Michael’s mother was still away, so I stayed put. I worried about her coming back though, and started to think about asking Billy if I could crash at his next. John finally came storming around on Monday morning, hammering on the front door so loudly Michael had no choice but to let him in, or risk upsetting the neighbours. “You don’t have to live with that bastard, do you?” I asked him, when he appeared in the lounge, where I was sprawled out in the dark watching This Morning.
“I’ve got all my stuff packed up in the car,” John ignored me and said. “You need to stop being a baby and come home to see me off.”
“You don’t care about anyone but yourself,” I muttered darkly. He rolled his eyes and stamped his foot. He looked hot and sweaty and out of patience.
“That’s crap, why am I here then?”
“To say goodbye. Goodbye John.”
“You have no choice,” he shook his head and told me then. “You either come home yourself, or mum is going to call the police and send them over to fetch you.”
I jerked forward then, my legs uncrossing and my feet slamming into the floor. I felt all of my anger and frustration crashing into me then, and in that moment it might as well have all been his fault. “They can’t make me live with that bastard!” I hissed at him through my tightly clenched teeth. He recoiled slightly. Stepped back into the hallway where Michael was hovering unsurely.
“Try living in some care home then,” he told me in thinly veiled disgust. “See if you like that any better. Look, you don’t have to like the guy. Just come home and behave yourself and they’ll leave you alone. It’ll probably fizzle out before you know it. You know what mum’s like.”
I leaned slowly, wearily back into the sofa and crossed my arms. I looked back at the TV. “Just go John.” John emitted a soft growl before turning to look at Michael, lifting his hands and dropping them in a loose, help me, gesture. Michael just looked around at the hallway awkwardly and scratched at his arm. Finally, my brother gazed at the floor, shook his head twice and walked out.
After a few moments had passed, Michael stepped into the room. “You’re really not gonna’ see him off?” he asked me. I glared back at him, as if the answer were obvious. “Come on,” he said. “It could be your last chance to make him listen. Think about it that way.”
“He’ll never listen Mike.”
“Just try,” Michael urged. “He’s your only brother mate, that’s all I’m saying. I would never want to fall out with mine.”
“Fine,” I huffed then, getting up from the sofa. “But it won’t work, I promise you.”
I left the house and rode home, picking up my pace a little as the words I wanted to say to John began to gather inside my head. I was struggling though. None of them seemed to be the right words. None of them seemed to do what I needed them to do. And as I neared the house, and his car parked outside of it, I was no closer to finding them, no closing to getting them to say what I needed them to say. I saw my mother and Howard going back inside the house and closing the door behind them. I wasn’t sure if they had seen me or not, but I was glad they had gone. John was in his car, with the engine on. He must have spotted me in the wing mirror, as he turned the engine off then, and rolled the passenger window down. I rode my bike up to the window and peered in at him. He breathed out in relief and offered me this hopeful smile. “Ah Dan,” he said. “I’m glad you changed your mind.”
“I don’t want you to go John,” I said, and I don’t know why I said it, or why I thought it. I just looked at him then and thought don’t go, just don’t go. His smile fell away and his shoulders drooped. “Not yet,” I added, when I saw the look on his face. “I’ll come home, if you do. I want you to stay longer, to check him out. I want you to listen to me a minute.”
“Oh Danny, please, don’t do this to me!” he groaned. “Don’t you think I’ve already had this speech a hundred times from mum? Am I supposed to never leave home? Look after you two forever?”
“John, just listen a minute, about Howard…”
“Danny, I spent a lot of time with him yesterday and he’s really not that bad. You just need to climb off your high horse and give him a chance yeah? Stop judging him based on people from the past!”
“But listen, there’s something about him…something…I’m not just saying this!”
“What are you talking about?”
I stared back at him, words filling my head and dropping away again. I didn’t seem to have the words to describe my dread, my sense of fear, because I couldn’t even explain it to myself. The way Howard had squeezed my neck that day. How he had blocked the doorway, and called me a stupid bastard. All of it. I wish now that I had just spat it out, just told him exactly what had happened, exactly why it was bothering me, but I stand by the reasons I didn’t. I knew what he would think. “What is it?” he demanded impatiently.
