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Missed the start? Find it here: http://stuartaken.blogspot.com/2012/01/read-free-my-novel-here.html
I posted Chapter 1 on 13 January. Following chapters appear each Friday. Find them via the archive.
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Saturday 3rd April
When morning brought consciousness, my first thought was that I must face him again, must go back, apologize for my behaviour and beg his forgiveness. I was not sure I was up to it. I wasn’t even certain any more that I felt as sorry as I should, or had been as wicked as he accused.
There was a knock on my door.
‘Come in.’ I had to pull the cover up quickly as Leigh entered, carrying a tray with breakfast on it. He grinned at me, placed the tray on the cabinet beside the bed and unhooked a housecoat from the back of the door.
‘Modesty returns, eh? Pop this on. I’ll wait on the landing ‘til you’re decent.’
I slipped the towelling robe over my aching limbs and body, wrapping it protectively across my front, wondering what he meant about modesty and surprised by his cheerfulness. ‘Okay.’
He sat on the edge of my bed as I ate toast and drank tea with difficulty through my swollen lips.
‘I thought you’d be at work.’
It should have been Friday.
‘You slept through most of yesterday. How are you feeling?’
I felt physically drained and my back and legs were sore. My mouth felt more uncomfortable than painful. ‘All right.’
‘Paul thought you might be a bit tearful. I don’t have the usual male fear of women’s tears, so don’t worry if you suddenly feel the need to weep.’
‘I don’t feel like crying, Leigh. I feel quite normal, really. Who’s Paul?’
‘Sorry, the doctor.’
‘He examined you on Thursday; gave you something to help you sleep. Don’t you remember?’
I shook my head. Thursday was mostly blank. I recalled my return to the cottage and Father’s beating, but beyond that, nothing concrete.
‘Perhaps that’s just as well.’
Leigh had something on his mind, wanted to tell me something. ‘Out with whatever it is. I’m strong enough.’
‘You amaze me. I think I’ve got you sussed and then you go and surprise me again.’
He expected me to respond but I could think of nothing to say.
‘There’s no easy way of saying this, Faith. Your father’s in police custody.’
He let that sink in. At first, I thought I had misheard him but repeating the words in my head made no difference. ‘Because of me?’
‘No. Though you ought to charge the bastard with assault. No, not because of you, Faith, because of what he did to Hope.’
Now I knew I was hearing things. ‘Hope? Father would never harm Hope. He adores her. She’s his little angel, his piece of Heaven on Earth, his innocent amongst the sinners. He would never hurt Hope. You must be mistaken.’
‘I don’t know how to say this, Faith. I thought you must at least have some suspicions but I’m beginning to think, unlikely as it seems, you might not have known after all. I sincerely hope you didn’t…’
‘What? What’s happened to Hope?’
He leant forward and took my hand, squeezed it in such a way that I went cold at the prospect of what he might say. I wanted him to speak but did not want to hear the news of her death that I dreaded.
‘Your father’s been repeatedly raping Hope, since she was about twelve.’
I could find no way to express my disbelief.
‘I’m sorry, Faith. I caught your father in the act, on Thursday, when I went to tackle him about you.’
‘It’s a mistake. Somehow it looked like that but he was…’
‘I didn’t knock, Faith. I walked in and he was raping her in the kitchen. She was making a high, keening sound each time he….’
‘Hope never makes a sound. She’s mute.’
‘I know this is hard for you, but I actually separated him from her. There’s no doubt he was raping her. In any case, he admitted it to the police and social services.’
I stared at him for what seemed an age whilst my mind tried to absorb this impossible news. Leigh watched me intently, his eyes never leaving mine. ‘Father was…? How could I not…? No. It doesn’t ... I can’t believe… I need to think. Can I be alone?’
He stood, gave my hand a gentle squeeze and bent to kiss my forehead. ‘I’ll be downstairs when you need me.’
I moved as soon as he left the room and went to look out of the window for no better reason than I needed to move.
Father was my rock, my foundation. Everything I was and everything I believed was based in him. If he was this evil creature that Leigh had described, what did that make me?
He was back in the room in an instant.
‘What about Hope? Is she hurt? Is she...? Where is she? Not still …?’
