Lies Between Us – Ronnie Turner

Let me tell you something I haven’t told you before… One, two, three, finger by finger, I squeeze down into the soft, pale skin of her neck. Four, five, six… She reaches out and grasps and grasps at thin air, small fingers searching for some salvation, even as her young face submerges and her lungs fill with water. Seven, eight, nine… It doesn’t take long. I stroke her hair and smile into her frightened brown eyes. Ten, eleven, twelve… I squeeze down until her arms grow limp and the last moments of life bleed into nothing. Thursday 19 March, 1992 They come to you in waves, the wives clutching their hands to their chests, the husbands folding their arms in front of their stomachs, heads bowed, all wearing expressions they deem suitable for the occasion. Unbidden, they are trespassers on your grief and it’s as if they’ve pulled their expressions from their wardrobes, along with the black clothing they donned this morning. But their otherwise perfect appearance is bereft of the most crucial component: sincerity. You and your parents barely notice. You accept their condolences and pats on the back with good grace, but I can see behind the well-mannered veneer to the part of you wanting to be left to the solitude of her absence. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve witnessed them smile, stroke your cheek and mutter to your parents, ‘Brave little soldier.’ You only nod and force a smile onto your lips, awaiting the next chorus of ‘Ohhs’ and ‘Ahhs,’ closely followed by the ensuing pulse of ‘Such a shame, such a terrible shame’. As they leave, the expressions they wear already slipping, I walk up to your house and ram my nail into the puckered scratch that runs across my forearm, tears of pain slipping down my skin. Smudging them across my face, I knock on the door and wait. When you appear, you take in my appearance and I yours.

Despite watching from afar all morning, I hadn’t realised how your posture has slumped, nor how your eyes are rimmed red. ‘I’m sorry, mate,’ I say, and like those before me I pat you on the back and smile; a mechanical act but an acceptable one. You nod and step aside: an invitation into your home, to share in your grief, but most of all an invitation to comfort you. If only I could, properly. If only I could gather you up in my arms and stroke your short brown hair, kiss each of your fingers and banish the pain. The desire to do all of this, my beautiful boy, is nearly impossible to ignore. But I must. You need your friend. You need the person I’ve given you. You need the illusion.

The good-little-boy pretence. The neighbour. Not me. Not the oddity. I realised a long time ago who I needed to be and what I needed to do to achieve in life. You don’t have to look hard to see that ‘good boys’ go further. They get what they want when they are as sweet as me. It doesn’t matter that this is a pretence, though. Even being with you as someone else is good enough for me. My hand lingers a second too long and you pull away, but you do not close the door.

I follow you into her bedroom, where I can see you and your parents spent last night. Wads of used tissues are balled up like confetti across the bed. The pink duvet is rumpled and creased. And already, her posters are beginning to peel away. Strewn across the floor are her things: bears, dolls, storybooks, the shrapnel of four years of her life already slipping into the past. You perch on the bed and look at it all, hands tucked beneath your legs so I can’t see them shake. I sit close – this way you can feel me beside you. The smell of cheese and cucumber sandwiches wafts from your mouth. I imagine you ate them to assuage your mother’s concern, each bite tasting of ash on your lips. You look at her toys and books, your lips parted in an ‘O’ shape as if you can’t quite believe the ferocity with which life has taken a swipe at your family.

Tears trickle down your cheeks. My hand itches to wipe them away but I keep myself in check and instead pat you on the back again. That is the limit, the boundary. You slump into me as if I have stolen your remaining strength and begin to weep. And even as you do this, you are silent. We sit like this for what seems like hours. But it can’t be because when I leave you in her room, the sun is nudging its way into the middle of the sky. I take off down the street, words that have been bandied about by the neighbours repeating themselves over and over again in my mind: ‘Sweet girl. Funny girl. Happy girl.

’ I stop and look back at your house. Through the crack in the curtains, I can see you, curled up in your mother’s arms, bright-red cheeks scarred by the pale tracks tears have made down your skin. Your mother rocks you to and fro. The last vestiges of strength that have kept you on your feet all morning burn up and slide away. And I turn away and smile. Sweet girl. Funny girl. Dead girl. Chapter 2 John Tuesday 17 November, 2015 John Graham lovingly ties the red bow in her wavy brown hair and breathes in the sweet scent of his daughter, treasuring these swiftly vanishing moments before he has to put her down and watch her grow again. Now she is six years old.

