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Fiction

I don’t know if it’s more daunting and disconcerting to pick out individual faces or to let them all blur into a sea. I try to focus on the potent symbol of the earth with the olive branches. I have seen it on television enough times. But now millions will be watching ME on television, and there is still something so bizarre and alien about it. I’m not the kind of person who does this! I’m just a dumpy middle aged school teacher from a quiet coastal town, and I’m not even the kind of teacher who comes over as especially charismatic, though I have great affection and regard for my pupils and flatter myself at least some of it is reciprocated.

They were all wonderful, then. Some of them displayed greater wisdom and less awkwardness than the adults. I will mention them in my speech to the United Nations, though of course I will dedicate it first and foremost to Adam. To Adam who taught me to trust and to forgive, and above all what love really meant.

I had known of him for a while. That’s how it is in a small town. Not a village where everyone really does know everyone else, but not like a big city where you can go a whole day and not see anyone you’ve seen before.

He was a telecoms engineer and I had seen him several times quietly and expertly working on the tangled spaghetti of wires and cables, methodically, with nimble hands and skilled eyes, making sure that we could all carry on communicating with each other.

But it was still coincidence and circumstance that brought us to our first real meeting. It was parents’ evening at the school, and he was coming on behalf of his niece, Tessa, as her mother, who was a single mum, was down with a stomach bug. I admit I was surprised. I had met Tessa’s mum before, and liked her, but she had, as she said herself, “a lot on her plate”. I was pleasantly surprised that she had taken the trouble, when she was ill herself, to make sure someone had a chat with me. As I found out later, it was more Adam’s idea. Tessa was the kind of child who was too easily overlooked – quiet, well-behaved, but I often wondered just what was going on in that little head of hers, and suspected she had both talents and troubles she kept to herself.

The odd thing is I’m not sure exactly why I made the remark about being interested in architecture when of course most of our conversation was about Tessa. I wish I did. But perhaps I was simply meant to make it. His face lit up. “I love it too! Did you know there’s a special open day at Kenton Manor on Sunday, when they open up bits that the general public don’t normally get to see?”

I hadn’t – and I accepted at once when he asked me if I’d like to accompany him to make the most of this chance. That old cliché about you not seeing the “sights” close to where you live applied with me and Kenton Manor, the Tudor mansion (though restored and renovated many times since) about five miles out of town. I had driven past it many times, but not been inside.

It was a lovely day, in all senses of the word. It was one of those October days that makes you think that summer is over-rated and a golden and scarlet autumn is preferable. And it was genuinely interesting to be able to do things like look into the roof space and tour the archives and look at artefacts that were normally kept in storage. But it was made lovelier by sharing it with Adam, and when he slipped his hand into mine as we had a final stroll round the grounds, it was the most natural and welcome thing in the world. For a hand that did such delicate work it was large and strong, but very, very gentle.

“Well, you’re a pair of dark horses,” my colleague Jenny said, when I confirmed yes, we were now most definitely an item. I smiled and didn’t make an issue of it, as I liked her, but we hadn’t really made any effort at concealing our burgeoning relationship. But I could tell something was worrying her. “Spit it out,” I said.

She sighed. “Clare, I like Adam, I really do. He seems a perfect gentleman and I love the way he looks out for Tessa – she’s really coming out of her shell. But – well, I don’t think there’s any chance he will turn out like his father ……”

Apart from Tessa and his sister-in-law (I didn’t think she was, technically, but that was how he thought of her) I didn’t know about any family and hadn’t pushed him on the subject. But it was true that I ought to know something, and the way we just “hadn’t talked about it” was not really the way to enter a long term relationship. It was pretty obvious that I wasn’t going to like what Jenny had to say.

Her grandfather, still alive and a sprightly man in his nineties, long since retired to Spain, had been a family doctor. “And of course he respected patients’ privacy, but people DO talk to their immediate family knowing it will go no further, and little pitchers can have bit ears, and parents can pass things on to their children. Adam’s dad was what Grandpa called a thoroughly bad lot – and he was a man who was tolerant of human frailty and failings. He spent all his money on drink and gambling, and he wasn’t a happy drunk, if you know what I mean. He knocked his wife about – and from what I gather, young Adam and his brother, Colin – Tessa’s dad – too. “ My heart ached for Adam. And of course it wasn’t going to make one iota of difference. It only made me love him more. But we had to talk about it.

He wasn’t angry when I brought it up. Anything but. “I should have told you all about it myself, Clare,” he said. And he told me yes, it had been bad. He was at pains not to glorify himself and vilify his brother, but it was plain that as the boys grew into manhood, Colin was going to take after his dad, and Adam wanted something better. He became extremely protective towards his mother, and tried to use himself as a human shield wherever possible. I had long since noticed that he had a scar on his lower arm – not a dramatic one, but one that would never entirely fade. I had presumed he had been in an accident, but now I asked, “The scar on your arm …..?”

“Yes,” he nodded. “That was Dad’s doing. A knife.”

