Here, for you delectation (hopefully) is chapter four of my new novel Secret Shame. Julie’s firstborn, Stacey, is nine years old going on ten and trying to cope with her position in the family as stepdaughter to Derek, Julie’s husband. There is some sibling jealousy when her baby half-brother arrives. Please read on . . .
(If you’d like to learn more about Secret Shame and, to slightly paraphrase Dylan Thomas’s immortal words, begin reading at the beginning, please go the blog Words about The One of Us. It follows on from there.)
Stacey regarded her new baby brother, pink and wrinkled (and not particularly beautiful, she didn’t think, with his funny squashy nose) lying in the borrowed carry cot on the sofa. The infant Darren returned her gaze, vacantly, his blue eyes not entirely sharp-focused. Emma had made a bee-line for him, naturally, the minute they’d walked into the lounge after Dad brought them back from Aunty Maeve’s. Dad had said it was best if they stayed with her a little longer, until he’d fetched Mum and Darren back from the hospital. So this was her first look at him. She wasn’t really terribly impressed.
Emma, the typical two-year-old girl, was entranced by him of course. She sat on the sofa by his head, gazing in wonderment. You could tell she wanted to put chubby little exploratory fingers into the cot to touch his face or hands, but didn’t quite know whether she dare. She might get a stern rebuke about it from Dad. Stacey couldn’t see what harm it would do though. Dad could be a bit of a misery-guts sometimes.
She wasn’t sure how she felt about Darren, really. She’d been very taken with Emma when she was born, she seemed to remember, after Mum had married Derek and she’d then had to start calling him Dad (although it had taken ages to get used to it). But then she was only six at the time and liked all baby things, like puppies and kittens and so on. Now she was much older, nearly ten, she wasn’t quite so thrilled about new-born babies anymore. She’d seen how Emma had been, after the novelty of a baby sister had (really quite quickly) worn off: crying so much, going red in the face, often being smelly and taking up all of Mum’s time. Mum had had no time for her, at all.
And Dad had been even worse. There’d been no excuse for him that she could see. He hadn’t spent every waking hour looking after her every need (and he couldn’t breastfeed, obviously), requiring that his attention, too, had to be diverted away to a new little competitor. But all the same, things did seem to be different about the way he looked at Emma, and fussed over her, compared with the way he treated her, which wasn’t half as nice. And would it be the same with the new little family member? She was afraid it might be.
She thought she knew what it was. Emma, and now Darren, were the real children of both Mum and Dad, made when they did sex. They were the bio-something-or-other parents (Mrs Thomas at school had told them the word, but she’d forgotten it). Whereas she was the bio-thingy child of Mum but not Dad. Her proper dad was that other man who Mum had told her about, blushing a bit and getting a bit upset, who for some reason had run off when she was a baby, leaving Mum and her alone.
She hadn’t understood why that had happened, or why Mum and that other man weren’t married anyway, like the parents of most of the children at school were (except William’s who just lived together, for some reason, and Rachel, whose mum was a Lone Parent, and Millie who, curiously, had two mums. How could that be?). Now she was older and able to understand things better, she’d have to ask Mum about it again. But anyway, she thought that might be the reason why Dad didn’t seem to like her as much as Emma; it was because she wasn’t his proper bio . . . bio . . . lodgy-something child. Perhaps you had to be really, to be properly loved.
At the moment though, on this sunny Wednesday morning in the middle of June, new little brother Darren was the centre of attention. Everyone looked really happy. And she supposed she was, really, if only because Mum was. She certainly looked it, and she hadn’t always been, so she’d told her more than once. But she couldn’t help feeling just a tiny bit jealous of the baby; for his being completely, well, normal. Like Emma. But unlike her.
And three days later, when just Mum, Darren and herself were in the house (Dad and Emma had gone to the park but she hadn’t wanted to go; she liked being with Mum better) the opportunity had come up to ask her again about the past. Mum was feeding the baby, cradling him against her enormous milky breast and dark protruding nipple, watching him with such rapture. He certainly seemed to be enjoying it. She was watching the fascinating tableau, feeling just a little envious again. She couldn’t remember that happening for her, back in the mists of time over nine years ago, not at all.
