By day I teach. It’s what I do. Teaching in a troubled inner-city comp. Kids from deprived backgrounds, vulnerable backgrounds. I no longer enjoy the challenge, and wonder why I ever did. Yet I understand that work forms the only thread of stability in my life and for that I’m grateful. Without it I’d fall to pieces. I wouldn’t be here.
Throughout my life I’d always made the habit of looking out at the big wide world but never deep within. It was as if I was frightened of what I’d find: worms, maggots, rottenness. So I chose blindness, unaware of what was bubbling, pulsing beneath the surface, slowly poisoning me from within. Demons so deep they seemed irretrievable, non-existant.
I’d chosen to ignore reality; to see myself as somehow above it. But over the past year certain happenings threw this reality like acid into my face.
Cathy left me; three years of marraige dead. Suddenly I was plunged into a hell of introspection, and negativity began to shine from me like neon. I attracted it. Became a serial victim. Two muggings in a relatively short space. The first on the street, a kick in the back and I was down, the guy running off with my bag. I gave chase but stopped when he flashed the knife, issued threats, said he would kill me – you just don’t know. The second was more serious. It happened on the train, late at night, a dozen of them surrounding me, mocking, jeering. I cowered on the floor as they laid in with sticks, fists, feet, rifling through my pockets, pleasuring my pain. Other passengers hid their faces in their newspapers, refused to acknowledge a thing. The perpetrators were of school-age; the hate in their eyes wasn’t human. But the strange thing was, as I picked myself up and walked home in a bloody mess, I felt as though I’d somehow deserved it; not like I’d been singled out at random atall. Like it was some kind of brutal justice, meant to be. I didn’t tell the police, nursed my own wounds, had some kind of breakdown, but I carried on.
Then came the classroom assault. It felt like a final straw, final slap in the face; an affirmation of my failure both as a teacher and a human being. The headteacher urged me not to press charges. He was like me, didn’t like fuss; but for different reasons. After all, he’d said, the boy is a victim himself, a refugee who as a child fled the horrors of war, family members tortured, killed. It was a mistake, let it go. And I did, I accepted an apology, but not through sympathy, simply because I had enough shit on my back already. And the boy soon left the school anyway – locked up for a brutal rape where he’d left his victim for dead. But that had been out of school hours, wasn’t the school’s concern. Strangely, It wasn’t publicised atall.
Life was becoming too much. The doctor muttered about counselling, taking time off, issued anti-depressants. The pills gave me headaches; I flushed them down the toilet. I hit the bottle instead. Its abilities are impressive: alcohol can wipe out whole evenings, whole weekends. Waking up not knowing if I’m alive or dead. If I’ve killed or been killed.
I’m thinking of the man downstairs; a man I’ve never seen. The man lying in hospital, his life draining away, probably dead already. Someone old, in love with the past, leaving his windows open, answering his door to strangers, underestimating the danger, crime, evil everywhere. I’m seeing him curled up on the floor in a flat full of framed photographs and mementos of days gone by, a pack of yobs-tearaways-thugs stamping on his head, kicking him into a coma. Strangers from another age, another universe. People from a place and time – a here and now – he could never understand.
To some people, the past is precious, represents a way of life that shapes their outlook. To me the past represents hell. A hell of mistakes, regrets, disease. And there’s no escape from it. It’s always there, grainy footage flashing to harsh painful technicolor, ripping open the wounds. Images once buried that have come to haunt me…
School holidays, blue skies, lots of time to roam, the funfair sounding across the green; music, fun, laughter. But in the bushes by the edge of the park it’s a different world. A world of secrets, shadows. The man is dressed in the dull shades of the 1970s and he’s wrenching on your hair pushing you deeper with his cock stuffed in your mouth. It’s large and ugly and tastes of sweat and grime and human rot and he’s hurting your throat it’s like you’re going to choke but you know that once he groans and ejaculates, that’s it, he’ll give you change for sweets, ice-cream, rides at the fair, and the other boys are jealous wondering how you’ve always got money, where you get it, but you touch your nose and smile, you’re confident and your friends look up to you, admire you, though sometimes when it’s grey and raining and the park’s empty the man brings you into the toilets and makes you do things with other men, and one of the park-keepers is in on it, and though he’s old and grey and walks with a limp he smells and he hurts you and you don’t like him and the other men always the same faces gather to watch, baying for view, masturbating, violence flashing in their eyes.
