Within the context of the Daily Prompt Placebo Effect I put this forward as a story about a cure for the ailment of apathy. The story was written some years ago, mixing recollections with contemporary news items. At the time Mugabe’s regime was reported doing some pretty hideous things…
I never really wanted to be a dad and when it happened I guess I felt bitter and resentful. Although I knew that it was illogical to lay blame upon the fragile, dependent boy who had just entered the world unwittingly, I did harbour negative feelings for some time. My anger was never directed at my son, ‘my son’, the baby, but it did burn inside, fuelled by my ambitions and the fear that they would be crushed by the pressure suddenly thrust upon me.
At first it’s hard to relate to a baby. Obviously they can’t talk, but less obviously, for me anyway, they don’t possess a whole range of other unspoken skills. They don’t seem to look at you, they don’t respond to your voice or actions. They cry when they are hungry or cold or tired, but it’s always one kind of cry, there’s no variation, no modulation, no sense of intention and just basic reactions to simple conditions. Perhaps I wasn’t particularly receptive to some of the more subtle characteristics of the ‘new born’, due to my own preoccupations, but it was these initial observations that lay the foundations for the cold and abstract way I initially dealt with it. I might be wrong, but don’t think I felt any love.
Two weeks after the birth and we had to rush the baby back into hospital after his lips started to turn blue. My partner and I had to stay in hospital for about ten days with him and until a diagnosis was made we were both very anxious. Perhaps this tense period of waiting was helpful for me, perhaps it helped to clarify my feelings and make me realise something ‘deeper’. There are many ‘perhaps’ though, and these more positive stirrings were hardly an epiphany. Though it pains me now, tremendously, there were a couple of moments, I’m sure, where the thought of him dying was accompanied by some relief. The violence wrought upon my life by his death would be both destructive and creative; the bonds born of responsibility would be broken. At the time I craved for more freedom, the freedom to be reckless, to get drunk, the freedom to put everything in to pursuing my dreams. The fact that I didn’t have a job and had been unemployed for about six months, despite being well qualified, further propounded these elicit cravings. We left the hospital knowing that our baby had a long term, but manageable, heart condition. He would be on medicine, three times a day, for at least the first twelve months of his life.
His name was Blessing, a name that became less ironic as the months wore on. Through sleepless nights and stressful days Blessing grew and so too did my relationship with him. The vacant stare became a curious, probing fixation. At first attention was granted to inanimate things, such as the deep shadows in the upper corners of the room, cast by one of our lamps, but finally the attention came to us, to me. His eyes, still at that time dark, but starting to reveal the gentle blue which would prevail, eventually stared up in to my own. We could look at one another and, though for an observer little else would seem to pass between us, an understanding was formed, a kind of mutual appreciation – if not truly mutual then mutual in the sense that I could start to think of it that way. At first it is difficult to know if a baby is really smiling or if the lips are simply curled up at the edges in response to some … digestive imperative, but there comes a point where the smiles – and later the laughter – are clearly intentional. I remember the joy of simply sitting in the room with Blessing. He would, perhaps, be preoccupied for a time with some object or moving shape, but then he would suddenly look up at me. If I was looking back he would break out in a smile, a smile uninhibited and innocent and unconditional. I was, I say without trying to imagine how it sounds, warmed by his presence, his existence. He was my little friend and he was happy as long as I was there, occasionally offering him attention. It’s true that he was a demanding baby and it was a long time before we started getting enough sleep, he also required a lot of time and didn’t seem to want to do anything without supervision, but even those hardships softened. They served to emphasize his vulnerability and helped me to adjust to my new role as a carer and, after all, a dad.
