The boy was born six weeks prematurely. His mother went into labour early and as a result the child had to be placed under special care so that he would be able to survive. At the point of birth, the babe was taken away from the mother to aid the baby’s survival. After the stress of labour, the mother could remember asking one question, “Is my baby, is my baby alright? Will he be able to survive, is he dead?”

To which the nurse overseeing the child’s birth replied, “In a world crueler than this one, he already is.”

It was an odd thing to say, not exactly the most professional of statements issued by the hospital staff, but it was something that stuck in the boy’s mother’s mind. ‘In a world crueler than this one, he already is.’

The mother raised the child alone, the father had abandoned his paternal duties upon conception. As the baby grew into a boy and that boy grew into a man. Every time the slightest of accidents occurred, the mother would be reminded of that statement in concerns of her own child’s safety. She had decided to call the boy Ben and whenever Ben did so much as jaywalk in front of traffic, she would say a prayer to herself. In her own mind, she would remind herself of that prayer, repeating the phrase over and over again in her head. Gritting and grimacing her teeth, with the thought of her boy’s mortality inside her head thinking, ‘In a world crueler than this one, he already is.’

There would be times, such as the first time her boy decided to spend the night away from home, where she would repeat this to herself over and over again. She would have to remind herself: that God, the angels, or whatever controlled the divine intricacies of fate and destiny; would not allow her child to die so needlessly. That her child was somehow more important and God had laid out a great design for his destiny. A destiny for the boy that would make her proud. That in her old age, she would be able to look back on all of those small incidents where her heart skipped a beat and think to herself that there was a reason for it all. That when her boy was being bullied at school, it wasn’t some other little bastard taking perverse delight in the torture of another child. No, this was a lesson for her boy to learn about the different types of people who existed in the world. That when her child broke his arm by falling off the swings on the playground. It wasn’t because of his carelessness and his devil may care attitude. This was a reminder that the angels were looking after him the rest of the time, just reminding her that the situation could always be much, much worse.

When the boy started binge drinking with friends is when she began to seriously question the grand design that she believed in for her boy. She would catch Ben going through her liquor cabinet and stealing her bottles of whiskey that she kept for herself on quiet nights. She would sometimes find cash missing from her wallet. Finding reason in the explanation that her son had taken it from her while she was asleep, or otherwise occupied. He would come home from nights of drinking and become aggressive with her. Yelling things like, “Why do we have to live in this shithole for!?” And other callous remarks that were designed to hurt her feelings.

She didn’t know what to do about it, about him, about the people that he had found himself hanging around with. She just thought to herself that she was passing through the storm and eventually this sort of behaviour would cease and desist.

For a long time, it was like that. Ben would go out drinking with what he called his ‘mates’ and wouldn’t come back home until ungodly hours of the night. But then one day is stopped. It stopped and Ben’s mother had her baby boy back. He was a man now, a young man. Something had happened with him and the people that he had been hanging out with. She knew that much. But Ben never told her what had transpired. Whatever it was, she was glad to have her son back.

Ben got a job labouring and doing casual work. Mowing lawns for other locals of the small town that they both lived in, that and other odds and ends jobs. It seemed that she had got her boy back. It was partially a disappointment. That time that Ben had spent binge drinking had been time that he was supposed to concentrate on his exams. He hadn’t necessarily failed those exams, but at the same time he hadn’t exceeded the average expectation that had been placed on his shoulders. And lacking entrance into any suitable stream of further education, he was stuck in the position of labouring. There was some grace as he apologized for the hell that he put his mother through during all of those nights of binge drinking, and for a while there was peace.

She had stopped having to remind herself of that old phrase that, ‘In a world crueler than this one, he already is.’ She believed the storm had passed. Ben would work during the day and they would sit and have a meal with one another in the evenings. They wouldn’t say much at the dinner table. They didn’t really have to say anything to one another; they knew each other that well. As well as any mother and son should. Ben would watch television after the meal and his mother would go to bed and read a book. It was peaceful times for both of them. She thanked God and the angels for helping her raise her baby into a boy, and that boy into a young man.

One night it happened. Her boy came back home at two in the morning, passed out. Someone had dropped him off and he had collapsed on the front lawn of their home. Ben’s mother had heard the car that had dropped him off, but never saw the driver. And that’s when those old prayers were once again renewed in her mind with full force. Thinking of his demise, she prayed, ‘In a world crueler than this one, he already is.’ She went to the lawn and saw her boy lying there. In a pool of vomit. He had been binge drinking again, or perhaps something even worse.

She rushed to his side and held his head. Stroking her fingers through his hair and feeling for the warmth of life. But there was little warmth to be found. The cold and darkness of the winter night pervaded all. She began to cry and started shaking her boy, repeating herself as if making a plea to God almighty himself, “In a world crueler than this one, he already is. In a world crueler than this one, he already is.” Over and over again, “In a world crueler than this one, he already is.”

She checked his airways and then Ben began to cough. It was a small, minute cough. Like a gasping for air. His eyes opened up and he looked up at her. Half intoxicated, half unconscious, he mirrored her prayer back to her, “In a world crueler than this one, I already am.”

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