I am happy to present today a a guest blog from one of my favourite authors, John Needham, including an exclusive extract from his new novel “Secret Shame,” a paraquel of his the brilliant “The One Of Us,” info regarding which I’ve reblogged from Johns website after the “Secret Shame” extract.
John writes, beautiful, elegiac books that I call “people books,” books that I would define as being strongly character driven with a wonderful understanding of human nature and a strong sense of time and place. An author well worth investigating if you have not done so already.
This is my latest novel. It tells the story of Julie, the hapless teenage birth mother of the twins in The One of Us. Neither a sequel nor a prequel, it’s a sort of ‘paraquel’, in that it runs broadly in parallel with the first book. After a torrid time of desperation, guilt and a clumsy attempt at atonement, Julie gradually begins to rebuild her life. There is further misfortune but then she meets and marries Derek, an ambitious policeman who means to go far. At last she is happy and has all that she, unassuming little Julie nee Brennan from Sligo, Ireland, could possibly dream of. Things are good. . .
But not for long. Her past, which she had hoped to keep firmly buried, unexpectedly catches up. There are skeletons to be discovered in her family cupboard too. Poor Julie seems fated to suffer yet more heartbreak and disappointment. But will she rise above it?
I am serialising Secret Shame on this blog, chapter by chapter, like Dickens, beginning now. If there is a reasonable amount of interest shown and readers would rather read it as a complete book, later I will publish. Meanwhile, apart from sampling the first fifteen chapters or so on this blog, you might also like to read the parallel story, The One of Us.
It was over and done with. She lay staring at the grubby ceiling. It must have been many years since it last saw a coat of emulsion, she mused, having no idea why she should care about the state of the cracked, sagging plaster above her head, for Heaven’s sake. Perhaps thinking such a workaday thought was some sort of defence. A sort of hedge against the enormity of what had just happened. Nature’s anaesthetic against emotional hurt, or something. Or perhaps she was in shock. Well who wouldn’t be?
She turned on her side on the grubby, creased bottom sheet, trying to get comfortable. All her tears had been shed. Well for now, anyway. Perhaps there’d be more later when guilt caught up, pointing its accusing finger.
Shame on you. For shame.
Mandy and Madge would be back soon. She desperately hoped they would, at least. They weren’t family or anything, but were the next best thing. They were the only kind faces who’d looked at her and theirs were the only sympathetic voices she’d heard in months. She’d so craved her mammy’s support, or Maeve’s at least, but none had been forthcoming from those quarters either. They’d deserted her too.
And here she was now, alone; desperately alone. Alone with her torturing thoughts. Drained, emotionally hollowed out. Mandy had said not to worry; she’d sort things out. She’d be careful. There’d be no risk. Well she desperately hoped so. Just thinking, imagining what would happen if Mandy betrayed her trust, brought fresh tears.
But all the same, it was still a dreadful sin. Holy Mother of Jesus, what would old Father Murphy have made of it? It didn’t bear thinking about.
Perhaps this way was for the best though. But still; the guilt. The shame!
Chapter 1: 1992
Julie had felt something coming all day. She’d just sensed it. It must have been women’s intuition or something. It had been a brilliant Saturday, without a doubt, at Knowsley Safari Park with Derek, her Stacey and Derek’s Jack, doing the sort of ‘family’ thing that normal families do. Just like in Lou Reed’s Perfect Day.
The kids had loved the animals, especially the sentinel-standing meerkats and wide-eyed monkeys in Stacey’s case and the glossy whiskery sea lions and towering gormless-looking giraffes in Jack’s. And then the rides, although she’d mainly left those, at least the scary ones, to Derek and Jack. And when, inevitably, Stacey had got tired and a bit whiney (well, she was not yet five), Derek had hoisted her onto his shoulders where she’d sat, thrilled, a tiny Queen of the castle, little hands clasped tight around his forehead, for all the world as if she were his own child. Yes, without a doubt it had been a Perfect Day.
