Only Seven Summers
The boy just wouldn’t stop crying and I didn’t know what to do. I say ‘boy’, but he was actually 20 years old with a full beard and receding hairline.
I’d just given him a ‘fail’ on his essay on Modernism vs Feminism in Mrs Dalloway in which he wrote rather eloquently on how having the lead character dress up as a woman was an interesting comment on both the emasculation of the father figure in the modern household and how the dual role of the main character was actually more post-modernism than modernism.
The tears started to pour when I informed the hirsute man child that his excellent essay was, in fact, about Mrs Doubtfire, the 1998 zany comedy starring the equally hirsute man child Robin Williams, and not the classic ‘modernist’ novel, Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Wolf.
As I was congratulating him on an essay that would have surely gotten a first in Modern American Studies, just not in Modernist English Literature, his crying seemed to take on a shrill tone. I panicked, as I do when faced with anyone in this much distressed, until I realized the change in tone was due to my phone ringing.
I’d not normally answer a phone during a student consultation, but given our film fan’s wailing it offered an easy way out of an awkward situation – and I am a huge fan of easy ways out.
However, this ‘easy way out’ lead to me also bursting into tears as my wife informed me that I was to be a father for the first time.
“Why are you crying?”, said the boy who was afraid of Virginia Wolf.
“I’m going to be a dad”, I said.
“Just like Mrs Doutbfire”, he said before letting out a huge wail and throwing his head into my chest.
As in the movies, we now cut to 15 years later. My boy, Elliott (after Elliott Ness not the boy from ET), is now starting to think seriously about the man he will soon become. Elliott, to me, was a normal 14 year old. He was good looking, if a little on the skinny side (like his dad) and, when not sulking or skulking, was funny and intelligent. He had a couple of ‘best friends’ at school and was a big lover of animals, So much so that he forced us to buy him a puppy for his 12th birthday. And how he loved his puppy, which was now a fully grown little dog – Dairy Milk brown with fur so fluffy that it made him look like a living, breathing teddy bear.
Eddie was the only family member that was allowed in Elliott’s room and the only one he’d actually talk to for any length of time. Linda often joked about putting a hidden camera on his collar. But we’d always insisted on trust in our relationships – and even the most expensive hidden cameras were too big.
It was a week before the summer holidays that it happened. As a lecturer, I knew how over excited kids got in the last week of term. Normal behaviour was suspended by the promise of summer and freedom from school.
We lived near the school, so Elliott would often pop home at lunch to take Eddie out for a walk. Sometimes his friends would join him, but on this day, the electric atmosphere of a pre-summer holiday school playground was too much for them, so he went alone. However, I’m sure he wasn’t sad to be alone – the day was as close to a perfect early summer’s day as you could imagine. The sun shone, a few clouds dotted the azure blue sky and Elliott was off to see his favourite being in the world.
There doesn’t appear to be any doubt about what happened. This was not Rashamon – the incident was seen, and not halted or prevented, by at least a dozen people – all with matching stories.
My son had taken Eddie out to the playing fields, which he strictly speaking wasn’t meant to do during school hours, but it seems he’d also been touched by the summer madness. I like to think he was using the little dog to pick up girls – but of course, Elliott would never admit this.
Elliott picked an open area and, finding a suitable sized stick, started playing fetch with Eddie. Eddie, as he often did when there were large groups of people around, got a bit confused and ran back to the wrong owner. Or maybe he’d smelled some soggy ham sandwiches in a packed lunch. Either way, it was quite a mistake on Eddie’s part, for he decided to jump on Darren Birch.
Every school has a Darren Birch. He was the ‘hardest’ boy in school. Not because he was physically strongest, but because he was willing, and eager, to fight anyone. It’s school kids logic – the most popular aren’t the cleverest or funniest, but the one’s the most girls fancy, and the ‘hardest’ aren’t the strongest or most physically able, but the one most feared.
He was a thin, lanky, spotty, 16 year old from a rough area of town with an abusive old brother and, apparently, a fear of dogs.
Now, as mentioned, Eddie was more soft toy than man killer, but as he leapt onto Birch’s shoulder from behind, the ‘hardest’ boy in school not only flinched, not only spilt his can of Coke, but also, most damningly, at least for Elliott, let out a girly, my-voice-is-going-through-some-weird-changes- shriek.
From here on, the story is predictable. I'd heard it when I was at school, and I'm sure you've heard similar stories. Darren kicked poor little Eddie away then stood, looking to reestablish himself as 'Hardest Boy at Conyers School 2012/13'. And the quickest way to do this was through Elliott – the boy who chose a puppy based on fluffiness levels, who couldn't watch the end of Hunger Games as it was too violent, who, up until that moment, was still boy, a child, an innocent.
