Unlocked.

I really like the following short story. It was directly inspired by a poem I reblogged

http://souldiergirl.com/2015/04/21/my-yesterday-2

from Souldier Girl

http://souldiergirl.com

The story is about domestic violence, and once again I drew inspiration from a hauntingly beautiful image from Souldier Girl. I’ve called it ‘Eyes Behind Bars’. I’d like to thank and acknowledge SG for allowing me to use the image, and I’d like to encourage you to read her blog. Quoting myself 😉 on the reblog:

“Souldier Girl is a rare talent. Why we’re giving (paid) oxygen to poorly written and uninteresting shit when there are mixed media artists like her out there is beyond me. Her whole blog belongs in a high-end book on a bestseller’s list.”

So, thank you SG for all of it; the courage, the blog, and for allowing me to use what I needed. Here’s Unlocked.

SouldierGirl eyesbehindbars

“Georgie Porgie, Puddin’ and Pie,

Hit the girl and made her cry,

When the boy came out to play

Georgie Porgie had a hospital stay.”

The lock and the timber around it had been shattered beyond repair. Whoever owned this place didn’t need a locksmith, they needed a new door and frame. However, I’d been called out and this was all part of it; to do what I could in the small hours to at least make it appear to the inhabitants that they were once again safe. I quietly put down my tool bag and went to work.

You know, there are a lot of people who commiserate with the police. When things are at their worst, it’s the cops who need to be at their best. I couldn’t do their job. Hell, after all the violent break-ins I’ve been called out to do repairs after, I’m not even sure I can do my job for much longer. This violence, it’s all so … I don’t know; my emotions are so jumbled together I can’t seem to unpick them anymore. ‘Unnecessary’ might be a word I’m looking for, but it just doesn’t seem right, or right enough, to describe the world of fear and pain the victim has been beaten into.

I got on with the lock. It didn’t take long. One small, bent screw was all that was left to anchor it into the timber. I’d learned from experience to always bring some lengths of solid timber and pelmet with me when I was called out to these jobs. Usually, they weren’t as much repair as replace, so I’d use what I had to make the door secure again, at least until a tradesman arrived with a new door, after the sun came up.

A police car pulled up in the driveway and a cop sprang out of the passenger side and opened the back door. Slowly, slowly, an old woman emerged. She was bent over, and in the feeble light of a street lamp behind her I saw her pale pink hair. She had a blanket wrapped around her but I remember thinking she was so small and frail. The poor old dear. Seriously, what kind of vermin does this to a little old lady? I had to stop thinking like this; these thoughts lacerate me, and thinking them is self-cutting of the soul.

A cop came out of the house, his duty as a protector soon to be over as he was replaced by the cops who’d just arrived. Even though I was listed and vetted by the Force, and it was them who called me, I am a civilian contractor and therefore I can’t be left unattended at a crime scene.

The female officer entered first, probably to quickly debrief the officer inside. When they came back to the door and called to the victim, that poor little old lady began hobbling toward them. I forced my attention back onto my work. Personally, I’ve always believed that gawkers are vultures, less than secretly delighting in the carrion wreckage that’s befallen a victim. Dear Old Lady, not looking at you isn’t a sign that I don’t care; it’s a sign that I do. I will not make you feel like you’re a sideshow spectacle, there for my entertainment.

Jesus Christ! She wasn’t an old lady! As she hobbled past me our eyes met, and they locked. Here was a woman who was in her mid-to-late thirties, and she’d had the shit beaten out of her. In the better light coming from inside her home I could see her blonde hair was pink with blood. We just stood there, two humans together, and I guess she saw something in my eyes that affected her as much as she’d affected me. I bit my lower lip, tears springing to my eyes, and I just held her gaze.

From inside the blanket her hand reached out and she gently laid her fingertips on my arm. It was as light as gossamer and as painful as fire. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I know,” she replied, and then she was inside and gone.

***

I couldn’t get to sleep. I couldn’t sit still. I tried, but every ten minutes I had to get up and walk out onto my balcony, the place of greatest solitude and peace in my home. I’d bought a packet of cigarettes on the way home, even though I’d stopped smoking so long ago it felt to me as if I’d never really smoked at all. I was edgy, twitchy, and I puffed my way through cigarette after cigarette, trying to dispel what I’d witnessed and what it was doing to me.

Come on, Ryan, get over it!” I punished myself with a harsh tone. “You don’t know anything about this woman or what happened to her, and it’s none of your fucking business!” It’s true, I’d seen worse; a lot worse. And they had gotten to me, too. I’d seen victims before and I’d been so sorry for them, but this time it was different. This time, from wherever that poor woman had retreated into herself, she had emerged with this … presence … and it reached out to me and tried to comfort me as if I was the victim!

