The secret to writing about dark secrets

by Webmaster, 22nd September 2021

The secret to writing about dark secrets

Mystery is all around us. Where do we go when we die? Where does the sky end? And why do we have to wear masks in Wales, but not in England? It's what keeps us interested as an intelligent species. And it's why secrets - especially dark secrets - are such a hit in literature.

Truth be told, there really isn't much of a secret to writing about secrets. You just have to keep the reader interested, and guessing. But that's much easier said than done of course.

For Wales & Borders subscriber Jude Sizer, it clearly came easy enough, judging by her thriller, Penitence, published in 2019. It's twisty, it's turny. It's not the feelgood book of the year, but if you like your protagonists to be put through the mangle, then this is the book for you.

"I’ve always enjoyed languages and writing," says Jude, who's published under the name of Jude Williams. "It was my lifelong dream to write a novel. I had major brain surgery 10 years ago and that forced me to take stock of my life and my priorities. I wasn’t working at the time so I decided it would be the perfect time to write my first novel."
Before you start leaping to any conclusions from the first-chapter excerpt below, the plot has no basis in fact, insists the single mum with two young children to look after. But "I've used snippets of personal experience in parts," she admits.
Currently working as an accounts assistant, she's also studying to gain accounting qualifications. "So life is pretty hectic at the moment!"
Such is the life of an author. And a good one at that.

Here at Creative Corner we were hooked, and read Jude's debut in just a few days. Thriller, mystery, call it what you will. Above all, Penitence is a fabulous exploration of guilt, be it by design or accident (does it matter?). And that message grows stronger before delivering a great big slap-in-the-face of a thought-provoking ending.

Here's Chapter One, followed by details of how you can get hold of the whole book if you like what you read.



by Jude Williams
She stared, incredulous, at the tiny, ugly, puckered face protruding from one end of the writhing bundle the midwife thrust at her. It had been only hurriedly cleaned and she noticed that there remained a couple of minuscule slimy threads of blood, all fibrous and gleaming, smeared across its fleshy, lobster-red cheeks. The baby was protesting noisily, furious to have been heaved out of its warm, dark refuge into this harsh, neon light. She could understand why it wanted to be back there again. Its whole chicken-like, vernix-smeared body shuddered with the effort of crying, gasping for frantic breaths in between piercing shrieks. Its limbs flailed wildly, tiny claws grabbing aimlessly at fistful after fistful of air.

'Well, don’t you want to hold her, Emma, darling?' Her mother’s excited voice startled her and portrayed only the merest hint of anxiety. Unperturbed, the midwife was still waiting for her to take the baby. Obediently, Emma held out her arms and the baby was dutifully, almost ceremoniously, placed into them, but instantly recoiling from the warm mass she was holding, Emma in turn held out the screaming baby to her mother. 'You take it, mum. I’m tired.'

Her mother paced round the delivery room for a while, jogging the small bundle up and down in her arms, as though the last time she had done this was only yesterday, instead of nineteen years ago. As the yells slowly subsided into whimpers, out of the corner of her eye Emma was aware of her mother stealing worried glances in her direction from time to time. 

As the baby gradually forgot forever about the sanctuary she had come from and her traumatic passage into this strange, complicated new place, the rocking motion lulled her, irresistibly, into an easy sleep. Emma’s mother cautiously lowered herself onto the edge of the bed. After a few moments, she began, wordlessly, to stroke her daughter’s dishevelled hair. The midwife had left the room now, summoned no doubt to deliver yet another tiny, determined life into the world. After the earlier racket, the delivery room seemed conspicuously silent.

They remained like this for a while, the two mothers; the older gently stroking the younger’s hair with one hand, while cradling her sleeping granddaughter in the crook of the other arm, and the younger slightly reclined on the bed, staring impenetrably ahead of her.

Again, her mother’s voice startled her. 'So, have you thought of a name for her yet, darling?' Her voice sounded unnaturally bright. 

Emma shook her head wearily. 'No, not yet.'

Her mother tried again to engage her in some sort of exchange, tried to force Emma to take notice of her daughter, tried to make her voice sound casual, like it didn’t matter to her, when Emma knew full well that it did. 'She’s beautiful, isn’t she?' Her voice faltered a little as she raised it self-consciously at the end. Emma responded with an almost imperceptible movement of her head, her eyes still fixed straight ahead of her, refusing to do what she knew her mother was desperate for her to do, which was at least to look at her baby daughter.

With a barely concealed sigh, her mother evidently decided to give up for the time being. 'Why don’t you try and rest a bit while she’s asleep? You look exhausted, darling.' After a few moments, Emma shut her eyes gratefully. 

