“Damn you, you little brat!”
Her hand connected with side of his face. The slap of skin-on-skin was obscenely loud.
Josh Carlin gasped in pain, but didn’t cry out. It was always worse when he cried.
“Piss off out of my sight, you little shit!” she screamed, unsteady on her feet.
His cheek smarting and suffused with heat from her slap, the nine year old boy eased his way past her, wary of another sneak kick or punch as he did so. She didn’t do it every time, of course. That was part of her game; to catch him unawares. He had got wise to her, though, and kept as much distance between them as he could. Even so, she still managed to get him more often than not. Today was a ‘not’ day.
Even as he made his way upstairs to his bedroom he heard her screaming after him.
“I don’t wanna see your skinny arse until I call you for dinner. Is that understood!?”
“Yes.” he answered dutifully.
“I can’t fuckin’ hear you!!” she yelled even louder than before.
“YES!” Josh shouted as the inevitable tears started to slide down his face.
He was ninety-nine percent certain that he would get no tea tonight… again. This was also typical behaviour when she was in the mood she was in today.
He ran up the last few stairs, turned the corner at the landing and charged into his bedroom. He was careful to close the door quietly. If she thought he was being insolent by slamming the door she’d be up there like a shot and belt him some more. In the half-light of early evening he threw himself onto his bed and buried his face into the single thin pillow she allowed him. Only then did he give full vent to his pain and despair.
Sitting on the wooden chair that matched the desk Josh Carlin’s father had bought him for Christmas two years past before deciding that he couldn’t live with his wife anymore was Benji.
Benji was Josh’s best friend and confidante.
He sat and watched as Josh cried himself out. He waited until he had dried his eyes on the cover of his duvet and blown his snotty nose on a tee-shirt he retrieved from the basket of soiled laundry in the corner of the room.
“Are you alright?” Benji asked.
“Yeah, I guess.” Josh lied. The side of his face stung like hell. He was sure one of his mother’s fingernails had scratched him this time as his cheek stung just under his eye. Thank God it was Friday otherwise he would have had to make up another implausible lie about how he hurt himself if he’d had to go to school in the morning.
He was getting good at doing that, telling lies. Benji often came up with some corking ideas and helped Josh to learn not only what to say but how to say it so that it sounded convincing enough to appear to be true. Without Benji Josh would never have felt as confident telling his lies as he did.
“Bad today, huh?” Benji said.
“Yeah…,” Josh agreed, not really wanting to talk about it, “a bit worse than normal.”
Benji just looked at him with his big brown eyes.
“Look, she can’t help it, right?” Josh said, suddenly angry and defensive. “It’s an illness. She’s sick, that’s all.” Fresh tears pricked at his eyes even as he spoke.
“If you say so, Josh,” Benji said blandly, “but it’s an illness that hurts you.”
“I know that!” Josh said angrily before throwing himself onto his front again and burying his face in his tear-sodden pillow once more. His skinny shoulders heaved as he sobbed bitterly and lengthily, the sound at times like the keening of a wounded animal.
“Josh?” Benji asked once the hitching in Josh’s shoulders stopped. “Speak to me, Josh.”
Josh sat up, wiped his face and blew his nose.
“Sorry.” he said, his voice slightly hoarse.
“No need to apologise.” Benji told him in that soft even tone he always spoke in. “You know, you need to get help. She needs to get help.” Benji added.
“I know, Benji, but I don’t know what to do or how to do it.” Josh said.
He knew that his mother drank too much. He also knew that she punished him for the most trivial (a new word he had recently learned) things, like not putting the tea-spoon in the kitchen sink after he had finished with it, the very offence that had earned him the latest of many, many slaps across his face and banishment to his bedroom.
Josh Carlin knew that his mother was possibly already an alcoholic or well on the way to becoming one. He had seen her downing large glasses of what she swore was plain water first thing in the morning, but seemed to correlate with the large reduction in the volume of vodka in the bottle she kept in the freezer compartment of the fridge/freezer.
“You do know what to do, Josh. It’s only fear that is stopping you.” Benji told him.
“That’s not true!” Josh said, not as stridently as he might have done. “I could do it if I wanted to, anyway.” he added, sounding a little petulant.
“Why don’t you – or won’t you, then?” Benji asked, his tone of voice not changing in the slightest.
