“Sorry, mister,” Ben, after a quick glance at his brother, grinned in a way that was anything but contrite.
“Yeah, sorry, daaad,” said Jack in a mocking drawl.
Henry Goodman, Hal to his friends, gazed around the devastated kitchen and felt the stirrings of a good healthy anger. Things had gone far enough. It was time he rediscovered his spine.
“I’m sorry, Mr Goodman,” Betty Simpson, his housekeeper for the past two years, was visibly shaken. “I can’t take any more, it’s been a nightmare today. I’m handing in my notice as of now,” blinking away tears, she went into the hall to collect her coat.
Hal quickly followed her, “Betty, please, don’t act in haste. I’m sorry that they’ve played you up again. I’ll sort it this time, you have my word.”
“I’ve enjoyed working for you, Mr Goodman,” she gave him a straight look, “but I’ll be honest, no job on earth is worth what I’ve had to put up with over the past two months. I thought things would be better once they started back at school, but they’re worse if anything. I can’t cope with it. I was employed as a housekeeper, not a nanny.” And, she thought privately to herself, certainly not to the hounds of hell.
Hal ran both hands through his hair, a gesture that was starting to become a habit lately, he didn’t want to lose a trusted employee. Moreover, the quality of her work aside, he liked Betty, and he knew how much she needed the money with her husband ill and unable to work. Apart from anything else, he just couldn’t manage without her help. “Listen, Betty, take a few days off to think things over, in fact take the rest of this week, fully paid. I’ve got some work I need to do from home. I’ll have a word with them, more than a word. I guarantee you’ll have no more trouble. Please.” He laid a hand on her arm, gazing at her pleadingly.
Betty was quiet for a few moments, then she took a considered breath and nodded, “alright, Mr Goodman, thank you. I could do with a break. Ted hasn’t been too good lately, it’ll be nice to spend some time with him.”
Hal let out a small sigh of relief, and helped her on with her coat. “Things are going to change, you’ll see.”
“You’ve said that before, Mr Goodman,” Betty smiled a little sadly, she was fond of her employer, he was a nice man, too nice. “The trouble with you is that you’re suffering from guilt and there’s no need. The time for guilt is past. It’s doing them no good and it certainly isn’t doing you any good.” She buttoned her coat, “I’ll think things over, I promise you a decision by Sunday night.”
Hal wished her a good evening and closed the door, leaning his head against it for a moment, almost wishing he could go back in time and tear up the solicitors letter, but he couldn’t. He had taken the decision, gladly at the time, he wasn’t going to give up now. Betty was right, it was time to lay guilt aside, it was shackling him. Locking the door he headed purposely for the kitchen.
“Has old face ache gone then?” Jack, his thin little face beaming malice, was sitting on the kitchen table, feet, complete with dirty footwear, perched on the back of a chair. “She was a rubbish cleaner anyway. I mean look at this place,” he swept his hand around the ruined kitchen, “it’s bloody filthy.”
Ben, predictably, giggled.
“Bad move, pop, letting her go before she cleaned this mess up.” Jack smirked at his father, “ who’s gonna do it now?”
“You are, Jack,” said Hal quietly, beginning to un-knot his tie. “You and Ben here. You both made this disgusting mess and you’re going to clear up every last bit of it. I’m going to get showered and changed. When I come back down this room had better be pristine, every last bit of food picked up and disposed off, floor swept, the lot.” He gazed at them steadily, “and if it isn’t, you’re both going to be very sorry little boys indeed.” He went to the back door, locked it and put the key in his pocket, there would be no slipping out tonight. He left the kitchen without saying another word.
Ben stuck his tongue out, then stared anxiously at his brother, “what shall we do, Jack, the man looked really cross?”
Jack snorted, “yeah, like I’m so scared. What’s he going to do, lecture us to death, stop our pocket money? Like I give a shit.” He slid down from the table, “if he wants it cleaning he can do it his bloody self, or get that moaning cow back to do it. I’m going to watch the telly.”
Ben, after a moment of hesitation, followed his brother in to the sitting room.
Hal took his time in the shower, letting the hot water soothe some of his tension away. He had been a fool, he should have made a stand earlier, right at the beginning, but he had wanted his sons to like him. Well, if there was one thing he was beginning to pick up on, it was that like didn’t really come into it, not as a parent. He had tried to be a friend instead of a father and had ended up being neither.
