Saturday 17 August 2019

The Truth, the Whole Truth

by Ann-Marie Swift

a mug of strong builders tea

He went down so easy, said Jason. Must have been pissed. A big bloke like him doesn’t fall so easy. There was a paving stone behind him, he might have slipped back on that. And being pissed, he’d have slipped easy. 
Jason’s crying a little, bright blue eyes, redrimmed with tears and fear. 
I thought he’d come back up and hit me, says Jason. Christ knows, it was him that wanted the fight. I don’t fight.
Big hands, in his lap now, big hands covered with cuts and bruises. They look like a fighter’s hands to Alicia, the policewoman sitting opposite him. But what does she know, she’s only been in the job a few weeks.
I’m a scaffolder, he says. It’s rough work. Some of them boys like a pint and a bit of a ruck, but I’m not like them. I have a cup of tea and go home to my bird. We’ve got two kids. They’re my world. I don’t do the boozing. I’ve seen what it does. 
He looks down at the hands, a couple of stray freckles in among the cuts and bruises. A mark where he pulled a splinter out the other day. The rough planks of wood you use on the scaffolding. They ought to wear gloves, but nobody does. Slows you down. It’s dangerous work, but then you can get hurt anywhere. 
His hands, back on the table, look strange, as if they belong to someone else. They’ve been acting out of character. 
I’ve never hit anyone before. I don’t go in for that. He’d been on and bloody on at me for years. Ever since me and Stephanie got together. He couldn’t bear that. It was her choice though, weren’t it? He didn’t want her when he was with her, treated her rotten, and then he didn’t want anyone else to have her.  Serves him right, he didn’t deserve her.
I mean, he adds, it serves him right that she left. 
A little silence hangs in the air. 
He looks back down at his hands. The police woman opposite him, a slight Asian-looking slip of a girl, is taking notes though the whole thing is being recorded.  He can’t look her in the eye, she’s so fresh and innocent, big dark eyes, soft as an animal. He finds himself talking to the table. 
He was on at you? Alicia asks. She’s heard about the no comment interviews. This one couldn’t be more different. The words fall out of him, as if he’d been saving it all up.  
Phoned me, Jason tells her. Phoned me at home, phoned me on the mobile. Sent me text messages. Emailed me. I told Steph about some of them, couldn’t tell her about all of them. She’d have told her dad and he’d have gone crazy. He’d of killed him 
Jason slaps his hand over his mouth, realises how bad this sounds. Beads of sweat on his forehead where he’s trying not to cry. Alicia wonders if it’s the same for men, the pain across the front of your head when you’re trying not to cry. 
Takes his hand away, takes a breath. 
I didn’t want him dead, he says, I didn’t even want to hit him. I’d have put up with it for ever, rather than hit him.  All he was, was jealous. 
What changed, Alicia asks. What made you stop putting up with it?
Jason takes a breath. He’s a burly bloke, pale and gingery, blue eyes, heavy round the shoulders. Lovely rosy cheeks, weather-beaten skin. He should have been a farmer.
He leans forward to her.  She can smell fresh sweat. 
It was the last one that got to me, he says. Before, he always used to say stuff to me, said how stupid I was, how thick I was, how much I didn’t deserve Steph. I let it run off me. Steph’s dad said I should have it out with him. But you know what, Dick was right, to call me thick. I couldn’t ever have been a teacher like him.  I can’t hardly spell. I can just about keep the books straight. Steph’s dad gives me a hand. 
The young policewoman gives him a puzzled look. I’m a scaffolder, he says, got my own team. We do all right. I have to pay them, keep the books straight, get my taxes in. You know. 
She doesn’t, really. She nods anyway. 
I’m lucky to be with Steph. She’s a lovely girl. Dick used to say all those things, go on at me all the time, about how thick I was and I didn’t deserve her. And I just thought, yeah mate, you’re dead right. 
Another quick intake of breath on the word, dead. 
I’d listen to him going on, on the phone, and I’d think, well mate, who’s laughing now? Me with Steph and the kids or you with your pints of beer, no job and your crap house? 
I thought you said he was a teacher?
Was, says Jason. Got the sack, or whatever they get. Drunk all the time. After she kicked him out he drank more, just did nothing but drink. Tell you the truth, I was sorry for his bird, his new bird. 
A silence falls. Alicia is pondering what a woman would see in a drunk ex-teacher but is aware that this isn’t a pertinent question to ask. Though maybe he’s lying about how much this man Dick was drinking. She takes a breath and asks the question. 
Dick’s new girlfriend? Who’d want to go out with a guy like that? Drunk all the time?
Jason raises his eyes. A wry smile. She notes his lips are dry and cracked. Kissable all the same. She moves her thinking back to the question. 
Christine? She was glad of him. If you’d been around here longer you’d know about it.
He doesn’t look as though he’s going to say anything more, but then he does. 
