I sit pressed against the cold, inflexible back of the grey plastic chair, as far away as possible from him. Grey, it was a dull colour, it blended in so much that it stuck out; shady and cautious of others, it was the sort of colour that would sit and think for ages, but not actually get anywhere. It suited my mood perfectly. Fidgeting anxiously, my fingers fumbled over one another in a strange rhythmic dance as I tried not to look into his eyes. They were blue, that much I knew, a deep, navy blue, the colour of an inky, stormy sea at night as it unleashes its anger at the crumbling sea walls - the innocent victim. No, not innocent, they’re sea walls; they know what they are letting themselves in for. I shake my head. It’s the nerves, I tell myself, but deep down I know it’s not. All the prison guards in the room don’t do anything to lessen my anxiety.
I didn’t have to come. I could have stayed at home, in fact right now I could be curled up on the sofa, on the laptop perhaps, as I try to fulfil my ambition of writing before I have to go pick up Alfie from school. Alfie. My nephew-come-son, we adopted him when David died. He’s been my rock, my comfort, the one thing that kept me going in this hell of a life I have led. He’s nine, but he was the one who called the police as soon as he found out.
I feel so hot, even though I know the room is freezing cold as all the other visitors have put their coats back on. They gave me mine back earlier too, but my hands were shaking too much and it dropped to the floor when I tried to put it over the chair. Although, glancing up, I see that his forehead is damp from perspiration… no. I fixate my hands back firmly on my shaking hands, which are gripping my knees so tightly it hurts. But I don’t loosen my grip. I promised myself I wouldn’t look at him; after all it’s all I can do not to constantly be thinking about him.
Him. My husband; he’s now awaiting trial for domestic abuse. I was the victim. But in a strange, twisted way, so was he.
We met under the huge Christmas tree in the centre of town. The glowing sign beneath its lofty branches revealed its corny name. The Lover’s Tree… don’t be alone this Christmas, find your lover at The Lover’s Tree. Most scoffed at it, it was a laughing stock amongst the townsfolk. Ringed with ancient flickering lights and thin strands of tinsel, most passed it by without a second glance. But I found beauty in the scratched baubles, a beauty saved from back when I would visit it as a child with my mum. It was the only beauty from my childhood.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” The deep voice made me gasp. While I was lost in my thoughts, a tall, athletic man had wandered up behind me. He smiled at me, flashing his perfectly straight, brilliant white teeth at me.
“Yeah, yeah it is. I come here every year.” I mumbled back a response, wary of the admittedly handsome guy stood so close to me I could feel his cold breath tickle my ear.
“I wasn’t talking about the tree.” He leaned closer. No, my head screamed at me, this has to be a prank. I left school five years ago, but still I didn’t trust him. He was hot. And he was talking to me. I turned and ran. Slipping on the ice, my arms flailed as my legs turned to jelly and gave way. I shut my eyes waiting for the thud as I hit the ground, then the snickers as people strode past me. Instead I felt a hand on my arm that yanked me up.
“Neat tumble.” The handsome guy grinned at me as he pulled me to my feet. I ignored him and began to pick my way precariously over the snow.
“Aw, c’mon,” his long strides easily kept up with me. “I just wanted to give you this back.” He pushed something in to my hand, winked, then turned and disappeared in to the swelling crowd. Glancing at the object in my hand, I frowned. It was a grey real leather purse, adorned with little silver studs and a huge stiff bow on the front. I was living on a shop assistant salary. No way could I afford this, no way was this mine. I opened it up, checking no one was watching me first. I still remembered when I was in the lunch queue at school, the first time in ages because one way or another I’d end up with no money. But that day I had made it, the neat £5 note clutched in my hand, my stomach growling at the sight of freshly cooked food. That was when her shrill voice screamed out across the cafeteria. She claimed I’d stolen her money. The teachers didn’t believe her at first, but when the whole school claimed I had, well, then I was a liar and a thief.
I almost laughed at my own stupidity. Tucked neatly inside was a wedge of crisp, uncurled £50 pound notes and, below that, slipped into a card slot, was a neat business card that read:
Get the life, get the gadget.
Telephone: 01654 238465
Flipping it over, I saw a note in elegant handwriting: 07685342944, call me, Dan x
Dan Chambers, the owner of the huge new electronics company that was steadily become more and more popular; apparently young entrepreneur Dan was now worth millions. And he had just tried to kiss me.
We were back under the huge Christmas tree again. But by this time, I was a different person. Wearing cute designer clothes and make up for the first time in years, I carried a new-found air of self-pride around with me. More importantly, Dan had found me an agent, and, just the month before, I had published my first book. I couldn’t be happier. Thank god I got over my nerves- I must have sat on my bed, phone in my lap with the numbers already dialled, chewing my nails to stubs for hours before I picked up the courage to press the call button. Now I had more money than I could refuse, nice clothes and most importantly the hottest boyfriend ever.
