DON’T TELL YOUR FATHER – a short story by Leanne Halyburton.
3826 words. Please note: contains strong language.
Ten-year-old Jamie, and his deep, inscrutable little sister Alice, have finally found a sense of peace and security under the roof of their beloved Aunt Lil. However, their father, a man driven by his own inner demons, seems determined to nip any happiness that comes his family’s way sharply in the bud… and when his sister Lil steps in to prevent him from dishing out yet another beating to his weary, resigned son, Frank immediately declares that they are hitting the road again. Devastated, and wishing that she’d kept her mouth shut, Lil comes up with a way of keeping in touch with her brother’s family… whilst praying that he doesn’t find out. Jamie, sworn to secrecy, knows the price he will pay if he discovers just what Lil has put into the paper bag of ‘snacks’ she insists on giving the boy for their journey. But Alice has Jamie’s back – and she proves to be more than a match for the man who’s rage and bitterness has led him to terrorise his own family.
Don’t Tell Your Father.
“Get in the car – NOW!”
Jamie’s ten-year-old heart sank. Not again. “Dad, please… can’t we just…”
“Shut your mouth and do as I tell you. Where’s your sister… Alice, Alice, where the hell are you?”
“Mum…” Jamie implored, but Gill Martin shot her son a look that was half pleading and half warning. “Just get in the car Jamie,” she muttered.
He clambered listlessly into the back of the old Ford estate, trying to hold back bitterly disappointed tears. Alice silently scrambled in beside him, her face deadpan.
“Wait!” Aunt Lil came running towards the car. “I can’t stop you leaving, Frank, but at least let me give the kids a few snacks for the journey.” She dropped a brown paper bag onto Jamie’s lap, flicked her eyes towards it then back to his, and surreptitiously raised her finger to her lips. Jamie blinked, but couldn’t speak. He loved Aunt Lil… if he tried to talk, especially to say goodbye, he knew the tears would spill down his cheeks and Frank did not allow crying. It was for babies and weak people, he said.
Frank Martin ranted and raged non-stop for around an hour, aggressively tearing up the road, gesturing at other drivers, pulling up bumper to bumper at traffic lights, forcefully slamming on the brakes and causing the heads of his wife and children to whip painfully backwards and forwards.
“That stupid bitch of a sister of mine never learns to keep her mouth shut!” Spittle flew from his twisted mouth, hitting the windscreen and sliding down. “Well, you can all blame her for this one… she’s the reason we’re back on the road again. She just can’t leave things alone. Telling me how I should treat my own family, telling me I need to calm down! She’s always been the same… no wonder she’s single… no man could stand a day with that stupid, mouthy bitch!”
Jamie bowed his head, hating his father with every ounce of his being. No-one dared speak… they’d all been through this before, a hundred times, and they knew the consequences of answering back or offering an opinion. Aunt Lil was the only one who wasn’t afraid to stand up to Frank, her eldest brother… but Jamie wished that she hadn’t intervened when he’d been about to dish out a good hiding to his son. Jamie could tolerate a beating, and they’d still be there, relatively safe, and with hope. Aunt Lil loved him and his sister, and life with her was… well, normal. She smiled and laughed, she hugged them, listened to what they had to say, took an interest in what they were doing. The last three weeks had been the best of his life… but when he got out of his snug, warm bed that morning, to the smell of toast and coffee, to the sound of the radio and Aunt Lil singing, he had no clue that it was all over. He should have known better than to believe that things were, at last, different – that he could believe in happiness. He should have known that his father would destroy every last bit of it.
Lil sat at the kitchen table, sobbing into a wadge of toilet paper. “You should have kept your mouth shut,” she berated herself. “But I couldn’t stand by and watch him lay into that poor child!” She shook her head as if to dislodge the memory. If only Gill would leave him, take the kids and start again. She would help her, would do whatever she could, even against her own brother. Frank hadn’t always been so bitter, so violent. He’d always been a bit hot-headed, but he had been a good son to their mother, taking care of her in a way his father, Harry, never did. Harry was a drinker and a gambler, and periodically would react against his wife’s pleading and nagging with his fists. He died of stomach cancer years ago, quickly followed by his wife. Frank never spoke about any of it, but increasingly, as the years passed, his behaviour became more and more reactive, more antagonistic. And holding down a job was impossible for a man who expressed major resentment towards anyone who held any kind of authority over him.
She hoped that when Jamie looked in the paper bag he wouldn’t give the game away. Apart from a couple of snacks, she had included a little mobile phone, her own number, and some cash. A hastily scrawled note told him to call her when he was safely able to and to keep the phone and the money secret, even from his mother. She told him she loved him and Alice and urged him to keep her updated. “Please God, don’t let Frank find out about the phone,” she prayed.
The cheap motel was like any other they had used. The mattresses were thin and hard, the carpets stained, and the TV tiny, with poor reception.
