course, you know where it begins.
It begins the way life begins, with the sound
I was upstairs, at my desk, balancing the
books. I recall being in a rather buoyant
mood, having sold that afternoon a mid-Victorian
drop-leaf table for a most welcome amount.
It must have been half past seven. The sky
outside the window was particularly beautiful,
I remember thinking. One of those glorious
May sunsets that crams all the beauty of the
day into its dying moments.
Now, where were you? Yes: your bedroom. You
were practising your cello, as you had been
since Reuben had left to meet his friends
at the tennis courts.
At the time I heard it, the scream, I had
already lowered my gaze towards the park.
I think I must have been looking over at the
horse chestnuts, rather than the empty climbing
frame, because I hadn’t noticed anyone
on East Mount Road. There was some kind of
numerical discrepancy I was trying to solve;
I can’t remember what precisely.
Oh, I could hold that scene just there. I
could write ten thousand words about that
sunset, about that park, about the trivial
queries of my profit and loss accounts. You
see, as I write these words I am back inside
that moment, I am back there in that room,
wrapped up warm in that unknowing contentment.
For this pen to push that evening on, to get
to the moment where the sound of the scream
actually meant something, seems a kind of
crime. And yet I have to tell you how it was,
exactly as I saw it, because this was the
end and the start of everything, wasn’t
it? So come on, Terence, get on with it, you
don’t have all day.
scream struck me first as a disturbance. An
intrusion on the sweet sound of whatever Brahms
sonata was floating to me from your bedroom.
Then, before I knew why, it caused a kind
of pain, a twist in my stomach, as if my body
was understanding before my mind.
Simultaneous with the sound of the scream,
there were other noises, coming from the same
direction. Voices unified in a chant, repeating
a two-syllable word or name I couldn’t
quite catch. I looked towards the noise and
saw the first streetlamp stutter into life.
Something was hanging from the horizontal
section of the pole. A dark blue shape that
didn’t immediately make sense, high
above the ground.
There were people standing below - boys -
and the hanging object and the chanting gained
clarity in my mind at the same time.
“Reuben! Reuben! Reuben!”
I froze. Maybe too much of me was still lost
in my account book as, for a second or so,
I did nothing except watch.
My son was hanging from a lamppost, using
the greatest of strength to risk his life
for the sake of entertaining those he thought
I felt things sharpen and began to move, gaining
momentum as I ran across the landing.
Your music stopped.
“Dad?” you asked me.
I rushed downstairs and ran through the shop.
My hip knocked into something, a chest, causing
one of the figurines to drop and smash.
I crossed the street and through the gate.
I crossed the park at the pace of a younger
self, flying over the leaves and grass and
through the deserted play area. All the time
I kept him in sight, as if to lose him for
a second would cause him to lose his grip.
I ran feeling the terror beat in my chest,
behind my eyes and in my ears.
He shuffled his hands closer towards the vertical
section of the post.
I could see his face now, glowing an unnatural
yellow from the lamp. His teeth bared with
the strain, his bulging eyes already knowing
the insanity of his mistake.
Please, Bryony, understand this: the pain
of a child is the pain of a parent. As I ran
to your brother I knew I was running to myself.
I stepped on the park wall and jumped down
to the pavement, landing badly. I twisted
my ankle on the concrete but I fought against
it as I ran towards him, as I called his name.
Your brother couldn’t move. His face
was twisted in agony. The glare of the light
blanching his skin, releasing him of that
birthmark he always hated.
I was getting closer now.
“Reuben!” I shouted. “Reuben!”
He saw me as I pushed my way through his friends.
I can still see his face and all the confusion
and terror and helplessness it contained.
In that moment of recognition, of distraction,
the concentration he needed to stay exactly
where he was suddenly faltered. I could feel
it before it happened, a kind of gloating
doom leaking out from the terraced houses.
An invisible but all-encompassing evil that
stole every last hope.
He fell, fast and heavy.
Within a second his screaming had stopped
and he was on the concrete pavement in front
Everything about him seemed so hideous and
unnatural as he lay there, like an abandoned
puppet. The crooked angles of his legs. The
accelerated rhythm of his chest. The shining
blood that spilled from his mouth.
“Get an ambulance,” I shouted
at the crowd of boys who stood there in numb
In the distance cars sped by on Blossom Street,
heading into York or out to the supermarket,
immune and unaware.
I crouched down and my hand touched his face
and I pleaded with him to stay with me.
I begged him.
And it seemed like some kind of deliberate
punishment, the way he died. I could see the
decision in his eyes, as the substance of
life retreated further and further from his
One of the boys, the smallest, vomited on
Another – shaven-headed, sharp-eyed
- staggered back, away, onto the empty road.
The tallest and most muscular of the group
just stood there, looking at me, a shaded
face inside a hood. I hated that boy and the
brutal indifference of his face. I cursed
the god who had made this boy stand there,
breathing before me, while Reuben was dying
on the pavement. Inside the desperate urgency
of that moment I sensed there was something
not quite right about that boy, as though
he had been pasted onto the scene from another
I picked up one of Reuben’s heavy hands,
his left, and saw his palm was still red and
indented from holding onto the post. I rubbed
it and I kept talking to him, words on top
of words, but all the time I could see him
retreating from his body, backing away. And
then he said something.
“Don’t go.” As if it was
me who was leaving and not him. They were
his last words.
The hand went cold, the night gathered closer
and the ambulance came to confirm it was too
late for anything to be done.