She felt as if the night were suffocating her. Almost horizontal sheets of rain whipped the stationary car. A relentless, deafening pummelling. Onto the windscreen, which was streaming with water, the slither of a moon cast strange, menacing shadows of the trees at the side of the road. As their branches were buffeted about in the squally wind, spindly, watery fingers clawed frantically at the windscreen. Her heart was racing as her own fingers fumbled with the key, trying desperately to insert it into the ignition. She cursed as she dropped it into the blackness. Now she was groping about on the floor beneath the driver’s seat, her terror mounting with every second that passed. 'Please, God, please, God.' At last her fingers found it, her knuckles closing around it with relief. Again, with shaking hands, she struggled to insert the key. And then, finally, it was in and she was turning it. Nothing happened. She tried again. She was breathing quickly, practically panting. She felt her heart thumping. Nothing. Another time she turned it and depressed the accelerator pedal repeatedly as she did so. And again nothing. As she desperately turned and re-turned the key, even though she knew it was futile now, she noticed that the rain splattering onto the windscreen seemed to have become thicker, less transparent. And it was no longer colourless, but had taken on a rusty appearance. She stopped turning the key to watch, horrified, mesmerised, as the rusty colour turned crimson. When she realised that it was blood, not rain, falling out of the sky, she instinctively opened her mouth to scream. But the sound was swallowed up by the night. 

Her heart was still pounding when Emma woke up, even though the recurring nightmare had become familiar to her now, give or take a few details. She remembered with a start where she was and stole a glance at her mother and the baby. Her mother, looking weary herself now, continued to cradle the little girl, who was still sleeping peacefully. Emma closed her eyes again, unwilling, for the time being at least, to confront the unfamiliar scene before her. Her own fitful sleep had not refreshed her in the slightest and she felt too fragile to submit to more well-intentioned questions and kindly concern from her mother.

She lay there for a few minutes, her drowsy mind swimming indolently in the peacefulness of the room. Her overwhelming relief to have got that alien thing out of her body had quickly given way to a feeling of numbness, of not knowing what or how to feel.

She had met him at a friend’s house party last summer after her A-levels, the summer, that summer that she was poised to take up her place at Bristol University to read English. But, of course, that wasn’t going to happen any more, now that she was lumbered with this baby. It had been a one-night stand, a drunken, fumbling, sordid encounter and one that she would rather have shut out from her mind completely. She had told her parents that she had been with him for a few months, this guy whose name and face eluded her memory, because she felt too ashamed to admit that she barely knew him. She knew that she would disappoint them enough with her revelation that she was pregnant without twisting the knife even more through the addition of further details that there was no need for them to know.

And indeed this single piece of news in itself had been more than was needed to break her father’s heart. She had always thought he doted on her. He had been so proud of his little girl who had earned herself a place at university, who had achieved what he had never had the chance or ambition to achieve himself. To his boundless delight and to her own not insignificant embarrassment, he had basked in her reflected glory, tirelessly mapping out to his friends and acquaintances the dazzling future that surely lay ahead of her. He had always loved her with an uncontained passion, demonstratively and, she thought, unconditionally.

However, she remembered his slumped posture in his chair, as the three of them – Emma and her parents - sat at the kitchen table while she tearfully, courageously revealed her predicament, his crumpled face in his weathered hands, and then, like a child who hasn’t got its way, the slammed door, the angry thud, thud, thud as he ran up the stairs and the seemingly endless sulking, skulking in her parents’ room as reality painfully sank in.

Their relationship had never been the same since that black day. Her father decided to move out. She knew it wasn’t all her fault and repeatedly reassured herself that she had simply been the catalyst that had made him do it sooner rather than later. But she couldn’t help feeling that she had let him down and not kept to her side of the bargain. Her father had been threatening for a while that he was going to leave. The rows between her parents had reached fever pitch, becoming more frequent, more heated, her mother’s voice becoming ever shriller and ever more grating, her father’s behaviour more childish. And the things that triggered a row became more and more trivial. It was as if her parents were constantly lying in wait for the slightest excuse to vent all their fury on each other, fury that was restlessly simmering deep down inside them, like a bottle full of fizzy drink that had been shaken too violently, ready to explode at any moment. The threats to leave would often be made at the height of an argument, left to float clamorously in the sodden, ringing air after her father had made his usual melodramatic exit from a room, slamming the door behind him in a self-satisfied way, but neither Emma nor her mother had ever paid any heed to them. Neither of them believed for a moment that he would ever have the guts to go ahead and do it. He would stay put because that was the easier option. He would do anything for an easy life.

