My mother called it the sickness. Those six words sum up my childhood.
First, until I hit eighteen, she insisted I call her mother. That doesn’t lend itself to warmth and affection. It’s a poor baseline for family life. It may be that I was born damaged, but my upbringing made things worse.
My mother suffered complications after the birth. She experienced excessive bleeding and multiple stitches. They told her to think hard before having another child. In the end, I was it. It’s strange to imagine their hopes and dreams resting with me. My destiny was elsewhere from their idle thoughts.
They called me Abel. It’s powerful with an element of fear. My mother said she wanted a name people would remember. How right she would prove to be.
Second, my behaviour changed when I started senior school. I don’t think anyone notices odd conduct before that unless you’re off the scale. Mother found me blasting insects with a magnifying glass, or crucifying teddies on the rockery. Poor Action Man was burnt at the stake for failing to respond to questioning.
They caught me watching a neighbour’s house in flames. Instead of making an emergency call, I sat on my coat on their lawn and watched the blaze take hold. The police thought they had an easily solvable case. They only exonerated me when the couple confessed they might have fallen asleep with a pan on the stove.
They asked why I didn’t tell anyone about the fire. I said I assumed someone else would. I knew that wasn’t true, and I simply wanted to see what would happen. After the fuss died down, I realised I was different. Not from everyone, but from most. I felt responsible, and an influential part of me enjoyed that.
I read the Bible and came upon the story of Abel. I discovered his brother murdered him and then Abel was forgotten. The focus was on Cain, despite his terrible deed. To my young mind, that felt wrong. I took that lesson to heart. Evil people may commit dark deeds, but it is they who are remembered and they who have the power.
The next year, a friend and I climbed a wall. He fell. The school found me observing him as opposed to going for help, despite his howling cries of agony. That ended another of my dwindling acquaintances, and the gossip about me pushing him found its way home. I had bursts of crazy behaviour and then spells of normality. My memories of events were hazy afterwards. I decided I just wouldn’t remember. Try it some time, it’s a learned skill.
Thereafter, it was the sickness, as if labelling it made it somehow more acceptable to my mother. Like wrapping a dog shit in birthday paper. My mother wasn’t affectionate anyway, so nothing much changed. My understanding was she thought parenthood was a duty you endured until the children left the house and were no longer your responsibility.
My father cross-dressed. She called that the problem. He edited books and worked from home. My memories are of him being in his office with his male friends, laughing and drinking. I recall thinking he had a great job.
I’ve no idea why my parents didn’t split up, as they led separate lives from what I could see. Perhaps because, even though she had no empathy, she did have determination, tenacity and her faith. Maybe that’s what they’ll inscribe on her gravestone. ‘Here lies Isabella, she persevered’. She couldn’t have expected things to work out the way they did. Bless her. The sickness and the problem. It’s not surprising she wasn’t fond of trips to the coast and family meals.
My dad’s flamboyance became more noticeable as the years passed. Around the time I was acting oddly, he began to be seen around town. As Lucille. That’s a tough thing to explain for any twelve-year-old. As a late developer, I had little with which to defend myself.
That was a bad year. An impotent rage coursed through my body and a desire for control stamped itself on my personality. The bullies placed various letters in front of my name to insult and humiliate me. I became isolated and furious, and I wanted revenge. My parents moved us miles away. I left Abel behind and used my middle name.
I still struggled to connect with others and saw life as a game, the people just pieces – ones to be idly swept from the board when their time came. For unknown reasons, I didn’t see children and animals in the same light. Maybe their innocence meant different rules applied. At the beginning, I hoped my parents would notice me. I soon quit that pointless task. Later, I wanted to lash out, to hurt, but I was too weak, and too lonely.
Long years passed. I finished school and applied to a college on the other side of the country, where nobody knew my history. There, I legally changed my surname, too.
I couldn’t cope with the routine of academic life. The endless deadlines had me permanently on edge. Sleep eluded me. I remained in touch with my parents, but I discovered girls, drink and drugs. After a night out, Abigail, a girl from the local area, accused me of rape.
I had become interested in dominance and persuasion. I wasn’t particularly bothered about having sex with the girls I met, but I was keen to see how far they’d go. It thrilled me to think someone I had met a few hours before, who I might have bought a drink, would later let me insert part of my body into hers.
