Jason woke slowly and late. The TV breakfast news said Wednesday. The on-line version of the local newspaper ran a small story about Jason’s attack: Brazen Mugger Adds Insult to Injury. Jason wasn’t named. The article focussed on the follow-up break-in, with the police spokesman calling for vigilance from people sharing common entrance keys in apartments. The final paragraph’s “anyone with any information” request felt like an add-on. He read it through carefully, three times, looking at every word.
“This’ll put the wind up the curtain-tuggers,” he thought, downing his second tea. They were at least seeking witnesses, but how serious were they really? They seemed pretty casual on Monday night.
He stayed home all day. There was plenty of cleaning up to do, and he was stocked up after his trip to the shops. There were more phone calls to make, dealing with the fall out of losing wallet, phone and briefcase. The morning dragged, Jason spending much of it listening to the latest attempts by companies to make recorded messages sound personal. He was just about to yell at a particularly unhelpful call centre operator from the mobile phone company when the door buzzer
went. It was Caitlyn. She was about ten years older than Jason, having edged silently over forty the previous year. She was loaded up with shopping bags.
“You didn’t have to come,” he said, not meaning it.
“I couldn’t leave you at home all week by yourself. Man, that guy really hit you, didn’t he?” She put down her bags, and leant in to look at his face, which was now showing off an intricate dark purple bruise. “Ouch!”
“Actually, this is from where I hit the ground.” Jason explained it all in detail, his story punctuated by Caitlyn drawing air in through her teeth and wincing a few times. They unpacked the shopping together like habit.
Caitlyn pulled out a packet of Jason’s favourite biscuits. The staff all knew that when Jason bought himself a packet of these, he was either celebrating or in need of cheering up.
He smiled in appreciation. “I’ll put the kettle on.”
Half an hour of “normal” conversation and a few of his favourite biscuits later and Jason had almost forgotten why Caitlyn had come around, until he went to change position and cringed as the pain shot around his chest.
“What does the doctor say?”
“Rest, rest and more rest. Slow recovery. I’ll be able to go back to work on Monday I guess.” He stopped and stared into space.
“Well, maybe not Monday Drama Club.”
“Of course – I’ll see if someone else can take it, or we’ll call it off by the end of the week and let the kids know.”
He nodded, and they sat in silence for while. “You’re not okay, are you?”
A wave of sadness hit him. “Not really, but it’s only been a couple of days.” He decided not to tell her about the panic attack he’d had going to the shops.
“Isn’t Monday a little soon?”
“I’ll see the doc tomorrow, and see what she says. I’m not that keen on staying here by myself even that long.”
They talked on, Caitlyn refilling kettles and cups through the late afternoon. Eventually Jason got up gingerly, going over to close the curtains and flick on a light.
“Is that the time? There’s a meal ready to heat up in the fridge.”
“I saw that – thanks for coming over. It was just what I needed.”
“Anything for my favourite English teacher cum prize fighter.”
“Don’t make me laugh!!” said Jason, holding his side.
“See you Monday, but ring if you need anything.”
“I’ll be fine – see you then.”
And she was gone. Jason wondered how she’d have reacted if he’d asked her to stay.
Thursday blurred into Friday. Jason spent them either in bed or on the lounge, reading and watching television. The chair at his desk was uncomfortable for some reason, so not much time at the PC. His assault report was gone from page four, but it must have touched a nerve, with three Letters to the Editor critical of the police and how they’d let things slide, about how unsafe it was in the area, about how terrible it was, about how it could have happened to “anyone”.
The editorial had picked up on the angst. In a strange way Jason felt supported, but on the other hand he had never heard of anyone else being attacked in the area, and didn’t even know anyone who’d been broken into. Law and order campaigns had always annoyed him, but he googled and found the quote from The West Wing – “What’s the definition of a conservative? A mugged liberal.”
The anticipation of his phone call to Will scheduled for that night kept Jason going through the rest of Friday. Only one call, he thought bitterly, but until things were settled, it was all Joanne would
agree to. “My nerves,” she’d said to her psychiatrist, and that was that.
He rang the number, the familiar heart pounding in sync with the rings. She picked up.
“Joanne, it’s Jason here. May I speak with Will please?”
“Why didn’t the money come through yesterday? I’ve already spoken to my lawyer.”
“I was mugged on Monday night, and my wallet was stolen. I’m fine, thanks for asking. My accounts are all frozen to prevent the thieves beating you to the money.”
She was silent for a moment, as if regrouping. “Oh, I see.”
“Tell your lawyer before he writes to my lawyer and I get mugged again.” He was proud of that line.
“Oh, of course, now you’re being ridiculous,” she said.
A small victory, but he took it. “Is Will there?”
“Where else would he be? I’ll just get him. Half an hour, remember!” said Joanne, recovering both her composure and her disapproving tone.
Jason settled into the lounge, surrounded by six or seven childrens’ books. He tried to position himself so he could imagine that Will was sitting on his knee – it made him more natural with Will, less anxious. He heard the phone scrape and crackle.
“Hey, buddy, how are you?”
“‘K. Daddy, mummy bought me a new truck today!”
