One October evening, after finishing an unusually light evening meal, a young American man by the name of Charles gathered up his belongings, kissed his wife and his two young sons goodbye and left their family home on the outskirts of Rendlesham in Suffolk, England. He then began what his wife believed was to be the short journey to his place of work, for the night shift.
He slowly reversed the car out of the garage, switching on the lights, his breath misting up the windows in the autumnal chill as his uniformed body adjusted to the outside temperature. There were very few people around on the estate. Curtains were firmly closed, not quite entirely masking the glow of cosy living rooms and the flickering of weeknight televisions. Charles caught sight of just one solitary dog-walker, shoulders hunched with cold and smoking a cigarette, walking down the opposite pavement, his back to the car, before he turned the vehicle into the main road leading out of the estate, towards the T-junction.
The estate was in quiet countryside. The only access road hugged it lazily in a long sweeping curve along its right-hand perimeter as you faced north. To the other side of this main road, there was open farmland. A tall fence and a security gate guarded the housing estate, which had been purpose built for families like Charles's. Military families; all of whom were in some way connected to the United States Air Force Base just a mile or so down the road as you turned left.
Charles normally would have been in auto-pilot. He knew that first gear wasn't necessary when he drew up to the T-junction before he made the turn. Ordinarily, he would slam up to it in second, maybe even third, before indicating left and quickly accelerating away from the junction before the engine choked, towards the air-base, his vehicle's tail lights disappearing into the darkness.
But tonight was different.
Instead he crawled slowly past the gate, which he was pleased and not entirely surprised to see was un-manned, having studiously done his homework, and drew up to the junction before stepping gently on the clutch.
He breathed deeply.
Charles was an extremely high-achiever. At that time, in 1988, he was the youngest ever Master-Sergeant in the US Air Force at only 28 years of age. He had a young, beautiful English wife. He had two gorgeous young sons. Merely babies; aged 4 years and 4 months. He had financial stability. A glowing future.
He had everything.
No-one will ever know what went on inside Charles's head at this point. No-one will ever know why he didn't indicate left towards the air-base and instead chose to turn right towards Woodbridge, towards the main town in the area. All we know, all that those who were involved can testify, is that his desire, his need, to do what he was about to do, sadly proved too strong for him to control.
One flick of his hand on the indicator switch.
That's all it took to change everything beyond any kind of recognition.
That decision was to destroy many, many lives.
I unexpectedly came back to England two years ago, after living on the continent for four years.
At the time, I was kicking and screaming, at least internally. I had no intention of living in the UK again, let alone going back to my birth place. Suddenly there I was with two kids and two suitcases. My relationship, my life, had fallen monumentally apart and, worse than that, taken the lives of my children with it, forcing them to leave a life in Switzerland behind that they so dearly loved.
This was after rebuilding my life a second time after my first marriage broke up six years previously.
36 years old. Two failed relationships including one divorce. Homeless and penniless. Two kids to support.
Go directly back to the start, do not pass go, any investment made up until this point is null and void. Go on, have another go. See if you can get it right this time.
Basically, it was all just one big mess.
But that isn't the worst of it, at least not looking back at it now.
The first year or so in England was an agonizing, miserable haze I found I just simply had to stumble and negotiate my way through. Any mum will testify that their children's happiness comes first. Mine were no exception. I tried my utmost to concentrate on their wellbeing. I ensured I talked to their teachers regularly. I was involved. I kept the school informed of the whole family situation. My kids needed that back up. I was a shell of my former self and I needed their teachers' positive influence to steer my children well whenever I was failing.
The part that I find difficult to explain to people, however, is what was actually going on inside me.
I felt like I'd died inside. That sounds so over-dramatic, doesn't it? I simply cannot describe it any other way.
True, we all had our health. No-one had died. I'd just been dumped, for god's sake. But I'd lost more than a relationship. I'd lost my strength. My spark. I felt I had nothing left inside me any more. Too many times I'd been knocked down. I just didn't feel there was any point in getting up any more.