‘Hope seems unhurt, a little sore. But no real damage. I suspect because she couldn’t resist, she escaped the violence a lot of rape victims suffer. She’s fine, and safe. They’ve taken her to a residential home. Your father’s in the police cells for the moment. I hope he rots there.’
His face expressed utter disgust and contempt for the man who had brought me up. He expected me to challenge him in some way.
‘You think I knew.’
He was silent for too long for his denial to be true.
‘Oh, Leigh, I didn’t know, I promise you I didn’t. I don’t know what to … I’m so angry and hurt and unhappy and confused. My father. My own father.’ I turned back to the window and willed him to leave me to my shame and pain. I felt the softest touch on my shoulder and then he was gone.
I wept. Words punctuating my tears were random thoughts my mind gave out. Confusion mastered me as I wallowed in a quicksand of emotion, doubt and betrayal that threatened to drown and consume me. I could find no solid ground. There was nothing I could grip and hold for support.
‘I think it’s time we dried those tears.’
He was there, helping me up so I could sit on the floor. He knelt beside me and dabbed my face and eyes with tissues. I held onto him; he was the only solid in my fluid world and I would not let him go.
I had rarely wept before, even after he had beaten me. Father discouraged such displays and I had striven hard to please him.
Leigh eased me to my feet and to the edge of the bed. He dabbed softly at the last silent tears, cupped my chin gently in his other hand. ‘Better?’
‘I’ve brought your clothes to Longhouse. Do you want to dress for the evening meal, or are you more comfortable as you are?’
‘May I have a bath?’
‘Bath, shower. Help yourself. Treat Longhouse as your home, Faith. Once you’ve had time to collect your thoughts and work things out, you can decide whether you want to stay here or find a small place of your own. Your toothbrush and other toilet things are in the bathroom across the corridor. This can be your room for the moment. Later on, you can have a look at the other rooms and see if you’d prefer one of those.
‘Don’t be too long, now. Ma’s got the meal on and you know how she is about punctuality at the table. You’ve got about half an hour.’
He left me to it and I considered all he had said. There were too many new ideas there. I wanted no more questions for the moment, no more doubts, no choices. I must accept what he said as the reality of my situation for the moment. Later I could give it some thought and decide what I should do. For the moment, practicality was what I needed. And I must not be late down for the meal.
I discovered my clothes, both old and new, hanging in the wardrobe and folded in the drawers, all the creases of Father’s abuse ironed out. In the bathroom, I examined the shower but decided to work out its mysteries later. The bath water was deliciously hot. I could close the door and even slide a bolt across for privacy, if I wished. The bubble bath smelt of flowers and left me feeling soft and sweet skinned. There was a soft, clean, fluffy towel. The floor was carpeted and there was a soft rug beside the bath to step on whilst I dried myself. A radiator heated the room and a hot rail dried the towels. I realized what simple luxuries I had missed in Father’s house.
As usual, the table was heaving with food. Ma always cooked to feed a regiment and I suspected she was trying to fatten me up and put some flesh on my bones. They all smiled at me as I entered. I had put on the dress Leigh had bought me in York. But wore it with my shoulders covered this time.
‘You look very nice, Faith.’
I tried to smile at Ma.
A nod at Old Hodge.
‘Very pretty.’ Leigh still seemed slightly distant and I guessed he was either ashamed of me or still not convinced I had been completely ignorant about what Father had done to Hope. I shrugged and sat at the table opposite Old Hodge, with Leigh to my left. They gave me a couple of minutes so I could say my private grace before the meal. Somehow, the words rang hollow in my head and I stopped half way through, unable to continue with sincerity.
After the meal, Leigh took me into the sitting room for coffee whilst Ma fed the new dishwasher before going home with Old Hodge. We listened to quiet piano music that Leigh identified as Chopin Nocturnes. He drank scotch with his coffee and poured a small measure of some sweet and pleasant liqueur into mine without asking. The fire roared in the grate, casting flickering shadows across the room and warming me inside as well as out.
