By L.T.W. Lucas

Chapter 14

The minute I walked in through the front door, I felt uneasy.
Maybe it was simply because I had been away for the night, but the house had an unfamiliar smell about it, unpleasant, and something just seemed odd, not quite right.
The back door was closed, hadn't I left it open? I felt sure I had.
Then a noise upstairs, a bang, an object falling to the floor.
My heart started to beat faster.
Who's up there! I yelled.
I heard a movement, a scratching sound.
Who is it! I'm calling the police! I know someone's there!”
The whining meow in response made me sigh with relief. That's what it was, a cat. I cautiously made my way up to the top landing. A wet patch had soaked the carpet outside my bedroom door, the cat had messed there, so that would account for the odd smell.
Both the bathroom and bedroom doors were closed, which was strange. I always left them open.
Peering into the bathroom first and finding it empty, I then walked into the bedroom.
The cat darted past me and down the stairs. It was Ginger.
I ran after him, opened the front door, chased him out.
Bloody cat!” I yelled. Christ, it had frightened the life out of me.
Oh, hello Ginger, now where have you been?” A voice from next door, it was Ray.
I peered out and there he was, looking right at me.
Your cat was in my house,” I said, “and he's bloody wet all over the landing!”
Oh dear, naughty old Ginger,” said Ray, in a voice that was more amused than scolding, “now, what was he doing in your place?”
I don't bloody know.”
Could you have left the back door open or something?”
How do you know I left the back door open?”
I don't, I'm just guessing that maybe that's what happened. Or a window, he might have got in through a window.”
Odd, why had Ray's first guess been the back door rather than a window, which would have been more likely.
Then he was walking up my path and the expression on his face made me feel uneasy.
Christ Zeta, you look like you've just seen an axe murderer,” he said, laughing, “get me a damp rag, some disinfectant, I'll clean up the cat piss.”
No!” I shouted, far louder than I had intended.”I'll do it, leave it, it doesn't matter.”
Before I could shut the door Ray had pushed forward, forcing me to step back.
So, have you got a rag?”
I grabbed a tea towel and quickly ran it under the tap, making sure my back wasn't completely turned from him.
The landing you say, upstairs, where about?”
There seemed to be no choice but to follow behind him and then point to the dark damp patch.
Fucking cats, eh,” said Ray. He was kneeling down, rubbing hard at the carpet,”still, you can't really blame him, seeing as he was shut in, what else could he do?”
Then he turned and looking up at me with a strange smirk on his face.
Poor old Ginger, always getting locked in somewhere.”
Is he?” I asked, but at that moment I just knew that Ray knew, that when Ginger had gone missing, it was because I had shut him away in the old outside lavatory.
You know, thinking back, to the first time he went missing, I was sure I had heard a cat meowing from somewhere nearby,” he said, “but I just couldn't figure out where. I didn't know you had an outside toilet then. From our kitchen, we can't see into your yard, it can only be seen from the boy's bedroom window and I've never really bothered to look”
Ray was now standing, facing me.
You're finding our cat that day, in a plastic bag, that really struck me as pretty odd. So then I did look out of the back bedroom window, and I also took a look in your bin, after you gave ginger back, when you'd cleaned up the mess in the outbuilding.”
Why would you do that?”
When I was in your backyard that time, later on, I could see that there wasn't a gap under the outside toilet door You had to have shut him in there.”
That's rubbish, why would I do that!”
Because you're sick Zeta, you've got a screw loose, you're a bloody headcase.”
No! I must have left it open and he got in, then I shut it without realising.”
I looked inside yesterday, there's nothing in there, no reason I can see why you would bother opening it.”
That's where I keep the yard broom, I took it out a few weeks back to sweep my front path.”
Oh really, well, it's not there now is it.”
What the hell were you doing in my yard anyway!”
After I saw you leave, I climbed over the wall. That's when I noticed you had left your back door open.”
You creep!” I was really shaking by now.
What the hell is wrong with you, you mad fucking stupid bitch.”
Get out!”
You nearly killed it, you bloody psycho! Attention, is that why you behave the way you do? Do you need some attention Zeta?”
Ray moved forward, pinned me to the wall.
You're the psycho, I hear how you talk to your family, and I bet you hit them around. You're a bully, a stupid fucking arrogant bully! Get the fuck away from me!”
I tried to push him away.
Then it happened.
The back of his hand struck me across the face and I was falling backwards down the stairs.
A second later he was standing over me, his face distorted with hatred and anger.
I tried to get up and run for the front door. He pulled me back down, pinned my arms to the floor by kneeling on them, sitting on my stomach, spitting in my face, you mad fucking bitch. Then another slap, so hard I passed out.
That was it, the last thing I remember before I woke up in hospital, Angie, by my bedside asleep in a chair, her head on the mattress.
Everything was sore and my lower right arm and foot were set in a cast. I had a raging thirst and as I looked over at the jug of water on the bedside table, a nurse came over, she poured some water into a cup.
I tried to sit up, but I couldn't. Then Angie was awake, her hand behind my head, tilting me forward.
The nurse left to get a doctor.
It wasn't just hard to drink because I could hardly move, my mouth felt strange and swollen.
Don't try and talk just yet,” Angie said, “you've got stitches, it's best not to, but I'll tell you what happened, much of it you probably won't remember.”
So she recounted the whole story.
Almado had been walking home from school, he had seen the open door and heard his father shouting, so he walked up the path and looked in. Ray had me pinned to the floor and he was swearing at me, hitting me in the face. Almado then ran next door, rang Bella and told her what was happening. She called the police before racing back from work. Ray had completely lost control. The policewoman who tried to pull him away had lost a tooth and another policeman had his nose broken. It had taken six of them to restrain Ray in the end.
