It was only a matter of time. I told Anthony that after he’d spoken to Howard out on the street that day. He tried to play it down, of course. He alternated between trying to play the ex-con tough guy and threatening to beat the shit out of the guy, and the bad boy gone good persona, and suggesting we call the police. I just sat and took it all in, and I realised that in truth, it was what I had expected all along. I wasn’t really surprised, or shocked. I had escaped. There had been a time, when things were good. But now, the hunt was on. It seemed and felt inevitable. I thought that I had two options. Run, or fight back. I could leave, I could leave alone, and I could run, and keep running. I would lose them. I would lose them all, because I would never be able to tell them where I had gone. The idea, and the thought of being that alone in the world, made me want to fall to my knees and weep in protest. I would hear Michael and Anthony discussing things, in sombre, fear filled tones. Every now and then one of them would raise their voice in exasperation, or anger. I felt myself slipping away from them. I felt the distance imposing itself from within. I couldn’t have stopped it if I’d tried. It was my problem, not theirs. Something would happen. One way or the other. I could run, or I could figure out a way to fight back.
The job offer was a joke. A way to taunt, and torture me. He was playing cat and mouse. I walked through the days that followed with the undeniable sense that everything was falling apart around me. I walked through my life like a shadow. I felt the distance stretch out between me, and my friends. I felt it, like the unstable ground beneath my feet, stretched and flimsy, weakening as my mind drifted. I went about my business like a stiff little ghost. Around every corner, I fully expected to see the monsters face, gaping and snarling, preparing to eat me up. When I was alone, my mind echoed with the impossible loudness and clarity of the words I had spoken; I am going to fucking kill you…The words, they followed me to bed, and whispered softly into my ears. I awoke in the morning, with the force of them pounding at my head. When my friends spoke, I realised that I could barely hear them anymore, and that their words meant nothing.
It was not their fault, but my heart was being wrung out by a pain they could never understand. I looked into the mirror and did not recognise the haunted face that stared back at me. I peered at my reflection, and spoke the words, I will fucking kill you…The words occupied my mind in between quivering like a victim. When I thought about the words, when I tested them out on my tongue, one by one, it was like laying out a plan, a proposition, and I felt better, and the trembles eased. I felt a hardening inside of me, and it gave me the strength to get up and go to work each day, always wondering if today would be the day. I held the words inside my chest like a weapon, like a shield. I aimed to build myself up, to stack up the hatred and the fury, brick by brick inside of myself. I thought about protection, and I thought about attack.
When Lucy came to see me, she wanted to hold my hand and locate my softness, my warmth, but I had nothing left for her. Sometimes I looked into her face, and wanted to scream at her to get the hell away from me; I’ll hurt you, I’ll hurt you, one day I will really hurt you…She watched my rage erupt when I could not open a tin of beans, when the jagged rim bit into the skin of my thumb and sent blood drops scattering all across the kitchen floor. I felt like the rage inside of me was a black and bottomless pit. A torrent, a flood, with no end, no way to turn it off once it started. I watched her back away when I lost control and I saw the look in her eyes and it was the same look that my mother always had.
One day Anthony caught hold of my arm to make me listen. “I’ve got an appointment with the bank manager,” he was trying to tell me. “So we can apply for a loan, then we can afford to buy a car, and find a place further from here. Danny, you listening?” I wasn’t listening. I pulled free of him and went back to kicking in one of the kitchen cupboards. It felt good, I reasoned. Maybe I was starting to see things from his side, yeah. Lashing out, striking something, feeling the wood give way and splinter under the force of my foot. Anthony attempted once more to pull me away, to make me stop, to make me listen. “Danny, don’t do this! We’re nearly there! Just got to hold on a few more days! A week maybe, are you listening Danny? You’ve got to listen, you’ve got to let us in, if he does anything we’ll call the police!”
I stopped the kicking. “They won’t care,” I hissed at him. I stared at the damage, my shoulders moving up and down breathlessly. I did not feel finished then, and wondered what else I could attack. “You’ll see.”
“What will I see? What do you mean? Come on mate, pull yourself together. He’s messing with your head and you’re letting him!”
“It doesn’t matter,” I told him, and I was right. “Nothing does.” I pushed past him and lay down on the bed with my arms folded behind my head. My eyes moved up to find the yellowed ceiling. I found a crack, and followed it.