So it was with much surprise and incredulity that Emma and her mother received the news from Emma’s almost apologetic father one drizzly February day that he had just signed up to a six-month lease on a flat in the nearby town. 'Just till I find something more permanent,' he mumbled, his face turned towards the wall, as he peeled off his gloves, hung up his heavy coat which smelled of the rain and wiped his tired-looking, prickly face on the sleeve of his jumper.

Emma’s mother looked up at him from her ironing, eyes like saucers, struggling to absorb what he had just said. 'But you can’t, I mean, you could have told us, I mean, not now, what with Emma and the baby due in a few weeks. You can’t leave us now, Colin. Give it a few more months at least. Think it over. Please Colin, not now. Think of Emma,' she continued, motioning towards their daughter's rounded form. Emma looked away, fiddling with the buttons on her cardigan.

'I know, I’m sorry, love. The timing’s not brilliant, you’re right. But what’s done is done. I’ve signed the contract now. It’s too late. I’ve made up my mind. Don’t worry, things will work out fine, you’ll see.' He forced a weak smile.

'How can you say that – don’t worry? How can you do this to us? To Emma? What about your family, your grandchild? There you go again, you’re so selfish. It’s always you, you, you, isn’t it? You don’t give a damn about anyone else. Well, go on then. Clear off. See if we care. We’ll be better off without you anyway.' She carried on ironing, pretending that he wasn’t still standing there awkwardly, pretending that she hadn’t just heard his horrid news, although the furious, venomous movements she made back and forth with her hissing iron made the extent of her hurt painfully apparent to husband and daughter, who looked on apprehensively.

After a few moments, her husband’s voice cut through the steam. 'Well, it’s not my fault you’ve driven me away is it? I’m only doing what any sane man in my position would have done a long time ago. What with your incessant nagging and scolding, who can blame me for not putting up with it? You’d try the patience of a saint, you would.'

Emma’s mother could keep silent no longer. She stood the fizzling iron up, fist clenched round its handle as if it might come in handy as a weapon. 'You put up with me? Huh, that’s rich, that is.' The sole spectator of some grotesque comedy, Emma watched with mild curiosity her mother’s features contorting along familiar lines etched by the accumulation of years of marital bickering as she spat out her words malevolently. 'I’ve wasted twenty-one years of my life with you, you pathetic, spineless bastard, twenty-one long years hearing your constant whinging and whining, waiting for you to make something of yourself. All those grand ideas, the big house, the flash cars, the fancy holidays...' She exhaled audibly, shaking her head slightly as she did so, eyes narrowed, nose wrinkled disdainfully. 'Well, what have you got to show for yourself at the end of it all? Where are all the millions you said we’d be rolling in? I don’t see them, do you?' Her voice was rising steadily. 'Well, where are they? Well? Well? Where, Colin?'

He was looking at the floor. Emma could see his temples pulsing. He looked defeated, exhausted. She wanted to go and wrap her arms around him and tell him everything would be all right. She wanted his forgiveness and she wanted to tell him that she forgave him too, for all his failings, for all the times that he had let her down. But her courage deserted her and in any case, she wouldn’t have had time before the next onslaught from her mother.

'I’ll tell you where they are. They’re at the Dog and Partridge, that’s where. Every time you have a few quid, off you go. Oh, it does look posh now, doesn’t it, now it’s all refurbished. Well, you should feel proud, you should, ‘cause you paid for that, you know. And they’re in that beer belly of yours and that liver and those decaying lungs. Let’s hope those millions finish you off. ‘Cause I for one certainly wouldn’t miss you, that’s for sure.'

In a self-satisfied way, she resumed her ironing with brisk, angular movements, her chest moving in and out rapidly. Apparently too consumed by anger, she paid little heed to the items she was ironing.

Emma was expecting a similar retaliatory tirade from her father, but instead he merely fixed his wife with a stare brimming over with loathing, muttering, 'I should have done this years ago.' Then, without even bothering to take his coat, he opened the front door wide and strode back out into the rain which was so fine that it looked like glitter falling from the leaden sky.

Neither Emma nor her mother heard anything from her father for a couple of months after that. He furtively moved himself out, waiting till the house was empty to come and collect his belongings. The house seemed strangely quiet, although its two remaining occupants tried to retain a sense of normality, strained though it was.

And of course there was the baby. Throughout the day, Emma’s mother seemed to think about nothing else. She seemed to have forgotten all the disappointment with which she had received the news of her teenage daughter’s pregnancy. She busied herself in her spare time with knitting baby bonnets and bootees and had taken it upon herself to sort out things the baby would need such as a cot and a pram. To be fair, she had asked Emma whether she wanted to be involved in the decision-making, but when Emma declined the offer, had more than readily set about it herself. And with her friends, it was all baby talk. When they came to the house or spoke on the telephone, she must have driven them round the bend with her inane wittering on. It was almost as if she was proud now to have a teenage daughter who was pregnant, to be the first among her friends to be a grandmother. How her attitude had changed! But sometimes Emma wondered whether her mother’s determined excitement, her optimism, were all a facade and whether when she was alone in bed at night, the mask fell away to expose feelings of anguish and desolation.

