Stephanie- A Girl In A Million-Chapter 3

Stephanie-a girl in a million-chapter 3

Chapter 3

 

Travelling out of Harpenden on the A6, I accelerated up to 70 miles per hour along a clear stretch of straight road when, without warning, a van suddenly pulled out of a side turning in front of me. I didn’t even have time to brake before I crashed straight into it. My engine stopped dead as the force of the impact buried my treasured bike completely in the van’s engine. Still travelling at the same speed, I was propelled 120 feet along the road.

 

Two things saved me from death or terrible injury. The first was the fact that I had hit a van with a low bonnet, so there was nothing to impede my propulsion; the second was that, as the aquaplaned for most of the distance and so prevented massive damage to my body. I recovered consciousness to the sound of horrified whispers.
‘I think he’s lost his legs,’ said one man.
‘I don’t think he’s going to make it,’ declared another.
Fortunately, they were both wrong. For 20 agonising minutes I lay there, unable either to move or to be moved, until an ambulance arrived to take me to St Albans hospital. The police were despatched to notify my shocked parents in the middle of one of their meetings, but they insisted on waiting until the meeting had concluded before visiting me in hospital. I was taken to the theatre so that the surgeon could assess the damage.
Two nurses leaned across my body to prevent me seeing the injuries I had sustained while the surgeon carefully cut away the yellow oilskins and the trousers I was wearing beneath. Miraculously, though my legs and feet were badly cut and damaged, no bones were broken. The most difficult and painful task was removing the gravel embedded in my limbs, and in fact I still bear the scars today.

 

When I was finally sent home, it proved impossible to manoeuvre the stretcher around the back of the house to my own room. So it was that I spent several weeks confined to bed in my parent’s bedroom, a captive audience to their continual exhortations to mend my evil ways and do something worthwhile with my life. Privately convinced that my accident had been both a small demonstration of God’s wrath and a timely warning, I was physically, emotionally and mentally too wrecked to resist their constant pressurising any longer.
‘What do you want me to do?’ I asked weakly.
I should have known what their response would be: ‘Follow in your sister’s footsteps and become a missionary, or pioneer as they classify it Desperate to win their approval and prove once and for all that I was not the black sheep of the family, as they so firmly believed, I gave in.

 

Being a missionary in Leighton Buzzard is probably not as romantic or hazardous as in the Brazilian rainforest but, believe me, it’s every bit as onerous – or at least it was for me. For if I’d found a few weekly hours of door-to-door preaching an effort, finding myself committed to a minimum 100 hours of preaching each month in addition to holding down a part-time job in order to support myself was  to prove downright gruelling.

 

As luck would have it, my arrival in Leighton Buzzard coincided with the onset of winter. As I’ve never been able to tolerate the cold, the sad sight of this freezing

me from the downpour. Travelling out of Harpenden on the A6, I accelerated up to 70 miles per hour along a clear stretch of straight road when, without warning, a van suddenly pulled out of a side turning in front of me. I didn’t even have time to brake before I crashed straight into it. My engine stopped dead as the force of the impact buried my treasured bike completely in the van’s engine. Still travelling at the same speed, I was propelled 120 feet along the road.

 

Two things saved me from death or terrible injury. The first was the fact that I had hit a van with a low bonnet, so there was nothing to impede my propulsion; the second was that, as the aquaplaned for most of the distance and so prevented massive damage to my body. I recovered consciousness to the sound of horrified whispers.
‘I think he’s lost his legs,’ said one man.
‘I don’t think he’s going to make it,’ declared another.
Fortunately, they were both wrong. For 20 agonising minutes I lay there, unable either to move or to be moved, until an ambulance arrived to take me to St Albans hospital. The police were despatched to notify my shocked parents in the middle of one of their meetings, but they insisted on waiting until the meeting had concluded before visiting me in hospital. I was taken to the theatre so that the surgeon could assess the damage.
Two nurses leaned across my body to prevent me seeing the injuries I had sustained while the surgeon carefully cut away the yellow oilskins and the trousers I was wearing beneath. Miraculously, though my legs and feet were badly cut and damaged, no bones were broken. The most difficult and painful task was removing the gravel embedded in my limbs, and in fact I still bear the scars today.