‘Mum . . .’ she began.
‘Tell me about my Dad again.’
‘What about him?’ She was only half listening. All her attention was on the baby.
‘Well, why did he go?’
Her mother looked up sharply. ‘Oh, you mean . . .?’
‘Yes, my bio . . . whatyoumaycallit dad.’
‘Yes, that’s it. Why did he?’
Stacey’s lips had tightened into a severe line, furrows tram lining her brow. ‘You don’t really want to know that, Stace. Not at your age.’
‘But I do! I’m nearly ten. That’s old enough!’
Her frown deepened. ‘No it isn’t,’ she said curtly. ‘And the past is best forgotten, anyway.’
‘Why is it?’
‘I’m just telling you. It is.’
‘But that’s not fair! I’ve got a right to know!’
Julie sighed. She changed Darren over to the other side, where he greedily resumed. She knew she couldn’t really fob Stacey off.
She deliberated, searching for suitable words. ‘Well, alright then, if you must know. Ten years ago, before you were born, I wasn’t very happy – ’
Stacey interrupted immediately. ‘Why not?’
Julie shot her an angry glance. ‘Will you just let me tell you then and stop interrupting? I just wasn’t. Don’t ask. Because of some bad stuff. Anyway, your biological dad came along, and he was really nice, and good-looking – ’
‘What; better looking than my other dad?’
‘Stacey! Well, yes, in way. Had gorgeous blonde hair and . . . . no, not better looking. Just different. And he was a charmer, and he really cheered me up, and then I found myself pregnant with you.’
Julie paused, giving up on trying to tell the story without interruptions, letting Stacey absorb that information.
‘But, you didn’t want to get married first?’
‘Well it would have been nice, obviously, but the pregnancy just happened. Sometimes they do.’
‘How could it “just happen?” He was using a rubber Johnny, wasn’t he?’
‘Stacey! Holy Mother, child; how do you know about those?’
‘Oh; Lindy’s brother Joe was telling us about them. Like how they stop babies happening, somehow.’ Stacey replied, airily.
‘Really! And how old is this Joe?’
Stacey grinned. ‘Oh, quite old really. Twelve I think.’
‘Twelve? Jesus!’ Julie was flabbergasted.
‘Yeah. He knows all about sex and stuff,’ Stacey said nonchalantly. ‘Were they flavoured? Like, banana, or anything?’
‘The Johnnies. They come in different flavours, so Joe says.’
‘STACEY! Will you stop this, please?’ Julie was blushing furiously. ‘It’s a good job your dad isn’t here!’
Stacey grinned. ‘Yeah. You won’t tell him, will you?’
Julie composed herself, trying to restrain the rogue grin threatening to erupt on her own face.
‘No, but you shouldn’t be even thinking about such things young lady, never mind talking about them! Anyway, I was telling you about your father. Can I continue now?’
Stacey tried to look contrite. ‘Sorry; yes. What were you saying?’
‘Right. Well I found myself pregnant with you, and Bret seemed really pleased about it. We moved to a flat – the one you and I lived in before your dad – your other dad, came along. Your proper dad.’
‘But he isn’t. Not really. He’s not my biological one. That’s the proper one.’
‘Jesus Christ Stacey! He is your proper dad! In all the ways that matter! He legally adopted you, so he’s your stepfather as far as the law’s concerned, and he’s the one who works to put food on our table and gives you your pocket money, in case you’ve forgotten. He’s the one who married me; he didn’t do a runner just because things were a little bit difficult at first. So don’t you tell me who’s the one who deserves to be called your father! Now let that be the end of it!’
‘Yes, alright. I’m sorry.’ Stacey was shocked by her mother’s vehemence.
Julie turned her attention back to the baby, who seemed to be dozing off, oblivious to the tension in the air.
But Stacey still wanted to know more. ‘Why were things difficult then?’
