For almost three years Sue and Bob Cleaver had waited. Through endless nights of waiting for phonecalls, desperate internet searches, terrible conversations with police. Through the birth of their son. Through that fateful day of seeing the news story break and the desperate, awful weeks of waiting to be able to come here because only a few families at a time had been allowed here. Through a journey in sleep to a place hidden in secrecy.
And now she was here. Now they had their daughter back. Now they could be whole once more.
‘I can’t believe you waited until I’d gone to give me a brother!’
They laughed and cried into a family hug, holding each other as tight as possible until Henry started to squeal his disapproval at being squashed.
Jennifer took her brother into her arms, marvelling at the younger sibling she had always longed for – she already loved him more deeply than she’d imagined was possible.
And when she started to tickle him, the little boy squealed with delight.
She squeezed him tight.
‘I am so happy to meet you Henry. I always wanted a little brother or sister. And I am always, always there for you.’
Bob and Sue collapsed into each other with joyful tears as they saw the moment they had long dreamed of – their children playing together at long last.
Jenny looked different – no make-up, her hair un-styled, she was a little slimmer, a little taller – but she was still as beautiful and as lovely as the moment she was born, as the moment she was taken and as every moment inbetween.
‘Shall we go back to our place? I want to show you some of our favourite places on the way back. Oh, and I can’t wait for you to meet Leif.’
Bob and Sue had always envisaged fighting with Jenny over her staying out late, or boys staying over. They had never imagined the first time they would meet a serious boyfriend of hers would be them meeting her husband several months after they married. Jenny and Leif had been living in a lovely home, decorated with beautiful art that they proudly told them they’d created themselves. But meeting a new son-in-law was a somewhat strange experience.
‘So Leif, tell us something about yourself. Where are you from? What do your parents do? Have they been out yet?’
‘I came from Sweden, from a place called Malmo. I have two brothers and a sister – I’m the youngest one. My mother and father are both, how is it in English? Civil servants, I think you say. Work for the government. They come next week, we’re very excited to see them.’
They chatted for over an hour, but Leif could see that Jennifer’s parents were desperate to spend some time with her, so he made excuses about needing to check on a sculpture commission and said he’d be back later.
After a moment’s silence, Sue said what she’d been biting back for the past hour. ‘Well, he seems like a lovely boy, Jen. But I thought they said marriages could be annulled.’
‘They can. But we don’t want to. We love each other.’
‘I’m sure you do, sweetheart, but you’re only eighteen’, Bob replied.
‘Almost nineteen. And that’s beside the point. We’re adults. We love each other. We’re happy.’
‘But at your age you shouldn’t be tied down. Marriage and kids, those things can come later. You need to live your life first, go to university, discover what you want to do.’
‘I know what I want to do. I know exactly what I want to do. I don’t need to go to university – I’ve had all the training I need.’
‘It’s Jennifer now. I prefer it that way.’
‘But you always hated being c… never mind. Look at your friends, look at Katie and Lucy and Emma – they’re all at university, and they’re having a great time.’
‘But that’s for them. They were always cleverer than me, always better than me at school, but I’ve found the thing I’m good at, and I’ve had so much time to dedicate to it, to my textiles, to my art.’
‘But you could go to art school.’
‘But I don’t want to. I don’t need to. I’m busy, I have work, I have commissions. Leif too – he’s such a fantastic sculptor, you’ve seen what he can do. And we have so many people wanting our work, we just don’t need to go to university. We love what we do now.’
‘But he will be wanting to go back to Sweden and see his family. Will he really want to come home with you and live in England?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s a big deal, moving to a new country. Well. You know that, of course. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… But I mean…’
‘Mum. Dad. We are home. This is where we belong. We’re not going to live in England. We’re not going to live in Sweden either. We live here. We’re staying here.’
Sue and Bob felt it like a punch in the guts and it was a moment before either could speak. Eventually, his voice cracking, Bob made an attempt.
‘But… you can’t. This place…’
‘This place is my home. When I came here I was so upset, so disoriented, we all were. But soon I realised that this was the best thing that had ever happened to me – to be chosen because of my talents, chosen because of what I could do, to have those talents nurtured… I was never bright like Katie or Lucy or Emma, I was never going to be the brainiest girl in class, but here I’ve been given so many opportunities and I was so – I didn’t know at the time, I thought you had chosen, you and school, I thought it was all planned – and I was so happy. It felt so right.’
Tears streamed down Sue’s face and she felt them stinging against the blotchy skin on her cheeks but she couldn’t stop them as she tried to reason with her daughter.
‘But we didn’t… how could we have… I mean none of it was…’
‘I know you didn’t choose it. And I know it’s been awful for you and I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry you went through that, I’m so sorry I can’t make that better. And I know you’re mad at this place and you have every right to be. But you have to understand that this has made me. It’s made me who I was born to be – it’s brought me the man I love, it’s helped me develop my purpose. And I wish I could take your pain away, but you have Henry now. And we will visit. They’re allowing us leave and we can visit you, and Leif’s family, and our friends, and that will be great. I can’t wait to visit the girls at their universities and to go to Sweden and to come back and see granny and grandad and grandma and everyone else. And you can come visit us here too, and they’ll sort out your travel and it will all be OK.
I promise you won’t ever lose me again. I love you so much, I really do. And Henry. I can’t wait to get to know him better. But this is my home. This is where I belong. I’m not your little girl any more, I’m not Jenny Cleaver now. I’m Jennifer Craft, and I’m married to Leif Craft, and I have a passport in two nationalities now – British and Beaconese. I love you so much, and I’ll always be your daughter, but… you always taught me to be what I wanted. You always said you’d support me in what I chose to do. So this is my choice. This is what I want. This is my life.’
The water from Leif’s sculpture splashed into its bowl before journeying back to its source and once more cascading down. Sue, Bob and Jennifer sat in silence for a moment until Henry’s call punctured the air.
‘I go play now?’
Over the next two days before their return, Sue and Bob got to know Leif and got to learn who Jennifer was – something of the old Jenny, their little girl, but something else – someone else. A woman in her own right.
Losing their daughter was the worst experience of their lives but it had given them a son – two sons. And now they had the pleasure of getting to know the remarkable young woman they’d brought into the world all over again.
As the time came for them to bid farewell – only for now, not forever, for Jenny… Jennifer and Leif had promised to visit soon – they remembered that had she spent those last years of her childhood at home, she would still, by now, have no doubt left – perhaps for university, perhaps to travel – growing up and leaving home was what young people did best.
The years that had been taken from them could never be replaced, not by any amount of compensation nor any ‘official apology.’ But during that time their daughter had been given something they could never have provided, and she was happy. Their lives would form a sequence of travelling and returning, parting and coming together. As they watched the sea roll its way towards the shore they remembered this was the natural order of things. The ebb and flow, the waves and the crashes, the calm and the storm.
They held each other tight and listened to their son’s breath as he lay sleeping in the middle of their embrace, living and growing between them.
Author’s note: So this is it! Or is it? Whilst the story ends here, there were a few characters whose journeys I felt had further to go. For that reason, I’ve written five little epilogues, each set five years in the future. You can read them here:
Thank you so much for reading this story. I’ll put a longer thanks in the next entry. I know some people will still have questions, so I’ve got a Q&A page now. Please ask things there and I’ll put up any answers…