 

When I was finally sent home, it proved impossible to manoeuvre the stretcher around the back of the house to my own room. So it was that I spent several weeks confined to bed in my parent’s bedroom, a captive audience to their continual exhortations to mend my evil ways and do something worthwhile with my life. Privately convinced that my accident had been both a small demonstration of God’s wrath and a timely warning, I was physically, emotionally and mentally too wrecked to resist their constant pressurising any longer.
‘What do you want me to do?’ I asked weakly.
I should have known what their response would be: ‘Follow in your sister’s footsteps and become a missionary, or pioneer as they classify it Desperate to win their approval and prove once and for all that I was not the black sheep of the family, as they so firmly believed, I gave in.

 

Being a missionary in Leighton Buzzard is probably not as romantic or hazardous as in the Brazilian rainforest but, believe me, it’s every bit as onerous – or at least it was for me. For if I’d found a few weekly hours of door-to-door preaching an effort, finding myself committed to a minimum 100 hours of preaching each month in addition to holding down a part-time job in order to support myself was  to prove downright gruelling.

 

As luck would have it, my arrival in Leighton Buzzard coincided with the onset of winter. As I’ve never been able to tolerate the cold, the sad sight of this freezing

individual with blue fingers and a red nose often melted the heart of even the most hardened atheist, so much of my time was spent sipping form a steaming mug of hot chocolate or coffee in the warmth of someone’s kitchen.

 

The problem of where to live was solved by the kindness and generosity of Arthur Howe, the congregation overseer, and his wife Audrey, who offered me a room in their tiny two-up, two-down terraced cottage in the nearby village of Linslade. Arthur and his brother ran an electrical contracting business and, being the selfless, honest and charitable individuals that most Jehovah Witnesses are, they kindly offered me part-time work two days a week. Their offer was all the more generous as my knowledge of electrical wiring was minimal.

 

If there’s one thing I hate more than the cold, it’s heights. So you can imagine how I felt when I discovered that most of Arthur’s contracting work, rather than being carried out inside buildings, was in fact conducted on top of them. How I managed to conquer my fear and nausea I’ll never know, but by some feat I mastered the art of precariously balancing myself at the top of impossibly long ladders and dangerously high gantries without throwing up and falling off  – though I have a feeling that this was only accomplished because the sub-zero conditions froze the vomit where it lay in the pit of my stomach! But on the whole my native wit and strong sense of self-preservation enabled me to manoeuvre my two days so adeptly that I only worked on the inside jobs.

The congregation at Leighton Buzzard differed dramatically form the close-knit, harmonious atmosphere I’d enjoyed at Harpenden. I couldn’t help but be aware of a marked division of loyalties between those who supported the Howe faction and those who surrounded the Oddie family. As a missionary I knew I ought to remain neutral, but this proved impossible as I was constantly being invited to different houses on the pretext of sampling one family or another’s hospitality – only to find myself subjected to a series of thinly disguised attempts to enrol me in my host’s particular ‘camp’.
Matters weren’t helped any by the fact that I lived at Arthur’s house and was also employed by his firm.

 

This precipitated my decision to establish my independence – and there my neutrality – by finding myself a bed-sitter and self-employed work. Without any capital, it soon became clear that my choices were severely limited. With great ingenuity I acquired a few vital necessities, the lofty title of Plate Class Restorer and a partner (well, given my fear of heights someone had to clean the upstairs windows!), though to be fair ‘partner’ was a rather grandiose title for Colin, the youth I’d recently met at the local congregation and whom I’d press-ganged into service. Colin was an unusual lad in that he’d become a Jehovah’s Witness without any parental encouragement. I often wondered whether he’d joined us more out of a need for friendship than through any religious convictions, particularly when I learned that, though he still lived with his mother (his father had left some years before), she showed no interest in him at all.

 

As business prospered and Colin and I became reasonably close companions, he seemed to grow more attached to me and to look upon me as his guardian and provider. Despite this, I still managed to keep an evening or two for myself, when I liked to take long, solitary walks along the towpath of the Grand Union Canal, trying to make some sense of the troubled thoughts and emotions that were always lurking in the back of my mind.

 

I was almost nineteen and yet, no matter how many friends I made or how much company I enjoyed, I still felt incredibly isolated from the rest of the world. Sometimes I wondered half-hopefully whether what I believed to be my life might in reality prove to be nothing more than some terrible nightmare.