Julie looked at her, calm again. She smiled ruefully. ‘Well, you weren’t a very easy baby in some ways, Stace, to tell the truth. Could never be put down. Had to be held all the time. And you cried a lot.’
‘But don’t all babies do that? Emma did. And Darren does, quite often. He doesn’t get on Dad’s nerves, does he?’
‘Yes, they do. And no, he doesn’t. But you did it an awful lot, so you did. It was as if you couldn’t bear to be parted from me for a moment. And you were my first baby. I wasn’t very old myself. Not very mature. I was only twenty.’
‘But lots of ladies have babies when they’re young, don’t they?’
‘Yes they do, but really they shouldn’t. You’re hardly grown up at that age. Little more than a child.’
Julie paused, rueful, remembering. ‘I certainly wasn’t, anyway. I just didn’t know how to cope, how to do being a mother properly. I was useless really. And I got no support from Bret at all.’
‘But why not? Didn’t he love me then?’
Julie smiled. But the smile masked inner turmoil. How by the Saints do I answer that? She hesitated; chose her words carefully. ‘Well, Sweetheart, I think it was more a case of him just being weak, and even more immature than I was. He couldn’t see that although things were a bit grim at the moment, they might get better.’
Stacey was not convinced. ‘Well I don’t think he should have gone just because I was crying! That’s not what grown-ups do, is it!’ She pondered. ‘No; I don’t think he can have loved me!’
‘No, Stace,’ Julie had to agree. There was no avoiding the issue, really. ‘He can’t really have loved either of us very much, to have run away when things got a little tough. He was just a stupid selfish man, so he was.’
Stacey would not let the subject drop. ‘So did he just say he was going, just like that, and go, then?’
‘No, it wasn’t like that.’ Julie grimaced, remembering the dreadful day. ‘We’d, er, had an argument. I’d taken you out in your pram. To the park. We stayed out quite a long time, until you started to get hungry. Then we had to go back – ’
‘But why couldn’t you have fed me there?’
‘What? Oh, no, I wasn’t breastfeeding you. I’d given up on that and you were on a bottle.’
‘Why? You fed Emma, and now you’re feeding Darren.’
The accusation was like a slap around the face. ‘Oh for Christ’s sake Stacey!’ Julie was stung. ‘All these questions! I gave up because it was just too hard! You were a difficult baby and the bottle was just easier. Okay?’
Stacey pouted. ‘It seems like it would have been better if you hadn’t had me then!’
‘No! Don’t you ever think that, young lady!’ Julie felt tears welling up. ‘Whatever that b . . . Bret might have thought, I always wanted you. Always loved you. Even when you were screaming your head off.’ Always will love you, no matter what. Mothers just do.
‘Well I can’t think why, really,’ Stacey retorted, ‘if I was a bad as Emma was. If all babies are like that, I just don’t want to be a mother, thanks!’
Julie smiled, sadly. ‘Oh, but you will want to, when your time comes. Believe me. But wait until you’re old enough to do it right. None of this silly teenage mum nonsense. There’s no hurry. Wait until you’ve met a good, decent man. Promise me that?’
‘Yeah. But I don’t think I’ll ever want babies or marriage, anyway. Sharon at school; her big sister has got a kid. Had him when she was fourteen, Sharon says. I’ve been to their flat. Kylie seems to have no fun in her life at all. It’s all Dean this and Dean that, all the time. The baby just rules her life.’
‘Yes, well, they do. They have to. They completely rely on you. They’re a big commitment. All the more reason to wait until you’re old enough and sensible enough to have babies. Have your childhood and your youth first. There’s plenty of time. And no silly playing around experimenting with sex, then you can’t have a child before you’re ready. Just tell boys No!’
Stacey grinned. ‘Yeah, right. It sounds horrible anyway.’
The baby had finished feeding. He seemed to have nodded off to sleep. Julie offered him to her daughter. ‘Here, hold him for a minute, will you?’ Stacey took him, reluctantly, as Julie rearranged her clothing.
