The Chosen One
Much later, on the days when Helen emerged from beneath the black cloud that dogged her waking hours, and was able to indulge in logical thought processes, she realised that they had probably gone too far with this ‘you’re special, because you were chosen’ philosophy.
She and Tom were always so careful to nurture Ellie’s self-esteem, so ready to reassure her that even though she was adopted, she was at the centre of their universe. As a result, Ellie developed from a shy, under-confident waif, always lingering in the background, to a plump, happy and active eight year old, for whom nothing in life presented a problem.
Somewhere along the line though, something had gone wrong.
Helen’s unexpected pregnancy was the turning point. Years of failing to conceive had blunted her awareness of her own body, and she had been almost three months pregnant before she realised what was happening. She and Tom were both overjoyed, and of course, like the books said, they were careful to include Ellie in the excitement.
“It’s a present for you,” Tom said, “a little brother or sister for you to look after, a friend for the rest of your life.”
Ellie was overjoyed at the news too.
“It’s going to be a boy, I just know it,” she declared. “I always wanted a brother.” Helen and Tom had been told that Ellie did have a brother somewhere; but if she remembered him, she never spoke of him now.
They sensed no resentment on Ellie’s part about the baby. If anything Ellie was perhaps a touch over-enthusiastic, a little invasive with her curiosity about the pregnancy. Whilst Helen thought this was a good sign and was initially amused, in time she became slightly exasperated with Ellie’s questions, and constantly-voiced opinions.
For an eight year old, she could be at times a touch overbearing, and her thinly veiled disapproval of Helen’s behaviour was occasionally irritating. Ellie’s little round face would set into a frown when Helen, racked with morning sickness, wearily pushed her uneaten toast aside.
“You’re eating for two, you know, Mummy” she would say, waving her plump fingers in the air, as she munched her cornflakes, “the baby needs his vitamins.”
Tom laughed when she told him that night, as they were in their bedroom, getting ready to go out.
“Wow, she’s really taking an interest, Helen. Aren’t you pleased that she’s taking it so well? It’s such a relief. Can’t be easy when you’re adopted and then the ‘real thing’ comes along.”
Helen froze. It was an unfortunate choice of words, she thought, as she turned to find Ellie hovering in the doorway, with a strange expression on her face.
Tom apologised to Ellie quickly.
“I’m sorry, honey,” he said, kneeling before her and putting his arms round her, “that was a thoughtless way of expressing what I meant. Those were completely the wrong words to use.”
“What words should you have used then?” asked Ellie, her saucer-wide eyes fixed on his face and the corners of her mouth beginning to droop.
Helen watched Tom struggling to find a better way of expressing himself, as he dug himself deeper with even more inappropriate phraseology. Words like ‘birth child’, ‘natural’ and ‘conceived’ seemed only to cause Ellie greater consternation, and Helen guided her daughter out of the bedroom, dropping a kiss on her head and murmuring “silly Daddy” as she helped her get ready for bed.
But Ellie forgave him. Forgave them both. They were bringing her a present.
When the baby was born, Ellie had been upset on learning that the baby was a girl.
“I wanted a brother,” she said, her earnest little face creasing in disappointment. “Why couldn’t you get me a brother?”
However on the day Tom brought Helen and the baby home from the hospital, Ellie was over the moon, hanging over the edge of the little white crib, cooing and singing to the little bundle beneath the quilt.
“She’s so pretty,” she said, extending a finger, round which the angelic child curled a tiny pink hand. “Can I hold her?”
“She’s just been fed, Ellie,” said Helen, easing herself gingerly into a chair. “Let’s wait for an hour or so.”
Ellie returned to the crib exactly one hour later, and demanded that the baby be awoken and put into her arms.
“I want to hold her, Mummy, you said I could.”
Helen baulked at this, but Tom flashed her a warning look, so she picked up the baby, who immediately started screaming lustily at being awoken, and reluctantly handed her to Ellie.
Ellie walked up and down, cradling the child, jiggling her from side to side and making soothing noises. As Helen had expected, the baby’s cries only became worse. Eventually she was violently sick, and Ellie promptly handed the child back, her nose wrinkled in disgust.
