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When He Sleeps
Benny was dead. He was sprawled out across the sofa, one arm outstretched, eyes not fully closed. Cathy sat on the footstool watching for the rise and fall of his chest, hoping he would begin to snore in that loud and ferocious way so that she could exhale. Her mother, Terry, crouched in a corner crying silently into shaking hands that were impossible to control.
“Is he asleep?” Cathy had asked this of her mother several times but Terry could not speak. Heavy rain pelted the window of their third floor flat leaving a distorted image of a black sky with speckles of orange reflected from the street lights below. The paramedics and the police walked soggy footprints into the flat. They questioned Terry who hugged Cathy close to her and stroked her hair.
“Was he your husband?”
“And he'd been drinking?”
“He hit you?”
“So you thought you'd punish him?”
“It's not like that.”
“Mrs Theresa Banks, I'm arresting you on suspicion of murder, you do not have to say anything...”
Cathy was only sixteen. She had school the next day.
Cathy lit another cigarette. She inhaled deeply and watched the cloud of greyish white waft around her face. She half closed her eyes and turned to see the barman from the The Latin Corner hovering by the window again. There were only two people drinking inside but it was brightly lit and it looked warm in there. In the forecourt, where Cathy sat, there were four long tables and eight benches alongside them. It was damp and grey and the barman had been out twice to ask what she wanted to drink and each time Cathy had said, 'I'm waiting for someone.'
“Don't you want to wait inside? It's freezing out here,” he'd said, but Cathy had shaken her head, blowing cigarette smoke over her shoulder. The barman watched her now, a tall slim woman with one or two dreadlocks escaping from a green knitted hat, as she pulled her collar tighter and tapped the empty cigarette packet on the table,
The traffic was loud along the Camden Road. Buses, cars and taxis had passengers neatly packaged away but not one person on foot. For years she had waited for this moment. Her mother, Terry, home again. Out. No more visits with a table between them but a chance to rebuild their lives. At least that is what she hoped would happen, but Terry had changed. She was thinner, paler, lines patterned her face and her red hair had turned a dirty blonde colour. But it was not only a physical change. They'd had less and less to talk about and Cathy worried that as her release date drew closer her mother might be having second thoughts about staying with her. She felt guilty that her mother was the one who had been locked away for so long when it was the pair of them that had wanted him dead.
Benny was her mother's first boyfriend after Cathy's father died. She never trusted him and she hated his eyes. They bulged from his mahogany face, the whites slightly yellow and always stern. He had a broad nose and wide lips, his face taking on the look of a grotesque mask and Cathy never trusted him. He wasn't dissimilar in colour or height to her father but they were not the same. One of the first things Benny did was shove a photograph of Cathy holding hands with her mother and father into a drawer. She loved that photograph it was the only one in which Terry wore her red hair loose to her shoulders and her father's afro reminded her of a lollipop. She was six in that photo.
Cathy could hear Benny through the walls at night, snoring after a bout of drinking or a drunken rage. As angry as he sounded in his sleep it was still a comfort to know he was doing just that – sleeping. Very often Terry would crawl into bed with Cathy. Sometimes her lip was split sometimes her eye was too battered to open the next morning. Terry never fell asleep she would just shiver under the cover as Cathy wrapped her arm around her until morning.
“Settle down, Cathy, Love.” She would say to her daughter when she crept into her room. “When he's asleep he can't hurt us.”
One night the sound of Benny's hand across Terry's face made Cathy jump. Something had broken or snapped. She was sitting next to her on the sofa when it happened. Terry's hand was against her red cheek instantly, her eyes darting from Cathy to Benny who hovered above her with his fist clenched.
“Benny – no. No more!” Terry cried, but he never listened to pleas. Not from her and not from Cathy. This time Cathy threw herself across Terry but Benny grabbed her by the back of the neck like a rag doll and tossed her across the room. Her head hit the corner of the radiator and she cried out as she saw Benny's fist land again in the same place on her mother's face. It was not a human sound her mother made before she slumped backwards on the sofa. Her neck bent to one side and she was not moving. Cathy ran to her mother.
“You bastard, you've killed her. I'm calling the police this time.”
“Keep out of my business or you'll make things worse for her.” He left the flat as Cathy cried. She dialled 999 and asked for an ambulance.
The doctor prescribed strong pain killers in draught form because Terry's jaw was broken and she could hardly open her mouth to speak.
“Don't look so sad Cathy, these pain killers knock me out. I can sleep off the pain.”
Cathy held Terry's hand as she slept, staring hard at the bottle of pain killer. Then she rested her head on her mother's lap and fell asleep too.
A car horn sounded on the Camden Road and Cathy looked across at the low red brick building. Terry had told her not to wait at the gate it would be too upsetting. Cathy arranged the place to meet but the time was ticking away and she wondered if her mother had walked away, changed her mind about meeting her. It had tormented Cathy that Terry might not want to see her, that she might not forgive her and that she wanted those years back.
The barman placed a coffee in front of Cathy.
“On the house,” he said and walked away. It was becoming dark, it would rain soon and she would be forced to go inside. She yawned and suddenly there was Terry walking slowly towards her and then waiting to cross the road. Cathy leapt up and waved.
“I thought you weren't going to meet me,” Cathy said, there were tears in her eyes now.
“Why would you think that, love?”
“Because, because you might resent me. I can never pay you back for what you did for me.”
“It was all I could do to say sorry for the years I stole from you as a child. I should have been stronger for you. I'm sorry, Cathy.”
The barman watched them hugging each other for a full minute before disappearing along the Camden Road.
When He Sleeps was written in response to a Burnett Archive account by Lillian Westall called The Good Old Days Vol no. 1:746