Sligo, Ireland, 1961
It was her first visit to Dr Dorian Black’s surgery, and Hanna liked him straight away.
She had only been living in Killa for a few weeks at the time. After her father died suddenly, two years before, her mother Margaret decided they needed a new start and rented a small cottage in Killa, a fishing village on the north-west coast of county Sligo. Margaret hoped proximity to the sea would help heal their ongoing grief. Indeed, Margaret’s spirits lifted as she began a new life among people who knew little or nothing about her, fitting easily into the friendly new parish. Hanna, just thirteen, had settled well into the local convent school. Their home was at the end of the pier, and Hanna developed an appetite for the fresh, salty air, spending hours sitting on the front wall reading and watching the sea. However, this time spent in the chilly air had also resulted in a nasty cough. Margaret, overly protective of her only child, had brought her straight up to the local surgery where she had been greeted by this kind, handsome Dr Black.
‘Now, we’re going to have to take a little look in your mouth, Hanna. Can you open wide for me?’
Hanna opened her mouth widely and he peered in. He smelt of soap and she felt strangely pleased to be in the company of a nice man, even if he was only their doctor. Most of the men they knew from home were farmers, rough and ready, smelling of manure or beer. This man was clean and gentle, like her father. She missed him. It had been two years now and Hanna had started to find it hard to call his face to mind.
‘Now, that doesn’t look too bad.’ Dorian leaned back and took his stethoscope from around his neck. Hanna smiled at him. His accent was refined, barely detectable as Irish. She reminded him of a Jane Austen hero, handsome and dapper like Darcy, but friendly and open too, like Bingley.
‘Well, young lady,’ he said, ‘I think you’ll live.’ Hanna laughed.
Then he turned his attention to Margaret. ‘But, I am writing you a prescription for some antibiotics to clear this nasty cough.’
‘Thank you, Doctor,’ Margaret said.
‘Please,’ he said, smiling, ‘call me Dorian.’
‘Thank you, Dorian.’
Hanna noticed her mother blushing. Margaret was taken with him and, for a moment, Hanna felt pricked with possessive irritation. She reminded herself that her father was dead and it was nice, after all, to see her mother smiling.
As they were leaving, Dorian signalled Margaret to stay back for a private word. For a split second she had a dreadful feeling that there was something wrong with Hanna. After losing Liam, she knew she had become unnaturally attached to her daughter. There was just the two of them now. She couldn’t face it if Hanna were sick.
‘I was wondering,’ Dr Black said, his eyes downcast in shyness, ‘if you would do me the honour of allowing me to take you and Hanna out to dinner this evening.’
Over the coming weeks, Dorian courted Margaret. It was like a dream. This charming, erudite man had come into their lives after all the pain, hurt and shock of the last two years. She could hardly believe her luck in finding love again and, although she was as head over heels as a schoolgirl, it was Dorian’s kindness towards Hanna that truly won Margaret’s heart. Most men would have baulked at taking on another man’s daughter, but every time they went out for a drive, to a nice hotel for dinner or to a movie theatre, he always made sure to invite Hanna. Even when they went to Dublin for a weekend, Dorian insisted she and Hanna shared their own room in the Shelbourne rather than have Hanna enduring the upset of her mother being with another man.
That, he said, was the reason for his marriage proposal just two months after their initial meeting.
A year passed and Hanna turned from thirteen to fourteen. She became more independent and began to speak her own mind. She was glad that her mother had Dorian to focus on, instead of just her, and she came to trust him. While she knew her stepfather would never be a replacement for the father she so deeply loved, Hanna grew fond of him as time went by. Dorian Black loved her mother, there was no doubt about that, and he made her happy. Hanna also understood that he had been kind and generous regarding her as well. As the nuns pointed out to her in school, ‘It’s not every man would take on another man’s child.’
Dorian never patronised her, or talked to her like she was a poor child, as so many people did since her father died. He treated her as an equal, and she liked that. Dorian allowed her to call him by his first name. When she first did it, her mother tutted, insisting she call him father to show him proper respect. But Dorian had been on Hanna’s side. ‘Don’t push the child, Margaret,’ he said. ‘I am not her natural father. There is no reason she should look on me as such. Hanna is old enough to make up her own mind about the role I play in her life.’
