Thursday, May 19, 2005

A Strange Kind Of Illness

Matthew sat in his locked office and prepared to do it again. No one knew. Not even his wife. It was a strange kind of illness, so invisible, but so consuming. He was surprised that it had happened to him.

Sometimes thoughts that he believed to be long gone came back and he used them. That was why Charlotte was wearing the same clothes now as that day the four of them had gone to the fair.

He missed those days so much. Matthew lifted Charlotte's hand to his mouth.

He kept his eyes shut as he sucked her fingers. This was always the moment when he could almost believe, almost get lost in it. He could almost feel her again, he could kiss her, as he should have done twenty years ago. But then, as always, Charlotte's eyes glazed and all he could see was how she must have looked after she died, and then just before he killed her, breathing her last breath, terrified as he loomed over her. He tried desperately to bring her back as she used to be, gritted his teeth with effort, but he couldn't. Then all that he had was Lee, smiling at him, giving him the same arrogant look that he'd given him last year. Not a hint of remorse for what he'd done. Lee began to laugh. His fingers were in Matthew's mouth. He bit them.

The pain rushed quickly through his numb hand and he stopped. He always felt so sleazy afterwards. He promised himself never to do it again. But he knew he would.

There was a knock on the door. The door handle was pulled down, but Matthew had locked it.

"It's Mary." came a voice. "I thought you might like a sandwich. Cheese and Pickle all right?"

"I'll be there in a couple of minutes Mary." Matthew called. "I'm a bit busy at the moment."

"I'll leave them outside the door for you then."


She must know you're up to something, he thought. Who would lock the office door in their lunch hour unless they're up to something? Maybe she wouldn't notice if he went out to see her quickly. Matthew cut the tight elastic band from his wrist and stood up, wiggling his fingers to try to get some feeling back.


Matthew was in love. Well, he knew he wasn't really in love, but according to a magazine, he was feeling some sensations, very common sensations, which at thirteen can feel just as powerful. All that he was feeling was a strong crush - (Fuckers!), he thought silently(as he never swore out loud). He would grow out of it, like a pair of shoes.

If he asked Charlotte out he had a chance, but he didn't dare. If she did say no, he would never live it down, and he'd have lost her forever. And anyway, he would feel too embarrassed to tell his parents, and he couldn't take it if he didn't tell them and they found out. They would think he was too young and that he was just being stupid. They would laugh, or worse they would take it seriously and talk to him about it. That would be too much. (Fuck! The thought of it) No one else seemed to have this problem. He had been to his friend Tom's house once and Tom just started talking openly about girls he fancied to his Dad, as if they were mates. Matthew knew he was repressed and he hated it, especially because he was the most open-minded thirteen year old that he knew.

For one thing, it seemed to Matthew that he was the only thirteen year old in the world who had questioned that it might not be wrong to be gay. Well, if any other thirteen year old had, they were keeping pretty quiet. But then, so was he. He had to, or he'd get beaten to a pulp for being a queer. And he was almost a hundred percent sure that he wasn't gay, because of Charlotte for a start, but no one could know about that, because if they did, and they knew he was scared to ask her out, they'd call him frigid. And to be called gay and frigid, that would be hell.

He was always called queer boy, but he could take that, so were lots of kids. It was just something that all the less... aggressive boys had to put up with. If Matthew didn't have so many morals he would have said it back, but since he did he just had to say: "No, I'm not actually." which meant that everyone immediately thought that he was, which Matthew shouldn't have minded, being completely open minded about the issue, but did, because he fancied Charlotte, which was pointless, because he didn't have the guts to ask her out, because he was too worried about what his parents might think. (you fucking loser! Maybe they're right and you are gay. Don't say that Matthew, there's nothing wrong with being gay. Sorry) Matthew's life was a mess and he knew it. He would have been unhappy if it wasn't for the fact that most people liked him.


Mary was talking to him about the troubles that she was having with her husband. He was smiling.

"Well, I try to get him to do these things, but he's just so lazy. A typical man." Mary said, trying to stir a reaction.

Matthew's smile widened a little and he nodded. "Absolutely," he said. "We're disgraceful."

"And the heating's playing up again." Mary continued. "I keep telling Dave that we should get the plumber out to look at our pipes, but he tells me to stop whining. You don't think I'm whining do you Mr Johnson?"

Matthew winked. "Of course not Mary." he said.

"So I just don't know when it's going to be fixed. It can't be tonight, it's the pub quiz tonight. Big game of course. Semi-finals."

"Do you want me to test you?"

Mary laughed. "Go on then. I won't get it right though. I'm terrible."

"Right." Matthew announced, sitting up. "Capitals."

Mary groaned.

"What's the capital of Peru?"

Matthew pulled his sleeve back to look at his watch and covered it again quickly.