“All I have to do is be a good boy then mum’s fine, really she is.” Josh said eagerly. “A few weeks ago we went almost a whole week without her…, you know…” he tailed off.
“A week? Is that all?” Benji said.
Josh looked at his friend but could not find the words to tell him that that almost-a-week had been the best week of Josh’s life for as long as he could remember. His mother had laughed a lot and she had not drunk as much. She had even taken Josh to a MacDonald’s and allowed him to choose his own food! Josh had dared to hope that things were getting better and that his mother was going to be like all of his friend’s mothers. It all came crashing down over a small muddy mark on the doormat by the street door.
“Why didn’t you clean that mess up, boy?” she had demanded as soon as he stepped through the door. She was swaying drunkenly and her words were slurred.
“I didn’t make any mess.” Josh had replied honestly.
“Don’t fucking lie to me, boy!” his mother had screamed before launching herself at the stunned schoolboy. She grabbed him by the hair and pushed him to the hallway floor.
“There, look at the fucking mess you made, you little bastard!” she yelled drunkenly as she shoved Josh’s face into the stiff bristles of the coir door mat.
The stunned and terrified little boy cried out in fear and pain.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry, mummy!”
“I’ll fucking make you sorry, you ungrateful little bastard!” his mother growled as she dragged her son to his feet by his hair.
Her free hand swung in a wide arc behind him and connected solidly with the back of his head. Because she still had hold of his hair, Josh felt the full impact of the blow, which caused stars to dance in front of his eyes. Before he could assimilate what had just happened, another blow struck his head, less forceful than the first, but still strong enough to knock him forward a step.
“Fucking mess up MY home, will you? WILL YOU!” she screamed into his face, her nose millimetres from his, a fine spray of spittle peppering his face.
“No, mother. I won’t. I am sorry.” Josh whimpered, needing to pee desperately. He fervently prayed that if there was a God that he would help him keep his bladder under control for another few minutes. If he peed himself on mother’s carpet she would surely kill him!
As suddenly as the assault started it was over.
“Just get out of my sight. Fuck off to your bedroom and stay there, you ungrateful little fucker!”
That had been the worst of the attacks in a long time that the young boy had endured at his mother’s hands, and there had been many, many more of them.
“Well... You know…” Josh stuttered.
“There is a good chance that one of these days she is going to seriously hurt you. You do know that, don’t you?” Benji said.
“She doesn’t mean it. She can’t help herself.”
“Yes she does and yes she can. She is a grown woman and you are just a kid. Her job is to look after you and protect you.” Benji insisted in that same bland even tone. “She should not be a threat or the cause of pain to you.” he added after a momentary pause.
“I know, I know.” Josh said tiredly. He had heard it all before. He and Benji had had this conversation lots of times, especially after Josh had been banished to his room.
“It’s about time you did something about it, isn’t it?” Benji insisted.
“I am too scared to. Truly I am.” Josh admitted aloud for the first time.
In fact the nine year old schoolboy was terrified. His mother had told him that if he was taken away from her he would never see her again and that he would be sent to a home where other nasty little boys like him were sent and where they did really horrible things to him at night. That was what he had to look forward to if he didn’t behave himself and be a good boy like all the other boys.
Josh Carlin was not a stupid kid, but he was a little naïve. Whilst he didn’t really believe everything his mother said and realised that a lot of it was said to scare him – which it did! – he could not really be sure what was truth and what was made-up scary stuff. It was that uncertainty that stopped him from telling anybody about the problems his mother was having.
“You have to stop being scared, Josh.” Benji said.
“I will, Benji. One day, when I’m a big boy I won’t be scared anymore. Mum won’t be nasty to me then, will she?”
Benji merely looked at Josh but said nothing.
Tired from crying and talking, Josh undressed himself. He piled his folded clothes on top of the desk, as he had been told to, then slipped under the duvet on his bed. He turned his damp pillow over to the dry side and lay his head down.
Ten minutes later Josh was fast asleep. On the chair by the desk in the corner of his bedroom a shaft of moonlight illuminated the large care-worn teddy-bear named Benji that sat there. It’s large, brown-glass eyes were turned towards its owner, seemingly watching over the little boy as he slept, as he did every night without fail.