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The car crawled from one set of traffic lights to the next along the busy main road.
Dark clouds tumbled down the hills to cast a bleak shadow over the town. Ella
thought her mum was quiet and looked a bit tense. She had listened to Ella’s
school gossip without comment. She was unconcerned about Mr Merrilee dropping
his coffee cup in the classroom, or that Jenny Rees had come to school with green
tinged hair and had been immediately sent home. It wasn’t until the car turned into
her grandfather’s street that Ella realised that something unusual was going on. Her
dad’s car was parked on the drive next to grandfather’s.
“Why have we come to Grandad’s?” she asked, then added, “Why is Dad here?”
A sense of foreboding descended on Ella as her mother parked the car half on, half off the pavement across the entrance to the drive and turned off the engine.
Her mother sighed.
“Wait until we get in, Ella,” she said in a strained voice as she collected bits and pieces that had tumbled out of her handbag. She checked her face and hair in the rear view mirror and sighed again.
Katrina was forty-two years old with deep blue eyes that were a shade darker than her father’s. The crow’s feet around her eyes were testament to a lifestyle steeped in laughter. Her skin, fair and remarkably toned for her age, contrasted with a natural blue-grey hair that was closely cropped and spiked. A slash of scarlet red lipstick, the shade that caused most men to turn and look again and some women to wonder how she managed to get away with it, brightened her face, giving the impression that she knew what she wanted and usually got it. However, it was a facade. She knew what she wanted alright, but she suffered from indecision. She sighed again, then spent a second collecting her thoughts before getting out.
Ella threw open the car door and without waiting for her mother walked to the ornate, wooden entrance to the large detached house that stood at the head of a small, mature cul-de-sac. Her grandfather opened the door.
Harry Crimson wore brown checked slippers, brown chinos and a beige checked shirt that hung outside his trousers. His grey hair and blue rimmed spectacles surrounded deep blue eyes and a round face that bore a full days growth of beard. His weak smile reflected the sombre mood of his granddaughter. He hugged her in a warm but limp embrace before uttering his usual greeting.
“Hello, Tuppence,” he said. It was a nickname he had given her as a very small child.
Ella loved her grandad. He was caring and playful, kind and generous, and she was the apple of his eye. She put her arms around him and hugged him back. There was a fear within her that threatened towards hysteria. Something was wrong, very wrong, and she couldn’t figure out what it could be. For one thing, her grandad appeared to be awkward with her. That wasn’t like him at all. He was usually funny, gently chiding her about a possible boyfriend or something.
Panic rose within her. Something was definitely wrong, but what? What was the most awful thing that could have happened? A thought struck her. Perhaps someone had died. Dread overwhelmed her. Mentally, she collated a list of those relatives and friends of the family who were in ill health. In an instant she began ticking people off the list. Then another thought invaded her thinking. Had the death been sudden? If that was the case, then it could be anyone. In those few short moments a catalogue of people burst through her mind. Pictures flooded her consciousness. Obviously it wasn’t her mum or dad, or her grandad. So no-one really close then, she thought. Ella’s grandma had died several years ago, when Ella was a lot younger, and she was an only child so she wasn’t very close to her cousins. The dead person had to be one of her dad’s brothers or sisters, or one of their children, her cousins. Maybe it was her gran, her dad’s mum. She was a nasty piece of work, or so her mother had said on more than one occasion. Grandpa had died two years earlier but Ella had never had a loving relationship with him. They’d lived too far away for them to be regular visitors, in any case Grandpa had been unwelcome in her house because he was a pipe smoker who refused to compromise his habits on the grounds that he was old and he could do what he liked.
Having weighed through the possibilities and made several assumptions based on age and ill health, she came to the conclusion that it must be her gran that had died and they were trying to break the news to her gently. Inwardly, she was relieved that she’d sorted it out. She’d show a bit of shock, a bit of remorse, cry a little, hug her dad a lot, then they could all go for a pizza on the way back home.
