By Michael Keenaghan.
The police told me I shouldn’t have intervened. The press called me a hero. Would you do it again? they asked. Of course I would, I told them. To be honest, in hospital I was on a high. I’d been unemployed for months, drinking too much, heading nowhere. Now my picture was in the papers and people wanted to talk to me – I felt like someone special, someone worthwhile.
I was alive, I’d fully recover, they’d even caught the culprit. There was nothing to worry about. During my stay I had a surprise visitor, Hannah. We’d split up three months before, but here she was approaching my bed.
“I thought I’d better just, you know…”
“It’s okay. Sit down, please. I’m glad you came.”
Splitting up had been all my fault. It was as if I wanted to punish myself, prove just how worthless I really was. Arguing and insulting her and smashing a wine glass against the wall. Messing it up for myself quite royally. But I could accept that now.
Holding her hand I got her to admit that she was seeing somebody else now. “It’s okay,” I told her. “Three months? Of course you are.” It was fine. I was ready to face up to anything now. Anything the world could throw at me: not a problem. “I’ll see you again,” I say as she leaves. And though she doesn’t quite answer that one, it doesn’t matter. We’re not enemies, why would we be? Maybe some time in the future we could even become close again.
I’m in hospital for three weeks. Then I’m released back to the flat where I live alone. And that’s when it hits me. When I wake up to the reality of it all. Somebody had tried to kill me. Actually fucking kill me. It all comes back to me. Worse, it becomes something I can’t switch off. There on the tube in my own world, then the sudden screams, sudden commotion. A man punching a woman repeatedly in the face. I rush over to help but everybody else just shrinks away. The wrestling, the struggling, then the knife.
My counsellor tells me it’s something I’ll have to work on, something that will take time. The anxiety, the depression, the jolting awake at night. But it’s not good enough.
I phone Hannah.
We plan to meet at a cafe on Upper Street. No strings, I assure her – words that strangely never leave me until I approach the place and see her sitting there outside. She looks beautiful. We chat, and for a while the sun cracks through the clouds. I find myself being honest. “I don’t know,” I say, some half-hour in. “I’m just finding things difficult…” Her phone goes then – in fact, it’s the third or fourth time – and she tells me she’s sorry but she really has to go.
”Stay – please,” I say, putting my hand on hers. But something has changed. I follow her eyes and there he is. He’s tall, dark, everything else. “The new model,” I say, but she pretends not to hear. “It’s okay,” I add, “go.” She says goodbye, kisses me on the cheek and I watch them walk away.
My attacker was twenty-two years old. From the age of fourteen he’d been gaining convictions for robbery, burglary assault … The story is old. It also makes me angry.
I go for a drink with an old friend, Dave. We talk about cricket until the drink takes hold. “What you did was heroic, Mick, you’ve got to remember that.” We went to uni together, but these days live different lives. Dave has a successful career and is married with two beautiful kids. He tells me he’s just had the youngest one christened.
“Do you believe in all that?” I say belligerently, the alcohol getting to me now.
“All what?” he says.
”Miracles, guardian angels, a higher force watching over us, guiding us …”
“Come on, Mick,” he says, putting his hand on my shoulder. “Cheer up.”
We change the subject, then soon something comes up and Dave has to go. In fact, it’s the last time I ever see him.
Meetings with other friends are just as bad. I have nothing in common with these people any more. Nothing at all.
A journalist phones about a ‘victim-meets-hero’ spread. A joint interview and photoshoot. Apparently the ‘woman I saved’ is eager to meet me. The journalist is enthusiastic and flattering and mentions money, but I tell her what I always tell journalists now. I’m not interested.
I leave a message for Hannah. I tell her I need to see her, need to speak to her. I sound desperate and instantly regret showing weakness, yet I long for her reply.
“I can’t keep on seeing you,” she says on the phone two days later. “Greg won’t allow it.”
“My boyfriend, Mick. My… fiance.”
Sometimes life has a knack of kicking you in the face, not just once but repeatedly. I already had a case of this when I was sixteen. First, in a rugby injury, I nearly lost the sight in my left eye. Then my girlfriend went off with one of my best friends. Then my mother died.
“I’m not letting you go Hannah.”
”I think we better end this conversation right now.”
I first met Hannah through a friend from work. A group of us went for a drink one evening and Hannah and I just clicked. We both had our own flats and we’d spend nights at each, and things were all quite perfect, but at the time you never realise it. Once or twice we even talked about getting married, what our kids would look like. Always with a jokey smile, but still. It could have happened.
“You need help, Michael” my sister says, visiting me. She’s standing there in a business suit, a leather case under her arm. Her life is so different to mine. All go, with hardly any time to think. Just how people prefer it.
”I’m already getting help,” I say, opening a can of Stella.
“From where? The inside of that fucking can? You’re an alcoholic.”
”Oh shut up.”
”I’m going to make a phone call,” she says, pulling out her mobile. “I know someone. Counselling isn’t enough.”
Hannah and Greg like to go for walks together. They like to stroll through London Fields, near Hannah’s place, or Highbury Fields, near Greg’s and sit picnicking on the grass. On a Sunday afternoon they go for drinks at the same pubs Hannah and I used to visit, or amble through the market or along the canal. Greg has a thing about public affection. Holding her face in his hands and kissing her on the lips. I see it when he greets her, when he says goodbye. Is he doing this for me? Does he know I’m there?
