An excerpt from Faithless is below.
The fallen cannot be saved.
The ghostly words drift over the atmosphere as the cold chill of winter whistles through the trees, confirming the northerly snow shower forecast today is imminent.
I look over my shoulder at the small congregation of mourners filing out of the cemetery. They talk amongst themselves or pin their gazes on me. Some impart sympathetic smiles, while others glare with pure disdain, revealing their true thoughts. Holding their hateful stares, refusing to be the one to back down and give them further fuel for the fire, I stand and take it because today will be the last day that I have to.
Eventually, they part, exposing someone I never wanted to see again. My breath catches in my throat because I wasn’t aware he was given permission to be here today. Flanked by two men in uniform, the chains around his limbs hinder his movement, but the clink of shackles is louder than it should be considering the distance separating us.
Overcome with grief, my hand instantly finds my temple. Gently grazing my finger over the fresh scar, running from the corner of my eye to my eyebrow, a distant wail of pain echoes inside my head, remembering how it came to be just a few short weeks ago. As my hand continues its descent, finally resting upon my neck, it invokes yet another unwanted memory.
Staring at the slow retreating form of the man I was once in love with, I finally see what everyone warned me of. I see the truth behind the lies, behind the façade he flawlessly crafted to fool everyone. But that mask started to slip long before even he realised. And let’s face it, there is only so long someone can hide who they truly are.
“You fucking bitch!”
The scream rings in my ears as he strains against the chains and tries to make his way towards me. The guards quickly restrain him, but the damage has already been done as the remaining parishioners watch his show of lies and deceit.
“You fucking lied, you bitch! This is all your fault. I’m going to fucking kill you. You’ve ruined my life!”
“Move it. Now!” a guard orders, shoving him in the opposite direction with brute force.
I quickly shift behind a tall headstone and crouch down with my head in my hands, waiting for the silence to return.
“You’re fucking dead, bitch! Dead!” His diatribe continues to penetrate the peaceful surroundings, loud and venomous, enough to raise the dead.
Wiping my tears in vain, he has caused yet another ripple in the calm. Because of his family’s reputation, whoever witnessed his little tirade will automatically believe it.
I press my forehead to the headstone and listen, heartbroken, as the doors of the armoured van are slammed shut. I slump back against the stone, grateful he is gone, but I know this will not be the last time I shall face him. The next time shall be in a place where his fate will, hopefully, be sealed indefinitely.
“Hey,” Lynsey, an old school friend greets softly, approaching my hiding place. As I stand, I come face to face with the same circle of friends I used to hang around with in high school. Needless to say, I haven’t really spoken to them in a long time. For obvious reasons, we no longer have anything in common anymore.
“Hi,” I whisper and give her the most convincing smile I can muster.
“I guess we were all wrong about him.” Her eyes drift towards the security van now exiting the grounds.
I follow her gaze but don’t respond. Mentally, I’m too preoccupied fighting back the urge to break down and tell everyone they were right, and I was wrong.
“I’m really sorry. Are you going to be okay?”
I shrug nonchalantly because that’s one of the few questions that have been asked of me repeatedly these past four weeks. And I absolutely hate it.
Are you going to be okay?
Are you sure you’ll be fine?
Two words I can no longer stomach to hear. There is nothing okay or fine about me, maybe there never will be again, but only time will tell if my theory is correct.
“Sure,” I whisper, mortified that she has just seen first-hand a small level of the abuse I suffered. Still, there is nothing else I can say. I could lie, I suppose, but anyone with a heart will see through it instantly.
“Thanks for coming, Lynsey.” She bequeaths me a sad smile and pulls me into an unreciprocated hug.
“I’ll see you around. You take care of yourself, okay?” I nod, unsure how I’m going to manage that.
She eventually lets me go, and the girls say their goodbyes. Watching them walk away, I shield my eyes from the sun penetrating the wintery clouds.
My sight shifts from my former friends to the imposing figure, standing at the arched stone entrance. His presence casts a dark shadow as the sun glimmers down, highlighting his attire. From one wolf in sheep’s clothing to another, it’s almost mocking that the men I once trusted implicitly have contributed to my unwarranted demise. But now I know better.
Studying him, he wears his usual expression of disappointment. It’s nothing new, but I thought, on today of all days, compassion would burst through his staunch façade. Sadly, I was wrong in my romantic idea that wishful thinking would overrule.
