He sits at the foot of my bed. I am thirteen years old, he is twenty. Tucked up under my covers I watch him fidget, shakily speaking in whispers as he sits precariously on the edge, one foot pointing in readiness for flight towards the exit of the room. We are whispering you see, so that we cannot be heard from my parent’s room on the other side of the bedroom wall. Plus we have grown accustomed to remaining ever conscious of the gap between the closed door and the timber that frames it, where words can be sucked into a vacuum, swallowed up greedily then distorted and twisted by the distended bowels of manipulation, to perhaps be spewed forth at an unexpected future moment.
“Wha…what’s wr…wr…wrong with me ?”, he pleads, “Why don’t I have any friends ?” For as long as I can remember, he had not been able to utter a sentence without stuttering. Well, that’s not counting the times he would torment me with his ugly, angry words, the likes of which frightened the younger me who had neither the capacity to understand nor forgive his behaviour. I was never sure what would provoke the outbursts; whether there were incidents that would occur immediately prior or if the pain simmering inside just happened to overflow when I was near. Suddenly I would find myself cornered whilst looking in a drawer for some glue or scissors to complete my homework after school, as under-toned whispers prickled in my ear “Evil…evil..Colleen is evil”, or “You know, Dad is the son of Hitler”. These were scary words to a small child, particularly one raised with the fire and brimstone indoctrination of the Catholic church. I didn’t know who Hitler was at first, but I soon found out and knowing my father was born in Germany, I was terrified…too terrified to clarify whether it was a possibility or not. Plus, it actually sounded kind of plausible. Typically, I’d attempt to dodge him before he managed to secure a firm grip on my arm and make a mad dash to my bedroom where I could lock the door behind me. Sometimes I would not quite make it and a chase around the house would ensue. There was lots of slamming doors and hiding in cupboards.
When I grew a little older and more confident, although I acknowledged that as the youngest child in the family I was simply the most accessible target for his rage, the temptation to seek revenge following years of torment became too great. I recall snooping around in his bedroom one afternoon when he was not home. I simply opened the first draw of his dresser to discover a packet of cigarettes, only one or two were missing from the pack. Gleefully I contained the discovery within, waiting for the thrill of extortion to descend when it was so required.
The following day, I arrived home from school and he was there waiting. Hands on hip I interrupted the launch of his tirade with “I know you have cigarettes in your drawer. If you don’t go away and leave me alone I will tell mum and you know what will happen then!”. The power was exhilarating and it charged through me triumphantly as he turned on his heel and disappeared to the back of the house towards his bedroom. “Huh”, I thought, “That’ll teach you”, and I closed my bedroom door to retreat to a space that had suddenly transformed into my sanctuary for the evening. Or so I thought.
Later that evening at dinner, I became slightly unnerved by the smug expression that confronted me across the table. Head down, I concentrated on scooping up forkfuls of soggy beans in between mouthfuls of burnt T-bone steak that required jaws of steel to shred into palatable portions. Accepting that I could not predict the behaviour of anyone in my household, I decided to ignore his eerily quiet demeanour. Determined to continue enjoying my newly found power, I chose to not return to my bedroom as usual and instead sit in the living area to watch some television. Though not a comfortable experience, I sat myself down determinedly on the floor in front of the television whilst my father shuffled a seemingly endless supply of newspapers in front of his nose, two short legs protruding out from underneath to rest upon a brown leather footstool. After a period of blissful escapism, bedtime descended and I offered a tentative “Goodnight” to the slippers still perched on the stool beside me. A grunt was offered absentmindedly from behind the paper wall.
Closing the sliding door behind me, I approached my bedroom door a few paces down the hall way and noticed it was slightly ajar. Directing it backwards with my forefinger, I entered with caution, wondering in what form “pay back” may arrive. My suspicions were confirmed as my attention was instantly attracted to something floating in the fish tank that sat on my desk just inside the door. The water seemed black, thick and sooty like a murky puddle I may have kicked through after a storm. Blinking with confusion, I took a step closer and focused on black letters that spoke out from the red and white thing floating in the tank. They read..M-a-r-l-b-o-r-o…Marlboro. The blackness in the water was ash. The whole packet of cigarettes had been lit and dropped into the tank. My two fish, Goldie and Frank lay motionless at the bottom.
And so the torment continued.
Perhaps I had forgotten this act of revenge executed upon me, when one afternoon a few years later I decided to lock my brother out of the house. Fed up with his senseless gibberish that followed me through every room, I darted out the front door and hid down the side of the house in the car-port. Inching my way along the wall and ducking stealthily under each window as I passed, I made my way to the side gate. With the poise of a ballerina I delicately lifted the metal latch with my pinkie and eased the wooden gate back in total silence, slipping through the gap as it slowly widened. Creeping carefully towards the back door, I turned the handle with similar cunning and tiptoed onto the linoleum. Slam ! I heard the front door shut violently. Spinning around in a pirouette like fashion I grabbed the key to the back door that lay on the window ledge and firmly locked it shut. Allowing the key to slip dismissively through my fingers to the floor below, I darted through the kitchen, flung open the door to the hallway and leapt up the hallway towards the front door. Reaching for the deadlock with all the gusto of an athlete urgently extending forth the baton to a team mate, I twisted the knob until I heard the familiar “click” which assured me that all was secure. Leaning with my back against the door I paused to allow myself to breathe, an unfamiliar ripple of satisfaction creeping excitedly under my skin. “Got ya !”, I thought to myself.
Keen to observe the effect upon my brother I sauntered back through the house, past the kitchen and around to the dining area where floor to ceiling windows exposed the back garden area. There he was pacing like a wild cat, his every move at the mercy of a keen spectator positioned safely behind the barrier. Red faced and fuming he stared back at me as I stood squarely rooted in my resolute stance.
Then he had her. Hands around her throat he lifted my Cocker Spaniel Sophie up off the timber picnic table where she liked to sit and watch the strange happenings in the world that lay beyond the glass windows. Only now she was a participant too. Hanging there in the air, her little legs dangling as the weight of her body drew down from his grasp around her neck, her dark eyes penetrated my soul. “Stop it !”, I cried, “let her down !”. Scrambling for the key that I had let drop moments earlier onto the mat, I managed to unlock the door whilst still on my knees. “Let her go” I screamed as I lunged towards him through the open door. Catching her in my arms I sat at the table with Sophie sobbing, my nose buried into her black coat. “I’m sorry….I’m so sorry”, was all I could offer her again and again whilst he sniggered cruely as he re-entered the house.
And there he sat on the verge of tears that night only a few years later, at the end of my bed. A sad, desperate figure moulded by a life time of crushing disdain from those with the power to create and manipulate. “It’s not you!”, I offered with all the enthusiasm I could convey through hushed tones, “It’s not you with the problem, it’s them. They are the crazy ones, not you !” Leaning forward, I let the bed covers drop from around me, “You have to get out of here Aaron. It’s the only way you will survive!”
Whoosh, a blast of chilly air rudely broke our connection as my bedroom door was flung open. “What are you doing in here?” my mother questioned through a furried brow. “Go to bed, you shouldn’t be in here”, she snapped at my brother ushering him out of the room.
“Mum, we are just talking” I retorted, wanting to hold on to the moment that was so rare and yet so vital, but my protestations fell on deaf ears.
I always wondered if she had an inkling of the revolt that was conspiring between the pair of us that night, that for whom at least one of us would one day soon be realised.