Margaret became worried that Hanna was moving away from her, that she was losing her. Dorian was as wise and reassuring as ever. ‘Hanna is becoming a fine young woman,’ he told her. ‘She is not your little girl any more, Margaret. Sooner or later you’ll have to accept that she’s an adult.’
Margaret pursed her lips and remained silent on the subject. Hanna could tell she didn’t like it but it was important that her mother understood she wasn’t a child any more. Dorian was right, she was becoming a ‘young woman’ and her mother just had to get used to it. United in that understanding, a bond grew between stepfather and stepdaughter that felt to Hanna like friendship, or maybe even love.
Then, as Dorian and Margaret Black were coming up to their second wedding anniversary, Margaret came down with a nasty bout of flu. At first it seemed not to be serious but then her symptoms worsened with lethargy and headaches. Weeks passed and Margaret remained bedridden. With little appetite and no energy to lift herself from the bed, it appeared that there was something more serious underlying the illness. Hanna was worried and asked Dorian if there was anything more they could do. He reassured her that her mother’s recovery was just around the corner.
‘It’s only a virus,’ he promised.
But Hanna could see that despite all the tinctures and medicine Dorian was administering, Margaret seemed to get worse. One afternoon, when her mother was barely able to open her eyes and smile at her when she came in from school, Hanna asked Dorian if it would be better to move her mother to a hospital. Dorian looked at her, stricken, but also a little annoyed.
‘I know you are worried, and so am I. But she is my wife, Hanna. Nobody can look after her as well as I can. Please,’ he said, his eyes were wide and pleading, ‘trust me. Let me do this. For you. For both of us.’
Hanna could see that this was hard for Dorian. He loved her mother too. Dorian wanted her mother back as much as she did.
So she sat at Margaret’s bedside each evening and prayed for her to wake up. Dorian kept reassuring her that her mother would get better soon. But she was constantly asleep, and seemed to be fading away before Hanna’s eyes.
Every few days she asked, ‘Is there anything I can do?’
‘Just be a good girl,’ Dorian said, ‘and leave your mother to the experts.’ He kissed her forehead, sent her to school each day and told her that everything was going to be all right. Soon her mother would be better and they would be a happy family again.
One day Hanna came home from school and found Dorian standing in the hallway to meet her. His face was stricken. Hanna remembered the expression from when she was eleven years old and her mother told her that her father had been killed in a car accident.
She screamed out. Dorian ran across the hall and held her in his arms. She sank her head into his chest, drawing what comfort she could from the smell of soap and tobacco on his cashmere sweater. The smell of a father. He was all that was left of her family now. Hanna did not remember much of the next few hours. Dorian administered tea and comfort and, eventually, to stop the jagged sobbing that she feared would snap her body in half, a sedative to help her sleep.
Late at night or early the next morning – she could not be sure – Hanna was woken by the sound of Dorian opening her bedroom door.
‘Father?’ she called out in her groggy state. It was the first time she had called him that.
She could see from his outline against the light from the hall that it was Dorian, but he did not reply.
Instead he walked silently across the room towards her. Hanna was briefly warmed with a child’s moment of relief that a parent is nearby. She felt the warmth of his breath as Dorian leaned down to kiss her on the forehead, as he had done a hundred times before. But he did not kiss her as he had done before. Instead, he kissed her on the mouth and bore his body down and into her.
Her body clenched as the first pain shot through her, but after that, Hanna did not struggle or scream. Her limbs, in any case, felt too weak and he was too heavy to fight. She kept her body as still as she could. Afraid to move. Terrified that any movement on her part might be read as encouragement. His body was heavy and his touch firm and confident. The same chest she had leant against for comfort when her mother was sick, the same hands that had patted her back with reassurance, betraying themselves in this appalling act. Hanna was numb, unable to comprehend if this was really happening. Why was he doing this? Had she done or said something to invite it? This man called himself her father. Although, she now realised that he never actually had. She had not allowed it. She had demanded that she call him by his first name. Perhaps if she had called him father, as her mother had wanted, this would not be happening.
After he had finished, Dorian lay down next to Hanna. She had not realised she was crying until he gently wiped her tears away with the palm of his hands. Her body flinched at the gentleness of the gesture. There was something even more terrifying about that than what had gone before. The betrayal of it.
