THE SMALL VILLAGE OF ROCHESTER SAT NESTLED IN A PICTURESQUE VALLEY SURROUNDED BY HILLS OF DIFFERENT SHADES OF GREEN.
As their Mondeo estate came into the main street, it slowed down, passing a small cluster of gift shops and finally an antique centre, before coming to a halt outside a white washed building. A sign above the building in large italic letters read ‘Alan Nicholls Photographic Studios’. The three-storey building was old, perhaps late Victorian, tall with square windows, possibly with living quarters above.
As they got out of the car, Donna noticed quaint residential dwellings dotted on the hillside, and observed how peaceful this little hamlet seemed; there was a sleepy atmosphere about the place. She shivered, surprised by how cool and windy it was outside, despite the sun - it would be good to get inside to the warm.
A bell rang when her father opened the door to the Studio; he stood aside for his wife and daughter to enter first. Almost at once they recognised Alan Nicholls, standing behind the counter, a mobile phone to his ear. With his hand he indicated for them to take a seat.
He was a skinny man with slicked back brown hair, a pock marked face and wore green trousers and a white shirt. Donna remembered as a child, how his different coloured eyes had spooked her. But she also recalled him being a humorous man, very good at putting his subjects at ease.
Nevertheless she felt anything but at ease in such plush surroundings. And seeing the walls adorned with photographs of beautiful models wearing exquisite fashion items added to her anxiety.
Instead of sitting down, she preferred to lean against the counter, her back to Alan, while her mother and father sat chatting to one another, mainly about the famous women who’d graced these studios. When she heard them say they thought she’d outshine them all, she squirmed with embarrassment.
Impatient to get the ordeal over with as quickly as possible, Donna tried to imagine what clothes Alan would want her to model, knowing if any were too revealing, she would almost certainly walk out.
At last, with his head leaning slightly to the right, his phone call ended, and a huge smile came across his face, his eyes focusing on Donna momentarily, as he put his phone away. When he spoke, it was in a deep mellow voice that belied his thin scrawny features.
‘Hallo there, nice to meet you all,’ he said, lifting up the counter to go across to them.
After greeting her parents, he went over to Donna, taking her hand in both of his, making her cringe.
‘It’s good to meet you again my dear after all this time. Donna, you’re looking more beautiful than ever. Priscilla’s been telling me all about how successful you’ve been at University and in your job. It’s so refreshing to see someone as attractive as you, having some of the old grey matter as well. Why don’t you come on through? Then we can get the shoot started as soon as possible.’
The studio was dark apart from one corner, set up as a mock beach, and lit by spotlights. The photographic equipment stood close by, ready for Alan to use.
As they sat down, Donna caught a glimpse of a door marked ‘Changing Room’, adding to her unease.
Alan pulled up a chair to sit directly in front of them, and at once focused his eyes on Donna, studying her at close quarters. She disliked being scrutinised in this way and hated being on show. However, Alan’s smoothing voice calmed her down a little.
‘Well, well, I must say my dear.’ He stroked the back of his neck with his hand. ‘You do have the most delightful face. A wonderful bone structure too, clear blue eyes and thick blond hair. How could I ever forget what a perfect model you are? And if I remember correctly the camera loves you. You know, you’re a photographer’s dream. And what a fine figure you still have. I can’t wait to take a few pictures of you – and dare I say it, but they’ll be absolutely sensational.’
‘See what did I tell you?’ Her mother beamed with pride. ‘If a photographer of Alan’s standing tells you that, you have to believe it.’
Donna felt on edge - these ridiculous compliments didn’t help. She quivered like a jelly inside and out. Why did they have to keep doing this to her? Couldn’t they see how it was affecting her? Perhaps the pound signs in front of their eyes were obscuring the view.
Then she realised her father was glancing at her, concern in his eyes. ‘Don’t worry darling. I know you’re nervous, but I promise you, you’ll be fine. Alan is a master at making people feel comfortable – you must remember that. Which is the reason why he’s so successful at getting the best out of his models. And don’t forget we’ll be here all the time, so you have nothing to fear.’
Smiling reassuringly at his subject, and sitting up straight, Alan said, ‘Right then Donna, if you’re ready – let’s begin. If you’d like to go into the changing rooms, you’ll notice all the clothes I have in mind for you to wear are on hangers. Put on whatever you fancy, anything you think you might feel good in. Then let’s take a look at you before I start taking the pictures – how does that sound?’
