Wednesday, 28 September 2016

What Kind of Man?

I've dug out this story I wrote in 2009 about a young learning-disabled man who gets in trouble with the law after he meets a woman. It's undergone numerous drafts, it's been read by people in the police and in social services, it's been critiqued by two face-to-face groups and one online group and, even so, it's been rejected from ten publications. I can tell you why.
I came up with the idea after working in Social Services in an admin position. I'd dealt with a lot of social workers face-to-face and had worked with their paperwork. There's two sides to the average social worker- the side they show to their colleague and the side they show to their clients. Those personas are hugely different. One is a lot more empathetic, the other much more corporate. It seems obvious now I write it down. In this story, the social worker mainly speaks to her client like he's a colleague, as I didn't really grasp the nature of social work. I also had a hard time keeping my writer voice yet still verbalising the protagonist's thoughts.
The story is around 3000 words long, but don't let all of this put you off.

The only true wisdom consists of knowing you know nothing.    -Socrates

Eric Sole sat in the small room listening for key words.

We’ve managed to get you on the higher rate of DLA, Eric,” said Jean. “So you’ll be getting a little extra money.”

Eric understood “extra money”.

Your support plan’s up-to-date,” Jean said, distracted, flipping through a printed document. “Don’t worry about that.” She glanced up at the clock.

Eric understood “Don’t worry.” He recognised his name at the top of the sheet.

How do I decorate?” he asked.

That’s for Housing Support to organise, I’m afraid. I don’t… I can’t help you with that. That’s Rebecca you need to speak to. You know Rebecca?”

He nodded, unsure.

We’re out of time for today,” Jean said. “Sorry we didn’t get much done, but I’ve got four other people to see this afternoon.”

Eric stepped out of the Resource Centre and into the blinding light of the afternoon. His social worker had sorted out long-term accommodation at last- a life away from his parents. But this came around ten years after his few friends had made the move.

He knew he should be relieved- this was a step forward he had wanted to take for as long as he could remember. But he had another massive anxiety: his friends all had girlfriends; he never had.

Eric knew he was different- a great guy, Jean kept saying. Maybe if he just… tried harder, he thought, he might meet a woman who would agree with Jean. He knew he deserved it. He had waited. Jean had said the right girl would come along when he least expected it. He was thoroughly, thoroughly sick of hearing people say it, and it added to his anger and self-disappointment. But he knew Jean meant well.

The bus stop was right outside the centre. Only one other person was waiting.

Take this girl, Eric thought. Pretty. Isn’t it a bit cold to be wearing a skirt that short, though? Don’t look.

Hi,” she said.

Eric smothered the panic, just like Jean had taught him. Interact, he imagined her as saying.

Hi.” It’s just a conversation, he thought. We’ve practised this.

She talked, and talked. Most people- young women, particularly- kept conversation with him short. She didn’t. Most avoided eye contact. This woman wouldn’t stop looking at him and smiling. He listened to her talk.

What has her useless boyfriend got to do with me? He thought. Why is she telling me all this?

Before Eric could begin to guess, she reached out and squeezed his nearest bicep.

You’ve got big arms,” she said, smiling.

The way she behaved started to remind him of a video he watched once, one he borrowed off an older man. The story was about people who took their clothes off, and pretended to have sex.

Thanks.” He gazed down, flattered but nervous. “I go to the gym with my s-” He faltered. Don’t mention the social worker. Don’t want to put her off. “My mate.”

I bet you do. What’s your name?”

Eric.” I shouldn’t be telling her, he thought. We talk about safety all the time. But she’s just a girl…
Most people know my name before they even meet me. Jean must sort that out. I never even noticed, ‘til now.

I’ve got a confession to make, Eric. I’m not really waiting for a bus. I just like you.”
Eric felt his heart start to punch its way through his rib cage. Don’t panic. Especially, don’t let her see that you’re panicking.

All the safety advice started to ebb away from his mind as he looked at her. “I like you too,” he said, quietly.

She looked over her shoulder briefly, back at the resource centre. “Why don’t you come back to my flat round the corner?” Then, leaning in closer, practically forcing him to look down the lapels of her low-cut coat, “I’ve got some hot chocolate at mine.” Her voice had dropped to a low, husky tone, just more than a whisper, barely audible over the traffic.


