After an altercation with a young boy, carpenter Davey's fragile self-control starts to deteriorate; by Harrison Abbott.
It first happened hours later after the assault, that Friday afternoon. Davey's veins were still whirling with adrenaline when he spotted something unusual in his front garden. He walked outside and found a broad piece of paper, folded in two, with a brick holding it down. When he unfolded the paper, it had the word 'LICK' written across it. Looked like a child had scrawled the letters with a red crayon. He put it in the bin.
The next morning, Davey found his wife standing before the front door. She was holding a letter, reading it with a puzzled expression.
"What's this, Davey?"
He took it. 'LICK' was written across an A4 sheet of paper about 50 times, in meticulous handwriting. The envelope was blank. Davey crushed it up quickly and said:
"I don't know, Michelle. Just some stupid letter."
Davey didn't really begin to think seriously about things until the following Monday morning. This was after he'd told his friend on the Sunday about how he'd attacked the high-school kid. They were playing golf. He was so excited about telling the story that he lost concentration on the game as he played. He couldn't tell whether his friend was impressed. The latter only lifted his eyebrows, and then said:
"So, then what happened?"
"Nothing happened. The window wasn't broken, so I didn't have to get it fixed."
On the Monday morning, Davey got called into his boss' office at work. The boss told him that a phone message had been left on the company's office line, which was addressed to Davey specifically.
"Do you know what this is, David?"
And the Boss played him the message, which sounded like it was recorded underwater.
"Lick. Lick. Lick," an anonymous man's voice read the word out repeatedly in a monosyllabic loop.
"It goes on for about two minutes like this," the Boss said, "and then, here - listen - at the end."
"David McPherson. Foul. Foul man."
"I don't know why this has ended up here, David: do you know why it has?"
He waited for an answer. Davey was embarrassed. He couldn't just dismiss it in front of his boss. So, he apologised, and said it must've been someone playing a prank on him - probably somebody from the pub. His boss said he didn't want it to happen again. Davey saw him shake his head as he left the office.
That Monday he had a job to do, so he could focus his mind on that. It was plastering and carpentry at a house across the city. The lady of the house was at home and she let him work alone, occasionally bringing him cups of coffee. Her smiles reassured him. She was listening to the radio in the kitchen whilst he worked in the hallway. When the news came on he overheard a report saying that a giant asteroid was on its way to hit planet Earth. The newsman said there was a one-in-two-million chance of this happening, and that if it did then it might mean the end of humanity. Davey smirked a little, and continued plastering.
Monday passed, then Tuesday, Wednesday. On Thursday night Davey hosted a party at his house for his son's birthday. Many neighbours arrived and they all enjoyed the night, and all liked Davey's family. His son had reached eleven years of age. The guests doted over the overweight cat they had, and the white fluffy little dog that couldn't bark. Davey presented the workings of his new garden conservatory with pride. It wasn't finished yet but it would be soon. He enjoyed the company of Michelle's lady-friends; it was powerful to mingle within the buzz of people. Throughout the night, he hadn't once thought about the word 'Lick'.
Davey had the next morning off work. His hangover was too dense to sit through, so he began drinking more beers from the fridge. It was another sunny day: almost one week since he had hit the kid.
Time lolloped to mid-day, when the high-school kids were milling home on their lunchbreak. Davey began to feel their creeping presence. Little pubescent shapes with scrawny limps walking near his lawn. It didn't seem fair he should be inside his messy living room whilst they were enjoying the sun. So he took his beer out onto his porch and sat drinking. The children didn't notice him much, even after he took his t-shirt off. His stomach protruded in an oval - not quiet overweight - but large and hairy. He noticed that when some kids passed, they grew quiet. Once, one kid eyed Davey. Davey dealt the glare back, and won: the kid looked elsewhere immediately. Life was rosy; Davey napped in the heat.
The telephone ringing from back inside the house broke his peace. When he answered, a lady's voice responded in a muffled tone.