Waking from a very fitful sleep, I knew I couldn’t keep doing this anymore. I’m a fucking locksmith; I change locks for a living. I open doors for people who’ve left their keys inside. I cut keys for people who’ve lost their own. Simple and uncomplicated. So how the fuck did I get to this? It was time for me to hand that police contract in and go back to a life that didn’t tear my fucking heart out on a regular basis. I was in danger of losing myself in all this, and I so much didn’t want that to happen. I wasn’t waving; I was drowning, and in a sea of human misery that happens but which I didn’t want to experience.

“So, if discretion is the better part of valour, is cowardice the better part of discretion?” I asked myself. My inner voice has a lot to say. It has read everything I’ve read, listened to my innermost thoughts, and it is very well versed in telling me what it really thinks, no holds barred.

I like helping people. It’s in my nature. What I don’t like is people who think they’re white knights, riding in to vanquish the dragon, when they don’t know whether the person being rescued is a damsel or a witch. “Just stay out of it, Ryan,” I said aloud, knowing as I said it that I’d already reached the decision not to.

It was only a day and a half later, a Saturday morning, when I drove past the house and saw the completely shit door that had been put in place. It was one of those cheap waffle board doors that look sturdy but are honeycombed with cardboard on the inside. A good kick and your foot would go through it to the other side. It looked odd and out of place on the house, which was unremarkable but nice enough. It was just a normal suburban home, a pool in the backyard, and one you wouldn’t glance at twice except for the world’s ugliest front door, unpainted. Then I saw the kids, a couple of young ones playing quietly along the side of the front yard. I wondered how much they knew, and how it would fuck them up.

I drove by and onward, sorry for this family. I’d heard the cops discussing the DV – domestic violence – while I was there, so I knew it was all about a guy who thinks his property rights extend to beating his partner, or ex-partner as it may be. There are rare times when I hate my species, but there are less rare times when I loathe my gender. Women are not punching bags, and children are off limits to everyone, regardless of their gender. It’s not a difficult concept, but the beating of women and the scaring of children remains entrenched.

“No more,” I said to myself. An hour later I was back at the house. “Excuse me, ma’am,” I said when she opened the door. “I’m the locksmith and I was here the other night. She looked a little alarmed, and I was so sorry because I figured she’d been frightened enough for one lifetime. She nodded, visibly relaxing as she recognised me, and I could see she used some kind of makeup – I think it’s called concealer – to cover as much of the bruising on her face as possible. Probably so her kids wouldn’t be frightened, I thought.

“The thing is …” I hesitated, “The thing is, I saw this new door and, no offence meant, but it’s really rubbish. A strong gust of wind and it’ll fall over,” I said, sort of smiling. “I had a good one at home from when I renovated,” I lied, “and if it’s okay with you I’d like to fix it up here. It’s solid timber with metal rods through it, for strength.”

She knew. It might have helped my story if I’d taken the price label off before I dragged it up there. “My name is …” she began, but I cut her off. I didn’t want to know; couldn’t know. “I’ll just set about this, then,” I said. “It’ll take a few hours so please just go on about your day.” I left the door and went back to the truck to get my tools.

The door was a beauty. Steel reinforced internal ribs, six bolts that levered into the rebate when you turned the primary lock, tough hinges, and a sliding grille with bars that you could open from the inside to see who was standing outside. The house would fall down before the door did. I worked methodically, priming the door before doing the necessary drilling into the brick surround where the bolts would ease into. It took a few hours and I finished it off with a coat of paint before standing back to admire it. I nodded to myself; it was a good job.

I ran through the key and lock mechanisms with her, so she knew how to do what. I showed her how to open and re-lock the security grille, and then when she asked me if I’d like a drink of water I said yes. While she was gone I quickly picked up my tools and closed the door. I made it to the edge of the porch before I heard the grille slide open. I looked, and there she was, looking back at me, and our eyes locked just like they did on that night I first came. I nodded to her, walked to my truck, and drove away.

At the end of the month I sent my invoices to the police department for payment, along with a letter informing them that changed circumstances meant I’d no longer be accepting emergency repair work. It was freeing, and it was the right decision. Sure, I’d lose the very handy money that came from it, but being able to sleep better at night made that a very small sacrifice.

***

“No one else to call, Ryan,” Macy, the dispatcher, said when she interrupted my sleep nearly two months later. “We can’t get hold of the guy who replaced you and, truth to be told, he’s been pretty unreliable all the way through.” I was tired and groggy, and I yawned my way through the call. “Okay, but just this one last time,” I said. Macy gave me the details and I was surprised. The location was where I’d put up the Unbreakable Door From Hell. I couldn’t let on that I knew the door was sturdy, and I was genuinely curious, so I took this one last job.