The front door opened and closed; voices filled the hall as Derek and Emma returned. Emma bounded into the lounge, heading straight for Darren lying in Stacey’s lap, homing automatically in on him. As far as she was concerned he was the current centre of the universe, at any rate.
‘Had a nice time at the park, Lovey?’ Julie asked.
‘Yeah,’ Emma said, dismissively, all attention on the baby.
Stacey sighed. The intimate, girls-together chat with Mum was interrupted; over. Not fully a family member – not a biological daughter of both her parents at least – she would recede into her proper place: in the background.
Little Darren was as good as gold about settling to sleep, considering that he was only four days old. Of course, at the moment Julie had to adjust her sleep pattern to suit him: early to bed at ten-thirty to get enough sleep to allow for at least two awakenings during the night for feeding. Which completely put her circadian clock out. That night was no exception. Sitting upright in bed, propped against pillows and the headboard at a quarter to one (she daren’t lie down or she’d nod off), she nursed him, watched by Derek who had been awoken too, his head in the hand of one bent arm, partly to keep her company but also, she suspected, to make sure she didn’t indeed fall asleep. He liked to make sure things ran safely and smoothly.
‘Are you excited about next Monday; starting the new job?’ she asked.
‘Derek grinned. ‘Yeah, I am, quite. It’ll be different for sure, working in the station most of the time, not out on the beat.’
‘You certainly seemed to enjoy the placement to CID, didn’t you? Judging by how much you’ve been going on about it every night!’
‘Sorry; have I been a bit of a bore?’
She laughed. ‘Only a little.’
He ignored that. ‘Well, I need something to stretch my mind. Some serious cases to get my teeth into. Uniform work’s got to be a bit dull, to be honest.’
‘And you won’t mind all that routine office work, staring at typewriters and computers all day?’
‘There’s a lot more to it than that, Jules! Like statement taking and interviewing and case file preparing and court witnessing. I want to be nailing some serious villains. Well, helping to, anyway.’
‘Fine; good for you, Love. I think I’d find it all a bit depressing though, dealing with human nastiness all the time.’
‘Well, somebody has to do it.’
‘Yes, of course they do.’
They lapsed into silence as Julie watched the feeding baby. Then she began to snigger.
‘What?’ said Derek.
‘Oh, I was just thinking about Stacey, earlier on.’
‘What about her?’
‘Well, we had a serious girls’ chat when you were out with Emma. She was asking about her dad.’
His face clouded. ‘So what’s funny about that?’
‘Nothing, obviously. She was watching me feed Darren, and suddenly started talking about Bret. I suppose the sight of it set her off thinking about her own babyhood, or something.’
‘Yes. I’d told her a little about him before, when she was little – just to explain why she hadn’t got a dad, really. But she wanted to know more. She didn’t understand why he would just go, or why he didn’t love her.’
‘Well I don’t understand that either – why he would just disappear,’ Derek grumbled, glaring at her. Clearly, he wasn’t enjoying the turn the conversation had just taken. He’d rather still be talking about work. ‘The man was obviously just a completely selfish and irresponsible bastard.’
There was no way of replying to that. Julie bit her lip. Derek hadn’t finished his rant though. ‘Anyway, how is any of this funny?’
‘It isn’t, I know. Believe me; it certainly wasn’t at the time.’
‘So what were you sniggering about just now?’
‘Well, Stace started going on about condoms.’
‘Mm. I said that getting pregnant with her wasn’t really intended, and she said, well wasn’t he using condoms? And I asked her how she knew about such things, and she said her friend Lindy’s brother, who’s all of twelve, was telling them about them.’
‘The little bugger! But I still can’t see where the joke is!’
Julie tried to keep her face straight. ‘Well then she went on to ask if they were flavoured! It seems he’s been telling them that too. Holy Mother; I didn’t know there were such things!’
‘WHAT?’ Derek repeated. ‘Bloody hell!’
‘Well did you know that?’
‘Yes, obviously! But not from personal experience though!’
‘Right. I’m pleased to hear it. What have we been missing?’
