TW: Contains physical violence/ gore, swearing, and themes of abuse.
Do it for Charlie. I repeated the mantra in my head over and over again as Bruce towered over me, screaming in my face. The stench of stale beer clung to him, his eyes were glassy and bloodshot, and his white vest was riddled with stains. Some people, most people, would call this situation a nightmare. I called it Saturday.
I wanted more than anything to retreat into myself. To become an island. It would’ve been easier then. After all, what does an island care if a storm smashes against its shores? But I couldn’t just let it all go. Charlie needed his mother.
After a few seconds, Bruce’s incoherent tirade developed into something resembling the English language. ‘How the hell am I supposed to carve this thing?’ he said, pointing at the pumpkin. ‘It’s tiny. You might as well have bought a turnip.’
‘I’m sorry, Bruce. I only had enough money for a small one.’ I winced. That was a mistake.
Bruce’s eyes turned cold, dangerous. ‘Are you saying I don’t earn enough money? I have my nose to the grindstone every bloody day while you sit at home on your arse.’
‘No Bruce, I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘It’s my fault. I didn’t take enough with me. Do you want me to go back and get a bigger one?’ I could find some money somewhere, I told myself. Maybe I could sell one of mother’s rings? There were still a couple of those left.
But Bruce shook his head. ‘Don’t bother. I’ll manage. Honestly, woman. I don’t know why I put up with you.’ He strode through the living room and shouted up the stairs. ‘Charlie. Get down here.’ There was a soft thud as Charlie hopped off his bed. I heard his footsteps moving along the hallway. Slowly, hesitantly. Like he was afraid of what was waiting for him downstairs. I offered a silent prayer that he wouldn’t say anything to make Bruce even angrier.
Bruce hammered on the wall. ‘Charlie. Hurry up.’
Come on Charlie. The footsteps grew louder and faster.
‘What is it Dad?’ Charlie said.
‘Come down here and I’ll bloody tell you.’
Bruce stomped back into our little kitchen, muttering to himself. ‘I don’t know what I did to deserve this bloody family.’
Charlie followed shortly after, his face drawn and hands shaking. He glanced around the room and swallowed. ‘What’s going on? Did I do something wrong?’
‘Did I do something wrong’ Bruce mimicked his voice. ‘God. How did I have such a little pussy for a son? I call you down here cos I have a treat for you, and you stand there like a rabbit in the headlights.’
Charlie frowned. ‘A treat?’
‘Yes. A treat. We’re going to carve a pumpkin.’
Just like that, Charlie’s face lit up. ‘Really?’ He was a small, skinny boy with a face set in a semi-permanent nervous scowl. But when he smiled, boy, did he smile.
‘Yes really, hurry up,’ Bruce said. He reached up to the cabinet where we kept our sharp utensils, took down a big kitchen knife and began sawing at the top of the pumpkin.
Charlie hesitated at the sight of Bruce holding a knife. He glanced at me, eyes wide. I smiled and nodded at him encouragingly, glad that Bruce was too preoccupied to notice this latest show of fear. Charlie stepped forwards and watched with interest as his dad sliced the top off the pumpkin, took up a big spoon, and started scooping out the vegetable’s fleshy insides.
‘I used to do this with my father,’ Bruce said. ‘It’s good father-son bonding time. Here, you have a go.’ He offered the spoon to Charlie, who tentatively reached out and took it, then began scraping out the insides himself. He worked slowly at first, then faster and faster. His smile returned, and Bruce slapped him on the back. ‘God job. See what you can do when you come out of your room and actually make an effort.’
Charlie grinned. He didn’t usually get praise from his dad, even a backhanded compliment like that.
‘Now then,’ Bruce said, ‘what sort of face are we going to carve?’
Charlie’s smile wavered a bit. He knew that he had to answer this question correctly. ‘Maybe a classic, evil grin?’ he asked.
Bruce stared at him, unblinking, unmoving. I clenched my fists so tightly that my nails ripped into the flesh of my palm. I uttered a silent prayer. Please God, let him agree.
The silence stretched.
At last, after several long seconds that felt like a lifetime, a toothy grin split Bruce’s sour face. ‘Haha, that’s my boy. He knows that the oldies are the goodies. We don’t need any of that woke modern crap. Here, let’s get started.’
Breathing a small sigh of relief, I watched as Bruce guided Charlie in the art of pumpkin crafting. I hadn’t seen the two enjoy each other’s company so much in a very, very long time. Not since Bruce started drinking again. Despite my lingering doubts, it warmed my heart to see the pair of them like that. To see my son have the father he deserved at last. To see the man I’d married emerging from the fog of alcoholism and rage. Perhaps this could be a new beginning for all of us.
