FICTION: Chapter 16 (Total Rewrite, Better)

16: MY BOY IS GONE AND I AM LOST

Dad

My boy is gone and I am lost.

For a moment I allowed my idiot self to think that the boy and I might have had a chance at a successful, decent relationship, despite everything, against all the odds, and certainly all my expectations. I had already assumed my opportunities to have some kind of positive influence over his life were long past, and I’d fumbled them all, tried too hard or not tried hard enough, or not known which was required when.

I never knew what to do or how to do it, and not knowing, never knowing, kept me awake almost every night these past fifteen and a bit years. Lying there every night trying to understand the problem, trying to think. Thinking itself was never my thing. But what else could I do? I was a mechanic. Spanners and wrenches were no use with the boy and his terrible troubles. He couldn’t talk about what was wrong, and I couldn’t talk much at all about anything. We had no common language. We were like two people from two different countries who live in the same house, and have to fumble our way through each day. And There was never any sort of instructions or formal help aimed at helpless dads struck speechless in the face of the baffling enigma of their children. There was a government nurse sort of thing when the boy was just a baby, but that was mainly to help Jennie look after him after he was born, make sure he was growing right, getting his inoculations, all that sort of thing. There was no help for dads. There was nothing to tell us how to help, or how to be good dads. A lot of the young blokes I knew at the time had no trouble with this, and couldn’t have been happier about it. “Not my place,” they’d say. “Not my business.” They figured all they had to do was go to work, make some money, put food on the table, and that was it. They figured that was plenty, by the time you put up with arsehole bosses and all the bullshit every day.

They never thought about being good dads. They just assumed they were good dads, because they had jobs. They never said much about conversations they had, or books they read together. One thing about my boy: whenever I could, I made every effort to read to him, and to help him learn to read for himself. Reading is one of the greatest pleasures in life. If I could help him find that, it would please me more than I could say.

Another thing that made smile for weeks: I taught him, despite his fear and nerves, his inward-ness, to ride a bike. He took a while to get it, to grasp the idea, but once he did, and understand that it was transport, that it was independence–he actually smiled and laughed as he rode past me on the road, big joyful howling laughter. He was the sort of boy whose laughter had always sounded like sobbing, but this was laughter you could not mistake for anything other than the sound of fountaining happiness. It remains the only time I heard it from him. It’s one of my treasures, memories I keep on a shelf in my head, and polish until they shine, until the light in them is just so. The late afternoon sunlight, the uneven paving stones in the footpath, the way the front wheels wobbled.

I mention those things that made me happy to remind myself. So often when I think about the boy the first thing that comes to mind is pain, irritation, outright anger, sometimes hatred, even feelings of betrayal. Like knowing that if me and Jennie split, he would insist on staying with her. She makes more money, has a more stable job, but it burns and stings, knowing he wouldn’t want to share himself between us. He would cut himself from me. That I meant less than nothing: I meant pain, suffering, and the end of our family. I know he feels that way, and it makes me die inside. And it makes me feel that way is because if I were in his shoes, with the same situation, I would make the same choice. Mum is a better, more stable choice.

The boy and I are both unwell. We need help. Jennie would make sure he got the help he needs. Whereas I would try to fit treatment and its cost around what I could get paid.

I’ve always known about it, the blight. I knew something wasn’t right. The buzzing in my head, the restlessness, the inability to sit and rest, to sudden urges to go off on mad adventures, no questions asked. Ordinary routine was deadly. I hated it. It was death. Our wedding was glamorous and exciting, an unforgettable night with our families and friends. But married life was a hard slog. It was daily life, bills and appointments and shopping and meal prep and maintenance and mortgage payments. Getting money, and seeing it all disappear to pay bills in mere moments. Debts and loans. Regular jobs. Hours, and hourly rates, penalty rates and standing around calculating time and a half on four and a quarter hours.

It was death. The more this suburban straitjacket closed around me the more I wanted just to go, be gone, anywhere. To just drive. I did that sometimes, when there were things I wanted to say but of course I never could. So I drove. I would set out for a place that felt like it could express my point, but by the time I got there it was intolearable and I’d go someplace else, and the same again. Whole nights like this, and thoughts building up in your head like a bloody monsoon.

I always hated my work, the jobs I did, the sort of work I did. Hated that i had a freakish, spooky, savant-level gift for anything with an engine in it. You name it, I could fix it. It was mostly nice seeing people impressed with a display of genius, but the pressure of genius was intolerable. The expectation that Phil here could bring Christ back from the dead. I hated it. I wanted to have been an artist, or maybe a writer. Something with books.

My parents–thank the Vile God above–are both dead. They died in a nursing home fire. The sort of fire in a nursing home where you learn later was run for profit, and that this achieved by fleecing the patients, treating them like shit, and skimping on safety, especially fire safety.

