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I posted Chapter 1 on 13 January. Subsequent chapters have appeared each Friday, and will continue to be posted until all 50 have featured here. You can find those already posted via the archive; just search by chapter number. If you missed the start, you’ll find it here: http://stuartaken.blogspot.com/2012/01/read-free-my-novel-here.html
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Sunday 8th August
It had been the most amazing night of my life and I felt so loved and wanted as I received those marvellous presents. Dad’s gift overwhelmed me and Leigh’s, generous as it was, left me wondering if he did expect me to take him along, and equally uncertain whether I would. But the one that most touched me, strangely, was Old Hodge’s hand-carved wren on the log. It was exquisite and he’d carved it with love, spending time and skill instead of money, for me. I placed it on my windowsill where I could see it from my bed last thing at night and first thing in the morning against the ever-changing backdrop of the sky.
Dad’s early departure bothered me and I hoped he hadn’t overdone it by attending and forcing himself to stand. We’d grown to know each other over the weeks and there was a bond of love between us as strong as any between daughter and father. I found myself facing his inevitable demise with dread and praying the day might be postponed as far as possible and further.
Tired as I was, I rose early and took advantage of a bathroom that would later be in great demand. Susie stirred slightly on my floor and I pulled the cover back over her and brushed the auburn hair away from her pretty face. She’d cried on my shoulder over her boyfriend’s desertion but I’d explained no man was safe if Netta had designs on him.
‘Netta’s choice is nothing to do with your boyfriend, you know, most men are helpless in her hands. She just wanted to make Leigh jealous.’ It seemed to help and she’d gone to sleep at last.
There was no one awake downstairs and I left the house, after breakfast, without witnesses. The Mini started at once and I saw it was full of petrol. Leigh had put the steering wheel cover on at some time during the evening and I smiled at the touch of the soft leather and the thought of him taking that trouble for me and saying nothing; leaving it as a surprise. It was the sort of thoughtful gesture he made from time to time and it just added to his other attractions.
The new car smell filled my nostrils and every surface gleamed with freshness. It was more than just a car to me; it was freedom and independence.
The early morning roads were quiet and I met little traffic even though it was the peak of the holiday season and there were tourists staying everywhere. As I approached the cottage, it occurred to me that Eric might not be awake. When he answered my light knock, I realized I’d known instinctively he would be a habitual early riser.
‘I’m deeply touched by your gift, Eric. I know what it means to you.’
‘Good to see ‘em round a pretty neck again, lass. You wear ‘em well and that top sets ‘em off a treat. They went smashing with that dress last night. Almost had me fancying you myself. Tell the truth, I were right glad of a chance to give ‘em to a lass as deserves ‘em.’
I kissed his cheek and he made no move away as he had previously when I got too close.
‘You’re a good lass, Faith. You’ve never a word agin me for the way I am and I thank you for that. I’ve always felt that you, at least, respect me.’
‘I do respect you, Eric. Your life must’ve been hard and I value the devotion you’ve shown Dad, knowing there’d be no physical reward. I know about sacrifice, Eric. I admire the way your love for Dad guides you. But I’m amazed at your lack of bitterness over the way life’s treated you.’
‘Life could’ve been crueller, Faith. I might never’ve met David. Funny thing; we can’t help who we fall in love with, but we can help how we react. Most folk never learn that. You have, though.’
He nodded and took my hand gently in his, squeezed it tenderly.
‘Do you think he’ll ever be mine?’
‘Who knows? Thing is, though, you’re his, aren’t you? Best make the most of that, don’t you think?’
‘I spent my life sacrificing my needs to those of Heacham and Hope. I’m not sure I’m up to sacrificing what’s left to a man who doesn’t know I exist.’
‘Hardly that, love. He had eyes enough for you yesterday.’
I knew he was right. But Leigh wasn’t what I wanted him to be in my life and I was growing weary, waiting for him to mature into the ideal I hoped he would become.
‘Your dad’s taken it hard after last night, Faith. He were fair done in by the time we got back and he’s slept more or less ever since. He never lets on, but he’s a lot more poorly than you might realize.’
We went into the front room where Dad was sleeping. I sat by the bed in the armchair and Eric made the ubiquitous tea. Bruce no longer stirred at my comings and goings, accepting me as a regular visitor.
The cottage fitted silently around us, isolating us from the world outside but for the sounds of nature. I heard the soft wind sighing through grass and trees, the ‘chuck’ of a stonechat close by, the melancholy bubbling of a curlew across the fields, the ever-present murmur of sheep. No cars passed the cottage and Public Footpaths brought walkers no closer than a mile. It was a perfect retreat from the world and suited Eric more, perhaps, than Dad.
