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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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The Teeth of Freedom

by Steve Wade

 

 

    

The old woman sitting beside him on the bus clutched the carrier bag resting on her lap closer to her when he asked her for the second time. A faint hum of sour clothing rose from her as she twisted her tiny frame sideways so he could squeeze by.

 

“Thank you, Madam,” he said, “Excuse me.”

  

Not until he was stepping off the bus did it strike him that what he said to the old woman was what his father would’ve said.

 

On the street where he now walked, overly conscious of his heavy footfalls, in the direction of the copper-coloured mini mansion that stood isolated and watching his approach from the end of the cul-de-sac, it seemed as though no human life existed.

  

Although quite a warm May morning, frozen fingers spiralled down his spine as he ascended the thirteen steps of his one-time home. He paused before pressing the doorbell. There wasn’t one. He pushed the intercom button. A voice he didn’t recognise replied, a woman’s.

  

“Good morning. Dr. Shelley’s. Can I help you?”

  

“I’m here to see Dr. Shelley,” he said. He hadn’t expected an intercom.

 

 “Who’s calling, please?” The voice was mechanical and chirpy.

 

 “Barnard,” he said. He’d wanted to surprise his mother.


The voice enquired if he had an appointment. Barnard informed the voice that he was a relative.

  

“One moment, please.”

  

The moment lasted forever, before a small white-haired woman finally opened the door. She reminded him of the old woman on the bus. Through petrified round eyes, he felt she regarded him as if looking at her own reflected image telling of approaching death.

 

“Barnard,” she said, raising her shaky hands towards him. “It is you.”

  

“Mom, I didn’t …” but he stopped himself from saying that he hadn’t recognised her. He felt an instant pang burning in his throat.

 

“You’re back!” she said. “What happened? You’re home!” And she sort of stumbled into his arms.

  

He caught her, and found himself holding onto her like she was a prayer and he believed in God again. She kissed his neck, his chin and his hands. He bent closer to her and pressed his cheek to hers. She brought her hand up to his face, ran her fingers through his hair, and wept wretchedly the way only the very old or the very young can weep.

 

“I’m sorry, Mom. I’m really sorry. I should have let you know. They let me out early.”

 

She shushed him and shook her head.

  

He tried to go on. “Good behaviour. That’s why …”

  

No,” she said, pulling back and gazing into his face. “I’m sorry, love. Your father wouldn’t let us visit.”

  

“I know, Mom. I kept every letter you sent me.” He half twisted to show her the holdall swinging from his shoulder.

“They’re in here.”

  

Barnard’s mom’s eyes unfocused. “Your father, he said that detention centres were no place for any member of his family to visit.”

 

“It’s okay, Mom, really.”

  

Her eyes readjusted and bored into his. “We don’t say too much to each other anymore, your father and I.” Her crumpled face and reddened eyes begged for forgiveness.

 

“I understand, Mom. I hear you.” He stroked the cold hand gripping his. “I’ve never stopped hearing your voice in here.” He tapped the side of his head.

 

“Come in, son.”

 

She took him by the hand the way she did when he was a boy. They went inside.

 

 In the living room, a large flat-screened TV perched on its own silver stand in a corner. Other than the TV, the room seemed no different than it used to be when he lived there.

 

“Jessica is in the study,” she said. She sounded more relaxed. “She has no idea you’re here. She’ll be so happy. I’ll get her.”

 

The hysterical sound of his mother’s voice and another woman’s high-pitched tones streamed in from the study down the hall. His mother sounded like she was crying again. Impulsively, he was pushing his hands against the chair’s armrests and rising out of it, when childish steps bounding over the wooden floor in the hallway stopped him like a bellowed order.

 

“You look so different,” a young woman said from the living room doorway where the reckless pace of childhood ended, leaving the awkward gait of surprised maturity in its wake.