Yes, she just knew. Had begun to dare to hope, anyway. It was like a wistful dream, a wish coyly hovering just outside conscious recognition, that she daren’t quite articulate in case she was just imagining things, was grasping for the unattainable. A dream of the thing that could never be hers.
Not her. Not Julie Brennan. God, no.
There was something in Derek’s face though; the way he kept grinning at her, meaningfully (was it?), every time their eyes met. He’d been doing it all day. Or if he wasn’t doing that, looking at her very solemn; his expression quite unreadable.
The meal was over and the kids persuaded, with some difficulty, to bed. Being so little they could share a bed, top-and-tailing it in Jack’s child-size one, which was improvising a bit, but it only happened a couple of nights a week, fitting visits and sleepovers around Derek’s night duty days. They were curled up on the sofa together now, finishing the wine, watching Casualty on the telly. Julie loved these moments. Wished they happened every night.
She couldn’t concentrate on the box though. Perhaps she’d have to take the bull by the horns. Wring it out of him.
‘Penny for them?’
‘You’ve been acting a bit funny all day. Why do you keep grinning at me?’
She poked him in the ribs. ‘Yes! You know you have!’
He grinned at her now. ‘Okay, woman. Nothing gets past you, does it?’ He paused. It was a long one. ‘Well, I was thinking. About this relationship.’
‘What about it?’
‘Well don’t you think it’s time to take it on a stage?’
Julie’s heart did a nose dive, like a fawn’s, suddenly surprised by a predator, and then almost doubled its beat-rate.
‘What, like . . . ?’ She petered out, unable to bring herself to form the words. Assuming that he was going to propose what she hoped he was going to propose, anyway.
‘Like properly shack up together,’ he elaborated. ‘This only seeing each other two or three times a week; well I want a bit more than that.’ The happiness drained from his face, giving way to anxiety. ‘Don’t you?’
‘Well yes. If you’re sure about it . . .’ It was Julie’s turn to feel anxious now.
‘Of course I am! I wouldn’t suggest it otherwise!’
She grinned, ruefully. ‘But you know I haven’t got a very good track record. Didn’t exactly make a good fist of living with Bret, did I?’
Derek snorted. ‘Well he was a pillock, wasn’t he? Didn’t know when he was well off.’ He paused again. ‘Stupid bastard.’
Julie smiled. Yes, good, decent Derek. You certainly wouldn’t have done what he did. Run out on me like that, when Stacey was only eight weeks old, leaving me to cope alone.
But aloud she said, ‘Maybe so. But perhaps some of it was me too. I used to make him that cross sometimes. Perhaps I’m just too hard to live with, sure.’
The remark was rhetorical though. She wanted Derek to disagree. And on cue, he did, vehemently. His arm around her shoulders tightened, fiercely. ‘Oh, come on Jules! Don’t give me that!’
She sensed his jaw clenching as he continued, ‘None of us is perfect! God; I’m certainly not! Relationships have to be worked at. You don’t just bugger off at the first sign of bother or aggravation or whatever, do you?’
Julie sighed. ‘No, I suppose you don’t. Not in a perfect world, anyway.’
‘No; of course you bloody don’t,’ Derek retorted. ‘The man just had no sense of responsibility at all. Alright, if he really didn’t want to go on living with you that’s fair enough. But what about supporting Stacey? She’s his kid too. Makes my blood boil, it does!’
Julie’s arm was across Derek’s chest. She squeezed his ribcage. ‘Okay Love. Don’t get het up about it. Anyway, I’m glad he did, now. He can’t hold a candle to you, that’s for sure.’
‘Yes, well. It’s just not on, is it?’ Derek was still cross.
‘No, it isn’t. Wasn’t. Anyway, before I so rudely interrupted, what were you saying, Love?
Derek grinned, relaxing now. ‘Oh yes. Right. Well don’t you think we should? It’d be nice to have a nice warm welcoming woman to come home to every night again; have my dinner ready and waiting, the bed changed regularly; all that sort of stuff. Not to mention the other on a regular basis of course!’
Julie squealed in mock outrage. ‘Chauvinist pig! Haven’t you heard of women’s lib down the station then? You bloody coppers! Honestly!’