When the nurse returned with the doctor, I found out the extent of my injuries.
Five stitches above my right eye, three stitches where my lip had been split, a badly bruised face, arms, torso, broken ribs, a broken ankle and wrist. I would be in hospital for a while.
Your bones are brittle and you're very emaciated Zeta,” said the doctor,”You won't have the strength to walk on crutches and we really need to address your weight. Your blood count is dangerously low, with Angie's consent, we gave you a blood transfusion.”
I looked at Angie.
How long?”
Two days, you've been unconscious that long.”
In the end, my stay in hospital lasted over a month. I didn't like being forced to eat, but a nurse made sure that I did. A psychiatrist visited regularly and I was back taking my medication. After a couple of weeks, I could walk around the ward with a crutch.
Despite Angie's agoraphobia, she couldn't keep away. Angie came every single day.
Mentally and physically I became slightly stronger over that month. It was strange, the violent attack seemed like the end of a very dark chapter, my time in hospital, a new beginning. Now I had the truth, knew who I was, and could build a whole new future.
I guess part of me also felt that I had deserved to be beaten up, punished, for being such a bloody mess, a mad fucking bitch, like Ray said.
When I expressed this sentiment to Angie, she was really angry.
I don't ever want to hear you say anything as insane and stupid as that ever again! That bastard nearly killed you, he's just a violent, bloody psychopath, and look at the size of you! How could he?”
You know what I'm like Angie. I kind of invite trouble. Their cat, I locked it in my outside toilet. I don't know why? I can't even figure out what that was all about. Ray found out.”
Oh Zeta, I don't know why you would do that either, I have no idea, but there is no way you deserved to be nearly beaten to death. Perhaps Ginger reminded you of Duke and you felt resentful, you wanted to punish it without understanding why. Ray's a violent man. That's why Bella rang the police the minute Almado told her what was happening.”
How do you mean?”
Bella came around to visit me, to see how you were and say how sorry she was. She told me Ray had been on probation for attacking a man he had been working for, just a dispute over some building work or something, the man had been hospitalised, like you. That was one of the reasons for them moving down here. Bella said that Ray would just suddenly flip, one minute he would be fine and then something, or nothing, would just set him off and he'd be completely out of control.”
Those days in hospital could seem very long. We were woken up by half six in the morning so that the nurses could get on with their daily routine. I was grateful for Angie and Ruth's visits.
Tammy didn't visit me once though.
Which was strange. Perhaps she's one of those people that really hate hospitals, that have a phobia about them, I thought, lots of people do. Although she hadn't even sent a card, flowers, anything.
Ruth came once a week, on a Friday. She would bring me a bar of chocolate and we would share it while she chattered away about her family, her husband Harry, and two grown-up children, a daughter my age, a son, two years older. When she told me about them, I was surprised. Why had I assumed Ruth lived alone? I suppose Ruth had never mentioned her own family before and I'd never bothered to ask her anything about her own life.
When it was time to go home Angie thought it would be best if I move in with her for a while.
Just for a couple of weeks, maybe,” I said.
The thought of staying in her dark, miserable bedroom wasn't that appealing. Perhaps I should try and cheer it up, paint the walls or something.
Ruth drove Angie to the hospital on the day I was discharged and took us both home.
At first, it felt good, packing my things, getting ready to leave, but by the time I was in the back seat I felt a growing sense of loss, the nurses and doctors had been so kind, and I'd made friends with some of the patients that moved in and out of the ward over the weeks. Emails and Facebook addresses had been exchanged.
The sky was super blue, not a cloud, it was hot, too hot for me, and the sun was raw and glaring, everything in focus, except what I was really feeling.
I wished it had been raining, I wasn't ready for such starkness, this jolt into life, back in the real world. You can hide away on a rainy day.
Everything is going to be OK,” said Angie, turning to look at me as we reached the roundabout into town.
Here it all was the familiar architecture, back home again after what seemed like a lifetime away.
Are you still going to be able to leave the house, now that you don't have to visit me?” I asked Angie.
I don't know, maybe.”
Angie sounded doubtful. How hard had it been for her over the last month, having to go outside every day? I've got a great sister, I thought, and then it struck me, I'd become used to the idea of Angie as a big sister, rather than a mother, and it felt good. We had each other, that was all that mattered.
Once indoors, after saying goodbye to Ruth, I took my small case upstairs and sat on the bed for a few minutes feeling kind of sad and bereft. I don't really know why.
Then I heard the doorbell. Angie's order of groceries had arrived, so I wandered down to help unpack them.
Wow, what's going on here!” I said.
Instead of her usual calorific comfort food, Angie had ordered fruit, vegetables, salads, fresh meat and frozen fish
Healthy food, you need to eat well, no junk food,” she explained
Is this what you're going to be eating as well?” I asked.
Yes, you work on getting stronger and fit and I'll work on losing some of this weight I guess.”
Sounds good to me”.
The next day I wandered up to the hardware shop and bought some paint.
By the end of the week, the walls of the bedroom were a fresh clean white.
I really enjoyed painting, it was therapeutic, keeping busy, watching the transformation and listening to music on the radio.
Angie agreed to get rid of the old heavy dark oak furniture, and I moved my own things over from the rented place. I didn't have much, but I had a bed, a chest of drawers for my clothes, and a couple of pictures to hang on the walls.
With my agreement, Angie then rang the landlord and arranged for the tenancy to end.

