Authors: Barbara Doherty
The right of Barbara Doherty to be identified as author of this Work has been asserted by her in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
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For my darling Ross, for always believing in me.
HIS FATHER was calling from the bottom of the stairs. “Come down here, boy.
Underneath the blankets, in the tiny bedroom him and his sister shared, the voice sounded distant, disconnected almost.
Helena looked at him in the darkness of their hiding place and tried to smile, letting out a muffled sound which he knew wasn’t a giggle. They were not having fun but she was trying to make him feel better, like always, and he loved her for it. Having her here with him was enough, both of them breathing the same stifling air, their bodies wrapped and protected by the warmth of the blanket. At least for a few moments longer.
Helena was the only friend he had, the only person he could talk to, the only person who knew how to touch his face, how to touch his hands without hurting him.
They had been sharing a room for as long as he could remember and he knew it should have been normal for a 10-year-old boy to have his own space, to want his own privacy. But what was normal? Was his a normal life? Was Billy like everybody else? Was his family normal? Was everyone else scared of being at home?
In the last four years his family had moved three times, from Maine to Kentucky, from Kentucky to Ohio, and in every single one of the houses they had moved into there had been a spare room. “It could be yours, Billy,” his mother always told him. “You could have your own space.” But moving into the spare room would have meant giving up his sanity. This tiny room he shared with Helena was the only corner of the world where he felt safe, the only place where his father’s friends were not allowed. Occupying the spare room would give them access into his space all the time. There would be nowhere to hide.
“Boy, I said come down here!” His father shouted again.
Billy hated the sound of his father’s voice. He hated his face, his hands, his eyes. He hated his breath, that mixture of cigarettes and beer, undigested food and cologne. He hated being near him. He couldn’t remember ever loving him, but there must have been a time because he could clearly remember the day he started wishing he’d disappear forever —four years ago, a few days after his sixth birthday. His fingers had been picking the last piece of the birthday cake his mother had baked for him when his father walked into the kitchen, took his hand and led him into the spare room telling him he was big enough, telling him he was not a child anymore and that’s what big kids do,
they please their daddy, Billy, don’t think you’re the only one.
And now he hated him, for the betrayal, for the pain, for the humiliation, for not being like everybody else’s dad.
After his sixth birthday Billy had started having nightmares, visits from the dark by monsters with hard, horny hands and sickly smells. He had stopped playing, stopped drawing, stopped talking to his friends, stopped having friends altogether and started seeing the inside of the spare room more and more often, sometimes with his father, and then, more often, with other people and his younger sister.
“That’s it kid, I’m coming up now,” his father shouted and Billy jumped out of bed, flew out of the door and rushed all the way down the stairs. If he ran to him, Helena would be safe in bed. At least this once.
A thin man with brown hair and a mustache covering his upper lip was standing by his father. He was wearing a grey suit and a plain white shirt. There was a familiar, strange look in his eyes, something Billy had come to know as the
look. He knew it was
because somehow all the people his father brought into the house for business had that same look on their faces.
He wanted to push past them both and run out into the open air as far away as he could manage, but he could not move. He knew his father would make sure it wasn’t only his ass to hurt whenever he walked if he tried, but his whole body. The last time he had tried to run off he had ended up carrying scars and bruises on his back and legs for weeks.
And there was Helena. He had to protect her.
All he could do was walk off the last step and stand in front of the thin man in the grey suit, look down at his shiny black shoes.
He saw his mother out of the corner of his eye walking towards the kitchen door to shut it. Closing herself in the kitchen and gulping down alcohol was all his mother did whenever his father had people over for business. William had tried to hate her for her cowardice, but the look in her eyes made him think she was suffering just as much as he was; for some reason he couldn’t understand, she had chosen not to speak or protest. Billy guessed that his father would only punish her if she tried, hurt her as much as he could hurt everybody else, that he probably already had.
“Good boy.” His father passed a hand through Billy’s hair sending shivers down his spine. His fingers felt like giant worms crawling over his head. “Now, take my friend up to the room and stay there until I come and get you. Understood?”
He nodded in silence and started walking back upstairs. The thin man followed him up to the spare room, stretched his hand over Billy’s head to open the door.
The walls of the room were dark, a grim dark purple, completely different from the one before it. Blue, red, yellow, green, spare rooms never seemed to be the same colour.
He sat on the edge of the bed waiting, until the thin man finally spoke and asked him to take off his clothes and lay down on the bed. The voice sounded odd, too delicate and polite for a person who had just paid for an hour —half if he was lucky
— alone with him.
Billy took off his shorts and his t-shirt and taking off his underwear he started to cry; he was feeling cold, his whole body was covered in goose bumps, his ribcage sticking out from under his skin like the bones of his pelvis and the ones of his knees. He was a skinny ten-year-old kid, skinnier than any other kid he’d ever seen and he cried for that, too.
He laid on the bed as he was told, holding his arms around his torso, his eyes shut tight. He couldn’t see the thin man anymore but he could hear him unzipping his grey trousers, dumping them on the floor; he heard the change in his pockets jingle, heard him sitting on the chair by the foot of the bed, starting to play with the thing between his legs. He heard him breathing heavily and prayed God —
No, not God. God never listens to me
— that touching himself was all the thin man was planning on doing.
He tried to think of something else. Thinking helped him escape somewhere else while his body remained where he didn’t want to be. He thought about the day he would leave and take his sister with him; he’d take her to a big house where everything would be white and not dark, not purple, or yellow or red or green. A house with no doors so nobody could lock them in. A house with no spare rooms, no spare beds, no secret corners and no dark places. He thought about the day he would walk out free, him and his sister together. Forever. Far away from all the thin men of the world.