“Oh, my darling,” I muttered, bowing my head and kissing him tenderly on that scar.

But what he told me next, whilst not in any way diminishing my pity and my love, made things more complex and more troubling. Apparently before his mum passed away, she and his dad had a reconciliation of sorts. And his dad was still alive, but stricken by Alzheimer’s, and in a nursing home. Adam not only paid his fees, but visited him.

“I promised Mum,” he said simply.

I wanted to feel nothing but admiration and empathy, and yet I struggled. “Do you actually love him?” I blurted out, and it sounded like more of an accusation than I’d intended, but I couldn’t help it.

“I often ask myself the same question. No, I don’t love him like you love your dad. I can’t and I’m not ashamed of the fact. And trust me, Clare, I’m no angel. At times I feel physically sick before I go into that building and wonder why I bother because he doesn’t even recognise me now – though in some ways that makes it easier, even though it is such a cruel, horrible illness. But – at some point you have to – make the break. Think, well, let’s put the bitterness aside. Let’s put the recriminations aside. Let’s not carry them on to another generation.”

If I’m being honest I still couldn’t quite get my head round it. But I realised it as part of Adam’s very being, and if I did not accept it I would lose him, and that was an unbearable thought. Still, I was glad there was no question of his dad coming to our wedding, that happened the next May.

Apart from Tessa’s mum, Christine, and Tessa herself, who was a very pretty bridesmaid, there was nobody from Adam’s side of the family at our quiet wedding.

It was only a couple of months before I realised I was expecting a child myself. It was sooner than we had planned, but we were so happy, and when our healthy, gurgling son Tommy was born, a winter baby to warm everyone’s hearts, we thought it was just not possible to be more joyful.

When Adam went to the engineering convention in July, it would be only the second time he had spent a night away from me, and the first time he had spent a night away from Tommy. “Say Dadda!” he coaxed him, before he left, “Say Dadda!” I laughed and gently pointed out that although of course our son was the most intelligent child who had ever lived, he was being a bit premature and optimistic. And yet – I can’t swear that Tommy didn’t say it, or at least his version of it.

That farewell embrace was the last one we shared. Because that evening, as now the world knows, terrorist bombs went off in the conference centre. Mum was the one who told me. And I can only imagine how her heart ached. Even parents of grown up children still think they can make things better for them, if they try hard enough, but this time she couldn’t. Of course one thing COULD make it better – at least for us. There would be survivors. There always were, even of the worst attacks, unless they were in the air. And indeed there were. But Adam wasn’t one of them.

For the next few days I was like an automaton. I moved. I woke. I slept (with the help of pills I didn’t refuse). I even ate some food that tasted of nothing and had some conversations that meant nothing at all. I clung to Tommy and yet I realise now that it was Mum and sometimes Christine who really looked after him. Outside school I was “Auntie Clare” to Tessa now, and she asked me, her own voice trembling, “Why do people do things like that, Auntie Clare?”

“I don’t know, love,” I muttered, “I don’t think anyone knows.”

To this day I don’t quite know why I agreed to give the interview to the local radio station. Mum and Christine and all my friends counselled against it, even though the interviewer, Daniel March, was known to be decent and sympathetic. And he was. Even a couple of seconds before we were due to go on air he said quietly, “Clare, if you prefer not to go through with this, it’s fine.”

I was tempted. But I drew a deep breath and said, “It’s okay.” It’s odd – or perhaps it’s wholly explicable – how we automatically use phrases like that even though it’s not okay at all.

I said all the conventional things about being so grateful to family and friends and how Tommy was a blessing. But it was thinking of Tommy, of my beloved boy, who was bouncing on his Nanna’s lap in a little lounge just up the corridor from the studio, that made me remember what his father had said. And I was suddenly eloquent with his eloquence, compassionate with his compassion, forgiving with his forgiveness. His words spoke through me. I said that of course those who had masterminded the terror attack, safe and rich in their ivory towers while desperate and deluded young men strapped on their suicide vests, should and must be brought to justice. But “Then, let’s put the bitterness aside. Let’s put the recriminations aside. Let’s not carry them on to another generation.”

I had genuinely never expected it. But the next day my name was in the headlines. My words were quoted. Except of course they weren’t my words, they were your words, Adam.

And I might be the person standing here at a dais, with thousands of eyes in the hall and millions of eyes on the television looking at me, wearing a dark blue dress you always loved because it matched my eyes, but you are the one who are speaking to the special peace conference of the United Nations. You are speaking to the world and you are speaking to the most precious and perfect person in it. Your son, Tommy, who called you Dadda on the morning when you gave us that last embrace.

February 11, 2021 08:38

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2 comments

Eddie Thawne
12:52 Feb 17, 2021

Beautifully written. I like the way it was composedly written. Great Job. Well done!

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Palak Shah
12:16 Feb 16, 2021

Great story Deborah. This has been amazingly written and crafted. Well done !!! Can you please read my story and share some feedback on it. It would be appreciated a lot. Thanks :))

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