"Bzzzzzttt." said Matthew. "Times up! Last chance Mary. I'll repeat the question for the benefit of the hard of hearing. What... is the capital of Peru?"

"You're bleeding Mr Johnson."

"Wrong Mary, It's Lima. What?"

"Your fingers."

Matthew looked down. "Fuck!" he said.


The bell for lunchtime had already gone.

"Today's last question. Do you know, What's the capital is of Peru, Matthew?" said Mr Friday, whose sentences never made sense.

Matthew sat up straight. He had been so close to getting away with it.

"Oh." he said. "Um... it's on the tip of my tongue..."

"Come on Matthew," said Mr Friday. "You were have meant to learn these for today."

"I did Sir... Oh... Oh... Umm..."

Mr Friday sighed. "What about you Sean?"

Sean didn't even look up.


"You 'dunno'?"


Mr Friday gave a long sigh.

"Well Sean," he said. "I guess you'd better stay behind and have made sure you do know it then, hadn't you?"

"Oh si-ir."

"Everyone except Tom, Sean, Mary... and Charlotte dismissed."

Matthew got up from his seat slowly. He was sure that the four left behind were staring at him. He could tell the look from Charlotte was total hate. He should have been there too and they knew it. He couldn't stand the thought of her hating him.

His spine suddenly shivered and he felt a sudden surge of panic, he couldn't just walk out, what was he doing? He didn't want to do it, but... (fuck fuck fuck I'm doing it)

"Umm... Mr Friday?" Matthew said, as the rest of the class were leaving. His hands were shaking and he stuffed them in his trouser pockets. "Mr Friday?"

Mr Friday looked up from his desk. "Yes Matthew?"

"I didn't know the capital either."

Mr Friday frowned. "What?"

"Should I get detention too sir?"

Matthew imagined the other four in the class, looking at him in total disbelief. Sean would be beginning to make hand gestures. He'd be right to.

"You want a detention Matthew?"

"No sir, I just want things to be fair."

Mr Friday laughed.

"Okay Matthew." he said. "Detention tomorrow after school, all right?"

Matthew's shoulders sank. "Can't I have it this lunchtime sir?"


"Well, that's not fair then is it?" said Matthew, suddenly feeling angry. He took his hands out of his pockets. "Everyone else is getting them now!" (if people didn't know you were in love with Charlotte before Matthew, they will now. Oh fuck.)

"Are you shouting at me?" said Mr Friday.

"No sir." said Matthew, trying to calm down.

Mr Friday was silent for a second. "I want to get you out of my sight Matthew. Now."

"Yes sir." said Matthew quickly, feeling the tears well in his eyes. His heart was thumping as he walked out of the room. (fuck fuck fuck you can't even stand up to anyone can you?) He could feel the eyes of the four in detention on his back as he left. He began to take big gulps of air through his mouth.

(What was the fucking point of that? Why did you have to make a scene Matthew? I hate you. I hate you. I hate you)

The news would be around the whole school by tomorrow. Gay Matthew had asked for a detention. He had only done it so that he could spend a bit more time with Charlotte. He had already passed the fire alarm button when he thought of it.

He knew he was going to cry and he had to stop himself. He had to do something. He had to release. He had to hit something.

A moment later the fire alarm was clanging around the school.

The release was huge. Matthew had never felt so calm.


"What have you done Matthew?" asked Mary.

Matthew looked down at his right hand. "Oh, it's nothing." he said. "I was chasing a really fast bird and an anvil fell on me. It's nothing."

"It's all over your shirt. Hold on a second, I'll get the first aid kit."

"There's no need Mary."

"It's no effort Mr Johnson."

"No Mary." said Matthew coldly, but it was too late. Mary had already left the room.

It was finally over. When Mary came back in she would see his hands, see how far down his nails had been chewed. The teeth marks on his knuckles. Then, after that, she would see the permanent red line wrapped around his wrist, the rubber band ring that he use to tie himself to Charlotte.

He was sweating. He reached up to undo the top button of his shirt and left a blood stain on his collar. Mary wouldn't understand. She lived in a world of lazy husbands and pub quizzes, she couldn't understand why he had to do it, he was a freak and he always had been. He couldn't cope with this.


Matthew's first memory of Lee was him and his mates urinating at each other in the school showers when he was eleven. Matthew was changing in the corner, and trying to ignore them.

"Look, Lee's taking a slash!" one of them yelled. "Dirty fockin' bastard!"

"Fock off!" replied Lee and took aim.

