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Visiting the Girl

A Healing Memoir

by Aoife Valley







Smashwords Edition

Copyright Aoife Valley 2017

Donegal, Ireland

www.aoifevalley.com








This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License







May all children,

past, present and future,

be happy, safe and free.

Table of Contents



Introduction



Chapters

1 The Holly Tree

2 The Stairs

3 Infirmary

4 Black Eyeliner

5 Paisley Blouse

6 Pink Sunset

7 Seaweed

8 Effortlessness



Afterword

Links

INTRODUCTION

For so many years I have dreamt of this book, yet had no idea how it would take shape. I couldn't see how it would be possible to craft something beautiful from the cinders of my trauma-filled childhood.

One birthday, a few years ago, I received three beautiful, lined, notebooks from three very different friends. They had each chosen to buy me, an artist, an empty book for words. One by one, I began filling these books with gardening, beekeeping, and teaching notes. I felt guilty that this long-imagined memoir wasn't finding its way into their pages.

Then one day, after a meditation one-to-one, a client took from her bag a small, thick book, and offered it to me. On the cover was a soft painting of a pair of gold-star encrusted high heels in greens and creams. It was another lined notebook. She said that although she liked the book, she felt it was meant to be given to me.

I took it home, and it sat by my bed for a few months. It was so pretty I knew that the first words written in it would have to be meaningful. So, I took my time.

One Saturday morning, I brought the notebook and a pen into my meditation room, and sat it down beside me. I began my morning meditation as usual, and at the end of it a memory came to mind. It was a Saturday morning in my first year of primary school, and the day after the first attack by my father.

I had faced the events of the Friday many times over the years, yet had given the aftermath days of Saturday and Sunday little attention. On this particular Saturday morning the idea came to me to actually go and visit myself as I was back then, in my imagination, and see what happened.

There are many variations of this process in spiritual, shamanic and religious traditions. It is known as 'Active Imagination' or 'Soul Retrieval', and was used by many of the Christian mystics. I had been studying trauma recovery based on the understanding of the fight/flight/freeze mechanism, and how it gets stuck on overdrive when trauma isn't fully processed. I read that it was possible to release this stuckness by revisiting traumatic memories and rewriting them.

I was afraid to do this, but a yearning deep inside me knew that this 'visiting' was what was called for, in order for the next layer of my healing to occur.

In the tradition of meditation I was trained in 'imagination' was viewed as something untrustworthy. The teaching was strongly grounded in the reductionist scientific view that if you can't measure it, or see it, it isn't happening. We were taught to see things as they were, in each present moment, without adding anything, or taking anything away. Reality itself was the only thing to trust; 'this moment' the only thing worth paying attention to. This clear-sighted awareness had healed me enormously, and brought great stability to my life, yet that morning something bigger was calling me to engage my imagination. So that is what I did.

Here is what I wrote in the notebook after the encounter:

Finally she will let me hold her. I gather her up in my arms and she holds on to me like a baby who has lost her mother. Her legs to one side, closed, and her battered body damp and cold.

I never wondered why she would just lie there. I never tried to move her. Maybe I knew the time hadn't come yet.

It seems a miracle now, to know she trusts me. She is here in my lap weeping, utterly lost. I hold her like a chair, like a mother. I hold her like I always wanted to be held, utterly supported, completely safe.

There was an ease and a beauty to what had happened. To trust my imaginative process made me feel more whole, and fleshed out an ancient inner knowing that I had lost in my years in Buddhism.

I still meditated every single day, and expect to for the rest of my life, but I also began 'visiting the girl' after my meditations. It soon became clear that this process would make for a poetic and healing framework in which to share my story.

Eight different memories arose for the purposes of this book. I begin each chapter by visiting the girl, or woman, I was both physically and emotionally. I then move on to memoir, and I end the chapter with another visit. In the visits I allowed the healing process to arise, and simply documented it. There was no force or control. I know from experience that, in an atmosphere of safety, and kind, alert, awareness, our body/mind/soul will always heal itself.

For the memoir sections I wanted to write about my history in a way that focussed on me as the child, teenager and woman – on my very real human hopes, dreams, sensitivities, emotions and physical experiences. So often, and understandably, accounts of abuse and trauma are filled with fear, and horror of the perpetrator. I wondered was it possible to write about what happened to me in a way that was real, yet at the same time honoured my individual soul-life, which was beautiful, noble and heroic.