‘I probably should not have done that… but you looked so sad.’
Hanna did not know how to react. Sad? Her mother had died. Was that what you did to people when they were sad?
‘You are still crying,’ he said, and then he began to cry himself. It was terrible to see a man cry. Despite what he had done to her, Hanna wanted him to stop. She wanted to make his tears go away.
‘I am sorry,’ he said. He told her that he missed her mother and had simply acted out of grief. He said he would never do it again. He seemed so contrite, so upset by his own actions that when he said, ‘Do you believe me Hanna? Please. I’m sorry. Forgive me,’ she said that she did and would.
Although she knew in her heart that things would never be the same between them, she wanted to believe him.
Nonetheless, Hanna locked her bedroom door that night. Over the coming days, through the drama of the wake, funeral and burial of her mother, Dorian’s actions became subsumed by Hanna’s despairing grief.
The night after the burial, she heard him try the door of her bedroom. She was protected by the lock. He went away and she told herself that he would not come back again. The locked door had made him pause. She would just have to continue locking it until he came to his senses.
Four years later…
Sligo, Ireland, 1966
Hanna and Dorian lived as man and wife. In his mind, in any case, that was how things were. Even though it was still their ‘little secret’.
Hanna kept the house and cooked the meals. There was no question of their inviting anyone over. They might see that the stepfather and stepdaughter now shared a bed. Hanna’s academic performance started to drop. The nuns were puzzled by it. She was a clever girl and had such sterling support from her stepfather. He, indeed, was such an educated man – and so liberal – rearing another man’s child when he could so easily have sent her to board in their convent after her mother died. A saint. Two years ago, when Hanna decided to leave school at sixteen, Dr Black had told the Mother Superior that, although he was disappointed, he felt confident that, before too long, she would make a good wife. He was sure that he would find a nice, respectable man to take her on.
‘She’s so pretty,’ the nuns reassured him.
‘If you say so, Sister,’ he quipped back. ‘I can’t say I have ever seen it myself!’
‘We’ll get married soon,’ he said to her one night, after he had made love to her. That’s what he called it. Making love. Occasionally it was rough but as time went on, and Hanna became more compliant to his needs, the punishments stopped. When they were in bed together, Dorian tried to be tender. She could see by the longing in his face that he was trying to love her in the way he touched and kissed her. But no matter how tender he was, it always felt wrong. It certainly never felt like love.
Nonetheless, within the four walls of his large house, they lived like most married couples. The house was big and Hanna enjoyed making it beautiful. She polished the decorative tiles in the hallway to a glossy shine and kept the large basement kitchen, with its flagstones and large old-fashioned range, spotlessly clean. Dorian bought her French cookbooks and she taught herself a few cordon bleu dishes. He praised Hanna when she made an effort for him in the kitchen and she found that she liked to please him. Sometimes, when Dorian was sitting back with a contented smile after a meal she could believe that they were, after all, a family of sorts. Stepfather and stepdaughter enjoying each other’s company. Reading side by side with an open fire, him teaching her how to play chess… if only it weren’t for the other thing. For the love.
Dorian loved her. That was the problem.
‘I love you.’ He kept saying it. He said it every time he did ‘it’ to her.
She knew he expected her to say it back. So she would mumble, ‘I love you.’
‘Look me in the eyes and say my name,’ he would beg, whining like a child. At those times, Hanna could almost believe she was in charge, but that was, as she learned from experience, a dangerous assumption to make.
So instead she looked him straight in the eyes and said, ‘I love you, Dorian.’ Most of the time he smiled – a pathetic half-hearted hopeful look – and seemed satisfied that she was being sincere.
But when he didn’t believe her, he got angry and punished her. Afterwards he would be sorry and insist it was only because he loved her so much. It was her astonishing beauty and the power that she exuded over him with her womanly guile that sent him into these terrible fits of rage. He just wanted to be loved. So Hanna would persuade him that she loved him back. Even though it turned her stomach, she kissed him over and over again and called him her ‘only love’ and touched him and told him that she wanted him. They were the worst times, when she had to pretend to love him. To love ‘it’. She could not just lie back and fall into the trance of emotional dispossession that made his lovemaking tolerable. But, Dorian would be ecstatic with delight. The show of love would appease him, and he would give her mind, if not her body, some peace for a while.
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