Trigger warning for domestic violence.
The unlit lamp wobbled behind them, teetering on the window ledge for a moment, and then finally crashing to the ground. He held Joe by the collar, tight. A few years ago, this would have been a fight that John Middleton could have easily won. Joe had been a tough kid, but skinny, a feather-weight compared to John’s frame. Those times had passed though, shaping Joe into a strong 17 year old who had been hardened by both fields and fists. He pushed his father back, against the table. John didn’t relent, only stumbled briefly before charging at him again. Joe tried to duck out of it, coming just centimeters from escaping his father’s grasp. John caught him low and before either of them could balance their flailing forms, they were tangled on the ground. The broken glass lamp had scattered across the floor and Joe’s eyes went wild with panic, trying to dodge it as they wrestled. His father held him face down, one hand gripped into his hair, the other holding a fistful of shirt, when he felt it. The glass entered just above his cheekbone and tore a clean line from there to just below. The pain caused him to go still for a moment, and he sensed his father’s weight on him slacken. With one deep breath he pushed up, throwing his father off of him and scrambling across the room. His knees and palms collected glass as they went to his mother and a gasp escaped her tear-ridden face when she saw the blood.
“Don’t you run to her, boy!” His father panted. Joe spun to look at him, face streaked with sweat, dirt, and blood. It was an empty threat, at that point, Joe knew. His father had no fight left in him, the sight of what he had done making his eyes wet with shame. Pathetic, Joe thought.
He stared his father down, breaths coming from his lungs in painful, bruised bursts. “If you ever touch her, or me, or…”, his voice suddenly dropped to a whisper, now keenly aware that Bert had surely heard it all from upstairs, “or Bert again – It will be the last thing you do, I promise ya.”
As a child, he dreamed that he would just run away, someday. He would go somewhere his father couldn’t find him, never looking back – and usually he envisioned his mother coming too. Sometimes, though, she would make excuses for him, trying to placate a young Joe while tending to his wounds. “It’s just the drink.” She would say, “He hasn’t always been like this.” Or it was a bad year for the crop, or it was the farmer down the road trying to move in on them – always something. It was those times that Joe thought about just running away without her, the guilt of doing so making his stomach twist and ache. Then Bert was born. He had been a happy, perfect baby – quiet and lovely, not like some of Margaret Boden’s wailing, red-faced children. Bert was the light of Joe’s dark life - his sole reason to stay alive, to fight. The older they grew, it became obvious they could never run away. Their mother would never come, and Joe knew he couldn’t take both of her sons away - leaving her there alone to die at either the hands of his father or the hands of grief.
Over the past year he had started dreaming of doing something worse than running away or landing a few hard punches in his father’s stomach. The thought had started small, rotten, during a particularly rough beating. As the months wore on, seasons turning from winter to spring, the thought had grown larger, blossoming. It crept into his head at odd times - when he was in the field, or floating on his back in the river, staring up at the sky.
Now, each time it started – a shout or a slap or a shove – it didn’t matter, Joe wondered if this would be the day he finally killed his father.
He was one of seven children, smack in the middle – number four. He treasured his mother, truly, but there was simply not enough of her or her love to go around. With each new baby, he felt her growing further and further apart from him. By the time he reached adolescence, his eldest two brothers had moved out – gone to work at the pit, leaving him with his 15 year old sister and the three younger ones. His older sister had a face just like his mother, neat and plain, but a temper like the devil. She had been unnaturally cruel to him from the time they were young children – always hitting him, blaming him. Once, when they had been small enough to share a bath, she held him under water so long that he tasted blood in his mouth when she finally released him.
In the spring of his 13th year she started bringing an older boy around, relishing at the chance to prove her dominance over Johnny for an audience. She teased him relentlessly, egging him on and sometimes slapping him when he dared to defend himself. One day, the boy slipped a bottle from his coat pocket and tipped it to Johnny, his sister laughing. “He won’t touch that stuff.” She cackled, “Too scared.”
Johnny grabbed the bottle before he could think. The glass was smooth and warm from being in the boy’s pocket, the cork top came off with a pop. He poured the liquid down his throat as if it were a glass of ice water on summer’s hottest day. The feeling was refreshing at first, but then it burned like fire through his entire body.
After that, Johnny drank whenever he could. Sometimes the older boys would share some of theirs with him, as a reward for scrapping with another young lad to their entertainment. Sometimes he would luck upon some of his own, gulping it down greedily and feeling his senses curl and burn away like newspaper in a fire – nothing left but blind rage.
He’d been picked up several times, each time his mother more and more distraught when she would come to get him. She questioned him quietly one night, patting his hand, “You were always such a gentle soul, Johnny. What happened?” He didn’t have an answer. After that, she sent him away to a camp run by the Scouts. “You can learn a skill, Johnny.” Her eyes were wet and bright, hopeful. “And get yourself right.”
The work was enjoyable enough - not difficult, but it kept his hands and his mind busy. It had been good to get away. On his first night back, his sister went after him almost immediately. “Well, well. Look who has returned from his stay at the camp for idiot children.” He stared at her, boiling and thirsty, but speechless. Turning on his heels, he gave her the last sight and sound she would ever have of her younger brother - hunched shoulders and a door slamming.
