My Grandad’s old school held an exhibition in remembrance week, focusing on all the old pupils who had fought in the armed conflicts of our country. I...
"REMEMBER LAST NIGHT." A short story.
November 11, 2014
FALLING: A short story.
October 4, 2014
Occasionally I thought about killing. I guess it would be unusual not to as a soldier. I have nowhere to put the crazy stuff, so I lock it away, deep inside. Don’t dwell on it for long though, you don’t as a combat medic. You're there to try and save life, not take it. I had been in the service since the start of the Falklands war and was still there for both the gulf wars and finally Afghanistan. Not strictly a war. A war on terror the politicians said. Whatever. As my kids would say.
I was a Major, had kept re-signing and rolling the service years on. I got hurt in my last year in Afghanistan. Rolled an injured soldier over to help him breath, didn’t see the unexploded part of the IED underneath him. It malfunctioned, which is why him, and I, are still here. Me, with a withered left hand, that doesn’t work well anymore. Him, with an interesting scar on his left buttock, which apparently, the girls love.
I returned home to my wife and children who covered me in thick, sticky, gooey, unquestioning love. I’m a lucky guy. I soon settled into the life of being a stay at home Dad and writer. Decided to tell some tales, nail some nails.
I still dreamed of blood, sometimes a trickle, sometimes thick flowing rivers of the stuff. Would wake up sweating and trying to stifle a scream so loud that I feared if I let it out it would never stop. My wife said talk to somebody. I did. There’s a lot of help out there now for soldiers; it’s only taken about a hundred years.
I liked my psychologist, a great lady. Didn’t flinch when I told her tales of eviscerated young men, some of whom still walked through my nightmares. She said it was an accumulation. She was my valve, able to help release the steam, small hiss by small hiss.
I had just finished telling her of holding a young man’s hand as he died. Younger than my son. His legs and half his insides ripped away, nothing we could do. A female medic, holding one hand, me the other. Bandages, quikclot, compresses, tourniquets, strewn around the blood-soaked ground we kneeled on.
Sometimes you just have to stop. We had filled him full of Morphine, more than you should give. But it helped him. We both felt a slight increase of pressure from his hands as his soul floated out of him and away. I saw a tear slowly trickle out of the corner of the female medic’s eye, imagined the young soldier hitching a ride on it and flowing away.
I told the psychologist that I often dreamed of red tears. I thought she would ask me about that, but she didn’t. Said she wanted to do some word association.
‘Fire away.’ I said.
She held up her hand. ‘Compartments.’ She said. ‘Explain.’
‘One word or more?’ I smiled.
‘However many you like.’
‘There are two compartments for love.’ I said. ‘There’s the big one. My wife and kids, it’s full of love and fun and kindness and goodness.’
‘And the other?’
‘Small and mean, no love there.’
‘Who’s in that compartment?’
‘How old are they?’
‘Why no love?’
‘This is not that big a deal you know.’
She paused, stared at me for a while. Smiled. ‘You don’t have to tell me, you know that.’
I sighed. At least I think I did, maybe inwardly, maybe not. ‘My mother and father have never told me they love me. They have never praised me for anything. I think that most people would show a dog more affection and care. It was like that all through my childhood. I thought things would improve as we all grew older. They haven’t. Ever.’
‘Why is that?’
‘I think my mother has, and has always had a personality disorder. Everything and I mean everything is about her. There is no room for anyone else. She can be sweetness and light one minute and an unpredictable demon the next.’
‘I would guess that sixty years ago he was a normal, happy young man. A bit naïve and sheltered, who met a girl and fell in lust. By the time he realized what she was like, that there was no love, it was too late. People didn’t split up back in those days. I think that happy young man turned into a cynical unloved soul quite quickly, so he took it out on me. Physically and mentally, as did my mother.’
‘Occasionally they beat the shit out of me. Him more than her, usually when she told him too. She had her moments though, once hit me with a metal table lamp, split my head open, blood everywhere. When I went to school told them I bumped into a door.’
‘Some door.’ She grimaced.
‘That stopped quite quickly, when I was about fifteen. I stood up to him, threatened to do to him what he was doing to me. Bullies always back down quickly when you confront them. She stopped as well.’
