Grace woke to the smell of food cooking and for a dazed second thought she was home with David. As she stirred a cloud of stale cigarette smoke pressed down on her, bringing her back to the flat she shared with Johnny. Johnny, the boy with the dancing freckles and heavy lashes, without whom she could not live. And now the man who’d hit her. Perhaps she deserved it.
She moved from the bed, body stiff and aching, and surveyed herself in the mirror. Bloodshot, sunken eyes looked back at her. Her skin was dull and grey, and lines deepened around her mouth. Twenty-eight years old. The age her mother had been when she died. Was she destined to re-enact the drama her mother had not been able to escape?
She lit a cigarette and inhaled, watching the tendrils of smoke soften the image of the woman in the mirror. Her shoulders unlocked. Take a good look, she told herself. Who have you become? Motherless, fatherless; life about to be wasted. If only I still had my mother … the voice of self-pity droned.
But another voice, from a core of steel within her Grace was yet to find, surfaced, insisting on making itself heard. Look at the woman in the mirror, it chimed. Look! She’s all you’ve got. You’ve got to hold onto her, fight for her life. Be your own mother. Save yourself!
There was a knock on the door.
“Grace?” Johnny’s voice was barely audible.
Grace braced herself, put out the cigarette and unlocked the door. She looked into his eyes, which were clouded with shame. They stood like this for a few moments, each on the other side of the threshold, surveying the other.
Grace broke the silence. “You hit me. You know me, know my story. You know about my mother, and you hit me.” Her voice was flat and emotionless. “You of all people.”
Johnny lifted his hand to his face, rubbing his jaw as if in disbelief; as if Grace was recounting a story about a stranger. When he spoke, regret came pouring out of him. “I’m sorry, so sorry, Grace. I didn’t mean it … don’t know what came over me…” The lines of an old, old song. “It’s just, you were screaming in my face. It was too much. I know it’s no excuse… I swear this will never happen again.”
Yes, she knew every word to this song. There it was, the refrain. The it-won’t-happen-again reborn, repurposed. A hand-me-down from a previous life being dressed up with a new bow. A second-hand gift from the man she loved.
How many times had she heard these words from her father? Here they were again, the exact tone, inflection; the same guilty cock of the head to one side – her father’s voice through her lover’s mouth.
Johnny took her hand and led her to the kitchen table, where he sat her down. In front of her he set down eggs on toast with a steaming cup of coffee. He had made a similar plate for himself.
“Please have something to eat.”
Grace just stared at him.
“Please, just eat, Grace. Let’s eat together and then we can talk, okay?”
She couldn’t take her eyes off him. He was hungry and started wolfing down his food. It turned her stomach. He felt her gaze, looked up at her like a little boy who had been caught doing something bad. “Please eat, Grace.”
Grace took a few mouthfuls of food, tasted nothing, and turned to the coffee. It warmed her, loosened her; the feeling began to come back into her shell-shocked limbs. She watched in silence as Johnny cleaned every morsel from his plate. When he had finished he stood up and in one stride was at the other side of the table, kneeling at Grace’s feet. “I am so, so sorry. You have to believe me. I would do anything to go back and undo it.”
Grace shook her head slowly, deliberately.
“I don’t know what came over me, Grace. Hell, I don’t know. I’ve never done that before and I’ll never do it again. I swear, on my life, on my mother’s grave. Never.”
Her silence was an accusation that filled the air.
Still kneeling, Johnny buried his face in her lap and started crying. Great, heaving sobs wracked his body and travelled through hers, loosening something in her. She sat quietly, one hand still ensconced in his while the other stroked his curly head. After an eternity of tears they sat like this, his head on her lap, she comforting him, while each remained shuttered in their own private world.
When all of his regret had left his body, Grace tilted his face up towards her and took in everything: his shock, his shame, the freckled face which had deepened in colour over the years, the curls that clung to his head. His questioning eyes, burning with love.
