damned if you do....

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Commercial Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

a short story about growing up in a tense, dysfunctional family.

Submitted: June 19, 2018

A A A | A A A

Submitted: June 19, 2018




“Ma!” “Ma!”

“ Geoffrey crapped in the shower!”

I think that was about the time I began to suspect that there was a conspiracy of some sorts afoot in the house I was born into. I didn’t know that a conspiracy was what it was. I hadn’t ever heard the word before. But things within the family didn’t always unfold the way I thought they should.

It was a weekend evening. I don’t remember my father being in the house so he was probably away somewhere.

My sister enthusiastically mentioned this discovery as she came into the kitchen where Ma was no doubt tossing together a dinner made up of any ratio of resentment, vitriol and bitterness.

I was about 9 years old, one of four children in a household of 6 people.

Pa was quiet and kind, and though “I’m going to tell your father when he gets home” was a frequent threat, there was next to no violence delivered by his hand. Big, gentle, kind, the worst thing imagineable was to disappoint him. On the savoured and cherished days that he came into the room in the morning to wake us, he would sit on the edge of the bed and quietly talk about all sorts of things. For that time with him to be spent talking of his sense of disappointment from being told of whatever it was that I might have done wrong, was far more painful than any violence could be.

Anything was bearable, but disappointing the Pa was difficult to bear. He liked a quiet life and so seemed to be away from home for business quite often.

Everyone got on with Pa.

Ma was different.

Growing up in a large Catholic family, having left home at 15, she was short, angry, and given to delivering a ‘bloody good hiding’ at the drop of a hat.

Not understanding, not patient, not kind, there seemed to be a vast, incalculably deep well of rage inside her, and it felt like a strangely disproportionate amount of that rage was directed at me.

I wasn’t wilfully disobedient, or automatically wicked or defiant or even naughty.

I just seemed to be ‘in the shit’ , almost all of the time.

Ma never went away.

I had older sisters and a younger brother.

Four of them, though because of a convoluted His, Hers and Theirs arrangement between my parents and their previous spouses, I grew up sharing a house with two sisters and a younger brother most of the time.

The eldest of those two was Beryl and being 11 years older than I, had little in common with me. My mothers’ daughter by her first husband, she was my sister, we were family, but we weren’t close. At the time I began awakening to the possible existence of a conspiracy against me she was in her first year of University. I had no real antagonism against her.

Maureen was 3 years older than I and a sister by the same parents as I. She didn’t like Ma. It seemed Ma didn’t like her, but then it seemed Ma didn’t like any of us.

So there I was; one minute feeding dogs, the next accused of crapping in the shower.

I was a boy, and I would do things to have a laugh, but I wasn’t stupid enough to take a crap in the shower. Who would be, especially in our house? I reckon there was scant enough opportunity to crap in nappies as a baby, all of us being on Ma’s fastrack to get grown up and gone. I reckon diapers or nappies were tolerated for not a second longer than it took to get a baby crapping on the pot somehow or other.

Crapping in the shower would have been suicide.

I rememember Ma’s raszor-sharp pencilled-on eyebrows shooting heavenwards as the Maureens’ announcement dropped its full weight on the house, and then a certain set coming to her jaw.

She did that when she was dealing with disciplinary matters. She would sort of set her lower jaw down and to one side, and it would sort of work away down there until the thrashings had been delivered and the matter was, as far as she was concerned, done. Her lower jaw would then return to it’s ordinary position, usually a taut, slightly outwardly thrust one that resulted in a mouth that was a thin grim line more than anything else.

“What?!” Ma’s disbelief probably matched mine, but for different reasons.

A knife was slammed down onto a cutting board, and Ma turned and looked at me across the kitchen.

“I didn’t”, I said.

I was already feeling the weight of guilt beginning to rest on my shoulders, and I hadn’t done anything wrong. That was just how it worked in our family – something went wrong, and then somehow it would be my fault. That was just how it was.

Ma immediately went off down the hallway to the scene of the crime to view the evidence, Maureen accompanying her to show and tell.

I tagged along, as if crapping in the shower could be something one might do and forget about and which would require a second look at the scene just to jog the memory a bit, before owning up and accepting responsibility. I protested my innocence all the way, somewhere believing that the actual scene would show the obvious, that I couldn’t possibly have taken a crap in the shower.

But, when I managed to cram myself into the blue-tiled bathroom in a way to see past Ma and Maureen into shower there was a very obvious turd on the blue and white mosaic tiled floor.

It assumed a malevolent and threatening presence far disproportionate to its size, not quite but almost in the centre of the floor.

Someone had definitely crapped in the shower.

Things weren’t looking good for me.