Ultimately, I wanted to create a narrative that would use the lessons I learned in breaking a family cycle of abuse and neglect to lessen our collective fear, and bring greater understanding and peace into the world. This is what I hope I have done. This book contains my truth, and it is my sincere hope that it will support the reader in embracing their own truth.



THE HOLLY TREE

0 - 9

One day I choose to visit the girl on Saturday morning in her room. What happened on the Friday and Monday had gone through my mind for decades, but I couldn't bear to remember what had happened on the Saturday and Sunday. Those two days were a blank.

I enter her room and see a motionless, tiny little body in a bed, intermittently crying, sleeping and staring at the wall. She doesn't move an inch, but I know she is glad I am there. I sit by her and say, 'I am here, darling. I am here for you'.

I am astonished that she will let me be here. I always thought she would be so afraid of me it would make matters worse, but she has been waiting for me, waiting for this meeting.

Finally she will let me hold her. I gather her up in my arms and she holds on to me like a baby who has lost her mother.

It seems a miracle now, to know she trusts me. She is here in my lap weeping, utterly lost.

I hold her like a chair, like a mother. I hold her like I always wanted to be held - utterly supported, completely safe.

'I am here now', I say. 'I'm never going to leave you. Everything is going to be OK.'

She hugs and hugs me, and I mother her effusively, this little girl with no mother to turn to for solace. I hug and hug her. I want her to know that she is safe.

She cries, I hold. I am present. I don't try to fix anything, or explain her feelings away. I never mention what has happened. I stay in the here and now and feel with her.

I had only just started primary school when he kept me home one Friday. His girlfriend had gone off to have her baby and he said we needed father and daughter time. We stayed in my bedroom and played all games he liked. It was nice to have him all to myself. I adored him and, with no mother around, he had become my whole world. I wanted to make him happy.

He could be very funny and make us all laugh, but he could also be very scary sometimes, just out of the blue. It was very confusing. He always took everything too far. When he tickled me it was funny for a little while, then he kept going until it got really sore. He didn't like it when I told him to stop. It made him angry, so I swallowed my sore and let him stop when he was ready.

That Friday I started to get hot and feel sick. It had gone on too long, and he was getting annoyed with me. I felt so much like I was going to vomit that I had to say, 'stop'. He stood up and turned his face away, and when he turned back it was black and red mixed together, like he had covered himself in boot polish. I was terrified. I knew something very bad was about to happen.

He stabbed me over and over down there, and the pain was so bad I flashed out of my body, up to the corner by the door. I watched myself look like a ragdoll under his bulk. I was sure I was going to die, that I would be saying goodbye to that wee ragdoll girl down there. I had really liked her too.

I kept saying, over and over in my mind, My daddy is the devil. I knew from pictures what the devil looked like - red and black, with no kindness whatsoever. That was who he was.

Then it was Saturday, and I could hear my brothers asking about me in the landing. 'Aoife is sick, don't go near her', he said. I was bleeding, and in so much pain. I just lay there and waited for what was next. I was quiet and still.

I lay there all day Saturday and all day Sunday. He came in to check the bleeding until it stopped.

On Monday morning I was woken up for school. I went downstairs and he acted like nothing had happened. Standing in the kitchen I got a bowl of porridge. With the first spoonful I tasted sweetness and overwhelmingly wanted to burst out crying. I felt betrayed by that sweetness. I thought that everything had changed, but it hadn't really. An ache fell down my throat, chest, and into my belly. Nobody loves me, I thought. No mummy and no daddy.

The sweet porridge announced that the world went on, even though I felt like it had stopped. It said that I didn't really matter. God and the angels hadn't saved me. No one had saved me. I was all alone.

These attacks in my bedroom went on for over five years, until we went to live with my mother when I was nine years old. It happened most that first year, after his girlfriend came back with the new baby. Then it took on a pattern I tried every way I could think of to untangle myself from.

After an attack I was crushed for weeks. The physical pain was terrible. Walking the mile to school was the worst. My body was so heavy, and every step aggravated the swollen and bruised area between my legs. I was always lagging behind, a 'slowcoach'. One day the boys found a hornets’ nest on the walkway up to school, and I had no interest in it whatsoever. I just put one foot in front of the other as I walked by.