“He’s…he’s just not very nice to me.” That was all I could come up with, and even as I said it, I heard how childish and pathetic it sounded. John was giving me that look. The weary eyes, and the shaking head and the sigh he always released in order to muster up the patience he needed to deal with me.
“What the hell do you expect Danny?” he said to me. “Mum told me everything. You slashed his tyres and spiked his drink and vandalised his club! Grown ups are never very nice to you, in case you hadn’t noticed, and that’s because of the way you behave!”
I saw this was going nowhere. John was itching to be on the move, to be driving away from here, and us. I had the strongest feeling then, that he would never be back. So I pulled away. I lifted one foot onto the pedal of my bike. “You know something John?” I asked my brother.
“Go and fuck yourself! I’ve got fourteen year old friends with more guts than you’ll ever have, so go on, fuck off!” I spat on the ground, kicked off angrily and rode away from the car. I was faintly aware of John calling my name, but I ignored him and kept on going until I was gone.
In the end, I had no choice but to return home. Two police officers turned up at Michael’s house on Tuesday morning, battered on the door and woke up Mrs. Anderson, who had wobbled home the night before. “Do we have to escort you home young man?” one of them asked me, directing a nod to the patrol car parked in the street. I looked at it and felt a desperate sinking feeling in my belly. I didn’t bother answering them. I simply thanked Michael, apologized to his mother, got on my bike and cycled slowly home, with the police car rolling along slowly behind me.
Unable to get my head around what she had done, I refused to speak to my mother for the first few weeks of the summer holiday. I didn’t see any point. As far as I was concerned, we had nothing to say to each other. She made the odd, tentative attempt to make amends with me, but whenever she opened her mouth to speak to me, I turned around, walked to my room and locked my door behind me. I moved around that house like some silent, brooding storm cloud. I played music in my room that tortured my soul, or at least, that was how it felt. Everything had a desolate feel to it. I kept my door closed, and locked. I stayed out of the house as much as I could, but when I was there, I lived in the side-lines once again, and in the background, I was always watching. I watched Howard move all his stuff in, and I watched him relax into position. It became quickly evident to me that he was a man with particular tastes and ways of doing things. He bought his big silver monstrosity of a TV with him, and our old one was taken to the tip. He bought his TV cabinet with him, complete with shelves full of wrestling videos. He paid for us to have Sky TV installed so that he could carry on watching all his favourite shows. Whenever I walked past the lounge, I would see them curled up on the sofa together, eating popcorn, or large bowls of crisps, laughing and shouting at the wrestling referee. She was able to leave her job at the garage and just work at the Co-op instead. He spoiled her with new clothes, meals out, and visits to the hairdressers. She looked better than she had in months.
I tried hard to avoid dinner times, when we would eat things that Howard liked. It was either meat and two veg, or steaks and thick cut chips. The cupboards became overflowing with his snacks. Jam filled donuts, tortilla crisps and dips and Jack Daniels whiskey. I would shake my head and slam the doors in disgust. I didn’t want to eat a single thing that appeared to be his. That was getting harder and harder though, as he took control of the shopping and paid for everything on his credit card. My mum thought she was in heaven. She could buy whatever she liked. She could fill the trolley right up, and not have to walk around the supermarket with a calculator in her hand. His belongings started showing up everywhere, replacing all of ours. His brand new brown leather sofas were brought in to replace mums tattered paisley ones. I missed those sofas when they were gone. I couldn’t remember us ever not having them. There was a smiley face on the arm of one. I’d drawn it in permanent marker when I was nine. His were too sleek, too shiny, and too rigid. They creaked and groaned when you moved on them. I stood back and watched it all without comment. The house seemed mismatched and at odds with itself. Howard enjoyed things that were new, and smart and top of the range. I found myself pining uselessly for the old and the tattered and the original.
He seemed intent on immediately stamping his mark over everything and my mother seemed to welcome it at every turn. He was like a dog, pissing all over his new territory, warning others off. And I ran into his warnings every day. He was a man with rules. He liked order. He said he thrived in a neat and orderly environment. He said the mind could not function properly if it were surrounded by clutter. He would make a cup of tea, drink it, and then wash the cup, wipe it up and put it away again. He remained humorous about it, but you could tell he just did not understand why everyone else didn’t do the same. He had rules, and they crept in stealthily. Shoes were to be removed at the door. He and my mother had slippers lying in the hall, and they would slip into them, before slipping into eachothers’ arms. He was particularly protective of his leather sofas, announcing regularly how much they had cost, and walking around them about a hundred times day, checking them for rips or stains. I strained my ears every time I heard them together, looking out for bickering or arguing, desperate to pick up even a hint of a crack in their sickly sweet love story. But there was never anything. More and more I looked at them and felt that they were united against me, taking sly little shots, giving me a message.
