Chapter 54: Simon
“How did this happen?” she had asked. This woman who had come from nowhere and who carried a sadness and vulnerability with her that he recognised only too well. The stoop of her shoulders and her limp lack-lustre hair telling a story beyond any that her words might.
He didn’t know who she was or why she cared, but she was the first person in so long to ask him a question and to apparently care about the answer that he could not help but get drawn into answering. Besides, this was the self-same question he had been agonising over for days now. How had this happened? How had he, Simon Warmington come to find himself imprisoned? A wife and child beater?
How had he become that man? The kind of man he despised, and rightly so. The kind of man he could not understand at all, let alone imagine being. How had it happened? It made no sense.
In life’s lottery he was one of the luckier ones, born of middle class parents he had attended good schools all his life. Schools that cost his parents a little more money than they had to spare but which, they assured him, were an investment in his future – and theirs in turn, they would joke as they talked about their only son looking after them into their old age.
He had been happy enough at school. Academic rather than athletic, much to his frustration and that of his father, but he did well in class and had found a handful of likeminded friends with whom he spent his free time gaming or putting the world to rights from an early age.
He had never been short of people with whom to pass his time, but he had perhaps been short of real friends, the people who you couldn’t wait to spend time with and who you prioritised above all else. He didn’t really have that. Rather he floated through each day with a group of people who were ostensibly by his side, but no one who was really watching his back.
It had never really seemed to matter until his Mum got ill. He had been eight when she first got ill. They hadn’t known what was wrong for a long while. They were the type of family that didn’t talk about things to each other, that didn’t acknowledge or explore their worries and who tried not to make a fuss. So whether his mother was worried about her own health earlier than he learned about it and had just kept quiet, whether she’d simply put on a brave face and soldiered on, he might never know. But certainly there were several months of weight loss and his mum becoming more pale, more quiet and more withdrawn before he learned of her diagnosis.
It was the little things that made the uncertain time remain in his mind. The way she had placed her fork quietly down by the side of her plate during Christmas lunch, uttered ‘excuse me’ then taken herself off to the bathroom where she could clearly be heard retching and vomiting over the sound of the King’s College Choir, whose carols had filled the room whilst they quietly ate. Then there was a running of taps, a lot of coughing and his mother had returned, pink cheeked, to her meal which she had quietly continued with, saying nothing of her temporary absence from the table.
Or the time that he had had to wait for an hour in the secretary’s office after school because his Mum did not show up to collect him. How anxious he had felt whilst Mrs Jones, the secretary had repeatedly dialled the landline at home but got no answer before clicking through to the answerphone, on which she left increasingly strangled, anxious messages.
Eventually, his mother had called back and the secretary’s face had flooded with relief before telling him to put his coat back on and pack his bag as his mother would be here in five minutes. She had fallen asleep and not woken in time to collect him from school. Nothing like that had ever happened before. She had picked him up from school almost every day since he had started in the infant school, and this hiccup unnerved him; but he did not have the comprehension or the words to explain why – and there was no one he could have spoken to about it if he had.
It was the spring after he turned nine that he learned of his mother’s diagnosis of breast cancer. Alongside Easter eggs came the news that Mummy was really poorly. The prognosis was middling – it was back in the days when cancer filled people with more fear and was more synonymous with the word ‘death’ than the word ‘fight’ and as soon as he learned that his mother’s body had cancer inside it, he became completely convinced that she would die and there was nothing that anyone could have done to convince him otherwise. Though, as ever he told no one how he felt and made a pretty good show of appearing unaffected by the devastating news.
But thoughts of his mother’s death filled his head every single day. She was the most important person in his world, a pillar of safety on which he had always relied. As her treatment commenced he saw her become thinner and paler and more ill. She was frequently sick and her hair would fall out in chunks on the pillow.
He did all that he could to help care for her. He wanted her to hurt less and to still have things in life that made her smile. The only template he had was the way that she would look after him if he was off school with a tummy bug and so he would tend to her as a mother would to a young son. He learned to make her jugs of orange squash and keep one always by her bedside. Then he learned to heat up soup in the microwave – always Heinz Tomato soup, her very favourite and served in the big mug with the roses on which she liked to wrap her hands right around. She would sigh with pleasure when he brought her soup after he returned home from school claiming that the soup warmed her inside and out.
