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I posted Chapter 1 on 13 January and following chapters appear each Friday. You'll find them via the archive.
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Thursday 1st April
Father all but dragged me in and closed the door as Leigh turned his back. He was rough with me; such a contrast to Leigh’s gentle touch. He stared at me with a look I hadn’t seen in his eyes before and refused to recognize. I heard the car start and knew Leigh had gone.
Only then did Father start on me. ‘Whore! Jezebel! Showing the world your nakedness. Get those whore’s rags off. I’ll show you the penalty for such wantonness. Take them off before I rip them from your sinful flesh!’
I was proud of myself that night. I stood my ground, for the first time ever. ‘Father, I’m going to my room where I shall close the door and get ready for bed. You will not come in. Good night.’
He was apoplectic. He grasped my wrist and held me as he raised his other hand. ‘Don’t talk to me like that, idiot girl.’
‘Strike me and I’ll walk out of here now, Father. Forever.’
He hesitated, and doubt clouded his face.
‘I will. I’ll leave you to cope; without my help and without my earnings.’
‘You’re a wicked, ungrateful child. Up to your room and prepare for the beating you deserve. I’ll grant you privacy to put off those devil’s rags before I come in with the strap to save your soul with pain and sorrow.’
‘I do mean it, Father. Touch me and I’ll go for good.’ I pulled my hand free and took the carriers from the floor. I walked upstairs slowly, without a backward glance. Hope was uncovered, with no nappy for protection. ‘If you leave her like that, Father, you’ll have her mess to clean up in the morning.’
In my room, I closed the door and pushed the chair against it, moved the bed against the chair and then sat down before my trembling legs collapsed. It was the first time I’d defied Father. And I’d done it because Leigh had shown me I was a person, a person worthy of respect. That I reacted to the situation with fear on top of my courage simply showed me how wrong Father was in his attitudes and behaviour. I would have something to say about that in the morning.
There was no mirror in my room. Nothing but a small chest of drawers to hold my clothes. I sat on the bed and thought about my joyful, extraordinary day and the miserable contrast of my homecoming.
I thought about leaving home and finding somewhere else to live. Hope would miss my care. Father would have a hard time without my help and my income. Perhaps in my talk with Father I could explain that I was no longer a child, but a woman needing to be treated in a different way. Perhaps I could get him to see that I’d changed, get him to agree to a new, more liberated way of living. That way, we could both have some of what we needed out of life.
Father stomped up the stairs and tried my door. I was too tired to reason with him just then and pretended to be asleep. I heard him, hovering on the landing for a while before he went into the bathroom. Then the house was silent and I sat in contemplation for a long time
At last, I removed Leigh’s gifts with care, folding them in a pile on top of the chest. I’d never considered my nakedness at bedtime as other than a normal state before. The cold was something I lived with but I hadn’t felt exposed or vulnerable. At the door, I stood and listened and heard only silence from the house. Father was asleep.
I moved the chair quietly and opened the door wide enough to view the narrow landing. It was clear. I crossed the landing, cleaned my teeth and splashed my face. All the time, I was conscious of some unspecified risk, an anxiety I’d never felt before. But shrugging it off as tiredness, I slipped silently down to the toilet.
It was cold outside, the stars sharp and glittering against a black as deep as velvet. Cold for that short time was nothing to me. I’d done this autumn, winter, spring and summer for years.
When I returned to the back door, I discovered my punishment. Father had locked me out. I hammered on the door, shouted, threatened and pleaded. But I could shout and scream all night and no one would be wiser. Our cottage was half a mile from any other habitation.
‘Think you’d defy me, girl? The night will cool you.’
‘Let me in, Father. I’m not a child any more.’
‘You’ll stay out there all night and cool your unnatural passion.’
‘I think it’s you who’s unnatural, Father. Let me in.’
He was silent at that for a moment.
‘I shall destroy those rags so you cannot sin in them again.’
‘Leave me out here if you will, Father. But damage those clothes and I swear I’ll leave here tomorrow and walk all the way to Longhouse, through the village, stark naked.’
He was silent but I knew he was still behind the door.
‘I mean it, Father. I swear I will, on the Bible.’ I knew he wouldn’t destroy them after I made an oath like that.
‘May God save your wicked soul.’
‘Let me in, Father.’
But he had gone.
I returned to the small stone-floored room and sat on the cold wooden seat and waited for the night to end. The long, black night of retribution.
