The language of kindness

The language of kindness

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

The glass plate slipped from his hands, impacting the ground with a sharp sound that seemed to drag the breath out of Luke. He stood at the sink, frozen in place, his eight year old face a mask of terror. His hands trembled slightly and he stared up at me with huge brown eyes.

 

I wanted to hug him, to kiss the terror off his face, to hold him close to my breast. But I did not. Yes, he was my son. But he’d been my son for only a month. And in the emotional state which he yet inhabited, he was still Liz’s son.

 

Liz had been my only sister, separated by nine years, separated much more by our lifestyles. We’d both been born and raised in the church with five brothers. Six of us kids stayed within the Christian community. Liz had other ideas. She first ran away at twelve. By then, I was already on my own, had received a frantic call from Mother one late night. Liz hadn’t returned home after school. She came back two days later, unrepentant, letting everyone know that she wouldn’t have returned if not that it’d been near impossible to get food to eat.

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A second chance

A second chance

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

I was determined not to be like my mother.

Knocked up at age seventeen, foolish enough to keep the pregnancy even though the guy responsible quickly delegated his responsibility, then escape into a loveless marriage at age twenty.

I would not be like that.

Then I met Steven. Yes, I was sixteen. Yes, we were sleeping together. Yes, I was on the pills. And yes, I got pregnant. But there’s nothing wrong with being pregnant at sixteen if the guy loved you and you loved him back. Love is always the answer, right?

I got educated real fast. Steven shook his head, bit his lips so hard that a mustache of blood appeared, then pointed me out of his parents’ house. How could I be so stupid? Didn’t I know enough to use the right contraceptives?

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Two times over

Two times over
© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

Her heart is a giant vise in her chest, pumping so hard she will not be surprised if it caves a hole through her stomach. Her mouth is dry, her breath coming in puffs that evaporate right in front of her.

Julie holds the home kit up, counting off the seconds. When the blue line appears, she begins to weep, a jagged broken sound that comes from deep inside her belly.

When she is done, she looks at herself in the mirror. There are no changes yet, but she knows there will be plenty in the coming month. She hopes she’s sick a lot. She hopes she spits disgustingly, and blows up. She wants everyone to know she’s pregnant.

At thirty-nine, nine of which she’s been married to Ubong, being with child, and naturally at that, is an amazement, a miracle, a misnomer.

Opening the bathroom door quietly, she heads for their room at the end of the hallway. Ubong is still sleeping, oblivious to the news she’s going to share, to the joy that is bubbling in her heart.

“Sleepyhead.” She yanks the blanket off his head and begins to tickle him. He bolts out of sleep laughing but trying to look stern.

“What is it now, Julie? I expect you’d grow up by the time you’re sixty.”

“Actually I get to grow up now, seeing that I will soon be a mother. And you, daddy had better get up and get ready for the day.”

He stares at her, his mouth slightly opened. Then he pulls his lips shut and smiles a broad smile, one that is almost as wide and as warm as the rising sun.

“They called?” He asks as he gets off the bed. She can see his heart beating a staccato through his thin pajamas top. “We got through?”

“No, they didn’t call.”

The disappointment is a tangible thing in his eyes, clouding them so completely they turn almost black. He’s about to reprimand her about the costliness of her joke when it hits him.

“They didn’t call?”

“They didn’t.” She replies softly, the tears flooding her eyes again.

They was the orphanage. For eighteen months, they’d been on the waiting list to adopt, the decision made and sealed when a gynecologist told them they would never have children of their own. Three months ago, they’d moved to the top of the list, waiting with bated breath each day, wondering if that would be the day they got to be parents.

The nursery is ready, done in different shades of brown, as they are unsure what sex of child they would get. Julie’d wanted to use purple but Ubong said it was too loud. The brown was actually very nice and Julie spent several hours each day there re-arranging things, wondering, imagining what it felt like to be a mother, how it would feel to nurture a child.

“I bought a pregnancy kit yesterday.”

Ubong blinks and swallows hard. “I asked you to see a doctor. I thought you were ill or something.”

“So did I. Then the doctor asked if I might be pregnant. Didn’t want to face the embarrassment of hearing negative again from the lab, so I bought the kit.”

“You’re…are you…” He gulps, unable to complete his question.

“Yes. Yes. Yeah.”

He wraps her in something tighter than a bear hug, his eyes leaking, his mouth unable to close. Then he pushes her away. “The baby. I don’t want to hurt it.”