The pain eased up after about a week, and I felt lighter and more like myself. Then I could play again, and run and skip carefully. A week after that I started to forget it, and just get on with life.

At some point I could look in the mirror again without feeling afraid. The mirror frightened me the most the first week because my face looked like someone I didn't know. It looked like my 'Tiny Tears' doll – hard and plastic. Then the face would distort as I watched it, with the forehead getting really big, or the chin going lopsided, or one eye getting really big. It was terrifying, so I decided to just stop looking at it.

In that first year we got school portrait photographs to take home. I sat in my bedroom looking at the photo of myself. If I looked very quickly at it, and then away, I looked like a normal girl with long ginger hair, a fringe, freckles and a pinafore. But if I looked for a long time that baby-teeth smile really irritated me. I looked so stupid. My belly stuck out and my stupid hair was in pigtails. I really hated her. She didn't distort. She stayed exactly the same. I spat at her, then immediately tried to wipe it away in case it got me in trouble.

As I wiped it, the photo got scratched and an orange colour came through from underneath. I couldn't help myself then, I started scratching and scratching, and more orange came through to replace the skin. I scratched until her face was gone, and only the hair and body were left. Then I hid it under the bed.

The next day he noticed it was missing and looked for it while I sat on the bed. When he saw what I had done to it a sneering smile spread over his face. I knew that smile well. I vowed to never, ever hurt myself like that again, and to kill myself if I ever got to the point where that devil-smile came upon my face. He put the photo back under the bed, and I took it out later and threw it in the fire downstairs.

A couple of weeks after the attack I tentatively looked in the mirror again to see if the distortion was still happening. When it didn't I would begin to recognise myself – my freckles, my soft skin, the colour and shine of my hair, my nose, my teeth and tongue. I felt safe again. I began to forget all about those dark things and just be my happy, normal self.

And just as I was feeling safe again, happy in my own skin, he would attack again. Sometimes I saw it coming from the corner of my eye - out playing with the girls I would notice him standing at the window and have an uncomfortable feeling. But the amnesia was so strong that each time it was always a shock as brutal as the first.

School was a happy place for me when I had recovered. While I was still sore boys bullied me in the playground. When the strength came back into my arms and legs no one bothered bullying me, and everything went back to normal.

There was a boy at school who wasn't rough like the others. His name was Liam. The first time I noticed him was at break time when I was standing against a building. He smiled at me, and my whole body felt light. His smile reminded me that I was loveable.

We didn't speak much the first years, just smiled at each other in the playground. Then we became friends. I loved everything about him - his face, his glasses and his brown hair. He was always so calm and friendly, and never pulled my ponytail or tripped me up. When we held hands the whole world was happy.

Just before we moved to my mother's house he invited me over to meet his mother and grandfather. They were calm too. With them I felt safe, and like a whole new world was opening up. In his house, where everyone spoke to each other slowly, with softness, and big open eyes, I felt appreciated for the first time. There were silences, when I could hear the clock ticking or the wind outside. They asked me questions and then listened to what I said.

Then one day my father told me that I wasn't allowed to hang about with 'that boy' anymore, and under no circumstance could I go to his house. So, I stopped talking to Liam and he faded out of my life. The feeling of being a lovable person was replaced with an empty pit in my stomach. There was no point in loving anyone, or trying to make things better because my father would just destroy it on me. I had to just keep going, to stay alive and one day be free of him.

On good days I had such hope, but during the attacks, and in the recovery period increasingly I began repeating the words over and over: it has gone on too long, it has gone on too long, no one can recover from this; this is too much, it has gone on too long. It felt like I was slowly dying.

As the pattern continued over the years, he crept into my bedroom in the middle of the night and sometimes I would wake up gasping with his huge body crushing me. Then he would either leave, sleep beside me, or push me on to the floor and sleep in my bed.

Other times, after an attack, he told me to stand in the middle of the floor and leave the room. He said that he could see everything I did, and hear all my thoughts, so he would know if I sat or lay down. On these standing nights I was very cold, but I never lay down. I stood until I passed out, and woke up on the floor in the morning.