A bright, bubbling age in which every exhalation carries a sentence tumbling from her lips, and the hodgepodge of styles she favours catches the eyes of passing strangers. But soon she will be seven, soon she will be eight. And in no time at all, she will be gliding through their house cloaked in the confidence that comes in with the tide of adolescence, a red stripe of lipstick glistening on her lips, fingers adorned with bold rings and earplugs stuck in firmly like oversized earrings. But for now, he revels in the love she is not yet embarrassed to give. ‘Daddy, can I have some crisps?’ She peers into his eyes, and John laughs, knowing even before she asks the question that his answer will be yes. ‘OK, sweetheart, but you have to ask Mummy first.’ She gives him a firm nod and crawls out of their makeshift tent, trailing behind her the hem of a dress five sizes too big. ‘Don’t trip!’ ‘I won’t, Daddy.’ John pulls himself into a sitting position and lets his eyes roam across the fabric of their tent: three duvet covers pegged together and tied to a hook in the ceiling, joining Bonnie’s three favourite cartoon characters in a splash of garish pink. She’d woken him and his wife, Jules, that morning with a trumpet call of excitement because she’d had a ‘really, really, really good idea’.

Despite the way his back lets off a volley of cracks when he crawls out of the tent (he’s in his thirties; he’s allowed to have aches and pains now, surely?), he can’t bring himself to regret even a minute of building the monstrosity with his daughter that morning. And he can’t imagine a better way to celebrate his book becoming a bestseller than with his family, curled up in a very pink tent. John closes his eyes and listens to his daughter rattling around in the kitchen cupboards, his mind floating back to yesterday when his friend Don called to congratulate him. He has worked hard to get where he is. The path of an author was one paved with blood, sweat and rejections. Mostly rejections. Deception, his latest thriller, is climbing the charts and, after a clutch of published books, he finally feels happy with what he has made for himself. Bonnie hurtles into the lounge, stumbling over her dress, gripping a packet of crisps in her fingers. ‘Mummy is making sandwiches!’ John wraps his arms around her and pulls her, giggling, onto his lap. ‘Oh, is she? Are you going to share those crisps, monkey?’ She grins.

‘Yes, Daddy.’ John kisses her head and pops a crisp into his mouth, smiling at Jules as she carries a platter of sandwiches into the lounge. She has managed to retain the youth people their age seek out in overpriced lotions and potions. Her skin is smooth and clear, hair bouncing with the rhythm of her gait, eyes bright and curious. She still looks like the Jules he met in his youth, the young woman he knew, with a certainty in the centre of his bones, that he loved, and would love for the rest of his life. They had moved from their home county to the rush of Oxford as soon as they were able, clutching delicate dreams like paper hearts in their hands. In the spare time they managed to hook away from work, they sat side by side, Jules painting to her heart’s content and he jotting down his stories, their fingers brushing when they leant back to judge their work. John runs a hand over his face, fingers picking out the lines and wrinkles in his skin like the brushstrokes in one of Jules’s paintings. He hasn’t aged as well; the sun has wiped a blanket of freckles over his cheeks, drying out his skin and making him look older. But he doesn’t mind.

Jules and Bonnie seem fine with the way he looks. And they, in addition to Don and his parents, are the ones who mean the most to him. ‘Here we are.’ Jules beams, settling the platter on the duvet they have laid across the floor. Her hands find a way to her swollen stomach, tapping a loving rhythm to their unborn child. John is looking forward to meeting their baby with an intensity that sends a tremble through his body. Who will it look like? Who will it be like? Bonnie repeatedly tells them she is going to dress it up in one of her princess dresses. Complete with as many bows and frills and sparkles as she can find. ‘You have some paint on your neck, sweetheart.’ He gestures to his wife’s skin and smiles.

He is proud of her, proud of the way she runs her successful gallery, proud of her for juggling a career with a family. It isn’t always easy but they share the care and chores and it works well for them. They have found a pattern and a routine that eases them into the day and eases them back out with enough energy left over for each other. Jules wipes the paint mark off with a rub of her finger and says, ‘I’m going to look like a Smurf if I get much more on me!’ Bonnie giggles, nestling deeper into the duvet. John shuffles to the edge as Jules lays herself down, a sigh slipping from her lips like a secret whispered to a friend. He wraps an arm around her and she wraps an arm around Bonnie. And like this they stay, until it is time to start the day again. Chapter 3 Maisie Thursday 14 January, 2016 ‘So, how was your day?’ Maisie Green runs a hand through her hair and stifles a yawn, sinking back into the sofa cushions as the ache in her shoulder shoots sharp fingers of pain down her back. ‘Good. My new patient was transferred today so it was a bit hectic.