She walked into the hall and stood next to the full length mirror near the hat stand, an ornate relic that had stood there for years. She kicked off her shoes – a rule that Grandad had brought in several years ago when he’d bought a brand new, beige, wool carpet. Most people ignored it now but she still honoured the ruling simply because her grandad did. She briefly caught sight of her own reflection.
She was small and slim with deep brown hair that shimmered in the light. Her blue uniform didn’t do her justice. Ella had the shape of a vibrant young woman, but the uniform was androgynous. She wore no make-up – not because it was a school rule but because she didn’t need it. Her eyes were large and the same deep blue as her grandad’s. Her nose was aquiline, like her father’s, and she had the flawless skin and even temperament of her mother.
She walked down the hall in stockinged feet. Just before she entered the lounge another thought struck her. What if she was wrong and it wasn’t her gran that had died? And then another question formed. Why were they breaking the news to her at Grandad’s? She didn’t have time to reconsider the options. She clutched her school bag tightly in both hands and entered the lounge. She was breathing so deeply that she was on the verge of hyperventilating.
The room was warm. A real fire roared in the fireplace, the flames reflected in the face of a clock on the opposite wall. The corners of the room looked dark and foreboding. Shadows accentuated the grim expression set on Ella’s father’s face. He smiled a mirthless smile at his daughter and gestured her to sit down.
Oliver, Ella’s dad, had never been demonstrative in his love for Ella, although he loved her deeply. The fault lay in his upbringing according to his wife. His mother had been a believer in the adages ‘children should be seen and not heard’ and ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’, but not only that, she considered that children should be obedient and respectful and should never speak until spoken to.
“What’s going on?” Ella enquired tentatively.
The eyes of the adults in the room shot glances at each other, each deciding who should speak first. The silence lasted for a few seconds while Ella searched for clues on their faces.
It was Harry who spoke first, addressing his daughter. “Katrina, are you going to explain to Ella why we’re all here?” His voice was soft and soothing, to take away any sting that might be forthcoming. He was trying to set the tone.
Ella fixed her eyes on her mother.
“I … we …” she mumbled, searching for the right words.
She sat down heavily in an armchair, defeated by the moment.
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake!” shouted Oliver suddenly, his anger rushing to the surface, instantly breaking the false ambiance generated by Harry. He turned to Ella and said, “Your mother …”
Oliver!” interjected Harry. “Let me remind you what we agreed. These are sensitive issues. Think of Ella.” His stony stare and clipped tone were sufficient to admonish him. Harry wasn’t going to let this get out of hand. Whatever happened today, he wasn’t going to allow Ella to suffer any more than she had to.
Oliver turned away and shook his head.
Ella started to cry. “What’s happened?” she pleaded. Anxiety stole across her face, fear taking up residence in her eyes. “I’m getting frightened. Mum? Dad?”
Harry reached out and firmly embraced her. He knelt down and put his hand under her chin. He looked at Katrina and Oliver and shook his head in exasperation. They were both capable of doing lots of wonderfully complicated things yet they couldn’t tell their daughter a simple truth. With sad, tired eyes he looked at his granddaughter and said softly. “Your mum and dad are having some difficulties.”
He coughed to rid himself of a lump that had gathered in his throat. “They’ve decided that these difficulties need a bit of time to sort out, and that it would probably be better if they spent some time apart.”
Katrina began to sob. Oliver exhaled loudly, folded his arms, stared into the fire and muttered, “Huh”.
Ella’s body lost energy. She sank against her grandfather, clinging on as though he was about to disappear. Surprisingly, she felt relief that nobody had died, but after a few brief seconds the momentary relief turned to anxiety again, then fear. What was Grandad talking about? Difficulties? What difficulties? Spending time apart? Where will I go? What’s going to happen to me?
