A couple of days ago, while they sat at home together as they have done for so many years, Flora Keays asked her mother Sara a question that made her heart miss a beat: 'How old is my dad?'
'I think she was feeling anxious about me,' Sara explains, 'and so her mind is turning to the idea of who will care for her when I'm not around any more. Then she asked me outright: "What is going to happen to me when you die, Mummy? Will my father be kind to me? Will he help me?" I had to reply honestly: "I don't think so."'
It may have been of little comfort to Flora, but to Sara it is simply the truth - and that is not something she is prepared to shy away from when it comes to the man who sired her daughter: the same man who told Sara when she was pregnant that if she did not abort their baby he would have nothing to do with the child.
Unbreakable Bond: Sara Keays with daughter Flora, who is approaching her 25th birthday.
That man was, of course, Tory Party grandee Cecil Parkinson, and his callous stance has remained resolutely - many would say heartlessly - unchanged for a quarter of a century.
In that time, Flora, whose mother was Parkinson's Parliamentary secretary, has borne the most appalling illness and suffering with unbending courage.
From the age of 18 months, she endured almost constant epileptic fits. At four-and-a-half she had a five-hour operation to remove a benign brain tumour. As a consequence she lost part of her brain, including the right frontal lobe, which deals with reasoning and deduction. It has left her with serious social and learning difficulties. She also suffers from Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism.
Today Flora, who will be 25 on New Year's Eve, continues to defy the staggering medical obstacles which have been placed in her path almost since she was born.
She is learning to drive, has worked as a volunteer in a children's nursery, and was even nominated last year for a Young Person of the Year award in Gloucestershire, where she now lives with her mother.
And yet, as Sara Keays reveals in this exclusive interview, Flora has been forced to endure terrible trials in the past ten years - trials which her father, Lord Parkinson, knows nothing about.
Shockingly, Sara says, Flora was raped as a teenager when she was attacked by a teacher at her school, the result of which was years of post-traumatic stress that came to dominate Flora's life.
And in the past few months, after being admitted to hospital with a stomach bug, Flora was given the wrong drugs by nurses, which left her screaming hysterically and unable to recognise her own mother for weeks on end.
Throughout these ordeals, compounded by the daily challenges her autism and other physical problems present, her mother Sara has been at her side, nursing, encouraging and loving her only child.
Hers has, for 25 years, been a life of sacrifice - and if she now looks noticeably older than she did even a few years ago, then she should take comfort in the fact that her dedication has made Flora's a life worth living.
I have met Sara and Flora Keays on several occasions over the past 11 years. This time, however, having heard how ill Flora had been in recent months, I wondered whether the late arrival of my train would affect her meticulous sense of timing - a symptom of her autism.
I rang Sara when I arrived at the station, but to my surprise Flora answered her mobile.
'Please don't worry,' she said. 'We are very much looking forward to seeing you.' Her calm politeness surprised even her mother.
'It is the first time since she's been ill that she's answered the phone,' she said proudly. 'Perhaps we are at last getting there.'
'Getting there' has been the focus of Sara's life since Flora was born. Merely keeping Flora's life on an even keel is like walking the thinnest of tightropes because even a late train can throw everything out of kilter in her mind. No wonder Sara says: 'At times I feel I am running fast just to stand still.'
She is understandably extremely protective of her only child and made it clear, as she has done every time we have met, that her main concern is not to upset or worry her in any way.
'Everything has to be in Flora's best interest,' she tells me firmly, 'particularly as, when she is better, she will read what you have written.'
Absent Father: Lord Parkinson with his wife Ann in 1997
With her ruddy complexion, white hair and solid stature, Sara has always struck me as a formidable woman, who, if she had become a constituency MP or a minister would have Got Things Done. And yet for a woman who has had to develop a core of steel, she is incredibly gentle, with endless patience that has nurtured Flora's progress against all odds.
A colonel's daughter, Sara had ambitions to eventually be an MP. At 24 she became House of Commons secretary to Cecil Parkinson, then 39.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of having an affair with a married man, she believed him when he said he would marry her, and genuinely loved him dearly.
But when he discovered she was pregnant, Parkinson, now 77, wanted Sara to have an abortion, something she couldn't contemplate. The scandal of the 12-year affair cost Parkinson his job. He was Party Chairman but was made Trade and Industry Secretary after the 1983 General Election. Four months later, the fact that Sara was carrying his baby came out and he was forced to resign.