Emma’s musings were interrupted by the sound of the baby starting to whimper, pathetic little noises which, after only a few attempts, developed into wholehearted shrieks that were impossible to ignore. With great reluctance, Emma lifted her heavy eyelids, only to be confronted by the overpowering glare from the delivery room. Once her eyes had become accustomed to the brightness again, she could see her mother who had stood up now and was frantically bobbing the screaming little creature about. 'I think someone’s hungry.' She smiled.

'Will you do it then please?'

'But she needs you darling. Breastfeeding is much better for her, you know.'

'Not now, Mum, please. Can’t you just ask someone for a bottle this time and then I’ll do it next time? Please Mum, I’m just so tired.'

'Well, babies are tiring, darling. You’re going to have to get used to feeling tired all the time, I’m afraid.'

The baby’s shrieks were becoming louder and more frantic. They sounded like a dentist's drill grating in Emma's head. 'I know Mum, but I just can’t face it at the moment. Please...'

Her mother relented. 'Oh well, all right then. It’s your decision. She’s your baby. Here you are then. You hold her while I go and try to find a bottle from somewhere.' She handed the red-faced, screeching creature over to her startled-looking daughter and hurried out of the room before there was any time for her to object.

Oh my god, thought Emma, as she regarded her daughter properly for the first time. You're so loud. And so ugly. The baby was putting all her effort into crying, working herself into a frenzy. Emma felt the tiny body shudder with each new ear-splitting shriek. She had probably forgotten the reason she had started crying in the first place. So intent was she now on making as much noise as she could with as much energy as she could possibly muster as if her very life depended on it.

Emma sat there, holding the baby awkwardly, wishing she were anywhere else but there in that depressing room with that stupid, noisy baby. She kept glancing over to the door, wishing her mother would return to take it from her and feed it, or whatever needed doing to it. She felt sore and exhausted. She wanted this nightmare to stop.

After what felt like hours, her mother reappeared carrying a bottle of milk. The baby was still wailing frenetically, oblivious to anything else. 'Sorry, I had to wait for the nurse to finish with someone else. God, she’s a determined little mite, isn’t she? I could hear her at the other end of the corridor.'

She took the baby from Emma and proceeded to feed her. After some gentle coaxing with the teat and much spluttering, it wasn’t long before the baby got the hang of what she was supposed to be doing and was glugging contentedly, eyes closed, worn out from all her exertion. The room was once again peaceful.

'Isn’t she lovely?' Smiling, her mother looked up at Emma expectantly, waiting for a response that didn't come. Satisfied that the baby had stopped drinking now, her mother, careful not to wake her, placed her gently into the transparent cot next to Emma. 'I’m just going to pop out to phone your Dad. I suppose I’d better let him know he has a granddaughter.' She rolled her eyes at Emma. 'Unless you want to tell him yourself, of course?' Emma shook her head. 'I won’t be a minute then.'

Left alone once again with her daughter, Emma turned to look at her, finding it hard to believe that she was looking at the same baby. Her little chest was rising and falling rapidly, almost imperceptibly, her arms folded upwards so that the pink, pudgy palms of her tiny hands were upturned next to her shoulders in a gesture of total submission, which gave her a look of vulnerability. She looked so relaxed now, so comfortable, like she didn’t have a care in the world. Her sleep was an easy one, untroubled by anxiety of any sort. Hers was the sleep of the innocent.

'There was no reply so I left a message.' Emma’s mother bustled back into the room. 'No doubt down the pub.' Her mother gave Emma one of her artificial smiles, emitting a little light-hearted sigh as she lowered herself into the plastic chair next to her again, as if she felt obliged to stave off silence. 'Still asleep I see...' She nodded towards her new granddaughter. 'Any nearer with a name for her, darling?'


'Oh sweetheart, that’s lovely!' exclaimed her mother far too enthusiastically, flinging her arms round Emma who hugged her back woodenly, thinking to herself that whatever name she had chosen, the relieved, exuberant reaction would have been the same. 

Following her little outburst, her mother sat herself down again and the two women spent an awkward half hour or so together, a half hour punctuated by tiny snuffling and shuffling sounds from the sleeping Sophie and subsequent silly coos and exclamations from her grandmother.

