THE WHOLE DAY HAD BEEN FULL OF TENSION AND SADNESS. THERE WAS A SENSE OF RELIEF WHEN THE FUNERAL WAS OVER AND THE LAST OF THE GUESTS HAD GONE.
‘I thought it went off really well,’ Cole said, trying to break the subdued atmosphere.
‘Yes, I reckon we did Theresa proud – when they played her music at the end, it broke me up,’ Evan said.
‘Me too. I just wish she was here with us now,’ their mother said dabbing her eyes with a tissue.
‘That goes without saying, mum,’ Cole agreed. ‘But that’s life for you, isn’t it? Always liable to kick you in the teeth when you least expect. None of us will forget her, and she’ll be forever in our thoughts. What I’ll remember most is her happy smiling face, despite the cancer. She must have been in agony at times, both from the pain and the knowledge that her beautiful face had been disfigured, but you never heard her moan. I reckon she’s the bravest person I ever met. And I should know – I’ve seen a few acts of bravery in my time, especially since I’ve been in Afghanistan. But I’ve never seen anything to compare with her.’
Evan’s face was a mask of pain. ‘She was incredible,’ he said sniffing back the tears. ‘To get up in front of all those people and perform as she did was nothing short of incredible. But why did she have to die like that the first time she went on stage? It’s too much to take.’
‘Come on now Evan, don’t let it get to you like this.’ Cole squeezed his shoulder.
‘That’s all right for you to say, you weren’t here nor were you living with her.’
‘Ok mate, point taken. But she was my sister as well – it’s not my fault I wasn’t here,’ he said protesting his innocence.
‘How could this happen? What had she ever done to anyone? Throughout her whole life, she never hurt a soul.’
‘Evan, there’s no use being bitter,’ his mother said. ‘That won’t bring her back to us – will it? We couldn’t have done any more for her, you know that as well as I do. Why did any of the bad things have to happen? Who can say? Don’t you think I’ve asked myself that a thousand times? It won’t change anything. We have to live with it, and console ourselves with the many happy memories we have of her and your dad as well. That’s how I’m dealing with this – even though it is so very hard.’
‘You don’t mind if I go to bed, do you mum?’ Evan said getting up.
‘Evan - ’ Cole tried to restrain him.
‘Let him go Cole. He has to cope with his grief in his own way the same as everyone else,’ their mum said.
Donna felt bewildered by this. She’d never seen Evan in such a state before, not even on the day Theresa died on stage.
Although this was a sad occasion, she was struck by the warmth and affection and love this family had for one another. She envied them in lots of ways. They were nothing like her own folks.
‘Today has been a long hard day, one of the worst of my life. I never dreamed I’d have to bury my own daughter. It doesn’t seem fair, but then life can be very cruel.’
Cole hugged her tightly, looking so sorry for her.
‘Anyway, I might as well get off to bed myself.’ And as she walked towards the living room door she turned towards Donna and said, ‘I do so wish this hadn’t happened while you’re here. This must be so upsetting for you, just when you were starting to get better.’
‘Yes, it has been upsetting, but don’t worry – I know it’ll take some doing but we all can get over this.’
‘You’re a good girl, Donna - no wonder Theresa thought the world of you. She always was a great judge of character.’
‘Thank you.’ She leaned over to kiss Mrs Lacey on the cheek.
She was uncomfortable about being left alone with Cole, as always these days, when in unfamiliar male company. And when he said, ‘When I first saw you with Evan, I thought you two were an item, but now I’m not so sure.’ She sensed he was probing.
‘We’re not a couple, but we are friends and we have been out together a few times. And that’s as far as it goes.’
‘He’s crazy about you; you realise that, don’t you?’
‘I don’t flatter myself.’
‘Mind you, it’s not difficult to understand why,’ He smiled eyeing her up and down for several seconds, which made her flesh crawl.
‘I’m no better than a hundred girls you might see walking down the street.’
Cole chuckled. ‘I think you know you’re a little better than that, darling. The thing is, I’d hate Evan to be hurt, especially after what’s happened with Theresa.’
‘Why should I want to hurt him? That’s the last thing I’d do. He knows how things stand with me. In fact, that’s made our friendship stronger, knowing there won’t be any complications.’ She raised her eyebrows to bring home the point she was trying to make.
‘He’s had a few rough deals in his life as well. Nothing like Theresa had to go through, but bad enough. You might already know he was a very talented footballer. On the verge of breaking through to the first team of a professional club until he got a horrific injury. A terrible mistimed tackle ultimately ended his career.’