Chapter 15

Despite our focus on getting physically fitter, neither of us could give up the cigarettes, but now Angie would walk with me to the corner shop to buy them. Sometimes we even wandered down to the park, when it was sunny, and sat on a bench near the fountain.
Although the park was only a five-minute walk away Angie found it tiring.
By the time we reached the first bench, Angie would be really out of breath.
One hot afternoon, as we sat there, I saw the familiar shape of Tammy heading towards us.
Tammy! I yelled at her, waving. She obviously hadn't noticed me until then. I got up and walked over.
Hi, Tammy.”
Oh, hi.”
Maybe she didn't know that I had been in hospital. She seemed kind of frosty and distant.
I've been in hospital, did you know that?”
You didn't visit.”
I didn't want to. I don't really want anything to do with you any more. You got Angie to write that letter to the paper about the homeless place just to cause trouble, then you go and split up a family and ruin their lives. You're just bad news Zeta.”
I didn't split up the family.”
They were fine till they moved down here, next to you.”
He beat me up really badly Tammy.”
Yeah, well my mum reckons you deserved it.”
Look Tammy...”
I wanted to explain, to tell my side of the story.
I'm not interested in hearing about it. There's been plenty of talk around town.”
You're supposed to be my friend, don't you want to hear what really happened?”
No, and I'm not your friend, I never have been, you're just too emotionally retarded to realise that. I was just scared of you Zeta, all those years at school, I was just too frightened, most kids were, you were a bully, a bloody weirdo. Mum's right, you deserved what you got.”
Then Angie was by my side.
She must have seen that I was upset and heard the hostility in Tammy's voice.
Catching the last few sentences she just lost it.
You spiteful, mean little bitch!” She yelled. “How dare you say that to Zeta, she nearly died that bloody day and that bastard had a whole history of violence, so don't you dare make her feel that it was her fault! You're just as bad as that vile mother of yours, stuck-up, ignorant, obnoxious and weak. I've never understood what Zeta saw in you, why she hung out with someone so utterly dull and lacking in personality...”
Angie had gone into one of her rare emotional long-winded rants, and I needed to stop her.
Leave it, Angie, forget it, let's go home.”
You know nothing about her! You know nothing about what she has been through! How dare you!”
It's OK, Angie, come on, please, I really want to go.”
Angie turned to look at me. I think she could tell that I was on the verge of tears and didn't want Tammy to have the satisfaction of seeing how much she had upset me.
We went home, had a coffee and chain-smoked while Angie tried to make me feel better by ripping Tammy's personality apart and telling me to take no notice of what she had said. It wasn't that easy though, her words had cut deep, they had hurt, words can, it's a lie that we can just push them aside.
When it was time for dinner, I tried, but couldn't eat. I couldn't chew or swallow.
Angie understood, she knew that making a fuss or giving me some bloody lecture about keeping my weight up wouldn't help right now.
Of course, I didn't sleep that night. Tammy's words kept sifting through my head... You deserved it, you're a bully, no one liked you, I never was your friend.
At breakfast, I couldn't eat the poached eggs Angie served.
The toast tasted like sawdust in my mouth, the egg made me feel sick.
Then Ruth turned up with a bar of chocolate, flowers, and a magazine.
Just passing,” she said, handing Angie the flowers and me the chocolate. “I won't stay.”
No, do, if you've got the time, stay for a coffee,” said Angie.
Ruth sat down.
Neither of us felt like talking about what had happened in the park and Ruth was a welcome distraction.
Then there was another knock on the door.
It was the men who had come to collect the old bedroom furniture
As they walked through the hall with the dressing table drawers, the paper that had been lining one of the drawers fell out, along with some old yellowing letters that must have been hidden beneath it for years.
They were letters sent by Ryan to our mum, when he was over in Ireland.
The postal stamp on the envelope of the first one we picked up was nineteen seventy-four.
It was addressed to Laura Taylor