‘All right.’ But feeling unsure of herself, she looked towards her parents for support, hating the idea of having to pose for these shots. She worried over who’d be allowed to see them. What if the man who raped her saw them and found out who she was. Dear God, he’d come after her again for sure.
‘Would you like me to go in with you, help you sort out something to wear?’
‘No, no, I’ll be all right mum.’ She scurried towards the changing room.
‘You sure? It’s no trouble - honestly,’ she shouted after her, but Donna was already inside and had closed the door behind her.
‘Don’t fret Beryl – leave her be. Let her do this on her own.’
Donna was glad her father had made this remark, but it didn’t make her feel much better. She didn’t want to do this, and they were still ignoring her pleas. This showed they hadn’t learnt their lesson and that this was just for their own selfish ends.
She looked at all the outfits Alan had ready for her. There were many different styles, dresses, tops, trousers, skirts, evening gowns, swimsuits; all the garments had in common was that they were made of the best materials and styled to the highest standards. The quality of the cloth, and the bright colours of yellow, blue, red, plain and patterned, impressed Donna; they must have cost a fortune to make. But touching the clothes and seeing those strange designs, made her realise she wouldn’t want to wear or buy any of them.
For a while, she stood there as if momentarily frozen in time. What was she going to do, that was the question? When she hated the thought of posing for these stupid pictures.
In the end the answer came to her without much trouble. She couldn’t go through with it, wouldn’t do this, not for her parents, herself or for anyone.
Then looking in the mirror she noticed a fire-exit door. Turning round she saw a long metal rail bolted into the top of the doorframe and also into the floor. In the middle was a bar with a sign above ‘Push Bar to Open’. Dare she push it? There was nothing to lose, everything to gain. She gave the metal bar a hefty shove with both hands. The door disengaged and daylight flooded into the changing area.
She walked out into the sunshine, trembling as the cold wind hit her. This was the back of the building on what appeared to be a car park. Behind the grey tarmac were fields filled with yellow corn, and beyond that trees that might be the beginning of a forest or wood. She just wanted to get as far away from the Studio as possible.
Walking over the tarmac, she headed towards the cornfield. As she stepped into the field, she jumped at the sound of her mother’s shrill voice.
‘Donna! Donna! Where on earth are you going?’
Donna quickened her pace to run further into the cornfield as the commotion going on behind her seemed to be getting closer.
‘Please stop, Donna,’ her father’s deep voice boomed, but his tone was softer and almost pleading rather than threatening.
This caused her run faster, but the corn was quite high, and she found it extremely restrictive to get through. She noticed a clearing to the right and breathing heavily made a dash in that direction.
Several voices were now shouting her; it seemed like the whole of the village were in pursuit. As she came out of the cornfield on to a dirt track, which led to a road, she glanced back to see they weren’t far behind.
Sprinting as if her life depended on it, she might have got away too, but for a car travelling towards her. She jumped out of the way just as the car passed, but slipped onto her right knee and cried out in pain. Regaining her composure, she looked up to see her father and Alan coming over to her. It was no good, she couldn’t go on and had to resign herself to defeat. As she got to her feet, her dad grabbed hold of her arm.
‘Donna – what the hell are you doing? – damn it!’ he exclaimed shaking his head at her.
‘Nothing – let me go,’ she cried trying to wriggle free, but he was too strong for her.
‘For God’s sake, what are you running away from?’
She glared at him, her eyes full of hate, as tears ran down her face.
‘I’m not doing this. And you can’t make me.’ The tone of her voice determined and defiant.
‘You’re joking - aren’t you? Why ever not?’
‘Because…. Because… I can’t – that’s all.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. You’re nervous, feeling low. But it’ll pass, I promise you. Come on; let’s get you back in there. Sorry about this Alan – she’s just a bit anxious, that’s all.’
Alan nodded, although the expression on his face showed irritation and disbelief; obviously seeing what her parents couldn’t.
‘I won’t go through with this. And that’s final!’ She widened her eyes at her dad and then at Alan who gave no sign of emotion.
Just then her mother came striding towards them, her face like thunder. As soon as she reached her, she slapped Donna across the cheek, so hard it sounded like a whip cracking. Donna winced from the sting of it, but glared back in defiance. She wanted to hit her back but stopped herself just in time. Instead, she stroked her reddening cheek.