An hour later Eric stood outside her house, exactly where she had left him, tentatively touching his crotch.

So that’s what sex feels like. Don’t people normally sleep afterwards? It’s a bit early I suppose. The warden at the accommodation will want to know where I am. I’m in trouble.

He walked, feeling different somehow.

They haven’t rang me, though…

Shit. That reminds me. I didn’t get her number. That’s what I’m supposed to do, isn’t it?

Well, that’s tomorrow’s job.

The seconds dripped by as he waited for the bus.

I couldn’t think properly when I was around her, Eric thought. It was like I became someone else. I wonder if regular people feel that way, ever.

Eric pushed self-pity out of his mind. He wanted her back already.


The following day, Eric had another meeting with Jean. He couldn’t focus on the issue of housing. He had to cut Jean off mid-sentence.

What happens if you don’t use a condom?”

Jean looked up from her papers, without tilting her head, like she would with any of his questions. “You mean if you have sex with someone?”

Eric nodded, nervous.

Well, you might get a girl pregnant. Or you could catch a sexually transmitted infection. I don’t think you want either of those, Eric.” She rolled her eyes. “Believe me.”

Eric always believed Jean. What a strange thing for her to say.

She looked back down at her papers, rifling through them, then paused, glancing over her reading glasses. “Why?”

Eric didn’t say anything. Nobody talks about that kind of thing.

What’s wrong, Eric? You seem nervous.”

Eric felt himself blush. “No, I was just… wondering.”

Going to the woman’s house was going to be one of those things he thought about repeatedly for years, like the video he borrowed, the events playing in his head on a loop. Eric tried to think as he walked to the bus stop.

Got to stay focussed. There’s the new flat to look forward to. Jean said Rebecca would help me decorate, which is cool as I wouldn’t have a clue how to start-

The sight of that unmistakeable cream coat and dark hair shocked him hard, and he gasped loudly. The girl was on the other side of the road. He wanted to shout her. But he knew his voice sounded unusual- he never shouted for fear of insults, even though there was no one else on the street but him and her. He realised at that moment that he didn’t even know her name. This fact hit him hard, in the chest.

Why didn’t I ask her?

He waved to the girl tentatively. He noticed the eye contact- another thing Jean had taught him about- so there was no doubt she’d seen him. But she had turned away!


He walked quickly, following her. She was heading to the exact same house.

How can I do this without looking like I’m chasing her?

She looked over her shoulder, looking into his eyes again. Her smile was absent. She didn’t look nervous, but she did seem agitated- pestered- like the shopkeepers did when Eric fumbled for change.

The girl shut the door behind her and Eric was close enough to hear the click of the lock.

Am I doing something wrong? He thought. This is the right girl. And the right house. What have I done?

He knocked.

No answer.

There was something different inside of him now: a type of aggression, something he would never have felt before going into that bedroom- the room just above his head. He hammered on the door with the underside of his fist. His fear was changing again, now into anger; disgust. He started to groan in frustration.

If I am a great guy, like Jean says, nobody should do this to me.

He paced back and forth on the footpath, right outside her house. There was something different about the sound he was making; normally when he was wound up he’d recognise his own noise. He held his breath for a second. There was another sound.

It was a siren. The Police Vauxhall Vectra, a car he usually admired, pulled up in front of him. Eric looked at the car and the silhouettes of the people inside. The loudness of the siren cut out, leaving a ring in his ears.

A policeman stepped out, painful looking instruments strapped onto his belt and a yellow luminous jacket puffing out around his upper body.

Can he help me talk to her?

As the ringing subsided and the man stepped uncomfortably close to him, Eric could make out his words.

“…not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”

This meant nothing to him.

Perhaps if I walk back to the door, he’ll see the trouble I’m having.

As soon as Eric turned he felt a grip on his wrist, and his knuckles reached his shoulder blade. The pain shocked him and he screamed, disgusted.

How could a policeman do this?

Eric wanted to force himself away from the car, but every defiant movement he made hurt even more. The policeman spun him around and pinned him over the boot of the Vectra. Over his shoulder he could see the woman watching him, no longer showing nervousness but apparently devoid of any other emotion. His head was pressed low and he fell onto the back seat face-first. Eric, for some reason, thought of the woman’s bed. The door was closed and all he could see was the dull, tinted sky.


