Barbara’s War by Fenella J. Miller @fenellawriter

Posted on Sunday, November 17, 2013

Chapter Three

Barbara straightened her legs, lifted her head and leaned against the back door breathing heavily. The cold from the linoleum seeped through her thin twill slacks and she shifted uncomfortably. Her face hurt, she feared one of her front teeth might be lose.

She ran her fingers across her mouth and flinched as they touched the split that ran from below her nose, across her lips and into the curve of her chin. It was blood in her mouth, not tears. The rings on her mother’s right hand had caused the damage. The left side of her face was burning and her collar was sticky. She must have a second gash on her cheek.

She couldn’t sit here. She had somehow to get to her room, lock herself in as she always did after one of these attacks, and wait until the cuts and bruises had healed. Once, when she was about ten, she had made the mistake of appearing too soon and her mother had responded by bending her over the kitchen table and beating her with a wooden spoon. She never made that mistake again.

Holding a folded handkerchief to her face in an attempt to stem the flow of blood, she pushed herself upright, pressing her back to the door and inching her feet inwards. Eventually standing, she began to edge her way along the pitch black corridor. Never, ever put on a light - her mother might see it and come back out.

She negotiated the rear passageway and reached the entrance hall, all she had to do was find the strength to climb the stairs and she would be safe. The sound of a key entering the lock on the front door froze her, swaying, with her hand clutching the newel post for support. It was only five thirty. Her stepfather always came home at six o’clock; why had he chosen today to break his routine? He mustn’t see her. This was between her mother and herself. He must not be involved.

Too late. The door opened and closed and Mr Evans switched on the hall light. His sharp intake of breath sounded far too loud in the silence. ‘God! What has she done now?’ Mr Evans dropped his briefcase; her mother would hear it in the kitchen. Frantically she hauled on the banisters, determined to get upstairs before it was too late.

‘No, Barbara, not this time, not anymore.’ A firm arm encircled her waist and to her horror she was guided into his study. Mother mustn’t find her in there. In the thirteen years she had lived in Crabapple Cottage, she had never dared to enter the study. It was forbidden.
She was given no choice, in she went, she heard the door click shut behind her. ‘Sit down here. Close your eyes, don’t look so scared, you’ll be safe here.’ He gave her a gentle pat on the shoulder and her knees buckled; the seat of a comfortable armchair rushed up to meet her bottom.

Obediently she kept her eyes closed; perhaps if she could swear she hadn’t seen anything in this room her mother wouldn’t be so angry. She heard the sound of a key turning and realised her stepfather and locked her in. She shivered. He was going to fetch her, was making sure she couldn’t escape. Maybe she could climb out of the window and go and hide in the stables; the only place she knew her mother wouldn’t venture.

Her eyes opened and her jaw dropped. He hadn’t been locking her in, but locking her attacker out.

‘This is the last time I let this happen, Barbara. I give you my word.’ He approached, holding an open first-aid tin. ‘Now, let’s see if I can to sort this out.’ She remained silent, wincing occasionally as he cleaned above and below her lips and her left cheek. ‘I’m afraid these need a stitch or two, but none of us want to call out Doctor Reynolds, do we?’

She moved her head fractionally indicating her agreement. No one knew about this, not even John, it was the one thing she’d never told him. She knew it was her fault for not trying hard enough. She deserved to be punished for her behaviour. She was a very bad girl and bad girls got beaten.
Mr Evans placed a gauze pad over the gash on her cheek and held it in place with a bandage he wound diagonally, several times, around her head. She heard the faint clink of a safety pin being fastened.

‘That will have to do. I think if I put a plaster across the other two cuts, it will do the trick. Your lips will heal themselves in a day or two.’

She heard him closing the tin and moving away. She tried to open her eyes but they were strangely heavy, everything sounded far away. She was so tired; a little sleep would do her good. She was safe in here. She slipped into a semi-conscious state just as the study door rattled loudly. From a distance she heard a whispered exchange between her stepfather and mother. Was that her brothers crying as they were sent to bed supper less?

