The Drunken Gambler & the Rosary Crusade
Back in Maidstone my engine wouldn’t stay on the track prepared for it. The engine of my life that is. My new big room seemed more of a prison than a sanctuary, more a place where I confronted pain than a place in which to be creative. But what else would I do if I didn’t write? I’d already determined not to go back into the mainstream workplace. It was too dicey and, besides, it really was time I made it as a writer. I signed on.
With time on my hands, no structured routine, and no boyfriend, the thoughts spiralled out of control. I couldn’t get Daisy out of my mind. I needed to know how she’d felt, if she’d missed me at all. I needed to know if she would have forgiven me for not being there for her as she always was for me. There was only one person who could tell me the answer to these things. The Dealer. I couldn’t get him out of my mind either. What I’d ask him, if he’d want to be questioned about it, how he’d react to me. He’d been pretty pleased to see me when I knocked on the door. I was the one who’d been stricken with shock. He’d just told me to call him if I wanted to.
I didn’t know if I even wanted to go back down there. But, with some kind of fatalistic logic, I knew I’d make that call. As a moth is attracted to the flame.
Nearly a week later I could stand it no longer. I called. He was pleased to hear from me. I told him I had to find out a few things, for my own peace of mind. He said that would be fine and invited me down the following day.
I didn’t know what to wear. Did it really matter? I was going to see my best friend’s husband, widower. Why should it matter what I wore? Was there another dynamic going on here that I was unaware of? It felt awkward.
I felt strange as I drove out of Maidstone towards Ramsgate. I carried the awkwardness with me like I had butterflies in my stomach. I wished Adam hadn’t gone and deserted me. He could have come with me, then this wouldn’t have been so difficult. I’d never had to really talk to the Dealer before without Daisy being there, just stuff about how much sherbet he should bring me, a few cracks about the difference between junkiedom and marital bliss, but never a proper and meaningful conversation. It felt more than awkward. I felt nervous.
When I got there he’d packed the children off to Daisy’s sister’s house for the night. So we could talk properly, he said, without interruption. We had so much to catch up on, after all. He made me a cup of tea and we sat at different ends of the front room. Conversation wasn’t easy. I was forcing answers to questions he asked me about my life. He wasn’t comfortable asking them but clearly wanted to know the answers. Then he laughed.
“Well, this won’t do,” he said. “We’ll be here all day talking about nothing. What d’you say to a little livener just to take the edge off?” He took a small plastic out of his trousers pocket and shook it. Sherbet of course.
I was as surprised by this as I was by the man who’d walked up to me in the biker pub in Maidstone. The Dealer never used sherbet. That was what made him such a well-off dealer: he didn’t shovel his profits back into himself. “Um…but…I don’t do that any more,” I protested weakly.
“Well, I won’t tell anyone if you don’t. Anyway, it’s just this once. What harm can it do? We’re old friends, it’ll just help us get reacquainted.”
There was some merit in what he said. I didn’t think I could take much more of the meaningless small-talk. And I definitely didn’t have the courage to ask the kind of questions I’d gone there to ask. Once couldn’t hurt that much, could it?
He dropped a spoonful into my tea.
Half an hour later we were talking animatedly, as if three years had not rolled by. We talked of the King of the Rats, and the Prince too. I found myself telling him secret things and wondering why.
“D’you remember ’ow the King dumped you ’ere on yer ’ome leave? Bastard. An’ never came back for three days ’til you was back inside an’ ’e got nicked for bein’ late back ’imself?”
“It wasn’t that bad. I enjoyed being here with you and Daisy and the kids. Nice and quiet it was, homely. I couldn’t have coped with much more. The King’s idea of madness, now that wasn’t for me, not then. Mind you, that was before I got wise and dumped him for the Prince.”
“You never really loved the Prince, did you? Psychopath that one. You was lucky not to get carved up by him. Lucky you got out when you did. ’Ow did you get away from him?”
“Don’t you remember how he started getting really demanding when I lived round the corner? Remember that letter we all had a good laugh over? The one he wrote me from Blundeston once he’d been sent back after his little stint of freedom?”
“What, after you broke ’im out you mean?”
“Yeah. Well, I felt really awful after—”
“He wrote you loads o’ letters we all ’ad a good laugh over. Wha’ ’bout that one where ’e told you to go an’ get laid ’cause you was so uptight about stuff? What did you do about that? I always meant to ask you.”
“Got dressed up in sexy underwear, went across the road to see someone I knew would appreciate it and gave him the best night of his life.”
“You don’t mean—”
“Yes, I do. Tinker himself. Well, the Prince’s word was my command, or so he’d have me believe.”
“Lucky ole Tinker. ’E never told me about that.”
“Well, why should he? Probably too scared of what the Prince’d do to him if he found out. I felt really awful after the next letter. He said he hoped I hadn’t taken him seriously.”
“Didn’t show us that one, did you?”
“Showed you all the rest.”
“’E was a demanding son of a bitch, if ever there was one.”
“Yeah, well it was his demands that finally hit home. There I was back inside myself, eventually, and he was writing to me telling me that I had to be this way and that if I wanted to be his wife. He said either I was to do what he told me or I couldn’t marry him. What kind of a thing’s that to write to someone?”
“Can’t imagine you bein’ pushed around like that some’ow. Wha’ ’d’you do about it?”
“Never wrote back. Never heard from him again to this day. Either of them in fact.”
“D’you remember ’ow Daisy always used to rescue you when you got in trouble?”
“Yep. Sure do. She was my strength.”
“Yeah. Mine too. She thought a great deal of you. Said she was glad you didn’t ’ave to see her go. Still so proud she was. She’d of ’ated you seeing ’er wivout no ’air.”