They chortled together. Then she said, gravely, ‘But yes, seriously, I wouldn’t mind some of that too. It does sound pretty good.’
Derek looked down at her freckled face with its halo of red hair, nested in the crook of his shoulder, as she raised her eyes to his. ‘Great! Well the kids get on well together, don’t they? And I think Stacey likes me. And you like Jack, don’t you?’
Julie smiled. ‘Yes, she’s really taken to you. And she’s always going on about you, almost like . . .’ She paused, afraid to push her luck. Assume too much. Wish for too much. Steady now girl. One thing at a time.
She continued, shifting onto safer ground. ‘And yes, I do like Jack. He’s a super little boy. I hope he likes me a bit. I know it must be a bit difficult for him, living with Sandra, and you no longer around and with another woman in your life now. He’s only six after all. He can’t really understand, can he? Must be divided loyalties, or whatever they call it.’
Derek sighed. ‘Yes, I know. It can’t be easy. Although I suppose it could be a lot worse. At least Sandra and I split up when Jack was little and adaptable. I think he takes it pretty much in his stride really.’
‘Yes, there’s that, of course. And it’s different for Stacey; she’s never known a two-parent situation. This is all a novelty for her.’
Derek moved his hand to dig her in the ribs. ‘Yes, think yourself lucky; you might have had a stroppy teenager who loved her dad and hated you breaking up and hated me!’
Julie laughed. ‘Yeah, we both are really, as far as that’s concerned, aren’t we?’
‘Anyway,’ He said, ‘so we’ll do it, shall we? You’ll move in here? It’s a lot better than your place.’
She could only agree with that. ‘It certainly is! Of course I’d lose the housing benefit – you really wouldn’t mind supporting me like that, Love?’
Derek squeezed a reassurance. ‘Course not. And after all, being practical about it, this flat is convenient for Jack’s school, and Stacey could go to the same one next year, of course.’
‘Assuming of course we’re still together then; you aren’t sick of the sights of me.’ The tease fell flippantly from his lips, but it jolted Julie to stare at him, her eyes round with alarm.
‘Derek! Don’t say that! Of course I won’t be! Don’t even think such a thing!’ Her lower lip began to flutter.
He chuckled. ‘Joke, Jules! Joke!’ But then the smile evaporated. ‘Seriously though, it would be a try-out, in a way, wouldn’t it? After all, I married the wrong woman before, due to rushing things because I thought she was pregnant and I’d got to. You know what they say, “fools rush in.” I don’t want to make that mistake again. And you’ve never been in a living-together situation that’s lasted more than a few months, have you? A steady relationship would be a new experience.’
Julie relaxed, reassured. She shouldn’t let her insecurity get to her so much, she knew. But old habits, learned cruelly, died hard.
‘Right then,’ said Derek. ‘That’s that sorted then.’ He liked to be in control of things, Julie thought. It went with both the gender and the job.
They lapsed into comfortable silence. She tried to re-immerse herself in Casualty, but had lost the plot ages ago. There had been too much to say, and certainly too much to think private thoughts about. On the screen Charlie Fairhead was looking pained and quizzical as usual, like he did every Saturday night. Derek must have been reading her thoughts. ‘Are you watching this?’
‘No, not really. Can’t concentrate.’
She looked up at him, smiling, waiting for the suggestion she hoped was coming.
‘Well in that case, shall we do something to celebrate?’
He grinned inanely. ‘Well, something best done in the bedroom, you gorgeous woman. Don’t you reckon?
Julie heaved herself into a sitting position; cupped his face with its killer brown eyes beneath the thick shock of black hair, planted a kiss. ‘Yes, I definitely do reckon.’
She lay awake afterwards, on her back as Derek, his naked back turned, fell into sleep beside her and quickly began snoring. Holy Mother; the man could sleep on a clothes line, so he could. But she was much too wound up for sleep. Her brain was like a noisy marketplace with so many thoughts popping up out of nowhere, clamouring to be heard. Am I dreaming this? Did he really say it? Say he wanted us to live with him; me and Stacey? Is it really going to happen this time? Is a man, a good reliable man, really wanting me? Wanting me for myself, not just my body on a temporary basis; here today and gone tomorrow, looking for the next bit of skirt that flashes a bit of cleavage or thigh?