She woke several hours later stiff and cold and totally disorientated. Where was she? Why was her left eye covered up? She flinched as she touched her bandaged cheek and memory came flooding back. The study - she was still in the forbidden room. Her right eye opened and she looked around. The small desk lamp had been left burning and gave just enough light for her to examine her surroundings.

She’d always imagined Mr Evans must have dark, dangerous secrets, hidden vices he wished to keep from prying childish eyes. But it was a room like any other. A plain wooden desk, a plain wooden chair behind it. Book shelves lined the far wall, containing few books; she had more on her bedside table upstairs. A nondescript, grey metal filing cabinet occupied the space beside the door. The chair she was sitting in was next to the fire place which held a small two bar electric fire. It wasn’t switched on.

What time was it? Why was it so quiet? Her stomach contracted as she imagined her mother’s reaction when she discovered her. Barbara pushed down on the chair arms and managed to regain her feet. She waited a moment for her vision to clear before risking a step. She stumbled towards the door, expecting it to fly open and her mother to burst into the room screaming invective.

With clammy fingers she turned the knob. The hall was silent, the single bulb left burning.
Unheard-of extravagance, everything about tonight was wrong. She needed to pee. In fact no sooner was the thought in her head than the urge became desperate. She doubted she had the strength to climb the stairs and reach the bathroom, her mother’s pride and joy, before she disgraced herself.
She had no option. She flicked off the hall light and opened the front door, surprised it wasn’t locked. She would go behind a bush; she was past caring about what anyone might think of such behaviour. The fog was so thick she knew she would be invisible to anyone standing a yard from her. The damp was seeping into her clothes; she had to go back inside before she caught a chill.

Although she was scarcely a couple of yards from the front door she couldn’t see it. Which way was it? To her left or right? She couldn’t remember because she’d come out in such a desperate rush. But the door had to be somewhere in front and not more than three yards away. She extended her hands and shuffled forwards, forgetting she had stepped sideways to avoid the mess she’d made.
The front entrance was flanked by brick pillars supporting a tiled porch roof and her outstretched hands went either side of the right-hand column and she walked straight into. She was glad she’d not been travelling fast; she fingered her way around the bricks and was back at the front door. This was closed.

She’d left it slightly ajar, could a draft have blown it shut? She pushed it hard but it didn’t budge. Exhausted, she rested her uninjured cheek on the shiny blue paint, trying to decide what to do next. With an ear pressed close to the wood she could hear a soft whispering sound.

Unable to move, to breathe, she knew who was behind the door. Her mother waiting for her. She cringed against the porch, too cowed to speak, expecting her mother to emerge and the pain to start again. As she shivered in the blanketing darkness an unexpected image of John filled her mind blotting out her fear. She could almost feel his strong arms around her waist, hear his rich baritone announcing his intention to marry her, to take care of her.

Something odd began to happen. Her back stiffened, her head came up and she was filled with a rage to match her mother’s. After fifteen years of physical abuse she finally realised she could stop it. She was much taller than her mother, stronger, and tonight she would end it, one way or another. She stepped away from the support of the porch and moved stealthily forwards to stand close, almost touching the closed door. She wanted to be ready when it opened, to strike first, be the one to inflict damage this time.

An almost imperceptible sound told her it was opening. She tensed and clenched her fists. Then her mother whispered through the crack, her sibilant hiss making her meaning explicit although the words were indistinct. Barbara didn’t need to understand the words. For a second she hesitated, years of fear holding her back, then breaking free, she threw her shoulder to the door.

Her weight shot the door backwards taking her mother with it, slamming her hard against the wall.
She leant on it, trapping the gibbering woman, feeling empowered. ‘Don’t make a sound, Mother, you don’t want anyone to know how bad you’ve been, do you?’

This was spoken quietly but her mother heard and stopped struggling. Now, roles reversed, and for a second she wanted to make her parent suffer the way she had, wanted to seriously injure the woman crying pitifully behind the door.

She stepped back, releasing her prisoner, and watched, impassive as the woman slid ignominiously down the wall, her long fading blonde hair around her face, her flannel dressing gown hitched up exposing her bare legs. A heavy silence hung in the hallway. Was it over?

