Still here? Stubborn, or are you really enjoying this story? I certainly hope so.
I posted Chapter 1 on 13 January. Following chapters appear each Friday. You can find them via the archive; just search for the chapter you want to read.
Missed the start? Find it here: http://stuartaken.blogspot.com/2012/01/read-free-my-novel-here.html
Read, enjoy, invite friends to join us.
Saturday 24th April
‘May I call you Mother?’
‘It’s who I am but I’d prefer Mum or Matilda.’
My sister watched curiously. I took in her long blonde hair, eyes the colour of cornflowers and the secret smile forming on her full lips. I knew at once she was everything Leigh looked for in a woman and my heart checked within me, causing me to gasp audibly.
‘The papers called you “Faith,” but I’d rather use “Fay” if you don’t mind. Can’t stand all that church stuff. I’m Netta, your little sister. Only not so little as you, it seems.’
I shrugged, noncommittally. Mother, Matilda, Mum stepped forward and we embraced, a little awkwardly at first until natural affinity took over and we hugged tightly as if neither of us ever wanted to let go. It was a feeling of such warmth and belonging that I couldn’t stop the tears. When I pulled back at last, I was relieved to see telltale trails running down Mum’s made-up cheeks.
Netta was eyeing up Leigh in the same way all other women did. She was as interested in him as he was in her. So far, he’d remained a silent observer at this family reunion.
‘Netta.’ I held out my arms in what I hoped was a welcome. She approached and allowed a small hug, even kissed my cheek.
‘It sounds formal, but I’m pleased to meet you. I thought I was alone.’
There was a brief, awkward silence.
‘Look, I want to get one thing straight, Faith. Netta and I don’t believe a word of what the papers say about you and that terrible business with Heacham and Hope. And we…’
‘I’ve kept the papers away from Faith, Mrs…’
‘Matilda, please. I’m sorry. I just assumed ...’
‘I’ve only just started to read newspapers, Mum; not in the habit yet. What did they say?’
‘You know, Sis, about how you must’ve helped him rape helpless little Hope…’
Mum’s look told me they had discussed this and that Netta had broken an agreement. ‘Neither of us believes a word of it, of course. We know you must’ve been unaware.’
‘Hard to fathom, though, when you’re supposed to be the one who looked after the poor, useless thing.’
‘That’s what Leigh thinks, Netta, so you and he will probably get along fine. I’ll say it just once; once more for Leigh’s benefit. I knew absolutely nothing about what that B was doing to our sister. If I had, I would’ve killed him with my bare hands. You can believe me or not. I can’t make you do something you don’t want to. But, whatever any of you think, it’s the truth.’
Leigh looked uncomfortable. ‘I do believe you, Faith. Have done for a while.’
I was angry and hurt that such was the beginning to what I’d hoped would be a wonderful day and the start of a new and pleasant phase of my life. Leigh’s declaration was late in getting through to me and by then he was speaking to Mum and Netta. I stared at him with surprise.
‘There’s a lot you can’t yet know about Faith. I’d give her the benefit of the doubt, at least until you know her better. But, be warned, she hasn’t had the advantage of a social upbringing and she speaks the truth as she sees it, always. It’s a little alarming, and just one of many reasons I’m very fond of her.’
I wanted to hug him, but I was wary of showing that sort of affection in front of Mum until I knew her better. Her good opinion was vital to me, so I just nodded at him and gave a smile of gratitude. I wanted to get him alone to explain and thank him properly and tell him how I really felt but events conspired against me and I had no experience to guide my behaviour.
‘Shall we all sit down?’ Leigh led us from the office into the sitting room where he offered drinks.
Mum was wearing a pale blue denim skirt that was too short for someone her age, though there was nothing wrong with her legs, and a top in black cotton that displayed a generous cleavage. Netta was in the shortest pale lilac dress possible. The soft fabric clung to her large, firm breasts. I felt demure in my knee-length cotton print dress. Leigh, of course, had eyes only for Netta and Mum.
We talked around things rather than about them, to begin with. I learned about the small bungalow they lived in and how Netta was supposedly studying for A levels at college.
‘It’s so boring. None of the lecturers is with it. Half the time I can’t be bothered. I’d much rather tune in, turn on, drop out, you know? Especially with Russia and the States playing games with our futures with their big boy’s toys.’
I didn’t really know what she meant but I nodded, applying the polite responses Ma was teaching me.
Mum worked part time in the office of a local car dealer. ‘That’s how I got my little car, you know.’
I answered the questions they asked until Leigh became impatient with my reticence and told them all he knew about my life with the B before I’d come to live at Longhouse.
‘No telly? No radio? No magazines?’ Netta couldn’t believe it was possible to exist without such things.