She rubs a hand over her belly. For two years, she’s given up the hope of being a natural mother, of ever suckling a child. Now…

The phone rings suddenly, a shrill sound that snaps her out of introspection. Ubong reaches for the receiver, says hello and listens intently, a look of complete stupefaction on his face. When the conversation is over, he faces Julie.

“The orphanage. There’s a baby girl, two weeks old. She’s ready to go. They want us to come for her today.”

“Jesus. Jesus!” Julie does not understand, cannot process what is happening.

“Our baby girl is waiting, Julie.”

Joy, chased by laughter, finally bubbles out of her throat. Suddenly she is racing out of the room. “I’ll get the baby’s things. You get the car.”

 

 

 

What’s in a name?

Today, Stephanie sheds the surname we’ve shared for twenty-three years. The surname that was originally, rightfully hers. The one I was given out of love.

She dances with her brand new husband; a dancing style that hasn’t yet been invented, for they are as close as two humans can ever hope to get. She is practically standing on his legs; they are barely moving, lost in a new world they’re about to explore together.

There’s a burning sensation behind my eyelids, tears I dare not release. I tell myself I’m not losing my sister, assure myself that a name change wouldn’t stop Stephanie from being the intimate sister I’ve always had.

What’s in a name anyway?

In my short life, I’ve had two last names. And in two weeks, I’d have a new one as well.

For a day, my surname was Brown, etched in calligraphy on the birth certificate the government hospital automatically issues.

A lot can happen in twenty-four hours. The day after I was born, my mother went home to be with the angels. For four months, she’d borne the weight of her pregnancy alone, had wept every night into her pillow, was practically heartbroken. Because her husband, the man that was my biological father, had been snatched from her in a car accident that made less and less sense as the days passed.

My mother had gotten pregnant with me in the same month that her sister, Aunty Mariah, became pregnant with Stephanie. Stephanie had arrived ten days before me.

Heartbroken, almost disconsolate at the loss of her sister, Mariah was desperate to have the last thing her sister had left behind.

So I came home to my family. I became Stephanie’s sister rather than her cousin. We suckled at the same breast, shared the same nursery, were dressed identically. Many a times, we were mistaken for twins.

When I was a year old, I legally became Catherine Agbaje.

“Are you all right?”

The memories dissipate behind my eyelids at the sound of our daddy’s voice. Over the years, he’s become mellow and sweet in that way only age can bring about. His hair is now more gray than black, and there’s a faint network of wrinkles at the sides of his eyes.

“Oh dad. It’s so hard to watch Stephanie go. I miss her so much already.”

He smiles his expansive smile. “You’ve always been the tender one. Of course you’ll miss her. It’s only natural you feel that way about a sister who’s shared your whole life with you.”

I turn to him and grasp his hand in mine. “How’re you and Mum going to cope when I leave too?”

A cloud seems to birth in his eyes. He blinks it away and leads me to a seat before he speaks. “It’s only natural for children to grow up and leave their parents. That’s how it works. I admit it won’t be easy but we’ll cope. We will cope.” He suddenly chuckles, “But you girls are sure funny. Your sister came to us ten days before you did. Now, she’s leaving two weeks before you. Aren’t you guys something?”

I blink back the rows of teardrops behind my eyelids. “Yes we are. And you guys are the best parents two girls could ever wish for. By the way, where’s Mum?”

“Doing what she knows how best to do.”

I laugh, a delicious sound. “In the kitchen, bossing the caterers around.”

We laugh together, quietly, companionably; the father of the bride, and the sister of the bride.

“Excuse me, but may I have this dance?”

I look up into the brown eyes of Sam, the man whose wife I’ll become in two weeks. I smile at him. “Of course.”

Undue Influence

influence

Undue influence
© Folakemi Emem-Akpan
“Are you okay?” She asked him for the umpteenth time that evening. He was going through the motions of dinner, demolishing his food into bit-sized pieces, stuffing the morsels into his mouth, chewing. But there was something wrong with him, she could swear, a cloak of depression that seemed to ensnare him.

She asked again if he was okay. For the umpteenth time, he nodded yes. Pushing her food about in her plate, she decided she wasn’t going to question him again. If there was anything she’d come to learn in the past year, it was that Richard was no longer the same man she’d been married to for three years. Since he started at his new job, he’d become temperamental, given to mood swings, lashing out at her, at their toddler, retreating into the television whenever he was home.

It was their third anniversary, and if not for the fact that she’d been planning this dinner for more than two months, he wouldn’t have come.