So cold. The seat was cold. The walls were cold. The stone flags of the floor were cold. The very air that wrapped my skin was cold. I ached with cold. I hugged myself and shivered through that endless night without sleep.
Dawn crept slowly up the sky and pinked the tiny, frosted window. Father wouldn’t leave me outside, where prying eyes might see me, once daylight announced the start of my working day.
I found the back door unlocked and I stepped into the kitchen, grateful for the relative warmth.
Father had gone back to his room. He wouldn’t dare beat me after my threat, knowing his punishment of a night outside was risk enough. I would go upstairs, put on my lovely soft underwear and new trouser suit, take breakfast on my own in the kitchen and then set off for Longhouse, meeting Leigh as he came to collect me. He would be surprised and pleased to see me and we’d kiss before I sat in the car beside him. After that, I was unsure what might happen, I had no experience of what lovers did together. But life was spread before me in splendour and bright colours of joy.
I went through the sitting room toward my bedroom and Father stepped from behind the door and grabbed me. He dragged me across the back of his armchair. Grasping me with one strong hand in my hair, he lashed my back, my buttocks, my thighs, my shoulders and my flailing arms with the buckle end of his leather strap.
‘Think you’d escape God’s punishment? You’re a fool. Always been a fool. Born a fool. Grown up a fool. And now a whore as well. Whore again and next time I’ll do the Lord’s work with a stick to break your bones and spill your blood for your sins. Evil, wicked girl. Loathsome Jezebel. Vile, ungrateful whore!’
He stopped only when his arm was tired. I struggled to escape and to defend myself but made no sound. He tore his hand from my hair and brought the back of it across my face, back and forth, as I rose up. My teeth cut through my lip and the tips of his fingers slashed across my eye.
Unsteady from the beating and my night outside in the cold, I stumbled away without a word and clambered up the stairs. The clothes were scattered on the floor, trampled and creased but not cut or torn, as I’d feared. Anxious that blood from my injured mouth and bleeding nose might stain my fine new clothes, I dressed in what I’d worn to travel to York the previous day. In the bathroom, I staunched the bleeding with cold water, cleaned my teeth with difficulty and untangled my hair as best I could without a mirror.
I took my few possessions out of my chest of drawers and piled them on the bed. With a belt and woollen scarf, I tied them into a bundle, which I left on the bed. Leigh’s gifts I folded and took with me in the carrier bags.
Downstairs, Father was still breathing heavily. I heard but did not look at him. ‘Where do you think you’re going, girl?’
I stared at him as he sat so confident of my defeat and subjugation in his chair by a fire that was dying, waiting for me to rebuild it and rekindle the flames. I couldn’t bear to be with him a moment longer. I had to go. I had to leave that house with all its memories of sorrow and pain. I took my coat from its peg by the door and, from the corner of my eye, saw him move.
‘Touch me again and I’ll never come back. Ever. I promise you.’
He remained where he was, half in, half out of his chair. Something in my tone stopped him coming closer.
‘You’ll be back, my girl. Come crawling back, begging my forgiveness once he’s had his way with you and tossed you aside like all the others. You’ll come back. And I’ll have you. But you’ll regret your whoring till your dying days. You’ll beg me to save your soul and I’ll beat the Devil from your worthless hide each day until you know what sorrow and repentance mean.’
I left, determined not to return to that house except to collect my few possessions.
It was far too early for Leigh but I began to walk to Longhouse, keeping on the road I knew he would use, instead of trekking over the fields. I was slow because of the cold night, the beating and the lack of breakfast.
As soon as I was on the road and the first elation of escape began to fade, the familiar and habitual feelings of guilt and shame came abruptly to swamp the relief. A lifetime of obedience and correction cannot be so easily defeated. I was filled with self-loathing at my behaviour. I had questioned Father. I had disobeyed him. I had fallen far short of his standards. I had let him down. I was wicked.
After all he had done for me, I had abandoned him. Left him to fend for himself and care for Hope alone. How could I do such a thing? How could I even begin to think I knew better?
But, in spite of everything that my mind declared, my battered, tired, pain-filled body moved me instinctively away from him and toward Longhouse.
I would return. I would beg his forgiveness and accept the beating I deserved for my disobedience and wickedness. Father knew best, as he always had and always would. I was a fool, a simple girl with no knowledge of the world and its ways. He would guide me into the right paths, save my soul from damnation and set me on the road to salvation again. Pain and shame and suffering were all part of God’s plan, all measures to bring us back into the fold when we strayed and lost our way amongst the pleasures of the flesh.
