Read Painkillers Online

Authors: Simon Ings

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General

Painkillers (7 page)

BOOK: Painkillers
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In Justin's world there was no such thing as a pleasant surprise. The previous year we took him to Camber Sands, but it had never occurred to us to tell him that we were only going out for the day. As far as he knew he was going to be stranded in this sandy wasteland for ever, never to see his home again. He spent the day screaming his head off, unable to tell us why he was so afraid. Eva, feeling excluded, got up and walked round the room. The walls were painted a muted orange - a warm, restful colour. Justin's latest pictures were blu-tacked above the bed. A tree, a house, and a picture of Francis. You could tell it was Francis because the head was dark brown. The face was a blank: tiny white dots for eyes, another dot for the mouth, no nose. Faces meant nothing to him, and besides, being autistic means you look more at the edges of objects than at their surfaces - the same, they say, is true of cats.

Mobiles hung from the ceiling: planes, clowns, five-pointed stars, and some dough decorations we had brought him last Christmas. The more glittery ones were hung low enough for him to stir with an upraised hand.

Eva rarely visited Justin. It was her fear of him that had put him in residential care in the first place. Now that he was older - now that he wasn't smashing light bulbs or poking his finger in and out of his anus - a more complex feeling was holding her back. Embarrassment, and an uneasy and mistaken idea that, in her absence, Justin and I had formed an exclusive bond.

Justin loved Eva's gold wrapping paper. While I assembled the machine he tore the sheet into confetti and threw handfuls into the air. I plugged the lead into the aerial socket of the TV and left Francis to sort out the tuning. I sat on the floor and gathered the scraps up. Eva came and joined me. Justin held out his hands. Eva poured the rubbish into his palms. He threw it straight away into the air. Eva laughed, shaking it out of her hair.

Francis turned the PlayStation on. Sony's fanfare blasted across the room. Justin stuffed his fingers into his ears and screamed.

'Nice one, Francis.'

'Fuck. Shit.' Francis fumbled with the remote and killed the sound. Justin rocked back and forward - an old stereotypy.

'Oh dear,' Eva sighed, deflated by the sight. Justin did outgrow things, but so slowly, it was hard sometimes to believe in his progress.

'Hey, Justin,' said Francis, 'show Daddy and Mummy your present?'

Justin blinked at him.

'Your other present?'

He still had his fingers in his ears.

Francis extended his hand. Justin gripped his forearm and stood up. They walked round the far side of the bed together.

'We got another present,' Francis explained, as Justin disappeared under the bed.

'A present?' said Eva. 'From whom?'

'I can't read the card.'

'Your present!' Justin shouted. He turned to Eva. 'Your birthday! Your present!' He waved a thick red plastic cylinder over his head. There were diamond patterns transferred onto the barrel: white and blue and green.

'It came this morning,' said Francis, ushering Justin back into the centre of the room. 'Show mummy your present.'

Justin hoofed the carpet, a temperamental foal. 'I'll get you Jews!'

'Do you want a drink?' said Francis.

'I'll get you Jews!'

'Show mummy your present. I'll get you a juice from the fridge.'

I touched the cylinder in Justin's hand. He whipped it away from me.

'Was there a card?' Eva asked.

Francis had it in his back pocket to show us. He handed it to Eva on his way out to the fridge.

'I'll get you Jews!' Justin chanted, waving the cylinder in the air.

'Soon, Jessie, soon,' I soothed - not that "soon" meant anything to him, any more than the niceties of

"you" and "I".

Justin thrust the cylinder at my face. I took it. Justin stood back and watched. It was a kaleidoscope. I held it up to my eye.

Justin clapped his hands, laughing.

'It's from Money,' said Eva. She crumpled the card in her fist.

I let the kaleidoscope drop from my eye. Justin pushed it back in my face; it cracked against my cheekbone. 'Fuck.'

'There.' She threw the card at me. 'Look.'

I laid the kaleidoscope on the floor and flattened out the card. 'Now you are SEVEN,' it said. I opened it. Underneath the doggerel, Money had written a message in Cantonese. 'What does it say?'

'Oh, it's terribly nice,' Eva spat - but whatever sting hung off the tail of that remark, it was interrupted by Francis's return.


