Unfurl: Chapter 41

BELLE

Every truth bomb out of Maddy’s mouth yesterday detonated with enough force to blow my mind.

I spent most of the day lying with Rafe. On the sofa. In the bath. And later, when I felt less fragile, on the massive daybed on his sun-drenched terrace. Trying to make sense of what had happened. Of the watershed moment this really was.

Maddy talked about drawing lines in the sand. I’d unwittingly drawn a line in the sand yesterday morning when Daddy discovered Rafe. She and Rafe made me see it as a small win, a fragile advancement from which to press my advantage, not to retreat in shame and guilt and all the things Daddy wanted me to feel.

Today feels like a new dawn. Thankfully, I slept the sleep of the bone-tired last night. Before Maddy left yesterday, she and Rafe escorted me down to my parents’ flat. I activated the lock with my thumb print and then Rafe smuggled me back upstairs while Maddy packed up all my belongings.

All that remains in my room now is a stripped bed and approximately thirty-five Four Seasons dental kits.

Mummy texted me. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I suppose I should have expected exactly what I got.

Darling I’m flying home later. Daddy is very upset but I’m sure if we give him time he’ll calm down. Let’s all chat tomorrow. He is keen to get you over to confession and he wants to get a priest to bless the flat given what’s gone on there. It will all be fine. You know we both love you dearly xx

Rafe nearly threw my phone across the room, but I couldn’t blame her. The woman has spent over thirty years of her life tiptoeing around my dad’s beliefs and moods and rages.

Maddy was right.

If this family can resurrect any semblance of a relationship, there needs to exist brick-and-mortar boundaries between the lands of What is Okay and What is Not Okay.

And it seems I’m the only member of the household capable of erecting them.

What Rafe and Maddy don’t fully grasp, because it’s hard to comprehend this level of religious extremism unless you’ve experienced it firsthand, is quite where Daddy’s coming from with all of this.

I truly don’t believe he’s judging me for judgement’s sake. Even though the disgusting names he called me yesterday make it easy to jump to that conclusion.

No. He’s judging me now, in this lifetime, because he’s completely terrified that, when the time comes, I’ll be judged, and found lacking, and condemned to eternal damnation.

Think about it.

Daddy buys into every word of Scripture. He embodies all the thousands of lines of dogma he’s been fed his entire life. He believes steadfastly that, as Catholics, we face heaven or purgatory or hell at the end of our time on earth. His family—Mummy, Dex and I—are the most precious things in his life.

It follows, therefore, that he’ll do anything to keep us safe, not only in this life but in the next.

It follows that he wants to know we’ll end up safe in heaven, that St Peter won’t find fault with us when we reach the pearly gates.

It follows that knowing we are damned would cause the man immense grief and worry.

It follows that he feels obligated to take on the burdens of our sins, and I know he does this. I fully expect that he’s spent most of last night praying fervently for my eternal soul, and it breaks my heart a little to know how fully he takes that burden on.

And, finally, it follows that he will do what he can to exert his influence over me to save me from this path of self-destruction I seem hell-bent on pursuing (pun intended).

It’s the ultimate example of the end justifying the means.

If I can’t be trusted to live like a good Catholic girl, then it’s his job as a loving father to make me see sense. To steer me out of the wilderness and back onto the path to redemption.

That’s the one thing I’ve always marvelled at when it comes to Daddy. The courage of his convictions. He’s willing to jeopardise his most treasured relationships for a higher cause.

Saving us from ourselves.

And that’s what makes it hardest, I think. Because where Rafe and Maddy see a controlling bully who’s overstepped, I see a deeply flawed, loving human being who’s driven by the same terror and shame the threat of Lucifer has struck in the hearts of so many sinners over the ages.

I see a man impossibly torn between honouring his love for us in this fleeting lifetime and fulfilling his purpose to shepherd us safely through to the next infinite one.

And that makes me want to choose compassion as much as I choose censure. It drives me to empathise with Daddy’s position as much as to protect myself. To respect the beliefs he fights so exhaustively to defend, while also respecting my right to forge my own path.

To live by my own code.

Simple, huh?


I made it to work today, though I looked so dreadful, with black shadows under my eyes and pale, blotchy skin, that it was no challenge to persuade Marie I had indeed been ill. She took one look at me and grimaced in horror. Rafe turned up at lunchtime with a picnic rug and a bag of goodies from Fortnum’s. We lolled in the park, eating and kissing, and the warmth of his love emboldened me.