Hi Laura

It was great to meet you.
Fantastic evening at The Swan.
Christ, Shannon was in a state by the time we left, never could take the drink.
Anyway, I'll be over again in June and was hoping we might be able to meet up again.
If Shannon's willing, and you don't mind, maybe she could babysit while I take you out one evening, see a band or something or go to a club.
Whatever you want, we could go and see a film if you like.
Ryan x

Angie re-read the short letter, looked confused and then shocked.
Nineteen seventy-four Zeta, this letter is from nineteen seventy-four!”
Well, Shannon babysitting, babysitting whose baby? Me, it must have been me, but this note gives the impression that they have only just met. The date, I would have been two by then!”
No Angie, that's not possible, there's no date on the top of the letter, it's probably in the wrong envelope.”
Don't you see, it doesn't matter what envelope it's in, mum had already had me by the time our dad first met her!”
Angie was right.
So what does it mean?”
It means your dad isn't my dad Zeta.”
No, that can't be right.”
Well, it is.”
So what does that make us, we're still sisters aren't we Angie?”
Yes love, we're still sisters, we just had different dads and I don't know who the hell mine is!”
Angie ripped into the contents of another envelope.

Dear Laura

Missing you and the wee one.
Need to be over here helping Aaron for a few more weeks and then I'll be back.
He'll be coming over with me this time.
Don't know how you feel about that, I thought I'd better let you know.
He's going to be staying with Shannon.
Will be bringing presents for my best girls.
I'm not much of one for the letters
Just wanted to send you my love and let you know I'm thinking about you.
Ryan x

That's an odd one, what is the, don't know how you feel about that, just thought I'd better let you know, all about?” asked Angie
Well, I guess he's just letting your mum know that Aaron will be around for a while, maybe she wasn't that keen on him.” Suggested Ruth
There were more letters, all in envelopes dated between nineteen seventy-four and nineteen seventy-five. No more after that, none very interesting, just ordinary, predictable, exchanges.
Bloody hell Angie, it's just one revelation after another!”
Here, for Christ sake open that chocolate and give us some.”
I handed Angie the bar and tore open the wrapper. Ruth and I watched as she devoured it piece by piece whilst staring vacantly across the room.
Then Ruth made the first flippant remark I had ever heard her make.
Honestly, your lives are like the script to a soap opera!”
Once said, she looked anxious, until we both laughed.
Not because we found this new knowledge funny, more because we could sense Ruth's unease at having said something that might have sounded like a rather crass remark.
The truth was, the ground beneath my feet felt as though it was becoming increasingly unstable. Fissures were opening all around me, cracks were moving me and Angie further apart, threatening to swallow us both up and then crush to dust all that we needed to cling to.

