It’s been how long Sugar? Eight years? Eight years. A lot’s happened since then. A lot to both of us I guess - more to me though I think. I don’t want to seem arrogant, but I do think that. If you can top it I’ll give you a medal. I’ll try and keep it all brief, but here’s a quick run down: married, divorced, relationship, child, dead child, end of relationship, remarried, divorced, booze-soaked party, mild nervous breakdown, emergence like a butterfly from a cocoon as the magnificent specimen who writes to you today.
I know –so clichéd isn’t it? They say you couldn’t make it up, but really you could. People do all the time, and sometimes I look at the last eight years as just a story to tell you, just a tall story. That’s what I’m doing now.
I sometimes think about the person I was when we were together. I don’t know what I’d feel for him. I think I’d almost feel paternal towards him, I think of him and my dead boy in a similar way. Neither of them were properly formed yet, they didn’t know what they were. I can’t honestly say that my dead boy was an angel, that’s what his mother described him as, but he wasn’t. He wasn’t even close. How could he have been with a father like me? All crushable flesh and not much soul. And the fact that I couldn’t describe him as that to her, to Anna, my girlfriend, his mother, that was a lot of the reason we didn’t stay together I think. She wanted me to make him into something he wasn’t and I couldn’t. Sometimes now I still get angry about it. Why couldn’t I have lied? To her, to me. Why couldn’t I have said he was perfect? Because he wasn’t. But he was only four. And four’s no time to reach perfection.
I was a joke when we were together Sugar, I let everyone walk over me at work and I took it out on you in subtle and devious ways that I didn’t even think about, just because you stood by me through it all. Maybe I hated me, so I hated you for not hating me. Who am I kidding? I didn’t hate me. I hated you sometimes though, because I could be cruel and you’d let me, you’d moan and cry and scratch your head, and not talk to me for a few weeks, but really you’d still let me. And I hated you for that, because in the end I knew I wasn’t a cruel person and you let me be that. I can see you rolling your eyes now as I say this. You’d say I always did this – how could someone so self-probing be so cruel? How could someone who could look at himself like I did, like I do, still be such a walking disorder? I guess the only way I can describe it is to say I find it so hard to analyse until afterwards. Granted, sometimes for me, and this is what kills me, kills people around me, sometimes for me, afterwards is only a moment afterwards. I see what I’ve done and I get enlightened, I’m above my head looking down at the mess and I know everything.
Ok enough of this, I’m drifting. What do you want to know about first? Do I start at the beginning or do I get to the nitty gritty, the really painful dead boy stuff? How would they do this in a story? Can I distance myself enough from it to just tell it like a story, pause on the detail, the sweat on his forehead as I watched him go, the blood matted hair that stuck out and pointed at me. Could I use those to push your emotional buttons? I don’t want to manipulate you, but it’s an emotional story, and if it didn’t move you, maybe you’d feel cheated. If I couldn’t move you with this, maybe you’d think less of me. How can I come out of this without you thinking less of me than you already do?
I was so pleased to get your letter by the way, I’m really happy that you’re happy. Kieron sounds like a good guy, hard working, loving, loyal. Sugar, you must be bored out of your mind! I’m kidding. I’m largely kidding - Damn, I’m doing it again, I’m bringing it back to me, I’m putting Kieron on one side and I’m using him to reflect back on me. And I’m using his good (dull!) traits against him, just to make me seem exciting. Why do I care about being exciting to you, after all this time? Why don’t I let go of that? It’s hard to do.
Drifting again. So, my dead son… yeah, let’s get back to the good stuff: matter of fact or manipulative? Could I talk to you about it without being manipulative? Wouldn’t the straightforward facts manipulate you anyway? They would manipulate me. Am I shocking you with the way that I’m talking about it? It’s not in your face shocking though is it? It doesn’t seem to be, but I’m just treating it like it’s just an event, a day at the races where I lost a few or something, and of course it’s not. But if I can treat it like that, what does it say about me? Fuck it, I’ll put the facts in straight. I’ll try harder to be honest. I’ll tell you something about his death that will shock you.
It doesn’t mean as much to me as it should.
There, I’ve said it. That’s something, I’ve never written that before. I’ve never admitted that before to anyone. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. Jesus, I’m actually getting upset. This is ridiculous. I’ll stop. I’ll come back later.
I wrote that sentence before but then I couldn’t help writing the next thing about me crying. I needed you to think I was human, but I don’t want you to think I was crying for him. Don’t fall for it. I was crying for me, I only felt pity for me. I am haunted by his death. That’s another cliché isn’t it? I am though. I’m haunted not because I’m mourning, not because I miss him, or miss spending time with him, not because of that, but because I don’t feel that. I’m just wallowing in self-pity for the love I never felt.