Then her mother catapulted to her feet taking Barbara by surprise, lashing out, her punch catching her on the shoulder sending her reeling backwards. Pain shot through her head as it hit the wall, she closed her eyes for a second. When she recovered she was alone - where had her mother gone?
She stared up the empty staircase, it just wasn’t possible to have got up the stairs so quickly. She must be somewhere downstairs. Was she waiting to renew her attack? Barbara’s hands were clammy, her bravado trickling away as fear took hold. She must go upstairs and hide in her bedroom, naughty girls shouldn’t be downstairs where they could be seen.

A gust of chilly air blew in and the front door banged against the wall. The noise shocked her out of her terror; she would not run away, not this time. Quickly closing the door she leant against it steadying her breathing. Her heart hammered, cold sweat trickled between her shoulder blades. What if that woman (she couldn’t think of her as Mother any more) had taken a knife from the drawer and was waiting for her in the kitchen?

The longer she stood shivering here the harder it would be. She’d done it once, she could do it again. She swallowed hard and shoved herself forward to push open the study door. Not in here, so where? The front room, used only when there were visitors, was the other side of the hallway - she would check in there next.

As she reached out for the doorknob the hairs on her arms stood up. The door was ajar, her quarry must be inside. She rested her fingertips on the panel and pushed. Slowly the gap widened, the room was inky black - she couldn’t remember where the light switch was. When she stepped in she would be clearly visible giving her opponent the advantage.

Scarcely able to breathe, her mouth so dry she couldn’t swallow, she moved back and flicked the hall light off. She must wait until her eyes became accustomed to the dark. Two steps and she was inside, she moved rapidly away from the entrance and pressed herself hard against the wall. Where was she? Barbara scanned the three-piece suite, the upright piano (never played), and across to the window.

Yes, there was a faint movement in the far corner; a crouched figure was edging towards her something long and thin held in one outstretched hand. She thought her bladder would empty. That woman had the poker. If that made contact it would break a bone. Her knees began to tremble, she couldn’t do this, she must get out before it was too late.

‘I know you’re there, I can hear you shivering in the corner. You’ve been bad, very, very bad. I’m going to teach you a lesson.’

From somewhere deep inside Barbara’s rage returned. She wasn’t going to let this person hurt her ever again. It would end now. She surged forward, shoulder first and cannoned into her mother sending her flying backwards. She snatched up the poker and stood over the fallen woman.

‘It’s over. Get up; I have some questions I want answered.’ Her mother remained seated. ‘Now, get up or do I have to help you?’ The threat in her voice was enough and the broken woman scrabbled to her feet. ‘In the kitchen, it’s warmer in there.’

Barbara waited until her mother had collapsed on to a chair before positioning herself in front of the stove, she propped the poker against the fireplace. ‘I want to know where my father’s parents live, who they are and why I never hear from them.’ When there was no response she gripped the handle of a wooden spoon and lifted it casually. It was enough to prompt a torrent of explanation.

‘I had to get married. Charles Sinclair got me into trouble. He thought himself in love with me and was happy to do the right thing.’ She paused, her mouth twisted in a sneer. ‘That didn’t last. His parents disowned him, I wasn’t good enough for them, they never knew about the baby. When it was born he doted on it, he had no time for me at all; he went off to his job in the city leaving me to deal with nappies and the continuous screaming.’

Barbara found it hard to grasp that she was the baby in the story. ‘And then, what happened then?’
‘He wanted to take the baby away, said I didn’t look after it properly, he was going to give it to his parents to raise and leave me. I couldn’t allow that. He was mine; he’d said so in his marriage vows. For the first time in my life I was living in a real house, not having to share, and had money to spare at the end of the week. I promised to try harder and make an effort to be a good wife and mother.’
She saw her mother smile and this time didn’t prompt but waited for her to continue.

