Sunday, 15 November 2015

Summer Tale for an Autumn Morning

It is my birthday tomorrow, Monday 16th November, and as I do every year I have prepared something special and unusual to share with my fellow bloggers and readers, even if I don't really believe in birthdays that much. The story below was born three years ago during the London Olympics and especially that much talked-about Super Saturday (yes, I know, three years. But I needed to work on the characters and the plot and... Oh, who am I kidding? I'm just lazy). Like most short stories I have written on this blog in the past, this one is a draft that I will go back to and work on some more. At the moment, though, I'm quite enjoying where it's headed and I'm happy with it. Have a great week.

Damaged

This is a train. This is a train leaving Bush Hill Park, Enfield, north London, bound for Liverpool Street, east London. This is a train that contains few passengers. Amongst these passengers there is a couple. An ordinary-looking couple. A run-of-the-mill couple. A couple you wouldn’t stop to look at more than once on the street. Yet this is no ordinary-looking couple. This is a couple with a secret. Her secret. Which the man in the couple has just found out today despite the fact they have been together fifteen years.

This is a train that contains a couple in which the man thinks he knows everything about his wife. But there is a reason why his wife has been holding something back.

Shame.

This is not a story about shame but about its aftermath. The feelings it triggers. The scars it leaves behind. This is a story that takes place on a train bound for a popular station, a station at which many passengers regularly alight, especially on a Saturday evening like this, seeking the myriad pleasures London has to offer.

Why now? He asks. They are on their way to a school reunion. That might explain the “why now? She is bound to run into Father Nicholas at the gathering. As she mentions his name her grip tightens on the kitchen knife she took just before leaving the house. Father Nicholas, whom she calls “that man” in her tale. According to Gloria, who phoned her up a few days ago, “that man” is still in touch with some of the pupils from her old girls’ school. He must be now… what... seventy-three… four? Who knows? Who cares? He is still alive. And that to her, matters more than his age.

Gloria sounded worried on the phone because she is the only person who knows what happened. And now her husband knows, too. When “it” happened, she was too ashamed to tell anyone else. She kept thinking she’d get pregnant. Not that she knew a lot about reproduction at the time. The little she knew she learnt it from Gloria. As soon as the lights went out in the long and narrow girls’ dormitory the two of them started their barely audible, whispered dialogue. They were two thirteen-year-olds tempting fate and defying the nuns’ curfew.

But Father Nicholas knew. He knew about the nocturnal conversations and he knew which girl was the vulnerable one. Not Gloria. Oh, no! Gloria was a fighter. Absent father and a mother who gave up on her because her daughter was “an accident I didn’t ask God for”. Gloria talked back. Gloria asked awkward questions. Gloria wore make-up once to mass for which she was severely punished. The very visible welts on her skin did nothing to placate her rebellious nature.

Sitting now on the overground next to her husband, she has a memory of herself being the opposite of Gloria. She was always clingy, too dependent. The perfect victim for “that man”.

Their train arrives at White Hart Lane. A blood-soaked sky can be seen to the west. Normally at this time of the day, there would still be people hanging out here during the football season, if there was a late kick-off. The platform is almost empty. It’s funny how the Olympics give the impression that the streets of London are swarming with crowds and yet that has not been the case. She read the other day in the paper that theatres and tourist spots in the West End are not getting the windfall they were expecting because visitors prefer to head for East London instead. The carriage they occupy has only three other passengers. She never felt comfortable with the idea of the Olympics. All that money wasted on a fortnight exhibition of brawn and little brain. On top of that there is the heat this year to deal with. She cannot stand the heat. Please, no more of this Indian summer, give me a good ol’ British downpour instead. That has become her refrain during the months of June, July and August so far. A fat pearly drop of sweat travels from her left cheek down her neck and nestles in between her breasts.

So, how many times did he do it? Her husband’s question is asked in a low, neutral voice, betraying no emotion. Twice, her tremulous voice responds. The first time she remembers seeing father Nicholas’s silhouette at the door of her dormitory. The light from the full moon streaming through one of the half-closed windows gave him a spectral apparition. His black cassock highlighted the paleness of his face. His black buckle-less shoes made no sound and yet she was completely sure that she could hear heavy footsteps getting closer to her bed.  After spotting him at the door she drew the bedcover over her head, but she still could feel him approaching. All of a sudden the heavy footsteps stopped. His hand removed her shelter. He bent down and...

