Steel City Heart
Credit: Benoît Prieur (Agamitsudo) - CC-BY-SA
by Julie Thornton
“Tom! Gerrineer naar, or tha’ll get mi belt!”
The words stop me in my tracks. The tone of his voice almost stops my heart. I know there are just seconds between the last word and me entering the room, before his belt is unclasped, slipped through the trouser loops, and folded in half into his cracked-skin hand. Waiting. My father and the belt waiting for their opportunity.
“Tha cut it fine this time lad!” His harsh steel-dust thickened voice spits out words like bullets from a gun. “Weerz tha bin? Readin’? Drawin’?”
He snaps out mocking questions, but doesn’t want answers so I rarely give one.
I despise his heavy Sheffield accent and the way he barks out blunt and miss-shaped words. Vicious words that over time have remained written on his face, etched within deep lines and a permanent scowl.
Restless gnarled fingers tap the belt buckle.
“Tha’ sixteen Tom! Tha’ll be in’t rollin’ mill next month. T’other lads’ll be laughin’ at that stupid posh voice any’ow, let alone if they see yer drawin birds.”
A spiteful sneer of a smile flits around his mouth. “they’ll make a man o’ thi’ eventually tho’.”
As I stand, waiting for the verbal tirade to end, I recall the first time he’d used the belt as a punishment. I was six years old. I had drawn a bird in my schoolbook and carefully written ‘robin on grass’ above it. My teacher, Miss Brown, said how beautifully I had drawn it and how neat my writing was. She wrote ‘Excellent drawing and writing- well done Tom!’, and confirmed it by lick-sticking a gold star on it.
“You’re a clever boy Tom,” she said, closing the book,“your mummy and daddy will be very proud of you.” I felt so wonderfully happy in that moment.
I adored Miss Brown. Her calm sweet voice comforted me like a lullaby. The words she spoke were clear and whole. She never said ‘thee’ or ‘thaar’, or dropped h’s and g’s. She didn’t slur words together into mumbled half sentences, like mother did after she’d had her medicine. Miss Brown used kind, encouraging words; not ones that hurt and confused me like father’s did.
Walking through the park on the way home, still elated with praise, I sat by the pond, took the sketch book and crayons out of my satchel and drew. I wrote ’ducks on pond’ in my best writing.
Arriving home, father was standing by the open fire, hands behind his back.
“Wiz tha bin? Tha fifteen minutes late!” His voice was cold but his dark eyes flashed like the fire’s flames.
I held out the book, open at the page of the gold-starred robin, hoping he would see how well I had done at school. Miss Brown said he would be proud, but how wrong she had been.
“What yer showin’ mi that rubbish fer?” he growled angrily.
“Tha’ll get nowhere drawin’ birds. Thaar a bloody cissy an’ needs to toughen up. It’s thaar fault Mother!” he yelled at her accusingly, “ thee an’ that idiot teacher of ‘is!”
Father swiped the book out of my hand with the back of his. Alarmed, I glanced at mother for support but, without looking up from her glass, she muttered,
“Leave it Bill, let 'im get some tea.”
His bright red face had a contorted expression I hadn’t seen before. He unbuckled his belt, and folded it in half. With a sudden realisation of what was about to happen I crouched to the floor, terrified. I held my knees so tightly to my chest I could barely breathe out the words, “Mummy, mummy please.”
Father dragged me to my feet, half turned me away from him, then whipped the belt sharply across my buttocks. I stood trembling, in pain, too frightened to move. He picked up the book and for a dreadful moment I thought he would throw it into the fire.
He thrust it at my chest, “Get thi tea, an’ leave that at schoil.”
I was hurt and shocked, not only by what he did but by mother’s total lack of response to it.
When I was ten mother died of liver failure. At that age I still believed the clear liquid she drank in great quantity every day was medicine; I hadn’t heard of gin. I cried quietly into my pillow that night, sadly my tears were not for her, but for a mother I longed to have. One who would encourage and praise me, who would protect me; a mother who would love me. I felt ashamed that I wished I was Miss Brown’s son, and that I loved her more than my own mother.
Over the years father regularly used the belt as his weapon of choice. I hid my books from him, and tried to avoid situations that might give him an excuse to punish me. I even broadened my accent in his company.
As I stand before father today, he and his belt impatiently waiting the chance to release its force, I know it’s the last time I’ll face his aggressive stance, the scowling sunken black eyes and the wrinkled tight-lipped mouth.
He asks again with ugly sarcasm, “Weerz tha bin? Drawin’?”
“Yes Father,” I answer calmly, “I’ve drawn a gun.”