I’d arrived there at Daisy and the Dealer’s house shortly after three and it was already gone six. Sherbet did that to time. Made it fly past as if it were on skates. He made me another cup of tea. Sherbet did that too. Made your mouth dry. I played with his boy’s computer while the kettle boiled.
He brought the tea over and put it down next to the screen. He had to lean over me while he did so. He stayed there, leaning over me, watching funny little graphic munchkins getting chomped by things with big mouths. I turned to look at him as my big mouthed thing chomped the last of the munchkins. I don’t know whether I was surprised that he kissed me or not. But he did kiss me. It was a long passionate knee-trembling kiss that could not be mistaken for just being friendly. And I did enjoy it. It would never have happened without the sherbet.
“I’ve wan’ed to do that for so long,” he said, holding my face in his hands and looking at me. “Wha’ d’you say we go out an’ have ourselves a good time? Then come back ’ere an’ ’ave ourselves a really good time?”
He couldn’t have put it plainer than that. “Well, let’s just go out to start with, and see how we feel later.” Who was I kidding? Did I think I had any control over this situation? Did I want any? “What did you have in mind?”
“Let’s just go, an’ see what happens.”
Sherbet had dulled my emotions, shut out all but the pleasure of the moment. The pleasure of being in someone’s arms, of being wanted by someone who wasn’t busy gallivanting around America leaving me to lick my wounds alone.
We got into his car. He drove in the direction of the seafront. He stopped outside Tiberius. The casino. I was horrified.
The doorman nodded his head to the Dealer deferentially as we passed. Too deferentially I thought. A well-suited gent on the reception desk virtually crawled on the floor to get me signed in as his visitor as quickly as possible. “Nice to see you back again so soon, sir. I hope you got home safely the other night.” He turned to me and looked me up and down a little too thoroughly and altogether too approvingly. “Good evening, madam.” I smiled faintly at him.
Inside everything was marble-clad and thick expensive carpets and more obsequious well-suited gents sucking up to the Dealer. They all eyed me strangely, almost with relish, as they fell over themselves to help him. We went up to the bar and drinks appeared in front of us almost before we’d asked for them. What was going on here? The Dealer had turned back into the Gambler Daisy had spent twenty years of her life stopping him from being.
“I take it you’ve been here before then?” I asked.
“You could say that.”
“Seems to me like your second home.”
“Well, what else ’ave I got to do? You know what it’s like. You ’ave a line, you get buzzin’, you need some’at to do.”
“So you come down here and throw money away?”
“Not always.” He sounded defensive. I’d better lay off the criticism. “Won over a grand the other night. ’S why they’re fallin’ over ’emselves to keep me sweet, so’s I give it ’em back tonight. Only I ain’t gonna. Tonight we’re gonna have some fun, just you and me, baby.”
“I shouldn’t be here you know.”
“Oh? Why’s ’at then?”
“Because gambling’s corrupt. Especially on this scale, shrouded in all this glamour.”
“Oh, come on. We’re just ’ere to ’ave a little fun, not to break the bank. Let’s start by ordering dinner.” He was still smiling, if a little lopsidedly due to the effects of the sherbet, and obviously trying to win me over to his way of thinking. It wouldn’t work where gambling was concerned but I went along with it for the moment.
I looked around. The restaurant where I once ate breakfast at three in the morning after coming out of the Ponderosa was still there, remodelled to look even more glamorous. I supposed a meal wouldn’t hurt, just as I’d supposed a line of sherbet in my tea wouldn’t hurt. “Okay.”
We were seated, rapidly, at the best table in the restaurant. We had the best view of all the gaming tables and the croupiers. Waiters hovered to see to our every need, rapidly. The croupiers darted us sly glances while we ate. The girls looked green with envy, the guys too for that matter. It was strange. I picked at my food, eating very slowly and enjoying his company. I’d had no idea that the Dealer could be so seductive. He’d never struck me that way before.
“Why do the croupiers keep looking at us?”
“Because they’re jealous.”
“Oh? And why would that be?”
He leaned over the table and whispered. “Because the girls wanna get into my pants an’ the fellas wanna get into yours. They can’t wait ’til we’re finished eatin’ ’cause then we’ll go play the tables a little an’ give ’em all a real thrill.”
“Maybe the girls want to get into my pants too,” I suggested.
“Mmm. Now yer talkin’ my language. I always knew you was a dirty little bitch.”
Was I? Why hadn’t I kept my big mouth shut? Oh, yes, I remember. The sherbet was doing all the talking. And thinking.
“You know, I used to dream about you coming back.” I think he must have seen the look on my face and realised that perhaps he’d gone too far too soon. This was him changing tack. “I always knew you would. I knew you’d come breezing back into my life again, an’ I’ve waited for you. Like a breath of fresh air, I knew you’d breathe some excitement back into my life. It’s the monotony I can’t stand, the same routine day after day, an’ the not having anyone to talk to about it all. You know, some days I don’t see a soul, only the kids, an’ I can’t exactly share my sorrow an’ my pain with them. I have to be strong for them, don’t I? I’m so glad you’re here to talk to, at last.”
Well he’d got me there. If in doubt go for the sympathy vote. Works every time.
“I’ll always be there. Whenever you need someone to talk to just call out my name and I’ll be there.” Yeah, yeah, dead corny, but that’s what sherbet did to me.
“We can just float along real fine, you and me. I know we can.”
The waiter bobbed up. “Is everything all right, sir?”
“Yeah, fine. We’ll just have the bill now.”
“Oh, that’s okay, sir. The management will pick up the cheque. Have a pleasant evening, sir.”
He was gone before reality had sunk in.
“That was very kind of them.” I didn’t mean it to sound sarcastic, but the Dealer didn’t seem to notice.
