Penny put down the phone with a worried look furrowing her brow. She had been surprised and pleased to hear from Caitlin but the content of the conversation had proved to be less welcome. She knew that Caitlin would not have exaggerated her concerns about Rebecca’s welfare. She would broach the subject of Dylan with Charles. She knew that they had been friends since they were toddlers but she also remembered Charles’s reluctance to ask Dylan to be a godparent for Simon. Penny worried all afternoon about Rebecca. Should she call her she wondered. Her instinct was to fly to her friend’s side and protect her from harm. However she knew this was not practical. She was expecting her second child in a couple of weeks and Simon and Charles needed her at home.
Later that evening, after Simon was tucked up in bed, the dinner prepared and the two sat down to eat, Penny broached the subject. Charles looked alarmed when Penny mentioned that Dylan had been seeing Rebecca. He ran a hand over his face. A gesture he used when he was anxious, Penny noted.
‘I wouldn’t have invited Dylan if I’d thought for a minute that he would pursue one of our friends. He doesn’t usually stray out of his own circle…’ Charles tailed off, looking worried and guilty.
‘So you do have concerns about Dylan’s behaviour then?’ Penny asked, ‘particularly with women?’ she continued, ‘is it in his character to be controlling and’ she hesitated to use the word Caitlin had, ‘abusive?’
‘Dear God!’ Charles cried, ‘Has he hurt Rebecca?’
‘No! Not physically anyway. It seems to be more manipulative. He disappears for weeks telling her that he is working on a foreign assignment. He never calls her to let her know where he is and when he’ll be back. He just turns up when he feels like it and expects her to drop everything…’ Penny fell silent thinking that maybe Dylan did work in isolated parts of the world and couldn’t get in touch with his girlfriend. But she also knew that her friend was not prone to hysterics and inventing woes to gain attention. Caitlin had said that Rebecca was traumatised.
Charles sighed deeply and embarked on the story of Dylan’s life. Charles’s father, Peter had been a parish priest at the time, much like Charles was now. He had his first living in Ironbridge, Shropshire where Charles and Jo were both born. Jane, his mother, had decided to continue to teach part time after Charles was born. To make this possible they had employed a woman from the village who came to the Rectory each day to mind Charles. Martha Byrne brought her own child Tommy with her and the two toddlers, almost identical in age, played well together.
‘Tommy?’ interrupted Penny, puzzled.
‘I know confusing’ Charles smiled apologetically, ‘a lot about Dylan is just that. He has reinvented himself almost entirely as you’ll hear.’
Charles told Penny how his mother had learned more about Martha and her son. In fact his birth mother had abandoned the new-born baby. He had been placed, carefully clothed and wrapped, inside the porch of a nearby Catholic Church. Martha found the baby there when she went to the church to light a candle for her dear departed husband. Fortunately the baby had not long been left and Martha acted quickly. She took him to the Cottage Hospital where the nurses were able to warm and feed him. The Police had made enquiries but it was never discovered whom the parents were. Once the baby was deemed healthy he was taken into care. Martha had formed a bond with the baby when she had visited him in hospital and she continued to make visits to the children’s home. She made enquiries about the possibility of fostering Tommy (so named by the nurses), with a view of adopting him.
Charles wasn’t sure why Martha didn’t adopt Tommy. She had fostered him for about five years, until they had both started school.
‘We can ask mum this weekend; she will remember all the details. I know Martha was really upset and so was Dylan. Well we all were.’ Jane was arriving at the weekend to look after Simon while Penny was in hospital. She then planned to stay and help out for a while until Penny was recovered enough to manage.
Charles continued his tale. The two toddlers had become inseparable and spent most days playing together. Charles remembered what fun they had. Tommy had a fertile imagination and was a cheeky fellow able to get into a scrape and extricate himself with roguish contrition. There was never any harm in any of their escapades. Some days he would be quiet and introverted for an unknown reason but his moods were usually short lived. When Jo was born Tommy was jealous of the attention that Charles paid to his younger sister and feigned total disinterest himself.
The two boys went together to the same primary school in Ironbridge and remained the best of friends. It was about this time Charles remembered that the big upset took place. Tommy didn’t come to school for over a week and no one would tell Charles what had become of his best friend. When he did return Tommy was taciturn to the point of dumbness, Charles being the only soul he would speak to at all. Charles was very worried about his friend. His mother, Jane, had explained to him that Tommy no longer lived with Martha. He had to live in a special home for children who had no parents of their own.
Charles felt very sorry for his friend and would bring Tommy home with him after school as often as he was allowed, even making excuses for him when he was surly and unkind to his sister Jo.
Tommy spent solitary hours imagining whom he was, making up and writing stories about his parents. They became romantic figures in his fertile imagination. It was about this time, Charles remembered, that Tommy became Dylan. He was about eight years old. Things settled down for a while and Dylan seemed happier and started to integrate with other children more, though Charles was always his best friend. All the girls liked Dylan because he was good looking with his striking eyes and dark curls. Dylan learned to break hearts in the school playground.
When Charles was 11 his father was moved to Lichfield and the family with him.
‘Dylan was hysterical when I told him we were leaving. He begged me not to go’. Tears stood in Charles’s eyes as he remembered; Penny leaned nearer and took his hand in hers. He smiled reassuringly and continued to tell the tale. Jane had arranged for Dylan to be able to visit them in the school holidays, which had served to placate Dylan’s fears. He had visited regularly and the boys had continued to be friends although their interests and tastes were growing apart.
