The Mistake – a short story
Estranged parents meet to decide the fate of their son
They had obviously not met for several years. They had learnt to speak to one another again but in little more than a series of domestic grunts. A court official leant over and spoke to them as the judge made his entry; the pair stood until the figure in red had acknowledged the court and then lowered themselves warily into their seats.
One of the children’s officers had explained their situation when they had found themselves “under restraint” in the council offices. There was no point in legal representation. They were known to be the parents and there was a list – they now had a copy each – and it showed a string of offences committed by the boy whose pale face stared past them from the photo at the top of the sheet and sought out something that was behind them and beyond them. He was the first child of each of his parents.
The officer had also produced a worn sheet of paper from his desk.
The state can no longer provide for feral children. Completion of the National ID Project enables us to identify and locate the parent of any child instantly. Once the state has incurred expenses in excess of £250.000 in respect of any child between the ages of ten and fifteen, the parents will be brought together with that child. Together they will be incarcerated until the parents agree to live with and supervise the child, at their own expense, until he or she is eighteen, or until they dispatch the child; the state can no longer undertake the enormous expense of child rearing. Neither can it allow parents to ignore life they have created. Those who have created life must be responsible for that life. In circumstances where material provision for that life can no longer be made, it will fall to the creators of that life to deal with it. For the state to give yet more support to these young lives would mean neglecting others who have made their contribution to the community and for whom age and life itself are taking their toll.
“Don’t look anything like me.” The man stared hard as if trying to remember something about the spotty face and the shaven head. He turned to the woman who glared straight back, wearily. She remembered when first they had argued about this.
“Well, ‘e ain’t anybody else’s.”
“’ow do I know?”
“Same as everybody else – these tests. Anyway, I wasn’t with anybody else then.”
He was still trying to argue when the van came to a halt just inside the gates of the local prison; the gates shut themselves effortlessly. Then the two parents were led out by their escorts, four of them now, down from the van’s awkward, high step and out into a light courtyard flanked with concrete and stone walls that reached up into a flat blue sky.
“Anyway, he’s been with you all these years. What’s all this got to do with me?” The handcuffs troubled him when he tried to speak and the warders watched him again as he shook them. “Fucking things.” They had secured his legs at first when he had lunged time and time again at the woman, screaming and cursing her for his involvement in all this. Now the inevitability had tired him so his legs were free again. “Couldn’t you have just left me with them girls?”
He trotted along behind her, towards the corner of the courtyard, away from the van. She stopped and turned alongside one of the women escorts and looked at him.
“You still ain’t got it worked out, ‘ave yer. I ain’t got no bleeding say in this any more than you ‘ave.”
“What d’yer mean? You went on about maintenance for bloody long enough.”
“Bloody lot of good that did.”
“Got me girls to think about now, ain’t I.”
This little group stood in the courtyard of the prison, the escorts a few yards to one side as if reluctant to hear details of private lives. Around them the walls held them rigid in the system and the possibility of other ways and other means was far less apparent now, as if they were all shut in with this grim impossibility.
In the court she had tried to tell him, once he had calmed down. It was during one of those long pauses involving other people looking at papers that somehow had to do with them. In desperation, he had tried to listen to her.
“I keep trying to tell yer. It’s what that woman from the social said. They know you’re the father and I’m the mother. End of story. We have to sort it now, no bloody thanks to you.”
And so the argument had staggered along on legs that could hardly carry it. Now they were ushered into the doorway in the corner of the yard, a doorway that looked, with its darkness, like some sort of drain.
“Robert James Crommarty and Tiffany Jane Wilson.” The warder handed over some papers and the officer behind the reception desk glanced beyond them then looked across dispassionately at the owners of the two names.
“You can take them through straight away. They’re fetching the boy over now.”
The boy was half-sitting, half-lying on a comfortable settee in front of the television, wearing the fixed resentment of a child who has been placed somewhere and told to stay put. He had insufficient interest in his surroundings to explore them; behind him, the door through which he had been brought, and the smaller doorway at the other end which obviously led to a toilet. He looked up at his mother and the man who was standing with her on the other side of the glass wall, beyond the television screen. He’d heard something about parents’ powers, parents’ responsibilities, about they’d got to sort you out once you’d done a certain amount of bother. He smiled to himself and at the memory of his mates’ cheers when the police had suddenly grabbed him down near the arcades. Then he stood up and walked over to the glass wall. His mother had turned her back and the bloke with her, his father he presumed, was trying not to look interested. He slapped the glass then tried to punch it. Only when he tried to pick up the chair and had then rushed again at the glass in an empty-handed rage did they look round.
For the first time, his father heard his voice.
“Come on then. You tell ‘im, push those green buttons and we can sod off home.” He looked straight back at his father. “And you can fuck off, whoever you are.”
His friends had told him – just get them to do the deal – say they‘ll both look after yer and then sod off after – just another way round the system.
On their side of the glass wall, there were two pairs of buttons, one red and the other green, one pair at each end of the area. Across the area a double track divided the floor. On the boy’s side, they could see a television screen turned away from them. The boy was giving it some cursory attention. A newspaper lay screwed up on the floor to one side. The official explained; the buttons only worked when buttons of the same colour were pushed. The only other part of the area which they needed to know about were the toilets.