Flora's subsequent birth saw Sara cast out of the inner Tory Party circle and then subjected to hate mail and even death threats.
Worse was to come. A year after he was elevated to the Lords in 1992, Parkinson secured a Draconian injunction that meant no one could discuss Flora's life in public.
Despite serious questions over his rights as a parent to impose such a sweeping restriction, Sara initially agreed to it, but then fought unsuccessfully all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, where she was turned down on a technicality in 1997. The injunction effectively made Flora a non-person, and also silenced her and her mother.
The result was that Flora's schools went to the extreme of not letting her appear in school photographs, take part in school shows or have any of her achievements put up on the noticeboards - just some of the small ways in which Flora has suffered for the sake of her father's desire to airbrush her from the public consciousness - and no doubt that of his wife and three other children.
Yet for all the adversity, there are moments of brightness and humour that offer a glimpse of how Flora, who is 5ft 10in tall, could have been if fate had not been so cruel.
I know from past meetings that she loves to paint her nails, so this time I bought her some nail polish. She thanked me politely, then struggled to remove the thick plastic packaging. 'Goodness me,' she laughed, 'this is harder than a workout at the gym.'
'You see,' Sara laughed proudly. 'She has a really good brain, it's just that it's a brain with things missing.'
When I arrive, we settle in the kitchen of her four-bedroom 18th-century, Grade-I listed house and warm ourselves by the Aga.
In attendance are two black cats, a mother and a daughter, Bella and Eclipse. 'They love each other most of the time and are then at each other hammer and tongs,' explains Sara, who then looks at Flora and adds, 'Just like us, really.' Flora laughs warmly and nods with conviction.
Sara doesn't want to talk about Parkinson when I bring up his name in conversation, saying only: 'I've never talked about my feelings towards him, and I don't want to start now.'
But she has learned to accept his hard-line position of ignoring Flora's existence. It does, however, understandably baffle Flora.
When I interviewed her for the Daily Mail just after the injunction was lifted on her 18th birthday, she told me she was disappointed that he hadn't sent her a present or even a card on her special day. 'The hardest part is not being able to see my dad,' she said at the time. 'It's so upsetting I try not to think about it.'
Sara last went to court in 1992 to increase Parkinson's payments to support Flora to help cope with her continual difficulties, and I ask if she has gone back since.
'I haven't,' she says reluctantly, 'partly because I can't afford to. Nor do I have the energy to find a solicitor, then do battle with him.
'I have to keep my energy for the things that matter - being with Flora, getting her as many skills as possible so that when the time comes and she has to be on her own she is as well equipped as I can make her. My priority is to give her courage, confidence and humour.'
Glamour: Sara was Cecil Parkinson's Commons secretary in the Eighties
Flora has been largely educated at home and her brief forays into school have ranged from unsuccessful to desperately traumatic.
Most horrific of all, it now emerges, is the fact that in her teens, Flora was subjected to a brutal sexual assault in a toilet by a male teacher.
Sara, her face suddenly pale, says quietly: 'This vile man attacked Flora, and then threatened that if she told anyone he would do it again.'
For a woman who has dedicated her life to her daughter's welfare, the anguish of discovering what had happened must have been almost too much to bear.
'She had only been at the school for three weeks but I could tell something terrible had happened when I collected her that day because she was terribly agitated. I asked her what was wrong, and it was very brave of her to try to explain to me with less vocabulary and ability than she has today, but it wasn't very clear.
'I immediately rang the school where she was a pupil, and they were incredibly unhelpful and told me that Flora was never left alone. I decided to remove her from the school.
'I didn't discover what really happened until she talked more fully to me three years later. It nearly destroyed me because I felt that I, her mother, had been unable to protect her.
'At that point, I contacted the police, but to be honest they have been hopeless from the outset at conducting an investigation - I believe because of the injunction that was in place concerning Flora's life. It was never designed to protect her: it was designed to protect her father.
'A doctor saw her privately at my request, and her description to him of what happened did not vary in any detail from what she had told me.
'Flora wants to bring the man who raped her to justice for what he has done.'
With those words, Sara becomes so distressed she can no longer speak. Eventually she composes herself.
'It was one of our darkest times. The subsequent post-traumatic stress disorder that Flora suffered was devastating. She panicked a lot and couldn't bear anyone to touch her for a long time afterwards.'
In the years that followed, Sara tried other schools - including one in Jerusalem run by a professor pioneering revolutionary ways of teaching children with special needs - and also taught Flora at home.
