Short Story: Bleak ’93

Callum Fisher’s life with his parents has been a survival from one bleak year to the next, and it needs to change. A particular day in 1993 seems just like any other day in Callum’s miserable life, but soon he will discover that the biggest of changes takes only a moment of bravery.

Bleak ’93

Lying on his bed, listening to the muted noises from downstairs, Callum Fisher vowed he would never turn out like his parents.

As with every day, the banging and shouting echoed into every corner of every room. His bedroom was no exception.

“Learn from your elders,” the teachers said. That was a joke. Coming home from school he’d often hear similar scenes from behind the closed doors of strangers, but just because something was commonplace didn’t make it right.

A deep rumble resounded through the bedroom floor like rocks grinding in a giant fist. It was answered by a warbling screech. Callum imagined a tenor and soprano duet framed by a spotlight, a tuxedoed fat man with greasy hair and unshaven face, and a skinny woman in an elegant dress, her hair lank and her pinched features twitching as she reached the high notes. A mismatched pair playing out their theatrics to an audience of one.

It might have been funny if it weren’t his own family.

He stared at the corner of the yellowed ceiling, at the spider web and its solitary occupant. “Why here?” he asked the spider. “You could choose anywhere instead of this house. I know I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to be.” The spider said nothing. Come to think of it, Callum was sure the spider hadn’t moved even an inch in the last week. Maybe it was dead. Dead and crisp like the untouched wasp carcass on his window sill.

The shouting reached a new crescendo, and he sighed. It was impossible to remember a time when life hadn’t been so miserable. He could drown out the noise by sticking a cassette in his hi-fi, but the music would have to be loud and it wouldn’t stay that way for long. Soon enough he’d feel a stinging palm on his behind or a hard back-hand across his face.

He wished he had a Walkman. He only got the old kitchen hi-fi a couple of years ago because his father had finally replaced it with one of those compact disc stereos that had been out for so long the kids at school didn’t even boast about owning one any more. Not that Callum could boast about getting an old radio-cassette player, a collection of Now! tapes, a few rock albums and a Scottish compilation from the 70s for his eighth birthday. Maybe for his eleventh he’d get a Walkman, but he wasn’t holding his breath.

Dead spiders, dead wasps, shitty music and arguing parents. Life was sweet.

There were times it felt to Callum like the whole sorry mess was his fault, even though he kept out of sight as much as possible. He wasn’t to blame, though; he had to tell himself that every day. It was that pissed-up waster of a father who was to blame. A wetness welled in the corners of his eyes, but he rubbed it away with his knuckles. They weren’t really tears, not nowadays. Crying only made things worse. That was a lesson he’d learned well enough by now.

Even a kid could see the fighting was stupid. How many more years would they go at each other like this? He’d had enough. Today would be the end of it, he decided. Somehow.

Callum turned onto his side and curled into a ball, squeezed his eyes shut and covered his ears. After a while the blaring voices became a drone and he drifted into a sleepy daydream…

He wandered through the lush meadow, bees buzzing and huge butterflies flitting in the breeze, drifting among a rainbow of bright flowers and tall grasses.

Birds twittered and cawed from their perches high in the tops of slender, cream-coloured trees with large, drooping, red leaves. Flowers with freckled, fluted petals or golden, saucer-shaped heads stretched almost as tall as the trees.

A clear stream trickled past Callum, snaking lazily through the meadow. A thousand tiny fish swam with the current away from a frothing pool in the distance, into which a towering, mist-caped waterfall cascaded.

A tiny hummingbird with shimmering feathers flew towards him. Callum’s gaze slipped from the bird like water gliding off grease. As it hovered in front of his face, he held his hand out and it came to rest on a fingertip. The hummingbird looked at him with an inky gaze and opened its beak—

The bedroom door creaked inwards, crashing into the edge of his bookshelf. Callum flung himself up to a sitting position and stared at the figure in the doorway. His mother held the door handle in a white-knuckled grip, the other hand fidgeting with the hem of her sweater. She glared into the room, her face working in quick little movements and her chest heaving in and out. He hated seeing her like this.

“I’m starting dinner soon, Callum,” she said. “Get yourself downstairs.” Her eyes darted around, belying the calmness in her tone. Finally her gaze rested on him. “Did you hear me?”

“Yes, mum.”

“I said, did you bleeding hear me?

“Yes, I heard—”

“Downstairs, then!” She paused, sighed. “Well? Go on, move!” Then her tears came, but she stifled the sobs by clasping a hand to her mouth. A wordless growling came from downstairs; Callum’s father unable to resist adding his voice to the scene.

Callum swung his legs over the bed and stood in the middle of the room, waiting for his mother to get out of the way so he could do as she asked. But she looked at him and he saw the anger slip away as she visibly deflated. “Oh, I,” – she cleared her throat – “I’m sorry, Cal. It’s not your fault.”

No, he thought, it isn’t. But shit rolls downhill, right?

“Come here, Son.” Dutifully, he stepped into her embrace, and she pulled his head to her chest, whispering apologies into his hair. He didn’t return the hug; he wanted to, but he just stood there, his arms hanging by his sides until she released him. In a small and tired voice she said, “Downstairs, then. Off you go.”

And off he went, with one thought playing over and over in his head.

Enough is enough.

––––––––––––––––––––––––

The dining table along the rear living room wall in the Fisher house was a waste of space. Instead of letting a happy family enjoy a meal together, it was chock-full with old newspapers and magazines, empty cans and full ashtrays, and an assortment of God-knew-what-else. And, besides, there was no happy family around here to eat at it.