As with all things, I pushed too much. Many women have no boundaries, but Abigail did. She reported me to the authorities, and it looked bleak. It turned out my dad knew an influential man from a club he attended. To my amazement, the charges were dropped if I agreed never to approach her again. I can only guess money changed hands. That was one of the few gifts my dad gave me. The other was the chat we had afterwards.
He called me to his office on a Sunday morning and stated that we should talk.
‘People are different,’ he said. ‘You may find it better to conceal yourself in plain sight. Society expects us to live a certain way and, even if that’s not who you are, it’s easier to give people what they want. Eventually, like me, you won’t be able to control the impulses from within. What then emerges is the real you. That creature may only be here for a short time. If that’s the case, revel in the joy of those moments, and smile at the end.’
I remember nodding. Something inside recognised his words and their coils tightened on my soul.
‘Failing that,’ he said, ‘stifle it with alcohol. That worked for me.’
He grinned, but that’s what I did. I self-medicated with a vast range of substances, and concealed myself amongst those who would reject me.
My mother was rigid, but she showed me right from wrong. My father was the dangerous one, because he taught me how to hide.
Six months later, I drove to Abigail’s home to see if I wanted retribution. Her family had little. They lived in a labourer’s cottage on a farm. I waited behind a tree with a telescope until she appeared. The breeze swirled her dress, and I imagined her giggling as she pushed it down. However, I couldn’t see the detail as even with the magnified vision she was still a blur. I wasn’t stupid enough to be seen.
Should I drive Abel to the deepest part of me, and bury him with shame? Would he leave me? Might Abel die?
Later, I pondered on what the whole experience had been like for Abigail. Then the truth hit. I didn’t feel anything at all.
Judith, the birdwatcher
Judith pulls her large front door closed and walks down her circular driveway. She stops when she arrives at the pavement and turns to the house. Such a grand building, although she never thought she’d end up living in only a few rooms. Raymond’s Daimler is still parked outside the double garage. Not being able to drive herself, she wasn’t sure what to do with it. The car, and most things, are losing the battle against the elements. She doesn’t want to change anything though, as this way, sometimes at least, it feels as if he might return.
She picks her route along the bulging paving slabs. You need to be careful at this time of the morning. Her closest friend, only friend really, broke her hip tripping on one. The infection she caught in hospital killed her. She would have been sixty today. Judith’s vision blurs with tears as she struggles to remember how many years ago that accident was, and fails to recall why they always laughed together.
Lost in her memories, she bumps into the elbow of Thomas from a few doors away. He was in a trashy magazine she read about thirty-somethings partying in London and she recognised his face. Aftershave fills the air, and she admires his expensive going-out clothes. Coming home clothes, perhaps. Thomas is with his new partner with the ridiculous beard. She never did like that particular look. They’re necking, as always. Great, big, slavering kisses as though they’re sharing the only remaining oxygen in the world.
Is it necessary to do that in the street? All of a sudden, she remembers how she was those first few weeks of love with her husband-to-be, and then she understands. Judith smiles and waits for them to stop so she can apologise. What she gets is a glance around of disdain. The boyfriend often says ‘Hi’, but he is under the thrall of her neighbour and Thomas refuses to acknowledge Judith. It’s one of the few things that still evokes a reaction. It makes her mad. A week must have gone by since she had a chat with anyone.
She walks away considering whether talking to the postman about discarded rubbish constitutes a conversation. The model who lives further down her street approaches. She doesn’t know that that’s the girl’s job, it’s just a game Judith plays. The woman has the most wondrous long hair. Biblical brown locks. The kind you want to reach out and touch. It’s loose in a Spanish gypsy style and makes Judith think of wild horses. Maybe her name’s Claudia, and she does shampoo commercials. Judith waits for their eyes to meet so they can hail each other.
The beautiful lady breezes past and, as usual, ignores her as well. Where do they all go until five in the morning? No one else greets her on the way. Judith enters the park. There are street lamps on the path but they don’t have the power of the ones on the road. Strange shadows stretch from bins and benches. Judith doesn’t fear the dark any more. She knows the worst things that happen to you occur while you’re in bed.