“She’s a very naughty baby, isn’t she?” she exclaimed. “Didn’t they have any good ones?”
It took Helen a while to calm the baby down. And it wasn’t until Ellie was safely in bed, that she began to recover her own composure.
“We must be careful to include Ellie in everything,” said Tom, sensing Helen’s coolness towards him. “Don’t you agree?”
“You’re right,” said Helen, feeling slightly guilty. “I’m just a bit tired, that’s all.”
During the days that followed, both Tom and Helen were careful to make sure that Ellie was involved in the baby’s daily routine, and watched her carefully for any signs of resentment.
“You know what we could do?” Tom suggested one evening. “We could ask Ellie to choose the name for the baby. That might be another way of making sure she feels included in what’s going on.”
“But we agreed on a shortlist of names,” protested Helen, surprised at the sudden surge of resentment she felt.
“I’m not suggesting a free choice, love, just which one of the three it’s to be. After all, we were happy about all three of them, weren’t we? So it won’t matter which she chooses, and she’ll feel as though she’s had an input.”
After a particularly trying day, when it had seemed to Helen that Ellie was having an input everywhere, she eventually agreed. But Ellie wanted free choice.
“It’s got to be either Taylor, Jade or Fiona,” insisted Tom, dismayed at Ellie’s choice of ‘Georgie.’
“But I like Georgie. I wanted a brother, and I want her to be called Georgie.”
One of her fat little legs kicked out towards the pram, in which her tiny sister lay.
Helen’s resentment flared quickly.
“Taylor, Jade or Fiona,” she hissed, making both Tom and Ellie jump at the intensity of her tone.
Ellie’s bottom lip protruded, and she glared at her mother.
“Oh Taylor, then,” she said dismissively, waving a plump little hand as she sensed her mother’s determination. “It’s closest to a boy’s name I guess.”
At the christening Ellie smiled in delight when the vicar named the baby Taylor Georgina Watson. Tom had persuaded Helen that this would keep everyone happy. Everyone except Helen, of course, who had wanted to name her new daughter Taylor Jade Watson, as they had agreed.
One morning, a few weeks after the christening, Helen dressed Taylor in a clean pink baby-grow suit before placing her back in the crib whilst she went upstairs for her shower. When she came back, the baby was dressed in a yellow baby-grow suit, and her cheeks were damp with tears. Ellie was playing with her dolls on the floor beside the crib.
“Why have you changed Taylor’s clothes?” Helen asked, her voice hoarse with an emotion she found difficulty in identifying.
“So that she matches my doll,” Ellie explained, gazing at Helen with a mixture of fondness and exasperation, buttoning up the yellow dungarees on her favourite Barbie doll.
Helen stood surveying both her daughters, clenching and unclenching her hands, struggling with a wave of annoyance that was mingled with something else, something slightly more unnerving.
‘What on earth is wrong with me?’ she thought, heading for the kitchen to try to compose herself.
That night, at dinner, Tom tried to placate Helen again. “She’s just playing at being Mummy,” he said, “I think it’s a really good sign. You’d be complaining if she wasn’t getting involved with her.”
Helen drummed her fingers on the table, staring into space.
‘No I wouldn’t,’ she thought, ‘I’d feel a damn sight better.’
At times, Helen tried to rationalise her behaviour, embarrassed about the resentment and exasperation which was bubbling inside her. She’d loved Ellie like her own all these years, and hadn’t noticed any of the irritating and at times unnerving characteristics that now were apparent. With their encouragement, Ellie had developed into an independent child with a will of her own, but this had never been a problem before; they had always sorted the issues out between them.
Ellie’s overpowering interest in the new arrival, together with what Helen could only describe as her ‘controlling’ behaviour, were worrying. It seemed now that they were continually at loggerheads over the baby. Ellie wanted to feed her, wanted to change her, would always insist on hanging around the bathroom when Helen was trying to bathe Taylor. Helen grew weary of the constant mantra ‘let me do it Mummy, let me do it.’