“Perhaps we should go home.” She suggested. There was no use pretending, and she wasn’t eating anything either. As it was, they were going to pay for two plates of food none of them had bothered to eat.

As they made their way out of the restaurant, Lara pulled her overcoat tighter around her. The night was blustery, and they had a ways to walk.

“Hey. One moment please.” Richard said to her, already trotting after an impeccably dressed man who had come out of the restaurant at the same time they did. She watched him catch up, watched him strike a conversation, watched his face show the first signs of animation that day, and suddenly understood.

The man he was speaking with could be none other than William, his co-worker at the office. He was the only person Richard spoke about with enthusiasm nowadays. It was always William this, William that.

For ten minutes, Lara stood in the cold and wondered what kind of person William was to have such a hold on her husband. She almost did not notice that the two men had approached her.

“Lara, this is William.”

She shook a hand that was as cold as her freezer and gazed up into glacial eyes. A tremor ran through her and for the first time since she became a Christian, she had not a doubt that she was in the presence of evil.

All of a sudden, she understood why Richard had become the way he was. He was a Christian too, but had never been as strong as she was. And now, William had a hold on him. A hold whose effects were mood swings and a disinterest in anything familial.

When they got home, she discharged the babysitter and tucked her son into bed. When she returned to their bedroom, Richard was already asleep. She sat beside him and ran her fingers along his jaws.

He was basically a good man, under undue influence. If she didn’t do something drastic, William’s hold on him was only going to get stronger, and Richard’s relationship with his family only worse.

She began to pray in the Spirit, perspiring so profusely it was like she had been drenched by a bucket of water. For an hour, she was that way, slightly bent at the waist, her hand on Richard’s.

Then she had a shower and climbed into bed beside her husband of three years.

*

“You know, I’ve been thinking.” Richard announced over breakfast the next morning. For the first time in six months, he’d risen early that morning to have morning devotions with her, then he’d played with their son in his room for a while.

“What’s that?” She asked as she poured milk over Great’s cereal.

“Maybe I should stop working at Mark’s and take that job I was offered last month. I heard it’s still open.”

The new job he was talking about was owned by an elder in their church and she’d pressed him to take it at that time. But he’d been adamant, refusing to even consider it.

Joy surged in Lara’s heart, and hope blossomed as well. Things were going to be all right.

“Would you like that?” she asked.

“The pay’s good, and I’ll have more free time. I’d like to spend more time with you and Great. Or what do you think?”

She nodded briskly and he didn’t see the tears that rolled down her cheeks.

Help, I have chargiamania

Help, I have chargiamania

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

I have chargiamania. Now, don’t go in search of your Thesaurus or dictionary. These outdated publications couldn’t possibly have my kind of disease listed in them. Let me explain in a layman’s language, the type you would understand.

I love to be in absolute charge of my life.

Might sound like a pretty good thing, but my family is going crazy watching me try to run everybody’s life. I plan my husband’s day meticulously, haranguing him on what tie best matches his polka dotted shirt. Last Monday, I wept for hours after he left the house in anger when I suggested the yellow shirt went better with the red trousers on the brown shoes.

I’m in my mid twenties but I have already begun to plan for my great-grandchildren (Failing to plan is planning to fail, they say). The first one would be an astronaut, fulfilling my dreams of doing something out of this world. The second one would be a doctor, helping to cure humanity of its self-induced ailments. I wouldn’t mind one of them being a writer (In case I fail to have my name on the covers of books as an author, at least my posterity would).

I’m positive my younger brother would do better as a chemical engineer but he doesn’t even want to hear about it. He prefers to study computer engineering at the university. Oh, the folly of youth!

Well, as for God…He likes to be in charge too, so we happen to quarrel a lot. Like the time he wanted me to leave my job and be a stay-at-home mom. Who has ever heard of that kind of crap? A twenty-four year-old stay-at-home mom when my whole life was stretched in front of me? (Well, God won that case because my husband supported Him).

Or the time He started pressuring me to eat more healthily. But who eats healthily these days when hysteria-inducing chocolate and pastries dripping with ketchup announce their presence at every corner?

Yesterday, we had a serious quarrel. I wanted to wear my tight pink skirt for that interview I’ve been praying and fasting for now that my baby is two and old enough to be left at the daycare. Perhaps it would clinch me the job (They requested for a smart, career woman in the ad), but God had a different idea.

“Why are you wearing that terrible thing?” My husband questioned as I made a mad dash for the car. I was already running late.

“What thing?” I snapped, even though I knew well enough what he was referring to. “It makes me look smart.”