He sighed sadly, lifting his face to greet the warm spray of water. None of them were happy, they didn’t seem to like him, and, he reluctantly admitted it to himself, he didn’t see much that was likeable about them; especially Jack. He was foul mouthed, provocative, surly, always pushing, he told lies and was thoroughly dishonest. Hal knew perfectly well that he was stealing money from his wallet, he had chosen to ignore it, but no more, for all their sakes, no more. As far as Ben was concerned, Hal suspected that, underneath the rudimentary hostility he displayed in imitation of Jack, there was a sunny, less complex character. The main problem was his insistence in addressing Hal as mister, or referring to him as that man, also, annoyingly, if Hal asked him to do anything he always looked to Jack for clearance first, that would have to stop, as mentors went, Jack wasn’t really suitable.
Hal didn’t really know what he had expected. Jack and Ben had been only five and two years old respectively the last time he had seen them, babies really. His marriage had turned out to be a mistake, prompted by the fact that Barbara was pregnant. Despite everything, he had wanted to make it work. First of all for the sake of his children, and secondly, because he had once been genuinely smitten with the woman he married. Barbara had been an exceptionally attractive woman, in the physical stakes at least and when it suited her, she could charm birds from the trees. She was the one who ended the marriage, leaving him when his first business venture failed, taking the boys with her and leaving him utterly heart broken. The worst of it was that she wasn’t really interested in them, he had quickly realised that. They had been tools to keep him interested in her. She took them away to spite him, to punish him for failing to keep her in the manner she wanted to become accustomed to. She was not prepared to move into a modest, rented flat while their house was sold to pay off business debts. She upped and left, taking every thing of value she could lay her greedy hands on.
Hal hadn’t cared about the material things, it was the taking of his sons that had really hurt. For a while he had completely lost the plot, but Hal Goodman wasn’t the type to lay down and die. He started picking up the pieces and putting them back together. He found out where she was living and made a determined effort to keep in touch with his children, but she didn’t make it easy and men had little chance of winning sole custody of their offspring. He contributed more than willingly to their maintenance although suspecting it was being used more for her benefit than theirs. He made do with the odd visit and meeting whenever she allowed, usually when she wanted more money. Seeing them drift further and further away from him in an emotional, as well as physical sense hurt deeply. The meetings and partings were acutely painful for both him and the young boys; always ending with tears. Then she had met someone with monetary potential and moved again without leaving him a contact address, another act of calculated malice.
Around the same time, he was building a new business, a process that took him home to New Zealand and the parents he hadn’t seen in fourteen years, after a disagreement that had gone too far. Hal had surreptitiously kept in touch with his mother, sending her cards for her birthday and Christmas, but that was all. He was deeply ashamed of his behaviour, recognising too late that it was a juvenile attempt at showing them, especially his father, that he was grown up and could make decisions on his own account. Funny how people let the slight hurts and misunderstandings that were part and parcel of life, and which could often be healed by a few words, grow into painful silences that filled years. He might have made less mistakes in both his private and business life if he’d had the support and advice of his parents. Ironically, one of the things that had initially attracted him to Barbara, lulling him into believing he had something in common with her other than physical attraction, was that she too was estranged from her mother. On reflection, he realised that he had acted like a spoilt child, bemoaning his parents lack of understanding and appreciation of his worth. Having children of his own brought Hal to maturity, but not Barbara, she had resented them, and him, for expecting her to take her duties as a mother as seriously as he wanted to take his duties as a father.
In renewing contacts with his own past, and building up successful business contacts, he found himself thinking less and less about his sons. It was as if he had dreamt that part of his life. His mother, learning she was a grandmother, had told him simply that once you had children they were a part of you for life, regardless of whether you saw them or not, and that he should re-stake his claim before too many more years went by. I wouldn’t have missed a moment of yours and Joe’s childhood, she had said, even with all the painful bits, it was wonderful. Find them, or one day it will be too late. You’ll wake up and find that there’s no more time, that your chances have gone. Besides, your father and I want to see our grandsons before we peg out. Hal had stayed in New Zealand for almost three years, he had even considered making it his permanent base at one point, but something drew him back to the England he had grown fond of, perhaps vague ideas of tracing his sons?
However, the memory of those painful visits combined with the fear that they had accepted some other man as a father, and that his reappearance would only cause them distress, had eroded his good intentions. Life had moved on too far. He had been a coward, fearful of rejection, he reluctantly accepted that fact. Then the solicitors letter had dropped through the letterbox of his comfortable, detached house, informing him that his wife had been killed in a car crash and inquiring whether he was the father of the boys named within. He had sat and stared at the letter dumbfounded. Barbara dead, he could hardly believe it. There had been no emotion, not for her, even the hatred he’d felt for her at one point had vanished. He was completely detached from her, but not from his sons. The thought of seeing his sons again had overwhelmed him, he could barely think straight.
It transpired that the boys had seen about as much of Barbara as they had of him in the intervening years. The man she had moved in with soon made it clear that the boys were not wanted or welcome. It was a straight choice: him or them. Barbara hadn’t hesitated. She had taken them on a supposed reconciliatory visit to the mother she had barely spoken to in years, then disappeared into the sunset.
