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Nov 18, 2020

Fiction

“Jake, it’s no good, I have to tell you this,” Katrina said, her voice small and tight and yet seeming to echo and resonate. “You have to know. It’s – no good us pretending we have any kind of a future together if I don’t. And yet we might not if I do …..” Jake bit his tongue before he told Katrina that she was speaking in riddles. And the truth was she wasn’t saying anything that surprised him. He loved this quiet, kind, soft-spoken woman more dearly than he had ever loved in his life. He also thought she was probably the most honest person he had ever known, and yet he still felt, and trusted this instinct even though in some ways he’d have preferred not to, that there was a part of her that was still a secret to him.

     “Tell me when you’re ready, love, and in your own way,” he said. “And don’t say anything you don’t want to.”

     “I do want to,” she said “Oh, of course I don’t. Because – I wish to God I didn’t have to. You’ve met my mother, and I know the two of you get on.”

     “Yes, I like her very much,” he said, truthfully. He couldn’t quite imagine that they’d be the kind of mother in law and son in law who went shopping for soft furnishings together, but saw many of the same qualities in Joanne Ellis as he did in her daughter. 

     “You think she’s a widow. Well, that’s quite true. I never really knew my dad. He died when I was only three. I have some vague flashes that I tell myself are memories, but I don’t know how much is imagination and how much what people have told me. But I know he was a good man and loved both of us dearly. That was my Dad – Rob. But my Mum remarried, Jake. When I was ten, though just a couple of weeks before my eleventh birthday. And I was really happy about it! It can sometimes be – a bit trying, being the only child of a widowed or single Mum, though she did her best not to smother me emotionally. Anyway, apart from that, I really liked Vernon – that was his name. He was great fun. He spoiled me rotten and always made a point of asking my opinion on things and respecting it. Well, at any rate,” she paused, and Jake could have sworn an actual shadow fell across his face, “He acted as if he did. My birthday was wonderful. We weren’t poor, and Mum always made sure I had presents for my birthday or Christmas, but Vernon was – what’s the phrase – rolling in it. He told me that he had arranged a party at the last minute and made out that he knew it wasn’t going to be that wonderful, but he hoped I’d humour him – as if I were an adult person. It was that wonderful, Jake. He had booked one of the conference rooms in a local hotel, and it was all decked out in blue and yellow – they were my favourite colours then, and there was a live band playing, and the food was wonderful. A lot of my classmates were there, and some older children, too, and – well, you know how it is when you’re 11 – that’s really flattering. Looking back I realise he probably bribed them. Well – I hope that’s all he did. It was the best party I ever had, like a grown up one and yet a little girl’s dream come true at the same time. And as for the presents – he got me a gold bracelet, real gold, and a whole box set of CDs and a course of gymnastics classes. I was obsessed with gymnastics, even though I wasn’t really very good at it. Yes, it was the happiest day of my life, Jake. Not long after that, we went on the best holiday of my life, too. Mum and I had been abroad before, but this time we had a proper log cabin in the woods in Denmark, and it was just like a fairy tale. I thought I’d grown out of them, but realised I hadn’t. Though it was spring there was still some snow on the ground, and we were surrounded my pine trees. It was idyllic, and when he saw that I was upset about coming home, he said, “Don’t worry, sweetheart, that will be the first of many wonderful holidays. How would you like to go to Paris, or to California, or to the Riviera?” I had only heard the word “Riviera” in the kind of old romantic films that Mum liked and the kind of old-fashioned children’s books I liked, but it conjured up an image of glamour and vivid blue. 

     “Now, come on, Vernon,” Mum said, trying to act strict, but smiling, “Katrina has to realise that life is not all holidays, and that she has to do well at school, too, and do her chores.”

     “I don’t think we need worry about school,” Vernon said, “You’re so bright, Katrina. In fact, how would you like to go to St Rowena’s instead of the Comprehensive when you change schools in September?” I caught my breath when he said that, Jake! St Rowena’s was the posh girls’ school in the next town. And here’s the thing. It wasn’t just one of those private schools that are all fancy uniforms and house trophies and Latin mottoes – it had a fantastic educational reputation, too. “You’d have to pass the entrance exam, of course,” he said, as if that were an irritating imposition, “But I don’t doubt you’ll soar through.”

     “But Katrina, won’t you miss some of your friends?” Mum asked. I hesitated. It was true I had some good friends in top juniors, but we were all at the age and the stage in our academic life when friendships established when you were 5 are starting to fray and shift anyway. “Yes,” I said, “But I think it would be worth it. And I’ll make new friends.” She told me later that she had words with Vernon about mentioning it to me before he’d talked it through with her, and he was – a mixture of contrite and authoritative, and said, he was sorry, of course, if he’d acted wrongly, but surely she wanted the best possible education for her daughter.”

