It was Gwellen and her son-in-law Bartlett who found the woman Gwellen’s niece Saffron had seen. The possibility of finding out what had happened to her missing marriage daughter after almost a quarter of a decade had brought both her marriage group and the marriage group of two of their other daughters to the State Art Gallery. Her own marriage group, particularly herself and her sisters, had unwisely pushed Soraise into a marriage with those two older marriage sisters and the marriage brothers they had chosen as their husbands. It had been done with the best of intentions, to give all three of their girls the best possible start to the rest of their lives but the situation had deteriorated so badly for Soraise that after a year she had cut the legal ties between herself and the others then disappeared without a word. Most worrying for her parents: she had taken none of the marriage’s resources with her, claimed none of them, and gone off with only her own horribly small salary to support her. At least she had kept her job - that had been a small crumb of comfort even if her employer had been unable to tell her family anything else.
They’d found the woman Saffron had seen sitting on a viewing seat in the southern ground floor gallery, gazing into the distance not at an art work but at the children’s drawing class being run by one of the staff members. At first Gwellen though that Saffron had been wrong, the hair colour was different and Soraise had never worn those colours, but when she walked around so she could see the woman’s profile she was certain.
She walked over to her and asked, “Excuse me, Soraise?”
Soraise’s head whipped around and she stood in one movement. After a half moment when Gwellen thought she might run, she acknowledged, “Mother,” then looking beyond Gwellen she added in a ‘could this get worse’ tone, “Bartlett.”
In her peripheral vision Gwellen saw a man and a boy in his late teens start moving towards them. “How have you been? Are you all right?” Gwellen didn’t know where to start. “Why didn’t you come to us? We’ve been so worried.” She was almost crying. Behind her Bartlett was hitting buttons on the keypad of his mobile phone.
“You would have sent me straight back to them after telling me again how happy we all were.” Soraise was looking at Gwellen but her attention was flicking down the gallery as she looked for support or an escape? “I just wanted to get away without having to fight...anything, so I let them have custody of everything, including all the family. Frankly, when I left,” she looked Gwellen directly in the eye, “I thought you’d all been prepared to sacrifice me to set Ebony and Beth up as well as possible.”
Gwellen sat down heavily on the bench Sorais had vacated. “You thought that about us?”
“I was very unhappy, even depressed when I left,” Soraise seemed to have regained her poise, “And every time I’d tried to talk to any of you about how I felt or what was happening, you’d just plough on about how happy we all were and how well things were going for the six of us. I didn’t feel I had anyone I could go to for help who would listen to me.”
The man Gwellen had noticed further down the gallery a few moments earlier put his arm around Soraise’s shoulders. “Who’s this, love?” He was in his early fifties, a decade older than Soraise, tall, fit and bald. He was dressed for a casual outing in a tailored, rough cloth jacket and soft, pleated trousers.
“One of my mothers,” Soraise looked up at him, “And one of one of my...former husbands. Oh,” looking at the doorway behind Bartlett, “And more of my parents.”
“I suppose you thought you could avoid us and not face the music.” That was Clare, bustling forward and angry voiced. “It’s well past time for you to face up to yourself.” Feet apart and arms folded, she shifted her focus, “And who’s this then?”
“Mother, this is my husband, Ewald.” Then to the man beside her she added, “Ewald, this is my blood mother, Clare.”
“So,” Clare scanned the rest of the room, “Where are the rest of your spouses?”
“There’s just the two of us Mother.” Soraise lifted her chin as she spoke, “This is a second match for both of us.”
“Did he,” Soraise remembered and hated that tone from her teenage years, “Abandon his vows and responsibilities as easily as you did?”
“My first family,” Ewald’s face and voice had hardened, “Died in a house fire while I was travelling for work. I was a widower for just over five years before I met Soraise. If you continue in that tone, I don’t care who you are – this conversation will be over.”
Shasta put a hand on her marriage sib and wife’s shoulder, “Clare, enough. That isn’t the way through this.” Then to Ewald, “I am sorry, both for your past loss and that Clare spoke so intemperately on the subject. You don’t normally live in the capital, do you? May we ask what has brought you here now?”
It was Soraise who answered. “We came here for the week so our eldest, Sawyl”, she indicated the boy who’d been with Ewald when Gwellen had first seen him, “Could sit the Leverage Examinations. We’ll be going home tomorrow.”
“I recall that you wanted to waste time on those when you were that age,” Clare observed. “You didn’t seem to have any ambition beyond being accepted as a student in the general category – no idea at all of what you thought you might achieve with it. I hope,” she turned to Sawyl, “That you don’t plan a time wasting exercise like that.”
Gwellen saw father and son exchange a glance and Ewald nod slightly. Gwellen approved of what she saw when looked at Sawyl, he was dressed in this year’s uniform for his age and gender but unlike so many of his contemporaries he made it look neat and tidy.
“I don’t aim as high as the general category, ma’am.” The boy had a pleasant speaking voice too, as well as good manners. Gwellen for one would be happy to claim him as a grandson. “I hope to obtain the marks for an academic admission to the Defence Force Academy to back up my aptitude application results.”
“When I did take the examinations as an adult candidate I actually did very well, Mother.” Soraise’s voice had steel in it, something Gwellen had never heard from her before. “And I completed my full degree path, despite doing it part time.”
“And that must be-.” Clare’s comment was cut off by Shasta’s elbow in her ribs.
“Are you still with the same company?” Shasta’s intervention was becoming slightly desperate, Gwellen thought. She was going to have to stand and help if their husbands didn’t say something soon.
“Yes,” Soraise’s voice still had an edge to it but it was closer to what Gwellen remembered as her normal tone, “But I have an executive position in Internal Support thanks to the benefits of a good degree.” Gwellen recognised the dig back at Clare and so did Clare.
“Clare, sweet heart,” that was Noan, the eldest of their husbands, “She went away and finished growing up in a place where she was safer to do that than she was here. You can’t make her be what you want, you never could.” He came forward and put an arm around her torso, almost mirroring Ewald’s earlier gesture. “Now you need to stop trying to make her feel bad because she isn’t exactly the way you wanted.” He looked across at Soraise, “We’ve missed you, you know and worried about you. Could you and your family stay and talk with us a while?”