Leigh moved from his chair to the sofa and patted it for me to sit beside him. I had no idea what he intended but joined him. From the floor, he picked up a small wooden box, from the cottage, and placed it on his lap. There was a single envelope on top addressed to me in neat purple handwriting.
‘Recognize the box?’
I knew it at once. ‘Father said…I don’t want to call him that now. I don’t know what to call him. I don’t want to swear.’
‘Compromise. You want to refer to him as “that bastard” or something similar. Just use the initial.’
I could do that. ‘The B said I was never to touch that, on pain of a severe beating every day for a week.’
‘Bastard. I’m not surprised. It reveals what a liar and a shit he really is.’
‘What’s in it?’
‘The same as this. Except this one’s addressed to you here and those in the box are addressed to the cottage.’
‘From my mother?’
‘From your mother. I’ve read some, Faith. I wanted to be sure there was nothing to harm you. Are you up to another weep; for different reasons?’
He was as different from my ... from the B as it was possible to be. He cared about me, cared about my feelings, consulted me, was considerate. So why was he still being distant? Why was he different from the way he was in York? I wanted him back like that. I wanted him warm and friendly with sparkling eyes that looked at me with wonder. Somehow, I had to find a way to make him see me as he had that day. Somehow, I had to regain the respect and affection he had shown me. I had to become worthy of him again. But I had no idea how.
‘Yes, I’m ready.’ I wanted to know why my mother had abandoned me and never come back.
I put out my hand and he handed me the most recent letter first. It was still sealed. He trusted my mother to write what would not hurt me. The other letters must have told him a good deal about her.
I had never received a private letter before. Leigh handed me the letter opener from the mantelpiece; a silver knife with a naked woman forming the handle. I weighed it in my hand for a moment and Leigh silently accused me of condemnation whilst I was actually considering the beautiful workmanship. The blunt blade slipped easily into the flap and opened the envelope. Three sheets of thick note paper nestled within and I drew them out with trembling fingers.
Letters don’t come naturally to me. I speak better than I write on personal issues. It’s so important I get this right. I just hope you’ll be able to hear my voice as you read it.
First of all, I did reply to all your previous letters and posted them to the cottage where you live. I can only assume your shit of a father never let you read them.
I was intrigued to learn that you’re now working for Leighton Longshaw. I know of him and gather he’s a real ladies’ man. I hope you’re taking full advantage!
It’s so hard to know what to tell you and where to begin. Why don’t you know when your birthday is? Anyway, you’ll be 21 on 5th August and I’d love to be able to see you before then, if I could.
I don’t know what Paul Heacham has told you about me and your sister, Netta, except that he probably still refers to her as Charity, a name she hates. She’ll be 18 on 11th July, by the way. Mind you, she’s been acting like a mature woman for years, so her birthday just means she’ll be doing more things legally.
I do love you, Faith. It broke my heart to leave you when you were just six but I had no choice. Paul Heacham’s a vicious and brutal man and he threatened you as well as Netta and me with violence if I made any trouble. That’s why I’ve never been back. He said he’d make sure you were hurt if I tried to see you. Hope, of course, was always safe because he knew she was his.
I expect life has been hard for you, living with that cretin and a younger sister who will still be a baby. I bet she’s huge, like a beached whale, isn’t she?
I was encouraged when your letter came and told me you were working, especially for that wicked, lovely man. I hope he’s giving you as much as you can take. I admit I’m jealous. I saw him once and he’s a real dish. Still, I’d better not say too much on that score or you might not let me meet him!
Look, it’s really too difficult trying to explain so much to you, after all this time, by letter. My phone number’s at the top. Give me a call and, if you like, I’ll drive over with Netta, and perhaps that lovely man would let us all meet at Longhouse? I really daren’t go to Heacham’s cottage; I think he’d kill me, and I know Netta wouldn’t be safe either.
Call me soon. I’m dying to meet you.
All my love,
Matilda, oops, sorry, Mum!’
I read it through four times. It said so much and so little to me. I felt elated, frightened, embarrassed, curious, impatient and confused. Leigh sat silently beside me, watching and waiting. I handed him that letter and turned to the box to read the older ones.
