Richard Hill is a writer of short fiction and poetry based out of Brisbane. He wrote Mr. Lewis late last year. “It’s a story about redemption, I think,” he explained to the BRAG. “About the things we do when we’re angry – and how that rage can be quelled.”
“Mr Lewis tickled me today,” Sally said. Her father lowered his paper, slowly, and peered over the top. Sally was lying on the floor, working her way through a Colour by Numbers book she had been given for her birthday.
“Tickled?” Her father said.
“Yeah, tickled.” She still hadn’t looked up from her book. He squinted at her. She was colouring in Rapunzel’s long, luxurious hair with a green pen, her free hand blindly searching for the mug of cold chocolate by her elbow. He put down his paper.
“Why did Mr. Lewis tickle you?”
“I was in trouble,” the girl sighed. “But it wasn’t really my fault. It was Brodie’s. She was talking to me, and I wasn’t saying anything back. But Mr Lewis said we were disturbing the class. He made me stay after school.”
Sally’s father gently shut his eyes. Sally looked up at him.
“Are you angry at me, daddy?”
Sally’s father rose from his chair, and shuffled into the kitchen.
“Dad?” came his daughter’s cry. He didn’t answer. Instead, he leant against the sink, and poured himself a glass of cold water. When he came back into the living room, his daughter was sitting straight up, looking at him with shame growing in her cheeks.
“Dad, I promise it wasn’t my fault. Don’t be angry at me. Be angry at Brodie.”
“He tickled you?”
“Because I’d been naughty.” Sally nodded, and hung her head. “I didn’t mean to.”
Sally’s father sunk back into his chair. It was a Thursday evening, and Thursday after dinner was their Quiet Time. It was a treat for both of them – a half an hour stretch without television, or the looming threat of homework. Thirty minutes when father and daughter could just sit in the living room and get on with their separate little activities – his six year-old daughter with her colouring, and he with his newspaper and a glass of red wine.
“Where did he tickle you?” Sally’s father asked.
“All over. It was after class. He said it was like getting detention.”
Sally’s father suppressed a strangled cry.
“Did he make you take off…your clothes?”
“Dad!” The girl looked shocked. “No! Just my jumper.”
“Why did he make you take off your jumper?”
“So he could get to my armpits.” Sally stared at her father, confused, her colouring in briefly forgotten.
“Was there anyone else there?”
“Did you tell any of your friends?”
“They knew I had to stay after class,” Sally said. “That’s why it’s not fair. When I told Brodie, she just said that I deserved it for talking in class. But honestly, it wasn’t like that…”
“What’s this Mr Lewis like?” Sally’s father asked. He scanned his memory to see if he could recall a Mr Lewis from any of the Parent Teacher evenings. But it was all a blur of standard Primary School faces – lazy beards, oversized glasses, pleasant, innocuous smiles.
“Oh, Mr Lewis is lovely,” Sally said. “He even told us his first name.”
“What is his first name?”
“Leroy,” Sally said with a giggle. “The whole class laughed when he told us, but he didn’t even care.”
“What…what did he do after he tickled you?”
“Oh, he felt bad. So he let me sit on his lap. He said he hoped he wouldn’t have to tickle me again.”
Sally’s father bit his lip, and closed his eyes. He used to have to take Anger Management classes, after his divorce from Sally’s mother, and now the techniques they had taught him came rushing back. Clench and unclench your fists. He did so. Count to thirty. He did so. If you’re still not calm, count to fifty. He did so. His daughter, a little alarmed now, sat up even straighter on the floor.
“I’m sorry daddy. Please don’t be angry with me.”
Sally’s father grabbed his glass of wine, his hand all balled up. He wanted to take a sip, but he found he couldn’t even do that. He was shaking. The surface of the wine moved from side to side. When he opened his eyes again, his daughter was quietly crying.
“Please don’t,” she said. “Please don’t. I’ve already been punished.”
“How long did he tickle you for?”
“Fifteen minutes,” Sally said. “He said fifteen minutes was long enough, because I hadn’t been too naughty.”
“And then you sat on his lap.”
“And then I sat on his lap.” Sally looked at her father’s face for his reaction. He had closed his eyes again, and she could tell he was doing his quiet counting. She had seen him do it before. His lips were sticking together and then coming apart gently, and she could tell he was up to about twenty one. She was secretly proud. She could count up to twenty one as well. In fact, she could count up to a hundred. Leroy had taught her that (she always called him Mr Lewis in class, but in her head, he was Leroy. The name made her laugh, and she liked it. She liked saying it, to herself, when no one could hear her.)
She started to count as well, and by the time she reached eighty, she saw her dad had finished counting. He went into the kitchen, and she heard him rattling around with the cupboards and some glasses. She heard the crack of the ice falling into the ice tray. Her dad closed the freezer door. She had always wondered if the light in the freezer stayed on when the door was closed, but that was a mystery she had cracked with Leroy’s help. Leroy had taken her to the staff room at playtime and had shown her the little button inside the freezer that got pressed when you shut the door. He had flicked it on and off a few times with the door open, and she had seen the light flickering, like the lights at a disco.
