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Authors: Daniela Sacerdoti

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BOOK: Don't Be Afraid
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I shall put
All my songs
In your hands



I wasn't always this way.

I'd been a bit melancholy all my life – I suppose it was in the air we breathed at home, seeping off my father like toxic incense – but never to this extent.

I remembered exactly when it started.

Angus and I had spent a wonderful weekend at our friends' in Caithness, John and Zuri. They had a little girl, Amelia, the cutest thing I ever laid my eyes on. We'd spent the weekend hillwalking and playing with Amelia and listening to music – both John and Zuri were musicians and had worked alongside Angus before. It was a happy time.

“She is so cute,” I said, stroking Amelia's silky, fine hair. She blew a raspberry, making everyone laugh.

“Can I have a cuddle?” Angus took her gently from me and sat looking into the baby's big, luminous eyes. Up to then, everyone had bounced her, chatted to her, made her laugh, but Angus sat with her quietly, without talking, just holding her and looking into her eyes. Angus had a peace within himself, a sense of stillness and steadiness that always enthralled me, and Amelia felt it too. She lay quietly in his arms, occasionally making a low, sweet sound.

“Someone is feeling broody,” joked Zuri.

“Oh, I don't . . .” I protested.

“I think she's talking about Angus!” John said.

Angus smiled and said nothing. To my surprise, I felt a knot in my stomach. I couldn't understand why. What was wrong with me? Why should seeing my husband cuddling a child in such a tender way scare me? But the weird sensation left me as quickly as it had come, and I thought nothing more of it.

And then we came home, and I
, just like that.

It had probably been brewing for a while, but it felt so sudden. That night, Angus mentioned the possibility of us having babies – and why not, after all? It seemed like a wonderful idea. It
to be a wonderful idea. We were young and brimming with love to give. It was only natural that we should think of children.

“She'll have your eyes, I hope,” he said. He's always loved my eyes – a light shade of green – maybe because most people around here have blue eyes.

“And your musical sense.”

“Yes, hopefully not yours; the creature wouldn't be able to hold a tune. Not even ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star',” he said playfully. My lack of musical talent was an ongoing joke between us. At that point, I hit him with a pillow. The future was just in front of us, full of promise. We were in each other's arms, we were talking about a baby and a sliver of new moon was shining above the loch outside our window. I was happy.

I woke up at three in the morning, gasping for air, thinking I was going to die. All the air had been drawn out of the room and there was no oxygen left. I'd dreamt I'd had a daughter, but I had died, and left her. She was crying alone, desolately, like only babies can – and I couldn't reach her.

I had left her alone, just like my mum had left me.

I slipped out of bed, ran downstairs and sat at the kitchen table for hours, petrified. I was unable to move and unable to draw breath. I must have been breathing, of course, otherwise I'd be dead by now – but it didn't feel like it. I felt like my chest was stuck and would never rise and fall again, like my lungs would never fill again.

I cried tears of terror. I had no idea what was happening to me. I was drenched in sweat, freezing in the cold night air, the house silent and dark and still. Something in me had snapped. I had been confined to a lonely, faraway moon circling at the edge of space. I was on my own, in a place of dread.

That was how it began.

And then it got worse.

Love, long ago
I look for her
Like Orpheus seeks Euridice
Leading her out
The world of the dead



If you'd known Bell before she got ill, you wouldn't believe it was the same person. The Bell I fell in love with was sunny and full of joy. She was brave, and funny, and irresistible.

We grew up together, in a way. Although her father was Irish and they lived in Ireland, they came to spend the summers in Glen Avich to see Bell's aunt, her dad's sister. I was in boarding school, then at university, but I always tried to catch her when I was around. I had a crush on her even when we were children. But Bell began going out with my brother, and then I found out it was serious. They were engaged. I came home less and less. Maybe I didn't want to see them together, I don't know.

But one Christmas, something happened.
happened, Bell and I.

I was home from university for the Christmas holidays. My father was bedridden, so I spent most of the first few days in his room. I played for him, and I could see he was proud of me.

Torcuil took advantage of my presence to spend more time with Bell, out for windy walks around the loch or at the Green Hat, away from our family's heavy presence.

Every once in a while, this girl I was seeing rang me; I did my best not to answer the phone. The signal was bad; I was busy; I was with my parents. It just wasn't working out. I said to myself that I was too young for a serious relationship, that all I wanted was to play my music.

I believed it.

One night, I was playing for some friends and family, and
was there. Her cheeks were burning, and what I remember the most were her eyes, green like spring leaves: she couldn't stop looking at me, and I couldn't stop looking at her.

I knew. I knew I would not be able to resist. But that didn't mean I wouldn't try with all I had.