And this time might it lead to the completely unimaginable four months ago; lead to (try the word for size) marriage? Sure that’s really too much to hope for though. But dare I hope? Four months! Is that all it’s been?
She let her memory rewind.
She hadn’t been able to decide. The lime green top or the pink? She’d liked them both. And she’d certainly have bought them both, if she could. That would solve the problem very neatly. After all, most women would do that, faced with such an irresolvable dilemma. But then she wasn’t ‘most women.’ Her benefit wouldn’t stretch to such extravagance; no way. It was difficult enough making ends meet as it was. How nice it must be to not be bothered by such inconvenient considerations as whether she could afford something that wasn’t actually vital, like food for Stacey and herself, or the rent, or coinage for the greedy gas and electric meters. Or the alarmingly mounting debt with the mail order catalogue that couldn’t be ignored.
Back in the present Julie smiled wryly as the thought came: Holy Mary, six years and four months ago clothes were the last thing on my mind. So was the worry of paying for the ones I’d got, not that they amounted to a vast wardrobe, exactly. And so were most aspects of normal living, for that matter. What a dreadful time it was.
But that was the past: regretted but safely buried. She refocused her memories on the nearer-past. That bitter-sweet first day, four months ago.
She’d determined to be more sensible. Not pile up any more debt; live strictly within her means. Have only what she really could afford to pay for. But it had been her birthday, for Heaven’s sake. She could afford a little treat. Just a little prezzie to herself, surely? There’d been no others forthcoming. Well there was no one to give them, or feel inclined to give them, after all. And so there’d been the little retail therapy trip to Debenhams that fateful Friday afternoon last April.
It had been so stupid of her, so negligent. What was the phrase? ‘Taking your eye off the ball,’ or something. Or, more accurately, taking your eye off Stacey. She was such a little tyke though; such a live-wire, always wanting to be anywhere other than docilely by her side, like normal kids. Normal little girls, anyway. She really needed to still be on a lead, like a toddler, but she was going on five, so she was. That would be ridiculous.
Yes, she’d been prevaricating over those tops for ages, as if it were a matter of world-shattering importance, distracted from mundane considerations like keeping a watch on her daughter. And then, when she’d finally glanced down, there she was; gone. She’d glanced quickly around, quite expecting to see her investigating another nearby clothes rail or something. But there was no sign. She’d felt a stab of alarm.
‘Stacey? Where are you?’
She’d moved to the next-nearest rail a few feet away. Little monkey; she’d be behind there.
But she wasn’t.
She was getting cross. ‘Stacey! Come on now! Stop messing about! Don’t wander off!’
She’d quickly put the tops back on the rail, in the wrong places, and begun checking around the blind sides of other rails. Little madam! Why couldn’t she stay close? She’d get her legs slapped when she found her! But still she was nowhere to be seen. Anxiety was mounting now. That and anger. Bloody kids! She’d shouted again, louder, ‘Stacey! STACEY! COME HERE THIS MINUTE!
People had begun looking at her, looking embarrassed as only the British could in such situations. She’d hurried around more rails, all the ones in the department, frantic, heart pounding, dread heavy on her now like a cruel black crow. God! Oh God! What if she’s been taken? She’d completely lost it then, and begun screaming, just standing rooted to the spot in panic, not knowing what to do.
‘What’s up, Loov?’ A male voice at her shoulder had suddenly asked. She’d looked around for the source of it, wildly. A man, quite tall, wearing jeans and a black leather bomber jacket to match his thick black hair, was looking at her, friendly concern in his brown eyes.
‘My little girl! She’s gone! She’s gone! Oh God! Oh God! Oh shit!’
