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Edward Herring

I was ten, I was Timothy, Timmy and Tim. People always seemed to know what name I ought to go by. They knew better than I did. Though I never corrected them. No, I received these names as I did everything back then, with meek, abashed, knock-kneed acquiescence.

At school during that year, I was sent to a child counsellor, a young woman called Jane. Jane worked in a small neat room near the headmaster’s office. Her office had a table and two chairs, a play-mat, two beanbags and a box of tissues on her desk. Jane was always so kind to me, though I never knew why. Perhaps it was because my parents were getting a divorce. Perhaps she knew the other boys bullied me, called me all sorts of names I’d prefer not to recall. Perhaps she was just nice. I never asked.

‘How are you feeling today, Tim?’ she inquired when we first met. She had curly auburn hair and cheeks like little apples.

I didn’t say anything. We sat in silence for a while.

Jane waited for my reply with a broad, encouraging grin.

I wrung my hands. ‘Sorry,’ I muttered.



After he left my mother and moved out of the house, my father started renting an unfurnished flat beside an industrial estate.

The flat was empty, spare, dirty-white. There were outlines of wardrobes and credenzas on the walls where former occupants’ furniture used to stand. There were boxes everywhere with mike’s things written on them, all in my mother’s handwriting. The living room was completely bare, just a modem and some wires in one corner, and a pair of camping chairs set up in front of an old desktop screen that he’d mounted on a plastic box to look like a TV. The box was full of important documents, legal forms, his passport.

‘Don’t touch that!’ he’d scolded me once when I stepped on a pink piece of paper in the middle of the floor. ‘That’s important.’ It was his birth certificate.

My father didn’t own a table, and when I visited we usually ate pizza cross-legged on the carpet, or standing at the kitchen counter, or in a booth in El Señor, the improbable Tex-Mex restaurant we frequented across the street. ‘Pizza tonight?’ he’d say, like it was a special event. ‘My treat,’ he assured me. He didn’t have anything to cook with, no pans or pots, just one fork, one plastic teaspoon, two knives and a secondhand microwave he’d bought from a local charity shop, encrusted on the inside with an exploded, unknown sauce.

The flat had a vague bleachy smell to it. It got no light. You could hear trucks unload outside at four in the morning. I found a dead mouse in a bathroom drawer once. I found a note scrawled inside my closet door that read gloryhole happy action with a phone number and a winky face. When I asked my father what this meant, he said, ‘Don’t worry. I won’t be here for long.’

That was four months in.

My father wasn’t poor, he worked at an accountancy firm, but he didn’t like spending money. It had been a common feature of my parents’ marriage: my father’s refusal to pay for certain things, my mother’s exasperation at him. He was a nest of contradictions when it came to our finances. They’d spent a lot of money to send me to my school, a day prep called Beadledale House, but when my father saw how much the uniform cost, he called up and accused them of ‘daylight robbery.’ Now he was single, he said, he didn’t have to waste cash on things like sofas and dressers and side tables and beds.

‘Who needs a bed?’ he said one night. He was drinking beer out of an old dirty pickle jar. ‘In most cultures people sleep on the floor.’

‘They do?’ I asked.

‘Of course. All except ours.’ He waved his hand about. ‘Beds are overrated.’

He’d only found me a bed for my weekend visits after seeing it posted online, on a community forum website. The posting read: ‘Free single bed. Mattress badly stained. Pre 1988 Fire Act.’ When he asked me how it was after the first night I slept in it, I told him it felt great, when in fact it was lumpy and uncomfortable and the linen itched.

His own bed wasn’t a bed at all, just a sleeping bag curled across three futon cushions in the corner of his room. He started getting chronic back spasms from sleeping like that. He’d hobble about the flat, or stand in weird sigmoidal shapes, like his spine had curved horribly overnight. ‘I slept so well!’ he’d declare each morning, then wince. One day he bent down to grab a document from the TV box, only to gasp and clutch his lower back, and grimace in agony and fall to his knees.

‘I’m fine!’ he laughed, his smile a rictus grin of pain.

The next time it happened he had to take a fortnight off work.

The doctor told him he needed a proper mattress to sleep on, and for a while he refused and kept insisting he was fine. ‘Doctors don’t know that much,’ he said, driving me home one Sunday afternoon. He was hunched over the wheel, his posture crooked and strange.