He’d tried to kick the door in, so I guessed his toes would be pretty sore or maybe even broken. Then he tried some sort of claw hammer to smash the lock and pry the hinges. No luck there, either. The door had held, just like it was meant to, but it had been damaged in the process and the officers on site didn’t know if it would hold through the rest of the night or not. They were obliged to call in someone like me.

I changed the barrel of the lock and one hinge, the hinge more for the sake of aesthetics than anything else. I heard the woman inside, talking to the officers, and I glimpsed her for a moment before I turned and began leaving. “Excuse me!” she called, and I kept on walking. “Excuse me!” she called louder, and I turned to look at her. “Thank you,” she mouthed soundlessly. It was enough.

I didn’t take any more emergency jobs after that, even though the police had asked several times and had offered to up my rate. I’m not built for guilt, and I had more sleepless nights after that last callout because I felt helpless to make more than a cosmetic difference. If there was a final solution someone else would have to find it.

Okay, I said I’m not built for guilt, and that’s true. When I came out of the night and dragged him into the shadows, I didn’t feel guilty at all. When I smashed his kneecaps so badly he’d never walk properly – or kick a door in again – I still didn’t feel guilty. When I wrecked his elbows beyond repair, so that he could never lay a blow on so much as a fly again, I remained steadfastly un-guilty. And when, in the fullness of time, I saw him hobble out of the hospital, I didn’t feel guilty that a few hours later I put him right back in it again.

He was bigger than me but it didn’t make any difference except for one. I’ve always said that if you think you’re a real tough guy, go pick on someone twice your size. He didn’t, but I did. The best man won. As for the woman he’d terrorised, I don’t know what she thought of all this. Relief, maybe. He’d never hit her again, that’s for sure. Maybe she’d be disgusted that someone like me would perpetuate violence even if it was making a victim of the man she’d been a victim of.

I know that in my heart I did a terrible thing for a good cause, and maybe I saved that guy’s next partner from a series of beatings, because people tend to repeat what’s worked successfully for them. I was never questioned. Why would I be? I’m just a locksmith. I fix things.

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23 thoughts on “Unlocked.

  1. I was waiting for that to happen. It had to, because Ryan felt too much to let it go. You made it very clear just how much he empathized with the victims whose homes he had to patch together, the way the doctors had to patch the victims themselves. The connection between Ryan and the woman is so clear and true, right from the first moment, that everything else is just inevitable. Beautifully done. Beautifully done.

  2. Hitting the keyboard. Because sometimes how a story comes to life is as, or more, interesting than the story itself.
    ***

    There’s a special place in hell reserved for people who commit domestic violence, whether the perpetrator is male or female. It’s just one flame higher than people who harm children.

    This story was hard to write, not from a technical perspective, because there’s really nothing new in any of that, but from a personal point of view. The writing didn’t take long, but the getting up and walking away from it when it was emotionally overwhelming me made this short story a 7-hour epic.

    I had an outline idea but, as ever, I let the story tell itself the way it wanted to be told, and so it’s quite different from where I thought it would go.

    There were few things I didn’t want. I didn’t want it to be a ‘romance from a distance’ story. From that, I extracted the idea that he couldn’t bring himself to even know her name. It wasn’t romance or attraction or damsel in distress stuff that kept bringing him back; it was shared humanity. Ryan would have done the same if it was a male who was the victim.

    At that point in the story where she touches his arm – like gossamer and fire – (a line I really liked) the story becomes personal for him. Until then, he’s affected but slightly removed from her reality. I thought it was powerful that she is worried that he has become a secondary victim. Seeing into that beyond the obvious, she has a deep well of compassion for others and a keen insight into how things can ripple out.

    I liked writing her. She has quiet dignity and strength, and I liked that she understood, or at least accepted, that he had drawn a line – this close and no closer – and she didn’t try to find him or send him thanks. It underlined my goal that this wasn’t a romance but a reaction to human tragedy. She had the insight to understand that.

    I have commented here and on Souldier Girl’s blog that I find her ‘Eyes Behind Bars’ (as I’ve named it, for my purposes) haunting and beautiful. I saw that before I read her poem and I was thinking I’d love to write a story around that image, but when I read her poem I knew the story was there and how it was going to be aimed.

    Why Ryan does what he does (the new door and the later repairs) was written as a reminder that we can all be angels for each other. You never know what’s coming to save you. At first, I wanted him to not be the rescuing kind, which was another reason for the artificial distance I made him use. I didn’t want this to be a brave man-as-saviour story. Ultimately, he did it for himself, because he was scared that he was in danger of being overwhelmed in a world where shit like violence happens and people tut-tut but largely stand back and do little, if anything.