Not wanting to risk spoiling the moment, I decided not to get on with any of my chores. Instead, I looked on, keeping as quiet as a mouse. It wasn’t easy to stay out of the way. We had a tiny, box-like kitchen and the old wooden table in the centre took up most of the space. But the ever-broadening smile on Charlie’s face as the pumpkin took shape made it all worthwhile.
After the pumpkin was about halfway done, Bruce again clapped his son on the back. ‘Good man. You’ve got the hang of it now.’ He glanced at me. ‘Cheryl, beer.’
I hurried to obey and scurried over to the fridge. Luckily, though our kitchen was usually half-empty, beer was the one thing we never ran short of. I took out an ice-cold bottle, popped off the cap, and handed it to Bruce. He took a deep swig, just as I’d expected. But what he did next surprised me. He offered the bottle to Charlie.
‘You’re old enough for your first drink now, lad. Take a swig.’
‘Bruce,’ I said, my eyes widening in horror. ‘He’s ten years old. He can’t have a beer.’
Bruce snorted. ‘That’s woke lefty bullshit. My old man gave me my first drink when I was his age, and I turned out fine.’
‘Enough. He’s my son. He’ll do what I say.’ He jabbed the bottle into Charlie’s chest. ‘Drink.’
Charlie glanced at me, his eyes wide and brimming with tears, but Bruce seized his chin and turned the frightened little boy’s face back towards him. ‘Don’t look at her. I’m the man of this house. You’ll do what I damn well say.’
With no choice left, Charlie drank. Moments later, he pulled away, coughing and spluttering.
Bruce shook his head in disgust. ‘Pussy. Again.’
‘Dad, I can’t,’ Charlie said.
‘Yes, you can.’ Bruce jammed the neck of the bottle into Charlie’s mouth and tilted it upwards. ‘Drink.’
‘Bruce, stop. He’s going to choke,’ I said.
Bruce just shook his head. ‘You worry too much, woman.’ He didn’t let up until the bottle was dry. When he finally took it away, he turned to me and smirked. ‘See. He’s fine.’
Charlie was anything but fine. His face was purple, and he hacked and retched, gasping for air. I stepped forwards to help him, but Bruce yanked me away. ‘Leave him. It’ll build character. You coddle that boy too much.’
So I stopped. I just stood there and watched as my little boy suffered. I’d never felt more powerless. My heart was breaking in two.
When Charlie finally stopped coughing about a minute later, Bruce handed him the knife. ‘Enough screwing around. Let’s get back to work.’
Charlie took it but paused. He glanced around, frowning like he couldn’t remember what he was doing. Again, I tried to go to him, to comfort him, but Bruce snarled at me in warning and I froze.
‘You were carving the pumpkin, remember Charlie? You were about to do the eyes,’ I said, hoping that this wouldn’t count as coddling.
Charlie nodded slowly, though his eyes were glassy and glazed. ‘Yes, the eyes.’ He turned back towards the pumpkin, thrust the knife through its thick skin, and began sawing a rough circle. His movements were shaky, jerky and imprecise, but Bruce either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
He gave me a triumphant grin. ‘See. I told you he’d be fine.’
But he wasn’t, and at that very moment, everything went wrong. Charlie’s hand slipped, and the knife plunged downwards, slicing a wicked line between the pumpkin’s eye and mouth. Time slowed. Bruce’s jaw clenched, and his face turned puce. ‘What the hell did you just do, you little shit?’ The words tumbled from his throat with the force of water surging through a broken damn.
Charlie opened his mouth to respond, but the dam in his throat remained fully closed. The words just would not come, and his jaw waggled around uselessly. Bruce formed a fist and took a step towards my boy.
Darting between the two of them, I raised my hands placatingly. ‘It’s alright, Bruce, it’s just a small scratch. Nobody will even notice.’
Bruce hurled his empty beer bottle against the wall, where it shattered. ‘Of course they’ll notice. It looks like it’s crying. I don’t want the neighbours thinking we’ve carved some kind of pussy pumpkin.’
I twisted my head to look at Charlie, who was trembling behind me and clinging to my skirts. ‘Charlie, go to your room.’
Dropping the knife onto the table, Charlie hurried to obey, but Bruce reached out and grabbed his arm. ‘Where do you think you’re going?’
‘Mum said to-’
‘I don’t give a shit what she said,’ Bruce snarled. ‘You go when I say you go.’
I raised myself to my full height. It wasn’t particularly impressive, but it gave me the confidence I needed. ‘Bruce, I’m warning you. If you lay a finger on him, I’ll-’
He snickered. ‘You’ll what?’ He stepped forwards, looming over me and forcing me to stagger backwards. My legs pressed against the kitchen table, and I thrust my arms back to steady myself. That’s when I felt it. A piece of rough plastic, still warm from Charlie’s hands. The knife-handle.
Grabbing the knife, I waved it at Bruce. ‘Let him go, or I’ll cut you. I’ll do it.’