When Dylan was able he had left care and had gone to London where he had disappeared for a couple of years. Then out of the blue he had contacted Charles the summer before he had started his training for the church. He had seemed to Charles quite different. Much more self-assured and he appeared to be prosperous.
‘He said he was a photographer and travelled a lot. He gave me a contact address and number in Chelsea, a well-heeled area. He was very mysterious about his life really, and I wondered if it was all made up, another one of his stories…’ Charles shrugged, discomforted, ‘I called the number once. It was before our wedding and I thought I had to invite Dylan to be there and also for the stag thing. It was a woman who answered’. He tailed off, not sure of the implications of this fact.
‘Do you think then that he is living with another woman and seeing Becca,’ Penny searched for the expression, ‘on-the-side?’
‘The truth is I really don’t know what to think’ responded Charles regretfully.
The following weekend Jane arrived from Lincoln bearing gifts knitted for the new arrival and toys for the two year old Simon. They ate supper in the kitchen as soon as Simon had gone off to bed. After a long exchange of family news the subject of Dylan was broached.
‘Poor little soul’ Jane murmured, remembering all the upset as though it were yesterday. ‘Martha loved him like he was her own. It was all such a shame’ she explained with a sigh. ‘Martha married again, I suspect because it would help her chances to foster Tommy’ Jane began. She then told how Martha had taken up with Joe not long after her first husband had died. She was in her late 30s and childless, the only thing that had been missing from her happy relationship with Shamus Doyle. She had found the baby, and saved its life by her quick actions, on account of her visit to the church while grieving for her first husband. Tommy filled the space in her heart and the void in her life that her husband’s death had left. In those days fostering and adopting children was a lengthy process and single women, albeit well liked and respected members of the community like Martha, were not regarded as suitable surrogate parents. Joe had turned out to be a less than ideal husband. He was jealous of the boy, leaving his care entirely in Martha’s hands.
Unfortunately he was also a drinking man. This usually made him taciturn and bellicose. Sometimes he would get so inebriated that he would attack Martha physically. It was after these belligerent attacks that Tommy would be very withdrawn. Poor Martha was terrified of Joe but her fear was solely for the child. If Social Services found out they would take him away from her.
‘Of course, as you know Charles, her worst fears were realised. Tommy’s case worker discovered the truth and he was immediately deemed ‘at risk’ and taken back into care.’ Jane told how Martha had tried to get him back but she had no chance of success either with or without Joe. She finally gave up.
‘Mercifully, Martha left Joe and went to live with her sister in Ireland. So at least she was spared further abuse from that vile brute. I often wonder about her and where she is now. We lost touch with her after she had gone to Ireland and we moved to Lichfield.’
Peter had been a music scholar and had used his talents to grow and develop the church choir while they were in Ironbridge. His ability had been recognised in the Diocese hierarchy. The Archdeacon had discussed Peter with the Dean of Lichfield Cathedral, which led in turn to an invitation to join the cathedral as a Canon. The attachment to the cathedral would carry specific responsibilities for the choir and would involve some teaching in the choir school. The offer was very appealing and came at a fairly good time in terms of the children’s education. They would not have to relocate until Charles had sat his Eleven-plus exams and Jo at nine would have time to settle into a new junior school prior to her exams. The new baby was not expected until December.
Dylan was completely devastated. Distraught really Jane remembered.
‘I think that you were the only stability in his life’ Jane added to Charles, ‘Dylan really loved Charles, still does I think’ she elucidated to Penny. ‘We did consider taking him on ourselves but we had some concerns about his behaviour to Jo and also I was pregnant with Daniel at the time. I still wonder if that was the right decision to make. It wasn’t easy to leave him.’ Jane’s face registered the deep regret that she had felt at the time.
‘I had no idea that you had considered that’ Charles responded.
‘No. You were very upset at the time anyway. You two were very close, like brothers. Anyway as you know we decided to make arrangements with the Children’s Home for Dylan to spend some of the school holidays with us.’ Jane remembered that this was not an easy process and suspected that had they not been connected with the church it would not have been allowed.
‘Dylan came every summer for a couple of weeks and also for Christmas for several years, probably until you were about 16.’
‘That would be about right’ Charles responded, ‘He was able to leave the Home then and he couldn’t wait to get away from there and start his new life in London. It had to be London. The Smoke, he called it.’
‘He was such an odd mixture, Dylan, sweet and funny one minute and wild and reckless the next. I never worried about Charles as he was always the one to influence the best in Dylan but I did make efforts to keep Jo out of his way.’
‘Is that why Jo hardly remembers Dylan?’ Charles interrupted,
‘Yes, I expect so. When Dylan was visiting you Jo used to go away to Guide camp, or stay with my sister, Aunt Lizzie, or with one of her friends. Anyway, why the sudden interest in Dylan’s life?’ Jane asked.
Charles hedged, ‘Penny and I were just talking about him and we were curious about what happened.’
‘He seemed very grown up and charming when I talked to him at your wedding. He told me that he’s a photographer now, it sounded as though he’s doing really well.’
‘Mm, yes’ agreed Charles; changing topics to safer ground, ‘did you say that Jo and Julius have named the day? I thought I heard you mention something to Pen as I went up with Simon.’ The conversation reverted to family matters with Jo’s impending nuptials the hot topic.
Suddenly Penny felt a sharp and strong contraction. She put her hand over her bump and with a smile for Charles announced that he ought to get her to the Cottage Hospital. Lucy Rebecca Donaldson was born just two hours later; the hospital barely having time to admit Penny before the baby arrived bawling enthusiastically.