‘He’s already told me all about it.’
‘I was flabbergasted when I found out he was training to be a male nurse. That wasn’t a job I ever expected him to do. What a turnaround eh, although you have to admire the guy for being so plucky.’
‘What’s it like in the army?’ she asked, determined to change the subject.
‘Well…mostly it’s very dull and the work is routine. But on the odd occasion when we get involved in the action, it can be the most frightening experience of your life. I have to admit I’ve nearly shit myself a couple of times when I’ve been in tricky situations.’
Donna smiled at this. ‘Ever killed one of the enemy?’
‘Phew, what a question to ask a guy,’ he smiled with glazed eyes. ‘No, I haven’t but I have shot at and injured a few of them. It’s weird, at first I felt sick in the stomach, but the power of a gun in your hand can be almost euphoric. But also, it shocks you, and allows you to see people at their worst and their most vulnerable. I’ve seen some awful sights of blown up bits of people’s bodies, which left me with nightmares for weeks afterwards.’
‘I imagine being trapped in a certain situation enables you to kill another human being more easily. Is that so?’
‘Sure, if it’s a question of kill or be killed, darling. And when someone shoots at you, a rush of adrenalin goes through your whole body. But it’s what you’ve been trained for, and you react accordingly and somehow you get through it - me included.’
‘Will it be difficult to go back?’
‘In some ways. Afghanistan is an awful place to be in, and you have to watch your back constantly, there’s violence wherever you go, although that comes with the job. But there’s a great camaraderie among the lads – we all look out for each other. Anyway, I shouldn’t complain because I knew what I was letting myself in for when I joined up. Mind you, we weren’t at war at the time.’
‘If something were to happen to you as well it would destroy Evan and your mother. Have you never thought of that?’
He laughed at this remark, but seemed a little agitated. ‘Of course I have, but I could get killed crossing the road or in a car accident or any other number of ways.’
‘Yes, but the odds are stacked much more against you where you’re stationed.’
He seemed to get irritated again; she saw a tiny twitch of anger in his blue eyes. ‘If you’re number’s up, it’s up – there’s nothing you can do about it. Don’t worry I plan to be around a lot longer yet. And I won’t be over there forever either.’
‘Let’s hope not.’
‘Hey, don’t tell me a beautiful girl like you is concerned over little old me,’ he grinned.
‘I’m concerned about everyone who has to go over there – war is a terrible waste of lives – don’t you think?’
‘I guess so, but sometimes it’s the only way to solve problems when all else fails.’
‘True, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. So when do you have to go back?’
‘Well, they gave me five days leave, so it’s tomorrow.’
‘Yep – no peace for the wicked, is there?’
‘I wish you all the luck in the world Cole, hope you come through it unscathed.’
‘Thanks. It’s a shame you’re like you are over Evan. Now that is a waste. Seems to me, he’s getting close to winning you, so what’s holding you back?’
‘That’s my business, I’m not about to tell you about it, no matter how much you pry,’ she snapped.
Holding up his hands in protest he said, ‘Don’t worry, honestly I realise it’s none of my business. But you ought to get help before it ruins your life.’
‘Thanks for the lecture Doctor Cole, but I can deal with it myself. I don’t need anyone else’s help, thank you very much.’
‘All right, don’t get on your high horse, I get your drift. Anyway, darling, it’s late and I have an early start in the morning. Hope you’re still here when I next come home on leave.’
‘I might be,’ and with that she got up to go to bed.
‘Good night.’ He walked towards the door to switch off the light, then glancing at her added, ‘Something keeps bugging me Donna. I get the feeling we’ve met before, but for the life of me I can’t think where.’
‘You’re wrong about that, I’d remember an ugly mug like yours. Good night.’
He laughed at that and she smiled back a little sarcastically.
Later that night in a fitful sleep she thought about Cole and found it hard to decide if she liked him or not. Although he was outspoken, streetwise and down to earth there was an underlying strangeness about him, but she couldn’t put a finger on what that was. And found it odd he’d insisted he’d seen her before, unless it had to do with when she was a model and a beauty queen. Which she’d never admit to in his company.
Evan on the other hand was kind and considerate, more honest, always willing to help anyone, especially those in his care. They couldn’t be more different.
She woke up the next morning thinking of Evan’s smiling face and wondered if he would ever try to kiss her and if so what it would be like.
In the kitchen she found Mrs Lacey sitting opposite Evan looking sad.