For many years after that night I kept thinking that while he was raping me I was being watched by all the girls in the dormitory, her voice, like her husband’s sounds cold and detached. I had a recurring nightmare, she continues, in which the lights came on as he was still... doing that... and I felt... oh God! She turns towards her husband, pushes her face against his shoulder and wraps her right arm around his neck. Her sobs are inaudible. The few, scattered passengers in their carriage fail to notice that she is crying. Her husband knows about the nightmares. She still has them, but instead of her bad dreams being populated by cut-out cardboard figures from her ex-school, they are now inhabited by real people she has been involved with. Her previous two husbands, for instance. And Gloria. Ever-present Gloria. Her husband’s left hand slides down her hair and nape and goes back up, stopping at her crown. He massages her head, pressing his thumb down lightly and making tiny circles with it. He knows she loves that and were they at home now and in different circumstances, this would probably be a signal to begin their slow but always satisfying love-making. It is also the way he comforts her whenever she has one of her recurring nightmares. She thinks back to an earlier, merrier memory in the day, of bedsprings creaking and feels a pang of disappointment which causes her to shudder slightly. She disentangles herself from her other half. His massage is the same, but somehow it doesn’t feel right. Are you OK? She asks him. He doesn’t look in her eyes. Did he...? Did he...? The words want to come out but she knows he is struggling to utter them. Did he… penetrate you? Yes, she says. He raped me, that means that he penetrated me. Better to get it over with, she thinks. That’s probably why his caresses feel so mechanical, because… wait, no, that's not it, he wants validation. That‘s why he asked the question. Maybe he thought that by rape I meant sexual assault. Maybe he is blaming me. He won’t admit it but he is probably thinking that I brought this problem onto myself. She is no longer feeling so confident that her husband of fifteen years is in a position to understand what Father Nicholas did to her and the others. After all, she has only found out about the other girls recently.

Bastard! His voice is still low but his anger is perceptible. Fucking bastard! How could he do it with so many of you around? Although his tone is not accusatory, she feels as if she is the one in the dock.

*

Your Honour, members of the jury, passengers of this train, world! I plead not guilty. Yes, you heard that right. I plead not guilty to being raped by a Catholic priest whom my family, especially my mother, completely trusted. I was thirteen, Your Honour, with the memory of my first period still fresh in my mind. Unlike Gloria, I was besotted with the Holy Book. Gloria already had doubts then, but to me the Bible was my only anchor at a time when I was unmoored. There was no story in it that didn’t speak to me, that didn’t relate to me somehow. My devotion pleased my mother who led her own life according to the strictest of religious codes. She lived in desperate fear of committing a sin. That’s why it was so easy for Father Nicholas to do what he did to me. His demeanour mixed the disciplinarian and the friendly, with an emphasis on the former rather than the latter. My mother welcomed this unsolicited support in the middle of yet another crisis with my father. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that when it came to Father Nicholas in those years the capital ‘F’ became very quickly a lower case ‘f’.”

*

He didn’t make his intentions clear from the start. Instead, he groomed me. She likes using that verb now, “groom”; she knows what it means and it gives her a sense of control over the event even if she cannot get rid of the memory. Gloria realised straight away but I was too focused on my Bible studies to notice. At the convent I always stayed behind with “that man”to go over a particular passage. His big, calloused hands would usually find a way to make contact with my small, delicate fingers, guiding them across the page. If I made a mistake, he would play the old, uncle character, all laughs and bad jokes. But there was also an angry side to him. If he felt that his rule was being contested, that I or any of the other girls was straying too far from the line, he didn’t hesitate to punish us.

It is strange to hear her own narration coming out so freely, untroubled by doubts and awkward pauses, albeit punctuated by irregular sobs. Perhaps that is the reason why her husband is so tense. He might be expecting the same tension in return. Yet she has grown a thicker skin over the years. “That man” loomed large over her life. There were the failed relationships to begin with, followed quickly by two marriages that broke down leaving behind a taste similar to sand in the mouth. The first husband, of Irish stock, an alcoholic; the second one, a Ghanaian with a peculiar sense of humour and a rather idiosyncratic view of women, a gambler. She also severed ties with Catholicism for good. This happened in her early 20s when she had not yet moved to London. At the time she felt like a child who dashes down the stairs on Christmas Day only to find that the white-bearded fellow and his elves have made off with the gifts during the night. It was not just that Christmas did not exist but also that Santa (if real) was a thief. Sexually speaking she had only recently begun to know herself. Certainly her current spouse was partly responsible for this progress but she had, so to speak, taken the reins of her own horse and was guiding it to a place where she felt she belonged.

