Rock the boat

I’ve always believed in happy endings. Drizzly childhood afternoons spent watching old romantic films. Enjoying the emotional journey as the characters stumbled, freewheeling, towards a moment of clarity. To an understanding. A mate for the soul. To a happy ending. 

Look at his mum and dad. Together for forty five years, devoted to each other, finishing each others sentences. How sweet. Suburbia. Coffee mornings. The Daily Mail. Non-smokers, non-drinkers. The house like a show-home. Something niggled me, but that’s just my dark brain. Ignore the uncomfortable feeling. Nothing I could put my finger on, just a feeling. What sort of daughter-in-law thinks like that? A warped and suspicious mind? Or instinct?

Occassionally. We only saw them occassionally. The blessing of a two hour drive. Be nice. Force yourself to relax and trust. Look how they dote on my babies. She loves them almost as much as I do. He. He doesn’t say much, just keeps her happy. Her dramas. Her demands. Her never-ending health scares. Our attention always firmly held on her as we wait for test results, referrals and relief. Her fussing over carpets laid with the wrong pile direction. Months of letter writing and phonecalls. An almost arrogant expectation for perfection. The curtain pleats. Perfect pleats equals perfect life. What would the neighbours say? How many neighbours have you had? Why so many?

She can’t deal with reality. She edits the highlights and buries the rest. Tutting at the scandals of others, when under her nose sons with drink problems and a daughter who moved away at twelve. Twelve. To live up north with her nan. Why? Why does a young girl want to leave her family and friends? Horses. She was horse mad and nan had horses. Simple as that. Did nobody wonder? Did nobody ask? Were they paralysed with politeness?

Spick and span. Routine. Joined at the hip. Not my idea of excitement but it was sweet to see a couple so devoted to each other.

So it went. Occassional visits. Weekly phonecalls with the children filled with tales of snail-collecting, singing at the harvest festival, milestones reached. Birthday party photos sent in the post. Images of self-conscious puff-cheeked children blowing out candles. Make a wish. Make a wish.

Then, with no warning, rudely, uninvited, a bombshell.

My husband’s sister phoned to tell me that she had to go into hospital. If anything was to happen to her, we must make sure her parents didn’t look after her girls because her dad had abused her when she was young. Just like that. Quite matter of fact.

Shock. Surreal. How awful for her. Hang on, why now? Why only tell us now? How long had my children been at risk? Confusion. Why did she go on holiday with them? With her girls. Why do that? Why say it? Is it a spiteful lie? No. I knew it was true. That small black feeling I’d tried to ignore.

So. Tell my husband. Numb. Shock. Disbelief. Disbelief. His brother had the same response. With less emotion. “Put it in a box and don’t think about it.”

That’s as far as it went. They didn’t confront their father. Nothing was said. I didn’t understand but I didn’t feel it was my place to push them. This was their family, not mine. I was concerned about causing my sister-in-law more pain. She was the victim in this, after all. I dreaded the thought of my mother-in-law finding out. It would kill her. Yet we couldn’t just ignore it. Brush it under the carpet. I was conscious that my husband was in shock. Going through a grieving process. The father he thought he knew now seemed like a stranger to him. I hoped that once the shock had passed he would take action. So I waited.

Six weeks later they came for Christmas. Watch him. Is he behaving oddly? Inappropriately? Was it true? Can it be true? Get off him. Why does she keep cuddling him? “Grandad play with me.” No. Don’t. Why isn’t my husband freaking out? I’m helpless. There’s a baddie in my house and I’ve got to cook him Christmas dinner. What if she made it up? How bad of me to believe it so readily. My head is spinning. Why is it only me that’s sick with fear?

One evening I phoned my sister-in-law to see how she was. She didn’t realise that her eldest daughter had come in through the back door and overheard the end of our conversation.”He did it to me too Mam! Grandad did that to me too!”

So it went. Me paralysed with horror and fear. My husband dealing with it from afar. The pub. Nobody else on the verge of exploding, only me. Luckily we only saw them every few months. I had never left my children alone with them so at least I knew he hadn’t had a chance to abuse them. Yet. Vigilant. I had to be vigilant. I’d be sick and shaking for days before the visit. Dreading it. Am I over-reacting? Why does nobody else feel this rage? Am I being too harsh? To my husband? He offered words but no protection. His family needed looking after but he was in shock and maybe I was selfish to have expected him to act.