‘Are you meant to be driving?’ I asked. ‘I thought the doctor said . . .’

‘They say lots of things,’ he interrupted. ‘You’ll see when you’re older. Never be diddled by a doctor, Timmy. Never be diddled by anyone. You hear?’

‘There’s nothing worse in this world than being diddled,’ he added.

‘Diddled’ was a word he used a lot. I wasn’t sure what it meant.



Whenever I became tongue-tied during my sessions with Jane, she suggested I draw instead of talk. Sometimes I’d come into her consulting room, and there would already be pens and white printer paper set out. At first I just sat there, unsure of how to start. I even asked her what I should do, hands fidgeting on my lap.

‘Just draw whatever comes to mind,’ Jane offered in a soothing voice. She wore a navy blue pinafore dress and had freckles across her cheeks. When I sat up close to her, I noticed her skin smelled of orange blossom.

After two sessions like this, I finally felt comfortable enough to try. I took the least colourful pen I could find in the pack – grey, black – and made small, faint lines in the corner of the page. Soon these scribbles grew into full-scale pictures. I didn’t plan what to draw, it just came out. My drawings were crude, filled with spindly little stick figures, and were often unintentionally violent or bleak. One of them was of a house on fire. There were faces in the windows, screaming to get out.

‘Wonderful,’ Jane said. She smiled. ‘So . . . expressive.’

‘You have a lot of natural talent,’ she added, though when she said it I didn’t believe her.



My mother and I still lived in our old house at that time. It was a detached four-bedroom home in a suburb called The Cinnamons, with a large neat lawn, a sloped driveway and a swing set out the back. It was very clean inside, cream, with dark polished wood-finish floors. All around the house were old pictures of the three of us, my mother and father and me, at the beach near Rye, on holiday in Avignon. My father stared out of these images, smiling like a ghost.

‘Your father’s so stubborn about things,’ my mother complained one night during dinner. It had been months since their separation. ‘If he gets an idea in his head, well, good luck trying to dislodge it.’ She sang the words sarcastically and poured herself another glass of wine.

My mother complained about their marriage to me a lot. My father was ‘boring’, ‘mean’, ‘stiff’, ‘infuriating’. He was (I didn’t know what it meant) ‘anally retentive’. She’d walk around the house, idly running her finger along surfaces, pointing out ‘the real story’ behind this or that object. ‘Your father didn’t want me to buy this,’ she’d confide, picking up a crystal vase. ‘But it’s beautiful, don’t you think?’

She told me about the time he fell asleep on their wedding night, the time he got into an argument with one of her friends on her birthday and made the friend cry, the time he trapped her hand in a car door by accident, then blamed her for it, the time he bought her a pair of kitchen tongs for Christmas and nothing else.

‘Though the next year, he did get me this . . .’ she admitted, fondling her necklace. She looked lost in memories for a moment, her eyes watering as she stared. Then suddenly she clutched her mouth and started crying.

(She usually ended up like this. She’d repent everything, the separation, the divorce, and start talking about trying to get back together with my father. ‘Maybe I should call him?’ she asked me once, even picking up the landline, her fingers hovering over the keypad. ‘What do you think?’ She bit her nails. ‘Maybe text?’)

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, feeling guilty for some reason.

‘Does he mention me at all?’ she asked. She looked at me with an almost crazed expression.

I didn’t know what to say.

‘No, no, don’t tell me,’ she said, before I’d uttered a word. ‘I don’t want to know.’ She sniffed and sat upright and wiped her eyes, trying to look more ladylike and decorous and put together. She picked up her knife and fork, cleared her throat and cut some of her food in a performance of normality. Her make-up was still badly streaked, her eyes smeared with mascara.

‘I have to remind myself sometimes that it’s not your job to counsel me,’ she went on. ‘I shouldn’t put that kind of burden on you.’ She placed her fork down, leaned over and laid her hand over mine. It was cold and wet. ‘I’m not going to do that to you,’ she whispered, her make-up wild and clown-like. ‘I’m your mother.’ She paused for effect. ‘I’m your mother, you hear?’

‘Yes, Mum.’

