Cromwell Manor, Wiltshire
Christmas Eve, 2010
“Pat!” Ella jumped slightly as Robert burst into the kitchen, shouting out her mother’s name. “Oh, Ella… is Pat around?”
“No, she’s not,” Ella smiled, peeling the rubber gloves from her hands, “she always gets a headache when the washing up needs to be done. She’s gone for a lie down.”
“Anything I can help you with?”
“Well… Jennifer said she might be able to sort this out.” He said holding up his jacket.
Ella took the jacket and started to peer at the stain that had spread across the front left hand side. “What the hell happened?”
“Frederick and I had… a little disagreement.” Robert gestured to his bloodied nose.
“Hmm, he always did have a bit of a temper.” Ella sniffed the jacket. “Did he throw the wine over you as well?”
“Err… no, that was Nicola, she thought it might help. Can you do anything with it?”
“Yeah, should be fine.” Ella smiled, took the jacket and then mumbled to herself as Robert left the kitchen. “That woman thinks a glass of red wine will help anything, at least Gary’s upfront about his drinking.”
Ella looked at the small pile of dishes still to be washed and then at the dark stains drying on Robert’s jacket. She sighed, took hold of the jacket and left the room.
* * *
“He’s a complete dickhead. He just wants everyone to be like this… carbon copy of him, it’s stupid!”
“Yeah, I guess.” Ella agreed as she looked through the cupboard for some cleaner. “Maybe he’s right though, maybe you have had a little too much to drink.”
Reece stood behind her and took a swig from the bottle in his hand. “I’ll stop when Dad stops.”
“I don’t think they make that much vodka.” Ella stood back up and smiled at him, before turning her attention to Robert’s jacket, laid out across the ironing board.
“You know, Ella, sometimes it feels like you’re the only person in this whole damn place who really understands me.”
“Well,” Ella frowned as her hand hit a lump in the fabric of Robert’s jacket, “I’ve known you a long time.”
“Not as long as the rest of them.” Reece gurgled into the top of his bottle, oblivious to Ella pulling the carving knife from the inside pocket of the jacket.
Why would Robert have Ernest’s new carving knife in his pocket? She shrugged and dropped the blade into the front pocket of her apron, making a note to drop it in with the rest of the washing up when she returned to the kitchen.
“But they’re family, they all still see you as the little boy you were fifteen years ago,” Ella reasoned dabbing at the stains, “but I’ve watched you grow up, I see you as – “
Ella stiffened as she felt Reece’s hands on her side, gently sliding over her hips. “Reece, what are you doing?”
“Come on, don’t pretend you don’t want it. You said it yourself.”
“I did?” She squeaked as he began to untie the apron. “Reece, stop it.”
“You’re such a tease,” Reece smirked, throwing the apron aside, it landing on the floor with a thump, and turning Ella round to face him, “you pretend you want it, and then you come on all shy.”
Reece put a hand over her mouth and stared at her with a hard expression on his face. “No, you won’t.”
He pushed her to the floor, and pinned her down, Ella struggling frantically but uselessly underneath him. As he heaved himself on top of her, she kicked out with her leg and knocked over Reece’s now empty vodka bottle. It skidded across the floor and smashed into several pieces as it collided with a washing machine at the far end of the room.
Reece growled angrily at her and clamped down her leg with his own as his fingers started to tug at the waistband of her skirt.
“Hey!” The door to the utility room smashed open and Harry rushed in and over to Reece. “Hey! Get off of her!”
“Get off of me!” Reece spat as Harry pulled him up to his feet. Ernest entered behind Harry in time to see him shove Reece against the wall.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Harry growled menacingly at the young man.
“I could ask you the same thing.” Ernest whispered angrily. “Get your filthy hands off of him. Just because you’ve turned the other two gay, doesn’t mean you can turn all three of my grandsons!”
“Look at her!” Harry shouted loudly pointing down at Ella, and letting Reece drop to the floor at the same time.
“Ella!” Ernest rushed over to her and crouched by her side. “Are you ok?”
“I’m…” Her voice was barely a whisper as she looked at the two men who had rushed in. “Mr Cromwell. Harry.”
