FICTION: Beasts by Andrew Lee-Hart

One

The house where I live is cold and I have no mother. She died when I was five, although I never saw her body, and nobody had told me she was ill. One Thursday morning Peter came into my room and said that she had died in the night, and I would not have to go to school that day. I don’t remember a funeral, but perhaps I have forgotten about it.

I remember I spent that day reading poetry, I was learning poems by Robert Louis Stevenson at that time; the poems seem easy now, but then they were difficult.

“Whenever the moon and stars are set/ Whenever the wind is high.”

Peter is my dad, my father. He makes me call him daddy, but I hate him so in my head he is just Peter, an acquaintance.

Even before my mother died he wanted me to read to him, and now that she is dead it is every night. He has a study, where the dining room used to be, and every evening I sit in front of him and recite whatever he has asked me to learn. I am ten now, so do adult stuff; Tennyson and Robert Browning mostly, and the poem about me;

“Do you remember an inn Miranda? Do you remember an inn?”

He sits and listens; sprawled back in his armchair, sometimes tapping along to the rhythm of the words.

I asked him why I had to do this every night.

“None of my friends have to do this.” I told him.

“What friends? I thought you didn’t have friends. Why don’t you ever invite them to tea.”

I would never invite them to my house. What might he make them do?

“Just Rosemary. We sit together in lessons and at lunchtime. She is beautiful.”

I can see her with her blonde hair and pigtails, and her don’t care attitude which makes me love her even more.

“You need to learn poems.” Peter tells me, “one day all the trees will disappear, there will be no books and no computers. If we don’t learn then what will happen to all our great writing?”

I could smell him as he talked; sweat, and lavender. And then when he makes me go to bed with him, and kiss him and touch his willy, I can smell him even more strongly. And then he makes me wipe him up, but the smell still won’t go away. I can smell him on me no matter how many times I wash myself afterwards.

Even when I am at school I can smell him; on my clothes, in the air that I breathe. I am surprised that nobody else can smell him on me, but perhaps they can and just don’t say anything. Everybody does seem to avoid me after all apart from Rosemary, even Mrs Baxter my form teacher seems to shy away from me. Perhaps it will be different next year when I start at comprehensive school, although I am not sure why it should.

Peter told me that the worst thing for a man was to have a hard-on and it not be relieved. He doesn’t have a wife to do that anymore, so it has to be me. Did mummy really do that for him? If she hadn’t died would he have let me alone?  Sometimes I hate her for dying and leaving me alone with Peter.

We had a lesson at school, last year; it was March and still cold. Sheffield is often the coldest place in the whole country Peter told me. And today was freezing, even though the sun was shining, with frost on the windows and duffel coats in the cloakroom. I sat with Rosemary as usual whilst Mrs Baxter told us about boys and girls, men and women. How they were different. She told us about periods and pubic hair. Everyone sat quietly listening. Mrs Baxter told us about sex; about what men and women do in bed.

“But why do they do that?” asked Marie from the front seat.

Mrs Baxter asked if anybody knew.

“To make men more comfortable. To stop them being hard” I told the class. Some children laughed, but Mrs Baxter just looked at me.

“And the cheers and jeers of the young muleteers” I recited under my breath, “Who hadn’t got a penny/ And who weren’t paying any.”

She looks at me sometimes, Mrs Baxter. When we are sitting in the classroom doing some writing. I look up and her eyes are upon me. And sometimes she bends over me; she dresses very prettily, and a lot of the girls want to be like her, with her beautiful dresses and her bangles and bracelets which clink dully when she moves her arms to make a point, or when she laughs at something one of the boys says. I want her to take me away and look after me, like Mrs Honey in “Matilda”.

Once I was late putting the craft stuff away; I get so engrossed with what I am doing; it is the only time I can be free of my thoughts, even the everlasting poetry that runs through my head stops for a moment. I had made a model using coloured glass and cardboard; and it stood squat on my desk. People used to ask me what I made or what my pictures were of, but now they don’t bother.

“You are such a good artist. I hope your father is very proud.”

She was stood next to me; I hear a clunk of her bracelet, and smelt something, probably her hairspray. Why did she have to mention Peter? Why spoil things?

“Yes.” I said. Actually he had called me a “harlot” last night, after I lain with him, a word I didn’t know, so I looked it up. And he never looked at my art, although I kept everything I made and put it in the spare room where even Peter would not go; rather standing in the doorway to call me to him.

“Is it lonely for you?” Mrs Baxter asked. “You don’t seem to have any friends, and you don’t have any brothers or sisters.”

“I have Rosemary” I said.

“Who is Rosemary?” she asked.

I said nothing and put the rest of my stuff away and went out into the cold yard. I wished she would delve deeper. Ask about my father, but she never did. Not ever.

Two

She told me she was an artist, and that she lived alone. I was new to Sainsbury’s; I worked in the freezers, and my lips had started to peel alarmingly because it was so cold down there.

“What is your name?” I asked, although I already knew.

“Miranda.”

“Like in that poem, “do you remember an inn Miranda, do you remember an inn?”

She smiled slightly and walked off.