How about yours?’ ‘I’m trying to think of a really funny anecdote or something to give you but it was terrible. Bill had to break up this brawl, then he got a glass of red thrown in his face, and somehow managed to blame it on me.’ Ben, her partner of three years, chuckles and props his feet on the coffee table, leaning his head back on the sofa cushion. Maisie smiles, dropping a kiss on his cheek, loving him for transforming any unpleasant situation into something that tempted a giggle rather than a tear. ‘That sounds rough. One day we’ll win the lottery and you’ll be able to tell that boss of yours what you think.’ ‘Can we win it in time for my shift tomorrow?’ ‘I’m not sure I can pull it off that quick.’ ‘That’s a shame.’ Ben weaves his fingers through hers and grins. ‘How is everything else at work?’ Maisie is an ICU nurse and her days are usually divided between assessing her patients’ conditions, monitoring and safeguarding their care, acting as an advocate for them and their families, and supporting them through the veil of turmoil that cloaks their lives.

So much of what she does is emotional. Yes, she administers medication to her patients, bathes them, and cleans and tests the equipment that keeps their bodies ticking over while they heal, but she also has to be on hand to advise, support and talk to her patients’ families, stapling together their pasts with their panicked new lives. Maisie has seen the varying shades of grief and loss. Wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, people from all walks of life… her job is to help them cross the border into this clinical world of disinfectant handwash and soggy tissues. It’s a savage world, one in which they’re no longer authors of their fates, but living with the influence of brain scans, bed sores, antibiotics, drips, and the sudden impulse to pray when they haven’t prayed before. She has seen men and women clinging to hope with steel in their fingers, chanting comforting words, hands shaking and lips wobbling. They walk up to her, telling themselves that today – today! – she’ll give them the news they’re hoping for. Today, they’ll sit beside their loved one and no longer have to cling to hope, but feel it, truly feel it. For the first time in a long time it will seep into their bones. For the first time in a long time, they will find the parts of themselves they thought they’d lost.

Maisie squeezes Ben’s hand and smiles. Although Maisie knows she shouldn’t share her patient’s details, she trusts Ben implicitly. ‘Emotional, exhausting. My new patient, Tim, was attacked and found in the middle of the street a couple of weeks ago. At least that was what I was told. The detective investigating didn’t tell us much else. They’re not sure whether it was some random attack or something premeditated. They’re looking for the culprit now but I don’t think they’re very optimistic about finding him or her.’ ‘That’s terrible! How are his family coping?’ ‘They’re struggling. Heidi, his wife, is broken up.

He was in a coma until two days ago; now he’s progressed into a vegetative state. She can’t quite wrap her head around it, I don’t think. And she’s heavily pregnant – only a month away from her due date – with a little kid at home.’ ‘God, poor lady.’ ‘She’s dealing with it well. She’s a strong one, I think. And she has the support of their friend Watson. He seems like a good guy. I really feel for them both.’ ‘How long have she and Tim been together?’ ‘Fifteen years.

’ Maisie nods, thinking of Heidi with her wild blonde curls and bright-green eyes, black bags hanging like small thunderclouds beneath. She’d stood over her husband’s bed, hand sailing back and forth between her chest and swollen stomach, as if it couldn’t quite decide where it needed to be. For the most part, she simply looked lost. Someone suspended in a state of shock. But, for a moment, all of that had given way and Maisie had thought she’d glimpsed something else. A swift shift in expression, a bowing of her shoulders, a balling of her hands, lips thinning to pale strips of ribbon, fear-laden eyes locked on the floor, then suddenly skittering across the room as if searching for the source of a noise. It was as if a film of something had settled across her face, a reality, a truth that, for a few seconds, was laid bare for those around her to see, all before her composure returned and she wiped away this look like she would wipe away dust on a shelf. Maisie didn’t ask Heidi why. She didn’t want to intrude on her grief. She had never seen a reaction like that before, not from the other distraught wives who sat weeping by their husbands’ sides, or the girlfriends who looked like big-eyed children as she gently explained treatment and tried to buoy their hopes.

