The Theory of Demons (IP)
The table crashed over and the dinner service, including laden tureens and the brimming gravy boat, smashed into the wall, the radiator, and the corner of the sideboard. For a moment they all stood, watching, as food and bits of china cascaded onto the carpet. Then he said, ‘Well. That’s that then,’ and walked out of the dining room. A few seconds later they heard the front door click behind him.
His mother and sister were left in the room, looking at the remains of what had been a nice dinner, a special roast. The little girl, who was seven, started to cry. The mother tried to control her own trembling hands sufficiently to place them reassuringly on her child’s arms, to smooth the child’s hair, to hold her with sufficient presence so that the child, at least, would believe there was a way back from this.
‘It’s all right,’ the mother lied. ‘It’ll be all right. You know how he gets.’
It was hours before the mother could begin to clear up the mess, because the child did not want to be left unattended. Also, the child was hungry. They had had the lightest of lunches in anticipation of the evening’s nice dinner. The mother made the child beans on toast, and sat with her on the settee, in front of the television, cuddling her while she spooned up the beans, each mouthful a reminder of what she was not eating.
‘Where’s he gone?’ the child asked.
‘For a walk, I expect. That’s a good thing to do, when you’re angry. Get it out of your system. It’ll be all right when he gets back.’ But it’s been a couple of hours now. Where has he gone? Where does a seventeen year old boy with a raging fury go? What might he do, to himself or someone else? And at the same time, she did not want him to come back before she had cleared it away, cleared away the evidence of her catastrophic failure as a mother.
‘Why is he angry?’
‘Oh darling, it’s complicated. He’s a complicated boy, your brother.’
‘He smashed the best plates.’
‘What’ll we do at Christmas?’
Half laughing, half weeping, the mother said, ‘We’ll get lovely new plates for Christmas. You can help me choose.’
Evening darkened into night. Eventually the child was persuaded to go to bed, and eventually, dark eyed with exhaustion, to sleep. The mother went back downstairs and turned on the radio, listening to an arts discussion, a political analysis, anything that would not touch her emotion. Not music. Music was too dangerous.
It took hours. She collected fragments, she wiped up food, she scrubbed walls and carpet. She could not get rid of it all. The carpet and wallpaper were both stained, and the smell of the food clung to both. She did not want to open the French windows into the darkness. That would have to wait until daylight.
And he had not returned. The darkness was now that of early morning rather than late night, and still he had not returned. She was shaking again, with her own exhaustion and now with increasing fear. They lived in a city with a river and a main railway line. Now she hated herself for not wanting him back before she had cleaned. For sacrificing him to the darkness so that she could recover a little of her own light. What kind of a mother was she?
The police, or the hospital? Who should she ring first? It wasn’t like when she was young, and her parents had home phone numbers for her friends’ houses. Now she relied on his mobile. She had no idea of any other numbers. And what would she say? ‘Have you seen him? Yes. He walked out of the house after overturning a table full of food. I don’t know. I do know. I told him off because he was late coming to the table, despite me calling and calling, and I’d spent hours cooking and it was meant to be a special meal because things haven’t been easy with him lately and I wanted to show him…we could still be all right. As a family. We are still all right. But we’re not. We’re broken, and I don’t know where he is or if he’s ever coming back. Have you seen him? Please, have you seen him?’
She supposed she should call the police. She should tell them, he’s not right. He’s…volatile. He always has been. Never laid a finger on any of us but things, stuff, the furniture, our belongings…that’s different. Never his sister’s stuff, though. Always mine. Or the house stuff. Clothes ripped. Doors punched. The television, the one we had before. I’ve sometimes thought he would, one day, you know, with me…when he shoves his face in mine, when he bellows so hard I feel his spit on my face, when his cheeks go so deep red they’re almost purple and his knuckles so tight the skin is blanched…but he never has. It’s always the stuff. The house.
And they would ask why.
She had thought it through, over and over again. He was a beautiful child. More beautiful, if she was honest, than the little girl. Golden hair. Large, clear eyes. A sweet, eager face. He was bright, too. One of the brightest, the teachers always said so, from Reception on. Still one of the brightest but now, they said, difficult.
He started to get into fights in the last couple of years at primary school. Was that where it started, and was that where she should have made sure it ended? Presumably not, presumably it started before that and the fights were the symptom, not the cause. It was never that bad, though. Nothing that boys will be boys couldn’t explain away. She’d been quite relieved in a way, because as a little boy he’d been dreamy and too trusting and open for his own good. He’d been the victim in those early days, come running back crying a few times, unable to handle what hardier souls could dish out. Maybe that was where she should have stepped in, been down the school complaining like some mothers did, saying that everyone was unfair on their child. But she hadn’t done that. She’d thought, it was important for him to learn to cope. She wouldn’t always be there. Teachers wouldn’t always be there. He had to learn, work out his own strategies. A good lesson for life.
He’d had friends. Lots of friends. He was part of a pack, and he had a couple of special friends. She’d seen no cause to worry. And the fights died down towards the end of his first year in secondary school. He’d found his way, it seemed. He didn’t need all that any more.
But that was when it started at home.
Moody adolescents. All the same. Especially boys. All those hormones. You expect flare ups. She remembered her bewilderment when she first found her clothes slashed. Staring, bemused, trying to work it out. Who had been there? Who had done this? Knowing it was not the little girl, and refusing to believe, until she had to accept: no-one else had been there.
He denied it, of course, and that was the first time he shoved his face into hers and she felt his spit on her cheek. She threw away the clothes, replaced what she could afford, never told anyone. And lay in her bed, awake, listening, wondering…if he could do that to the clothes…
But he never touched her, or the little girl.
She thought, sometimes the neighbours must hear, when he’s screaming at me, or punching the walls, or pulling a door half off its frame. But no-one ever said anything. She always had a story ready, just in case. A television programme, a friend of his who’d been round and caused trouble and been sent packing. She had it all ready.
She used to tell the little girl to go to her room when he started getting irritable, when the signs started building. When it was over, she would soothe the child, and say, ‘It’s just the way he is. And he’s lovely really. We know that. Do you remember how he used to play hide and seek with you and pretend not to find you for ages? You used to laugh so much, and think you were so clever, and he used to tell you how smart you were? Remember? He’s your lovely brother and he’s just being a teenager, and we don’t want him to get into any trouble, do we? He’d be really ashamed of himself if anyone knew. No need to do that to him. No need for anyone else to know.’
She carried the remains of her smashed crockery, wrapped in newspaper and packed into carrier bags, out to the bin. She looked up and down the neat suburban road. No sign of him.
She sat on the settee, hunched, writhing, aching, weeping. Just come back. Just come back. We’ll work it out. It’ll be all right. Just come back. Whatever you’re angry about, whoever you’re angry with. What do they call it? Displacement theory? You’re angry at us because it’s safer to be angry with us than with whoever it’s really about. It’s crap for us but we can take it. We can help you find out who it’s really about. We know you won’t hurt us.
And then the mother thought, my clothes instead of me. My plates instead of me. My house instead of me.
As she heard the front door click open, she couldn’t help wondering, how strong is that displacement effect? And how much longer would her son, her beautiful, bright, difficult, dangerous son, have enough love left to cling on to it, and protect her from himself?
And what, what had she done?