I wasn't suicidal. I almost couldn't be bothered with that. Suicide would have taken effort, even a kind of bravery, perhaps. The tiniest streak of sanity left within me knew that I couldn't do anything that would actively and negatively affect my kids (although in hindsight I hate to imagine how they have actually been affected, witnessing my misery for so long).
I didn't want to face that I was severely depressed. I'd already been through years of therapy. I was sick of going over old ground.
So I just kind of quietly disappeared inside myself. After the kids went to bed, I anaesthetised myself with alcohol. I self-harmed at times. I punished my failings in life by depriving myself of sleep. I didn't deserve to be taken care of by the father of my children. Therefore, I didn't deserve even to take care of myself.
And kids are great for this kind of stuff. I'm a parent, therefore they come first. Always. They provide the perfect tactic to ignore your own welfare and focus on theirs. For the most part, maybe that's the way it should be. These days I'd like to think that kids deserve a parent who is some way towards being content. Parenting is hard and it requires a solid foundation.
So back then, inwardly, I functioned, that's all.
Outwardly, I was doing ok. I ensured that I smiled in the playground, I communicated well with teachers and other Mums, I laughed and joked.
I had a theory back then, which I still hold to be true.
I believe it's a rare thing when someone asks these days, "How are YOU?" and actually really wants to spend time listening to the answer you're about to give. Listening… really hearing, is a skill. A dying art. Opinions, judgements and assumptions are too easily offered without knowing history, background, information and feelings. Without listening.
And I had to avoid that question at all costs.
My guard was working perfectly at that time. I appeared to be fine. Coping well, in fact. Therefore, no-one would ask me "How are you?" and really, really, want to know truth.
And I wouldn't have to face it, either.
Even the strongest structures aren't infallible to the forces of nature.
I believe memories, and the emotions that these memories can create, are the strongest, most powerful things of all.
And in my new life in England, memories are everywhere. In every place I go to, in every road I walk down, in every tree I pass, in every bloody blade of grass, it seems.
Sadly, they aren't all happy ones.
The house opposite my estate, the one I face each and every time I drive out of my house, is where I stayed for the first few nights after my mother and I were raped. Where, aged just a couple of months after my fourteenth birthday, I drank a huge gin and tonic that my friend's mum poured me. We all sat around her kitchen table as a huge storm raged outside. We were all exhausted and emotional. I'd finally got back from the police station after being examined. I still had masking tape in my hair.
Two roads along is my old family home. Some happy memories, yes. But whenever I walk past, I see my father's old bedroom window. And I am instantly transported to one terrible night, when he lay on a sweat-soaked bed, desperately pulling himself up on the metal bar that had been rigged up above his bed by the Macmillan nurses, to help him sit up. I remember my mum leading me into the bedroom and trying to get me to talk to my Dad during his final days. I was in denial, you see. 12 years old and didn't want to believe my Dad was going to die.
I walked into the room and was choked by the smell of cancer. And when I looked into his eyes all I saw was the blackness of his fear. The eyes of a once-healthy man that knew his time was at an end. They seemed full of all the things he wanted to say. Full of regrets, perhaps.
It was like staring into hell.
And I also saw that he didn't recognise me.
He knew everyone else in the room: my Mum, my brother, my sister, my Uncle…
…but not me.
And I've blamed myself ever since. I thought he was angry at me for abandoning him.
For no longer being his daughter…
…for not visiting him in his room after school like my brother and sister did each day, because I was too scared to deal with his illness.
Because 12 year old me simply couldn't cope.
And not far from my Mum's current house at the end of the town, just along from the playing field where she now walks her dog, there's a little new-build that had been my and her little place for a time. We had been so sad to leave the big family home after Dad died. But financially there had been no choice. This fairly non-descript little detached red brick house had been our new start. And for a few months we had been really quite happy there.
We'd had our rows, of course. One day my Mum discovered I'd been smoking. So to avoid any further problems, I'd sneak out with the dog and my fags in my pocket. I'd walk to the park and do one quick lap around, managing to squeeze in a couple of cigarettes as the dog yapped at my feet, playfully.
I thought I was cool; really rather clever actually, blowing smoke rings into the autumnal chill.