Dad mad me burn my writing. He found out I was writing about what he and Uncle Bruce and their mates were doing to me. And Father Gregory. I was only writing it down to keep it straight what happened. I never thought of it as “evidence”, but Dad did, and then I did.

All of this is part of why I can’t talk about things. I can write to some extent, but my voice betrays me, Adult Australian Man that I am that I am. Don’t copy your old man, son. Talk about your shit. Get it off your chest. Lay it out for all to see. Lots of people will give you shit for doing so, but lots of others will thank you.

I wonder if I’ll ever see you again. The thought makes me die inside. We were so close just the other night. I read you and you read me. For an unbelievable moment we were close. Fathers and sons in this country aren’t meant to get such moments of pure grace. It never happens. It kept me awake all night. I could feel your kiss for ages. You never did that before, and now I wonder if you’ll do it again to me.

It’s late now, after midnight, and it’s been raining here for five days and nights. It’s raining with us, too. Raining in my heart. I live there, in a fortress of tough muscle and fibre. The noise is quite something. Your mum cries from morning to night, and in her sleep. She believes a sexual predator got you. I believe the woman named Fiona named by your “Future Bastard” mentioned got you.

In the days since your disappearance I have spoken to Detective Lockley. He related a witness statement by a skinny girl with glasses named Eleanor who described a woman somehow subduing you and bundling you into a station wagon. She must be a strong and capable woman to do this with no help. Eleanor was on her was to her school bus when happened to spot you standing waiting for Mum.

Detective Lockley is going to interview the other schoolkids, he said. Something might turn up. I brought up the issue of the Apple iPhone 7 you gave him. I know Future Bastard wanted you to get back. I’m now wondering if I need to use it to come to the future to retrieve you before Fiona hurts you or worse. Lockley says the device has been entered into evidence, so…

Your mum and have tried everything. We’ve worn out the motel phone here, but it now looks like we have to dispose of our house. We haven’t had that house long, and the market and interest rates are in the toilet right now. We’ve been informed by various people in the industry that this is the worst time to sell a house in ages. And making it even worse is the specific details of our house–the murder committed there. The fact that despite the best efforts of the forensic cleaners recommended by the police, the old place still stinks. The stink has made its way into plaster and carpet and other porous surfaces that will never release it. And Robbie, your room, Ground Zero of the entire event, is a complete loss. Books, papers, belongings, the bed, clothes, toys–all of it will have to go. It will be hard. It will be among the hardest things you will ever face. Your mum and I can probably take care of the worst of it, but there are probably things you would want to do yourself.

In any case, we will soon have to find new accommodation. It will be smaller that house. It won’t be as nice. It might be in a new area. It might mean starting at a new school.

God, what am I saying? Even if the boy was standing on this exact square-inch, the very one you’re standing one, there’s a wall nearly forty years wide between you. He’s not going to be starting at a new high school here in 1979 any more than I will! It makes me wonder if Fiona will make him go to school. Or will she keep him prisoner? What does she want him for, anyway? Why kidnap a depressed teenager in the first place?

I need to talk to Future Bastard. I need a way to communicate with him in the future.

I need a way to stop feeling like this is all my bloody fault. The whole thing. If I’d been a better dad, a better worker, a better provider. From what I understand after reading the notebook, the original version of Future Bastard was the guy we now think of as the dead man. He wanted to tell the boy that his own sense “if only I wasn’t so inadequate as a son, a student, etc, Dad wouldn’t be planning on leaving home”.

But I was planning on leaving home because I felt inadequate. I was useless. I was a terrible, pointless husband, my efforts were so bad as to be unwelcome. Jennie and I were blaming each other for everything. She felt all the same uselessness I did, but I got to the suitcases first.

What we needed, mainly, was to sit down together, the three of us, and maybe just say out loud how we actually felt, just to see how that felt, and how wrong it was. Maybe go from there?

I dont’ know. I still feel useless. I still hurt, deep inside, watching my boxes of notebooks burn in the backyard incinerator. I remember how I wanted to burn their Huge, ornate, heirloom, family Bible. I wanted to burn that book like nothing else.

Right now, at 2:30am, with all the rain in the world falling outside, I still want to burn that book. But I want my book back to see it, and to understand why I’m doing it. I want him to understand the power of writing.

My boy is gone and I am lost.

hard pressed now even to describe his face. He wears his hair so long, with his fringe down so low across his eyes like that, as if to hide behind it, it’s hard to know what he’s thinking–or even if he’s thinking.

No, I take that back. I think that thinking is just about ALL he does. He doesn’t do much, he’s no man of action, nobody’s idea of a natural-born athlete, but he will think circles around you. And of course he writes. I always knew he wrote, was always, always writing, and to tell the truth I was afraid of what he might be saying about us, his mum and me. We’re always fighting, the lot of us. Me and Jennie, the pair of us against the boy, the boy against one of us. Just always this endless strife and conflict. The only time things are quiet is when we’re all too exhausted to fight. Then it’s like that Christmas story about World War I when the two sides called a truce because it was Christmas and they celebrated and had a nice time for a few hours. We have those every now and then, when all the fighting is too much. When we can’t stand it. When we are sick from it.