And then, all of a sudden, the phone call from Gloria and the idea to get together with the girls. Joy was swiftly followed by rancour and hatred. A deep-seated hatred that manifested itself when she found out only yesterday that “that man” would be at the party. Gloria rang her again to say that she had no idea Father Nicholas was going to be there when she first belled her. Gloria wanted her to know that she could cancel and it would be all right.

She tightens her grip on the knife.

She decided not to cancel. She explained to Gloria that she needed to deal with this situation once and for all, the sooner the better. What she left unsaid was the other thought: she did not want to let Gloria down. Gloria’s life had been a wreck since leaving the convent. Although the two friends rarely met in the flesh they did keep in touch by phone and now in the modern era of social media via Facebook. Through third parties she found out about Gloria’s problems with drugs, self-harm, alcohol, eating disorders and men. Whenever she tried to approach the subject as a friend, Gloria fobbed her off. Once she almost jumped on a train to rush to Gloria’s side when she saw a photo her friend had posted on Facebook. In it Gloria looked emaciated, wasted, wafer-thin and lifeless. The smileys and LOLs underneath the picture could not conceal the problem: not just the physical deterioration but also the self-deception that was so characteristic of Gloria’s personality. She knew that in people who thought themselves strong and self-sufficient addictions could take longer to detect and address because of self-denial. Gloria had always hated the pity-coated language people used when referring to addicts. To Gloria, her addictions were quirks: Other people have addictions. I have quirks. I am a quirky person. Fancy another shot? And down the tequila shot went.

I’m not blaming you, her husband is still keeping the same neutral, low voice. I think that you’ve gone through a lot of crap already but, I’m sorry, but… I can’t help thinking that there must have been someone there at the convent you could have spoken to.

someone there at the convent you could have spoken to. “That man” was about thirty-six or thirty-seven when he raped her. He had built a good, solid reputation at the convent and in the local community. He was well-respected. Would her husband be able to understand that no one would have believed her had she spilled the beans? A thirteen-year old from a soon-to-be broken home?  They would have said: Count your blessings, child. Father Nicholas is a good man who does a lot for people. I have seen him come to your house many times to mediate between your mum and dad. Without him, your folks would have gone their separate ways long ago. What you are saying makes no sense. The Father made a vow to God, the highest authority there is. He wouldn’t break that vow for someone like you.

She remains silent, though. She knows that even if she explains he still won’t believe her. It’s complicated, not as easy as you might think, that is as far as she goes. She moves her head away from his dreadlocked mane. Her right hand lets go of his left hand. As she looks out the train window she catches her reflection on the glass. Her hair is a splodge of red (her natural colour) and grey (the invader).

Because I want to exorcise my demons, she finds herself answering his original question, why now? This is her only chance. Now, today, in this reunion, where she is also bound to run into other victims. They have not spoken as a group about what happened to them whilst at the convent but if she fires the first salvo, if she confronts this vile man, maybe the other girls, women now… What do you think you’ll do when you see him? She tightens her grip on the kitchen knife again. I just want the truth. I just want him to admit what he did. Will she make a scandal? She is not a scandal-prone person. It is just not part of her personality. She likes doing things quietly without standing out or attracting attention. For instance, her decision to remain child-free was made without any fuss, or tears. When her mother asked her, she just replied: I’m not the mother type. In reality what she really wanted to say was: I just don’t want to turn out to be a mother like you. How quickly we transfer guilt to another person! Her husband to her, she to her mother. Shame does that to people. And “that man”? Could anyone transfer any sort of guilt to him? Would “that man” be capable of feeling guilt?

When Gloria rang her the second time she told her that she had forgotten to tell her that Father Nicholas had finally been caught a few years ago. Perhaps Gloria had said it to console her; a way to ease the burden weighing heavily on her friend’s shoulders. In reality she learnt from another ex-student that all Father Nicholas got was a soft slap on the wrist and the suggestion that maybe it was time for him to retire. Now, on this train going from the suburbs of north London to the hustle-bustle of Liverpool Street, she wonders for the first time if she will be capable of carrying out her plan as hastily arranged. For haste had featured prominently when she decided to grab the kitchen knife. She knew she was not a murderer. But would she be considered one when people found out about her motives?

Something strange happens at some of the stations the train pulls into. Figures she recognises from her dreams – nightmares – board the train. At Stamford Hill, her first husband hops on and remains by the doors as they close. His lips move but no sound comes out of them. Finally she is able to make out the words: You are that you are. At Hackney Downs, against the background formed by the match-box-shaped mid-rise buildings on Amhurst Road, barely visible above the platform wall, she catches sight of her second spouse. He, however, does not get on. Instead he holds a big sign for her eyes only. The letters are red against a white background: He will not repent! In Bethnal Green, a woman, as emaciated-looking as Gloria, boards the train ahead of a sari-wearing women-only group. Gloria’s Doppelgänger sits across her, fixing her eyes on her the whole time. All of a sudden she says: O daughter of Eve, so as you call upon me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you are about to do, and I shall not mind. Were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you.

