By Anne Whitehead
Anne says: I live in Devon with my husband and the wonderful gift of retirement, which has freed up time to do many new things. I’ve been writing for a few years and finally feel I’m in gear.
Martha worried about her daughter, and was exhausted by the time she’d seen Florence through a turbulent and distressing adolescence. Her husband Frank simply prayed for a miracle to keep Florence in line. And along it came. Dave, one in a long stream of brief relationships, stuck around.
They were delighted with Dave, saw how he patiently coaxed Florence out of her black moods, and for a while they thought she was ready to move on. She wasn’t, she just played around behind his back. They worried about what would happen if he found out but said nothing, praying it would all come out right in the end. Dave was their best hope.
Florence and Dave married and everyone got on with their lives. Dave had a steady job and Florence undertook a series of temporary jobs in between producing three daughters in five years. By then it was clear that Florence was incapable of providing any stability for them, being erratic at best and unhinged at worst.
My parents’ assumption that I would want what they had really irritated me. From an early age I did all I could to test their limits – smoking, drinking, obvious promiscuity – but nothing rocked them. I wanted to leave home when school ended but couldn’t afford it. I had loads of jobs but every single one of them was ruined by colleagues who obviously hated me and I never made friends.
Then I went into town one Friday night with colleagues from the latest job. I’d only been there a week and joined them in their monthly blow-out. They never invited me again so it was a good job I met Dave that night. I got hammered and he, all chivalry, called a cab and delivered me home. The next morning I found a slip of paper in my bag and had a vague recollection of asking one of his group where they worked and shakily writing it down.
On Monday I rang him at work, telling him I’d mislaid my keys, asked if he had them. There were in my bag but he wouldn’t have known that as Dad had answered the door that night. I hinted that I’d had a bit of trauma at work which is why I’d got so drunk. I thought that would flick his knight-in-shining-armour switch. It did and we arranged to meet again.
I met Florence after work one Friday night. I didn’t usually go out drinking but it was Jim’s birthday and all were invited to the club. I’m pretty shy but a lively girl came over, threw her arm around my shoulder and insisted on a dance. She was obviously drunk but I didn’t want to embarrass her by refusing so off we went. An hour later she was clinging to me like a limpet, sobbing that her life was rubbish. I thought I’d better see her home.
We met up the next weekend and she was apologetic about her behaviour that night and I took her previous brashness as a cover for vulnerability. She told me that she’d been through quite a lot, and it made me feel important, like I’d helped someone in their hour of need. That’s how I fell for her.
I made Dave wait a while before I slept with him and he was patient and very respectful. From then on keeping him onside was easy. When I went too far I’d give him the ‘I hate myself for being difficult routine’ and he just caved in.
Nearly a year in, when I told him I was pregnant, he was shocked – hadn’t I taken my Pill? Of course, I said, but that last stomach upset, being sick must have caused it to be ineffective. He believed it. Next thing he’s proposing and I’m crying and saying yes. Tears of relief but he didn’t need to know that.
It was a small wedding. We hadn’t seen much of his parents, I’d made sure of that. They arrived for the Registry Office ceremony, drove home immediately after and were killed in a crash on the motorway. Not their fault, the lorry driver was fatigued, had lost control. An ambulance chaser came along, got us a nice compensation package from the negligent firm and we were set up to start our new life together. All very satisfactory.
Dave grieved. I showered him with sympathy for a couple of weeks then suggested we needed to concentrate on the future. Shame our children would never know his parents but what could we do?
It was a shock, losing mum and dad like that. With Florence around I hadn’t gone home much and I felt that I’d neglected them. Florence had been wonderful after the crash but helped me see that we had to look to the future.
This turned out to be Jasmine, Ruby and baby Sita, who was named during Florence’s temporary preoccupation with all things Eastern. I was grateful she hadn’t been born during her mother’s dalliance with the arty set, one of whom had called her son Pablo. Pablo Wilkins. That poor lad would go through hell at the local comprehensive.
I thought of our daughters as cement holding Dave fast to me. Shortly after Sita was born I went off to London with a new man I’d met in a bar but it turned sour. I’d told him I had a violent husband, felt scared and all the rest and moved to London with him, but he soon threw me out. Said he’d felt sorry for me having such a terrible marriage but I was too unstable.
I was appalled when Florence left for London when Sita was only six months old. Martha came to stay and Frank joined us at weekends.
I don’t know what I’d have done without them. Life became very peaceful. Jasmine chatted away instead of being afraid of irritating Florence and Ruby loved to paint which had been banned as too messy. Sita settled down, slept through the night, accepted and enjoyed all her food’
Everything changed when Florence came back. I contacted a solicitor, who said that if I tried for custody I’d lose. Courts always sided with the mother. She had me over a barrel.
I was disappointed to find it was all happy families when I returned from London but I managed to get rid of Martha pretty sharpish. Off she stumbled, telling me I needed to be more responsible blah blah. Dave just got on with it. If we parted and he tried for custody, he’d lose. I was their mother. I wondered what he’d do if he realised that one of those precious girls wasn’t his.
Life ground on. I carried on clubbing, the release in the dancing and the excitement of new men keeping me going. Being at home was hell. I’ve never felt so sorry for myself.
One Saturday morning Florence was out and I was at home with the girls playing round the kitchen table. It was a wet, murky day and as I put the light on they all looked up at me and my heart turned over. When she was born we’d called Sita our little changeling. She now really looked nothing like Jasmine or Ruby, who both had my colouring and the slightly wonky nose bequeathed by my parents. I got out our family photos.
One rainy Saturday we went round, knowing that Florence would be out. They were playing with family photographs and at first glance it looked lovely, until we noticed the look on Dave’s face. Frank and I went to take a look and the realisation hit us hard. We left soon after, telling the girls we had to get back before dark, too shocked to stay.
I managed to get away one Saturday, telling Dave I was going shopping. I was late back and thought Dave was annoyed as he hardly spoke for a couple of days. Then the girls told me about the photo game and I realised he knew. So what?
My heart was so sore I thought it would snap. The pain Florence had caused played on my mind relentlessly. Then one day I woke up filled with an unbearable mixture of rage and hurt. I told Frank I was going shopping but instead drove to their house, knowing that Dave would be at work and the girls at school.
She was still in her dressing gown, drinking coffee and watching TV and looked bored while she listened to me ranting. Hey, she said, at last. Something’s finally cracked you.
Her callousness made me sick. I turned and picked up the heavy vase that stood on the mantelpiece and with indescribable pain in my heart I brought it down on my daughter’s head. I must have gone mad.