As the man brought over my sandwich, and I glimpsed his long, ragged nails, my stomach lurched.
‘I have to get out of here,’ I suddenly announced, scraping back my chair on the hard lino.
‘But what about your lunch?’ my boyfriend Carl, 20, said. ‘You haven’t touched it.’
‘I’m not hungry,’ I replied shrugging my coat on.
‘I don’t understand you,’ Carl said, shaking his head. ‘You’re weird.’
It was what people always thought. And I let them. Because to explain, I’d have to go right back to the beginning, to that pale-faced little girl on the back of her granddad’s milk float and well, it was just too painful.
‘Come on, Mum said. ‘Put your coat on it’s time to go to Granny and Granddad’s.
I was seven and Mum, a single mother, dropped me and my sister Clare, five, over at their house every weekday afternoon before her shift at the chip shop.
‘Please Mum,’ I begged. ‘I don’t want to go.’
‘I haven’t got time to argue,’ she chivvied. ‘I’ll be late for work. Now put your coat on and let’s go.’
As we hurried the five minutes up the road, I hoped that something, anything would happen that would mean that Mum didn’t leave us.
But it never did.
At least I’ll get to see Granny,’ I told myself. I adored my Gran.
But tonight, she wasn’t fussing in the kitchen as usual.
‘She’s had to go out,’ Granddad said. ‘But I’m here. You can keep me company until she comes home.’
As Mum hurried out and the door slammed behind her, Granddad patted the settee next to him.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I won’t bite.’
But Granddad did other things. Frightening things that made me flinch and left me sore. Things he made me promise ever to tell anyone.
It started when I was five. ‘My favourite girl’, that’s what he called me, turning on the TV for Clare in the other room before firmly shutting the door.
So when Granny did come in, I never said a word. Instead I helped her make beans on toast for tea, told her what I’d done at school, what I had for lunch.
Granny and I had always been close. She was like another mum to me, really. She told me was special. And I believed her – not like when Granddad said it – because she never wanted anything from me in return.
Grandad’s biggest ‘treat’ was taking me out on his milk float with him.
‘Can I come too?’ Clare would beg.
But Granddad never let her. ‘This is for big girls only’, he told her as I slowly laced up my trainers trying to avoid the inevitable.
Rumbling through the twilight streets, stopping every now and then to pick up some money from local housewives happy to see Granddad’s smiling face, I felt sick, knowing what was about to happen.
And as we climbed the hill and reached a secluded spot away from houses and prying eyes, Granddad would turn off the engine and turn his attentions to me.
Forcing the same hands that just minutes before had been eating a cheese and pickle sandwich that Granny had made him, all over me, his eyes would glaze over as he rubbed his sweaty body against me.
Afterwards, Granddad would turn the key in the engine and carry on like nothing had happened. As far as everyone else was concerned he was a good, honest family man kindly taking his granddaughter out for a ride.
But then, when I turned eight, Granny got a job working in a hotel leaving Granddad to bath us and put us to bed.
One night, as Clare slept peacefully, he carried me out of the spare bed and into his ‘for a cuddle’.
‘Please stop Granddad, you’re hurting me!’ I begged.
But he just put a pillow over my face to mask my cries. It was terrifying.
I wished Grandma would come home, come in and stop him. But she never did. Neither did Mum.
Eventually, he gave up. Grunting, he told me to go back to my own bed.
Laying there in the dark, I kept telling myself that as long as he did this to me, Clare would be safe.
And she didn’t have a clue. When Granddad would come in with sweets, toys, new school shoes for me, a pair of trainers that matched his, she’d pout and beg me to share them with her.
‘It’s not fair. Granddad never buys me anything,’ she’d whine. ‘You’re his favourite.’
I wanted to tell her that she was the lucky one, not me and that those sweets and toys came at a price. But I never did. The secret lay heavy on me. The feelings of guilt were immense.
And then, just before my 10th birthday, I couldn’t bear it any more.
I woke up in Mum’s bed. It was a Sunday morning and I’d had a nightmare the previous evening. I couldn’t remember exactly what it had been about but it was bound to have included Granddad. They always did.
Hiding my face underneath the covers, I told her I had something to tell her.
‘Granddad’s been touching me,’ I whispered.
I half-expected her to shout, call me a liar. But instead, she started to cry.
‘He did it to me as well,’ she sniffled.
I couldn’t believe it. She believed me. We lay in the bed for hours and cried while Clare watched cartoons downstairs.
Later that morning, Mum rang the police. I sat next to mum as they asked me to describe where he’d touched me and how often.
I assumed it would mean that Granddad would go to jail because that’s what happened to bad people. But I was wrong. Granddad denied everything. There wasn’t enough evidence to press charges.
Nothing happened at all.
We still went round to their house but Mum promised never to leave me alone with him. I would tremble terrified he would say something to me. But he never did. The only contact we had now was when he proffered a cheek for me to kiss goodbye. His rough stubble reminded me of his scratchy fingernails.
As for Gran, she never said anything either, though she must have known he’d been questioned.
Eventually, they moved to Leeds. But still, I couldn’t move on.
At 14, I ran away from home. I stayed with a friend of Mum’s until the police came to get me. Then I was moved to a care home for a few weeks. It was hell.
Eventually, Granny moved back down from Leeds so I could move in with her. Despite everything, I still loved her to bits.
As the months went by and the nightmares still raged, I went off the rails. Eventually, I moved out of my Gran’s and in with my older boyfriend.
I thought it was a new start, away from my family. But instead, he started hitting me. I began drinking and taking drugs, going out for three day benders, stealing to feed my habit. I didn’t care what happened to me anymore. After all, no one else did.
Then, a few days before my 15th birthday, I got arrested for shoplifting. It was the wake-up call I needed.
And then I met Carl, 20. We’d know each other since school. But even though I felt safe with him, I couldn’t tell him my secrets, the ones that made me wake screaming in the night.
‘You wouldn’t love me anymore if you knew,’ I’d tell him.
One evening, after we’ been seeing each other a year, everything became too much. Even now, Granddad was still ruining my life. I took every pill in the house hoping they would finally make me feel better.
Luckily Carl came home in time. He kicked down the bathroom door and made myself sick.
After the overdose, I knew I had to open up.
‘I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s wrong,’ Carl begged.
It was the hardest thing I’d had to do. Even harder than telling Mum all those years ago.
He was gobsmacked.
‘I always knew there was something wrong, even at school,’ he told me. ‘But I never imagined…’
He encouraged me to go to counselling and I seeing a psychologist.
I began to realise that none of this was my fault, that I’d been let down badly by the very people that had been entrusted to look after me. Slowly, I began to feel stronger.
Now, I have no contact with my granddad, and although I still see Gran, we’re no longer close. I can’t help but wonder if she knew what was happening all along.
As for Mum, I still see her occasionally, but we hardly speak. I’m still trying to find the strength to confront her about why she felt it was OK for her to leave her children with the very man who abused her as a child. I mean, what kind of mother does that?