The boy’s grandmother, a peculiarly cold individual, did her ‘Christian duty.’ To her strange way of thinking, her daughter’s death, released her from any dutiful obligations to look after her children; the ties of blood extended only as far as Barbara herself and she felt no emotional need or bond for her grandchildren. Shortly after news of Barbara’s death she had delivered them in to the local councils care. The state had then set about tracing him, employing a solicitor to make enquiries.
Hal didn’t hesitate, as far as he was concerned the only consideration was the return to him of his children. He made no account of the practicalities of the situation. He contacted the solicitor immediately and the following day set off to meet the children he hadn’t seen in almost six years.
Somewhere in Hal’s mind was a picture of two appealing little boys with wide smiles and shining eyes, who ran to him to be picked up and hugged, who called him daddy, and giggled when he swung them playfully through the air. What he got was two under nourished, shabby, dull eyed little strangers.
Jack was balanced only in so far as he had a chip on both shoulders. Surly, resentful, hostile, he kept his distance, making sure that Ben kept his too. They did not fling themselves in to his arms with gladsome cries of daddy.” He could hardly blame them for that. Seemingly abandoned by both parents, then their grandmother, they had a right to feel let down and distrustful.
Ashamed and guilty at his negligence and lack of persistence in seeking them out, Hal made excuses and allowances for their behaviour, time and time again. His comfortable, well ordered existence fell apart. Even his workplace offered no refuge from the stresses and strains. His secretary constantly took messages about his sons appalling behaviour. It didn’t help that their arrival more or less coincided with the long summer holidays. With time on their hands and only each other for company, they ran amuck. Hal was frequently interrupted at work by messages demanding that he go home to sort them out. Every time he heard the phone in his office ring he tensed wondering what was coming, on one occasion it was to be told that they had caused a fire.
Tonight was the end, the very end as far as he was concerned. The mess in the kitchen amounted to vandalism. He had heard their shouts and mocking laughter the moment he stepped out of his car onto the drive. He could hardly believe his eyes when he walked in and saw the mess, broken crockery and food debris lay everywhere, it looked as if a herd of wild beasts had rampaged through the kitchen.
It was time to get tough, to get his hands dirty, holding back had made him seem weak and disinterested, he was neither. Popularity was not the issue now. If the best he could elicit from his sons was respect, then he’d make do with that.
Hal vigorously towelled his hair dry and got dressed again. They needed a father, not a pal, and a father was what they were going to get. He combed his hair with an air of grim determination. They had one hell of a rude awakening coming. He caught sight of Jane’s photograph on his dressing table and grimaced. He’d have tell her he couldn’t keep their date that evening. She wouldn’t be happy, there had been too many such cancellations since his sons had come on the scene. He took a deep breath and headed back downstairs.
When he had told them that he wanted the kitchen made pristine again, he had been deadly serious. He thought they would somehow sense this, that his seriousness would come across in his words and manner, but plainly, he observed the untouched room, it had not. He would have to convince them of it by some other means. He strode into the sitting room, going straight to the television set and switching it off.
“Hey you, I was watching that.” Jack, sitting cross legged on the floor, nose virtually touching the screen, looked up indignantly.
“I told you that I wanted that mess in the kitchen cleaned up.” Hal folded his arms and looked sternly at the two boys, trying hard to quell any sign of uncertainty.
“So,” Jack curled his lip in the mocking manner that was really beginning to get on Hal’s nerves.
“So why hasn’t it been done?” He kept his voice calm and steady.
“It’s old fish faces job to clean, not mine. Why keep a dog and bark yourself,” Jack smirked, continuing with a fair imitation of his father’s New Zealand twang, “and let’s face it, she’s a real old dog.”
“I told you that you’d be sorry,” Hal unfolded his arms, “and I meant it.” He reached down and taking hold of Jack’s wrist, yanked him to his feet “I’m going to do what I should have done weeks ago. I’m going to give you both a spanking.”
Jack laughed, he couldn’t help it, “get real,” he sneered.
Hal raised a finely arched eyebrow, “think you’re too old to be spanked do you? Or perhaps you think I’m not up to it? Big mistake on both counts.”
Jack, conscious of a flicker of alarm, tried to twist away, but the hand gripping his was like steel. He was held as securely as a rabbit in a trap. Ben found his wrist gripped in similar fashion and both boys were propelled out of the sitting room at lightening speed. Hal took them in to the room he used as a study. “You,” he deposited a bemused Ben in a corner of the study, facing the wall, “stand there and don’t move or turn around until I tell you to. I’m going to deal with Jack first.”
Pulling out the straight backed chair from beneath the desk, Hal sat down, pulling Jack towards him.
