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When I visit my father I like to take some time to relax beforehand. Too much has happened and emotions have been run too ragged over the years to skip this preparatory ritual. On this particular day I sat back on my bed in an empty house. My wife was at work and my four year old son was with his mother's sister.
I took some deep breaths and listened to The Beatles. It doesn't seem to matter which song or album it is – it just seems to put me in the right frame of mind. Is there a right frame of mind for a prison?
It started to rain as I drove through the security gates and into the visitors’ car park – foreboding descended. I felt out of place, as I always did; it was as though, on a subconscious level, I could not accept my father's incarceration.
A woman pulled up beside me in a battered saloon and gave me a sympathetic, almost sisterly look. I tried not to wince at her greasy hair and blotchy arms.
I reluctantly joined the throng that flocked into the prison. The procedural drabness washed over me and I found myself sitting at a wooden table on a red plastic chair. The stink of disinfectant teased my nostrils.
There were patches of graffiti scrawled into the stained wood of the table top: 'Fuck yourself Brian you bastard,' 'Toz is an arse,' and 'Got any smack?'
The inmates trickled out of their lair. Most looked unenthusiastic about the impending contact with their loved ones. Perhaps guilt at their misdemeanours really bit when they were face to face, or maybe the unknown activities of wives and partners on the outside played havoc with their mood. Whatever the reason, there was nothing positive.
"Bring me any smokes, Mikey?" My father was suddenly at the table, dressed as ever in his old blue prison boiler suit. A badge clipped to him read: 'I love it here.'
"Hello, dad. No I didn't - it's bad for your health."
"God forbid I die a premature death and miss out on all this," he said and sat back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest.
"You look... well," I said.
"Bollocks," he said. "I'm ill."
"What is it this time?"
I laughed. He looked pathetic in his overalls and his feigned seriousness set me off. I've known the old bastard refuse to eat, just so that he looks unwell when I come to visit. Unfortunately for him the screws keep us informed.
"Glad you're amused," he said. "They feed us shit in here."
"That'll be why you manage to talk so much of it."
He grinned and his expression softened a fraction. "You know, there isn't a soul in this place that would dare say that to me. It's nice not to be feared once in a while."
"Is it?" I asked.
"See that knuckle-head over there?" He nodded to the corner of the room that lay behind me and to my left. A hulk of a man was leaning forwards as he talked to a pretty woman with wavy hair. He was solidly built and his shaved head revealed a multitude of scars, the biggest running from his right ear to his left eyebrow.
"He's a nasty bastard," my father said. "A young lad came in last week for some string of petty crimes he'd been rumbled for - a decent lad, only nineteen. He ended up in the hospital. Our friend over there broke his arm because the kid snores."
I looked back at the hulk just as his beefy, lumbering head turned towards me. He seemed surprised at the attention and began to rise slightly out of his chair, belligerence washing over him like some mind-altering drug. He suddenly span back to his lady friend as though he'd been caught at something. When I turned back to my father, he was standing straight up with one finger extended in the hulk's direction.
"He fancied himself as the new chief in here," said my father. "It took no more than a sharpened knitting needle to convince him that it was not his time."
My father spoke without any hint of boasting. It was as though he was an employee commenting on a meeting he'd attended or a grievance he'd had with a colleague. Whatever the intonation, he disgusted me – an unpleasant emotion at the best of times, but my own father? He talked of this arm breaking thug as though he were the worst type of scum – forgetting perhaps that he himself was inside for a reason. What sort of scum would it take to do as he had and butcher three innocent people with an antique bayonet?
"How's your mother?"
"As far as you're concerned, yes."
I produced a photograph of my son and passed it to my father. Ant was sitting in our garden grinning as he pushed his toy train through the grass.
"How old is he, now?" said my father.
My father took the photograph and held it up to aid his failing eye sight. His face changed again – he seemed to leave the room, as though he were sitting on the lawn beside Ant, watching him play. His drawn ashen skin seemed to develop a glowing tint – even his nicotine stained eyebrows brightened somewhat.
He put down the photograph. "Four, you say?"
"I've been reading a lot, lately," he said.
"You always read a lot."
"I've been reading about genetics."