    I very briefly toyed with the idea of ‘her’ fighting back, but it smacked too much of a woman-driven-to-extremes trope or a lioness-protecting-her-cubs story and, while important, they’ve been done and I wanted to write something at least somewhat original.

    I kept away from as much graphic violence as possible, not only to preserve Souldier Girl’s feelings (if she even decided to read the story), but because I didn’t want to make violent scenes the ‘hero’ of the story. Obviously, Ryan committed acts of violence at the end, but I had a point in mind when I committed him to that: that we cannot look away and allow these terrible things to stand; that even though Ryan wanted peace he had to be prepared for war.

    Hopefully subtlely, the second beating that sent the offender back to hospital was written because I wanted to instil fear in the offender’s heart, so that every day of his life he’d be looking over his shoulder. I wanted to rob him of peace, just as he did to her.

    In terms of Ryan, I deliberately sketched him so that the reader could decide for him or herself who Ryan is. He could be a fatherly type nearing the end of his career, or he could be an ‘everyman’ type who is unremarkable and largely invisible. I see him as the latter, but I like to write some characters ambiguously so that the reader can ‘dimensionalise’ the character as their imagination allows.

    In the end, I think ‘she’ came out of it better than Ryan did. She has strength, presence, and insight. It’ll hurt, maybe for a long time, but she’ll do better than survive it; she’ll grow and blossom. For Ryan, I think he’s smart enough, but not as smart as her. This whole thing is going to hurt him for a long time, and maybe he’ll never fully resolve it.

    ***

    So, there we are. An insight into my thinking behind the story. Those of you who have read other stuff of mine will know that I like to hurt my heroes. I try not to write obviously flawed characters in leads, but I do like to make the heroes relatable – damaged but not too damaged.

  3. I thought this was a very thoughtful story. Hit the message home big time.

    I do have a thing about the ending though, mind the ending is great and I would love to imagine myself being able to beat up a domestic abuser. But it’s that he did something that saved the day. I think that should have been enough. It would show that even a small kindness is enough to save a life, especially since a lot of us can’t fight and wouldn’t be great vigilantes.
    That said I loved the story with the ending and wish I could have done the same thing. people like that deserve the worst forms of pain.

    • Hi Addy, and thanks for your comment. I actually wrote an alternative ending because the whole violence against violence thing is absurdly hypocritical. I toyed with ideas of a courtroom drama (unsuitable for a short story), her moving away or taking some desperate action (too often done to death), and natural retribution, such as a sickness or vague accident taking ‘him’ out of play, but in the end I went with what’s here because the other ending seemed too vague and too ‘look the other way and life will sort him out’.

      To hold true to what I intended for the story I had to willingly paint myself into a corner and then be prepared to step all over the paint. Ryan is a slightly flawed character. Not massively so, but still. To me it was interesting (and intense) to let him be what he is and see where it would take him. He doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would belt people unless there was massive provocation, but to find out for sure I’d have to reprise him in this role and see what happens next, and I don’t want to do that.

      I wondered, when I was coming to the end, how Ryan would react if he was charged as a result of what he did. Outside of storytelling, those situations have real and often ongoing consequences. However, I think it’s best to leave this story where it is, or more storytelling would probably dilute the impact.

      In the end, it all came down to ‘what happens when you put ordinary people into extraordinary situations?’

      Thanks again for your comment. I learn and grow from reading other peoples’ interpretations and ideas, so you’re helping me to be a better writer. Much appreciated and acknowledged.

  4. Very good job with the story. I don’t agree with Ryan’s choice but that character was well-written and realistic.

    I very much like the comment you wrote about how this story came to be. For what it’s worth, I agree with most of it. I guess this is my way of saying that I like PD more than I like Ryan.

    SD’s poem hasn’t left me alone ever since I read it. I started a poem of my own, but it’s getting too long for my liking. I’ll have to break it up somehow. I also started a short story and I’ll have that ready soon enough.

    As a side note: I don’t think violence is the answer … ever. I’m not saying it’s not necessary … sometimes. But it damages something inside us, even when it’s used to save someone else. With that being said, I totally disagree with “If someone slaps you, turn the other cheek.” The heck with that! Nobody should be somebody else’s punching bag … EVER.

  5. Well, to totally change the tone of all this: this is exactly what a good story is supposed to do. Entertain, make you think, make you object a little, make you love a little … all that. The story has worked. Look at the comments other than mine. I created a space for opinions and everyone has one.

    So, while I could have improved it from a technical perspective, from a storytelling perspective I have, I think, absolutely nailed it. You guys bought into the story – suspension of disbelief – and it’s raised genuine feelings and even points for disagreement.

    I just wrote a good story.

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  7. You’re a good man, brother. If you’d called me, I’d have held your coat for you, either the first or second time… Then, you could hold mine for a minute or two?… No guilt, ever, for justice.

    gigoid

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