Jack yelled abuse as he realised that his father was deadly serious, and not only that, immensely strong. He was lifted as easily as a five year old and put face down across his father’s knee. “Right,” Hal raised his hand, “let’s see just how tough you are, shall we, little man.”
Jack gave a little gasp as the first slap landed on the seat of his school trousers. He suddenly wished he’d changed out of his uniform into his heavier jeans. A second smack landed, then a third, and he began to struggle wildly, kicking out his legs. He was shocked, not only that his father was actually carrying out the threat, but by how much it stung. He squirmed and kicked harder, half sliding off his father’s lap, ending up kneeling on the floor.
Hal, determined to carry out his intention, repositioned the struggling youngster, hauling him up over his left knee, holding him firmly round the waist and hooking his right leg around his son’s flailing lower limbs to keep him still. He made the next smack really tell.
Jack shrieked trying to reach his right hand behind him to protect his bottom, but his father gripped it and held it behind his back, securing him even tighter in his undignified position.
Hal’s right hand thundered across Jack’s backside three times in quick succession, “I’ve had it with you, Jack. You’ll behave yourself from now on. No more swearing,” his hand cracked down, “no more cheeking Mrs Simpson. No more trouble at all, or you’ll have me to deal with. Is that VERY clear?”
“Ye-es, you swine,” screeched Jack in reply.
“I really do not care for that tone, young man.” Hal swung his palm firmly against the upturned bottom, “say it more politely.”
“Yes,” Jack, to his horror, burst in to tears, he couldn’t stop himself, “it’s clear.”
“Good, thank you,” Hal stopped spanking, then stood the boy back on his feet.
Jack made a dart for the door, shouting, “you’re a pig, a big fucking pig!” He immediately found himself with a birds eye view of the rug again.
“What did I say about swearing, what did I say, young man? No swearing means no swearing Jack, I mean it.” Hal applied his hand again, “this is what you’ll get every time I hear you use bad language, only next time, it’ll be on your bare bottom.” Setting him on his feet once again Hal steered him towards the corner where Ben was waiting.
Jack wisely made no further comments, standing just where his father directed him to stand, concentrating his energies on rubbing his tears away and trying to rub the fire out of his nether regions.
Ben burst in to tears as his father reached for him, “I’ll clean the kitchen, mister, I’ll clean it.”
“Yes, Ben,” Hal hardened himself against the panic in the little boy’s face, “you certainly will, but first...”
It was Jack’s turn to listen as Ben was put across their father’s knee and given a spanking, though he couldn’t help noting that it was nowhere near as hard a spanking as he’d just had.
“Right,” Hal stood a howling Ben up. Taking his handkerchief out of his pocket he gently mopped the child’s eyes and nose, “there now, it’s all over, but you and Jack will both clean that kitchen and you’ll do it properly.”
Hal nodded as he inspected the finished job, it was by no means perfect, but he felt he had made his point. “I think that will do, now off to bed. I don’t want to set eyes on either of you for the rest of the night.”
“But it’s only early and we haven’t had any supper yet.” Ben had a very healthy appetite, the thought of having to go without his supper was even more upsetting than the spanking he’d just had, it was already a memory, but his hunger wasn’t.
“You should have considered that before you started throwing food about. Going hungry might teach you to appreciate the value of things a little more and to be less wasteful.” Hal took out his hanky and carefully wiped Ben’s runny nose again. “Now, MOVE it.”
Both boys silently climbed the stairs, too stunned by the unexpected turn of events to argue back, their reign of terror had been dramatically halted. Ben opened his bedroom door, then turned tearfully to his brother, “that was all your fault, you started the fight. Now you’ve made the man mad and I can’t have my supper.”
Jack bunched his fist and made a step forward, Ben hastily slammed his door shut, he was no stranger to Jack’s fists.
Downstairs, Hal poured a stiff drink and sat down, he found he was shaking slightly. A few sips of whisky and a few deep breaths later he felt a little better. He had reclaimed his authority, reinserted his backbone and resumed control of his life, well, made a start anyway. It wouldn’t be the same life, but hopefully it would still be a good life, for all of them. The settling in period was over. This was the real thing and they were stuck with each other. Ben’s dismayed face at going supperless suddenly floated in front of his eyes. Sighing, he got up and went into the kitchen to make two mugs of milky cocoa, after all milk was good for growing boys, his mother had always said so, and it would probably help them sleep. Ben’s face moved once more into the range of his inner eye and with another sigh he liberally spread honey over two thick slices of bread, after all, hunger made a poor bed companion, teeth could soon be re-brushed and children were more likely to sleep well on a full stomach as opposed to an empty one.
Copyright Ester Phillips / Cat /2015