     I might not have exactly soared through the entrance exam, and I found the maths particularly troublesome, but when the letter came (in those days, though the Internet was around, not everybody had it, and although they had a superb Computer Suite, St Rowena’s was the kind of school where such news was sent out on thick, crisp, headed notepaper) it confirmed that I had passed. “I knew you would,” Vernon said, giving me a hug.  “That’s my smart girl!”

     “That’s our smart girl, Vernon,” Mum muttered, unable to stop herself, but she didn’t want to spoil a happy day. We went out for a meal that night and I was allowed a little glass of wine that I pretended I liked.

     I never called him anything but Vernon, and he never asked me to (how much because of what Mum said, and how much for his own reasons, I’ll never know) but the fact is that I was getting a second chance at being a Daddy’s Girl that I never thought I would. Oh, he went through the motions, perhaps not wanting a repeat of the School Business, and made a point of saying things like “If your Mum agrees,” but most times she did end up agreeing. Not – not ever y time, not about things she knew. Like you know I need reading glasses and Vernon wanted me to have contact lenses instead, but I hated the idea – I hated even getting anything in my eyes. Mum put her foot down and said we’d think about it again after a year or so. Vernon said – it was a shame to hide my pretty eyes. He was always saying how much he liked my eyes. Well, nothing wrong with that. It’s safe enough to say you like somebody’s eyes, isn’t it? It’s the kind of thing you can say in public.”

     Jake found himself willing not to say what he had already realised she was going to say. Desperately pleading in his mind that he was mistaken, that it was not going to end how he thought it would. But of course he had known, in his heart had known more or less from the start where this was heading. And at the same time he was willing her to speak, willing her to find the courage to speak and to carry on speaking. She did, and he was not surprised. Horrified, incandescent with rage, overcome with feelings of fierce protectiveness and almost unbearable tenderness, but not surprised. 

     The woman he loved more than he had ever loved anyone in his life, when she was only a child, had been sucked into an abyss of abuse and betrayal. A world of “our secret” and “your Mum wouldn’t understand”. A world of “you wouldn’t want to split up our happy family, now would you?” A world of “We’re doing nothing wrong you know, but not everybody would understand.” 

     Yes, he had always liked Joanne, but now he felt something akin to hatred for her. Just how the hell could she let that happen to her daughter? What kind of a woman, what kind of a mother was she? A man who hated violence, and thought it particularly loathsome against a woman, had she been in that room now, he would have struck her and not regretted it. It was as if Katrina realised what he was thinking. “Jake, don’t think badly of Mum. She didn’t know. He made sure she didn’t. And oh yes, it’s so easy to say that she should have realised something. But do you really think she’s the only mother in that position who didn’t? There are things that are so – beyond what you would ever imagine that they don’t occur to you – of if they do, a kind of blanket or cloud comes over them. And I wasn’t the classic – child in that situation.” She had spoken openly and explicitly and yet now, at least for a moment, she needed the recourse of a gentler way of putting what could never be gentle. “I wasn’t especially rebellious at school. I didn’t behave badly or retreat into my shell – at least not into a shell anyone could see. And – yes – I did think I would get part of the blame. “

     “That’s horrendous!” Jake exclaimed.

     “Of course it is, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t happen and doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening now. You have condemned my mother, Jake, and I don’t blame you. But please give her credit for what I’m going to tell you now. She came home from work early as they’d had an electrical fault, and she heard Vernon say, “For Christ’s sake, Katrina, it’s your mother!” She told me later – and I believed her and still do – that she realised in an instant and that she hated herself and despised herself for not having realised before. And she never blamed me. Not my mother. Not for one second. It was as if – oh, I know that’s the oldest cliché in the book – everything happened in slow motion. She dragged me out of the room – it was as if I was paralysed and couldn’t move – and slammed and locked the door on Jake and called the police. Credit to them, they arrested him straightaway and he was taken into custody. I had to be questioned, of course and – even though they were well-trained and kind that’s – not a nice thing. He was questioned too, and apparently he came over all arrogant one minute and lachrymose the next. I – was offered the chance to listen to the recording. I chose not to. Perhaps I will one day. I never had to endure a trial. I was dreading it, even though they said there would be video links and I wouldn’t have to face him. He hanged himself in his cell – he hadn’t been granted bail. There was - a bit of a ruckus about that as he probably should have been on suicide watch and wasn’t, but – well, even his own family didn’t have any especial urge to make a fuss about it. They were bitterly ashamed of him. They had no clue, Jake. I’m not exactly friends with them, though I’m in touch with his sister sometimes, but I bear them no grudge. Well – now you know, Jake. And be honest with me.”

     “How can you possibly think it makes a difference?” he asked, pulling her into his embrace, and relieved beyond all measure that she did not fear his touch, and did not recoil. 

     But of course he knew that wasn’t true. He had thought it would not be possible to love Katrina more. But now he knew that his love for this brave, kind, wonderful woman had increased a thousand fold.

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