I looked away. I went for a walk through frozen fields and sat at the edge of the loch, in silence.

Bell. Bell. I called her Bell in my heart, though she was “Isabel” when I said it aloud.

To Torcuil, she was Izzy.

Oh, show me the way to go home.

Bell, show me the way to go home.

And then she was there, beside me. When our eyes locked, we both knew it was too late to stop, it was impossible to turn back.

We tried, both of us, and we couldn't help it, but we fell into each other.

Hope thwarted will make you sick. Love unfulfilled will make you sick. Not to be with each other, not to touch each other, was poison for us. We could not survive apart. We could not live in a world of things that might have been.

But for Torcuil's sake, we had to try.

Everybody realised, of course. What was happening between Bell and I was plain to see. We were both ashamed; I left Glen Avich at the end of the holidays, early in the morning, with a rushed goodbye to my parents. I did not say goodbye to Bell; I did not say goodbye to Torcuil.

I wanted to leave them both behind, as far as I could go. Bell, because I loved her; Torcuil, because I had hurt him. I had broken my brother's trust.

Bell turned up at my flat in Glasgow three days later, in tears. She'd dissolved the engagement to Torcuil. She said she couldn't lie.

“You wouldn't be lying. You love him,” I said.

“It's not him I love.”

The weight of her words fell on me like something terrible, like something beautiful. Like salvation.

Eight months later, we got married.

When we were both twenty-two, we moved back to Glen Avich – Bell would work as a freelance illustrator; I would continue my nomadic musician's life. I would practise my violin while she drew, and I thought our happiness would never end.

And then, all of a sudden, she became ill.

It was sudden, yes, but it got worse slowly.

I wished I could tell everyone how she used to be – a little spark of joy and life, with an Irish accent and a deep, deep passion for art.

Her smile was a field of daisies.

So that was Bell. Fearless, joyful and ready to embrace life.

Not the shell she'd become.

I knew all about her childhood of course, how she didn't speak to her father now and only seldom to her sister – they'd been a surly, silent presence at our wedding – but I didn't think that one day all she'd been through would catch up with her in such a terrible way.

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly when it started – when my wife became a nervous, shaky shadow of herself. I remember her having a panic attack one night after a day out with friends, but that's about it. It was gradual, until she couldn't get out of the house any more, and I didn't have my Bell any more, and nothing was right any more.

Sometimes I thought she was like Briar Rose, asleep under a curse. And I hoped, I prayed my kiss would wake her up one day.

A world without you
And suddenly there was
A world without you



Of course, I knew what was happening. I just didn't want to believe it. Izzy disappeared for a couple of days – her aunt said she wasn't at home, but I knew she was. I nearly didn't want to speak to her, I was so afraid.

My father knew as well. It was strange how, though he was bedridden and pretty much always stuck in his bedroom, he was always aware of what was going on. My mother was busy with other things.

After three sleepless nights, Izzy came to the house and she told me she couldn't marry me.

I said of course, we were very young, we could take it slow.

, she said,
I can't marry
you, and I can't be with you.

As she spoke, her words fell on me and washed away; I couldn't listen, I couldn't let them sink in. It was too cruel; it couldn't possibly be true.

Not my brother.

Not Izzy.

She cried, of course. I thought it was a bit late for crying. I thought I wanted to comfort her because she was upset. I thought I hated her.

I loved her.

I'd like to say I kept my dignity, but I didn't: I begged with all I had, and then over the next few weeks I phoned her all the time. She would always answer, always be there to take my pain, my rage, my failed attempts at reasoning. I believe she felt she deserved to be punished. That she
to listen to my protestations and my pain. I wrote her long, meandering letters that I never sent, and watched them turn to ash in my fireplace.

I never spoke to Angus, not once.

I stopped phoning Izzy too.

There was silence for almost a year, the longest year of my life. Angus and Isabel got married during that time. It was a lucky, lucky coincidence I was invited to a history conference in Munich, so I had a good enough excuse not to attend the ceremony. If people thought it was strange that I should choose to attend a conference instead of my brother's wedding, nobody mentioned it. I could just picture it: me, the best man, my heart bleeding all over my white shirt while my brother married the love of my life. Now that would have made for a nice party.

Then my father died, and Angus and I embraced, in tears, over his grave.

The rift was mended; my heart was not.

What is good for me
Hurts more than what is bad



I saw them coming from my bedroom window, walking up the path and then disappearing along the back wall, towards the kitchen entrance. My heart skipped and jumped. For a moment I thought, absurdly, that I would not answer.

I ran downstairs and, on impulse, bolted the door.

Then I unbolted it. I couldn't lock my husband out. But surely I could lock a stranger out? I bolted it again and ran upstairs, panicked.

