The bustling crowd pressed against me, shoving me along the narrow school hallway. I tripped over, and a jolt of pain ran up my leg as my shin hit a step. I managed to keep my balance, bit my lip, and screwed my eyes shut hoping I hadn’t torn the only pair of black jeans I owned.
What is it with these brats? They’ve just moved up from primary school-aren’t they supposed to cringe at the sight of a senior?
I rubbed my shin as the throng pushed me along again. Did I feel skin?
Great! That’s just what I need.
Thank god I was moving up to the lycée in September, where I wouldn’t have to mix with such a juvenile crowd. For the moment I was stuck here, waiting to get home.
I stared helplessly at the large window panes of the school’s main doors.
When the hell are they going to open them?
The end of school bell had sounded ages ago, but getting past those front doors seemed a hopeless endeavour.
The outside world was barely visible behind the blur of the misted-up windows. Tiny snowflake-like crystals mapped the glass, shedding an ethereal glow over the reality that lay beyond.
I was feverishly anticipating the icy fingers of the mountain breeze, and the smell of burning leaves that would hit my senses when they met with the open air. Freedom. Arcadia.
I exhaled trying to curb my restlessness and rubbed my throbbing shin again. My forefinger got caught in the rip and I felt skin. No doubt now.
Only two days to my fifteenth birthday. Exhilaration rushed through me and I forgot all about the pain and the ruined jeans. I knew mum had something special hidden up at the house. Probably under the stair closet, behind the large chest where she always hid things, oblivious of the fact that my sister Sylvia and I had known of her secret cache for years.
I grinned foolishly despite the feeling of oppression, then checked myself. Who cares if people think I’m crazy, I lied. No one’s watching anyway, they’re all busy pushing and shoving to get out.
Don’t count on it Michelle…
Why was life was so challenging at school? You could be sure there was always someone scoffing or talking behind your back, even if you kept a low profile. I was trying to disconnect from people’s judgement, but criticism still hit me hard. I wanted to be like my sister who couldn’t care less. Or like Laurene, one of my best friends who just laughed at snide remarks and lashed back with a witty rebuke.
What would I have done without Laurene and Pierre and a few others?
Waves of excitement overflowed in succession at the thought of what might be waiting for me up at our large family house. My childhood home and peaceful haven. If it was what I thought it was, this would be one birthday to remember.
Little did I suspect that it would be just that, and no thanks to my mum’s gift.
Very soon, I’ll be out of here. Open those damn doors.
Then it hit me at last. A draught of cold air reached my nostrils, its pureness so sharp it was almost intoxicating, the pain in my knee forgotten. Finally, I could break free and take cover in the comfort of my bedroom. The off-limit zone, my refuge from the mob. A sanctuary inaccessible to others. Or so I thought.
Then I saw it and stopped in my tracks.
Someone bumped into me so hard we almost fell over. My sandy hair tumbled over my shoulders, and the two pencils I had used to keep my unruly mane out of my face fell onto the floor trampled by pounding feet. I became oblivious to the shoving as I stared at the dark red pencils rolling on the floor. Another hard shove alerted by senses again and I gaped through the open doors.
The was no mistaking that boxy green car. Maybe, if I closed my eyes for a few seconds when I opened them again it would disappear. I even tried, but it didn’t work. My mum’s green car hadn’t budged.
I moved on, leaving the pencils to their fate, my face suddenly very hot against the frosty breeze billowing through the entrance. I had this absurd vision of everyone stopping to stare at me instead of running for the school bus as I usually did too. Fuming I made my way towards the entrance wishing I could disappear, swallowed up by the ruthless crowd.
I can’t believe this! What’s she doing here! I thought, catching a glimpse of my mum through the fogged up car window. Doesn’t it cross her mind that I’m fifteen now, and mothers are a total embarrassment.
A pang of guilt tugged at me for my ungratefulness, but quickly gave way to indignation. At fifteen I no longer needed to be chaperoned everywhere. My friends weren’t. Why is mum so overprotective?
I slipped discreetly past the caretaker at the door, walked as inconspicuously as I could towards the car, and threw open the door to the back seat trying to master one of my most miffed expressions. I was seething inside and ready for a battle.
When my eyes met my mum’s in the reflection of the rear view mirror, cold shivers ran through me despite the heat of the car.
Her red-rimmed eyes sent out ominous signals and their bleakness spooked me. I shot a side glance at Sylvia, my younger sister. She stared back inert, her face paler than ash.
