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Redemption Song

My thumb rubs over the white swan logo. A scratch, a hiss, a flame, then the match falls from my fingers.

Pushing my hands deep in my duffle coat’s pockets, I watch as my father’s monochrome face blisters, then ignites. Heat singes a corner of the letter from my old medical college. Moments later, the paper blooms brown, then burns. As I take a satisfied breath, a wisp of acrid smoke stings my nostrils, and in that moment, I am back there.

New Years Eve 1982. I was celebrating my final exam results, five months before I’d sat them. As I chased the dragon and inhaled deeply of it, Jake peered over wire-rimmed glasses. Slowly shaking his head, he closed his textbook, then got up and left the room. We’d been mates since our early teens, but of all the things we had in common, drugs were not one of them.

In May, as Jake was sitting his exams, I sat at mum’s red Formica kitchen table. As the breeze stirred kitchen nets and cooled cakes on wire racks, she clutched my hands in hers and sugar-coated the truth, ‘good boy at heart…only twenty-five…all make mistakes.’ My father had nothing to say on the matter. He had never understood ‘forsaking all others’, and in my second year at medical school he died in a hotel room, on a black satin sheet under his twenty-five-year-old secretary. It was the only other time I saw mum cry. And as she sat opposite me, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue while telling me it would all be okay, I felt nothing at all.

The next afternoon, as she swirled vanilla icing on chocolate cupcakes while chattering on about the village fete, I sat at the kitchen table sipping strong black coffee. Then she asked if I’d had any luck finding another university. I remember mum flinching from my fury as coffee dripped down the kitchen wall. An hour later, I straddled my 750cc Triumph Trident, looked back at the thatched bungalow nestled under leafy boughs. To hell with her, I thought, to hell with it all.

In Brinton I found bar-work on the seafront and rented a room above a New Age shop. It’s the smells I remember most. The pungent seaweed air of low tide. The pub’s polished wood and cigarette-smoked upholstery. My room’s smell of unwashed clothes and the incense smoke that swirled up the stairs.

One searing summer afternoon, as I collected glasses outside the pub, I heard the rumble of approaching motorbikes. The riders pulled up in a haze of petrol fumes, kicked out stands, then leather and denim legs swung over saddles. Bandanas, dark shades, Lemmy ‘taches, ZZ Top beards and leather jackets patched with the ‘Devil’s Due’ insignia. These were my kind of people. I wanted in. And I was willing to do whatever it took to get my patch. Never asked questions about what I saw, or had any qualms about what I did. None.

Sometimes a couple of us would ride close to the back of a bus, laughing as fearful faces peered at us through the window. When the bus’s red brake lights brightened, fate rolled the dice as we clutched levers and slammed boots against pedals. At night we would gather on the beach, light fires, lever bottle-caps, push needles into veins, pull women close. One by one, we’d fall into chemical oblivion, while Slayer thrashed out 'Hell Awaits' from a boombox. For some, hell’s wait was over. The sleeper who never woke, and the rider who braked too late, became legends.

By the summer of 1986, my patch was imminent. While buying Rothmans in a paint-peeling corner-shop, I glanced at a newspaper, saw a familiar face on the front page and the headline, ‘Brinton Woman Found Dead in Bungalow’. Mum. I hadn’t thought about her in over four years.

As the September sun hung low in the sky, I pulled up outside mum’s bungalow. Old Mr Howard from next door was in his garden, digging around fading pink rose bushes. He looked older, frailer; his blue checked shirt with rolled-up sleeves hung loosely on him. It was a strange comfort to see he still tucked his trouser legs inside his wellies, still wore that green bucket-hat with its tuft of blue and yellow fish flies. As I walked up mum’s garden path, glancing at the weed-filled flower beds and uncut grass, Mr. Howard stopped digging. He shouted across to clear off or he’d call the police. It took my driving licence to convince him of who I was.

He said Mum had died from a heart attack, and no wonder given all the grief and worry she’d had in her life. As his eyes bore into mine, I looked away. After a ‘Hmph’ he barked at me to stay put, then slowly shuffled back to his bungalow. When he returned, he handed me the card a solicitor had left with him, in case I returned.

A couple of days later, I sat on mum’s pink candlewick bedspread, thankful the appointment with the solicitor was over. Silver-haired Mr. Baker had spoken to me with an air of professional detachment, betrayed only by the distain in his eyes. He told me I’d inherited mum’s entire estate; the bungalow; a few thousand pounds in savings and all personal effects.

As I held her black read-worn Bible, I thought of all the times I’d mocked her faith as delusion, screamed in her face, never said goodbye. I couldn’t remember the last time I had told her I loved her. Looking up, I caught sight of my reflection in the dust-speckled dressing table mirror. The long greasy black hair, full beard, oil and blood-stained leathers I expected. The accusatory brown eyes staring back at me, were something new.