“They like me,” he answered. “Now, let’s go see how much these croupiers like me.”
He put his arm around my waist and steered me down the stairs to the roulette table.
“Good evening, sir. Good to see you again.” The croupier on the roulette table greased up to him like he was royalty. “And madam.”
And madam what? Where did madam come from? How did madam go? Had sir tried madam out for size yet? There was a definite hint of licentiousness in his voice, a hint that made me want to…what? It made me want to put on a bit of a floorshow if the truth were known. It made me want to give him something to feed that lascivious look in his eye as he asked his ‘and madam’. It was the sherbet, of course, but I always did find that when sherbet called the tune I invariably danced my pretty little red shoes right off my feet.
The croupier continued as these thoughts flew through my head ripping clothes off as they went. “Fives or a colour?”
“Fifty in fives, and a colour,” the Dealer turned Gambler replied. He slid the pile of coloured chips in front of me. “You wanna place these for me?” He managed to charge the request with seductive intrigue.
I’d have run for cover at the very thought, but sherbet changes things. “Yeah, sure.” My own voice was as full of erotic content as his had been and I looked seductively into his eyes as I slid the pile of chips towards him. “Thirteen please.”
“Playing dangerous tonight, madam.”
“Life makes me dangerous.” I turned the seductive look on the croupier.
He stuck a finger in his collar and tugged. Tiny beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. “No more bets please.” He spun the wheel. As it was spinning he looked at me, sidelong and furtive looks. The ball propelled itself around inside its wheel in the opposite direction, faltered, stumbled over a few numbers, then stopped. “Thirteen wins.”
Okay, so I looked good. I was thin. I’d dressed carefully in something clingy but not too revealing. Not too much makeup, but enough to make an impression, hair perfectly styled. But there must have been something else about me that night that was making the croupier hot under the collar.
The Gambler hugged me. “Tha’s three hundred and fifty quid you just won me.”
“Beginner’s luck,” the overheated croupier said, grinning.
Everyone was looking at me, wondering if I’d be daft enough to let him leave it there. I wasn’t. I went to the loo instead.
“Wow! Who’s that?” It was the croupier. “She’s bloody gorgeous.” I didn’t hang around to hear what the Gambler’s reply would be.
When I came back the Gambler was hovering around the Blackjack tables with his stack of black chips that I’d won for him.
“Let’s see what we can do here then,” he said. He looked at the croupier then at me and whispered something in my ear. “I think she fancies me.”
“I hope you’re not going to break the bank tonight, sir,” the croupier said as we sat at the edge of her table. Her tone was vulgarly familiar, loading her question with the suggestion of something I didn’t like the sound of.
“Well, I certainly hope I do,” he replied as he laid one of the black chips on the table. His voice carried a reprimand that surprised me as much as it did the croupier.
The first card she dealt him lit up his face. It was the ace of hearts. The croupier glanced up at him as she dealt the second card. He caught her eye and breathed a haughty sigh full of disdain as he watched her cover his ace with a black king. He looked triumphant.
“Blackjack,” said the croupier. “Even money or will you play on?” The familiarity had left her voice, cool detachment reigned. She could afford to sound detached when the bank held an ace.
“Play on,” he said. The Gambler was now wrapped in concentration. The Gambler’s game had been identified. Blackjack was obviously what did it for him.
If she turned a picture card he was dead. As she turned it I was sure her teeth were gritted. “Bank holds twenty,” she said as she laid a nine on top of her ace. “Blackjack pays thirty-seven fifty.”
He took the chips she slid over to him and placed another black chip on top of the one still on the table. He won again.
There was scorn in the croupier’s look as she paid him out. “Win pays double.”
“Can we go now?” I asked.
“One more hand. You must be bringin’ me luck. Shame to waste it.” He doubled the stake again. And won again.
“Can we go now?” I asked again. “That’s two hundred you’ve won now.”
“Jus’ one more ’n we’ll go. I promise.” He doubled the stake again. And won again.
“Now can we go?”
The croupier looked at me defiantly as he doubled the stake again, as if it was her that was making him break his promise and stay. But I could already see how the cards had him, how they held him in thrall. They had a power over him that he simply could not resist.
A crowd was beginning to form around us, its corrupt curiosity awaiting his downfall, hostility gathering as the croupier called again. “Win pays double.”
“Come on, that’s eight hundred you’ve won now. Quit while you’re ahead.”
But it was no good. The cards had him completely now. There was no way I could win him back from their insidious lure.
“One more, tha’s all.” And he doubled again.
Whispers ran through the growing crowd. I felt the thrill of it all myself. Then the croupier called blackjack for the bank.
I’d had my first taste of the Gambler’s lot. It wasn’t to be my last.
He took me home. We drank some wine. We went to bed. It wasn’t memorable.
Back in Maidstone I felt guilty. I needed absolution like I needed water. All I could think about was how my best friend had died and how I hadn’t been there for her. I felt I needed to do something to redress the balance, to make it right. And now I’d slept with her husband too.
I visited again. This time the kids were there and we had no time to ourselves. No madly seductive trips to the casino on sherbet, just two unruly brats running riot. They were like animals. The girl was only five, the boy nine. Daisy’s children. The girl, Jemima, had been no more than a baby when I’d spent that home leave there. I used to buy things for Pugsley, the boy, when I’d been working cheques for Daisy. When the Dealer had been a dealer and not a gambler. Daisy would turn in her grave if she could see how they were living now. She’d jump out of it and come back to haunt him if she knew the Dealer was gambling again, and with her life insurance money.
But the sex was memorable that second time. Memorable enough to want more.