 

My first inauspicious encounter with her occurred when my resolve to live a blameless life was still burning. I was standing on the doorstep of an ordinary prefabricated, chalet-style house preaching to the door when I caught sight of a pretty girl who kept shyly peering, then disappearing around the edge of a door. I thought no more about the incident until a few weeks later when I was walking home from a meeting. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, Susannah stepped in front of me and asked whether I was the same person who had called upon her mother. When I acknowledged that I was, we fell into an easy, friendly conversation and I walked her home.

 

Over the next few weeks Susannah seemed to pop up miraculously wherever I went. The significance of her frequent appearances, alone and always at night, was not lost on me, but as she’d never made any overt moves I  was happy to pass time in her company. It became a habit for me to see her safely home and so, little by little, I learned more about her and the difficult life she had led.

 

Susannah, who lived alone with her partially disabled mother, had suffered greatly at the hands of a sadistic father who had beaten her frequently and severely throughout her childhood. All my chivalrous instincts were aroused as I began to understand why, despite her age, she still seemed little more than a frightened, shy girl. So I allowed our harmless friendship to continue, safe in the knowledge that Susannah didn’t have a scheming bone in her body.

 

When Susannah’s mother issued an invitation to tea I eagerly accepted, anticipating a pleasant, undemanding evening and better food than I was used to. During the meal, however, when Susannah had popped out of the room, her mother suddenly turned to me and said, ‘Susannah is very keen on you, Keith.’
Not knowing how to reply, I merely smiled and stuffed another piece of her delicious home-made cake into my mouth.
‘And I just want you to know that I …er, approve,’ she continued pointedly.
At first I wasn’t sure what she could possibly mean. What, precisely, did she approve of? And then it began to dawn on me. At that point I thought it would be best if I made my escape.
‘Good heavens, is that the time? I really must be off.’ I responded nervously.
‘You can’t go yet – it’s far too early,’ Susan’s mother quickly replied. ‘Besides,
Susannah’s just made another cup of tea.

 

Another half-hour passed as we sat round the table drinking more tea. Susannah and her mother kept exchanging meaningful looks, and I was beginning to feel more uncomfortable with each passing minute. Several times I stood up with an excuse to leave, but each time I was thwarted by their apparent determination that I should stay.
Then Susannah’s mother spoke, and what she said numbed my brain so completely I couldn’t think of anything to say.
‘Why don’t you two go off to bed and leave me to clear up down here?’

 

Though she put it as a question, it was more like an order. Panic began to rise in me.
Should I stay? Should I go? Would they let me go? What possible valid reason could I give for leaving? I didn’t live with anybody. I had no one waiting up for me at home. No one even knew where I was! It may sound a weak excuse, but I was in such a state of shock that I just gave in and meekly followed Susannah to her bedroom. I’d been in unusual situations with girls before. But nothing had ever prepared me for a situation like this. Not only was Susannah’s mother condoning this sexual liaison – she was actively encouraging it!

 

Nervously, I undressed and slipped between the sheets of Susannah’s bed. She had a beautiful body: her skin was so white it almost seemed translucent, and her long dark hair, which trailed across her breasts, was soft and silky enough to drive any man wild. But all I could think of was how much I envied her, and, lovely as she was, I knew I couldn’t make love to her. At the same time, there was something so shy, so appealing and so vulnerable about Susannah that I couldn’t possibly do anything to hurt her.

 

I decided the only way out was to confess. I pulled Susannah into my arms and, without daring to look her in the eye, whispered into her ear everything I felt she had a right to know. I had no idea how she would react. Half of me anticipated that she would laugh, while the other half expected her to be angry. Instead, she cried – not out of a sense of rejection, but with real sympathy for my plight. It was then that she confided more about her own past to me. Her father had not just beaten her but had sexually abused her too. We lay there throughout the night, taking it in turns to weep and comfort each other, knowing that we both had serious problems. In the morning we had breakfast with her mother, who seemed rather pleased with what she thought she had accomplished, and then I left.

