The van parked under the shelter of the weeping willow stood out blatantly despite the camouflaging canopy. Its bare branches drooped over the obscene vehicle-a jarring aberration in the fading light of a peaceful winter afternoon
The blue letters strewn on the side of the van glared like neon lights in a grey urban street, an incongruity to the backdrop of snow-capped mountains. The heinous word jolted me back to reality. ‘Police’.
A hand gripped my throat, squeezing hard. I gulped in air with difficulty as I clutched onto my backpack-the only element of certainty in a world that was collapsing under my feet.
My mum parked the car next to the police van and stalled it. She groped for the headlight switch with a shaking hand. The grasping sensation now slipped round my heart, at the sight of my mum’s distress.
I wanted to reach out for her, speak words of consolation, but they froze in my throat and were left unspoken. I had lost my footing and was falling through an abyss, with nothing to grip on to. All I wanted was for this day to end. To erase it from the pages of my diary, where the words to describe it would probably never find their place.
The car was shrouded in semi-darkness, headlights off, but no one moved as if daring the other to take the first step. I could see the lights where on through the double French windows of the lounge, and I caught the glimpse of an unfamiliar silhouette. One of the policemen no doubt.
I don’t want to have to deal with these strangers. They have no business in our house.
I had the ridiculous feeling I was trespassing on my own property. Shutting my eyes tightly I wished them to disappear, but this strategy didn’t seem to work today.
Grow up Michelle.
The driver’s door finally swung open, and my mum stepped out onto the icy grass, the crunching of her feet bringing me back to reality. She closed the door softly as if wanting to make her presence as inconspicuous as possible. She then opened the door to Sylvia’s side and took my sister’s hand, gently urging her to get out and nodded towards me with a forced smile of encouragement.
“Everything will be fine,” she repeated softly. “Now let’s go and get this day over with.”
She had spoken the same words that were spinning in my head. All I wanted was for this day to end. Finish with it. Eradicate it, and never have to live through such a sense of loss, emptiness and humiliation again.
My sister and I got out. I slid off the back seat pulling my backpack after me, immediately feeling the icy ground through my dark purple canvas sneakers, as I trod on the crackling grass. Frozen fingers brushed my forehead. I looked up at the weeping willow’s gnarled branches hanging gloomily over our misery, wishing they would suddenly fill up with bright green leaves and shed vibrant light and vitality on this desolate winter evening.
We followed my mum in a single file along the lower lawn and up the steps to the terrace, where a large swimming pool took up most of the tiled surface. The lights were off, and the pool was half empty with rotting leaves floating on its surface. It looked gloomy, abandoned to its state of decay. I dared to lift my head up to the French windows on the first floor, and could now clearly make out the silhouette of two people. I recognised one of them and stalled.
I stood on the bottom step of the garden stairs, unable to move. Fear swept over me as I watched my father nodding to an unknown man, who was now clearly visible in the brightly lit room. I recognised my father’s self-assured gait, and even from this far I could tell he was being his usual charming self.
How could he have hurt mum? Is he really capable of such violence?
How well some people concealed their true nature. If I couldn’t even trust my own father any more who could I trust?
We climbed up the last flight of steps leading to the front door, which was situated on the side of the house. My mum pulled down the door handle and pushed the door open. We never locked the doors to our house, there was no reason to. This was a peaceful village, no one would dare trespass on anyone else’s property unless invited.
Yet my father had. He had trespassed over the limit of respect and had violated our mum’s dignity. How come I’ve never noticed this hidden side of his personality. He’s always so charming and affable…
I was still completely off-balance and unable to come to terms with the ensuing consequences the situation would provoke. Deep inside, I hoped he would take my mum in his arms and say, ‘I’m sorry Hannah, I’ve been such a fool. Forgive me.’ Yet, if it was true he had hit her, should she give him a second chance?
When we entered the hall, I being the last after my sister, my father popped his head round the corner and smiled radiantly, opening his arms in welcome. But the words I had wished for never came. He didn’t even look at my mum. He simply pretended she wasn’t there.
“Michelle, Sylvia, there you are at last…” his smile faltered for a fraction of a second at the sight of our ghost-like faces in the dim light of the hallway. His arms dropped, and he sighed imperceptibly.
“There’s obviously been some sort of a misunderstanding,” he continued in a calm and easy manner. “These men have been so nice as to help us clear up all this muddle.” The master of the house, the affable host, as always.
For the very first time in my life I realised how my father’s apparent self confidence was in fact plain arrogance. I was shocked by his incongruous grimace and nonchalant words, how he belittled the whole situation, how he blatantly denied it.
A wave of dizziness swept over me as the heat of the room hit us in contrast to the freezing night air. I was thrown into utter confusion. Where does the truth lie?
