TW. Mentions of abuse.
My first real hug? I only experienced it when I was forty-nine! Before that, I’d never hugged anyone, or allowed anyone to hug me; not even my children when they were little. I brought them up, kept them clean and fed them, provided for them, mostly without a father, but always at arm’s length. I was unable to show love.
The hug I’m talking about freed me and made me feel appreciated. It was a transforming hug, restoring something of what had been lost. Afterwards, I felt life might be worth living, after all.
The letter on my bedside table is crumpled. I’ve read Naomi’s words over and over again.
When she left her parent’s home over thirty years ago, she started sending me letters at Christmas and flowers at birthdays. I treasured them all and stored them in a scented box, but this letter is particularly special. She must have heard about my recent spell of bad health.
She’s coming to see me today…
I never really talked to anyone properly before I met Naomi’s mother, Theresa.
Not about “that sort of thing” anyway.
For many years, in spite of the ten year age gap, Theresa Hobson was my best friend. I told her “things” because I trusted her. I sensed she had troubles of her own. She seemed fragile, as if she might get blown away by a gust of wind. Whenever she got a moment’s break from her husband Paul’s demands, or our children were at school, we’d talk. I’d always been reserved but with her I opened up a little. Theresa listened patiently. When we weren’t talking, we’d laugh like teenagers, guiltily, as if the walls were witnesses to our secrets.
For several years, we carried on like this over cups of afternoon tea, mostly at her place. Theresa made the best carrot cake in the world and I tried to reciprocate by bringing round fairy cakes topped with sponge wings set in ice. Her children seemed to like them. None more so than her daughter, Naomi.
When Theresa’s husband, Paul lost yet another job, the atmosphere changed in the Hobson household. A dark cloud hung in the air and Paul was constantly under Theresa’s feet. The strain showed in her eyes, but she was always pleased to see me.
They both were.
I’m old now and Paul and Theresa have both passed on. Wherever they are, I hope they are happy. Lying here, I remember their many acts of kindness. I like to think I acted as a kind of buffer in their marriage.
As well as a daughter, Paul and Theresa had two sons. I didn’t have much to do with the boys, but Naomi had a nice way about her, always making the best cups of tea and making a point of asking me how I was. More often than not, she’d have her head buried in a book, studying hard to get to university.
She was the person I might have been at that age had things been different.
I can’t say I’m proud of it, but Naomi seemed to be everything my daughter, Sally, wasn’t.
Then again, in a different way, Sally was the opposite of me. Trying her best to be everything I wasn’t.
For many years. I used to visit the Hobson family twice a week, generally returning to an empty house afterwards. By then, my sons had left home and had lives of their own, while my daughter was spending hours hanging out with her boyfriend. No doubt, chafing at restrictions designed to protect her.
The tv was my main companion in a house with memories that hung about like dried moths. Even when my husband left me for another woman, I was loath to sling out his old pool trophies. He didn’t bother to collect them and I didn’t want to upset the kids by removing them.
But apart from hurt pride, I didn’t miss the man I had married. I was never able to give him what he wanted in “that way” and he wasn’t patient enough to find out why.
The wall that existed when I was growing up couldn’t be breached. It was made of iron.
“It sounds like your parents didn’t know how to show affection,” Theresa once remarked when I tried to describe what my childhood had been like.
“We didn’t do hugs in my family,” I said.
That was just scratching the surface (I know not all families do hugs), but I think Theresa understood what I meant. I could never tell her or anyone else how the man who was supposed to be my father used to beat mum when he came back from the pub, or wherever it was he’d been drinking that day. It usually took place behind the bedroom door where he hit her in places she later covered over.
Not satisfied with ruining her life, he turned his attentions my way. I flinched when I heard him stop on the landing. I screamed a silent scream as the door notched open and I closed my nostrils to stave off the stench of his beery breath. I clenched my fists as he shuffled across the room and covered my mouth with his hand.
“Don’t mention this to your mother if you know what’s good for you. No one’s going to believe you anyway.”
Another time, he said: “I’m doing you a favour. Who else is going to want you?”
He turned out to be wrong about that. Someone did want me. Not that it did me any good.
I just shut down.
The family never talked about anything that mattered during my childhood, but mum knew “it” went on.
We just didn’t speak about that sort of thing. Ever.
Years later, I want to press “stop” as snippets of words rewind like reels of tape playing through my mind. Even though he can no longer touch me.
Long since shuffled off his mortal coil.
Or the way he spoke to mum:
“What’s the matter with you? You got the curse, or something?” All because she hadn’t cooked a meal the way he liked it. She should have thrown it at him and walked away.
But then, where could she have gone?
Whatever it was, it didn’t sound good.
That sort of thing.
It happened one weekend when my brothers were out playing football in the street and “shit for brains” - that was my private name for father, was drowning his sorrows in the pub after losing badly at the betting shop.
I was only eleven and I thought I was dying! I later learnt I was the first girl in my school to get her period, but it was rarely talked about then. Not like now. Not that sort of thing.
I stood looking at myself in the bathroom mirror, muffling my cries. When I eventually stumbled into the corridor, mum was waiting. I was steered to the bedroom like a ship being docked.
“You’d better go and lie down. I’ll be back in a minute.”
She returned carrying a bag and a hot water bottle. I sat on the bed clutching myself.
“Come on, Brenda.” She placed the bottle on my stomach. “Hold onto that. It will ease things.”
Fascinated, I watched her rummage through her special bag. The one I knew she kept in a drawer alongside other personal belongings. Father never went near it. That was “women’s stuff.”
