Page 42 of Daisy Darker

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Nancy drove so fast I was glad she made Conor and I wear seat belts. She was wearing her cross face, and I was glad it wasn’t me she was mad at for a change. My mother was more than capable of hurting her own children behind closed doors—albeit only with words—but she could not tolerate the thought of any other child coming to harm. The car’s brakes squealed as we pulled up outside Conor’s dad’s cottage, the one Nana had lovingly renovated a couple of years earlier. Sadly, people can be harder to restore than places.

“Stay there, both of you,” Nancy ordered.

She got out of the spotlessly clean Mini and tutted at the stateof Conor’s dad’s blue Volvo. It was so dirty, I couldn’t read the number plate, even though we were parked right behind it.

“He’s going to kill someone driving drunk along that cliff road one day,” she muttered, and I watched, with my face pressed against our car window, as Nancy marched up to Conor’s house. I started whispering under my breath, waiting for my mother to strike like lightning.

One Mississippi… Two Mississippi… Three Mississippi…

I didn’t have long to wait.

“Open this door,” Nancy yelled, banging her fist on it. “My mother-in-law might have been taken in by you, but I know people like youneverchange. You are a disgrace of a man. Your son is sitting in my car looking broken, and I thought you might want to say goodbye before I take him back to Seaglass and make sure you never see him or hurt him again.”

Nancy had fallen for Conor by then, just like the rest of the women in the Darker family. We all wanted to protect him. It was instinct. Not something any of us thought to question or knew how to explain. Like if you found an abandoned puppy: you couldn’t help wanting to protect him and give him a home.

I looked at Conor, but he just stared at the floor of the car, his hands forming two little fists in his lap. The cottage door opened, and I could feel my heart beating so fast I thought it might burst right out of my chest. Then a man I didn’t recognize appeared in the doorway.

He looked like Conor’s dad, but at the same time, he didn’t. The man I had seen before was all too often a skinny, smelly, dirty man with torn clothes, a beard, and long hair. This man stood tall with his head held high. His hair was neatly cut; his face was cleanly shaved. He’d put on weight, looked as though he’d been working out, and was dressed in clean clothes. I remember that his trousersand shirt seemed to have a ridiculous number of pockets and I wondered what he kept in them all. He folded his tanned arms and smiled. The world seemed topsy-turvy as my mother—who thought she was the hero of this particular story—appeared to be in the wrong, while the baddie had become a calm, well-mannered, good-looking man.

“Hello, Mrs. Darker,” he said, before inviting us all inside.

It turned out that Conor’s dad hadn’t started drinking again. Or hitting his son. I watched while he very slowly made some tea. He looked like a man who had never been in a hurry to do anything or get anywhere his whole life. Despite the slow motion, Mr. Kennedy had very much got his life back on track, and was working as head gardener at a National Trust property a few miles away. That sounded good to me, but Conor said his dad was always careless with jobs and often lost them. Even before his mother died.

It turned out that Conor had been a little bit careless himself. He was getting into trouble at school, and was in a fight with a boy three years older than him that day. I found out later that the boy had been spreading rumors about Lily and Rose, and Conor was defending them. Lily—who loved Easter because of all the chocolate—had promised to give some of the local boys a peek inside her panties in exchange for an egg. The bigger the egg, the longer they got to look. She was eleven years old. That was just the start of my sister getting a name for herself for all the wrong reasons in Blacksand Bay. My mother, thankfully, never found out the truth.

Conor’s dad opened a first aid kit, cleaned up his son’s face, then served us all tea and biscuits in the kitchen. The house was just as clean and tidy as the man who owned it, and it was a surreal experience to see my mother lost for words. Even stranger to hear her apologize.

“I’m so sorry, I just thought that—”

“It’s okay, I would have thought the same thing,” Mr. Kennedy said with a polite smile. “I was broken after my wife passed away, and I’m sorry for all the things your family had to see. That wasn’t me, at least not the real me. I’m still grieving, but I feel more like myself again now. I’m so grateful for everything that your mother-in-law did for me—and my son—when times were tough. I’ve even started writing about it.”

“A book?”

“Maybe. I haven’t decided and I don’t know if it’s good enough yet, but writing about it—the overwhelming grief, the drink, all of it—helps me to process what I became. And if sharing that experience—as awful as it was—might help others to not take the same path, or find a way back if they already have, then maybe…” He turned to Conor. “I hope you thanked Mrs. Darker for bringing you home?”

“It’s fine, and I’ve told him to call me Nancy, so you should do the same.”

“I’ve always liked the name Nancy. Perhaps we could start over? I’m Bradley, it’s good to meet you.” He held out his hand, and my mother blushed when she shook it.

“I didn’t know you were a gardener,” she said, taking a sip of tea, anything to keep her hands busy and out of reach. “Maybe you could give me some advice for the little patch of land at the back of Seaglass?”

“I’d be happy to.”

She blushed again. “My mother-in-law was going to invite Conor to visit us on Easter Sunday. My older girls are home from school, and it’s nice for them to spend time with someone their own age. Maybe you could join us too… if you’re free?”

“I’ll check my diary,” Mr. Kennedy said with a straight face.

When he smiled and my mother realized he was joking, she laughed. I noticed again what a rare sound it was to hear. It was strangely beautiful, just like her.

I might never have gone to school, but I felt like I learned a lot of valuable lessons that day, including that people aren’t always what they appear to be. A middle-aged man with a drinking problem might just be a person poisoned by an all-consuming grief. While a middle-class woman with nice manners and nice things might just be a failed actress who can’t handle being a dress size bigger than she wants to be. Life is a performance, and we don’t all like the scripts we’re given; sometimes it’s best to write your own.

Conor and his dad did visit us at Seaglass that Easter. They wore suits and ties, and brought chocolate eggs for the whole family. Mr. Kennedy spent a lot of time out in the garden with Nancy, and we listened to the sound of her laughing all afternoon. Bradley Kennedy never gave up drinking for good, but at that moment in time he seemed to know when to stop, and he never laid a finger on Conor again.

When I look at that picture of the Darker family women on Nana’s mantelpiece now, I remember that Conor took it that Easter, using the Polaroid camera my father had given him. In the photo, Nana is wearing a pink dress and a purple Easter bonnet. Lily, Rose, and I areallwearing matching dresses for the first and only time. They are the blue velvet ones from John Lewis. Nancy is dressed in one of her Audrey Hepburn ensembles, and she looks very pleased with herself indeed. She is gazing just off camera. I think she was looking at Conor’s dad.

I smile too when I look at the image of her back then, because I was so proud of her for what she did that day, ready to stick up for Conor, no matter what. She was protective of those she caredabout. And if she loved something, or someone, she loved them with all her heart.

I just wish she had loved me that way.

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