© Celia Micklefield
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My Turn to Speak a short story
My turn to speak is coming up. Nerves pummel my stomach and my mouth feels dry.
I know that they will be kind. They will empathise with my situation. They’ll give their support. I can imagine their gentle eyes, their crooked little smiles, heads tilted in sympathy or nodding in agreement. They’ll encourage me. At first.
Joyce invites me to stand. I fix my gaze on the wall clock at the back of the room so I don’t have to make direct eye-contact.
‘I don’t know where to begin,’ I say to the group.
Joyce uncrosses her legs and lays her arms across the clipboard on her lap.
‘Tell us why you’re here,’ she suggests.
My ears feel hot. I hope the redness doesn’t spread to my face. I take a deep breath. Stare at the clock.
‘I’m not assertive enough,’ I say.
Joyce leans towards me.
‘Good,’ she says. ‘Now turn that thought into a positive statement.’
I know what she means but my head is empty. I can’t think of the words. I remember what some of the others have said before me.
‘I want to be more assertive.’
A round of applause goes round the semi-circle of women. My eyes slip from the clock and I catch sight of the heads and the smiles, just as I had imagined. I’ve started now; I may as well continue.
‘I can’t stand it any more,’ I tell them.
They wait. They smile some more.
‘But I don’t know how to stop it.’
A bell rings in the corridor outside the school classroom we use for the afternoon sessions. We can hear chairs scraping the floor, doors slamming. A swarm of navy blue uniforms buzzes past our window; heels clack on the hard floor; voices rise through the octaves as the corridor fills.
‘Thank you, Helen,’ Joyce says to me. ‘Will you begin for us next time?’
I have to go home now and I don’t want to. I put up my umbrella against the February sleet and hurry across the school forecourt, hoping none of the others will want to stop and talk. I’d like to linger but I really have to go home now and face what’s waiting.
John hovers while I’m cooking dinner. He always does. He looks over my shoulder to check on what I’m making.
‘Ah, chilli,’ he says. ‘One of my favourites.’
He doesn’t move away. He inspects what I’m doing and looks at his watch. I know what he’s going to say next and it makes me grit my teeth.
‘What time will it be ready?’ he asks.
He always asks. Every day. It’s one of his habits. As soon as he comes home, it’s the first thing he does. Comes to the kitchen to supervise and ask what time dinner will be ready.
‘In about an hour,’ I tell him.
He looks at his watch again.
‘That’s six minutes later than usual,’ he says.
‘I know, John. I’ve been out this afternoon.’
I want to shout at him. I want to say I’ve every right to go out on my day off work.
‘I went to meet some friends,’ I say instead.
‘You’ve put only one teaspoon of chilli paste in, Helen. You usually put two.’
I want to tell him to go away and leave me alone. No, that’s not true. I want to tell him to piss off and leave me alone.
‘Thank you,’ I say.
Fifty-five minutes later, he begins his getting-ready-for-dinner routine. He checks through the glasses in the wall cupboard, selecting carefully. He fills the glass with water and places it, equally carefully, on the table. He casts his eye over the hob and looks at his watch.
‘Three minutes,’ he tells me while he paces up and down.
I want to scream. I want to ram his three minutes down his throat.
He hunches over the table. He sits sideways on his chair and leans over his plate with his weight on his left arm so that his chin is nearly in his food. With the fork in his right hand he shovels it in. He makes dreadful noises when he’s eating. Gulping for air, like he’s drowning. Stuffing his mouth so full his cheeks bulge. Swallowing with a whimper. I can’t look. He’s up and helping himself to seconds before I’ve finished half of mine. I’m relieved when he goes to switch on the television.
I’m not interested in his choice of programmes and I can feel myself growing angry again as he flicks through the channels. He sits directly in front of the screen, pointing with the remote. Flick, click. Watches something for two minutes; points again. Flick, click. Two minutes more. Flick, fucking-click.
I go to bed early with my book.
Over the weekend he reminds me what my domestic duties are. He goes through the cupboards and tells me what we’re running out of. Says the tomato passata I bought in the discount store doesn’t taste as good as the usual brand. Explains the route I should drive to get to the supermarket and goes into detail about traffic lights and speed cameras. Offers to draw me a diagram.
‘I don’t need a diagram, John,’ I tell him. ‘I’ve been there hundreds of times. Why are you telling me how to get to the supermarket?’
‘Because I know a better way,’ he says.
He stands behind me as I’m loading the washing machine. I can feel his stare. I turn around.
‘What?’ I ask him.