I waited for his latest gem to surface.
"They say that genes often skip a generation," he said. "For instance, my grandmother – your great grandmother – was a talented musician. She played piano at the local dance hall. And did my own parents inherit her natural abilities? No, but yours truly plays a mean saxophone."
He pointed to himself as he said 'yours truly' and I was presented with a vivid memory of my father standing on the stage with his jazz band, letting rip with one of his solos. How old must I have been? Three, maybe the same age as Anthony?
"Your mother," he continued, "is a red head. Her mother had dark hair and her father had dark hair. But her grandfather? A red head."
"Where's this going?" I asked.
"When I was four," he continued, "I bit my sister's finger off."
I was stunned and quickly nauseous. My auntie Beverley and the missing finger. Nobody mentioned it and I was seriously berated as a child for asking her what had happened to it. If I remember rightly, my questions sent her into floods of tears.
"That explains a lot," I said.
"It certainly does," said my father. "I often wonder whether either of my grandparents had a nasty streak. You know, given the genetic theory."
He paused and looked at me sideways from the swivelled round position he adopted when he was trying to speak with authority.
"Is Anthony behaving?" he asked.
My upper thigh twitched as the conversational direction dawned on me.
"I think you should shut your mouth," I said. There was acid on my tongue.
"I am free to speak of what I choose," he replied. His eyes narrowed and he said, "My only freedom is my speech."
"Well perhaps you should have thought of that before you maimed those people."
He grinned. "They say that I'm intrinsically evil," he said. "And I think they may be right. When I bit off your auntie's finger, something inside me woke up. Do you think it's all I've ever done wrong? If only you knew." He was whispering, now; his voice was low and dangerous. He spoke slowly and clearly and his eyes seemed to develop a sheen, as though the world around him was now a place of his own creation.
"I don't want to know," I said. My voice cracked as I fought a lump of raw emotion that bobbed around in my throat like an apple in a bucket of water.
"It's in your best interests, Michael," he said. "Because Anthony is my grandson. And because you never know, you just never know, what he'll turn into."
I swung my right fist into his face with every muscle fibre I could rescue from my rage-induced paralysis. The contact with his nose felt good and there was a satisfying crunch; a jet of warm blood sprayed up my wrist as he toppled backwards.
"You bastard!" I screamed. "He's my boy and he's not like you, you piece of shit!"
The prison officers were on me before I could inflict any further damage. As they dragged me towards the visitors' exit I could see my father being carted off in the opposite direction, the blood from his nose pooling between his teeth and his bottom lip, before it ran in great strings and slopped onto the disinfected vinyl floor. I sat at home in my kitchen and drank brandy. My wife had a hand on my knee and was trying her very best to make light of the situation.
"Just don't go back," she said, "ever. This is not the first time he's upset you."
"You know what happens, Jen," I said. "I feel guilty if I don't visit him."
"Even now? After what he said? The bastard is well out of line."
I sank the dregs of my brandy and reached for the bottle. It was steadying the shakes that had gripped me since I'd hit him. But I felt peculiar – not just angry and upset, rather... troubled in some innate way.
"Why are you taking this so badly?" asked Jen. "He's a messed up man and you know that."
"I'm not sure."
Jen cocked her head and her gaze intensified. Her lips pursed slightly.
"You're not sure why you're taking this so badly or you're not sure if he's a messed up man? Christ, Mike, don't tell me you're starting to listen to him?"
"Of course I'm not!" I shouted. "I'm not going to let him do this to us, Jen. Please, don't turn on me."
She got out of her chair, took my head in her arms and stroked my hair. "I'm sorry," she said. "He just pisses me off."
As though reminding me of my father's inescapable presence, my knuckles flared where I'd hit him and I struggled not to flinch.
The next day brought unease about my father's far-reaching influence. His status in that prison was – as I'd witnessed on many occasions, not least with that knucklehead in the visiting room yesterday – beyond doubt. I often felt exposed, as though his eyes on the outside could make things difficult if the fancy took him. Landing a blow into his twisted little face could prove to have been an unwise move.
I went through the motions at work: phone calls, spreadsheets, meetings. I caught myself looking out of my office window for suspicious characters and I scolded myself for letting my mind run riot.
