Hilly turned up the thick woollen collar of her coat before stuffing her hands into the deep pockets, wishing she had remembered to wear gloves. This bench had the best view in the park but the October wind cut straight through her. Melissa picked her way carefully back from the kiosk with two plastic beakers of coffee, looking for all the world like a toddler assigned to carry an over-full milk jug.
With a laugh that was anything but amused, Hilly took the coffee and cradled it in both hands, glad of the warmth it afforded.
“Thanks. I never know if we should celebrate or not.”
“Don’t be daft. What we’ve achieved in five years is a bloody miracle. And it was all your idea. Never forget that. I was just tagging along for the ride in the beginning.”
“OK. Cheers, then. Happy Anniversary. To Gretchen House!” They touched plastic cups and smiled. “I couldn’t have done it without you, you know.”
“Well, combined skills and all that.” Melissa was always dismissive of her obvious talents and Hilly wondered, not for the first time, if she had self-image problems. She shook her head.
You gave up that malarkey five years ago, Lady. Stop analysing your friends.
On impulse, Hilly leaned over and planted a kiss on Melissa’s cheek.
“Yes, happy anniversary, partner!”
An old man who had been sitting opposite obviously got the wrong end of the stick because he gave them both a stern glare before heaving himself to his feet and stomping off as fast as his walking frame would allow. Both women burst out laughing.
“That’ll give him something to talk about at the retirement home tonight.”
“Oh don’t. Poor soul. Perhaps I ought to run after him and tell him we’re just business partners, not a couple.”That was Hilly all over, forever concerned about other people’s feelings.
“Listen.” Melissa turned to her friend and put a hand on her arm. “I know I’m poking my nose in and you’ve got reasons to be a bit…ambivalent about this date but you’ve never, not once in five years, told me why.”
“No. I haven’t. Well.” Hilly hesitated, glanced across at the lake, a mother and toddler feeding the ducks, the utter banality of the scene and her eyes filled with tears. “I suppose I should really. It’s time I told someone.”
“Confession is good for the soul.” Melissa nodded in mock-seriousness.
“Getting things out in the open is what I used to tell my patients.” Hilly agreed. She took a deep breath and then said,
“OK. Don’t interrupt me, this is going to be hard enough to say and I have to tell it all in one go because if I stop, I’ll never open up again. Understand?
I had a patient when I was still in practice. A lovely woman but through no fault of her own, her world collapsed around her. I did what I could but I’d never met anyone so emotionally shredded in my life. I prescribed the right pills but made sure she never had a large enough supply to harm herself, so she took to cutting. She’d had three suicide attempts before she was referred to me.” Hilly glanced over at Melissa who just nodded.
“She’d discovered that her husband was a child-molester, a paedophile. Technically he didn’t actually rape the little girl in question but he assaulted her sexually, which is bad enough. When his wife found out she did all the right things, reported him to the police, turned up and gave evidence at his trial, everything. Of course that wasn’t enough for a lot of people. The prosecution tried to accuse her of being a party to it. By that time she had had to move away because she’d been ostracised in her village. Oh yes and she was foreign too, so the rumour mills worked overtime. No smoke without fire, what do you expect from these bloody immigrants etc. etc. She’d lost her job, her friends, her marriage, everything and even then people wouldn’t leave her alone. It was like a cancer, destroying her from the inside. She must have thought about it every waking minute of her day.”
There was a long silence while Melissa took all this in, then she put an arm around Hilly’s shoulders and handed her a paper handkerchief.
“Let me guess. She died?”
“Hanged herself. Six years ago today. That was when I decided to give up psychiatry and start the Gretchen Foundation, because child-abusers don’t have just one victim. There are the families of the original victim and then their own family. Those people all have to live with what Gretchen went through, the thought that their lovely husband, dad, brother, uncle, was a monster.”
“At least something good has come out of Gretchen’s death then. How many families have we helped in the last five years?”
“Not enough, honey. That’s why we have to keep going. For all the Gretchens of this world, we just have to keep it going.”