This 3000-word story about how secrets and tragedy can combine to tear families apart was an experiment to see if I could handle an emotionally complex plot in the short story form. Rather than simply focusing on a single event from one point of view, I wanted to explore the long term effects of something over time. I think it’s fairly successful, though various attempts to get it published were unsuccessful. Let me know what you think in the comments.
That Day by Gillan Drew
Like a wound that needed protecting they had covered it up, hidden it, and let it fester. Over the years it had become infected, started to smell, but still they refused to acknowledge it. It had eventually scabbed over – itchy and sensitive to the touch, but bearable. Just so long as nobody mentioned it.
It was Ben that decided to rip it open once and for all.
They sat around the table, John, his father, to the left, Mary, his mother, to the right, and Ben, the son, at the head. A fourth chair stood empty across from him. The windows in his father’s kitchen were tall, a pale autumn sky doing nothing to counter the dimness of the room.
To an outsider, it would have been surprising to see them there, ready to discuss what had happened that day. But Ben had given them little choice.
‘I really don’t think this is necessary,’ said his mother.
‘Nor me,’ his father echoed. ‘So much time.’
‘Water under the bridge,’ said his mother. Her hair was immaculate, the years buried beneath foundation and blusher.
‘It’s necessary and it’s not forgotten,’ said Ben. He placed his hands flat on the table to show he meant business.
‘I never said it was forgotten,’ said his father, shifting in his chair. His nose was red, his cheeks a rat-run of broken purple capillaries. ‘But why dig it up now? It’s all in the past.’
‘That’s the problem,’ said Ben. ‘It was never in the past. We never talked about it, like it never happened.’
‘We didn’t need to talk about it,’ said his mother.
‘Oh yes we did,’ said Ben. ‘This is long overdue, and neither of you are leaving until we get this thing out in the open. No matter how much it might hurt.’
‘Are you sure this is really necessary?’ asked his mother again. But she knew she wouldn’t be allowed to avoid it any longer.
* * * * *
So nice. So nice to just sit and relax for a change. To close her eyes and feel the sun roaming over her skin like a lover, touching, savouring, loving. The gentle caress of the breeze, the sighing waves that lapped at the shore. Even the raucous cries of the seagulls couldn’t take this moment from her, the lapse into pure, sensual relaxation.
Too soon it would be over. Too soon, she would have to return to the world she had created – husband, kids, noise and stress. Put some more sun cream on, don’t get sand in the sandwiches, where are the spades, how many times have I told you, come on, stop bickering. But here, now, this was her time. What she wouldn’t give to leave it all behind, to live for herself and no one else.
She pushed thoughts of others away, sank deeper into that comfort and embraced it with all her soul.
She didn’t notice the screams at first. They didn’t pierce the barrier she had erected to block out the noises of the beach. She only gradually became aware of them, only gradually realised that she had heard them all along and filtered them out. Only now did she notice that it sounded like Ben, amidst a multitude of shouts, cries, splashing.
It took several moments for the idea to form that she really ought to sit up and see what the matter was. It took several more for the idea to resolve into an intention, and another few to finally summon the gumption to lift her head.
A bustle of people, craning to catch a glimpse. A lifeguard in the shallows. And –
Bolting upright, Mary watched the man dragging the boy from the water. Time seemed to stand still, her heart stopping in her chest – David, eyes closed, body limp; the lifeguard, the sun glistening off the droplets on his skin; Ben close behind them, his face contorted and barely recognisable.
The next few minutes were a blur, a whirlwind of images, sounds. The lifeguard pounding on little David’s chest, Ben screaming as he clutched at her, burying his face into her shoulder, the expressions on the faces of the crowd who watched the pantomime unfold. Even at the time she knew that for them, it would be a story, an anecdote; for her, it was brutal reality.
And the last vignette, John, his face white, bloodless, his eyes so dark and raw. Spittle on his lip, his mouth twisted unnaturally to the side. The words that echoed down to her over all those years: ‘You were supposed to be watching them!’
* * * * *
‘There was nothing I could have done,’ said Ben’s mother, and stared across at her ex-husband. ‘Even if I had seen what was going on, I couldn’t have stopped it. I couldn’t have made it out there in time.’
‘Nobody blamed you, Mary, least of all me,’ said his father, though his refusal to meet her eyes gave the truth to his lie.
Sniffing loudly, his mother raised a tissue to dab at her eye. The mascara was untainted, the makeup smooth and unruffled. ‘There was nothing I could have done,’ she repeated and looked imploringly at Ben. ‘What else do you want to hear?’
‘I’d really like to know why you left,’ he replied.
‘Oh Ben,’ she said, and shook her head to straighten her hair. ‘Marriages end, you know that.’
He leaned forward in his chair, his elbows on the table. ‘I came home from school and you were gone, without a word to explain it.’