My therapist glanced at her watch. Smiled kindly. I looked at my own. I was over time. ‘Next time.’ I said.
‘Next time.’ She agreed.
I went home. Kissed my wife, played some monopoly with the kids. Strange how things unfold. The phone rang; it was my brother.
‘Dad’s dead.’ He said.
‘Good for him, good for us. How?’
‘They say heart attack.’
‘He didn’t suffer then.’
‘Wicked witch of the west.’
My brother snorted; he had suffered too. ‘You know how she is. The funeral is going to be a massive inconvenience to her.’
‘Figures. You going?’
‘It’s one day. I’ll call you. Be lucky.’
I spoke again. ‘Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect.’
‘You’re quoting Emerson at this time of the day?’ Smart cookie, my brother. He hung up the phone.
I told my wife that Dad had died. She looked at me a long while. Brushed a stray hair out of her eye, brushed another. ‘You’re not sad?’
‘I am, but not in a way that most people would understand.’
‘You’re sad for what you never had with him.’
‘You know me too well.’ I said. We hugged for a long time. Big almond eyes, strands of auburn hair gently tickled my face, a reminder of living. My shield.
My brother called back later that evening, confirmed the funeral arrangements. I bit the bullet and called my mother. You might think that’s callous. This is how it goes.
The telephone voice. ‘May Hamble speaking.’
‘Mum, how are you?’
The mother voice. ‘Well, you took your time. At least your brother has the decency to call and help me. I don’t know what I’m going to do. You do realize that now your father’s gone I will only receive a third of his pension. How am I meant to manage on that.? The government old age pension is a joke. People like me have contributed all our lives, and they barely give us enough to scratch by on. The dogs, how am I going to feed the dogs. They like steak you know, not that tinned rubbish. How do they expect me to feed them properly? I’ll probably have to sell something to make ends meet. I might sell my wedding ring; I was going to leave it to that wife of yours. She doesn’t suit gold though does she, something in her skin. Strange family. I always took pity on her though; you wouldn’t know it the way she treats me. The help your father and I gave you children over the years too.’
Breath old woman, breath.
‘And another thing. It’s about time someone looked after me. That wife of yours, I always said what a nice girl she is. I could do with someone like that, looking after me in my old age. Bring me cups of tea.
What I thought…. Mum there’s no way on god’s green earth you’re moving in with us.
What I said….. Risking black looks from my wife. ‘Well maybe you could come and stay with us for a few days until you get used to things.’ Keeping the dog card close to my chest. Knowing it was coming.
‘But what about the dogs?’ ....... Bingo…… full house……. home run….. goal…..all in...... ‘I can’t leave the dogs.’
‘Well maybe you could put them in Kennels for a few days.’
‘What. Are you mad? Put them in Kennels?’ Over my dead body.’
I should be so lucky. Just a thought…… Not a dream in sight.
‘Are you there?’
‘Still here mum.’ Always here.
'You could say something. You’re just like your father, he would never say more than two words.’
‘What did you say?’
‘Nothing mum.’ ..... Edgeways, sideways, any way you want ways. No words.
‘As I was saying, until you interrupted me. How am I supposed to cope with the funeral? Aside from the money. How am I meant to cope?’
What I thought......You made the phone call. Easy. Funeral directors they know what they’re doing. What they do……deal with death. Ease the passage.
What I said.......‘Do you want me to ring the funeral director mum?’
‘Bit late for that, isn’t it? I’ve done it already. Never could rely on you and your brother. You were difficult as children, always in trouble. As for that sister of yours.’
Cue tears, big sobbing blobs raining down the phone.
‘I don’t know what I’m meant to have done. Hasn’t spoken to me for ten years. Ten years. What did I do? I always supported her even with those idiot boyfriends she hitched up with. That idiot, first husband. Oh, I told her and told him. Never a word of thanks from them. Those children of hers, the support I gave them.’
What I thought. ….. Screaming at little girls barely five years of age. Your rage, your pain. Should have kept it to yourself not shared it with children.
What I said…….. ‘I don’t know mum. I don’t know.’ Cowardly of me I know but what can I say. That your daughter, my sister; for her sanity and peace of mind had to cut you off. Do you think she wanted to? Do you think she doesn’t think about it every moment she looks into the eyes of her children?
