This story contains sensitive themes.
Bill Jarvis sat bolt upright in the hotel bed bathed in a cold sweat. His accommodation was part of a building where his company annual conference was being held. His heart was pounding to a familiar and terrifying refrain. The dream had reasserted itself with a vengeance.
From the moment he’d seen the updated list of managers in his region, one name had stood out. He’d frozen at the name Judd Digweed, the name of the boy who’d haunted him for more years than he cared to remember. At the memory, fear and hate surged through his body.
After that, the nightmares came back with a vengeance.
The last one had been a variation on a theme. His teenage self was running fast, tripping over his shoe laces, falling flat on his face outside the school toilets.
Up close, he could see every cell of his tormentor’s hate-filled face “Ginger, needs to be taught a lesson,” came out of the menacing mouth. “Ginger, ginger, Billy ginger,” Judd’s followers chanted.
“No.” The scream seemed to come from outside his body. As if it wasn’t happening to him!
“You’re begging for it, Billy Ginger. The teachers won’t do it so it’s our job to correct you.”
He knew no teacher would come – the gang always timed it so one of them was on the lookout. Now, they had him crawling on his hands and knees like an animal, the stone floor against his hands, cold and unyielding. They dragged him like a bag of garbage to the toilet and shoved his face into the bowl, mocking. The stench was the least of it. Clinging to the bowl for support in the ordeal ahead, he tried to keep eyes, nose and mouth shut while they flushed. Knowing he could not hold it for long. Hearing himself splutter. Please let me go.
But he was just a thing to them, not human. Then, just as he was about to pass out, there was a final flush signalling his release. They pulled him up like a rat out of a sewer, and left him heaving on the floor. For a few minutes, he lay in the foetal position, all resistance gone.
Until the next time. And the time after that. Something so primal, so feral, he could almost smell it now. Even after all this time, he was degraded and defined by it..
Switching on his bedside lamp, Bill waited for his breathing to steady. Coughing, he put on his dressing gown and stepped out onto a small balcony. The air was cold and damp in the courtyard and a few lone trees were scattering the last of their leaves before winter set in for good. Inhaling a sneaky cigarette, he considered his options. It had all happened so long ago and yet what had the intervening years brought?
He knew the facts of his life on paper. He’d got married and divorced and had a son he barely saw. He’d married his wife to please his father because she came from a better background and look where that had led! It wasn’t her fault. He’d supplemented whatever was missing in his marriage with a few affairs with women he was physically attracted to, but not much else. In the end, they had been like ships in the night. All except Bella. With her, he’d come close to casting a loveless marriage aside and making a fresh start, but in the end something stopped him. Divorce was a messy business and he had too much to lose.
But all that was in the past. Although Bella had returned to the company after a break, albeit in a less glamorous role, he rarely saw her these days. He’d heard rumours she’d met someone.
In the shower, he fantasied he was washing the past away. Soon, he planned to do just that completely. The only fly in the ointment was Bella. He wondered whether she would be attending the conference or find an excuse to stay away. Really, bumping into her was the least of his worries, but if she was there, so be it. He hadn’t actually seen her name on the list of the attendees.
If he was honest, part of him hoped Bella wouldn’t be there because that afternoon he’d be making his first big speech in his new role as regional manager. He felt he had enough going on without worrying about affairs of the heart. The speech was meant to be the highlight of the day.
But as he pulled out the set of knives his father had left him as an eighteenth birthday gift, he was confronted by powerful emotions. There were a dazzling array of sharp pieces, all with wooden handles to give an extra firm grip. Selecting the one with the pointed end, he carefully placed it in a small sheath and added it to a hidden section of his brief case.
Checking himself in the mirror, he patted hair that was thinning a little at the sides. Other than that, it was still thick and dark brown with just a hint of chestnut. Impressive in a well-cut suit, he was tall enough to be considered distinguished, almost handsome. His eyes however, were unnaturally bright.