‘You have to tell me if I’m overburdening you, okay? You promise you will?’ She squeezed my hand until it hurt. ‘Timothy?’

‘I promise,’ I said, not knowing what any of this meant.

She let go and smiled. ‘You looked like your father, just now,’ she said, in that same theatrical, warbling way. She brushed back my fringe and started to sob again, quietly.

She drank more wine throughout the rest of the evening. The crying became more violent. At one point, while we watched TV, she pressed her face into a sofa cushion and wailed, ‘Oh god, oh jesus christ . . . !’

I sat there in silence.



My father finally relented and bought himself a bed frame. I helped him set it up one Saturday afternoon, standing to the side while he swore at himself. I handed him bolts and bits of wood at certain points. He’d promised if I helped then he’d take me bowling, but once we were done he flopped down onto one of the camping chairs. ‘Not tonight, Timmy,’ he said, waving me off. ‘That was too tiring.’

The mattress was another matter. He spent hours looking up the best designs, hard ones, soft, double sized, spring actions, memory foams. He wanted to be ‘thorough,’ he said. One Friday evening we even went to an Ikea so he could test some ideas out. We wandered around the living room and kitchen and bedroom sets, the cubicles neatly arranged to simulate real living spaces, my father lowering himself heavily onto velvet sofas and staring around as if he owned the place.

‘How much?’ he scoffed, inspecting a price tag on a lamp. He shook his head. ‘This country.’

In the bed section he bounced up and down on various mattress types, pouting his lips and looking deadly serious.

‘Hmm,’ he hummed sceptically. ‘Can you see me sleeping on this?’ He pressed his fingers in the diamond-shaped stitches.

‘Sure!’ I said, trying to sound positive but wanting to leave.

He shook his head, stood up and brushed himself off. ‘No, I think you’re right. None of them are quite me, are they?’

My father spent the next two weeks low and despondent. His back got worse; he hobbled around groaning all the time. Then one Friday when he picked me up for my fortnightly visit, his mood had suddenly changed. He seemed brighter and, miraculously, his posture looked better.

‘Good news!’ he said, as soon as I got inside the car.

‘What is it?’ I asked expectantly.

He raised his eyebrows up and down. ‘A little treat for you. Look in the glove box.’

I wondered excitedly for a moment what it could be. I opened the lock, the compartment came down, and out slipped a sleek brochure onto my skinny legs. It was a brochure for a company called Tronka Interiors. There were pictures of beds inside.

‘Oh,’ I said, trying not to sound disappointed. ‘Mattresses . . . Cool.’

‘Go to page twenty-five.’

On that page was a picture of an enormous mattress, grey with bright-green stitching down the lining. There were diagrams and information displays about its orthopaedic design. There was a photograph of a woman lying on the bed with a blissful smile. At the top of it all it said: ‘The Premier King’.

‘I think I found it, Timmy-boy,’ my father said, laughing and shaking his head. ‘He’s only gone and found it, ay?’ He laughed some more and ruffled my hair.

‘That’s great, dad,’ I said, trying to sound pleased. ‘Really great.’

‘Good name, don’t you think? The Premier King . . .’ He smiled, almost wistfully.

I closed the brochure and put it back in the compartment. ‘Amazing.’

‘I’ve ordered it to arrive tomorrow. Calls for a celebration, I thought. Pizza at El Señor?’ He tapped my hand. ‘My treat.’



One evening, my mother and I watched a film in the living room. We sat on the sofa, her knees tucked into a grey cashmere throw. Every night now, I’d hear her crying in her room, the sniffles drifting down the corridor toward me. Tonight she kept insisting I sit closer and closer to her. ‘Here, under my arm,’ she said. When I didn’t move at first, she looked at me with a hurt expression. ‘Unless you don’t want to?’

It was an old film from the late 70s about a woman whose husband dies. Throughout the woman is grief-stricken. There are flashbacks of the two of them, laughing together and dancing in the kitchen. It looked nothing like my parents’ marriage, I thought, and yet my mother kept sighing as if she recognised these scenes.

‘Your father always said this film was so stupid,’ she hissed.

Later that night, I was awake in bed, trying to get to sleep, when there was a knock at my door. I lay there silently with the sheets up to my chin. The handle turned, and in the doorway stood my mother, a night-blue silhouette against the moonlight on the landing. She wore her lavender dressing gown and her hair in a loose ponytail.