 

I wouldn’t have blamed Susannah if she had never wanted to see me again, but I desperately hoped that she would, for I felt I had at last found a soul mate. Three long and lonely days passed, during which there was no contact. Just as I was beginning to resign myself to the fact that Susannah was probably laughing behind my back – as so many other girls had done before – she reappeared, to accost me once more in the street.
‘come home with me, Keith,’ she pleaded.
I agreed, but first I insisted on dropping my bag off at home. Somehow, taking my Bible along to this kind of assignation just didn’t seem right.
Susannah’s mother was busy preparing supper. When we sat down to the meal she suddenly looked at me closely and I froze as she said, ‘Susannah’s been telling me

about your problem.’ Unsure whether I had unwittingly offered myself up as a victim for humiliation or, worse still, blackmail, I just sat rooted to the spot, waiting for the other shoe to drop. She then proceeded to explain to me how difficult it had been for Susannah to form any normal relationships because of the way her father had used her.
‘You’re a nice young man, Keith. As soon as I met you I could see you would be perfect for Susannah. And now that I know all about your own problems, I’m convinced you can both help each other to lead a normal life.’

 

The sense of unreality, I’d always lived with deepened over the next few months as I tried desperately to develop a normal satisfactory relationship with Susannah. And always there was her mother, encouraging us and trying to help with her cool, calm, analytical discussions of our mutual problems.

 

At the same time, the situation within the congregation was getting worse as the rift between the two warring factions grew wider and more bitter each week. The pressures of being stuck in trying to please Susannah and her mother inevitably began to take their toll. My pioneering work, which I’d undertaken with such zeal, had, like everything I seemed to do, degenerated into farce. I was no true missionary.

 

Rescue came in the form of the circuit overseer, who, by now well aware of the huge divide in the Leighton Buzzard congregation, ordered me back home to Harpenden. I took my leave of a tearful Susannah and her even more regretful mother with much sadness and many promises to keep in touch. But I think we all knew that it would be far too painful to keep those promises. Looking back now, I can see how some moralists might decry what Susannah’s mother did, but I truly believe that she had her daughter’s best interests at heart. As for Susannah, I can only hope that this sweet, kind, caring, unselfish girl has found happiness with a sensitive, gentle and patient man who has been able to eradicate the nightmares of what she suffered at her father’s hands.

 

So I returned home to Harpenden with another failure behind me to add to the growing store of disappointments I could see reflected in my parents’ eyes. With no job, no money and no real skills to offer, I did the only thing I could. I took an early morning job helping out at the local newsagent’s where I’d been a paper boy in my youth.
Seven days a week I’d get up at four thirty, mark up forty-five newspaper rounds and then help the paper boys and girls disperse their hefty bundles throughout the town and rural areas. I was supplied with a van – a decrepit one to be sure, but to me it was sheer luxury because it meant that at least I now had wheels. When the steering wheel came adrift from the drive shaft while I was out on my rounds one day, I thought for one awful moment that my time was up. Helplessly I waited for the almighty impact that was sure to follow as the van slowly mounted the pavement and demolishing a lamp post which, in excruciating slow motion, folded in half and came to rest on top of the van. Fortunately I escaped without injury, and as soon as the state of the van was discovered it was immediately replaced by a smart new one which proudly proclaimed ‘Whitehouse’s’ in the freshly painted livery colours of the shop.

 

Whitehouse’s was part of a chain of five shops owned by Councillor Ken Hill, who at that time was Mayor of St Albans. Councillor Hill was a kind and a generous employer who allowed me to assume as much responsibility as I could cope with, culminating in promotion to joint manager. My co-manager, Miss Culley, and I worked well together, and over the two years I spent there we were so successful that we were able to add records to the existing lines of gifts, tobacco and stationary. One of our more famous customers was a Mr Freddie Bartholomew, otherwise known as the wonderfully funny Eric Morecambe. When we used some of our profits to splash out on a refurbishment of the shop, I boldly knocked on his door and asked Mr Bartholomew if he would preside over the Grand Reopening. It never occurred to me that celebrities could (and invariably did) charge enormous fees for such appearances, and to his eternal credit Eric never saw fit to enlighten me. But that was typical of the man, who was as genuinely nice in private as he was in public.