I’ve got a tattoo with his name on it. I got it done during the party. Somewhere between February and April I think. It’s on my forearm, just a simple tattoo that says Charlie in italics. I said I did it so I wouldn’t forget – at some points during the party I nearly forgot everything so it’s not so ridiculous. But I really just did it to prove to other people that I loved him, to make me feel like less of a shit.
But now I’m sober (yes, all the bloody time) I feel embarrassed about it. Maybe I was a nicer person as a drunk, or just more sentimental, more willing to fool myself that I did it for pure reasons. Here’s the shameful thing: I try and keep it covered. I don’t want people seeing his name on my arm and thinking I’m a queer.
Hey, I’m no homophobe, you know that. Me and your brother, we used to get on well didn’t we? He was my greatest supporter when everyone else told you to get the hell out. I respected him for that. He was wrong of course, you should have got out. Not left me to constantly try to summon up the courage to leave. I didn’t deserve you, so he was wrong. He made a mistake, but everyone can do that. Yep, he made one big gay mistake. I’m kidding Sugar.
So it’s not like I’ve got a problem with gays, I just don’t want people to think I’m one if I’m not, and they see Charlie written on my arm and that’s what they think. Well, it’s what I think they’re thinking. Maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re thinking, ‘oh look at that guy with a guy’s name written on his arm, must be his dead son’. Actually Charlie can be a girls name too, can’t it? I don’t know what people think, but I keep it covered.
It serves a purpose though, even if it wasn’t the purpose I got it for, it keeps the dead boy alive in my thoughts. Every time I catch a glimpse of it, there he is. Or maybe it doesn’t, maybe I’m just thinking about me not thinking about him again, maybe he doesn’t come into it. Here’s another thing:
I hardly knew him.
How can you really know a four year old? Anna couldn’t believe how cold I was about it, and I can’t either. I’m not saying you can’t love a four year old, and I never said to Anna that she didn’t love him, maybe I loved him too, not enough, but I did. I’m just saying that he was too young for us to know what he might be. Maybe I'm evil or something, but I keep seeing it like he had this potential, this kernel, in him, and it just never got the chance to change from that. You can guess what he might have become, but you can’t see it. He was only four.
Here’s the thing Sugar. Ok, here’s the thing. He was a mistake. A beautiful mistake, and I could have been a better Dad maybe, but I didn’t think I’d have to become that for a while, I thought I could grow into it. There was maybe a kernel in me for that, but it stopped, I stopped nourishing it. I barely started.
But here’s the other thing, everything was a mistake. Everything that’s happened to me shouldn’t have happened because I shouldn’t have left you. I know it’s too late. I know, but I wanted you to know anyway. That must seem ridiculous to you now. I feel ridiculous saying it; I didn’t set out to write that to you, but what the hell, why shouldn’t I just be honest? If I can be honest about not loving my dead son, I can be honest about loving you.
So many times I’ve told myself that it isn’t how you feel but what you do that counts. That’s so obvious really, but I’ve never been able to live like that. I move through life on the whim of my feelings, like a feather on the breeze or something. There have been times when I’ve thought that was how I enjoyed life, because I was free and nothing was tying me down. But then, and I know I’m pushing this metaphor beyond its limit, there’s nothing free about a feather. It’s a slave, pushed around wherever the wind takes it. It just looks free.
Look, don’t dwell on what I said too much. I’m telling you because I’ve got nothing to lose now. I’ve got nothing to gain either, but that’s life. It’s not all about getting resolutions and happy endings.
I’d better stop again I think. This isn’t going the way I thought it would.
Before I get to his death, I’ll tell you a story. It’s about Charlie, but of course it’s really about me. One day I’ll learn not to make everything about me, but right now I just want you to understand where I'm coming from.
When I was little I used to love science. I bet you didn’t even know that about me. I’ve hardly ever talked about it, but one of my earliest memories was of sitting on my Dad’s knee and watching as he tipped out a little glass tube of iron filings from a chemistry set onto the table. Then he got a magnet (though I didn’t see this at the time) and gently put it on the underside of the table, beneath the filings. I remember the iron filings suddenly standing to attention and marching around the table. And I remember him telling me that it wasn’t magic, but science that made them do that, and one day I’d find out why. There was a reason why unexpected things happened, you just had to find it. And so I guess I’ve loved science because of that memory, because I’ve always thought that science is really just men trying to work out the rule book for magic. I always wanted to be one of those men, but I never went to University and nothing came of it.