Absolution walked a clear path before me. Absolution was looking after Daisy’s kids and restoring the kind of balance she would want in that torn household. It was the least I could do. It was the only thing I could do. I was looking so far down the path of absolution that I smashed Adam’s car right into the back of a Volvo. I soon got another one, so that I could go running to Ramsgate every time the Gambler rang to say he couldn’t live without me. Every time he needed a babysitter so that he could go to the casino.
I went to the airport in the new car when I picked Adam up as we’d arranged before he left. He’d told me before he went that what he wanted most of all when he came back was to find his woman waiting for him, beautifully dressed in something white and a bit see-through, all his and trembling with desire for only him. What a romantic notion! I didn’t know what to say to him, how to put the fact that although I was dressed in something he’d probably like to rip off me he couldn’t because in his absence I’d not only been backing another team, I’d also signed up for a whole season’s games.
He began telling me about his plans for a dirty weekend, somewhere on the coast, then noticed the strained look on my face. I told him about Daisy’s death and the Dealer’s ineptitude with her kids, about how I’d been spending time with them trying to repair their broken lives. He had the decency not to ask what I thought about his broken life. Instead he said he was sorry that he’d left me when I needed him most, when I’d lost my job and was more vulnerable than I’d been since I got out of prison.
It was the Gambler who took me to Brighton that weekend. We did loads of sherbet and wore outrageous clothes, strutted along the seafront talking about what we’d like to do to each other’s bodies, then went back to the hotel and did everything we’d talked about, all night. I’d have felt the irony, would have worn the guilt in raw red whiplashes, if I hadn’t numbed all emotion out of me with the sherbet.
I visited the Gambler more and more regularly, until I was spending more time in Ramsgate than I was in Maidstone. It seemed sensible to move in with them once my Friday night obligations had ended for another summer. I was already picking up all the household costs; I might as well be living there. There was opposition from Daisy’s sister. She was jealous because she felt she was the one who ought to get the credit for saving the Gambler from his sins, and the kids from him.
There was opposition from Daisy’s older daughters Tania and Ellis, who had known me as their second mum when I’d lived in the flat in Effingham Street with the King, but didn’t want to see me fit so neatly into their mother’s shoes now. I gave myself a hard time by taking sherbet when he offered it to me. I almost fell back into the same old rut.
But something stronger than the gutter I’d crawled up from had a hold of me. It watched over me and guided me into stiller waters. And, besides, it was summer and I didn’t need paranoia and speed psychosis when I could laze around in the sunshine on the beach!
I had no friends back in Ramsgate, but I made one or two new ones. Jemima had a friend in her class in school. She used to come home with us from time to time, and Jemima went there in return. It intrigued me when Jemima talked about this girl. She spoke English at school, French with her mother and Finnish with her father. From this description I thought I knew who her parents must be. When I went to their house to pick Jemima up one day, I found out that I’d been right. The Gremlin was the girl’s father. Her mother was the wife he’d cheated on with me straight after their honeymoon and with Frizz the following year. I liked this woman. She invited me to drink cocktails with her in their garden and we talked about people we both knew who still worked on the ferries. She told me about my Swedish Sailor, how he’d gone back to captain’s school, and we even joked about how I could get back together with him as he didn’t have a girlfriend. I bumped into the Gremlin at the school fete at the end of the summer term, but he didn’t seem to recognise me.
It was a beautiful summer. It was a fun summer. The Gambler and I spent all of our time together. Neither of us worked, we just drifted around the Kent countryside visiting good restaurants and quaint pubs before we had to pick the kids up from school. As soon as the holidays started we decamped from the house to Joss Bay where the sand was golden and the breeze coming off the North Sea cooled our faces and tanned our bodies bronze.
To begin with we were so out of our heads on sherbet that we lost all inhibitions between the sheets. We probably knew each other’s bodies better than most people did in a lifetime of marriage. Then I got sensible about sherbet, knocked it on the head, and spoilt his fun. That was when he began to spend more and more time in Tiberius. And more and more of Daisy’s life insurance money. That was also when he started to drink heavily.
I left. He got very abusive when he drank. He got very abusive with me one time too often.
Of course I came back again.
It always panned out the same way. He’d get drunk. He’d shout and scream at me that he didn’t need me, that I cramped his style and he didn’t want to play Mr and Mrs, that he was free to do what he liked, even if that did mean throwing away every penny he possessed in that damned casino. He’d pick on something he knew would hurt me deeply, thrust his words like vitriolic swords right into my heart so that I was a gibbering heap of tears at his feet pleading for mercy. Then he’d order me to get out of his life, usually when the kids had woken up and were screaming at him to stop. I’d leave and go to stay with Minnie at her mum and dad’s house. He’d phone me there two or three days later, proclaiming undying love and begging me to come back because he couldn’t live without me, promising that he’d never do anything like that again. On the fourth day I’d relent and go back. He’d be wonderful for the next couple of months. The kids and I would relax into a routine and forget the pain. Then the whole thing would start all over again.
During that summer I took Jemima along to my old ballet teacher. I figured that every little girl wants to learn how to look like a fairy princess really, even if I hadn’t been too keen at first myself, and there was no one better to take her to than Irma Place. I wasn’t prepared for the reception Irma gave me. She asked me to do a grade six class just for old time’s sake. Then she told me, with much amazement, how my style had actually improved with age. She asked me if I’d been practising all these years. I said no, I hadn’t.
Before I knew it she’d got her claws right back into me and had me doing classes every day in every type of dance imaginable, and all for nothing. She said it would be worth teaching me for no fee: I was so good that it couldn’t be a waste. She asked me to think about going to the London School of Dance to do all my teaching exams. To do this there was no mature student short cut around the no A levels situation. She asked me to think about enrolling at Thanet Tech to do those. That was about the time that the Gambler got drunk and abusive one time too many, morphed easily into the Drunken Gambler and lost me to Maidstone in the cloud of smoke my beat-up old Audi 80 left behind it.