Sadly, not clever enough to realise I was being followed. I didn't know at the time that someone was studying my movements, noting what time I went home each evening, establishing that my siblings were at their respective universities and that my Mum and I were living alone… that we were vulnerable.
Someone was watching.
Someone was doing their homework.
Recently, I'm happy to say, I feel I've had a breakthrough.
Tea-time at home, around 5 pm or thereabouts, is often when I feel most suffocated and unable to cope. The kids are tired and hyperactive after school. They're hungry, demanding food quicker than I can prepare it. The place is noisy, the TV's blaring. This is the time when arguments and squabbles are likely to happen.
And if I've had a bad day with too much head-noise, I over-react. It's pathetic, I know. But nonetheless true.
As I stand at the kitchen sink and wash up, I close my eyes to the pandemonium and think back to times when I travelled. When I had adventures. When I deemed myself a far more "interesting" person than I am now, whatever that means.
I used to travel a lot, mainly for work. I landed a job once where I was paid to travel to exclusive resorts in the Far East, wildlife projects in South American rainforests, Berber communities in Northern Africa, game reserves in Southern Africa. An amazing gig, frankly.
Back then I was lucky enough to have a lot of adventures. It was my absolute passion. The pay was ridiculously low but the perks were life-changing, as you can imagine. That was when I felt.…well, like me, I guess.
But the grass is always greener. I remember even then looking forward to settling down and having children. Of course, during the chaos of family life these days, I conveniently forget about my hopes and dreams that I had back then. About how, even then, I wasn't completely satisfied.
At the kitchen sink nowadays, I remember sitting on the edge of the canyon at the Dana Nature Reserve, Jordan. I was 27. This was a moment in my life I will simply never forget. I was on my own, literally not another soul around, in one of the most beautiful places on earth. The sun was setting across the canyon. I sat down and dangled my legs over the edge. I must have sat there for an hour, just taking in the scene.
I remembered how insignificant I felt. How I was just a tiny speck on an immense planet. No one cared I was there.
I was nothing.
That feeling of "nothingness" helped me. My fears and insecurities became insignificant.
In those days, I just had to escape to a beautiful place to be reminded of that.
These days, I have to downscale my methods of escapism.
During a recent episode of after-school rabble, I decided to go for a much-needed walk.
My boyfriend looked after my kids and I set off with my headphones and music. It was a beautiful evening and I decided to take a long walk around the town and to the river.
I don't know what forced me to try and escape that evening. Perhaps because it was a special date: 20 September 2012, exactly twenty-five years ago to the day that my Dad died.
I walked past the house where I stayed after the rape. I remembered the electrical storm that night. I remembered the gigantic gin and tonic. I remembered finally having that bath I so wanted and scrubbing the masking tape residue from my hair.
I walked past my old family home and what was once my Dad's bedroom window. The room where eventually, after a five year battle with cancer, one peaceful, sunny Sunday, with all his family around him, he finally passed away.
As I walked towards the top of the town, before finally arriving at the river, Peter Gabriel sang into my ears. The start of the breakthrough came from these lyrics that seemed to piece a lot together for me.
The lyrics are from a song called "Growing Up":
"The breathing stops, I don't know when
In transition once again
Such a struggle getting through these changes
And it all seems so absurd
To be flying like a bird
When I do not feel I've really landed here"
Now, I'm the sort of person that needs to find reasons for things happening. I'm an emotional person, true, but I also have a logical brain.
Why did this all happen? Why am I back here, in Woodbridge, the place where I least wanted to be?
Many people have a sense of wanting to escape their home town as they grow up. Perhaps it cramps your style. It's natural to want to spread your wings. The place might seem boring, the lure of a big city or a foreign country is far more appealing. The possibility of adventure is enticing.
And then it all dawned on me. It all started to fall into place.
I've been so tired of life. Because I've been so tired of just constantly running away from the hard stuff.
"My ghost likes to travel so far in the unknown
My ghost likes to travel so deep into your space"
I've been in such pain. Failed relationships, failed attempts at settling down. Too many homes, too many changes.
And suddenly I'm back where all the pain first started.
Because I've got to deal with it.
I've got to grow up.
