Thanks for all the feedback on Paulie. I made some changes and submitted this version for the anthology. I’ll learn if I made the cut by the end of July.
Half A Childhood
At last, Dad came home from the hospital, while Jay, Catherine and I were at school. That evening we were each allowed a few minutes in his room. I, being eight and eldest, went up first.
A face turned purple.
Mottled and bubbled and lumpen. One eye closed like a boxer’s.
An ogre, a brute, a fairytale monster.
Underneath was my Dad.
Still strong, with hard hands and black, wavy hair.
He sat up in bed, beneath the bobbly green blanket, toenails curling black, peeping out. I felt secure as he pulled me onto his knee.
“Are you scared to look at me, son? I’m your Dad.”
And I wasn’t scared, it was just strange.
“Don’t you worry, Paulie. Did your mother tell you what happened?”
I nodded, but he saw me, unsure, and he knew me.
He went on and spoke words Mum hadn’t. They each tried to protect me, my parents, in different ways. He felt he was protecting me now.
“I was on my way home when I was attacked,” he said, and took a long pull on his fag.
“Men with hammers. Bastards hitting me with the tools of my trade.”
“But you fought them?”
“Oh, I fought them, by Jesus. They were after the bag I was carrying. Sure, there was thousands in banknotes inside.”
“Did you stop them?”
“I held onto that bag like it was my baby. But there was four of them. They smashed me backwards through the window of a cafe, and when I woke up, the bag was gone.”
My eyes widened and I curled into him, Old Spice and cigarette-scented, as he told me the moral of his story.
“There are only two people who could’ve known, son, I’d be walking that way at that time with money in a bag. One of them set me up. I’m going to find out who. And he’ll be sorry.”
And I felt warmth spreading out from my heart. There was nothing my Dad couldn’t fix.
I sat on the carpet as Mum sipped her tea, curtains drawn to keep the light out.
“Has it stopped ringing now?” I hoped it was OK to ask.
“It comes and goes. At night it’s worse. My jaw hurts when I swallow. At least I should lose some bloody weight now.”
I pulled at the shaggy carpet.
“Sometimes he hits me hard, too.”
“This is different, Paulie. My head’s been ringing for days. I didn’t want anyone seeing me, but your Dad made me do the shopping.”
“Why don’t we just leave? Get away from him forever.”
“Sometimes I dream of running away. It always turns out the same. We pack a suitcase and I take you, Jay and the girls on a train. For a day or two, we’re OK, in a B&B by the sea. But he always finds us.”
I leaned into her.
“He finds us and he’s so angry, you’ve never seen him so bad. He screams at me for taking you all, doesn’t care who hears him. Then he beats me black and blue, and you’re all crying but he still won’t stop… Doesn’t stop until he’s killed me.”
Her faraway look unsettled me.
“But dying isn’t the worst part. The worst part is leaving all of you with him, knowing I can’t do anything to protect you.”
“When I’m older, I’ll protect you, Mum.”
“No you won’t, you’ll be just like him.”
My throat constricted but I forced the words out.
“I won’t. I’m nothing like him.”
“Then keep it that way. When you’re old enough, get far away from here and don’t come back.”
“One day, things’ll be different, you’ll see. I’ll be rich and you can come and live with me.”
His ghost stole in like the grey fingers of dawn.
His back wheel still spinning, glimpsed from inside the grocer’s, while I queued to buy a Cadbury’s Applause. The bike on its side, handlebars on pavement.
Then he was beside me. My pulse kaleidoscoped.
“Jay, what are you doing here?” I stammered. “You’re supposed to be in the hospital.”
“I’m alright now, Paulie. Everything’s fine.”
Disbelief. The queue shuffled forwards and I broke his gaze, making sure of my place.
“Does Mum know you’re here? She’s been so worried.”
“It’s OK. Everything’s fine.”
The queue shuffled again. One away from paying.
“Let me buy this, then we can go home. Everyone’s gonna be so happy to see you.”
“I have to go now.”
His tone arrested me.
Our eyes locked.
“I have to go now, Paulie. Don’t worry. Everything’s fine.”
His voice, soft but firm, held me close. His smile, too wise for my little brother.
I fumbled through my coins and bought the Applause. When I turned, the bike, and he, were gone.
A hand on my shoulder, shaking.
I burrowed deeper.
Shaking again, from dream to dawn.
“Your Mum’s home. You know what that means, don’t you?”
I nodded, smiled. He looked at me strangely.
“You know what that means, don’t you?”
I sat up in bed as he went through to Catherine’s room.
There, in dawn’s half-light, the penny dropped. My world spun upside down.
Mum and Dad were home from the hospital.
That meant Jay was dead.
“Do you want a cup of tea, Mum?” I asked.
I made one anyway. She didn’t mean it. Dad’s no-show upset her.
I perched on the armchair opposite, as the girls nestled into Mum on the settee, sharing an unspoken solidarity from which I was excluded. There was an empty biscuit packet on the carpet. My stomach rumbled.
The News at Ten chimed in.
“Poll tax riots in London today.”
Trevor McDonald, admonishing tone.
A broiling throng, raised banners, clenched fists.
“Protest in Trafalgar Square escalates into running battle.”
Riot police, traffic cones hurled, bandaged head.
“Scenes among worst in living memory.”
Dad tears across the screen, dirty sleeves rolled up, dark locks flying.
A crunching blow, policeman’s jaw, helmet arcing through the air.
Trevor’s mouth was moving but I didn’t hear words. A vein pulsed angrily on Mum’s face. One second, two seconds, three.
I fought to keep it down, but my whole body began to fizz, starting at the stomach and moving up, till in one great surge, pride erupted, spilling over the barricades. Dad, hitting a copper like a film star, and I was jumping all over the place while Catherine gawped, Lucy bounced on the settee and Elizabeth fell off it.
“That’s it, get to bed, all of you.”
“But Mum, come on, it’s amazing.”
Her tone shattered our frenzy like a truncheon breaks a rib. We went.
“Night, Mum,” said Elizabeth.
The house was consumed in silence.
Too excited to sleep, I ran action-replays in my head, waiting for Dad to return, like an out-of-season Father Christmas, down the chimney.
“Say that again.” My voice was quiet, with sharp edges.
My eyes held Dad’s, heart cannoning so loud I could hear it in my ears, deathly calm.
“If Jay was alive, he’d beat the shit out of you, and love it, too,” he snarled.
I felt each word land and let the volcano erupt inside of me, pounding Dad, right and left, again and again across the face.
Expecting a murderous counterassault at any moment, I knew I had to make this pay. Oblivious to his blows, I forced him back, back again, through the doorway, into the dining room, a cacophony of shrieks heard dimly behind me, years of violence and suffering exploding out, until suddenly, he lay face down on the lino, strangely still, as blood wept like lava from his nose.
“You’ve killed him, Paulie.” Mum’s voice shook.
I stood there, heart and head pounding, taking in this unexpected conclusion. He wasn’t dead, I was sure of that. More surprisingly, neither was I.
I stood on the cusp of freedom, while my sisters wailed all around me, but felt no liberation from this troll beneath the bridge. Where could I go? I was sixteen, in the middle of my GCSEs.
I walked numbly back upstairs to my room, where I took out the old Slazenger cricket bat, barely a red mark on it, and placed it within arm’s reach under the bed. Then I sat, on the carpet, waiting for annihilation.