Preparing for the speech
With age comes wisdom, or so they say.
In my case, age brings fear and loathing. I have a secret that has tortured me for the past twenty years. Keeping it concealed hasn’t been the smartest move on my part. It has damaged my health and my state of mind. So, at this very moment, I feel the need to unburden myself. It’s not the appropriate venue but I feel the pressure of the occasion and strange things are happening to me. Until today, I have never told anyone about this curse on my conscience, not even my wife. If Becky knew, we couldn’t be together. I’d probably be in prison. But I will tell you, and then reveal my shame to her and live with the consequences for the rest of my life, which according to my oncologist will be short. This last bit Becky is aware of. In regard to my crime, it would be so much easier to remain tight-lipped, to spare those I love so dearly from such terrible knowledge.
I stand before the audience, my wife by my side, and momentarily close my eyes and think of the words I’m about to say, which will be the customary congratulations to the wedded couple, a few amusing anecdotes and a toast to their happiness.
What I want to say is far, far different. This is my true confession:
I am a killer. Twenty years ago, I took the life of a young boy, a stranger to me, and I did it deliberately.
They say what goes around comes around, and although those here at this reception are unaware of my secret, it has shaped many of their lives.
My eyes open and the crowd falls silent as my lips part. I take a swig of champagne to calm my nerves.
They also say that your life flashes before your very eyes during moments of extreme anxiety, like when you face the prospect of death, as I have done twice in the last two decades. I have already told you of my illness. The first time also came right out of the blue. This feels like one of those illuminating moments, when the past rushes to meet you head on, just like the oncoming car did all those years ago as it hurtled out of the fog.
Someone coughs in the crowd, but I see only one face haunting me: His.
I stare into nothingness, alone with my tortured thoughts.
This is the wedding of my daughter, Ally, and I am about to give my speech. I should of course be proudly ecstatic at such a joyous occasion, which also marks her twenty-third birthday; but my heart suddenly hangs heavy like the falling reddish leaves descending to earth outside on the lawn. It’s the beginning of a new season, but the end of me.
I think back twenty years ago to the life we, as a family, had then. My first family, that is: me, my wife, Jess, and our two children: Ally aged three and little Josh, just five. We were a normal family. But I think of just one date, and after that day we could not be considered normal, or even a family, ever again. In a bang and a flash, my wife and son were extinguished from this world and I was left to somehow build something of the carnage that was left.
I killed a boy, and at the time I was glad I did it.
Sunday, 22nd August, 1994
The alarm buzzed at 4.30am. We were prepared for the early rise, having packed the car the night before. Jess and I got the kids up and prepared a hasty breakfast and somewhat bleary-eyed got on the road to the airport at East Midlands for our summer holiday to Minorca. We were excited but anxious too because it was a two hour journey to catch the flight and a low lying mist threatened to eat up the time I had allowed. But no matter, because the kids were asleep and we were happy. We were returning to the island where Ally was conceived.
I was strangely at odds with myself. It crossed my mind that we might have left the upstairs bathroom window open, and my wife asked twice if I had locked up properly. I assured her I had, but my mind was in a spin, check-listing in which bag I had stuffed the passports and air tickets, convinced that I may have left them on the hall table. Jess read my mind, because she dug into her handbag and paraded them before my eyes. We laughed and slowly relaxed to classic FM on the radio.
I had planned the trip to aim for the line of least resistance, taking the M1, but a traffic report told of a breakdown near Doncaster. I switched my head into gear and decided to take the A46 to Lincoln, then Newark and on toward Nottingham before dropping down into the East Midlands. I had done the journey before. It would perhaps add ten minutes on our timescale, but we were prepared and ahead of schedule.
We made good progress as Ally dutifully slept, but Josh was soon awake nattering away, content with a packet of crisps when he announced he was hungry. Jess and I shared a sandwich, the hastily consumed cereal at home not doing its job. We cleared Lincoln and Newark in just over an hour, the red slash of the dawn marking our way on the horizon. At just after 5.45am, we entered the village of Danby and then hit the narrower roads as we approached West Bridgforth. The fog here was decidedly thicker in this region, but I slowed, taking extra care. I was aware of the lorries in convoy ahead and was happy to tag in behind them.
Josh grumbled that he needed a wee and I realised that his need was mounting with every passing mile. He couldn’t wait for the airport. I looked for a place to stop but the road was building up with traffic and it didn’t feel safe to just pull over. A mile ahead, I pulled off to the left and made my way along a narrow road, one I was unfamiliar with. My eyes scanned for a lay-by, but the fog was heavy at this point. I began to curse under my breath.