Sighing deeply, he exited the room, wheeling his case case down the corridor and clutching his lap top and briefcase. He walked briskly along the plush carpet, entered the lift and headed two floors down to the conference rooms. Psyching himself up for whatever lay ahead, he tried to focus on his achievements. He drew on all the retail milestones which had given him purpose in the wasteland that was his personal life. He thought of his certificates. They took pride of place in his home charting his journey to the coveted role of regional operations manager for one of the most successful chain stores in the country. Stores that sold fashionable clothes and related accessories for prices most people could afford.
Bill’s journey into a better life had only really begun when his parents had moved to the midlands from a commuter-belt town near London. The move had turned out to be one of the key moments of his life. Then aged fifteen, he welcomed the disruption with open arms. He was optimistic about starting in a new school where nobody would know anything about him. He loved walking round the new city with its ancient cathedral. There was no danger of being recognised or shouted at and that was bliss.
Determined to start as he meant to go on, Bill threw himself into his new life relieving his troubled parents. He intended to prove to his father he wasn’t going to be one of life’s ‘losers’ after all.
It was the family’s first weekend in their new house.
“You’re up early. You look very smart,” his mum said cooking eggs at the stove.
“Don’t bother for me. I’ll eat later,” Bill said, wanting to get out before his father came downstairs. In one of his dad’s rare weekends away from his work, he was recovering from a back injury.
Ten minutes later, Bill was breathing in the life of the city. Taking account of the eye-catching displays and latest fashions in the shop windows, he entered the most prestigious store and landed himself a Saturday job in the menswear department.
By the time he got home, his father was still at the table drinking a mug of strong coffee, freshly brewed by his mum.
It wouldn’t have killed him to thank her for once, Bill thought to himself.
“Where have you been then?” his father demanded.
“I’ve got myself a Saturday job at Bennett’s.”
“Oh, you have, have you?”
“Well, he could do a lot worse. I’ve heard people are queuing up to work there,” his mum said proudly.
“You’ve darkened your hair – isn’t that what Elvis Presley did?”
“I expect so. I never liked the colour. I wanted to make a fresh start.” Bill spoke more boldly than he felt.
It was the closest he ever came to admitting he’d been bullied at his old school. He’d never told his dad it had got so bad, he’d had suicidal thoughts. Even his mum hadn’t known that.
“It’s good you’re trying to make something of yourself, lad. You’re going to have to do something about that hair, mind – although I have to admit it’s looks better cropped.”
“His hair looks fine. It suits him. Not that there was anything wrong with it before.”
“Hmm, if you say so ma.”
Bill’s mum was diligently frying bacon in the “keep calm and carry on” apron her son had given her for her birthday. Watching his father wolf down breakfast, he felt sorry for the life she’d chosen, forever tied to sink and stove.
He couldn’t miss her! A figure of light, she was wearing the most distinctive outfit in the conference room. The classy one surrounded by an adoring team seated at one of the middle tables. Her presence distracted him. In fact, he could hardly wait for a chance to speak to her.
He caught up with her during the lunch break.
“I didn’t think you were going to be here.”
“I wasn’t, but there was a change of plan.”
“It’s good to see you,” he said simply.
“Well, I missed the company and the people. I never quite fit into the my new position. It didn’t feel the same.”
“You didn’t mind taking on a different role?”
“There’s no need to avoid using the word demotion,” she laughed. “It’s just I came to realise I didn’t need all the hassle that goes with a high-powered job. I want a simple life, especially now I’m single. My ex left me well provided for when the relationship ended. Don’t worry. It worked out for the best. He wasn’t the right one .”
Bill could hardly believe what he was hearing.
“It really is so good to see you,” he said again. “If you’ve time for a catch-up, maybe we could go for a drink after the conference?”
“I was hoping you’d say that,” she said.
Catching up with Bella had been one of the best decisions of Bill’s life. Watching her sleeping the next morning, he almost forgot about the ‘other thing.’ He decided he would know what to do when and if the time came..
He was pouring coffee when she opened her eyes..
“That smells good.”
“I remembered you like it strong.”
The world outside was foggy and damp, but it all seemed heavenly with Bella to share it with.
