My relationship with my mother finally fell apart when I said I didn’t love her. The words tumbled out on top of each other and I didn’t try to stop them.
‘I love Grandma and I love Grandad, but you’re shit.’
My mother’s response was a disappointingly whispered, ‘oh, Ben.’ What else had I expected? A stern telling-off and a fortnight of being confined to my room? All that parental discipline stuff had stopped long ago. This woman, standing so close I could feel her breath, barely shook her bowed head before trudging upstairs, leaving me small and isolated in my cruelty.
I watched with a sullen expression as she struggled to lift her right leg, gingerly rubbing the area of swollen flesh where I’d kicked her thigh. She placed delicate fingers along her bottom lip, still red and swollen from my punch of a few days ago. I’d bent my thumb to stop it breaking on contact with her teeth, like on the wrestling shows I used to watch with my dad when I was little, on one of the rare special days when his good mood lasted from the time that he woke up till the time he went to sleep.
I noticed the deepening purple-blue bruises around her elbow where I’d grabbed her as she’d tried to run away. Remembered how she’d winced as I’d squeezed her skin between my fingers, wanting, more than anything else, to cause her maximum pain. Afterwards, her eyes were filled with a weird mix of bewilderment and fear, emotions which no mother should ever feel because of her teenage son.
The key creaks on the other side of her bedroom door, making me even madder. What am I supposed to do now she’s locked herself out of reach? My face and neck grow hot, my fists clench and unclench. I scan the room, ready to strike out, frustrated at being in a house full of soft furnishings.
The lounge door shakes but stays resolutely on its hinges, resisting my initial kick. I swing my leg further back and boot it again. This time it reverberates against the wall, a horizontal crack gaping from its lower half. Sawdust and splinters litter the carpet as I strike repeatedly. Once again, I am the victor, but soon I’m bored and the constant thuds have given me a headache. Battering an inanimate object is pointless.
In the kitchen I open the fridge and glug down the last of the orange juice, lobbing the carton like it’s a basketball onto the floor near the bin. Half a bottle of milk sits on the shelf. I pour it down the sink in case my mother has any more ideas about inviting Christine round for tea and sympathy, so they could discuss my faults and decide how to ‘fix’ me.
Their muted words had floated through the house a couple of weeks ago; “a cracked rib, bruised fingers and sleepless nights,” things I’d done to my mom. “Maybe he’s going through a phase. He used to be so cute, with such a sweet smile. All he ever needed was someone to play with and a cuddle when he was tired.” Always talking as if she had nothing to do with it, as if I’d got this mean all by myself.
I’d gone and sat with them, making nice with Christine while she sipped her tea and ate her toast, charming her into believing my mom was exaggerating, but as soon as Christine left and I’d heard the thin sounds of Coronation Street coming through the sitting room wall from her TV, I’d given my mom a glare that clearly told her what was coming next.
Mom had lived on soup and liquidized food for a fortnight afterwards. The x-ray showed her jaw was broken in two places. When they asked her how it had happened, I put my arm around her like I cared and she said she’d just been careless, even though she could hardly speak.
My mind made up, I snatch a £10.00 note from Mom’s purse, enough to tide me over while I’m out. She’d hidden it at the back of the kitchen drawer, the one that held the big knives with the sharpest blades.
The bus is late and almost empty. I drop a handful of coins in the slot, balancing my McDonalds meal with one hand and barking ‘Day Saver ticket’ at the driver, treating him to a mouthful of half-chewed burger and fries. At school we’d learnt this was the longest bus route in Europe, almost three hours end to end. I slouch in an upstairs seat, scowling at some kids till they move away from me. It’s cold outside but the heater directly under my chair keeps me warm. I drop my MacD’s paper bag on the floor, only remembering my uneaten apple pie after I’d sent it rolling down the bus with a swift kick. I wipe the foggy window and look out at the nightlights of North Birmingham, not surprised to see my memories staring back at me, overshadowed by the transparent blade of a large kitchen knife.
The bus rumbles along its route, lulling me towards sleep. Familiar and unwelcome memories steal their way into my mind: my mom in the narrow corridor right outside my bedroom pleading with my dad, not to hit her again. He did it anyway, two sharp slaps, one to each side of her face, the shape of his tapered fingers imprinted on her skin.