I’ve spoken to Detective Lockley. I gave him all the information we have at the moment, which isn’t much. Just that when Jennie arrived to collect the boy today he wasn’t there, but there was a skinny pale girl with glasses named Eleanor who told Jennie that there was a woman who somehow subdued the boy and dragged him into her car. The girl saw it happen as she was going to get on the schoolbus. She said the woman was about average-sized, but didn’t get a good look. Other kids going to the buses around that time might have gotten a better look. So Lockley is looking into that.

I can hear Jennie crying in bed as I write. She’s asleep, but she’s crying. “Who would take him? Who would take our boy?” she says. “What’s happened to our life?”

At least Zonk is going to be okay. That’s a massive relief. The vet clinic phoned us today. They said it was very close at times, and they thought on several occasions that they would have to bring us in to say our good-byes, but the old girl rallied every time. She is a fighter, full of hybrid vigour, and Jack Russell vitality. And she’s a bright-eyed ratbag, and in the midst of everything that’s been going on around us these past few days, it’s wonderful to have something so unambiguously good come our way.

Of course, I don’t know how we’ll pay for the life-saving treatment. We may have to take out a loan. It’s already looking very much like we’ll have to sell the house at a loss. The cleaners the police recommended have done their best, but I can still smell the dead man, especially in the boy’s room.

Again, I circle back to the boy.

I have read his notebook. I’ve read the messages from “Future Bastard”. I hope that version of the boy comes to visit again. The messages he’s left so far lead me to suspect that the boy might have been taken by this Fiona person, “the Widow”. He doesn’t say much about her, but he says enough. I know to watch out for her. If she is capable of taking an almost fully-grown teenage boy, an overweight boy at that, by herself, in broad daylight, in front of witnesses, then she is someone to fear. Someone not to be trifled with.

Has she taken him from our time to her time? I can’t even imagine it. I am prepared to believe that Future Bastard is from the year 2017 as he says, but I can’t imagine my boy there as well. I can imagine the grown-up, middle-aged, grey-haired version, no problem. The man who ended up there by going the long way, sure, fine. But for a pasty, fat, pimply kid with greasy hair in his eyes who can’t cope with the 1970s to then find himself in 2017? I don’t know how I would cope in 2017!

What gets me is that the boy could even be standing right here, on this exact square inch of ground, even in this very house if it still exists in forty years, and yet be too far away to touch or hold. So close, so far. If we could only open a tiny crack in time, we could peer through, and maybe see one another, and it would be okay. Or at least a bit okay. But forty years makes an impenetrable wall. There is no getting through it, and not much prospect of getting over it.

I would, though, given a chance. I did read that notebook. I read about that Apple iPhone 7. I read about the “HG app”, whatever the hell that means. I know Robbie gave the iPhone to Detective Lockley, and I know Future Bastard wanted Robbie to try to get it back. But if it’s in police evidence, what chance is there of that? Surely, not much?

I sit here at the desk in this small pool of light. Our lives are in ruins. Our son is gone, possibly forever, locked so far away from us that he may as well be dead. Jennie and I are at breaking point, blaming each other. The boy’s disappearance is my fault, is her fault, is our fault, is nobody’s fault, is–

Probably this bloody Fiona’s fault. Our makeshift and hopeless parenting did not lead to the boy’s abduction. We did what we had to do. He was at school, where he was supposed to be. We knew he was not well, and we had been starting to look into what we might be able to do about that, as I promised him.

Even so, all my years of never knowing what to say or how to say it hung before me like corpses. All those missed opportunities to be be a good dad. To show him that I cared. That he meant something to me. That there was more in my life than just my job. I hated that I always came home exhausted and always ended up in angry arguments with Jennie and the boy. Sometimes dinner ended up on the floor or the wall. I hated hated hated nights like that. It was like I was inside a suit, and I was driving the suit, or at least watching what the suit was doing, and it was doing all these appalling things, and I couldn’t stop it. I could see the boy was angry and crying, and I could see how scared Jennie was, but I couldn’t stop it. It had to play out. It was horrible and terrifying. I scared myself, but I couldn’t ever explain how much I hated it, and how I felt scared, too. I saw them both cringe away from me.

When, on the bad nights, I packed my bags, I knew the boy would stay with his mum. Why would he ever choose to come with me, or even visit me? Why would he ever have anything to do with me when I was such a monster in his eyes? I understood entirely. In his shoes I would do the same.

Which was why it was so wonderful that night when I read his notebook, and I wrote in it, and we reached a moment of actual understanding. We actually had a genuine sweet moment together. We had not had a moment like that since, I think, he was a tiny baby, and I would bath him and he would gurgle with happiness and laugh.

My boy is gone and I am lost. I can’t lose him. I can’t lose my family. It’s all I have.