 

The work was hard and the days were long, but for the first time in my life I was, if not happy, at least far too busy concentrate on my own problems. In addition, as I had very little time for social life I was able – with one or two minor exceptions – to avoid repeating any of my former abysmal failures with the local girls. But even those exceptions turned out to be not quite as bad as I had feared. The first occurred when one of the female employees made a misguided play for me; fortunately I was able to deflect it to on the basis that it was unwise to mix business with pleasure. The second proved to be more difficult to extricate myself from with the same degree of dignity, but by now I was becoming so inured to being the object of female interest hat, outwardly at least, I was able to deflect it with dignity.

Inwardly, however, each failure cut just as deep as the last. It is an eternal puzzle why I allowed myself to be drawn into these situations. Part of me obviously hoped that this time things might be different. But it never was. The fact is, my life seemed to me to be like a badly scripted B movie filmed in black and white, while everyone else was experiencing the real thing in colour.

 

Things were slightly different when Linda, whose brother had nearly killed me with his runaway motorbike some years before, re-entered my life. Linda was a very unusual girl, who, apart from being enormous fun and an outrageous flirt, was also refreshingly frank. But what made her unique in my experience was the fact that she lacked any sense of shame or embarrassment. For some reason Linda latched on to me and, welcoming the light relief, I did nothing to discourage her friendship.
Because I started work so early in the morning I kept odd hours throughout the day. This meant that I had one and a half hours’ break between nine and ten-thirty, when I’d go home for breakfast, and another break between one and three-thirty in the afternoon for lunch. Taking advantage of the fact that my father was at work all day and my mother was also out for most of the time, Linda very quickly adopted the habit of popping in and out of our house on occasions when I was at home alone.

 

Naturally it didn’t take long for Linda to uncover the truth about me, but unlike all her predecessors she simply chose to ignore it. She would frequently have me on the verge of an apoplectic fit when she innocently made some remark in front of my parents that

had me convinced she was on the point of blurting out an incriminating detail about the various intimacies we indulged in. Although she always stopped short, I lived in constant fear that one day she just might reveal all. In fact, though Linda caused me so  many heart-stopping moments of fear, I was filled with admiration for her nerve.
She’d think nothing of interrupting me while I was in the middle of decorating our bathroom and calmly stripping off to take a bath – apparently oblivious to any thought of my mother walking in. And on the few occasions when my mother did come home – while we were both in my bed, I might add – she’d simply throw on her clothes, perch herself on the bed and greet my mother as sweetly and nonchalantly as you please!

 

Despite Linda’s brazenness, I couldn’t help being drawn by her apparently irrepressible sense of fun and though she was far from being the brightest of girls, her naivety and straight-forwardness endeared her to me. Perhaps those characteristics endeared her to
my parents as well, for the one thing I could never quite work out was why, when they had ample justification for regarding me as the local stud, for some strange reason they never displayed the slightest shred of suspicion about our friendship. By coincidence she got pregnant by & later married one of my cousins.

 

Wednesdays were the only night I had off, and these I spent in the West End seeing a show or film with a girl friend. On our way home we’d stop off at the Golden Dragon Chinese restaurant for a meal, and then round the evening off by going upstairs to the Nine-Ten Gambling Club to watch the punters lose their money. It was on one of these occasions that I got chatting to the owner of the club and learned that they owned a large house which he wanted to let. I was earning a great deal of money for a young man of my age – which, I realised, enabled me to seize this opportunity to make even more: I leased the house from him and then promptly sub-let the 4 bedrooms. I had already lined up my first tenant in the shapely form of Dulcie, my friendly local traffic warden who popped in to the shop for a warming cup of tea and I didn’t believe it would be too difficult to find another three.

 

Unfortunately my friendship with Dulcie, a divorced women of around thirty-five, was misinterpreted by my father, who caused a terribly embarrassing confrontation when he refused to believe that I wasn’t ‘keeping an older woman’, as he’d heard. The arguments between Dad and myself on this issue produced a lot of tension between us, and our relationship, which had never been good even at the best of times, began to deteriorate further. It upset me greatly that Dad and I seemed to have such difficulty in developing the kind of relationship I had always wanted and needed. Sometimes I felt as thought we were becoming close, only to find it all disappear again.

 

One occasion that does stand out in my memory as a time when I felt very close to my father was when, as the proud owner of an ancient Austin 16 car which I had recently acquired for the princely sum of £25, I took him and my mother on holiday to North Wales.