Everyone else in the house at the time was female besides my younger brother, and it was inconceivable that he might have taken a shit in the shower. Butter wouldn’t yet melt in his mouth.

I was by now beginning to doubt myself just a bit. I was very sure that had I pinched one off in the shower stall I would have remembered doing it, and at the least I would have somehow cleaned it up, maybe using my feet to dribble it to the drainhole and then gently tramped it through the holes of the drain, perhaps using the water jet and someone’s toothbrush to clean the area thoroughly and leave no trace.

What would be the point of taking a shit in the shower and then leaving enough evidence to get busted?

No, this wasn’t done by me, but there it was – a short, fat turd about the size of a beef olive, but rough and irregular on its surface. There were little particles of something lighter, almost cream-coloured, like peanut chips.

No doubt, it was a turd.

But it wasn’t mine.

“Go to your room and wait for me!” This was Ma’s precursor to delivering a thrashing.

“I didn’t do it!” I was probably whining. “It wasn’t me!”

“Who else would do it? Tell me? Who else in this house would poo in the shower”, asked Ma?

What could I say? Nobody in the house would take a crap in the shower. Nobody was stupid or crazy or mad enough – not even me.

“I saw you!” Maureen was standing behind Ma, towering over her as everyone did, and looking at me accusingly over Ma’s shoulder.

“You saw me? When did you see me”? I was incredulous, my mind trying to piece together the stream of arguments against Maureens’ statement.

“When you were showering”, came her matter-of-fact response, as if watching her younger brother shower was an everyday thing and represented completely normal behaviour.

The dark wooden-framed window to the shower room was always open a little way to help the room dry out and prevent the development of mildew. The window opened out onto the courtyard, and it was absolutely possible to see into the shower from the courtyard if you really wanted to. I knew that.

“You’re lying”, I said. “I didn’t do it!

I began yelling. “You can’t blame me for this, I didn’t do it!” “Someone else did it! It wasn’t me!”

I already knew how this was most likely going to end, but I wasn’t going to just suck it up.

I hadn’t done anything wrong, and I certainly hadn’t shat in the shower.

“Stop your shouting and go to your room”, said Ma with the kind of steel in her voice that generally brooked no argument.

Nonetheless, I was innocent and I wasn’t going down without swinging a few.

“Why is Maureen looking through the window at me while I shower? Why are you believing her?”

I was trying not to cry, but tears beginning to overflow my stinging eyes reminding me that I was still a little boy, no matter how badly I wanted to be a grown man and not have to be the reason why everything went wrong all the time. I wanted people to be towards me the way people were towards Pa.

Not everyone – Ma wasn’t the same towards Pa as everyone else was, but that was just Ma. She wasn’t ever nice to anyone, except Billy because he was the youngest of the family. And Beryl, because she was the eldest and had been with Ma the longest.

Anyway, I knew there was no use arguing. Ma had made up her mind that I had crapped in the shower and she wasn’t going to change her mind.

The drill was, besides one small, variable detail, always the same.

I went to the room I shared with Billy. He had no doubt heard the scene developing and though only four had been around enough to have left the room. I knelt on the floor with my torso bent over my bed, my shins in the small walkway that seperated my bed from Billy’s, and waited for Ma.

Fortunately, this time she wasn’t far behind.

Sometimes she would take her time to get to the bedroom, as if maybe selecting the implement of punishment was a hard decision. There were several possible options – a navy blue leather belt about a quarter inch wide that she would fold into four, or a wider black leather strap folded in two, or a length of electrical cable folded in four.

It was always a somewhat apprehensive moment, wondering what you were going to get. It wasn’t that one implement was any better or worse than another by a very wide margin, although the navy blue belt was somehow the worst; it was just that the wide belt left marks for longer than anything else and this would be embarassing in the changeroom at school.

Ma had the navy blue leather belt folded in her hand, and from there the procedure was fairly standard.

Ma would get my shorts or pyjama pants or jeans or whatever loosened and down below the buttocks, and then she would get busy with her right arm and the belt or whatever, whipping away furiously, punctuating the action with enunciated word-by-word reasons for the beating being issued, as if to remind herself of her justifications for it.

A non-reaction on my part was ill-advised, I had learned.

Besides, it was impossible to not flinch, yell, cry, writhe or scream.

Ma could put the whip about with real venom, and whilst I dreamed of being able to unflinchingly accept the pain without giving her the satisfaction of any reaction, I had noticed over time that stifling my cries somehow maddened her more and added energy to her violence.

I was best to simply screech away, but without moving or placing my hands anywhere as protection. She would strike anywhere if you moved, and her ability to accurately place the belt where my hands weren’t was uncanny and usually hurt worse than simply getting whipped on the backside.