John called a few times from Leeds, to let us know how things were going, but I refused to speak to him. I didn’t have a brother any longer. And every night, the worse thing was the uneasy, gnawing feeling that settled over me. I couldn’t sleep while my stomach was all tied in knots. I couldn’t even write about it in my notebook, because I didn’t know how to explain it, I didn’t have the ability to articulate it…
I think Michael was the only one who noticed a change in me. He kept slapping me on the back and telling me to snap out of it, or wake up. “Don’t worry about it,” he kept telling me, whenever he found me lost in thought, chewing at my nails. “Don’t panic. It’s not over, you just have to bide your time. What goes around comes around.”
The thing was, Michael spoke the truth without even realizing it. He was right, I mean, when he said that what goes around comes around. He was talking about karma, I guess, people getting what they deserved, people’s actions coming back to haunt them. His words came back to me the morning I discovered salt had been sprinkled onto my toothbrush. I was close to retching, having spat the vile mixture of Colgate and salt back into the bathroom sink. I turned the tap on, stuck my head under and let my mouth be filled with water. Then I stared down at the globule of frothy toothpaste I had spat into the sink, and poked it with my finger. I lifted it to my mouth and tapped it with the end of my tongue. Salt. No fucking denying it. I washed it away and inspected my toothbrush. I was bowled over with confusion. Blown away. I wandered from the bathroom in a fuzzy kind of daze. The taste of salt lingered in my mouth all day, and the bad feeling lingered even longer. The same thing happened again before bed. I checked my brush first this time, and sure enough, someone had sprinkled a liberal dose of salt onto it. I stared at my reflection in the mirror above the sink. I shook my head at myself. I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to do, or say, so I did nothing, said nothing.
After that, strange things started happening every day. I could have cried the day my favourite Doc Marten boots went missing from the hallway where I had been told to take them off. “Probably in your room, under your bed, with everything else,” my mother said when I asked her about them. I felt the red mist close to the surface whenever I was near her, so I backed off wordlessly. They weren’t under my fucking bed, because I had taken them off in the fucking hallway the night before! Now they were not there. They were gone. I felt like a dick, hunting everywhere for them, even out in the garden. I even phoned Michael and Billy to check I had not left them at one of their houses and walked home in my socks without realizing it. I felt like I was going mad. I didn’t want to confront what the feeling in my belly was telling me, so I didn’t; I just kept on hunting for them. For two days they were missing. Two whole days. And then, just as inexplicably as they had vanished, they reappeared again, lying discarded in the hallway, with the laces missing. What the fuck?
The tyres on my bike went down overnight, and when I turned it upside down to check for punctures, I discovered an inch long slash in each one. I recalled what the gang had done to Howard’s car, and I felt sickened and threw the bike down in horror. There were other things too. Weird stuff was mounting up day by day. It was getting harder and harder to breathe and at night I lay in a tortured suffering and felt like something was coming, like something was getting closer and closer and closer. Sometimes I would come home from school to find my bedroom door wide open, when I knew I had left it shut. Another time my wardrobe doors had been flung open, as if someone had been searching for something. On that occasion, I kind of flipped out a bit, and stormed down the stairs to demand some privacy. My mother looked up from her magazine in the kitchen. She looked at me like she always did; like she both pitied me and feared me, and as for him, Howard, he was stood behind her, massaging her narrow shoulders. And he was smiling, like he’d won the fucking football pools or something. So I lay awake, night after night, wondering if I was imagining half of it, or blowing it up in my mind. I wondered if I was going nuts, or having some kind of teenage breakdown. I was unable to fathom any of it. I couldn’t come to terms with an answer, I couldn’t clutch at anything solid. I felt like I had wandered into a bad dream and couldn’t find my way back out again.