I sprang out of bed and ran to protect her. My dad was 6ft 3, and I was 3ft nothing, but all I had to do was pull or twist any part of him I could grab hold of and he’d stop. A moment later he’d fall to his knees, his chest heaving with racking man-sized sobs. Mom would hug me and he’d wrap his long arms around us, swearing to never do it again. Together they’d tuck me in with hugs and kisses and promises of change and I’d try to fall asleep quickly because if I stayed awake, I’d hear them making up in bed.
It had been like this all my life, until one horrible night when it got worse. In the middle of their fight, I rushed to my mom’s rescue. She was on her knees, her head twisted at an odd angle because my dad had a grip on her long black hair. She was staring at a picture of Jesus in a red robe on the wall above the stairs, her lips moving with no sound. Jesus’ arms were outstretched and he was smiling but my mom didn’t smile back. Dad stood erect with a knife in his other hand and a smirk like he was proud of himself.
Usually, I was the catalyst to stop the madness. My innocence gave me the power to make my parents sorry, to make them loving and caring again until the next time, but tonight was different, he was about to kill her and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.
The conductor dawdles along the aisle murmuring a jaded thanks as people display tickets and bus passes. He gestures at my feet propped up against the back of the seat in front of me. I glower in return. He checks his watch and asks for my ticket. I hold up my Day Saver, my fingers purposely covering the date and the price. He barely looks at it before shuffling away. Loser.
When dad was done, my mom slumped to the floor. His voice was flat as he called her name, like it was a full stop or something. He stepped over her as if she was a pile of dirt, tossing his words over his shoulder; ‘you are not your hair, bitch.’
I hadn’t realized I’d wet myself until my mom tried to pick me up. I was stiff with fear and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. With our biggest kitchen knife, the one with the widest, flattest blade for slicing open fish and chopping chunks of meat, he’d hacked off her hair, each stroke getting closer to her face, nicking the skin on her forehead and around her ears and neck, leaving welts and bleeding.
This time and all the times that followed there were no family hugs, no agonized howls of remorse and no making up in bed. Like I said, everything changed. She’d held me close while she bathed me and changed my pyjamas. She promised it was going to be all right, but her weird hair told me she was lying to both of us.
It took two years before I was bold enough to challenge him again. This time I was bigger and braver. As he raised his fist ready to smash it into mom’s face, I aimed a kick at his privates. He laughed and caught my leg in mid-air, twisting my ankle, flipping me to one side. My mom rushed to me and he yanked her head back, a clump of hair tight in his hand. He’d thrown her against the wall, ordering her to wait and we trembled like mute idiots under Jesus’ smile during the longest minute of my life until he returned with the big knife.
He pushed my mom down onto her knees and chopped it all off again. The same deliberate strokes robbing her of her beauty and stripping her of her pride. I called him a fucker and shouted I wished he was dead. He pushed the knife inside his waistband and strode out of our house.
He never came back. A fight broke out among people he didn’t even know, a crowd of yobs with nothing better to do than get drunk and hang around the streets. He got caught up in the scuffle and his knife fell from his waistband. Someone grabbed it and stabbed him and he bled to death. Even I know what that’s called. Poetic justice.
I can’t see outside the bus anymore cos my eyes are water. All I can see is my mom’s hair. She had ‘good’ hair, not tight, nappy, difficult to comb curls like the rest of our family. Some said it was ’cos she had Indian in her, everyone said she was lucky. On his good days my dad always said it was the best thing about her, until he destroyed it.
After his murder she didn’t speak for days and her jet-black hair turned grey overnight. Everyone thought she was in shock but I knew she was missing him, despite everything he’d done. Since then, she’s always worn her hair short, like she doesn’t want to be reminded of the trouble it caused, as if hair can kill.
My nightmares began the day after his funeral. In my terrifying dreams he’d be walking towards her, the knife alive, slashing through the air, chopping her hair, her arms, her legs and her head, blood spilling everywhere. The school counsellor promised the nightmares would stop eventually but, like my mom, he lied. We should have run away and made a new family, just me and her, but instead, we stayed and lived through a hell he’d created.
Doctor says I’m angry. No shit. Prescribed me anti-depressants like I’m a loony or something. Some days I take three tablets instead of one, then the nightmares stop and my mom is a hazy figure scuffling around in the background. When the tablets wear off, I lash out at her until the rage inside me softens.