Last bloke was a bastard when he was with her and a bastard when he wasn’t. Half the time he was in prison, the other half he was hitting her. If you’d of been around you’d most likely know him. In and out of the police station. Broke her arm once. Hit the kid, Christine’s kid. Broke a rib. She was happy with Dick, didn’t mind his drinking, he never hit the kid, hardly ever hit Chrissy. 
It seems like a game of snakes and ladders to Alicia, still single, hoping to meet the right man, somewhere, sometime soon. Dick slides down, meets Christine on the way up. Jason’s been going up, might have to slither right back down again, depending on what happened, what really happened with Dick. 
So what happened? 
He looks bewildered for a moment. She’s thrown him. She can see the schoolkid Jason once was, the cloud across his face when he’s forgotten what it is he’s supposed to be doing. 
Oh, yeah. Well, he said he’d go to the police. 
Dick was going to go to the police? Alicia puts her pen down. She isn’t sure she’s heard right. He was harassing you night and day, and then he said he’d go to the police? What was he going to do? Turn himself in for harassment? 
It’s Jason’s turn to look baffled. No, he says. One of the kids is his. The eldest of Steph’s kids, our Emily, that’s his kid. Steph lets her go over to Dick’s place weekends. She doesn’t have to, she’d get custody if she wanted it. We were going to stop it. Em gets bored there, they don’t do anything with her. She just sits and watches telly. Comes back full of sweets and smelling of smoke. 
Right. Alicia is straining now to follow Jason’s thread. 
He said he’d tell the police I’d been fiddling with her. Or Social Services, I dunno. So, I had to go and sort it out. 
Let’s take a break, Alicia says. She needs to think about this. It could be murder after all, if he’d thought about it ahead of time, if he’d gone over there thinking about hitting Dick. She needs to talk to her colleagues, see if a superior wants to take over the questioning. Now that it’s more complicated. Now there’s a kiddy involved.
Cigarette? The new police person is a man. He’s older, carrying weariness and experience somewhere at the top of his shoulders. Grey hair, tired greyish eyes. Alicia, the young policewoman, is still there, sitting next to the older bloke. 
Jason doesn’t smoke. 
Right, he says. Tell me about you and Dick. 
Jason starts to cry again. Alicia produces a tissue, one of those with a pretty flowery pattern, which she passes to the older policeman, who hands it across the table to Jason, who regards it with mild surprise, carefully puts it in his pocket and continues to wipe his eyes and nose with the back of his hand. 
The police-woman whispers something to the policeman. 
Okay. Let’s start with the lovely Stephanie. What happened there?
Jason doesn’t know how far back to go. He’s known Stephanie, to some extent, at least since he got his first job scaffolding for her dad. Years back. Ten years, maybe. She’d just met Dick then. Her dad didn’t think much of Dick but then he didn’t think much of anyone who wanted to take his princess away from him. Used to see her now and again, if he came round to the house to sort things out with her dad. Pretty girl, more than pretty, narrow shoulders, long grey eyes, high cheekbones, that white-blonde hair that sometimes turns dark when you grow up, but hers stayed white-blonde. A deer, you’d say, shy and graceful. Or a flower, an orchid maybe. Something a bit rare, not showy, but lovely when you looked close. A lily of the valley. 
Wilted a bit though, once she’d got together with Dick. 
Dick by name, prick by nature, said her dad. Not when Steph was around of course. She thought the sun shone out of him. Jason met him a few times. Steph’s dad liked Jason, invited him out to their family things sometimes. Jason didn’t have family of his own.  In the pub once, what were they all celebrating? Must have been her dad’s birthday. Let’s have a go at the pub quiz, said Dick. 
Let’s not, said Stephanie’s dad. They moved into the room with the pool tables when the quiz started. Dick showing off at pool, dark floppy hair, black track suit bottoms, a bit sloppy already, a bit loud. Good at pool though. PE teacher, so they said. 
Track suit bottoms, said Stephanie’s dad. You’d think he could do better. He’s supposed to be a teacher. They were dirty old ones too, the kind you’d use for work, not for a night out. Dick’s voice got louder, his games of pool got worse through the evening. 
What then? He’d seen Steph in town once, he was halfway up a building clinging on to the scaffolding, Stephanie walking along pushing a pram. Funny, he could recognise her just from the top of her head, how she walked, small steps, her slim shoulders rounded behind the pram. He wondered whether to call down, thought she must be used to it, after all her dad’s a builder. 
Lovely smile when she looked up, lovely radiant smile, small pearly teeth, no make-up, no lipstick. “Jason!”
Well, the older policeman asked. What about you and Stephanie? How did that start?
He hadn’t started the answer yet, but at least he’d found the right moment. When her dad was doing that job in Cornwall – never usually travelled so far from home for work, but it was for a friend.  