I was there at least a week that time. Long enough to think through Irma’s proposition, let my head swell enough to go about arranging things so that I could take her up on it and fantasise about my new and once much sought after career as a dance teacher. Within that week I managed to get myself into Thanet Tech to do my A levels and find myself a place to live. When I went back it was to my own flat and on my own terms.
I loved life that autumn. I was doing something I’d loved for longer than I could remember, the only thing that gave me a focus through the most difficult years of my childhood, something I’d been very good at and still was. I was going to college to get the qualifications I needed to get into the best dance school in the country. I had a career and I had an ambition.
I told the Drunken Gambler that I was happy to go out with him, just as other courting couples go out with each other, that if he wanted to make something of our lives together he would have to do things the right way. Of course it didn’t last long. He demanded more of me than I was prepared to give, sucked me back into his world with promises of this and that, made me feel guilty for not being able to look after the house and the kids for him. Before long I was spending more and more time in his house again than I was in my lovely flat on Broadstairs beach. Before long I was fetching and carrying, ferrying the kids back and forth for various activities like a taxi service and making silly excuses just to get on with my studying and attend my dance lessons.
Then something happened that changed everything. And I do mean everything.
I got pregnant.
The result of all our sherbet-induced sessions of very fiery lovemaking in the early hours of the morning was a tiny baby growing inside of me. The result of that was another prolonged series of arguments that always ended with me on the floor in tears again, feeling more demoralised than ever, wanting to keep my baby yet dreading the thought of doing so alone. The Drunken Gambler wanted me to have an abortion and used the whole thing as an excuse to go to the casino more often than usual and drink more while he was there. There ought to have been a law against drinking and gambling, one that would protect the rights of an unborn child against the decisions its incapable parents are capable of making against it.
I went back to Maidstone.
I talked to Father, hoping to get the support from him I felt I needed. He pulled me up short in a way I didn’t expect. He said that this was the best thing that could have happened to me as it would finally make me realise how wrong all the things in my life were and make me put them right. He thought I should have my baby too, but he also thought I should give it up for adoption once I had. I’d never heard him talking like that before, not to me.
I talked to Minnie and her parents. They were more supportive. Minnie was looking forward to having a cuddly baby to play with. Her parents were dead against abortion but not too sure how I would cope as a single parent with a new baby.
I talked to a friend from my church in Bearsted, one of the women who used to pick me up from ESP for church. She reminded me that it was my decision what happened to my body. She pointed out that God is forgiving, that no matter how bad it was to do something like that God would always forgive me. She said He knew how much I felt for my baby and He would take its soul back into His heart where it would be safe. I didn’t know what would happen to my baby’s soul but it was a comforting thought.
I talked to Adam. He was the most helpful of all. He played daddy and came to the abortion clinic with me for the first scan. I passed out when I saw the shape of my baby lying there in my tummy. How could it be blissfully unaware of all that was going on concerning its life? I felt as if it knew everything, that it was just crying out to be loved, just like I had when I was a small child. And I wanted to love it so much, give it all that I could, if only people would let me. He would have made a good parent, would Adam Waltz, even suggested that we run away together and he’d bring up my baby as if it were his own. But the Drunken Gambler had got so far inside my head that I couldn’t let go of him.
I went back.
I’d made up my mind. I was going to do a disappearing act on them all. Go and live somewhere no one would find me and bring my baby up on my own, just me and her. I’d wanted a girl for so long that I convinced myself it was a girl. But it was fantasy. The Drunken Gambler made me see that when I was foolish enough to discuss it with him as an option.
The last person but one I consulted was Irma. She had a vested interest in keeping me slim, but her logic was more on the child’s side than that. She laboured the point that should I do the disappearing act I would be a penniless single parent and my child would suffer because of it. Even though I had enough faith to see the flaws in that, by that time I was so confused that I’d been all but beaten into submission and would be glad when the whole thing was over and done with.
The last person I spoke to was the Jazzman. The night before the Drunken Gambler was due to take me to the clinic I phoned him. I spent the night in my on flat in Broadstairs. I wanted to spend one night alone with my baby, tell her I wasn’t rejecting her. The Drunken Gambler spent it in the casino as usual. I went out to the phone box on the harbour wall. What did I want? More absolution?
“When are you going to the clinic?”
“In the morning.”
“And do you want to do this?”
“No. But I don’t have a choice any more. He’s taking me there himself, paying for it himself and staying there with me to make sure I don’t leave.”
“You know, you do still have a choice. If you do this make sure it’s what you want too.”
“I just want the pain and the arguments to stop.”
“I think you should write it down. Write a story about it.”
He gave me a book title. He always did that, the Jazzman. For every occasion he always had a book title that would help. The funny thing was that it always did.
But I didn’t have a choice. Give up the Drunken Gambler and keep my baby. Keep my baby and give up my career as a dance teacher. There wasn’t any real choice; the baby would always have come first. Yet my faith and my viewpoint had been so eroded by everyone else’s points of view that I sacrificed her to popular demand, and I did it just because I was too weak to leave them all behind and start out on my own. Too weak to resist the Drunken Gambler when he came to force me into that car. Too weak to tell the doctor as she examined me and asked me if I was sure I wanted to go through with it that I wasn’t. I wanted to scream at them all to leave me and my baby alone, that we’d be okay. So why didn’t I?
I felt so empty.