Another two faces appeared in the hall, and the three seemed to merge in a blurred succession, coming together then floating away from each other again. It reminded me of when, as a little girl I used to look through a kaleidoscope, turning it over and over again to see the pretty coloured geometrical specks converge together to form the most peculiar and fascinating patterns.
However, the patterns forming in the hall of our house were neither pretty nor fascinating, they were grotesque and terrifying and I was being lured in the obscene dance.
I had left the front door wide open and my father brushed past me to close it, shutting off the icy draught and the outside obscurity, as if concerned for our comfort. He then turned round, smiled charmingly at me and took me into his arms. I stood there impassively, my body tense, staring down at his black leather slippers. Has he actually polished them?
The hair at the back of my neck prickled as he whispered in my ear, “Everything will be okay Michelle, this is just a big mistake, I think your mother’s close to a breakdown, poor woman, we have to help her.”
What was he insinuating now? That mum was insane? How come I wasn’t feeling okay at all, although everyone kept repeating it was?
I felt strangely neutral all of a sudden, all fear had dissipated with the warm reality of our home. This was my father after all, not a criminal. Yet oddly enough he appeared different tonight. Was I unconsciously distancing myself from him-defending myself from a hidden threat?
He then went up to Sylvia and opened his arms, a warm smile playfully trailing on his lips. She stepped back to avoid his embrace, pressing against my mum.
Was that a look of contempt I perceived? It had only been a fraction of a second, but the flash of anger had been unmistakable. There was no trace of hurt in his eyes now, just disdain. Being shunned had obviously hit his ego hard.
His ingratiating manner re-surfaced just as quickly as the look of scorn had disappeared. He reclaimed the role of the compassionate father and husband who had everything under control. A man of integrity and committed to his family.
Sylvia has always been his favourite, although he thinks I haven’t guessed. He often compares her to him, proudly stating how similar he and his daughter are with their slim and dark features. He complains about how she is devalued in their measly village and that she could achieve much more. The eldest daughter of course, is criticised for her teenage attitude, average school grades and ‘too well-built’ physique. That’s me of course.
Strangely enough though, today his cherished daughter was shunning him, while I wasn’t. Funny how sometimes things turn out. A part of me wanted to keep him at a distance, yet the other felt that I could not judge someone until he had had his own say in the matter. He should be allowed to purge his image. He was now feeling rejected, off balance, yet he managed to keep his composure, and put on his wry smile again.
One of the men finally spoke, “Mrs Laurent, you can go ahead and collect whatever you need, but please don’t be too long and make sure you only take your personal belongings, nothing else.”
What the hell is this man talking about? Why should she take her stuff for? A wave of deep and utter dread crushed me. My mum was being asked to leave.
“Make sure you only take your personal belongings…” the words echoed in my ears. What did this man think, my mum was a thief or something? I threw him a dark glance and strode past my father who was still standing there with his affable smile, as if at a social gathering.
Sylvia was clutching on my mum’s arm, her knuckles white and eyes flashing in panic. I took hold of the other arm firmly as if daring them to interfere. Our mum was not going anywhere. This was simply a nightmare, hopefully I would wake up soon, and these men in uniform would disappear.
“Mum,” wailed Sylvia in a whisper. My mum swallowed hard, trying to come to terms with the realisation that her husband was nothing but a coward and an egoist. This was probably a confirmation of what she had known for years now. There were no apologies for my mum tonight. He was just trying to save his face and reputation.
“Hemm,” the policeman cleared his voice, obviously embarrassed by the circumstances. “We’ve spoken to Mr Laurent, who assures us this is all a misunderstanding, now I’m afraid we can’t ask anyone to leave their own house, without a judicial decision. But we can offer to escort you from the premises Mrs Laurent. It’s up to you of course, you may stay or leave.”
Our father finally looked at his wife, his expression puzzled as if wondering what all the fuss was about. How could he deny the evidence? What was this policeman talking about? Weren’t my mum’s marks proof enough that she had been hit? I wanted to shout at them to get out. Plead my father to say sorry and forget about the whole thing.
My mum finally spoke in a trembling whisper, “Yes, I understand, just give us a few minutes please.”
The policeman nodded avoiding my mum’s eyes as she beckoned us to follow her to my sister’s room. Sylvia and I walked past the second policeman, who had remained silent. These things just didn’t happen to respectable families with large villas. As if on cue my father immediately broke the tension by starting up a polite conversation with the two men. All was fine.
My mum closed the door to Sylvia’s bedroom and leaned back on it heavily, as if to prevent a fall. She was trembling violently again. She slid down the door and slumped to the floor burying her face in her hands. Wisps of limp tawny hair trailed over her long fingers. I noticed a large bruise was forming on one of her knuckles. Had she hit back at our father?
Sylvia immediately went over and crouched down beside her. She hugged our mum and said in a desperate whisper, “But mum, it’s not fair. He’s the one who should be leaving. What kind of justice is this?”