Mum, on the other hand, just nodded. ‘I should’ve known. He always was a weird bastard. Cruel and cold and hard. No love in the sod. He started on the God kick before we got married but it was becoming more of an obsession by the time he threw Netta and me out. I always hoped it would be another of his passing phases. I’d no idea he’d take it as far as that.
‘Now I think about it, it’s not such a surprise he was raping Hope. The only time he could ever screw me was when I was dead drunk or completely exhausted and had no energy to participate. Sod’s a necrophiliac. Real, live women scare the shit out of him. That’s why he never touched you, Faith; you could move and answer back. The bastard.
‘No wonder he wanted you out of the house. He must’ve realised you were getting old enough to put two and two together and he was scared you’d guess what…’
‘Christ, Mum, she’s nearly twenty-one! I’d’ve twigged when I was ten!’
‘Hasn’t had your advantages, Netta. I mean, you were acting like a woman by the time you were thirteen. Looking like one, too. I mean, Leigh, she’s been having sex since I don’t know when. I caught her with a farmer on her fourteenth birthday. I knew I couldn’t stop her so I’ve just made damn sure she’s protected. Don’t want her having to marry some bastard like Heacham because she’s in the club.’
‘Like mother, like daughter. Mum obviously enjoyed sex. I thought I’d have a bit myself before the stupid morons blow us all to kingdom come.’
‘A lot, more like.’
There was no animosity between them. It was as if they were playing a game. But I did not know the rules and, in any case, I had no wish to join in. Leigh watched them with interest. It was at that moment my head suddenly caught up with my heart and I understood, right there and then, how I loved and wanted this man. And, immediately after this revelation, I realized I had just invited into his home the young woman most likely to prevent him even looking at me again, let alone growing to love me. As if to underline my thoughts, Netta stood up and turned to face Leigh.
‘Is it true you take pictures of women with no clothes on?’
‘Sometimes I wear clothes, sometimes, not. Depends on the woman.’
‘Really? Anyway, I meant the women wear no clothes.’
‘When I take a picture of a woman I like her nude. And I mean completely unclothed.’
I did not remind him of the pictures he had taken of Abby and the other girls with their knickers or hot pants on; stuff for glamour magazines and papers where they didn’t like to see pubic hair or anything naked below the waist. Nor did I mention the pictures he had taken of me, fully clothed, in York. It seemed inappropriate.
To my horror, Netta pulled her dress off over her head. ‘Like this?’
Mum seemed completely unsurprised by her display. And Leigh just examined her and made a small sign to make her turn slowly in front of him as the flames flickered warm light up her perfect skin.
‘Will I do?’
‘To the eye, you’re perfect. The camera’s a little more discerning. Have to do a test shoot to be sure, but you have all the makings. It’s just possible your face is too individual to photograph well; difficult to know. The lens likes bland, and there’s no way I could describe you as that, Netta.’
‘Doesn’t she worry you when she acts like this, Mum?’
‘She’s perfectly safe. We’re here and Leigh knows about women. No, I’m not worried. I’m very proud of my beautiful young daughter. Proud of her looks, proud of her confidence. That’s all down to the way I’ve raised her. Aren’t you proud of your looks, Faith? You’re a very pretty girl, you know. My colouring, rather than your dad’s, of course. That’s where Netta has the advantage over you. She’s taken her dad’s colouring for her hair and eyes where you inherited mine.’
‘The B’s got dark hair and brown eyes. Haven’t I got his colouring as well?’
Mum looked at me quizzically and then made a face of sudden realization. ‘Of course! Silly me. You wouldn’t know. How could you? Heacham’s no more your father than he is Netta’s.’
Leigh looked with interest at all three of us. Netta stared at our mother expectantly. Then the meaning sank in. ‘You mean you left me with that twisted, perverted bastard even though you knew he wasn’t my father? I lived with that…that creature for all those years and did his bidding, worked my heart out, stripped naked for him, suffered all that misery and he’s not even my father?’
‘I had no choice, Faith. You can’t know what that evil bastard was like. I lived in …’
‘Fear? So did I, Mother! I lived with him for longer than you did. Of course I know what he’s like! I fed him and did his washing and cleaned his house, suffered his perverted beatings, acted as a living fantasy for his foul sexual practices and nursed his other daughter…I suppose Hope is his daughter, is she?’
‘Oh yes. The only one of the three of you that was his and she had to be like that. Hardly surprising. A man like that. What else would you expect of his seed? Hope’s his all right. I just wish she wasn’t mine.’
‘It’s not her fault she’s ...she’s disabled.’
‘It’s not mine, either.’
‘If Heacham’s not Faith’s father, who is?’
I was grateful for Leigh’s timely intervention. Again, things were not going the way I had dreamed for this meeting with my family.
