By: Hillard Morley
The face grew red and bulging and awful. Jeremy watched the hands instead, lifted as though taking an oath, the palms exposed, signalling an explosion. He distanced himself, imagined the scene in a cartoon panel, spikes of red and yellow energy, and Kapow! emblazoned across it. It helped. The flat of the hands became less threatening. He exhaled, focused on surviving yet another trawl through all the filthy layers of his character.
The familiarity of this room shrivelled him. Fringed and flounced, everything was belittling. Each object stood too far away from all the others, leaving vast gaps across the floor. Nothing connected. A lacuna, that was the word his father would use. He was fond of saying things he thought other people didn’t understand; it tricked them into thinking he was clever. Really, he was just pompous.
“With power comes great responsibility, Jeremy…”
Whatever. To Jeremy this was a parched, judgemental sort of place. His chair was hard and too low. It crumpled his legs, forced him to look up at his father, presiding.
It was a rare day when he didn’t find himself pounced upon in a corridor, dragged here and subjected to another outburst of criticism and misplaced hope.
“Here we go again,” he thought.
What a bore. He couldn’t guess what he’d done this time, would have to wait to be told, wished he could sleep through the whole thing and wake when it was over.
He made his face passive and his neck stiff.
Encounters with Father were like punctures. Sometimes he thought he’d become nothing more than a sooty outline of this puffed-up man, and since the family had shrunk, no one stood at his side or fought his cause anymore. There was only a hole where love had once been.
“I should run away,” he thought. His father would call it apostasy, but he could start again, call himself Jez, or Jem, like she had.
“…Well? Is this yet another aberration? What do you have to say for yourself?”
Uh-oh! The voice was harsh, unbending. He’d been lost in thought, had missed the exact allegations. Father couldn’t have found out about break times behind the pavilion, could he? “I wish I’d had the chance to empty my pockets before getting collared,” thought Jeremy, remembering the cigarette he’d saved.
He knew the question demanded a response but could only flap an empty jaw. He hoped it looked like he was trying to say something purposeful. His lips made shapes, a stretch, a circle, before quite unintentionally he rolled his eyes and mouthed, “Whoa…”
It made things worse.
Father zoomed towards him, skull and eyes alarmingly close, and suddenly Jeremy was swamped by the pungent smell of onions. Ugh! He pulled a face, regretted it immediately. Mum would have sighed and rolled her eyes. “Oh, my stars, Jem, try to be diplomatic, you silly goose,” she’d have said.
Mum had been shrewd. She’d even managed to stop Father bringing onions to the office.
“I don’t care if you enjoy them,” he could hear the bright bubble of her voice, “they don’t belong at work. It’s downright antisocial, breathing a stench like that over your colleagues…”
She’d managed to hollow Father out somehow, made him possible to endure. For her he’d made himself less basic and cruel, but whenever Jeremy tried to copy Mum’s tactics, it had no effect whatsoever and now the tear-inducing bite of onion hung in the air and everybody knew she was gone, even though they pretended they didn’t.
Jeremy cringed. His father was a laughing stock. You could hear the sniggers in assembly when he stood up and wittered on about morality or turning the other cheek or eternal punishment. Father betrayed himself in every word he spoke, and what was worse, the stink of onion would now follow when Jeremy left the office. He would be forced to carry his father’s whiff with him for the rest of the day, and everyone, everyone, would know where he’d been.
No doubt Charlotte would have something to say about that. Even onions couldn’t keep her at bay. She would stare at him, a wrinkle drawn across her nose. She would call him disgusting. She would finger her throat and that bead necklace she always wore, though it broke all the rules. She only got away with it, because Mummy had interceded. Jeremy had learnt to think of Charlotte’s mother with the caption ‘that wretched woman’ written beneath her, though he’d never even met her. It was all he’d ever heard his father say.
“Stay out of that girl’s way, Jeremy,” came the command. “That wretched woman is always on the phone, threatening something or other. She’s vindictive, a malevolent bully and her daughter’s no better. I don’t know why you insist on…”
“I don’t insist on anything,” thought Jeremy. “I don’t get the chance!”