I just stood there unable to process what was happening. My head was reeling. I felt as if I were a spectator watching a play, hands gripping the seat waiting for the next act, expecting the worst.
Sylvia turned to look at me, her tone more assured now. “You saw him back there Mickey, he didn’t bloody well say sorry to mum!”
My mum didn’t even flinch at Sylvia’s language. She would normally have frowned and reprimanded her for foul language, but today was no normal day.
Sylvia got up, her slim figure shaking with indignation. Then pointing towards the closed door she added, “he’s pretending nothing happened. How can he do this?”
How can he do this, or why is he doing this? Contrasting thoughts were battling in my head. If our father could wipe this violent act aside like crumbs from his shirt, or indeed if he was trying to save his skin, then our mum was definitely in danger of a reprisal. Unless of course he hasn’t done anything….
Then it hit me me. The bruise on my mum’s knuckles. She hadn’t hit back. She had banged and banged to get back into to her house when our father had locked her out. My relief was soon replaced with dread.
We had to protect her. I went over to Sylvia who was now sitting crossed legged as she often did, and I knelt down on the other side of our mum, hoping my words would sound more sincere than how they sounded to me. “You can’t stay here mum,what if he hurts you again?”
“No you can’t mum Mickey’s right,” interjected Sylvia, “and we’re coming with you.”
The frozen hand seized my heart again. Leave our home? This was my sanctuary, my shelter. I couldn’t leave it, this wasn’t fair. This was not happening to me.
My mum lifted her face from her hands-the palms wet with her tears. Her oval face, was drawn and her eyes haunted. They flitted round the room looking for an answer amongst my sister’s heap of soft toys, which she still kept faithfully aligned on her bed. Her vacant gaze rested on me and her eyes searched deep in my soul.
She knows. Mum knows I don’t want to go. She desperately needed us, needed our support and I couldn’t even give her that. I felt shivers down my spine when my mum spoke the next words, as always relinquishing her needs to others. She knew that letting me decide would be torture.
“I have no right to drag you into this.This is our home and you should stay where you belong. I’ll call Anna and ask her to stay just for tonight. I’m sure all this will be over by tomorrow.”
She stood up and clutched her arms with her hands rubbing them hard as she paced round the room, her agitation taking over her resignation to the inevitable. “But what about Raphael? He has no idea of what’s going on…he’s not even well…what if he needs me during the night?”
My mum’s torment was so strong it was nearly tangible. She was aware that she needed to defend herself, but having to leave her children even for just one night was tearing her apart. The injustice of having to take such a decision was unfathomable.
Deep inside both Sylvia and I knew that our mum should not stay in our home tonight. What if our father reacted to the fact she had gone to the police? He had already gone too far-who was to vouch he wouldn’t go further.
My mum took hold of Sylvia’s shoulders as if to bring her back to her senses, but before she could speak Sylvia interrupted her knowing what my mother was going to say.
“Mum please, if you take Raphael away then we come too,” she said her eyes imploring. The pain in those eyes was too overwhelming. I looked away.
My sister’s possessiveness towards her resurfaced in her desperation. She could not accept that our mum take Raphael and leave her behind. My mum took her into her arms, her eyes wide and searching again-dark with the pain of loss.
Now she had to deal with my sister’s unrelenting attachment, my fear of separation from home and my brother’s illness.
I could tell, she too was torn between conflicting emotions. One part of her wanted us to go with her, the other needed us to feel safe and unscathed. I could sense she was battling against the wish to be close to us, as we provided her with the support and love and the awareness of her role as a parent, detached from any selfish sentiment.
I was relieved as well as guilty. I wanted to stay close to her, but I didn’t want to be forced to leave the comfort of my bedroom and home-although a little voice within was telling me this was an illusion.
She swallowed hard and looked at me over Sylvia’s head with imploring eyes. Each word she spoke came out with extreme effort. “You all stay here then. I’ll make sure Raphael is asleep before I go, he won’t even notice I’ve left. I’ll be back before you wake up, as I always do and have always done,” her voice trailed off as if those words had never come from her.
Sylvia hugged our mum crushing her with her desperation, not wanting to let her go. I noticed my mum winced with pain but said nothing. This was real, she was in pain, why was I doubting her. Tears welled up in my eyes, I didn’t want to let her go either. I joined my sister’s hug trying not to hurt her as I tried to restrain the intensity of my grief.
“I promise,” my mum whispered through her tears, “I’ll be by your bedside before you open your eyes tomorrow morning.”
She pushed us away gently and wiped her soft brown eyes, now red and swollen. “Please, you need to be strong just for tonight, and if Raphael wakes up you call me straight away Michelle,” she said looking straight at me her eyes full of concern.
“Now let’s go, those men in there won’t wait all night. I need to take some important stuff, in case it disappears."