“C’mon, Tuppence,” Harry said, “let’s get some milk and a chocolate digestive.” He released his hold and guided Ella towards the kitchen, leaving the uncommunicative adults wrestling with their social inadequacies.
Ella followed helplessly.
Ordinarily she wouldn’t have been allowed to have such things as a chocolate digestive between meals. Actually, she didn’t want a biscuit, or milk for that matter, but she sensed that her grandad was somehow being diplomatic and allowed herself to be shepherded into the kitchen.
Harry closed the door behind him and asked her if she wanted warm or cold milk, then answered his own question. “Warm I reckon.”
Ella looked out of the window. In the distance she could see people walking through the park as if nothing had happened. Their lives hadn’t changed like hers. They were probably loved and had nice homes to go to. They would be saving for a family holiday or a weekend away. Just like normal families. She didn’t belong to a normal family anymore. Something had happened to change that. ‘Difficulties’ had occurred, whatever that meant.
The microwave pinged and Harry removed the glass of milk and placed it on the table next to a plate with four chocolate biscuits on it. Ella smiled a tiny smile. Her grandad never let anyone eat a chocolate biscuit by themselves.
Ella dipped her biscuit in the warm milk and glanced at her grandad. She wasn’t allowed to dunk.
Harry half-smiled back. There was mistiness in his eyes. His hand covered hers as he whispered, “Things will work themselves out, Tuppence. They have a habit of doing that.”
Suddenly the front door slammed. Ella jumped at the sound.
“You stay here,” Harry said. “I’ll see what’s going on.”
He left Ella sitting at the table. She didn’t want him to leave. She felt all alone, abandoned even. She heard the muffled voices of her mother and her grandad and then a brief period of silence before the kitchen door opened and they both entered the room. Her mother was red-eyed. She sat awkwardly next to Ella and put her elbows on the table and cradled her head in her hands. Her engagement ring sparkled on her finger. Her wedding band was worn and dull beside it. She wiped her eyes.
“There’s a lot of explaining to do,” Katrina said, “and to be honest I don’t know how to do it.” Her voice was strained and full of subdued emotion. “I’ve never been in a situation like this before.” She shrugged helplessly. “I’m not happy and I haven’t been happy for some time.”
She paused to wipe away another tear and glanced at her father. She saw in his expression that she wasn’t making sense. She turned to Ella, who looked completely perplexed. She gulped in a lungful of air and gathered herself.
“I can’t go into details at the moment,” she said more forcefully. “It may have been wrong not to tell you what was going on, but please believe me, I was only trying to protect you.”
Ella’s brow furrowed.
Katrina looked away to seek some sort of inspiration, and found it lurking in the back of her mind.
“Ella, you know how Dad and I have been arguing a lot lately …”
Ella nodded. It was true. Little things had started annoying them. Her dad had spent long periods in the study, on the computer, then even more time at work. Weekends had been family occasions in the past, but now they seemed to be secondary considerations. She couldn’t remember the last time they’d been out for a drive in the country or had a day by the seaside. When was the last time they’d been to London, or any other city, for a sight-seeing trip? It had been a long time ago.
She knew he was a high powered executive, but why couldn’t he do all that stuff at work and not bring it home? He went to work early enough and stayed later than most. Her mum had mentioned a few times that they’d had to decline invitations to parties and social events because her dad couldn’t, or wouldn’t, go and she felt embarrassed going to formal occasions without him simply because she’d have to explain that he was at work. By definition that meant he considered his work to be more important than the wedding, birthday or party.
The flip side of that was that her father’s absence had allowed her to spend time with her mum, and she had loved that.
“Is this about him being at work or in the study all the time?” she asked.
“Well, partly,” Katrina stammered, “but there are other things as well.”
“Like what?” Ella asked, getting straight to the point.
Katrina didn’t want to get involved in a discussion at this stage; there were some things she had yet to accept about her own culpability in the matter.
