When Nicola changes overnight from a bright, happy young child into a sullen, rebellious girl, ceasing to show interest in anything or anyone around her, her parents struggle to understand why. As she develops into a difficult, troubled, hostile teenager they put it down to hormones, believing it will pass. Yet Nicola goes from bad to worse and no matter how much her mother tries to reach out to her, it seems she is hell bent on self-destruction. When she leaves home at seventeen, rushing into the arms of a man ten years her senior and quickly becoming pregnant, her despairing mother almost gives up on her. A decade later, the events that stole Nicola’s childhood and changed the course of her life threaten finally to destroy her. She knows if she is to cling on to her sanity she must tell her mother the dreadful secret she has carried all these years, but her fear that she will be met with disbelief, hostility and branded an evil liar drives her to the edge.
‘Mum can I have a word?’ Nicola asked, in a voice that hinted she’d had more to drink than was decent. She approached her mother with a half empty glass of white wine clutched in her hand and a sardonic smile twisting her lips as she glared at the person her mother was talking to. She watched as her mother turned from the man in the wheelchair and as their eyes met, Barbara Knight frowned. Nicola could almost taste her mother’s disdain as she took in the brightness of her mother’s eyes and flushed cheeks.
‘Don’t you think you’ve had enough?’ Barbara hissed, as she moved closer to Nicola and reached out to grab at the glass. Nicola pulled her hand away, slopping a few drops of the contents onto the gold-patterned carpet. ‘Today of all days, can’t you behave?’ Barbara took hold of Nicola’s elbow and with unnecessary haste, guided her out of the room and into the large hall where they could be alone.
‘I am behaving and that’s why I’d like a word with you. Today of all days is perfect.’
Barbara bit down on her lower lip. ‘Why do you always have to do this, Nicola? Do you not have a sensitive bone in your body? We’ve just cremated your father, the man who loved us. He made our lives what they are today and we’re never going to be the same without him.’ Tears pooled in Barbara’s eyes and she dabbed at them with a tissue.
Nicola took in her mother’s grief and felt her resolve weaken. The moment of courage she had struggled to find, slowly evaporated. What she needed to say had waited for so long, it could wait a while longer. She loved her mother, but they were permanently at odds with each other, neither able to hold onto the closeness they once had. Nicola wrestled with all the emotions that flooded her, each jostling for pole position. Right now she just wanted to run; run until she was far enough away from everything and everyone. The urge to disappear had been with her for so long that it was like a second skin, but as much as the desire to leave it all behind shadowed her, she knew she could never leave her children; they were all she had. Knowing the moment was now lost, she moved forward and wrapped her arms around her mother. Her wine glass tilted precariously down her mother’s back as she looked into her mother’s face and saw a reflection of her own pain. ‘I didn’t mean to upset you, but …’ she said, her voice brimming with emotion as she left the rest of the sentence unsaid, finishing it under her breath. ‘I really do need to talk to you... there’s so much you need to know.’
‘Darling, I know,’ Barbara said. ‘We will all miss him. I don’t know how I’m going to get through without him.’ Barbara gazed into Nicola’s eyes and with her damp tissue, wiped at her daughter’s face. Seeing the glass of wine still clutched in her hand, she added, ‘Please don’t drink anymore, it will only add to your sadness. I know what you’re like with drink inside you.’
Nicola bristled at her mother’s insinuation, the moment of closeness evaporating, hugs and words forgotten at her mother’s need to criticise. ‘Are you saying I’m a lush?’
‘Good God, I’m not going to walk on egg shells today, Nicola. There are family and friends in the room next door, here to pay their last respects to a man who was a pillar of strength and offered genuine friendship in this community; a man that everyone trusted.’ Barbara pulled her hand away. She ran it across her forehead, adding, ‘Today is not about you!’
It never is, Nicola thought and took a large gulp of her wine.
‘I’m going to ask you again to behave. I’ve ignored the outfit you’ve turned up in, but I will not put up with your outbursts today. Now, please go and wash your face and make sure everyone is fine, including your children.’
The anger that lived in Nicola’s heart was bursting to spill out. She took a deep breath and was about to ask what, exactly, was wrong with her outfit when, from the corner of her eye, she spied him in his wheelchair, entering the hall.
‘Barbara, are you all right?’ The concern in Bob Wakefield’s voice was evident in every syllable.
Nicola didn’t miss the piercing look he shot her, but for the first time she saw fear in his eyes and it made her feel euphoric. She glugged down the rest of her wine and watched him over the top of her glass.
‘Yes, thank you. I just needed to hug my daughter,’ Barbara replied, casting a warning sign to Nicola that clearly meant, don’t push me any further.
‘I understand,’ Bob said. He pressed the lever on his right armrest and swivelled the wheelchair out of the hall.
Barbara placed a firm hand on her daughter’s shoulder. ‘I’m going back to join the others and I suggest you do the same.’
‘He’s the one who should have been cremated today,’ Nicola said, her stare taking in the space Bob had left.
Turning sharply, an exasperated sigh escaped Barbara’s lips and a mixture of shock and sadness filled her face. ‘Nicola, why are you angry with everyone and everything? At twenty-seven you should not only have grown up, but you should show some respect!’ As if exasperated, Barbara thrust her arms in the air in a gesture of defeat, and strode down the hall, calling over her shoulder, ‘I can’t take anymore of you today.’
Nicola hadn’t meant for the conversation to go this way, it wasn’t how she had planned it. She peered down into her empty glass. She was angry, very angry, and she wanted someone to know why. She had almost told her mother and hopefully one day she would find the courage to go through with it. Why should she have to hold in all this pain and knowledge? She wished her father was still here because she would have liked to have seen his face when she did eventually speak.
Nothing had prepared her for his death, but unlike the rest of the so-called friends here today, she was not crying. She wanted to, but knowing it had been because of her father, she couldn’t.
In an act of defiance she had carefully chosen her outfit for today: a black and pink suit, white blouse and matching two tone shoes, black for respect and the pink to remind him. She had known her mother would be livid at her garish outfit and that, amongst many more reasons, was why she had worn it. The colour would always remind her of that day years before and she wanted it to be a reminder again today. She would never know if her father knew, but she knew he did, and here he was as if nothing had ever happened. She couldn’t even think his name, let alone say it; for her he could only ever be “him”.
‘Hey Nic, what are you doing on your own? I’ve been looking everywhere for you.’
Startled, Nicola looked up from a button she had started to fiddle with and a broad smile lit up her face as her eyes met Tony’s. ‘I just needed a minute on my own,’ she said.
Apart from her children, Tony was the best thing that had ever happened to her. He had made her feel normal and clean, as if she was someone different; someone special. He knew all her flaws, every single dirty one, and yet he still loved her and wanted her in his life, never questioning all she had told him, only listening and helping. It was because of Tony that she now knew it was time to try and talk to her mother; he was certain it would help her. Maybe if she had another drink she could forge a path to start the conversation she should have attempted years earlier.
Fingering the stem of her empty glass, she was painfully aware that she was drinking too much, but what she had to say needed a strength she could not find anywhere else. No matter how much she drank, though, it would never deliver the pain relief she longed for, but she needed to try.
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