He studied the boy intently from across the street. He watched the familiar, angular body that seemed never to rest and the long limbs that twitched and fluttered like a bird in the throes of death. Against the coal blackness of his clothing and his hair the other boys’ skin was chalk white. The three of them had just come out of the shop, one of those open all hours’ places selling a bit of everything. One of them, the smallest of the three, produced two bottles from his pockets. He heard the chink of the glass as they made off running down the dim street, whooping with excitement. Under the glare of the artificial light their shadows made a grotesque puppet play on the pavement.
He followed them at a distance, a task made easier by their noise levels. Attracting attention did not concern them. The park was a small affair consisting of a circular path enclosing some ragged trees and a few benches dedicated to long dead occupants who had, apparently, loved the view. Off to the left there was a small children’s play park looking like the remains of some enormous, ancient creature now skeletal and dead in the half light.
Sudden doubt brought him to a halt at the park’s entrance, an urge to turn away, to simply go home and never know. The struggle continued within him for a time, probably just a minute or so but seeming longer. In the distance he could hear them, their voices loud and raucous and full of bravado. Stepping through his fear he walked into the shadows. The three of them were sitting on the ground, hidden in deep gloom beneath the trees. They remained oblivious to him, oblivious to everything. Their concentration was focused on the moment, on the now, on gratification. They took turns swigging from one of the bottles, their elation rising and falling, illuminated by the pulse of cigarette glow.
He moved closer as the boy produced a plastic bag and the aerosol. A sickness rose in his stomach, his skin moistened with dread. The boy discharged the can into the bag and breathed deeply from it before passing it to the others. Their conversation, if it could be called that, faltered as they continued to take their turns. The boy refilled it several times before discarding the now empty can and the bag. Carried by the light breeze the bag rolled away into the darkness, a ghostly, silent tumbleweed. He looked around but the space remained empty and indifferent, the suburban noise faint in the distance. They remained inert for a time, stretched out on the ground. What was in their heads at this moment? He was puzzled by that because he could never contemplate a moment without thought, he could not recognise something mindless or the urge to obliterate reality. He could never understand but he wanted to know.
Memory is an unreliable friend; on occasions arbitrary and selective, it could protect or, sometimes, it could punish. He had some of those, memories that still held the power of pain. Most people did he supposed but that didn’t send them to a grubby little park, to steal, to stick needles in their arms or their head in a bag and anaesthetize their mind until their mind was gone.
The fact was that no one really knew. There had been the endless procession of professionals, each armed with theories and therapies. But only he lived with the guilt of failure, the failure to stop the slide into this starless world. Nobody could help with that; there was no absolution for that. He couldn’t bring himself to blame the system despite all its faults. The doctors, the social workers, the carers faced with a tide of misery to sort out, with desperate people looking for a miracle that would never happen. No, he couldn’t bring himself to condemn them. He had never been one to avoid responsibility.
That had been his creed for all his life, responsibility for our own choices, for our own mistakes. Belief in the hope that is tomorrow, a survivalist’s instinct to find another chance whatever may have happened. God knows life had thrown him his fair share of strife but he had never crumbled, never given into the urge to abdicate the living, breathing miracle that is life itself. But the invasion of such subversion, such incomprehensible behaviour into his own life had all but defeated him.
Back then his dream had not been extravagant, not unattainable. The process had taken months with endless probing about his motives and an encouragement towards self- analysis and honesty. Their question had been not why do want to become a father but why do you want to adopt a child? He had become angry at times, angry at their apparent suspicion. It wasn’t as if he had nothing to offer, nothing to give? No, he could offer a child everything, or so he thought at the time.
His assumption had always been that in becoming a father he would somehow translate his own experience into the creation of another life. How naïve it seemed to him now with the painful benefit of hindsight. If you knew then what you know now would you still have done it, still have brought an anonymous, alien being into your life? Stupid question he had always thought but it haunted him nonetheless, the thought that his life could have been different, that all of this could have been avoided by a simple no. But then that is what life consists of, isn’t it? A series of events, many of which are outside our control, decisions made in ignorance of consequences because those consequences are beyond our ability to conceive them.
The boys had stirred and moved on further into the park, their noise levels once more rising with excitement. He followed cautiously although they clearly had a reckless disregard for their surroundings, immune to the disapproval of the society around them. What would the boy do were he to discover that he was being watched? Probably nothing he thought, after all he had never admitted to anything even when caught red handed. A mouthful of abuse and a violent outburst would be the likely result; something witnessed more times than he could remember.
In the early days he had admired the boy’s wildness, the audacious behaviour in stark contrast to his own small town conventionality. He had often smiled at the boy’s antics, almost proud at times as he would recount tales to friends and family about the escapades, the apparent disregard for his own safety. Oh he was a boy he would say, just doing what boys do and one day would surprise us all. He had held that belief for a long time; he had clung to it like a lifebelt because he would not allow himself to believe anything else. He should have seen it coming; he should have read the warning signs. But what could he have done even if he had? By then there was no getting out of it, no walking away.
