Other People and Other Stories, by Bill Kirton
Our next story comes from the pen of Bill Kirton.
“Love Hurts” originally appeared in the short story collection, Other People and Other Stories. (Click here for US version.)
Bill is also a longtime contributor to the book review blog, Booksquawk.
Read an interview with Bill here.
Helen dips the spoon into the jar, twists it to collect the honey and lets a long, golden teardrop fall onto the bread. She slides the knife across the glistening surface. The small Sabatier has a wide blade, perfect for the fat smooth flow of the spread. Honey was one of the first things she’d tried Ben on when she began to wean him off the breast. Eighteen and a bit years ago.
She smiles as her eyes lift to look through into the dining room with its big bay window. Outside, the sky hangs between pale blue and the peach wash of the sunset’s beginning. Ben is in his usual place on the window seat. Six feet two of him, folded into a corner of the sky. She marvels yet again that she has carried that tall, handsome man inside her.
After it happened, she was interviewed by a man and two women.
‘It was so sweet when I started feeling him moving and prodding inside. He was so gentle. Never hurt me.’
She laughed, reached across and tapped Fraser on the arm.
‘You know, I’m sorry for you,’ she said.
‘Yes. You’ll never have a baby inside you.’
‘No fear of that,’ said Fraser.
He smiled, but Helen didn’t notice. She was lost in thoughts of how, in the darkness inside her, she’d made the bones and tissues of a man. Fraser studied her, saw an image of his mother or one of his aunts, only more refined. They didn’t have her quiet careful tones, each word sculpted by her mouth, correct.
Helen was proud of her taste, proud of the room to which she’d invited them, with its elegant prints and Monart glass. She’d settled Fraser in a velvet-covered armchair and gestured for the two women to sit on the chaise longue as she took the window seat.
‘He was only four when Iain left us, you know. Four,’ she repeated, as if to herself. ‘I was sitting here reading him a story.’
She looked down at the tasselled cushion on the box seat and began to stroke it.
‘He loved it here; it was our favourite place.’
‘Tell us about Iain,’ said Fraser.
The name brought a quick, sudden frown and a shake of the head.
‘He just came in and said that he was going. That was it. It was no surprise. Made no difference to me. But for poor little Ben … What a cruel thing to do: take away a wee boy’s father to spend more time with a receptionist.’
There was a curl in her lip as she spoke the word. She leaned forward again, wanting them to understand.
‘I was so angry. He just held Ben out in front of him and said, “This is what it’s all about. This.” Fancy that. Calling his own son “This”.’
She gave a little shake of her head and made some punching gestures against the cushion. They were sharp, hard. She became calm again but Fraser noticed that her fingers started picking at the hem of her jumper as she spoke. Fast, angry movements. She took a tissue from the small box beside her and dabbed at her eyes.
‘Can we talk about Ben?’ he asked, very gently.
She puts the slice of bread on the plate and reaches for another. Again the spoon dips, the golden blob falls. Beyond Ben’s dark shape, outside the window, the peach wash has thickened to a buttermilk gold.
She feels the joy of her overwhelming love for Ben. Remembers teaching him to read, soothing him through aches, pains and illnesses, leaving him at the school gate that first, agonising day, watching him throw himself into tackles on the football field. She aches with the pride of seeing her son grow from funny, stumbling toddler to archetypal schoolboy with eyes full of mischief, and then on into his beautiful, graceful youth.
‘About Ben,’ Fraser insisted, the gentleness still in his voice.
‘I never deceived myself,’ she said, with a shake of the head. ‘I knew I’d have to share him. He’s such a handsome boy. I knew they’d start chasing him and coveting him and wooing him.’
She made ‘coveting’ and ‘wooing’ sound pornographic.