“Norman?” My mother calls as she walks up behind him. She stops short, glancing with despair between our father/daughter impasse until he storms out of the cemetery. She lifts her finger in command to stay and dutifully chases after him.
I loiter on the spot as the bells ring from the spire, disturbing the stillness. The seconds pass uncomfortably, and I close my eyes in resignation, aware she may not return.
It isn’t a secret in our closed-off, dysfunctional family that there is a possibility he won’t allow it. Honestly, I should consider myself lucky he decided to put on the charade of being the grieving, caring father by presiding over today’s service. How he’s managed to pull the wool over the eyes of the village we live in is no small feat. If they only knew the truth of my existence for the last three years. If only they knew a lot of things, rather than listening to the lies and hearsay.
The bells chime again as I walk around the graveyard. They confirm thirty minutes have slipped by with still no sign of my mother returning. Why I thought she would, I have no idea.
I hold the flowers to my chest and stop and stare frantically at the spot I vacated just an hour ago. Sickness and fear claws at my insides as I watch the gravediggers fill in the now occupied hole, disrupting the last precious moments I have left in this place.
“Sorry, love, but you can’t be here,” one of the men says, slamming down the spade and rubbing his hands together to ward off the cold.
“O-oh.” I baulk, succumbing to the pain because those seven little words have just shattered my world further.
Honestly, if I can’t be here, where else can I go? I had a home, now it’s gone. I had a family, and now, that too is gone. I had everything until it was ripped from me.
It’s safe to say my New Year hasn’t started the way I anticipated. And nothing will ever be the same again.
I clutch the carnations for dear life and hesitate because his statement has thrown me. My feet refuse to move because I need to be here. Holding his eyes, I want to beg him; to plead to let me stay just a little longer.
He reads my thoughts perfectly and yanks the shovel from the ground with fierce determination – a show of who has the upper hand here. The second man’s eyes flit between his mate and me, then he takes a sip from the steaming thermos mug in his hand.
“Hang on,” he says, pulling a crumpled sheet of paper from his pocket. “Are you family?” I nod furiously, hoping he will see my desperation. Kindness envelops his face, and the age lines soften around his eyes.
“Tony?” he calls to his colleague. “Let’s give the girl some space.”
He continues to speak, but it might as well be white noise filtering my eardrums. Maybe it’s the cold, or maybe it’s the strain of the day and the weeks preceding finally taking their toll. But truthfully, it’s none of the above. I ceased to hear anything the moment crying stopped, paving the way for the beautiful, deathly sound of silence. My world ended a month ago, and I’ve been in limbo ever since.
“We’ll be back in an hour, love. We can’t give you any longer than that. I’m sorry.” The man reaches out and squeezes my arm in comfort.
“Thank you,” I offer, grateful for his compassion.
As I sit down on the freshly dug earth, the brass plaque glistens atop the coffin; a tiny ray of hope penetrating the bleak conditions.
I wipe my eyes and stare at the headstone. Softly tracing the gilding, memorising each letter, guilt flays me, and I mentally fight against the urge to throw myself in.
I’ve repeatedly been told that time is healing, that one day I will look back and not blame myself. Yet there is no one I can hold responsible or shift culpability to. This is my failure. I recognised the signs long ago, and I should have screamed my fears at anyone who would listen. I should have done so many things… So many things that shall now haunt me until the day I die.
All the moments of the last few years blight my broken soul. Thinking back to when our journey first started, I never thought this is how it would end. But it has, and now I’m left to pick up the pieces alone.
Except, have I been anything else for the last three years?
Laying down, I rest my head in my hands and speak things I know will never be heard. Confessions that will never be forgiven.
In my heart, I need to be absolved.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I’m sorry I didn’t protect you. That I wasn’t good enough. I tried, but it was too late. I was too late.”
Footsteps approach and I lift my head, expecting to see the men returning. Instead, I see a sight that almost stops my already slow beating heart.
“I thought you’d gone.”
“No,” she whispers.
“Did you see him?” I ask, wondering if she and my father witnessed the latest show of lies. “Did you hear what he said?”
“I did, sweetheart,” she replies sincerely.
I sit up and wipe my nose on the sleeve of my plastered arm. My heart is breaking, obliterating. I want her to hold me and tell me everything is going to be okay. That I will make it through this and come out of the other side stronger, fighting with such determination, I won’t even recognise myself. But they are just misguided fantasies to appease my soul. Nothing can erase what has been and gone – nor can it erase the blame I carry inside.