I don’t remember what happened next, I was just aware of oncoming lights, the screech of tyres and one almighty jolt as our car was shunted violently backwards.
I awoke with a burning smell invading my bloodied nostrils. Broken glass from the windscreen covered my lap. Acrid smoke filled the interior and somehow in my confusion I managed to open the door, allowing fresh air to enter and clear the choking debris.
The eerie thing was the immediate silence. This was a bad sign. I knew I was in pain, but I had movement. I looked to my left and saw without having to touch her that Jess was dead. From the rear, I could by now hear Ally murmuring… but Josh remained still and lifeless. I unbuckled my seatbelt. Blood dripped down my forehead and into my mouth. I could see the bonnet of our car hideously buckled up in front of me, obscuring my view. I searched for my mobile, but it was lost. My ears were ringing. I felt nauseous. I struggled out from the car and in a daze clawed at the rear door, which mercifully opened. I pulled Ally from her seat but she was barely conscious. My first concern was the danger of fire: I needed to get her away from the car immediately. I lay her on the glass verge and covered her with my jacket and returned to Josh, but I saw it was hopeless. The tears began to flow.
And then laughter reached my ears.
I turned, shell-shocked. What the fuck was that sound? I saw lights beaming up from a ditch to my right, about thirty yards away. I stumbled ahead and saw a wreckage. A car had rolled over and righted itself in about two feet of water. It was a complete mess, the roof caved in and doors removed, one of which I had to step over. The engine was still running. I stumbled down the slope and peered in. There were two boys and two girls in the rear. Three of them appeared to be dead. The driver was rolling his eyes and laughing and crying and talking gibberish all at the same time. He was badly cut on the head and his legs were trapped. In the gloom, I saw empty beer bottles strewn around the floor wells. I was sickened. The pain in my spine intensified as I leaned over him to try and unbuckle his seatbelt. I was weak and struggled with this simple task, my head thumping. He then saw me through red mist and sneered, clearly drunk and unaware of his predicament. Anger boiled within me. The little shit. He stank of alcohol. I then noticed that in his grasp was a half empty vodka bottle, which he feebly attempted to bring to his bloodied lips. I grabbed the bottle and he swore.
All I saw in that split second was an image of my dead son. I didn’t need another invitation, and smashed him hard over the head with the bottle. He died with his eyes open, firmly affixed on me.
Fuck him. He didn’t deserve to survive the crash: An eye for an eye, as far as I was concerned. It was done. Who would know that the wound was not caused in the crash? I even had time and the presence of mind to wipe the bottle down with my handkerchief. Then I threw it into the undergrowth. Justice, in my view, was accomplished.
I slumped to the ground next to Ally, dizziness overcoming me. I was wet and cold and trembling, but did my best to warm her while waiting for the emergency services. But even in the turmoil and the pain, an overriding thought kept swilling around in my brain. I had deliberately killed a boy. Without a second thought.
If you stare long enough, a crowd magnifies before your eyes. A hundred people suddenly look like a thousand. That’s why speakers have trouble with their nerves. I am no exception, but my caution is based on too much alcohol and the particular family that my precious daughter is marrying into. And right now I’m surrounded by them.
Their surname is Browne: Nothing spectacular about that, until you delve into their history.
Ally had a difficult upbringing, bearing in mind she lost her mother and older brother. I was lucky in that my sister initially supported us in the aftermath of the accident. But it was still bloody hard, as I was grieving too. In the early years, I managed to bury the gruesome details of what I had done deep into my subconscious. Then I met Becky. It was not love at first sight, or anything corny like that, but it grew into something beautiful, especially as Ally and Becky bonded during a time of trauma. It is fair to say that my new wife saved us, and renewed our hope in the future.
My daughter grew up to be a fine young girl and won a place at Nottingham University. That was where she met Stuart, the man she’s marrying today. He made her happy, and I liked him. He was an easy-going character, and had one of those faces that made me feel as if I’d known him all my life. Stuart started to come with Ally for half the holidays, and she’d go to his parents for the other half. They
went through all the usual trials and tribulations of young love, but survived it all and got engaged. Suddenly, we were seeing them and their parents often. No problem with that, we welcomed the opportunity to mix in and find new friends.
It was during a night out with his parents when it all came to a head. It had been a jolly evening, and Stuart and Ally were both happy to be with each other, surrounded by people who loved them. Eighteen years had elapsed since the crash and my daughter was by now twenty one. She was fiercely ambitious, with a Law Degree and judicial career already earmarked for the future. Nothing was going to stop her, and Stuart was equally bright and determined. An ideal couple, you would have thought.
