This story is by Jo Winwood and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Crown Court Number 2, the final day of his trial. I stared at the judge, fixed my gaze on his robe, his wig, his pen tapping against the papers stacked on the bench. A mousy woman in a baggy cardigan stood, read the verdict and sat down, eyes never leaving the paper in her hand. She scrunched it up and dropped it. Sentencing at a later date.
‘Mum? I don’t… Mum! This ain’t right. Mum?’
My heels clicked on the polished wood floor as the voice faded away, pulled down the old steps to the cells. I didn’t look round, didn’t respond. I remained focused, dry-eyed and determined. No-one would see me break.
A mother’s love. Boundless, unconditional, eternal. At least that’s what I’d always believed. Nothing could break that bond. As soon as I saw him my heart filled and I knew I would fight to the death for this child, as I would for any of my children. But he would test me to my limit and then push me beyond it. My youngest child. My only son.
He began to test me as soon as he could walk, running out of my reach, climbing above my head, filling my mouth with my heart every day.
‘Get down from there, you’ll fall.’
‘Not me Mum, I’m a gibbon. I can climb and swing. Watch me, Mum!’
So I watched and he fell, as I knew he would. The first trip to A&E, first of many. I worried that Social Services would be called when we made our fourth trip with another broken bone. He laughed and joked with the young doctor and charmed all the nurses. My beautiful, fearless boy.
His father left us when he was ten, a difficult age to be abandoned. He developed an attitude, one I’d seen in his father. Answering back, sucking his teeth.
‘You can’t tell me what to do’, ‘I don’t have to if I don’t want to’, and the one that cut me to the quick, ‘Dad would let me.’
You know that saying, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’? That’s crap. Those words stung, they made me cry into my pillow at night.
Then came the change of school, big boys to hang out with. He loved to be their clown, to make them laugh. They were too old for him, too mature. I warned him they were trouble. He laughed.
‘Chill out, Mum. They’re my mates. It’s all cool, no problems. You’ll like them too, see. Just need to get to know them a bit.’
‘I’ll try darling but they are too old for you, they’ll get bored. Fetch them over for tea one night, ask their mothers first, mind.’
They didn’t come and I never got to know them, not even their names. What could go wrong? Of course it was obvious what would go wrong and the first time I was called to the school he trailed behind me, scuffing his shoes, head down. Smoking in the toilets. Three day suspension. I grounded him, banned the older boys from our home, kept his pocket money back.
‘Listen to me, I know what I’m talking about. Get some friends your own age.’
‘You don’t understand, Mum. It’s all cool, all fine.’ His father’s voice, his father’s words.
The last time I was called to the school he strode ahead of me, hands in pockets, swaggering across the car park. Stealing laptops. Expulsion. He didn’t come home that night. The latest of many nights I lay awake, fretting.
Three other schools suspended and expelled him. Nowhere else to go. A referral unit for troubled teens sent him home after four days for pinning a support worker against a filing cabinet when asked not to smoke in the classroom. This child of mine, this troubled teen, I no longer knew him. His sisters told me to kick him out, change the locks, call the police. How does a mother do that? I loved him, I knew he loved me and I prayed that I could save him. A mother’s love would save him.
I first saw him take drugs two days after his nineteenth birthday. He rolled a joint sitting at the kitchen table and brushed away my concerns.
‘Everybody does it, Mum, it’s no biggie. You need to learn to chill. Have a pull on this.’
‘Get out of my house with that filth!’
‘Dad smokes weed, what’s the problem?’
I slapped the joint out of his hand. The chair clattered to the floor, the door slammed and he was gone. Three weeks this time. Three weeks in which I roamed the streets, visited all his friends and found out that they hadn’t seen him for months. He was hanging out with a new gang now.
A gang. My worst fear. My son, my shining boy was in a gang. Worse than that he was running drugs for them, stealing for them, probably dealing for them. I phoned the police, reported him missing. I didn’t mention the gang. On reflection that was a mistake. If I could have got him away from them then, who knows? The police found him in a squat with a stash of drugs ready to deal. They locked him up and I made my first visit to my son in custody. It was not to be the last.
‘I’m sorry, Mum. Really sorry. Get me out of here, I don’t like it here.’
He cried, begged, promised to be good. I believed him but the police didn’t. A day in court, a fine and community service. Which he didn’t do and I paid the fine.
Wednesday night, seven o’clock. Knocking on the door, pushing past me, sweaty and out of breath.
‘Hi Mum! Ran all the way across the park, thought it might rain. Grab a shower, yeah?’
‘Towels in the airing cupboard.’
Door slammed, water roaring. Running across the park. But that was cold sweat.
He came out of the bathroom in a puff of steam.
‘Can’t stop, Mum, I’ve got a date. See you tomorrow, yeah?’
He was gone, towels on the floor, shower dripping. I opened the window.
That was the night there was pounding on the door, three officers I didn’t know.
‘Where’s your son, love? We need to speak to him about a serious assault.’
I shook my head.
‘He doesn’t live here anymore. I don’t know where he is, I never know.’
They searched, rummaged through all my possessions. In the airing cupboard, under some towels, they found a knife. Long blade, black handle, not one of mine. There was blood on it. I was put in a police car, driven away and questioned. I saw neighbours turn their backs when I returned.
That night a young man lost his life. Stabbed in the park. A drug deal gone wrong. I cried for that young man and for the young man I now knew was lost to me. My heart split and I knew I could not save him. A mother’s love was not enough.
I visited him on remand, sitting at a scuffed table, drinking lukewarm weak coffee from a polystyrene cup. He leaned back on his chair, eyes never meeting mine, sucked his teeth and grinned.
‘Nothing on me, Mum. Home free. I’ll be rocking up for tea before you know it. Pigs can’t pin this one on me.’
I slammed the cup down, slopped coffee across the filthy surface. He sat up, stared at me and I saw another man look back at me. Not my son, not the boy I knew. A hard man, a lost man.
‘If you did this—if it was you then you deserve what you’ll get. That boy didn’t deserve to die. He was a son, a brother just like you. And someone, maybe you, took his life. You have broken my heart for the last time. I can’t come here again.’
I stood, turned and walked away.
‘Mum? You’ll be in court, yeah?’
I stopped, nodded and waited for the officer to open the door. I didn’t look back.
I sat through his trial. I couldn’t look at him when he gave evidence, or as he sat in the dock, or when he called to me when they took him back to the cells at the end of each day. I wanted to but I was afraid he would see the emptiness in my eyes and know that my unconditional love was not enough. When he stood for the verdict I turned to face him. He looked lost, a frightened child in an adult world. But he was a man now, twenty-two and having to face up to the consequences of his own actions. There was nothing I could do. Guilty on all counts. My son the murderer.
‘Mum? I don’t.. Mum! This ain’t right. Mum?’