‘Mum?’ I said, confused to see her.

She came over and sat on my bed. ‘Did you have a nightmare?’ she whispered. She sounded concerned and turned the bedside light on. ‘I heard shouting,’ she said. ‘You were shouting out.’

‘I was?’ I rubbed my eyes from the light and reared up.

‘You were shouting out,’ she said, ‘about your father, weren’t you.’ She gave me a pitying look and stroked my cheek. ‘It’s okay. Shh. You can tell me if you had a bad dream.’

‘I had a bad dream?’ I asked.

She frowned and looked frustrated. ‘For god’s sake, Timothy. I just heard you.’

‘You did?’

‘Oh my god,’ she said, gesturing wildly. ‘You’re accusing me of lying. Me, your own mother.’ She sighed and closed her eyes, trying to compose herself. ‘You shouldn’t be on your own if you’re having nightmares, Timothy,’ she said.

‘I’m sorry,’ I replied.

‘Maybe you ought to sleep with me tonight,’ she suggested. ‘If you’re feeling too scared?’

My parents’ bedroom was large and dim. Their bed had grey sheets, a brass headboard and frilled skirting round the sides. The room itself smelt heady, like there were too many bodies in it, and the doors to their walk-in wardrobe were pulled half-open, revealing inside enormous piles of unwashed laundry.

‘There you go,’ she whispered as I lay down inside the duvet. She tucked me in. ‘That’s better isn’t it. Hmm?’

‘Yes,’ I said, trying to sound happy about it. ‘Better, thank you, Mum.’

She slid between the sheets, turned the light off, and lay down next to me, her arm around my waist. She fell asleep spooning me and stroking my hair.



When the mattress arrived my father knew it was wrong. It was not his Premier King. For one thing it was slightly smaller than he expected.

‘I mean, how am I meant to fit on that little thing?’ he scoffed, gesturing at the enormous box that covered the entire wall.

Tronka had made a mistake. They’d sent my father the Premier Queen, not the King. He’d determined this after checking the label and spending three hours in irritated phone-dialogue with a company representative, a gentle-sounding woman from Scotland called Julia.

‘No. I don’t want a damn refund,’ he replied, viciously cutting her off. ‘I want my King. Is that so hard to understand?’

(It sounded like the voice he’d used during arguments with my mother, in those final days when I sat alone at the top of the stairs, their shouts rising up through the closed door of the living room. ‘Shut up, Claire,’ he’d moan while she screamed at him. ‘For christ’s sake, shut up.’)

Julia was silent. She sounded taken aback. You could hear her through the speaker phone, clearing her throat, rearranging pages on her desk.

‘I’m afraid . . . I’m afraid that’s all we can offer right now,’ she replied with a quiet, shaken voice.

‘Can I talk to your line manager?’ my father sighed. ‘This is getting boring.’

Julia cleared her throat again. ‘I’m afraid that’s all we can offer right –’

My father hung up the phone mid-sentence. He looked aggravated and started biting his fingernails. ‘I don’t believe it,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘Did you hear that? The incompetence.’

He slumped down on a camper chair with his hand over his forehead.

‘Maybe you could sleep on the Queen for now?’ I suggested. ‘For your back, at least?’

My father looked up at me, frowning with disgust. ‘What?’

I hesitated. ‘I mean . . .’

‘Jesus, I heard you the first time, Timmy,’ he snapped. He bit his fingernails. ‘I have a king-sized frame. How do you think that would work?’

‘But . . . maybe it could?’ I offered.

There was a pause while he stared past me and shook his head. ‘What a stupid thing to say,’ he muttered.

We were silent for a moment.

‘Sorry,’ I said, looking at my feet.

‘Insensitive, too. Can’t you see I’m exhausted right now?’

‘Sorry, Dad.’

He sighed again. ‘I forgive you. I suppose.’



I started to feel more at ease around Jane during our sessions. I even started looking forward to them. She would come to my classroom and ask if she could take me out for half an hour. The other children would whisper ‘retard’ and ‘spastic’ and ‘mentaloid’ as I left, but I would rush over to her with a big smile on my face, almost skipping down the corridor by her side as she led the way.