The Jazzman was right; writing about the pain helped me to understand it. I wrote a story about it for a competition. Of course the girl in that story got to keep the baby. She found the courage to run away and bring her baby up on her own. And when the baby in the story had grown into a young woman there was a touching scene that found her walking into a lecture theatre in which her father was the lecturer. Her mother had walked out on a young junior lecturer unwilling to live up to the responsibility of a baby at that point in his career. She had written a definitive novel about her plight under a nom de plume and had sent him a copy anonymously. He knew it was her work and it had haunted him ever since. He used the text in his lectures and was surprised when this young woman had shown herself to be so familiar with its contents, until he had looked in her eyes and saw the eyes of her mother staring back at him. Grown-up Shoes, it was called. It didn’t win the competition but it kept me sane.
Meeting up with Adam had been a wonderful experience for me. At last I had what I really wanted. A stable, if turbulent, relationship with an older man, and a gorgeous young bit on the side to keep secret and see when I wanted to. Well, that was what I thought I wanted all the time I was with the Drunken Gambler. When I did manage to get away to see Adam, on one of my infrequent trips to Maidstone to see Minnie, I realised that all I really needed was an outlet, a little something that I could keep in reserve. For a rainy day.
It was nice seeing Adam on the side. He never dared to compare me to his sisters, in case I left him altogether. And he was never horrible to me either. It was a proper love affair. He wrote me letters telling me all the things he’d wanted to tell me when we’d been together before, things he hadn’t said then through complacency or being too sure of me. And I wrote him letters when the pressure got too much with the Drunken Gambler, when I needed something else to focus on to let off steam. We both had a little book each that we wrote these letters in, rather like the one I’d written for Miss X when I’d been in Bullwood Hall, only unlike that one we got to read each other’s once every so often when we saw each other.
I never dared say a word about him to the Drunken Gambler. He was psychotic when drunk, almost criminally insane, and found enough material to air his verbal sword through without me giving him any more. I was very good at keeping secrets. I sat at a desk in our bedroom and wrote in my diary for at least half an hour every night. He was usually asleep long before I got into bed and could never be bothered to look at what I was doing, either at the time or later on. There was a kind of perverse pleasure about writing to Adam right under the Drunken Gambler’s nose.
When I’d finished writing Grown-up Shoes I felt it was the right time to begin my big epic novel, the one that would make me millions, that would be snapped up by the film producers the moment it hit the best-seller lists. I’d been subconsciously planning it for a couple of months and the story line was beginning to flood out all other conscious thoughts. I lay awake nights thinking whole passages in my head then forgetting them in the morning. The Rosary Crusade it would be called. It was about a group of college kids who fall through a time portal and find themselves right in the middle of one of the later crusades. Finding themselves in the middle of a medieval war zone is an experience that is anathema to all but one of them. The goofy younger sister of one of the older guys is a medieval archaeology student who pits her wits against the situation, meets up with Saint Dominic, who teaches her that prayer is the most effective weapon against the infidel, especially this new prayer of his, the Rosary. She teaches the others how to pray the Rosary too and they aid Dominic’s brown-dressed army and win the day. Seconds before the time portal closes the last of the students slips back through and they all find themselves back in the common room they slipped through from with no time having elapsed. Well, I thought it was original.
It got to the planning stage but that was all. Then there was Christmas. What with buying presents, food, decorations, and all the other paraphernalia that a household needs to be filled with at Christmas, I found I had no time or energy for anything else for a month either side of the event. I’d not done the family Christmas thing for years. I found I was doing it that year on my credit cards, while the Drunken Gambler was still wasting Daisy’s money in the casino. He kept telling me not to worry, that he’d pay me back. It was always ‘we’ll be rich next week, you’ll see’.
The kids enjoyed Christmas. They had more presents thrown at them than ever before, which kept them happy even if it did nothing to reduce their sense of materialism. Then came New Year. Just a quiet family New Year without mishap or drama, the Drunken Gambler had said. To see the New Year in with the people he loved most in all the world, me and the kids, he’d said. It would have been fine too, if Daisy’s oldest daughter Ellis hadn’t shown up just before midnight roaring drunk and bent on wreaking retribution on everyone because she’d always sensed that her mum had never loved her.
First she laid into the Drunken Gambler, the step-dad who she’d watched dealing sherbet out to lowlifes like me and the King. Then, when she’d made him sufficiently angry, she turned on me. As she threw in accusation after accusation about what a dirty rotten junkie I’d been and how she’d come downstairs one night and caught me with a needle in my arm, how that picture had stuck in her mind all these years, I noticed a sea change on the Drunken Gambler’s face. I recognised the signs. He was turning all his anger against me. He couldn’t do anything to shut Ellis up, but he could take it all out on me instead. I braced myself.
All the time the kids were upstairs. The screaming and shouting had woken them up and they were scared, as they always were when their dad went off like this in a drunken rage. I remembered a time when I’d once stood in between him and Daisy while they argued like this. Daisy didn’t argue for long, she used her fists and he shut up fairly quickly. But I didn’t, I internalised everything, took it on board and just died a thousand deaths. Any other night but New Year’s Eve I could switch off, treat him like the naughty child he was and ride the storm out until it had dissipated, but New Year’s Eve was special, and he was ruining it. In his drunken rage he cast me out of his life forever, swearing that he hated me more than he could ever hate anything. He too called upon those yesterdays that Ellis had put into his mind and he too denounced me as a no good and worthless junkie capable of nothing but deceit and evil.
Once he’d fallen virtually unconscious himself, I cried myself to sleep. My life had crashed down around my ears again and I was panicking as I tried to rebuild it in my mind. When he woke up in the morning he was contrite and apologetic. I’d gone through it all for nothing, again. I would have gone anyway, but he wouldn’t let me.
When he was sober and stayed out of the casino he was the nicest person on earth. Just like Dr Jekyll. But Mr Hyde was only ever three glasses away from exhibiting his fangs, and that was where the trouble started. Pugsley told me that he’d taken it out on him and Jemima before I’d come to live with them. Eventually I stayed because I couldn’t bear the thought of him doing that to them again, but by then I needed a way out, desperately.