Saturday evening, and Anthony was at work. Michael and I were self-medicating our headaches from the night before, with carefully rolled spliffs and endless rounds of tea and biscuits. I ignored the phone ringing, shrill and endless, until Michael at last gave in, grunted and rolled from the bed to answer it. I opened my eyes, and then closed them again. The familiar weight of dread and muted rage was pressing down on me, as it had done all day. Michael picked up the phone, rubbing at his red eyes under his hair, stretching out a yawn and mumbling his replies. Finally he hung it up and swore. “Been called into work,” he said to me, as I watched him. “Bastards!” he expressed, and started to hunt for some clean clothes. I did not answer him. I had begun to view speaking as a mostly needless and pointless waste of energy. I listened to Michael stumbling around the room. “Why don’t they just hire more staff?” I felt the bed sag as he sat down on the edge to pull his legs through his jeans. “It’s not like there’s a lack of people out there needing work! And then I could have my fucking evening off, like I’d planned…”
He got up again, sighing wearily. I rolled over onto my side, away from him. Kurt whimpered and curled into a tighter ball beside me. “You gonna’ be alright?” he was asking me from the door. “Anthony will be back in an hour or so. He won’t be long.” I heard the rattle of keys as he grabbed his from the table next to the door. “Danny?”
“I said, you gonna’ be okay? If I go? I’d tell them to shove it, but Anthony reckons we really need the money, so…”
“Yeah, fine,” I muttered irritably. “Just go.”
“Alright, alright, sorry for breathing. I’ll see you later okay?”
When I did not answer, he groaned and stormed out of the bed-sit. I opened my eyes and stared at nothing. I could hear the TV chattering in the background. The phone rang again, but I did not move. I closed my eyes and tried to find sleep. The smokes had removed me slightly from everything, and that was a good thing, I reasoned. The rage was dulled for the time being, the fear and the panic held back. I would have to control them all until Anthony returned. I would have to keep my eyes closed tightly and tell myself that monsters did not exist. I missed Lucy’s arms around me. It was like a knife to my heart every time I even thought about her, but I had told her to stay away for now. To be on the safe side, I had tried to tell her, but the grief and confusion in her eyes was hard to escape.
I felt like I was living on a knife edge. Inevitability washing over my existence in greedy, vicious waves. Why the fuck was the phone still ringing? I tried to sleep, but the phone would not stop ringing. It was making me feel rattled, and caged in, shaky with frustration and creeping resentment. I pulled my arms over my head and covered it. I squeezed my eyes shut. The phone stopped. I breathed in slowly, deeply, and exhaled it back out again. Sleep stole in upon me.
I was torn back out from it just minutes later. The fucking phone again, ringing and ringing and ringing. I growled with impatience, sat up and lunged from the bed, and found the phone on the side table with everything else we needed in a hurry; ashtrays and lighters and keys and money. I picked it up and looked at it, and half considered hurling it through the window. Then I wondered if it might be Lucy. “Hello?”
“Danny! It’s me, mum!” she sounded excited and breathless with fear and something else. I leant against the wall, and my head was spinning.
“Why’d you keep phoning?” I demanded. “I’m trying to sleep.”
“Because it’s important, that’s why, I need to tell you something!”
“I finally did it, I finally did something right.”
“I called the police honey. Just now. I called them. I spoke to this really lovely female officer, and I said it’s not an emergency, but she is going to come and see me tomorrow, when he’s out.”
I pushed my hair from my face. “Really?”
“Yes, really. I wanted you to know. I did it. I phoned them.” She seemed to catch her breath on the other side of the phone, and then went on. “She talked me through everything. I have to press charges against him, and then they can arrest him. They can even make him stay away from me while I get myself sorted. If he comes near me, he’ll get arrested. Oh she was so nice and helpful Danny.”
I breathed out through my nostrils. My mouth was clamped shut. My lips did not seem to be able to move, or open. Conflicting emotions rose up within me. Relief teased and taunted me, daring me to believe in it, while resentment and darkness swirled so thickly inside my head I found it impossible to congratulate her. You don’t know him at all, I wanted to say to her. Her naivety was astounding. Her innocence. Her hope. You do not know him at all. “Danny? Are you there?”
“Well what do you think?”
“Are you okay? Have you seen him?”
“Not for a few days.”
“Well you just hold on honey. You just sit tight. It will all be over tomorrow. Everyone will know the truth about him, and he will never be able to hurt either one of us ever again. Okay?”
I thought about what she was saying for a moment, turning the words over inside of my head. I wanted to believe her. I wanted to grab the light that she had held out to me. “Okay,” I murmured.
“I’m sorry it took me so long.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow, after she’s been. I’ll have more to tell you then. I’ll let you know what happens, okay?”
“Okay,” I hung up on her before she could say anything else. I wanted my mind to be free for a while. Free of wonder, and clutter, and fear, and hope. I turned off the TV, put a record on and went back to the bed. It was that old song, that song I had drifted towards at Billy’s, all that time ago. I could see her in my head then. June Madison, her long blonde hair hanging down over one shoulder, as she swayed and moved to the music coming from her little battered radio on the kitchen window sill. My head sank into my pillow and I mouthed the gentle words as they came to me, as they filled my fading mind with sweetness and pain; When rain has hung the leaves with tears, I want you near to kill my fears, to help me leave all my blues behind….For standing in your heart, is where I want to be, and I long to be…ahh but I may as well try to catch the wind…I curled around Kurt, and I slept.
