When I was a kid and I did something bad, really bad, my dad used to drag me out of the house and up the hill to a phone box. It was one of those cozy red things you’d see all over England. Now, they usually contain a lending library or defibrillator. He’d make me march the last ten feet or so, on my own. I remember the last time, when the rains lashed down, with thunder and lightning filling the skies.
I’d stand there, a knot growing in my stomach, wishing I’d been good. I’d jump when the phone rang.
“Hello?” My voice would break, and my hands shook, as I put the black bakelite phone to my ear.
“You know who this is, don’t you…”
“Yes,” I’d reply, “Mr Bookbinder.”
“Exactly… What did you do?”
I would then proceed to tell the voice on the other end of the line what I’d done. When I was finished, I waited for the person to respond. If it was a small infraction, he’d answer straight away. When it was horrid, he’d stay silent for ages.
“Mr Bookbinder? Please tell me everything will be okay.”
All I could hear was his breathing. Slow and purposeful, just like my dad, getting louder and louder as his anger would grow.
“I’m sorry!” I’d blurt out and cry, though he didn’t relent. This was what he wanted.
This particular day, I turned and saw my father wait patiently in the rain, water droplets scattering quickly down the glass.
“Please forgive me,” I pleaded, saying this to my father as well as to Mr Bookbinder.
“I don’t think you are ready for forgiveness. You have been a naughty boy, haven’t you?”
I nodded, looking at my father.
“Good,” he said, “you don’t want him to go to prison for what you’ve done, do you?”
“No, please no!”
The line returned to heavy breathing. This time it calmed and quietened.
“I forgive you,” Mr Bookbinder said.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I replied, slamming the phone down and opening the booth.
“He forgave me, father,” I said, my racing heart beginning to slow.
He smiled and said, “Let’s go home.”
I grinned back at him.
With that, the sky lit up and a single bolt of lightning entered my father through his head. Before I knew what happened, he was on the floor motionless.
I stared in horror while what looked like steam or smoke rose up from my his body. It was the 80s, and I didn’t have a mobile phone. I turned around and ran back to the red phone box. I picked up the handset. There was no dial tone. I frantically pressed the hangup button, but it was of no use. I ran back to the house and told my mother what happened.
When the ambulance arrived, they placed my father onto a gurney and rushed him off to hospital. He survived, but wasn’t the same. They said he was lucky. Though when he came home in a wheelchair, I thought he was anything but. They said he had a cardiac arrest. He was without oxygen for fifteen minutes. They said if I hadn’t ran back so quickly and got help he would have died.
Somedays, I wish he had. My mother would feed him through a straw. He wasn’t my dad anymore, he was a husk of the man who had raised me. Though he did smile more than before. He always seemed happy. He’d giggle and put out his hands for a hug. I always embraced him. I never remember him doing that before. That’s why it was so strange.
His arms would pull me in tight, full of love I’d never known.
He’d whisper under his breath, “Mr Bookbinder, Mr Bookbinder, Mr Bookbinder.”
It was all he ever said to me.
My dad’s parents, my grandparents lived with us, in the small cottage at the end of the garden. After the incident, they rarely visited. My mother said my grandad couldn’t bear to see him like that. When he tried to visit me, he’d kneel and hold out his hands. He was the spitting image of my father, but I turned away. If he couldn’t speak to his own son, then he wasn’t going to speak to me.
My grandmother died soon after, leaving grandad in the cottage all alone. I felt guilty. I’d always preferred him to my father. He taught me how I could turn wood into a piece of art.
I began to read to my father as my own reading improved. I started with my comics, though I could see he wasn’t that interested. Mum gave me his favourite book, Moby Dick. His face would light up in the way a child’s would. I didn’t understand most of it, but I could read the words.
After I finished, my mother bought me a puppy. It was a gorgeous little thing, a Jack Russell. I called him Buddy. I’d play in the yard, throwing the ball back and forth. As the summer came, we’d be out there for hours. I’d see my grandfather stare out of the cottage, though all I now felt was anger towards him.
When Christmas came around, I refused to eat dinner with him. My mother grounded me to my room and kept Buddy downstairs with them. I was distraught. I didn’t let them see me cry though, I did that in my room alone. I was of that age. I knew I couldn’t let them see me like that.
I woke a few hours later, it was dark now. I heard my mother scream from downstairs. I afforded myself a smile. If I was suffering, so should she. I heard Buddy bark. I sat up. The barking continued. I wished for him to stop, but he didn’t. I peered out of my window and saw him in the back garden, running around in circles. I quietly opened the window and whispered down.