With him by my side, I can face anything.

Which is fortunate, because we’re sitting side by side on a heavily cushioned wrought-iron sofa on Mummy and Daddy’s beautiful terrace in what should be convivial surroundings. The rooftops of London are golden-hued, the evening air hazy and warm. Mummy has poured a crisp white Burgundy for herself and me and Scotch for Daddy and Rafe.

Daddy looks gaunt. Shattered. I suspect I was right about his all-night vigil. Mummy had the gall to text me this morning to see if I’d like to take up Daddy’s offer to have a priest here this evening, to ‘offer counsel’. It was all I could do to decline civilly. Read the room, woman. Her ability to be deliberately obtuse never ceases to astonish me, though I suppose I’m grateful right now for her ability to ignore the unpleasant and make small talk, because Daddy and Rafe haven’t exchanged a word since we got here, and you could cut the tension with a knife. Daddy’s entire body still shimmers with angry energy, and he won’t look me in the eye.

It’s the worst. The worst. However much I rationalise his actions, and despite the fact that I’m twenty-two and an adult, having my father withhold his affection and slap conditions on what should be unconditional love is the worst kind of freezing out.

Even as it strikes me that not much about Daddy’s love has ever felt unconditional, being here and having the full force of his disapproval and disappointment sets off another visceral reaction in my body. I’m shivering despite the warmth of the evening and my light cardigan, my teeth are chattering, and I feel what can only be described as grotty. Headachy.

I wanted the oratorical skills of an Aaron Sorkin character for this confrontation, but now that I’m sitting opposite Daddy, with his hulking great size and face like thunder, I’m cowed before we’ve even started.

‘Well, it’s so lovely to see you, Belle,’ Mummy says with false brightness, and my heart goes out to her. It’s definitely easier to pretend, to gloss over, to make-believe everything is fine, than it is to have the difficult conversations. And given difficult conversations get shut right down in the Scott household, neither Mummy nor I have had much chance to build that skill set.

Daddy interrupts her gruffly. ‘I think we all know why we’re here,’ he says, staring at his Scotch. ‘What I came home to yesterday morning was quite simply unacceptable, and I’m very worried about you, Belina. I hope you’ve taken some time to reflect on the error of your ways and how to plan to make amends to God.’ He shakes his head dolefully. ‘Make no mistake about it, what you’ve done is a mortal sin of the most fearsome kind, but—’

That’s enough.

That’s all the kindling I need to stoke the flames of my righteous indignation to the level Daddy’s already reached.

Rafe squeezes my hand. He knows I’ve got this.

‘Daddy,’ I say in a bright, firm voice, the kind I imagine I’d use if I were a primary school teacher, ‘I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and I have a lot to say. I’d like to get it out, if you don’t mind.’

He nods and gestures with his hand for me to proceed. ‘Be my guest.’

‘I’m truly sorry for what you came home to,’ I say first. ‘It must have been such a shock for you. Rafe and I were horrified too, and we’d like to apologise.’

Daddy nods again, curtly, and takes a sip of his drink. Mummy gives me a tight smile.

I exhale. ‘But that’s the only thing I intend to apologise for.’

Daddy’s head jerks up.

Mummy’s face is a picture.

Rafe squeezes my hand harder.

‘I beg your pardon, young lady?’ Daddy asks.

‘This conversation is a long time coming.’ I shake my head. ‘And I wish it wasn’t one we needed to have, but it is, and we do.’ I smooth my modest skirt over my knees, picking my next words carefully. ‘You and Mummy have always done what you think is best for me and Dex, and I’m grateful. Honestly. But at no time in my education or my home life have you given me permission to decide on my own beliefs or spirituality.’

Daddy goes to open his mouth, and I put a hand up to stop him. I can’t quite believe I’m doing this. ‘No, Daddy. I insist on saying this. Everything you believe about Catholicism comes down to belief and faith. You see the theology and the constructs as real, and I respect that. But you have to understand that’s all they are. Beliefs. Opinions. They are not facts, no matter how you want them to be.

‘You’re entitled to believe whatever you want, and so am I, no matter how much you dislike that fact. And I’m sorry if my lifestyle choices cause you sorrow or shame or disappointment, but that’s on you. It’s not on me.’