I was even starting to enjoy drawing more. My sketches were becoming less gloomy and intense. Images of houses on fire, people drowning inside enormous wine bottles, beds with knives sticking out of the fabric, were gradually replaced by detailed pastoral scenes of flower-strewn fields, or grand cityscapes, or scenes from cartoons I liked. These new pictures were increasingly full of bright, life-affirming colours. Jane would hold them up admiringly in front of her.

‘Maybe you should be an artist, Tim!’ she said once with excitement in her voice.

‘You think so?’ I asked nervously.

‘Why not?’ she said, smiling. ‘You’re certainly good enough.’

‘My dad says artists are freeloaders,’ I glumly offered.

‘Well,’ said Jane. ‘Do you think that’s true?’

I felt a rush of strange warmth pass through me when she said this, and spent the rest of the day with an enormous grin on my face.



I remember, toward the end of their marriage, my parents and I went into London one night. It was my mother’s birthday. We ate dinner at a fancy French restaurant with outdoor seating and a fabric awning; only a row of small box trees stood between the diners and the crowded, heaving, central London street.

My father was annoyed about the table we’d been given, which was located at the far corner of this outdoor area. He kept looking nervously at the crowds walking past. They were very close to us, he said; where we sat was ‘too exposed’. My mother rolled her eyes and begged him not to get into a fuss about it, but he sat there squirming and glancing toward the street.

The dinner went on like this. Then, toward the end of our meal, as if to confirm my father’s worst fears about our seating, a homeless man appeared on the other side of the barrier. He was carrying a sleeping bag. With a wrinkled dirty hand, he put a half-torn coffee cup through a gap between the box trees. There were some bronze coins at the bottom of the cup. The homeless man scratched his face and looked at us with a bored expression.

At first my father tried to ignore the man, just carried on eating. But the homeless man continued to rattle his change cup.

‘Mike,’ my mother whispered, gesturing that he ought to give some money, but my father tried to ignore her too. His mouth was pinched shut; his knuckles whitened. The homeless man kept saying, ‘Please’ in a bored way, and my father looked more and more irritated as he did. Then abruptly, without any warning at all, my father threw his napkin down, stood up in front of the restaurant, and shouted at the homeless man.

‘We said no!’ he yelled. ‘No! Jesus, is that too hard to understand? Can’t you ask someone else?’ He started flapping his napkin to try and shoo the man away.

The whole place went quiet. It was a mortifying scene. Some of the other diners looked on in dismay. ‘Mike, Jesus,’ my mother said under her breath. The homeless man shrugged and moved silently on. She put her head in her hands. My father stood there, looking unsure of what to do next.

Afterwards, we all sat there for a while, being glared at by everyone, until a waiter came out with a tiny cake and candle in it. He approached my mother with a pantomime smile. ‘Happy Birthday to Claire . . .’ No one sang along.



My mother started insisting I sleep in her bed with her all the time. She’d invent reasons, tell me my sheets were in the wash, or that a spring had gone in my mattress. ‘Feel that?’ she’d say, pushing her hands into the fabric. ‘You can’t sleep on that. Oh no. Not tonight, at least.’

But sometimes the reason would be less direct. All it took was a moment after dinner, when she’d sigh mournfully or force a melancholy smile, and say, ‘Well, another lonely night for me, I suppose,’ and I’ll feel so guilty that I’d just follow her up to her room.

Her sheets smelled of perfume and sweat and musk, and she would lie next to me every night, upright against the pillow, applying thick white night cream in the crescents below her eyes. After she turned off the lamp, she was always asleep before I was.

Then one night I was awoken by my mother shouting out. I turned on the light to see what the matter was. Her eyes were closed, her face pressed up against the pillow. A line of drool pooled from her mouth.

‘Can you put it back in the hole, please?’ she said.

There was a pause.

‘Mum?’ I whispered tentatively.

‘The hole. The hole,’ she said, her eyes still closed.

I felt scared for a moment, unsure of what was happening. I shook her awake, and when I did she gulped and squinted against the light.

‘Timothy?’ she yawned. ‘Gosh, what time is it?’

My mother had started talking in her sleep – loudly, incessantly, almost every night in fact. This was a new development. As soon as she was unconscious, the words started pouring out of her, in random, broken, unfathomable phrases.