Tomorrow, next month, next year… It doesn’t matter how long because I will always be that poor girl who couldn’t save a life.
Mum smiles sadly, then picks up a carnation, kisses it, and drops it in. “They like to gossip, but they know he’s lying, sweetheart,” she says after a drawn-out pause and sits beside me.
“Do they?” I query. “This is all my fault.”
“No, it isn’t,” she says firmly, tugging me onto her lap. I lean my head back against her shoulder, and my body shakes as I emit my anguish. Her soft hands stroke my cheeks and forehead, soothing me, trying to pacify the rage inside at this injustice.
“Do you think she hates me?” It’s a stupid question, and one I know will never be answered.
“I feel so ashamed,” I confess.
“Don’t you ever say that. You did everything right. Everything.” She turns me abruptly, and her eyes latch onto the locket around my neck. “If anyone should be ashamed, it’s me. I let this happen. I allowed him to leave you floundering when you needed us. I turned the other cheek because I was ordered to, because I was too frightened not to, and I’ll never forgive myself for it.”
To hear her speak such things is heartbreaking because I’ve never blamed her. Our family, the dynamics of it, has never been easy to manoeuvre. My father rules tyrannically; he doesn’t know any different. He’s a product of his own beliefs. It has made him hard and unwavering. Over the years, his firm faith has slipped into something that none of us no longer recognise. The man he was is gone, lost underneath his strong, disciplinarian authority.
When we were growing up, some days we couldn’t even breathe without causing his temper to snap. And God knows I have been on the receiving end of it more often than I would like to admit.
“I love you, Mummy,” I murmur, calling her the name I haven’t since I was eleven and realised how uncool it was.
“I love you too, my special girl,” she replies, also calling me the name she hasn’t in years. She always used to say I was special because I wasn’t expected. I was just…there.
“Come on, let’s go home,” she says, standing awkwardly.
I get to my feet and pick up the flowers. Removing one from the bunch, I drop the rest into the grave and lay the carnation on the headstone. Mum tugs me close and seizes my hand tight as the gravediggers make their way over to us.
“Thank you,” I tell them.
“Take care of yourself, sweetheart,” one of them says, giving me a tight nod.
Mum tucks me into her side as we move through the narrow winding paths. The bells begin to toll again, and my body instantly halts, rigid and stoic, while a thought comes to me.
“Where’s Da-” The word lodges painfully in my throat.
“He’s gone to the rectory. He won’t be back until later.”
“Also at the rectory. Come on, it’ll just be us.”
I gaze bleary-eyed out of the window while Mum drives slowly through the village streets. I memorise my childhood surroundings, possibly for the last time, as we pass the place I want to forget about entirely. It’s the place I spent the last few years, mostly living in fear.
“Have you spoken to them recently?”
“No, they don’t care about me. I was just a burden on their precious reputation. Everything they did was to save themselves from talk and ridicule, it was never to protect me. And they proved it, didn’t they?” I mutter rhetorically, while the house of horrors blends into the scenery behind us.
I shut the car door and swallow hard, fearful to look upon the house that was once my home. Trudging up the path, taking in the Creeping Jenny snaking up the trellis, it feels like the world has stood still, and the time I spent away is just pure imagination.
My fingers drift over the front door, and I rim the letterbox, recalling the day I stood on this very step. Begging, crying. I was praying for a dream that would never come true.
“Honey?” Mum nudges me aside as she unlocks the door. I follow her inside, and the memory of my father’s voice that fateful day permeates through the atmosphere. It infuses to the back of my mind, deep into the solitary place I banished it after the event. The sound of the lock draws me back to the here and now. Turning around, Mum strokes her finger down my face, her eyes full of mutual love that we have been cheated out of by another’s will.
“Have you eaten today?”
“No, I couldn’t keep anything down. The story of my life lately,” I reply as she strides off to the kitchen. Following her dutifully, I stop outside the living room on impulse. The picture in my mind’s eye taunts me because inside this room is where the nightmare partially began.
“Honey?” Mum calls again.
“Coming,” I reply in a whisper and hurry after her.
An unwelcome sensation chills my blood as Mum quickly makes us a couple of sandwiches. Pulling out what used to be my usual chair, she puts a plate in front of me, and I pick up half of the sandwich and contemplate. I doubt I’ll be able to keep it down, but I’m not helping myself by slowly starving to death.
Shoving it into my mouth, and my stomach churns instantly at the thought of trying to digest it. It’s been so long since I’ve properly eaten anything, I’ll be amazed if I don’t throw it up in the next thirty minutes.