“You lot stay here,” Frank instructed. He was calmer now, but the slightest thing could set him off, and so no-one responded, and everyone did as they were told. “I’ll have to go and talk to someone at the council, tell them we’re homeless… AGAIN.” He spat the last word out as if homelessness was something that had been unfairly inflicted upon him and his family; as always, the victim of an unjust life.
There was silence for a minute or two after he left, broken by Gill’s falsely cheerful “Well, it isn’t so bad here… at least we have a shower!”
Alice stared at her mother as if she was a peculiar stranger.
“It’s horrible,” she stated. “It smells like sweaty socks.”
Six years old, deeply watchful, painfully direct… when she did actually speak… Alice was somehow ‘different’. Tumbling dark hair, deep indigo eyes that seemed to burn into whatever and whoever caught her attention, and a face that gave very little indication of what was going on in her mind. Alice did not ‘need’ Gill. She wasn’t the kind of child who desired attention and approval, she rarely asked for anything, and was happy to entertain herself, most of the time. There was, however, an unspoken closeness between Alice and Jamie… he knew he could trust her, rely upon her, somehow. Whenever he’d received a beating or a punishment, Alice would come and sit quietly next to him, sometimes placing a hand on his back, or his sob-shaken shoulders. She never spoke, but she was there. Jamie didn’t know what he’d do without Alice. He couldn’t put into words how he felt, but with her around he knew he was not alone.
Jamie waited until Frank’s car merged with the traffic along the main road at the front of the motel, before casually informing his mother he was going to sit outside for a while.
“Well… be careful, and don’t wander off,” she warned. “You’ll need to be here when your father gets back.”
“I know, I know, I know…” Jamie muttered, closing the door behind him.
Their room was on the second floor, and Jamie turned right, heading along the balcony towards the wooden steps that led to the ground floor. In front of the reception office was a paved area with a few pot plants that hadn’t been watered for weeks, and a bench. Flaking green paint revealed faded timber, but it was clean and dry, and Jamie sat down, guiltily checking in all directions, before rooting in the bag for the phone and Aunt Lil’s note. He keyed her number in, heart thumping, and waited… within a split second, Lil picked up.
“Jamie! Thank God! Are you alright? Where are you?”
“Hi Aunt Lil,” he was so relieved to hear her voice he had to fight back sudden tears. “Erm… I’m not sure. We’re in a motel called Greenleys, opposite a pub called… erm… The Mitre.”
“Where’s your father? And how is Alice?” Lil was worried… she desperately hoped her actions would not lead to further trouble for the children.
“He’s gone to speak to the council, to tell them we’re homeless. Alice is in the room, with mum. She seems to be okay. I’m outside, on my own.”
Homeless! Lil shook her head, angry and frustrated. They weren’t homeless until Frank made them so… again. They had a home with her until they could get back on their feet – she had told him that, over and over. But Frank had some kind of self-destruct mechanism in his head that would lead him to push and push until he had another reason to blame the world, another reason to fight, to become a victim. The problem was, he was taking three other people down with him.
“Jamie, do you know how to text? I have added plenty of calling credit to the phone, but it will be safer for you to text me, rather than calling. Unless something happens, of course. I will always respond, I promise. But it is important for you to be safe. We’ll figure something out, I promise. Oh… and make sure the phone is set to silent!”
Frank returned several hours later with fish and chips and a half bottle of whiskey. He didn’t say much, barely ate, and settled himself down on the double bed, swigging from the bottle. By 9pm he was snoring loudly. Gill gingerly squeezed under the quilt, next to him, and indicated to the children to keep the noise down. As if they needed to be told. The TV was barely audible, and Jamie lay on his back, staring at a moth high on the wall above his bed. It hadn’t moved an inch since they arrived… maybe it too knew better than to aggravate Frank.
Alice, propped up in her hard, narrow single bed, was reading a book, using her finger to underline each word, her lips silently mouthing the story. Every now and then she’d stare intently at the colourful illustrations, as if willing herself to disappear into them, before turning the page. When she reached the end she’d start again… over and over, until she fell asleep, dark hair spread across the pillow, her face relaxed and peaceful, lips parted to reveal a gap where a new, adult tooth was barely poking through the gum. The book lay open, face down on her chest. Jamie gently lifted it and placed it on the chipped, melamine bedside cabinet. He envied her… wished he could respond to life the way she did.
He had been hiding the brown paper bag containing the phone, battery charger, cash, and Aunt Lil’s note, under his blankets. He wriggled down, covering himself completely, and retrieved the phone, moving as slowly as possible. He typed in a goodnight message, receiving a response less than a minute later. Reading the message, he felt so much better… less sad and less afraid. He switched the phone off, slid it back into the bag, and lay awake, thinking and thinking, before drifting into an uncomfortable sleep. The moth still hadn’t moved, not even a leg or a wing… but it had a ringside seat to an unfolding human drama.
