Sweet Home by Tillie Cole by Tillie Cole - Read Online

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Sweet Home - Tillie Cole

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Author’s Note

All Fraternities and Sororities, and their processes of rushing and initiation in this novel, have been exaggerated and used fictitiously, and are in no way based upon, or reflect, any actual existing chapter.

Prologue

Easington, Durham, England

Fourteen years ago…

Molly, come to me, sweetheart. I have something to tell you.

My grandma was in the front room of our small house, sitting on her old brown armchair with her head in her hands.

I moved forward and looked around the room. My daddy wasn’t yet back from the pub. He was always in the pub since the scary lady that was sometimes on the television shut down the mines the year I was born and my daddy got sad. Grandma told me.

My grandma lifted her head and smiled a sad smile. My grandma had the kindest smile that I’d ever seen; she could light up the room with just one grin. I loved my grandma so much.

As I walked closer, I noticed she was holding an old picture of Mammy. Mammy died when I was born, and Grandma and Daddy just get upset whenever I ask about her, so I don’t ask anything anymore. I still make sure to kiss her picture beside my bed every night, though. Grandma said Mammy will see me doing that from heaven.

Come here, my little Molly-pops. Sit on my lap, she said, waving for me to come to her, placing the picture frame on the red-carpeted floor.

I dropped my pink rucksack on the floor, walked over, and jumped up onto her lap. She smelled of mint. She always smelled of mint. I knew it was to hide the smell of her cigarettes that she sneaked out into the alley to smoke. She made me laugh as she scurried out every morning still wearing her pink rollers in her grey hair and her purple house apron.

I put one of my hands on her cheek. She looked upset. Grandma, what is it?

She took my small hand in hers and I jumped at how cold it felt. I rubbed it between my hands and kissed her on her cheek to make her feel better. She told me that my sweet kisses could make any problem in the world just that little bit easier.

The room was so quiet and the only sound came from the crackling of the log fire and the loud ticktock of the grandfather clock.

Grandma always had on music, music from years and years ago, and we would dance in front of the fire. There was no music playing today, though, and the house felt dull and sad.

I stared at the big hand on the clock and saw that it was on the twelve; the little hand was on the four. I struggled to remember what my teacher, Mrs. Clarke, had told us in class. My eyes closed tightly as I tried to think. They opened as I gasped. It was four o’clock. Yes! It was four o’clock. Daddy would be back soon.

I tried to wriggle off Grandma’s lap to run to the door to wait for my daddy as he walked through the gate. He always hugged me and twirled me around before telling me I was the prettiest girl in the world, just like my mammy. It was my most favourite part of the day.

I slipped off my grandma’s knee, but she grabbed my arm.

Grandma, what are you doing? Daddy will be coming soon. He needs his daily hug!

Grandma sucked in a deep breath and water began dropping from her eyes.

Grandma, why are you crying? Please don’t be sad. Do you need a sweet kiss? Will that make you feel better?

Grandma crushed me to her chest, my glasses nearly falling off my nose, and the material of her apron scratched against my cheek. I scrunched up my face to stop the itch. She pushed me back and fell to her knees. Her sad eyes were the same height as mine now.

Molly, I need to tell you something, something that will make you very, very sad. Do you understand me?

"Yes, Grandma. I’m six now. I’m a big girl. I understand lots of things. Mrs. Clarke said that I’m the cleverest girl in my whole class, maybe even the school."

Grandma smiled at me. It didn’t reach her eyes, though. It wasn’t a full smile. Daddy said only full smiles show you’re really happy. You shouldn’t waste a full smile on a something that didn’t make you super joyful.

"You are clever, sweetheart, though I don’t know who you got that from. You’ll go far. You’re destined to leave this sorrowful life and make something of yourself. It’s what your mammy and your d-daddy… would’ve wanted." She sniffed and removed her pink handkerchief from her pocket. It had red rose embroidery all over it. I’d picked the material at the market two weeks ago. We made one for her and one for me, a matching set, just like Grandma said we were.

She dabbed the handkerchief to her red nose as she stared out the window, before her eyes seemed to change and she looked at me again. Now, Molly, you need to take a big brave breath, okay, just like I’ve shown you.

I nodded and breathed in for five seconds through my nose, holding my stomach, and blew slowly out for five through my mouth.

Good girl, she praised, rubbing my cheek with her thumb.

