LIFE FOR LIFE
Being a parent is hard. Being a parent with serious mental health issues is harder. Being a parent who’s just rescued his dog from drowning because his son thought it would be funny to play a stupid prank in the loch—that’s harder, still.
With one word, Laura warned me to calm down, to take a second before I went all 1950’s dad again. Just one word; my name, “Scott,” and by lowering her pitch, she made me think twice about the rage I was about to unleash on Leo. It didn’t stop me from marching him away from the loch side, but reduced whatever was pumping through my muscles, making my breath short and ragged. I tried to remember that I was once a tearaway.
But as Leo collapsed onto the rock, preparing himself for another lecture, Laura’s voice pierced through the wind blowing off the loch. There was something urgent, and sharp, and wrong about the way she shouted, spitting out my name as if it burned her tongue.
I turned towards her, but sudden movement through the trees snapped my head to the side. The disruption in the leaves was too small for a deer, but too large to be anything else. Then I saw him. A man broke the treeline ahead to my left, heading straight for Laura and Olivia, much closer than I was—wearing what, a cloak? A wee cap? The hem of the grey robe danced at his shins as he took long, purposeful strides.
I pulled myself straight. Swallowed a breath. “Come on,” I said to Leo. We started jogging, and I tried to look relaxed and pulled on my best I’m-in-control protective suit, perfected through years as an animal welfare officer facing down muscle dogs and, more often, their owners. My eyes tracked the man’s every step. He stood in front of Laura before I’d crossed 10 yards. She buried her hands in her armpits while the man spoke.
I slowed as I approached the small, sandy beach, the strip hardly worthy of the name. Bess ran past me, then stopped to trace circles in the sand, each rotation accompanied by a high-pitched yelp.
“Easy, girl,” I said, smoothing her hackles. “Laura, all okay?”
She kept her eyes on the man. It seemed like she nodded in his direction, but I brushed it off. My nerves were still tense after Leo’s stupid prank.
“Listen mate, what you after? Is there a problem?” I took a step towards him. “You lost? Need help?” Another step. Laura froze, cold as a cliff face. Olivia was the same. “I asked you a question, buddy.”
Finally, he reacted. The man’s trembling hand slipped into his robe, reaching for something.
The black granite butt of a gun.
A bitter taste of bile coated my words as they tumbled out staccato. “What the… no. Look at me. What’s going on?” While my speech raced, everything else seemed to slow and blur until it was just me and the gun. My breathing became fast and shallow. A second passed, but that was all I needed. It might have got messy if he was quick. I forced myself to shift focus to the man and take in his paltry 5ft 7in frame, stooped over a protruding gut. Sweat beaded on his temples.
My pulse sped up. Skin prickled with adrenalin. I licked my lips in anticipation. Then I lunged. I made a grab for the man two steps from me, aiming to punch the gun from his hand.
The blow was hard and fierce. It slammed into my skull like an ice axe. Gravelly sand coated my lips, and I thrust my head to the side to take a breath—wincing as I lifted a hand to the pain. He was quicker than he looked. Determined.
“Maybe you think me slow, Mr Campbell,” the man said, his tone light, almost friendly—his words led through the lyrical dance of some foreign accent. “I know how I look. I understand. It was worth a shot. I respect that, I do. But this is good. Now we know where we are, in relation, so to say. Maybe we know how things will go, yes?”
I lay still in the sand, giving the patronising prick his moment of glory. The pain throbbed from the base of my skull. It was hard focusing on one thought. What was happening? Who the hell was this man? How did he know me? My muscles coiled and sparked. I slapped the sand, pushing myself up. The change in position blurred my vision, pain spreading across the back of my head, but the rusty smell of blood slapped me from my stupor. A crimson puddle pooled in the sand where I’d lain.
“Get up, please, Mr Campbell. We go inside now. Your children, wife, let’s not make this difficult, yes. We all go together; we’ll settle this now,” the man said, pulling at a fold in his robe to wipe clean the gun’s butt. Something about the banality of it forced cold sweat to drip down my spine.