The months passed. If it was my family, my father, I’m pretty sure I’d have been on his doorstep with a frying pan on day one. Why hasn’t it kicked off yet? Why has nobody said anything? To their father. I tried to wait. To tenderly wait until the shock had passed and they would do something. They didn’t. So I rang him.

This little old man who had welcomed me into his family. I wasn’t declaring war- just wanted him to know that I knew. “She told me what you did to her, so from now on when you visit, I’d like you to stay in the same room as me at all times.” That was it. No mention of police. Just warning him off my kids. How surreal it was to say it out loud to him. I heard my voice talking but I don’t know how I said it. His calm, whispered reply of “Oh dear, I don’t know what you mean” confirmed everything.

Two days later he rang me from his mobile. My soul sat completely dazed inside myself. Curled up in a ball. I watched my body move to answer the phone and heard my voice talking to my father-in-law as he admitted sexually abusing his daughter and one of his granddaughters. He said if I told his wife he’d kill himself.

His admission forced my husband into a deeper pub depression and my brother-in-law into a rage. Can’t ignore it now, can you? Your first wife suspected didn’t she? My husband had always thought it out of character that she’d cut contact with the family after leaving his brother, taking their young daughter with her. She knew didn’t she? One thoughtless, drunken phonecall to his father later and his mother knew too. She had heard them arguing.

No. She couldn’t take it in. No. Get out. Just go. No. No. No.
Chest pain. Angina. Phone friends for help.They arrived and she told them. “He’s gone”. “Well he didn’t take the car, the gate’s still shut.”
Cut to a Holby City-esque suicide attempt in the garage. Hosepipe from the exhaust. He didn’t hang around did he? The friends pulled him from the car. He was still alive.

The next day we drove up to see her. She looked tiny. This Hyacinth Bucket of a woman had shrunk and was rocking on the sofa. Rocking. Gibbering. What had I done?
The hospital wanted to know what had occured. A domestic. Already the ‘friends’ were keeping a lid on it. Closing ranks.You’re protecting him can’t you see?

“He’s still our friend.”

My sister-in-law wrote to a schoolfriend, needing to confide in someone. She wrote back “I knew what your dad was like. He tried to do the same to me many, many times.”

“He’s still our friend.”

She took him back. My mother-in-law. She couldn’t function. She didn’t know how to write a cheque or put a pound coin in a trolley. She said she owed him for all the years he’d worked hard to provide for the family. She intended to honour her wedding vows. Not like youngsters today. She’d never forgive him. She thought about it every day, what he did. She understood that none of us wanted to see him but she wouldn’t desert her husband.

I was relieved that my children were safe from him. They would have been next. I know that. He’s got away with it though. No punishment. How many others had there been? All those get-togethers in the Seventies. Friends and family. How many children had he done that to? What if he does it again?
I decided to report him to the police and social services. It was taken very seriously. I had to give a long and upsetting interview, giving his previous addresses and jobs. The fact that they have moved house so many times is apparently a commom trait with paedophiles. I got follow-up phone calls from the police, wanting me to talk my sister-in-law into testifying against him. She wouldn’t hear of it.
The police were as frustrated and angry as I was. Without the victims testimony, no charges could be brought.

I tried to maintain a relationship with my mother-in-law. She adored the kids and it felt wrong to punish her for his crimes. I felt a huge sense of guilt at having caused such a drama. Over the coming months her attitude towards the ‘trouble’ changed. It seemed that we’d made our point, but now we should forgive and move on.

Ordinarily I’d agree. Huge mistakes and moments of madness could be forgiven. In time. Not years of pre-meditated abuse.

She was protecting him. Just as she unwittingly had for all those years when he told his victims not to say anything because “it would upset your mam/your nana.”

I tried to understand. I really tried, but when she accused me of being selfish for stopping my children seeing their grandfather, “depriving them of a special relationship”, I knew that was that. I sent her a harsh letter, which broke my heart to write, cutting all contact with her.
A reply came, saying she thought that if she stayed with him everyone would be safe, as he knew she was watching him all the time. Apparently the rest of the family had agreed to put this episode behind them and forgive him. My husband and I were the only people who were not willing to carry on as before. She said our hearts were obviously not big enough.

That was a year ago. Her silent phone calls have stopped now and I don’t jump when the doorbell rings anymore. Finding the strength to confront him was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Knowing the horrific, irreversible damage it would do to an entire family. The harrowing ripple-effect.

But I’m glad I did it.

Years ago I would never have dared to rock the boat. Now I say rock the boat, capsize the damn boat and drown them.

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