At 18, and officially an adult, Flora tried to make a new start at Star College for disabled youth in Cheltenham, but her time there was short-lived.
Flora herself explains what went wrong: 'They refused to mark my written work because they said it was so much better than in class that I couldn't have done it - but I did. I was so fed up, I left.'
But gradually, with the constant support of her mother, she gained confidence and skills. When I met her around that time, I was struck by Flora's optimism and generosity of spirit. But she would need all her reserves of courage to face the medical crises of her early 20s.
She suffered glandular fever, toxoplasmosis, an infection caused by undercooked meat or contact with cats, and ME, the chronic fatigue syndrome. In 2003, she also suffered a severe allergic reaction to an over-thecounter antihistamine for hay fever.
'She only had three tablets but they scrambled her mind and left her so agitated and confused that for more than two weeks she didn't recognise me,' Sara recalls.
If that wasn't enough, in March 2004, Flora had a titanium plate inserted in her skull. 'One of the drill holes made to enable her tumour to be removed didn't close,' Sara explains.
'Understandably, Flora felt self-conscious about the hole. When the surgeon opened her up, he discovered she had a fracture that had originally occurred when she was a child and had grown as she had.'
Yet by the spring of this year, against all the odds, Flora learned to drive - she failed her theory test by just one mark - worked as a volunteer at a holiday club and went to a trampoline class twice a week. She was also looking forward to starting a course in childcare this autumn.
Sara says: 'Four years ago we moved from a rural area of the West Country to a town in Gloucestershire so she could gradually have more independence.'
So encouraging was her development, that in July, Sara felt she could undertake what amounted to a monumental landmark in their lives: along with a couple of friends, she went for a swim and lunch - leaving Flora to return home alone from the nursery and occupy herself.
'It was the first time I was able to have a treat for myself since Flora was born nearly 25 years ago,' she says with a simplicity that would make the busiest mother feel utterly humbled. 'It showed how confident I was that she would cope alone for a couple of hours.'
It is an anecdote that illustrates all too plainly just how much Sara Keays has sacrificed for her daughter - it was also a staging post that promised much for the future.
'I felt confident that while I was out on my treat she could make herself a cup of tea and watch ER, the American medical drama series, which she loves, until I got home,' says Sara.
'I thought that at last, after nearly 25 years, I was getting my life together.'
Sadly, that hope evaporated within hours. The following day, Flora developed what eventually turned out to be a nasty bug. A doctor was so concerned about her symptoms of severe headache and violent sickness that she was taken to hospital with suspected meningitis.
'I took my wonderful daughter into hospital on July 19,' says Sara. 'She came out on July 30 in a wheelchair, incontinent and traumatised.
'Initially Flora was seen in the acute assessment unit and was then admitted,' says Sara. 'I made sure I told every doctor I saw about her allergy to antihistamine.
As a result, a doctor fixed a red warning band round Flora's wrist. The same message was written in large letters at the top of her notes. Sara says: 'Although some of the staff were caring and concerned, her overall care was terrible.They never treated her as a person with special needs.
'Like everyone, I had heard about hospitals nowadays, but it was worse than anything I imagined. I specifically asked for Flora to be in an all-female ward because of what she went through with that teacher, but there were male patients in the ward, too. One lay on his bed with legs apart not caring how much of himself was on display and Flora had to pass his bed on her way to the bathroom.
'Each day she became increasingly confused and agitated. I was with her from about 7am until late at night but she would also ring me during the night when she felt distressed. They did various tests but no one discussed her drug treatment with me.
'After a few days I looked at her drug chart and saw she had been given cyclizine to combat vomiting. I looked it up when I got home and to my horror read that is was an antihistamine, the very drug that her wristband and medical notes stated she must not have.
'I immediately rang the hospital and told them not to give her any more. I knew it would have an increasingly devastating effect on her brain.
'My fears were confirmed as soon as I returned to the hospital. Flora had become agitated and frightened by the shape of her saline drip stand. I genuinely believe that if I hadn't been there they would have given her more of that drug and she could easily have died of neglect, and nobody would have cared.'
Loving Support: From early on, Flora, here aged six, had health problems
She is forced to stop, takes a deep breath and tries to compose herself. 'I wanted to take her home immediately but I couldn't because she was on intravenous antibiotics. I got home at about midnight and Flora rang me again at 1.30am, terribly distressed that she had wet the bed. I told her I would come back immediately.