‘Jules! Never mind about that! It’s not funny! Christ; she’s only nine, for fuck’s sake! Shouldn’t be thinking of such things at that age!’
Julie was contrite. ‘Sorry. Don’t swear like that. Yes, you’re right. She shouldn’t.’
But Derek was in full rant now. ‘Too bloody right! Far too young. I don’t know! What is it with kids nowadays? They grow up far too quick!’
‘Yes, they do.’
‘It was never like this in my day; kids had childhoods,’ Derek continued, sanctimoniously.
Julie opened her mouth to speak, an enquiry about his early sex life forming, but thought better of it. She didn’t want a row. He would only get annoyed. He found it difficult to entertain contrary opinions sometimes.
‘You’ll have to talk to her about it,’ Derek said. ‘You’re her mother.’
‘And you’re her dad, remember? Step-dad, anyway. And you’re better with words than me!’
‘Yes I know,’ he said, not contradicting the point, ‘but it’s easier coming from a woman. You’re better at this sort of thing than us blokes.’
Julie laughed. ‘Really? But you’re always saying how your job is part social worker. I should have thought you’d be better at it really!’
‘Well, don’t know about that,’ Derek muttered, discomforted.
He’d annoyed her now, with his shuffling off of responsibility. ‘Jesus Christ, Derry, you can’t just wriggle out of it like that! You might at least back me up. I struggled to bring her up by myself before you came along, without a father to bring a little discipline into things, so I did, and now you have to do your bit. Please; give me some support! And you are her parent too!’
Derek smiled. ‘Yes, I suppose you’re right, Loov. It’s bloody difficult though, knowing she’s not my biological child. It’s one thing to keep a tight rein on Emma, but Stacey’s different. I don’t expect her to actually love me, but I do want her to at least like me. If I get too heavy, she won’t.’
‘Yes, well anyway, I did try to have a chat with her about things, earlier on.’
‘Oh, what did you say?’
‘Well, she was going on about how Bret was her real dad, and I said that no, you are now, really.’
‘And then I said how silly it is to have babies really young, like still a teenager, when you’re not mature enough to cope with them. Particularly when they’re a bit difficult.’
‘Was she then? Difficult as a baby?’
‘Oh yes, a little madam really. But it was probably my own fault. I was just too soft. I didn’t really know what to do though. I knew nothing about parenting.’
‘And you told her that? That she was a difficult baby?’
‘Well, yes. I had to give a reason why stupid Bret just walked out on us. I said that he was just too immature to cope with the situation. And that he can’t really have loved either of us.’
‘And did she buy that?’
Julie smiled sadly. ‘She said it would have been better if she hadn’t been born.’
‘Bloody hell. Poor kid.’
‘Yeah. So I told her never to think that; that I always loved and wanted her, no matter what, and always would.’ Julie’s lower lip was beginning to tremble. She bit down on it, hard.
‘What did she say to that?’
‘She didn’t quite understand why a parent would, I don’t think. Love unconditionally, I mean. She said she didn’t want to be one in that case, if all babies were so difficult. Then I said that she would, when the right time came. But not be a teenage mum; wait until she found a good, decent, reliable man. Like you, Love.’
Derek grinned. ‘Thanks!’ he repeated.
Julie continued. ‘Yeah, I stressed what a commitment kids are, and how she should have her childhood, and not play around experimenting with sex, so then she couldn’t get accidently pregnant.’
‘Good! So you’ve had The Talk, it seems.’
‘Mm.’ Julie smiled. ‘I don’t think she will. She says it sounds horrible anyway!’
‘Right,’ said Derek. ‘Well let her go on thinking that for a few more years then!’
The baby had finished feeding and closed his eyes, replete. Julie handed him to Derek. ‘Put him down, will you, Love? Don’t forget to wind him.’
Derek took the infant and got out of bed, hooking feet into slippers, holding him up to his shoulder and gently patting his tiny back until he burped.
‘Come along then, Buster’ he said, carrying him through to the blue-redecorated, at Julie’s insistence, cot room. ‘Now can we have a few hours of peace, please, do you think?’