At tea-time Francis led Justin off to eat with the other children. Normally Eva and I would have eaten with Guy Criville and his staff, who made a point of their hospitality towards parents; but Criville was at an NAS conference in Birmingham, and when Justin's language therapist met us in the corridor, Eva was full of excuses about how we'd just eaten.

'We can't just ignore them,' I complained, as she led me across the lawn at the back of the main building.

'Don't you want to hear how he is?'

'Don't you dare play the guilt card with me.'

I made a good show of being exasperated. Six brick stairs led us down to the sports field, and beyond it

- where I remembered fields, a couple of years ago - a housing estate. 'What are we doing out here, anyway?'

'You think I don't know what she's like?' Eva snapped. 'you think I don't know what she married into?'

It didn't take a genius to work out what this was all about.

I thought of him, Eva's luckless grandfather, looking out from his frame on our living room wall, flushed by the light flooding in from Magazine Gap.

Come the Japanese occupation, it was said, Eva's granddad worked with Hong Kong's rag-tag resistance, spying for Britain through a cabal of canny pro-Allied fishing concerns. That, anyway, was the excuse the Kempeitei had made for beheading him.

Why Jimmy's father Zhenshu should have been the one to betray Eva's grandfather, no-one could ever tell me. There were no personal or business ties to speak of between them. Eva's granddad owned a fishing fleet; Zhenshu, one of a meagre handful of Chinese lecturers, taught electrical engineering at the University of Hong Kong. But Zhenshu's friendship with the senior officers of the Kempeitei had already made him a notorious figure long before any blood was spilled, and perhaps he was simply their spy. Whatever - by the time the war was over, the rumour of Zhenshu's treachery was rife enough that living any longer in Hong Kong was clearly impossible. Zhenshu met his wife the day he arrived in Tokyo, penniless and brandishing questionable papers. A wealthy woman by all accounts, she died in childbirth, less than a year after they met. Where her fortune went to wasn't clear, though as I later discovered while looking through his papers, Zhenshu's life was a long and confusing catalogue of legal wranglings and Quixotic projects, and might easily have consumed a dozen such personal fortunes. Little Jimmy grew up with his father in the Japanese whaling port of Abashiri. He told me about it once. The boats. The smell. His dad, living from hand to mouth, fixing short-wave radios. Yes, I knew what Money had married into. I also knew, better than most, the price she had paid. 'She's living in a foreign country,' I said, 'and she's just lost her husband. Cut her some slack, love, please.'

'You wouldn't know a threat if it grabbed you by the neck and shook you.'

'Really,' I said, conscious of the faint yellow marks under my chin.

'She knows where Justin lives.'


'Adam, think. How could she know that? She's been spying on us.'

'Oh, really...' Money wasn't spying on us. She didn't have to. She knew where Justin was, because I had told her daughter, only the night before. 'She's got no reason at all to threaten us, Eva. None. She's just a lonely old woman.'

We got back to find Justin kneeling on the bed, the kaleidoscope glued to his eye, and Francis hogging the PlayStation.

'Yes, he should be able to manage that,' Francis said, quickly dropping the outsize, brightly-coloured control box. 'Justin? Come here, your daddy wants to show you something.'

Eva, sidelined again, shot him a hurt look.

'Justin,' I said, 'come look at this.'

Justin climbed off the bed.

'Mummy?' I said, 'are you going to see, too?'

Eva sat down cross-legged between me and Francis.


Justin came over to our friendly triangle, collided with Eva and, unable to distinguish her from the furniture, clambered right over her into the centre.

'Oh. But - Christ,' said Eva, fending off Justin's random, scything movements.

'Are you okay?'

'Oh, it's terribly nice.' It was so close to her intonation - a perfect playback - I thought at first it was Eva had spoken. But it was Justin.

'Justin,' said Francis, 'come here.' He got him sat facing the screen and gave him the control box. Justin turned it over and over under his nose, sniffing it.

When he was done, Francis guided his fingers over the buttons, into the first level of Return of the Jedi.

'No, Justin, move it like this.'

Justin dropped the control box and started flapping his hands.

'Come on, Justin.'

'Oh, it's terribly nice,'

'No. Take it. It's fun.'

'Oh, it's terribly nice.'

Something was disturbing him. The sound from the TV was low enough, it shouldn't be distressing him. Was it the screen - something in the repeat-rate of the frames? Or had the break to his usual schedule unnerved him at last, in spite of all our rehearsals?