Leo now stood beside Olivia, both children shrinking behind their mum. I could feel the heft of three sets of eyes staring through me. It was as if my family didn’t recognize me. Ever the protective dad, the overreactor, faced with a situation where they needed protection, and I couldn’t do anything but nod in the direction of the house, lips trembling, fighting to free a strangled, “do as he says.”
Laura opened and closed her mouth, her hands untangling to smooth her pristine dress as she took a step towards me. “Scott…” she said. “Scott… we need you to be strong. Just tell the truth, okay? Please, Scott.” She glanced at the man, turned, and started walking across the clearing towards the cabin.
I tried to hold on to Laura’s words. To shape them into something that made sense. But they slipped through my fingers. She was asking for the one thing I couldn’t do.
The narrowing path was darkened by clouds, and leaves, and fear, brightened only by the sight of Olivia with a firm grip on the scruff of Bess’ neck, hunching over to whisper soft, reassuring words. Wind whispered through the foliage, bending branches like anger twists the truth.
“Look, buddy, if it’s money you want, take what you find and get on your way,” I said, stepping through the patio doors. I glanced at the table, the mantlepiece, the chair, looking for anything heavy, sharp. Nothing. The living room was like a rental sanitized by Laura’s incessant tidying.
The man was behind me, but I sensed a chance as the patio door swished closed. He was muttering something about “please,” and “not long,” and “good dog,” leaving Bess whining outside. I turned, taking a step quick and loud towards his back, then froze. The rock chill of the gun’s muzzle pressed against my forehead. He spun the rest of his body around, swift and smooth. I swallowed down the realization that I’d underestimated him once again. He moved like a much younger man. Our eyes locked and something caught my breath—and it wasn’t just the fact my life was in this stranger’s hands—it was recognition, but it grated against the feeling I’d never laid eyes on him before. I should have known at that point.
“I respected the first attempt, Mr Campbell, I did. But not this time, no. It gets old, you see,” he said, gesturing with the gun. “Sit. Over there, on that seat for a moment.”
I knew I shouldn’t anger this man, and that the only option was to do what he said, but crossing the room was like stumbling through a bog. Every muscle in my body struggled against the movement. Laura and the kids had retreated behind the couch, a blank expression etched into each face. I managed a smile in their direction as I sat on the dining chair. Working hard to open my clenched jaw, I forced out the words: “Listen, just take what you want and go.”
The man laughed. Waving his sweaty palms in the air, he said, “Do I have no hands, Mr Campbell?”
I’d had enough of this shit. “What then? What do you want? How do you know me?”
The man lifted his hand to his face, tracing the line of his chin and bringing it to rest on the back of his neck. “My name is Raheem Farooq,” he said. The tremble had returned. “I simply want the truth, Mr Campbell.”
It was the eyes. They were the same shade; the same heavy, down-turned eyelids. How had I not known? He was clearly no thief. He had the look of a man dressed for Friday prayers. “Farooq…”
“Yes, yes. I can see by your expression you know who I am.”
The muffled barking was the only noise in the cabin beside my heavy breathing. It was like I was drowning, struggling to stay afloat as a torrent carried me away from my family standing on the banks, and then Laura reached out. Ever my lifeguard.
“You can do this, Scott,” she said. “Just tell him the truth.”
I couldn’t control my voice. It wavered and shivered through the octaves. “You an uncle, then?”
Farooq used the mantlepiece as a crutch, leaning over the fireplace to prod the embers with his sandal. The smell of warm cherry filled the room. “Her brother, Mr Campbell,” he said. “I know, I know. I have aged poorly. You see, Mr Campbell, you are a man searching in the darkness of a cave given suddenly a flame. You, for your part, will read the inscriptions on the rock walls. The story, the truth, as Mrs Campbell says, that is what you will tell me today.”
Farooq hiked up his robe and lowered into a crouch before me. The stale stench of body odour and sour breath stung my nostrils. “We could have been family, Mr Campbell. Now, tell me as a confidante, your friend. Yes, the friend I could have been. Why did you do it?” he said, his voice suddenly guttural. “Why did you kill my sister?”