I hardly saw Charlie before he died. Anna and I were separated. It sounds awful, it is awful, but I was seeing a lot of Julie again, the woman I left you for, my first wife. I don’t know why she still wanted to see me. I don’t know why I wanted to see her. Mainly, she just seemed to want to call me up to scream at me. I think she has anger issues. We were already divorced, so I didn’t see why I was responsible for her life. To be honest, I didn’t see why I should have to be that responsible for anything. I was drinking, not as much as I later would, but fairly heavily and every night, and all I really cared about was being out at the bar, not thinking about my ex-wife again. My life with her was never going to work out – there was a lot of lust to start off with, but I don’t think either of us really liked each other. Not like you and me. I know I said I hated you sometimes, but I didn’t really. It just felt like I did.
Before Charlie died, I was thinking about anything but him and Anna. So when Anna called me up to baby-sit because she wanted to go out I wasn’t that interested. I had other things on my mind. Work was stressing me out and I had this feeling hanging over me that I was going to get fired. But she insisted, and so eventually I went. In the whole four years since he had been born this was the first time I’d been with Charlie on his own. I know that’s terrible, but Anna and I got together almost straight after Julie and my divorce and then suddenly she was pregnant. Of course I said I was happy at the time, Anna had no idea that I resented it, but I did. I resented having to take responsibility for something that was basically just a careless error. She said straight away she didn’t want an abortion and I was never going to argue with her. Part of me was excited about it too, part of me thought that this was what I needed. Maybe I could have become a better Dad if there had been more time.
It wasn’t like I had no interest in being a Dad, sometimes it was all I wanted to be. But at the same time I couldn’t help but feel it was an ambition to fulfil rather than something I already was. But I had my moments of really wanting it. By the time I’d got to the house that day I really wanted it, I’d bought him a present that I wanted him to see.
So I remember just being disappointed as soon as I arrived. Anna left and I remember just staring at Charlie, trying to work out what I should do with him. Look, I’m just trying to be honest here ok? I know I sound so heartless, but I didn’t know what to do with him. Half of the things he said didn’t make sense. And he would just sit on the sofa, in his little school uniform, and stare at the cartoons on the TV. He didn’t even look at me.
I walked over and turned the TV off at the mains.
“Daddy, no!” he was saying. “I’m waiting for (some children’s programme I can’t remember) I’ve been waiting for ages!”
“We’re going to do something else.” I said, trying to be firm, show him some authority. But no matter what I did he wouldn’t listen and he worked himself up into a huge tantrum that I had no idea how to deal with, so I just switched the TV back on and walked out the room.
I sat down at the kitchen table and pulled out the chemistry set that I’d bought him. Isn’t that stupid? To want to give a child your own memories. But it was what I wanted and he just wanted to watch some cheap cartoon. I pulled the cellophane off the box and opened it. Amongst other orange and yellow powders was a magnet and a little glass test tube of iron filings. I tipped the filings out, put the magnet under the table and watched the little metal pieces dance again. I don’t know how long I did that before I became aware that Charlie had come into the room. He was looking at me, his eyes still puffy, snot dripping down his face.
“Hi.” I said.
“You can’t be hungry. Your mum said you just ate.”
“Charlie,” I said, trying to change the subject. “Come here a minute.”
He walked towards me.
“Sit on my knee.” I said, secretly putting the magnet down next to me on the chair and lifting him on to my lap.
“What’s those?” he said, pointing at the filings.
“Those are tiny bits of metal.” I said. I picked up the magnet and quickly slid it underneath the table, making them jump suddenly.
“ooh,” said Charlie. I remember smiling.
I started to move the magnet again and made the filings march around. Charlie watched for a couple of seconds.
“I want to watch cartoons.” he said.
“You’ve just watched cartoons!” I said frustrated.
“Get off!” he said as I held him to my lap. “Get off!” He began to squeal.
I let go of him and he ran off.
“Charlie!” I shouted to him, knowing he wasn’t listening. “That’s not magic Charlie! That’s science!”
I guess it’s just an example of how things were, how I didn’t get him. I’m not saying he didn’t have potential, I just didn’t know where to begin to let it flourish, I couldn’t find the kernel.