He’d looked down at her and dropped his carrier bag and put his hands on her shoulders, steadying. ‘Okay, now calm down. How long’s she been gone?’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she’d whimpered. She’d felt like burying her face in his chest. ‘Not long.’
‘How long? Minute? Five minutes?’
‘Not long,’ she’d repeated, stupidly, precision impossible. Just a few minutes I think.’
‘Alright; she can’t have gone far then. How did you come to lose her?’
‘I don’t know! Waddya asking me that for? I’ve got to find her . . . !’
She’d paused, grasping for calmness. The man was only trying to help. ‘I was looking at the clothes. She’s a little madam. She wanders off. I can’t be watching her every second!’
The man had looked slightly unconvinced; sounded a little patronising.
‘Umm. How old is she?’
‘Four; nearly five.’
‘And the name?’
‘Stacey. You must have heard me shouting her!’
He’d ignored the barb, remained utterly calm and collected. ‘Description?’
‘I dunno! Brown hair. In bunches. Green eyes . . . look, this is wasting time!’
‘No it isn’t. If you give me a good description we’ll find her that much quicker.’
‘What is all this?’ she’d asked, exasperated. ‘I want the police, not you!’
‘It’s okay, I am the police’, he’d rejoined levelly, grinning slightly, taking the wind out of her sails. ‘Off duty. Now, what is she wearing?’
‘Oh. Sorry. Blue skirt, pink top – little jacket thing. Rabbit on it. White leggings.’
‘Right,’ he’d said, ‘That’s enough. Come with me.’ And he’d stridden towards the assistants’ counter, calling, ‘The way to your office, please!’
As the other customers stood open-mouthed, an assistant had rushed forward. ‘Top floor. I’ll take you there, the quick way. Follow me.’
She’d led the way through a Staff Only door, along a passage, up a staircase and along another passage to a glass-panelled door through which could be seen people sitting gazing at computers. She’d entered, holding the door for herself and the mysterious helper to follow. He’d fished from his pocket what looked like a warrant card, holding it up for the startled staff members to see, before addressing no one in particular, ‘I need to speak to the manager or supervisor urgently please.’
A middle-aged woman looked up from bending over the shoulder of a younger one at a screen. ‘Yes, can I help?’ She’d looked ridiculously like Mrs Slocomb from Are You Being Served on the telly. She’d gone very pale.
The policeman hadn’t minced words. ‘We have a child gone missing in the store.’ He’d indicated her. ‘Belonging to this lady. Do you have security personnel I can speak to?’
‘Oh, dear me,’ the manager-or-supervisor woman had exclaimed, ‘Yes, of course!’ She’d reached for the nearest telephone and tapped in a number. It must have been picked up almost immediately, because she quickly, urgently said, ‘Karl? Hi. It’s Audrey. Can you come to the office immediately? We have a missing child!’
After what had seemed (although probably wasn’t) an age, a swarthy, shaven-headed, short-sleeve shirted, extravagantly tattooed man had burst self-importantly into the office.
The policeman had been onto him in a flash, telling him what had happened, describing Stacey and suggesting he post guards on all exits immediately, watching for anyone acting suspiciously with a little girl wearing a blue skirt and pink jacket with a rabbit depicted on it. The security manager, or whatever his rank was, had looked briefly miffed at being told how to do his job, but then got onto the phone too, to organise his staff. Whilst he was doing that, the policeman had spoken to the woman in charge, instructing her in putting out a public announcement to the store, advising customers that if they saw an unattended child fitting Stacey’s description and answering to her name, they should take her to the nearest salesperson, who should immediately contact the office.
The supervisor-manager had looked slightly put out too – she probably knew exactly what the drill for missing children was – but had complied, using what were probably well-rehearsed words of her own. Then there had been nothing to do but wait. Someone had found a chair for her, and a glass of water. The head woman had introduced herself, unnecessarily, as Audrey and sat with her, kindly exuding reassurance that it would be fine; that this sort of thing happened quite regularly, and that missing children always got reunited with their parents. That nothing horrible would happen. It never did.
