The Darkness, Waiting
It was the feeling of his breath on my cheek that woke me.
‘Sarah!’ came the whisper. Tiny. Terrified. ‘Sarah!’
‘It’s Da! He’s home.’
I blinked. There was a blindfold on my brain. ‘But it’s the middle of the night,’ I murmured, sleepily. ‘What’s going on? Where’s Mam?’
‘In the kitchen, I think,’ he said. Terror hung around every word like mist. A sudden burst of raucous laughter from downstairs made him jump like he’d been struck, and his head snapped towards my bedroom door as if he was expecting a monster to walk through it. Great. Da’s brought Jimmy home. Ger’s skinny arms wrapped around his body, and I could hear the hissing of his hurried breathing.
‘Shush,’ I said, wriggling over in the bed. ‘Come on.’ I felt a graveyard draught down my neck as I struggled into the cold sheets, and did my best not to grimace. Only for you, little brother, I thought, as he scurried into the warm hollow I’d left behind.
‘Will they argue?’ he whispered once he was settled. I tucked the covers around him and wrapped his icy feet up in mine. I drew him close, trying not to feel how thin he was, and how threadbare his pyjamas had become. Until last year, I’d owned them. One of our cousins had known them new.
‘I don’t know, little man. Maybe. D’you think Da had drink on him?’
‘Why else would he be coming home this late?’
‘Yeah,’ I sighed. ‘You’re right.’
‘It’s going to start again, isn’t it,’ he said, his voice trembling.
‘Now, now. Don’t go borrowing worry,’ I said, imitating our mother’s voice. I couldn’t see him, but I could hear the tiny huff of breath as he nodded and smiled.
‘Yes, Ma,’ he teased.
A sudden thump from downstairs made us both jump. I could feel Ger trembling beside me, and I stroked his dark hair.
‘That was the sitting room door,’ he said. ‘Hitting the wall.’
‘All right! All right, missus!’ came a voice, bellowing up the stairs. Jimmy. We could hear Ma too, telling him to get out of her house and back to his own wife and family.
‘Now! Now!’ Da. ‘There’s no need to be going anywhere!’ His voice was loud and full of that particular laughter he only got after ten or twelve hours’ drinking. There were some muffled thumps, and then a huge, heavy body slammed against the banisters, shaking the whole house.
‘Right! I’m gone!’ called Jimmy, as if he’d paid a casual visit. ‘Good luck!’
‘Get out!’ That was Ma. The front door slammed. Then, the terrible silence began. Me and Ger, and the darkness in my room, all held our breaths. We knew what came next. The waiting was almost the worst part.
Just as I’d begun to wonder if it was going to start at all, the first slap sounded.
This is a story I’ve had for a long time, and I’ve often dithered over whether to make it public here. For some reason, it means a lot to me and it pulls at my heart like nothing else I’ve written. Clearly, something in it touches a memory, or a deep fear, or maybe even a nightmare I first had as a child. Whatever it is, for me this story is like a wound.
But I was lucky, as a child. My parents had their disagreements, like all parents do, but I was raised with so much love that it has shaped my whole life. I was never afraid, or beaten, or hurt; I always knew I had a home, and parents who loved me.
Some children don’t.
The ISPCC, which (in Ireland) runs the national, currently 24/7 Childline service, is at risk of having to close their night-time listening services to children due to a lack of funding. Night-time is the time when children need Childline the most. Night-time is the time when children can feel terrified not only of the dark, but of what’s in it, waiting. Childline is not a service just for ‘disadvantaged’ children, or ‘underprivileged’ ones – it is for all children. Some parents think their children will never need to contact a service like Childline, but I believe you simply never know what’s going on in your child’s life, and what they may need help with, and what they feel they can’t bring to their parents, no matter how much they love them. I don’t want to turn this story into a plea for help for a charity in a country that many of you don’t even live in, but I will say this:
Check out this website for some insight into what Childline does, and why it’s trying to raise money. If you feel able, there are links here to allow you to donate.
And if there’s a similar service in your own country, please try to donate to it, if you can. Even the smallest bit could make a huge difference.
We need to invest in our children. Leaving them alone when they need us most is a thought I can’t bear. Thanks for reading.