We had been sat together in the canteen. Her hair was dark, and she was voluptuous and beautiful, but dreadfully pale, always pale. She rarely talked to anyone, but rather sketched in the green notebook that was always close to her side, or she played games on her mobile ‘phone. She had a northern accent, which stood out amongst all the southern accents of her colleagues who lived locally. I had just finished my History degree and had come back home to London whilst I decided what to do next.

Miranda fascinated me; I love artists anyway, turning paper, ink, iron and plaster into something beautiful. It is such a fragile thing; the decision an artist makes to create something, but with Miranda it was everything about her. I used to dream about her and every time I saw her I wanted to take her in my arms and take away all her misery.

I used to ask her about her art. She was very cautious at first, thinking that I was just after her, and yes I did want her in my life. But she could also see that I was genuinely interested in her work as well. She showed me some of her sketches which were distorted and surreal, but I could see how good they were. I thought she was wonderful, if I could not be an artist at least I could be with one, inspire her and help her.

She was difficult; often not talking to me for days on end and blanking me in work. She would not answer my calls; and then would ring me at three in the morning, sounding drunk and shouting at me for some slight I had not been aware of. But we also went out together; we took one of those boats down The Thames and we visited the free and cheaper sites of London. I have lived in London all my life, but she had only left Yorkshire a year ago and so it was all new to her, and I loved showing her around. And then arm in arm walking along the river I would think we were in a normal relationship.

Miranda came to my house for tea once; met my parents and my sister Alishia. She was quiet and nervous; even more so than usual. But it was intimidating I guess, and I was excited that she had gone to my house and met my family, I had been scared that she would find an excuse not to go.

“Are you sure?” asked Alishia later.

“No, but there is nobody else, and I want her in my life. I love her.”

And then she invited me back to her flat. I was asking about her art and so she said I could see some of her work. We had known each other over six months at this point and so we were hardly rushing into anything. There was clutter everywhere; sculptures made of steel, welding equipment, paper with sketches on them and canvases up right against the wall. But no books, not one. I always judge people on what books they have, and how many. But she had none, not even art books.

“I hate books” she told me, “don’t want them in my house”.

But I didn’t care. I started to have a daydream of introducing her to books and maybe reading to her in the early hours, but it never happened.

We drank tea and listened to music; something loud and angry, probably Motorhead who she liked a great deal. She said they drowned out her thoughts. She played music most of the time; from when she got up to when she went to bed, falling asleep to the loud guitars and thud of the drums. As we sat there I wanted to kiss her, but did not dare. And I got the impression that she did not want that. We sat close together but not touching, there was a strange smell coming from her, could it be fear?

“It is late” she said, “later than I thought. You had better stay.”

“Shall I sleep on your couch?”

“It is okay, I trust you. You can sleep in my bed.”

And so I did. We lay close together, but facing in different directions, hardly saying anything, Miranda’s music swirling about our heads. Around us were large sculptures which we had had to snake through to get into bed.

It got dark and I dozed, and then I was awake with her arms about me, caressing me and making me come into her generous hands.

We never talked about it afterwards, and nor the subsequent times; it was something we did in darkness and never to be mentioned.  And it was all about me, she was surprised and defensive when I turned to her to give her pleasure. I am never sure if she ever enjoyed it. If I did bring her to orgasm she was very discreet about it.

She gradually told me about her father; what he made her do. She sat next to me on the sofa, stoney-faced as she talked.

“Did you not tell anyone?”

“No. I almost told my teacher Mrs Baxter. But in the end I couldn’t. She had to ask and she didn’t. And nothing would have happened anyway. All men are beasts in the end. I have to live with what happened. I have nothing to do with him anymore. I stole his money and left.”

I loved her, you have to remember that; I loved her more than anybody I have ever known. I wanted to make her better. Love her and make her forget the past. I got a job as a teacher in a comprehensive school whilst she carried on with her job at Sainsbury and with her art. I think we were happy, but she was still moody and we often rowed, and I would spend a few days with my family. The sex still was same. It was mysterious, and strange. After one of her angry moods when we had barely spoken for a week I asked her why it had to be that way.

“You won’t cure me” she told me; “what Peter did to me. That will never go away. I am hollow inside. I am broken. You need somebody normal.”

“No I need you and you need me. I love you, I love you as you are. I will do anything for you. You are worth it. I love you with all my heart.”

She looked at me, not totally believing what I was saying.

We got married. There was nobody else for me. And she seemed happy with me, well she said yes to my proposal as we sat on the sofa drinking wine. She still had her dark moods, but I knew she would become happier once she was secure in a loving relationship. It was just a short service in a registry office with my parents and sister and a couple of my friends. Motorhead played as she walked down the aisle in the blue dress she liked to wear; she looked defiant and lost. Two hours earlier she had been working on a construction and clearly wished she was still there.

And then she became pregnant. We had only been married a year but we were not always careful; it is difficult when she would not talk about sex, pretend it did not happen.

“Are you okay” with this I asked her, “the baby.”

She just shrugged, and touched her tummy which barely showed what it contained. “It is there. Not much I can do.”