My life was sustained by the love I found in other people; love that most people probably wouldn't even call love. Because I was suffering so much I knew how precious it was. I felt love from teachers and shopkeepers, neighbours and pets. I could feel love, and its opposite on my skin, with my eyes, in my chest and stomach and my legs. I loved my brothers dearly and sometimes, during the recovery time, I would really look at their faces and see how nice they were, so soft and freckly. It helped when I couldn't look at my own face.

I loved swimming, and walked on my own to the pool that was half a mile away. The first time I walked there I was scared, but it got easier. It was worth it to experience being weightless, and feel the water flowing over my skin. The pool warmed me up and held me.

I loved sucking my thumb, which I had done since a baby. I had a different relationship with the right and left thumbs, and was so grateful for the particular type of soothing they each provided. My father's girlfriend tried everything to stop me thumb-sucking. She tied me up at night and dipped my thumbs in mustard and methylated spirits, but nothing worked. I kept on sucking until the taste got back to normal.

I loved animals and adored 'Black Beauty' stories, and anything to do with otters. There was a little shelf in my bedroom with three 'Black Beauty' books and my 'Wonder Woman' hardcover comic. Their TV shows were on then too, so I got to see them in action. I wanted to be just like 'Wonder Woman' when I grew up, and have a horse as beautiful and smart as 'Black Beauty'.

Stevie Wonder had a big impact on me. I imagined having a daddy that would sing the song 'I Just Called to Say I love You' to me, and it made me feel better. Any little inkling that there was love in the world meant that eventually everything would be OK.

We lived in a housing estate with lots of wild rose hedges and some big trees. Our house was number 76 which was the same year I was born and that made me feel special. 76 was also the year my parents moved in. Miles of countryside had been bulldozed to build this vast expanse of housing estates, some Catholic and some Protestant. We lived in the second last house on the end of a row, looking out at another row. We had a back and front garden and a covered carport.

My bedroom was at the back of the house, which was the main entrance, and lead out to the carport. In that room I looked out upon the flat carport roof year after year. I watched families of house-martins come and go, thrushes nest in the corners, abandoned toys linger and fade in sun and rain,and light and shadow shift and dapple. That expanse of roof hovered like a magic carpet, just out of adult reach. We children could make our way up there through a small gap between it and the shed, before being spotted and then yelled at to come down.

Most of the houses had a cherry blossom tree. Ours was very tall, and every year was covered in fluffy pink flowers. My father liked to garden, so we always had nice dark red roses and orange nasturtiums to look at. The house was also coming down with houseplants. Every windowsill was covered in pot plants of all different kinds. When I hated him the most I used to feel betrayed by those plants. I couldn't understand why they didn't wilt like I did when he came near them.

Just before I had started primary school we had gone to an open day there. At one point I got lost and wandered into a small glasshouse near the dining room. There was an older boy in it watering the plants. He told me that plants have feelings just like us; that they can feel pain. He said that if we listen very carefully we can even hear them talk to us. I put my ear really close to the plants to listen. I thought I could hear them squeaking, telling me they were happy to be alive, and that they loved me.

Years later, when I came back to live in that house again as a teenager, I did wonder was it the plants that stopped him from killing me once and for all. I wondered did the deep, velvety beauty of those big roses he nurtured pull him back from complete madness. Maybe the cherry blossoms’ sturdy petals reminded him of when he was a little boy and looked up to the sky to see clouds swaying joyfully far above.

She cries until she was ready to stop, and I do not interfere in any way. When her breathing softens she lifts her little head off my lap and sits on the floor. I ask her would she like to draw or read or play, and she says 'yes' to drawing.

She sits there and draws a unicorn, blue and strong, with a rainbow behind. Then she starts a new drawing, and another, and another.

I feel so light and relieved. Eventually I ask her if she feels OK for me to leave now, and she says 'Yes' happily. I tell her I will be back every day to visit.

I go back the next day, and the next, and she is either reading, drawing, or playing with her dolls. Then one day I visit and she is no longer in the bedroom. I look around the house and she is not there.

I look outside and see her under a tree. She has found a little spot at the foot of a Holly tree, beyond the gable wall of the end house. She is busily drawing, consumed and happy.

This wee girl lives under the Holly tree, the medicine of which is Universal and Unconditional Love.

THE STAIRS

9 -13

I enter the large senior dining room from the back. She is sitting alone at a table at the far end. As I approach she stiffens; her back is a closed door. I know she doesn't want me there, and definitely doesn't want to talk or listen. She contains a bristling anger deserving of respect.