With some guilt, she began to look forward to the long days when Ellie was at school, and she had Taylor to herself. She bathed and changed the baby, relaxed and content, humming to her, and watching her with a love that threatened to burst out of her heart, as the baby smiled up at her with her big blue eyes and little rosebud mouth. Everything between them seemed so idyllic, so relaxed, so peaceful. They were lost in each other. Until Ellie came home.
It seemed that at that moment, a rising tide of tension percolated throughout the house. Even Taylor became crotchety, often bursting into tears when Ellie leaned clumsily over the pram, her plump face blocking out the light and making the baby uneasy.
If Helen suggested going for a walk, Ellie always wanted to push the pram, even though it was difficult for her to control it, short as she was. Several times Ellie pushed it perilously close to the edge of the pavement, and Helen was on tenterhooks until finally Ellie grew tired and relinquished control to her mother.
She tried to find ways of diverting Ellie into other activities so that the baby could get some peace and, she reflected guiltily, so that she could have the baby to herself.
But Ellie wasn’t interested.
“I need to be here for Taylor” she protested, one afternoon when Helen suggested she enrolled for piano lessons, horse-riding sessions or the local Brownies pack. “She’s my sister and I need to look after her.”
“But I can look after her, Ellie” said Helen, “you don’t want to be hanging around the house when your friends are all out there having fun.”
“She needs me,” insisted Ellie, tugging Taylor out of the crib and heading towards the door.
“What are you doing?” said Helen, anger and anxiety making her voice sound unnaturally harsh.
“I’m going to play with Taylor in my room” said Ellie, tightening her grip on the baby as Helen advanced upon her. Taylor started to cry.
“The baby stays with me,” said Helen in a steely voice, reaching down for Taylor.
There was a moment’s resistance as their gazes locked, and then Ellie, sensing the determination in Helen’s eyes, relaxed her grip and allowed the baby to be taken from her.
She watched resentfully from the door as Helen, her heart thumping uncomfortably, laid the grizzling baby back in the crib and covered her with a blanket. Helen rocked the crib for a few minutes whilst the baby’s whimpers died away and she struggled to regain control of herself.
“Now then Ellie,” Helen said brightly, making a superhuman effort, “how about you and I make some cookies together?” Upon reflection, she felt she had probably been a bit too abrupt, but the prospect of Ellie taking Taylor up to her room and being alone with her had evoked an inexplicable sense of horror and concern.
Ellie watched her cautiously from the doorway, twisting the door-handle this way and that, kicking at the carpet.
“What about Taylor?”
“Taylor’s asleep right now. But if she wakes up she can watch us bake, can’t she?”
Ellie walked slowly into the kitchen, pausing to stick her head right inside in the crib as she went past. The baby stirred, and Helen held her breath, hoping she wouldn’t wake up.
“Why can’t I take her to my room?” she asked, as they were rolling out the cookie mixture on the kitchen table.
“She’s not a doll, Ellie. Babies should be with a responsible adult at all times, at least until they are a bit older. Anything could happen, and you wouldn’t know what to do.”
“Anything like what?” asked Ellie curiously.
Helen felt that gnawing sense of anxiety again. She looked at her daughter’s plump face, flushed with concentration as she pressed out the biscuits with a pastry cutter. They’d always enjoyed baking together, but Helen wasn’t enjoying it now. She knew she was only doing this so that Taylor could have some peace. It shouldn’t have to be like this, she thought.
“Did you grease the baking tray, Ellie?” she asked, changing the subject.
“Oh, sorry, forgot.” Ellie climbed off the chair on which she had been kneeling and went to get the butter. “Can Taylor have one of these cookies when they’re baked?” she asked.
“Taylor’s far too young for solids yet, Ellie. Maybe in a few months.”
The moment was over, and Ellie did not try to take Taylor to her room again. Nevertheless, Helen tried not to leave the pair of them alone in the room for more than a few minutes. She couldn’t explain the reason for this, not even to herself, and her concerns increased when a few days later she returned from a moment in the kitchen to find Ellie half in and half out of the crib, attempting to stuff cookie crumbs into Taylor’s tiny mouth.
“Ellie” she shouted angrily, and Ellie, startled, nearly tumbled off the side of the crib, causing it to rock wildly. Taylor began to cry.
“She’s hungry,” insisted Ellie stubbornly.