Bruce laughed again, a great belly laugh this time. He released Charlie, who ran from the room, and then took another step towards me. He thrust his torso out so that the knife’s point pressed against it. Looking into my eyes, he said, ‘Do it.’
I wanted to. I really, really wanted to. No more black eyes, no more stories about falling down the stairs, no more sleepless nights worrying that one day he’d go too far and do irreparable harm. I could end it all with one small thrust. But what then? What would happen to Charlie with his father in the grave and his mother in jail? Nothing good.
I couldn’t do it. I had to endure. I just had to. For Charlie.
My hand opened, releasing the knife, which clattered to the floor.
‘Pathetic,’ Bruce said. Leering at me, he reached down and picked up the fallen blade, turning it over in his palm. ‘Now, my dear, you just threatened me.’ He raised the knife to my face, pressing its point into my cheek. ‘I ought to teach you a lesson.’ The blade pressed deeper into my flesh, drawing out a bead of blood and causing me to wince in pain. ‘Maybe I should give you a nice scar so that every time you look in a mirror, you remember your fucking place?’
Suddenly, he smiled. ‘No.’ He lifted his free hand and stroked my other cheek, his rough fingers violating my skin. ‘I couldn’t do that. It would be a waste to ruin such a pretty face.’ He took the knife away, placing it on the table, and for a moment, I thought I was safe. Just for a moment.
He backhanded me hard across the face. My legs buckled, but I just about managed to stay upright. He hit me again, in the stomach this time, and I crumpled to the ground. I don’t want to talk about what he did next.
After he’d vented his fury, Bruce stormed out, probably off to the pub to soothe his sore knuckles. Perhaps he’d bring back flowers and say sorry. That he didn’t want to hit me, but I just made him so angry. That was the best-case scenario. If Bruce drank too much, he’d come back and hurl abuse at me, maybe even beat me again. ‘Why did you make me do it?’ he’d say. ‘I didn’t want to, but you made me. Do you hate me? Do you like hurting me?’ Those times were the worst, the times that I feared the most.
When he was sure his dad was gone, Charlie crept down the stairs to help me. He went straight to the freezer, took out a bag of peas for my eye, then sat with me on the kitchen floor while I gathered my strength.
‘I’m sorry, Mum. This is all my fault,’ he said, hanging his head.
I put my hand on his shoulder. ‘Don’t say that. Don’t you dare say that. Not ever. It’s not your fault. It’s never your fault. Do you understand?’
He nodded. We sat in silence for a minute or two, then he turned to face me. ‘Why does Dad hate us?’
‘He doesn’t hate us,’ I said. ‘He just… he doesn’t know how to love us.’
‘Why don’t we leave? Pete’s mum just left his dad because they didn’t get along. Now they live in a new house, and Pete says his mum smiles way more now. Can’t we do that?’
I shook my head. ‘No, darling. I’m sorry, but we can’t.’
‘Because he’s your father,’ I said. ‘He’d have a right to visit you, and I won’t leave you alone with him.’
Charlie hung his head again, as if I’d just confirmed his worst fear. ‘So it is my fault?’
‘No. There’s nothing you can do about it, so it’s not your fault.’ I nudged him with my shoulder and smiled. ‘How about we stop talking about all this and eat some ice cream instead?’
I was already in bed when Bruce came home. Not asleep, though. I couldn’t sleep. Partly it was the pain in my head, but the fear that Bruce might decide it was time for round two also played its part. At about 1 am, I heard him crashing around downstairs, picking a fight with the coat rack. He was clearly very drunk, almost to blackout levels. That was good. In this state, even if he was still in a foul mood, he’d probably pass out before he could do any real damage.
Sure enough, not long after he slithered into bed next to me, reeking of sweat, beer and whiskey, he fell sound asleep. At last, I relaxed and soon drifted into the sweet oblivion of sleep.
I wasn’t sure how much time had passed when I was woken up by a strange wet sensation on my back. My first thought was that Bruce had wet himself. It wouldn’t have been the first time. But no. The liquid wasn’t coming from his groin but from his… neck? Had he been sick? I rolled over gently, not wanting to risk waking him. But it was too dark for me to see anything.
I could smell, though. A strange metallic scent reached my nostrils. As a wave of realisation hit me, closely followed by one of horror, I thrust out my arm and flicked on the lamp. All I saw was blood.
Someone had cut Bruce’s throat. Who? Were they still here? Was I next? I ripped my eyes from my husband’s corpse to survey the room. And then I saw him. My little boy. My Charlie. Stood there, holding the kitchen knife that I’d forgotten to put away. It was dripping with blood.
‘Charlie. What have you done?’
He grinned at me. ‘You said that you wouldn’t leave him alone with me. Now you don’t have to. I did it for you, Mummy.’