‘Which programme are you using, Helen? Do you make use of the thirty minute cycle and low temperature?’
I just nod.
‘Keep a lookout when they’re on the line, Helen. The forecast says rain this afternoon.’
I force a smile. ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I heard it on the radio.’
He hovers over Sunday lunch preparation. Watches me grating rind for lemon meringue. He presses the timer on the oven to see how many minutes the pastry case still needs.
‘It has to come out of the oven in eleven minutes, Helen. If it takes a further fifteen for the baking beans to cool down, that means you’ve got twenty-six minutes to make the lemon filling and whip the egg whites. Then you can remove the beans and fill the pastry case. Are you running late, Helen? Have you made Yorkshire puddings? The batter needs to stand.’
‘I know the batter needs to stand, John. It was me who told you that the batter needs to stand.’
‘I saw green beans in the fridge, Helen. And sweet potatoes. They’ll be good with the roast lamb. I’d like some Crème Fraiche with my lemon meringue. Did you remember to buy Crème Fraiche, Helen? I didn’t see that in the fridge.’
He looks at his watch.
‘Twenty-five minutes, now,’ he says.
Shrieking obscenities fill my thoughts, ‘For fuck’s sake, shut the fuck up.’
‘John,’ I say with another forced smile. ‘Would you take these out to the dustbin, please?’
He takes the rubbish and through the kitchen window, I watch him walking down the garden path to the compost heap. Sometimes he prances like a pony when he walks. When he’s pleased with himself, he lifts up onto his toes and does a funny walk. I can see that he’s pleased with himself. I know there’s going to be a lecture on sorting rubbish into recyclables and compost material when he comes back.
Later, he sits sideways at the table and gulps. He gulps louder over the lemon meringue.
Thursday comes around again and I go to my second meeting. Watery sunlight glistens on the wet school walls. In the small classroom the tables have been pushed to one side; chairs arranged in a semi-circle. I’m the last one to arrive. The room is warm but I’m shivering. I haven’t slept well. John has complained this morning about the smell of my perfume and my nerves are shot.
The women are in their usual places. I recognise a few faces from the last session. Besides Joyce, the group leader, I can remember only two names: Pauline and Christina. I smile at them. They are all smiling and waiting for me. I fix my eyes on the clock. Joyce begins.
‘Helen, are you ready?’
I was ready last week. It’s hard to begin again. I’m not sure how much I’m going to tell them. I’m worried it will come out wrong, but I might as well get it over with.
I tell them about my weekend: John’s pacing about and timing the cooking; the way he eats; the supermarket route diagram that he placed on the kitchen pegboard, showing positions of speed bumps, traffic lights and cameras; his hyper-vigilance around the house. Watching me. Checking on me. Reminding me.
One by one, they gasp.
‘You’ve tried talking to your husband about the things that annoy you?’ Joyce says.
‘So many times. Years’ worth. It makes no difference. Everything I say gets forgotten. I’m wasting my breath.’
One of the women speaks up.
‘Stay positive, Helen,’ she tells me. ‘Don’t give up.’
Christina shakes her head and contradicts.
‘I’d say she’s had enough. How is being more assertive going to help her?’
Now that I’ve started, I feel less nervous, less worried. I take the floor.
‘I thought that being more assertive would help me to get the message across,’ I say. ‘I thought perhaps I wasn’t saying it properly; that there was a better way, better words.’
More voices join.
‘But he’s such a control freak, isn’t he? How long has this been going on?’ one asks me.
‘Jesus, I’d have killed him by now.’
‘Me, too,’ another one agrees.
I know now that it’s all going to come out. I’m surprised to feel reasonably calm. I listen to them debating, arguing about the right way to deal with him. And so I reach the moment when I tell them. They’re not going to like what I say next. This is the point where their expressions will change; encouraging smiles will fade. They’ll view the whole thing very differently. And they will judge me.
‘John isn’t my husband,’ I say. ‘John is my husband’s child. He’s twelve.’
I watch them. Just as I expected, their faces fall. Mouths gape, wide yet silent. They look at each other and back at me.
‘I needed someone to talk to. Someone to tell.’ I say.
The silence persists. Joyce steps in.
‘Your husband allows John’s behaviour to continue?’ she asks.
‘Neil doesn’t see what I see. He denies there’s a problem. He doesn’t react. Take last Christmas. John couldn’t find his favourite old shirt. I told him it wasn’t ironed. I said I didn’t think he’d need it on Christmas Day.’
‘And he said?’
I look at the expectant faces.