Heidi wept for her husband, fear and pain painted clearly across her face, but there was something else too. Something she was trying to keep hidden. Her friend Watson, a tall, bearded man, fetched her tea and snacks although they were only pushed to the side and steadily grew into a small tower of food. He constantly held her hand, his eyes finding their way to Tim, his fingers removing a tear from his cheek when he thought no one else was watching. Maisie spoke words of comfort and eased them into a new world as she had done with so many others before. Some families struggled to talk in front of the patient but, when they did, it soothed their fears and lightened the atmosphere. She always asked them questions that allowed them to open up a little more easily. ‘Jam or marmalade? Rainy days or sunny days? Cats or dogs? Which does he or she prefer? Tell me the simple things.’ ‘I hope this chap, Tim, recovers. Does he have a fair chance?’ ‘He does but then it’s early days.

Heidi was telling me this really sweet story about how he injured himself when he was little and his mum bought him a pair of Mickey Mouse socks to cheer him up. He kept them on for weeks, literally, wouldn’t take them off because he thought they were lucky. He still has them.’ Ben inches down the sofa, resting his chin on his hand. ‘His daughter had to read this story out to her class a few months ago – she was so nervous. Apparently Tim washed his socks with a pair of her own and told her she’d have some of his luck. It worked a treat because the little girl pulled it off.’ ‘That’s adorable.’ ‘Mmm. Heidi’s not sure about letting her visit Tim.

It’s tough. She had a mishap at school – a kid pushed her off the climbing frame and she broke her hand so she’s feeling a bit vulnerable. Heidi’s worried it might be a bit much for her to see Tim like that. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it just upsets everyone. Always depends on the people.’ ‘What do you think?’ ‘I think it’s worth a shot if it helps the little girl.’ Maisie nods, visualising Heidi’s expression; how, despite fishing for a look of calm, her anguish had been brushed across her face like black paint over a white wall. Her reaction to seeing Tim was one of the strangest Maisie had experienced. She had cared for countless VS patients over the years, and each one seemed like a shell, their personality replaced with an abyss that crippled those around them. In her precious moments of quiet, Maisie sometimes wondered if it would have been easier if they had stayed in a coma for ever.

At least then they’d look as if they were sleeping. In a vegetative state they were watching, moving, reacting to the environment around them. But it was only reflexes, would only ever be reflexes. Until the brain had had a chance to heal, Tim would still be lodged firmly in the landscape of his mind. ‘What about the friend… Watson? How did he seem?’ Ben heaves himself off the sofa and jogs into their tiny kitchen where he boils the kettle, swiping a strand of brown hair from his eye. ‘He tried to cover it up but you could see he was heartbroken. He was supporting Heidi, making sure she was comfortable, fetching her snacks. I think he seems really sweet.’ ‘Do you want some tea, sweetheart?’ Ben hooks the handle of a mug with his finger and raises an eyebrow. ‘Yes, please.

Fancy cracking open the good biscuits?’ Ben winks, shooting a mischievous grin her way. ‘You’re a bad influence on me.’ She laughs, tucking her feet under a blanket. Rivulets of steam spout from the mugs like smoke from twin chimneys. Ben passes her a mug and props a plate of custard creams between them. ‘I have an early shift at the café tomorrow. I can drop you off at work if you want to go a bit earlier?’ ‘That would be lovely, thanks!’ She nestles into his arms, nibbling on a biscuit and delighting in his warmth after a day on the ward. As an ICU nurse, her job entailed keeping a tight lid on her emotions, building a wall, brick by brick, to enable her to remain professional, but sometimes, when she least expected, cracks rocked through her defences. And it was at times like these, when she could curl up with Ben and leave behind her life in the hospital, that she found the sense of calm she needed to relax. Ben wraps his arms around her and deposits a gentle kiss on her head.

And Maisie savours it – savours the small pause before this day ends and a new day begins. Chapter 4 Miller ‘Tell me a story. Tell it again.’ That is what you used to say, sitting by my side, bright-blue eyes peering up at me, thirsty for knowledge, for an insight I could give you. I called them stories but they weren’t. They were facets of life only I could see. The neighbours clocking each other in the street, bidden, despite trying to avoid each other with the utmost stealth, to stop, smile, chatter through clenched teeth by a need to be perceived as polite that is almost tangible. As if they are in pain. But it is not pain. Only disdain.