The policeman, perhaps aware that he’d been treading on toes slightly, had been quick to agree. And then, after what was probably only a few minutes, although it had felt like much longer at the time, the telephone had rung, and everyone in the office (all work had ceased) had jumped a mile and Audrey had grabbed it quickly and said a breathless, anxious ‘Hello?’ followed after an agonising pause by, ‘Oh, great! I’ll be down to fetch her,’ and had turned to her, all relieved smiles, and said that Stacey had been found, a floor down from Ladies Fashions, so somehow she’d gone down the escalator alone, the little madam.
Audrey had insisted on rushing down to retrieve her, and she’d burst into tears of relief, all thoughts of chastisement forgotten, as another woman had embraced her kindly and said, ‘There, told you it would be alright, Loov, didn’t we?’, as the policeman, perched on the edge of a desk, had shuffled his feet, embarrassed.
And then there’d been Audrey’s triumphant return, leading the bashful Stacey, and there’d been a fierce, lengthy hug, clasping that little body to her so tight, and more tears, reprising the sheer relief, as the office staff looked on with some of their eyes glistening too.
And then she’d thanked Audrey (who’d suddenly remembered to stand down the security staff from the doors and get Karl to organise it) and her staff, and the policeman had asked, tentatively, if he could treat her to a cup of tea in the cafeteria, because she looked as though she could do with one, and anyway, he would need to get some details from her because he had to do an incident report (although he’d admitted later that that was cobblers really; he just wanted to get her name and address).
So they’d made their way to the cafeteria, she holding Stacey’s hand very tightly indeed, as her little girl had chattered away, completely unfazed, blissfully unaware of the worry she’d just caused. She’d gone off in search of the toy department, she’d gravely informed her. The policeman had bought her a cup of tea (she’d declined any sort of snack to go with it) and something orange and fizzy for Stacey. He’d made a big show of asking all her personal details, although he had nothing to write them in or on, but had assured her that he had a good memory. You had to have in his job. He’d write up his report when he was next on duty.
Feeling calmer and able to relax now, she’d shyly asked his name and he’d given it, slightly too readily, she’d thought afterwards. It hadn’t seemed terribly professional, somehow. Derek, it was; Derek Hawkins. She’d found herself glancing surreptitiously at his left hand and noting with absurd satisfaction that it was ring-less.
What she’d assumed would be just a few minutes to go through necessary official procedure and regain her equilibrium had become a good hour or more, as she’d listened to his easy patter and felt really rather small and silly and inconsequential, with nothing intelligent or interesting to contribute to the conversation. But he’d seemed genuinely interested in her, maintaining eye contact for nearly all of the time, eyes flicking only occasionally and briefly to twelve inches further down to her embarrassingly generous cleavage.
Finally, beginning to feel slightly guilty and a bit awkward for taking up so much of his time, and thinking it would be down to her to end the very pleasant conversation (well, mostly monologue, on his part) because he seemed completely disinclined to, she’d said that she really ought to be going, as it was Stacey’s teatime. He’d quickly apologised for keeping her so long. She’d found that curiously touching. In her experience, men were not generally so thoughtful. So they’d – certainly reluctantly as far as she was concerned – wound up the unexpected tête-à-tête. She’d thanked him again, profusely, for his help and he’d said, modestly, that it was all part of the service. She hadn’t quite understood what he’d meant by that, but it had seemed a nice thing to say.
They’d left the store and hovered slightly uncertainly outside, as it seemed they were setting off in opposite directions. She hadn’t quite known whether to make to shake his hand or not and finally decided against it as he didn’t seem about to anyway. She’d thanked him yet again and he’d just grinned and said ‘You’re welcome,’ and then squatted down to Stacey’s level and said to her, ‘Bye, Stacey. Now no more running off and getting your mum all worried; okay?’ before ruffling her hair briefly, rising, and with a final ‘See you then,’ to her, turned and walked away.
Julie lay and remembered that bitter-sweet first encounter now. How strange, she thought, how things happen. It’s not very often, but sometimes good things do come along, just when you least expected them. The Angels seemed to have been looking out for me that day, so they did.