An unexpected buzz from the alarm clock awakened the Whistle’s, leaving both Leonard and Marianna in a bad mood because it was the weekend. Leonard blamed Marianna because the alarm came from her phone and Marianna blamed Leonard because this was his “working day” so he had been the one to set a Saturday alarm in the first place. They ate their breakfast in a turgid silence, before eventually warming to each other as the sun rose and the remnants of their unrequited sleep left their bodies.
“The Easter holidays are coming up soon, so we should probably book Disneyland this weekend” Marianna mused as she clicked away on the laptop. He sat with her as they picked their hotel, flights and quarrelled over the dates before eventually coming to an agreement.
“All that money,” Leonard moaned.
“All that money,” Marianna repeated as she hesitantly entered her card details, “what’re a couple of hundred pounds compared to our son’s childhood right…right?” she continued as her rhetorical question became an actual question; Leonard laughed as he kissed her on the cheek.
“I’ve got to do a good number of commissions to make myself happy again so I’m going to be locking myself in the bedroom.”
“Fine,” she replied as she slovenly walked away from the table, “no idea what I’m going to do with myself today though. Actually before you get started, do you want to talk about Marta? You haven’t mentioned her for a time.”
“That’s because I’ve hit a wall with the investigation, I’m too scared to ask her certain questions in case I hurt her feelings.”
“What’s changed? None of the questions you’ve asked to date have been sensitive.”
“I know but these particular questions are ones she’s avoided in the past, I really feel like if I pursue them she’ll resent me for it.”
“What questions are they?”
“They’re all about whether she knew if Paulie was being abused.”
“What difference does it make if she knew or not?”
“Well if she knew and did nothing to stop it then it calls her whole character into question, and it makes it seem like she knew more about Paulie’s psyche then she has been letting on.” Leonard explained as Marianna tilted her head thoughtfully and her unfocussed eyes revealed the thinking occurring within.
“Therefore if she knew about it, it also absolves you and that’s both awkward and demotivating.”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it, we now have two different versions of what transpired. First version: Paulie snapped because of years of abuse, nobody listened to him etc. and so that means that you, Marta and the rest of that school are somewhat responsible because you didn’t stop that ‘psycho’ when you had the chance. The signs were there right?”
“What is the second version?”
“The second version is that this is some sort of intricate love/hate triangle between Morgan, Marta and Paulie and so there’s nothing you could have done to stop it. It also means that Marta is less of a victim because she presumably knew more than she is letting on. Maybe Paulie’s issues weren’t with the world that ignored him or his dad doing what he did, maybe his beef was totally with Marta and Marta alone.”
“So I have to figure which version is the true story? Interesting but I think the court already settled on the first version.”
“If the court’s version was satisfactory you wouldn’t have gone this far with your investigation.”
“That is very true! You know looking back over the court documents it really feels like they figured out what happened and not why it happened…”
“Be sensitive Leonard, but be persistent. There’s something off about that woman, I don’t know what it is but there is something fishy about her,” she explained as she left the room with an air of satisfaction.
In the hours following Marianna’s departure, Leonard rushed through a number of first and final draft articles he had been procrastinating over and emailed them to Alby. Following this he switched off his Wi-Fi and played his favourite album aloud so that he could focus on his investigation. Leonard scoured his research for aspects of the case, news reports and testimonies that considered the issue of Paulie’s abuse. Once he had found all of the relevant articles he reworded them and listed them as follows:
- Paulie claimed that he suffered emotional abuse and neglect at the hands of Morgan Ayodele between the ages of eleven and fifteen.
- The emotional abuse consisted of strict curfew times, excessive punishments for minor wrongs (sometimes of a physical nature), consistent belittlement (both publicly and privately) and increasingly unrealistic academic expectations.
- The neglect consisted of persistent absences from the household, a lack of parental guidance and emotional support and expectations of adult behaviour from a child.
- Paulie claimed that Marta witnessed many individual acts of abuse and also encouraged Morgan Ayodele’s frequent absences from the household.
- Marta claimed that Paulie had exaggerated many of his claims.
- Despite Paulie’s psychological profile backing his claims, the jury ultimately agreed with Marta. This was attributed to Paulie being a difficult to sympathise with defendant, due to his lack of remorse at Karim’s death.