Eventually, a nurse appeared at the door to tell them that Emma and Sophie were to be moved onto a ward and that once she had settled Emma in, her mother should really leave, as visiting time had now finished. Soon afterwards, Emma found herself being wheeled along the corridor, together with the still-sleeping Sophie in her cot, her mother following behind with Emma’s belongings.

The maternity ward seemed surprisingly calm to Emma, who had been imagining it to be filled with activity and the noise of screaming babies. She surveyed her new surroundings warily. While some babies slept, others lay peacefully in their mother’s arms or were feeding contentedly. The other mothers eyed up the newcomer with brazen curiosity and ill-disguised disdain. They all looked much older than Emma. They seemed so self-assured, she thought, so confident in the way they handled their babies. She stole envious glances at them. Serene and unflustered, they seemed to be taking the new experience of motherhood in their stride. They all looked so happy. She thought to herself gloomily that she could never be like them.

Left alone and dreading the long night ahead, Emma suddenly wished with all her heart that her mother was still there with her, notwithstanding the fact that she found her presence irritating. She would rather feel mildly irritated, she thought to herself, than be overwhelmed by feelings of loneliness and desolation.

Her eyes wandered to the huge smeary window at the far side of the ward. Darkness was falling now and the multi-storey car park opposite the maternity wing was suffused with an orange glow from the electric lights which had switched themselves on. A small trail of people was heading along the illuminated footpath towards it and Emma thought that she could make out her mother among them, fumbling for something in her handbag, her car park ticket perhaps. A tiny, indistinct silhouette in the distance.

Emma looked down at her daughter, who continued to sleep, tiny chest rising and falling steadily. She envied her being able to sleep like that – peaceful, untroubled. She knew that if she managed to get any at all, her own sleep on the ward that night would be broken continually by babies wailing, hushed voices and the soft padding to and fro of the nurses’ rubber-soled shoes, not to mention the usual terrifying nightmares that caused her to wake up screaming sometimes, breathless and sweating, her heart filling her chest with its thumping. From time to time, her screams used to awaken her mother who would stagger, bleary-eyed, into her room to sit on the edge of her crumpled bed, stroking her damp, dishevelled hair to soothe her back into a turbulent sleep. The nightmares had started the previous summer and her parents had put them down to worries about the pregnancy. Her mother would frequently try to allay her concerns, endlessly reassuring her that everything would be fine and that she would be there to help with the baby, but the nightmares continued as before. Emma knew only too well that they were nothing to do with being pregnant.

Her night in hospital passed much as Emma had imagined it would. Exhausted, she had drifted off into a brief, fitful sleep a couple of times in between all the disturbances of the night. When Sophie had woken up screaming, the nurses had tried hard to persuade Emma to have a go at breastfeeding, assuring her that the earliest breast milk was the most beneficial for her baby, but after a feeble, unsuccessful attempt at it, Emma had refused to try any more. As well as being frightened by the idea of breastfeeding, she secretly found it slightly repulsive. By the third time Sophie needed feeding, the busy nurses had given up trying to persuade Emma and had just brought a warmed bottle straightaway. With their help, she had at last managed to give Sophie her feed. It was with relief that Emma saw the watery light of day beginning to seep around the edges of the paper blinds at the window.

That morning, Emma and Sophie were discharged from the hospital and Emma’s mother came to pick them up. The day had dawned sunny and bright, but the early-morning cotton-wool clouds were quickly accumulating and darkening, blotting out the sun now and again on the journey home and threatening some early April showers. Emma had been looking forward to getting home, but at the familiar crunch of the car wheels on the gravel driveway in front of their house, her heart sank. She looked up at her bedroom window at the front of the house, saw her jaded fairy lightshade that had dangled from the ceiling since she was at primary school and the faded print of the dusty curtains that had hung at her window for as long as she could remember and the thought suddenly struck her that she would never be able to return to her old life. She would never again be the same carefree teenager who had burst into fits of giggles with her friends at the silliest things, laughing and spluttering hysterically until they were doubled over, staggering helplessly, barely able to breathe, ecstatic tears streaming down their flushed cheeks as others simply looked on with mild irritation, wondering what they could possibly find so amusing. The teenager who had enthusiastically made plans with her friends as to where they should go on a Saturday night, tittering excitedly as they compared notes on which boys in their class they considered the best-looking, while they all got ready to go out together, her bedroom a sordid jumble of make-up and discarded clothes and the air thick with perfume.