‘Has Cole gone now?’ Donna asked taking a seat by Evan.
‘Yeah, at six o’clock bright and early,’ he replied.
‘It’s at times like this, having just lost one of my own children that I wish he wasn’t in the army. Especially now with him being posted over there. I worry over him so much because I know he’s constantly at risk of getting himself killed or badly injured.’
‘Yes, but mum, it’s what he’s been trained to do. And it made a man out of him. He’s unrecognisable now compared to what he used to be. He’ll be careful – and remember how good he’s always been at looking after himself, even before he was in the army. Don’t worry.’
‘Hope he watches out for himself, because if something happened to him as well… it doesn’t bear thinking about.’ As soon as Donna had said this, she realised she’d put her foot in it. ‘Sorry, Mrs Lacey I didn’t mean to upset you again.’
‘It doesn’t matter, I know you meant well.’
But her eyes were full of tears. Evan went over to her and put his arms around her to try to make her feel better.
‘Mum, want me to have the day off, I’m sure the hospital will understand.’
‘No, no, I have to cope with this some time, now is as good a time as any. Although it’s going to be horrible here without Theresa, and now you two are going to work as well - it’ll be the first time in years I’ve been on my own.’
‘But I’ll be back after lunch,’ Donna said. ‘So you’ll only be alone for a few hours.’
‘I suppose you’re right.’
Sadly, Donna knew she’d never replace Theresa. No one could.
Later that evening while they ate their tea, homemade steak and kidney pudding, Evan asked, ‘So how did it go?’
‘Not too bad. But I never dreamed there’d be so many kids eating dinners, and some of them are so cheeky, you wouldn’t believe it. To be honest I’m exhausted.’
Evan started to snigger, hoping to hide it by putting his hand in front of his mouth and coughing. Mrs Lacey smiled as well. ‘I could have told you that Donna. You should have seen my three, and that one over there was the worst.’ She pointed to her son.
‘Come on mum, you always said Cole was a lot more demanding than me.’
‘He was mostly. Always had too much to say for himself, did Cole? Spoke his mind too and sometimes that got him into trouble. The number of fights he used to get into, why it must have been nearly every week at one time. In a way, it was the best thing he ever did, joining the army. Although now I fear the worst because he’s constantly in danger. Hopefully any aggression he has, he’ll channel against the enemy, but then again there’s a chance he might get himself killed at any time.’
‘See I told you I was as good as gold.’
‘Sure you were. Quiet at least. But you were always so lively, getting into things. You used to wear me out.’
‘And how about you Donna? What kind of child were you?’ Evan asked.
‘Very timid. I used to do what I was told without question.’
‘Were your parents very strict then?’
‘You could say that. They used to make me do all everything I hated doing.’
‘Oh yes, like what?’
‘I don’t want to talk about it Evan, so change the subject, will you?’ Her face reddened in anger, hating him prying into her past like that.
‘Ok, sorry babe – I can see it’s a sore point with you. If you don’t want to talk about it, then the subject’s closed as far as I’m concerned.’
After clearing up after tea she went upstairs to her bedroom, shutting the door behind her. She lay on the bed, and mulling over her childhood memories, began to feel distressed again. How she envied Evan and his siblings having had a normal childhood. There was nothing normal about her own childhood, being constantly on show, and made to look her best, in front of endless rows of people and cameras. Even now, it turned her stomach – and oh how she resented her parents. All through her life they’d continued going on and on at her – even after the nightmare of her attack. But now she was part of another household, and because of her part time job, had a measure of independence. She was determined never to go back to that life with her parents again.
A little time later there was a knock at her bedroom door. When she opened it, surprisingly Evan stood there with a guilty look on his face. She asked him to come in, and he sat at the end of the bed as far away from her as he could.
‘You all right now?’ he asked her simply.
‘I’ll live.’ She wasn’t able to look at him.
‘I’m really sorry if I upset you –’
‘It doesn’t matter. My childhood wasn’t the happiest part of my life. I’d like to forget about it, but I can’t.’
‘Don’t worry, I understand. I imagine you’ve had lots of problems in your life, I could see that by the state you were in, in hospital. I’d like to help if you’ll let me, but I’m not one to pry, no matter what you think. So I won’t push it, but any time you want to talk, I’m ready to listen.’ He gave her a warm smile, obviously hoping this would make Donna more comfortable about talking to him.
‘I know you are, and I’m really grateful, but I can’t talk about it to anyone. Let’s drop it, shall we? Before I start to cry.’ She took out a tissue and dabbed her eyes and cheeks.