‘Take his legs off, then see how he runs,’ she’d say.

‘Come back, come back! You haven’t signed the forms yet!’

‘You’re serious? On holiday? In Aruba? With her?’

Often she’d conduct long, one-sided dialogues with figures in her dreams whose identities I could only guess. One night she was a toddler with a baby-voice. ‘Not fair! Not fair!’ she whined. On another she was at her job, giving a slick work presentation. Then in the mornings she’d awake messy-haired and dozy, and incredibly rested in spite of chattering through the night. She’d glide around the kitchen fixing my breakfast and making coffee for herself, the ghost of a satisfied smile on her face.

Sometimes, when she she woke me with her outbursts of conversation, and I couldn’t get back to sleep, just lay there as she talked, I would sneak out of my mother’s bed and back to my room. It was a relief to be there again – cooler, less oppressive. Dust had gathered on my old bedside table. It had the eerie air of a derelict place or dead person’s room. My bed had been stripped, and there was no linen on it anymore, only the naked duvet covered in large brown stains. Occasionally I got inside and pulled it across my head, and fell almost immediately to sleep by myself again.



Something strange was happening to my father. The missing Premier King became an obsession for him.

He never took up Tronka’s offer of the refund. He said that would be admitting defeat. He didn’t even return The Premier Queen, just left it in its box propped up in the hallway, returning to sleep across the futons in his room. He’d shuffle around the flat, his back in agony again, occasionally kicking the huge delivery box as he passed it in the corridor.

The focus of his ire had turned toward Tronka Interiors itself. He’d read testimonials on internet forums from other disgruntled customers. This somehow proved to him they were a corrupt company. He spent his days off writing long complaint letters. They began with an officious tone (‘Dear Sir or Madam . . .’) before descending into rants.

He would address these letters to the managers of various Tronka depots and storage sites. When he heard nothing back from them, he became even more indignant. I could hear him whispering to himself as he paced around the flat, drafting more letters, each one stranger than the last. (‘You ought to be in jail!’ one began.) He even started posting them to senior members of the company. There’d be envelopes on the kitchen counter, envelopes scattered around his box of important documents, with the names of Tronka chairpersons and board members and trustees on them, and below those the address of the company headquarters outside Glasgow.

Soon the only mail he received was cease and desist notices.

He became increasingly vague and interior as the weeks dragged on, just sat there picking his teeth, or suddenly laughing out loud for no reason. Sometimes he’d be late collecting me from school, or would forget to order pizza in time, so we’d have to eat at ten o’clock. When we were out in the car he would often watch, with creepy and stalkerish and hawk-like focus, when a Tronka delivery van was parked beside the road, the driver unloading boxes from the back.

‘Oh, you’ll see,’ he’d mutter, before a car would honk behind us, reminding him we were stopped at a green light.



One Saturday morning, my father took us out for a drive. When I asked where we were going, he grunted the word ‘supermarket.’ But when he loaded a map on his phone, which he asked me to hold, I noticed the route took us an hour out of town. When I asked him where we were going again, he turned and snapped at me.

‘It’s a detour. Is that okay with you, your majesty?’

We drove in tense silence until we arrived at the destination. It was a Tronka depot. There were enormous trucks parked in rows across the lot, with men unloading things from them into the cavernous warehouse. My father parked his car across the street and we sat there and watched. Outside the security gates, there was a group of drivers sitting on plastic fold-out chairs, smoking and drinking coffee together. They were burly, broad-shouldered, their yellow Tronka uniforms straining against their chests. Some read newspapers.

‘Look at them,’ my father said. ‘Absolute degenerates.’

‘What’s a degenerate?’ I asked.

My father turned to me, placing his hand on my shoulder. ‘Timmy, I’m trying to teach you important life lessons. About sticking up for yourself. About human rights. Later, you’ll thank me. You’ll say, ‘Dad, you were right. I’m a better man because of what you taught me.’’

‘Sorry,’ I replied.

‘Now wait here,’ he said, unclipping his seat belt.