I didn’t tell my friends about any of this. Not even Michael. I wasn’t exactly sure why I kept it all to myself. Except that being with my friends was about the only time I felt good, and relaxed, and if I felt like that, I didn’t want to ruin it by talking about the darkness I felt seeping into my life. I didn’t want to bring us down. There were a few times I came close to confiding in Michael, especially when he asked me how things were with Howard in my house. But then I would think about how it would sound if I told him; ridiculous. I would shut my mouth and try to make it all just go away. In some ways, I suppose I thought okay, fair enough, the bastard is paying me back, whatever. I thought maybe I did deserve it, and I thought maybe my mother would agree. But this other anxious, nagging voice told me that adults were not supposed to behave like that. I mean, two wrongs don’t make a right, isn’t that what they were always telling us? And as for the man himself, he carried on as if nothing was wrong, as if everything was fine and dandy and normal. That was either exactly how he felt inside, or he was one hell of a good actor. When I thought about it, he reminded me of how Eddie Higgs performed at school, because that’s what his behaviour was; a performance. Sweetness and light in the classroom, and evil unleashed in the playground. It was the same thing and it revolted me. I watched Howard worm his way into my mothers good books on a daily basis. It was as if he was constructing himself as her perfect man; meeting every expectation and desire, and then some more. With her, it was easy to see why she doted on him the way she did. Everything he said was so good-natured, so reasonable, so helpful. Everything he suggested was designed to make life easier and more bearable for her. Because she deserved it you see, she deserved having someone to look after her.
He suggested that I ought to help out more around the house at my age. He winced when he saw the state of my room, and started leaving the hoover outside my door as a hint. He wondered why I couldn’t collect up my own dirty washing and bring it down to the machine instead of expecting her to do it. He made a noise in the back of his throat when I left the dinner table, and them, to the washing up. To every remark, every suggestion and comment, my mother would nod with enthusiasm and fix me with a challenging stare.
I tried to avoid him wherever possible, but when I did run into him, his tones were never quite so pleasant out of my mothers’ earshot. His voice would rumble gruffly and sneeringly out from between his neat rows of teeth. “Turn that awful shit down, you’re giving me a headache,” he rapped on my door once to complain. Another time, I was minding my own business, eating my breakfast at the kitchen table, when he came up behind me and stopped. I knew he was there. I could sense his presence and smell the Old Spice aftershave he plastered on every morning. He stood there for a few minutes, right behind me, not saying a word. I finally gave in and looked up at him expectantly, and do you know what he said to me then? He smiled a bit, leaned towards me and said; “Where’s your old man then eh? Ran off and left you did he, eh?” I turned my head slowly, stiffly, back to the table and blinked down into my cereal bowl. What the hell kind of question was that, right out of the clear blue sky? I didn’t answer him, couldn’t bear to look at him let alone speak to him, but he carried on, talking in this low, sneering voice while my mother pegged clothes out on the line. “Couldn’t be bothered with you I suppose. Ah that’s not very nice is it? Your own dad not wanting to be around you. I must be lucky eh? Got a great relationship with my old man.”
And then next, came the death of my bike. My mother, calling to me from outside in an exasperated, pained tone, and when I arrived on the doorstep, her gazing at me rather solemnly and apologetically as she explained that Lee had accidentally ran over my bike when he had returned from the club in the early hours of the morning. “I did tell you a million times not to leave it in the middle of the drive!” she said, all flustered and torn between pity and anger, as per fucking usual. I rushed past her to see it. There it was, this awful tangled ruin of a bike lying in front of his prick mobile car. Tears of disbelief sprang into my eyes before I lashed out, kicking first the useless bike, and then his car.
“I put it away!” I cried over my shoulder, shaking my head as I stared down at the wretched, mangled thing. “I put it away I know I did! That stupid tosser ran over it on purpose!”
She did not reply. She did not try to soothe or console me. She just slunk back indoors, and already I could hear his soothing tones placating her in the kitchen. I sank down to my knees on the driveway and allowed the deep rage to spread through me, and as it did I felt it pulling me down, hanging me with weights, making it impossible for me to hold my head up. “Bastard,” I growled through tightly gritted teeth. My hands were bunched up fists sat uselessly in my lap. “Bastard.”