‘He said, I know it’s Christmas, but you’re still supposed to do the ironing.’
‘And your husband heard him say this to you?’
‘Yes. John talks to his father in the same way. Sunday morning, Neil was doing breakfast. John stood behind him with his arms folded and said ‘When I say I’ll have my bacon at eight-thirty, I don’t mean eight-forty-five.’ Neil apologized; went into his ‘consolation’ voice. I told John that he shouldn’t speak to his father like that. They both looked at me as if I was the one in the wrong. I don’t want to be like the wicked stepmother, but that’s where they’ve put me. Neil won’t say anything to John about his behaviour.’
I can hear the classroom clock ticking.
‘Why do you think your husband is so reluctant?’ Joyce asks.
I’m bursting to say it. Surely, it’s the right thing to do. It’s my turn to speak now, to say it all. Let it out. I want them to know. There they all sit, eyes wide, and I know what they’re thinking. But they can’t begin to understand until I explain.
‘Neil can’t say no to his son. It goes back to before I met him.’
I can see them settling in for the story. My head is clear and the words flow.
‘John was only three years old when his mother died. When I met Neil two years later, John was a very anxious child. He wanted everything to stay the same. He was afraid of anything new. He constantly checked on his father’s whereabouts. It’s understandable. The worst thing that could happen to a child had already happened and John tried to control everybody and everything to stay safe. Not being in control was a scary place for him to be.’
‘Poor little thing,’ Pauline says.
‘So everybody in his wider family gave in to him. He always got his own way. He used tantrums to get what he wanted. He still does sometimes. His father has always let him have what he wants.’
I can see that they’re perplexed. They don’t know how to react.
Joyce helps me along.
‘And he still tries to control everything?’
‘Yes. I think he’s forgotten the root of his anxieties, but it’s like they’re programmed into his head. He is still wary of change. Still likes to keep things the same.’
‘Can I say something?’ somebody asks. ‘My neighbour’s boy is like that, Helen. He goes ballistic if anybody moves his things. He has lots of routines and rituals, too. He’s been diagnosed with something.’
I know what she’s talking about.
‘I’ve looked into that. Thank you for your suggestion. You might be right. John does behave sometimes like he might have some kind of condition. I wouldn’t want to put a label on him. But it’s much more complicated because he was a bereaved child. It’s difficult to decide which behaviour is because he can’t help it and which is born out of his fears.’
‘Or just a child being arsey,’ Christina suggests.
‘Poor boy,’ Pauline says again.
‘That’s what I used to think. Poor child. I wanted to help him. And Neil. I thought I could make a difference but they wouldn’t let me in. They kept me out. Kept me separate. John and his dad made arrangements together; decided household things together. I couldn’t even move the furniture around without a scene.’
I can’t stop now. It’s flooding out.
‘I started speaking up. Pointing out inappropriate behaviours. Sometimes it felt like John was the parent and Neil was the child. Neil never backed me. It was always left to me to deal with the tough stuff. Mine was the negative voice in the house; me against them. They marginalised me even more and I knew that I had to break the pattern. So I shut up. I let it all happen around me. But I can’t stand it any more and I don’t know what to do next.’
Joyce shifts in her seat.
‘But John’s just a child, Helen. You’re the grown-up in this.’
I glance around the group. Eyes are not so gentle now; expressions less benign.
‘Let me ask you all something,’ I say to them. ‘When you thought that John was my husband, you sympathised. I saw your faces. You were cringing. When I told you about last weekend, you grew angry. You can’t deny it. Why is it different now that you know he’s only twelve?’
Pauline shakes her head in disbelief.
‘Because he is only twelve, Helen. He’s just a boy. It’s not his fault.’
‘I know it’s not his fault,’ I say. ‘But one day he will be a man. And he’s already well on his way to turning into the kind of man none of you could stand. How will he find his place in the world? At work? In relationships? He’ll drive people crazy.’
‘Maybe you can’t stop that from happening, Helen.’
‘I’ve got to try. Isn’t that what parents are supposed to do?’
‘How do you mean?’ Pauline asks.
I’m beginning to feel like a case study, but I carry on.
‘I’ve got to break some of his habits. For his sake. Sabotage his routines. Put him out of his comfort zone.’
Pauline’s eyebrows hit the ceiling.
‘That’s monstrous,’ she says. ‘You’re saying you plan to deliberately hurt him. Mothers don’t do that to their children, Helen.’
Christina supports me.
‘Pauline,’ she says. ‘I think Helen’s absolutely right. The kid’s trapped. He’s stuck in old patterns. Somebody’s got to help him get out. It’s obvious her husband can’t do it. What other choice has she got?’