After writing the list he realised that number five was the key to answering the question of moral culpability. During the trial the prosecution had effectively used the issue of Paulie’s abuse to paint him as an unreliable and melodramatic person, who was desperate for attention after his father had started a relationship with Marta. The defence tried to counter this by using his psychological profile to present him as a victim who had made a very big mistake after a series of poor, yet understandable, judgments. Neither side saw fit to use this issue to question whether Marta was even a credible witness to begin with, and Leonard knew that this was the next question he needed to have answered. Indeed, if Marta knew about Paulie’s abuse and did nothing to stop it, then Leonard’s original fears would be confirmed; it would mean that Karim’s death could have been stopped had somebody listened to Paulie. This sense of clarity and purpose brought with it an even greater apprehension, as it meant he would have to ask Marta a number of very uncomfortable questions and risk damaging, what had since become, a very pleasant friendship.
Leonard met Marta in the same eatery they had utilised during their first meeting, and neither sought to deviate from their original food choices. Marta spoke about her day as they waited and it initially appeared as though it was going to be a long conversation, however, she was tired from work and quickly lost steam.
“What’s it like working by yourself?” She asked as she took a sip from her cup.
“It can vary. Sometimes it’s really relaxing and enjoyable, I can work wherever and whenever I want. I can even work in my underwear if it’s hot enough, but it usually isn’t so there’s that I guess. Although it can be lonely at times and it’s hard not being able to bounce ideas off of somebody else.”
“Makes sense; I like the idea of being self-employed but I don’t really have a trade, or a business idea to make it happen.”
“You could always do tutoring right?”
“Tutoring wouldn’t bring in anywhere near as much as I earn now.”
“So is it something you’ve thought about?”
“For a while it was, after the whole teaching thing fell through I thought it might be a loophole but it wasn’t ever really an option for me,”
“I suppose not no.” Leonard mumbled as he paused to consider his next words carefully, however he didn’t want to dawdle lest Marta changed the subject, “it must have been hard for you to move away from teaching,”
“Then again it might have been a blessing in disguise, after what happened you would have had parents wanting to know all the details. Also when you think about all the safeguarding issues you might have had to deal with, it’s probably for the best. It might have been hard for you to respond to them in the right way,” Leonard stated in a plain manner which visibly irked Marta, and she made an odd noise and stuttered a few words without saying anything of substance.
“I’m sorry if that sounded rude, I’m just being honest,” Leonard mumbled with a wince as he tried to make the conversation an objective one.
“Well it was, what do you think that because I couldn’t protect Karim no child is safe with me? That’s a really hurtful and unnecessary thing for you to say, I can’t believe you just said that!”
“No gosh no, I’m sorry that’s not what I was getting at and I wasn’t trying to imply that at all,” he found himself at a loss for words and fell quiet.
“Is there something you want to say? I can tell there is.”
“Ok I’ll be blunt; I think you deserve that and there’s no nice way of saying what I need to say…I don’t fully believe you with regards to Paulie.”
“Did you know about his abuse?”
“You’ve read the court documents so you already know the answer.”
“I have read them Marta and the problem is that the court documents show that Paulie, without question, was mistreated by Morgan.”
“I didn’t know about it!” She replied as she looked into his eyes without wavering and Leonard was forced to look away.
“Did you encourage Morgan to stay outside of the house?”
“So is this an interrogation? Is that why we’re meeting tonight, so you can interrogate me? I’ve already been through this bullshit years ago, and I’m not going to go through it again!” She got up to leave but paused as Leonard touched her forearm.
“Please sit down, this is important,” he urged whilst trying to keep his voice as calm and as level as he could manage, “this is the only question you’ve avoided; you’ve shared everything else, why not this as well?”
“There isn’t anything to share that’s why.”
“Marta…” Leonard muttered, chidingly yet fondly, and she sat down. Her face attained a slight viciousness he hadn’t seen since their first meeting and he suddenly wondered if this was the version of Marta, Paulie had known. Cold, evasive and stubborn.
“I really have nothing to say, not much really.” She limply implored and her selective muteness suddenly irked Leonard, he felt an uncontrollable petulance that he would later regret.
“Don’t you feel like this situation hasn’t been resolved Marta? Don’t you feel like Karim deserves more than what he got? Don’t you feel like Paulie deserves more, don’t you deserve more? Don’t we all deserve more Marta?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I refuse to accept that a child can die of an asthma attack and yet Paulie alone is to blame! It’s both upsetting and disempowering and I refuse to accept that there is nothing more to this case than that. It wasn’t a terminal disease, freak accident or an act of God that took your son’s life Marta; it was taken by a young boy we both knew! I can’t live with that Marta and I know that you haven’t found closure yet either.”