It’s dark outside now. Through the window I see a younger version of myself alone in my room, peeling back the skin from the tips of my fingers. It hurts and is starting to bleed, but I won’t stop until I pass out so I won’t hear her pleading through her tears, or the sounds of him slapping her right outside my door, like always.
It’s almost midnight when I finally get off the bus. The driver mumbles something about my ticket ending at eleven. I give him the finger with a muttered ‘yeah whatever.’ I’m ready for bed, glad she doesn’t know where I’ve been or what I’ve been doing. I want her to fret about me like a mother should.
The front door is locked from inside. I press the bell, holding on for three, four, five, six seconds knowing a harsh tone is pealing through the house.
‘Hey! Stop that.’ She cranks open an upstairs window, sounding fed-up.
She’s in her nightclothes, a scarf wrapped around her head. She has a makeshift bandage over her right hand.
‘I’m going to clear out your room in the morning. The charity people can take it all. Now go away, just go away.’
‘Open the door!’
‘Shout all you like. I’m going to bed,’ she disappears back inside.
The builder has left loose bricks lying near Christine’s half-finished garden wall. I sort through the chunks and pick one up, throw it hard, straight into the rear window of my mom’s car. The alarm goes off and Christine’s dogs start barking but they don’t scare me. I pick up another one, its gritty red dust stinging my eyes and aim at the windscreen.
‘What are you doing?’ Mom flings open the door. ‘Oh my god!’ She tries to grab my arm.
‘Don’t touch me!’ I shake her off and jump onto the bonnet, stamping hard. I climb up onto the car’s roof, stamp some more. ‘You ain’t giving away my stuff!’ I slide off the car and stride into the house. ‘I want my dinner. Now!’
I switch the telly on and put my feet on the settee, the sound down low so I can hear her in the kitchen, to make sure she’s not calling Christine. I will her to hurry up. There’s a good film on and I want to watch it while I eat.
‘I’ve bought you a change of clothes. Some smart things for court tomorrow.’
I pay no attention to the package she lays on the only chair in my room. Her right arm is in a sling and bandaged from shoulder to wrist. Her neck is in a brace and she shifts her body one delicate step at a time. I watch her from the corner of my eye, refusing to budge as she squeezes past trying to find somewhere to sit. She smells fusty, like an old person.
‘Ralph’s a good solicitor, he’ll explain to the Judge,’ she continues. ‘Tell him how things have been since, your dad…left us.’
It’s cramped in my single room at the secure unit. All of the furniture is nailed down, there are no sharp edges and nothing electrical. The lights and the blinds are activated from a press button panel on the outside of the door. We can’t even open the windows, there’s bars on the inside and the outside. Night-staff check on us every ten minutes, raising the lights from dim to bright to make sure we haven’t…… I stretch out along the narrow bed, making it obvious I don’t want her to stay. She’s a constant reminder of what happened the night I smashed up her car.
I’d stormed into the kitchen expecting to smell meat being seasoned but she hadn’t even started cooking, she just sat there, staring into space. I slammed my fists down on the table and she burst into tears. I dragged her over to the cooker so she could at least make a start. That’s when I saw the silver blade glinting at me from the half–open drawer, its sturdy black handle compelling me to wrap my fingers around it.
Instinctively I’d snatched off her headscarf and seized the knife but her locks were long gone thanks to my dad. Something inside me switched and I swear I’d changed my mind, but as I tried to throw the knife back into the drawer, she’d raised her arm to defend herself and I’d slashed her.
Bright red blood dripping from jagged gashes provoked a flood of nightmare images. Once again my dad was there between us, chopping and slicing, and once more I was 3ft nothing and powerless.
I abandoned the knife and ran upstairs to the loo to puke while she screamed for Christine. Before the night was over, I was driven away by two cops and a social worker, exhausted and confused. My mother had finally given me up. Now I’m facing baby jail and a criminal record.
‘I’ll be there in the morning. We’ll sort it all out,’ she mumbles, like she doesn’t believe her own words.
My social worker says I’ll probably end up in another secure unit miles from here. Could be for as long as a year or two. I turn away so my mom won’t see the tears in my eyes, ’cos tears are for the weak. I numb my thoughts so she won’t hear me beg to stay, and I bite my lip so I don’t tell her we’ll get rid of all our knives for good and she can grow her hair as long as she wants to and never have to cut it again, if only I can go home and have a cuddle ’cos I’m, so, so tired.