“Your one straight grandson, Ernie.” Harry snarled at the old man.
“Reece! The only normal grandson you have, the one that’s not disgusting, just tried to rape your maid!”
“What? Reece, is that true?”
Reece stood up. “Grandpa, I – ”
“Is it true, yes or no?” Reece said nothing. “Get out!”
Reece quickly left the room and Harry crouched down beside Ella, on the opposite side to Ernest.
“Ella, are you ok?”
“Yes. I’m… I’ll be fine. Thank you.”
“She’s going to be fine. Thank you for your assistance, but you can leave us. You’ve got some cases to pack, haven’t you?”
“Ella, are you ok if I leave?”
“It’s ok, you can go. You’ve got things to do. He didn’t really do anything.”
Ella felt the tears well up in her eyes as Harry left the room and buried her face into his chest. “Oh, Mr Cromwell!”
For the first time in her life, Ella felt the strong reassuring hug of her grandfather, and for a moment she forgot everything, and she was almost happy.
But then he pulled away from her, walked away from her and she saw her ripped shirt and the broken glass on the floor and she was ruthlessly, heartlessly dragged back to the reality of her situation.
“I… I don’t know. We were just talking… and then… I don’t know what came over him.”
“Oh, come on, you must have said something, done something.”
“No… I… I didn’t, he just…”
“He’s a very stupid boy.” Ernest growled, “he didn’t even lock the door.”
“What?” Ella looked up as she heard Ernest close the door of the utility room and slide the lock into place.
“Still… I can understand,” he said, moving towards her, “you’re a very pretty girl, a man’s… hormones could take over. He can become… a slave to his urges.”
* * *
“Oh, there you are! I thought that perhaps you’d gotten lost!” Pat grumbled through gritted teeth as Ella slowly walked into the kitchen. “I came down here to see how you were getting on, and I find you’ve left me half the washing up still to do and a bowl of cold water to do it in! Do you know how long it took to me get that roasting tin clean? You could have at least put it in to soak!”
“Sorry.” Ella sat down at the table as Pat placed a small pile of plates into an open cupboard.
“And me with my migraines – and my leg! – nearly took it all out of me! I’m not getting any younger, you know.”
“You could offer to help, you know, not that I need it, it’s practically all done now.” Pat slammed the cupboard door shut and Ella visibly flinched before bursting into tears. “Ella? What is it? What’s the matter?”
Pat moved over to her daughter, sat in the chair beside and rubbed her gently on the back as she cried into her arms. Pat rubbed her back as Ella told her about the stains on Robert’s jacket, and about the way Reece had been drinking in the utility room.
Pat stopped rubbing her daughter’s back and moved it sympathetically to the back of Ella’s head when she told her about the way Reece had attempted to assault her, and how Harry had rescued her.
But when she heard about how Ernest had locked himself in the room alone with Ella, and proceeded to take up where his grandson had left off, to actually rape her daughter, Pat pulled herself up and braced herself against the counter at the side of the kitchen.
She gulped hard as she took in what she’d just heard, the only sound in the kitchen, the gentle ticking of the clock on the wall and Ella’s soft sobs.
“Are you sure?” Pat asked eventually, not daring to face her daughter.
“Am I sure?”
“Maybe you got it wrong, maybe he – “
“He raped me! He held me down and he fucked me!”
Pat’s hand flew to her mouth, her daughter’s coarse language placing horrible images in her mind. “He wouldn’t do that, he’s – “
“My grandfather? He doesn’t know that though, does he?”
“I’ve known that man a long time, and while he may be a lot of thing, he’s not a rapist!”
“He is now!”
“No!” Pat continued to face away from her daughter. “He wouldn’t do that, you must have got it wrong.”
“Why are you on his side?” Ella frowned, a look of hurt on her face. “Why do you refuse to believe that this happened to me?”
“Because,” Pat shouted, spinning around to face the younger woman, “he’s your father!”
The frown lines that had crept across Ella’s forehead quickly vanished as an expression of numb shock seized hold of her face. She fell against the back of the chair behind her and stared at the centre of the table as a silence gripped the room. Even the second hand on the clock seemed to have ceased ticking due in awe of the sudden revelation.