On hot, balmy summer days when she and her best friend, Tara, would wander around the local town where they had come by bus on one of their jaunts, they would stand still for a few moments and look up together at the interminable azure expanse of the sky, the lines of the ancient cathedral sharp and distinct against it. Then, whooping with laughter and intoxicated by the sheer gloriousness of the day, they would try to swallow the sky. It was a crazy, preposterous idea, they both knew, but there they would stand on the uneven cobbles, which had been polished by the countless pairs of feet that had trodden upon them through the ages, taking great gulps of the warm, dry air. Their mirth, however, was overshadowed by a certain gravity that they both failed to acknowledge out loud. Jesting and levity aside, they both knew deep down that this was in part a stupid, vain attempt to hold onto their youth and childhood innocence forever. Oh, those heady, halcyon summer days, rendered more poignant now by the relentless passage of time! Unsullied, treasured memories that were like a thin sheet of highly polished glass, so fragile, so brittle, and it suddenly felt to Emma as if it were shattering into thousands of minute shards, tiny daggers inside her which were stabbing deep within her heart.

Her mother unfastened Sophie’s seat from the back of the car and carried her, fast asleep, thanks to the lulling ride home, to the back door. Unlocking it, she walked through to the kitchen where she set the seat down on the table. Emma followed them inside slowly, her overnight bag slung over her shoulder.

'Ooh, it’s quite chilly, isn’t it?' Her mother rubbed her hands together briskly. 'I’d better put the heating on, I think. We don’t want our gorgeous little girlie getting a chill now, do we?' Smiling, she nodded over at the car seat where Sophie continued to snooze blissfully. 'Shall I put the kettle on?'

Emma slumped down wearily onto one of the wooden chairs and watched as her mother went through the well-oiled routine of making tea. She handed the steaming mug to Emma, who took it gratefully, blowing into it and clasping it with both hands to warm them.

'Your dad said he’d drop by later.' She sat down opposite Emma. 'He said he’s dying to meet his little granddaughter.' Emma didn’t know whether to believe this or not. Since moving out, her father had hardly seen her. He had become a different person almost overnight. She had sometimes suggested that she come over to his new flat to see him, but he usually managed to come up with some lame excuse or other, so in the end, she had all but given up trying. He seemed to be spending even more time now at the pub, drinking with his workmates every evening, frittering away what little money he had. The pub and his drinking mates were his home and his family now. She felt as if she were no longer a part of his life, as if he had closed a heavy door on her. She couldn’t help feeling that he didn’t really love her any more, that he had still not forgiven her for falling pregnant and scuppering all his neatly laid-out plans.

Sophie had started shifting slightly in her car seat and grunting, as likely as not gearing herself up for her next feed. Emma couldn’t help groaning inwardly. Stretching, Sophie screwed her little face up and flicked her eyes open and shut a few times like a plastic doll with movable eyelids, as if trying to work out whether it was worth waking up or not. But in the end, the call of hunger was evidently more urgent than that of sleep, as the grunting turned into crying.

Emma could feel her mother’s eyes boring into her. 'Well darling, don’t you think you’d better lift her out? I expect she’s ready for some more milk. It’s been four hours since her last lot, after all.' Trust her mother to have made a mental note of the time she was last fed. 'You get her out while I get her bottle ready. Well, unless, of course, you want to try breastfeeding her again, that is.'

Emma shook her head listlessly. Apparently expecting that answer, her mother had already jumped up and started busying herself like an automaton with bottles, steriliser and powdered milk. She seemed to know exactly what she was doing, Emma thought, as if she had been programmed. Emma wondered how such a tiny thing, merely by crying, could have such power over everybody, commanding them to do what it wanted. Sighing to herself, she leant across to the car seat on the table in order to unfasten the straps. Once undone, she managed to slide Sophie’s flailing arms out from underneath them, gingerly, for fear of hurting her, then she slid her own hands behind Sophie’s arching back and scooped her out before manoeuvring her self-consciously into a cradling position on her lap. She was aware that her mother had been watching her all the while out of the corner of her eye.

'Here you go, then.' Her mother handed her the bottle once it had warmed up enough. Emma took it wordlessly, surprising her mother who had no doubt expected some sort of protest. While Emma fed Sophie, her mother wittered on inanely about how her friends were all dying to meet her pretty little granddaughter and how she must buy more formula milk and nappies when she next went to Tesco’s and how she should phone to book a check-up for Sophie with the GP, with Emma only half-listening, absorbed in her own thoughts.

And so began the ceaseless monotony of feeding and nappy changing, of putting something in and taking something away, and of disturbed nights and constant tiredness, drudgery to the most dedicated, enthusiastic mother, let alone to a carefree nineteen-year-old who had been used to doing as she pleased, who had been used to a frivolous world which had up until now always revolved around her, and for whom motherhood belonged in a hazy, distant future, not in a gritty here and now. 

Emma’s father didn’t show up that day. She couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed. She hadn’t expected him to, but had been secretly hoping that he might. And there was no word from him either.

