Man to Man

by Bruce Costello


“Teeth, toilet, bed,” was the nightly mantra, then a story acted out with comic voices to shrieks of laughter, followed by sleep... eventually.

Steve Harley crept from the children’s room, made a coffee, plonked into a lounge chair and closed his eyes. The coffee slowly spilled from the tilted cup in his hand. He knew he was asleep, but the scene before his eyes seemed more a re-enactment than a dream.

He was washing the dinner dishes. Debbie’s hand was already on the door, her red fingernails like spots of blood against the chromium handle. Her platinum braids swung as she spun round and shrieked: “I’m past caring. I know you hate me. But you needn’t think...”

He threw the dish mop into the sink, turned and said quietly: “All I meant was, I’d like us to go to a marriage counselor, so we can tell each other calmly how we feel and what we think, so we can work this out, for the children’s sake.”

“I already know what you think,” replied Debbie, her voice now cold. “You think you’re going to get me into some shrink’s office and twist the truth against me! Well, you can think again!”

“It would be helpful if you could listen to what I do think, for once,” he said, his voice rising, “instead of always telling me...”

“I’ve got friends who love me,” Debbie screamed as she slammed the door.

Steve woke with a start. He heard a whimpering and felt a tugging at his sleeve. Three-year old Jason, with tousled snowy hair, teddy in hand, was staring up at him.

“Daddy,” he was saying, “why doesn’t Mummy want us to love you?”

* * *

Debbie came home after midnight, stomped into their bedroom, threw on the light and ripped the blankets off. Steve leapt out of bed, fist raised, towering over her. He’d never struck another person, but now he knew how easy it could be. He soaked in her look, then lowered his fist.

“God, I was sound asleep! Thought you were a burglar.”

“Violent bastard!” she yelled. There was a triumphant gleam in her eyes as she ran to the phone.

Steve checked the boys. They were still asleep. He dressed and waited.

* * *

At the police station, a narrow-shouldered policewoman with straight hair took his statement, looking up sharply from time to time. Standing behind her was an older sergeant with a heavily jowled face, and eyes set wide apart, peering out from under droopy eyelids.

The sergeant dismissed the constable, who waltzed from the room. The sergeant poked his head out the door, called out some instruction, then paced the room, head bowed, glancing up at Steve occasionally through half-closed eyes.

A small woman tiptoed in, laid down a tea tray and left, quietly shutting the door behind her. The sergeant sat across the table, poured Steve a coffee and offered the biscuits.

Steve took a gingernut.

The sergeant’s face was stern. “I’ve turned off the tape. Strictly off the record, I’m interested to hear what’s behind all this.” His brown eyes under their droopy lids seemed kind and intelligent.

“Where would you like me to start?” Steve asked, running a hand through his thin, greying hair.

“At the beginning.”

Steve began to speak, pausing often to clear his throat, then with growing confidence. The sergeant leaned back, hands behind his head, scarcely blinking.

He’d first met Debbie, Steve said, fifteen years before, after a party. His Teacher’s College flatmates had gone off to a bar. He’d stayed behind with a headache.

He found a girl in the kitchen, left over from the party, slumped at the table, sobbing. Her shoulders were shaking and her long blonde hair was flung forward over her face.

“That crying got me stirred up. I’d never had a girlfriend. I was pretty troubled at the time. My Mum had just died. She’d been in and out of psych wards since Dad passed away. Something about Mum dying made me real sad about Dad, and I was missing him terribly. Still do.”

“Uh-huh,” said the sergeant.

Steve described how he had approached the girl and put a hand on her shoulder. She looked up through her hair, which was damp with tears. Then she gripped his arm.

“And that’s how it began. We talked until morning at the table, holding hands. A whole lot seemed to happen quickly. It was all so intense. She said how guys always betrayed her, how she couldn’t trust anyone, and she just wanted to love someone and be loved back. Then she kissed me on the cheek, told me I wasn’t like other guys, that I was special, said I understood, and made her feel safe.”

The sergeant twisted in his chair. It made a screeching noise on the floor.

“I understand now how it happened. God knows, I’ve been over and over it in my mind,” Steve continued. “She kind of invaded me emotionally. I forgot my own troubles. She was a victim of love, and I was the knight in shining armour, rushing to save her.”