“We're here! Can Clara come in?” Angus called. He must have tried to open the door and found it locked.

I went to sit on top of the stairs and looked out of the bars, like a shy child when visitors arrive at the house.

“No,” I said, though I cringed at how childish it made me seem. How childish I actually was. This whole illness had made me revert to being a frightened child, in a way.

“Isabel? It's Clara. Please, can I come in and see you?”

I froze. It was a familiar voice, but I couldn't quite place it. I stood immobile, shaking. “Isabel?” she repeated, and suddenly I remembered.

A hazy recollection floated by – lying in my bed, still under the effect of the pills, and the woman stroking my hair. How could it be?

Suddenly, though most of me was terrified – a stranger at the door waiting to come in – part of me was
. A little part of me.

But it couldn't be possible.

Angus and I had established it had been a dream, and someone from a dream couldn't possibly be standing at my door.

“Look, we're on the doorstep,” Angus called. “Please, come and open the door.”

I couldn't resist the plea in my husband's voice, and the sheer shame of the whole situation overwhelmed me. What would the woman think? That I was deranged.

A side effect of my illness: humiliation.

“Are you okay?” the woman called again, and again I trembled inside.

I walked downstairs, slowly, and unlocked the door.

“Yes. I'm fine,” I said, peeking from the stairs. She was wearing jeans and a cobalt-blue top, and her brown hair was folded on top of her head.

“Is it a bad time?” she asked, a warm smile on her face. Really, genuinely
, like she was happy to see me. I couldn't help responding to it, so I smiled back and, to my surprise, my lips actually stretched. A successful smile. Something that hadn't happened in a long while.

“I think you were in my dream,” I said.

Angus looked from me to the woman as I slowly opened the door further.

“What dream?” Angus asked.

“Remember? I told you. The woman I saw. I think . . . No, it can't be. Sorry,” I said to Clara, and I blushed. That was absurd. And she'd think I was delusional, on top of everything else.

Once again, Angus looked from me to Clara. I think he was at a loss for words. I had just said that someone from a dream had walked out of my mind and was now standing in my hall. Maybe he thought I really was losing it.

“Sorry,” I repeated.

I had been delirious when I dreamt of that woman, my blood full of chemical poison. I couldn't even remember her features.

But I could remember her words.

“Bell? Can we go to the kitchen and make some coffee for Clara?”

Angus stood beside me, while Clara hovered outside the door; Clara would not stop smiling like she was bursting with joy – was she really
happy to see me? I stood awkwardly, uncertain as to what to do next, unable to make small talk. Being terrified of going out and terrified of letting people in, I hadn't talked much to anyone in a couple of years; I had forgotten how to. I wanted to let her in and close the door, but I was frightened to actually have her inside the house. A cold breeze was blowing in.

Clara read my mind.

“If you'd rather not let me in, it's fine, really, we can have a chat here.”

“Oh. Yes. Sorry. It's just . . .”

“She—” Angus began to explain, but Clara interrupted him, looking me straight in the eye. Like this was something between me and her.

It felt good. It felt empowering. That for once I was being treated like an adult with a will of her own, not like an invalid that needed to be taken charge of.

“I understand. Really. Are you cold?” she asked thoughtfully.

“A bit. You?”

Angus's gaze was still moving between us during this conversation he had no part of. Things were clearly going differently from how he had thought. Well, how could I have predicted that the person chosen by him to keep an eye on me had come out of a dream?

“No. But if you are, maybe I could step in and close the door?”

“Of course, sorry,” I said, and let her in, and closed the door, and for a moment it simply felt like the sensible thing to do, before my fears got in the way and started screaming at me.

There she was, inside my house. And I wasn't shaking, I wasn't panicking.

“Please don't worry, I'm happy to stay here,” Clara said. “We can go at your pace.”

But standing on the doormat, even with the door closed, felt silly.

“No, it's okay. Come in. Would you like a cup of tea? Margherita sent some biscuits.
, she calls them. You're staying with them, aren't you?”

“Yes. I'm renting their cottage. It's lovely,” she said, following me into the kitchen.

Angus's eyeballs were about to fall out. I was pretty surprised too. But hey, I would just go with it, until panic took over. Like it always did.

“Please sit down,” I said, and Angus rushed to move the chair for her, as if I would change my mind any moment, while I assembled a teabag and a mug the right way, without upsetting the order in my kitchen and sending me into a spiral of anxiety.

We sat and drank our tea, and it was surreal.

“So, I understand you'll come and keep an eye on me.”

“Clara will—” Angus started, but she interrupted him. Again.

“Yes. I'll come and keep you company. So you won't be alone while Angus is away.”