And you flash to you own stepfather, in the room he used as an office at home, working night and day, he’d call you in and you’d smell drink on him and know he’d morphed into somebody else, a stranger in the same skin, not the man you knew, same face different eyes, a slight possession in them, and you’d shiver and feel strange like your skin was crawling. You were young. Very young. He’d be stroking himself and he’d loosen your trousers, fondle you, do things, make you reciprocate, tell you it’s natural, it’s love, it’s our little secret.
But did I ever do anything to stop it? Yes. I once told my mother. She was in the kitchen, chopping onions, stemming the flow of tears. It looked like the wrong moment, but I’d prepared myself, made the decision, so I went ahead and spoke anyway. She turns around, knife in hand, snarling, tells me I’m lying, wanting attention, never to speak like that again, wash your mouth out, eyes bulging, livid, ready to turn into a witch. Then she carries on chopping, like you’d never said anything. Because maybe you never had said anything.
What you remember is not always the truth; it can’t be. I know I’m sick, suffering trauma in some way, not healthy in my mind. I might be imagining everything. A part of me reminds myself that my stepdad was a decent man, a gentle man; he wouldn’t have done those sort of things. I remember the holidays, the fishing trips, birthdays, the good times. See myself at his funeral; twelve years old. He was found dead slumped over his desk, pumped full of scotch and barbiturates. A suicide note speaking of failure that for years I thought referred to his dwindling business and rising debt – his broken pride as a provider, a breadwinner. Opting out over the shame of bankruptsy.
But now I see other things. I see self-hate and disgust. A man with a conscience battling his desires, his impulses, trying to juggle sanity with a mind frequently switching to a twisted wavelength. Battling his demons to the end. Finally confirming himself a failure as a man, a guardian, a father. Dying without dignity. Dead in a mess of piss vomit shit.
I’m thinking of the man I befriended in the park. The man who called me Boy. The leader of the ring: the cottagers, deviants, perverts who hung around the benches, the bushes, the toilets. One day he disappeared. Maybe he was dead. A dead corpse in a stinking bedsit full of pornography, full of semen. Dead for weeks, months, nobody giving a shit. Maybe he was jailed. Maybe moved away. Maybe he didn’t exist. The park certainly doesn’t; not anymore. They dug it up, wiped it away, built a new estate. Occasionally I drive out there, looking up at the ugly 80s development wondering was there ever a park there, if it wasn’t one big elaborate fantasy, wondering if I’m truly insane, scrambling for old A-to-Zs to prove me wrong, to tell me none of it was true.
I approach the window, stand there, glass and cigarette in hand, my reflection a spectre over the city; a city I’ve grown to hate. I see too much of myself out there: badness, wrongness. Police sirens wail and a helicopter hammers overhead, flashlighting into the nearby council estate, flushing out the quarry, the vermin, the enemy. Sometimes in the night I hear screams. Sometimes gunfire. Sometimes when I’m lying in bed I hear my door bursting open and the police storming in and I wake up in terror it’s all in my head.