“Why are there two?” The woman looked at the warder for some sort of assurance while the man looked on, puzzled by this strange request for information.
“Security. Sometimes we have to divide this area.” No one called it a cage. She looked to the wall, to the place where the double row of bars, a sort of grill, peeped out form its slot in the wall, ready to divide parents who failed to get on, even in this place.
“Oh.” She looked across at the man who had come with her. She blinked and something stirred in the back of her mind. “Yeah. I see what you mean.” The man was still wondering what it was that had troubled her.
“Don’t get it. What d’yer want to make this bleedin’ hutch any smaller for?” He puzzled over this for a moment then a dim light flickered somewhere. “Oh, want to keep me off of ‘er.” He coughed his indignation. “Huh. Catch me lookin’ at that. No bleedin’ thank you.”
The woman says nothing.
All they have on their side of the glass wall is the sheet on which are set out the cost of the boy’s misdemeanors. It’s pinned to the wall just next to the door through which they had been shown in. The sound of his voice reaches them, distorted by an intercom and further confused by the silent blows that he lands on the glass. They serve only to distract the parents but they set off further violence on the boy’s part as he urges himself into a frenzy. For a moment they watch his gyrations as he retreats from the glass then throws himself forwards again like some frustrated creature of the deep. They wait, as if expecting him to rise to the surface to take breath. From his reactions they realize that he can hear what they say so, for the moment, they ignore him and his shouting gets louder and louder.
Their conversation, such as it is, sees the unraveling of two parallel lives, a very difficult conversation made worse by the need to speak very softly unless they want their son to overhear and scream back at them. They try to stand with their backs to him – there is no place to sit, apart from the toilets. The boy’s close presence turns them to watch him while he glares back at them and their attempts at a conversation.
The man tries another tack.
“So, you were responsible for him, weren’t yer.” He jerks his head forward and raises his eyebrows at the same time, as if to verify what he is claiming. “I weren’t around, couldn’t do nothing.”
“What d’yer mean?”
“Well, I weren’t there, didn’t know about him and he was with you. Now look what’s happened. Bloody ruined. ” He pauses this time then shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head and lets the gestures suggest some sort of significance. “ I can’t take ‘im on. You’ve bloody ruined ‘im.” The man points at the glass and the boy glares back. “Look at ‘im. E’s barking. All your bloody handiwork. Nothing I can do – got more three now.”
Why, he asks himself, why had this woman got him into so much bother over her kid?
“Thought you said you don’t live with them girls. Left them to their mother.”
“Not now.” It was handy round at her place and the girls didn’t bother him too much. “Anyway, I’m responsible like – can’t get it together with you again.” The woman pulls a face and lets him see it. The idea is clearly abhorrent. “Got to think about these little kids of mine now, not bloody yobs like him.”
And the unravelling continues.
“But he is yours – That’s the one bloody thing I keep telling yer and the court was trying to tell yer yesterday. E’s no other bugger’s but yours and mine.”
“Yeah, but you brought ‘im up. You….”
“Cos you buggered off. Soon as ‘e arrived. Bloody ‘ard on me own.”
“Bollocks! One kid, no sweat. I’ve got three at ‘ome.”
“And some poor sod to skivvy for you. She buggers off and you’ll have those poor sods in care.“ She pauses and looks at their son who has been in and out of care for a good bit of his life. “No, that’s no good.” She nods at the boy. “Anyway, they ain’t gonna let us out just yet.”
They are incarcerated without food or drink, to hasten their decision and to return them to their “normal” lives as soon as possible. Soon, they will begin to notice the time they have been shut up in here. The boy is feeling hungry and curiously neglected. There is a pause in the adults’ conversation. Suddenly, the boy misses the low murmur of their voices.
“What’s shut you up then?” He doesn’t wait for an answer. “Better get on to them. Getting bloody hungry.” He nods towards the man. “Better get that old git something. Looks like he might die before you get me outa here.”
For the first time for years, for ever, his father speaks to him.
“No grub for you in here mate. Not for any of us, so just hold your noise.”
There is another silent fusillade as the boy jumps up and down at the glass. The man begins to feel his thirst. “You’d think they’d put some water out for us.”
She looks across at their son. It is about a month since she has seen him and the spiked hair has got longer, softer. She turns and looks directly at the boy’s father who avoids facing her directly.
“Some time we’ve got to make a decision. That’s why we’re here.”
He wants to tell her to get on with it, to push the green button so they can walk out and go to their respective homes; if they have to make promises, so what. They have made them before. He glances sideways. She looks straight at the buttons, mounted on the end wall. The boy stands, peering back at them from just a few feet away.
In front of the man there is a tableau, the woman and the boy, looking at one another, beyond one another and the pairs of coloured buttons that linked them, back nearly sixteen years. The man stares. In another time and another place he might contemplate the years and the incessant dividing and re-dividing of cells that they have set in train. He sees her now that first night, and the several ones that followed. Something of her now, tired, greying, brings home to him their awful loneliness.
