Parentheses

My eldest daughter said she saw the headmaster flying. He took off somewhere on the sports fields and landed on the roof of the science centre. Charlotte said that when Mr Rhys flew, he didn’t move horizontally, like a superhero. He flew in a vertical position, like a doll that a child has picked up. 

I don’t know how many of the other kids corroborated this, but what they did say is that Mr Rhys did weird things. 

 

So the police came and arrested him. 

I’d met him maybe half a dozen times, at parents' evenings, school plays and the like. He had dark hair and glasses and although tall, was shorter than I am. I remember he smiled a lot and the kids seemed to like him. Becky, my youngest, said he was everyone’s favourite teacher because he was the most lenient. 

The police told me this was one of his tricks. 

When he was in custody awaiting trial a lot of questions were being asked. Parents were asking questions of the school board. I was going over all the times I met him, asking questions of myself. And then there were the journalists. They were asking a great deal of questions. I’m not sure how many national journalists had ever been to Ebbw Vale before. Now quite a number seemed to live in the town. 

 

The questions I was most interested in were those being asked of Charlotte by the child psychologist. A lot of stuff started coming out right away, not all of it relevant as far as I could see. 

I was on my third marriage and Charlotte is from my second. The psychologist seemed to find this notable, because he wrote something down, but I don’t see how it matters. Paul, my husband, loved Charlotte just as much as he loved Becky, his own daughter. 

Becky said she’s never seen Mr Rhys fly. Or do anything else. 

The psychologist told Charlotte that she had to tell him everything that happened to her. That she owed to it Becky to tell the truth. And that, because so many other kids at the school were confessing stuff, no-one would think bad of her. 

 

And that’s when she said Mr Rhys had been flying.  

I wasn’t sure I believed her at first. The flying seemed impossible. But then they told me the other things Mr Rhys had done and that didn’t seem impossible at all. 

 

Sometimes I think it’s unhealthy, this degree of protectiveness you feel toward your kids. I would do anything to spare them, however disproportionate. I would have run a knife through my face if it would have saved Charlotte grazing her knee. 

What would I have done to stop her getting attacked? 

They drove us around Ebbw Vale in a big car and asked Charlotte to point out places Mr Rhys had taken her. Within the first five minutes, Charlotte pointed out an estate agent’s on Bethcar Street. I knew for a fact that she hadn’t been there with me, but she described the office and a backroom in detail. 

They stopped the car and the driver went in. When he came out he said, ‘The pictures are just like she said. But the backroom’s different.’ 

The man in the passenger seat frowned at this.  

Then the driver said, ‘But it could have been redecorated since…’ He glanced at Charlotte. ‘Since the incident.’ 

The passenger brightened. ‘It could,’ he said. ‘It could indeed.’ He smiled back at us. ‘Well done Charlotte.’ 

 

The psychologist brought some dolls into the office and asked Charlotte to use them to illustrate what Mr Rhys had done. I could see Charlotte was upset so I gave her some encouragement and then she put the dolls into positions and the psychologist photographed them and everyone was pleased.  

Stories appeared in the papers. They didn’t claim that Mr Rhys flew. They did claim that he'd subjected dozens of children to abuse. It had started with one boy whose mother had noticed bruises. The boy blamed it on Mr Rhys. When the police looked into it, other kids made claims. 

Charlotte’s sessions went on for weeks. I listened to most of them in tears. I felt I had failed as a parent, that my divorce was to blame. I thought about contacting her father but didn’t have the guts. I knew he would read about it in the papers eventually and I should call him before he did, but I still didn’t.  

When the case came to trial, I didn’t attend court, so I only saw Mr Rhys on television. He looked guilty as hell to me and there were plenty of folks outside the courts trying to get hold of him and they seemed to think he was guilty too. 

So it was a shock when he was acquitted. 

Apparently, there wasn’t enough evidence and the witnesses were unreliable which baffled me as I thought they had months of reliable witness testimony. Of course, I didn’t expect anyone to believe Mr Rhys could fly, but I did expect them to believe he had molested children. I couldn’t understand how he could be set free, with so much evidence for the prosecution. 

I wanted to speak to him. But Mr Rhys was granted lifelong anonymity and moved out of South Wales. There was no prohibition on his working again with children, but I heard that he didn’t choose to. A supporter kept me updated on his movements. He worked for a building firm in Didcot for six years and then his identity was revealed somehow and he had to move. He took a job in Derby as a library assistant and started to drink. He found it hard to hold down a relationship. He got sacked from the library when they smelled alcohol on his breath and was homeless for a while. 

I heard that he suffered, but he didn’t suffer enough for me. 

 

One night, Charlotte comes home from work and starts talking to me. She’d moved in after her second marriage broke down and because I am alone too, we keep each other company.  

She pours two drinks and I look at her. She says, ‘I need to tell you something.’

 

‘OK darling.’ 

