When Karen Ward’s son left for school at 9.37 this morning, she had already decided that by teatime he would be dead. In the hours in between she bought fish fingers – the expensive brand – and potatoes to make chips from scratch, because he liked hers better than the frozen crinkly ones you could buy in the supermarket. Then she climbed four flights of stairs to get to their flat, and she sat on the balcony amongst the pigeon shit, drinking milky tea and wishing she’d nailed up the wire mesh like she always threatened to.
Now, as it gets close to five, and the fish fingers are tanning under the grill, she watches her boy as he lies in front of the TV, as he does every day when he comes home from school, alone, his elbows propping him up, trying to keep his head upright, his mouth in a great big ‘O’. Karen doesn’t know exactly what it is he is watching, but she can’t help herself thinking I hope it’s not a serial because he’s never going to find out how it ends.
Philip doesn’t notice his mum staring at him, but she is, and her eyes flutter over the bruise on his arm, returning to it like a bad habit. She doesn’t remember if it was her who did it, as Philip tried yet again to run around the flying furniture, or if it had been the work of his dad. So many bruises, on Philip and on Karen, that she just loses track of how they came to be.
As Philip watches the story on the screen, transfixed, like the light is pulling his eyes towards it, sucking them into it, his mouth in that entranced ‘O’, Karen thinks about how his own story began, when she’d pushed him out of her. His mouth had been in an ‘O’ then, far too early, and they’d had to take him away from her, straight away from her, before she’d even had a chance to see him. They’d stuck a tube down his tiny throat and they sucked her insides out of him, all blood-red and viscous, making him even smaller. By the time she got him back, all cleaned up and empty inside, it was like he didn’t know who she was; didn’t know that he’d come from her.
His was a story that might never have begun: she didn’t even know if she could have him. The doctors didn’t seem sure, didn’t know exactly what her pills might do to a baby, but she wanted one so much, wanted to give her husband something to love her for, that it didn’t matter. And when Philip came out as perfect a thing as she had ever had in her life, she couldn’t even cry.Karen thinks that Philip looks so serious now, watching the telly. She wants him to laugh, but he doesn’t. His mouth stays in that ‘O’ shape. The same kind of ‘O’ shape it had when she left him at the nursery for the first time – like he couldn’t quite believe she’d done it but he was relieved nonetheless. Even then it was like he knew that to be away from her would be good and bad; the life and the death of him. He had watched her back away, with that ‘O’ on his face, and then busied himself with the paint-box. She watched him for a while then, too, and he didn’t know it. He was lost to those colours; lost to the world they showed him.
He couldn’t wait to get to ‘proper’ school. It was as though he had been opened up and needed to be filled in; as though his outline had been drawn and he was waiting for the colour to be applied. But it seems that his mum and dad went over the edges. He could read already of course, by the time he got to what everyone called ‘big school’, if by ‘big’ they meant a hundred tiny humans making their bewildered way into learning. He was so advanced, but he had been taught well; with kindness. Mostly. Karen’s childhood visiting his, only now with pills, so it didn’t overstay its welcome. She used to read to him because it was something that was just theirs and something from her own childhood that she could give him; something – the only thing – that was good and right. She remembers reading Great Expectations to him; the little boy was called Philip, like him. He was too young to understand it, Philip Pirrip. But he loved it when anyone in the book called him Pip. And so that’s what she used to call him. Pip. Pip. Pip.
Barry, his dad, her husband, the man of the house, did his bit educating Philip at home. Karen remembers how he would knock Philip on the side of the head if he got things wrong – she can still hear Philip’s mantra of “Monday, Tuesday, Thursday [whack], Friday, Saturday, Sunday”. The forgotten Wednesday and the crack in the face. Philip’s mouth in an ‘O’ of pain and surprise, replaced too quickly by expectation and acceptance. Thinking of that and of so many other things, Karen wonders: what have they taught him, really?
As he lies there now, oblivious to anything but what’s in front of him, she notices for what must be the millionth time the way his legs bend up from the knees and cross at the ankles, upright in the air, the only part of him that he will let stand up for itself. His head has started to drop a little, but his eyes still hold the gaze of the TV and his mouth still lives in that ‘O’.
“What you watching?” she asks.
“Just some programme,” he replies, seeing her for the first time. As he does so, he gives her a smile, and his mouth is a slash of crooked white and fleshy lips. It lasts a second before it’s back in the ‘O’.
He is so wrapped up in the telly. She can understand why. But it means he doesn’t see her open the door onto the tiny balcony, just enough room for a clothes-horse and the little bike he’s quickly outgrown, a mug of milky tea gone cold and silvery; it means he doesn’t see her come up behind him and pull him up with a strength she doesn’t even know she has.
“What you doing?” he asks, the panic rising too easily in his voice. “What have I done?”
That he assumes he has done anything kills her, and she is now surer than ever that she has to kill him. When she tries to bend him backwards over the balcony, she notices how tall he’s got, how skinny he is, the hole in his school jumper. She sees fresh bruises like squashed blueberries on his neck and arms. She tries to explain to him, tries to make him see that this world isn’t like the stories he watches on telly; it’s a world where he gets bruises she is tired of counting, a world where he can’t bring anyone home from school, a world of flying, fractured furniture and uncertainty. She doesn’t want to be in it, and she doesn’t want him in it without her.
“And your dad doesn’t know how to make chips,” she hears herself saying. He doesn’t answer because his mouth is frozen in that ‘O’.
That he doesn’t scream or fight back hard enough kills her again. They are there for what seems like hours, but when she loosens her grip and lets go of her son she notices that the same programme is still on the telly, but he doesn’t go back to watching it. Instead, he runs out, not even stopping to put his shoes on.
She has one of her moments of clarity. She has so few that she can now easily recognise them for what they are: a dazzling mirror which explains her to herself. And that clarity persists, like the bottom of a kaleidoscope, when the twisting has finished, and the colours are settled into connected patterns with their perfect explanations. In that moment she realises that she has done nothing but abruptly cauterise his feelings and write the rest of his chapters before he’s even had a chance to live them. What happened on the balcony today will become the only story he will ever know.
The Great Big O by Jacqueline Downs was read by Libby Edwards at the Liars' League Here & Now event on Tuesday 10 August 2010 at The Phoenix, Cavendish Sq., London
Jacqueline Downs is a writer and editor from London. Her work has been published in Smoke: A London Peculiar and on Smokebox, and read at various events including Storytails and Are You Sitting Comfortably? She is a regular teller of real-life tales of debauchery at Spark London.
Libby Edwards trained at the Bridge Theatre Training Company (Postgrad: Acting), before which she toured in a number of productions for three years. Roles have included Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, Lady Macbeth, Juliet and Henrietta Iscariot in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at the Cockpit Theatre. She is also a stage manager and fluent Welsh-speaker. firstname.lastname@example.org