Pat slowly took a seat opposite her at the table. “Your father and I – Raymond and I, we were going through a difficult time… we still owed Ernest a lot of money, and Raymond… he… had a small job at the bank, but it wasn’t enough. I’d stayed on here to… try and help reconcile the two of them, I – “
“I know this bit already,” Ella said wildly, her eyes focusing randomly on knots of wood on the kitchen table.
“I was lonely.” Pat stared down at the table in front of her. “Ernest was lonely too, I guess. The children were starting to grow up, Elizabeth had gotten herself a boyfriend. I caught him waiting up for her one night, and I sat with him. He was so different that night, worried about his daughter, so… vulnerable. We talked a lot, I suppose you might say we bonded. We –“
“We had an affair. It was a dirty, grubby little affair, it’s not something I’m proud of.” Pat stretched across the table and took hold of her daughter’s hand. “But then I had you, something I was proud of. Am proud of.”
“That’s why you left. That’s why you stopped working here. Does he know?”
“I didn’t see Ernest again for nearly a year. You were only a few months old and your father and I had taken a holiday. We stayed in the same hotel that Elizabeth was getting married in. There was an argument – Raymond tried to talk to Ernest, tried to make him see sense. It didn’t work, and Raymond tried to insist we go home, said that he wouldn’t stay in the same place as ‘that man’ anymore. We argued – I wanted to stay for Elizabeth’s wedding – and he started to work out the numbers, started to realise you weren’t his. I ran out the room, ended up in this grubby little bar in the hotel. That’s where Ernest found me… he was… he was everything your father was not. I started to see him again, eventually I went back to work for him. I never did tell him about you.”
“He raped his own daughter.”
“No. He wouldn’t do that!”
“You said he didn’t know who I was! What’s to stop him?”
“He might not know who you are, but I know who he is, the real him. He might be a lot of things, but he’s not a rapist!”
Ella stood up and started to pace. “He raped me! Why won’t you believe me? He raped me!”
“Ella, will you just calm down?”
Ella was about to shout back at her mother when she heard the sound of someone clearing their throat. She turned to find Harry stood at the door to the kitchen, and a small sob crept out through her open mouth.
“I need a shower.”
* * *
Ella ran a brush through her short, dark hair a couple of times, but stopped when she caught sight of her reflection. People had always told her while she was growing up that she had sad eyes. She’d never really known what they meant, they had always seemed to just be eyes to her, but tonight, looking into them, she saw the innate sadness for the first time.
Had this been what people had been able to see in her all her life? Had her eyes somehow betrayed to everyone just what would happen to her? She hoped not, if they’d been able to see it before, they’d certainly be able to see it now.
She buttoned up the top button of her blouse and stepped back to take in the full view of her reflection. She tried smiling a wide smile, but it looked out of place. Had she ever smiled before? She didn’t know, she couldn’t remember smiling. If she had smiled, she certainly hadn’t known just how odd it had looked on her features. Now that she did know, she decided she wouldn’t ever smile again.
She smoothed out a crease in her skirt, and gave a small, satisfied sigh. She looked no different than she had before, no one would ever know. Except for her apron. Reece had ripped it from her when he’d attacked her, and without it, she was dressed just in black, as if she was mourning something.
Not having it, gave the game away, people would look at her and know something was wrong. She’d have to get it back.
* * *
She’d sat herself on the floor, holding the strings of the apron loosely in her hands, her back slumped against the smooth plastic of the washing machine. She was staring at the spot on the floor, the place where he’d held her down. She hadn’t struggled against him, she’d found she didn’t have the strength. She’d simply just been so shocked by what was happening, that her body had just shut down, as if it weren’t there.
If it hadn’t been for the dull ache she felt, or the bruising that was starting to show up on her thighs, she may have been able to convince herself that it hadn’t happened. But it had.
She heard a high giggling noise coming from the corridor outside and pulled herself up. If somebody saw her sat on the floor, they’d ask questions, they’d find out. The giggling petered out and Ella heard the low rumbling of a man talking. She looked down to tie her apron as Robert entered the room with Jennifer at his side.