He shut the car door and walked over to the group. Slowly, each driver looked up and noticed him approach. My father began talking to them. He gestured and pointed. His back was turned to me and I couldn’t see his face, and the men looked on at him with weary contempt. But the more my father spoke, throwing his arms out in wide circles, the more the men started to frown and smirk, their expressions becoming scornful and narrow and amused. They turned to each other and laughed and shook their heads.

As I watched this scene, I felt a strange discomfort in my chest. I’d never felt anything like it. It was as if my heart had been replaced by a tiny rough scouring brush, a little metal bundle that scratched behind my ribs. I could barely look at my father like this, being laughed at by these men. A strange coldness passed through me, and after that, anger. Why was he doing this, I thought? For what reason? I twisted the seatbelt with my hands, leaving a red mark across the palms. My lips were pursed, my feet pressed hard against the floor.

My father walked back to the car, his head hanging down. He looked pitiable and dejected to me. The men were now laughing and pointing at him behind his back. One of them had spat their coffee out. When he got back into the driver’s seat I noticed my father was blushing violently. He was all hunched up. We just sat there, saying nothing. The atmosphere was hushed. We both recognised that some shift had occurred, though what it was, neither of us could say.

As we drove away from the depot, we were both totally silent. My father put the radio on, then turned it off again.

‘Can you drive me home, please?’ I eventually asked. There was a new steeliness in my voice that surprised even me.

My father cleared his throat. He sounded hesitant. ‘That’s what I’m –’

‘No. Back to Mum’s,’ I snapped.

He was silent. After a while he said, ‘Okay.’



My mother had started seeing someone, a local businessman called Simon Church. He was short and pale, with pasted-down hair. After their first date, she came home with her lipstick smeared, looking flushed and happy, her voice girlish and cute. She wouldn’t stop talking about him. He came over for dinner one night, and officiously shook my hand. ‘Tommy,’ he said. ‘It’s very nice to meet you.’

Around this time, I had to stop sleeping in my mother’s bed. One evening I’d followed her to her room as usual, but as soon as we crossed the threshold, she turned and looked askance.

‘What are you doing?’ she asked.

I blinked with confusion. ‘Going to bed?’ I offered.

‘Oh, Timothy,’ she said, laughing affectionately at me. ‘We’re a bit old for that, aren’t we?’

She directed me back to my bedroom down the hall. The sheets had been laid out, crisp and white. I sat on the duvet. ‘Good night!’ she called out in a sing-song voice, as I heard the door to her room slam shut.

I lay there all night, staring at shadows across the ceiling, writhing around and feeling horribly awake. Down the corridor, my mother laughed in her sleep.



After my father’s incident at the depot, I began to feel strange. At school I felt like I was about to explode all the time. My skin prickled with heat and I held my fists clenched up. I’d never felt like this before and was unsure what was happening.

Usually, when the other boys called me names or teased me, I’d hunch or cower, or try to slip off and hide. But now I felt something slowly swell inside my throat, and I’d start to shout back at them with curses and threats. That surprised a lot of them; they didn’t know how to respond. David Culler went pale once after I lashed out at him. One day in the lunch hall when Chris Tolliver started to tease me, I grabbed him by the lapel and called him a ‘moron’ and ‘cretin’, then a ‘cunt’, then threw in ‘fuckwit’, and then ‘twat’. He’d barely said a word before I came out with all of this. It was enjoyable, weirdly, watching Chris back away. These were all words I’d heard my parents use while they’d fought with each other.

I felt such a release that I started to develop a taste for it. I even stopped waiting for boys to be mean. Any idle glance or innocent remark was enough to make me go wild at them. One day, I left the football captain cowering in the corner of the changing rooms, after I’d stood over him for ten minutes, shouting right in his face. Another day I grabbed a boy by the hair and dragged him across the playground into a puddle of dirty water. Another boy looked on and whined, ‘Stop! I’m getting the teacher!’, so I ran up to him too and tackled him hard to the floor. I grabbed this boy’s hair and smacked his face against the concrete. He cried out in pain. ‘Cry for your mummy, you little bitch!’ I shouted. Other boys gathered round, shouting ‘Fight! Fight! Fight!’ but by that point it was all over. The boy’s nose was streaming blood. Some teachers had to come over and tear me away. I wrestled in their arms. It took three of them to restrain me.