Grandma? Where’s Daddy? He’s late. He’s never late. He was always home to see me after school. He always smelled of mucky beer, though, but he’d always smelled like that. It wouldn’t be Daddy if he didn’t.

Molly, something happened to Daddy today, she told me with a shaky voice.

Is he poorly? Should we make him some tea for when he gets home? Tea makes everyone feel better, doesn’t it, Grandma? You always tell me that, I said, beginning to feel a strange, funny swirling in my tummy at the peculiar way she was looking at me.

She shook her head as her lip wobbled. No, sweetie. Tea won’t be needed today. You see, God decided to take your daddy to heaven this morning to be with the angels.

I tipped my head back to look up at the ceiling. I knew that God lived way up above us in the sky. I could never see him, though, no matter how hard I tried.

Why would God take Daddy away from us? Are we bad people? Was I too naughty? Is that why God didn’t want me to have a Mammy and a Daddy?

My grandma held me close, her nose tucked into my long brown hair. No Molly-pops, never, ever think that. God just felt sad that your daddy missed your mammy so much. He decided it was time for them to be together again. He knew you were brave and strong enough to live without them both.

I thought about that as I sucked on my thumb. I always suck my thumb when I’m scared or nervous.

Grandma smoothed the hair back from my face. I want you to know that nobody on this whole planet loved each other as much as your mammy and daddy. When Mammy died, Daddy didn’t know what to do. He loved you so much, but he also missed her. When the lady on the TV—

Margaret Thatcher? I interrupted. We’d learned about her at school. Not many people liked her in my town. They called her nasty names. She made a lot of people very sad.

Grandma smiled. Yes, Margaret Thatcher. When Mrs. Thatcher closed the mines, your daddy no longer had any work and it made him very unhappy. Daddy tried for a very long time to make money and buy us a better house, but he’d only ever worked in the mines and didn’t know how to do anything else. Her eyes squeezed shut. Today Daddy died, sweetie. He’s gone to heaven and he’s not coming back to us.

My lip began to tremble and I felt tears sting my eyes. But I don’t want him to go! Can we ask God to bring him back? What will we do without him? A heavy feeling spread in my chest and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I reached for my Grandma’s hand, and my voice went all croaky. There’s no one but us now, is there, Grandma? You’re all I have left. What if he takes you too? I don’t want to be on my own. I’m scared, Grandma. A loud scream ripped from my throat. I don’t want to be on my own!

Molly— Grandma whispered as she cuddled me close and we dropped to the floor, crying in front of the fireplace.

My daddy was gone.

My daddy was in heaven.

He was never, ever coming back.

1

The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, United States of America

Present day…

I was so bloody late!

I puffed out short, ragged breaths as I ran across the sprawling University of Alabama campus, trying my hardest not to fall flat on my face.

My hands were full to the brim with printouts of the philosophy course syllabus I’d been ordered to copy over an hour ago—the first task of my TA duties.

Class was literally about start, but my seemingly endless run of bad luck ensured that the printer in the staff reprographics room decided to break down halfway through my order with a melodic swan song of a pathetic high-pitched wheeze and a stuttering poof of mechanical smoke.

The print room was on the other side of the college, which led me to my current predicament—rushing across the humongous quad in my non-athletic-worthy orange Crocs in the blistering Tuscaloosa sauna from hell—or as it more commonly known, a typically hot summer’s day.

I caught a brief glimpse of myself in the reflection of a glass door.

Not good. Not good at all.

My brown hair resembled the frizzy coat of a miniature poodle, the sweat on my nose was currently encouraging my wide, black-framed standard-issue British national healthcare glasses to kamikaze bomb off my face, and my short denim dungarees and white T-shirt felt like a boiler suit.

England’s constant overcast skies were pretty appealing right now.

Nothing today seemed to be going right—the defective printer being the second of my mounting misfortunes, my crazy friends’ harassment of me this morning being the first.

* * *

Toga, toga, toga…! Lexi chanted loudly as she and Cass sat on my bed, laughing at me despairing in my makeshift toga, pumping their arms in the air to each word, whooping afterwards.

I look horrendous, I complained, attempting to adjust the sheet in numerous positions to cover my usually private areas.

You look hot! Your tits are unreal, all perfect and round… Cass tried to complement, hands out pretending to squeeze my breasts. I’m tellin’ ya, Molls, I’m not usually a pussy taster, but I could make an exception for you in that getup! Shit, you got some delicious curves, girl!