But that necklace agitated him. It poked out of her collar and trembled when she talked. Like a speck of dust in his eye, it drove him mad. It wasn’t fair for different rules to apply to different pupils. In his opinion, girls could get away with anything, especially if they were attractive.
And Charlotte had proved herself impossible to avoid. She sought him out, deliberately rubbed him up the wrong way. Her taunts hung over his head, the prospect almost too much to bear. “You’re revolting, Onion-boy,” she’d say.
A sudden stinging sensation made Jeremy blink vigorously. “I won’t cry,” he vowed. He’d been taught to be strong and look down on people who cried. He craved a quiet corner and a smoke.
To distract himself, he imagined a villain, long tubular cape and rooty fronds sprouting from a bulbous head; Onion-Man, overwhelming his victims with gusts of sour breath. His mouth twitched. Ha-ha! That was quite good. He’d have a stab at drawing that later, once he’d escaped and grabbed a notebook. Yes, he’d turn Father into a caricature; he’d need to exaggerate the wisps of hair clinging on round the ears, maybe stretch the head, reduce the nose. “I’d only have to sketch the tip and one side,” he mused, “but I’ve tried drawing him before… It never works.”
He was deflated. Other people’s faces were simple to capture, but his own father eluded him. Still, it gave him something to ponder and relief from the agony of waiting for this drubbing to finish.
“Mustn’t smile,” he thought and dropped his head, let his fringe fall forward to hide his face. “With any luck he’ll think I’m sorry.”
“I believe you haven’t taken in a single word I’ve said…”
Jeremy tried to look repentant.
“…I think you deliberately set out to goad me…” Father was winding down, had reached the stage when his suit collapsed, and he started to whine.
“I never mean to stir him up,” thought Jeremy, though he admitted opposing everything Father said, in public at least. “It’s not my fault he’s headmaster. I never asked to be his son.”
It labelled him. People made assumptions.
Over and over again he’d pleaded to go to another school. It had caused constant friction, muddling everything up. Mum had always supported him. Father would hear none of it.
“What would the parents and governors think if I sent my child elsewhere?” he’d demanded, smashing his glass or cup or whatever he was holding down on the table. “They’d say I don’t trust my own school. They’d see me as deceitful, as failing…”
God forbid you should ever fail.
Even Mum hadn’t been able to sway him. The quarrels had become increasingly violent and Jeremy had had to put his fingers in his ears, pretend he was unaffected, la-la-la… He’d tried to draw a picture of his father with a padlock on his head.
Suddenly he missed Mum very badly and was ashamed. He was responsible. She had deserted them, and he didn’t blame her. “If I’d been given a choice, I’d’ve gone too,” he told himself. But he hadn’t known! Father had only said she’d gone to sell chutney in Oundle, wherever that was.
Once so much time had passed that it was obvious she wasn’t coming back, Father had started to call her a sinful creature and a fucking harlot. Jeremy couldn’t reconcile that description with the person he’d loved. To him she was always lenient and tender. He would have drawn her as a doe, or a rabbit.
“It’ll be alright,” she’d have said, “he doesn’t mean to be hurtful.”
If Mum had still been here to reassure him, to stroke his hair with gentle hands and help him keep faith, he’d have apologised, admitted anything to get away. As it was, he would just shut up and let Father burn himself out. Without her, it was hard not to doubt. He suspected she’d already forgotten him, and his memory of her was starting to lose its power.
Father had begun to slam about the room. He loomed enormous, lifted a pile of paper, thundered across the office and dumped it down again. Bam! Boom! Bash! Everything was getting jumbled up, and Father wouldn’t be able to find anything tonight. “That’ll be my fault too,” Jeremy fretted.
He shuffled, did his best to squash the cigarette in his pocket.
“I don’t know why you have to do it! That girl, of all people…”
Ah, so it was to do with Charlotte. This was just the usual roasting, not about his smoking at all… unless she’d found out of course. “Can I speak to you, Sir?” she’d have wheedled, pretending concern. “I’m so sorry, Mr Lock, but I thought you ought to know…”
No, much more likely she’d come in here and told Father he’d called her a bitch (which he had). It was a minor misdemeanour and Father only took it so seriously because of her wretched mother and because Charlotte was good-looking. Beauty attracted belief and mercy in equal measure, in Jeremy’s experience.