‘How dare you show us up like this in front of Alan? One of the foremost photographers in the country. You’ve humiliated us. We’ll be a laughing stock. If this ever gets out, no one will photograph you again. Talk about tantrums. Alan, I’m so sorry about this. Please, you must forgive my headstrong daughter.’
Raising his eyebrows he said, ‘You all need to go home and give your daughter some space. And if she doesn’t want to do this, for God’s sake listen to her. I seem to remember she’s always been nervous about posing for photographs, and if that’s still the case, it will never work. Mind you, I get the feeling there’s more to this than just nerves.’
And at that he walked off.
Donna didn’t speak. This was their own fault, for not even considering their daughter’s needs.
Her mother finally spoke. ‘When I think about all the trouble I’ve gone to for you. I did this because I knew you couldn’t face going back to work. I thought it would be a way to get you back into doing something useful again. It could have made you rich. Young lady, it’s about time you stopped feeling sorry for yourself. This has got out of control. Start to live again before it’s too late.’
‘How can I? And besides, what’s the point? You never listen to me anyway – I’m banging my head against a brick wall. Why the hell do you think I didn’t want to eat all those years ago, why I hated every minute of being in those stupid adverts? Don’t you ever ask yourselves that? No, I don’t suppose you do.’
‘Well, you haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance of being a model now. Or anything else for that matter, the way you’re behaving. I hope you’re satisfied, my girl.’
Donna shrugged her shoulders. ‘See if I care. No wonder I left home to live with Blake. I couldn’t wait to get away from you and your stupid obsessions about my looks. And if I’d known what was coming, I’d have found somewhere else to stay - even being out on the streets is better than this.’
‘All right Donna, that’s enough,’ her father said quietly but with some authority. ‘We’re going home. Let’s have no more of this in public.’
She wanted to get away from them, but he had her by the arm and wouldn’t let go. He was hurting her. She started to struggle.
‘For God’s sake, stop it. You want the whole world to know what’s going on here.’
‘Let me go then.’
‘And what happens if he does let you go, young lady? You’ll make a run for it – and then what will become of you?’
‘You can’t treat me like this. I’m twenty-two years of age – an adult, for Christ’s sake. You’ve no right, no right at all.’
‘You’ll be treated like an adult when you act like one.’
She ignored her mother’s comments, but then had the humiliation of her father dragging her along as he walked back to the car, parked by the side of Alan’s studio.
As Donna’s mother opened the car door, her husband bundled Donna safely in the back. After putting the child locks on the doors they got in the front, intent it seemed, on getting to Dexford as quickly as possible.
During the journey home Donna was silent, staring out of the window, but she didn’t take in the scenery. Her parents seemed calm and impassive.
By the time they arrived home, the weather had turned to rain and was pouring down in torrents along the gutters, making all of them rush to the front door, which Donna’s father hurriedly opened. Donna was in first, running for the safety of her bedroom. Although she wanted to cry, she sniffed away the tears before they came. Lay on her bed, all curled up with her arms over her eyes. She’d never been so unhappy and didn’t know how to free herself of it. That one indescribable act of terror had triggered everything wrong in her life, a life that was now in free fall.
Although she’d been at her wits end, she should have known better than to move back in with her parents. It should have been obvious what they’d do, once they knew she couldn’t return to work. There was only one way out and that was to leave. But where could she go? That was the problem. And how? She had a little money saved up, and was due to half of the flat she and Blake had shared, but unless she could support herself, she was done for.
A light knock at her door, brought her back to reality. Her heart sank; she sighed, wanting to ignore them. They were pathetic really. The door opened without any invitation from her. In came her father, looking weary and slightly round shouldered, almost as if he had the world’s problems on them.
‘Your mother and I would like a word, downstairs if you don’t mind,’ he said simply raising his head slightly.
Donna looked up at him, a look of exasperation forming on her face. She didn’t want or need this. It seemed like her life was moving from one crisis to another, each worse than the last.
‘Oh no, please dad –’
‘Yes Donna. Together, we have to sort out your life. You can’t carry on like this.’
Donna would have jumped out of the bedroom window if she’d had the courage, but she hadn’t. There was nowhere else to go but with her father. She went first, with him following closely behind. Although he was by no means as domineering and controlling as her mum, when it came to it, his allegiance always lay with his wife.