The phone rang at about half past two. It was Jen.
"Could you pick Ant up from the nursery, Mike?" she said.
"Why, what's wrong?" My paranoia shot through the roof and my knuckles began to ache again.
"He's apparently pushed one of the kids off the top of the slide in the playground. The kid's fine but Miss Oliver thinks it would be best if he came home."
"Sure thing," I said. "Doesn't sound like him."
"I hope he didn't hear you shouting last night. Maybe he's upset."
"He'll be fine. See you later."
I put the phone back into its cradle and cursed my wife's ability to assign potential blame.
Within twenty minutes I was driving home with my son beside me. He remained quiet and looked straight ahead, like I wasn't there.
"Why did you push that boy off the slide?" I asked.
Ant shrugged. He just stared out of the windscreen and sat on his hands.
"Did you hear mummy and daddy argue last night?"
He shook his head. Still he wouldn't look at me.
"It's wrong to hurt people, Ant. You know that. Did he upset you?"
He slowly turned his head towards me and smiled. "I'm sorry daddy," he said.
I ruffled his thin blond hair and promptly forgot about his antics. He was a kid for God's sake, and my job was to protect him from whatever – or whoever – might threaten him. I flexed my bruised knuckles and kept an eye out for tailing cars.
My paranoia, although irrational, was not completely without foundation. Following a particularly viscous exchange during a visit to my father, I noticed a man several days later walking up and down our cul-de-sac. He paid close attention to our house both times he passed and I was within a whisker of going outside to challenge him. Jen persuaded me against it. I am fully aware that this proves nothing, and I never mentioned it to my father, but it spooked me and got me thinking about the safety of my wife and son.
The weekend arrived without further event. Ant was happy enough after his disagreement with his class mate and Jen and I even made love, not a normal event so soon after a prison visit.
On the Saturday, Jen went shopping with a couple of her girlfriends. I tried in vain to get Ant interested in the football on television, eventually giving up as I always did, leaving him to his toy cars and trains. He disappeared into the garden and I was relaxed enough to leave him by himself out there, secluded as it was. My eyes began to get heavy as I relaxed in my chair watching the football. I was asleep before I could even try to fight it.
I woke up in time to see the post match analysis. Gary Lineker was praising the attacking finesse of Newcastle United and even Mark Lawrenson was positive about the club’s future prospects. I turned off the television and rose stiffly, groaning as I did so, and headed for the garden.
As I stepped out of our washing room and into the sunshine I cried out in shock. It was a moment of panic that made my head spin and I had to steady myself against our rubbish bin.
There were great patches of sticky blood seeping into the earth under our back lawn. It looked like syrup in the afternoon sun. Ant was nowhere in sight. I noticed in abject horror that there were entrails strewn out on the grass. There were lumps and coils of... innards just lying there. I screamed.
"Ant!" I yelled. I ran to the stone path that joined the back garden to the front and kicked my way through the overgrown honeysuckle. Nothing.
"Ant!" I searched the entire garden, ripping at bushes, overturning garden toys big enough to conceal a...
Then I was in the house and I was in the kitchen, the living room, the toilet. I dashed upstairs and into Ant's room... and he was there, sitting on his bed with a toy car. He looked at me with great interest and I gathered him up in my arms and let out a cry of relief.
"Put me down, daddy," he said.
My wife cleaned up the mess in the back garden. I was back on the brandy. My mind worked feverishly, my guilt at leaving my son unattended, coupled with that indescribable gore, left me emotionally drained.
Jen returned to the kitchen where I sat dumbstruck expecting a round of intense fulminating at my lack of competence as a parent. She said nothing for a while. She sat opposite me at our breakfast table and gave a false, weary smile.
Eventually, she said, "What will we do?"
"I... don't know. If the old bastard is trying it on then perhaps it won't last too long." The vast inadequacy of this statement dawned on me and Jen burst into tears.
"What about Ant?" she said. "He could get hurt, or..."
"Nothing is going to happen," I said. "We won't let him out of our sight from now on."
"It doesn't matter what we do," she sobbed. "We don't know what we're up against. Who we're up against."