I shaved off the beard, had my hair cut short, brought new clothes. After shoving my leathers inside a holdall, I looked at the new suit hanging on the back of the bedroom door, and wondered, do clothes really make a man?

Going cold turkey took me to all nine levels of hell. At some point between desperation and delirium, I called Jake begging him for help. Since the day I was kicked out of university, I had ignored all his calls, sneered with my new mates at his heartfelt messages. Within two hours he was knocking on the front door.

When I heard the motorbikes a few months later, I knew what was coming, had been expecting it. An overdue reminder to keep my mouth shut. A part of me wanted, needed, to take that beating.

After they’d gone, I lay on the front room carpet, my hand pushing against bulging ribs, the taste of blood in my mouth. Through swollen eyes, I saw a blur of blue and yellow feathers. Then a voice, ‘Stay still, Nick boy, I’ve called an ambulance.’ I spent a month in intensive care, wandering between life and death in the wilderness of regret.

I sold the bungalow and moved to a one-bedroom flat in Shipton-on-Leigh, about ten-miles further along the coast from Brinton. It would have been easier to move as far away from my past as I could, but if I was to even try to make amends, I needed to be close to the consequences of my choices.

With the money left over from the sale of mum’s bungalow and from part-time work, I finished medical school. Then started several years of falling asleep over books and trying to stay awake on ward rounds. Finally, at forty, I was specializing in the relatively new branch of addiction psychiatry. Mum would have said it was my way of seeking redemption. She always did believe the best of me. Truth was, in caring for minds like the ones I’d help damage, my guilt weighed a little less heavily on my shoulders.

By 1997, I’d moved to a three-bedroom detached house and had a Lexus parked in the drive. One morning, after patting aftershave on my face, I smiled at my reflection. I had a great job, friends, nice house, status car. Life was good.

Later that day, I was sitting at my desk in my consulting room at Shipton-on-Leigh General Hospital, reading the referral letter for my next patient. Pauline Fuller, a thirty-four-year-old woman living in a hostel. Another patient with too many substances and not enough substance in her life.

A knock on the white-gloss door, then it opened.

I stood as my receptionist came into the room, slowly followed by Pauline, head down, arms tightly folded across her waist.

I smiled. ‘Thank you, Ruth.’ The door clicked softly as she left. ‘Would you like to sit down Pauline?’ I gestured to one of two oatmeal fabric chairs. Between them a small coffee table with a plastic jug filled with water, a plastic tumbler, and a box of tissues.

She looked up, then visibly tensed.

‘Do you mind if I call you Pauline? Or do you prefer Ms Fuller?’

‘It’s Pella,’ she snapped.

As she sat down, the chair seemed to swallow her.

Sitting opposite, I steepled my fingers against my chin. ‘This is your time, Pella, we can talk about whatever you want.’

She looked out the window, as if she had something important to say, but couldn’t find the words.

Giving her a little time, I glanced over her appearance. Pella’s jeans were torn and grubby, and her hands tightly clutched the ends of overlong jumper sleeves. She was so thin her clothes barely knew she was in them. Her short brown hair looked hacked, cheekbones unnaturally prominent, skin sallow and blemished, and her nose piercing looked badly infected. I was not shocked at Pella’s physical state. No one whole ever sat in that chair.

Chewed fingernails appeared from a frayed cuff. Sliding a hand down the neck of her black hoody, she pulled out a small, silver heart locket, then staring at me, slowly slid it back and forth along its chain. A hopeful sign, jewellery was usually the first thing addicts sold.

          ‘So, Pella, today—'

‘You don’t remember me, do you?’

I smiled. ‘We have not met before.’

‘1985. Brinton seafront. I was begging, you rode past, then turned back…ring any bells yet?’

My heart began hammering. ‘I’m sorry Pella, but you are mistaken. Now, today—’

‘You’ve got a death head tattoo, just below your navel.’


She tilted her head to one side. ‘Thought so. I just wanted money for food, but you said you had something better, something to take away my hunger, my pain, help me forget. You handed me a wrap of smack, said it was a freebee, told me where I could find you if I wanted more. Said you’d sort something out if I couldn’t pay. Sure, I'd stolen wallets, food, even prostituted myself. I did whatever it took to survive. But I’d never done drugs before.’

I didn’t remember her, but I had given the same sales pitch to so many desperate people.

‘How, how did you…how did you find me?’

‘I didn’t.’

As she lifted her arms, my hand readied for the red panic button on the wall beside me, but she simply reached behind her neck. After a little fumbling, she gently laid the locket on the table. ‘Open it.’