Frank awoke, stiff in his body, chaotic in his mind, at 7am, and disturbed his family by banging around and turning the TV volume way up. Jamie’s heart sank when he opened his eyes and remembered where he was. Panicking, he rooted for the brown paper bag, sighing with relief when he found it under his left leg.
Alice slid out of bed and clambered over Jamie, heading for the tiny bathroom.
“Don’t wee on the seat,” Frank shouted, sniggering, but Alice just rolled her eyes. She didn’t appear to be afraid of Frank, and Jamie wished he felt the same way. Having said that, their father rarely felt the need to punish Alice; maybe it was a male thing, a father-son thing. Or maybe Frank just hates me, Jamie concluded.
“So… what’s the plan for today?” Gill ventured.
“The plan? The plan? I’ll tell you what the plan is, my darling wife. I am going back to the wonderful, helpful council yet again, forced to beg on bended knee. I have an appointment at nine o’clock… and they had better come up with something or I will tear the place to pieces with my bare hands.”
Gill didn’t doubt it. She sighed quietly and rubbed her aching head.
“Are you okay mum?” Jamie could see that Gill didn’t look right. She was pale and seemed a little unsteady as she went to fill the electric kettle from the bathroom tap.
“I’m fine son,” she reassured. “Just a headache. It started yesterday, thought it would have cleared up by now.”
“You want to have my head,” Frank sneered. “Try banging your head on the same old brick wall, year in year out, always having to deal with the same kind of idiots, and then tell me about your headache!”
Gill ignored him, but Jamie noticed the look that flitted across her face, and his heart went out to her. Okay, she didn’t stand up to Frank, she let him get away with everything… but what else could she do anyway? He’d only start on her, and then on them, because he’d be wound up and still looking for an outlet. They were stuck… trapped. A dark cloud descended upon the boy. He could hear his sister in the bathroom, running water, and singing, as if she didn’t have a care in the world. What was her secret, Jamie wondered for the millionth time? He wished he knew.
The atmosphere changed, the moment Frank closed the door behind him. Gill breathed deeply and sank onto the bed.
“I’m sorry children,” she slurred. “I should take you out somewhere… but I feel dreadful. I just can’t shake this headache. I’m just going to rest for half an hour, and then we’ll do something…”
“It’s okay mum,” Jamie responded, stroking the top of her head. “We’ll be fine… won’t we, Alice?”
Alice shrugged, as if she didn’t care either way, and Gill gazed up at her son, gratefully.
“Thank you, both of you. And Jamie… I’m sorry… ” Her words trailed off, as she lay down, closing her eyes, drawing her knees up to her chest. For a second, Jamie was tempted to tell her about the phone and the lifeline to Aunt Lil… but he quickly decided against it. She’d be nervous about it, and end up giving the game away. No, he’d say nothing… for now at least.
By 12 o’clock Gill could stand the pain no longer. She had used up the few painkillers she’d found in the bottom of her bag, and she hadn’t wanted to ask Frank to buy more for her. He’d make a huge deal about it, and she just couldn’t face it.
“Children, I’m going to have to go out and find a doctor’s surgery, or a chemist. This is getting worse, not better.”
She listlessly pulled her clothes on, then grimaced as she pulled a brush through her hair.
“I think I have enough change in my purse. Please don’t wander off, and don’t open the door to anyone. I won’t be long… I promise… ”
Uncharacteristically, Alice put her book down, jumped off the bed and wrapped her arms around Gill’s hips. Gazing up at her mother, she said “It will all be alright Mum. You won’t have to worry.”
Gill couldn’t hide her surprise, and despite the pain, a delighted smile spread across her weary face.
“Thank you, Alice… I… I appreciate that!”
Alice nodded, as if it was a done deal, and went back to her book. For a second, Gill caught Jamie’s gaze, and an understanding passed between them. Somehow, the words of a six-year-old lifted their spirits, though neither of them understood why that should be.
“I know about the phone,” Alice announced, as she made her toy rabbit hop up and down on her lap.
“What? What phone… I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Jamie stammered. How could she know? He’d been really careful.
Alice shot him a pitying look, before turning back to her toy. “I know. I know lots of things… ”
Jamie felt guilty. He shouldn’t have kept it from her. He knew he could trust her… but he also had to protect her.
“Well, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I wasn’t trying to keep a secret from you. I just… ”
“I know,” she cut in, calmly. “It’s okay. You were afraid he would find out.”
“Yes. How did you find out… did you hear me using it?”
“No, you were very good at hiding it. I told you, I just knew.”