Next stop is Liverpool Street Station, where this train will terminate. Please, take your belongings with you”. The voice on the Tannoy jolts her back to life. She turns to her husband and the expression on his face leaves her puzzled. Does he still blame her, or worse, does he feel pity for her? Are you all right? We don’t have to go if you’re not feeling all right. You know what, when I married you, I married you not just for the good times but also for the shitty ones. I need some time to think and the space to do so. Right now I don’t know what I’ll do when I meet this “character”. You know me, I’m not violent but… you’ve been through so much crap, sweetheart. It’s just that this is a bit too much. Thank God I haven’t got one of the kitchen knives on me now. I don’t know what I’d do if I did.

They get off the train. At first they do not hold hands. She remembers that she was the one who took her hand away from his on the train. Her husband is pensive now that he has finished his speech. He has hardly looked at her since her confession. If she were a gambler she would put a wager on him turning around now and walking away, not back home, but somewhere else. Probably walking out of this story, for this tale must be as painful for him as it is for her.

As soon as they go through the ticket barriers the glare of a BBC-broadcasting giant screen catches their eyes. The image of a grinning Mo Farah causes fellow passengers to come closer to the screen. The volume is turned up. Fragments of conversations mix with the live commentary on the screen: Martha? John? Oh, nice to meet you. Nice to meet you, too. Been watching the Games? Yes, and waiting for you. The third gold medal for Great Britain this evening. This will go down as one of the great, great nights of British athletics certainly. They leave the crowd and almost robotically climb on the escalator Old Broad Street-bound. On their way up they exchange glances and call out each other's names, almost in a whisper. It is an acknowledgement that they are here, still together. As they come out of the station a drop falls on her nose. She looks up and notices that the sky has turned a splodge of dark grey right above them and light pink further east where the Olympic Stadium is. She softens her grip on the kitchen knife inside her bag and grabs firmly her husband’s hand. This time, she does not let go.

© 2015

Next Post:” Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 21st November at 6pm (GMT)

26 comments:

  1. Such a beautiful, moving tale.
    Fortunately for me, I can't even begin to imagine what it would be like to have to live with the awful memories of abuse like this.
    I can see, though, how it would continue to haunt a person throughout the rest of their life.
    I'm so glad she never actually stabbed him though.
    Why should she have to suffer further by going to prison for slaying someone so utterly worthless?

    Have a Fabulous Birthday tomorrow!

    Greetings from Hampshire :)

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    1. Thanks for your comment. As the ending is open, I don't know if she will.. or she won't. It is good for the reader to make up their minds. :-)

      Last night, just before I uploaded it on my blog and scheduled it to appear today, I realised that I had sacrificed humour for drama. It was too dark a tale. That's when I decided to include a couple of light-hearted moments. I believe in hope, even in the grimmest of situations.

      Greetings from London.

      Delete
  2. Hi ACIL - I too would struggle with this sort of memory. People are disgraceful and so unfair. Such a well written story bringing old school friends back into the memory bank, as too the ex husbands ... that knife could do a lot of damage. Bringing people to justice is better than killing someone and being sent to prison.

    Have a good birthday tomorrow ... cheers Hilary

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  3. Oh gosh - such a powerful story! Well done.

    And happy birthday tomorrow.

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  4. Hey Cubano-- such a powerful story that you tell very well-- capturing the many layers of misunderstanding and grief and self-blame and loss of trust-- the interchanges between the husband and wife-- Her failure to understand his protective anger at first is very real and compelling and all is well written. The beginning gives a sense that this is in fact not such an unusual story, sadly, and yet also unique to this couple. You may find my novel, Nice, interesting. It is quite different of course-- involving a child as a child and the 1960's but an interesting relationship between brother and sister. I am on phone so will send link as a separate email. K.

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  5. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00NE55A6M/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?ie=UTF8&btkr=1


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  6. Nice by Karin Gustafson-- In case the weird link is too funky! Happy Birthday!!!

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  7. Maybe just a little nick with the knife would be good for payback then turn him in.

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  8. Que tengas un feliz cumpleaños y muchos años por delante para disfrutarlos.

    De lo malo uno siempre se avergüenza con lo cual si uno se puede bien conducir en la vida mejor.

    Un abrazo.