Fortunately, Ma had some sort of asthmatic condition that would have her out of breath and seated on the bed puffing and blowing after about thirty or forty strokes, and inbetween gasps she’d continue to berate me in case I might have forgotten how bad I was in the time between being sent to the room to await her arrival with her weapon of choice and her running out of breath in the using of it.

The sreeching, crying and wailing on my part didn’t really need to be faked. A thrashing from Ma hurt.

It burned like fire from the hell the priest described in Sunday sermon. It seared from the place on my arse where the belt landed right the way through me to where tears burned my eyes and flamed my cheeks.

Mostly it filled the lake of lava that boiled and smoked in the centre of my chest, which I occasionally managed to not feel and forget existed, but which was stoked and fuelled at times like this.

Eventually she’d regain her breath enough to stand and leave the room, this time with the clear instruction to go and clean up my mess in the shower.

I sniffed and sobbed myself back to some level of equilibrium, my arse and my chest, my eyes, my pride and my sense of dignity all in agony and aching.

I fetched from the cupboard beneath the sink in the kitchen some old newspaper, a rag and a plastic shopping bag.

I had cleaned up turds and shit and piss from the floor before. Our dog Sadie had come to us as a puppy, and she’d crapped her way through the house before she’d got the message that consequences were more bearable for her if she did that outside rather than inside.

Squatting on my haunches in the shower I put my hand in the plastic sack and gently grasped the turd to pick it up. As I squeezed it gently enough to lift I noticed it was hard. As a rock.

It was a rock.

I actually sniffed it. It smelt of earth. Damp earth.

It was a sandstone rock, and it reminded me of the rocks in the flower bed at the bottom of the garden near the railway line. Wet. It was wet, but it hadn’t been in the shower with me when I occupied it what seemed like a long time before but which might have been twenty minutes ago.

Someone had wet that rock and placed it there after I showered.

Turd-like, it was, yes. But not a turd at all.

I had been set up.

I yelled victoriously, ran through the house to the kitchen holding the turd aloft and dropped it onto the kitchen table where Ma was wielding her favourite little knife to the detriment of something organic that was about to make some sort of pointless contribution to our septic tank.

I was expecting her to at least be surprised, apologise for not believing me, question Maureen about how it was she had seen me crapping in the shower when clearly I hadn’t.

Ma reared back enough from the cutting board to point her little knife at me, green eyes aflame with malevolence behind its menacingly wicked point. “Get that off my table”.

Quickly I removed it, still babbling about the fact that it wasn’t a poo at all, but a stone from the garden that just looked like a poo.

“I don’t care”. Ma returned to decimating a vegetable.

“But you gave me a hiding! For nothing!”

I was incensed that it wasn’t as obvious to Ma and everyone else that I had been falsely accused, convicted and punished. I felt deserving of an apology and being finally worthy of fair and respectful treatment, the same as Pa. I was clearly and finally above childlike treatment and someone who at the least could be believed to speak the truth when called upon to do so.

At the least I wanted Ma to admit that she had been wrong. That she had made a mistake.

That she had given me a hiding – for nothing.

“So? “ Ma was unconcerned and unapologetic. “Now you have one in the bank”.

“In the bank?” I didn’t understand what that meant.

“For when you do something wrong that I don’t know about,” replied Ma.

That was it. That was all there was going to be.

My feeling that there was some sort of conspiracy afoot was proven more than forty years later.

Ma had just died. It was OK.

I had been able to visit with her hours before she went, and got to hold her hand in one of mine and place my other hand on her brow beneath the fine, silver hair, and feel a genuine upwelling of gratitude towards her for faithfully doing everything she had done for me.

“Thank you for everything, Ma,” I whispered in her ear as she gasped and laboured for breath beneath the plastic green oxygen mask,. Besides some sort of working of her lower jaw, she was other wise unresponsive.

Much later, the sisters, their husbands and I sat around a dinner table, amiably catching up after just enough years of determinedly not catching up.

We laughed, we cried, we reminisced. It was a kind of painful fun that wasn’t really fun. Ma had finally died and we had been able to let her go with love and some sort of appreciation for how far she had managed to come from where she had grown up to where we had grown up.

I wouldn’t say any of us were friends of hers. We were merely and for one last time, and for some of us for a big change, being dutiful and attentive offspring.

Beryls’ husband had made some joke about how I was always, always and always in some sort of trouble as a youngster.

Laughing, the sisters talked about how the secret to surviving growing up in Ma’s house; the secret to staying out of trouble, was to always ensure that someone else was in trouble.

And all eyes looked across the table and fixed upon me.

© Copyright 2018 Wallace Hartley. All rights reserved.

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