‘I knew there’d be girl-friends. But, you know, he told me all about them. We’d sit in the window here and he’d talk about kissing them and ask all sorts of questions. I was his friend as well as his mother, you see.’ She gave a little giggle. ‘Like the first time he touched a girl’s breast. It was an accident. He stretched across to take a book from the desk beside her and she moved and he suddenly felt … “this lump” he called it.’
Fraser smiled his understanding although he found it all rather genteel. His own first contact with a breast had been very deliberate and given both himself and Lorna, whose breast it was, the biggest thrill of their twelve-year-old lives.
‘He used to tell me the sort of things girls said and did,’ Helen went on. ‘And I’d explain to him what they really meant. All the little secrets that women have. Even when we’re very young.’
She sought the agreement of the two women. They contented themselves with sympathetic little smiles. The older of the two, Anne Baxter, was about the same age as Helen. The younger, Gillian McKay, had only just turned thirty.
‘Tricky business, sex education,’ said Fraser, dragging himself back from memories of Lorna on the grass in Hazlehead Park.
‘Oh, he’d never make love to any of them,’ said Helen. ‘That was out of the question. I mean, the time I’m talking about, he was only fifteen or sixteen. He knew it could ruin his life. But then, this year … April, it was … Well, he started to change. It was Alice. He met her at a party. Told me about her and we made silly jokes about Wonderland. But by the end of May … Oh, I don’t know. He was different.’
She tapped the surface on which she sat.
‘I used to see him here, on the window seat, day after day. All hunched up. And so quiet.’
Her eyes lift to Ben and the sky beyond him, where the gold is being burnished to the darker, copper tones of early evening.
‘It was wonderful this summer,’ she said. ‘He’d been grumpy, hardly speaking to me. Then, suddenly, one night, he came home and gave me a huge kiss. Put his arms round me and said, “Sorry, Mum. I’ve been a pain, haven’t I?” It made me so happy. After that, it was just like old times. Sitting in the window together, chatting, laughing.’
She paused. Her voice dropped.
‘Then he brought her home.’
She was almost whispering, feeling again the twisting inside her at Alice’s loveliness. Wide hazel eyes and a smile that promised secret things. She’d been sweet, but Helen had heard her laughter when she was out of the room and felt that there was a sort of triumph in it.
‘It was frightening how quickly he fell in love,’ she said. ‘He burned with it, right from the start. Poor Ben. She wasn’t worth it.’
Her fingers were now stroking the material of her jumper with little caresses.
‘It changed him so much. He … wasn’t my Ben any more. Out of reach. And the tantrums … I’d say just the slightest thing and he’d jump up and shout and fling himself about.’
The caresses became little tappings.
‘You love your children so much, don’t you?’ she said. ‘You can’t help it.’
She stopped tapping her fingers and seemed to settle into a complete stillness.
‘That’s why I asked her to come and see me. Alice, I mean. September, it was. We sat in the window here. Ben was away. We had a long talk.’
She stopped. They waited and Fraser was eventually forced to ask, ‘What about?’ She looked at him, the smile long gone, her eyes narrower.
‘Ben,’ she replied. ‘I told her she was hurting him, making him suffer. I asked her if she loved him. She just shrugged.’
‘So what did you do?’
Helen gave a deep, angry sigh.
‘Oh, there were all sorts of things I wanted to do. If she couldn’t love my Ben the way he deserved, well …’
Fraser saw a tear in her left eye. It didn’t form fully enough to brim over onto her cheek but stayed there, shining.
‘I told her lies,’ she said.
She gave a little nod.
‘What sort of lies?’ asked Fraser, his voice almost a whisper.
‘Epileptic,’ she said.
Fraser looked at his two colleagues. Both shrugged.
‘Epileptic?’ he repeated.
‘Yes. I told her that’s what Ben was.’
‘But he wasn’t, was he?’
‘No. He’s perfect.’
The image of her beautiful Ben brought a little smile to her mouth. The tear still trembled.
‘I just wanted to frighten her off. I told her that he shouldn’t get excited.’