However, the following afternoon, he dropped by. Emma’s mother answered the doorbell. That he came to the front door and rang the bell now, waiting dutifully to be admitted on the handful of times he had visited since his departure seemed odd to Emma. It served to confirm his estrangement from them, making her realise once and for all that he no longer belonged there and probably never would again.

Her legs tucked underneath her as she sat on the sofa in the lounge beside a dozing Sophie, Emma watched in the smeary mirror on the lounge wall the very slightly distorted reflection of her father taking his coat off in the hall and hanging it up, following a cool reception from her mother. He was unshaven and had obviously not put a comb through his unkempt hair in a while. Under his coarse stubble, his face looked pasty and drawn and the skin under his sunken eyes was the colour of mustard.

'They’re in here.' Her mother led him into the lounge, a less-than-welcome guest now in his former home. 

Her father came over to the sofa and gave Emma a peck on the cheek. He smelt of stale cigarette smoke. 'All right, love?' She nodded half-heartedly. 'So this is my little granddaughter, is it?' He motioned towards Sophie, who was still sleeping peacefully, palms upturned towards the swirl-patterned ceiling. 'Well, she is a beauty, isn’t she? Looks like you did when you were a baby, you know.'

Grunting loudly, he lowered himself gratefully into the armchair opposite Emma, the one that he had claimed as his a long time ago. His imprint was still on it, probably, as nobody had sat in it since he had left. He slouched back in it, plumping up the familiar, worn cushions around him as he had done countless times before. He certainly looked at ease there, as if the chair knew instinctively whereabouts to yield and its springs just how much to stretch. 'So, how are you then, love, all right?' he asked her again. Again, Emma nodded. 'Did the birth go OK? Did she fly out like a champagne cork?' He chortled to himself at this, which, in turn brought on one of his coughing fits. 'Well, she certainly is a pretty little thing, isn’t she?' he resumed, once he had finished coughing, without giving Emma a chance to answer his question. 'A real corker,' he announced with a knowing smirk. There came another explosion, his chest heaving as he wheezed uncontrollably with laughter.

Emma obliged him with the ghost of a smile, wondering whether he had already been to the pub at lunchtime. 'So, what are you calling her?' he asked, once he had recovered.


'That’s nice, love. I used to have an Aunt Sophie. Wasn’t a very common name back in them days. Owned a sweet shop, she did. Have I told you about her?' Emma nodded again, but her father took no notice and carried on. 'We would always call round after school and she’d give us some treat or other. Me and your Uncle Dave loved it in there. And it smelled so good – mm, I can still remember that smell now.' He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, as if he was back there once again in the sweet shop. 'And Aunt Sophie would have all the tall glass jars lined up neatly on the shelves filled with every kind of sweet you could imagine. All the colours of the rainbow they were, in all different shapes and sizes. Then out we’d both come, me and your Uncle Dave, pleased as Punch, grinning from ear to ear, with liquorice laces dangling from our mouths or sucking on giant gobstoppers, which made us dribble like anything and shut us up for the rest of the walk home. We’d try to finish them before we got back otherwise your Gran would get cross and say they’d spoil our tea. We used to worry that she’d tell Aunt Sophie to stop giving us sweets on our way home from school.'

Her father seemed in good spirits today. Emma hadn’t seen him this jovial for a long time and wondered what had made him so cheerful. She dared not hope that it might it be because of his new granddaughter. He had probably had a couple of beers... Or a win on the horses... 

'Go and ask your mum to put the kettle on, will you, love?' He winked at her. 'I’d murder a cup of tea. She probably won’t do it if I ask her.' Emma got up from the sofa, casting an uneasy glance at Sophie. 'Don’t worry, I’ll watch her for a second.'

In the short time that it took Emma to go and ask her mother, her father had taken possession of the remote control and switched over channels on the television, dragged over the faded faux leather pouf on which his feet were now squarely planted and had helped himself to the newspaper, deep within the sports pages of which his tousled head was now buried. 'Thanks love.' He didn't look up, as Emma re-entered the room.

She slumped down again wordlessly and looked out of the front window. Her father’s worn-out red van was parked on the drive, rusty paint flaking off round its wheels. The stencilled letters of his name on either side of the van had started to peel off. It had seen better days. Overhead, a couple of birds were wheeling in a brisk April sky, one mirroring the other’s movements, in such perfect alignment and synchronicity that Emma almost began to wonder whether she was seeing double. The sun was playing hide and seek among the lily-white clouds in a shimmering expanse of blue that seemed to go on forever. The living room suddenly seemed stuffy and oppressive. Emma felt like a caged bird waiting for someone to unlatch her door so that she could unfurl her beautiful wings and float up on a thermal to join those other birds, soaring weightlessly, high above a troubled world.