Daddy slams his tumbler down hard on the glass-topped coffee table, and we all flinch. ‘Where the hell is this blasphemy coming from, Belina? Is it from him?’ He jerks his thumb at Rafe.

‘No, it’s not from Rafe,’ I say quietly. ‘It’s been a long time coming, and I’m sorry yesterday expedited this conversation, but at the same time I think it’s good that we’re doing it.’

‘Are you telling me you reject the teachings of the Church?’ Daddy asks, his voice menacing. ‘All of it? Or just the parts that inconveniently judge you for your sins of the flesh? Because the Bible is very clear on that front.’

Oh dear, sweet mother of Jesus. This man will be the death of me. I knew he’d try to out-doctrine me.

‘The thing is, it doesn’t matter which parts I’m rejecting,’ I tell him, ‘because it’s none of your business. And I don’t mean that rudely. It’s my business, and my soul, and mine alone. Honestly, you’re so religiously conservative that sometimes it terrifies me, and sometimes it makes me furious, and sometimes it makes me want to run a mile in the other direction. But it’s none of my business. You’re a grown man. You’re entitled to your beliefs, no matter how extreme I think they are. And I’m entitled to mine, no matter how immoral you think they are.’

I pause, mainly to check I haven’t given my father a stroke. His face is puce, his eyes disbelieving.

Mummy interjects first. Of course she does. ‘But he’s your father, Belle,’ she says weakly. ‘He wants what’s best for you—we both do.’

‘I know you think that,’ I tell them both, ‘but I’m an adult, and I reserve the right to make my own decisions about what I do and don’t believe without him worrying about whether I’m eternally damned.’

I drag both my palms over my face in frustration. ‘Look, Daddy. It’s very straightforward. Everybody should be doing what serves them. You get to keep your beliefs, and I get to live my life. I shouldn’t have to worry about your judgements of the choices I make—that’s on you. And you shouldn’t have to worry about my eternal soul.

‘There are billions of people out there who aren’t Catholic, and if you insist on seeing my stepping away from a faith that doesn’t serve me as some kind of failure, then that’s arrogant beyond belief. Honestly, all I’m asking for is a little respect. Your way is not the only way. It’s not necessarily the right way. I don’t try to control what you believe, so please, for God’s sake, offer me the same courtesy.’

‘I don’t know who you are right now,’ he mutters, staring unseeingly at me. ‘You’re not the daughter I raised.’

I feel a pang in my heart, because this is the problem with blinkering yourself. The world around you changes, the people you love grow and evolve, and you’re so intent on not noticing that you get the shock of your life when someone finally makes you aware.

‘I’m sorry, but that’s another thing I can’t take responsibility for,’ I say. ‘I know this must be a shock to you, but honestly, I’m frustrated, too. I’m seriously frustrated that it’s taken me so long to work out that I’m allowed to believe what I like and do what I like with my own body. And I’m even more pissed off that I’ve felt so guilty and conflicted the entire time.

‘Honestly, I’m done pretending. I can’t live my life to protect you from disappointment. I just need to live. And you need to get on board with that concept. I hope you can find it in you to love me for who I am, and not who you want me to be, but you need to know this. I will never, ever allow you to speak to me like you did yesterday or call me names like that. And if you can’t make that promise, then I’ll have to put a lot more distance between us, just to protect myself. I don’t want to, but I’ll do it.’

I begin to cry. I cannot believe I’m having this conversation with my father. That it’s come to this. That all the bandages Mummy and I have desperately smoothed over the dysfunction in our family for so many years have come unstuck, revealing a chasm so gaping I’m not sure we can traverse it.

‘I love you so much,’ I say through shuddering tears, ‘but not enough to hurt myself just to please you, okay? I just—I’m exhausted. I can’t do it anymore, so I hope you can meet me halfway.’

Silence.

Mummy is crying. Daddy is shell-shocked. He’s a man whose perception of his entire world has been proven false.

I feel awful. Hideous. So, so guilty. So cruel.

And immensely, extraordinarily relieved to have laid my burden at my father’s feet.

Rafe breaks the silence. ‘I think that’s a lot for everyone to digest. Belle’s shattered. How about we leave you to have a think about what she’s said?’

Daddy nods, picking up his glass and draining it. His jaw’s so tense he may shatter his teeth. He can’t look at me.

Rafe stands and tugs me to my feet. ‘Come on, sweetheart. Let’s get you home.’


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