The boy breaks the silence.
“Not easy, is it? Can’t see you pushing the bloody buttons. No bleedin’ bottle. That’s what she always said about you.” The hand meets the glass again, this time just the once and then the boy throws himself down onto the settee. He calls up, up into the ceiling of his side of the cell. “Tell me when you’ve decided.”
Deciding. That’s what the judge went on about at some length. Something that he said comes back to the man. He had thought about it in court and the boy’s taunts bring back to him the judge’s words.
If you decide to release him, you will be completely responsible for him and for whatever he does for the next three years. If he commits another offence, you will be answerable, you will all be taken back into the system and will face the same choice.
“Whata we gonna do?” The man walks over to her and stands to one side, between her and the boy. “Can’t stay pissing about in ‘ere all day.”
“You decide then. You’re so bleedin’ clever.”
But he can’t and he moves away again and leans against the wall from where he surveys their cell and the chamber beyond the glass where the boy seems to have settled himself for the moment. Somewhere, high up on the wall above them, a clock ticks.
“Christ, I’m bleedin’ thirsty.” The woman looks across to the man and nods.
“They don’t care though.”
The man shrugs his shoulders again.
“So what the ‘ell are we gonna do, press the buttons? Just like that?”
From the corner of his eye he sees the boy turn and look up. The woman also notices and their eyes follow across into the other space where the boy waits. He is grinning now.
“Lost your bottle then? Knew you would. Push that fucking button for Christ’s sake, any bleedin’ button, then you can piss off out of it again, get out of my fuckin’ life. ” There is no response so he continues.
“Never you fucking well mind about me – you haven’t so far.”
His mother moves away from the man, towards the glass. She can’t get any closer and the boy watches with all the dispassion of a disaffected child. For once she pleads with him with her eyes and then with all the rest of the body that has troubled itself with him all those years ago, but there is nothing to get him to his feet.
“Well that’s it, ain’t it? Go on, push that fucking button.”
The boy’s mother remembers being troubled by calls from his school, calls which she has ignored – he has to go and she sends him off each morning. What he does there is up to them. She can’t do anything about him at school – he’s bigger than her.
The man follows her hand which touches some darker tissue under her left eye. She remembers the blow and wonders whether she should tell the man. She senses his eye on her and ignores him, and looks across at their son; why should the man bother now, now it’s too late? She remembers the policewoman knocking at the door to tell her that her mum has died and it’s too late now for her mum was the only one she talked to about her little boy.
It’s like facing that death again for there is no connection now with the boy who looks round at them again and calls out to be released. There were memories of pain but now there is nothing and the man who stands a few feet away can do nothing. There should be some connection; what else has brought them here in to this building together with this man? The man, here for the same reason, a connection, but what does it mean? There is nothing to pull them together, only a horror of anything that might.
“Come on then, green button time. We’ll just have to manage this piece of shit somehow.”
The man walks quickly across to one pair of buttons and covers the green one. The woman says nothing but gets up slowly and walks away from the man to her set of controls. On the other side of the glass the boy watches the television again. The woman’s hands remain by her sides. She looks straight back at the boy’s father.
“Well, what you waiting for?” The man lifts his hand from the green button and strikes it several times. The woman does not move.
She watches him move towards her and, inside her, an old fear flickers. He stops before he reaches her and raises his voice. She sees the boy turn on the other side of the glass.
“Look, here’s the bloody green button.” He grabs her wrist but she twists herself out of his reach and takes four steps, away from the buttons, to the centre of their space.
“Look, the green button, this one. Just go over and push the other one, over there look.” The man nods over beyond her, to the other pair of buttons.
She steps over to the wall and lifts her right hand to the space between the two buttons.
“What yer doin’, you stupid cow?” The boy’s voice surprises them both. “ Push that fucking button, can’t you, then we can all piss off.”
She finds it difficult to look at this boy and he continues to shout abuse. Then the man joins in and she’s more trapped than ever.
“Look you stupid bitch, just make up your mind and push the fuckin’ button.”
But she does nothing and the man is driven more and more by an anger and contempt that he can scarcely contain.
“All right then, if you can’t push the green button, try the other bastard. Any bloody button.”
The man twists himself round the better to make his point. With one hand he reaches the green button which he thumps several times. From the other side of their space the woman watches and from his side of the glass wall her son watches the man.
The man looks back at her, unaware of the boy’s rekindled interest.
“Don’t you want to get out?” The man snorts his contempt. “Still can’t make up your bloody mind.”
He returns to his buttons and this time he covers each one with a hand and pushes them alternately, with rapid, angry jabs. Still she watches. The blows become more and more frenzied then, finally, his left hand falls onto the red button and he raises himself to screw at it in his fury.
She moves so rapidly that the boy fails to notice her and it is the immediate vibrating of the red button under his left hand that first alerts the man.
When the two women return to lead her away, they find her arm rigid, as if held against the button by some electric current. Gently, they lever her away from the wall and past the glass division that is dark now that there are no longer lights on the other side.