Then he would sit and read to her. He had always been a competent reader having read daily with his mum from an early age and soon they progressed from the shorter children’s books on his bedroom shelves to longer, more exciting novels that the librarian in town would help him choose. His ailing mother would sit and listen for many hours whilst he read to her – he worked his way through the whole of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings series, transporting them both for hours on end to a different, whimsical world. One which was full of magic and goblins and an imagined reality where he and his mother did not exist and she was not ill. It was a wonderful escape for both of them and allowed them to hide from the increasingly poor state of Simon’s Mum’s health.
Simon’s Dad became more and more absent in this time. Simon didn’t question it at the time and if he had, he wouldn’t have understood the reasons. He now understood that his father’s distance was a combination of the necessity of him increasing his working hours now that he was the sole bread winner and the inevitable fact that he found it incredibly hard to be in the company of his ailing wife who was so far from the vivacious and bubbly woman he had married that he found it painful even to be in the same room as her.
Simon was apparently far more accepting of his mother’s condition and, as it worsened, he became increasingly adept as a junior nurse. He learnt to administer painkillers, first through tablets and later through injections. He learnt to clean and dress wounds and he learnt to ensure that his mother would be safe comfortable and occupied in the hours when he was not by her side. It was a real wrench for him to leave her each morning to go to school – he hated the thought of her in that room all alone all day and would hurry home at lunchtime for a few minutes, to make sure she was comfortable and that the carers who’d have visited whilst he was out had done their jobs properly. He would leave her with the TV blaring or the radio on, a pile of books by her side though she had neither the concentration nor the motivation to read rather than to be read to so the pile only ever grew, never diminishing unless Simon were the narrator of a new novel.
Weeks turned to months and during this time Simon felt more and more of a stranger within his own life. His friends were still pleasant to him but he never went to friends’ houses to play nor invited them to his house. He would spend time in the presence of other boys and girls he once considered his friends at breaktimes, but he would only be present in body. His mind would be back at home in his mother’s bedroom worrying. He had never told his friends, nor his teacher, about what was happening at home. It had seemed unimportant to do so and he did not want them to feel sorry for his Mum as he knew that she would really hate that. So instead he just got on with it, a shadow in class and around his classmates; present but absent.
The Christmas after she had become ill, they were offered a lifeline, the cancer suddenly seemed to be responding and the doctors suggested that Simon’s Mum who had progressed from lying to sitting in bed, was well enough to undergo a radical double mastectomy. Simon had not known what these words meant at all but his Mum had patiently and gently explained that it meant that a surgeon would remove both of her breasts. As she said this she had cried, quietly, something Simon had not seen her do throughout the whole of this torturous process, and he struggled to see why she felt sad now, when this was a positive step.
He didn’t ask her to explain. That wasn’t how they did things in his family. He just assumed she was scared about the surgery so he made a mental note that he would have to be especially upbeat and strong as the date for the surgery approached.
The doctors had said that whilst the surgery may cause a temporary dip in his Mum’s wellbeing that the hope was that combined with the other treatments she was having, that there was some hope of recovery. Simon could not remember what it was to have a Mum who did not pass all her time in bed – whilst it had been less than a year, it was a huge period of time for a nine-year-old; so long that he could not remember things ever being another way.
The surgeons carried out the operation in early December and his Mum stayed in hospital for a few days but wanted to come home as fast as she could, confident that her home carers and Simon would see to it that she was well looked after and comfortable. And just as the doctors had said, she was not very well at all at first. The operation had been invasive and long and had left her physically wrecked. Her body was fighting hard to heal itself and she seemed weaker, more pale and in more pain than he had ever previously seen her. But then things began to change. She began to sit up in bed again. A little colour returned to her cheeks between bouts of sickness from the radiation and she began to become an active participant in their reading sessions, asking Simon questions about what he thought would happen next and sharing her opinions about the antics of the various characters. It no longer felt like he was reading to a corpse. He was reading to his Mum and they were enjoying the stories together.
Just before Christmas his Mum had a much anticipated scan which would be able to give an idea of the prognosis following the surgery and her most recent bout of treatment. They knew not to keep their hopes up too high but never-the-less they all travelled to the hospital together to hear the news. The news was good. It seemed that his Mum was cancer free. Cancer free! The doctors were careful to explain to Simon that this did not mean his Mum would instantly be back to her old self but rather that it would take some time, and they stressed many times the importance of good food and good rest whilst her body worked hard to overcome the ravaging it had suffered in the preceding months.
He understood all this – but the most important thing he walked away with that day was hope. Hope that his mum was not going to die after all. For so long, this had been a far too true possible reality that he had lived and re-lived in his head. Every day for as long as he could recall he had worried that this day might be his Mum’s last. But now he understood that it would take time, and it would not be easy, but that his Mum was getting better.