“Grace.” Dan tapped my arm gently. Looking down, I saw him knelt in the fake snow. None of the actual stuff this year luckily, I hated the stuff.
“Grace.” That’s when I saw the ring.
We got married under the stars last month. It was something we both thought would be amazing; I mean who has a wedding at night? The beach was lit with huge wooden pillars with glowing bulbs at the top, as well as by the paper lanterns that were hung along the twisted ropes leading from each column. The sea was at low tide, but you could hear its gentle swishing as it danced up and down the shore. We had set up a bar in a little wooden hut, and I danced until the crimson sunset, barefoot on the golden sands with the man of my dreams.
Now we were moving into our new house. I stumbled awkwardly towards the front step, my arms wrapped around a huge box. Dan leant to grab me as I tottered forwards, but I shook him off.
“I won’t fall.” I told him.
“Mr and Mrs Chambers, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news.” The nurse paused, and my hands fluttered to my belly anxiously. Was my little baby okay? Of course, she had to be, she was 22 weeks old now. Dan laughed at me when I said things like that, “as though she’s already been born.” But to me she was just as alive as everyone else. The nurse glanced at me worriedly.
“I’m afraid…” she paused, “I’m afraid you’ve had a miscarriage.” I heard the scraping of a chair. Dan’s soft suit sleeve brushed my face. He was stood up.
“What do you mean?” He yelled. He was angry. The nurse bit her lip. “What do you mean? Our baby can’t be dead.” Dead. No, my baby’s not dead. She can’t be. I won’t fall, I prayed, I won’t fall. But today, it seemed, even my ancient chant had lost its magic. I won’t fall. I watched as the coffee stain on the carpet blurred into the shape of a tiny little baby as tears began to spill. I won’t fall.
I heard the clicking of the door as Dan entered after getting home from work. I looked up at him. He looked down at me.
“You’re late.” I muttered softly.
“You’re still in your pyjamas.” He scorned at the same time. Rolling his eyes, he continued. “There was a meeting after work, with all the managers from all the stores across the UK. I did tell you, but it probably just leaked out of that tiny little skull of yours, didn’t it?” I cringed, his tone was cruel, he was so angry.
“What’s wrong, babe?” I asked him anxiously. He didn’t answer me. Instead, he pushed past me, heading to the kitchen. I heard sounds of slamming; he was angrily searching through the cupboards. When he heard my apprehensive footsteps in the doorway, he spun round, snarling.
“I need a drink. Where the hell is it all?” He roared, sweeping the contents of one of the cupboards on to the floor. I jumped back as several glass bottles and jars smashed on the tiled floor.
“Dan? There isn’t a lot of drink in; we were going to go get some remember? There’s some wine in the fridge, but it’s not even 7 yet.” I watched him as he paced over and grabbed the half full bottle from the door. Pulling out the stopper, he began gulping it down. I darted over and tugged on his arm.
“Dan. Put it down.” I tried to tug the bottle out of his grip, but instead he swung his free arm round and punched me square in the jaw. I staggered backwards, my hands flying up to my face to feel warm blood oozing from the cut. Dan stood there, horror-struck, before abandoning the bottle on the table to cup my damaged face in his hands.
“I’m so sorry… I don’t know what I was thinking… please, love, I didn’t mean it…” To my surprise, his voice gave way to a thick flood of tears. I had never seen Dan cry, never. Not even when we found out that I had had a miscarriage, and that Faith would never be born. I studied his face for a while, confused.
“What’s wrong?” I questioned softly. He looked at him, not bothering to wipe the tears from his face.
“It’s David.” David was his brother, a 26 year old semi-professional footballer. He lived with his 8 year old son on his own, after little Alfie’s mum walked out on them. But he didn’t let that affect his mood, he was a burning ball of charisma and energy, always laughing and joking around, but with a serious, loving side that only came out around his beloved son. I gently brushed away a tear rolling down Dan’s cheek, trapping it under my finger before wiping it away. He grasped my hand tightly.
“It’s David.” He repeated. “He had a heart attack on the pitch. He…He didn’t make it.”
“WHY?” He screamed, pounding his fists on the wall. “She’s the mother of his baby and she didn’t even bother coming to his funeral!” He kicked the table leg in frustration, once, twice, three times. I bit my lip. David’s funeral had been hard. It was like the light that had been flickering constantly for the past week had finally blown, and for Dan this was the final straw. He was stricken with grief, but the sadness had turned to anger as he flipped the table over with his foot.