  

“Jessica?” he said, giving her name a cold questioning tone, which made the young woman faltering through the room seem more hesitant. The surprise at suddenly having before him this young woman dressed in a black cut-off top that accentuated fully developed breasts, instead of a skinny, asexual thirteen-year-old sister paralysed his cognisance. Barnard shifted his attention away from her, desperately searching the blank plasma screen for something significant to say. 

 

“Hey, look at me!” she said in a voice that sounded like the little sister he remembered. “What’s this?” she continued, peering up at him from an angle and taking his chin in her thumb and forefinger to twist his face away from the lifeless TV screen. “Tears? Is my big, tough, jailbird brother crying?”

  

In prison, Barnard had disciplined himself to stave off the necessary refuge there was in succumbing to self-pity. Maladjusted men, sadistic men, and men without hope had threatened him, spat into his face and beaten him. He had refused to break before them. He waited till lock-up, for the night-time in his solitary cell. There he wept silently until sleep, fitful and tormented, brought greater terrors still. Now, in front of a beautiful young woman pupated from a dowdy girl, along with a broken, elderly woman, a diminished version of his mother, his anvil-beaten control over self was defeated.

  

“I’ve got something for you,” he said, and tried to pull away from this girl in order to conceal further shame behind his retreating back.

 

“Shut up,” she said. “Come here!” She drew him into her soft warm body with unexpected strength.

  

Escape was impossible. Not even when, to his further distress, he felt unbrotherly arousal stirring within him did she release her hold. His attempts at loosening his embrace and gently pushing her from him were signals she ignored.

 

Needle-jabs of sweat perforated his brow. His undisciplined body, his lack of self-control, the reasons why the world had shunned him, banged him up, were once more betraying him. His increased efforts at shrinking off into his well-founded mortification, as he experienced it, coincided with Jessica’s determination to cling to him as though forever.

  

In an endeavour to retain the last remnant of dignity he no longer believed he had, Barnard shuffled through the countless horrors he’d experienced or witnessed over the past seven years. But the degradation he’d undergone in that freezing, stinking zoo, contrasted with the luxurious room, while being embraced by this perfect female masquerading as his baby sister, was putrid animal fat seeping into the dancing and jerking flames of his uncontrollable desire.

  

Not relinquishing him from her, Jessica leaned back just far enough to look into his face. Sick with shame and self-disgust, he re-kindled his interest in the blank TV screen. Peripherally, he saw her eyes imploring him that it didn’t matter, that she understood. But, for Barnard, it wasn’t okay. To look back into her face now would be the surrendering of the charged and convicted man’s last cry of innocence.

  

“Your father’s here.” His mom’s feeble voice called from the window where she had seated herself on the room’s least comfortable chair.

  

Barnard made his escape, with his innocence in doubt but undefeated, and rushed to the window. A gleaming black Mercedes had pulled into the gravel driveway. In the driver’s seat his father remained seated with a cell phone pressed against his head. The dark suit he wore accentuated the collar and cuffs of his shirt, which were as white as sea salt. His clothes in turn were offset by a deep tan. For Barnard, the man and the car were each a part of the other, not extensions, but the same flawless creature, self-contained and perfectly adapted to being.

  

“I’ll put this out of the way, Barnard, love,” his mom said, struggling with his army-green holdall. “Before your father comes in.”

  

“Wait, Mom,” he said. “Let me do it. It’s heavy.”

  

That’s when he remembered the distraction that had briefly eluded him. Leaving the holdall where it was deposited, like a cuckoo’s egg in his father’s favourite chair, he tore open the stiffened zipper.

  

“Jess,” he said, tugging a furry animal toy from the bag. “This is for you.” He felt himself flinching with sudden awkwardness.

  

“He’s gorgeous,” she said, taking and clutching the lifelike cuddly Persian cat to her chest.

  

“I guess it’s a bit babyish,” he said. “Somehow I must have expected to find you – ” An unexpected emptiness welled-up inside his throat. He couldn’t finish. 