 

Dad was in his element as he navigated, choosing secondary, and even unclassified, roads that took us through pretty countryside. The car doped well with the bumpy

terrain as we climbed a steep, unclassified road, and when we had successfully negotiated the summit to start our descent she began to pick up speed at a cracking pace. Unfortunately, older vehicles had a tendency to suffer from ‘brake fade’ when the brake drums became overheated, and to counter this I was forced to change right down into first gear, apply the foot brake and even the hand brake.

 

Meanwhile, Mum was chattering away in the back seat, blissfully unaware of the fact that, despite all my efforts, we were still picking u speed. Dad and I exchanged a silent look of panic when, as we neared the bottom of the incline, a sharp bend loomed in front of us. There was only one thing left: I had to steer the car at a slight angle in the hope that hitting the chain link fence along the roadside would hold the car firm and, I hoped, push it around the bend. The mudguard hit the fence with a thud, then scraped along with a harsh metallic sound. Miraculously the fence held, we made it round the bend and gradually came to a halt several hundred yards further along.
‘Now’s as good a time as any to stop for a while to give the brakes a chance to cool down,’ Dad wisely advised. While we were waiting I walked back up the road to take a look at the spot which had caused us so much concern. I wondered whether I would have had the courage to take such a gamble with our lives if I had known that beyond that chain link fence lay a forty-foot drop!

 

On the Sunday night I walked alone determined to find a pub and enjoy a quiet drink unappreciative of the fact that parts of Wales were “dry” on Sundays. I only became aware of this when I asked 2 girls for directions. Taking sympathy on me they invited me back to their place for a nightcap or three. A mind blowing threesome ensued which resulted in me stumbling and exhausted back to the b&b quietly fishing out for the door key which was on a string accessible via the letterbox, sneaking up the squeaky stairs and slipping into bed shortly before dawn broke. At breakfast my mum observed that I looked “peaky” and might be “coming down with something”.

 

When we returned home the distance between Dad and me returned also, and as it became more and more intolerable I began to realise that it was time I bought my own home. It was while looking around for a suitable property that Linda popped up again in my life. I was in the shop one day when she appeared, obviously deeply distressed. It wasn’t hard to work out why. Linda was in a very advanced stage of pregnancy. Apparently her parents had thrown her out and, having nowhere to go, for some strange reason she had decided to come to me.

 

By now I had let all the flats in the house I was leasing, so that option was closed. However, vulnerable women have always managed to bring out the soft side in me, and so I came up with the bright idea of temporarily installing her in the room above the shop while I worked out what to do. For three days and nights Linda slept, if not in comfort then in blissful contentment, certain that good old Keith would come up with a solution to her problem. Meanwhile, I spent three sleepless nights trying to work out what to do – in between worrying what would happen if either my employer or parents discovered what was going on.

 

I eventually found Linda temporary accommodation, provided her with money for food and rent, and spent endless hours worrying about her plight. I even took her to the hospital when she went into labour (protesting my innocence to the midwives all the while), and then took it upon myself to visit her mother and inform her of the arrival of her new grandchild.

 

To my relief and surprise, Linda’s mother seemed to accept this fact with some resignation. She merely said: ‘Oh, well. you’d better tell her to come back home when she gets out – and bring her bastard with her.’ She and my cousin John (sadly now deceased although I am still in regular contact with his brother) did not last long and I have no knowledge of where Linda found her future but wish her well as she was a really nice person who got a tough break in life.

 

My parents were baffled and deeply disappointed with me, every girl I met inevitably wanted more than I could give. Somehow, it seemed as if the harder I tried to please, the more I ended up disappointing people. There had to be some way of getting my life in order and of making my parents proud of their son. My mood was so desperate that, when I bumped into Margaret Oakley again, it seemed a good idea to pick up our relationship where it had left off. After all, Margaret was a sweet girl who was not only comfortable to be with but still shy enough not to think it odd if we did not go past the heavy petting stage and, equally important, she was a good Jehovah’s Witness of whom my parents would wholeheartedly approve. Thus we embarked on a fairly easy courtship that everyone assumed would some day end in marriage, and for the first time in my life I actually began to experience some sense of calm. I hurt her badly at the end when I met my wife to be, Marylin, but I do know that she went on to marry and have children, so for her at least a very lucky escape as she deserved someone much better than me.

 

 

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