What happened next is a blur for everyone who witnessed the event. But the facts, as laid out in the school incident log, in police report, to the hospital, are these – Darren kicked Eddie again, at which point Elliott stepped in, saying something – what, no one knows and to be honest it doesn't matter.
Then he went down.
A single punch sent my boy to the ground. Hopefully, unconscious as the descriptions of followed by people who say included words such as 'vicious', 'brutal', 'violent', 'bloody' and 'scary'.
“Not like in the films, but real, and scary”, said one bystander who failed to stop the attack.
Elliott suffered a broken jaw, fractured eye socket, two lost teeth, concussion, whip lash (Whip lash!) and...well, who knows what mental damage. And, as if to make sure my boy wouldn't forget this life changing moment, a signet ring worn by Birch tore a scar down his face. A permanent reminder that your life can be defined by someone as insignificant as a Darren Birch.
My first instinct was to move – far away. Out to the countryside, a small hamlet where boys got into scrapes with other boys that ended in black eyes and bloody knees. I could handle that – I'd even been in a fight when I was young. He hit me, I hit him back, we both went home crying to our parents and then were dragged back together to shake hands and apologize.
These thoughts and many more ran through my head as I sat in the hospital, or was it the dentist, or the plastic surgeons – white waiting room after white waiting room, all with 'good news' for me. 'Elliott has regained consciousness.' (Yay!) 'We should be able to fit a crown on the broken teeth'. (Whooppee!) 'The scar will only be half a centimetre wide.' (Yippee!) 'He'll be able to see again from his right eye in a week.' (What wonderful tidings you all bring!)
The next white waiting room was the worst. Worse than the police station where at least I could shout and scream and demand justice and 'Yes, we will be pressing charges', and dreams of Birch behind bars crying for his Daddy the way Elliott had cried as he'd regained consciousness. There was at least some small catharsis in the thoughts of legal action.
Our final white waiting room (for now) held no such outlet. We were waiting outside the headmaster's office. And we weren't alone.
On one side of the small, tungsten-bright room sat me and Linda – the very image of middle-class Britain. The Birches, depending on your channel choice, were either honest, hard-grafting, salt of the earth 'proper British' or Shameless-meets-Big Brother, shout you down scum of the earth.
Mr Thomas, the school’s headmaster, did most of the talking as we were too scared to say anything and the Birch’s either knew from experience to keep their mouths shut or were just too tired of making excuses for their ‘little tear away’ Darren.
In the end, it was decided that it would be best for ‘everyone involved’ if Darren finished the term early and then ‘chose’ to attend a different sixth form college after the summer holidays. So the school essentially just let him have a longer summer holiday and told someone who was definitely not going to come back anyway to not bother coming back. Excellent.
If I felt let down by the school, then it was nothing compared to the law enforcement. As it was Darren’s first offence, they thought community service would be the best. A summer working without pay, which was pretty much what I’d had planned for Elliott at my office, but which I would now have to scrap as he couldn’t see out of both eyes.
The inner Batman in me had been awoken. Someone should pay! The Times had told me these things always begin with the parents, but I couldn’t see past the face of Darren. In fact, the parents, despite my misgivings on first meeting them, were good people. A bit rough round the edges and they should have seen the signs, should have been more involved in their child’s upbringing. But they genuinely didn’t seem to realize how much of a shit their son had become, much the same way I was oblivious to Elliott’s hatred of football.
But it was Darren himself, the harbinger of early adult hood and the destroyer of youth, who was to blame for the severity of the attack. It was also him that would go bragging of the offence to his friends, of his ‘community service punishment’. I’m not too old and out of it to remember how playgrounds work, and while Darren would leave this particular one, his influence would not. And it would hangover my son’s head for years. It was the stuff of legends – I can hear the playground whispers now - “and after the attack, Darren was never seen again,” “My brother said he went to jail for life,”, “I saw him eat the other boy’s eye.”
I had to do something. Something to break the spell of Birch on the school.
When you’re a parent, you rarely get the chance to feel like you’re doing right by them. You’re either punishing them or being given the cold shoulder. You don’t feel like a father, not like in the films where they play ball in the yard or go on fishing trips together that would be remembered fondly in a voice over years later. You feel like a teacher – a live in teacher wanting the best for them but not knowing how to give it because you don’t know the 14 year old stood before you. But now I knew how to do the best for my boy. I would seek revenge on Darren Birch.