Cass! I reprimanded harshly, rolling my eyes. Do you have to say things like that?

Ah, turn it down a notch, would ya, darlin’? You look great. You’re coming tonight, no backing out. Don’t make me drag you there… because I will… if I have to.

But—

But, shit! We promised you a fun college life, not a repeat of the fuckin’ wack one you had back in England. The full experience starts tonight.

Oxford wasn’t that bad! And how does this so-called ‘experience’ go? First, I have to join a bloody sorority, then what—drug cocktails, falling out of clubs trashed off my face?

"That could be arranged, but it mainly just involves lots of men, sex, orgies, orgasms… oh, and G-spot experimentation. You know, the stuff you really go to college for," Cass said with complete sincerity.

I came to college to study, Cass, not to whore myself out to drunken frat boys!

She guffawed. Whatever, darlin’, you won’t be thinking of studying when your ankles are wrapped ‘round some stud’s neck as he wears you like a necklace, tickling your belly button from the inside!

Knowing Cass would just wave off any response, even if I could think of one to that, I walked to my brown reclining chair and slumped into the soft cushion, head in my hands. What the hell have I let myself in for with you two?

You’ve let yourself in for the time of your life, Lexi said sagely.

Lifting my head, I peered through my hands at my two smug friends, who were watching me with amusement. You’re going to make me go to this sodding party tonight, aren’t you?

Lexi climbed off the bed and jumped on my lap, throwing her skinny arms around my neck. Of course we are, honey. You’re one of us now!

I cracked a reluctant smile. So it seems.

Cass joined us on the chair, crushing me until I squealed under their combined weight. Get that toga off so I can stitch it together for you, go to class, and when you get back, we can let the fun begin…

* * *

They say bad things happen to you in threes.

I’d had two already.

Only one to go.

I kept up my dizzying pace, almost to the point of passing out, through the double doors of the Humanities block, beelining for the lecture halls, and headed straight for Professor Ross’s classroom, my mind relentlessly teasing me with visions of dodgy dancing togas parading before my eyes.

Too lost in my fluster, I didn’t notice the small group of students that was heading around the corner. But, alas, that soon changed when the ultra-glossed redhead at the front smacked straight into me—seemingly on purpose—my stack of papers falling from my hands and scattering all over the white tiled floor.

"Oops! Watch where you’re goin’, honey! she sang bitchily. Maybe you need stronger glasses or somethin’?"

And there’s the third stroke of bad luck.

I bent to my knees without looking up, when I heard raucous, mocking laughter, obviously directed at me. I instantly felt as if I were back in high school—the popular kids picking on the nerd.

I never spoke up. I’d always just ignored people’s snippy taunts over my cheap clothes, lack of money, or any other jibe they wanted to throw my way, so I simply growled under my breath and set to organising the mass of papers into a haphazard pile.

The door to the lecture theatre clicked shut, and satisfied that I was in the safety of my own company, I spat out, Fucking arseholes, a bit louder than I intended and cringed as it ricocheted all the way down the wide, cavernous corridor.

I didn’t often curse but felt justified at that moment, and it felt rather cathartic too. Even in the vocabulary-rich world of academia, sometimes only the word fuck will suffice.

I grabbed the papers in my arms, shaking my head, and stood, my bloody glasses—in the process—falling clean off my face and clattering to the floor.

I sighed in defeat and decided that I really shouldn’t even have bothered getting out of bed this morning.

A short burst of laughter sounded behind me, making me jump, and a warm hand gripped my upper arm, twirling me around, slipping my glasses back onto my face.

I squinted repeatedly, and when my vision righted, I was met with a broad chest covered by a sleeveless dark-red T-shirt, the white writing reading, "Crimson Tide Football."

Can you see now?

I followed the sound of the deep southern drawl, and before me was a sun-kissed true Bama boy—long, dirty-blond hair to his jaw line, eyes of a deep, dark brown framed by long inky lashes, and he towered over me, maybe six-foot-three to my five-foot-five height.

I couldn’t help but suck in a breath.

He was gorgeous.

Really bloody gorgeous.

I shook myself from my daze and snatched the papers from his hands, trying to shuffle around him, needing to get away and regain some semblance of composure, or maybe dignity, seeing as though I’d been pretty much stripped of it over the last couple of hours.

Grabbing my wrist as I passed, Mr. Crimson Tide Football asked, Hey, y’okay?