‘Well. When are you coming then Christopher?’
Everyone calls me Chris, everyone except her. Christopher Robin went down with Alice. Sing along kids. ‘I’ll come tomorrow.’ I said. ‘We’ll talk.’
‘It’s too late for talking.’ Sobs again. ‘The things I’ve done for you children, not a word of thanks. Your father the same. That car of his, sitting on the drive. What am I meant to do with that? I suppose it’s worth a few pounds. Will help me feed the dogs for a while.
‘We’ll sort it.’ I said. I meant my brother and I. Not sure which one of us would take an axe to it first. ‘I’ll call you in the morning. Let you know I’m on my way.’
‘Okay then. See you. Bye.’ ……. Click.
That’s how my mother ends phone calls, conversations. That’s why every day of my life I tell my kids I love them. It's not hard to say is it? ‘I love you.’
We went to bed just after eleven that evening. By one a.m., the phone had rung thirty-seven times. Thirty-seven times it was my mother. On the thirty-eighth my wife ripped the phone cord out of the wall.
‘Turn your mobile off as well.’
‘You know she used to do that all night to your father?’
‘I told you she did.’
They had separate bedrooms. She would come crashing through his door dozens of times a night, hurling abuse at him that it was his fault she couldn’t sleep.
‘You know she’ll do that to us for evermore?’ My wife whispered.
‘I’ll change the phone numbers.’
‘You won’t Chris. You have a conscience; that’s why I love you.’
I rolled over. Cuddled up to my wife hard. ‘Sleep. I love you.’
The next morning I didn’t change the numbers, called my big brother. ‘What are we going to do Tom?’ I said.
‘How many calls?’
‘Thirty-seven, then Jane ripped the phone out of the world.’
‘Freudian slip. I meant wall.’
‘Mine only went off once.’
‘You ripped it out of the wall after one call?’
‘Nah. Put my headphones on. Led Zeppelin. Can sleep with that loud as you like.’
‘So what are we going to do?’
‘Same as we’ve always done. Endure.’
‘Not sure I can anymore.’
‘We’ve had this conversation a thousand times over the years.’
‘We endure. Same as when we were kids.’
‘I have another idea.’
‘We’re not kids anymore.’
‘This isn’t a kid idea.’
‘What time are you picking me up?’ …… My brother can’t drive or walk.
I looked at my watch. It was 8 a.m. ‘Thirty minutes.’
‘See you then. Love you.’
‘Love you too.’
‘See, it’s not that difficult.’
‘You don’t have to tell me.’
‘Yes I do. I’m your big brother and you’re the sensitive one.’
‘Twenty-eight minutes.’ …… Click.
It started raining as I pulled out of my drive. Cats dogs and buckets full by the time I reached my brother’s house.
He was waiting in the hallway, door open.
‘You’re two minutes late.’ He said.
‘You talked too long.’
‘On the phone.’
‘After I said thirty minutes.’
‘Thirty minutes is thirty minutes.’
‘Are we going?’
I held an umbrella as he wheeled himself down the drive in his wheelchair. By the time he was in my passenger seat and I had dumped his wheelchair in the back, I was soaking wet.
He looked at his watch. ‘Two hours to Mum’s?’
‘More like three in this muck.’
‘Three and a half and we’ll have time for a quick pint before we go in.’
Two voices……….. ‘You’re just like your father, he’s an alcoholic.’ We smirked at each other, two small boys again. As far as I knew our father had drunk a few pints of beer a week. In my mother’s mind that made him an alcoholic.
The drive was uneventful. Wet. We stopped at a pub round the corner from our mother’s house. As promised, one pint each.
‘So what do we do?’ My brother said.
‘She’ll want to move in, dogs and all.’
‘What does Jane say?’
‘Over her dead body?’
‘Close. Not as polite as that.’
‘We tell her we’ll help all we can. Organise a home help, things like that.’
‘She’ll say she can’t afford it.’
‘Then we’ll pay.’
‘You can’t afford it. I don’t want to.’
‘We’ll pay, find a way.’
‘Let’s go see her.’ I said.