I would return Leigh’s gifts and explain that I must not wear such devil’s rags. And, as penance, I would work naked and shamed in the cottage so that God could see the stripes of my wickedness and Father could correct me at once should I transgress again and thus save my soul and purify my flesh.
Leigh met me a mile from Longhouse and the look on his face as he pulled up, confirmed my doubts. He was all scorn and contempt, in spite of his offers of help. Father had been right, as he always was. When Leigh asked, I shook my head and asked him to take me to work. I had no energy to explain or to walk the rest of the way, as I should.
I had disappointed him as well. He said nothing against me, but winced every time he looked at me. Once at Longhouse, I went into the office and took off my coat as he yelled for Ma. I had lost Father’s small respect and now I had lost Leigh’s as well. I was worthless and wicked; a sinner of the worst kind. Of no value to Father, unworthy of Leigh’s kindness, unloved in the sight of God. Something inside me crumpled and left me hollow and without a shred of energy.
Ma came in a stared at me; obviously disgusted by what she saw. ‘What the Dickens?’
I stood before them; a worthless, useless girl. I had no emotion left. I hurt and I was shamed and, even though I understood it should not matter, I knew I had lost all the sweet affection Leigh had shown me the day before. It should not matter, but it did.
‘Are you hurt anywhere else?’ Ma’s concern seemed oddly genuine.
I shrugged and winced as the coarse material rubbed on the welts and wheals left by Father’s strap.
‘Let me see, love.’
She was too kind. I deserved only censure and scorn. I was a Jezebel, a whore. What did it matter if I became naked in front of him now? I had lost any dignity I might have had and deserved no consideration. I undressed completely and let them see my punishment; let them see how wicked I was and how my righteous father had striped me with God’s justice.
‘Jesus, Ma. Think she needs a doctor?’
Ma led me up to the bathroom where she tended my wounds with cotton wool and dilute disinfectant that stung. She was gentle and I tried not to cry, but the tears came anyway as if I had no volition. I know I did not sob or weep with noise, but my eyes leaked water down my face and I could not stop them.
Ma dabbed me dry with such gentility, all the while muttering about the brute under her breath so that I understood she was mistaken and thought Father was in the wrong. She sat me on a spare bed as she examined my face.
‘There’s nothing I can do there, love. The Doctor’ll know if you need stitches in that lip. You’re going to have a beautiful shiner. Lie on your front and I’ll put some ointment on those stripes.’
I did as I was told; obedient now I had been punished for my wickedness, reminded of my place. How could she be so kind when she should despise and scorn me? I had deserved my beating. Father had warned me often enough about loose behaviour. I had acted scandalously and dressed in a provocative way. I had even asked Leigh if I could spend the night with him. I thanked Heaven he had been so disgusted at me that he had not taken advantage.
As always, I was wrong. My false pride and earlier conviction that I was right had kept me going through the cold night, had sealed my lips against the screams of pain and anger, indignation and shame that wanted to burst from my lips as Father beat me, and had given me strength to leave the house without feeding him. But I had been wrong. Father, as always, had been right.
‘Lie there and try not to turn on your back, love. I’ll find something light to cover you and keep you warm.’
‘I’m warm enough.’ A direct lie in a good cause. I must suffer to save my soul, or be damned for eternity. Father had born the pain of punishing me so I might be spared the eternal fires of Hell. The least I could do in return was suffer a little without complaint.
‘You sure, love? It’s none too warm up here.’
‘I’m fine, really.’
‘Doctor’ll be here some time later. Try to sleep until he arrives.’
‘I ought to work, really, Ma. I’ll be…’
‘You’ll do as you’re told, young lady! You’re to rest. A beating like that can’t be shrugged off so easily. Your poor body needs time to recover. Now, you lie still and sleep, there’s a good lass. I’ll pull the door to, so you’re not on display if Leigh comes up. Sure you don’t want me to cover you?’
‘What’s it matter? He’s seen all there is of me to see. I deserve only contempt and disgust.’
For a while I could detect her standing there, looking at me with that same loathing they must all feel. Then she left and pulled the door closed. My tears were still falling and wetting the pillow but, for some reason, I could not stop them. The doctor would come and tell me to get back to work and I would go down to the office and get on with my job in spite of Leigh’s silent disapproval.
Later, I would go back to the cottage and beg Father’s forgiveness and hope he would not be too disgusted with me, would not scourge me again until my skin had healed. I would kneel before him, show him my shame and confess my guilt on my knees at his feet so he might think me worthy once more.
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