“Why is this your problem? Why do you care?”
“I care because I have a son Marta, and it scares me to think that somebody I know could hurt him like Paulie hurt Karim. It scares the shit out of me! I need to know that I can protect him and if my ignorance and childishness were enough to contribute to the death of your son…then I don’t know.”
“It’s not your right Leonard and it’s not your life. You can’t put your irrational fears on to me,”
“Irrational? Back in school I made a number of jokes about Morgan beating Paulie every time he got an answer wrong. Do you know that that actually happened? Paulie has a scar on his left foot caused by him stepping on a broken bottle Morgan had thrown at him! Did you know that? I’ll tell you what I knew, I knew enough to crack a joke about child abuse but did nothing to actually stop it. Can you say anything different?”
“I’m not going to alleviate your guilt. You’ve got some ego!” She shouted as she stood up to leave, before angrily furrowing around in her pocket for some money to pay for her meal. She slammed the note down on the table and left the restaurant with Leonard following behind her. They stopped immediately outside of the eatery, bathed in the orange warmth of the six o’clock sun, and neither spoke for a period of time. Marta fiddled with her phone and, after finding something, raised it to her ear.
“Who are you calling?” Leonard asked.
“A cab,” she replied in a monotone voice as she looked up and down the straight, politely ignoring him as though he was a homeless man pestering her for change.
“Can I at least give you a lift back to your place?” He asked and she paused to considered his request, he could hear the cab operator mumbling something and she listened patiently before saying goodbye and hanging up the phone.
“Fine,” she muttered as he led her to where he had parked.
“I’m quite embarrassed about storming out like that, I’ll never be able to go there again,” she said to herself as a self-conscious laugh trickled from her lips.
“I’m sorry for my part in that, although I can’t say I’m a fan of their food anyway so it might be a blessing in disguise,” he acquiesced, to a belligerent smile from his companion. They drove in silence for the majority of the journey and it wasn’t broken until they approached Marta’s street.
“I didn’t know that Morgan was abusing him, I honestly didn’t know. I, I just get so touchy about it because…”
“Because Morgan told me what he did to Paulie and I never stopped to think that what he was doing was abuse. It just seemed like tough love.”
“Right.” Leonard murmured as she opened the door and stepped out of the car, however before closing it she leaned in to make one last statement.
“I didn’t think of Paulie as a child, I thought of him as a young man.” Her eyes avoided his as she continued talking, “I didn’t think he needed Morgan as much as I did.” She finished as she closed the door and hurriedly returned to her apartment. Leonard wanted to stop her in order to further discuss her comments, however he suspected that this might be the most she would ever be willing to say on the matter. This frustrated him greatly.
Leonard ate his lunch inside of a nearby coffee shop whilst his laptop sat in a bag and leaned against his chair, it fell to the floor as he balanced on its back legs. He wouldn’t notice it had fallen until he had finished and would reach down to pick it up. He sat by the window and looked out on to the high street with a mild curiosity, he could see a number of people rushing across the road despite the red light and heard a handful of beeps in response. If this had been a year ago he would have scoffed at the behaviour of the pedestrians, and had he been in his car he would have been honking his horn in solidarity with the other drivers. Today was today and not a year ago, however, and so a slightly more pensive Leonard instead abstained from forming any rash judgments about the situation. He stirred his coffee with the small, silver spoon provided before taking an indulgent sip and enjoying the aroma. The scent stuck to his nostrils and stained his breath in a way that would be unpleasant to others; a casual, thoughtless and mostly benign offense. He considered the myriad of small and insignificant ways he could offend the strangers around him and self-consciously stopped rocking on his chair. He shook his head before returning to his previous position and leaned back in his chair. Leonard pulled out his mobile phone and cycled through his contacts before stopping on a man called Cassius Williams. Cassius was an old friend who he saw less frequently than he liked, and who had also been a member of the Languages Club. Following his most recent conversation with Marta he needed to discuss his concerns with someone he trusted but, more importantly, with somebody else who was also there. The phone rang for quite a while and for a moment Leonard thought he wasn’t going to pick up, however, his fears were premature as he soon heard the voice of his friend.
“Leo how’s it going?”
“Good thanks, how are you?”
“I’m good; you caught me at a good time actually, was just about to have my lunch so I’ve got some time to spare.”
“That’s awesome, how you settling in to the new job anyway?”