I could have lost myself into that void, the crevices of his face retelling a story of lost opportunity and pointlessness and anger at what I’d done. Numbness started in my feet and twisted its tendrils up my whole body. I just sat there trying to avoid locking eyes with him… or Laura, even the kids. Somehow words fell from my mouth, sounding pathetic and half-formed and impotent. “Look… I was ill—”
“So you have said many times, Mr Campbell. An answer that is an empty cup with only the dregs of truth.”
There was a crackle as the embers in the fireplace grew into small flames. Puffs of smoke escaped up the chimney, filling the room with a cloying, sweet scent. The children whispered, whimpered, so soft I couldn’t tell if it was Leo or Olivia or both. Laura pulled them closer. Her eyes scanned the room as she cleared her throat. Her words were flat and cold. “Mr Farooq, if I may…” she said. “There’s no reason for my children to be here, is there? They’re not part of this. Please, let them go outside.”
Farooq didn’t look her way. His gaze continued to probe my face. The tremble spread up his arm, reaching his shoulders until his whole body seemed to vibrate in front of me.
“A wise woman knows when to hold her tongue.”
Laura softened under the rebuke. Her face painted with empathy and sadness. She was asserting herself, breaking free of the numbness and shock, all her counselling training coming to the fore. “I can’t begin to understand your pain, Mr Farooq. I really can’t. But this,” she said, her arm sweeping around the room, “this has nothing to do with Leo or Olivia, does it?”
“Enough,” Farooq said, clicking the safety on the gun. His head snapped to Laura. “You know nothing, Mrs Campbell.”
“No, you’re right; I can only imagine, but I’m trying. But look, look at Olivia here—she likes to swim, and she loves animals. Leo, well, he’s actually a bit of a tearaway, always teasing his sister and winding up his dad. They seem quite similar on the surface, Leo and his dad, but Leo has my sensitivity. They’re lovely kids with their whole lives ahead of them, Raheem. Is it ok if I call you Raheem?” she asked, smiling with genuine warmth towards him. “The way you’re feeling makes perfect sense, I understand, but there’s no reason for my children to witness this. It would be easier to let them leave.”
Farooq lowered his head. The shaking that convulsed his body eased. The seconds stretched. He lifted his head and seemed to see Laura for the first time—to really see her. The crude hand of pain redrew his face, brows knotting together. “I am sorry, Mrs Campbell, but that is not possible.”
“Let them go, Farooq,” I said. “This is between you and me. I’ll tell you everything you want to know, but I was ill. I still am. That’s your truth.”
The folds of Farooq’s robe made a soft swishing noise as he thrust a hand between them, revealing not a gun this time, but pliers. He held them in front of my face. “In my home, these are weapons of justice, Mr Campbell. Maybe you understand. Simple, yes, but they have a way of helping a man find his tongue.”
Laura shouted something about “not what we agreed”, and “not this”, and “he’s told you the truth”, but her words died as Farooq picked up the gun and aimed it at Leo.
Delivering each word with care, I said, ‘Listen, Farooq. My kids, just let them go.” He leant in close to hear. With effort, I could have slammed my head forward, connecting with his bulbous nose, feeling the soft crunch as it broke across his face. But my body was frozen. I couldn’t move as Farooq wrapped climbing rope, my fucking climbing rope, around my wrists. My mind hung on pointless questions like, when had he grabbed the rope? I felt disconnected. I heard my words like someone else had spoken them, as if a person standing almost out of earshot was mimicking my voice. “I was ill.”
The first nail tore away in one. There was no pain. Then it hit like being bitten by a dog. Farooq dropped his head and through blurred eyes, I thought I saw tears winding down his face.
“Why did you kill my sister?”
The pain brought me back in pieces like waking from a disturbed sleep. “It was a mistake,” I said, feeling the blood rush to my face. “Not planned. A stupid fight. She was punching and kicking. That’s all I remember. It happened so fast.”
The pain came quicker the second time. “Jesus, fuck! It… it was… what do you want me to say? Please, let my kids go.”
By the third nail, numbness had spread over my hands.
Stabbing the pliers in my face, Farooq said, “Why, Mr Campbell?”
