Shrink – Disturbing new novel Chapter 03. Available now.

Chapter Three

Naturally, he still had his wife and his rapidly maturing ball of pink and yellowish flesh, but to intents and purposes he felt alone. It was like he had lost a limb, no, worse than that, much, much worse than that. It was like being condemned to suffer a permanent erection after someone had taken the liberty of slicing off both of your hands. He wanted back what was rightly his; he wanted to sing. He wanted to stand there under those bright lights and stare into the eyes of his adoring fans and sing. The ironic thing is that he could have been doing just that all along, had he know that the answer to his problem had been staring him right between the eyes from the very start. But that was still years away, and for the time being he had no choice but to carry on taking his medicine like a man. 

Throughout the first few months of his enforced retirement, Frank Marshall had managed to remain relatively optimistic about the chances of his absent voice finding its way back home. He had risen early and washed and shaved and taken long strolls through the streets of Bristol. He and my mother had taken turns cooking breakfast and almost succeeded in treating my father’s malady as an excuse for a holiday. He was just taking a rest. When he was good and ready he would be off again on his quest to conquer to the world. But as time went by, my father’s mood began to change. There was nothing particularly noticeable about his slow descent into depression, at least from my mother’s perspective there was nothing particularly noticeable about it. But that was because she was now living with him 24 hours a day; to people who came to visit, however, the change was only too apparent. Although he had never been a great talker, my father’s desire to speak was diminishing with every day. Maybe he thought that if he kept his words to a minimum it might somehow encourage that voice of his to come back come back out for an encore. Or perhaps it was the ritual routine of his weekly sessions on Dr. Cohn’s leather couch that convinced him that words were not the solution. Whatever the reason, Frank Marshall now spoke only when it was absolutely necessary. There was no room in his life for small talk. 

More immediately noticeable was his appearance. On the road he had made it his business to look his best. His teeth sparkled, his eyes gleamed and his hair was kept upright with a fresh layer of grease each morning. He was proud of his movie star features and recognised that they went hand in hand with the voice: to succeed it was imperative that he look good – it was not enough to have the voice of an angel if you had the face of Peter Lorre. Now he was often unshaven and his hair hung long and lank. More alarming was the amount of weight he had put on since his layoff. Dr Cohn, you will remember, had advised him to eat well and healthily, to enjoy a relaxing drink now and again, and my father had taken these words at stuff-your-face value. During the long months of inactivity Frank Marshall made it his habit to loll about on the sofa with a glass of beer in one hand and cigarette in the other. When he wasn’t drinking and smoking he was eating, usually rubbish such a pies, or crisps, or chips. By the time that he celebrated the first anniversary of the death of his voice, Frank Marshall had put on more than two stones in weight. You couldn’t exactly call him fat but he had certainly filled out. He could still get into his old clothes but his belt had gained a few notches. And all the time the tests continued. 

By now, panic had been allowed to well and truly set in at Decca. The record company was beginning to regret the amount of time and money that was being wasted on their stalled acquisition. Frank Marshall was shooting blanks; he was like a flash new car that steadfastly refuses to fire up no matter what you do. And the owners of this particular vehicle were not sure how much longer they could afford to give it garage space. Even so, you could not fault them for the effort they put into the salvage operation: it seemed that every other week someone from Decca would come up with another new theory or treatment. It’s probably the ultimate tribute to my father’s voice that such a vast company would expend so much energy on a quest that was becoming increasingly futile with every day. Nevertheless, that’s what they did; their efforts were unceasing. There was no limit to what they were prepared to do to find a cure. They tried sending my father to a hypnotist but nothing came of it; they had an acupuncturist stick needles in him, they tried all manner of herbal remedies, they brought over expensive specialists from the US and Switzerland to have a look at him, they tried drugs, they tried everything. All to no avail. 