"We know that you're avoiding tax on your work fees. We know that you don't record your jobs on the books."
"Who is this?"
Suddenly a sound of collective laughter rushed through the earpiece, like a laugh-track in a sitcom. He wanted to put the phone down, but then a man's voice spoke; again the words were distorted and surreal:
"You must start putting the records on the books, and pay your taxes."
"But they are on the books! Is this a scam?"
Davey knew it wasn't a scam. The claim the voice made was true: he illegally avoided paying tax on many of his jobs. But who had discovered him?
"If you keep doing it, we'll call the police next Friday at noon."
"But, just wait!"
The line went dead.
Davey's drunkenness overturned. The sunshine outside now seemed threatening, exposing him. He went and closed his front door and put his t-shirt back on, then stood in the hallway, thinking. This was serious: he knew it. If his boss found out he was evading tax, he'd get fired. His boss might even tell the police, and if that happened, well... 'What would Michelle think if I got arrested!" He came close to hyperventilating as these thoughts rained.
'But, no, just wait a minute. There's a way to fix this.' He just needed to show his fee papers down at the Council building. He acted quickly and angrily, finding his work jacket where he had the receipts from the house he'd worked on earlier in the week. They were all there. He put his boots on and left his house to drive into town.
As he got into his van, the thought struck him: 'How am I supposed to hide my employment history from the Council?' He was sweating. 'They'll know I've been avoiding previous payments...' But there seemed like nothing else to do. Even if this threat wasn't real, he had to follow the demands. He could find out who it was phoning him later. He drove out through his neighbourhood.
When he reached the main road, there was another gaggle of schoolkids coming back from their lunch. They were crossing the road as Davey approached, hindering his way. They hadn't pressed the traffic lights button, jaywalking slowly across, blocking his momentum. At first, he paused, clenching his jaws, watching them. The girls were clad in make-up and hadn't yet grown breasts; the boys fondled them and skipped about, hyper on sugar. Davey snapped, and slammed his horn down. Some of the kids jumped, but they all stared through the window to scrutinise the driver. He tried to look scary, but his face twitched.
After they reached the pavement, one boy threw sweets at the van, and the kids laughed. Davey flinched at the scatter of noise. He wanted to run them over with his van, or at least chase them away. But he had to get into town, so drove off speedily.
He didn't usually drive drunk. It was tricky. It would be disastrous to crash his van. A wicked thirst made it worse. And as he got further into town, he passed a police car. He was sure the policemen were watching him, and their eyes terrified him. But nothing happened, and eventually he parked near the main Council hall.
Once there, he approached the Council workers as calmly as he could. The man behind the counter studied Davey as he asked for the tax forms. Davey completed the forms there in the hall. When he handed them back to the counterman, the latter paused as he scanned the papers, and frowned.
"How long have you been a builder Mr McPherson?"
"Oh, about 20 years."
"Right... Well, have you only just started working for this company?"
Davey tapped his feet. Lying like this was difficult; he hadn't needed to lie in this way before.
"Okay, you need to get your employer to sign this these forms too, and then bring them back here."
"Ask my boss to sign them?"
Davey walked away slowly, and left the Council hall. He sat in his van, pondering what to do. Obviously, he couldn't ask his boss to sign the forms. Dehydration was beginning to madden him. 'I'll just have to forge his name,' he decided, 'I can do that.'
He drove home, and practiced writing his boss' name in signature style. He drank a few pints of water to ease his physiology, and then a few sips of whiskey to ease it further. The forge on each form looked authentic. To be sensible, he took the bus back into town. Luckily when he got to the Council hall again, there was a different worker at the counter, and the forms were accepted. It was late afternoon when Davey got back home.
'This is all so strange,' he thought, sitting quietly in his house. Davey was 44. He must be losing sense if he was worrying about being arrested at his age. Why was he even listening to weird phone calls?