“Haven’t I tried to guide you, to help you make the right decisions…?”
Jeremy felt tired, fought the desire to rub his eyes. It was only hearsay. Charlotte could prove nothing. There’d been no witnesses and it was her word against his. Nevertheless, he tried to stop his fingers fiddling with his pocket and giving the game away.
He only had the odd one to take the edge off, to stop him wanting too much.
“I’ll be more careful in future,” he determined.
He could justify it to himself, but Father would do his nut if he ever found out:
“What the blue blazes are you playing at, boy?”
Opportunity had sidled up to him one afternoon, just after Mum had left and Jeremy hadn’t had the strength to resist, though walking in here with the evidence on him, now that was stupid, even by his standards. “Someone’ll smell it on my clothes one day and then there’ll be a row…” he thought.
Father would declare Jeremy a disappointment, and say he’d let him down. Again.
“At least I’ve left my lighter in my desk,” he told himself. If they found that, he could lie. He would claim it was planted, or he’d found it, try to implicate someone else. An image of Charlotte ballooned, making him grin. It might be comic to stitch her up. Wicked too maybe, but he’d broken so many rules already, it would only be going one god further.
“You never show respect,” Father had seen the smile and misinterpreted it. “There’s absolutely no excuse…”
“Yeah, you’re right!” he wanted to say, “There is no excuse, except I’m miserable, except my head hurts and if you bang on much longer I think I’ll explode!”
Jeremy was finding it increasingly difficult to believe that Father loved him and would keep him safe. Everything was laid waste to satisfy his wrath.
Mum, on the other hand, would’ve always forgiven him. She’d have just said, “Oh, you’ve got yourself into a pretty pickle this time…”
Jeremy was allowing himself to chase these thoughts, cat-and-mouse brain pursuing his unhappiness, when his father yawned. Arms stretched and slumped, eyelids drooped, and hands fell idly onto the desk, coming to rest on the edge of the plastic pot containing the onions. It was shocking to see the head thrown back, lips peeled exposing a tedious tongue.
And then he slept.
This was new.
“Am I that dull?” Jeremy was humiliated. Father’s was only interested out of duty, he realised. It gnawed at him. Would utter silence be worse than this? Wasn’t it better to face anger and everything broken, than to expect nothing at all?
Jeremy hadn’t a clue what to do, whether to wake him, would have gladly confessed to every sin if it roused a response. He waited, twiddled his fingers, listened to the rumble of Father’s breathing.
Far off in a corridor, a bell summoned pupils to the next lesson. It was Art and Jeremy didn’t want to miss that. He liked the simplicity of paper and when he drew, something happened, his choices seemed solid and permanent.
If he made a bolt for it, the chair might creak, he might knock over a lamp…
He was wondering how best to sneak out, when he noticed the page of notes lying on the desk, just inches from those hands. All Charlotte’s tales of his shortcomings and Father’s judgements, turned into pen and ink. He pictured a fist in a big red glove smashing Charlotte’s necklace to smithereens, whoosh! beads flying everywhere, destroying her power over him. It was liberating. Yes, he could swipe that paper and leave nothing behind, no written word to become belief and truth and everything.
It was easier to achieve than he’d imagined. He took it and folded it, slipped it into his pocket next to the secret cigarette. Once hidden it lost authority. He relaxed.
Outside the office, Father’s secretary looked up, carried on clattering stubby nails against the keyboard. Jeremy was here too often to be remarkable and had to clear his throat to make her notice him.
“Father said no interruptions for an hour or two,” he said, knowing she’d been trained not to question, to accept anything. It was gullible, and she only had herself to blame if she believed him.
Let Father sleep. At least that way Jeremy would have a moment’s peace. Ultimately it solved nothing, the sun would go down and the sun would come up, and he’d still be here, and Mum still wouldn’t, but he was going to take his chances where he found them.
On his way to Art, he was going to nip behind the pavilion and smoke his cigarette, and that would have to do. For now.