Sylvia’s large green eyes flashed with rage. Something was terribly wrong. The atmosphere was stifling, unreal. I couldn’t breathe. Where was that sharp, fresh air that had welcomed me a few moments before?
The car was usually bubbling with chatter, everyone wanting to get a word in at once. Today, the silence was oppressive, only the drone of the car’s heating hummed unremittingly. I waited, staring into my mum’s haunted eyes. Her face paler than Sylvia’s.
Panic was replaced by foreboding. I desperately wanted to know what was wrong, yet part of me didn’t at all. I gulped down the lump that had formed in my throat. “What....what happened?” I asked, my voice a mere whisper.
As I spoke those words, I wish I hadn’t. I didn’t really want an answer.
“Daddy hit mummy,” Sylvia stated unaffectedly.
I swallowed hard again. Where was all this saliva coming from, when my throat felt parched beyond reason. Sylvia seemed deadened, impassive to the gravity of her words, while I felt suddenly exposed, sitting in our boxy car at the mercy of anyone trying to gawk at us through the fogged up windows.
“He yanked mummy by her hair, she fell over, hit her head, then he dragged her on her back.” Sylvia looked away and out of the fogged up window. “I hate him,” she added as a logical conclusion.
That was when I really panicked. Dread swept over me when I realised who was missing. Where was Raphael, my baby brother? A series of possible scenarios reeled through my head, and I squeezed my eyes shut to blot them out.
I like to call him my baby brother, just to bug him. He’s only eight, so I mean, he’s a kid and I’m a fully fledged teenager, but he’s a really cool kid and so bright for his age. Basically, I adore him.
Oddly enough I didn’t feel anxious for my mum. Could I detect determination, relief behind her unfathomable expression? Or was it because I didn’t want to accept the situation. How can this be happening to me and why right now, just two days from my birthday?
Anger surged up again dampening my apprehension. The unfairness of the situation hit me. The utter selfishness of adults. So self-assured, convinced they can decide for us when they can’t even master their own lives.
“Raphael…” I managed to croak.
My mum’s eyes softened and she finally spoke, her gentle voice trembling. “He’s fine Michelle. He’s up at the house. I kept him home from school today, I think he’s catching something.” She looked away from the mirror.
What is she hiding from us?
My head started spinning wildly. My baby brother up at the house alone with our father.
How could you leave him there mum after what happened? I wanted to cry out.
Sylvia must have read the flash of fear in my eyes, a fear that would have been inconceivable only twenty four hours before.
“The police are up at the house…” Sylvia spoke out again from her corner. She was huddled up near the window, her feet on the seat, arms hugging tightly around her knees. She started sobbing uncontrollably. My mum’s dark eyes darted to Sylvia through the rear-view mirror her face panic-stricken.
The Police. I wanted to take Sylvia in my arms, tell her everything would be all right. But I couldn’t. Nothing would be the same from now on. Our father had trodden over the boundaries of reason, and our lives would change forever. The police had invaded our house, it was now unconditionally soiled and robbed of its intimacy.
My mum who was my harbour and shelter was now looking at me through the rear view mirror not daring to turn around, shaken by fear and distress, desperately trying to hold on to her parent role. Was it possible that my mum, who had been by our side day after day, night after night, relentless unbreakable, was on the verge of collapsing?
Her warm kisses had brushed my cheek at bedtime, her soft English voice had narrated of enchanted places and hilarious characters from our favourite English bedtime story books, as we snuggled under the covers on cold winter evenings.
Those magic moments had been stolen from us, soiled by today’s sordid reality.
I attempted to fire up the self confidence she always urged me to hold on to, and give her the support she had tirelessly provided us with. She needed mine now, but I refused to be a grown up yet-I didn’t want to have to face the real world and its iniquity.
I mustered the little courage I had. “Mum, just tell me what happened, please.”
With faltering words she uttered ever so softly, “Michelle. You, Sylvia and Raphael are the most precious treasures I have. Promise me you’ll be strong.”
“Please mum just tell.Why did he do such a thing?” I pleaded her.
“Sylvia has already told you what happened. He hit me, but I managed to escape through the garage door into the garden.” She started trembling uncontrollably again. Her breathing erratic as she recalled the events. “Then I suddenly remembered Raphael was still upstairs, so I ran up the side of the house to get in from the side door, but your father had already locked me out. I knocked and knocked but he ignored me.” She lost control and started sobbing.