I’m not saying I didn’t care about him, I did, but sometimes I think the sadness I felt about it was more like the sadness I feel when I hear about a child being killed on the news. The stupid thing is, if I ever see that on the news I just feel so sorry for the parents, as though the experience of having a dead child is something that I could never understand. I have no idea what they’re going through, and I’m sure they’re not like me, they wouldn’t feel about it like I do. I guess sometimes people who know about Charlie’s death must look at me, see my tattoo if I let them, and feel so sorry for me. I haven’t the heart to tell them the truth.
I just can’t help but think about what I could have been like if I hadn’t left you, if I hadn’t got involved with Julie. You were always so constant, never buffeted by the wind, keeping your head down, fighting through everything. Being caring, day after day. Look, I’m not pretending you were perfect, I’m not seeing it as though I’m looking through misty glass, I’m seeing it as it was, and it wasn’t great, but it could have been if only I’d have got myself sorted out sooner. Maybe I’d have loved Charlie more if he was your child, if he looked like us. I’m a fucking disgrace to think that, but maybe I could have.
I’ve got one more thing to tell you, I didn’t mean to go on for so long before getting to this, I didn’t intend for it to be the story’s great climax, but somehow It happened. I don’t need to tell you about my second marriage, there’s nothing to dwell on there. That was another one of my patented grab it while you can, feel it while it lasts moments, it’s not worth dwelling on. And the breakdown, if you can call it that, I don’t know what else to call it, but that’s not something I want to talk about too much. It was the result of the party, which was the result of Charlie and the quick disintegration of my second marriage. And it was just a point being reached where it couldn’t go any further without death, and some survival instinct in me just began to shut me down, made me stop functioning altogether until someone helped me out.
Isn’t it ridiculous that I call it the party? I’ve got to stop doing that. It was just six months or so of waking up in the morning and drinking, not caring, not answering my phone unless it was for something fun, of just trying too hard to enjoy myself, to feel something while not feeling anything. I guess I call it a party because I want to think of it as fun, or I want other people to think of it as a glamorous time, like John Lennon’s year and a half of drinking that he called his lost weekend. I only lasted six months, but it was enough for me. And it wasn’t glamorous, not by the end. I don’t need to dwell on it. I got out, and I’m grateful for that. I hope it’s forever.
So I guess the last thing to tell you about is how it happened, about how he died. I want you to know this. If I want you to understand, you’ll need to know. I’ll go for a walk now, try and work out how I want it to be.
How would they tell it in a story? I don't know if I can tell it calmly, or in the most effective way. I'll just tell it quick. I was babysitting for him again, it was maybe only the third or fourth time I’d done it. I wasn’t excited about it this time; I didn’t have any hope that I would be able to enthral him anymore, or plant anything in him that would last. He just wanted to watch cartoons again and I wasn’t going to try and stop him. So I just sat there with him, my fourth or fifth large gin in my hand, while he watched the same dull cartoons again and again. It was all he wanted to do.
Then Julie called. I’ve tried to think back to what she said to me so many times, but I can’t even remember. All I remember is that the next thing I knew she was shouting at me again, and I was feeling horrible that Charlie would be able to hear her voice from where he was sitting. I walked out and sat at the kitchen table.
I remember telling her that I couldn’t go over to her. But she just kept insisting, saying I had to. I know how weak this sounds. I remember telling her to hold on a second. I put the phone down on the kitchen table and went to look at him. I sound so stupid, I know you can’t leave a four year old, but I convinced myself I’d be gone for only half an hour. He probably wouldn’t even notice. He didn’t look up at me when I went in.
I walked back to the kitchen and picked up the phone.
“I’ll come over, but only for twenty minutes.” I said.
She responded in some way, it’s all a blur. I hung up and left the house. I got in my car and remember pausing after I’d put the key in the ignition. This might sound like an excuse, but I honestly don’t think I would have left him. I was just playing with the idea in my mind. Gin had loosened me up a bit and I wanted to be reckless. I wanted to leave, but I don’t think I would have done. Maybe I would. It all happened so quickly after that. I put the car into reverse and began to back out. Here’s the thing:
I hit my son with the car.
I just didn’t see him. He was too small, he was in my blind spot or something. It’s all a blur. I think I looked in my mirrors, I’m sure I did. I just remember feeling the bump. I can’t have hit him that hard. I probably did reverse out quite fast, I said I was feeling reckless, but still, the car had only just started moving. At first I didn’t know what it was. That first sight of him lying on the concrete drive, I’ll never forget that. He just looked so shocked.
“Christ. Charlie, are you ok?” I said, I think.
He didn’t say anything. It was like he was trying to, but he couldn’t. I remember his eyes being so wide open, just staring at me.