It was the best Christmas present ever and in their low-key way, Simon his mum and his Dad celebrated together. Simon had a more generous than usual haul of presents that year – but he had eyes for none of them on Christmas day. He could not take his eyes off of his mother sitting in her old chair in the living room with wrapping paper around her feet and presents and ribbons in her lap.
It was the first time she had left her bedroom in months and Simon could not wipe the grin from his face. He was on top of the world and high on hope.
The next few weeks passed in a euphoric haze. His Mum was getting better in increments that would seem slow to most people, but each tiny, baby step felt like a giant leap to Simon and his Mum. Even his Dad started to engage with family life a little more again. It was some time before Simon’s mum felt ready to leave the house, but when the time came the trip was prepared for as if it were a round the world expedition rather than a short walk – or ride in the case of Simon’s Mum who would be pushed in a wheelchair – to the nearest park. As Simon felt the weak spring sunshine beat down on his face as he stood in the park with his Mum’s hand in his hand, his Dad’s hand resting on his shoulder, he felt the happiest he could remember feeling in his life. He finally felt sure that everything was going to be okay now.
She was dead by June.
The loss of his mother blew his world apart. Perhaps it hit him especially hard following the preceding few weeks remission before they discovered the tumour on her brain which took first her personality and thein her life within less than a month. For weeks he could not begin to accept it even on a base level, he would find himself running straight to her room on his arrival home, keen to fill her with the stories of his day which were never interesting to him but were the only window through which she viewed the outside world.
He would find himself calling at the chemists, where the pharmacist knew him by name, before realising that there was nothing to collect anymore. One such day, the sad look in the pharmacist’s eyes as she bid him farewell filled Simon with a rage so big he didn’t know what to do with it. He punched a wall. Hard. And instantly he felt better.
He cradled his bloodied knuckles in his lap and let his tears flow. He wanted to scream and should and kick and punch. Suddenly this felt like the best way to feel better. But he didn’t. He cried briefly, then he boxed up his feelings and he went home where he found his Dad sitting at his desk, ostensibly working, but Simon knew this to be an untruth. He knew that his father was just staring at the words on the page and thinking about his mother. But of course, his father didn’t say anything. That was how they did things.
Neither father nor son cried at the funeral – it was hard and Simon wasn’t sure if he should be crying or not but felt it important to be strong for his dad. And this was how Simon and his dad muddled on for the next few years. Each being strong for the other, neither talking about what was wrong. Simon putting on a brave enough mask to convince the rest of the world that he was indeed fine, whilst harbouring big, angry, upset feelings he didn’t know what to do with until every now and then he would take them out in a fight with a wall.
He had no idea why punching inanimate objects made him feel better, but it did. It was almost as if each day his body was filling more and more with venom and bile until he feared it may burst and every now and then he had to do something to reset the levels and that punching things seemed to do that for some, inexplicable reason. He always felt far better afterwards and he never thought to tell anyone about it, instead finding a myriad of excuses as to why his hands were bruised and battered. The excuses all sounded ridiculous to him but, he concluded, it was remarkable what people were prepared to believe if they didn’t want to hear the truth.
Simon found it increasingly hard to identify even with the few somewhat distant friends he had had throughout primary school and began to spend more and more time alone, focusing instead on his school work. He found a real outlet in applying himself academically. It came relatively easily to him and felt like a part of his life where he could fully take control and completely lose himself. The harder and longer he focused, the more that the muddled feelings about the loss of his Mum which never seemed to dissipate despite the passing years, would fade into the background. As the work at school became more challenging as he got a little older, he found he was completely able to lose himself in quadratic equations and trigonometry. Maths became a source of true passion, and his secondary school maths teacher became something of a mentor to him. She would praise his efforts but continuously push him harder. Expecting more from him, pushing the boundaries of what he could achieve, and he responded every time by working harder, working longer and reaching the new bar she had set.
In time he was probably closer to his maths teacher than to anyone else in his small world – but they talked of nothing other than maths. His private torments remained his own only. Unshared with another soul but punched periodically into the brickwork of the disused garage round the back of their house.
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Thank you for feeding back each day. I’m building in your edits and suggestions to the version held on my local machine so the initial raw version will remain here. When I’ve got questions, I’m going to ask them each day – don’t feel obliged to answer them, but if you’re happy to they’ll help me as I try to craft the story. If you have questions or observations I’d be keen to hear them too.