I barely noticed the fourth nail rip free, my mind no longer blank but overwhelmed with thoughts, and fear, and pain. This man wielding pliers and guns threatened the very existence of my family. But so did his so-called truth.
Farooq slammed the pliers on the floor. “Have it your way, Mr Campbell,” he said. He pulled Laura towards him. The gun’s muzzle bit into her temple. “Why?”
Farooq tightened his grip on Laura’s arm. The gun flapped like a bird caught in a trap as the final shreds of his calm shuddered loose. “You tell me now, you bloody bastard,” he screamed. “Why did you kill my sister?”
“Stop! Stop, for Christ’s sake. Look, the last proper memory I have, it’s walking with Aisha in the woods, and the next I know I’m in a police cell, naked, it was fucking stinking with shit smeared around the cell,” I said. “I’ve barely any memory of what happened in the room beyond flailing limbs and things that aren’t real. Things that would make no sense to you. Hardly do to me. I don’t even remember the trial. I’ve seen pictures, the bits from the news, but I don’t remember the verdict. It’s like it happened to someone else. That’s the God’s honest truth.” I shifted in my seat. It was almost true; close enough I felt the sting of the lie inside it.
Farooq released his grip on Laura. “The verdict”, he said. “Verdict.” He spat the word like it caused him physical pain.
“Yes, Farooq, the verdict. The one that said I was not guilty on the basis of insanity. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I was ill.”
Farooq lowered the gun, and in synchrony, his head hung. His body seemed to cripple under the weight of what I”d said. But as he turned towards Laura and the kids, his jaw locked, and his eyes burned with rekindled fire.
My fingertips tingled and not just from the sharp caress of air across the unprotected flesh. The rope bit into my skin as I worked at the knots, and then it slipped, just enough to pull my arms free. I pushed up hard and fast. The chair clattered to the ground. I grabbed Farooq before the bang. He tried to swing the gun at me, too slow this time. My forearm tightened around his neck, pulling him back. I felt the coarse bristle of his beard on my skin. The pungent stench in my nostrils. More than body odour. Fear. I stumbled back further. Pulled harder than I’d ever pulled in my life, squeezing, constricting, twisting. I lowered him to the floor, scrambling with one hand towards the couch for leverage. Farooq’s eyes widened. His pupils danced, his neck pulsing as he struggled for breath.
“Run!” I roared. “Laura, don’t just stand there—fucking run!”
Farooq writhed in my arms. Time stretched between each kick. I held him tight in that dark lover’s embrace. Laura took a small step, but the kids remained frozen. Then they moved; greyhounds that feared the starting pistol, but once they got going, the sprint came fast.
Farooq threw all his weight to the side. He’d twice shown he was stronger than he looked, and yet it still surprised me. I tried to tighten my grip, but he slid from the hold and struggled to his knees, leaving me lying there, propped against the couch as I stared at the muzzle of the gun.
“Time is up, Mr Campbell,” Farooq said, wheezing. His face was feral and contorted. “You’re a man with all the cards. Time to choose.”
I lay there like some unfortunate creature caught in the headlights. My chest heaved.
“Move,” he said, gesturing at Laura and the kids. They didn’t look down as they walked back behind the couch, their rasped whispers forming a discordant chorus.
Still grasping his neck, Farooq started speaking, but it was like he was thinking aloud, grappling with what I’d told him. “Your story makes no sense, Mr Campbell. You don’t kill someone and have no memory of it. It’s not something a person would forget. No. No, I don’t believe you.” He shifted his weight from foot to foot, his sandals making no sound as they landed on the rug. “I didn’t want to do this, but you leave me no choice. Tell me what happened or give me a name. Your son, your wife, your daughter?”
I stared at my hands propped on raised knees. A tired sigh escaped my lips. Lingering on each word, I said, “I’ve already told you. I... was… ill.”
A gruff death-rattle tumbled out of Farooq. His shoulders fell. “Life for life, then, according to the words of the Prophet, peace be upon him.”
Sweat beaded on my lips as I tried to still my mind—there had to be a way out of this. He couldn’t. Jesus, he couldn’t.