It was at our local shops that I saw him first. I stared at him for five minutes, watching him laughing and playing outside the shops – fag in one hand, iPhone in the other. Even his mates didn’t seem to like him, giggling nervously as he smacked them too hard on the arm. Though revenge was on my mind, I hadn’t formulated a plan. But I knew I’d have to leave the car soon before I passed out from the sticky, stifling heat rising from the black leather seats.
Outside, the summer sun dampened the sounds around me. All I could hear were a wood pigeon, lawn mower and some laughter. I stood and squinted, sun glasses still on the dashboard. The sounds mixed with the smells of cut grass and melting tarmac sent me back to my childhood days. A time of freedom and spontaneity. Trips to Trout Beck on our bikes, playing football in front of the girls, family BBQs that lasted past 10pm, ice cream being licked off my wrist. What would Elliott associate with summer? The smell of hospitals, the taste of blood, the sounds of his cheek bone breaking?
Some summers seemed to last forever, but even the best of us will only get around 80 of them. And only seven as a teenager. For all our days on earth, we have just seven true summers – when we’re old enough to have the freedom to enjoy them but not too old to have to work through the bright blue days. Elliot would now only have six. And five would be tainted with the memory of his missed summer.
This lovely welcome awoke me from the daydream. I’d been staring at Birch for a while and he’d just clocked me. I flushed, panicked. What do I do?
“What you looking at? You want this?”
He flashed his skinny white arse at me. His friends laughed – real laughter now that they knew they were on Darren’s side. This was my moment, and I blew it. Head down, eyes to the floor, straight into the shop.
“I knew you wanted it, you dirty perv. Come on, come and have it. I’ll let you in for a fiver.”
I tried to remain nonchalant but my legs stopped working. Birch seemed to get larger, the closer I got. He wasn’t quite the skinny little shit I thought he was, he must have been 5,10 maybe even…
Birch had punched/pushed me in the shoulder. Harder than I expected from someone not legally allowed to drink. Hard enough that I began to realize how terrifying it would have been to have that power come down on your face time and again. It spun me slightly. I faced him – less than a foot away. He starred me down – his fag breath making me want to vomit. Then he spat on me. A big, green splat across my chest. I wanted so much to hit him. But I couldn’t. I just walked away. Shamed, embarrassed but even more intent of revenge.
A gloom followed me for days after the event, like a summer sweat that no shower can get rid of. No one was told of the incident. I could hardly face Elliott having let him down again. After a day or two of soul searching, a conclusion was reached. I had decided I hadn’t let anyone down; in fact, I’d done the right thing. I hadn’t lowered myself to his level, but yet there was still a hollowness inside my soul. It was in need of something, but was it still revenge?
Elliott had to spend so much time with me and his mother while he healed that it reestablished our bond. But even after he had made an almost full recovery, with his new teeth, metal plate and healed scar, he still stayed indoors more than I would have liked, and when he went outside, he went alone. These long days with my son brought me great enjoyment, but I also felt he was losing his childhood. Maybe it goes after your first beat down. The skeleton figure of Birch loomed in the dark shadows. I’d decided that it was my job to remove him. Or at least, shine a light on his weaknesses.
Violence was not the way forward. I wasn’t a particularly violent man, and it’d make a martyr out of the very un-saintly Birch. My aim was to remove the perceived threat –remove his ‘aura’. As a teacher, I had an intimate knowledge of how schools worked, and spent much of my time forcing myself to not use this knowledge against annoying students. Now was the time to put this to use. In schools, it is just as easy to remove status as it is to gain it. And I knew just how to do it.
The idea came to me like all my great ideas at the park. The three musketeers that we myself, Elliott and Eddie, were on one of our rare outings. I’d guilted Elliot into, using Eddie’s sad dog eyes as my bait. How could he resist?
Elliot had been disappearing in the evenings, going off alone. We tried to keep him in, worried about getting into another fight, but he wouldn’t have it. Who were we to stop him from having his way a few times? The long nights meant that it didn’t get dark until near 10pm, so as long as he was back before then, it was okay – the things in the shadows couldn’t get him.
We’d gone out at what was our usual time before the attack. And on our usual dog walking route, full of sad singletons.
And then there was Wilf. Wilf was a likeable sort of chap, despite the fact that he came with two huge Dobermans. Elliott loved the dogs, but was a bit wary of their huge owner – maybe it was because Wilf was 6’5 with a head like a demolition ball on shoulders and neck to match. He was, without a doubt, a scary looking man. But, much like his dogs, he was all bark, no bite. A ‘former’ gangster, though many would question this ‘former’ tag but not to his rough as sandpaper face, it wasn’t clear to outsiders why he was talking to me, Mr Middle Class, can’t abide crime, voted Lid Dem. The reason, like so many other things in life, was football. Another reason that Elliott was keener on his dogs, Alf and Ramsey, than the football loving owner.