“Ella, this isn’t the time to go into details. Suffice to say that both your dad and I have had a few long discussions about how we feel about each other, and neither of us is satisfied with our lives together. The only thing we can agree about at the moment is you. We both love you very dearly and of course we want the best for you.”
Ella didn’t think she was very convincing; it was just the right thing to say. “Obviously not,” she said, “or else you would still be together. What am I going to tell my friends? What about school?”
Harry shuffled uncomfortably. This wasn’t going well. He was having difficulty following Katrina’s thoughts. It appeared that Katrina was explaining things without actually saying anything.
Katrina said, “Ella, these are difficult times for all of us. We both know that you’re terribly upset and we’re trying to minimise the impact of this situation on you. We love you very much. It’s just that we’re not too sure about loving each other at the moment.”
Ella glanced at her grandad. He shrugged his shoulders and made himself busy tidying up what didn’t need to be tidied. He looked older now than he’d appeared at any time during her life. He dragged his feet around the kitchen, each step heavier than the previous one.
As he restacked plates and rearranged the coffee mugs, Harry felt every one of his sixty-five years. What’s more, he felt redundant, powerless, inept. He’d never been very good in these situations. He usually let people get on with their own affairs. But this was his family. It was his daughter, her husband and his beloved Ella. She shouldn’t have to go through this. He felt as if he wasn’t doing his job as a father and grandfather properly and resented the fact that he didn’t know what was going on. If he knew, then he could do a better job of protecting Ella from this rubbish.
Katrina saw the same man that her daughter saw – but in a different way. She saw the loving parent who had instilled in her the values that she was trying to teach her daughter, although he had done a far better job than she. He was a man that hated confrontation of any sort, but he possessed a steely determination that had surprised many people. When the chips were down, it was people like her father that made the difference. But at that particular moment he was a shattered replica of the man who had raised her. She felt a pang of guilt.
She idly shredded her damp tissue until it became a mess in the palm of her left hand. She scrunched it up and wandered over to the kitchen bin and deposited it through the swing top before selecting a piece of kitchen roll as a replacement. She resumed her seat next to Ella.
“Darling,” she said softly as she touched Ella’s hair, “sometimes we do things because we have to, sometimes because we want to, and other times because we need to. I don’t have to leave your father because I have to, or want to; I need to do this for me – just for me.”
She looked deeply into Ella’s eyes, silently imploring her to understand.
“All of your life I’ve put your needs first. After that, I did what your father wanted to do. By the time it came round to me, there wasn’t a lot left.”
Her eyes stole a glance at her father, who was leaning against the sink staring blankly out of the window.
“It’s only recently that I’ve started to think about what I wanted out of life. I’m forty-two years old and I’ve got this feeling that the world is passing me by. I know it’s a cliché but I asked myself what will life be like five years from now, and I’m sorry to say I didn’t like the answer.”
She paused to let the information sink in before continuing.
“You’ll be at university. Your father will be at work all the time. What will I do? I gave up a career to bring you up, to look after the house and be the boss’s wife. I don’t want that anymore. I want to be me for a change. I want to be known as Katrina, not Ella’s mum or Oliver’s wife, or, for that matter, Harry Crimson’s daughter, no matter how good those names are. Your dad doesn’t see how that changes things. You might say the same. But it means a lot to me.”
Ella looked at her frightened, lonely mother. The depth of her emotion was obvious but Ella still didn’t appreciate the reasons for it. Mum was Mum. Of course she was Katrina, what difference did that make? Dad made lots of money and Mum could do what she liked. Her mother was a lovely mum. Her friends had said on many occasions that they wished their mums were like hers. For her mother to be in such a state as this meant that something was dreadfully wrong. Whatever it was, she knew that her mother wouldn’t have caused this situation without justification.
She reached across to her mother and hugged her like the frightened girl she was and the frightened little girl she used to be. They sobbed in each other’s arms.
The damp-eyed old man in the room silently laid a loving hand on each of their shoulders.