“My finger is applying pressure. Please, don’t make me choose for you.”
I could sense movement behind me. Laura placed her hands tight across Olivia’s and Leo’s ears, squeezing each child into her body.
“Let’s see… your son.”
My head snapped back round, eyes boring into Farooq with all the attention and focus and hate I could muster. Leo whimpered.
“Stop. Listen, don’t. For fuck’s sake, listen to me, man,” I said.
“Last chance, Mr Campbell.”
“Jesus, listen, give me a second. I’ll tell you what you want.”
Farooq held up three fingers. “Three…” he curled a short, stumpy finger. “Two…” another dropped.
“I was ill, but maybe…”
My ears burned. The gunshot branded them with a glowing poker. A high-pitched scream rung, and rung, and rung, hanging in the air. I dropped my head between my knees, tears dripping down my face, my whole-body throbbing and twisting as I tried to grab onto anything to anchor me. Everything spun. I scrambled forward, falling to the side to glimpse round the couch, and in the seconds before the blow came, I saw but couldn’t make sense of Laura’s feet pointing in the air, her flip-flops arranged at strange angles. My babies. My darling babies Olivia and Leo were crouched and whispering, their words too soft and indistinct to decipher.
No hands covered their ears now.
When the blackness lifted, I found myself propped in the dining chair. Two chairs sat facing me, Olivia and Leo bound to them. I lunged forward. There was no thought behind the move. But before I was fully out of my seat, the gun pressed against the back of my head.
“Sit back down or I shoot you, then I kill your children.”
I hesitated, caught between the physical need to reach for my kids, and my mind screaming to stop, to think. Farooq was like a cornered stray dog. I knew my focus should be on calming him down. Anything to lower the intensity that was devouring the room. But my mind was blank, my body all out of reserves to process these simple thoughts.
“Are you going to tell me what I want to know, Mr Campbell? Or are you going to choose one of your children to be shot?”
I could feel Farooq lingering behind me like a shadow. He leant in close to my ear. “Your wife was on you, Mr Campbell. Don’t add more bodies to your conscience.”
Shock worked its icy hands up my body, grabbed my head, and crippled my mind. My thoughts staggered through the pitiful hope that this wasn’t happening; the illusion that Laura would get up, the kids would be free, and everything would be fine, the clock would swing back, and I’d realise these nightmarish visions were just delusions, a form of mania, just my unsteady grip on reality. But flittering at the edge of my awareness was the knowledge that I had failed to keep my family safe. That failure was like a rabid beast gnawing at my insides. In those seconds, I felt the desperate need to preserve what was left.
“Listen, I was ill, but I wasn’t fully unaware. That’s what I tried to tell you. You didn’t need to… Jesus, she was shagging someone else, Farooq. I did it. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to… it was… fuck, Jesus fuck, I don’t fucking know.”
Farooq lowered the gun. His expression didn’t change.
My whole body heaved, gasping for air, and I wanted to scream, to tear at my hair, to rip at my eyes. I breathed long, and slow, and deep, the cherry smoke filling my lungs with warmth, and calm, and something I’d not felt for so long. “You knew,” I said. “All along, you knew, and you still killed Laura, you piece of shit.”
Farooq folded the gun into his robe.
My gaze darted from Leo to Olivia. “Look, Aisha was sleeping with someone else. That’s what started the fight. All I wanted to do was quiet her. She was punching and kicking, and I held her tight, a hug from behind, but I held her for too long. Much too long,” I said, placing a hand across my mouth. “When I released her, she wasn’t breathing. The next I knew I was in a police cell. I was ill. I am. It was my dad’s friend, a lawyer. He came to the cells and told me to blur the lines a bit and say I didn’t remember any of it. I knew it was wrong, and I knew everyone thought it was bullshit, but I went along with it. That’s it. That’s your fucking truth.”
As I finished speaking, I reached for the kids, but as I untied Olivia, she stayed rooted in the chair. In that moment, I knew this truth meant I’d lost not just Laura, but maybe my kids, as well.
Farooq thrust an arm behind the couch. His voice was soft and calm. “You can get up now,” he said. “See to them.”
