When I met Nicky Nicholls, I was a writer, editor and mum with a frantic side-line in keeping plates spinning. My plans for the future included more work on an unpublished first novel cluttering up my hard drive – but stopping all that crockery from crashing to the ground always seemed to come first.
Settled in Croydon and becoming a well-known artist there, Nicky had an exhibition in a town centre gallery. We met when the owner suggested I might write her profile for a local newspaper. I found her shy and unassuming, though her gentleness and warmth were very clear. Her paintings of street scenes, however, were extraordinary – full of life and energy, with colours that popped right out of the frame and lit up the concrete of our town.
Friends often feature in Nicky's work, and as we got to know each other, she offered to paint my children. I'd noticed that her human figures were always drawn without faces. When my sons saw their faceless images, they asked why. The answer was the start of a journey into the nightmare of Nicky's past – horror which at times would seem almost overwhelming.
"Nicky has been terribly abused", I wrote back in 2014. "Her abuse blotted out her identity. To feel, to love, to wish for, to connect... all these emotional experiences require an 'I' to exist. If there's no 'I' – if 'I' was simply obliterated by trauma – then there's nothing."
This was the experience of facelessness – un-being – that Nicky's paintings captured.
Her public speaking to survivors had shown her how much she could help others by talking openly about her own sexual, emotional and physical abuse. Now she was looking for a writer to help turn her life story into a book. When she read what I'd written about her, she asked me to do it. I was honoured by her trust. I felt great responsibility – and also, to be honest, I felt scared.
It took us almost four years to write Not A Proper Child. My task was to listen to Nicky – not just to the kind, funny woman I was getting to know as a friend, but also to the broken little girl inside her who could barely speak at all.
It took time for the child to find words, and sometimes it was very hard to hear them. Who could not feel rage at the people who so foully betrayed her? But I discovered that such outbursts only got in the way. The little girl who still lives in Nicky feels no anger. For her, abuse is just the way the world is – she knows no other life. Even worse, a child makes sense of adult brutality by looking for the ways in which she must be to blame.
At the times of her most intense recall, if I made a sudden movement near Nicky, she would flinch away from me. It was deeply distressing. There were days when I felt horrible, pushing her so hard, taking her back to such terrible places and making her stay until I had what I needed. But she was always ready – this was the very brave choice that she had made.
So my task was to feel as much as I could of what she felt – then give this lost and faceless little girl the voice she never had. As often as I could, I captured Nicky's words and wove them through the text: her expressions are there, her jokes, her language.
Nicky told me her truth. I also did research: there is a detailed archive of her life and evidence of her legal and medical history as well as her success as both artist and musician. I visited places she had lived, to gather as much detail as remained, and unfailingly found everything to be as she described. But parts of her story went unrecorded and lost. Here I have my trust in Nicky, and how truthful a witness I have always found her to be.
Nicky's painting has shifted in the time that I have known her. There's still brightness and the joyful depiction of life, but she turns towards the pain and darkness too, and depicts them. To me, it is a sign of her increasing stature as an artist.
This remarkable woman I'm so lucky to know has an unquenchable spirit. I feel proud to speak for one survivor, and through doing so, help others break the secrecy and silence which bind them to an abusive past. I hope and believe that telling Nicky's story will change lives.
Not A Proper Child is published by Mirror Books and is available now. RRP £7.99 and available in book stores and online.
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