She felt sorry for him. This was the man who had saved her on that day at high school so many years ago, who had saved her in so many other ways. How could she have driven him to this? He had risked his life for her. This was the same man she’d sat with under the tree in her back yard as a child, the one happy memory of that place. He was gentle– gentle then and still now. If she had not screamed at him, provoked him…. If she hadn’t turned her back on him because of the business of Sindi, this would never have happened. He would not have hit her.
She couldn’t really blame him for doing it – he had never done it before. She’d pushed him so far it was no wonder he had snapped. He was a human being, and she had overstepped. If she did better, stopped blaming him for the loss of Sindi, things could go back to the way they were in the beginning, when they had loved each other fully and without condition. Looking into his eyes, she saw all they could be. Love flooded through her: Johnny, her Johnny, who had been gone for so long, whom she thought had died. Nothing on God’s earth and beyond it would make her give him up.
A quiet little voice cautioned: if he hits you once, he will do it again. It echoed and spread through her like a climbing vine, one Grace chose to clip right there, in the thrall of Johnny’s pleading eyes. He loved her. For the first time in her life she felt truly loved, completely understood. Where David was safe and predictable like a mild summer’s day, he had never inspired the feeling of wanting to lay her whole life down before him. Grace needed that tug at her heart; the turbulent, majestic drama of the summer storm she found in her love with Johnny. It made her feel alive. And here she was, embracing him now, forgiving all; more vibrant and alive than ever with her twin soul. She brought her lips to his face and kissed his tear-stained eyelids. “I forgive you,” she said.
She went down on her knees to meet him. They embraced and tasted eternity with each other in that moment locked together. They renewed their love and themselves.
Buoyed by a new energy, later they left the dark flat and took a drive to the beach, where they frolicked in the surf like children. Afterwards they lay stretched out in the sun for hours, slipping into new skins. As the day ended they bought ice-creams on the promenade and found a bench to sit on, where they giggled and bantered as they took in the salty air and the dipping sun.
When darkness fell they remained on their bench, hand in hand, the sharp night air prickling their skins while waves lapping against the breakwater wall soothed them. Funny – as children they had lived so close to the beach but never even knew it. Patrick took her and Mary maybe once a year, if at all. Now, here it was, at their feet and Grace felt like they owned it. Their own private beach. The moon shone only for them, winking through the clouds, blessing their love.
They returned home from the beach, relaxed and happy, to find good news. David had left a voice message. After speaking to a few different people, including Sindi’s paediatrician, he had decided that Grace could have her for once-a-week visits. Grace howled with joy as she listened to the message. She flung her arms around Johnny and kissed him.
“See, didn’t I tell you, Grace?” Johnny smiled. “He won’t stay angry for ever. He has to think about the child.”
“Yes, you were right! Oh thank God, Johnny. Thank God!”
Yes, God was smiling down on them. Things were getting better. With Sindi back in her life, Grace would stop worrying, stop snapping. She just needed her daughter. She would stop being this bitch who made Johnny do things he had no control over. They’d save a little bit and then get a bigger place. This was the beginning of a new life. The terrible thing that had happened the night before would soon be forgotten.
After a quick call to David, they arranged for Sindi to come over the following Sunday. Grace flitted around the flat, unable to contain herself. She was going to see her baby again; she could hardly wait! Johnny would finally meet Sindi.
“Are you nervous, Johnny? Don’t be nervous to meet her. She’s gonna love you!”
“Why would I be nervous? It’s a baby. It’s not like she has a choice about liking me.”
Such a simple statement, but it gave Grace pause. Sindi might be a baby but she was a real person, with likes and dislikes. Johnny needed to be careful with her. But she said nothing, choosing to focus on the impending visit.
Later that week Johnny came home with a tiny box of the type that sets women’s hearts aflutter. Inside nestled a dainty ring, not the kind you present to a woman you want to marry, but none the less studded with three little diamonds.
“It’s not much, not what I’d really like to give you,” he smiled. “But in any case, there’s nothing that can match the way I feel about you. I’ll love you for ever, Grace.”
She had no words, just a smile and moist eyes for Johnny, her lovely Johnny. All the harm they had so carelessly inflicted upon each other (for Grace had now convinced herself that she was just as much at fault for him striking her) was forgotten as they kissed.
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