“Not smart, just cheap. Would you give yourself a job if you came in for an interview like this?”

“I don’t want to quarrel this morning.” I straightened the incriminating skirt and settled into the car.

“Do you think God would be proud of this outfit?”

“Albert?”

“We’re supposed to allow Him run our lives as Christians, remember?”

“Why are you all bent on controlling people’s lives?”  I was beginning to get mad. “You, God, the church?”

“Because when we allow God absolute control over our lives, we are better able to function as humans.”

I gave him an evil eye. “Are you saying I don’t allow him enough control?”

“That’s right.”

I knew he was right but I wasn’t in the mood for a sermon. “We’ll talk about it when I get back from the interview.”

“You aren’t going to change?”

“No. I’ll be late.”

“No, you won’t. You’ll be there in plenty of time.” He made no move to start the car, just sat down there, waiting.

“Albert?” I made his name sound like it was dirt in my mouth.

“Sorry.” He said as he finally shifted the car into gear.

 “Stand ye still…” *

“Did you say something?” I turned to ask Albert.

“Nope.” He concentrated on maneuvering the car into the street.

 “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft…” +

“Al, what did you say?”

“Me? Nothing?”

I was beginning to feel funny, and my insides had begun to tremble. “Stop the car!”

“What?”

“I want to go back home now.”

“You aren’t going for the interview again?”

“I’m not.”

Of course God won that battle. He always seems to win without any apparent effort on His part. Meanwhile, I struggle daily, trying to make sense of His leadings. Why do they have to be so ridiculous most of the time? Even my pastor agrees but he also says we have to follow God’s leading for maximum results, even when we don’t understand. I hope he’s right. I really hope he is.

 

* II Chronicles 20:17

+ I Samuel 15:23 KJV

 

Shattered

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

You were thirteen when you learned your family’s dark secret, and it just about tore you apart. That hot August afternoon, as you filled forms for the secondary school you would start the next month, you were dismayed when your mother carefully printed your sister’s name where her name should have been.

That evening, over a dinner of salty tears and a broken heart, you learnt that your mother was technically your grandmother; and that your sister, that one with the purple hair gone wild, was actually your biological mom.

You were conceived when she was fifteen, born when she was sixteen, in a place far far away from home, in a strange place where the pregnant girl and her mother had fled to and lived in during the time it took for her belly to swell and the baby to be pushed into the world.

Seven months after they were gone , they returned home…where the news had been carefully planted that your grandmother was unexpectedly pregnant, was going to be a mother again, and at the threshold of menopause too. What a miracle.

They returned with your baby self, whom your sister/mother gladly handed over. A year later while you were still in cotton diapers, she was out of the house, first living with an elder brother, then going off to the Uni.

You were the sixth person to learn the sordid tale. It had been a family secret for years, one that even cousins didn’t know about. The only people who knew the story were the father, the mother, the two elder siblings, and their wild child sister…who was now your mother. And now you.

You slept with the lights on that night, irrationally frightened that now that you knew the truth about who you really were, that you were going to disintegrate in the darkness and get blown away into the four corners of the earth. You curled yourself up in the foetal position, and sucked on your thumb for the first time in five years. You wet the bed.

The following morning, you almost couldn’t get out of bed. You were petrified that you were going to be sent to live with your sister/mother, who at twenty nine was still a wild child. She’d already had two husbands, another child, no job, and an insatiable liking for alcohol. You wondered why you couldn’t have been born to and of the elder sister, who was always crisply dressed, soft-spoken, a woman who was as elegant and as self-possessed as your grandmother was.

But you needn’t have worried. The family tried to keep on as usual, as if they hadn’t just shattered your life with a major secret, one that they fully expected you to now keep with them. They expected you to still call your affectionate grandmother mummy, your gruff grandfather daddy, and your purple-haired biological mother Sister Tobi.

You tried; you tried gamely. Perhaps if you pretended that the story had never been told to you, you wouldn’t continue to feel this tightening in your chest, this shortness of breath that overcame you from time to time.

You did try, but you lost your appetite for food and developed ulcers. Your mother poured gallons of milk down your throat per doctors’ orders and fed you food that was so spice-less it was borderline bland. She monitored your diet and made sure you took your drugs. But it didn’t help at all. The ulcer wouldn’t go away.

Then you developed the shakes as well. You would try to stand still, but you wouldn’t be able to; your hands and legs would shake and vibrate so much you had to find a seat. And even when you did find a seat, you had to sit on your hands to stop the world from seeing what a wreck you’d become.