I sit down beside her, taking care not to screech my chair. I won't ask her anything. I won't speak. I will just sit here and feel what it is like to be next to her.

She faces dense wooden doors that open out to a foyer, and a wide staircase leading up to a few classrooms. To the right of the stairs is a door to the new building and the rest of the school. To the left, an old lift, long out of use.

I visit her like this a few times a day. Sometimes I forget about her for hours at a time, and as soon as I think of that room, she is there again sitting alone, and I know I must visit.

Each time I sit down next to her she stiffens a little less. There is a softening occurring just with my silent presence and willingness to show up. She seems to expect me now.

So, I come back again and again and sit with her, not knowing when this will end, or how it will end, but aware that eventually it has to change. Something will happen and everything will get better.

This dining room was part of the old convent where I went to an all-girl's secondary school until I was fourteen years old. I was in the senior dining area, and sitting alone during class time because I couldn't walk up the stairs. I sat there with books spread out in front of me feeling utterly alone, like my whole world had been turned upside down, which it had.

We had enjoyed three years away from him - from I was aged nine to thirteen years old. Then one day a woman knocked at the front door of my mother's house and everything changed. She was there to see if we would come visit him because he was in a 'bad way' with depression. His girlfriend had left him for another man, taking his other two children with her off to Scotland.

This woman brought us to visit him in the same house we had lived for many years. It was now very dirty, with crusty used dishes all around the kitchen. We were offered bowls of cereal, but had to give them back because there were tiny black beetles crawling in them.

We explored the house while waiting for him to get home. The only bedroom with an actual bed had it placed in the middle of the room surrounded by tiny clay figurines. There wasn't even a pathway to the bed. We giggled, wondering did he do a long jump over the pottery at night. When he arrived home, he stood at the fireplace looking down at us all neatly arranged on the sofa.

In those years away from him I had remade him into a fairytale father, a protector. I had learnt a lot about how fathers were supposed to be from the TV. 'Little House on the Prairie' and 'The Waltons' were my biggest influence. I thought that I could tell him now how he had gotten it all wrong. I could teach him how he was meant to be. I watched the show 'Surprise Surprise', in which long lost relatives were reunited, and wished that my daddy would arrange to be reunited with me. I never lost the hope that deep down he really loved me, and if he could just spend some time with me he would treat me like a real daddy should.

He stood in front of the fire looking down at us, and I sat there mute. He asked us each questions, one by one, and as he zoomed in on me I suddenly thought my skirt was too short. I shyly tried to make it cover my knees, and this made him stare even more, so I gave up. No matter what, I will make him love me properly, I thought. I had been restocked with hope, and felt that it would be different this time.

I watched him, throughout that initial visit, get stronger and stronger. He started to stand up straighter and stick his chest out. I felt like our love would help him be happy again. This woman, the do-gooder, wanted to rescue him, yet had only succeeded in putting us all in harm’s way – especially him. He was in no mental state to be anywhere near children.

In the time away from him I had passed the 11+ exam and gotten into a good grammar school that I loved. I had a brand new bottle green uniform with an A-line skirt, and a long woollen coat that nearly went down to my feet. That coat had been the most expensive one on the list.

On the first day of school we were told that we as young ladies were the future. We were important. The teachers' jobs were to help us succeed in life. The principal very quickly became my hero. I had never met a woman like that before. She was strong, and also kind at the same time. She was old fashioned in her clothes, but everything she said was modern. I was used to women who were afraid all the time, and either helpless and manic like my mother, or helpless and aggressive like my father's last girlfriend.

The whole of that first year of school was full of adventure and fun. We eleven year old girls got along well. Most of us liked the boy band 'Bros' and discussed at length all the reasons why they were so beautiful and cool. As we went from second, and then to third year, that harmony persisted, with minor scuffles as tastes changed. No matter what was going on I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself. We were always reminded that we young women were being educated to make the world a better place.

I was very good at Art, Irish, English and Biology. The Art teacher was one of the first adults to ever talk to me casually. One day we happened to be walking in the same direction and she asked me how I felt about being the only girl named ‘Aoife’ in the school. She said that when she was at school she was the only girl called Isobel and it made her feel special. I thought about it for a few seconds and agreed that it was better to take it as being special rather than the odd one out. I told her that all through primary school the teachers always spelled and pronounced my name wrongly and it was annoying. She said that the same thing had happened to her.