Mum gathered herself and took a deep breath but I could not tell whether this was to prepare herself for a difficult task or to dampen her own emotions. ‘Faith’s dad. There was a man. David Lengdon. Professor Lengdon now, I expect. He went to the States on an exchange and I never saw him again. He never knew I was carrying you. I often wonder what would’ve happened if he had. No Hope and no Netta, I expect. He was a lovely man. My only real love.’
‘Where is he now, Mum?’
‘No idea. Like I said, he went to the States. I lost track of him; didn’t want to hold him back. Anyway, it’s water under the bridge. No point going over old ground again. But he gave you your brains; I gave you your looks.’
‘What about my dad?’ Netta had settled herself on the lamb’s wool rug in front of the fire where Leigh could ogle her whenever he wished, which was most of the time.
‘You know better than that, Netta. Put your dress back on, love. You’ve made your point.’
‘Why did the B marry you if you were pregnant with another man’s child?’
‘Told you she was direct, didn’t I?’ Leigh dragged his eyes away from Netta, who was making a sexual pantomime of replacing her dress.
Mum smiled at me and I knew I was being indulged, and that took some of the sting out of the way I felt.
‘I was young, pregnant and single, Faith. Your father was out of the country and I didn’t intend to ruin his career by dragging him back here just so he could make an honest woman of me. But in those days, a single girl with a baby was a social outcast. Heacham had always given me the eye. I was nineteen and very pretty and he was a fool. First time I got him drunk, I thought I’d overdone it. He just couldn’t get it up. But I fell asleep beside him without my knickers and woke up later to find him shagging me like a rabbit. Didn’t take long for me to cotton on that I had to be as near dead as possible before he would or could do me. I was very soon bored with that. He kept me on a tight rein but where there’s a will ...’
‘A willie, Mum.’
She pulled a face at Netta’s remark. ‘Hope came along and nearly died at birth. Wish she had. God alone knows why they try so hard to keep such rejects alive. Should’ve let her go, poor thing. What sort of life has she had?
‘I had the occasional fling without getting caught. Had a long, infrequent affair with Netta’s dad. Great bloke but a bit of a lad then. He’s settled down now, of course. Wife and three kids of his own. Still has half the girls in the country screaming and wanting him in their knickers whenever he steps on stage.’
Netta sat up; she had learned more about her father than Mum had ever told her before. If she expected to hear more, she was quickly disappointed.
Mum just smiled at some memory and went on. ‘I suppose it was inevitable that gossip would reach Heacham’s ears. When it did, he thrashed me with his belt, told me Netta wasn’t his and I must take her and go. I told him you weren’t his either, but he wouldn’t believe me. I’ve no idea why. Maybe he did, really; maybe he saw how much you meant to me and used you to punish me, I don’t know. But the bastard threatened all of us with violence if I ever came anywhere near you or the cottage. I begged him to let me write to you and he conceded that but, of course, he never intended to let you have the letters. Bastard.
‘I came into the village once or twice in the hope of seeing you. I daren’t let myself be known and I never brought Netta, just in case. I doubt I saw you more than half a dozen times in all those early years. It became clear the bastard was keeping you at home and I did worry for your safety and welfare, but there seemed nothing I could do. You don’t know how pleased and relieved I was to get that letter from Longhouse, Faith. I’m so glad we’ve met again. You don’t hate me too much, do you?’
There were tears in her eyes and Netta was looking at her in a strange way. I held Mum’s hands and looked into her lovely face. ‘Hate you, Mum? I could never do that. I wish you hadn’t abandoned me and left me with that cruel bastard but I’m sure you thought it was for the best at the time. I forgive you. I like what I’ve seen of you and I’d love to get to know you better. I want a proper mum to love me and guide me. Will you be my friend, will you accept me back as your daughter even after all this time?’
‘Try and stop me!’ She pulled me close and we hugged for a long time.
Bored with our emotional display, Netta sauntered over to the radiogram. ‘Bit yesterday, Leigh. I thought you’d have a proper hi-fi.’
‘One day. It was Uncle Fred’s and I’m reluctant to part with it. By all means stick a record on if you want.’
She perused the selection and found the records were more up to date than the equipment. It was not long before Queen were singing Bohemian Rhapsody. Later there was Donna Summer singing ‘Love to Love You Baby’ with Netta dancing to the music in a way that ensured Leigh had eyes for nothing else.
I doubt he even noticed me leaving for bed but I went up that night feeling more complete than I ever had. Mum was in the spare room across the corridor and we spent ages together, me sitting on the edge of the spare bed as she told me about her life in the market town to the south. It was not the life I would choose but she enjoyed it and I could not blame her for that. I was glad she was happy and felt fulfilled, even if she did seem promiscuous and licentious. What mattered was that she was my mum and she loved me and wanted me for her daughter.
It hardly seemed to matter just then that Netta, who should have been in the bed I was sitting on, was sharing Leigh’s and building walls between him and my belated hopes. For the moment, I had a mum again, and I thought that was enough.
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