Eva tried stroking his hair. He slapped down her hands.

'Such hair,' she cooed, 'why's it so long?'

Francis caught my eye before I forgot and gave the game away. Justin's terror of having his hair cut was a quite usual obsession at his stage of development. The last time the school barber was round his tantrum lasted well into the night. I'd tried a couple of times, but I was expecting trouble, and maybe some of my nervousness had transmitted itself to him. Justin was hypersensitive to other people's anxiety. Saying nothing, Francis left the room a moment and returned with scissors and a comb. He offered them to Eva.

'Oh - ' Eva crooned. 'But it's such a pity to cut your beautiful hair, isn't it?' Justin flapped at her to be still. I saw how, as she stroked him, the sleeve of her dress was rubbing back and forth across his arm, just below the hem of his T-shirt. Eva's dress wasn't a harsh material, but to Justin - it must feel like sandpaper to him.

'Maybe this isn't the best time,' I said, as lightly and casually as I could manage. Francis shot me a look to be quiet.

Eva blinked puzzled, from Francis to me. 'What is it?' she said.

'Try cutting his hair,' said Francis.

Eva smiled. 'Okay.'

Francis reached over to hand Eva the scissors.

Justin looked up as they passed overhead.

He threw the control box at the screen.


He came upright suddenly, as though jerked on the end of a wire, and started prancing and hopping all over Eva's legs.

'Calm down,' Francis urged, trying to steer him away.

Justin gave a yelp of fear and batted Francis's arm out the way. Seeing a gap open up between Eva and Francis, he bolted for freedom and flung himself on his bed.

From the TV came a muffled explosion. Justin wheeled round and looked up at the screen. It was full of flame and spinning wreckage. Justin started banging the back of his head against the headboard. It boomed, rebounding off the wall.

'Justin, stop that,' said Eva.

Justin looked at her, his mouth a perfect O, and screamed.

Eva, brooking no nonsense, went over to him, grabbed him by the arm and pulled him off the bed. What happened then was so predictable, I could only stand there and watch it happen, as in a bad dream. Eva recoiled, blood streaming from her nose. Justin lashed out again and again. He caught her in the chest, again in the face.

I launched myself at him, snaring him, pinning his arms at his sides. He screamed and bit my hair. I yelped as it tore from my scalp. I squeezed as hard as I could. He kept struggling. I turned us both round and saw Eva with her face buried in her hands, blood streamed between her fingers. 'Oh fuck!' She bent over, her head between her knees, the way she used to when morning sickness hit her unawares. Justin, exhausted at last, gave himself to my bear hug, and broke into a new fit of more melodic screaming. I squeezed harder. My bad hand was on fire, the moon-shaped cut opening round the stitches, and I could feel blood sticking my hand to Justin's towelling shirt. Eva took her hands away from her face and stumbled out the room and down the hall. If she wanted the bathroom she was going the wrong way.

Francis, defeated and embarrassed, picked up the scissors and comb from the floor, and started straightening the room. He bent down at the foot of the bed and picked up the kaleidoscope. He tipped it upright. Shards of brightly coloured plastic fell onto the carpet. 'Shit,' he said. We must have made a picture, driving back from the school. Eva's nose wouldn't stop bleeding, which meant she couldn't drive. Not unless she wanted to be snorting and spitting blood out the window the whole way: hardly her style. My hand was so stiff and sore, meanwhile, I had to slow to a 10mph crawl and steady the wheel with my forearm whenever I made a sharp turn.

The driveway was a particular challenge.

'For God's sake watch what you're doing,' Eva cried, as the gatepost loomed up out of the darkness towards her window.

I braked hard, to be spiteful. 'Is your nose better?'


'Then you bloody do it.'

'I will.'

'Oh don't bother,' I grumbled, yanking into Reverse.

'Let me out first,' Eva said.

'I can do this, goddamnit.'

'I just want to go inside.'

I watched her to the door. She let herself in and switched on the hall light. Her round-shouldered, mincing turn as she swung the front door shut reminded me, in a way her words could not, how much damage she was taking.

I put the car into first gear, with the little button they give you for that purpose, and slid the wheel around. This time I got the angle.

BOOK: Painkillers
4.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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