person that her father could talk to. Don't rush anything, she advised, and accept the unpalatable truth that people you love are going to be hurt. You are a person and you have the right to make decisions about your own future. People can and do get hurt all the time - you're not talking about hating them, or withdrawing love, or even changing how you feel about them. You're talking about making your life bearable and just hoping that they can understand that.
When the dates of the emails corresponded to the time that her father had moved into the flat, they became so bleak they were almost impossible to read. 'I know Vanessa doesn't understand, and she probably hates me,' her father wrote. 'She's probably confused, you're right, and she will be wondering what's going on.' replied Carole. 'But from what you've told me, she's a resilient girl, she knows that you love her. She's not stupid and she's not bigoted. She loves you and I'm sure she'd want to see you happy.'
The weight on her father's shoulders seemed like it must have been unbearable. In years to come, Vanessa would come to see his coping with it as real strength. That day though, reading his emails, she just felt sad but she was thankful that he had found Carole.
As the dates on the emails marched on, things became a little more upbeat. He had ventured out to buy some women's clothes, and he'd bought some items over the internet. He had done a bit of research into what the next few years would be like for him. He and Carole discussed the money and the surgery that would be required. It wouldn't be easy, Carole warned, but it would be worth it.
A theme that ran through the emails was the suggestion, by Carole, that the two of them should meet. Her father wanted to, but liked the anonymity of email. He wanted Emily to meet Carole; he didn't want George to be involved. It seemed very important to him.
Dated around three weeks prior to his death, Vanessa found a positively jubilant email from Emily. She had spent a whole day as a woman. Previously she'd tried on her clothes and spent time in the flat but she'd never gone out before.
'You'd have been proud of me, Carole,' Emily wrote, 'I just got up and decided that today was THE DAY. I put on the wig and the navy linen suit I told you about and had breakfast feeling totally relaxed and free. I will admit that I waited until the upstairs neighbours went out, but after that there was no stopping me. I went to Waitrose. WAITROSE! It couldn't have been busier, but I felt great. I just wandered round doing my shopping just like any other single girl. I even bought tights! When I got back home I was grinning from one earring to the other. There was a knock at the door and although I paused, I did go and open it. I was hoping it would be Vanessa. At that moment I was ready to tell her, and that would have made my day complete, it really would. But it wasn't her, it was just a delivery man with a parcel for upstairs. In retrospect I'm glad it wasn't Vanessa - it would have been too much in one go for her to meet Emily, I think George should tell her about Emily and then - if Vanessa wants to - they can meet. I think it will be the happiest day of my life.
Darling, it's been such a fabulous day that I'm going to say YES. I'm ready. I'm going to travel up to Preston on the train. Yes, me, not George. I'd like to accept your gracious offer of a place to stay, if the offer is still there. I think that if I do that, I'll have the strength to talk to Vanessa, and you know how much I want to do that.
I can't wait. I'm so excited. Can we go shopping?
Love (and thanks, as always)
The pieces of her father's final night had been pieced together. Emily had been at home, trying on the outfit she intended to travel in the next day, and breaking in her shoes. She had logged on to email Carole with her arrival time when there was a power cut. Not knowing that it was a power cut, Emily had taken a torch from the kitchen and headed down to the basement to check the fuse box. In her unfamiliar heels, she had simply lost her footing on the hard wooden stairs.
Every woman knows the perils of heeled shoes, every man does not. In the context of a power cut, George would have come to the fore, and would not have thought to kick off his shoes. Death had carelessly and callously outed Emily. Vanessa could remember her mother warning her to wear clean underwear in case she got hit by a bus. Nobody ever warned of the dangers of wearing slingbacks, twinset and pearls on the day of your demise.
Vanessa would have been lying to herself if she'd said that she was OK with all of this. Her father had wanted to live as a woman, and her mother knew that and had kept it from her. It was far from OK, but these were facts and all that remained for her to do was to make up her mind how she felt about them.
But, you only get one chance at a funeral, and it was important to her that it was all done right. She didn't want to look back in years to come and regret it. She searched through her father's wardrobe and found the navy linen suit that Emily had worn on the day that she'd seemed so happy. She took it to the funeral home and instructed them to dress her father in it. The make-up, she said, should be subtle and tasteful. 'Such as a lady might wear to meet a friend for lunch,' she found herself saying, and later she was proud of herself for saying it.
Vanessa contacted Carole, she had nothing to go on but an email address, but she jotted it down, took it home and mailed her from there. She just asked Carole to call her. Carole phoned within the hour, and Vanessa explained the situation. Carole sounded kind and very sad. This was not the first time one of her friends had died before finding happiness, but usually it was suicide. She knew the drill. She would send a wreath, but she wouldn't attend, thank you. It would be insensitive to attend. It would be George's funeral not Emily's, at least as far as most of the congregation was concerned. To turn up would be controversial and the funeral would descend into something it was not meant to be. Carole would say goodbye in her own way. Vanessa tried to pressure Carole, but she wouldn't be swayed. Vanessa understood.
'Can I offer you some advice, dear,' Carole said to Vanessa. 'Make your peace. Your father loved you, and he would have liked nothing more than for you and Emily to be friends. Think what you like, but never ever forget that your father loved you. I know it's hard dear, and I'm here if you need to talk.'
On the day of the funeral, Vanessa held herself together. How she did it, she didn't know, but composure seemed important. She alone knew how her father, in his coffin, was dressed. She didn't see him, she wasn't ready for that, but she did ask for a letter to be put in his hand. It was addressed to 'Aunt Emily' and in it, she expressed her regret that they'd never met or got to know each other. It would have been nice, she said, for them to become friends. Had they met, she said, she'd have happily given some advice on the correct shade of lipstick for a lady. And she told her aunt how much she loved her father.