The next time I awoke, it was because Kurt was whining. I could hear his little claws scraping at the door to get out. I rolled over in bed, groggy and thick with sleep, and clogged up dreams and stretching memories. “You want a wee?” I asked him, rubbing at my face with one hand. He turned in a circle, tail wagging and eyes bright. He barked at the door and whined again. “Okay, hang on, hang on.” I lowered my feet to the floor, grabbed my pack of cigarettes and lighter and stuffed them into my pocket to smoke outside. I opened the door and he scampered quickly through it on his squat little legs, and I smiled at the sight of his little white arse disappearing down the first flight of stairs.
I stepped through the door to go after him, and I was instantly startled by an enormous shadow coming from the right, smothering me in darkness. I backed up, shaking my head no, my eyes widening, as he filled the doorway, as he blocked out the light, and the hope, and towered over me, with this strange and cautious expression on his face. He held up giant hands as if to soothe me. “It’s okay, don’t freak out,” he said to me, “I need to talk to you, it’s about your mum.”
I glanced behind him. I could see Kurt out on the landing, hovering there with his small head cocked to one side, and his ears aloft. I felt suddenly a million miles away from the outside world, and as the distance between Howard and me was swallowed up in huge strides, I knew that even if I did manage to get past him, I would not make it very far. I looked back at Howard and accepted this was it. One way or another. This was it then. I shrugged my shoulders. “What about her?” He looked pained, as if he might cry, and he wrung his big hands together.
“She’s in the hospital,” he said. “She took an overdose last night. I came back from work and found her. Called the ambulance just in time.”
“She’s okay,” he asserted quickly. “They’re taking good care of her. But she wants to see you. She asked me to come and get you, to go and see her there.” He made a small hand gesture towards the open door. I felt my skin crawl with knowing and I shook my head at him.
“Bullshit. I just spoke to her a while ago. You’re lying. Get out.”
A different face fell over the one he had presented to me. His eyebrows rose slowly to meet his receding hairline. A calm smile tugged up the corners of his lips. “I’m giving you a chance to do this the easy way,” he said very softly. I felt cold with terror, like I had been wrapped in ice.
“My friends are back any minute.”
“Oh really?” he looked amused and rocked back on his heels. “Is that why I saw one get on the bus not so long ago? And the other one is at work, because I checked, little man, I checked.”
My jaw was shuddering. My teeth clattered against one another. I watched the smile slide across his face, and I watched the small, stone like eyes gleaming at me with the satisfaction of victory. “I’ve been watching you,” he informed me. “I told you that once before, do you remember? Do you remember after the wedding when you tried to run away? I also told you that I’d be the one to decide when you could leave. Didn’t I? Do you remember that conversation shit stain? Anyway, I’m here to do you a favour. I’m your last chance mate. Your last chance to be a good boy. You get one last chance to get it right, to make amends and be part of a proper family.”
I backed up further. I reached out with one hand, made contact with the thin glass of the window, and felt nausea swimming to the surface. “No chance,” I said, shaking my head, not taking my eyes from his face. “I don’t want it. I don’t want anything from you.”
Kurt had edged back into the room. He was at Howards feet, sniffing. I saw him pull his head back in confusion, before thrusting it forward to sniff again. Howard saw him, and made his move quickly, letting out a hungry growl as he swept down with one arm and snatched the little dog up by the scruff of his neck. I stepped forward automatically, reaching for him. “No! What’re you doing?”
Howard held him up and looked him over. “Ahh what a sweet little thing,” he said. “Sweet little rat! Yeah, I’ve seen you two going about together, makes me fucking sick!” He used his other hand to grab one of Kurts wiggling back legs, then he let go of his neck and held him aloft by one leg. The dog cried out in pain, and Howard jerked him behind, slamming him against the wall. I ran forward.
He laughed, shoved me back with a hand to the chest and I landed on my backside. Howard held the dog up again, examining him as he twisted and yelped in his grip. I scrambled to my feet and rushed forward again, but he grabbed my t-shirt and held me back. “Horrible little thing,” he mused. “Look at it, nasty little rat!”
“Put him down you fucking arsehole!”
“I’ll break his fucking legs,” he retorted and swung Kurt against the wall again. There was a horrible thump, and I felt desperate sobs rising in my chest. I struggled against his hand.
“Please!” I tried to reach for him, but Howard held him up higher and he was hanging limply now, breathing rapidly and looking dazed. “Please stop it! Stop it! Don’t hurt him!”
“Come here,” Howard pulled me forward by my clothes and wrapped a firm arm around my shoulders. “I ought to snap all his legs off and flush him down the toilet,” he sniggered into my ear. “That’s what I’ll do if you don’t behave yourself, right?” With my eyes on the dog, I nodded quickly. “Good. Come here.”
I saw him drop the dog. I felt his hand snatching up my hair. I caught a glimpse of Kurt staggering off to hide under the bed, and then I saw the same wall, flying towards my face.