He kept trying to guess who it could be; who was doing these things? Did Davey have any enemies? He considered the rival engineer team, who had their office on the same street as Davey's company did. One time, Davey rolled his window down and jeered at them as drove past their office with a friend. It angered them, and they stuck their middle fingers up. But Davey only did it to make his friend laugh... It was just a bit of banter.
He couldn't stop thinking about it all until Michelle got home that evening.
"Have you been drinking today again, Hon?" was the first thing she said to him.
"No, no. Just hungover from last night."
He wanted to tell his wife everything. But he had to trap it in. Besides, which bits could he feasibly tell her? Their relationship was one of lopsided control; Davey was the man - the traditional male who directed his woman, and Michelle was fine with that dynamic. The only times she controlled Davey was when she pampered him; when she wrapped a scarf around him, for instance; when she asked him for a cup of tea and he obeyed. She liked flattering him, liked how big and professional he was. No, Davey had to keep the last week's events secret from her. He continued drinking that night until he fell asleep.
Davey had left high school at sixteen years. He'd built himself up in life since then. Everything he had was acquired through individual effort. The fact that his house was the largest in his neighbourhood was down to David McPherson's graft.
His father had been physically rough to him and his elder brother when they were children. Davey didn't speak to his brother nowadays, and had dropped contact with his father long before he died. But apart from those various flashes of corporal punishment, there was no drama in his history. To his own son, he wasn't rough physically. He knew how to protect his family, guide them right.
That weekend passed without incident. When the next week came, Davey had three more jobs. He made sure to record all of them on the books. By each one, he knew he was losing drafts of money. He became irritable because of it. He needed the extra money to pay for his new conservatory. Why did he have to do this? How could the person on the phone threaten him? What evidence did they really have?
He went down to the pub on the Monday night, and found himself there again the next night, and then the next. He didn't usually drink on weeknights. The percentages of alcohol accumulated across each day; by the Thursday night he couldn't control himself. He felt inclined to tell his story to somebody new. Not all of it: just the part where he hit the boy in the face. It was late, and the bar was mostly empty. Davey was talking to an older man he didn't know well.
The story wasn't exactly a story. It didn't last very long. The old man listened, chuckling at first, and then stopped when Davey retold the violent climax.
"But how old was the kid?" the man said.
"I've no idea."
"Who was he, though?"
"Don't know. Just some little tyke."
The old man shrugged. Davey wanted him to say more, but the old man didn't. He finished his pint and left Davey in the pub.
He had another day off work when Friday arrived. He awoke with a lethal headache. It was a struggle to lift himself up to go to the toilet. As he urinated dizzily, he realised that Michelle had left the window open again: an annoying habit of hers he'd asked her not to do many times! He shouted at her downstairs for half a minute, and then remembered he was in the house alone. As he went to slam the window shut, something unusual caught his sight from the back-garden below.
Things were attached to the clothes-lines. But not clothes. They were small, flapping lightly in the breeze; he couldn't identify what they were from the window.
Davey put a dressing gown on and went into the garden. Attached to the clothesline by pegs were little cards of paper. There were no pegs left in the basket. On each card, the word 'LICK' was written in pen ink, the letters multi-coloured.
Davey jumped, and spun around. The neighbours' windows overlooked his yard. Had they seen this? He began yanking the cards free, thrusting them into his pockets. There were so many pegged up that he became frenzied, crushing them up, trying to delete the word from his mind. He took them all back inside into his kitchen. He took a soup pot and stuffed the cards into it, and then slowly lit fire to the cards with matches. The cards began to crumple and writhe like spiders as smoke filled the room. He watched over the burning pot with a crazed face.
The smoke detector began screaming above him. Davey took the pot over to the sink and gushed its contents under the tap. He opened the kitchen windows, spluttering in the acrid air. Standing on a chair, he ripped the batteries out of the smoke alarm.