That’s how it’s been since Raymond died. Every day, sometimes hourly, she recalls those final few months. A year has passed, and she still exists in a pea-souper of grief. And of guilt. He was the poor man choking on his last breaths. The one whose mucus caused those horrifying sounds from the back of his throat. However, she often felt like the victim. He was leaving her alone, so it was Judith’s tragedy.
There’s a field at the edge of the park. It’s wasteland mostly. Kids have pulled two fence panels loose. If you’re small, it’s possible to squeeze through. Once, four boys saw her from a distance, but they fled as if they had seen a ghost. She doesn’t worry about meeting anyone with evil intent. She has little to lose and may even appreciate the drama. It would be good to know her heart still beats.
A pond in the middle of the field attracts the wildlife. The dawn chorus builds as first light appears on the horizon. A fallen log on the far side makes a comfortable seat to let the birds distract her from the pain, so she steps through the long grass. There’s little breeze. What there is keeps her hood on her head. She feels it shift and swirl, and that’s when her nostrils flare.
Judith believes that the sense of smell is the final one to depart at the dreadful end. The only way she seemed to be able to settle Raymond in those awful, relentless last few days was to cuddle his skeletal frame into her body. Let him draw in her comforting fragrance. Obviously, he smelled of death by then, but there was a time when his scent close by was all she needed. Is that why she allowed the rest of her life to slip away and is that the reason she has nothing to live for?
This stench though is something completely different. She knew it over forty years ago, and the vivid recollection surprises her. In the distance, she sees a thin trail of smoke. Removing her pocket binoculars, she scans the area and watches the wisps drift through a large tree. There can be nothing good over there. To her surprise, she strides towards it with purpose.
She’s subconsciously aware of absent birdsong. She hears an animal scurry away through the undergrowth. Other than the ever-present hum of traffic, this world is nearly silent.
The wind has dropped again, but she doesn’t need to smell that aroma twice to remember. She felt the whoosh as the car went up that day. It had driven into a skip, not even that fast, but the resulting explosion could have been from any number of war films.
Judith and others stood close by and watched. There was nothing anyone could have done. She understood instantly it was the odour of human flesh cooking that caused her tongue to fold against the roof of her mouth as if to block her airwaves. A strange smell. Sweet and sickly charcoal was the closest description she could give when eager children probed her experience later. It registered in her brain as something never to be forgotten.
In the clearing under the tree is the metal-spring frame of a single bed. There is no avoiding the reek so close, but Judith doesn’t care. The bed on its own isn’t surprising. She’s seen many a hammock or tent in that spot, even a fridge once. It’s the contorted black body that grabs her attention. On approaching, she sees used disposable barbecue trays under the bed. Judith also clocks the twisted wire that secures the wrists and ankles to the four corners.
Whatever clothing there was is burnt and unrecognisable, yet the face is untouched except for a few bruises and marks. On close inspection, the face belongs to a woman free from pain. Not old either, as her skin is freckled and clear, but in life she’d have been painfully thin. What had this person done to be treated in such a way? Did she deserve it? Maybe she was a drug addict and a prostitute. Judith watched the torture of Raymond by a relentless cancer that knew no mercy. At least this one’s demise would have been over relatively fast.
Judith wonders why she doesn’t feel for this girl’s plight. Has she become a monster herself? The emotion bubbling away in her body is not sorrow or shock; it is anger. It’s resentment of the model and the gay lovers who ignored her earlier. They know nothing of suffering and what Judith has been through. They’re too self-obsessed and arrogant to consider others’ feelings. Judith wants noticing, but the thought of getting involved with the police is unappealing. She checks her mobile and notes there is a reasonable signal. There’s no escape from the twenty-first century here. An anonymous payphone from the street will do instead.
She turns to leave. She’ll need to find somewhere else to watch the birds. A trickle of sweat rolls down her back as a creaking sound comes from behind her. She’s too old to run and looks back at the body. All is quiet. Even the cars are silent. She edges closer, looking down at the face. Is that a twitch she can see? Judith peers down and suddenly the girl takes a breath.
‘Dan, can you come here before you leave?’