In some ways Matthew felt jealous of Lee. Perhaps it was his lack of inhibition. Lee could shower, swear, shout and urinate and not care who knew. No one called him a queer - and he pissed on other boys for fun. But it wasn't just that. There was just something that separated him, even from his mates. He was short, fat, had hardly any charisma, but he had a willingness to go a step further, to get into more trouble than anyone else. When Lee's friends misbehaved they did it because they cared about impressing each other. Lee did it because he just didn't give a (fuck).

"Fockin' squares!" he would say to Matthew and his friends, and they would laugh when he was well out of the way.


Charlotte had gone out with a lot of boys at secondary school. When he was seventeen, Matthew had worked out that she had averaged one boyfriend every half term. Sometimes he would have given anything to join that club, but he still didn't dare ask. In a way he knew it was because he was cowardly, but he would occasionally reassure himself that this in fact wasn't the case. No, of course not. What Matthew had with Charlotte was far more important, and that was a great friendship.

"Great. Fucking Friendship! With no fucking at all, ever." said Matthew, to himself and out loud. "Just what I've always dreamed of. If you're lucky and you keep on the same route Matt, who am I kidding, you can't get away with Matt. If you're lucky, Matthew, you might live you're whole life without kissing a girl. Thank fucking Christ!"

Still, perhaps in a way it was true. At least he had been able to keep seeing her for far longer than any of her old boyfriends. On the other hand, he couldn't help feeling that perhaps if he had asked her out at the age of thirteen then maybe now his life wouldn't be in such tatters. If he had just got it out of his system when he had the chance maybe he could have moved on. Maybe then he wouldn't have chosen his A-level subjects because they were the same ones that Charlotte was taking.

"You ridiculous fuck! Your A-levels! What is wrong with you?"

He regretted it all the time. For one thing it hadn't even worked. They'd been put in separate classes. Part of him had even been relieved. It meant that he didn't have to cope so much with the guilt. And he could help Charlotte with her homework.

"Patronising fucker. She's capable of doing her own homework!"


Matthew was sitting down and staring at his knees as his father spoke to him in their living room.

"Look Matthew," said his Dad. "I don't want to be angry with you, but it's important that we understand why you did it."

Tears began to fall on to Matthew's trousers and he supported his head in his hands. His father moved across the room and sat next to him on the settee. He put his arm around him.

"I know you're upset Matthew, but it's important. You disrupted the whole school. What were you thinking of?"

Matthew shut his wet eyes. "I don't know Dad." he said. "I really don't."

His father was silent for a moment. He kept his arm around his son's shoulders.

"It's just not like you, Matthew, we all know that. Are you getting on all right with the other children?"


"Do you like the school?"


His Dad took a deep breath.

"You know that your Mum and I love you more than you can ever imagine, don't you?"

"Yes Dad." said Matthew. He began to concentrate on his jeans, where a hole was beginning to work it's way through. He began to pick at a loose piece of thread.

"Don't do that Matthew." said his Dad calmly.


There was another long silence.

"You do know how serious what you have done is, don't you?"


"You know that they won't let you back to school until you apologise to the headmaster."

"Yes." said Matthew and took a deep breath. "But I'm not going to."

Matthew could tell his father was shocked.

"What?" he said.

Matthew looked up at his Dad for the first time.

"I can't apologise."

His father's eyes widened.

"Yes you can." he said.

"I'm not going to."

His father stood up. "WHY?"

"Because I needed to do it."

Matthew could feel his nose running and the tears running down his face. His Dad tried to speak calmly, but it still came out as a half shout.

"I've tried to reason with you Matthew, but I can't do it anymore. You will apologise, and that's the end of it."

Matthew tried to speak, but his voice was choked up.

"I..." he said and took a deep breath. He tried to swallow. "I won't."

His father made a low grunting noise. Then the explosion.


Matthew ran upstairs and sank down on his bed. It was the first of three arguments that he had with his parents about apologising to the school. Eventually he gave up. He had cried again in front of the headmaster.


It was at least half an hour before he decided that maybe Charlotte wasn't coming and he should begin cycling home. He had a pocketful of change and decided to stop at the newsagents to get a snack. On the way there he met his alcoholic friend Gordon, wearing his school uniform and sipping from a beer can.

Matthew counted his change quickly, grabbed a few things and went to the counter. He handed the money to the woman behind the desk and she sighed as she saw the pile of coppers he'd given her.

"I'm sorry, you haven't got enough." said the woman behind the counter. "You'd better put back the chocolate mice."

Matthew winced. "Oh, sorry." he said. "I must have miscounted, I'll... uh... yeah, I'll put them back."

"Wanker." muttered the person behind.

Matthew ignored him and took his food back to the shelves. As he looked back he realised the person behind him in the queue was Lee. He hadn't changed much. If he'd grown then he hadn't grown as much. He was still fat.

"I bet you feel stupid now!" Lee said, grinning as he walked passed Matthew.

Matthew gave a sarcastic laugh.