It was during this unlikely tableau – me and Wilf chatting like best buddies and Elliott and Eddie rolling around with two vicious looking Doberman – that my plan came together – A-Team style. This unlikely friendship provided me with the way to seek revenge.
And so it was agreed. Wilf, who was a big fan of Elliott’s even if the feeling wasn’t mutual, was on board right away. It was a simple plan, as all the best one’s are, and no one would get injured. Just a little de-pegging for Darren. Wilf’s role was simple. He was to play up to the rumours of his ‘connections’ and approach Darren with an ‘offer he couldn’t refuse’. Darren being the wannabe gangsta would jump at the chance to work his way up the crime ladder. All Darren had to do was look after something for Wilf. A package.
And did he take the bait. And did he, despite Wilf telling him to keep it on the low down, not tell all his friends that he was working for ‘Big Wilf’. Darren was nothing if not saddingly predictable. Wilf knew Darren’s type – not one to keep his mouth shut. So when our little Tony Montana arrived to collect ‘the package’ he was followed, not too subtly, by half a dozen more wannabes. We’d also organized out little drop off to take place at a well-known hang out point for the school kids. Under the railway bridge where the kids thought no one knew they’d be drinking their Bacardi Breezers and Diamond White.
My car, which I’m sure Darren wouldn’t recognise, sat at the end of the road leading to this dingy den. Wilf strolled past me, Alf and Ramsey in hand – for now. The consequences of being in debt to a definite gangster at this point were being hugely outweighed by my expectation of seeing Darren’s face drop when he saw the two ‘puppies’ . A silence fell over the group of semi-drunk kids as Wilf approach. Darren stepped forward, the boss man, and held his hard man grimace for all of two seconds, before he went white, then red, then started to shake. The car was parked too far away to hear what Wilf told Darren but he just nodded in reply, not daring to look directly at the dogs. I even saw Wilf give the dogs a bit of a kick to get them barking. Darren jumped a good foot back. My smile widen by the same amount.
Darren’s loyal crew, as crews who follow you not out of respect but out of fear do, backed away. As did the other ten or so kids out for a fun Friday night. Darren anxiously took hold of the leads, the two puppies from hell giving him a bit of a tug as Wilf turned, winked at me and left the scene. He was followed by most of the kids, not wanting to be any part of this episode in Darren’s life but all giggling as soon as they knew he couldn’t see them. These were the same kids that had stood and watched as he beat the innocence out of my son. But when they were at risk themselves, they abandoned ship like the rats they were.
With every plea Darren made for his friends to stay, I could feel my fatherhood returning – this felt right, in a very wrong way. Seeing Darren moved to actual tears by two Doberman felt like the right kind of revenge, even if it did still eave a bitter taste in my mouth. But doesn’t revenge always taste slightly bitter.
There was only slightly remorse as his friends and hangers on departed, one by one, until it was just him, two fierce looking dogs, and a couple of brave stragglers who wanted to see what would happen next. I looked across to the remaining kids, hoping they too would be sharing my joy. But they weren’t.
The first thing I noticed, before I actually noticed who I was looking at, was the look of concern on their faces. Concern for such a pathetic bully. It soon dawned on me that I was looking at my son. Elliott stood there, with friends and concern for the boy that scared him for life.
What was he doing here? This was the first thing to cross my mind. Was he drinking? Were those his friends? He never socialized anymore, never went out with mates…never went out with me. Because he was out with people his own age, doing things someone his age should be doing. Misbehaving. Maybe he hadn’t lost his childhood after all – maybe it was just me that had lost Elliott’s childhood.
As he walked over to his ‘nemesis’ and started stroking Alf and Ramsey I realized that he didn’t need me anymore. Not as the protective father anyway. And yet, all I could think was I wished everyone had stuck around to see my boy rise above the scum and the shit in the world and help out a bully – something no one had probably ever done for Darren before. I’m sure Elliott didn’t have the same thoughts as me on this subject.
Yes, the fight will stick with him, maybe rearing its ugly head later in life. When he has kids maybe. But as I watched Darren skulk back into the shadows as Elliott played with the dogs and laugh with his friends, real friends, I was happy that he still had his summer, that he still had his seven summers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Having started writing short films, Jonathan gained a small level of success in this field winning the NFB Canada Short Film Award at the Cannes Film Festival. He has since expanded his writing to include theatre, winning the Lost 5 Minute Festival, radio (Best Audio at Fringe Report Award) and, finally, short stories. His first story, Colours, was published in the Jam anthology by mardibooks