The sergeant thrust a biscuit into his mouth and began to sip his coffee, cooling it by blowing noisily through his lips.

“We got married six weeks later. Soon it all went bad. She had this thing how everybody did her wrong, like the plot of a play that she lived in. She had me in the bad guy part. Nothing I did was right. She constantly complained. I tried harder and harder to please her. She just put me down and complained more.”

“Hmmm.”

“It’s clear to me now. She made me the villain so she could stay in her victim role, where she needed to be. It was how she lived.” He screwed up his face. “Her constant accusations tore me down, made me doubt everything, my feelings, my ability to think.”

“Uh-huh.”

“It was like a cancer eating away at me until I felt totally powerless. Worthless. And emasculated. It happened gradually so I didn’t notice. I explained away the first few outbursts and took the criticism on board because I wanted to please her. I’d have given anything to return to how it was at the start, when she was sweet and loving.”

“Hmmm,” said the sergeant, stroking his chin.

“That was the problem. I kept trying to get it right, to make her happy, but I always failed, just felt more and more guilty.” He paused, breathing hard. “Deep down, I thought her constant badgering would eventually turn me into the type of guy she accused me of being, the bad character she’d already more or less convinced me I was.”

He fell silent. The sergeant seemed to be examining the back of his hand.

“And do you know the worst thing?” Steve muttered, after a while, staring across the table.

“I’d like you to tell me.”

“She was dissing me to the boys, by what she said, how she said it, and by what they heard her say to other people. The boys must’ve figured out they could please her by siding with her. When we’re alone together, the boys and I get on great, but when Debbie’s in the room, they won’t even look at me.” His voice was quiet and sombre. “If we split up, she’ll really twist them against me. As long as I’m there, I can be with them, be good to them, play with them, let them see for themselves that I’m okay.”

“Is that why you’ve stayed?”

Steve nodded. “I’m afraid, if I go, she’ll start treating the boys the way she’s treated me.”

“And you reckon, if you stay, you can stop that happening?”

“I believe in marriage.”

The sergeant was sitting motionless, gazing towards the wall, one eye closed, his brow furrowed. There was a long silence before he spoke.

“You’re pissing into the wind,” he growled, in a barely audible voice.

The two men stared at each other. Steve bowed his head and covered his face with his hands, then murmured, “Fact is, I tried to talk to her a year ago, said I couldn’t take any more, told her I was thinking of leaving.”

“And?”

“She said, if I did, she’d say I’d been molesting the boys.”

“She threatened to do THAT?”

“Yes. And take out a protection order to stop me seeing them.”

The sergeant cleared his throat. “If I get the constable back in, are you prepared to add this to your statement?” he asked, leaning forward.

“Yes,” said Steve, wiping his brow with a sleeve.

“Has your wife had any form of psychiatric assessment or assistance?”

“No. She’s refused even to go to marriage counselling with me. Seems scared.”

“Interesting,” the sergeant said, raising his eyebrows. “The children are the real victims here, as we both know,” he added softly, after a pause.

Steve nodded and fell silent, gazing across the table at the other man. Although the police officer had a face like a bulldog and was investigating him for a crime he had not committed, the look in his brown eyes conveyed a sense of something profoundly decent.

“Maybe you could join a support group for emotionally abused fathers. God knows, you could use some help,” the sergeant said. “Or start up a group, if there isn’t one.” He left the room.

Steve leaned back and looked at the ceiling. It was mottled with cracked plaster in funny shapes, one like a man’s face.

Steve smiled to himself and closed his eyes. A new sensation arose in his mind.

* * *

Two hours later, his shift over, the sergeant set off for home, an ancient villa without a woman, a long walk up the hill from the police station, and then a wearying climb on a crumbling path to the front door.

In the lounge, an elderly German shepherd was gazing out the window. Prince turned around as the sergeant entered. Morning, Boss, how was night shift?

“It was like staring into a bloody mirror, mate,” replied the sergeant, throwing his hat onto a chair.

Crouching down to a coffee table, he picked up a faded photo of two little girls.

Prince nuzzled his way under his armpit and licked his face.


Copyright © 2014 by Bruce Costello

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