"Oh, I feel terrible." (shit I might have overdone the sarcasm there)

Lee's grin disappeared and he left the shop.

Matthew left the shop a couple of minutes later and offered a chocolate to Gordon. He declined and handed back Matthew's bike. They walked down the road together.

"Oy!" said a voice from behind a few steps later. Matthew turned and saw Lee walking after them. He ignored him.

"Oy!" Lee said again. "Oy! Say you feel terrible!"

Matthew carried on walking. He felt a thud on his back.

"Say you feel terrible!"

Matthew turned around.

"All right!" Matthew said. "I feel terrible."

Lee punched him in the face, just below the nose.

"Say you feel terrible, ya fockin' wanker!" he said, hitting him again.

Matthew took a few steps back. Lee bounced towards him again and punched him in the chest.

"Why are you hitting me?" Matthew shouted, feeling disoriented. "Why are you hitting me?"

Lee hit him in the face again.

Matthew was nearly six foot and Lee was at least a head shorter. He thought about it a lot afterwards, why he didn't hit back.

(Jesus wouldn't hit back. But you tell people you're an atheist! Well, maybe I am maybe I'm not. Anyone with sense would have hit back. John Lennon wouldn't have! I bet he would)

Lee punched him once more on the bridge of his nose and then suddenly he was gone, bouncing up the road.

(He must have been embarrassed that you weren't falling down. Thank God I didn't fall down. You probably would have if you'd have remembered)

Then Matthew was sobbing in the road. He tried to pull himself together, feeling embarrassed. He was seventeen. He had no right to be crying. He gasped for air. Matthew looked across at Gordon.

"I was... er... holding your bike for you." he said.


Matthew's face was pale. There was a blank look in his eyes as he stared forward at the old man crying. He wanted to listen to him, but he just couldn't. His mind was numb. If only he had gone to the police all those years ago. Then things would be different. Lee's path would have changed. He could have stopped this.

Caroline was sitting next to him. Matthew hoisted the five-year-old on to his lap. She was still for a few seconds before she began to struggle again.

"Let go Daddy." she said, pulling at his arms around her waist.

Matthew snapped out of his trance.

"Quiet sweetheart." he whispered to her. "Not long to go now."

Caroline continued to struggle.

"Let go!" she yelled at him.

"Quiet!" said Matthew.

"I want to go home!" screamed Caroline.

Matthew sighed and looked at Lisa.

"I'll take her outside." she whispered to him. "Come on. Let's go for a walk."

"Is Daddy coming?" said Caroline.

"No, Daddy's staying here for a while."

Matthew put his head in his hands and shut his eyes. He couldn't think why he had insisted that Caroline come anyway.

Her husband was crying in the front row. Matthew envied him. If only it was that easy to release his emotions. He hadn't cried once. He just wanted to let it out, but it was clinging to him. If it was just sadness it might have been possible, but he was too angry. For the first time in his life he wanted to kill someone. He wanted to put his hands around Lee's fat stubby neck and squeeze it tight until his head turned blue. It might not make him feel better, but it would be something. Christ, the little bastard didn't even have the courtesy to be drunk when he did it.

Lee got off with a caution for careless driving. That was the worst thing in Matthew's mind. Sixty miles an hour on a road with a thirty-mile an hour speed limit and he had been let off. The jury didn't even think his driving was worth calling dangerous, because there weren't clear signs. And the judge noted his genuine remorse.

That was typical of Lee, hiding behind a technical excuse. He couldn't even say it was his fault. He had lived in the town all his life and he knew the speed limit. He hadn't even given up driving.

He had driven again since the accident. He'd visited his children in the car last Tuesday and gone out with his mates on Wednesday. Matthew had been watching him. Genuine remorse, he had hardly shown that. Matthew had gone into the pub and Lee had been bouncing around, laughing with his mates as usual. At one point Lee had looked at him, sitting alone on the other side of the pub. He hadn't even shown recognition.


Matthew shut his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. She would be back in the office in a minute and there would be no escaping it.

He had intended to walk over, but he ended up running.

The fire bell sounded loudly around the building. Matthew waited. He didn't feel any different.

Mary rushed in.

"Come on, we've got to get out." she said.

Matthew sighed.

"I pressed it Mary."


"I pressed the fire alarm."


"It was an accident. I tripped over and pressed it."

Mary looked shocked for a second and then laughed.

"Oh dear." she said, "We're in big trouble!"

Matthew smiled. "I guess I'd better go and explain."

Mary nodded.

"You don't think I'll get a detention do you?" he asked.


  1. Brilliant.
    I have to ask - two 'he's in the 4th parag makes it seem that Matthew killed her. Was that intentional, to add another twist?

  2. That was very good. Touching. You write really well.