Sometime later, when things got worse, when things started to unravel in spectacular fashion, I took the time to reflect and came to the conclusion that Howard must have had his own master plan in action the entire time. Maybe from the very beginning, maybe from before he even met me. Like Michael’s Project Arsehole, his would have involved a Plan A and B, and so on as well. His would have had it’s subtle, thought out phases of appliance. As time passed, I found it easy to see how he would have implemented it. And he had been right about one thing. I never should have made an enemy of him, but it was too late by then, it was all too late. We had inadvertently started this war, this battle, and the cycle was in motion, and it was one of those vicious circles, wasn’t it? It was certainly vicious anyway. His Plan A would have been making my dear mother like putty in his big hands. Playing on her insecurities, her fear of being alone, her inability to cope, her exhaustion. Plan B would have been the pranks he played to get back at me. Sinister but ultimately harmless. Plan C kicked in shortly after. Plan C was made a whole lot easier for him by the absence of John, and any adult that would believe a word I said.
Life was satisfying and frustrating in unhappily equal measures. I was obviously used to living on my own, and I understood that moving in with Kay and her son was going to involve some compromises. I was not a man who finds compromise easy. It did not sit comfortably with me; giving in. Of course, in business, at work, there were always times when compromise was needed, but I tried to keep them at a minimum. I was not the boss so that I could do things the way other people wanted. I was the boss so that I could have things my own way. The right way.
I sensed early on that Kay longed for someone to take control. She had been in the driving seat for years, you see. She had been alone. Some people are born to be alone, they are made that way whether they like it or not. Kay was not one of those people. She spent her early years trying desperately to please her mother. Despite her feistiness, she was at heart, a people pleaser. We’d had long, drawn out conversations about her early marriage, to Johns father. “We married too young, but we were in love and we wanted to prove everyone wrong,” she said. She did it to escape her mother, you see. She had John when she was twenty years old. She tried to make it work, all of it. For a long time, she stuck at it, day after day, until one day she looked at herself in the mirror and realized that she was living a lie. She did not love David, not the way she was meant to, not the way she knew he loved her. She stuck it out for a bit longer, for John, and for everyone who loved David. She thought if she put her heart and soul into it, she would love him properly one day, she would feel the nerves of passion in her belly once again.
She succumbed to an extra-marital affair. “David was too nice,” she explained, the night we sat in the car up on the cliff top. She was drinking champagne and wearing a knee length dress. The dress had slipped down her knee when she lifted one over the other. I watched its silky crumple towards her thigh. “He was too eager, too everything. Drove me mad in the end, that’s why I did it, and God I know it was evil of me really, to hurt him like that. It was like I wanted to destroy my whole life. My mother thought I had gone mad. She really did.”
I understood. I had not met David, it was unlikely I ever would, but I could see him in John. He stayed in the middle, on the fence, like his mother, born with the desire to please others, but without the defence mechanism that led her to be fiery. John was consistent, placid and plodding. I found him pleasant and dull. He wanted to see good in people, so he picked it out, even from the bad.
“And after that I guess I got what I deserved,” she went on, now leaning into the leather of the seat, resting her head back, showing an extension of pale, slender neck. She emitted a long, solemn sigh. “On my own, with a young child. My mother wouldn’t speak to me let alone help me in any way. So I struggled on. Bloody hated it though. Having to do it all myself. All the decisions, and the sleeplessness, everything.”
She didn’t really need to explain anything to me. I could read her like a book. Her face hid nothing, she wore her heart on her sleeve. She longed to be cherished. But she felt the need to offload on me, and that was fine. I was a good listener. I enjoyed hearing her story unfold. The thing was, her story always came back to him.
She called him her son, but really he was her penance. She felt guilt whenever she looked at him, because he never should have been born. He never should have been. “Stupid fling,” she said of his father. “I fell for him in a schoolgirl crush type way. He was younger than me, a guitarist in a band, full of charm and confidence. He could have had any girl he wanted, but he liked me. And he was funny, and wild, and adventurous, and it was all great fun for a while, but that was all it was ever meant to be. Until I found out I was pregnant.”
She had expected him to run like the wind, but he was curious about family life. She was just starting to get her life back, with John at school, and a part time job, and a stab at a social life, and now this. This thing growing inside of her. This parasite latching on to an unwilling host. She told me her deepest secret that night in the car. Later on I reclined the passenger seat, slipped her dress over her head and fucked her with my hand held over her mouth. But before that, she told me. Her eyes were heavy with overloaded mascara and metallic blue eye shadow that had collected in the lines. Her lipstick had worn off and her hair was tousled. “I’ve never told anyone in the world this,” she said, and her eyes seemed to pierce right through me then, they seemed to shine a light right through my heart, and I wanted to crush my lips down upon hers until I felt our teeth clash. “It’s the worst secret I have,” she went on, her voice a small girls whisper. “People would hate me if they knew. I hate myself.”