Not technically true, but she did not agree with abortion, and even if she had I could not imagine her submitting to that intrusion.

Nine months later our daughter Naomi was born. Miranda was cold with her from the start. She did what she needed to do; fed her, clothed her, changed her nappies, but there was little love that I could see.  Fortunately, my sister Alishia loved her and was always there, and so were my parents. Miranda was soon back at work, and when not working at Sainsbury she worked on her art, some of which she managed to exhibit and sell. Her work was getting more ambitious and strange; I did not understand it, I wanted something safe and commercial that would sell and my friends and family would like.

And then as Naomi got older, to my surprise Miranda bought her books; children’s poetry mostly. And she started to read to her. I was pleased. Naomi was three by now and at last my wife was starting to bond with her. True she did little else with her other than read, but at least there was that. I was not always at home in the evenings or if I was I would be marking upstairs. It therefore took me a long time to realise that it was just the same few poems that Miranda read to her and Naomi did not have a say in the matter, nor did Naomi seem to enjoy this time with her mother, on the contrary she looked frightened and cross.

One day, they came to me whilst I was in my study marking some abominable History essays.

“Listen to this” Miranda said with a nervous smile. Naomi looked unhappy; she had just turned four. She looked at me pleadingly, and I did not know what to do.

“Come on” Miranda told my daughter, and Naomi started to recite.

“They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,/    In a Sieve they went to sea:/ In spite of all their friends could say,/ On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,/    In a Sieve they went to sea!”

And she went through the whole blessed poem, without happiness or joy, and when she stumbled, Miranda would get cross and you could see she was just holding herself from slapping Naomi. At last it was over.

“Wasn’t that good?” Miranda asked pleadingly.

We talked all night.

“You need help” I said, “I know what you have been through, but that is our daughter and you are scaring her.”

But she would not get help. I got worried when I was out of the house and I left them together alone. Alishia got a boyfriend in France and went over to be with him. My parents came over when Miranda was at work, but there was still long periods when Miranda and Naomi were alone together, and I did not like it.

One day I came home early from work. There was supposed to be a meeting of the history department but it was cancelled at Mark, the head of our department was feeling poorly. I walked into our house, and I could hear mumbling, it was Naomi speaking slowly and unhappily.

“Rats, they fought the dogs and killed the cats/ and bit the babies in the cradles….”

And on and on. And when she stumbled, there would be a slap and I would hear my darling daughter cry, terrified.

Three

They must be used to me by now. I go to the zoo most days. It isn’t a big one, more a park with animals in it, but then Alfreton is only a small town in the middle of nowhere. It is just a fiver to go in, and I have enough money what with my art and the money that my ex-husband sends me.

He threw me out in the end. He said that I was not safe and his first duty of care was to Naomi. I suppose in the end he had to choose her over me, despite all his protestations of everlasting love and his claims that he would do anything for me. People say these things, but such statements do not mean anything. Even Peter would say that he loved me, that I was his only one, but he carried on abusing me. At least I have never pretended to love anyone, well only Rosemary, and apparently she did not exist.

I discovered the animals by accident when walking one April afternoon, enjoying the sun and thinking about my latest sculpture. I was going a way I had never been before and I saw a sign for Burdett Stately Home which was open to the public. I gave the woman at the entrance some money and enjoyed looking around it, but then behind it I came across the mini zoo which one pays separately for. It is shabby, and I am sure one day it will either be closed down, or they will find a better use for the land more in keeping with modern mores. But until then I will keep on going.

There are a few animals; some llamas, a rather sad looking lynx and a pond with penguins. But most people come to see the gorillas. They live in a large enclosure made of wood with lots of toys and apparatus for them to play with and swing on. There are ten gorillas in the enclosure; the adult male, his harem of three wives and six children. At first they were just a mass of apes; hairy bodies making strange noises and racing about. Surprisingly quickly however, I began to recognise them and discover their personalities. I also got to know their routines; when they are fed, when the children play and when they have a rest. There are keepers too, but I am not interested in them and cannot tell them apart.

I tend to do my art in the morning, and then go and look at the gorillas in the afternoon until the animal park closes at six and then I go home and listen to music and maybe telephone Naomi if she will speak to me. At night I dream about the gorillas; the way they are so close and kind to each other. I dream that I am one of them; loved and hugged, and made to feel as if I am kin. Sometimes when I am there, watching them, I am tempted to go into the enclosure and join them, and perhaps one day I will.

I have learned a lot from the gorillas; things that I could not understand otherwise. About playing with friends, looking after children, how families are organised, about what we should and should not eat. But most importantly I have learned about love, being accepted because you have been born, no matter what you do subsequently, about love being undemanding and unconditional.

Perhaps that is why gorillas are kept locked away, safe in cages whilst the true beasts can roam free and hurt those that they should love and cherish.

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Andrew was born in Yorkshire many years ago but now lives on Merseyside where he writes stories and works as a support worker. His stories have appeared on various websites and in print. At present Andrew is working on a novel called “A Crack in Everything” which is concerned with religion, sex, art and Leonard Cohen.

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