‘It was a grand party.’
Dad’s sudden comment startled me and I looked down to see the tired eyes open and a smile playing on his pale lips. I bent and kissed him.
‘It was wonderful. But I’m not so sure you should’ve come, Dad.’
‘Wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The look on your face was worth everything. To know you were so happy and to witness the love and admiration of your friends; that was worth the effort. If I die tomorrow, I’ll know my little girl’s a grown woman, a very beautiful woman, who is well respected and well loved in the world. That knowledge is worth far more than a fortune, my wonderful daughter.’
He spoke softly but the effort cost him dear. It was a long time before his chest stopped its frantic rise and fall in an effort to find the oxygen he needed. I knew then he really was dying and wouldn’t be with me for much longer.
Eric brought the tea and saw he was awake. ‘Tea, David?’
He just shook his head slowly.
‘Drop of water?’
A single nod and a wink.
The water came laced heavily with scotch and I must’ve frowned. Eric beckoned me to follow him to the door. We stood in the kitchen where Dad couldn’t hear us if we whispered.
‘Don’t begrudge him his relief and his enjoyment, lass. He’s no danger of becoming an alcoholic now, is he? And if it dulls the pain and makes it easier for him to bear the life that’s left him, what harm is there?’
‘None. I agree with you. I just hadn’t realized he had the need.’
‘Good. I’ll be honest with you, lass. I’ve called the doctor but I’m afraid he’ll not see the close of next weekend. I wonder if we’ve done you such a favour letting you come to love him when he’s so close to departing.’
‘As Dad said, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, Eric. I’m only grateful you all thought I had the fortitude to deal with the loss, and risked our meeting. Coming to know my dad has given me identity, family, history, a base from which to grow. Without him, I was orphaned and only half formed. I’m so glad I’ve had the chance to love him. And, Eric, I’ll not let him, or you, or myself down at the end, I promise.’
We returned to find him sleeping again. He was like that all day; in and out of sleep. We had to wake him when the doctor came. Not Paul, but a tall thin man with a moustache and serious grey eyes. He was a partner from the same practice.
‘You’ve got the necessary for the moment, Eric, and you know what to do. If it gets too much for him, give me a ring; any time, doesn’t matter when. I’ll be here as soon as I can to help him. I no more want him hanging on in pain than you do.’ He turned to me and studied me a long time in silence. ‘Paul told me about you, Faith. Eric knows; I think you’re strong enough to face the facts. Your dad has days at the most. Sunday now. I doubt he’ll see the weekend. If there’s anything you want to share with him, now’s the time. Don’t let him go and then find you regret the things you never said or never asked him.’
I thanked him and he looked at me along time again before he nodded, as if satisfied. He took my hand in his, smiled, squeezed my hand very gently, nodded again and then left.
I sat beside Dad with his hand in mine as he slept and woke and slept and woke throughout the day. I forgot to eat and only drank the tea that Eric made all through my stay. He sat at the other side of the bed in a hard, upright, wooden chair from the kitchen. We spoke softly across Dad when he was sleeping, to him when he woke. He was lucid all the time but tired and frail.
The time came when I had to leave for Longhouse. I made Eric promise to ring me should he start to falter. I wanted to be with Dad when he died.
I was unable to cope with the banality and self-absorption of Netta back home and I cut her from my consciousness. Ma and Old Hodge helped as much as they could to keep up my spirits. Leigh was torn between his obsession with Netta and his concern for me. It was no surprise to me that she won most of the time.
Mum let me down badly when I phoned her. ‘Thanks for telling me, Faith, but I won’t watch him die. I don’t do death. I’d rather keep the memory of him alive. Dying won’t keep him as fresh in my memory. Tell him I love him, please.’
‘Tell him yourself!’
Three faces stared at me as I slammed the phone down. I stared back at them in defiance. But when the phone rang almost immediately I picked it up. ‘Tell your dad I love him. Please, Faith. Do it for him, if not for me.’
‘Okay.’ I replaced the receiver more gently and went to my room to weep, but remained dry-eyed.
During the days, I worked to occupy my mind. Each evening I went to see Dad and stayed until midnight.
Saturday, I knew he would die. I could feel it even before I left Longhouse. Leigh made the effort, got up to see me off and asked if I wanted him to take me for a change. ‘Thanks, Leigh, but I’ll drive. I don’t have to worry about how long I’m away then. I’ll be back only when there’s no point in me staying.’