“Alright but um, hold on” Cassius’ voice quietened as Leonard could hear heavy breaths, a couple of greetings and the opening and closing of a door, “sorry just wanted to get outside. Yeah the job is going well, it’s just the people.”
“What’s wrong with them?” Leonard chuckled.
“They’re not just nice, they’re too nice. Everyone wants to be friends with everyone else and it’s putting me on edge.”
“Weird thing to complain about.”
“Listen shut up, ok, you know what I mean. It’s hard to know the score when everyone is excessively nice all the time, there’s a difference between people being ‘friendly’ and people being ‘nice’, yeah?” Cassius asked rhetorically as Leonard could imagine the finger quotations his friend would have made had they been talking face to face.
“Enough about me, why’d you call?”
“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about our sixth form days, back when we were in the Languages Club.”
“They were but I haven’t been thinking about the fun parts, main reason I’m looking into it is because I had to write an essay for a textbook about the Paulie situation.”
“Oh Paulie, I haven’t heard that name in a long time. How is he?”
“He’s in prison…didn’t we ever talk about what happened?” Leonard replied incredulously to a perplexed grunt from his friend. He preceded to spend the next few minutes informing him of his investigation across the last few months, as well as updating him on his findings about Marta and Morgan.
“That’s pretty juicy Leo, morbid but juicy. Really makes you think.”
“Not sure yet; I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
“Right well thankfully I didn’t call you for your opinion, it was more for what you can remember about the old days. I mean it makes sense that Morgan and Marta were hooking up doesn’t it?”
“You know it kind of does, I can’t say it really surprises me at all.”
“On that note, do you think it’s equally obvious that Morgan abused Paulie?” Leonard continued as he heard an indecisive sigh from Cassius, the phone line went quiet as he mumbled something incomprehensible. His voice had that static fuzz caused by telecommunications, and it added a layer of dampness to his sigh.
“It’s not really surprising at all, I mean the signs were all there. I heard him say nasty, nasty things to that boy; do you remember ‘Angry Antonyms’?”
“Fuck I had forgotten about that activity, that was disgusting!” Leonard exclaimed in a fit of discomfort as he palmed his head in dismay. The activity mentioned was one that Morgan would roll out spontaneously throughout the school year, seemingly without any sort of consistency. The activity involved working in pairs as you listed all of the positive qualities of your partner, before finding the antonyms of these words. Morgan jokingly explained that in every country across the world cab drivers would often discuss their customers disparagingly, often to their own amusement, if they suspected that they couldn’t speak the language and so they would be well suited to know the kinds of words they might use. It was a relatively harmless activity when performed amongst friends in the right spirit, however, Morgan would end the starter by picking groups to share their antonyms to the class; if no one volunteered he would end by sharing all of the antonyms about Paulie. This became something of an in-joke amongst the class, as the students would purposefully refuse to share their antonyms in order to watch Morgan verbally eviscerate Paulie. Over time it lost its lustre and became particularly troublesome when Leonard repeated some of the ‘antonyms’ in his regular lesson, and was told off by the teacher for using inappropriate language. After he had explained where he had learned those words, Angry Antonyms’ was dropped as an activity and Leonard could remember feeling a sickly, guilty feeling after this had happened. At the time it was because he thought he had gotten Morgan into trouble, however, now the sickly feeling returned because the reverse was also true: Morgan had gotten him into trouble too. They waffled on for a while longer and consumed the entirety of Cassius’ break with their chatter.
“Have you spoken to Paulie about any of this?” Cassius queried.
“I’m thinking you might want to,” he paused, “saying that I have no idea how you’ll even find him! He’s in prison right?”
“When in doubt: Google.” Leonard replied as his inflection mimicked his actual shrug.
“Before I go, I just want to know what you’re trying to gain by looking over Paulie’s situation. Try as you might Leonard you can’t change the past.”
“I know Cassius but I’m hoping that I can at least learn something from this mess, something that will make it-“
“Have a point?”
“But what if it doesn’t? What if it’s just a something awful that happened?”
“Then maybe I can learn enough to make sure I am not a passive onlooker if something like this happens again.”
“That’s good of you Leonard.”
“It’s not unless I learn something Cassius.”
“Don’t go fishing for compliments Leonard, you’ll get nothing else from me. Anyway catch you later mate!”
“You too man, look after yourself,” Leonard said cheerfully as he hung up the phone and was immediately reminded of his environment, owing to the influx of cold air to his ear and a sudden awareness of the stench of coffee. The earthly, sticky and completely benign stench of coffee.