I tried to relax and not be rude—he’d helped me after all—but my nerves were shot, the touch of his rough calloused hand on my skin only making things worse.

I decided to chalk this unusual reaction up to dehydration, or an acute case of Toga-phobia.

Shoulders slumping, I replied, I’m fine.

You sure?

I blew out a long breath, meeting his lovely chocolate eyes, catching the almost bluey-black flecks surrounding the iris. You ever have one of those days when everything just turns into an absolute bloody nightmare? I stressed the last three words slowly.

He expelled a loud huff and pulled an amused expression—his full lips pouting into a crooked smirk and his slightly off-centre nose scrunching with the movement. Havin’ one myself, actually.

Then that makes two of us. I couldn’t help but crack a reluctant grin in return. Tightening my hold on my stack of papers, I said, Thank you for stopping to help me. It was very nice of you.

Bronzed, bulky arms folded over his huge chest, and he was notably tickled at my nervousness. "Nice? Not normally what people say when they’re talkin’ ‘bout me."

With that, he walked away, leaving me alone in the wide hallway.

I turned to head to class, and the guy looked back at me over his shoulder, announcing roughly, I’m Rome.

Molly, I said quickly. Rome’s teeth dragged over his bottom lip as he nodded slowly, regarding me from head to toe with an unusually deep intensity. Then without another word, he entered the philosophy classroom.

After taking a moment to gather my wits, I proceeded to shoulder through the entrance, where automatically several sets of eyes fixed onto me. I edged in farther, feeling slightly Bridget Jones-esque in my disastrous arrival.

Professor Ross eyed me harshly and I grimaced as I approached her desk, laying down the course syllabi and twiddling with my fingers in utter embarrassment. She waved me over to stand beside her at the lectern. I did as she requested and lifted my head to the class, who were all watching the newbie Brit make an absolute tit out of herself.

The professor pointed in my direction and spoke in her posh Queen’s English accent, looking like an old boarding school marm in her two-piece brown tweed suit, grey hair in a tight French twist, and tiny half-lens glasses. "I would like to introduce you all to Molly. She, like me, is also from England, and she has agreed to study for her master’s degree at this fine college and continue in her dual role of being my research assistant for a journal that I’m currently writing for an academic periodical, and my teaching assistant for this class.

I have known Molly for a few years now and couldn’t think of anyone better to experience this sabbatical year in the States with me. As you will all soon discover, she is quite the exceptional young lady.

The professor moved aside, gesturing me to address the class with a wave of her hand. Molly, why don’t you say a few words to your new classmates?

I took a deep breath and stepped to the lectern, lifting my eyes guardedly. Hey, everyone. Like Professor Ross said, I’ve moved to Alabama from England to study for my master’s in philosophy with the aim of starting my PhD next year to achieve my ultimate goal of becoming a professor. My eyes scanned the rows. There were about thirty people in total in the small lecture hall.

I have loved religious philosophy for as long as I can remember and I’m happy to be here to help Professor Ross in the lectures and seminars and try to make the wonderful world of philosophy just that little bit more interesting! I’ll be happy to answer any questions about—

I have one.

I followed the sound of the voice that cut me off and it led me to the redhead from the hallway… who was sitting right next to Rome.

Why the hell would you want to be a professor in philosophy? Don’t you think it’s a bit of a waste of your life?

I was used to this question.

Why not philosophy? Everything in life, on Earth, can be questioned—why, how, how can that be? To me, the mystery of life and the universe is inspiring, the vastness of unanswered questions floors me, and I love immersing myself in the academic journey of scholars both ancient and new.

She sputtered a laugh. How old are you, honey?

Erm… twenty. I nervously looked around the room, seeing lots of wide eyes focused on me.

Twenty! And you’re already on your master’s?

Well, yes. I went to university a year young. I tested out of high school early.

Damn, girl, you need to stop bein’ so damn serious and learn to live a little. Life’s not all about studying; it’s about having fun. Lighten the hell up! She shook her head in bewilderment, her long hair bouncing perfectly with the movement. I swear I’ll never understand girls like you.

Several students shuffled uncomfortably in their seats at her candid comments. The redhead seemed pleased with herself. I’m sure in her opinion, her second attempt at tearing me down had worked.

Girls like me? I queried, only a slight edge to my voice.

A set of expensive-looking pearly white veneers almost blinded me as she smiled bitchily. "Bookworms, nerds… wannabe professors!"