Her mother was sitting on the settee when they came into the living room. She seemed sad, her head was down; Donna thought she’d visibly aged. The fine wrinkles around her eyes and mouth looked more pronounced than before.
‘Why don’t you sit down?’ her mother pointed to the armchair opposite.
Donna did as she asked, despite feeling uncomfortable about it, and with both of them facing her, as if she was on trial for some terrible crime. At this point it became obvious something was simmering below the surface and that soon this would come out.
‘We have to talk. Your father and I are extremely concerned about you. We know what a harrowing experience you had, and we realise we can’t begin to imagine what your ordeal was like. But that was months ago now – isn’t it about time you started to come to terms with it? Your bruises have healed and you look as good as new, and although your mental scars may take a little longer to fade, that will improve in time. What we’re so concerned about now is how you’ve suddenly gone to pieces and let your life fall apart. I mean since you were attacked, you’ve split with Blake, lost your job, and now this latest fiasco at Alan Nicholls’s studio - it’s getting steadily worse. Your dad and I are worried sick over where this will all end.’
Her father took over then. ‘As for Blake, I think you’re best shut of the creep. I always had doubts about him even though I could never pin down exactly what it was. I’m glad you found out about him before you got wed.’
‘Your dad’s right, perhaps all things considered he did you a favour. And to be honest we’re not too upset you left Bluethorn either because you’ve far too good for that place. Obviously you have a gift for Mathematics, which you’ll use to your advantage someday, when you’re a little older.’
‘That’s why it was so disappointing to see you react the way you did at Alan Nicholl’s studio,’ her father said looking in her direction, but Donna couldn’t meet his gaze, and felt herself colouring amid all the patronising going on. ‘Your mother went to a lot of trouble to arrange this shoot with Alan, who, so Priscilla tells us, very rarely photographs anyone not signed up with an agency. We’re doing our best for you, trying to give you an avenue to get your life back on track. But now after that calamity earlier, this opportunity has gone right out of the window. It’s all very sad.’
Once again her mother took over. ‘So where do you go from here? Do you have any idea yourself? Or are you planning to sit around the house all day, wasting away to nothing? It’s about time you got off your bum and did something positive.’
Donna looked over their heads at a picture on the wall, a landscape painting, the only picture in the room not to contain her. She could feel them staring, and wanted to close her eyes to shut them out - but that wasn’t possible. She tried to ignore them. Why shouldn’t she? They only heard what they wanted to hear anyway.
‘Donna! We’re talking to you. Have you nothing to say for yourself?’ Her father asked. ‘Come on love, you of all people with your impressive university education ought to be able to tell us something.’
She wouldn’t be bullied by them. This was how they normally acted in this type of situation, when she’d been unwilling to do as they wanted. It had been the same at University – they’d pressurised her into carrying on modelling during the holidays.
‘Well, if you can’t come to a decision yourself, we’ll do it for you,’ her mother said. ‘We’ve made a few enquiries over the past few weeks. I know you’ve been prescribed anti-depressants by your own GP, as well as seeing a psychiatrist since the attack. So there’s only one alternative and that’s to arrange for you to see someone privately. We made enquiries some weeks ago, and found a psychoanalyst we thought might help, but we’ve been waiting a while to see how you progressed. Apparently he’s one of the best in his field. We suggest you see him twice a week, so that you can be put on an extensive therapy programme that ought to get to the root of your problems, and hopefully on the road to recovery.’
Donna’s face dropped. She wouldn’t see anyone else, no matter what it cost.
‘Perhaps we could arrange your first session sometime next week, here at the house,’ her father bullishly said.
Donna jumped up from where she was sitting and made straight for the living room door.
‘Come back here this instant!’ her mother yelled after her.
But she ignored their pleas. Neither of her parents followed her. They let her go, probably hoping she’d calm down eventually. Thank God, they didn’t follow, she thought. Yet again she slammed her bedroom door shut, flopped down on the bed, and sank her fist down into her pillow in frustration and anger, then buried her face in the same pillow and cried with despair. All this constant pressure was too much. Wouldn’t it be better if she wasn’t around anymore? Maybe her parents would be happy then.
The pain of taking her own life might be bad at first. But afterwards there would be a great release into a better world than this.