She made it sound nearly sensible. Or acceptable, anyway.

“I haven't been well.”


“So I'm alone a lot.”

“I know.”

“People have been saying to me to just pull myself together. But I can't.”

” she repeated, with emphasis. I got the feeling she really understood. “If you're okay with me coming to keep you company, we can think of things to do. Or I can just leave you alone to do your thing. Think about it, and you can let me know.”

I nodded.

“Did you draw those?” She gestured to the framed illustrations on the kitchen wall.


“They are

“You're just saying that.”

“No. They really are wonderful. Angus, you must feel so proud of Isabel.”

“I am,” he said, with such love in his eyes it was a stab in the heart. Because I was letting him down in that too.

“I haven't worked in so long. I feel so . . .

“But it won't be forever. You'll get better . . .” she said, but I wasn't listening any more.

Obviously, I
can't have Clara here . . . She is not Angus or
Morag and therefore she is not allowed, something terrible will
happen if I let her in. I'll have to
sit with her by my side, trying to block out
the terror of having someone in my house, of breathing
the same air as her. Maybe I'll succeed, and
I maybe I could grow to like her, but then
she'll hurt me, or get depressed like me and
kill herself and I'll be left alone . . .

“Will you show me more of your work one day?” Somewhere in my mind, her words registered and my answer surprised me.

“Okay,” I heard myself saying.

My voice was like a bell above the din of a busy hall, the voices of my fears, crazy, cruel, irrational, struggling to drown it.


“Yes. I will show you,” I said, trying to smile, but this time it didn't work. I was too scared to smile. What had I just done? I felt sick.

“That's great, thank you!” She clasped her hands together in a gesture that was nearly childish. I noticed she had a spattering of freckles on her nose and that her eyes were so green in the bright light of the kitchen.

“Right. I'll let you be. I'll come back then . . .” She seemed suddenly unsure, as if she feared me taking it back, and she got up to leave.

“Yes. Please do,” I added, and once again, I was infinitely surprised at the fact that I meant it. “But wait, don't go. You haven't finished your tea . . .”

She smiled. “I'll stay another few minutes, then.”

Angus had been looking at us, following the conversation like an outsider. Now I think he wanted to make sure things were settled, so he spoke.

“Bell, Clara will stay with you when I can't. She will sleep here as well, in the guest room.”

“To keep you company,” Clara added.

“To watch me,” I said.

“Bell . . .”

“It's fine. Really.”

“Really?” Angus couldn't believe how the whole thing had gone. And I couldn't either.

I nodded. Clara finished her tea and her
, then she stood up to go. “I'll see you tomorrow, then. At . . .” She looked at Angus.

“I'll be leaving for Glasgow around half six in the morning.”

“No problem, I'll be here in good time. Bye, Isabel,” she said simply.

“Bye,” I could only say, as if my whole life hadn't shifted.

As if everything was still the same, when it wasn't.

I watched her from the window, and I waved. I watched her walk away, stepping in between two wings of rose plants, slow and deliberate like a queen. I noticed a blue butterfly fluttering behind her, following her like a bride's train.

“So that went well,” Angus said cheerily as he stepped back into the kitchen, but he sounded a bit brittle.


“So . . . you'll be showing her your work?”

“I don't know if I can,” I shrugged. “I haven't been up there in ages.” I looked up to the ceiling.

“You do your thing, okay? Take your time,” he said softly, and I looked into his handsome face, those eyes so clear and steadfast, the five o'clock shadow of a tired man.


“And Bell?”


“I love you.”

“I love you too. More than anything,” I said, but I couldn't look at him in the eye, because I felt so ashamed of myself at saying such a thing. I loved him, and yet I had put him through something so terrible.

Still. On Monday all would change, because I'd start to take my medication and all would get better.

“Everyone wants you to feel better, Isabel. Everyone roots for you.”

And I'm so scared I'll
let you all down
, I thought.

I kept my face hidden in his chest, where it was safe, and he braided his hands together on my back, to keep me inside the cocoon of his love.

I sat on the stairs to think. It was a favourite place of mine, since I was a little girl. Like a neutral zone where I could escape my father's silence and my sister's anger. I played with my hair as I reflected on all that had happened. I hadn't been to the hairdresser in over a year, so my hair hung long and lank down past my shoulders. I thought it looked sad, but Angus loved it; he said it was like a cascade of silk. Everything that was wrong about me, he made it sound like it was

And yes, I would try to get better for him. I would take my medication. On Monday morning, at eight o'clock, I would sit there and take all my drops and pills, like the doctor had said.

For Angus.

And maybe a little bit for myself too.

BOOK: Don't Be Afraid
5.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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