In truth, what she did, or nearly did that day was neither evil or wrong, and if I had known her back then, I would have told her this. She didn’t want the child that was growing inside of her. The thought of it made a panic rise up in her chest, a sensation of life escalating out of her control and away from her dreams. She resented the ache in her breasts and the sickness in the mornings, and she resented the thought of being chained to Brett forever more. She took a taxi one day, all alone. She went to a place, in secret. She had to sit in a waiting room for a long time, with other women, who looked just like her, pale and drawn and soaked in guilt. She had an appointment at ten o’clock to kill the baby. She was going to take a pill that would make her start to bleed. The blood would leak and flow until the baby flowed with it. She would go to the toilet and flush it away.
That was it. Her dark secret. The reason she viewed her son with fear and self-loathing. “I still don’t know what made me run out,” she croaked, closing her eyes briefly and then opening them to the release of one solitary tear. “Maybe it was what my mother would have said, maybe it was Brett. Maybe it was the baby. I don’t know. But I ran out, I couldn’t do it, and so I had him. And you know what? This will sound terrible Lee, but as soon as he was born, I held him and looked into his face, and he looked back at me, and I thought, he knows. He knows. Crazy I know. He was minutes old for God’s sake. But I felt it that day, and then I felt it again and again.”
By this, she meant the years that followed. The sleepless nights that did not end until he was three. The tantrums and the wilfulness. “He was horrible,” she told me, a small smile playing on her lips. “I mean, I can say it because it was true, and because he knows it’s true. He was so sweet on the outside that everyone fell in love with him, because he was such a beautiful child. But they didn’t see what he was like on the inside, they didn’t know what he was like at home. Christ, it was one battle after another. Everything! Getting him to eat, getting him to sleep, getting him dressed, whatever. Everything was a fight, all the time, and of course by then Brett was bored and stressed, and then he got in trouble with the police and I kicked him out.” She looked a little self-pitying then, her lower lip protruding slightly, her eyes downcast. “So I was totally alone, with these two kids. Didn’t have a clue what I was doing most the time. Just gave in to Danny to shut him up. Just gave him whatever he wanted because I was too exhausted to fight him.”
Too exhausted, and too full of gut churning guilt whenever she looked at his face, more like. Fancy living with someone, day in day out, knowing that you came close to killing them? That you were minutes away from extinguishing their existence before it even began. Imagine what that would do to your mind, and your soul. Of course, Danny did not know that she had wanted to abort him. Of course, he didn’t. He didn’t know it at thirteen and he sure as hell didn’t know it as a newborn baby. It was just her guilt torturing her, convincing her that karma was staring her in the face every time she changed his shitty nappy. He didn’t know what she had nearly done, but he did know that he had one over on her, because kids can pick these things up. He knew she was weak and he knew something was not quite right, and he took advantage of this, and that became their life.
So I knew. I knew her secret, and I knew his. I knew their story. But we were here now. I had stepped onto a new block of life. The next one in the order. It was as it was supposed to be. We had our love, and we had our home, and we had our future, and it was this that gave me satisfaction, as I had known it would. The frustration was a less welcome thing; something I had not planned for, something I was compromising on. The thing was, I wanted to know her story. Her own story, made up of the steps of her life that had led her to me. But all she could talk about was him.
Her story was him.
I listened, I always listened. But her obsession frustrated me. It was however, imperative that I had all the information, so I was never going to tell her to shut up about him. I already knew he was our enemy. I knew it before I met him. I knew it when she told me all about James, and Frank Bradley. When she laughingly tried to warn me off. I didn’t quite grasp the severity of it until the night the little bastards slashed my tyres though. That was when I knew I had to play closer attention. There was a spanner in the works, plotting to mess things up. Okay then.