Eric was confused. This is a police station? It’s clean, like the Resource Centre. Plain. It looks like an office, only everyone’s in Police uniform. Where are the dangling lamps, Eric thought, like in the movies? Why are there no men in suits, smoking cigarettes all the time? And why did they take my bus pass? They all drive cars; they drove one to get me here. The picture doesn’t even look like any of them.

His thoughts were interrupted by the clip-clop of Jean’s shoes approaching the interview room. He started to sob when she entered, familiar in her business suit. She was flanked by a policeman.

Eric.” She held one of his chubby hands in both of her slender palms. “Jesus. What happened?”

Eric stuttered. “I…”

Eric, You’re going to be interviewed. They think you raped someone.” She paused. “Did you?”

He couldn’t speak.

Why did you do it, Eric?”

I thought she wanted me to.”

Jean let go of his hand. Pinched the bridge of her nose with her fingertips. “Oh, God,” she whispered.

Eric choked on his tears.

Blurry-eyed, he recognised the officer as the man who’d arrested him.

We’re just going to ask you some questions, Eric,” he said, slower than necessary.

You don’t have to speak so loud,” said Jean. “His hearing’s fine.”


The policeman sat next to him, fingers steepled. “I’m Officer Barnes,” he said. “Do you know Helen Hay?”

No,” Eric said, confused.

Officer Barnes held up a photo of a woman. She was wearing a cream coat.

Eric covered his mouth in shock and recognition.

Almost out of habit he thought of his sessions with Jean. Breathing hard, he thought of himself sat in the chair. He tried to let his shoulders droop relaxed as he exhaled, eyes closed to aid concentration and to get the photograph out of his mind. He thought of his chest, but his body wasn’t responding to his efforts.
Eric stared hard at the floor. He remembered the house, the girl, the way he pressed his body weight on her to keep her under him. People always filled in the gaps for him- what he didn’t understand, or didn’t know about, Jean or Dr. Maloney would explain. Now Officer Barnes was filling in the gaps in his memory.

Officer Barnes held up a rectangular plastic bag, like the one Eric’s dad had used for maps when they’d gone fell walking when Eric was a boy. The memory of those walks seemed strangely distant.

The bag didn’t have a map in it. Instead, it contained a stained pair of purple knickers.

A memory came to Eric so clearly, like turning the television on for a second and watching a fleeting moment from a programme: the woman- Helen- on the bed, and her look of concentration that Eric realised now could have been distress. On a mattress strewn with clothes, Eric has his weight on top of her, kneeling up between her legs, and Helen brings her knee up, trying to force it in front of his stomach. Her movement spurs Eric on harder, not consciously controlling his hips. She levers out with her knee, pushing her torso backwards, and Eric falls out of her. Falling face-first into her stomach, he comes over the clothing beneath them.

Do you recognise this?”

He looked again at the garment. “Yes.” He felt sick with guilt.

Jean interjected. “Why are you showing him this? Shouldn’t you have sent it off for, what, DNA testing?”

He says he recognises it.” Officer Barnes turned to Eric. ”Here’s what we think happened. You pushed your way in when you saw her unlock the door. You chased her up the stairs…”

The officer’s voice faded as the facts overwhelmed him.

Why did I do it? Why didn’t I know what I was doing was wrong? What kind of man am I?

Jean’s voice brought him back.

That’s just what they think, Eric. Do you think Officer Barnes is right, or did something else happen?”

How am I supposed to know? Eric thought. He decided not to speak.

Jean turned to Officer Barnes. “He should really have a lawyer before we go into this.”

That’s up to you,” said Officer Barnes. “I’m going to give you a few moments. Maybe you can… get him to open up.” He left the room.

 “Listen,” Jean said. “Your parents are still on holiday. I can’t get in touch with them. I don’t know what’s going to happen... to you. But I can tell you that I will help you as much as I can. You’re going to have to go to court, Eric. But I will be there with you. You won’t even have to say anything.”

Eric looked up, hopeful. “Can you take me home?”