Her dad sounded desperate, panicky even. Can you go over? He’s hit her. She’s got rid of him now but he’s out there, pissed, shouting stuff, calling her all sorts. Just get in there, would you? Just spend the night there, I’ll be back in the morning. 
Why you, the policeman wanted to know? Why not get someone else?
I don’t drink, said Jason. I already told you. He knew I’d be sober enough to drive. 
She could have called us, says Alicia. She should have called the police. 
Both Jason and the older policeman look at her with something approaching surprise.
Right, says the older policemen, breathing out. He could really use a cigarette. What happened to the good old days when you offered them a cigarette, got down to the nitty gritty? What happened to good cop, bad cop? They were all good cops now. 
So I’m guessing, says the older policemen, good cop. You stayed with her, slept on the sofa, all very nice. And then it happened again, and she called you, and so on and so on. 
No matter what he says, the bloke starts crying. 
I love her so much, says Jason, superfluously. 
So what I don’t see, says the older policeman, trying to ignore Jason’s tears, is why you went round there one sunny Saturday afternoon and killed him. You’d got the girl, you’d got his house, you’d even got his kids. What more did you want?
Kid, says Jason, looking up. Eldest kid is his, second one is mine. Both call me Dad though, he adds with some pride. 
I told her what happened. He nods towards Alicia. He was on my case, night and day. He’d let up for a while and then he got back on it. Drove me mad. But I put up with it. Then he said he’d tell them I’d been fiddling with the kid. 
So you went over?
Jason’s hands almost cover his face. 
Yeah. His voice is muffled. 
Take your hands away, says the older policeman. 
For the tape, adds Alicia. 
I went over, says Jason, looking up now, meeting their eyes. 
What time did you leave your home?
Christ, says Jason. I’ve no idea. Two o’clock? Saturday afternoon. It was hot. Steph was out in the garden with Timmy. Timmy’s the baby. He rang on the landline. He’d got Emily.
I said, do you want me to come and get her?
He said, no she ain’t going back to you. I’m keeping her. 
I said, let me talk to her. 
He said no. He was drunk. I could tell from his voice. I thought he might be doing her harm. I said, where’s Christine? 
He said, you don’t need to know.  He said, you needn’t come round, Emily’s staying here. I’m not letting her back to you. 
I said put her on the line. 
He said that thing then. Jason stops. There’s a silence. 
He said, says Jason. He said, I’ve rung the Social and told them you’ve been fiddling with her. 
So you went round? 
You went round and you were going to kill him?
No. Jason’s head’s on the table now, muffling his voice. His hands over his head, protecting the back of his head. Now there’s a bloke who got hit a lot as a kid. The older policeman knows the signs. 
You need to sit up. We can’t hear you. For the tape. You need to talk to the tape. 
Jason sits up, looks directly at the tape machine, talks to it as if it were a person, as if it were the only person in the world who could understand. 
I ran round there. Steph said go on, have it out with him. It’s been brewing, that’s what she said. Went in through the back gate. He lives, lived on the first floor. It’s a shop underneath. 
Tattoo parlour. Shabby old flat. Chrissy does what she can. Dirty back yard, belongs to the shop. They don’t do nothing with it, couple of plastic chairs, bits of stuff, lying around. He’d been looking out for me, he was in the back yard as soon as I got there, prancing around. Those dirty old tracksuit bottoms, bare chest. 
He had a tattoo. He’d drank every penny he earned, drank every penny Chrissy got and then he’d gone and got himself a bloody tattoo. 
Got their names on it. Chrissy, her kid Darren and Emily. All wrapped up in each other like a bunch of snakes. He was sticking his chest out at me with all them names on it, all bright and fresh. He said, look at me, look at me. He said, you couldn’t even spell their names, you thick shit. He said, Emily’s staying with me. He said, hit me then if you want. 
He was dancing around like he’d been watching boxing on telly, all dancy and jabby. Jabbing away at me like he thought he was Mohammed Ali. He’d got fat since they sacked him, belly like a sack of potatoes. And his arms all thin and pale. 
Came right up close, breathing in my face, whisky and beer. He said, ya pervert. I’m reporting you. 
So I hit him. 
I hit him and he went down, and he stayed down. 
What did you do?
I didn’t know what to do. Jason’s still talking to the tape recorder. I was trying to think what I knew to do. I’ve done First Aid, there’s been a few boys fall off the scaffolding, I thought, should I move him or what? 
Then I looked up and I saw them. Darren and Emily. I couldn’t hear nothing, just saw their faces at the window.
What were they doing? 
Jason turns round to look at the young policewoman. 
They were crying. What do you think? They’d just seen me kill their dad. 

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