‘I got on better with the baby as it grew up and could occupy itself, not demand my constant attention. Everything was so good, I was happy then. I believed he still loved me and then I discovered a receipt for a bracelet in his jacket pocket. My birthday was the next day and I knew he’d bought me a special present. I prepared a celebration dinner; the child went to bed early. I washed and put on my best frock.’ She paused and her face contorted with grief.

‘He didn’t come home until late. The meal was ruined. We had a horrible row and he told me there was someone else. He’d given my bracelet to another woman. He said he’d only stayed with me because of the child, but now he knew I could look after her, be a proper mother, he was leaving me. He ran upstairs and when he came back with his things I begged him to stay but he laughed at me. I was so angry I ran at him and hit him across the head with a walking stick.’ Mrs Evans wiped her eyes and stared at Barbara. ‘It wasn’t my fault. He should never have got on his motor bike if he was feeling dizzy.’

‘That was the night he died? After you hit him?’ Barbara’s head spun at the implications. ‘You killed him. It was you! And all these years you’ve been punishing me for your actions.’ She stepped closer to her mother. ‘You’re despicable. I should report you to the authorities. If it wasn’t for the boys I would do it. But I’m going to tell Mr Evans, let him know what a monster he’s been married to all these years.’

‘I know, Barbara. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve always been aware of your mother’s reprehensible behaviour toward you, but to my shame I didn’t interfere.’

Her step-father had come in unobserved by either of them. He walked over and put his arms around his wife, offering her comfort and support. How could he have known? How could any decent man allow a child to suffer as she had, and not step in?

‘Please don’t look at me like that, Barbara, I know I should have done something. But I did send you away to school, I did do that, and I bought you a pony, gave you a bolthole outside. I knew Doreen’s fear of horses would prevent her from going down to the stables to find you.’

‘Then you can make it up to me now. I want my birth certificate, and the address of my grandparents. I also need some money – enough to get by for at least a few months - a hundred pounds should be enough. Call it compensation if you like. You owe me that, after the way I’ve been treated over the years.  Then I’ll be gone from here, you’ll never see or hear from me again.’ Her chest constricted at the thought of abandoning her brothers, but she had no choice. She had to make a clean break, start a new life somewhere else.

Her cheek burned and her lips felt too large for her face but the pain steadied her, forced her to remain where she was, rigid and disdainful. She nearly relented as her stepfather helped the crying woman, aged beyond recognition, from her chair. No longer the fearsome person who until tonight had held her captive, too scared, too ashamed to ask for help. Always believing the mantra that accompanied every beating. ‘You’re a bad wicked girl. You deserve to be punished.’

Mr Evans nodded apologetically in her direction. ‘I’ll take Doreen up and put her back to bed and then I’ll come back and find the things you want.’

He half walked, half carried the woman she had once called mother. From tonight she would consider herself an orphan. She disowned them both. Her stomach rumbled noisily reminding her she hadn’t eaten since the soup she’d shared at Brook Farm. Her vision misted as she thought about that haven, about John, whose love had given her the courage to fight back.

There were three eggs in the pantry and half a pint of milk. She would scramble the eggs, she thought she could mumble them down through her swollen lips. The milk she heated to make cocoa, adding three extravagant spoonfuls of sugar to the thick brown paste. She needed the energy.

She had finished her impromptu supper before Mr Evans returned. He held a faded foolscap envelope in his hand.

‘Here you are. It’s everything that pertains to you. I never looked inside. It was not my business.’

‘Like my beatings were none of your business?’

He shrugged. ‘You aren’t my child. How your mother chose to treat you was always her concern.’
What he meant was, that as another man’s child, she’d always been outside his family parameters, tolerated because of her connection to his wife. Even sending her to an expensive boarding school, buying first the pony, and then Silver Lady, had been to prevent that woman getting into trouble, not to protect her, as he’d suggested earlier.

She took the envelope and undid the blue fastener.  She flicked through the contents; there were several photographs, a birth and marriage certificate and some rings. She would look at these more closely later. She dropped it on the table ‘And the money?’

‘I’ll bring it back with me tomorrow night.’