When the air had cleared, he returned to the pot. Most of the cards were sooty slush. He drained the water, and put the sodden paper into a plastic bag, which he wrapped. Then took this outside to the big waste bins at the front of the house. He hid the bag in between two larger black bags, so the bin men wouldn't be able to see it.
Davey wiped his hands on his dressing gown and looked around. It was a meek, grey day. His chin was sharp with stubble. Old alcohol ran in his sweat. His mind couldn't decide which emotion it should exercise. What would the neighbours think if they saw him like this: half-naked in his front garden?
He was looking up the road one way, when suddenly a person appeared from the other side, only meters away from him. He got a fright. It was a boy, walking by his lawn. The boy wore a backpack and smart shoes.
Davey stared. He couldn't believe it. 'That's him!' he realised. 'That's the same boy! The one who kicked the football at my window two weeks ago!' Davey was convinced; the boy had the same cheekbones, and light-brown hair. 'It's him who's been leaving notes in my garden!"
"You!" Davey shouted at him. The boy glanced to him with a start. Davey began moving towards him. "You - you little cunt!"
'Cunt' was the same word he'd used on this boy a fortnight ago. Davey had found his nemesis again; he chased after him.
The boy tried to flee as Davey pelted over. Davey's dressing gown belt became undone, and his torso and legs became bare to the wind. He caught hold of the boy's bag, and pulled him up by the straps, suspending him in mid-air. Davey's strength was ludicrous.
"You little cunt: you stop leaving notes in my garden!"
Davey let him down and then clasped the boy's skull in both hands and squeezed it together.
"Aieee!" the boy cried, and then released a flurry of words in a foreign language Davey couldn't understand.
Davey let him go. The boy was tiny. He wasn't wearing a school uniform. He turned and ran away back down the road, whimpering, until he disappeared down the alleyway at the end of the street.
Something began to ooze across Davey, as well as the cold air which goose-bumped his skin.
'That was definitely the same kid, right?' he told himself. Davey was standing in the middle of the road. The neighbourhood was cast in plain daylight; had anyone seen what had just happened? He had to get out of the open.
He fastened his dressing gown and returned inside his house. The smell of burning was rancid in the kitchen, but he shut the windows anyway. He went upstairs quickly, and got fully dressed. He figured brushing his teeth would help. His fingers had the same burnt-paper scent as he washed his face. Made him feel sick. There was no pleasant tingling in his bloodstream, now; it was a much different type of adrenaline. He had to get out the house. "I'll just head into town in my van," he said to himself. He put some aftershave on and undid the top button on his shirt.
He'd just gotten his coat and found his van keys, when the front doorbell rang. As he descended the stairs, he saw two people standing behind the door's stained windows. Could Davey just not answer the door? Pretend he wasn't in? But, no: this was his house. He wiped his forehead, and opened the door slowly.
There was a lady standing there who he'd never seen before. She had dark eyes and hair, and held the hand of the boy who Davey had attacked ten minutes earlier. The boy hid around the back of her legs, watching him.
"You hurt my son!" the lady said to Davey. "Why did you hurt my son?"
Davey was paralysed. The woman's vehemence was ripe. He needed to remove her; he imagined lashing out at her violently. But she domineered him in his own doorway.
"I should call the police on you!" She had a Spanish accent, with a loud, leathery tone.
Davey then spotted his neighbour who lived in the house opposite his. The neighbour was standing outside, paused by his car, watching this woman bark at Davey's door.
"My little boy is on holiday here," she continued, "I let him go up to the shops on his own, and he runs home to me crying! He says you came and grabbed him and hurt him for no reason!"
Davey looked over to his neighbour, expecting him to intervene. Surely his neighbour would think this random, foreign lady was crazy. But he just stood still and watching as the woman kept shouting.
When Davey looked down at the Spanish boy, he didn't see any fear in his face. The boy only clamped tight to his mother's hand.