‘I lost my son,’ she said stiffly. ‘I had my reasons for leaving and I won’t have you judging me.’
Searching her eyes for any sign of affection, any hint of love, Ben could find none. ‘I’m not judging you,’ he said. ‘I just want to know why.’
‘You should ask your father,’ said his mother, casting her eyes at the ruddy-faced old man across from her.
‘Don’t bring me into this,’ he grunted. ‘It was as much a mystery to me.’
‘As if you’re blameless,’ she snapped. ‘Still the same, trying to pass responsibility for what happened that day.’
‘I wasn’t even there,’ he said.
‘We were all there,’ said Ben and his father turned his eyes on him.
* * * * *
‘I don’t care, I told her that if they’re going to offer us that little then they’ll have to go back to their RCC because we’ll be renegotiating our contract.’
‘Was that a seagull?’ asked the voice, tinny over the phone’s speaker.
‘Yep,’ said John, watching the bird hopping across the sand. ‘I’m currently standing on a beach and topping up my tan.’
‘You on holiday?’
‘Uh-huh, with the missus and the boys.’
‘Then why the hell are you answering your phone?’
John laughed. ‘Couldn’t leave you all on your lonesome now, could I?’
‘I know where I’d rather be,’ said the voice.
Whereas John didn’t. He’d always wanted a wife and kids, to give them the life his own father had failed to provide. It was as if he could erase his own crappy childhood if he made theirs the best a child ever had. Which, of course, entailed long hours of work and only the briefest glimpses of his boys. But that was acceptable – no child of his would wear hand-me-downs.
In truth, he preferred it this way. Deep down, he didn’t feel he was cut out for this fatherhood thing. He’d seen first-hand what bad parenting could do, and he was reluctant to get too close, in case of what might happen. Mary could take care of it.
And he liked his job. It fulfilled him, more than the love of his wife and the smiles of his sons. Anyone could breed – it took a special kind of person to provide for his family. That was the role he had created for himself, and the role he thrived in.
He was caught off-guard by the sight of the ambulance pulling onto the sand, blue lights flashing. It was so incongruous in a place surrounded by children eating ice-creams and teenagers throwing Frisbees.
‘You still there, John?’ asked the voice, but he wasn’t listening. He was staring towards the shore, to where the crowd gathered at the edge of the water. Staring down. He’d seen a drowning before, the way that people converged on the scene like mourners at a graveside – he’d been one of them, aching to get a morbid glimpse of the body.
Scanning the beach, he picked out the windbreak he’d put up, the towels and bags, but couldn’t see his family.
He had the self-possession to say, ‘I’ll call you back,’ before he slipped the phone into his pocket and ran towards the sea.
* * * * *
‘I wasn’t even there,’ said his father, his fingers drumming on the table top.
‘And that’s the point,’ said his mother. ‘You were never there.’
‘I was trying to keep a roof over your heads, that’s what I was trying to do. Can’t you understand that?’
‘You should have been in the water with them, playing with them, like fathers do.’
‘You were supposed to be watching them,’ said his father, rising from his chair.
‘Oh that’s rich.’
‘I want you out of my house.’
‘Dad,’ Ben cautioned, his hand in the air between them. He noticed his father’s fists trembling at his sides, his rheumy eyes searching the sideboards for a bottle. ‘Come on.’
‘I’m not having this, you two picking me apart.’ He looked at his son. ‘That’s what you want, isn’t it? Someone to blame?’
‘No,’ said Ben. ‘No blame. Just –’ He took a deep breath, puffed out his chest. ‘You were my hero. Before. And then – what happened to you, dad? Why did it all go so wrong?’
‘Hero?’ said his father, lowering himself back into his chair and stroking his arms. ‘I was never a hero. And who are you to talk of heroes?’
* * * * *
They were getting further out, out of their depth. Ben liked it. It made him feel brave and naughty at the same time, his toes floating free of the sand as the waves lifted him up in the water. David splashed alongside him, eager to stay with his older brother, and still they went further. Ben was the stronger swimmer and taller, a thought that never occurred to his ten-year-old self, but fifteen years later, he watched the scene in his memory and screamed at him to turn back.
There was no other word to describe the day than glorious. As the years unfolded, Ben had been back there a million times in his mind, but he didn’t think he was embellishing. The sun sparkled on the sea like a scattering of diamonds, and the water, such a rich blue, stretched out before them to meet the cloudless sky. The only sounds were laughter, shouts of exhilaration. It was, he thought later, the last moment of innocence before the fall.
‘We’re too far out,’ said David as he treaded water, his blonde hair matted to his scalp. ‘We should go back.’
‘Chicken,’ said Ben, rolling onto his back and staring up at the sun. He loved his brother, wanted to share this with him, this feeling of daring the world to come and take them on. Together, they could do anything.
He lifted his head, saw David was struggling but keeping up with him as he gently kicked his legs, heading for the horizon. He was so proud of his little brother. What a team. It was glorious.