When Sally’s father came back in the room, he was holding a glass that was very full, and had ice in it.
“You should go to bed,” Sally’s father said.
“It’s so early!” Sally said, in outrage. “Please, please. Mr Lewis has already told me off.”
Sally’s father closed his eyes shut tight, and emptied half a glass of whiskey down his throat.
“He’s already told you off,” Sally’s father said. Clench and unclench your fists.
“Yeah,” Sally said nervously. “Yeah.”
Sally got to go to bed later than normal that night. Her father didn’t say anything when her usual bedtime came around. He didn’t say anything at all. Sally just sat and coloured. She had almost finished her entire colouring book when she looked up and saw it was eleven thirty at night. She put herself to bed. She said goodnight to her dad, and then walked upstairs, and tucked herself under the covers.
She lay in bed, listening out in case her dad put the television on, like he usually did. He didn’t. He must be really mad, she thought. She’d have to tell Mr Lewis that her dad didn’t think he’d punished her enough. But she knew he had. He’d tickled her and tickled her all over, and she was sure that was enough punishment. Just for talking in class? That was more than enough.
She fell asleep, and did not dream.
Downstairs, her father called Sally’s mother. She was out – he could hear chatter in the background, and the gentle hum of music.
“I think our daughter has been molested.”
“I said, I think our daughter’s class teacher has molested her.”
There was a pause on the other end. Sally’s father heard someone call his ex-wife’s name in the background.
“Are you pulling my leg?” She said, eventually. Her words sloshed back and forth around her mouth. “Are you?”
Sally’s father put down the phone, gently, his hands shaking, and then he went upstairs to check on his daughter. She was very still. He stroked a few strands of hair away from her face. It was around then he saw the scratch marks on her armpits. There were only a few – gentle traces of a man’s fingernails, but there were enough of them, and there were some on both sides.
He went downstairs, and had another drink. And then another.
The next morning, he woke up with an outrageous hangover, and he woke up late. He had fallen asleep in the armchair. His daughter was fully dressed, and she was shaking him.
“Dad! Dad! We’re late.”
Sally’s father went into whirlwind mode, showering for no more than two minutes, jumping into his work clothes, and ignoring the desperately ringing phone. They were late. He scooped his daughter up in two hands and threw her in the back of the car.He broke the speed limit more than once on his way to the school, and he gave his daughter two kisses on either cheek before pushing her through the gates with one hand.
He thought about calling “learn a lot!” to her retreating back, like he usually did, but he didn’t say anything. He got back into his car, and drove to work. During his lunch break that day, he thought. He thought and thought and thought. His head was still throbbing, but still he thought. He called up the school and asked After Care to pick up Sally that day, which was unusual. He always picked up Sally on a Friday. Friday afternoon, they went to McDonald’s, or the park, if it was nice. It was their afternoon. Just like Quiet Time. But today, he had other plans.
When he finished work, he drove slowly to Sally’s school. He parked out front. He considered, as he had considered so many times the night before, calling the police. But he decided not to. This was his issue to deal with. He stepped out of the car, and walked into the playground.
The children were grabbing their bags and making their way home. He pushed himself flat against a wall, hoping that Sally wouldn’t see him. She would be disappointed already – the school would have told her that she was going to After Care rather than seeing her dad, and he could imagine her confusion if she ran into him, standing here in her playground, still hungover, and still dressed in his work things. He stayed invisible until the bulk of the children were gone, and then slowly, he walked over to Sally’s classroom.
He knew where it was. He had been here a number of times the previous year – Sally had a different teacher back then, but was in the same room bright, gaudily painted room. Sally’s teacher then had been a woman – an old diddy, too scatty and jovial for Sally’s father to really connect with. His first question at the beginning of this year, after Sally had announced she had a new teacher was, “is she old?”
“It’s a he,” Sally had said. “It’s a he.”
Sally’s father strode into the classroom, only half expecting Mr Lewis to be there. It was a Friday afternoon, after all – maybe the staff all went out for drinks together, or maybe they rushed home to their own families. But there he was – Mr Lewis, in the centre of the classroom, on his hands and knees, on top of a young, dark haired girl, and with his hands in her armpits.
Sally’s father didn’t move. He was half in, half out of the classroom, and his body felt frozen. The dark-haired girl was laughing hysterically. Mr Lewis’s face was deadly serious, as if he were a plumber, unclogging a drain.
The girl noticed Sally’s father first. She sat up a little, and pointed at him. Mr Lewis stopped and turned.
“Yes?” Mr Lewis said, and Sally’s father got a good look at his face. He was young. No older than thirty, certainly, and his hair was thick, black and going prematurely grey around the temples. He was handsome, in an odd sort of way, and he was dressed in a bright red jacket, with matching bright red boots. He looked like a Children’s show presenter. Sally’s father almost half expected him to be wearing a sock puppet on his right arm, but he wasn’t. His right arm was still buried deep in the dark-haired girl’s armpit.