And although I am not typically blessed with revelatory talent, the clarity with which next door’s CCTV camera swam into my mind’s eye as I held my wife in my arms was nothing short of fantastic.
"Are Brian and Michelle at home?" I asked.
"I want to see their CCTV footage," I said. I stood up and headed out to our front door. If I knew who had been in our garden I would know whether my shit-bag of an old man had anything to do with this horrendous stunt.
I rang next door’s doorbell. The Dukes of Hazzard tune, normally a source of irritation as it echoed through the plasterboard walls and into my living room, was followed by Brian looking slightly startled as he peered through his security chain at me.
"Hello, Brian," I said. "I need to ask a favour."
I was frantically stuffing the security cassette into my video recorder in no time. Jen disappeared upstairs with Ant. When I explained that everything we needed would be on the footage, she made it very clear that she did not wish to view the contents.
I hit play on the video recorder and tried to mentally estimate the time at which I'd gone to sleep. Easy – about five minutes into the football match which had kicked off at three. The time was helpfully displayed in the top right hand corner of the screen and it would simply be a matter of fast forwarding the tape. Brian's security camera was attached to the rear angle of his brickwork and pointed mostly at his own garden path. I knew from its direction, though, that it would cover at least a sizeable portion of our own lawn.
Bingo. There was Ant leaving the house with a box of toys in his hands. The time said seven minutes past three and as yet there was no gore on the garden. He sat practically right in the centre of the camera’s scope of vision and began to take several of his toys out of his box.
What if I couldn't see who this person was? Would they wear a mask? Which direction would they come from? These questions buzzed around in my brandy-soaked brain and my heart rate seemed to increase with every minute that passed.
Movement. In the top right hand corner of the screen a dark shape, at present completely unidentifiable, seemed to tease the camera – increasing in size and then diminishing as though not wanting to completely expose itself.
"Come on, come on!" I whispered. I regretted not pouring another brandy.
Then it appeared on the screen... a cat: Sooty, a black cat with white markings; it belonged to the neighbours whose garden backed onto ours. It walked into the shot and padded towards Ant who was still engrossed in his make-believe world of car crashes.
I managed to crack a slight smile at the nervousness which I'd experienced before I realised it was that damned cat. It sat on the grass next to Ant and began to lick its paws. He'd put down his cars and was holding out his hands towards it. Sooty finished its personal hygiene ritual and stuck its head into Ant's lap.
Ant reached into his toy box as the cat nuzzled him. He pulled something out of the box of toys. He looked around the garden and then started to stroke the cat. Sooty nuzzled him more intensely, obviously enjoying the attention. I scanned the whole of the screen for any movement elsewhere, but there was none.
Then it happened. Ant slowly raised his right hand above his head while continuing to stroke Sooty. It dawned on me that the object was not a toy at all, but the largest of our kitchen knives. The sun glinted off the blade and I recoiled. I was aware that my mouth was now hanging open, and my palms began to sweat.
"My God!" I said. "My God!"
Ant suddenly brought the knife down in a lightening movement and plunged it deeply into Sooty's back. The animal tried to jump upwards but Ant grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and held the knife fast. The blood started to seep out of the wound and Ant began to writhe at the knife handle. The cat was no longer struggling, and as though the lack of motion had suddenly spurred on my son, he began to tear its broken body wide open. Ant withdrew the blade and hacked at the corpse. Internal organs spilled out onto the grass and the camera offered me a petrifying view of my only child as he demonically butchered. His eyes reminded me of someone and I refused to complete that thought through fear of losing my mind.
I retched and made it to the kitchen sink in time to release the contents of my stomach and to draw bile in the process. The tears in my eyes from the vomiting did not clear as I held my head in my hands and wept at what I'd just witnessed on my television screen. The words of my father emanated from the recesses of my tortured brain - 'intrinsically evil' - and I could even visualise the bastard laughing as he was dragged out of the prison visiting room, the blood dripping from his burst mouth onto the vinyl floor.
And to complete my utter despair, to top off the nightmare that had unfolded over the last few hours, I returned to the living room to find Jen standing with her hands to her face watching her little boy hack off Sooty's head with her own kitchen knife before dragging its shredded torso into the conifers that lined our back fence.
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