“Okay,” Dr Cohen says. “Let’s take it right back to your childhood.”
I was eleven years old. The new boy in our class was quiet at first, but not for long. Hey, jug ears! he’d say, giving me a whack to the side of my head, showing off to the girls. He was bigger than I was, more confident, and I felt there was little I could do. But things got worse and one day I had enough. We fought to the sound of fight, fight, fight and I reasoned that even if I didn’t win, at least he’d be walking away with bruises. But I did win. And when he finally stopped struggling on the ground beneath me, his nose a bloody mess, I took things further. I grabbed a piece of a brick and smashed it over his head.
I don’t remember much after that. Only that there was a massive furore. Parents brought up to the school. Suspension. A social worker brought in to speak to me. The boy had to go to hospital and everyone was shocked. I remember my father having a close talk with me, worried if like the headmaster had implied, I was some kind of disturbed child. But things carried on as normal, the whole thing soon forgotten. The boy was gone, his parents sent him to a different school. I was never bullied again.
“Let’s talk about your mother.”
”I don’t want to talk about that.”
I still phone Hannah, but she never answers. One time I phone while watching her. She and Greg are out carrying groceries back to her flat. She looks at her phone then almost jumps up and down in exasperation. But Greg does something else. He laughs.
I rarely used to read the news, but now it’s something I do regularly. Scouring the local papers online trying to shock myself. In Willesden a man slashes three strangers across the face in an hour-long rampage. In Acton a man is hurled screaming from the twenty-first floor. In Manor Park a girl is gang-raped and set alight. In Croydon a violent hooded mugger who has already killed one and brain-damaged another is still on the loose. ‘Hammer Attacker Strikes Again’ the headline says.
I dream I push my attacker in front of a train. He falls beneath the wheels, his body dragged up the tracks, out of sight. Then I turn and there he is next to me, smiling, knife in hand. One night I dream I attack him with a hammer, the blows raining down, over and over, even with his body broken and lifeless beneath me and my face covered in blood. Some nights I mix my medication, work through a whole bottle of vodka trying to drown out my thoughts.
After my mother died was the only time I ever cut myself. I suppose I just needed to let out the pain. I suppose it even helped. My mother was addicted to tranquillisers. She overdosed. My father always maintained it was an accident, and for years I even tried to believe it. Of course it wasn’t an accident.
He’s just stepped out of his car and is staring at me on the pavement. The street is dimly-lit and he’s baffled. He takes a step closer to discern the face under the hood. “Are you …?”
“Laughing now are you?” I say, coming towards him with a hammer.
He grabs my arm and we tumble against his car. I drop the hammer as we wrestle across the pavement, tumbling to the ground. Getting a clean punch in, I free myself, grab the fallen tool and run.
Later that night I’m arrested. I’m interviewed at Stoke Newington police station.
“It never happened,” I say. “He’s making it all up.”
I tell them Hannah still sees me on the side and Greg’s obviously jealous. He’s just trying to get me into trouble. It sounds plausible. I get the feeling they might even believe me.
Towards the end they try to keep a straight face as they say, “He said you were wearing some kind of paint on your face. He said you looked black.”
”Well, in that case maybe you should question the guy’s sanity.”
Finally they shake their heads. I’m bailed and they even admit it will probably never make it to court. Sure enough, within weeks, the whole thing is dropped.
”You fucking bastard,” Greg says, coming out of his flat and seeing me leaning arms-folded by his car.
I stand there staring at him, enjoying his surprise and fear. He starts fumbling with his phone to try and film me, but by then I’m simply a man in a hood walking away.
I start sending Greg messages. One says he better start checking under his car.
Again I’m taken in for questioning. The police tell me issuing a threat to life is a serious offence that can carry up to a life sentence.
“And what’s that these days?” I say. “Two years?”
I’m released without charge.
The next day the story appears in the Evening Standard. ‘Tube Hero Held in Harassment and Assault Probe.’ It’s hilarious. It’s full of such bullshit it actually cheers me up.
Finally, a few days later, my phone rings. It’s Hannah.
We meet at a coffee shop in Angel. She tells me she shouldn’t really be doing this.
”That’s okay. I know you’re probably recording this or you’ve got somebody watching from outside, but honestly, I don’t mind.”
She looks at me. “I can’t believe you just said that.”
“Said what? It’s true.”
She stares down into her coffee. A minute passes before she says anything more. “Greg’s a liar.”
I look at her.
“He was cheating on me,” she says. “I checked his phone… A bitch from work.”
I watch her eyes fill with tears.
“I don’t know what to believe any more. To be honest I don’t even want to talk about it … but if you are harassing him, I just want you to leave him alone.”
I smile and place my hand on hers. For the next twenty minutes we say little, perhaps nothing at all. But for the first time in months I feel happy and warm.
“I better go,” she finally says, gathering her things, her face red and wet.
”I’ll call you,” I say.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Keenaghan lives in London. His short stories lay scattered across the web.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 5th, 2013.