My father’s reluctant vocal chords brought other problems into the household. After a year and a half of him waiting around for something to happen, the money began to run out. By now the sessions with the good doctor Cohn had been terminated and the Decca advance was just a memory; although my father had managed to accrue a sizeable wad of cash during his years on the road, his savings were being steadily eaten away. It was my mother who was first to recognise the warning signs; ever the realist, she knew that it was up to her to do something about the family’s dwindling finances. If she left it to her husband there was a good chance that we would end up on the streets. He was simply in no state to think properly, so she would have to do the thinking for him. In the summer of 1965 my mother got up a little earlier than usual and we didn’t see her until late in the afternoon. Without telling her husband she had taken a job, operating an x-ray machine in a Bristol hospital. It wasn’t a well-paid job by any means but it was something that she could do. Nothing was ever said about the way that she was now spending her days; my father simply refused to mention it. Instead, he sat at home on the sofa with a beer glass in his hand and a crisp packet in the other and tried in vain to blot out the childish interruptions of his infant son. Thus, decades before the phrase ever entered into the English language, he became a house husband. 

It was around this period that the violence started. Yet even though it was me who ended up being on the receiving end most of the time, I have to say that I can’t blame my father entirely. You have to see it from his point of view: less than two years earlier he had been riding on the crest of a wave, he had women falling over themselves to sleep with him, he had money by the bucket load, he had a major record deal and, most off all, he had the adoring eyes of his audience. Who wouldn’t have felt frustrated at having to swap all this for a life of drudgery with only a five-year-old kid for company? You can understand if he lashed out now and again. 

I don’t remember how it all started. A clip here, a slap there. All I know is that all of a sudden I began to fear my father. I began to associate him with pain. When my mother left the house to go to work I very quickly learned that it was in my best interests to stay out of the way of Frank Marshall. I spent most of the time in my bedroom, only coming down to see my father when the hunger got too much. If my mother knew what was going on while she was away, she never let on. Even when the violence intensified and I began to carry the marks of my father’s frustrations, she never said a word. 

 

***

 

I’m not looking for sympathy when I tell you this. It’s just that if you’re to have any understanding of the motives, perhaps, behind what we were to do later it is essential that I give you as clear a picture possible of what life was under the iron rule of Frank Marshall. It’s also, I think, a testament to the destructive nature of life itself and a challenge to our accepted notions as to what constitutes good and evil. Because I know that my father was not an evil man; despite what he did to me I know that were it not for his missing voice things would have turned out very differently. I know that the course of his whole life hinged upon that single event and I cannot find it in myself to condemn him as truly evil simply because he was not strong enough to deal with his greatest loss. His actions and his behaviour could easily have been defined as evil but I am prepared to believe that they gave him as much pain as they did I. 

Let me move forward in time a little to 1967. I do this because suddenly the fragments of memory begin to organise themselves and instead of that overpowering feeling, the ever present mood that, until a certain age, is your only link to the world in which you inhabit, I can now remember specific events in a specific order and in specific detail. In that year I was seven years old. I was four and a half feet tall with knees that were perpetually scuffed and a mouth full of milk teeth. I had the makings of a personality and I was a fair talker, although I had already learned that silence was by far the safest option; I had been attending junior school for a year or so and I don’t mind telling you I was totally terrified of my father. It’s funny when you look at the images that the media use to represent that era. The general consensus seems to be that the so-called Summer Of Love was all flowery shirts and giant reefers and love-ins; but to me that period represents nothing but darkness. Of course, I was too young to appreciate any of the sociological changes that were taking place at the time, but even so I have the distinct impression that history has painted far too colourful a picture of events. To me it was all about fear and hunger. It was fear of making that fatal mistake and incurring the wrath of my father, It was hunger for love and hunger for food and hunger for some kind of understanding, some clue as to why things happened like they did.

In those days I went to school five days a week. In the mornings my mother would escort me to that cold, grey building and then head off to work. In the afternoons the great, waddling form of my father would appear at the school gates to take me home. This was the part of the day that I particularly dreaded; having been forced to leave the sanctuary of his sofa, my father would invariably be in resentful mood. Any deviation from accepted behaviour on my part would usually be rewarded with a sharp slap that set my ears ringing. The walk home would be undertaken at a brisk pace; as my father huffed and puffed down the street it would be my job to keep up with him, knowing that any drop in speed would merit further violence. I was not allowed to speak during these family excursions, which was probably just as well because the sheer effort involved in matching my father’s stride would leave me fighting for breath. Nevertheless, any attempt at conversation on my part – even if it was accidental – would earn me another slap.