Stuart’s dad raised his glass in a toast “To the two of you,” he said. We all reached for our glasses to join in. “And to your brothers, who would have been fine young men.”
“Brothers?” I asked.
“Aye, brothers. It’s a terrible thing to have in common, but maybe that’s why they were drawn to each other. Both lost their older brother in the same car crash. You surely knew?”
“What do you mean?” I said, not able to take in the enormity of what he was telling me. The room was warm, but I shivered. Ally, white-faced, threw him a look of horrified warning.
I felt a long-suppressed anger rising within me. “Do you mean to tell me that the drunk and drugged up lowlife piece of trash who ruined our lives was your son?”
Well. That was the end of a convivial evening, to put it mildly. Ally and Becky both tried to calm me down, Stuart’s mother was crying, his father was shame-facedly trying to defend the indefensible. “You’d no idea what he’d just been through,” “Until you’ve stepped into someone else’s shoes…” I just remember, before storming out of the restaurant, I threw a look in his direction. He had his arms around his weeping wife, and he called out “I’m sorry. Sorry for what he did.”
Ally and I were at loggerheads for months. “He’s not responsible for what his brother did.” “I love him, dad, and there’s nothing anything can do to change that.” “Something terrible happened, but it’s in the past now. You’ve got Becky now…”
“Are you trying to tell me that it’s all turned out for the best?” I hissed, knowing how much I was hurting her, Becky too, and unable to stop myself.
I sank into a deep and angry depression that built a wall around me, keeping me from everyone I loved. I felt so alone, yet all the while I had a companion that I could not acknowledge. My guilt. If the boy had been a killer, so was I.
It was Ally who wore me down. I remember sitting outside with a blanket over my knees on a sunny but cold November day, acknowledging to myself for the first time that I was old. She was at home from uni for ‘Reading Week’. In happier times, we’d always joked that it should be called ‘Sleeping Week’. Needless to say, Stuart was not with her. She was going to join him later that day, a source of great bitterness to me.
She was carrying a chair and put it beside me.
“Dad, I’ll be leaving in an hour.”
I didn’t say anything, just leaned over and put my hand over hers. I needed her to know I loved her, but in my new state, I found it impossible to talk to her.
“Dad, you know I love you, don’t you?” I squeezed her hand, and felt a tear come to my eye. “But I want you to hear what I’m trying to tell you. If you carry on refusing to accept that Stuart and I are together despite what happened all those years ago, then I can’t see you anymore. It was not his fault. It wasn’t his mother or father’s fault. It was his brother’s fault, and he paid for what he did with his own life. He’s not here to answer to you. I’m going to Stuart’s this afternoon, and I won’t come back home, not ever, if you don’t accept us being together.”
And so. Here we are, back in the present, ready for the bride’s father to make his speech welcoming everyone to this wonderful occasion.
As I stand before these people today, I do so as a murderer of one of their family. Not quite what you want to reveal at a time like this.
I hold it together. Just about. I say what I have to say, and raise a toast to the bride and groom. After the applause, I make a hasty retreat to the men’s room at the hotel and throw up, sweat soaking my shirt. My hands shake. A fellow guest interrupts me and sees my discomfort, but I blame it on the champagne. Another crisis averted. Becky finds me. She is concerned and we walk in the garden to get some air. I am at a loss as to what to do: Such a joyous day for so many, such a calamitous occasion for me. I want the ground to swallow me up. The cancer will get me soon. That will be my sufferance. Nothing can hurt as much as the terrible guilt and anger I have carried down the years.
In the garden, I take Becky’s arm and tell her I love her, and I mean it. She is aware of my medical prognosis and begins to cry. Is this the moment to tell her my crime?
She tells me she worried about me. She tells me that she will be there right to the end. She tells me that Ally is in a good place and that I can be joyously proud of her. She tells me that Stuart is a fine young man and I can rely on him in the future. And above all, she tells me that she will look over them when I am gone. I too cry. Becky is more than an anchor. She is my spirit.
We rejoin the party, which by now is in full swing. I watch the happy couple frolic on the dance floor to The Bee Gees. Several people come up to me to kiss my cheek or shake my hand. I can’t avoid a dance with Stuart’s mother. I am at a loss to know what to say as I embrace the mother of the boy that I killed. At the end of the song, we hug but in truth I am relieved to pull away. I’m sure she feels the same.