Chapter 16

The weeks after Angie found out that Ryan wasn't her father were strange, there was an odd atmosphere. She seemed distant, distracted. I'd chat away to her and then realise she wasn't really listening, just pretending to.
She kept an eye on what I did or didn't eat, but although she had managed to lose half a stone on her diet, she was now back comfort eating and sitting in front of the computer all day. I tried to persuade her to come to the park with me, or at least to the corner shop, but she didn't want to.
Finding out we had different fathers hadn't hit me as hard as it hit Angie. I knew who my dad was, Angie didn't. She had known all the other secrets, all the ones that had
been kept in place to protect me, but not that one.
When I brought up the subject of finding out who her father was, she would sound irritable and dismissive, insisting that she wasn't at all interested.
Who bloody cares,” she said,”what the hell does it matter now, I didn't know him, he didn't bring me up, probably never even saw or knew about me, end of story.”
When I had needed to go to the doctors or to the hospital to have my cast removed Angie had come along. Now I didn't need to go so often and went alone. Angie's agoraphobia was back in charge of her life, shrinking her world, holding her prisoner.
Whatever she said, I knew we had to find out about her father. We needed to know everything, both of us, or how could we move forward? One thing I did know, you can't push things to the back of your mind forever. They sit there somewhere, festering.
One night, lying awake, churning random thoughts around, an idea came to me, a moment of clarity, I felt sure I knew who Angie's dad must be.
As I couldn't be certain, it would have been wrong to share my thoughts with Angie. Aunt Shannon was the person I needed to talk to, she would know for sure.
In Angie's phone book I found Shannon's address, but no telephone number. Maybe she didn't have a phone. Angie had told me that she wrote to Shannon once or twice a year just so they didn't lose touch altogether.
I could write, but it didn't seem the best option. I had far too many questions that needed answering
So, I would need to go to her, which would mean getting on a train to London.
The idea was incredibly daunting. I realised that I hadn't left Cornwall in years. My world had been only fractionally bigger than Angie's.
Angie wouldn't approve and would worry if I told her, so somehow I would have to go away for a couple of days without her knowing where or why.
Ruth knew, she had become someone I could confide in, and when I told her she thought that it was a good idea for a number of reasons. Not just to help Angie, but to help me.
It won't harm you to do something that scares you a little,” she said, “it will help build your confidence. I'll work out the travel arrangements with you, it's a straight line from here to London, you'll be fine.”
It's a big city, I've never been before.”
Then it's time you did.”
Despite her encouragement, Ruth wanted no part in fabricating a story to tell Angie. It meant lying to her and although she thought I was doing the right thing, she felt that it would be really wrong of her to betray Angie's trust.
I ended up telling Angie that I had been in contact with one of the friends I'd made in hospital and they'd invited me to go over and stay for a few nights.
She lives just a few miles away”, I said, “I'll get a bus, I know which one to catch.”
Angie's reaction wasn't what I had expected. In the past, she would have asked me all kinds of questions, who was this friend, what was she like, her exact address, that sort of thing, but no, she just said, Oh OK Zeta, that's good, that'll be nice. Then she turned her attention back to the afternoon film she was watching.
If anything, I think she might have been relieved at the thought of a few days alone with her thoughts, no distractions. I'm like that sometimes, I need my space, to just be quiet.
Ruth scheduled her appointments so that she could come to the station and wave me off.
You'd think she was my mother the way she fussed, asking if I had my tickets safe, if I knew what to do and where to go when I got there, did I have enough money. Then she handed me a bag with some sandwiches in it and an apple.
Here, you'll need these, it's a long trip. Take care now Zeta.”
Then she hugged me, something she hadn't done before.
As I shuffled my way through to my seat I felt as if I was setting off on some huge adventure, which was ludicrous, Christ, how pathetic and sheltered has your life become Zeta, I thought, you're nearly bloody thirty!
Aunt Shannon knew I was coming, I had written to her and she had sent a card in return.

Dear Zeta

Will be lovely to see you. It's been over twenty-five years, you were just a toddler!
I'm sure you have a great many questions and I will be happy to answer them.
I'll have my spare room made up and here's my phone number.
Jess has made me buy a mobile! Let me know when your train arrives at Paddington.
I'll have Jess come and meet you in case you find it difficult to navigate the tube and train to Streatham.

Aunt Shannon.