By now, fully dressed, Bill joined her on the bed.
“What’s up?” she asked picking up his tension. “You look like you’ve got the world on your shoulders.”
“Nothing, just the conference. There’s a lot to think about.” But that was only partly true; if only he could he tell her what was really on his mind. On the other hand, maybe meeting her again was a sign he should let the past go once and for all. He was about to speak when the phone rang.
“Good luck with the speech. Not that you’re going to need it,” she said.
On the way to the main conference room, Bill overheard a conversation between two hotel staff members.
“So the cameras are still out?”
“Only on the third floor. The ones near the bathrooms are definitely down.”
“Okay, that’s not good. How soon will they be fixed?”
“Don’t worry. Maintenance should get it sorted in a few hours. It won’t affect the general running of the hotel.”
Bill felt almost disappointed to hear the news about the cameras. After his night with Bella, he’d been on the verge of scrapping his original “plan.” Now, fate seemed to be pulling him back.
About 40 minutes into the conference, a nondescript man entered the Hall. Head down, he weaved his way self-consciously to his seat. Bill’s heart sunk. Something about the man’s stance reminded him of Digweed grown older. But, was it him? He wasn’t sure.
Two hours into the conference, during the talk on sustainability in retail, the man scurried towards one of the exits and all doubts vanished. It was Digweed alright.
Galvanised into action, Bill left his seat and headed for the nearest exit. Gripping his case so tightly, his fingers hurt, he followed the figure until it disappeared into the men’s bathroom.
Outside the bathroom, Bill’s heart was racing. Opening the door quietly, he stepped into a silence that was oppressive. Suddenly, he heard a retching sound coming from one of the cubicles. The man did not notice him as he ran to nearest sink and heaved into it. Bill was seized by an intense hatred. Hatred for all he’d been put through. As he gripped his knife, the door opened and Bella ran to him putting her arms round his waist. She carefully opened his fist and took the knife out of his hand. “Don’t,” she whispered, placing it in her bag.
It all seemed to happen in slow motion. Three pairs of eyes met in the mirror. Startled, Bill’s childhood enemy was trembling all over.
“What the hell?” he broke out.
There was a sudden flash of recognition as the years fell back “It’s Ginger Bill, isn’t it? The last time I saw you….” The words trailed off, lost in the air.
“But you never did see me,” Bill said through gritted teeth. “You saw a weak boy you could bully because of his hair colour. As I recall, the last time we met, you forced my head down the bog. Have you any idea what that does to a person?”
“Did I do that?” Digweed’s face reddened at the memory. “I was a jerk in those days. If it’s any comfort, life hasn’t gone the way I wanted since. As you can see, I’m not a well man.”
The edges were blurring as Bill started to feel a smidgin of sympathy for his enemy. “What’s wrong with you?”he asked at last.
“I don’t know. For the past few days. I keep having to run to the toilet and I have a raging thirst. I keep being sick.”
“You need medical attention. I’ll call for help,” Bella said unexpectedly.
A few minutes later Bill was sitting next to his childhood tormentor in the lobby waiting for assistance.
“I’m sorry for making your school life hard,” Digweed muttered.
“It was worse than that. You bullied me relentlessly. You made me feel life wasn’t worth living. Why did you do it?”
“I don’t know. It was the only way I could feel in control. I was miserable at home and it made me feel powerful in front of the other kids.”
Although the rest of the day passed in a blur, Bill found the strength to get through his talk. He got a good reception at the end and he couldn’t help noticing Bella was the one clapping the loudest.
“What made you come into the bathroom like that?” Bill asked her much later. “I was beyond surprised to see you.”
“You kept saying his name in your sleep. Saying “dead man.” I remember the nightmares when we were together before.”
“Imagine what would have happened if you hadn’t appeared, Bella,” he said quietly.
“It doesn’t bear thinking about,” she said. “But you’ve got to promise me you’re going to get help. The past will always get in the way if you don’t.”
It turned out to be an easy promise to keep. More than two years after that fateful encounter, Bill has yet to have a repeat of the dream.
Now, he knows he never will.