“Robert.” Ella smiled – before remembering how her smile had appeared and let it drop. She nimbly finished the knot on the apron and moved it round so it were straight, wincing slightly as the hard handle of the knife in the pocket bumped against her bruises.
“Ella,” Jennifer looked to Robert, but he seemed too surprised, too caught out to say anything, “Robert and I were just talking about some business.”
“And you came in here to get Robert’s jacket?” Ella offered them up an excuse, and prayed they would take it. She didn’t care what they had really come in to do, she just wanted them to go away again.
“Right. My jacket. Did you…?” Robert picked the jacket up from the side.
“I couldn’t get it all out. I could recommend a dry cleaner’s, they’d – ”
“Never mind. I’m sure you did your best.”
“You should probably hang it up,” Ella suggested, “give it a chance to dry.”
“Right. Of course.” Robert nodded before turning to Jennifer. “Jennifer, perhaps we ought to pick up this conversation another time?”
“Please.” Jennifer smiled back to him. “It was a rather… enjoyable conversation.”
Robert nodded again and left the room. Jennifer remained and for a moment simply smiled across the room at Ella.
Ella mentally checked she wasn’t smiling, and just stared back. “It’s getting late.”
“Yes, yes it is.” Jennifer gave a small yawn. “You’re right. Perhaps I ought to get to bed. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight.” Jennifer quickly turned and moved through the door.
Ella moved over to the doorway and watched as the woman scurried off down the corridor. Her sister-in-law.
Her eyes slipped to the door halfway along the wall. A small slither of light was creeping out from underneath the door, a shadow flickering across it as somebody moved around inside the office.
She jumped suddenly when a figure appeared in the corridor, and moved herself backwards out of sight. She cautiously peered back out into to see Matthew – her nephew – pacing in front of his grandfather’s office. He stopped when the door opened and Ella pulled her head quickly back inside the doorway.
For a moment Ella’s heart caught in her mouth as she expected to hear Ernest’s voice.
“What were you doing in there?”
“I was just speaking to your grandfather about something.” It was Harry. Ella frowned as she attempted to figure out her new relationship with him. Auntie-in-law?
“It’s late. I didn’t think anyone would still be up.”
“It’s Christmas Eve, people are supposed to be up till the wee hours.”
The two of them spoke a little longer, and Ella found herself holding her breath, waiting for them to leave.
“Ok.” She heard Matthew concede eventually. “We’ll go to my room. I think you know where it is.”
She watched them make their way out of the corridor, before she started to follow them. She hesitated in front of the door to the office, and frowned as she heard angry voices from inside. Who was still in there? Who had Harry and Ernest been talking to?
She didn’t have to wait long for her answer, the door to the office burst open and Gary – her brother, she realised with a gulp – stormed past her, down the corridor. She watched him march off, he didn’t even acknowledge her, and then she glanced in at the study.
Ernest was staring down at a small pocket watch. He hadn’t noticed Ella stood in the doorway. He finally looked up at her when he heard the click of the door closing.
“Ah, Ella,” he smiled, attempting to disguise the red circles around his eyes, “what can I do for you?”
“Don’t pretend.” Ella said through gritted teeth. She could feel her insides shaking with rage, she hoped it didn’t show up on her face, though her eyes were probably giving her away.
“Don’t pretend it didn’t happen. Don’t deny it.”
“It did happen, though.” Ernest managed to look both amused and bemused at once. “We slept together.”
“You raped me.”
Ernest’s face set hard and he stared across the room at his maid. “We slept together, Ella.”
“I don’t care what you say to anyone else, I don’t care if you go into your boardroom next week and boast to all the other old men that you banged the maid, but I need you to tell me the truth, I need you to say it.”
“Tell me what happened, Ernest.”
Ernest frowned for a moment as he contemplated the young woman in front of him. “Fine.” He said eventually. “I raped you.”
If Ernest hadn’t been avoiding looking at Ella, he would have noticed her flinch slightly. She closed her eyes and felt a shiver run through her body, before opening her eyes again. She looked down at the gun on Ernest’s desk.
“Why?” She asked.