It’s an order, not an invitation. I’d hoped to slip out, like a pimpernel with a quest for mid-strength lager. Olivia has collapsed on the sofa with the dog. Her eyes droop. The Labrador, Bailey, looks far more pleased to see me than she does.
Bailey loves me more than the rest. That’s because I’m the one who walks him. Perhaps in his own canine way he hopes to even up the affection in the house. I resisted the terrible names my daughter, Grace, came up with for him. Plank, Doughnut, and Peanuts being the memorably poor ones. Bailey was reasonable in comparison. Of course, he doesn’t respond to that now.
Life likes to mess with me. Our son, Charlie, couldn’t pronounce Bailey when he was young, so he called him Baby. We all thought that was hilarious, so we called him the same. Therefore, if you hear the plaintive cries of a spurned lover on the common at dawn shouting, ‘Baby, come here,’ that’s me. Only Peanuts was worse.
‘God, can you believe this?’ Olivia gestures to the TV.
The screen fills with smoke, debris, and running people.
‘Where is that? Greece?’
She shoots me a disdainful glare. ‘It’s our city centre.’
‘Wow? You say wow? A gang stabbed an immigrant to death in the street yesterday.’
‘I apologise. Wasn’t I shocked enough for you? I didn’t realise we have acceptable comments to make for that sort of thing.’
She gives me a small shake of her head so I know I’m wrong, but a smile sneaks out.
‘Sorry I snapped. I’ve had a draining day.’ Tiredness hangs heavy on her face.
‘You wanted to live here.’ Heaven knows why I thought it necessary to slip in that blade. That argument is old and weary.
‘Have you seen Charlie?’ she asks.
Is it a question about our son, or a demand?
‘Yeah. Chucky is in the kitchen trying to hammer something square into something round. Like the fridge into the washing machine.’
‘I wish you wouldn’t call him that.’
‘You wanted to call him Charles.’
‘I wouldn’t have done if I knew you’d keep calling him Chucky.’
‘I didn’t know the devil possessed him back then.’
‘He’s a normal three-year-old boy.’
The wreckage of our house indicates otherwise, but I can see when I’m beaten.
‘What’s Grace doing?’ she asks.
‘God knows. I’ve not seen her for hours.’
A final dirty glance lets me understand any more banter wouldn’t be appreciated.
‘She’s in her room,’ I eventually answer. ‘Lining up those plastic things that cost more pound for pound than gold.’
‘Are you meeting Ian?’
She knows I am. Why do I feel guilty? I nod with caution.
‘Don’t get too pissed.’
‘Of course not.’
I turn to leave and consider if I should kiss her goodbye. Bailey’s stomach gurgles, which is a regular occurrence – unless it was Olivia’s. Either way, I give it a miss. She barks another comment at my back.
‘Remember what I said.’
Are there any worse words a woman can say to a man? I have no idea what she’s on about. Since having children, my memory has become a piece of wood left in water – a heavy, useless thing that absorbs little. I forget the names of everything. Those plastic things, the names of other people’s kids and any date of importance to make sure I’m always on the back foot.
Our goldfish even stare at me as if to say, ‘Nice to see you again, Dan,’ and I can’t remember what they’re called. Their bowl is in the hall. Cleaning it is one of my jobs. I peer into their murky world and note they’re relaxing on the surface.
My shoes aren’t where I left them. I swear she moves them to further mess with the little confidence I have in my ability to recall even the most basic of information. My dog-walking boots will do. I hope the mud and grass will fall off on the way. She marches out of the lounge as I put my hand out to close the front door, and I think she’s come to kiss me goodbye after all. Instead she climbs the stairs, adding a closing directive.
The door shuts, and a chill wind buffets my nervous eyes.
I climb the stairs, picking up a tie on the way, and step over his shoes at the top. I toss his work shirt into the wash basket. Why does he leave them next to it? Surely it can’t be that much more effort to stick things inside. I trip over a pair of trainers in the bedroom and wonder again if he has early onset Alzheimer’s.
I must try not to nag him. When did we become a couple that didn’t kiss each other when one left the house? He is trying and I know he struggles to live in such a busy city after growing up in a little town and the life he later led. I brought him to London. Responsibility lies with me.