Joanne had started buying Will a treat just before the weekly call, in what Jason took to be a deliberate attempt to distract Will and keep Joanne in the conversation. He had no choice but to play along while trying to move things along.
“Wow, Will, what colour is it?”
“It’s blue, and it has a flashing light on top!”
With some effort, Jason managed to paint a sketchy picture of Will’s week, coaxing him past the usual “good” as an answer to everything. It was a relief to Jason that Will seemed happy at school, that Jackson, Christopher and Blake cropped up in each conversation, and that Will’s most pressing need seemed to be a blue light sabre. He half-wondered why Joanne hadn’t gotten him one yet. He made a mental note for Christmas.
Jason checked his watch – time was slipping away.
“Will, I think it might be story time! What would you like?”
“The Giant. Can we do The Giant again?” Will yelled.
“But we read The Giant last week!”
“But Daddeee… it’s my favourite!”
“OK, we’ll start it and see if we’ve got time to finish.”
Jason rummaged for Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant. His challenge was to come up with a new character voice for the giant every time he read it. This week it was the rather disinterested policeman who’d interviewed him on Monday night.
Will listened intently to the first three paragraphs, and Jason could feel the anticipation building as they approached the first time the giant speaks.
“What are you doing here?” he said, with a mixture of indifference and gravitas.
“Daddy, that’s not a giant’s voice!” Will said that every time.
“It’s the voice of this giant, silly. I’d better keep going so we finish in time for your bath.”
Jason managed to get through the story just within the allotted time. He could hear Joanne telling Will it was time to finish the call.
“Ok son, you’d better go. You have a great week. Love you heaps – bye.”
“Bye bye, daddy.” Will made a kiss sound into the phone, and hung up.
Jason sat there for a while holding the phone, wondering if Joanne would come back onto the line. She didn’t. He turned the phone off and tossed it to the other end of the lounge.
Tears welled up. Talk to Will on the phone only made him realise how lonely he’d become – a feeling exacerbated by the mugging.
His own childhood Friday nights had not prepared him for this. His father came home from work early on Fridays and always with a small treat for him and his two sisters. He’d feign forgetfulness before producing something from his briefcase. Then it was fish and chips or pizza, baths, pyjamas and a hired video. There’d be an intermission with ice-cream and. after staying up later than usual, a drowsy trip up the stairs in his father’s arms.
The weekend weather stayed cold, with Jason convincing himself that he wasn’t avoiding the outside world by staying indoors most of the time. He did make one quick trip to the shops early on Saturday, reasoning eight am was too early for hoodies. He went through his Sunday night routine of ironing his work cloths and packing his bag for Monday’s lessons – an easier task than normal given most of the papers from the previous week had been in his briefcase. Thankfully
nothing like unmarked mid-term exams or major assignments had been stolen, but it was small consolation. Students would have to reprint work, there’d be even more paperwork for the stolen laptop, as well as the nagging doubt about students’ privacy implications.
On his way to bed, he scrutinised his face in the mirror. The swelling was gone, and the bruise was a simple taint across the right side of his face. The cut was healing well, but looked scabby. For a fleeting moment he thought about his box of stage make-up, leftovers from the local drama group where’d he’d met Joanne, but there was a little too much damage. He’d have to cope with the stares and comments for the next week at least.
The first day back was uneventful. Colleagues were sympathetic, students were regaled with stories of the assailant rummaging through the brief case of an English teacher, and then wishing he chosen a more useful target.
“Flipping heck!” Jason had said, putting on his best geezer accent in front of Yr 11 Poetry to gales of laughter, “Where’s the cash? Crighton’s C minus on Romeo and Juliet? I’m not havin’ that!”
Teaching had always been his opiate, even when things were spiralling with Joanne, so by close he was almost tempted to hang around for Drama Club. However by ten past three with the hallways quiet, and the English Department empty, he packed his bag and headed for his normal
route home while the winter sun still had some strength left in it.
Caitlyn’s car ticked itself cool as Jason waited outside Joanne’s house. Caitlyn had gone away for the Christmas break, enthusiastically offering Jason her car when he told her he risked spending his entire Christmas Day with Will sitting in a bus.
The day was dark. The dismal grey blanket was pierced by the occasional string of festive lights and a flashing Santa wobbling for balance on a garage roof. The odd house was silent and empty, while others throbbed and bulged, crammed with doting grandparents, inebriated uncles and over-excited children.
The last time Jason had been to Joanne’s parents’ house had been “the happy times”. How much happier he wasn’t sure now. The ordeal of extracting Will from this house on this day – now – was going to exact a heavy price. He also knew that any gift Will had even casually mentioned in the lead-up to Christmas would have already been bestowed on him by Santa and the conniving generosity of Joanne and her family. He’d mapped out the two hours with Will carefully, coming up imaginative presents unlikely to be duplicated. Well that was the plan.
Jason’s phone beeped four o’clock. He got out and strode towards the front door. The cold grabbed at him through his flapping jacket, but he was toughening up for the full assault of “Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all men” that would hit when the front door was opened.
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Chapter 3 available here