I had no idea who Jess was, but it was a great relief to know that someone was going to meet me at the Station. Ruth and I had looked at the A to Z map and worked out what I needed to do to get to Shannon's, but it was fairly complicated. Thoughts of having to get the tube and then another train had been keeping me awake, and now here I was, racing through the towns and countryside, just hours away from the big city.
I really enjoyed just sitting there, feeling the gentle rocking motion of the train while I looked out into people's back gardens, taking note of what each patch revealed about the house owners. There were children's toys, bikes, old garden sheds, smart conservatories, vegetable patches, trimmed grass, or overgrown and neglected gardens where weeds grew high, not quite hiding the discarded supermarket trolleys and old mattresses.
We passed a field full of rabbits and I couldn't believe how many of them were running around, so visible, right in the middle of the day.
It was a soft, summery day, not too hot, a few passing clouds, there was an ease about it.
People chattered away around me and I sat back and daydreamed, thinking how nice it would be to just sit there forever, remaining eternally in transit, neither in one place or another.
I was glad I had the window seat.
There was a woman sitting next to me with a smartphone, head down, earphones in, scrolling around on the internet.
She was pretty and nicely dressed in cool cotton cream trousers with a silky navy shirt. Tidy, fresh.
By Exeter I felt quite hungry, the trouble was, I didn't like the idea of sitting there eating with this stranger right next to me. I could turn and look out of the window, she was distracted anyway, but when I pulled out a sandwich, she took off her headphones and reached into her own bag.
Good idea,” she said, “I'm starving.”
She had some salad in a plastic tub.
Looking at me, she said.
You're lucky, so skinny. I'm on a diet, I'm always on a diet, I bet you can eat anything, I've only got to look at cake and I put on pounds.”
Then she flicked at her salad with a plastic fork.
Rabbit food, so boring.”
She smiled at me, a friendly warm smile, but I took one bite of my sandwich and put it away. I felt too self-conscious, it was hard to chew or swallow.
Aren't you going to eat it?” she said, “Christ, you don't have to worry, If anything, and I don't mean to be rude, but you could do with putting a little weight on.”
No, it's OK, I just don't feel like it right now, I thought I did, but I don't.”
Yeah, well, that's it, I guess, you've got a level of restraint I'm not capable of.”
You're not fat anyway, you're fine,” I said awkwardly.
Always goes to my hips, that's the problem, what is it they say, a minute on the lips a lifetime on the hips.”
Then she burst out laughing at her own joke and declared that if she didn't eat some real food before she reached Bristol she'd faint.
I'm off to the buffet bar,” she announced, “you want anything?”
No, I'm fine.”
While she was away, I ate my sandwiches.
When she reappeared ten minutes later, inching her way along the central corridor, she was just about managing to balance two plastic cups of coffee, a Styrofoam carton, and a small packet of biscuits on a tray.
I was up there so I got you one.” She announced, handing me the hot coffee.
Oh Christ, thanks, you didn't need to.”
Well, there was a hell of a queue, so I thought I might as well save you the trouble, if you don't want it I'll drink it.”
Oh God, no, that's brilliant, thanks.”
I rested the cup on the drop-down table in front of me and the woman opened the carton and took out a burger.
Cheeseburgers, can't resist them.”
Once she'd eaten it, she asked me if I wanted a biscuit.
Although I didn't, it would have seemed unfriendly not to take one.
I'm Dee,” she said.
Oh, nice name, so, are you going all the way?”
All the way where?”
What part?”
No way, that's where I come from. We used to live near the common.”
That's where my aunt lives, that's where I'm going!”
It was ludicrous really, we were both acting as if this arbitrary connection was some kind of bond.
Then Dee started to pack her things away.
Bristol, this is where I get off!” She said.”Nice to have met you Zeta, have a good time in London.”
Then the train came to a halt and Dee disappeared into the sea of people battling towards the door.
The next stop was Reading.
The passengers getting on the train at this point seemed to have come from a whole different tribe. They wore suits, carried briefcases, and were constantly talking into their phones There were no vacant seats so people were standing in the isle jostling for space.
Some were texting, and the way they danced their thumbs across the numbers fascinated me. I'm dyslexic, I can't read or write that easily, let alone text.
The atmosphere on the train was now completely different and it made me feel uneasy, like I no longer belonged.
The view from the window had also changed, the countryside was now behind us. The ugly great warehouses, factories and tall concrete tenements seemed so harsh, so soulless. How many people, I wondered, were living in these towering blocks, their lives pressing in on each other. What would it be like to work in one of those factories? It was strange looking at the huge lettering nailed to the buildings, Cadbury's, Mc. Vities, Campbells. I recognised the logos of products I had seen all my life and had never once wondered how or where they were made.
To add to the bleakness, the sun was now fading, walking away from the day.
Everything about the city, everything I saw was unfamiliar and intimidating.
Thank goodness someone was going to meet me, otherwise, I might have just been swallowed whole, carried away into the dark underground of the place and lost forever.
As I walked along the platform towards the barrier I peered anxiously ahead in search of a face that looked as if it was searching for me.
There it was.
A woman, looking straight at me, smiling, hand up to catch my attention.
Wild red hair, that's what Shannon said, Zeta?”
Yes, Jess?”
That's right, follow me and I'll take you to my leader,” she said with a big throaty laugh.
Jess was a tall, smart, confident woman, and I guessed her age to be maybe late fifties early sixties.