For four months, you lived in a nebulous land, alternatively hating and loving the only mother you’d ever known, persistently indifferent towards your grandpa/father who’d never really had a use for you, and constantly hating Tobi, the wild child who had started this whole mess.

But thirteen is such a tenuous year on the road to adolescence, and there are far too many new experiences for a teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood to experience that you eventually moved forward with your life. Secondary school was a whirlwind after the ordinariness of primary school, and to your surprise, you fell among the popular group in school. Being popular took so much effort and people skills that you didn’t have the time to be nervous anymore. The trendy clothes helped; you had about a thousand of them, guilt-gifts from Mummy, as you continued to call your grandmother.

That harmattan season, you were distracted by the loud silence of your body. As it had done all your life, it disappointed you yet again. You had always been a late bloomer; late to crawl, to talk, to walk, and to start school. You never thought that your body had the capacity to disappoint anymore, but it obviously did. Your best friend in school resumed school that January wearing a bra, as did several other girls in your group. But there you were, quarter to being fourteen, and yet embarrassingly flat-chested.

Every morning, you would stand naked in front of your bathroom mirror and stare at your chest unceasingly, mentally urging it to do what it was supposed to do. But it didn’t. It would stare back at you, audaciously flat. Your whole life seemed to be collapsing.

And when Betsy flounced to school the valentine weekend of February and confided to you that she had seen her first period, you were so jealous of her, and so mad at the traitor of a body you called your own.

Then there was the drama that Easter holiday.  Tobi came home for the Easter break, accompanied by her three year old son and the third fiancé she would bring home in six years. Considering that the first two marriages had been failures, Mummy wasn’t in the least bit pleased and made her displeasure known in very strong words. Mummy wouldn’t let them into the house at first, but when the neighbours started to stare from their windows, she acquiesced and opened the door.

It didn’t help any that fiancé number three was easily fifteen years older than Tobi, also had an ongoing love affair with booze, was equally unemployed.

For the next four days, there were periods of stony silence followed by drawn out verbal wars between the two women. The man of the house was careful to keep out of the way with his numerous town and business meetings. He had never been one to stay at home, but he went out even more that Easter period. Fiancé number three also disappeared often, would return in the evenings with the smell of menthol trying unsuccessfully to mask the odour of booze.

You wondered what on earth he was doing there. You wondered what in the heavens Tobi was doing there. But you loved having Yomi around. You had always thought that he was your nephew, but now that you knew he was your brother, you searched for similarities between the two of you. You both had Tobi’s lopsided smile, and the three of you had lazy left eyes that followed the right ones only reluctantly. And with a pang, you realised that you were the luckier of the two. All your life, you’d had the stable comforting presence of Mummy and all he’d ever had was Tobi and her crazy ways.

You didn’t like Tobi one bit, and your animosity grew when she didn’t show the affection or remorse you expected she would after the secret was no longer a secret to you. She simply carried on as usual, walking around like she owned the whole world.

When she mistakenly splashed water on you as you sat at the dinning table one morning, you exploded. All your anger, all your frustration, all your sadness mixed up within you and erupted into a violence you didn’t know you had in you. You sprang to your feet and attacked her with spit and nails. And you had the element of surprise, so all she could do was cower and roll herself into a ball as you raked her back and spat at her.

“Animal…” You shouted and kept on shouting. Even when your father’s strong arms pulled you back and your mummy ran in askance, her voice high and shrill and questioning, you couldn’t stop screaming, couldn’t stop lashing out.

Somehow they subdued you, looking at you all the while like a wire had gone loose upstairs, like you had gone crazy without warning.

Tobi gave you a wide berth after that, and you were keen, uncharacteristically keen for another show down with her. But the chance never came, not even when you called a family meeting and demanded why your real parentage had been kept a secret from you. All Mummy kept saying was that it had seemed the best idea at the time.

They wouldn’t tell who your biological father was. They kept saying they didn’t know, that Tobi had been with so many boys that there was never any chance of knowing who it had been. In their eyes, you saw the lies. They were lying, and they knew it, and now you knew it. But they wouldn’t give you what you wanted. No one had the guts to tell you.

“Is it Uncle Jide?” You asked. He was your older brother, the only boy of the family, and the one that was desperately trying to distance himself from the mess that was this family. He rarely came for visits and called only once in a while. It didn’t help that his wife was from another ethnic group and didn’t like how loud you people could get in the Yoruba language.