An argument ensues about Neil’s role. Joyce has to intervene.
‘Helen, you said at first that you didn’t know what to do next. It seems, however, that you do indeed have a plan. I think that this certainly shows assertiveness. But, I have to say, from what you’ve told us, it’s not going to be easy. Can you tell us more about your plans?’
Except for Christina’s encouraging expression, I feel like I’m on my own, but I plough on.
‘I’m not going to be party to his habits any more. I’m going to challenge them. I’m going to be unpredictable. I plan to let him experience the discomfort of not being in control of me, so that he can learn how to cope with it.’
‘He’ll hate it, and he’ll hate you,’ Pauline says. ‘Why do you think you have the right to put him through that pain?’
There’s no time to answer her. The bell rings. I have taken up the whole of the session. Schoolchildren push along the corridor and race across the forecourt to the waiting buses. In the classroom, we pull back the tables into rows and stack the chairs for the evening cleaners. I can sense that most of the women can’t wait to talk about me. I know that they’ll go home and discuss it with their husbands. More than ever, I feel like the wicked stepmother.
Christina waits for me to gather my things.
‘Fancy a coffee before you go home?’ she says.
I look out the window at the darkening sky. John will start pacing soon. But I have to make a start somewhere.
‘Yes, I do. Thank you for asking,’ I say.
In the coffee bar, Christina sees me looking at my watch.
‘Forget it,’ she tells me. ‘You’re allowed to do something for yourself, you know.’
But it feels very strange; it’s so long since I did anything out of the ordinary, it’s hard to forget.
‘Come on,’ she says. ‘Tell me what you’re going to do when you get home.’
I feel pathetically grateful for her concern.
‘I won’t be in the kitchen at inspection time tonight. Dinner’s going to be late. Afterwards, I’ll choose something to watch on television and hold onto the remote.’
‘Sounds good to me, girl,’ she says with a nod. ‘Can I ask you something?’
‘Didn’t you see the problems before you got married? I mean, I would have run a mile, Helen. I’ve got to be honest with you.’
My insides flip. A prickling sensation rises from somewhere in my core. It runs down my arms and makes my fingers tingle. Heat stabs at my face, my ears, my eyes. My throat tightens.
‘We’re not married,’ I tell her.
‘We were going to. We were supposed to. It just never happened. Neil wanted to wait until he felt that John was ready.’
Christina slumps in her seat.
‘Oh, Helen,’ she says.
Her tone of voice is the one you use when a puppy has soiled the floor again. The fleeting strength and determination I felt in the classroom is gone and the tingling sensation takes over. I feel foolish.
Christina straightens up.
‘Helen,’ she says. ‘Why are you putting up with this shit? Get out of it, girl. Leave them to it. I’m so angry for you.’
My walk home takes me past the bus station. With every step my face burns hotter. I don’t feel the chill of the evening air; I haven’t bothered to fasten my coat. Bus queues of people are happy to be going home. They're laughing. I can’t remember the last time I laughed like that. I can’t remember the last time I had a good night’s sleep. I've forgotten why I thought I could make a difference in John’s life.
I turn the corner into our road. I stride up to the house with my coat flapping open. I’m trembling, shaking. I’m getting my words ready for them. My face is cold now; my insides like stone. My teeth feel wet. It’s as if all the tears I never cried have gathered in my mouth as spit, to mix with the words I want to spew. I open the back door.
I’m too late. Pieces of pizza are strewn all over the kitchen. Drawers have been pulled out from the units, their contents scattered. Plates lie smashed where they’ve been thrown. Neil is cowering on the floor in the corner by the radiator. John is beating him over the head with one of the empty drawers.
‘I have pizza on FRIDAYS!’ he is yelling at his father. Neil’s hair is matted. Blood pours from a gash on his temple where John has side-swiped him.
Neil lifts his arms to cover his head from the blows. The drawer comes down and smashes into pieces. John looks around. His face is contorted with rage. The pizza cutter is on the worktop. I slide it towards his reach and step back out into the night.
Children with Semantic/Pragmatic communication disorder speak like 'little professors' from an early age. They repeat phrases they have heard in adults' conversations and from TV, without necessarily understanding the meaning of each word. Like other children whose difficulties place them on the autistic spectrum, they cling to routines and rituals to help them make sense of their world. Sabotaging those rituals IS a HUGE confrontation.
Several reviewers have questioned the credibility of some of these elements of my story - hence this note. Thank you for reading this.