‘I’m going back,’ David spluttered. ‘We’re too far out.’
‘No, don’t,’ said Ben. ‘Don’t be a spoilsport.’
‘We’re too deep –’
‘Chicken,’ said Ben, puckering his lips and making farmyard noises. ‘Bock, bock, bock.’
‘You’re such a little chicken.’
‘I’m getting out,’ said David.
‘Wait, don’t get out,’ said Ben. ‘I didn’t mean –’
‘No, you’ve ruined it now,’ David snapped.
The words cut into Ben because he knew they were true. He’d gone too far, as usual, ruined the fun, had turned something beautiful into something ugly. Remorse swamped him. If only he could get things back the way they were.
He grabbed his brother’s arm, was about to apologise, was about to make things right – that’s how he rationalised it in hindsight – but David screamed at him to get off, and swinging his arm he struck Ben across the nose with the back of his wrist.
Anger, white hot, at himself, at his brother, at the fact the perfect day had been tarnished, flashed like lightning through his brain – he pushed his brother’s head under the water. Just to scare him, to keep him out deep, to keep him with him. Only until David calmed down, only until Ben could make it right. Only that long.
The first thought when David stopped struggling was to hold him under another five seconds, just to show him he could. It had only been thirty seconds, all in – he’d only wanted to calm him down. So he let David back up to the surface, ready to make up, ready for the two of them to swim back to the shallows in laughter, throw the ball to one another and make the most of the rest of the day.
Seeing David’s face – blue, blank, empty – Ben froze. Stared. Shook his brother. Cried out to him. Tried to wake him. His body limp, a dead weight.
That was when Ben started screaming. And he never stopped.
* * * * *
‘I told you. I told you both. I told you what I did. You didn’t want to talk about it.’
‘What was there to say?’ asked his mother. ‘It happened. We couldn’t change that by talking.’
‘I thought I was evil. My whole life I thought I was evil. I thought I was possessed and we never talked about it.’
‘Look –’ his father started, but Ben interrupted.
‘It’s okay, dad, I’m not blaming anyone. I’m just talking. I’m just saying how I felt.’ He looked from one to the other. ‘I felt like you both hated me. Mum, you didn’t even look at me after that. You didn’t hug me and tell me it was all going to be okay. You just walked out. And dad, you went off to work every day and you left me alone in that big empty house. I was ten.’
‘I was keeping a roof over your head.’
‘Of course,’ said Ben. ‘I’m not disputing that. But –’ He hung his head, staring at the table top. He had no idea what else to say. All these years wanting to talk about it, there was nothing to say.
‘What did you want us to do?’ asked his mother.
‘Punish me!’ Ben cried, lifting his head. ‘Hit me, scream at me, tell me I was a bad boy. Act like I actually did something. That it mattered. And let me tell you how sorry I am. I killed David. I ruined everything and I’m so, so sorry.’
‘Did you do it on purpose?’
He looked at his father. ‘That’s not the point, dad, that’s not what I’m saying. You’re not –’
‘If you didn’t do it on purpose, then what would have been the use of punishing you?’ asked his mother.
‘It would’ve – we would’ve – we would’ve acknowledged it, that it actually happened and – that I – do you get what I’m saying?’
But they didn’t. And in fact, nor did Ben. All the years, stretching behind him to that day, he didn’t know how to articulate all he thought and all he felt. So they sat in silence.
If David had been there, he would have told them that they were all to blame, and none of them were. These things happened. It was nobody’s fault. He bore them no ill will at all. He loved them and forgave them.
He would have told Ben that the pain of losing her boy had hurt Mary so much that she had steeled herself never again to love anything she could lose, even her firstborn, and that she pampered and pleasured herself on the outside to cover the emptiness within. He would have told him that losing David had broken John’s faith in himself, in his role as mentor and father, and so he ran from all responsibility and smothered his sorrows with alcohol. He would have told Ben that people so wrapped up in their own grief could never provide the solace he sought, that he had to be able to forgive himself and be accountable to himself and no one else.
But David wasn’t there. And all of this was left unsaid.
‘I wish I could go back to that day, change things. Everything, our whole lives, you two, me, it all comes down to that day, those stupid, reckless thirty seconds.’ He looked down at his hands. ‘Can’t we – can’t we somehow, in some way, get back any of what we lost? Even if it’s just pretence, can’t we pretend, just today, that we’re a family?’
His parents said nothing. After a few minutes his mother slowly rose from her seat and slipped out of the room, her perfume lingering a moment before it too dissipated into the ether as though it had never been there. And then his father, not sure of the right thing to say, said nothing and left.
Three years later, Ben died. Yet his dying had begun that day at the seaside, just as surely as it had been finalised by another day in November, around a table with his parents. He was killed by the silence as much as by the train he jumped in front of.
Copyright, Gillan Drew, 2016