“What did I say to you about Taylor not being ready for solids, Ellie?” Helen said. “I told you it would be several months before she could try them.”
She had been about to say that the crumbs might have caused Taylor to choke, but suddenly that seemed like a very unwise thing to say. Why? What was happening to her? She felt as though she were becoming paranoid.
She tried to talk to Tom about it, but he became annoyed.
“What are you saying? That our daughter might harm her little sister?”
“I just feel uneasy, Tom. I can’t explain it. She’s just too….” She couldn’t finish the sentence, unable to accurately describe Ellie’s overwhelming interest in the baby.
“Maybe you’re suffering from post natal depression,” Tom suggested, concern clouding his face. “This isn’t like you at all, Helen. Do you think you should see the doctor?”
Helen gave up trying to explain. “Maybe I’m just tired,” she tailed off lamely, regretting having tried to share her concerns, and feeling even worse about her dark sense of foreboding.
“I’ll try to get home from work a bit earlier for a while,” said Tom, laying his hand over hers. “Maybe you could have a late afternoon nap whilst Ellie and I look after Taylor.”
She smiled and tried to appear grateful. What she really would have liked would be for him to leave work early and take Ellie off her hands altogether, but she didn’t really feel she could say this after Tom’s initial reaction to the concerns she had voiced.
Tom was as good as his word, and in the weeks that followed he was home by five o’clock, enabling Helen to go upstairs, ostensibly for a nap. It didn’t help; she just lay on the bed every afternoon, listening for the sound of Tom’s voice downstairs, needing to be sure he hadn’t left the baby unattended. When she didn’t hear him, she would go downstairs, claiming to be too restless to sleep, but usually she found that Tom had taken Ellie and Taylor out to the park, or that he was sitting out in the garden with them both.
Until that day.
On that day, unnerved by the silence in the house once again, she went downstairs. Taylor’s pram was outside in the garden, but it was empty. Ellie was nowhere to be seen. Anxiety began to unfurl in her chest and her breath became ragged and painful. The side door to the garage was open and when she rushed in, she could see Tom’s feet sticking out from under the car.
“Tom!” she cried.
He shimmied quickly out from under the car, alerted by the alarm in her voice.
“Where’s the baby?” she screamed at him.
His face was blank.
“Ellie’s looking after her out in the garden.”
“They’re not there, the pram’s empty.” The garage seemed to be whirling around and Helen staggered to the workbench to support herself, her brain racing with possibilities that until now she had managed to hold at bay.
Tom wiped his hands on a rag and pushed roughly past her to the empty pram.
“They can’t be far,” he said worriedly, “I’ll just pop down the road a bit and see if I can see them.”
As he approached the gate that led from the garden out onto the street, it opened suddenly, and Ellie came through, smiling happily at them both. On her own.
“Where is she?” Helen screamed, tears coursing down her face. “What have you done with Taylor?”
Ellie’s smile faded and she regarded her mother with disapproval.
“I took her back,” she said. “She was my present, and I didn’t like her. You’ve always said you should take things back if they’re not right, so I did.”
“Where did you take her, Ellie?” Tom asked urgently, holding Helen back as she struggled to reach her daughter.
Ellie’s mouth set in a way that made Helen’s heart sink.
“Shan’t tell you,” she said.
* * *
“When can I come back home, Mummy?” said Ellie, one day when she and Tom were sitting at the picnic tables in the park. Katie, the supervising social worker was sitting at the next table, writing a report and trying to look as though she wasn’t listening.
“When you tell us where you took Taylor,” said Helen swiftly, before Tom urgently grabbed at her arm.
Katie looked up quickly, and half rose from her seat at the next table. They’d been advised not to cross-examine Ellie. Nobody really expected to find the baby alive, but the psychiatrist had said that if she wasn’t pressurised, Ellie might eventually tell them where she had taken Taylor. It had been three months now, though.
“Oh right,” said Ellie, concentrating on filling in the colouring book with the crayons they had brought her. Her tiny pink tongue protruded from the corner of her mouth.
She glanced sideways at her parents. She knew they were lying. Once she told them what she had done with Taylor, they would stop coming to visit her.
So she never would.