Emma’s mother having brought their mugs of tea, her father proceeded to take great, grateful slurps of it, still immersed in the paper except for every so often when applause would sound on the television and he would peer over the top to check the score of the darts match that he was following half-heartedly. When he had finished his tea, he put the mug down on the coffee table beside him and leaned his head back against the top of the armchair so that it lined up perfectly with the greasy stain on the fabric left by his head. A memento of him after he had moved out. 'That’s better.' He yawned. Within a few minutes, his eyelids had started to droop intermittently and his hands had started to jerk each time he every so often almost dropped the dog-eared newspaper he was still holding, as he lazily fought off sleep. However, soon his jaw had fallen and, with his mouth agape, he was snoring unashamedly. Seeing her father installed in his chair having forty winks in front of the television, it felt to Emma like old times again, when he was still living with them. She found his somnolent presence comforting; she was cocooned in the lounge with him in a time warp that had swallowed up the present. She closed her eyes and allowed herself fleetingly to imagine that she was a schoolgirl once more and that none of the hurt and trauma of the past year had ever happened. And before long, she, too, dozed off gratefully, for she had had little sleep over the last few days and nights.

Her relief was short-lived, however, since no sooner had she been lured down the beguilingly delectable slope into sleep, than the nightmare held her fast again in its stealthy clutches and she was back in the car on that night, frantically trying to start the engine as the rain turned to blood which splattered relentlessly onto the windscreen. She felt all the same emotions, the terror, the panic as raw as the very first time she had had the nightmare, despite having lost count now of how many times she had experienced it. The essential elements were the same each time, although the details would sometimes vary a little from one time to the next. This time she woke up, heart pounding, after the windscreen wipers had started up by themselves, slightly sluggish as they smeared the viscous liquid across the screen. Through the thin film of blood, Emma could make out a child’s face, its features contorted by anguish, its beseeching eyes boring into the darkest, innermost recesses of her soul.

She shivered, despite the tropical heat in the lounge, now that her mother had fiddled with the heating controls so that it was on pretty much constantly. She felt exhausted, drained of all vitality. She looked across at her father enviously, who was still snorting, mouth wide open.

Sophie, on the other hand, was starting to fidget and make snuffling noises. Emma disappeared into the kitchen to make up a feed for her which would be ready for her to have when she woke up. By the time she returned with the milk, her father had woken up, no doubt disturbed by Sophie, who had by now started to complain more loudly.

Emma, her movements becoming a little less clumsy now, scooped her up and sat down with her in her arms.

Her father made a show of yawning and rubbing his eyes. 'I’d best be off,' he grunted.

'But don’t you want to hold her? I’ll just give her a bit of milk and then you can give her a cuddle. It won’t take long.'

'No, I’d better not, love. Sorry. I told Stu I’d meet him at four.' Her father stood up and smiled apologetically. 'Next time, hey?' Emma wondered when that might be. He walked over to the sofa. 'She really is lovely, though. Got a good pair of lungs on her, hasn’t she?' He forced a laugh, trying to make light of the situation. 'See you soon then, love.' He stooped to kiss her on the cheek and then gave Sophie a peck on the forehead, screwing his face up a little as it encountered her flailing limbs.

'Bye then.' He walked out into the hall and Emma watched him in the mirror as he put his coat on. The reverse performance of his arrival. She heard the click of the door as he opened it, then the dull thud as he pulled it shut, followed by the faint crunch of his trainers on the gravel outside. She watched him through the net curtain as he got into his van. She heard it shudder into life and then the sound of the engine pitch getting higher as it reversed out of the drive. Her father had to wait at the end of the drive for a couple of cars to pass before he finally backed onto the road and drove off, the van protesting slightly as he shifted up the gears to drive away down the road.

Emma sat there feeding Sophie, who was glugging away contentedly now. Her father had left the television on and Emma stared at the flickering colours of the screen blankly without seeing, without comprehending, her brain refusing to make the necessary step to process the information and transform it into a rational image. The present had returned and with it, a bleak-looking future and Emma felt its monstrous weight on her shoulders. She felt an overpowering sense of loneliness and of disappointment that her father hadn’t taken more of an interest in his granddaughter, evidently finding meeting his mates in the pub more important. She felt inadequate, as if she had somehow let him down once again, automatically blaming herself without stopping to consider that it might be he who was at fault.

Penitence, by Jude Williams, is available to buy on Amazon. Click here for details. At the time of writing, stocks were running low, but the author herself has a number of copies available to purchase. If you would like to contact Jude in this regard, email and we'll put you in touch.

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