The man who watches his girlfriend laugh and throw about gossip like tinsel at Christmas, impatience boiling under his skin, shooting glares in her direction. But she doesn’t see them, and her friends don’t see the bruises that mark her skin like different-coloured counties on a map. Later she will pay for every word that passed her lips. The mother on the sidewalk, fondling her newborn baby. Yes, that is what you see, but you miss the husband standing off to the side, frustrated eyes staring not at the woman but at the baby. His baby. You miss the pursing of his lips and the balling of his fists, you miss the jealousy that pours from his muscled body like steam. Jealous of the attention and love his baby receives from its mother. You miss the truth in its brutal, disgusting form. Far better to only see the sweet picture.

But by missing the small things, you miss everything. Everything. ‘Tell me a story. Tell it again.’ Shall I tell you mine? Shall I tell you who I was before I met you? Before you exploded into my life in a riot of colour and noise and happiness. Before I took her from you in the water that day and slotted myself into the place she left behind. I’ll start with my family because you know the beginning is just as important as the end. Sunday 1 January, 1984 The girl squeals as she is hoisted into the air by her father, eyes alight with the simple pleasure of his unconditional love and devotion. Her mother stands to the side laughing, hands – nails long and lacquered – clenched into an elated fist at her chest, as if she is trying to stop her heart from leaping out. She watches them, proud of her husband for his surprising skill at handling his own child, proud of her child for her beauty and innocence.

When the father props the girl on his left hip, the mother joins them, arms round their shoulders, fingernails tenderly caressing their faces, one third of their happiness. One third of their lives. Their love. One third of their family. A family of three. Or so it seems, standing as they do, ignoring the boy who hangs on the outskirts wondering why that circle of happiness doesn’t extend to him. I spend hours watching them, noticing the finer details of their family. Theirs, not ours. It is always the three of them. The father is besotted with his bundle of freckles and blonde curls.

The mother is besotted with them both, and neither notices the boy to the left, peering up at them, seeking affection, validation, encouragement. The boy who sneaks into their bedroom when he has a nightmare only to find their little angel already there, snuggled up to her parents, who even in sleep wear smiles. I stand there for what seems like hours some nights, wishing I could see into their dreams. But then why would I need to? I already know who would be there. Father plants a kiss on her cheek – his little angel, Mary. She giggles and squirms in his arms, swinging a podgy arm around Mother’s neck, consumed with joy. Mother takes her from Father and the girl nuzzles into the space between her neck and collarbone – so perfect for a child’s head. She pats her back and swings from side to side. To and fro. Dancing in their circle, proud of one in a brood of two.

Something I have always found fascinating is this: we share so much of one another. DNA, characteristics, mannerisms. Her eyes are my eyes, her nose is my nose, her lips are my lips. We are nearly the same person. We eat with our fingers even though Mother and Father tell us not to. We smile the same, laugh the same. We are one. And yet, if we both cry she is the one who is kissed and hugged and loved until the pain has passed. She is the one in the circle, I am the one outside. Sweet, angelic, innocent Mary.

I wonder if it is because I am not special. Not someone who catches the adoring looks of neighbours and friends. Someone who, if they do something wrong, is given a forgiving, sympathetic look. Nobody ever likes the odd boy, the strange boy… the naughty boy. Once, when we were playing in the garden, our plastic toys strewn across the grass, slightly more on her side than mine, Mrs Taylor sauntered over, cheaply produced clothes and badly applied makeup not boding well against the backdrop of her newly permed hair. She looked at us, smiling even though it looked like a wince, and said loudly, ‘The little dears!’ Father grimaced and forced himself to look at her slightly uneven features, desperately trying to tame the eyes that flitted to the wart sitting sentinel under her left brow. ‘Good morning, Mrs Taylor? How is Mr Taylor? Good, I hope. Sunny today, isn’t it? Enjoying the fine weather?’ The words tumbled out of his mouth, one after the other, as if he was trying to fill the space where an apology should have been. His eyes found her wart again. ‘Oh, good, good.

’ She brushed away the questions like flies from her T-shirt. ‘And how are these lovely children?’ She knelt down and made popping noises into thin air. As we were hidden by her mass, if anyone had walked past it would have looked as if she had lost her mind. ‘Oooh. Aren’t we a pair of cutie pies?!’ She was talking to us both and yet her eyes peered at Mary, who looked back at her with a slightly bewildered expression. Mother and Father came over, sharing a look behind her back. ‘And how is little Mary Moo this morning?’ She poked her in the ribs, like an animal in a cage. Poke. Jab. Poke.