‘You never know, he might….’ He stopped as he saw my expression. I was proud of him for recognising it was time for truth; that platitudes were no help. ‘If you need me when you get back, just call me, wherever, whenever. I mean it.’
It was a genuine offer and one I knew I wouldn’t take up.
Eric was at the front door, his eyes heavy with exhaustion, his proud shoulders slumped in weariness and at first, I thought I’d arrived too late. ‘Just taking the air, lass. He’s sleeping and peaceful just now.’ Bruce was roaming the nearby moor but returned to thrust his cold wet nose into my hand the moment I arrived.
The house was silent apart from the soft dry sound of Dad’s light breathing. But it was heavy and oppressive in the room. The curtains were drawn against the sunlight and the window shut. I opened the curtains and window to let in light, air and sounds from outside. Dad stirred as if he sensed the change and his eyes opened.
I had to bend until my ear touched his nose before I could hear his words. ‘Don’t blame Matilda. She’s a creature for life not death. I know she’s with us in spirit. Tell her I love her.’
‘Mum says to tell you she loves you, Dad.’
It was as much as he could manage for the moment and I sat beside him with his hand in mine, dry as paper and cold as stone. Eric came in and raised his eyebrows at my departure from tradition.
‘I read that the dying need more stimulus, not less, Eric. Fresh air, light and sound help them.’
He nodded his agreement without conviction and I understood he was too weary to debate the matter and too considerate to go against my wishes even though he favoured tradition. He wandered off and made tea.
The day was long, endless; full of silence and tea. I took a couple of short spells outside in the sun with Bruce, as much to revive my circulation as to have a break from the vigil. Eric was with him if I was away. We spent the day that way; two isolated guardians watching over the person who most mattered to us yet unable to talk of him for that time.
Dad’s breathing was ragged and insubstantial when he opened his eyes for the last time. He seemed unfocussed at first and then found Eric in his hard backed chair and somehow made him aware he wanted to speak to him. Eric bent low and listened for a space but I heard none of the private words that passed between them. I waited and hoped that my turn would come. Eric returned to his upright position after a while, his eyes wet with unshed tears.
Dad let his breathing calm as much as was possible and then turned those tired eyes to me. I knelt by his bedside and placed my face as close to his as I could without putting any weight on him.
‘Love you, Faith. Don’t be afraid… not painful now…empty old house… switching off lights one by one, that’s all. Proud of you. Live life well, for me.’
‘I will, Dad. I love you.’
His eyes closed after his enormous effort. His breath came in shallow gasps that rasped as though all moisture had left his airways. Eric held one hand, I held the other and, as I met his eyes across the narrow bed, we stretched out our free hands and held each other.
I was conscious of the silence, broken by the distant drone of a summer plane high and far away and irrelevant. A curlew bubbled its melancholy, close. No wind stirred the trees and grass beyond the window, but, in the silence, the small beck gurgled in its rocky bed. The sheep were still. It was as if all nature knew.
Dad suddenly tensed as if he was about to move. ‘Matilda.’
Eric and I glanced at each other and then at Dad. He breathed a few last ragged sips of worthless air and then was still, as life left his body with a final soft groan. Bruce howled just once and then lay silent at the foot of the bed.
I don’t know how long we sat there unmoving. Something from outside; a bird call, the mutter of a sheep, the trees and grass communing with the wind, something brought us back to an awareness of the world. We returned but were not spiritually separated from that other somewhere we inhabited with Dad.
I shook my head for the first time in answer. ‘I need to be alone.’
I stood and then knelt, bent and kissed his empty shell in departure.
Eric nodded. ‘I know what has to be done. I cared for him in life…’
‘He told me he had a fear of…’
Eric waved away my concern. ‘It doesn’t matter that his wishes were at odds wi’ mine, lass. It’s what he wanted. I’ll not lock him in darkness when he wanted flames. Who knows, he might be right about the end and after. I’ve only got my catholic indoctrination. Your dad had brains and knowledge I never found. He’ll have his way, I promise you. I’ll let you know when it’s all ready.’
I took a last look at the shell that had housed my dad. Eric saw me to the door and we embraced a little awkwardly, neither of us willing or ready to release the swelling tides of grief within us.
I drove a short way from the cottage and stopped on a stretch of open grassland. I left the car and walked a distance from the road and found a rock to sit on. Darkness was falling when I moved at last, returning dry-eyed to my car. The world was no longer the same warm place. Part of me had died with Dad and there was nothing to put in its place. Only grief would heal the gaping hole I felt inside me, grief and tears. And tears refused to wash me clean.
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