Without realising what he was doing he gave me a way out himself. He hated the fact that I spent more and more of my time immersed in writing one thing or another. I always read my stories to him. He said it soothed him to listen and he liked the things I wrote because they made him laugh. I’d read bits of Just Another Winter’s Tale to him. He liked it but it made him jealous because it was about the King and the Prince and not him. He wanted me to write something about him. I didn’t tell him that I thought it would have to be classed as a horror, just thought it to myself.
He read in the newspaper that Mills and Boon writers lived in castles and earned millions. He cut the article out and gave it to me. “You could write one o’ them easy!”
Well, yeah, sure I could. Couldn’t anyone with half a brain?
I agreed that, yes, it was worth thinking about. From that moment on he never let up on me for a moment. He seriously believed that I could make him a millionaire overnight, just by sitting down and writing a stupid love story. But the more I thought about it the more I could see a certain kind of freedom staring me in the face. If I was writing something that he had demanded of me, something that painted him the picture of himself that he already saw, something that he thought was going to make him rich, then at least he’d leave me alone to do it and I’d get some peace.
I figured out how long it would take me, how many chapters it would have to be, how much I could do in a day, and planned it around those factors. Then I came up with a ludicrous plot about a widowed antiques dealer called Aidan who falls in love with Mitzi, the best friend of his dead wife. I made it all seem so acceptable, so perfect. Even the Drunken Gambler liked his Lovejoy image as Aidan. But there were things he didn’t understand about Aidan that only I could see. Jokes at his expense that he took for pleasantries, ironies that he saw as flattering. I gave it a moralistic story line by making Aidan into a gambler and Mitzi into a long-suffering victim at the hands of an alcoholic father who’d gambled away her inheritance, her mother’s life insurance.
I wrote about our dirty weekend in Brighton, made it less sleazy and more cuddly. There was a good long bit in it about how Aidan and Mitzi fantasised about rebuilding the West Pier, which had fallen into disrepair. Aidan wanted to turn it into an Arts and Antiques Centre where people would come from exotic international destinations just to get his expert opinion on their pieces. The Drunken Gambler’s ideas had been more along the lines of powerboats and casinos. Mitzi and Aidan had strolled through the Lanes licking ice creams and visiting antiques shops instead of talking dirty to each other and taking drugs as we’d done.
I called it The Ace of Hearts.
When it was finished I left him.
18th December 1999
Actually, when it was finished I began to write another one. I remember taking a very academic interest in esoterica. I read about everything from astrology to numerology. I’d read some Mills and Boon titles that were thinly plotted around astrological material. The characters were always more concerned with whether they were well matched with other star signs and such like than they were with the reality of their relationships. Of course I had to go one better than that and started to build the characters for the second novel on star charts that I’d constructed from choosing them a particular birth date. It was all a little bit crazy, but I used it as an outlet, something to give me respite from the Drunken Gambler’s antics. When he wasn’t drunk or gambling he was really pretty boring and I had plenty of time on my hands for reading and writing. I’d got through the first chapter when the hurricane hit.
For weeks he’d been going on about staging a burglary on the house so that he could make a big claim on the insurance. Daisy’s life insurance had finally run out and he needed more money to gamble with. He owed me in excess of twenty thousand one way or another, but I knew I’d never see a penny of it back. I told him that if he went through with this burglary thing I could never stay in that house. He couldn’t understand why. I don’t really know if I could either. I tried explaining the sin in my life away even to myself, but I just knew that even I couldn’t excuse such a blatantly criminal act, not any more. He accused me of having changed. He meant it as an accusation, but I took it as a compliment. I realised that I really had changed, that I really could live my life by the rules I’d taken on board when I got baptised and confirmed. I realised that I really didn’t want to live my life the way he wanted to live his.
I remembered what had happened at Easter, when I’d been to the Easter Vigil mass at St Augustine’s Abbey. On my knees in front of God’s holy altar, surrounded by candles and incense, monks chanting their responses dressed in their black robes, something had reached out and grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and there were words in my head that I hadn’t thought. “I want you out of there,” they said. They rang through me with force and finality, like I was being given one last chance that I would be very stupid not to take. “I’ve given you enough rope, but I’m not going to let you hang yourself. It’s time to leave.”
I knew God was talking to me, telling me how He felt about my life, I’d just never heard Him talking so directly to me before. It had a powerful effect on me, even if I didn’t act on His words right away. I asked Him to do it when He was ready.
He was ready right at the beginning of chapter two of The Music Makers, my astrologically contrived second Mills and Boon.
I’d concocted some story about visiting Minnie in Maidstone that got me away from Ramsgate for the day and free to spend time with Adam. But the Drunken Gambler had wanted a babysitter that day. The gambling urge was heavily upon him and he resented having to resist it to look after his own kids. He’d been in a foul enough mood when I left, that could only get worse, I knew, but I wanted to see Adam more than I wanted to appease his demons and let them go off gambling madly. I still went. I had a lovely time with Adam, talking about old times, taking silly pictures of each other, then went back to Minnie’s house about nine o’ clock. Her mum told me that the Drunken Gambler had phoned several times, that he’d sounded more drunk each time and the last time she’d heard the kids screaming in the background.
