When they were together, Johnny was hers and she could stretch each encounter into a lifetime if she leaned in and turned her focus on him. Her soul, her mind, her body – she brought everything, everything into the car with her on their nights alone. She was present and attentive in the manner of a surgeon slicing through someone’s life. If that was the only way she could have Johnny, then so it would be.
They spoke often of Mary. Driving around the upper contours of Signal Hill, the city twinkling below them, they would call her back from the dead and breathe her into the present.
“You know, I loved your mother,” Johnny said one night. “It was like she recognised something in me, something good, that others didn’t see. I mean, at first she was stuck up. Remember that first time I came knocking at your door?”
They laughed at the memory.
“If she’d had a gun, she would have fired it in the air to get rid of me. But once you got to know her… your mother was good to me.”
“How? Tell me how she was good?” Grace implored.
She knew her father had liked Johnny and taken an interest, but Mary? She had not seen any explicit expressions of affection. Mary had softened towards him over the course of their acquaintance, but definitely regarded him as one would the help.
“Did you know she gave me a pair of your father’s old shoes?”
Grace hadn’t known that.
“Yes, she did. I had never owned a pair of shoes besides my school shoes until that day. That was so good of her, to think of me like that. She didn’t have to do that, you know.” Grace smiled and fingered the cross of gold around her neck.
They sat in silence as headlights blurred into points of swishing light below. Grace felt she could have stayed there forever, in the warm car with soft rain tapping the roof and Good Hope’s smooth love songs on the radio.
“The funny thing was, I never even wore them. Just having those shoes was enough for me. They made me walk a bit straighter somehow.”
Grace turned and smiled at him. “Your father was a good man too.”
Grace started. They’d hardly ever broached the subject of Patrick after that first night.
“I know what he did was horrible, unforgivable. I can’t even begin to imagine what that did to you. But sometimes people can do the most horrible things, things that define them for the rest of their lives. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t some good in them. That doesn’t mean we should forget about that good, the small kindnesses they showed.”
Grace held his gaze. “Don’t you dare talk to me about the goodness in that man,” she said. “What do you know? Just what the hell do you know about living in constant terror, always waiting for the next blow?”
“More than you would think,” Johnny snapped back. Grace retreated. He was right.
“You should go and see him, you know,” Johnny persisted. “You don’t have to make him a part of your life. Just go and talk to him, before it’s too late.”
“What? What are you talking about? What do you know about my father?”
“He’s out of prison,” Johnny replied. “Been out for a while now. I see him sometimes, around the place.”
Grace felt betrayed. Johnny had known this information about Patrick and he had kept it from her. Now he was urging her to go and see him?
“You must be insane!” “He needs to….”
“What? What the hell do you know about my father’s needs?”
It was clear to Grace now that there was some kind of relationship between Patrick and Johnny. She thought about the letter for the first time in a while. Unable to face its contents, she had locked it away in a little drawer at work. She knew it had to be from Patrick. Johnny was the only other person who could have written to her, but he had never mentioned sending her a letter so she knew there was only one other person who might have contacted her in this way.
Had they been conspiring against her? At this thought Grace exploded with rage.
“You’ve seen him? You’ve seen that bastard?”
“Yes,” Johnny said calmly. “He lives close to me. He needs –” “I don’t care what he needs. Did he care about what I needed? A mother – that’s what I needed most. He took my mother away from me and I will never forgive him. He took everything. I left there without any clothes, nothing. You tell him from me to fuck off!”
They drove home in silence. Grace vowed to herself for the thousandth time to break things off. Johnny was in on something with Patrick. Continuing this madness would almost certainly bring her father back into her life, along with a whole lot of explaining she’d have to do to David. She got out of the car a few doors from home, as was her habit, and slammed the door shut without saying goodnight.
But she couldn’t stop with Johnny, no matter how hard she tried. Every time they parted Grace quietly resolved to stay away, that this would be the last time. She’d be strong for a few days but that familiar longing would form in her stomach, an emptiness that could only be soothed by him. Grace was in trouble. She was recklessly gambling with her life and the lives of Sindi and David, and enjoying it. Perhaps Patrick had been right, and she had been destined to become the slut her mother supposedly had been.
When these thoughts threatened to overwhelm her, Grace assured herself that everything would be okay. Hadn’t she suffered enough in life, and wasn’t she entitled to this bit of happiness? It was all right to steal some joy with him, her Johnny – he was her first love, and if the horrendous events of the past had not happened, who knew? They would probably have been together and married. If only, if only. Sindi would be his. That was how it should have been – yet another thing Patrick had taken away from her. The mess that was her life was squarely Patrick’s fault.
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