Whilst they were alone, Jamie called Lil, speaking only for a minute or two. He explained about Gill’s headache, and how she’d gone searching for painkillers. Alice took her turn saying hello, but then Lil advised them to ring off in case Frank returned. She was relieved to hear from the children, but also concerned about Gill’s health. The poor woman… she must be at the end of her tether. There was no point in phoning the police, Lil reasoned. There would be little they could do. And the social services would only scare Frank off, dragging the family with him. No, she’d wait until they were settled again and then decide what to do.
Jamie plugged the phone into the charger, hiding it behind the bedside cabinet. He left it for fifteen minutes and was just unplugging it when Frank roughly pushed the motel door open – they hadn’t heard his footsteps along the balcony… he must have been creeping up on them.
“WHAT’S THAT?” he yelled, striding towards Jamie.
“Nothing!” Jamie fumbled with the phone, trying to push it under his pillow, but Frank grabbed at the bedding, dragging it onto the floor.
“Give it to me… now!”
Something in the boy’s head snapped… no, Frank was not getting hold of this phone… he would die before he’d hand it over. He snatched it up, leaped over the bed, and ran for the door, desperately clawing at the handle. Frank tried to grab him, but he wasn’t quick enough, and Jamie yanked the door open, furiously throwing himself in the direction of the stairs. There were several bags of rubbish on the landing, which caused Jamie to hesitate for a second, before launching himself over the top of them… and Frank, seizing the moment, clambered onto the banister, intending to jump onto the staircase, landing in front of his son.
It all happened so quickly, but in slow motion… Jamie leaping into the air, clearing the black rubbish sacks, skidding down the worn, wooden steps… Frank dragging his bulk onto the banister, leaning forwards towards the staircase… losing his balance… grabbing at the railing, tumbling over the edge, shouting something Jamie couldn’t make out… and hitting the ground with a dull thud. And Alice… standing on the balcony, arms outstretched, palms forward… smiling.
The policewoman was intrigued by the beautiful, inscrutable little girl, sitting alongside her brother, holding tightly onto his hand. Maybe she was too young to understand what had just happened… her impassive expression and manner certainly gave credence to that theory. The boy himself was shocked, face the colour of chalk, eyes wide and unblinking. He was clutching a small mobile phone in his free hand as if he would never let it go.
Gill Martin returned to the motel, holding a polythene bag containing a packet of extra strong painkillers, to see three police cars and an ambulance, parked at different angles, blue lights blinking and flashing. Looking up at the building, she saw that the door to the room that housed her family was open and a policeman was standing outside.
“Jamie! Alice!” She screamed, running for the stairs. Immediately, an officer blocked her way.
“What…? Wh…? Yes… what’s happened… my children!” She wailed, tears pouring down her cheeks. “Please tell me they’re alright… I was only gone for a little while… had to get… ” Her knees buckled, and the officer grabbed her arm, helping to steady her.
“It’s okay… it’s okay Mrs. Martin… the children are fine. But we need to talk to you. Here, I’ll help you up the stairs.”
The first thing she saw as she staggered through the door was the children, sitting side by side on one of the single beds, holding hands. She fell upon them, hugging them, struggling to breathe.
“Oh my God… I thought something had happened to you… thank God… ”
“Mrs. Martin, we need to talk to you… ” The policewoman gently but firmly led Gill away from the children, pushing her down onto a wooden chair. “There’s been an accident, I am afraid.”
The years go by so quickly, Lil sighed. Who would have thought it… Jamie, already 24 years old, and getting married – today!
She sat, alongside her husband of eight years, Joe, a gentle, reflective man, and gazed at the back of her nephew’s head, as he nervously awaited the arrival of his bride-to-be. Claudia… a lovely, funny girl, just right for the sensitive, smart young man Lil loved so much. She squeezed Gill’s hand, and they exchanged smiles. The dark days were long gone, thank goodness. Frank’s death had been deemed to be accidental, his neck broken by the two-storey fall. The coroner talked about Frank’s disturbed state of mind and wished Gill and the children well. They were happy now… but a bruised spirit never completely heals. Lil still wept for her brother, privately… his mind and his behaviour had become incredibly twisted, but still, she had loved him… loved the Frank he used to be. But today was for smiles, for good times, for gratitude… for celebration.
Jamie turned to see Claudia almost floating down the aisle, smiling, a vision in cream satin, and his heart skipped a beat. Briefly, he caught Alice’s eye, and she pulled her tongue out at him; he quickly flicked his eyes away, before she managed to make him laugh. Alice… he knew she had saved his life that day. He knew, and she knew… but no-one else on the planet would ever know. They never spoke about it, and he would take it to his grave.
“I know you cared about us – in your own weird way… ” Jamie addressed Frank, in his mind. “And you taught me the most important lesson of my life. That there is a right way and a wrong way to love your family.”
And, as he took Claudia’s hand, feeling like the luckiest man on the planet, Jamie made a silent vow: that his wife and their future children would never know one second of fear in his company.