I got bullied by older girls for the first two years, and at one point the bullying even grew to another school. People I didn't even know were snickering at me on the bus. When some derogatory graffiti was found I was called to the principal's office. This was the first time she and I had spoken one-to-one, and she took me under her wing, telling me she was going to personally make sure that all the bullying stopped, and it did.

My mother said she was sure the girls' parents were to blame. It had started the first week of first year with some girls who lived near us calling me the nickname they had for my mother because of her bi-polar high episodes. My mother often made 'scenes' in public places in the name of her art or a political statement. These things had only happened when we weren't in contact with her. She had ended up in hospital a few times, but had been stable for a few years at that point, and we clung to the hope that those days were behind us.

After scoring top of a music test I won free lessons in the cello. In the test there had been a Beatles song in which we had to pick out all the different instruments being played, and I was the only one in class to catch them all.

I fell in love with the sound of the cello the first time I heard it. Having grown up around traditional musicians, always playing so fast and aggressively, I felt removed from making music. I didn't want to get lost in that mayhem. The cello was different – it was watery, deep and slow. It was the sound of my interior world - a place of caves, shells and mermaids.

Lugging the big instrument on and off the school bus wasn't easy, and the bridge was always being knocked off. Yet, having this unearthly new sound in my life seemed to be making me more whole. I was becoming confident – a strong, cello-playing, beauty-making young woman. Up until then I had felt fat, ugly and worthless. My self-image was so torn and distorted I could barely look in the mirror. All that changed as I played the cello, had friends and teachers who liked me, and was safe in my clean bed at night.

When he came back it was a slow and steady eruption of poison that, bit by bit, seeped into every little part of that new life. My brothers and I became increasingly violent towards each other, my mother began to unhinge, and then one day she ran away. Those three years had been the longest time she had managed to stay with us. We knew only too well what it felt to be motherless, so having her all to ourselves had been precious.

One afternoon we came home from school to her house and the lights weren't on. The key was under the mat, so we went in and, because there was no food cooked, we just went to bed. My stomach began hurting so badly that I was writhing about the bed in agony. My body knew what was happening, but my mind refused to accept it.

Eventually we decided to go the neighbour’s house to phone my father. I was not afraid of the dark so I went. I walked down the hawthorn lane in the pitch black. Most of my friends were afraid of the dark and I always thought it so silly. Human beings were the only thing to be afraid of. The dark was safe - filled with bats and owls, rabbits and cows. They had more important things to be doing than going after me.

That long walk, step by careful step, all the time avoiding pot holes, was a walk into an dark future. I knew it, and I didn't understand why my stomach wouldn't just calm down. My brothers and I had agreed that it would be possible to stay in the house on our own, without telling any adults. There was food in the cupboards, so we could have cooked things to eat. We could have gotten the bus to school in the morning and no one would have known anything was different.

It was all wishful thinking. My stomach knew that us going back to live with my father had become an inevitability. He had been on his best behaviour, and my mother had said that he was manipulating everything in order to get her to crack and then get us back. If so, it had worked. She left, so we went back to live with him.

Nothing in me wanted to go back into that same bedroom in my father's house. It was the room in which I had spent the first nine years of my life, and it felt like a dungeon. But I had no choice.

Those first weeks contained a jumble of emotions. Glimpses of terrible memories turned into floods. I caught him looking at my body, then he quickly looked away. He referred back to how I had looked when I was a little girl and it made me very uncomfortable, like I wanted to scratch all the way out of my skin.

Yet the hope was still alive. At school we spent a lot of time singing and talking about Jesus, Our Lady and God. Neither of my parents were religious, and were often very condemning of it, but I loved it. We were bound together by cords of love, so I chose to love my daddy. I wanted to love him back to being normal. Maybe things will be different this time, I thought.

I swirled about in a mess of memory, hope, fear and desperation for many weeks in that wee room. In his house I had to get three buses to school, which meant waking up at 7 am, and that felt shocking.

There were new girls from my school to get to know on the bus. The ones my age were mostly hard, townie girls who, being the first pick-up, sat at the back of the bus verbally abusing everyone who got on after them. I was afraid of these girls at first, but after getting into a vicious fight with the leader, I became one of them. We mostly shouted at protestant boys, and one in particular with ginger hair and a hearing-aid. This simple fact of sitting at the back of the bus gave our gang free reign to bully all those people with their backs to us.