‘No, I don’t want to spend another night here. I’m leaving this morning.’ She paused, her head aching with the effort to concentrate. ‘I’ll come with you when you go. You can drive me to the station and I’ll wait there until you bring me the cash. I don’t want it all in five pound notes - make sure at least half is in one pound and ten shilling notes.’

‘Very well. Be outside at eight fifteen.’ He didn’t say goodnight, merely turned and walked out, his back rigid with dislike.

After so many years of abuse she could hardly believe it was over. She was free of both of them, if
it hadn’t been for John she would never have stood up for herself. Her eyes filled, the salty tears stung her injuries. How could she bear to leave her little brothers in the care of such monsters? Why hadn’t she told John what was happening, he would have known what do?

She glanced at the clock; it was almost one. There was plenty of time to pack and maybe get some sleep. She picked up the precious manila envelope and flicked off the lights. Mr Evans had left the passage in darkness but she adjusted quickly and found her way upstairs by the faint glow that escaped from under the door of the front bedroom, where they slept.

As she passed her brothers’ room she stopped. Should she go in and say goodbye, try and explain why she had to go? She turned the knob and slipped inside, closing the door silently behind her.

‘Tom, David, I need to speak to you.’ She was tempted to switch on the central light, show them exactly what their mother had done to her, but something stopped her. She didn’t want them to remember her like this. She edged her way over to Tom’s bed, knowing it was at the far side, under the window. She felt along the pillow until she touched his warm face. Gently she shook his shoulder until he woke.

‘What is it? Is that you, Babs?’

‘Yes, I have to talk to you and David. I know it’s the middle of the night, but I won’t get another opportunity.’

Tom seemed to sense the urgency and threw back the blankets. ‘I’ll go over and fetch David; he can come in with me for a bit.’

She shifted down the bed to sit on the end, leaning against the wall, leaving room for the two boys. She heard Tom whispering to his younger brother and the slap of their feet on the lino as he led him back.

‘Get in next to the wall, Dave; I’ll go on the edge.’ The bed heaved and jerked as they settled. They were waiting for her to speak, to explain her unexpected appearance. ‘I’m so sorry, boys, but I’m leaving here for ever. I’m going away to Essex to live with my grandparents. I know you understand why I have to go, don’t you?’

She sensed them trying to make sense of her words, unravel the reasons behind the statement. David started to cry quietly but said nothing. Tom, his voice a miserable whisper, spoke for both of them.

‘We know why. It’s what happened tonight, isn’t it?’

She felt more tears seeping into the blood-stained bandage on one side of her face and trickling down the other. ‘It is, Tom. It can’t go on. It will never stop as long as I’m living here. It’s better for all of us if I’m somewhere else.’

‘Please don’t go, Babs, we love you.’ There was a rustle and a bundle arrived on her lap and skinny arms clutched at her.

‘David, darling, I have to go. But I promise I’ll write to you at school. I’ll find out where it is from Mrs Peterson and even come and see you when I can. I’m sure you’ll be allowed a visit from your big sister occasionally.’ She rubbed his shaking back, praying his sobbing wouldn’t bring anyone in to investigate.

Tom joined his brother, dragging the blankets up around them all. ‘Do you promise you’ll come and see us and write to us every week? Cross your fingers, hope to die?’

‘I do, Tom. It won’t be easy, getting to Worcestershire from Essex, not with the war on, but I’ll try my hardest, and you will definitely get letters every week.’

Tom snuggled up beside her and she wrapped her free arm around him. The boys fell asleep hugging her and she didn’t have the heart to disentangle herself and return to her own room. She heard the cockerels crowing down the lane and knew she had barely an hour to pack and make the arrangements for Silver Lady to go and live at Brook Farm.

She removed David from her lap and carried him across to his own bed, then eased Tom away from the wall and back on to his pillow. She crept across the room and pulled aside the blackout curtains; pale light flooded in giving her one last glimpse of her little brothers. How could two such perfect children be the offspring of those two fiends? They were loving, kind, intelligent and funny, everything their parents were not. Could it have been her influence? No, more likely to be the fact that babies were born innocent and only learned how to be bad.


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Genre – Historical fiction
Rating – PG
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