I dance with Ally and it is a different emotion, one filled with joyous love and utter pride. We have survived, of sorts. In truth, Ally has blossomed and put the horror of the accident behind her. I, on the other hand, have shrunk both physically and intellectually.
Later, Stuart joins me at the bar and I noticeably stiffen even though the drink has taken down my defences. That could be a bad thing. I feel nervous and vulnerable but he is easy and relaxed. He gives me an unexpected drunken man hug, which is embarrassing but touching at the same time. I tend to avoid eye contact and take comfort from my Jack Daniels. He doesn’t ask questions, he just dulls the brain. That suits me.
Stuart falls silent, even morose, and eventually says, ‘Whenever I think about it, it’s hard to believe that after what happened twenty years ago…’
I stare into my glass. He’s in full flow.
‘That was a wonderful speech, Peter. It couldn’t have been easy for you, mentioning the accident, but somehow it holds us all together, in spite of the pain we all still feel. That took guts, man.’
‘We couldn’t ignore it,’ I say,
‘No, but it had to be said…and you said it. It’s the elephant in the room. Since Dad died last year, we needed someone to stand up and acknowledge the past and your words summed up how we all felt. We won’t forget those that died that day.’
I was impressed by his maturity, but my discomfort was evident. I didn’t want him to guess that I’d held back my intended confession. I wanted to retreat but he had me cornered.
‘I love Ally,’ he slurred, slapping me on the back playfully.
‘That’s all I need to know,’ I responded, and I meant it.
‘Destiny cannot be denied.’ He said with a grin.
I almost choked on my drink.
‘But,’ he added robustly, ‘I won’t let you down, Peter. More importantly, I won’t let Ally down either.’
I looked him in the eye. ‘It’s me who has let you down, Stuart.’
I bit my lip and contemplated the future, a future without me. What sense of reasoning would be gained from confessing to my crime all those years ago? It would only bring further bitterness and recriminations to the table, which I would shortly be vacating.
‘I doubted you, Stuart, and I apologise.’
He looked at his watch, and remarked: ‘We have a car coming at six, ready to take us to London. One for the road?’
I smiled for the first time. ‘One for the road, my treat,’ I offered. ‘How about a Hine brandy?’
‘If it’s your round, then that will be fine and dandy.’
This time, I was happy to slap his back.
We all huddled in a united group and bade farewell to the blissful couple, my daughter hugging me with tears rolling down her cheeks before being whisked off to the honeymoon hotel in the capital. It was a special embrace, one which I would not repeat with the same intensity until she was summoned to my hospital bed three months later.
The cancer was inoperable. I was a dying man.
I turned to Becky from my hospital bed and saw the sadness in her eyes.
‘Becky,’ I murmured, ‘Have I been a good husband to you?’
She squeezed my hand, ‘The best!’
‘I know it is a cliché, but you really have been a tower of strength to me and Ally.’
‘We’ve both been a tower of strength…’
‘Don’t doubt yourself, Peter. Although perceived as old fashioned, I believe in honesty and integrity, it’s what binds us together.’
‘Honesty..?’ I could barely say the word.
‘Yes, honesty. I love it that we have no secrets between us.’
I turn away, holding back the tears.
‘You need to rest now, Peter. I’ll call back later, OK?’
I mumble something under my breath.
‘What is it?’ She asks.
‘Stay awhile longer,’ I plead. ‘I want to talk to you…’
‘Of course, as long as you are not too tired,’ she responds, sitting down again.
‘Becky, I do have a secret, and I want to share it with you.’
‘Is it before our time?’
‘Do you really want to tell me then?’
No, but I have to be accountable for my actions,’ I stress, ‘and I would like you to bear witness to my confession.’
She shrugs wearily and pours me some water. ‘In that case, you’d better tell me…’
I take a sip and clear my throat and wait for the words to form.
Then I am reminded that with age comes wisdom, or so they say. In my case, age brings fear and loathing.
I can, if I so wish write my own epitaph for my tombstone:
‘I took the life of a young boy, a stranger to me, and I did it deliberately.’
And then I suddenly think of Ally and Stuart and what my admission would do to both of them. From any wreckage springs hope, and I suppose you just have to search for it among the debris.
When I turn to Becky, expecting her to be wide-eyed in anticipation, she has fallen asleep from exhaustion. I’m grateful. When she awakens, I’ll have a different story to tell. The memory of what I’ve done will soon be buried forever, like me.
Martin Spencer Coleman asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work