Needless to say, all the evidence seemed to suggest that my father hated this time of the day as much as I did. And in the spirit of fairness, one has to concede that he can be forgiven if he was feeling a little hard done by. It was yet another indignity to be heaped on the rapidly spreading shoulders of Frank Marshall. Here he was, twenty-seven-years-old, in the prime of his life, waiting alongside the young mothers to pick up his snotty kid from school. These were the women whom he would have fought to fend off if he was in his rightful place behind the microphone stand. If things had only gone according to plan he would long ago have earned his first million, he would be living a celebrity lifestyle, getting his hair cut at Vidal Sassoon’s, and hamming it up with the rich and famous; it would be him with the MBE not those four longhairs from Liverpool. Instead, he was anonymous, he was a talentless fat bastard with no future and nothing to look forward to. You can’t blame him for wanting to escape from this dreadful scene and head back to the beer can. And you can, perhaps, understand if some of this resentment tended to spill over on to me. 

Once we were back home it was time for him to flop back on to the sofa. It was an unwritten law that at this time that I would retire to my room with the minimum of fuss, where I would remain, mostly reading, sometimes drawing, until my mother came home from work some time after five-thirty, at which point I would be allowed to come downstairs. By now you should be getting to know some of the rules yourself; so it should come as no surprise when I tell you that any failure on my part to complete this exercise with anything less than 100% efficiency would be met with the back of my father’s hand. Except that when we were alone he felt no need to hold himself back; when he was throwing his weight around in the street there was always a chance that a passer-by would object (woe betide me when we got home if any passer-by ever did) but back in his own stamping grounds he was free to express his unhappiness in any way he should desire. “It’s time for your lesson,” was the phrase he would use to announce the oncoming storm. When my father hit you, you saw stars, you really did; spinning around your head in a drunken veil, dazzling pin-pricks of coloured light. When my father gave you one of his lessons, you knew it.

Sometimes there would be no reason for his violence. You would be sitting upstairs, quiet as a mouse, minding your own business and you would hear his tell-tale footsteps on the stairs. I don’t know if he practised this when no-one was around, but somehow those footsteps always seemed to have their own kind of tone, their own kind of timbre. If my father was simply climbing the stairs to go and relieve himself in the toilet there was never any cause for panic, but if he was angry and heading your way his footsteps told you that you were in for trouble. On those occasions, the full armoury would be revealed: punches, kicks and terrible shakings that threatened to wrench your head from your shoulders would be added to his standard repertoire of slaps and pinches. The beatings could go on for an eternity and were only really resolved when my father began to grow physically tired. I don’t mind telling you this – I hope you’ll excuse my crudeness – but the sound of his footsteps on the stairs was enough to make me piss myself on many separate occasions. My fear was so great that I simply lost control of my bladder, a violation of protocol that would invariably earn me an extra special beating.

Why, I hear you say, did my mother never try to stop him? Believe me, it is a question I have asked myself so many times and I simply cannot understand how she could have left her child to the mercy of such a man. She saw the cuts and she saw the bruises, she saw the ugly welts on my shoulders and buttocks that were caused by his belt and cane. All the evidence that she ever needed was right before her eyes; but she never said a word. I rather suspect that she saw the situation as just another symptom of her husband’s mysterious sickness. It was something to be tolerated until such time as normal service could be resumed. All that needed to happen was for that voice of his to be returned and everything would be as it once was. Meanwhile, the years went by and the family grew poorer and my father grew fatter. The shiny new Jag that he had purchased at the cusp of his success was sold off; and we never even bothered to move into the house on which my father had placed such a large deposit. My father and mother stopped sleeping with each other, he spoke less and less and his outbursts of violence grew more and more frequent. 

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