  

“No, Barnard, It’s perfect.” And she threw one arm up and around his neck pressing the grey-furred cat to her side, the way toddlers do.

  

The sound of the front door opening and closing alerted Barnard to their father’s approach. He and his sister released each other.

  

“The bag,” his mom said, scuttling towards the chair with her arms extended before her.

  

But she was too late. Like Barnard and Jessica, the mother froze as though caught undergoing some shameful act by the silver-haired man entering the room. Without pausing in his step, his gaze swept from Barnard to his wife to his daughter and back to Barnard.

 

“Barnard,” he said, his face betraying no surprise, “you might have informed us of your release.”

 

“I wanted to surprise everyone,” Barnard said.

 

“Yes,” his father said crossing the room. “You’ve certainly succeeded.”

 

“William, Please!” Barnard’s mother said.

 

Ignoring his wife, he added, “you always were,” he paused and glanced at his daughter, “full of surprises.”

 

“Stop!” his mom said. “Stop it!”

 

“Don’t worry, Mom. I surprise myself these days.”

 

Putting his arm around his mother’s waist, he guided her out of the chair she was sitting in, led her passed his father’s chair and directed her onto the sofa. He sat down beside her. Jessica sat on her opposite side.

 

Barnard’s father stood before the TV, picked up the remote control and commanded the dormant screen to life. Thumping rap music invaded the room. Angry-looking black youths in outsize clothing, wearing huge gold chains and diamond-studded rings and bracelets strutted and pranced at the viewer.

 

“Leave it there!” Jessica said. “I love this one.”

 

Their father raised his head from the screen, looked across at her briefly, before extending the zapper as if it were a weapon, and with an exaggerated push of the button he annihilated the offensive youths. A British newscaster dressed in a pink shirt and dark jacket, reporting worldly events in honeyed tones, took their place.

 

The tall silver-haired man, now in shirtsleeves, paused and stood akimbo next to the chair with his head half-cocked, so he seemed at the same time to listen to the news and study Barnard on the couch. Barnard feigned interest in how the euro was doing next to the dollar.

 

His father then made what was just about perceptible a gesture as a shoulder-shrug, picked up the bag the way you’d reluctantly take hold of a dead thing, held it away from his body, and dropped it at Barnard’s feet.

 

 Jessica muttered something Barnard couldn’t catch. The increased pulse of her heartbeat pounded from his mom’s trembling hand into Barnard’s. His father strutted back to the battered armchair.

 

The expression of his father’s face when seated was of a professional man so at ease with his own success and who he was, he needed no ego-reassurance by displaying his superiority through avoidance of dirty fingernails. Barnard knew that his father knew that every member of his family knew that he, Dr. William Shelley, had shaped a glorious career in the field of neurology using the tools a moderately poor background had provided him with: ambition, perseverance, self-belief and physical strength. He was a man who had constructed his present-day position from the foundations up. What made him an uncommon man was that the foundations of his career had been excavated and built with no other hands than his own.

 

“What’s for lunch, Mom?” Barnard said. “I’m starved.”

 

Starving,” his father said. “You’re starving.”

 

“You bet,” Barnard said. “I’m starving and I’m starved.”

 

Jessica sniggered, while their mom made a short high-pitched squeaking sound she attempted but was unable to stifle. Surprisingly, this set the father off. He first of all made a two-syllabled chortle, which caused Barnard’s mother’s squeaking sound to evolve into a kind of crying-laughter or laughing tears. This in turn seemed the reason why the father hooted with laughter, producing an instant antidote that battled and defeated the tension with which a moment ago had pervaded the room.

 

“Sorry, dear,” his mom said dabbing her watery red eyes with a tissue when the general high feeling cooled down. “The girl will be here soon. I’ll get her to prepare something special.”

“The girl?” Barnard asked.  “Yes, dear, she started with us a few weeks ago.”

