They paraded Estelle's offspring before her, as she lounged languidly on the chaise longue upon the veranda. Wearing a dressing gown at sunset and smoking a pungent cigarello in ebony holder, Estelle effortlessly maintained an air of louche disinterest as- one after another- each of her children presented her with their tribute.
Son number one... a nameless no-one. Conceived in an innocent passion- all innocence and unguardedness- he was not remembered fondly. Estelle perceived in his big, dead grey eyes the same naivety that had led to his creation reflecting off her own face, and was ever embarrassed by him. She had loved him in her youth, but as she hardened she grew to hate him and he never adjusted well. Simple and unsophisticated and ignored by all but Estelle's most fervent followers, son-number-one was the family joke.
Son number two- Maurice- was confident and assured and used to the kind of life son number one would never know. He offered his mother his hand by way of greeting. First, that hand was slapped. Then his face. He cried lke a baby to his entourage, though he was a grown man. They complained querulously until Estelle's protectors whisked them away.
Estelle was sick of the sight of hm. When he was a baby, everyone had told he how perfect he was. She swelled with pride, and out popped a third child, Vincent. Though still held in high regard, he was not held in such high esteem as Maurice, though at his birth she had loved him just as much.
"But look what happens to them..." she grumbled inaudibly, throwing the single rose her lone son proffered back at him. He allowed a slow smirk to spread as he regarded the red blood on Estelle's hand, drawn by its thorns. He'd turned out to be a clever bastard.
As a young woman with two sons attracting high praise indeed, it was only natural that Estelle should want to try for a girl. She felt ready, but contemporaries discouraged her: "For why? when you have such fine sons!" Heedlessly she proceeded.
The pregnancy was... tricky. The birth was unpleasant. First the midwife was called. Then the physician. Then the surgeon. Together they had to cut the baby out. Lightweight and gasping for air, she nearly didn't make it. Behind mother's back, as the infant stumbled through her early years, there were many whispers that it may have been better if she hadn't.
Happily hopping forward, the wretched invalid laid a few lillies, a chicken kebab and some copper coins at her feet.
"Happy birthday, mother."
Estelle spat in her face. The invalid smiled- it was more than she could have hoped for.
Then came Bruno. Heavy set and good-natured, he was born a number of years after the daughter. After that trauma, it was a long time before Estelle went back to the bedroom with anything but sleep on her mind. Eventually she met a kind man- sensible and money-minded- and he coaxed that desire out of her. In time, Bruno followed. Not in any way the equal of his elder brothers, he was still held up as a perfectly decent figure of manhood. with alarming regularity he was joined by an increasingly homogeneous sequence of younger brothers.
One by one they marched up to kiss their mother and offer her their precious tokens. Each one produced a bag of gold coins, though of steadily decreasing size. She could not remember their names.
The presentation complete, she turned to address her eldest sons once more.
""What do you bring me, eldest son"
"And you, second born?"
He was still smarting from the slap and did not meet her eye as he handed over the deeds to the villa in Andalusia, the chalet in the alps, the cottage by Loch Ness and the flat in Knightsbridge.
"My third-born. What do you have for me?"
Vincent protested that he'd paid all the servants and the legal bills and the gambling debts in Monte Carlo. Estelle sneered. With an angry wave her right hand, the servants swiftly descended upon her brood and led off the grounds.
Estelle watched them trudge noiselessly down the path towards the gates. Quite unexpectedly Estelle felt a sudden pang of guilt: did she not owe her offspring her love? But she had given them everything: she was an old woman now, no matter what they gave to her, she would never regain the youth they had taken.
Estelle sighed before pulling herself together. She knocked back a tumbler of pastis and rang the bell for service.
"Bring me my baby!"
Estelle's new hand maid (who looked the same as the last one but was Czech not Slovak) curtsied and scurried from the veranda like a little grey mouse. She sighed again.
The moors were beautiful at sunset, especially with pastis and fine cigars and piles of gold coins. After her last husband died- that sensible, money-minded man- there were no Brunos left in her. She fled into the comforting embrace of obscurity. Estelle withdrew from society. Her old friends and colleagues conversed with her only through her children, but they never had anything new to say.
Estelle had always longed for a daughter. Doctors and midwives and physicians warned her she was too old, that she didn't have it in her.
"Besides!" they would explain, "you have a daughter- Macey! Okay, she's a spastic, but she's yours! And remember her birth- would you really want to go through all that again?"
Estelle had been firm:
"I know what I did wrong last time."
A little grey mouse pushed a silver cross into the red glare before scuttling back into the shadows, all frantic and anxious. Estelle embraced her newborn, wrapped in Egyptian cotton, regarding her face:
"You won't get old. You're as well as can be. You're brothers and sister came out fully formed. Why should you be any different?"
Estelle's heart melted when her child's wooden lips mouthed "mama!" and- brushing the wire wool back from the little one's scalp- she drew the child to her breast.
"Mama!" It yelped, excitedly, before suckling at Estelle's wrinkled teat. Estelle watched her child proudly. So much had gone into her creation. Every single detail was perfect. Her critics might remark at how contrived she was, fashioned from teak not flesh. They might sneer that only a mother could love her. But as Estelle stared into the fine-set emeralds surrounding her baby's pupils, Estelle felt that love, truly, and for the first time. The gloaming light was fading, the stars were out, the other children were long gone and no-one stirred.