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