Fraser heard the catch in her throat. McKay reached across, took a tissue from the box and handed it to her. She pushed the tissue hard against each eye in turn, then shuddered.
‘And she believed me, the stupid girl. How could she? How could she believe such nonsense?’
She dabbed fiercely at her nose, controlling the little sobs that had come into her voice.
‘I made her promise not to tell him I’d said anything,’ she said at last. ‘But she must have said something.’
She waved her hand; a feeble, lost little gesture.
‘Ben started crying. I could hear him. Almost every night, sobbing away in his room.’
She shook herself, trying to shrug off the echoes of his tears.
‘There was no need to ask him. I knew.’
Suddenly, the tears came back. She spoke through them, her words pulled apart by sobs.
‘One night, I was driving home. And there he was. My poor Ben. Just… just standing under the trees. Opposite her house. All alone.’
The memory was too much. McKay got up, sat beside her and put her arm around her shoulders. Helen accepted the comfort but then shifted slightly, re-establishing a space between them before she started speaking again.
‘It was Halloween. I phoned her. She said … she said she was sorry. Said she’d tried to make a clean break but that Ben became greedy, possessive. Silly, selfish girl.’
A heaviness settled in Fraser as he listened. He just had to wait as she worked through it all. There was nothing he could say. He’d seen the photographs: the blood, the young body spread-eagled, the cuts and slashes in the chest and shoulders, the deep wounds in hands and arms that had been raised to stop the assault.
‘Ben said some very … unkind things,’ Helen was saying. ‘I knew he’d be sorry when he thought about them.’
Her hands were moving back and forth over her skirt. Fraser couldn’t guess at the sights she saw as she looked down at them.
‘It was just nonsense,’ she said. ‘Wanting to leave home, things like that.’
Her face was turned away from all of them. A stillness came over her and, when she looked at them again, it was obvious that she’d changed. Her eyes had died. The Helen they’d been talking to so far was Ben’s mother; the caring, loving soul of the years they’d had together. But this woman was the Helen that had taken over that evening in early November.
That was when Ben said he hated her, that she’d ruined his life. He was out of his mind with grief, shouting and swearing. It was too much for Helen. She left the room and stood sobbing in the kitchen as he continued to scream at her. He followed her through, called her names that sliced into her, saying that he was leaving and that he’d be glad when he never had to see her again. He even grabbed her arms and spun her round to face him.
‘You’re evil. A selfish, evil bitch.’
He pushed her back against the cabinets.
‘You think you did it from love. You’re wrong. Love doesn’t do that. Dad was right.’
He turned and stamped out. Her head was spinning with the words of this rude, angry monster that had taken Ben’s place. She picked up the Sabatier knife, ran through and started hitting Ben again and again.
When the police responded to her call, they found her calm once more. Ben’s body lay along the window seat, his face turned towards the garden, his blood pooling deeply in a dark, sticky layer around him.
Helen has stopped spreading the honey. She picks up the plate of bread, carries it through to the dining room and puts it on the window seat. The sky oozes with the crimson of the disappearing sun. The plate is piled high with bread off which the honey flows, its amber darkening as it seeps over the edge onto the walnut surround.
Fraser didn’t think she was a danger to anyone. She could easily be in one of the bigger wards. But her quiet, determined actions might eventually unsettle the others and, for the moment, he wasn’t prepared to take the chance. When he, Dr Baxter and Nurse McKay had left her room and locked the door, he’d stopped to watch her through the small observation panel. The walls of the room were a dull cream, unrelieved by any colours. Helen looked round at them, smiled, then started the routine which he’d seen her follow over and over again. Her hand reached forward and began to make motions as if she were spreading butter. When she’d finished, she walked to a corner of the room, the same one every time, and stood looking at the wall. She stayed there for several minutes, then returned to her bed and started all over again. These were the actions that filled all her days.
© Bill Kirton 2008
First published November 2008 online at Shortbreadstories.com