“You’re a pretty girl. I’m only a man.”
“It’s Christmas. It was the only way I could guarantee a present I’d like.”
“No.” Ella shook her head. “No, that’s not it, there’s something else.”
“You don’t ever do anything on a whim, you have to have had a reason. A real reason.”
“Reece is an idiot.”
“If it hadn’t been for him, we wouldn’t be here now.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Like I said, the boy’s an idiot – but he’s still my grandson. These last few months he’s been… he’s been a dickhead. But he’s still young.”
“I was worried. If you told the police what he’d done, he’d never recover.”
“So you stopped him and did the job yourself?”
“I figured you wouldn’t go to the police about both of us. If you did, I could say that you were just… giving it away. Too much Christmas cheer. More than likely, you would just go to the police about me. If you mentioned what he did, they would probably think you were crying wolf.”
“You… you didn’t want Reece to get into trouble?”
Ella moved away from the door and around the desk, stopping behind Ernest’s chair, but facing the other way, staring at her own reflection in the window. She could see Ernest reflected behind her. He didn’t turn to face her, he simply carried on staring down at the pocket watch on his desk.
“My mum didn’t believe me. Can you believe that? Your own mum doubting you about a thing like that.”
“She said that you wouldn’t do that. You weren’t that kind of man. I guess she forgot to count for the fact that you have to control everything. Nothing can happen in your world unless you expressly permit it.”
“I don’t know your mother. Do I?”
Ella smiled, and caught sight of it in the mirror. It didn’t look all that bad when it was natural, it didn’t seem as cold. “You know my mother quite well, you used to be quite close to her husband.”
“I always thought you were dead. Whenever I asked about you, he only ever said one thing, he’d say that there had been a car crash and that his mother had died straight away and that his father had never recovered.”
He stared at her and she said nothing, just letting him slowly work it out. His hand reached for the pocket watch, but he didn’t look away from her. “Raymond?”
Ella turned away from him, from her boss, her grandfather. Her father.
“He killed himself, you know. I found his body. Hung himself. He said in his note that he couldn’t take it, that he couldn’t live with himself anymore.”
“You’re Raymond’s daughter? My…”
“No. Raymond wasn’t my father.”
Ernest breathed out loudly with relief. “Thank God for – ”
“I mean, everyone thought he was. I thought he was, but it turns out my mother put it about a bit.”
Silence filled the room. Ernest turned and stared up at her.
“Your mother… Pat?”
“She was screwing the boss apparently. Some women’ll do anything for a pay rise.”
Looking at him now, Ella forgot the bruises on her thighs, the dull throbbing under her skirt, the shame of being so helpless, and could feel only a fiery anger rising through her. Angry at her mother for lying, angry at her father for not being her father, angry at Ernest for who he was, what he did. Angry at herself for letting it happen.
“You raped your own daughter, Ernie!”
“I didn’t know.”
“That makes it right?” Ella could see her father’s reflection staring at her in the window. As she stared at his pale, translucent face, she became aware of the heavy knife in the pocket of her apron. She pulled it out and saw his eyes slip from her face to the weapon.
“Ella – ”
“I don’t know how you can take it, I don’t know how you can live with yourself anymore.”
As Ella turned to look at him, he turned his head back to face the door, presenting a clean shot of his back. He laid his arms down square on the desk, closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Do it.”
“What are you – ”
“I enjoyed it.” Ernest said, taking hold of the pocket watch and gripping it tightly in his hand.
“What I did to you, I enjoyed it. I’d…” Tears started to fall down his face and his knuckles were turning white he was gripping the watch so hard. “I’d do it again.”
“Holding your tiny little wrists in one hand above your head. K…kissing your lips. Feeling you squirm beneath me. I’ve never been so hard.”
“It’s making me hard right now, just remembering it, your… your soft tits. You were begging for it. You wanted it. The way you accepted me, let me in. The way you held me, wrapped yourself around me. Your sweet, tight –
“Shut up! Shut up! SHUT UP!” Ella lunged forward with a strength she didn’t know she had and plunged the knife deep into the back of her father.
The next – and final – chapter will be published on Sunday 12th June