Slowly, a hand reached out and slapped Farooq’s away. Struggling to her full height, Laura looked at me. I gasped. Vomit rose in my throat. I reached for her. I wanted to feel her. To touch her body. To make sure this wasn’t some cruel trick of my mind. She pushed my arms away, looking straight through me. I felt naked and vulnerable under her stare.
“He said if I went along with it… that he wouldn’t hurt the children. He said that, Scott. I know it seems crazy… but I had to. I’m sorry, but the kids,” Laura said, holding the children tight. “Is what you said true, Scott?”
I couldn’t catch my breath. I almost wanted to laugh. But the sight of Laura not dead—not slain by some creature masquerading as a man, but so alive, and caring, and angry—froze me like a climber stuck on a cliff. The same phrase escaped my lips, “what the… what the… what the…” I forced my inarticulate sputtering to form into words that meant something. “The gun—you shot her, I heard it,” I said to Farooq.
“A replica, Mr Campbell. With a surprisingly real sound—”
“I’ll take that as a yes, then, Scott,” Laura said. “You’d rather I was shot than admit what you’d done.”
I tried to see Laura through the fog of betrayal and cowardice that filled the room, but she looked down, turned, and led the children out of the cabin.
My breaths were the only sound in the room as the door closed, separating me from my family.
A broad smile lit up Farooq’s face. “Give them time, Mr Campbell.”
“What the fuck do you know, you sick fuck!”
“Mr Campbell. Mr Campbell. Come now, this is a happy day. Forget about your family for a minute. There is a concept in my religion. A principle. A maxim, so to say. One that has been the guiding principle of my life. Raḥmah. It means mercy to all. But to receive it, the recipient must accept responsibility for their wrongs. That, Mr Campbell, is what you have done today.” He relaxed into his lecture. “Think of me as a midwife, birthing your new life, forcing you to take responsibility. To tell the truth. This is my gift to you. A life for life.”
His hand rested on the handle of the patio door. I needed to stop him. To hold him there. I don’t know why—maybe because I needed to understand, to not be alone, even if it meant keeping this bastard with me. “What are you talking about? I killed your sister. You want me to hand myself into the police, that it?”
“That is your choice, Mr Campbell. But by accepting responsibility today, you have gifted me my life—freed me from the unbearable weight of anger. That is why, in return, I have gifted you your life, giving you the chance to lift your burden of guilt. Do you see now? It is, in the truest sense of the phrase, and in perfect attune with Rahmah, a life for life.”
My fingers burned. Purple bruises spread across my arms. But they almost felt like the birthmarks of a man remade.
“Listen, how’d you know I’d choose Laura?”
Farooq turned; his glistening hazel eyes full of new depths. “Because the man you were was not a bad man, Mr Campbell. You would not kill your own child. You were just a coward.”
Leo sat across from me. My little boy now wore the body of man, like he was trying it on for size. But his arms still tangled in that awkward, child-like way, as he slumped in the chair with his fringe shrouding his eyes. Our illuminating conversation had so far drawn out that he did nothing at school, nothing in his spare time, and saw no one. These meetings were often stilted.
“Nothing, then?’ I asked. “How’s your mum?”
He grunted, but I couldn’t decipher a single word. He glanced up and must have read the frustration painted across my face. “Annoying. Keeps forcing me to do boring things I don’t want to do. It’s really annoying, Dad.”
“What do you want to do?” I asked.
“You know. Hang out with my mates, stuff like that.”
I felt myself soften in the face of this parody of teen angst. But I set my jaw, feeling my skin tighten around a new expression. “Your mum’s right, Leo. If you want to do these things, you have to work hard at your final exams. You have to earn it.”
Leo frowned, not used to this united front from his parents, despite our long separation. “I think Olivia might finally come visit,” he said, changing the subject.
I noticed the guard pointing to his wrist. “Time’s up, I’m afraid, son,” I said, smiling, and not just for Leo’s benefit. It’s funny, but once you face up to who you are—who you really are—then being a parent isn’t so hard.
TOM HARPER HALE is a writer who lives in Scotland. One day, he hopes his children will sleep through the night.