The Battle of the Buttons

by Dualta Carolan


When we were still less than the height of a door handle, when I was a skinny rake pre-bedtimed in Spiderman pyjamas, and Peter a much manlier Superman, we were given a spare Christmas selection box to share.

Such a chocolate treasure trove as this may have included a Twix, a Double-Decker and an old-style red coconut Boost (which were much better than the blue ones), but these aren’t really important to the story. What is absolutely critical, however, is that there was definitely a Curley-Wurley and a packet of Buttons.

We separated the chocolates in a very brotherly way. I chose one and Peter chose the next, with the number steadily declining until only the Curley-Wurley and the Buttons remained. If you consider the long hole-filled shape and the fun, caramel stretchiness of the Curley-Wurley, it is difficult to see how basic little dabs of milk chocolate could contend as a choice for young children, but it was at this moment that we both decided to have the Buttons, no matter what the cost.

Things started becoming heated to the point that harsh words were said. I called Peter a fatty, an insult that could only be argued to be true when he was standing beside my skeletal frame, and Peter responded by calling me a big-ear, which tragically for me was true. I had been born prematurely, the result of which was that one of my ears was slightly unattached to the side of my head and jutted out more than the other one.

Violence ensued that was so brutal and sly it seemed as if we two soldiers were desperately fighting for our lives. Peter pinned me down with his knee on my arm so that I’d be unable to wrestle the divine chocolate discs from his grasp, but I managed to get a leg free and kick him over my head into the chest of drawers, which gave me time to recover for a new more ferocious attack. And so it went on.

Peter was always more likely to achieve the upper hand in our scuffles, but this time I managed to gain possession of the vital packet. Sensing defeat, he revealed his ace card, yelling grave injustices for the benefit of our long suffering referees.

Unfortunately, the more decisive of the two arrived.

Our giant father emerged from the unseen to discover two rub-faced superheroes blurting smashes of argument at rapidly increasing volumes. Seeming to hear nothing that I said, he promptly thrust the Curley-Wurley towards me, took the Buttons from my shocked hand, and presented them to a magnanimous and supremely triumphant Peter.

My father then walked towards the bedroom door, seeming to clap the expertly-done hard work from his hands. ‘And that is that.’

It is not! I thought, bemused with wonder at what brilliant argument Peter must have made in his half sentence.

‘It’s not fair! Why should he have it?’

My father stopped at the door. ‘Because I say so. If you don’t like the way I run things, feel free to leave at any time.’

When I saw that he had made his decision, I would normally change my attitude, but the fact that even my father was slightly entertained by his own power, smiling so obtusely, made me stubborn. I was forced to call his bluff.

‘Ok then!’ I said in a full and confident rage, and to my eternal regret: ‘I will.’

My father smiled, stimulated. ‘That’s fine by me, as long as it’s your decision. Here,’ he said, giving me no time to think. ‘Let me show you out.’

If I had been Spiderman, I would have wrapped them both up in a thick matt of webbing and eaten the Buttons one at a time after dangling each one an inch from Peter’s mouth, while he cried for Daddy’s help — but Daddy would be powerless, watching as his authority was sacrilegiously ignored, as if he were Moses returning from the mountain and the eating of the buttons a sinful defiant ritual to the golden cow.

I would say that I stormed tornado-like from the room, and this would convey the fury that radiated from my matchstick frame. But I could not storm. If I stormed, there would be no time for him to think about what he had done to me, his more sensitive son. Therefore I walked extremely slowly in a stormful way, which was a very difficult and complex thing to do without giving away my desire to stay.

I believed that there was no way my father would let me leave. Of this, I was certain. I had become accustomed to his shoulder-back rides and tickles, airplanes and flip-overs, and had always known the security of dinner times and tea times. He would not, in my opinion, let this go on for much longer, since my bedtime had come and gone.

The hall ended with six stairs that descended towards the huge window of the night, and with my father stepping behind me, I saw my future. The wind drove the icy rain into the window in such a way that it was hard to believe the great pane of glass would not break. Because of the light in the hall, the ripping raindrops were all that could be seen against the blackest and most hopeless of pictures. I would have given nearly anything, including the packet of Buttons, for my father to pick me up and tell me he’d never let me leave. But there was an important principle at stake, even though I didn’t know what a principle was. My father had to beg me to stay and there was no alternative.

As I took the first of those six stairs on that now lush, soft and deeply warm carpet, he still had not given in, but I knew he must be approaching breaking point. I turned and glanced to find him smiling down. What made this more insulting was that there was no judgement in his look. It said — leaving is your decision, a decision you can take back any time you want.

If the first six steps were those of the condemned man towards his execution, then when I turned left and left again, the next ten stairs, with the window now looming over my head, were the steps of the executed man towards the gates of Hell itself. The little daemon that I had become would first experience the scalding cold and stunning blackness of the night.

And still the large silent presence of my father, ancient as the earth itself, guided me warmly towards my doom.

‘You should be in bed!’ my mother said as she made her final journey from the kitchen to the living room to put her feet up beside the fire. Here she would savour the pine smell of the Christmas tree and watch a movie while sipping her hot whiskey with cloves.

The hope of my mother’s presence brought with it a surge of courage that I could somehow save myself. I gave to the words the tragedy of abuse.

‘I have been asked to leave...’