They quickly denied it, all of them.

In the sanctuary of your room, you turned it over and over in your mind. The facts seemed to fit. If an older brother gets his younger sister pregnant, it is a thing of irredeemable shame. That had to be the reason why the secret had been kept for so long, and was perhaps the reason he didn’t come around so often. Perhaps he was embarrassed by you, ultimately reminded of his transgressions each time he laid eyes on you.

A week after they arrived, Tobi left with her crew. School resumed activities, and life struggled to return to normal.

Your body finally flowered. You woke one morning and your green bed sheet was stained a garish shade of red. Your undies and nightdress were soaked through as well. You let out a whoop of joy, of exhilaration. Finally, finally. You told Betsy first, then your mummy later that day.

Life had finally become kind to you, you thought, because your breasts started to bud shortly afterwards. Finally, at age fourteen, after having almost given up hope, you were blossoming into a woman.

Tobi, questions about your paternity, and the whole family drama receded into the far corner of your mind. Your body preoccupied you. You bought a bra with savings without Mummy’s knowledge because she’d said several times that you were not yet ready for a bra.

But your classmates wore bras, and it was the ultimate sign of maturity for a girl’s bra strap to peek through the collar of her uniform once in a while. So you bought a bra, a pink one. You hid it in your school bag at home and wore it in the girls’ bathroom in school every morning. Then you took it off before you returned home every day.

And suddenly, the first year of secondary school was over. Your obsession with your body seemed to pay off, because you soon really needed bras. And with the bras came the boys. They seemed to materialise out of nowhere. They asked you out. They gave you their phone numbers which you hid from your mother.

Then something strange happened. Your father took his annual leave, and instead of travelling to the village like he usually did, he stayed back. He was home more than he was out, which was infinitely strange. You’d never been close, never sat in the same room together alone before. You couldn’t remember ever having been bounced on his knees, or your cries soothed by his ministrations. Your life had never really entwined with his, and now you had an explanation for it. He wasn’t really your father; he was just a reluctant grandfather trying to keep his distance.

And suddenly he was there, seemed to be, and all the time too. He didn’t say much at first, but he was there. He bought you chocolates and cookies, and barbecued Suya, which he instructed you not to show Mummy because of the strict diet you were supposed to be on.

And so, some sort of secret relationship began between you and your father. When Mummy was around, he was as gruff and distant as he had always been. But when it was just the two of you, he mellowed, became softer somewhat, told you stories of when he was a child growing up in the village.

You actually started to like him. He wasn’t too bad for a reluctant grandpa.

The Saturday he attacked you, it was totally unexpected. You were still in bed, your blanket pulled up to your chins, awake but not, treading that shadowy state between dreaming and wakefulness.

You felt hands on your breasts, big warm hands that somehow transmitted their heat even through the blanket. You jumped out of bed, out of your skin when you saw him.

Your father stank of bourbon and sweat. His eyes were red, unfocused; and he looked like he had gone off the deep end. Fear ran amuck in your body, your adrenalin level shooting so high so suddenly your vision clouded and you almost passed out.

Then you hit him. With all the indignation of youth, you hit him. You whacked him across the face one, two, three times. And then you ran out of the room, screaming for Mummy, only to realise that Mummy wasn’t in, wasn’t supposed to be in. She had gone for a vigil at church and had planned to stay a few hours afterwards to help clean up the sanctuary.

You fled outside, into the coldness of the morning, into refuge.

Mummy found you there two hours later, with the sun now out and shining brightly on your half naked body. But you were shivering. Despite the warmth of the sun, you were shivering.

And you couldn’t, wouldn’t talk. At least not at first. Mummy carried you inside, wrapped you in your blanket and forced a mug of tea into you. When you were sufficiently thawed, you started to cry. The sobs came from somewhere deep in your belly and exploded out of you in huge gulps. You felt like you were underwater, that you were going to drown, that you were going to die.

But you didn’t die. You finally began to describe the horror of the dawn.

Your mother sat with her head in between her knees, and she seemed to want to disappear inside of herself. With a fresh wave of panic, you realised that she was crying. She’d always seemed like a fortress of strength, and to your knowledge fortresses simply didn’t cry. But she cried. She wept silently, her body shaking and quivering like she was exorcising a demon from within.

When she finally got up to go check, your father was gone.

The two of you curled up in your bed, both crying, both grieving, both distraught. Then she shattered your world yet again. With seven short words, quietly spoken, she shattered your world again; this time irrevocably.

“He is your biological father, you know.”