My last really clear memory of spending time with Blessing is dominated by a glorious sunny day. The sky was completely clear except for a few vapour trails and it bore that endless blue of midsummer. I remember saying something to my partner and though I can’t remember what I said I can still almost taste the words resonating in my mouth and up through the palette and nose where they mingled with smells of ripe flowers and cut grass. It felt real, in the sense that I heard it as a sound emanating from the flesh and tendrils of my material body, not as the language of an abstract ego. Perhaps this is why I can’t remember the meaning of the sentence, it was an enunciation made for its own sake. I was obviously happy and unusually content; Blessing sitting as he did, seriously surveying the views opening out in front of the buggy, as if they were just made for his delectation. We strolled through town and discovered an interesting walk in a renovated district by the canal. It was the type of day that rises above the pressures and mundane concerns of ‘life’. We stopped for an expensive coffee, a treat, and sat looking at the new barges and the fashionable redeveloped buildings that lined the canal-side. Blessing was in good humour and sat on my lap without complaint, reaching out sporadically to try to grasp something on the table. At one point he was so quick that he managed to get a sugar cube into his clumsy fist before I could stop him. I chatted quite casually with my partner and frequently made noises to entertain Blessing. His favourite at the time was a kind of lip smacking pop; it made him giggle in this goofy way that would sometimes turn into a raspberry noise. As I said, this is my last clear memory of us being together, the rest becomes something of a blur.
One day I was returning home from town, where I had been for an interview (which incidentally had seemed to go very well). Before I even got close to the door of the tenement building that houses our flat I could hear Blessing’s screams through the closed windows. They were hoarse, piercing and frantic. I ran up the stairs to find the door to our flat open. Rushing into the living room I found Blessing in the middle of the floor. It was quite obvious that both his legs had been brutally broken, crushed; because the bones weren’t supported by any substantial muscle they shifted and pressed against the soft skin as Blessing writhed about frantically. I picked him up and held him tight. I felt sick and wretched. I’ve never felt that kind of profound sadness before. Blessing was somewhat consoled by my holding him, “I’m so sorry, I’m sorry” I kept repeating, but I knew that the pain wouldn’t go away for a long time and that he would probably never be able to walk properly. I was anguished by not knowing what had happened, but couldn’t do anything but hold on to Blessing. It was almost like I was trying to seek comfort from him too, we had to be close. I seethed, my entire body filled with a noxious hate for whoever had done this.
It was only hours later that I realised that my partner was actually in the flat, she was hidden behind a chest of drawers. She was in a state of absolute shock – one of the Soldiers had screamed ‘kill the baby’ and she had been forced to stay hidden, I found out later. The soldiers broke into the flat while my partner was in the bedroom, leaving Blessing momentarily to play with his spoon after lunch. Though she hid in a different room, in the small flat she could hear the shouting of the men, followed by a blunted stamping sound and Blessing’s screams. I find it hard to really represent these events because I have yet to get over them, I don’t think I will. At the time I was incensed, I truly wanted to torture and kill all those responsible, but knew it was futile. Who could I really reap revenge upon? Those few men who’d broken in to the flat, the officer directing them, the army, the government? This only intensified the feelings. I also blamed myself. The soldiers had been looking for me; they had broken Blessing’s legs to make a statement to me. I was involved at the time with a political party in opposition to the government’s regime and because of this, because in my stupid mind I felt I could fight for democracy, Blessing’s soft, chubby legs had been mindlessly shattered.
As the wires are roughly pulled out from my neck and scalp I slouch forward. There’s no effort to stop the stinging as the coarse electrodes are tugged out from under my skin. Sweat drips from my brow and my hands shake uncontrollably. There’s a silence in the room, like my captors don’t know how to act. I guess, as they said in the beginning, this was an experiment – they’re probably just learning how they should act. The silence accompanies the numb, vacant feeling I have in my head. I sit dumbly for some time fixing on this sensation, perhaps trying not to let my memory return. But it does. The visions of Blessing screaming, after the long and painful building of our relationship – someone else’s memory – starts to release its grip and is followed by the dense expansion of another, more familiar, set of memories. A feeling of nausea rises.
The guy who led me to this room said that the experiment involved a machine that could let you share someone else’s experiences; “enjoy it” he had drawled. One of the intimidating men in white coats said that it was the, “coming together of psychiatry, virtual reality and jurisprudence, the next step in the evolution of the punitive system.” I had no trust of these people, what right did they have to do this to me after all I’ve … been through?
My mind shifts again and starts to stabilise. Memories continue to rush forward violently and I hunch over, the nausea surfacing again until I feel it pressing at the back of my throat, saturating my body. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to reconcile the experience I have just been forced to endure with my own – tears well up in my eyes – because I was the person who stomped on that baby’s legs.