“You’re going to need these from now on.” I felt very grown up as she handed me a discreet box containing some pleated pads with loops on. The box had a picture of a woman in a flowery skirt and a wide-brimmed striped hat. The advert on the box said, “Your secret’s safe.”
“Thank you, mum.” A rare moment of togetherness. If only it had been like that more often!
“For several days a month, or if you’re anything like me, maybe more, you’re going to need to wear these,” mum said matter of factly.
I rubbed my stomach. “Does it always hurt this much?”
Tenderness was replaced by resignation.
“That’s how it is. You’re a woman now. The monthly pain means you can grow babies - so you’ll have to be extra careful round boys. If you take my advice, you’ll keep your distance. No need to let your brothers know about any of this, either. Just carry on as normal. I’ll get you some painkillers, but you’ll have to deal with it on your own.”
“Deal with what?”
“Just… you know - that sort of thing.”
At least something good came out of my discomfort. From then on, father left me alone.
By then, it was too late.
Going back to my friendship with Theresa. It’s weird to think I’d probably never have met her had it not been for the prompt actions of her husband one October evening all those years ago.
It all started when Sally was making her way home after a date with a boyfriend. Bruce had been a good sort, offering to walk her back in the dark, but she’d insisted she’d be fine. It would only take her five minutes to get back and she didn’t want me to see him..
To this day, I dread to think what might have happened had Paul not reacted when he heard Sally’s screams on the footpath outside his house. The man who grabbed Sally scarpered when Paul shouted over the fence. We never did discover his identity, but Paul brought Sally home safely and I made a new friend.
That was how I got to know Paul’s family.
One day, Naomi appeared at my door, crying like a child. I’d never seen her like that before. Until then, she’d always seemed sure of herself. Like she knew where she was headed. Now, she was lost and broken.
The past was suspended. In that moment, I forgot I hated anyone touching me. I held out my arms and she fell into them.
In between tears, she told me she’d had a row with her father.
“He shoved me to the ground… all because I got in the way of him and mum. They put on a good show when people come round, but behind closed doors it’s a different story.”
“You mean when I come round, don’t you? Oh, my poor Naomi!” I cradled her like a baby, waiting until she was all cried out. Theresa and Paul obviously had their problems, but until then I hadn’t realised how badly she’d had been affected.
“You’re lucky I’m alone in the house. I’m sure Sally is with the boyfriend I’m not supposed to know about.” I patted the leather settee I’d been given as a wedding present, now somewhat the worse for wear. “Come and sit down and I’ll get you a cup of tea.”
Over tea and biscuits, Naomi told me everything. I’d never felt such peace in another person’s company. She was like her mother, but so much more.
“You won’t say anything about me coming here, will you?” she asked.
“I promise I won’t say a word… but what are you going to do?” I briefly considered the idea of her coming to live with me, but it wasn’t practical. It might even make things worse.
“I’m not sure yet. I’ll think of something.” She smiled a sweet smile. “You know, it’s kind of peaceful here.” Having turned off the tv, the only sound was the second-hand of the ormolu clock ticking away on the mantelpiece. It had been an heirloom from my grandmother.
“Don’t do what I did. Don’t let the problems at home get in the way of your dreams. Don’t let anyone or anything get the better of you.” I shook as I said this. It was the first time I’d admitted the truth aloud.
“I won’t.” Naomi dreamed of going to university. She wanted a new life. A route out.
She dried her eyes. “Thank you for listening, Brenda. I feel better now. I’m going to go back and pretend nothing’s happened. If dad asks, I’ll just say I went for a long walk to clear my head..”
“Perhaps he’ll have calmed down by the time you get back.” I hoped and prayed that would be true.
The last time I saw Naomi she was on her way to catch a train that would take her to a city where she would start her new life. From my bedroom window, I saw her scramble up the grassy verge that led to my house. I knew she was coming to say goodbye and that I was going to miss her terribly. I wasn’t alone, but I invited her in.
“I can’t, Brenda. I have to go.”
“Ok. All the best.”
This time it was she who held out her arms. I hugged her for what I thought was the final time.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered Naomi’s departure actually had a positive effect. It spurred me on to make changes in my own life.
Before long, my daughter confided she and her boyfriend were expecting a baby, This time, I wanted things things to be different. When my granddaughter was born, I experienced a joy I hadn’t known with my own children. I was amazed by how much I loved holding her.
“There’s a lady to see you. Very smart she looks too. Obviously someone important.” My carer beams at me over the mask she wears for my protection. “Here. Let’s get these pillows straight, Bren.”
“Did she say her name was Naomi?”
“Don’t keep her waiting downstairs. Get her to come up. Ask if she’d like something to eat and drink. Don’t forget, the fairy cakes in the tin. She’s had a long journey.”
The figure at the door is older, but radiates the same warmth that touched my heart when she was a teenager. The long blond hair is now scooped up in a barrette, as befitting the image of a successful lawyer. So many times I’ve visualised her making her mark in the courtroom. To think she never lost sight of her dream! No children, but I don’t recall her having spoken of wanting them.
She’s carrying a bouquet of daffodils. They’ve always been my favourite flowers.
“I’ll find a vase for them,” my carer says, taking them off her. “I can see you two have a lot of catching up to do.”
In some ways, nothing has changed. She’s smiling at me, remembering our times together. Forming lasting impressions.
“Naomi.” As I hold out my arms, the years melt away. Almost certainly, it will be our last embrace.
It’s not the sort of thing either of us will forget.