On the final bus I was on my own again and came to enjoy the time looking out the window at other people's lives. The bus passed through the many housing estates and roundabouts of my area. I read the graffiti and watched people. I observed their posture and imagined what they were feeing. Some people were very rigid and straight. Some, like me, were bent over. Some were bouncy, and their arms hung loose – they were the rare happy people. I saw mostly fear in the passers-by, and I felt that same fear deep in my own body.

Since I was very young I had developed the ritual of saying a prayer for any dead animals I saw along the road. At the end of my mother's lane there were often perfect little hedgehogs squashed flat, or dead badgers and foxes. I said a Hail Mary for them all individually, and wished their souls to be peaceful in heaven.

This habit became all the more potent after my own cats, who lived with my mother, were knocked down on that same road. She buried all the road kill cats in the 'cat graveyard'. It was a hidden place, behind a big mound covered in nettles, and under a Hawthorn and an Elder tree. Animals had always been so easy for me to relate to. I was very grateful to them, and in their death I honoured every individual soul.

As I watched the people from my seat on the bus I began to say prayers for them too. I wished for their backs to straighten, their faces to soften and their arms to relax. I also said prayers for the boy with the hearing-aid, and in my mind I apologised to him for being a bully.

The cello was gone within a week of our arrival at my father's house. The school said it would get too damaged on all the bus connections. They asked was there no way someone could pick me up once a week. I asked my father and the answer was, 'No'. So, I gave the cello back and felt its human-sized loss.

One day I came home from school and heard my father calling my name from upstairs. Straight away I knew something was about to happen. I had just come home from a very good day at school. Although not all the teachers were nice, some were so nice I felt blessed to be anywhere near them. The Art, Irish and English Language teachers were the best. They really loved us and we could all feel it. We lapped it up like puppies. They twinkled at us when we did good things, and were kind and stern when we didn't, but never, ever did they make us feel like we were stupid or less than them.

He called my name again and I started walking up the stairs. He was waiting in his bedroom, and I felt a kind of relief that one part of me was being proven right – that all of his good behaviour was actually leading to this, and now I knew where I stood. For weeks I had been toing and froing between thinking I was being a horrible, suspicious daughter, to thinking I was wise.

In my mind, I began to say over and over again what I had rehearsed in preparation of this moment: No, I am a young lady, I am the future, I am important. This is who I am. I am not who you want me to be. I am not!

I went into his room and he was lying on the bed beckoning me. I took a deep breath and said out loud, 'You are not allowed to do that to me any more'.

His face was blank, so I said it again 'No, you are not allowed to do that to me anymore.'

He got up slowly, and I backed up out of the room. His was tone escalating as he repeated over and over again, 'What did you say? What did you say?'. I tried to stand tall and just kept backing up, until there was no more ground to stand on. His face was red and shaking, and the red rims around his eyes were nearly black. 'What did you say?', he spat at me.

Then he pushed me. I fell backwards down the stairs, in a fraction of a second. I couldn't believe it. I thought, surely that didn't happen. Surely I am still standing up there at the top. Falling and falling, my body twisting and banging. A loose nail ripping my knee. My legs like bent wire going the wrong way. My neck, my elbows. Then silence.

Then, a loud buzzing like the TV and hoover all on at once filled my head. My leg was twisted behind me. Someone stepped over my body. There was a wet feeling on both knees. I couldn't see or move, so just felt my breathing and listened to the buzzing. Everything had stopped moving on the outside, but inside my body felt like car crashes every second. It felt like a very long time. I wanted to sleep, but the pain was keeping me awake. Finally, I could make out a shadow sitting on the chair by the phone.

Then came the sweet sound of my brothers, talking as they opened the back door, and the shift in their tone to panic. They were telling the shadow by the phone to call an ambulance, and he did. The kind ambulance people helped me. I was so glad to see their uniforms and hear their unfamiliar voices. I relaxed then and fell asleep.

I woke up in hospital with casts on different parts of my body. My knees were the worst. It felt like I was floating most of the time. I didn't know how to talk anymore. I was just slightly there in the hospital. Most of me was somewhere completely different – in a world of angels and clouds. I was light and pain-free in the other place. It felt calm, and there was no fear. Whenever I came back into my broken body everything was throbbing and aching.