I narrowed my eyes in response, trying to maintain a professional attitude, gripping the wood of the lectern at her shitty tone, and swiftly decided to screw professionalism. I was going to fight back. I’d had a crap day so far—tonight would be worse—so I decided to fully commit to having the ultimate day from hell.

Studying and knowledge, I believe, gives a person power, not money or status or what designer you wear, I said coolly.

Really? You actually believe that?

"Of course I do. Opening your mind to unknown possibilities and learning how other cultures function, what they believe, gives people a richer, more holistic understanding of the human condition. Philosophy offers answers to an array of questions.

For example, why do some people coast through life with ease, devoid of all compassion for others? Whilst others—good, caring, and honest humans—are dealt blow after blow but somehow find the inner strength to carry on? Don’t you think if more people took the time to be conscientious to mankind’s troubles, then maybe the world would be a better place?

The girl flicked her hair nervously, no answer to my question, her ruby-red lips tightening as she stared at me in annoyance.

"That is why I study over getting drunk every night. The world deserves to have people who think of others before themselves, that strive to be less selfish and superficially concerned. I glared at her and announced in a pseudo-friendly voice, I hope that offers you some insight to why I want to be a professor. It’s who I am and I’m very proud of that fact."

"Fuck! That told you, Shelly! Schooled!" a gruff male voice muttered, causing the rest of the class to break the heavy silence with laughter. My head whipped up when I realised it came from Rome slouched low in his seat, feet up, and currently laughing to himself, the rest of the class joining in. A deep sense of satisfaction settled in my stomach.

Shelly’s mouth gaped and she abruptly ended the conversation with a dismissive, "Whatever! Good luck fitting in ‘round here acting like that!"

Professor Ross tapped me on the shoulder and whispered in my ear to quickly hand out the course syllabus before the class finished. I could tell she was pissed off at my behaviour.

I swiftly grabbed the papers off the oak desk and began handing each one out along the rows of students as the professor explained how she would grade papers and the rules and standards of her classes.

I’d made it to the final row of seats and immediately saw Rome staring right at me, an unexplainable glimmer in his eyes. He dipped his head in greeting with a hard line to his mouth. I gave a quick flash of a smile.

Shelly edged closer to him, never taking her eyes off mine. Judging by the positioning of her body—legs bent, touching his, her ample chest brushing against his arm—she and Rome were obviously very friendly.

I moved to hand the last sheet out to Shelly when she trilled, "Nice shoes, Molly. Do all future philosophy professors have such fantastic taste in fashion?" Students snickered at my expense.

I glimpsed down at my budget-friendly Crocs, viewed her fancy gold—no doubt expensive—gladiator sandals, and sighed sadly through my nose.

Rome instantly pushed her leg away from his thigh and spat, Quit it, Shel. Why d’you have to be such a fuckin’ bitch all the time? His remark also effectively silenced the rest of the room, the take-no-shit attitude causing the class to turn away from my awkwardness and cower in their seats to avoid his unwanted attention.

Shelly folded her arms and slumped in a sulk.

Rome ignored her petty attitude and lifted his eyes back to me, flicking his chin. You really believe what you said just now?

Which part?

He shifted awkwardly on his chair, his fingers combing roughly through his messy blond hair. ‘Bout life bein’ unfair. ‘Bout philosophy givin’ answers to why some people get dealt shit and others don’t.

Vehemently, I replied with unwavering certainty.

He nodded slowly, upturning his bottom lip, seeming almost impressed.

I swung away with urgency in my step and dropped into the seat behind the TA’s desk at the side of the room. I kept my head low while the class was dismissed.

"Molly."

I lifted my head to find the professor standing before me, censure on her wrinkled face. Care to explain what happened just now? It was so out of character.

Suzy—

"Erm, Professor Ross in class, Molly. What’s come over you?"

Grimacing, I said, Sorry. My head is all over the place at the moment.

You haven’t answered my question.

As I met her stern stare, I could see not only disappointment at my lack of professionalism in her aged eyes, but also a flicker of worry.

I sighed. Just a bad day. Nothing more. It won’t happen again.

Suzy dropped her arms, her reprimand of my behaviour forgotten. Don’t let people like that young lady affect you. Never make excuses for who you are.

A smile spread on my face. Thank you, professor. Lesson learned. She just… I don’t know… got to me for some reason.

"I could