Our parent’s house was set a couple of roads back from the seafront. The Kent coast is windswept at the best of times. Today the wind was driving sideways, lashing the rain into our faces. Nearly tipped my brother out of his wheelchair as I pushed him up the drive.
My mother opened the door at our first knock. She pointed at my brother’s chair. ‘You can leave that filthy thing in the hall. I can’t have all that dirt wheeled into the house. I can’t bend down like I used to you know.’
‘I’ll get your crutches.’ I said to him.
By the time I came back to the hallway my brother was struggling to push himself up out of his wheelchair. I slipped a crutch under each of his arms. He barely used them, was too weak. He struggled into the living room, where our mother already sat, and fell into an armchair.
‘Haven’t you mastered those things yet? If you ate a bit less and lost some weight, you might do better with them.’ My mother dabbed her eye with a tissue as she spoke.
‘He weighs less than nine stone.’ I said.
‘Leave it Chris.’ Said my brother.
I clenched my teeth....... And so it went on.
She said. ‘Did you bring any lunch with you?’
‘No. We’ll take you out.’ I said.
‘I don’t want to go out. That wife of yours would have brought some food for me. Where is she?’
‘Looking after the children, they have school today.’
‘Well, she should have taken them out, come here with you. Why didn’t she do that?’
What I thought. ….. She’s keeping them away from you and your poison.
What I said……. ‘They can’t miss school, you know that mum.’
‘The dogs need a walk as well. It’s about the only thing your father was good for.’
‘Let’s take them now.’ I said. ‘I’ll get some food for us all on the way back.’
‘I know mum. Doesn’t look like it’s going to stop. We’ll put the waterproofs on and get it done.’
‘I wasn’t planning on going out today.’
Tom spoke. ‘You need to get used to it mum. Someone has to walk the dogs now Dad’s gone.’
‘Typical of your bloody father to die, only thing he was good for, walking the dogs.’
‘Right Mum, I’ll make some tea while you and Chris are gone.’
‘Don’t you take that dirty wheelchair into my kitchen.’
‘Wouldn’t dream of it.’
She stomped up and down a bit, put wellington boots and a big old coat on. ‘Come on then let’s get it over with.’
I grabbed a waterproof from the car, followed her and the dogs out into the street. The dogs were old as time. They didn’t look happy. One was shaking. A bit like me and my brother.
The wind and rain killed most conversation, which was fine by me. I followed my mother up towards the seafront. I say seafront, on this part of the Kent coast short grass goes all the way up to the cliff edge. A hundred feet or so down to the sea and rocks.
The dogs did what dogs do. My mother thrust an old carrier bag at me, and I picked up what dogs do. I shouted. ‘Where are the bins mum?’
‘Oh, don’t be such a bloody fool, put it in your pocket.’ We were close to the cliff edge. My mother looked out to sea, looked back at me. Shouted. ‘You would love to push me wouldn’t you?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
The look in her eyes; remembered it too well from when I was a kid. ‘My name is May Ellison Hamble. I am your mother. Do not call me ridiculous.’
‘Like I said, don’t be ridiculous mum.’ I turned to go. Saw my mother drop the dog leads from her hand. The dogs looked at me as if confused. I bent to pick up the leads.
My mother stepped off the cliff. I gasped, looked over through the stinging rain. She tumbled and turned a few times in the wind. The wind was unusual for a May day, that and the storm clouds and driving rain, interspersed with patches of raging black and blue, like bruises among the clouds. Glimpses of redemption among the deluge I thought, as I watched her fall.
It took seconds until she hit the rocks below, with a soundless crash of bone and body matter. I saw a foaming wash of dirty grey seawater cover her body, and then she was gone, swept out to sea. I wondered briefly where she would turn up.
I scratched my useless left hand. The rain came down heavier than before, I
pulled on the dog’s leads and walked back to the house.
My brother was sitting where I had left him.
‘No tea?’ I said.
‘Couldn’t get up. Where’s mum?’
‘She jumped off the cliffs.’
He stared.............. I stared.
‘Did you push her?’
‘Tom she pushed you downstairs when you were nine years old. Put you in that wheelchair for life. I had every reason and excuse to, but I didn’t. My whole life I’ve tried to save life, help people, make them better.’