I felt like kicking myself for thinking my mum would have left Raphael voluntarily. She must have been desperate when she couldn’t get to my brother. The only possible action had been to go to the police. At least he was safe now.
Finally I did what I should have done ages before. I jumped from the back seat into the seat next to my mum’s and took her gently into my arms. I wasn’t sure where she had been hurt. She felt so fragile and thin as she whispered in my ear. Yet her warm bitter breath was so comforting, and her touch so tender as she continued with her story.
“He eventually leaned out of your bedroom window Michelle,” she stammered, “he was obviously worried Raphael would hear my knocking…and he called me…he told me no one would believe me…there were no witnesses..”
I could hardly follow what she was saying and as she sobbed there in my arms. I swallowed back the bile rising in my throat. I wanted to puke.He had never been any real help to my mum, just a presence in the house, albeit a playful father. But now he was playing with our lives.
That was when I realised that I knew nothing about the kind of man he really was. I had no idea what their intimate relationship was like-how he treated our mum behind our backs. I was always focused on my own life, my friends and the need for my mum’s constant attention.
All issues were addressed to her. She was the one who took us to our different activities, helped us with our homework, cooked, cleaned. She was our anchor, our only reference. Our father was there for us yes, but what did he really do for us, for his wife?
The truth was that although he seemed to love us, he had now revealed himself to us for what he really was. But was that what had really happened? I felt ashamed for doubting, but the whole situation seemed crazy, unreal.
Why can’t I just shut it off, pretend nothing happened…
“But mum, why did he hit you?” I asked, trying to come to terms with reality .
Her eyed dropped to her hands. “We haven’t been sleeping in the same bed for a while.” She was obviously embarrassed. This wasn’t exactly a subject you discussed with your fifteen-year old daughter.
“We’re having problems. Serious ones. I just can’t… until we solve them.”
My utter detachment from their adult lives was all the more obvious. I hadn’t cared or wanted to know, although I had known something was wrong.
Blood rushed to my head. I felt guilty and shocked at the disturbing psychological traits my father had concealed so well and for so long. The irony was that although I had known my parents for fifteen years now, I knew nothing about their relationship, or maybe I had chosen to ignore it.
Adrift in my thoughts I had lost track of my mum’s report of the events, catching her in mid sentence.
“… He refused to listen to my reasoning... you know the rest.” She ended her sentence abruptly. The scene was too vivid and harsh to reveal to us. I could tell she was already trying hard to eradicate it forever.
The inevitable senseless act had followed. The reaction of a kid deprived of his toy and can’t have what he wants. Why can’t adults behave? They’re always telling us what to do. Yet here they were destroying my world.
The looming disaster hit me again. What would happen now? Our house, my bedroom, my belongings, my life? I didn’t want to have to give up these objects of security. I felt helplessly vulnerable.
My mum spoke again as if reading my thoughts. “I went to the police and explained what happened. I’m sure everything will be fine now that the police are up at the house to settle things. Your father will surely come to reason.”
Sylvia started sobbing. My mum turned round and stroked her soft silky chestnut hair. Her lips parted as if about to speak some words or reassurance, but nothing came out. What was there to say?
The three of us remained silent, only Sylvia’s sobbing interrupted the hum of the heater.
I was strangely detached. This was not really happening. I was dreaming or it was some sick joke my mum had decided to play on me for my fifteenth birthday.
She finally broke the silence, “We have to deal with this however hard it is there’s no other option…”
Fear flooded Sylvia’s eyes, she started breathing hard.
“I know how determined you can be…you’re always standing up to me in your irritating stubborn way,” my mum said, trying to pull my sister out from her distress. Warmth flooded through me at her words. I was relieved she still hadn’t lost her humour despite the tragic situation we had been dragged in.
“I want to keep you out of this as much as I can. I’m hoping that your father will realise the pain he’s put us through. I know he’d never touch a hair on your head.”
“Keep us out out of this?” I exclaimed sarcastically. “How can you possibly shelter us from this mum? It’s real, it’s happening whether we like it or not, whether we have chosen it or not. We are stuck with it!”
How could my mum be so sure he wouldn’t hurt us? Was she hiding something?
My mum’s eyes glared intensely. They gleamed with fire and love and at the same time with desperation. I looked into those eyes, pleading her, wanting her to survive yet not wanting to have to take any decisions, not now not today, maybe tomorrow or next week. That’s when I finally broke down and started crying too.