'When I arrived I could hear terrible screaming and knew immediately that it was Flora. When I got to the ward, I found her pinned to the floor by two or three nurses. She was struggling violently to get away. Her drip had been yanked out, which left blood everywhere.
'I begged them to let her go, but they told me it was for her own good because she might harm herself. So I knelt by her on the floor and kept saying: "It's all right darling, Mummy's with you," and tried to calm her.
'Restraining her brought back memories of her abuse at school. She was terrified. A duty doctor eventually appeared and injected her with a tranquilliser. From that day, which was July 25, until we left on July 30, I basically looked after her myself. I had to help her drink through a straw. She was incontinent and didn't know who I was.'
Sara emits an exasperated sigh. 'I would like to sue whoever was responsible for this grotesque thing, but I haven't had a chance yet. Since she's been home I have been busy with her 24 hours a day. There has been no let-up.
'Fortunately, she is no longer incontinent, but she needs to have me close by. My siblings and close friends all live too far away to help and have their own lives, so it's just us. I don't have any help at all.
'Flora can't watch TV or listen to her music because it is too much data to process at the moment. She is also still very fearful all the time, so since July I haven't been apart from her for a moment and she has to have both bedroom doors open and I have to keep my light on so she can see me at night.'
Sara suddenly collapses in tears. When we have met before, she has not shown the slightest weakness. Yet now this poor woman is crumpling before my eyes, the immense responsibility of her daughter's wellbeing weighing heavy upon her.
Eventually, she gathers herself, blows her nose and apologises. 'I am so tired,' she says, her voice faltering, 'and Flora has had to bear so much.
'At least I have had some experiences and happiness in my life that she will never know. It is so awful that people who have so little get such a raw deal. My experience with the Health Service felt like being run over by a juggernaut. I haven't had one word of regret or apology from anyone in the hospital.'
It took Flora more than two weeks before she recognised her mother. Meanwhile, another effect of the catastrophe in the hospital, says Sara, is that all the autistic features of Flora's childhood reappeared.
'It was heartbreaking. In fact, the past four months have been the worst of my life, even worse than when she was a baby and had continual epileptic fits. It was as if everything I had done for her and she had done herself had been crushed in a stroke.
'Her repetitive behaviour became desperate and she couldn't bear anything to be changed. Those leaves,' she says, pointing to a carefully arranged selection of autumn leaves on the kitchen table, 'have been there for three weeks. I didn't want to risk moving them in case I upset her before you arrived.'
Sara says her own experiences have made her all the more determined to help other parents with children similar to Flora who get little support.
'Children with Asperger's feel such isolation. They have the same hopes and aspirations as everyone else but it is so difficult for them to form relationships and be understood, that they feel they don't fit in.
'Flora, for example, has lots of acquaintances but no close friends. I would like to share the strategies I've developed to give her confidence and skills and explain how to behave in public. Sometimes Flora asks if she will ever get married and have children. I say: "I don't know, darling. No one has any way of knowing what life has in store."'
To her enormous credit, Flora remains ambitious. 'The illness and experience in hospital has really knocked my confidence,' she says.
'It's made me very anxious. Before I was ill, I went trampolining twice a week and even won a competition. I also went swimming regularly and drove every day but I haven't done any of it since I was ill in July.
'I am a real fighter and want to become a fully qualified driver and meet people who have the same interest in sport, gentle people, not those who are raucous. I also want to go back to the nursery and do a course in childcare that I wasn't well enough to start in September.
'But since July all my ambitions have been put on hold. I miss going shopping and listening to my favourite music, Strauss waltzes and Elvis, but I can tell I'm getting better. I am now starting to look at magazines, which I couldn't do a few weeks ago because the images were too confusing for me to process.
'It gives me hope that I will soon start using my own mobile rather than just answer Mummy's, as I did with you.' She laughs.
As Flora speaks, Sara watches her intently with a look of quiet pride. She is right to celebrate the enthusiasm of this remarkable young woman.
'Her life has been a series of enormous efforts to overcome her difficulties and constant setbacks,' says Sara. 'But she is so strong, and has such courage and determination. I admire her so much. She always wants to try again.'
I do not need to ask Flora from which of her parents she feels she has inherited such admirable qualities.
Attrition, Aye, right, Cecil. See how they treat their own kin - bullying, neglect, tight-fistedness, injunctions - and imagine what they think of us.