 

“Three years, Mom,” Jessica whispered, and nuzzled her face into their mom’s neck. “Inna’s been here since the time you had your fall.”

 

 “What fall?” Barnard said. “Why wasn’t I told? Somebody could’ve let me know.”

 

 “It’s nothing, Barnard,” his mom said. “The one they took out was too old anyway.”

 

“Took out what, Mom? Who did? What was?”

 

His father coughed, catching his attention and, with a clenched expression, indicated that he not pursue the issue. His expression unfurled before he said, “Barnard, now that you’re back among the dying,” he paused for a reaction to his quip. There was none. Unruffled, he went on. “Now that you’ve finished your extended vacation, we have to discuss your prospects. You know, how you intend earning a living. who with, and in what area ―”

 

“I think I’ll go for a lie-down before lunch,” Barnard said.

 

“Pay attention to me, Mister,” his father said. He was on his feet before the command was finished.

 

“Yes, sir,” Barnard said, inwardly cringing at his own automatic use of ‘sir.’ He had also left his seat and stood looking up at his father beneath a lowered head.

 

“Two o’clock, young man. In my study.” He left the room without listening to Barnard’s reply. 

 

Barnard was immediately shuttled back to a specific occasion, although there were others, when his father had summoned him to his study. He hated that study still.

 

It had to have been around seven in the evening, Barnard remembered. That’s when his father usually finished up with his last patient. Barnard was sitting at the table and sketching in charcoals Amadeus, the family’s Irish wolfhound, a member of the family since before he and his older brother were born. Amadeus was old, over a hundred in dog years maybe, and dozed before the fire, while his mom and brother watched TV.  “Lie down, sir,” his father roared at Amadeus as Barnard’s charcoals spilled to the floor. Amadeus cowed arthritically back to the sheepskin rug.

 

“What did I do now?” Barnard asked in the crybaby voice he hated.

 

“Do you have to, William?” his mom said as Barnard felt his feet almost lifted from the floor and his collar biting into his throat. Pulling the living room door shut behind them, he released Barnard and allowed him to walk ahead of him to the study. Such a consolation was no better than being granted the freedom to choose between the method of your own execution, hanging or frying.

 

“Put it on the desk,” his father said when he’d locked the study door from the inside.  

 

He looked down at the sketchpad his father was indicating in his slippery hand. He hadn’t been aware he’d been holding it. Gripping it by one of its hard covers, its drooping pages gave it the appearance of a strangled, white chicken. The picture, not completed, of Amadeus, was ripped.

 

With his oppressive silence, his father unlocked a drawer in his desk, opened it and pulled out a glossy magazine. Barnard instantly recognised its cover. His father tossed it across the desk on top of Barnard’s sketchpad.

 

“Your mother found this under your pillow.” Maybe his father said something else, but they were the words Barnard remembered. He’d stopped trying to convince himself that while his father dragged him back from the door, he’d said something clichéd―reassuring like: The reason I’m doing this is so that you understand that you have to take responsibility for your actions.


The whistle of the belt his father disturbingly removed from his own waist swinging through the air, snapping across his back, slapping the backs of his thighs, hitting the door behind him when he turned around to beg his father to stop; and that belt bouncing off the top of his shoulder and its tip sort of curling around his protective hands, graduating to the plangent sound of the steady lash whipping down on his behind and legs reigned supreme as not alone the outstanding memory of that day, but had come to represent the essence of his relationship with his father.

 

Years later, the sense of self-disgust mingling with confused horror of discovery, still haunted him. The magazines were the beginning, the catalyst. The images of the beautiful but unobtainable women offering themselves in ways an eleven-year-old boy couldn’t have thought possible, led on to an obsession that culminated in Barnard’s being locked away from society for seven years.

 

Now, twenty years later, his father was summoning him once more to his study. What new discovery, a discovery that could surpass the string of sexual offences that ended in the greater and final offence that put him away, had his father made? Barnard trembled. His body was accustomed to trembling.