We met in Vietnam. Initially, on a bus. There are many shocking twelve-hour rides when you backpack through a place like that. We didn’t talk the first time we saw each other. Every seat was taken, and he had to ask a man to move a box so he could sit down. After many hours of stern silence, the man growled at him in terrible English that the box contained his wife’s ashes. Poor old Dan. Those never-ending journeys along damaged roads on broken seats are rarely easy but that took some beating.
We sat ten seats away but caught each other’s eye. He gave me a small grin as though he’d known me his whole life. It still makes me smile now when I remember. I was approaching forty and yet I stuck my tongue out at him in the manner of a naughty schoolgirl. He laughed, bold and loud, like he didn’t care what anyone thought. He held my stare for a few seconds, then winked, and a shimmer ran through me. I somehow knew he would be important in my life and a sense of calm came over me that had been missing for a long, long, time.
I do what I’ve often done since he moved into my house, even though it’s been many years. With stealth, I slip to the window to watch him walk down the street. He usually saunters along, smiling at people, and it always makes me relax. I hate that we argue because I love him so much. Things will get better when the kids are older. Then we’ll have more time for each other. He hasn’t come into view yet, so I wave at our neighbour cleaning his fabulous car. He’s a nice guy. We’re lucky to have friendly people around us.
I adore where we live. I bought this house over a decade ago before prices went crazy. It’s so peaceful. We couldn’t afford to buy here now, with me being part-time and Dan’s salary. I try to make him think it’s both our homes, but I know it can be difficult to move to a place where someone has lived a life before you met.
The leaves are turning in the long tree-lined street. It’s as though we live in a village as opposed to the suburbs of London, and I know we’ll be okay. Soon we’ll marry, and then he’ll belong.
I rest my head on the front door for a minute. Olivia and I are drifting further apart. Will we ever get it back? On cue, to sour my mood, I hear the idiot next door whistling. I can’t sneak out the rear of the house as the railway line runs along there, so I have to walk out the same way every time. He will be in his drive, cleaning that monstrosity of a car. If I race by with my head down, he might not notice.
The Chariots of Fire theme tune powers my legs as I pace past him.
His posh New York accent stops me in my steps as if a border guard shouted freeze.
‘Mike, good to see you. Washing your car?’ Again.
It’s getting late in the year and the air has a nip at this hour, yet he wears a tight T-shirt. I’m a pansy in my three layers. His car looks like it cost more than our house. It’s a flame-red behemoth with an enormous bonnet. He cleans it with long, languid strokes as though he’s stroking his penis. Being British, I’m too polite to comment. Instead, I admire his rippling muscles and squint at the flash from his megawatt smile.
He’s a doctor or surgeon or something. He has told me before, but I couldn’t concentrate due to the rubbing.
‘Car looks great.’
Our ride sits embarrassed next to his and is far from great. We have a sensible people carrier, and it’s brown. Yes, that’s right. Try to think of the last brown vehicle you saw. Why make a car in that colour? We, for obvious reasons, bought it cheap. I didn’t think driving a shit-coloured car would bother me. Yet, every time I get in it, a piece of me dies.
It’s not even well made. The third row of seats are, in effect, a crumple zone for when you are rear-ended by any of the plethora of uninsured cars around here. If we have to give other people’s kids a lift along with ours, I always put theirs in the back. Is that normal? Or should I share the risk? When I’m driving them, I have visions of a squashed tin of sardines with the tomato sauce oozing out.
Not only is it an eyesore, but it’s also a total money pit. The thieving sharks at my local garage grin when I turn up. I’m practically paying their pensions with their exorbitant demands. Every time I’ve arrived to collect my car the mechanic has been sitting on a tyre, smoking. Even Mike says he’d like to teach them a lesson. He calls the manager Thieving Terry. We still use the garage as we suspect they’re all like that and at least Thieving Terry’s is situated nearby.
Mike nods in agreement at my car compliment, and taps the wing mirror next to him as though it’s his dog.
‘Thanks, man. I love this car. When you coming over for a few beers? I have my own theatre. We could watch the game or a movie.’
Never. There’s no way I’m going in there. I bet he preys on men like me. Beaten down by life, so we’re too weak to fight him off.
He makes me say words like buddy, too. I disappoint myself.
I deliver a rictus grin, hunch my back, and shuffle away.
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