The man on the chair by the foot of the bed breathed louder, and louder, invaded Billy’s thoughts and he remembered there could be no freedom while his father was still around, Richard Blaise would allow no freedom in his house. And he remembered how much he hated him, how much he despised him, how much he wanted to hurt him and hurt him and hurt him and hurt him....
San Francisco, California
12 October 2000
A TELEVISION interview. Jesus Christ. Lights. Cameras. Hundreds of people watching, hundreds of people sitting in rows in front of her smiling, ready to clap, cheer, laugh. Jeer. Millions of people watching her all over the country. Christ.
Jessica Lynch sat on a red sofa at the ABC studios in San Francisco, opposite Sarah Tyler, the show’s host. Tyler’s talk show had just been voted the most successful of the year by
and she looked every inch the confident and successful professional in a copper suit that matched perfectly the colour of her eyes. Jessica watched as Tyler lifted her chin and brushed her strawberry blond hair away from her rounded face; watched as she crossed her legs and held up a copy of Jessica’s novel. She looked at the cover, at the dark silhouette swimming in muddy waters and wished for a second she’d agreed to a different image for the front.
Smiling into the camera with the red light on, Sarah gushed, “It’s been an extraordinary year for my next guest. Only a few months ago Jessica Lynch was an unknown 24-year-old from San Francisco, California. Then her novel,
Later Than Ever
, sold more than two million copies in less than five months. Critics have described it as the most truthful, realistic, mature and exciting work of fiction of the year. The author of this magnificent piece of work is the youngest writer ever signed by the Jefferson Company...” Sarah Tyler leaned towards her guest, the book now resting on her knees. “Jessica, welcome to the show.” The audience clapped for several seconds, prompted by the studio assistant. “So, what do you think’s made your novel so successful?”
Jessica coughed trying to clear her throat, trying to clear her thoughts, to relax, but it was impossible. Too many things were flashing through her mind: it had all happened too fast. The editor, the contract —not with any old publishing company, oh no, a contract with one of the biggest publishers in the country— and money, real money. She had braced herself for bad reviews to balance out her good fortune, but they had mostly been excellent, everybody loved her novel, everybody demanded a copy. Two million people whom she had never met or seen in her life had bought a copy of her novel, read it, talked about it... Two million... It meant no more freelance work, no more stupid pieces on chocolate cakes, crisps and kids drinks for the
, no more reviews of hideous B-movies for the
. No more forced writing. No more. Only what she wanted. Everything she wanted. Everything as she had always wanted it.
And she couldn’t think, she couldn’t breathe.
So she spoke in a rush. “What is it? Well, I wrote about something real. Alcoholism is real and it’s something most people can’t talk about because they’re too ashamed. I think that’s what makes my novel so popular. It helps. Reading about it might be the easiest way to ease the pain, a way to share.”
Jessica knew all about the pain, about the shame. She knew about love and hate battling like cat and dog, it was one of the things her father had taught her. He was the one she had written about, Stuart Lynch; his vices, his habits, the endless nights waiting for him to come back home, the anxiety, the fear and then the loath, the shame watching him stumbling through the door tripping on his own feet, the master bedroom door shutting and her mother shouting, sounds of things breaking. She had written about the smell of alcohol in the house, the pity she felt for him whenever she caught him crying for who he was, for the person he wasn’t strong enough to change, the pain she felt for him being a loser, because beating up his family was the only way he could communicate, because he only knew how to communicate through violence.
It was her father, he was the main character of her novel but she still found it hard to talk about, it was hard to share that with two million people. Writing about it was one thing, telling the world that your father was nothing but a drunken piece of shit was different. Kaitlyn had told her she didn’t have to. Nobody has to know how much of yourself there is in your novels, she’d said, nobody can get inside if you don’t let them in. Jessica had hugged her and told her she loved her. She knew she did, her big sister.
“I have to say,” Sarah Tyler continued from her leather armchair, “When I read the book I was taken back by mainly two things. The first is obviously the fact that the main character is not a woman as you might expect reading your name on the cover, but a man. And not only a man, but a violent alcoholic. Secondly, I just don’t think it’s everyday that you stumble across a 24-year-old that has the kind of... How can I put this? The kind of... Is it insight and awareness I should be talking about?”
“It depends on what you are asking. Are you asking me if the person I wrote about is anyone I know?”
Sarah Tyler smiled placing a hand on her arm. Her fingers were perfectly manicured, cream nail-varnish on her nails. “I guess I am, yes. Is he?”
“In many ways he is, in many others he’s not.”
“And how does someone your age, with your kind of background, master the self awareness you need to write the story you have written?”
Jessica smiled and for a second all the tension she was holding inside seemed to burst on her face, she felt her cheeks blush. “Through a lot of therapy... Like everyone else.”
Most of the audience clapped, someone laughed and she looked straight in the camera: her face was on millions of screens all over the country.
ACROSS THE city at the Windsor Hotel, Kaitlyn Lynch giggled. “Isn’t she beautiful?” she asked from the floor in front of the TV. “That’s my little sister on national television. I told her. Didn’t I tell her she was gonna make it? Just look at her, everybody’s gonna fall in love with her.”
Sitting on the bed behind her, Lisa nodded.
As the credits flashed across the screen, Kaitlyn looked back at her oldest friend and they smiled at each other.
Then the phone rang.