He was now old enough to be served at the pub, and it comforted him in the moment, charging and then relaxing with each pint. By the time his pockets were empty, his vision had blurred and gone red. He stumbled out onto the street, bumping headlong into his sister’s old boyfriend, the one who had taunted him with his first drink. “Watch it, Johnny.” The boy sneered, giving Johnny a shove. The buzzing sanguine cloud of his vision opened up, then, enveloping the other boy. He could sense his body tussling against him - punching, kicking – but he couldn’t feel himself making contact. He only realized that his fist had connected with something when the older boy sputtered away, doubling over and coughing blood. A bottle shattered against the wall, and another boy came at him, swinging the broken glass wildly. It sliced into his right cheek, narrowly avoiding his eye. The other boys scrambled back, shocked at the blood pouring from Johnny’s face, and then ran.
The police had found him slumped up against the wall of the pub, holding his jacket sleeve to his bleeding wound. “That’s the one.” A random woman said, pointing at him.
He’d spent the night locked up for it, again. The next morning his mum came around, first thing, to tell him she’d made an agreement with the judge. Not smiling, she pushed a bit of newspaper torn from the classifieds at him. It was an advertisement for a footman, in the city.
It was the first warm day of spring, the kind of day that feels like it takes an eternity to come when you are a kid. Barney’s older brother, Thom, had just gotten a new scooter – a Vespa, really mint – with a 150cc engine that purred like cat and a paint job more slick and black than anything Finn had ever seen. Thom had agreed to let them ride it around the grocer’s car park across the street from their house, on condition they didn’t do anything “totally fuckin’ stupid.” He’d said “I don’t have a helmet yet so if one of you little pricks bashes yer brains in, I don’t plan to be held responsible.”
It was easy at first, just making gentle loops back and forth. The feeling was like nothing Finn had experienced before - motor humming beneath him, wind whipping at him up top. This must be what shagging feels like, he thought. Pure heaven. He had circled around to the group again, Chop calling to let him have a sodding turn, when some wanker in a Volvo suddenly came screaming around a parked car, headed straight for him. Finn turned sharply, avoiding a head-on collision but skidding out on the pebbles and grit that remained from a bit of late-season sleet they’d had last week. The driver in the Volvo stopped briefly, saw that Finn was alive enough to be writhing on the ground, and shouted “Watch where the fuck ya goin’!” before speeding off again.
Barney and Chop came sprinting up, both faces plastered with looks of horror. Barney went straight for the scooter, lifting it upright and saying “Fuck, fuck, fuck” a thousand times over as he surveyed the gashes in the paint. Chop was a little more consoling, surveying the gashes in Finn’s face. He had suffered a bit of road rash, not too bad, but he also had an inch and a half long cut that started near his right eye and looked pretty deep.
“How many fingers am I holding up, mate?” He asked.
“Fuck off. “ Finn replied. “I’m fine.” He made eye contact with Barney, who looked to be near the point of tears.
“Think we should get this looked at.” Chop pointed to his cheek. “Might need stitches.” The thought of being sewn up like a stuffed bear made Finn’s stomach lurch. He just watched Barney, who was now definitely crying a little bit.
“Yeah. Just go.” Barney said finally, seeming like he was still in a bit of shock. “I’ll handle Thom.”
The nurse was a brash, heavy-handed blonde woman. Holding a wet gauze pad to his face, she wiped away some of the blood that had dripped down his cheek. It stung like hell.
Then, after wrenching off her gloves, she picked up the clipboard. “Confirm name and date of birth, please.”
“Finn Nelson. January 17th…” He paused at the year, glancing to Chop, who just shrugged, unhelpfully. There was no way he could pass for 18, right? Right. “1979”, he said finally.
The nurse’s eyes glanced up at him from the clipboard, and then back down again. “So we’ll ring your parents, yeah?”
“Yeah.” This caused Chop’s eyes to go wide from his seat behind the nurse’s back.
Chop mouthed “Uh… No.” and she turned her head to give him an icy look.
No use in trying to avoid the inevitable, Finn thought. Either Barney’s brother was going to kill him for scraping up the scooter, or his mum was going to give him the ear-ringing of the century for riding without a helmet. Both ways it was going to end badly.
“Right.” She eyed Finn again, “And can you tell me today’s date?”
“April 24th, 1993.”
“Good. Do you know where you are?”
Finn fought the urge to roll his eyes. “Hospital.”
“Ok. Any dizziness? Blurred vision? Nausea?”
“No.” He shook his head, a little annoyed. “None of that.”
She set the clipboard down and wrestled his arm towards her. He recoiled, out of sheer surprise, mostly. “Jus’ getting a set of vitals, calm down.” She slapped the blood pressure cuff on with all the finesse of a rugby player. Next thing he knew, she was shining a bloody light in his eyes. He winced them closed and she huffed, “You’ve got to keep your eyes open for this part. Let’s try it again. Just look straight ahead.” Chop stifled a laugh.
“Ok, the doctor will be in shortly”. She gave Chop another suspicious once-over as she left the room, and barked “Facial laceration, room nine” down the hall.
The doctor was a rude git, with a ruddy face like a piece of old fruit. He spent all of 3 minutes in the room, and 2 and a half of them he spent scribbling on his clipboard. When he did look up at Finn, it was only to say “Right, got a bit of gravel in there. Nurse will be back to clean it out. Any pain?”
“Dunno, a little. Not bad.” The doctor’s pen started again before Finn could even finish answering. As he made his way down the hall, Finn heard him call “Nurse Earl, kid in nine is ready for you. Just a rinse out and steri strips.”
When she came back to the exam room with a handful of adhesive strips, some skin glue, and anti-septic wash, he felt relieved. “No stitches, then?” He asked.
“Stitches? Bollocks no, not in a face like this.” She pinched his other cheek and gave him a wink. Chop pulled a face behind her, as if he was about to puke.
Christ, Finn thought, I’ll be happy to never see this woman or her A&E department ever again.