“Where have you been living for the past month?” Mum asks as she rubs my hand. “I thought you were still with them until I saw her ladyship in the supermarket and she asked how you were. I lied, of course, but where have you been?”
“A hostel.” I sigh. “I couldn’t exactly go back there considering the charges, and after what Dad said to me, I thought it best for all of us if I stayed somewhere else until all of this was over. Now that it is, I have choices to make.”
The mug in Mum’s hand suspends dramatically in mid-air, then slams down on the table, sloshing tea over the top.
“You better not be saying what I think you are.” Her anguish is ubiquitous, and I lift my eyes from the mess and inconspicuously shake my head.
She really expected me to stay. To walk these streets every day, pretending to be living, but I can’t do that. There are too many memories here and too many heartaches. And far too many people who know my story, and those who spread lies because they don’t.
“Mum, I can’t stay. The looks, the whispers, even those brave enough to say stuff to my face. I can’t… Please don’t be mad at me,” I plead.
“I’m not, sweetheart. I just wish I could change the things I’ve done for the last three years. I should have been stronger and stood up to your dad. You know, I never used to be so weak. Everything was fine for a long time. We were young, in love, but when he got appointed here, I was expected to be seen and not heard. It was an order from my successor that I took very seriously. It was easy when it was just the two of us, but when you girls came along that demand became harder and harder.”
“Mum, please,” I beg, desperate for her to stop because I’m aware of those hard demands.
“No. I’m woman enough to admit that I should have done better by you. I’m not blind. I understand why you sought solace away from this house.”
“And look how that turned out for me.” I drop my eyes to my hand and turn my ring repeatedly. “I’ve made such a mess of everything.”
“No, darling. You haven’t.” Mum places her hand over mine, caressing it lovingly. And I smile; the first real smile I’ve managed since New Year’s Eve.
I glance outside as the room dims a little, and the day begins to fall into a murky grey outside.
“Where will you go?” Her question is quiet, fearful, snagging my attention from the window.
“I don’t know.” I shrug and lie.
She nods singularly, absorbing my confession, until she stands, scraping back the chair on the floor. She leaves the room and returns a moment later clutching her purse.
“I realise I can’t make you stay. You’re a grown woman, and you’ve been through more than most have already.” I bite my lip in discomfort as she purges her true thoughts. “Here,” she says, and drops an envelope on the table.
I lift the flap and flick through the wad of notes inside. “I can’t accept this.”
“Yes, you can,” she responds firmly, sliding her thumbs under my eyes. “It will help you get on your feet. Just promise you’ll write and tell me where you are. You might be a grown woman, but you’ll always be my baby.”
I nod and curl my arms around her since she is unaware today will be the last time I shall see her. I will write, but I can never return. It breaks my heart because even when times were tough, she was always less than a couple of miles away. But when I wake tomorrow, I’ll be in a different city, with no one to care or comfort me.
Mum’s hold slackens, and she leads me out of the kitchen and up the stairs.
Inside my old bedroom, warm familiarity shrouds me, seeing the things I was forced to leave behind. I open the wardrobe door and brush my hand over the stuff still hanging inside. I remove a few items and put them on the bed. Glancing at my mum, she is holding one of my old school bags.
“Do you have anything left at the hostel?”
“No, just a few items the staff gave to me when I arrived. They still have all my stuff.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll get everything back for you,” she says sadly, tucking the clothes inside the bag. Sitting down on the bed and absorb the space for the final time. I pick up the picture from the bedside table of two little girls posing, with pigtails, missing teeth, and matching pink cardigans. The bed moves and Mum’s body heat envelops my side as she manipulates me closer.
“How is she lately?”
“She’s good. She tells me she’s enjoying uni. I think she’s lying,” Mum says coyly, and I smile. Of course, she’s lying. She’s doing what he told her to, not what she wants to.
“Do you think she’ll forgive me?”
“Absolutely. She thinks you walk on water. The only reason why I sent her away is because I knew she wouldn’t let you leave. I’m sorry I didn’t allow you to say goodbye.”
“No,” I whisper. “If the roles were reversed, I’d do the same. I’d fight kicking and screaming to make her stay.”
“I’ll talk to her; make her understand. Just promise me you’ll write to her. Say what you need to and don’t hold back. She deserves your honesty.”
“Even if my honesty makes her hate him? Even if it rips this family apart?”