Callum was sat on one of two two-seater sofas, a plate of food upon his lap. His father slouched on the other sofa, leaning against a pile of clumsily-folded washing on the sofa’s arm next to the wall. The man wore dirty jeans and a black vest faded to grey. Callum watched him sawing his knife into a slab of meat, stabbing it with his fork and shoving it into his mouth. The sickly smell of lager drifted from a can by his father’s feet, mixing with the aroma of the food.

A while ago, Callum’s father had rented a video which Callum had been allowed to watch with his parents. It was about a man who kept living the same day over and over. Callum’s mother had sat in silence, a sad expression on her face when the man in the film realised he was supposed to stop being an arsehole and start doing something good with his life. That part had been lost on Callum’s father. Alastair Fisher had laughed plenty, and was guzzling his fourth or fifth can as the credits rolled. Callum was glad it had a happy ending. He wasn’t sure such things existed in the real world, though, where every day was the same practised, predictable scene.

His father looked over and spoke through a mouthful of food. “What are you staring at, boy? Eat your meal.”

His mother came in from the kitchen with a plate for herself. “Don’t anger your father, Cal.” She perched herself on the arm of the sofa next to Callum, leaving her husband with the piled clothing.

Callum ate without enthusiasm, and took his empty plate to the kitchen when he was finished. Returning to the living room, he was stopped by an outstretched arm.

“Here, now,” said his father, holding his dirty plate for Callum to take, his other hand already reaching down for the can of lager.

Anger welled inside Callum. He looked from the can to the plate, then to his father’s jowly but chiselled features. “Why don’t you take it yourself?” His heart hammered loudly in his chest and a sense of dizziness washed over him, but he held steady to his father’s widening glare. He could feel his mother watching from her place on the arm of the sofa.

A storm was brewing. A violent storm by the name of Alastair Fisher, set in motion with a simple suggestion. “What did you say?” He rose from his seat and looked down at Callum with dangerous eyes.

Callum’s face was hot, the thudding in his chest growing louder, but he held his ground. “Take it yourself,” he repeated. “For once.” His voice sounded weak and distant, but words carried more weight than silence. Where had he heard that? It didn’t matter. He was panicking.

A bemused smile lifted the corners of his father’s lips and he snorted, looked at Callum’s mother and said, “Do you hear that, Laura? Did you hear what your little fucking sunshine’s telled me to do? In ma’ own fucking house?

Her cutlery hovered over a small pile of barely-touched food. She looked up at her husband, fear setting her every feature a-quiver. She opened her mouth. Callum shifted his attention between them in rapid succession, his heart still punching against his ribcage. Thudthud! Thudthud! Thudthud!

His mother mumbled something.

Alastair Fisher advanced a step, towering over her. “What’s that, woman? What are you mumbling about?”

“I said he’s our son. Ours! And this isn’t just your house. Or have you forgotten that?”

Callum could scarcely believe what he was hearing.

His father lifted an arm and his mother flinched, earning a laugh from her bully of a husband. Callum wondered how many levels of hate a boy could feel for his own father.

“All right.” The man’s attention turned back to Callum. “You want that I take it in there myself, do you, boy?” He hefted the plate in his hand. “Hmm? That what you want?” He flung it. It flashed through the air like a Frisbee into the kitchen, smashing into a clutter of crockery. “Are you happy? I’ll tell you what you can do now: You can go and clean that up, you nasty little shit. Get going.” The challenge in his father’s voice was the same he used against his mother before giving her a beating.

Callum said nothing, just returned his father’s glare. Alastair Fisher’s face seemed to swell until there was nothing else in the room. He took a step towards Callum and lifted a hand. Callum stepped backwards and struck his head against the wall.

Cornered.

“You filthy little fucker,” said his father.

The next moment Callum was on the ground, wondering how he’d got there. His ears rang, and stinging pain throbbed across his face. His eyes welled and the tears fell silently. He stared up at his father as the man swayed over him.

“You bastard!” his mother screamed, and rose from her perch. Plate and food slid from her lap to the floor, cutlery skidding across the laminate towards Callum. She beat at her husband about his back and shoulders, slapping and striking with the underside of her fist, screaming it was his son and how could he hit his own flesh and blood like that?

Alastair Fisher turned, grabbed her wrists and pushed her away. Her leg caught the arm of the sofa and she fell, her head striking the floor. She lay motionless, eyelids ajar, a groan wheezing from her lips.

Callum watched through a red haze of tears and fury. Then he was standing in front of the kneeling figure of his father. The wooden handle of a steak knife stuck from the man’s side. Alastair Fisher’s hand wavered uselessly around the hilt. His other hand still clutched the can of lager.

Time slowed to a crawl and the can fell from loose fingers. It landed upright, rocking from side to side like a pendulum. Tick. Tick. A squirt of liquid spewed upwards, arcing through the air. Then the can toppled and a froth of lager chugged onto the floor, bubbles forming, each reflecting a miniature image of the day-lit living room window.

“You didn’t,” Alastair croaked, almost a whisper.

Did he? Had Callum done that? It seemed he had.

His mother still lay on the floor, leaning up now on one elbow, her eyes not flitting about in these moments caught in time but wide and fixed on Callum.

He’d ended the fighting.

Bloody spittle bubbled at his father’s lips as he spat a wordless curse of pure hatred at Callum. A line of blood dropped from his chin and seeped to the floor, merging with the spilled beer. Fear tinged his hate-filled stare, something Callum had never seen on the man’s face and was glad to see now. Alastair Fisher crumpled to the floor as the last vestiges of his pathetic life left his body. Even in death the mixture of hatred and horror remained carved into those cruel features.

Callum’s mother moaned. It was a bleak, anguished lament. But Callum was certain he also heard a cry of long-awaited release.

Enough was well and truly enough.

Copyright © 2014 Scott Kaelen

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