So I allowed her to whine on about him. Day after day, night after night. Romantic meals that became peppered with her exasperation with his school report, long walks at the beach that turned into animated rants about his rudeness, or his smoking. Her body, weak against mine, as she sobbed about how lonely she was, how she could not cope anymore, how she was close to giving up. “He actually hates me,” she told me the day we decided I would move in to lend a hand. “That’s the thing that scares me, because I know it’s true. And he doesn’t just hate me because I’ve made a mess of things, and he doesn’t have his dad, he hates me because he has no respect for me, because he looks down on me.”
“You can’t go on like this,” was what I told her. “You’ll end up in hospital or something. You need to look after yourself at some point, put yourself first.”
“But I’ve let it slip for so long. I have no control over him, whatsoever.”
“You can reclaim it back. Little steps. You’ll feel stronger anyway, once I’m there, because you’ll have back up and support. You won’t be doing it on your own anymore.”
I didn’t have to convince her obviously. Yes, moving in was my idea, but it was something that would benefit us both, in more ways than one. She needed financial help. I had lent her money for the rent twice, and more for bills she was behind with. It was pointless, wasn’t it? We would both save money if we lived together. There was nothing to stand in our way, as far as I could see.
She reminded me of slashed tyres and spiked drinks, and in response, I roared with laughter. “You think that would put me off? You think I’d let little kid stuff like that keep me away from you? That’s nothing, and I can guarantee you, give him a few weeks to get used to it, and life will be fine. I can guarantee it.”
“He will make our life hell!” she had nudged me playfully and laughed. “If he’s done stuff like that already, what the hell will he do when you’re living there? Christ, I wouldn’t eat a thing or drink a thing if I were you!”
“Doesn’t scare me,” I told her. “I’m not frightened of a thirteen year old and neither should you be.”
Well he reacted as we expected he would, so that was fine, we were prepared and we even laughed about it later. Him throwing a tantrum, trashing his room, running off. I wanted to laugh in his face the day he cycled home with the cops behind him. I didn’t need to though. The humiliation was dragging his shoulders down. He was in a sulk then. Hilarious stuff. John gone, and him refusing to speak to his mother. He built up a wall of silence and refused to come down from it. Dinners were eaten in silence. Anything we said to him, or asked of him, was returned with silence. Well, he probably thought he was punishing us, but what he was actually doing was giving us an easy ride, a rest.
So I settled in. It felt like home, but that was more to do with coming home to Kay every night. Waking up and rolling over to see her face in the morning. She owned a rare kind of natural beauty. She looked stunning with her hair and make-up done, like a model, but she didn’t need any of it. First thing in the morning, she looked like an angel, she looked like she could smile and break your heart. She was happy and it showed. She slept well and awoke rosy cheeked and wide eyed. She could relax about money, and bills, and decisions. She laughed about it. “Oh you do it!” she said. “I’m not doing anything!”
It was other things that frustrated me, not Kay. I didn’t like clutter and rubble around me. You don’t need it. You don’t need to hoard magazines, and collect ornaments, or crockery, or pictures. Your mind needs space around it. Mess irked me. It made me wince and grimace. It made me feel restless. So that was one thing; to start making some rules. For their own benefit. Kay laughed the first time she saw me dragging a hoover around the lounge, snuffling up toast crumbs from the floor. “I just can’t stand mess,” I kept telling her with a smile. “I can’t leave it there and look at it, I can’t sit and watch the TV with it there. Sorry honey.”
“Don’t bloody apologise!” she had roared in amusement. “You carry on love!”
Well…things build up, and you can’t tolerate it forever. Spanner in the works, and all that. Thorn in my side. Because she worried about him, and she fretted about him, about whether he was eating enough, or sleeping enough, or up to no good when he was out with his friends. And still, the guilt. The guilt plagued her mercilessly. It was another one of my frustrations; her feeling bad about herself. It wasn’t right, or fair. Enough time had passed, and now it was time to iron out those lingering frustrations and get things settled the way I wanted them to be. I had compromised, and now it was getting thin. So I wondered what this kid was really made of? He didn’t look like much to me. So he had a nice looking face, big deal, so what? Apart from that he wasn’t much to look at, or think about. I looked at him and thought that she had made a big mistake not aborting him when she had the chance. He was a waste of space with a sneering expression and hair like a girl. He dressed down to the extent that he looked like a tramp most of the time. He listened to music so loud it shook the whole house. So I started with a few tricks, a few pranks, as he was obviously such a fan of these childish things. I played him at his own game to see how he would like it. I don’t suppose he did like it much, but he didn’t say a lot about it, so I carried on, seeing how far I could push, seeing how much I could get away with.