For the next hour, we weaved our way through the underground tunnels, up and down escalators, until we eventually took an overground train to Streatham. Then it was just a short five-minute walk to the house.
Shannon lived in the ground floor maisonette in a tidy red-brick terraced house.
Jess opened the door, ushered me in and announced my arrival.
She's here Shaz! Mission accomplished!”
I followed her into the front room where aunt Shannon sat with her back to us, wheelchair- bound, looking out of the bay window.
She swivelled around to face me.
Shannon had a thin, frail face and looked considerably older than her sixty-five years.
Her hair was striking, though, long, loose, and still a vibrant shade of copper red.
Her stern penetrating stare did nothing to lighten the awkwardness of this first encounter.
Sit down”, She said abruptly, gesturing towards an armchair in the far corner of the room.
Jess asked if I wanted a coffee. I said no and then she left us.
Imagine that, Laura's baby, all grown up.”
It's good to meet you, aunt Shannon,” I said. Which came out sounding foolish and insincere.
There was a long agonising pause before she spoke again.
Hmm, it's our Ryan you take after.” She wheeled over towards me.
This meeting wasn't going to be any easier than I had expected.
With Shannon glaring at me from her wheelchair as I sunk low in the armchair, I felt as if I was under interrogation.
Yes, definitely Ryan, you have the same dark, troubled look about you, and skinny as a whippet,” this observation was punctuated with a snort and then a smile, “here, wheel me into the kitchen, I'll have a sherry and you can have the same.”
It was a relief to move into the cosy, cluttered kitchen, and there was the smell of something quite delicious cooking in the oven.
Sit yourself down.”
Once again we were opposite each other as she placed herself at the far end of the table.
So what will it be, small or large sherry.” She asked, with a conspiratorial grin on her face. I realised that to say I didn't want one would be a mistake.
The thick sweetness of the sherry and the heat from the oven warmed and relaxed me.
Jess wandered in and placed some cheese and crackers on the table and then drifted back out again.
So, I pretty much know why you're here Zeta.”
Yes, I think Angie needs to know who her dad was. She's been acting kind of strange since she found out that it wasn't my dad.”
How do you mean?”
Well, she's had the agoraphobia for years, but now she seems really morose most of the time, unhappy, I haven't heard her laugh in weeks.”
I didn't know she was agoraphobic. I wondered why she had never thought to visit. I was always asking her to, and I wanted to meet you as well. She would send me pictures though.”
Then I noticed a photo of me, behind her, on the fridge, stuck there with a magnet.
I was in my late teens in that picture.
The thing is, I think I know who her father was.”
Who's that then?”
Hmm, how did you figure that one out?”
Just adds up I guess, and something in a letter we found, the wording, about Aaron, how my mum might feel about seeing him.”
Just from that, well you're sharp.”
Not really, there's the photograph as well, the one of you, Aaron, and my mum at the table, back in Bristol, you smiling at the camera and mum smiling at Aaron, that look in her eye.”
Yes, she didn't hide it as well as she might have, Ryan always knew that Laura still held a torch for Aaron, the bad boy. We all loved him, he was larger than life, lit up every room and every pub he walked into with his air of mischief. So handsome too, and utterly incorrigible. Women just adored him.”
Shannon smiled, her mind suddenly elsewhere, in that place where memories live.
Did he know about Angie, that she was his, and did Ryan know that Angie was Aaron's?”
Shannon poured us both another drink.
Oh yes.”
So what's the story?”
For the next hour, Shannon talked, telling me everything.
Mum and aunt Shannon had met at secretarial training college in the early seventies. They would both have been about seventeen then I guess.
We got on from the word go,” said Shannon,”we shared the same sense of humour, always mucking around, acting daft.”
That's how mum had ended up being introduced to Aaron.
I warned her, I said to her, if you want him you can have him, but don't imagine for one minute you'll get to keep him. Of course, she didn't take any notice, they never did.”
Mum had only been seeing Aaron for a few months. He was always travelling to and from Ireland. Then she found out she was pregnant.
Aaron wasn't interested. Shannon said he couldn't get back to Ireland fast enough when mum told him, and he didn't come back again until she was living with Ryan.
His view was that Laura was just trying to trap him, it wasn't his fault, she should have been more careful, used contraception, taken the pill.”
Shannon shook her head to show how strongly she disapproved of Aaron's attitude.
Angie was born and mum was left to manage all on her own.
Then some time later Dad came over for a visit to see Shannon. He hadn't known about the baby, that Aaron was a father, Aaron had never told him, but Shannon did.
Inevitably, mum and Ryan met up. Shannon invited her over, mum got in a babysitter, and the three of them went out for the evening. It was the first time that dad had ever met her and Shannon said she could see the immediate attraction. The attraction he had for mum, it took mum a little longer.
Your father was nothing like his brother, he was generally quite shy, reserved, and very much in Aaron's shadow, although once he felt comfortable with people, and Aaron wasn't around, he was great company, he had a lovely wicked sense of humour. That's what your mother loved about him.”
Did she love him, or was it really always Aaron?”
Yes, she really did, Aaron had a place in her heart, but it didn't match the love she felt for Ryan.”
How did dad feel about bringing up Aaron's child, that must have been pretty weird?”
Not for your dad, he loved Angie, he felt like her dad. Aaron never made any claim, he acted like an uncle towards her, the fun uncle. Knowing Ryan was looking after her and Laura made Aaron feel he was off the hook. He was like that, utterly selfish, incredibly thoughtless. He was my brother, I loved him, but I was no fool to the kind of man he was.”
