Wednesday, December 29, 2010

An event without consequence

One afternoon, when I was about fourteen years old, I left the family gathering in the kitchen and walked through the dining room, down the corridor and round the corner to the sitting room where I picked up the phone book and looked up the number for the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children. I knew this organization existed because five years earlier I had passed their office on my way to the swimming pool every Friday morning for a year. I had often thought that the people there would be able to tell me if the situation in my family was sufficiently out of the ordinary to qualify as cruelty. I had tried to talk about it with friends, but nobody would listen.

I dialed the number and described the scene in the kitchen. The woman at the other end of the phone asked me a series of questions. I think she was reading from a script. I answered the questions truthfully for a minute, maybe two, but I was anxious to get off the phone and she encouraged me to hang up when I said I was worried about being discovered.

The telephone company, as part of their regular billing process, provided my father with the date and time of the call, and from there he was able to deduce that the culprit was either myself, or my younger brother Colin, who was thirteen at the time, but as he was writhing on the floor, doing his best to limit the damage from the severe kicking he was getting, he wasn’t actually able to make that call himself. Raymond, another possible culprit, even though at only eleven years of age, such a calculated act of defiance would seem to be quite extreme, was trapped by furniture and unable to avoid witnessing the accustomed horror.

Had my father asked, I would have told him it was me. But I think he felt justified in hating all three of us, for, after all, it was our “bad behavior” that had brought these embarrassing and infuriating do-gooders to plague his life. I am sure he never considered the possibility that he might have been in the wrong. When they finally let go of him, after two years, during which time he had to refrain from some of the usual violence in the home as he was being “investigated”, he had a lot more pent up anger than just one of us could absorb.

He tossed all three of us out of school at the earliest possibility. In the case of my younger brothers, this was at age sixteen. I was seventeen, and half way through two years of college prep.

I was grounded for something or other, probably coming home late which I did a lot – eleven instead of ten-thirty kind of stuff, but my old man thought he could change any behavior with the right kind of punishment so I was under some kind of household arrest for an extended period, and on Sunday night I was home alone with my baby brother Geoff asleep upstairs after my parents went to the local pub for their weekly gathering with various relatives. My brother, being familiar with my parents’ schedule, arrived with his girlfriend to take advantage of the lack of adult supervision. I went out for a walk.

I came back an hour later, completely unaware that in the interim father had returned to collect a leash for the dog and discovered my disrespect for the boundaries of my prison. On Monday night, between arriving home from work, and heading out to the rugby club, father informed me that I was going to have to pay rent if I wished to continue living in his house. This would entail my leaving school and getting a job.

I was academically gifted, and, although I wasn’t enthusiastic about homework, I paid enough attention to score well on exams. I also engaged with extra curricular stuff. I was secretary of what passed for student government, for example, and my headmaster told me at my exit interview that I was short-listed to be a prefect in my senior year. This was despite a complete lack of interest or competence in any sport whatsoever. On the other hand, I was reading Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, Robert Graves and Fyodor Dostoyefsky in my free time while concentrating on Math Chemistry and Physics for schoolwork. I took every opportunity for stage performance, singing, dancing whatever I could get, both at school and in more than one amateur drama group.

I had always expected to complete a baccalaureate degree before going out into the real world. I was totally unprepared mentally. I had given the matter no thought at all. And suddenly I am sitting in the unemployment office explaining that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do – “something constructive” I think I said.


More than two decades later I was standing in a pub on Christmas eve with my older brother, David. My surprise was genuine when David told me that father was still trying to find out who it was that dubbed him in to the RSPCC so many years earlier. I had totally forgotten making that call, because, as far as I was aware at the time, nothing had happened as a result. It was an event without consequence, and so I never had cause to think of the matter again.

As David described a situation where father had been the subject of a two year investigation it came rushing back to me. If only Colin and Raymond could rush back also. But by the time of this conversation both of those boys were dead. And they had both died deliberately, efficiently and alone.

There is a painfully exquisite entanglement of coincidence that binds these and other events together with some things of consequence on a far larger scale.

I call it my life.

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