Leigh had opened only three of them, almost at random, it seemed. The B had clearly not even opened them before he had hidden them in the box. I wondered why he had kept them, knowing I could have stumbled on them at any time. And, that, of course, was the reason: he was so certain of his hold over me that he knew I would never disobey him by opening the box. It must have given him a sense of great power to have that box under his bed, knowing I could open it each time I cleaned his room and knowing, with absolute certainty, that I would not. How blind had been my obedience to that monster.
The letters, nearly two dozen, were mostly included with birthday cards and most held money, a lot of which was no longer legal tender since decimalization. But my mother had been generous and I counted enough from the later letters to buy me a couple of new outfits. The letters told of her love and her wish to meet me but they told me little more about her than the first letter I had read. There was a lot in them about my sister who she described as beautiful and, in the later letters, as a very popular girl with the men.
I heard Leigh chuckle beside me and knew he had reached the part about him and my mother’s advice to take advantage. It highlighted her ignorance of the reality of her eldest daughter. I realized she had no idea how the B had raised me. It was disturbing to learn that she was the exact opposite of him as far as I could tell from her letters. She loved men and sex was obviously a favourite pastime for her. She was wise to suspect my caution over her meeting Leigh.
‘So, when are we to meet this interesting lady and her other daughter?’
‘You think I should meet her?’
‘Of course you must! Don’t you want to?’
‘In some ways I’m desperate to know her but in others I’m not sure she’d be good for me.’
‘You need the sense of fun and love of life she clearly has. She’s responsible for half of your genes. Your looks must have come from her since Heacham’s such an ugly, sour-looking bastard. Don’t you want to know what she looks like?’
‘You want to know what she looks like, Leigh. I’m more interested in what she’s like as a person.’
‘She sounds fascinating to me. I know I’d like to meet her.’
‘She’d obviously like to meet you. It might not be sensible for me to encourage that.’
‘Not jealous, are you?’ Leigh put his hand to his mouth very briefly as if he regretted his words.
I wondered what was behind his gesture, when he would previously have made a joke about it, but let it go. ‘Jealous? No. I don’t really understand that emotion. But I do know I’d be in danger of paling by comparison with her and, by all accounts, my youngest sister. And I’m just learning how important it is that you see me in a positive light. I have feelings about you that I don’t fully understand but I know I’d like you to feel the same way about me. It might be harder for you to see me if there were other attractive women about.’
On the other hand, I felt an overpowering need to impress Leigh as soon as I could in some positive way. My mother and sister might make up for some of my missing qualities and I could see no real reason to keep them away. They were hardly likely to do anything to hurt me, after all.
Leigh looked seriously bemused. I tried a smile but my lips refused to co-operate so I had to resort to stroking his face as a gesture of my affection. ‘Poor, Leigh, so confused. I suppose you’re going to meet them some time, so I might as well make it sooner than later. May I invite them here for my first meeting, please? I don’t really want to go out anywhere looking like this.’
‘Invite who you wish, when you want, Faith. For the moment, this is your home. But, if you’ll follow my advice, you’ll wait a little while before you meet your mum and sister. You need time to adjust to your new situation, time to get better. I think both of you would be better off meeting once you’re fully recovered.’
‘But I can invite them whenever I like?’
‘This is your home, Faith. And, at home, you may do as you please. I know you need some guidance, so I’ll lay down the ground rules of life at Longhouse: there are only two: Treat my things as you’d wish your own to be treated. Allow people the privacy they prefer in their bedroom and the bathroom. Otherwise, there are no rules. If you want to listen to music, listen. If you want to watch telly, watch. If you want to dance naked on the kitchen table… well, anyway, do what you please. This is now your home and I know I can trust you to treat it with respect and me and my friends with consideration. And I know you’ll accord me the same freedoms. A word of warning. I wear nothing in bed and I don’t bother to cover up on the way to and from the bathroom.’
That no longer mattered; I had seen him naked with models more than once. ‘I don’t wear anything in bed either. Seems an odd thing to do if it’s not cold. But I will be covering myself on the way to the bathroom.’
‘Faith, you’re a singular woman, a living contradiction; confusion manifest and I’m in serious danger of ... It’s high time you were in bed. I want you well again as soon as possible.’
I silently wondered why.
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