"Growing up, growing up
Looking for a place to live"
As I walked along the river wall, incidentally, the exact same walk I took during the afternoon after my Dad died, when I needed to escape, I spoke into the wind and talked to my Dad.
I told him about the kids, about how they sometimes drive me insane. But also how, in the absence of other support, they somehow seem to look after me.
I told him about my frustrations at no longer being able to travel. About how one evening recently I walked to the local shop, feeling so hemmed in I could barely breathe. And then I bumped into my daughter's dance teacher. She enthused about my five year old's dance skills. She proclaimed her to be the next Britney Spears. I told him how, in an instant, travelling suddenly didn't matter.
I told him some jokes. My Dad loved to joke.
I told him my latest funny story:
When shopping in Boots with my son recently, I was heading down the aisle towards the till, when he suddenly tugged me on my sleeve and said those words which every parent dreads:
"Mummy, I need a.…no, Mummy, I'm DOING a poo."
I quickly peeked down the back of his trousers to assess the situation.
There it was, slowly oozing out as he gurned at me. And, mercifully, it was what some would refer to as a "Clean-Sheeter."
Without batting an eyelid, I spied some cleansing wipes on a trolley beside me that were waiting to be displayed on the shelves. In under three seconds, I'd extracted a wipe, resealed the packet, scooped up the poo, wrapped it in a cucumber-scented envelope and inserted into my pocket. I even wiped his bum in the process. I then calmly lead him from the store, along the precinct and flushed the now-pleasantly-scented poo down the public toilet.
Job done. Dealt with in a Mum-like fashion before anyone could say "Advantage Card?"
I was crying with laughter as I told my Dad this story.
Then, on that river wall, where my Dad used to hold my hand when I was a toddler, where he wiped ice cream from my face…
…I said sorry.
For not being a better daughter. For being scared.
And I began to forgive myself.
Later that evening, nearing the end of my walk, I met my boyfriend and my kids at the cemetery, just a few minutes from home. My boyfriend brought some wine and glasses. He'd also asked the kids to draw some pictures for their grandfather.
We toasted my Dad. I told him how much I missed him and how I wish he'd got to know my kids.
We placed the kids' pictures on top of his memorial plaque, kissed the cold stone of it goodbye and walked home.
Today, on the 24th anniversary of the rape, I'm slowly winning.
The place that two years ago held just a maelstrom of confusing and agonising memories is now the place where I'm creating beautiful new ones with my children. Where they are also getting to know more about their heritage. About their grandfather.
And where one day, when they are old enough, I will tell them about what happened to their Mum when she was just a fourteen year old girl.
True, there's no Swiss lake here. No mountains. But there's a beautiful river walk.
And there are still demons. But I'm in the perfect place to face them. With the support network around me to help me do so.
I'm finally working. I'm having a go at freelance writing in my new little office.
Following a dream, you could say.
My drive to work each day takes me into beautiful countryside.
Along a long, sweeping spine of a road that lines a housing estate to the left, past a T-junction and an old security gate, used by the military before the estate was sold.
You see, my office is where "he" used to work. The place where he should have been that night.
Yes, that's right.
I've rented an office on the old air-base.
At first, I'll be honest, being here really spooked me. His "presence" seemed to permeate everywhere. He seemed embedded within the two-foot thick military walls of this high-security building.
I've occasionally felt him whispering in my ear, just like he did that night. But, I've learned to ignore him.
Because I'm determined to win.
Now oddly, I've begun to love being here. I think it's because I've taken control now. I've taken it away from him.
And once you really look at your fears, really examine them properly, you realise that there's nothing to be afraid of.
It's all an illusion.
As I close the door on my little office, I face my demons, challenge them, write about them and try and turn them into something that will finally benefit me.
I want to turn all of this into a happy ending.
Because, I'm pleased to say, after years of running, I've found my place to live.
And my ghosts are finally standing still.
"Growing up, growing up
Looking for a place to live"
Filed in Splintered Reflections — Beginnings, Bereavement, Break-up, Death, Family, Homelessness, Kids, Lessons, Love, Music, Parenthood, Rape, Self-harm, Switzerland