‘All right. We just wondered if you still want to stay here now Theresa’s gone?’
‘Well, your mum said I was welcome to stay as long as I liked, unless you’ve both decided otherwise since then.’
‘No, no, it’s nothing like that. Mum and me would be devastated if you left. I just got the impression Theresa was the main reason you came here in the first place.’
Donna was stunned by this. Whilst she was one of the reasons, in reality the whole family had made up her mind for her. They were like the family she’d always wished for. Now she worried over where that statement had come from and where it was leading.
‘You should know very well it wasn’t just Theresa. It was all of you, but if I’m not wanted…’
‘I’ve already told you that’s not the case. Just the opposite is true. Have you any idea how we’d feel if you left? You’re part of the family now. Perhaps to me more than that.’ This made her stomach flutter and whisper, ‘Oh God, no’ under her breath. She had to head him off quickly.
‘Well, I’m nothing special. I’m just a pathetic person with more hang-ups than most. I don’t want you wasting your time thinking about me.’
‘Donna – for God’s sake. You’re a lot like Theresa, you know that - there’s an aura about you too. It’s not about your appearance, it’s who you really are underneath all of that, the real you I love so much.’
Donna turned to stare at him, seeing that innocent but serious look on his face.
‘You’ve got to be joking, Evan. After all the trouble I’ve got myself into, and how twice I’ve tried to commit suicide. You’re deluding yourself. I’m a failure, pure and simple.’
He shook his head, not agreeing with her. ‘What I’d like more than anything is for us to be a proper couple. All right, we’ve been out as friends, and I know we get on really well – so why don’t we take it one step further? I mean ever since I’ve known you, I’ve never so much as held your hand, or kissed you or anything.’
Although she’d known all along what he really wanted, it still came as a big surprise to hear him come right out and tell her. It sent shock waves of fear surging through her body, frightening her. She remembered vividly every minute detail of what had happened to her during her rape ordeal and with Blake afterwards. The repercussions remained, ruining her life.
‘Our friendship wouldn’t last long if we were a couple. I can’t give you what you need me to give.’
‘Let me be the judge of that,’ he said forcibly, a serious look of determination forming on his face.
She was perplexed, shaking her head from side to side. Couldn’t believe this was happening yet again. If only she could run away from him. But where would she go? ‘Evan, you’ll get hurt – and it’ll be all my fault. You’re a real nice guy; you deserve to be happy with someone who’ll return your love.’
‘Look at me,’ he began. ‘I don’t want to be with anyone else but you. I’d rather take whatever you’re able to give, than have a relationship with anyone else. You understand what I’m saying.’
Donna reluctantly glanced into his eyes, then sniffed, trying to avoid tears. She so much wanted to return his affection, but couldn’t.
‘Come on, babe. I don’t know what happened, but it’s about time you put whatever it is behind you - or you’ll face a life of misery and regret. Is that what you want?’
She shook her head; bit her bottom lip as she took stock of the situation.
‘Well then, why don’t we give it a try? See what happens. That’s all I’m asking,’ It almost sounded as if he was begging.
She grasped her hands tightly, as the torment of it all went through her. She agonized over this, but if she didn’t take this opportunity now, her future would be bleak. It would be a risk, but wasn’t life all about risk? But was it worth that risk? Potential happiness or an eternity of misery. She had to choose.
‘All right,’ she said quietly and simply. His blue eyes widened with delight, and his face became a picture of joy.
And for a moment although his mouth opened, he seemed lost for words. Then finally he whispered in disbelief, ‘You really mean that?’
‘Yes Evan, but don’t get the wrong idea. This will be difficult for me, so don’t expect too much and you won’t be disappointed.’
‘I know what I’m getting myself into. I just want to be with you, talk to you – anything else will be a bonus.’
‘As long as you’re under no illusions.’
‘All right if I tell a few people we’re going out together?’ he wanted to know.
She sighed - had guessed this was coming. ‘Evan, I don’t care who you tell, but don’t forget I may not be the girl friend you deserve.’
‘I know and I respect that. I’ll just tell mum, but say it’s nothing serious at the moment – all right.’
Evan’s mother was thrilled and raised up her arms with joy when she heard the news. ‘That’s absolutely wonderful, you make a lovely couple.’
‘Thanks mum. I think so too.’
Donna just smiled. Already she feared Mrs Lacey would anticipate wedding bells coming soon, but that was the last thing on Donna’s mind. She hoped too that Evan wouldn’t get too carried away.