My father interrupted. ‘No-one has asked you to leave. If you want to abide by my rules, you can live here as long as you like. If you don’t, you can find somewhere else.’

My mother’s expression dipped slightly in the confusion of not quite knowing what was going on. When she stepped calmly out of my way, I knew that my nemesis had won her over, and with her defection all hope was lost.

Although it shouldn’t have been possible, the cold whisper that warmed the unseen fire became a torrent of The Wind’s laughter. I could feel the bending and creaking of all the ghost-hiding trees in the deathly black countryside. Worst of all, I could sense a kind of murmur, a moan being made by all of the children throughout time who had left their parents on nights such as this one, never to be seen again.

My thoughts glanced back an eternity into the past, to when Peter and I had been given a selection box full of chocolates. Destined to eat more-chocolate-than-we-could-imagine in one sitting, we would then talk into the late hours and pretend to be asleep when they creaked up the hall and dipped their heads in, listening. We would say our prayers, including a prayer to have Superman’s powers, and drift hopefully off into our sleeps.

I’d be damned if I was going to let my father get away with changing this destiny.

I opened the front door so slowly that a person might have thought me possessed by a slug. The cold dry air trapped in the porch enhanced the warmth of the beautiful house and caused me to doubt whether I’d be up to the task of going further. The tiles were so cold that I had to step from foot to foot without letting the evil ones see. I turned to my father and back again to the porch door, praying to everything that could be prayed to; praying to God, to the blackness of the night, to my Spiderman pyjamas; I prayed to the hair on my head and to my Curley Wurley; I prayed to Peter’s perceived fatness and even to my big ear. Most of all, I cursed the Buttons, the currency of evil which had destroyed my life.

I placed both hands on the door and looked back one last time. Peter appeared beside them, three-quarters smug enjoyment and the other quarter genuinely worried that this might happen to him some day.

‘What’s going on?’ Sinead said on her way from the back door with John and Lynda, but all three instinctively realised that they must be silent, and that yet they could witness this mysterious disgrace. It seemed to me as if they were standing for a family photograph in which I could never again be included.

I pulled at the sliding door and it flew open, making the sound of hatch-doors on the Death-Star. It was as if I had blundered onto the deck of a ship in a storm. A shocking arctic blast shot through me as if there were holes in my skin that allowed the icy current to chisel into my bones. I took one barefoot step onto the slushy tarmac as the frozen rain began to chip the skin from my face and my nose burned frostily red. The loose stones and ice tore and wrote heavily in my tender feet. My pyjamas were drenched numb with an instant slimy coldness.

I scurried painfully down the drive, not looking back, every single stone making my feet more and more tender, every raindrop a shocking reminder of the comfort I had enjoyed in that house. Then came the cattle-grid, twelve metal bars spaced sufficiently enough to prevent cattle from coming up the drive. I had been aware of the grid chiefly for the great thunderous sound that the car made when it drove across, and the game of balancing along the thin lines on warm sunny days. The level of difficulty involved in stepping on the icy metal could be compared to doing press-ups with broken arms, or the pressure of catching a lump of stone that has been thrown from the same direction as the sun, just before it hits your face.

By the time I had made it over this brutal course, I was dishevelled and exhausted, unsure how to survive for much longer. I found it difficult to breathe through the fierce wind, which flung darts of rain at me from all directions and paralysed my brain.

Amazingly, considering the conditions, Mrs. Connolly emerged from the darkness to my right, being led homeward along the pavement by her terrier. She was wearing a thick coat with warm clothes, gloves and two or three scarves. Her hood was tightened so tightly that if I had not known her so well she might have given me a heart-attack. I was stunned to see that any human could be out here by choice.

I waited confidently for her to come rushing to my aid, to console me for the abuse inflicted upon me by my family of satanic tyrants. I could imagine my father dropping his head in shame at this public revelation of his brutality. Mrs. Connolly glanced up at the front window and then nodded towards me.

‘Evening, Dualta.’

‘Evening...’ I gasped, ‘...Mrs. Connolly.’ The terrier sniffed my leg for a moment before moving along with her.

What used to be my family watched from the living room window to see my next move, which would have strengthened my stubbornness had I not been so wrecked. There was nothing left, I knew, but the energy to make it back to the house. I would do anything to sit by the fire, drinking some soup and drying out, before climbing into my luxurious bed and pretending in my sleep that it had all been a nightmare.

The cattle-grid demanded that I couldn’t look at my father, which was a good thing. My little feet had gone so numb that I had to stare down in the dark to see where my legs were going. I rushed painfully toward the front door, hoping desperately to be allowed in.

My pride, even through my hurt and pain, was still furiously working on a way to save itself. How could I get back into the house and not openly admit defeat? My little brain cells churned and flexed as I got to them, and as I opened the door and walked past my father, giving him no choice but to let me pass, I looked up once and stated the words that have never been forgotten by those involved, especially the Titan whose authority would never again be questioned within those walls. I made my announcement as regally as I could and swept through to the fire.

Ever since, when I return home and the family is together, each of them take over effortlessly to relate some of what happened that night. At the climax, they become united in chorus of my regretful line, to the deep satisfaction of the man himself. When the story is all told, he laughs with delight as he repeats the words of the defeated Spiderman, said to save his own pride:

‘I’ll give you one more chance!’


Copyright © 2008 by Dualta Carolan

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