“Buddy, what’s wrong?” I said, he stopped and sat, looking up at me, with his head cocked to one side.
I don’t know what I was thinking. I climbed out of the window, and scaled the drainpipe. It moaned at the strain. I jumped the final feet and landed on the icy pavement. My breath billowed out in large clouds of steam. I crept towards my dog. His tongue lolled out and he wagged his tail.
“Hey buddy,” I said with outstretched arms.
He broke our gaze as red and blue lights flashed, passing by, the sirens blaring. Rain had begun to fall, thunder and lightning filling the skies.
“No!” I shouted as Buddy ran past Grandad’s cottage and into the woods.
I desperately chased after him and into the gloomy forest.
“Buddy,” I shouted. My voice reverberated around the darkness.
I got onto my hands and knees, climbing through the mulch and up the incline. My fingers went numb almost instantly. I continued to cry out in vain, searching in the dark.
In the distance I heard something, I couldn’t work out what it was. As I made myself climb to the top of the hill, I ran in the direction of the sound. When I pushed my way through the dense branches, I was on the side of the road and I knew what the sound was, it was a phone ringing. I looked to my right and saw the red phone box. I panicked and stopped.
I knew what it was, it was Mr Bookbinder. He was phoning me to tell me I shouldn’t have snuck out of my bedroom. I wanted to run and find my dog. But I was conditioned. I hung my head, walking towards the phone box, my heart racing in my chest. I prepared the talk in my head. I was trying to find Buddy, it wasn’t my fault.
The closer I got, the louder it rang. I began saying out loud I was sorry.
“I’m sorry, Mr Bookbinder, it was a mistake.”
“I’m sorry, it wasn’t my fault.”
Each time, I’d hear him in my head telling me did I want my dad to go to prison.
“He can’t go, he’s disabled,” I shouted.
“Please don’t hurt him!”
I was standing outside the phone box, though I didn’t want to look up. My breathing quickened, as I did my best to muster the courage to open the door.
I heard Buddy bark, and excitement flooded my body and I looked up. A lightning strike banged, sending static through the air. There he was, safe in the phone booth. The ringing continued. I grasped the door, slipping inside.
“You’re such a good boy, Buddy,” I said, picking him up.
He was so cold and wet. With the other hand I answered the phone.
“Now, listen to me Mr Bookbinder,” I started, before being cut off.
“I’ve been bad…” the voice on the other end said.
I went silent, breathing heavily into the phone, catching my breath.
“I’m sorry,” he continued, “do you forgive me?”
Shocked, I said nothing.
“Please, forgive me.”
I continued breathing, not knowing what to say.
“You’re right, I don’t deserve forgiveness.”
“Grandad?” I said, recognising his voice.
The line went dead.
I rushed back to the house, holding buddy under my arm, not wanting him to run off again. An ambulance was parked outside, but it wasn’t going anywhere.
My mother was standing outside the house, crying onto the shoulder of a police officer.
Two black bags on gurneys were being gently lifted into the vehicle. After a few minutes the ambulance left without a rush.
My mother didn’t say anything to me as I arrived. She didn’t berate me for leaving my room, she just hugged me.
I asked her what happened. She didn’t tell me, she never did.
I visited my mum in the home today. I’d been told she had cancer. She said she was fine. She told me that at least the dementia wasn’t going to take her. After all these years, she hadn’t told me what happened that night. I asked again. She sighed.
“Your Grandad didn’t want to see your father like that anymore. He smothered him.”
I stood up.
“He killed dad?”
She nodded, slowly.
“What happened to Grandad?”
“He slit his throat. The paramedics said he was dead before they arrived.”
I brought my hand to my mouth and slumped back down into the chair.
“You know he phoned me that day.”
She shook her head.
“I saw Buddy out in the yard.”
I remembered the dog just like it was yesterday. I’d had many more since then, but he was the first, and in my heart, the best.
“I ran after him, through the trees and out to that phone box up the hill. You know the one where dad took me when I was bad.”
She shook her head again.
“No, no. They disconnected that after your father…” she trailed off.
She sighed, “they said it acted like a lightning rod.”
“Your grandad was dead before that. I saw you in the yard. I wanted to call after you, but I was tending to your father.”
Shocked, I sunk further into my chair.
“Was Grandad Mr Bookbinder?”
She cocked her head to the side and asked, “Who’s Mr Bookbinder?”