Mary, confused, grabbed a pebble from the ground and popped it into her mouth, grinning. ‘Mary!’ Mother screeched, eyes widening, rushing forward, picking her up as Father prised her mouth open. The pebble dropped at Mrs Taylor’s feet, covered in saliva. She stared at it in shock, stumbling back, affronted. Mary grinned, a string of spittle hanging from her mouth. Father wiped it away and awaited Mrs Taylor’s reaction. She came forward and tickled Mary’s cheek with hairy fingers, her features growing horrifyingly animated as she whispered, ‘What a special girl!’ Mother returned her to the ground and they looked at a cat across the road. I reached out and pinched her arm. She whimpered, tears forming in her eyes. I pulled away as they turned back round, and smiled when I saw I had left a mark.

I stand by the staircase in our small detached house, watching them, wondering why, if we are so similar, if we are nearly the same person, why I’m not wanted and loved and tickled and poked? Why am I not as special as Angel Mary? I watch them, their happiness drowning me, wondering what makes me different. What makes me the oddity? Monday 2 January, 1984 I run my fingers down her blonde braid as she plays with a doll, permanent grin etched on her face, enjoying the pull and tug of my fingers. I watch her, studying her mannerisms, her expressions, the way she laughs, the way she sticks her thumb in her mouth and sucks – as if on a lolly – when she is thinking, the way a frown creases her forehead when confused. Mother is cooking in the kitchen, stirring soup, tapping her nails on the worktop. Do you know, I lay awake last night imagining ripping them off, prising her nail away from her skin and taking it between my teeth, feeling the soft shell of the varnish crumble in my mouth. When I finally went to sleep, it was to the sweep of silence in my mind, not to the tap-tap-tapping of her nails. Father is beside her, turning three times a minute to check on us – or rather, on Mary, his eyes ever so slightly concerned as they alight on me, pulling at her hair. Gently though Father, gently. Our house is a two-up, two-down box with an open-plan living area and a garden roughly the size of a postage stamp, which leads on to the quiet street beyond. In the evenings, children and teenagers bundle on the kerb, kicking footballs, thinking themselves as good as George Best, skittering when a car honks its horn and goes on its way.

Girls sit in groups, legs crossed, giving one another tutorials on the application of the latest make-up. Mothers slave away indoors, cooking chicken, cursing their husbands. Fathers combat the stress of their wives with a steady flow of alcohol down the pub, and the elderly residents of our street enjoy the comings and goings with watchful eyes, like owls from a tree. The young yearn to be older and the elderly yearn to be younger. A strange sort of world we live in. The neighbours complain that their similarly built houses are not big enough for the relatives who come and stay at Christmas and New Year. But we do not share their problem. I have never told you this although you have asked plenty of times. Eluding and sidestepping questions is easy once you have become practised at it. We are a family of three – the quandary that is me somewhere within it – and only three.

Our relatives are dead. ‘Nice and cosy in their graves,’ as Mother likes to say, sarcasm lacing her words, as if they chose to die just to spite her and dodge babysitting duties. At Christmas, as our neighbours celebrate, planting kisses, administering hugs, proffering gifts, we sit around Mary, me slightly back where Father has patted the floor. We watch her rip open her presents, Mother holding Father’s hand. When it is time for them to exchange gifts, they tentatively pass them over. A laugh. A nervous smile. A kiss. An ‘Oh, how lovely!’ A pat on the arm or shoulder, all before the presents are silently nudged to the back. Father swivels on his heels, penetrating eyes watching my hand as it brushes across Mary’s cheek.

‘Careful. Don’t want to catch your sister now, do we?’ He persuades a smile onto his twitching lips, brow furrowing. I look up at him and shake my head. ‘No, Daddy.’ He gives a little nod and turns around to help Mother with the soup. Mary giggles as I twirl her braids round my finger. Her Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah braids, I call them. She grins up and squeals ‘Hummy’. Her name for me. I nod and study her pink lips, pulled back to reveal her baby teeth.

That sweet smile slips as I lean back and pull her braids. And it keeps on slipping until tears shimmer down her skin and her cheeks bloom red as she screams. And even then, I keep on pulling.

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