It seemed such a bizarre setup. Shannon, Aaron, dad, mum, all brushing aside something so huge, just learning to live with that odd entanglement.
We were a family, we got on, and of course, however badly Aaron behaved, we just accepted that that was the way he was. It was strange, Ryan sort of admired and even envied his older brother's complete lack of morality, he looked up to him, wished he could be so callous. Ryan felt things deeply.”
We talked some more and then Shannon said she had to have a rest before dinner.
I needed one too, the afternoon sherry had made me feel a little drunk and tired. I wanted to sleep it off.
Shannon told me where to find my room.
The bed had a lovely smell of freshly washed linen. There was a pretty floral quilt cover and rose patterned wallpaper. It was the sort of bedroom I would have loved as a little girl.
I slid, fully clothed, between the crisp sheets and fell, almost instantly, to sleep.
A couple of hours later I was woken by Jess yelling up to me that dinner was in ten minutes.
Feeling pretty groggy, I made my way downstairs.
Jess was lifting a large, heavy casserole dish out of the oven.
Irish stew!” She said, with a big grin on her face.”Seemed appropriate.”
There were dumplings and home made bread.
Jess loves to cook, don't you, dear?” Said Shannon looking at her fondly.
At which point, I started to wonder about their relationship. Were they friends, how long had they lived together, or were they lovers?
The stew was so delicious and Jess poured us all a glass of red wine.
She looks like Ryan doesn't she?” Shannon said, turning to Jess.
I don't know, I never met him.”
Well, you've seen pictures.”
I guess so. I've seen photos of Laura, she was incredibly pretty, so are you Zeta. I do envy your beautiful hair.”
Well, that's her father's, the Irish side, Laura's hair was quite mousy, but she would dye it a light blond, your sister had the dark hair,” Shannon said, looking back at me.
Yes, dark hair, dark eyes, he might have even turned your head, Jess.”
I doubt that very much.”
We all loved your mother, though she never knew how I felt about her, she didn't know I was gay.”
So, that was that question answered, I thought, but I wondered how much Shannon had told Jess about her brothers. If I was going to bring up the I.R.A then I would have to wait until I was sure Jess knew, or Shannon was alone.
The hit and run,” I asked.
Awful, just dreadful, and frightening, that's why I left for London as soon as I could.”
How do you mean.”?
Well, it was odd, I wondered if they thought Laura knew more than she did, or was actively involved.”
In what?”
I thought you knew.”
I looked over at Jess, and Shannon understood.
Oh, Jess and I have been together for years, she knows everything.”
Did mum know, was she involved?”
No, she honestly thought that Ryan was going over to Ireland to work on building sites with Aaron.”
Angie said that she mum and dad were arguing a lot before he left for Ireland, before she died. Do you think she had become suspicious or found out somehow?”
It's possible, but she never said anything to me.”
Do you think there was something sinister about mum's death?”
Maybe, I don't know for sure. Violence, retribution, it was a bloody time. When I left Bristol for London I was careful not to tell anyone where I was going, Ryan and Aaron's pictures were in the paper. There was no way I could have stayed in Bristol even if I had wanted to.”
What happened to Aaron, after prison?”
I don't know, he had no way of contacting me, he wouldn't have had my new address and I wasn't going to send it to him while he was inside. Whether he ever tried to track me down after his release, I have no idea, but I didn't have a phone so there was no record of a Shannon Farley in the directory. I'd thought of changing my surname, but Farley's such a common name, it didn't seem necessary.
Then Jess joined in the conversation, she wondered if there might be some way of at least finding out if Aaron was still alive.
Death records,” I suggested.
Maybe, maybe if he had died one of the Irish papers might have thought it worth a mention, what with him having been in the I.R.A and everything.”
Shannon doubted it.
We've no idea where he is now, though, even if he is alive, he could be anywhere, not even in Ireland, maybe he even died in anonymity. He might have returned to Londonderry, but I doubt it.”
Then Jess changed the subject. She wanted to know more about me and Angie.
Both Jess and Shannon thought it incredible that I had managed to block out my past for so long, and that for years I had thought Angie was my mum.
Jess asked how Angie had reacted when she found out Ryan wasn't her dad.
It seems to have shaken her up,” I said, “I don't think she's taken it well at all.”
Then Jess pointed out that, strange though it was, at least me and Angie had the same aunt.
The conversation had been intense and, for some reason, this comment by Jess seemed to release the tension, the three of us started laughing.
By the time we went to bed, I think we were all pretty drunk.
The next thing I remember was waking up in the strange flowery room with a headache and incredible thirst.
Jess and Shannon were already up and chatting away in the kitchen. When I walked in they dropped whatever it was they had been talking about, so I guess it must have been about me or Angie.
Someone's feeling the effects,” said Jess, “here, sit yourself down Zeta, I'll get you some juice. Do you want a coffee?”
Tea would be nice, thanks, Jess.”
How about a full English, the works, sausages, eggs, bacon?”
Go on, I want one,” said Shannon.
So we sat and had breakfast. Jess gave me an aspirin with the orange juice and I began to feel much better.
You are staying another night, aren't you?” Asked Shannon.
That afternoon train home.
We thought you would be here at least two nights,” said Shannon sadly.
I'll come again, now I know where you live, now we've met up properly.”
Will you though?”
Yes, we'll see each other again Shannon, and you too Jess.”
Whether we actually would or not I had no idea. Although it had been nice meeting them both, and the evening we had spent together had been really good, right then, more than anything, I wanted to get back to Angie.
As it turned out, we would see each other again, but not in circumstances I would have wished for.