You had me at first click – Part Five

In truth she had been tempted to tell John about her plan, but at the last minute Jen had hesitated. Not because she didn’t trust him – she trusted him with her life – but because she didn’t want him to feel like he had to come. Before the attack she had been fairly confident he would come of his own volition, but afterwards there was a nagging doubt that he would feel an obligation to act as her protector rather than her friend, and she didn’t want to be responsible for that. So she left. Alone and in the dead of night, with only a small rucksack of belongings.

She’d dreamed of being free for so long, yet now it was happening she felt apprehensive. How would she survive once her meagre savings had been used up? What would she do? Where would she live? But, frightened as she was, the overriding emotion she felt as she slipped out of the front door and heard it softly click behind her was relief. Sure, she would miss her mother, but to save herself – her body and her mind – she had to get as far away from that place as possible.

Because there was one thing that nobody knew but Jen, and it was a secret so terrible that she feared she’d have to take it to her grave. The day that John had found her lying face down in the mud she had indeed been attacked, but not, as he thought and she had subsequently let him believe, by a stranger. The attack had been the culmination of years of abuse. That day, on a bed of autumn leaves and within earshot of her childhood best friend, she had been raped by her own father.

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I took this picture at Singapore Zoo. It’s one of my favourite nature shots from my travels.

You had me at first click – Part Four

Trauma can do funny things to a person. Some say when people have suffered unimaginable horror it’s like a fire – their life force, perhaps – goes out inside them. But Jen’s flame, far from being extinguished, took hold of her and turned into a blazing inferno. Almost overnight her personality changed so severely that she became almost unrecognisable to those who knew her; everyone except John.

He alone understood the enormity of what had happened to her on that autumnal day. He alone had seen the fear and confusion in her eyes as she turned her face upwards from the mud to look at him. There were other emotions in that look besides fear and confusion, the memory of which John pushed to the back of his mind, though sometimes they would rear their ugly head and catch him off guard. He’d seen abject terror. He’d seen shame. And, worst of all, he’d seen the loss of hope.

As he’d pulled her up from the mud she’d been insistent that no one must know what had occurred. She’d asked him to look away while she restored her modesty, had wiped her eyes with the back of her hand – leaving muddy streaks across her cheeks that he didn’t have the heart to point out to her – and that was that. As they parted ways outside her house she had embraced him tenderly but firmly, looked him square in the eyes and told him they would never speak of this again.

Some weeks later he found out she’d moved away, to where he didn’t know although her parents said something about a scholarship. He knew deep down she’d run away, and was devastated that she hadn’t confided in him, devastated that he hadn’t tried to help her. But, more than anything else, he was devastated that she hadn’t taken him with her.

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Slightly tenuous, I know, but I’ve chosen this photo because it represents someone becoming a shadow of their former selves, which is essentially what’s happened to one of the protagonists in my story. It was actually taken on Mamutik island in Borneo in what were, conversely, very happy times for me.

You had me at first click – Part Three

By the time they reached their teens Johnny (or John, as he now liked to be called) and Jenny (who now answered to Jen) had changed. They were still close, in part because they still lived on the same street, but John was now a slave to rugger, whereas Jen had shed her tomboy persona like a snake sheds its skin, and was now partial to more traditionally feminine pursuits like ballet and book club.

But one Saturday in the autumn of 1984, everything changed. John was walking home from rugby practice through the local park. The late afternoon sun easily penetrated the thin canopy of skeletal trees above his head, settling on the piles of crisp orange leaves at his feet. He kicked them up as he walked, swinging his gym bag as he went.

When he looked back on that day – as he was prone to doing in subsequent years, no matter how hard he tried to avoid it – he often wondered if he had been humming a tune. It sometimes tortured him not being able to remember, though he knew it was of no significance at all.

The first scream stopped him in his tracks. He looked about him, briefly wondering if he had imagined it. Then he heard the second, and this time there was no doubt in his mind. Someone was being attacked, and they were close by. John threw his gym bag to the ground and spun around in a desperate attempt to locate the sound. To the left of the path was a dense thicket, and when the scream – by now more of a whimper – rang out again he ploughed straight into it, mowing the thick foliage down with his powerful legs.

It didn’t take him long to reach the girl. She was lying in a clearing, her face pressed into the mud. She was naked from the waist down, her white cotton knickers lying several feet away and flecked with blood. Her shoulders were shaking – through cold or fear he couldn’t tell – and she was sobbing with such intensity she sounded more like an animal than a human.

Instinctively John removed his coat and covered the girl’s modesty. She bristled at his touch but didn’t turn towards him. Her hair was wet and stuck to her head in muddy strands. Buried amongst the strands was a piece of material. John gently tugged it out. It was a red ribbon. His blood ran suddenly quite cold.

The girl turned her head then, and looked at him. Her face was so thick with mud she was almost unrecognisable – almost, but not quite. “John?” she whispered as her tear-soaked eyes found his.

“Jen.”

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Writing this reminded me of a guest house I stayed in when I was in Vashisht in northern India. It was a squalid place which with the benefit of hindsight I should never have stayed in, but I was taken with this view from the rooftop and my little attic room and so I did. The owner was a creep who preyed on vulnerable lone female travellers. i managed to evade his clutches despite his best attempts to get me on my own but the day after I left a girl confided that he’d tried to get her drunk and go into her room. I confronted him and we had a slanging match on the street, with him accusing me of being racist (which I’m absolutely not). With hindsight that was also inadvisable, but sometimes emotion gets the better of you. That day I saw the darker side of travelling alone.

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As the days go by he finds he mourns the passing of the time more than her. For this he bears such crushing guilt he is tormented through his every waking moment, sometimes even in his dreams. She was not, he recognises, an easy or a pleasant woman. Many a time he’d heard her referred to as formidable, cantankerous, nasty and mean.

But for all her numerous faults, she had been his mother; dark-skinned, curly-haired, thick-ankled Doris. No nonsense, take-dat-spoon-on-da-back-of-yar-legs-and-dat-be-a-lesson-to-ya Doris. He’d lived his life in a combination of fear and awe; fear of her anger at the world, which all too often manifested itself as anger towards him, and awe at her ability to cope after all she had been through.

It’s what she’d been through that made it hard for him to turn away. The people who gossiped in the street didn’t know, they took her at face value and never bothered to look beneath the surface. But he knew everything. Not that she knew he knew. He was only a small boy when he’d crawled under her bed, found the box with the photographs – and the letters.

In her native Jamaica, at the age of seventeen, Doris had been gang raped and beaten so badly that she miscarried her firstborn – his brother. Two years later, when she was heavily pregnant, her husband was murdered by the very same gang. It was all there in the letters, the heavy black scrawl of the condemned asking – no, begging – Doris for forgiveness. He never could bring himself to ask if she had granted her rapist – also her husband’s killer – the absolution he so desired.

He had simply allowed her to exert her grief on him.

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Thinking about a mother’s love for her son reminded me of my time living in a remote orphanage in Kisii, Kenya, in 2007. It was run by this lovely lady, Rebecca, and her husband Amos. They were the most wonderful hosts for the six weeks I spent there, and despite them speaking limited English we struck up a very warm relationship. Even though I sometimes found it so hard being there, I look back fondly on their family and the hospitality they showed me.