On Sunday I took a stroll, right there, where I’m looking now, through the estate the locals call Alcatraz. Its reputation is fearsome: I’ve heard kids boasting about it. Recently a man was bricked and set alight; he died. His crime, nothing. They did it for kicks. I’d been in the pub all afternoon, a respectable place full of the area’s new gentrified element. I drink alone, don’t see my friends anymore. I sat pretending to read the papers, couples all around me, joking, laughing, young fresh healthy professionals enjoying their day off, basking in a perfect world, not a solitary demon between them. I calmly sat listening to Cathy’s voice urging me to do the right thing, leave immediately, walk out into the nearest moving car, oncoming train; get it done violently. But I ignored it, decided it was simply time to go home. I walked through the still-sunny evening streets and feeling a sudden sense of bravado I wandered into Alcatraz. Come on cunts, do your stuff, see if I care…
But it wasn’t as run-down as you expected. In fact it seemed almost serene, the brutalist architecture bathed in a glow, an atmosphere of calm. Deep within was a playground, parents playing with their kids by the swings, see-saws, roundabouts; a little tableau of blissful normality. For some moments you almost felt euphoric. Then you wandered into a more shabby spot in the shade where there was a smell of bins and decay and spatters of grafitti and the epiphany seemed to have passed. A boy was sitting on a bench. He looked sad, alone, like perhaps his mother had banished him, told him to piss off, give her some space, get the fuck out of my hair you little cunt, and he would have played with his friends but he didn’t have any friends so all he could do was sit in this rotten little spot waiting for the sun to go down so he could say mum can I come back now because it’s dark out there and the atmosphere changes when its dark and the bad men come out the beasts the monsters it’s not safe it’s dangerous…
And you stood there exposing your penis, watching the boy flinch, a vague horror flash across his eyes, an innate acknowledgement of the dark dirty secrets of mankind; he moved slowly from the bench, his walk accelerating to a run. But that’s okay because you were running too and he doesn’t get very far and the next thing you’re in a rotten little room, the source of all the stink, some kind of litter room, pulley bins lined up against the wall and pipes and generators and the smell of maggots and shit and filth, and you force your prick into the boy’s mouth and tell him to shut up or he’ll be in trouble, big trouble, and he’s so petrified he does what you say and afterwards you tell him to run along and not tell a soul because you know where he lives and you’ll tell his mum that he’s been bad, a dirty disgusting boy, so run along and don’t tell a soul, and you get him to promise that and hand him a tenner and tell him not to worry and he wipes his eyes and disappears just like you say, and you get out of there, off that fucking estate crawling with crime and filth and every other kind of misery and get home back to your private block with a concierge and a modicum of respectability and sink a bottle of wine and fall into a drunken sleep so that the next day it’s hard to tell if it really happened or not and to be honest you still don’t know. And it’s all a mess: it’s hard to tell how many other times there’s been. Or if there has been times atall. If you’re not just falling into some mad abyss.
But now you hear Cathy’s voice. Her trusty communication. And you remember how she’d watched you the night she left you. Your eyes were glued to the screen, one hand working the mouse, the other at your penis. You felt a presence behind you and turned to see the twisted rictus of horror that was her face. How long had she been standing there? She was meant to have been out, visiting her mother, a shit-stirring old cripple that had never liked you, that told Cathy you weren’t good enough, there was something odd about you, something odd about that man, and for that reason you hated her, hated the old bitch. And Cathy was rooted to the spot. Don’t touch me, she said. But you had to shake her and say it’s not what you think, you don’t understand, and she was saying it’s over it’s over and you were slapping her saying listen to me and pinning her against the wall and she was screaming and in your head something clicked, a part of your brain switching off, another logic taking over, an exploding blackness. But suddenly your eyes were on fire and you couldn’t breathe and you were down on the floor straining through the pain, and you realised it was the mace you’d bought for Cathy and she’d sprayed you like a rapist on the street.
Cathy was screaming about calling the police, you were a fucking teacher for Christsake, you’d go to jail, it’s what you deserve, you’re twisted, fucked in the head: you were a stranger to her. But you were unable to respond. Unable to continue your actions. Her neck in your hands, thumbs pressing into the larynx, staring into each others’ eyes, pleading for tenderness through the hate, muscles trembling, pulsing, pressure applied to the end. No other way. Driving out to the country with a corpse in the boot, pulling into a desolate spot, keeping to tradition, a patch of woodland, a lovers’ lane, a copse, digging the spade into the earth with sweat on your brow and a full mad moon above. No use. Falling to your knees in despair, admitting you didn’t have the will, the staying power, the model husband appealing for information, calling for justice. And filling your car with gas just like your coward of a stepfather, the easy way out.
Cathy never did call the police. She opted for an easy exit herself, one that wouldn’t bring shame, embarrasment. She mustn’t have told a soul. But the letters she sends are seething with cruelty. She warns me to change my profession, to get psychiatric help, chemical castration; the more poison ones written in a drunken scrawl – letters that emanate with unresolved hatred. She includes tabloid cuttings of the latest predators. Here’s some of your lot, she writes. How could something that was once love have turned so sour? What does the bitch want?
Michael Keenaghan has been here before. Click the link at the side of the page for more info.