She nods. “There’s been far too many lies in this family for far too long. In truth, this family has been in tatters for years.”
I chew my lip and acquiesce, then hold out my hand. “Will you take me to the station?”
“Of course,” Mum says, her palm tight in mine as I grab the bag. “Grudgingly, mind.”
Walking down the stairs, I scrutinise everything. Memorising and reminiscing, I stop at the bottom and stroke my fingers over the picture taking pride of place on the windowsill. Picking it up, I’m surprised it is even allowed it to be exposed in his house.
“Take it,” she urges. “I have another copy. I have some more you can take, too.” She then gathers up a stack of framed pictures.
“Thank you,” I whisper, taking them eagerly.
“He’s always loved you in his own way. He just doesn’t know how to express it.”
How I want to refute her statement and scream out that they are lies, but I don’t. Instead, I hold the frames to my chest and leave the house for the last time.
I clutch the seat belt, experiencing the newest wave of discomfort sweeping through the car.
The journey to the station has been fraught with my nerves and Mum’s apprehension. When she agreed to transport me, I don’t think she appreciated the enormity of my request. The tension peeling off her is palpable. As much as I want to tell her I’ll be okay, we’re both aware it may not pan out that way. I might have been mentally and emotionally alone for the last three years, but physically, I always had someone close – if I needed them.
“Are you sure you still want to do this?”
I nod, but I don’t dare look at her. Regardless that I’m terrified, I need a fresh start. Even if I end up returning with my tail between my legs, begging for help. I need to find myself again.
I shut the car door and slide my hand into Mum’s as we head into the station. Studying the departure and arrival boards, I slip off my rucksack and pull out a few notes from the envelope.
“Departure is in fifteen minutes.” The clerk slides over my one-way ticket.
I turn around, but I’m stopped short as my mother cries openly. It is only the third time I have seen her this way. The first was three years ago, then one month ago, and now today.
My own eyes water in reciprocation and I wrap my arms around her. “Please don’t cry for me. I’ll be fine.”
“I love you. So, so much.”
“I love you, too,” I reply, tearful. “I’m going to be okay; I swear.” Looking down at my hand, I remove the ring of inconvenience and press it into her palm. “Get rid of this for me.”
She sighs, wipes her eyes, and shakes her head. “Removing it doesn’t make it final and binding.”
“I’m aware. Once I’m settled, I’ll start proper proceedings.”
“Let me know if you need money. I’ll sort something out.”
Shame consumes me as I walk onto the platform because it feels wrong to expect her to financially rectify my mistakes.
“That’s me,” I say, as the overhead announcement confirms boarding.
“London? Sweetheart, no, please don’t go!” she pleads in desperation. I understand her worry, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling apprehensive.
“I promise I’ll stay in touch,” I reply, fighting to stay composed in her wilting presence. It’s hard, but I’ll save my tears for when I’m out of sight.
She bundles me into a final embrace and whispers in my ear. I know she loves me, but for years she has been caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s a shame that the only time she can openly express her affection is here, in a moment when she knows she is losing me forever.
“I love you,” I impart for the last time as I struggle to break free from her suffocating grip. I board the carriage, and turn back at the door, but am unable to handle it when she drops to her knees on the platform, heartbroken.
Easily locating my seat by the window, I roughly wipe my eyes and sit down while Mum gets back up on her shaky legs. The train begins to slowly depart, and I flatten my palm to the glass. Locking eyes with each other, it seems she has the same idea when she places her hand on the other side and runs alongside until the platform runs out.
Tears sting my eyes, while my hometown fades into the distance behind me for the final time. I slouch back and mentally separate myself from everything that has happened these last few years; starting with every impulsive, teenage decision I’ve ever made, and ending with the greatest. Catching sight of my reflection as another train passes, I know this isn’t the end.
I smile as the conductor moves down the gangway, checking tickets. Sitting alone at the table for four, I discreetly study the couple opposite as they tease each other lovingly. They can’t be much older than me, and it’s depressing because, for a short time, I also dared to dream of love. I also used to believe in fairy tales and happy endings.
Now I don’t believe in anything. And if there is one thing life has taught me, it’s that I can no longer love or trust another human being.
I glide my finger over my temple, tracing the three-week-old scar, and finally concede my father was right.
The fallen cannot be saved.
And that is the hardest lesson this lost lamb of God has finally learnt.
Copyright Faithless by Elle Charles 2018
Available to pre-order now. Officially released on 2 July 2018.