Nervous, I lifted Alfie up in to my arms. It had been decided that Alfie would live with us, since his mum clearly couldn’t give two toffees about him. Although others might view him as a replacement for Faith, I thought of him as my second child. “Go up to your room sweetie. I’ll be up in a minute to kiss you goodnight.” He bobbed his tousled blonde haired head before scampering up the stairs. “Dan?” I called worriedly as I stepped over the broken table and into the kitchen. I found my husband slumped next to the oven, pouring the entire contents of a bottle down his throat. “Dan, don’t…”
“No!” He yelled, his voice thick with the drink. “You don’t tell me what to do.” He scrambled to his feet, heading for another bottle. I stood in front of the cupboard, blocking his way. “Move.” He demanded.
“No.” I replied, my voice surprisingly steady. He frowned, brandishing the empty bottle in his right hand. “Please Dan,” I begged. “Drinking won’t change anything.” That’s when he flipped. With a roar, he brought the bottle down on my arm. Hard.
“Don’t you tell me what to do.” He accentuated each word with a blow, to my arms and my legs. I managed to yank the bottle from his grip, but he just used his fists instead. Tears were streaming from both of our eyes, but he kept hitting me for what seemed like a lifetime before he realised what he was doing. He froze, his fist centimetres from my leg, crouched over where I was laid on the floor in a ball.
He jumped back, horrified, before backing away slowly. “I’m sorry…”
“I’m off to check on Alfie.” I whispered, my voice hoarse and cracking. I staggered out of the kitchen, but only made it halfway up the stairs before I collapsed. Sobbing, I peered through the bannisters into the kitchen. Dan was sat at the table, crying. What was my life coming to? He was broken, shattered. What could I do?
“I won’t fall.” I murmured. “I won’t fall.”
I scurried through town as I rushed to the supermarket. Dipping my head, I had my hat pulled low to try and hide the black eye. It wasn’t his fault. It was Becca’s; after all if she hadn’t stopped to talk he wouldn’t have been reminded of David, and his funeral. We were walking along the precinct, all three of us, with Alfie in the middle enthusiastically explaining to us how this toy he wanted worked, when she appeared. Wearing a designer handbag slung over her arm and a smug, sickly sweet grin, she strode over to us cockily.
“Alfie…” She cooed, bending down to try and sweep the little boy in to his arms. To his credit he gawped open-mouthed at her before running behind me. Dan stepped forward, narrowing his eyes threateningly.
“Move it.” He scowled.
“I have a right, I’m his mother.”
“If you wanted him, you’d have taken him and gone to his father’s bloody funeral!” Dan snapped, his whole body tense.
“Aww, don’t be so pushy, I just want to give him a cuddle. Come to mummy Alfie, chicky.” Alfie’s huge, round blue eyes darted forwards and backwards between me and Becca, confused.
“I’m warning you…” Dan growled. “Leave us alone.” She shot him a grin as she reached past me. Dan pushed her and she stumbled backwards.
“He’s dangerous,” she gasped, shocked, as she stumbled against the lamppost.
I blinked away a tear as I backed a trolley out of the stand, turning it right around to find myself facing two people I never thought I’d see again.
“Oh look, as if, it’s Gracie the Wastie!” Jenna McCaulan, the girl who used to make my every day a living nightmare.
“She probably thinks she looks nice in those clothes, doesn’t she?” Giggling, Ana Belgrew nudged her friend.
“Don’t be mean An,” Jenna laughed. “Oh, what have you done to your eye? Tripped over your own foot, have you?” I opened my mouth to say that they were wrong, that my husband had accidently hit me when he tried to reach for the second bottle. Then I realised they would just laugh more. I pushed past them, trying to ignore their chuckles as I began to load my trolley. I won’t fall. A hundred memories zoomed across my mind. I won’t fall.
There was a loud clattering at the door as Dan struggled to force the resisting front door open. Stepping out from the front room, I went over to pull it open for him, but, just as I reached it, he managed to swing it open. Good news: Dan was able to come inside away from the rain. Bad news: the door smacked me straight in the face. I felt my nose snap as the heavy wood whacked into it. Stumbling backwards, my hands flew to my bloody nose, as Dan peered into each room.
“Where’s Alfie?” He demanded, looking right at me but not appearing to notice my face.
“He’s at football practice.” I mumbled back, staring at his usually immaculate shoes. Today, though, they had a thick streak of mud on them. Strange.
“Football?” Dan exclaimed, glaring at me. “Don’t you know how much that costs? No doubt he’s still got that private tutor, huh? You heard what he said the other month, the boy’s a natural. He can just go play football at the park, like all the other kids.” I frowned, and then gasped as it sent a bullet of white hot pain firing down my nose.
“You wanted him to be like his dad, didn’t you? And money’s not a problem now, is it?” Furiously, Dan stamped over to where I was stood, towering over me at 6 foot 2.