I wondered was I supposed to be dead, or maybe I was dying. Every time I chose to come back into my body the dawning realisation that he had tried to kill me, that he actually wanted me dead, became more solidified. My daddy tried to kill me, was the record playing over and over in my mind. Since I had awoken in the hospital I hadn't seen him. I wondered did he tell the police on himself, and maybe gone to jail. Maybe it was over now.

Then he came to visit, and I felt the old familiar body-stiffening happen again for the first time in years. I had forgotten what this feeling was like – a paralysis and inner shivering. I had felt like this in his presence from age four to ten years. My whole body was numb, like a deer in headlights.

He walked up to my bed, leaned over me and said, 'I will kill you if you tell anyone. I will kill you. You tripped on the carpet. There was this wee bit of carpet I meant to get fixed, and you tripped on it because you weren't looking where you were going'.

My body did somersaults of fear as he breathed close to my face with those words. I was back in his grip again, and floods of memory poured into my mind. All those years of pain. A complete absence of kindness. Only fear. Only horror. This is your daddy, Aoife, I thought. Stop pretending he is any different.

'She hasn't started speaking yet', a nurse said to him. When he looked at her I could see that she was shaking. He related the story about the carpet.

After his visit the nurses looked at me with an expression I became very familiar with from other people in the years to come. Their faces said, 'I am sorry for your trouble, but I cannot help you'. Their fear dug my tomb even deeper.

The neck brace came off and I was sent home. My arms were healing and it was just the knees that were a concern. I spent weeks in bed, in that same bedroom, right next to his. The room had different wallpaper since I had lived there before. The new one was woodchip, and I picked at it down by the edge of the bed, where no one could see. I picked and picked as the hours rolled by. Waiting, praying, breathing.

I spent a lot of time floating about like I had done in the hospital. My mind moved from waking, to dreaming, to imagination, as my body got on with the serious business of healing. On one long day, with sunshine coming through the window, an angel visited me in response to my urgent prayers about my knees.

The doctors had said it was unlikely the kneecaps would restore properly, and couldn't say whether or not I would walk again. My mother's sister had been in a wheelchair since she was a teenager and I really didn't want that to happen to me. On the few occasions he had come into my room, my father had mentioned this aunt, and it made me think that he would love to have me stuck in that house, completely under his control.

I couldn't see the angel as a person sitting next to me, but in my mind I could sense him with a glow of blue light. He said that he would heal my knees for good, and that I had nothing to be worried about. I was so afraid of everything that I didn't really trust him, but I told him to go on ahead. What did I have to lose?

The doctors said it was a miracle when my knees straightened out, and they told me I would walk again. I thought to myself that some people, or angels, really were trustworthy, and I needed to be able to know the difference.

Physiotherapy was the next step. I got to meet lots of people of all different ages. We were all part of the same team, trying to get better and stronger. Even though I made it to only a few sessions, and it was terribly difficult, I knew something special was happening to me there. People cared about me just because I was alive. They didn't know who I was, or what had really happened to me, they just wanted to help me and cheer me up.

When I could walk again, my mother came back into the picture, and it was decided I would go back to live with her. My father wanted nothing more to do with me, which was an enormous relief.

My mother lived in the countryside with my half-brother, who was then just three years old. She had been living in her home place, the house my farmer grandfather had built, since I could remember. It was a bungalow, with lots of outbuildings from old dwellings. Acres of luscious green fields for dairy cattle were boundaried by hedgerows, and down at the back of the house was 'The Moss', a heather bogland area with patches of woodland. This wild area linked all the houses along two parallel roads.

Turf cutting had mostly stopped at this point, and The Moss was used by locals for walks and pheasant shooting. It was a mysterious place, with birch and rowan trees, old dusty turf pathways, and dark water drains full of damselflies and clouds of midges in the summer. It led down to the shores of Lough Neagh, the largest lake in Ireland. The shallow edges of the lake were perfect for swimming and skimming stones.

It was worth all the pain in my body to be back there again. Eventually I started back to school with crutches. Walking down the lane to get the school bus was the most difficult part, but if I left enough time I could do it step by step. I managed the stairs at school with the help of friends. I was just so glad to be back to normal again – talking, laughing and being myself.


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