Here we were in a fogged up boxy green car, three girls desperately trying to cling on to the comfort of a life and family, now shattered into thousands of pieces. Desperate to reclaim that lost happiness, which was merely an illusion with no substance, like the morning mist hanging over the river and a snow flake in the palm of a hand.
We held each other’s hands, entwined our fingers. Three women now, Sylvia and I had lost our childhood in the space of an afternoon. Three strong women, yet terrified and vulnerable.
My mum awkwardly took Sylvia in her arms. She had to twist around to reach out for her in the back seat. She grimaced in pain when my sister wrapped her arms around her.
“Mum, does it hurt a lot? Where are you injured? Can I see” I said hesitantly. I felt a grotesque impulse to see the traces of my father’s violence, yet I didn’t want to. These contrasting feelings were playing relay inside me, and I wasn’t sure which one to listen to.
“I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, I want you to be strong and distance yourself from the situation as much as you can. I can deal with it, I just need time to think, and time to mend. Most of all I need you to continue with your lives and not have to be involved with this, or as little as possible.”
“Mum please just show me,” I asked again.I realised I needed to see, needed proof, maybe then, I would fully understand the consequences of the violence and realisation would hit me.
She pulled up her sweatshirt. She wasn’t wearing a jacket, all she had on was her training gear, she probably hadn’t had time to grab one after the attack. Her back was streaked with red burn marks, as if she had been whipped. Her left shoulder had a large reddish bruise. She took my hand and gently placed it on her head. My trembling fingers hesitantly touched the left side of her skull, and I felt a large bump. Although I simply brushed her head, she cringed from my touch.
A wave of fear mingled with anger swept over me, and my vision blurred. The reality my father’s act finally hit me. I had occasionally seen TV reports of famous stars accused of violence against women, apparently respectable men, like my father. Some of these men went to prison regardless of whether they were famous or not. Would my father go to prison for what he had done?Or would he take my mum in his arms and say he was sorry? Maybe if he did that everything would go back to normal.
My mum broke the silence. “We’re now going up to the house, the police are there waiting for us. We’ll see how we can settle this affair without having to drag you children into it.”
Sylvia gulped down her tears, her eyes shiny and full of determination. “We’ll stick to your side mum, whatever the consequences. You can count on us.”
How could Sylvia be so brave and strong-willed? I couldn’t help but feel envious of my sister. I always have been and probably always will. Sylvia is completely dedicated, one of the most generous spirits I have ever met. Not only is she warm hearted, she is also beautiful and intelligent, and most importantly she had no doubts-she would follow our mum to the end of the world. She has that natural candour and discernment I will never have. It really gets to me at times.
However, my mum is forever reassuring me that I too am beautiful, when I complain about my two year younger sister, with her tall graceful figure, enchanting green eyes and the most engaging smile I have ever seen.
As far as I’m concerned, I’m neither plain nor someone you would pass without a second glance. I’m basically another teenage girl hoping to blossom into an attractive and self sufficient woman, and that’s how I see my mum, at least how I had seen her until today.
My mum slowly turned around to face the windscreen, the outside view completely veiled by the fog on the windows. She took a deep breath. Her jaws were nervously twitching as she ground her teeth in an attempt to regain composure.
“It’s time to go now. Remember, you have no obligation to listen or answer to anyone. No one, absolutely no one has the right to invade your privacy. Tomorrow will bring more insight to the whole affair. I’m asking you to be strong just for one night.”
With those words she turned the key in the ignition and put the fan up to full throttle to disperse the fog on the glass. She then turned the steering wheel, her hands gripping it so tightly her knuckles turned white, and put the car into gear.
We drove past the village square and began the steep climb towards our house-a huge villa nestled on the side of the highest mountain in the area. Through the misty car window the people in the square looked like paper figurines floating along pulled by invisible strings. We were all puppets on strings-the puppeteer playing with our lives at his whim.
The more we climbed the steep road bordered by tall naked larches, their needles now buried under the snow, the more my stomach churned. I felt as if I was about to take ten maths tests at once and that my whole future depended on them.
I dared slip a side glance at my sister. She was staring out of the window, with the same steadfast expression as my mum’s, her jaw too was working mechanically.
Soon I spotted the roof of our house. No smoke was trailing from the chimney today.