I came home from work late one night. It was about three in the morning, and there he was, creeping around the kitchen, rifling through the cupboards for food. It all fell into place then; how he managed to avoid meals with us and not starve to death. Sneaky little fucker. I felt a stab of anger and resentment immediately. In fact just running into his scowling little face was enough to set my teeth on edge. There he was, helping himself to food I had worked and paid for, while he did fuck all, despite me pressuring Kay on numerous occasions that he ought to have chores. I decided there and then that the ridiculous silence had gone on long enough, and it was about time him and I got a few things straight. I went into the kitchen, and closed the door behind me.
I dropped my keys onto the kitchen table, making him jump and turn in guilt, packet of crisps in one hand, chocolate bar in the other. “All right you little fucker,” I sighed, raising one of my feet onto the nearest chair and leaning out over my knee. My entire being seemed to fill the room then, and I felt it in myself, the way the energy fizzed through my body. I felt myself physically fill the room, and I felt the boy diminish, and I liked it. “What’re you doing sneaking around the house at this time?”
He glared back at me, despising me for even speaking to him, for even looking his way. He glanced at the crisps he held. “What does it look like?”
I chuckled softly and smoothed my beard with my thumb and forefinger. “Fuck me, you can speak after all!” He sort of rolled his eyes and grunted and made to move past me, but my foot came down quickly, blocking his path, blocking everything. “Oh no you don’t,” I told him calmly. “You put those back right now. If you ate the meals your mother makes, you wouldn’t be hungry now, would you? So put them back.”
“You can’t tell me what to do,” he started to say, but I wasn’t interested, so I finished for him. I snatched the items from his hands and hurled them at the wall behind. He stared back at me, open mouthed and scared and I was glad.
“I pay for that food, little man,” I hissed down at him, pointing my finger at his face. “I pay for the fucking food by working my arse off, so you don’t turn down the meals we provide, and come down here in the middle of the night, stealing, all right? You’ve got no respect, you know that? No respect for anyone, and I’ve pretty much had enough to be honest, watching what you put your mother through. I’ve run out of patience.”
There was this loaded silence between us then, as he stared at me, and I stared at him, and so I waited. I watched his face as he switched between anger and fear. I wondered which one he was going to land on. It really intrigued me; what this little rebel without a cause was made of. I wondered how long it would take to get him into line. Finally the boy licked his lips, swallowed and gave it to me. “Fuck you,” he said to me, as clear as day. Fuck you.
I took him by surprise. I laughed at him and then grabbed him by the back of the neck and slammed his head down onto the table. I was surprised by how light he was. I could have picked him up like that and tossed him across the room and watched him crumple in the corner. “What did you just say to me you little bastard?” I kept him down by his neck and pushed my lips right into his reddening ear. “What did you just say to me?” I tightened my grip on his neck then. Dug my fingers into the skin as hard as I fucking could. I felt like they would pop through the skin and meet in the middle of his neck. He was making this aaaaaa sound right at the back of his constricted throat, with his eyes squeezed shut. I leaned in so that I could see the fear and the surprise on his face, and in his eyes when he opened them to find out what the fuck was going on in his pitiful little life, and I soaked up that look, I mean I relived it for days to come, and it was a surprise to me, the power I had and the way I sucked it right up into me. “You got something to say to me now little man?” I relaxed my hold and asked him. “You want to say that again?”
“No,” came the breathless, panicked reply, and I was pleased with that, so I let go of his neck. I placed my hands down on the table on either side of him, and I was leaning right over him, and he was like my prey, caught, ensnared, powerless until I decided otherwise. I watched him lift one shaking hand to rub at the marks on his neck. His face was working, like he was trying like hell not to cry. I wondered how brave he really was.
“That’s right,” I told him from above. “You’ve got nothing to say to me except yes sir, and no sir, do you get that? Things have changed around here you little shit stain, do you get that now? And I want you to stop being a spoilt little baby and taking the piss. Toe the line, and we get to be one nice little happy family. Piss me off again, it won’t just be your bike gets broken.”
I straightened up then. Smoothed back my hair and walked out, leaving him there to think things over.