Frank slumped into the driver’s seat, closing the door behind him and heaved a stuttering sob. He placed one hand on the wheel and leaned over so he could reach the drink in his jacket pocket. His face was swollen and red with tears and the cheap whiskey stung his dry lips as he took a deep draught, air bubbles rattling inside the narrow glass bottle.
“I’m no man,” Frank said to himself and gasped as the whiskey burned its way down. “No man,” he said again, quieter, the sobs easing as he looked at the front of his house; the dark, curtained windows; the dim lamp on the front porch; the step down to the gravel driveway.
Taking a deep breath, he released the handbrake, looked over his shoulder and rolled backward on the driveway toward the road. As he bumped down the kerb, he quickly started the car, slipped it into gear and drove away with as little sound as he could manage. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the streetlamp outside his house as he turned left on to the main road.
There was no traffic at this time of night, so Frank took another long drink of the whiskey and wedged the bottle between his legs. A thick knot seemed to stick in his throat and he choked, spluttering the drink over himself. He cried out as dread throbbed in his stomach at the thought of knocking Polly down, of towering over her, of screaming in her face before slapping her, over and over and over again.
“You’ll listen to me, and I’ll tell you when I’m finished. Do you hear? Do you hear me?”
He choked again as the knot grew wider and he suddenly realised he couldn’t see the road in front of him. He turned on his headlamps and stared at the long cones they plotted in the road ahead. He couldn’t control himself, hadn’t wanted to. She didn’t deserve that, but he couldn’t and hadn’t wanted to stop. He remembered crouching over her, spit dribbling down his chin on to her as she wept. The power he’d felt pulsating within him as she’d flinched at every syllable.
He swerved as he realised he was veering across the road. What had he been thinking as the car righted itself? The knot took hold of his throat again as he refused to believe he was capable of what he was remembering. Of course, he’d released her, allowed her to get away from him. She’d run away to the children’s room and shut the door. He’d stood, disorientated and confused and looked down at the palms of his hands which stung and were so red. He’d wiped his chin and, shaking, walked towards the sideboard and took a glass, then replaced it and took the bottle that now sat wedged between his legs. He’d taken a small sip then and turned and looked in the mirror behind him on the living room wall.
A stranger stared at him. Innocent eyes looked him up and down and the knot gripped him around the neck as he surveyed the disgusting wreck who’d moments earlier had repeatedly slapped the mother of his children, his wife, his Polly. He vomited and the whiskey burned its way back up and onto his lap and focused his attention on an oncoming car.
He wiped his chin again and looked in his rear view mirror. He couldn’t meet his own eye as it returned to the road ahead and the car pulled to a stop at a traffic light. The light turned green and he sat, staring forwards, hunched, gripping the wheel so hard the black plastic creaked and the moulded seam dug into the tips of his fingers. It turned red and he risked another look in his mirror. As soon as he saw his own eye it erupted and he cried again until the light turned green.
“I’m no man,” he told his reflection. “They’re better without me.”
He’d written her a note after half an hour of tapping meekly on the kids’ bedroom door, asking her to come out so they could talk. He’d been unable to disguise the tears in his voice, and they’d not been able to hide theirs in their silence.
I don’t know who I am anymore. I’m so sorry.
He’d folded the scrap of paper and written her name on one half, leaving it on the sideboard in the space left by the bottle he’d taken. He’d opened and closed the door quietly, so they didn’t hear him go. They’d stay in that room all night and not come out until the morning, when all their hopes of his disappearance would be realised.
He indicated right and saw at the end of the road trees highlighted from below by bright, warm yellow lights the colour of the streetlamp just by his driveway. He choked again and stared down at his arms which had started to tremble. As he rolled forward the trembling increased and so he took the bottle up again from between his legs, taking a long, deep pull on the last of its contents before it rolled helplessly from his suddenly limp hand.
The car rolled to a stop, past the trees in front of a large white pre-fabricated concrete building. He didn’t even put the handbrake on as the floor beneath him was flat, didn’t take the key out of the ignition or close the door as he got out.
He walked towards the large glass doors and up the stone steps leading to them. He looked at the sign above the door: ‘St Joseph’s Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust.’ The doors slid silently apart, welcoming him inside the softly lit white linoleum reception with a gust of warm air from the unit just above him.
“Can I help you, sir?” a man seated behind the reception counter asked Frank.
Frank carried on walking forward, his limbs alternating between limp and trembling, until he reached the counter and leant on it for support.
“I, um, I’m, um…” Frank said, unable to speak through his shame, fear and embarrassment. Gripping the counter tighter and fighting back the tears burning in the deep wells behind his eyes, he swallowed deeply and tried again.
“I, need, um, I need, help. I don’t, I’m not, I… I’m no kind of… I don’t… I don’t know who I… I’m afraid,” Frank said, his eyes closed and the tears falling freely now down his cheeks.
“It’s OK. It’s OK,” the attendant said, rising and placing a soothing hand on top of Frank’s. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Frank. Carter. I… I hit my wife. I… couldn’t stop. I hurt her. I’m…” Frank sobbed and felt his legs begin to buckle. The man swiftly rounded the counter and gripped Frank reassuringly, moved him towards a chair and sat him down.
“Frank,” the hospital attendant said gently. “Frank, I need your telephone number so I can check your wife is OK. Can you give me that?” Frank agreed and recited his home telephone number. The attendant told him that he was sorry, but that he would have to phone the police too. Frank nodded, eyes still tight shut. The attendant returned to the reception desk and dialled the phone. Frank sat, shocked by himself and so very confused. He felt the return of the man who sat next to him.
“The police are on their way Frank,” said the attendant. “And I’ve spoken to your wife.” Frank opened his eyes and focused on the young blonde-haired man for the first time.
“She’s OK, Frank. She’s very upset, but she wanted me to tell you that she’s worried for you. And…” the attendant paused as Frank’s eyes pleaded with him to stop, to continue, to soothe and to punish simultaneously.
“And,” the young attendant continued. “She said they love you, Frank.”
Frank looked around himself and took in the whiteness of the hospital, with its grey and blue doors, its notice boards and stark yellow lights, and he started to shiver gently as his tears continued to fall. He looked up as a nurse and two police officers approached and the young blonde-haired attendant rose to meet them.
“He needs help,” said the attendant and relayed the story of Frank’s arrival to the officers, as the nurse asked Frank some questions. He was shivering so much that he couldn’t answer. A blanket was retrieved and wrapped around Frank’s shoulders as they eased him slowly to his feet. As they began to walk towards one of the blue and grey doored corridors, Frank suddenly turned to the nurse.
“Please help me,” he asked her.
“Of course,” said the nurse. “You’ll be OK now. You did the right thing in coming here.”
As one of the officers held open the door, Frank wondered if he’d ever done the right thing.
“I’m no kind of man,” he muttered as the shivering started again.
Loosely inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Highway Patrolman’, from his album ‘Nebraska’