“Don’t you dare bring David into this.” He growled menacingly. He froze for a second, smouldering eyes locked onto mine. Then He shrunk back, the heat of the moment having already passed. “And maybe money’s more of a problem now.”
“Why’s that?” I asked quietly, concerned about him. He looked me straight in the eye.
“The business has been taken into administration.”
“Go go go!” I shouted at Alfie as I herded him up the stairs. We’d just got back from a birthday party at his friend’s, and I was using his giddiness to get him ready and changed as fast as possible. “Come on, slowcoach!” I laughed as we entered his room and he began to pull his top off quickly, but only succeeded in getting it hopelessly wrapped around him.
“Grace?” Dan called softly from the kitchen, his voice so low it nearly wasn’t audible at all, however I could make out a tinge of sadness and bitterness to it. Yanking Alfie’s top over his curls, I scuttled down the cream-carpeted stairs again. I found my husband slumped miserably at the table, eyes flickering lazily around.
“How was work?” I began tentatively, stopping and leaning on the counter. He flicked his gaze over to me.
“They found a buyer for the company.” He announced dismally.
“That’s good, right?”
“Well, it would be, if it wasn’t for the fact that they’re firing me.” The world seemed to stop spinning for a second. Yeah, I was a published author, but I only had two full length novels published. Recently I had been writing something else, but my agent didn’t know about that one. It was about a woman who was living with a caring husband who had been broken and switched with a man who spent his life staring at the bottom of the next bottle. You could say it was like a diary.
To face facts, Dan’s wages was really the only income this family got. Without that? We’ve got nothing.
“Well don’t just stand there like a goldfish, say something!” He snapped.
“I… what are you going to do?” I stammered, scared of his violent mood swing. He scraped his chair across the floor as he stood up.
“What can I do, you idiot? There’s nothing that can be done.” He hollered, his whole face red. I shrank back.
“I was only trying to help.”
“Sure, because that makes everything better.” He drawled sarcastically.
“Oh well sorry for having just tried. Sorry that this isn’t all about you.” I snapped back, then bit my lip, annoyed at my outburst. Dan’s eyes clouded over.
“You didn’t just lose your job!” He bellowed, sending me to the floor with a single blow to the stomach. I groaned, winded. “Of course you didn’t,” he continued, “you don’t even have one. You think writing your silly little books counts does it? Didn’t anyone ever tell you you couldn’t write to save your life? ‘Cause you can’t. No one ever buys your books, do they? That agent doesn’t even think they’re any good, she just felt sorry for you. That’s right, sorry, for you, because you’re a worthless rag of a woman who’s scared of her own shadow.”
A pool of tears splashed onto the tiles, a waterfall of despair. He kept kicking me, harder, faster, harder, faster. The only thought running through my head was that my husband, my handsome, sweet, loving husband, he hadn’t even had a drink.
“Daddy?” A plaintive voice cried from the step. Dan froze, he stepped neatly away from me, and over to where Alfie was stood. I tried to get to my feet, but ended up falling again, landing on an already broken rib. Dan had his arms out to his son, who, for some reason that I couldn’t quite comprehend at the time, was holding the phone, ducked under his outstretched arm to me.
He crouched on the floor by my head. “Mummy? Mummy, are you alright?” My voice came out as a hoarse croak when I reassured him that I was. He didn’t look convinced. My gaze swept to where Dan was slowly backing out of the room, an unreadable expression etched on his pale face. Alfie was stroking my hair, and I smiled through tears. His soft strokes reminded me of the way my mother used to hold me close when I was a child, before she got together with her boyfriend.
There was a knock on the door. “Open up.” A gruff voice called. “It’s the police.” My eyes widened with horror as Alfie leapt to his feet and rushed to let them in. Several officers split and headed to the front room to Dan, but a petite blonde woman and a tanned man followed Alfie to where I was still laid in the floor.
“Don’t worry, Mummy, they’re here to help.”
Dan gave a small cough. I stayed staring at my trembling hands.
“Grace?” His voice was diminutive, not the proud man I used to know. “Grace, can you forgive me?” His question pulled me up short. Could I forgive him? What he had done was wrong, and I still felt the pain. But he was my only real link to Alfie, there was no blood line shared between me and my son, although our love was irreplaceable. Love. It was the word I was trying to avoid. Why? I knew, deep in my heart, that whatever Dan had done, whatever he did, and whatever he would do, in some way, it didn’t matter, because I loved him, and always would do.
“No.” I decided. “I can’t forgive you.” A single tear leaked from Dan’s eye, but this is what he had been expecting.
“Just tell me why.” He sighed.
“You shoot me down.” I reply simply, pushing my chair away from the table and standing up. “But I won’t fall.” I tugged on my coat and looked deep into his blank eyes. “I’ll never fall.”
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