“When you flying back, then ?”
Rachael tore her eyes from the boarded-up shop fronts sliding past outside the greasy windows of the mini-cab. The driver beamed a crooked, yellow smile at her in the rear-view mirror.
“Want me again tomorrow ? Take you back to the airport ?”
“No. Wait for me, please. I won’t be long.”
“You said it was a family re-union ? You not stopping ?”
Her smile vanished, but the driver’s eyes were already back on the road.
She scolded herself for the hundredth time. She was a different person now. She could handle this. Returning to this desolate morgue of a town would be worth it just to see their slack-jawed and poisonous faces wiped clean for a change.
Still, she shuddered as she recalled why she’d fled in the first place.
Her leaving had lobbed the proverbial last straw onto father’s long-suffering back, nearly killed the old bastard, but time had taught Rachel the fine art of not giving a damn. Although still not quite expert at sheer bloody-mindedness, she no longer winced at birthday cards signed “Dad” in her sister’s writing. The old man used to sign without really caring, then just stopped caring at all.
Despite herself, she checked her watch again. Bulgari. White gold. Short-sleeves so no¬-one would miss it, the blouse cut low to favour the matching necklace. Her sleekest Chanel trouser suit, and four inch Prada pumps. Possibly over-glamorous for such a family reunion, but she intended to make a statement. Father had dictated her offspring’s dress, behaviour, diet, friends – everything – until well into their teens. None of them had ever dared to crawl out from under him. Until Rachel. And how the others must have hated that. She had to smile.
Gavin Leckie had been her first real act of defiance. Father tended to loathe people on sight – it saved so much time – but he had dredged new depths of hatred for Rachel’s first love. When Gavin’s nervous knock on the door had roused Father from his usual early-evening stupor, Rachel had strutted down the stairs in a drop-dead outfit, but father hadn’t obliged. She and Gavin had fled, giggling, while father prised his bulk from his thread¬bare throne in front of the TV.
Rachel had never been allowed a door-key, so she was back before curfew. Father was waiting, alone. Steven and Emily were listening through cracked-open doors upstairs. What followed sealed Rachel’s departure, only a few days later.
It wasn’t Rachel’s dreamy half-smile that so enraged him, nor her flushed complexion, nor even the reek of cheap cider. He had spotted a single blouse button not fastened, and screamed just one question, over and over.
“Did he touch you ?”
Rachel wished she’d had courage to answer, to shout and scream and tear down father’s tyranny for all their sakes, but she never did. Mother used to scold her for putting things off, and even now she could hear her tutting, see the smile in her eyes. She would have given Gavin a chance.
She never knew whether father’s fury came from fear of a pregnant teenage blot on the family’s copybook, or some remaining scrap of paternal instinct. She never did fathom the fury behind those four short words.
“Did he touch you ?”
She needed to set things straight today, or she never would.
The car stopped. She was home. Too soon.
The driver winked at her in the mirror. She breathed deep and opened the door.
She was pleased to see no cigarette exiles on the front step, but she knew they’d be watching from behind the greying nets.
It was showtime.
She realised only now how much of her life had been working towards this moment. After long, punishing years in the gym, Rachel weighed half what she used to. Everything in her wardrobe was last season, but re-cut to her exact build. She’d rejected needles and scalpels, studied style-icons and gurus, and now, she gazed at the grubby gardens where she’d spent her short, brutish childhood, and quietly acknowledged how very far she’d come.
She strode up the garden path, but faltered at the step. Her stomach turned over. She recalled Gavin, all fingers and fumbles, up against this very door, the unwitting instrument of father’s martyrdom. For a second, she was clumsy and dirty and desperate all over again. She swore under her breath, then smoothed down her jacket, straightened herself, and entered.
Once-familiar faces turned, and stared. A few betrayed recognition, but none openly acknowledged her, and she was happy to cross the hallway unmolested.
Emily stood in the kitchen doorway, directing the catering operations. She gaped, then grinned, on finding her little sister all grown-up and brazen, everything she’d never be.
Rachel wasted no time on pleasantries.
“Where is he ?”
Emily flinched at Rachael’s bluntness.
“The dining room.”
Rachel blessed her with her a brief consolation smile, squeezed her arm, then stepped past. Emily scurried away, probably to find Steven.
Rachel braced herself for a long-overdue reckoning, vowed to keep her nerve this time, and entered the room.
Father looked dignified and severe in his best suit and tie, but he reeked of venom as always. And all over again, those viscious, spiteful words screeched at the back of Rachel’s mind.
“Did he touch you ?”
She studied father’s vacant and pallid face, and finally found the strength to tell him what she wanted to all those long years ago.
Rachael didn’t kiss her father goodbye. She simply leaned over the open casket and whispered.
“Every night for a week, father.”
“Twice on Tuesday”, she added, with relish.
Back in the hallway Steven waited, Emily huddled under one protective arm. She thought she saw Mother twinkling at her from deep in his dark and serious eyes, and she knew they’d be OK.
Rachael kissed her baby brother and her big sister, then went back out to her taxi. She ignored the others, found she had trouble caring after all.
Steven and Emily came as far as the garden gate, and waved.
The taxi pulled away.
With some effort, Rachael waved back.