‘It’s about Ebbw Vale.’ 

We haven’t lived in Ebbw Vale for twenty-two years, but I know exactly what she means. I say, ‘What about it?’ 

‘You won’t believe me.’ 

‘Is it about Mr Rhys?’ 

‘Yes, it is.’ 

‘Then I’ll believe you.’ 

Charlotte sips her drink. She doesn’t say anything. 

I say, ‘I’ll believe you. I’m your mother. You can tell me anything.’ 

Charlotte considers it. ‘Mr Rhys,’ she says eventually. ‘He didn’t touch me.’ 

I laugh. ‘Don’t be silly darling. Of course he did. He did terrible things to lots of children and for some reason he got away with it.’ 

‘Not to me. Maybe he did something to someone, but he didn’t ever touch me. I lied. About all of it.’ 

Charlotte has changed a bit since her marriage broke down. I feel that if she’d had a proper father, things might’ve been different. For both of us.  

She says, ‘Do you believe me?’ 

I smile. ‘Don’t be silly.’ 

‘There we go.’ Charlotte shakes her head. ‘Everything that has happened to this family since Ebbw Vale, you’ve blamed on Mr Rhys. Every failed marriage, every piece of rotten luck. It’s an article of faith for you. I believe you’d prefer it if I had been molested.’ 

I begin to cry. There is nothing worse Charlotte could’ve said to me. Nothing. I can’t believe after all that’s happened she is defending Mr Rhys. 

 

I receive an email with a photo of him as he is now. In his middle fifties, he’s lost some of his dark hair and has grown a moustache. He lives now in Stokesley, near Middlesbrough and goes by the name of David Martin. 

My cousin told me that, anytime I gave the word, he could organise for something to happen to Mr Rhys. But I haven’t given the word. 

 

It’s a three hour drive. I arrive in Stokesley at midday on Sunday and park outside Mr Rhys’ home, a bungalow on a road called Tameside.  

A light comes on in the bungalow.  

I cross the empty road and knock on the door. 

The bell is recessed into the door-frame, black wrinkles streaming from the plastic into the wood. 

Mr Rhys opens the door, smiles and says, ‘Yes?’ 

I say his new name and he responds positively. Then I say his old name and he doesn’t respond so well. He looks frightened and tries to shut the door on me and I go to block him. There’s a bit of noise and some of it is me shouting, ‘I don’t want trouble!’ and then the noise stops and we’re looking at each other. 

Mr Rhys says, ‘How did you find me? You can’t just turn up at my house.’ 

I say, ‘I could’ve turned up at your house any time in the last twenty years. You haven’t been as safe as you think.’ 

He glances down the road. ‘I didn’t do anything. Nothing at all. I was innocent.’ 

‘No. There was too much evidence. Too many kids were affected.’ 

‘They made it up. All of it. They lied and everyone believed them.’ 

‘My daughter didn’t lie.’ 

‘Which one was your daughter?’ 

‘Charlotte. Charlotte Matthews.’ 

He shakes his head. ‘I’m afraid I don’t remember her.’ 

I am breathing heavily. ‘She was the one who claimed you could fly.’ 

‘I’m sorry. There was so much nonsense. I couldn’t take it all in. One of the kids said I cut the wings off a pigeon and sewed them onto a cat and made it fly.’ 

‘I don’t believe the crazy stuff. I do believe the other stuff.’ 

‘It’s all crazy stuff.’ 

‘But I believe it.’ 

He shakes his head again. ‘Has your daughter ever suggested to you that she lied?’ 

‘No.’ 

‘Well, I’m sorry. Not for anything that happened to her in Ebbw Vale, because nothing happened. I’m sorry she can’t tell the truth. The only thing that happened in Ebbw Vale was my reputation getting destroyed. But then I didn’t have much of one to destroy. The only reputation I had was as a lenient teacher. Not a good one. Just lax and so the kids liked me.’ 

I stare at him. ‘I don’t believe you.’ 

‘It’s the truth. It doesn’t matter if you believe it.’ 

‘It does. Oh, it does. My God. It’s my whole life.’ 

His expression changes. He looks desperately lonely, standing there with his arms open as if his script had been taken away and I realise most of what he says to people about his past is a kind of script, a script written for David Martin and perhaps he is glad he doesn’t have to be David in front of me. I imagine myself reaching out to him. I imagine us embracing and we would be two parentheses closing out an awful digression. But I can’t do it, because from there to here is not a digression, it is the story itself. So I don’t say anything. I watch him. But he doesn’t say anything either. 

 

I didn’t go straight home. After I left Stokesley, I drove aimlessly until I arrived in a village whose name I didn’t know. I parked the car and went into a pub. There were people standing, drinking, smiling, and although I was taller than many of them, I felt as if I was far beneath them, like swimming in a sea and looking up at the burbling hazy images above the water. 

I bought a drink, sat down and began to compose a message to my cousin.