“I thought you were watching cartoons.” I said.
He wouldn’t say anything back.
“Can you get up?” I asked.
He just kept staring, his mouth half open, gawping at me. I remember his little white teeth and a line of saliva hanging between his lips.
I’ve tried to work out what he must have been thinking to come outside. He never showed any interest in what I did. Why did he suddenly care this time? He must have heard me shut the back door and followed me out. I don’t know why I didn’t think to lock it. If I was really going to leave I know I would have locked it. I was testing myself. I know how it sounds like I’m trying to justify it, but I honestly don’t think I really would have left. Think about how honest I’ve been already, doesn’t that prove I’m not trying to justify myself?
Then he began to get up. I just remember the relief. He was ok. I saw his head was bleeding then though; it was dripping through his hair on the right side of his head.
“Fuck. Charlie, are you ok?”
God he was small, are four year olds normally that small? He nodded his head and it just seemed unreal. But he was saying he was fine. He was standing up and nodding, showing he was fine.
“Let’s go inside ok?” I said.
He nodded again and I picked him up and went into the kitchen. I sat him down on the kitchen counter.
“Let’s take a look at that little bump.”
It didn’t look so bad, I couldn’t really see. There was too much hair in the way. I ran some hot water and tried to clean it off with a cloth. He breathed in suddenly when I did that, and I thought that was a good thing. That was how he was meant to respond, it was meant to hurt, and he was responding normally.
I cleaned it up as best I could, and when it had stopped bleeding it didn’t look that bad. His face was still so white.
“Do you want to go watch cartoons Charlie” I said. “Let’s go watch cartoons.”
He nodded and I picked him off the counter and we went into the living room.
He died while watching cartoons.
I remember waiting for the ambulance to arrive and knowing he was dead. Looking at him, and feeling nothing. I didn’t know that little boy, but I should have tried. It should have excited me that I didn’t know him. His life could have gone in so many directions, and I hadn't even cared.
I went into the room where all of Charlie’s things were kept. Anna had put the chemistry set on a high shelf out of Charlie’s reach. I pulled it down and took it into the living room where Charlie lay, still looking like he was watching television. I took out the tube of iron filings and tipped them into the box. I kept expecting Charlie to flinch, but he didn’t. I knew he was dead but I kept thinking he would move. I pulled back his hair and picked gently at the little scab that had begun to form. He started to bleed again. I collected some blood in the empty tube. It’s strange, I remember feeling so calm as I did all this, like I had worked out the answer.
I don’t suppose there’s much point in going on for longer. I know there are so many questions about how I acted and I can’t answer them all. I know I should have got him to a hospital sooner, but I didn’t realise how bad it was. And part of me was scared too; I wanted to pretend it hadn’t happened. For a little while as we watched television it seemed like it hadn’t. We were sitting in the same places as we had been in only twenty or so minutes before. How could so much have changed? But I was also scared about what I would be asked if I did call the ambulance. They would know I had been drinking. I didn’t want to call anyone until the alcohol in my blood had gone down.
I’ve never admitted that to anyone either Sugar. Even Anna doesn’t know I’d been drinking. And she doesn’t know why I was reversing the car. I told her I was just moving it and she believed me. I don’t know why. People do. You can lie to people all the time, and if they want to believe you they will. If they want to see the good in you, they will. I’ve taken advantage of that too much.
I said I’d emerged like a butterfly from a cocoon, and in some ways I was being truthful. I have changed since then, I haven’t drunk for months now, and I don’t think I will again. And the breakdown was a cocoon in a way. I guess a cocoon exists to give a caterpillar total protection, a way that it can change without being thrown about by the outside world. I needed that time. But I also know that I’m still the same person Sugar. I know I have to live with the consequences of what I did. And I also know that I'm not like a butterfly, because I’ve got to keep growing.
It's hard to know how to stop writing to you Sugar, but I've said all I wanted to say. By writing it down I've put some distance on it, and it's easier for me to treat it like a story sometimes. I don't know if I'm manipulating you, but I didn't know how else to tell it. Maybe it's ok to manipulate you. I'll never send this to you anyway.
There is no fitting ending. My son died before he should have died, before either of us were ready to grow. In the end I guess it's all about timing, and I've never been good at that. Maybe in a story they would end by talking about the test tube. I never look inside the chemistry set, but I keep it safe. Maybe one day scientists can use it to bring him back. When I see his name on my forearm I think of the millions and millions of microscopic kernels lying inside his blood. Maybe when the timing's right, when they've written the rule book for magic, they can become something more.