A flare of light startled him. What were they doing? Moving closer he could see a small blaze, one of the park benches appeared to be alight. The boys were running round excitedly, the fire flaring as they squirted something onto it. Lighter fluid most likely, it was easier to obtain. In the scintillating light they looked like primitives dancing around the god of fire, spinning and leaping as the fire cracked and spat sending sparks into the ink black sky. Their faces were thrown into contorted expressions by the phosphorescence. The power of it kept him rooted to the spot and he could only watch and wonder. Despite himself he was captivated by this display of ecstasy, the boys’ total abandonment stirring something in him, something basic and thoroughly unpleasant.
The sense of failure was overwhelming at times, the inability to make happen what he had wanted to happen, the frustration of thinking it was turning around only to see it all crumble again. How could the boy not want what he wanted, why was he bent, apparently, on self-destruction? Even his own motives were a mystery to him now, the reasons why he kept turning up again and again, answering the phone at all hours? Certainly it appeared to make no difference to the boy, whether he was there or not. Others told him how important he was to the boy, that his presence in the boy’s life was vital. But what about his own life? What about that he thought but never said.
It would never be enough he had decided a long time ago, whatever he did would probably never be enough, it would not end until he was cold in the ground. What would the boy do then? In his anger he had sometimes challenged the boy with that very question, desperate to break through the shell of indifference. But he remained impotent, alone with an acute awareness that everything else in his life was eclipsed, that whatever he had achieved would always be overshadowed by this, this castrated fatherhood. He felt used and useless.
The tree above the fire had now caught bringing further screams of delight from them as burning twigs and embers fell, swirling around in the light breeze. The energy fizzed and crackled as small blazes erupted under the burning tree. In his pocket he felt the solid bulk of the phone. He should make the call, he knew he should but instead he stood there, feeling the faint warmth of the fire, his will even now, driven by an absurd desire to protect the boy. It was a delusion of course, but a powerful one.
That had always been his downfall, the refusal to see, to actually see the reality. Perhaps he had always been like that, had always only seen what he wanted to see; believed what he wanted to believe. The truth that he had a child such as this was something he had found almost impossible to acknowledge and so he had entered a kind of denial. Certainly he had researched the clinical psychology of it all trying to understand the issues as the professionals would say. He had attended meetings, schools, education authorities, child psychiatrists, the list was endless. Each time a faint hope would emerge, a small glimmer of light at the end of his tunnel, but it would never last for long. Within a few days, a few hours in some cases, the light would vanish, the hope evaporate. And so he was ground down, worn thin until denial was the only way to hang onto whatever was left of his own life. It didn’t change anything of course but then he no longer believed change was possible.
Nature over nurture someone had told him once, it’s in the genes and you can’t do anything about it. But for years he had hoped and worked and sacrificed never wanting to believe in never, wanting to know what real fatherhood felt like, what pride in a child really felt like, convincing himself that, in the end, the boy would come through, would reflect something of himself. Wasn’t that what parenthood was about, sacrifice, love, support and then watch a young life flourish and grow into something beautiful? Apparently not, at least not for him and not for the boy. The angry tears felt cool against his hot cheeks. He tasted the saltiness in his mouth and wondered what he would do with all that anger.
The boys were dancing now with a kind of mad energy as they frantically looked around for anything that might feed the fire, something to appease their god, something to feed their obsession. It was almost hypnotic standing there in the flickering shadows watching the fire consume everything; the beginning and end, life and death.
A noise made him turn around. A couple stood open mouthed at the park’s entrance, their faces written with fear and something like awe. He saw the man frantically push the buttons on the phone, it’s small screen glowing. He watched as the man put it to his ear and tried to speak, pressing his free hand against his other ear in an effort to hear. The woman said something, pulling at the man’s shirt as she spoke. He put his arm around her and turned away guiding them urgently away from the park, away from the madness, back to the safety of their world.
It wouldn’t be long now he realised. The three of them remained unaware of their discovery. The boy was in the play area frantically trying to rip the see-saw from its mounting. The others ran to help, shouting and kicking and pulling at it.
He backed away slowly, still watching them, unable to wrench his eyes away. He stumbled, almost falling over the kerb and, in reaching out to steady himself, managed to cut his hand on the stone. The pain seemed to wake him as if from a dream and he knew he had to go. He didn’t want to be found here. Later, in the car, he switched his phone off and felt the relief. He drove home in silence.
The inevitable call came. Arson and criminal damage to add to the list. It always impressed him how matter of fact the police were, as if there were discussing what to have for dinner. The boy would be bailed for now and they were looking for a man seen leaving the park, a man who must have witnessed the incident. They would let him know they said. He hung up and wondered what he was going to do with all this anger. It would probably kill him in the end, probably.