Soon I started getting disciplined for this behaviour at school. The teachers demerited me for ‘bullying’ the other students. I went to detention a lot. I had to be ‘put on notice’, they said. Some of them claimed they didn’t know what had happened to me. ‘What happened to you, Timothy?’ I shrugged when they asked.

This dismay was shared across the entirety of the teaching staff. A week later, I was in the counsellor’s room with Jane again for a session. I sat there on a bean bag, squirming and bored, sighing pointedly whenever she spoke. She asked me about the fight.

‘But why did you do it, Tim?’ she said. ‘I just don’t understand where all this aggression has come from.’

I rolled my eyes with an air of derision.

‘Is it to do with your parents?’ she asked. ‘The divorce? Something else?’

‘Can I draw now, please?’ I asked her sarcastically. I went to the table and grabbed a pen, and started scribbling random lines out. I drew huge meaningless loops that pierced the paper from how hard I pressed.

‘You shouldn’t talk to me like that,’ Jane said. She was trying to sound teacherly but her voice was wounded. ‘That’s not very nice, Tim.’

‘Oh dear,’ I replied.

‘Tim, this isn’t you. I know it isn’t. You’re a sweet, creative, gentle boy. You’re not the kind of person to beat people up . . .’

As she continued to go on, I felt that scratching behind my chest again. I cringed and shut my eyes and became tensed up with discomfort. I suddenly hated Jane being so nice to me. I hated her kindness and sincerity and warmth. I hated her affection and interest and encouragement. As she spoke, I stood up slowly and walked calmly over to her. She stopped talking and her face had an expectant look, as if I was about to apologise for my behaviour. But instead I stood there, drew my hand far behind me, and slapped Jane in the face. Hard – a single strike.

When I sat back down, I began to draw as if nothing had happened. Jane sat there and looked stunned. There were tears in her eyes.



I was suspended from school for two weeks for this incident. When my mother asked me why I’d hit Jane, I didn’t say.

Soon after this, I made an important decision. I decided that I didn’t want to see my father anymore. ‘I don’t want to visit him next weekend,’ I told my mother. She seemed concerned and asked me why, but I couldn’t explain it to her. She called him that evening and broke the news. He asked if he could talk to me.

Over the phone, his voice sounded distant and cracked, like he’d been yelling a lot and had run out of breath. He sounded unusually sad. There were long awkward silences, punctuated by his feeble attempts at small talk. He offered to take me bowling, the next time I came. ‘Okay,’ I replied, in a heartless monotone. He kept asking how I was. There’d be a pause, and he’d say, ‘But you’re okay, right, Timmy?’ The third time, I replied, ‘You already asked me that.’

There was a silence on his end of the line.

‘Is that it?’ I sighed. ‘Can I get off the phone now?’

As soon as I said this, I could hear him choke back tears. He started to sob quietly and couldn’t seem to stop. At one point I even held the phone from my ear. I waited until he calmed down and then said I had to go.



Simon Church started coming over for dinner all the time. He spent those meals explaining ‘family values’. He talked about the importance of hard work and self-discipline. There’d been a news story about migrants being held at some border. Simon said people were complaining about it too much.

I could see my mother start to seem more unsure around Simon, nodding with her lips pursed and saying ‘uh-huh’ in a bored way. But personally, I liked him. I noticed that he made these gasping noises when he took a sip of beer. I admired it so much I even started copying him, sipping my juice and gasping afterwards with rough, manly, unapologetic pleasure.

One night, in my room, I couldn’t get to sleep. My bed didn’t feel right, so I got up and wandered the house. I wandered down to the kitchen, around the living room, circled the dining table twice, then finally padded back up to the landing toward bed. Before that I put my ear to the door of my mother’s room. Simon hadn’t stayed over that night; he had a work trip in the morning. She was alone in there, talking in her sleep. She was moaning at first, almost like someone in pain, but after a while of listening to this, I went back to my room. I could hear her voice calling out down the corridor. She shouted, ‘It hurts! It hurts!’ She said it over and over and again.


Image © spDuchamp

Edward Herring

Edward Herring is a writer from North Yorkshire. He received his MFA from Washington University in St Louis, where he was awarded a Junior Writer in Residence Fellowship. His work has appeared in the White Review, on BBC Sounds and at the ICA. He lives in London.

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