Penelope (Penny) Farthing had been named by her father just a matter of weeks before he walked out of the family home, never to return. He wasn’t missing, just gone – at least that’s what her mother always said. His absence was seldom discussed and Penny had never really felt the desire to try to find the man who had given her her name. Whenever anybody spoke of meeting him, she always thought of ‘A Boy Named Sue’* and how unsuited she was to kicking and gouging in the mud, the blood and the beer. Also, she always suspected that her mother knew much more than she was prepared to tell. Penny felt, instinctively, that she had been involved in some way with his disappearance – maybe she had killed him – but she had never dared to ask. It was her mother’s claim that she had been too timid to object when her father had registered her name, but Penny had serious doubts: her mother was many things, but never timid.
Why her father should play such a trick on his own child – a child he had never really got to know, a child he was planning to leave – Penny could never quite understand. Certainly her mother’s late-night, post-sherry taunts that “Nobody expected you to still be single at your age,” led her to believe that her role in the whole elaborate prank was far greater than she wanted her daughter to know. If Penny retained any desire at all to meet her father, it was so she could ask him that one thing. “Did the old witch know what you were doing? Was she a part of it?” She would never be able to do so now. The only thing that bound her to him – outside of DNA – was her mother, she held all the clues and she was no longer able to focus long enough to remember anything that she did not choose to. An almost selective form of dementia – so typical of the bloody woman to retain all of her defences whilst rationality abandoned her. To lose the facility to recall her own daughter’s face, but not the contempt in which she held it, it took a certain kind of mother. It is not an easy thing, to feel nothing for your own mother, not good for your soul, but it was all Penny had left since she had spat compassion back at her.
Everyone at The Circle had noticed the change in Penny over the last few weeks. She was just that little bit more assertive, more spiky somehow; still the little mouse, but more inclined to nip if cornered. The unexpected appearance and subsequent disappearance of Charlie had preyed on her mind. His failure to return, to explain, had somehow brought her father to mind with a presence that she had not felt in many years. She would not in any way compare Charlie with her father; Charlie was a good man, she had missed him while he had been away and his return had kindled some kind of hope inside her, but both he and her father had disappeared from her life and the disappearance of the man she missed had, once again, made her curious about the man she did not. What if he had been a good man? She had only her mother’s word that he had not. What if it wasn’t him that had given her that hated name at all? Again she had only the unreliable word of the hollow woman that she visited daily, religiously, in the home. She cursed herself for not doubting her sooner, for not pressing her for answers whilst she still had them, but she had trusted her mother, just like she had trusted Charlie when he said he was coming back, that he was getting better, and she didn’t fully understand herself, why she felt it such betrayal. Except… Charlie was a member of The Circle, a good man, whom she felt had, in some indefinable way had let her down. The Circle was the closest thing that she had to a family now and, like a family, nobody else ever seemed to notice if you weren’t at your best. Nobody noticed if you were just that inch or two out of your depth…
The consoling arm on Penny’s shoulder took her by surprise. She opened her mouth to speak but, as hot tears swelled unheralded into her eyes, Terry put a finger to concerned lips and silently handed her a tissue. “Wipe your eyes,” he whispered, “and as long as you don’t tell, neither shall I.” He winked. “After all, where would The Circle be without a little feud to keep it going?” Penny took the tissue and smiled weakly at Terry as he retreated slowly, back to his customary place on the periphery. “That,” thought Penny “is the problem with families: you never quite know where you are with them…”