I feared for their safety, but I was at least an hour away from being able to help them. I phoned, in the hope that I could calm him down a bit for them. He asked where I’d been. Foolishly I told him I’d been out with my gay mates. It seemed better than telling him about Adam, and probably was, but I hit a very raw nerve. He swore obscenities at me through the phone, calling me all the names I’d ever heard and a few I hadn’t, then shouted at me for not being there so that he could go out. I knew then that there was nothing more I could do to help Daisy’s children that I hadn’t already done. I knew then that all I’d ever been to her husband was a bad substitute for her, one that would look after her house and her kids the way she would have wanted. “There’s nothing more you can do,” her voice said to me, just as it had on so many occasions before she died. “It’s time to move on.”
It seems ironic now that God’s command was given the final voice through Daisy. At the time I just felt as if I was letting her down, as if I’d spent eighteen months of my life letting everyone else down too. Daisy was always so practical and down to earth, she made her decision and she stood by it, no matter what it was. Her voice soothed my troubled conscience a few months later too. “You did the best you could,” it said. “It took me twenty one years to tame him. Thank you for even trying.”
The last few months I’d lived with him had seemed very strange to me indeed. It was like I was living in someone else’s life, like I didn’t belong in the life I was living. That’s when I started to really notice how much I had changed. It felt odd that only months before I’d felt called to religious life and yet I’d let these old patterns of drug abuse and sexual immorality creep in so easily. I began to understand how the Christian moral code did apply to me, even if I was still powerless to know how to take it on board as a working system. I began to understand why Father had been so upset with me, why his reactions to my baby had seemed a bit brutal.
The Drunken Gambler saw red when I told him I’d been out with my gay mates because his secret fear, for all his fantasising, was that I’d run off with another woman. I sometimes wonder how he would have reacted if I’d just told him about Adam. He had such a suspicious nature, yet it was only suspicious of the things he was personally scared of. I never mentioned Adam and nor did he, but not because he had some secret fear about him, more because he never saw him as a threat. What could some youngster ever have that he hadn’t? No! The only thing he was scared of was being upstaged by a woman. If only he’d known that he had no real grounds for fear. I’d all but grown out of my lesbian phase by that time. A few leftover fantasies were all that remained of it.
Absolution. Did I ever find it? Was Daisy’s voice as it went through my head enough? Yes, I think it was. Even from the grave she was capable of grounding me in her earthy wisdom. But what of Elysia? Absolution isn’t what she’s looking for. Quite the reverse. She needs to forgive all those demons in her past that she will meet on her journey? Two sides of the same coin perhaps, absolution and forgiveness.
How much unfinished business do you have as you approach the third millennium? Who do you need to forgive? Who do you need to absolve by? Who hears your prayers? What would you like to find behind the eighteenth door of your advent calendar? Is your focus material or spiritual?
Elysia has learned to put aside her fear and her self-indulgence. If only we could all be like her and learn so quickly. Her beloved always seems to reward her appropriately. I wonder what reward she’ll receive today.
Remorse for having had such selfish and doubting thoughts poured out of her as she adjusted to her new inner strength. How could she have been so lily-livered, she wondered? After all she’d learnt from Him and everything she’d planned with Him, she could not believe that she could think such thoughts.
“Put them aside, Elysia!”
She was so deep in these reveries that jumped when she heard his voice behind her. She sat curled up on one of the couches in her drawing room, her head resting on its comfortable arm.
“They are done with. Is it not indeed foolishness to dwell on the wreckage that was when the house has already been rebuilt?” His voice was gentle but there was an undercurrent of severity that drove the gravity of his question home.
“But I was so faithless and selfish. I am unworthy.”
“And you have said you’re sorry and meant it. That is enough. There are far more important things to be thinking of now. The way forward not the way back.”
She brightened visibly. She uncurled her legs from underneath her on the couch and straightened herself. “Yes, of course. You’re right.”
“There is one very positive thing that you can do.”
“To our Father in Heaven. That He guide you true in my footsteps.”
“But I thought—”
“That Father, Son and Holy Spirit are One, so your relationship with me was enough?”
“Well, yes, I suppose so.”
“My beloved, even I spend all the time I’m not with you in prayer to Our Father.”
Elysia sat thoughtfully. So besotted with Him as she was, it had never crossed her mind that there might be anything more than Him.
“Ask my Mother to help you.” From around his neck he took a richly decorated gold chain made up of five lots of ten small precious beads, each separated by five large diamonds and bound together by a gold medal. Another five beads dropped from the medal on their gold chain and a heavy gold crucifix hung at their end. “She will take your petitions straight to Our Father in deepest earnest and longing. This is her Rosary.”
“It’s beautiful.” Elysia was almost speechless at the sight of the beautiful jewels and the rich gold. “I had no idea—”
“That my Mother could help you so much? Or that I would allow you to have such a beautiful object to enlist your prayer to her?”
“Well, both. I think.”
“This is a very special place, Elysia. My Mother is a very special woman. Ask her to pray for you about these feelings you have of unworthiness. She knows how to pray for these things. She is a woman too. She knows how to pray for your release from the past programming that binds these things to you. She knows how they will hinder my Spirit unless you are stripped of their power to manipulate you. Her prayers will bring you out the other end of your tunnel rid of this past programming.”
“How do I ask her to pray for me?”
“Wear this around your neck as a constant reminder of her purity and obedience. Let it fill you with a sense of the fullness of her life. She was Joyful. She was Sorrowful. She was Glorious. In each decade of her Rosary she will unfold the mysteries of her life to you. All you have to do is ask her and she will aid you on your journey by praying for you, just as I have said.”
See you all on December 19th with Chapter Nineteen! Happy wishing. I don’t think anyone should ask for a gold rosary with precious beads and diamond separators, though :-).
Brightest Blessings and a Happy Advent Journey to any and all of you who are reading this,
PS: If you’d like to read Worlds Without End whole and uninterrupted on your Kindle, or on iBooks, you can go to the My Books tab at the top of the page, or just click on the ad in the sidebar on the right, to download the complete book now.