No,” said Jean. “Not tonight. A lady from the newspaper wants to ask me about you, Eric. But I’m only going to tell her what she already knows- you’re being held in custody- this building- and that you’re they are asking you about a rape.”

Jean unzipped her coat and pulled her chair closer. “Eric,” she said, looking at the linoleum floor. “I know you told me about how lonely you are.”

Eric covered his face.

But this wasn’t the right thing to do, Eric. Sex should be fair. You’ve got to both agree to do it.”

You’ve got to say that you’re going to do it, he thought, before you do it?

Eric lifted his tear-streaked face. Jean was worried.

I’ve got to go,” she said. “I’ve got lots of work to do, but I’ll tell you what’s going to happen as soon as I can.”

She left. Eric stared at the empty chair where the woman who held his life together had been sitting.

Eric thought back to his school days, when he first found out about sex. It seemed something so far away. He remembered the classroom- the desks held together with chewing gum and Mr. Sykes’ voice droning, sending him to sleep. He remembered little of the lessons, but the rumours of how sex happens had never left his mind. Now he’d experienced it.

Maybe if you wait too long, something just makes you do it, he thought. Maybe if you just feel too bad about things, this is what happens to make you feel good again, no matter what happens after. But now I feel worse than ever.


Behind his eyelids, an orange glow shocked him. The blanket was heavy and coarse, the pillow battered and shallow. I feel like this pillow, thought Eric.

Waking in a strange place is like being on holiday. Only, holidays are fun. Maybe this is like an inside-out holiday. Eric pinched himself. It certainly isn’t a dream.

They’re going to keep telling me off today, thought Eric. That’s probably all that today is about.

Officer Barnes opened the cell and put a tray on the table. “You can have toast, can’t you, Eric?”

He nodded.

Good. Eat up, son.” Officer Barnes stepped out and locked the cell.

Eric ate.

Strange how people can be hard and kind of mean to you one day, and nice to you the next. Is it because I’m different? If I weren’t, would people make more sense?


Later, Officer Barnes unlocked the cell.

Eric,” he asked, “can you follow me please?”

He took Eric to a different room- not outside, like he expected. Not to a courtroom where people in strange wigs would bully him. Just a regular police room like the one Officer Barnes interviewed him in. Behind a table, looking concernedly through a large file of papers, sat Jean. She looked shattered. She smiled when she saw him.

Eric. I think we both had a hard night last night!”


Okay folks,” said Officer Barnes. “You’re both free to go.”

Eric looked at Officer Barnes, confused. Then looked at Jean.

Thanks, officer,” she said, “and I’ll be in touch.” Then to Eric, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. Let’s get you home.”


Eric had never been in Jean’s car before. It occurred to Eric that Jean was a woman like any other, with a life outside of the resource centre- she drove this car to work, from her house, probably.

Jean explained a little more of the world and its workings on the way to his accommodation. “The bad news is: you’re still going to have to go to court. The good news is: you’re not the one in trouble, Eric. Helen is. Bear with me here. I’ve been speaking to some social workers who work on the other side of the city. They’ve told me all about her. A few years ago, in a different town, Helen was raped. The rapist was a man with learning disabilities.”

Like me?”

No, Eric, very different to you. He went to prison, and Helen got Criminal Injuries Compensation- basically she got money off the court. Then she had this idiotic idea,” Jean said, angry, “that she could make more money that way. So she moved out of that town, to here. She found out about the resource centre, and that’s when she found you.”

But I didn’t do anything to her.”

I know, Eric. You’ll find people will be mean and horrible, like Helen was, the world over. And everyone has to deal with them at some point. You had to deal with a much worse situation than most people do, though. People like me try to stop them.” A pause. “Eric, I’m so sorry I didn’t believe you. It’s just such an unusual thing to happen. Helen is a very sick woman, to do something like that- not just to you, but to put herself through it... Well. She's in a lot of trouble. I would never have thought this would happen. This must have been really hard on you.”

Well… Yeah. It has. I thought I was imagining things. But, y’know… it wasn’t that bad, the main part.”

Jean looked confused. “The cells?”

The, uh, sex. At least, erm, that happened,” he said, looking at his lap. “I suppose I'm kind of bad for thinking that.”

Jean smiled. “No, I'd say that's a pretty normal for a man your age, Eric.”

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