    PD Perú es uno de los países que tenía muchas ganas de visitar y la verdad que no me defraudó.

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  9. Happy birthday!
    Thanks for sharing your story with us. I was struck with the subtle changes in the couple as the train and the story move along. I like those complimentary movements, as well as the way the back story unfolds.

    Just one question: do they study the bible assiduously in catholic homes in Britain? My catholic childhood in Italy was not with a bible, but with devotional acts, as in novenas, processions, confessions, praying, retreats.

    Anyway, great story.

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    Replies
    1. Good question. I did some research before writing the story. Because the UK is primarily a Protestant country, Catholicism is allowed a little bit more of leeway. They are still ruled by the Vatican, though, and they still have a cardinal and they still have the same hardcore line on issues ranging from abortion to contraception but on the whole they have more autonomy than in Ireland, for instance. I spoke to one a colleague of mine who was raised a Catholic and still practices and she, unintentionally, of course, provided some of the information I used as background to the character's story.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Greetings from London.

      Delete
  10. A very poignant story, thank you so much for sharing. Happy birthday! :)

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  11. Happy birthday.
    A dark tale, and sadly a familiar tale to too many people.
    Will she kill him? I don't know. It depends (I think) on how he reacts to her when they meet again.

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  12. I think the story is superbly written, CiL, as are all things you write when you wish them to be .... meaning with a little extra thought, with a little extra time, with a little extra of yourself. There are some Catholic references and some British references with which I am not familiar, and therefore are lost on me, but otherwise the tale is clear and straightforward.

    I suppose I would label it a psychological thriller. Will she or will she not? She does seem to be more than a bit irrational to me, but I think she does nothing for two reasons: She would have slain the dragon way back when if that was her nature. And, I do not think the author of the story would allow her to do it because I do not think it is his nature.

    Will the ending be revealed in a sequel ?? Or does each reader have the final verdict ??

    Last but not least .... a very Happy Birthday, CiL. May the coming year be all you wish it to be ....

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  13. Thank You









    ALOHA, Friend
    ComfortSpiral

    (\__/)
    (='.'=)
    (")_('')

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  14. Happy birthday, brother, and many more. As a Catholic school survivor I found this story quite chilling. My heart goes out to all the victims.

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  15. I have to come back later to read it :)

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  16. I felt the emotion running through the story and I boiled up thinking about 'that man'. It seems to me that many priests and so-called holy men the world over think they have a perfect right to rape and I am pleased they are now being brought to the public eye and justice. Well written piece, Cuban, congratulations.

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  17. Happy Birthday, Cubano. Thank you for the gift of your story. I enjoyed it and especially liked the indeterminate ending for life is full of unresolved endings.

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  18. I realize I am a day late for the birthday wishes but I hope you had a great day. Thank you for sharing this story with us. I do not always like open endings but I must say that it fits your story well.

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  19. A belated happy birthday! I'm pleased to see you celebrating with creative enterprises. This is a powerful story of pain, betrayal and holding on. I liked how the sky reflected her emotional state. It is important to have stories of rape which don't blame the victim.

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  20. A belated happy birthday to you. I am glad I did not miss this superb piece of writing. You have all of the emotions of both people very well expressed. I am very glad at the end of the story, she was able to take her husband's hand. I worried about his reaction. Well done.

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  21. Hope you've been enjoying a lovely birthday season!

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  22. First let me say Happy Be-lated birthday. I also have a birthday in November. November 8.

    I really liked this description in the opening
    This is not a story about shame but about its aftermath. The feelings it triggers. The scars it leaves behind.
    I liked the way Gloria referred to her addictions as quirks, I really felt that it expressed her denial

    While I wasn't raped by a priest, I was molested by my father so this story was a difficult/emotional read for me. With my own father I can say he never admitted to his crimes and I do not believe he is capable of feeling guilt. When I ended the relationship he decided it was my husband's will though I had explained in detail why I made the decision which had nothing to do with my husband. When my mom confronted him he denied it out right. I was fortunate that my mom believed me and my husband believed me. Though I did not tell my mom until I was an adult and well after the fact.

    mindlovemisery

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    1. I'm really sorry to read that. I have met people who have "come out the other way", i.e., survived this type of abuse and sadly their ordeal has left deep scars.

      Thank you for your comment. I really appreciate it.

      Greetings from London.

      Delete
  23. What a guy! It was YOUR birthday, and you gave US the present! It's a well-written and powerful story. Thanks for sharing it with us. And I hope you had a splendiferous birthday... with lots of cake and ice cream. :)

    Have a super weekend!

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