A few moments later, I was looking at the photo of a tiny sleeping face, swaddled in a pink cellulose blanket, and a tiny curl of dark hair.

‘You have a daughter.’

‘Her name was Emily.’


‘Babies born to addicts…if I’d stopped…she lived for three days.’ As the ice in her blue eyes began melting, she wiped a sleeve across her cheeks.

'And the father?'

She raised an eyebrow at me.

It took me a moment to understand. ‘You think that Emily, was my—’

'Know.' She nodded at the locket. ‘They can do tests now can’t they, prove you were her father?’

For a moment I couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe, then I simply nodded.

‘I came here to get…fixed.’ she said flatly. ‘Tried so many times to stay clean, give myself a chance at life. If I don't, Emily died for nothing. So, what do I have to do?’

I held up my hands. ‘No, I can’t, given the circumstances, it would be…unethical. I must transfer you to another consultant.’ As I spoke, the enormity of my situation, the utter stupidity of being so close to my past, hit home. What had I been thinking?

Her eyes flashed hatred. ‘You’re preaching ethics…to me?’ She uncrossed her legs, elbows on knees she leaned forward hissing, ‘Fix me, you bastard, or I will destroy you.’

Two weeks later, I opened a buff envelope, read the words ‘biological father’, and my world imploded to a point of pain I never knew existed. Mum, Pella, Emily. How many other lives had I destroyed?

The venom of revenge coursed through Pella’s veins with more potency than crack. She needed me to know her suffering, feel it, before she could begin healing. Session after session, Pella’s torment raged, before finally, the winds of bitterness abated, and Pauline’s voice could be heard. As her mind started to heal, her physical appearance changed. Her hair grew thicker, wavier, longer. Her skin became clear, almost radiant, and she put on some much-needed weight.

After a year, Pauline was working full-time in a garden centre and had moved to a bed-sit. As our last session came to an end, she stood, confidently held out a hand, said I had nothing to fear from her now. As I shook her hand, I said I could never be that man again. A nod of heads, an exchange of weak smiles, then she was gone.

Christmas Eve 1999. As I picked up two pints of lager and turned from the crowded bar, elbows jostled, and amber liquid spilled onto a pink sleeve. Apologising, I looked up into a familiar face.



          After a moment of awkwardness, we said at the same time, ‘How are you?’ Then she smiled and said, ‘You first.’

          Six months later, we were sitting on a tartan blanket eating chips from paper cones, while waves tumbled and ground pebbles.

‘I love you,’ I said, then instantly regretted it. It was selfish, arrogant of me to think we could ever be more than friends. ‘I’m so sorry, Pauline, I—'

With her kiss, came my absolution.

Running from consequences had never led to any place either of us wanted to be. But if our history were ever discovered, questions would have been raised, and I did not feel inclined to fall on my sword before the GMC. I resigned my consultancy and started lecturing psychiatry at the University of Brinton. A few months later, Pauline moved in with me.

On April 14th, 2001, almost four years after Pella first walked into my consulting room, I stood tall in a dove-grey suit, complete with a red carnation and fern buttonhole. I looked at Jake, my best man, and he gave me a thumbs up. Beside me, stood my Pauline, in a long scarlet dress, with cream roses woven in her tawny curls. Outside the registrar’s office, friends threw white rose petals over Mr and Mrs Barton. I had no family to share our joy. And Pauline’s parents had declined their wedding invitation. Not big on second chances. Yet, under the glitter-ball of light, as we stepped onto the parquet dance floor, we were all the family we needed.


Blinking back from the past, I see Pauline standing beside me. Her hands are lost in the over long sleeves of an Aran jumper, that almost reaches the knees of her black leggings. For a heartbeat, she’s swallowed in an oatmeal fabric chair, then the memory is swept away as the wind blows crimson leaves across the lawn.

‘What were you burning?’ she asks linking her arm through mine.

‘Old letters, photos…my leathers. I wish tattoos were as easy to get rid of.’

‘I know. Feel the same about my caesarean scar.’

‘Oh, Pauline, I’m so sorry; I didn’t think.’ My fingers brush strands of hair from her cheek.

She looks to darkening embers. ''Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.' Remember?’

‘Our wedding dance, Bob Marley’s 'Redemption Song'. Our song.’

‘Leave the past where it belongs, Nick.’ Taking my hand, she places it on her swollen tummy. ‘There…and again; did you feel him?’

‘Sure did.’ I put my arm around her shoulders. ‘It’s getting chilly, let’s go in, I’ll make some tea.’

‘Sounds good.’

As we walk up the garden path, I leave behind the smouldering ashes of my chains.

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