“I’m Sally’s father.” He ground his teeth. “Ah, I’m glad you’re here,” Mr Lewis said, and his face relaxed into a smile. “I wanted to see you very much. I’m just in the middle of something, but please take a seat. I won’t be a minute.”
Sally’s father, with little else to do, sat in one of the empty seats. He was too big for the little plastic chair, and it squeaked when he lowered his body into it. Mr Lewis looked back down at the dark-haired girl.
“You’ve been tickled for twelve minutes. I said I’d tickle you for fifteen minutes. How many minutes left?”
The dark-haired girl considered the question.
“Three minutes,” she said eventually.
“Very good,” Mr Lewis said with a level smile. And resumed his tickling.
The tickling continued for three minutes exactly. Sally’s father knew because the whole time his eyes were flicking between the clock and the dark-haired girl. Mr Lewis was very careful to dole out only as much punishment as needed. He worked the girl’s armpits first, and then under her chin, and then removed her socks and shoes and continued with the soles of her feet. The girl was laughing hysterically, if somewhat desperately. She kept trying to shove Mr Lewis away, though not exactly violently, her hands limp, and her tongue still poking through her teeth.
When three minutes was up, Mr Lewis straightened, and stared at the girl.
“That’s all, Brodie,” he said. “Now hurry along.”
Brodie sat up straight, and put her socks and shoes back on.
“Yes Mr Lewis,” she said.
“Now, I want you to remember what you’ve learnt here,” Mr Lewis said. “Go home.”
Brodie picked her discarded jumper back up from the floor and hurried out of the classroom, not even looking at Sally’s father. Mr Lewis straightened, and dusted off his jacket.
“Well, Mr Campbell,” Mr Lewis said to Sally’s father. “Like I say, I’m very glad you’re here. I wanted us to have a chat.”
“I think I’m going to kill you,” Sally’s father said.
Mr Lewis didn’t reply. He merely walked over to a wheely chair in the corner, and threw himself into it. Sally’s father felt very, very small, in his little plastic chair.
“Sally came in very upset this morning,” Mr Lewis said.
“Because you molested her.”
“Molested? No. I think it was because she felt hard done by. And I admit,” Mr Lewis hung his head, “that that’s entirely my fault.”
“Hard done by?” Sally’s father clenched and unclenched his fists.
“Yes. Hard done by. As I’m sure you’re aware, I had to punish your daughter yesterday for talking during class. She came in this morning beside herself. She said you had been very upset with her for breaking the rules. She told me this morning, however, that she was innocent. That yes, she had been talking a little, but that it had been Brodie who had initiated the chat. Of course, I am more than happy to accept fault. I was unaware that Brodie had been the real suspect. I leapt to conclusions and punished a near innocent.”
Sally’s father looked into Mr Lewis’ big brown eyes, and considered how best to remove them from the man’s sockets.
“As I explained to your daughter, I couldn’t undo her punishment. And, as I’m sure you will agree, your daughter did break the rules. She did talk. I explained this to Sally, and said the only way to restore the balance was to punish Brodie equally. Which is what you saw me doing just now.”
Mr Lewis removed a packet of gum from his pocket and slipped two pieces into his mouth. He offered one to Sally’s father.
“My daughter had scratch marks on her armpits,” Sally’s father said. Mr Lewis slowly returned the packet to his pocket.
“I’m very sorry about that, Mr Campbell. But as you can understand, I’m sure, sometimes these punishments have undesirable effects.”
“I’m…I came here to kill you,” Sally’s father said. For the first time, Mr Lewis seemed to take in what Sally’s father had said.
“Oh? Why is that? It seems like a slightly excessive solution. I explained to you that the punishment was undeserved, and I apologised to your daughter already. Now, I’m apologising to you.”
“You touched my daughter,” Sally’s father said. Clench. Unclench.
“Yes, I did,” Mr Lewis said. The sound of his chewing was loud. Sally’s father could hear the saliva swish around in his mouth.
“You…touched my daughter.”
“Yes.” Mr Lewis said slowly. “Yes, I did. I tickled her.”
“You can’t…do that. She’s only six years old for fuck’s sake.”
“Please, Mr Campbell. There is absolutely no swearing in this classroom. It’s a rule that the girls must follow, that I must follow, and that you must follow. Really, I should punish you, but as this is your first time in our classroom, I’ll let you get away with it.”
Mr Lewis leant back in his chair. Neither man spoke. The clock ticked in the background. Sally’s father tried to remember the name of the teacher that had taught him to tell the time. The name was there, somewhere, in his head, but it was lost for the moment. Clench. Unclench. Count to thirty.
“How did you plan to kill me?” Mr Lewis said suddenly. “Do you have a knife?”
“No,” Sally’s father said slowly. “I was going to do it with my hands.”
“Well, you are quite a well-built man,” Mr Lewis said. “I suppose you could do that quite easily.”
Sally’s father nodded, slowly.
“I was thinking about calling the police as well,” Sally’s father said.
“A sensible solution, if you think that a crime has been committed,” Mr Lewis said. “But there has been no crime here. I have already rectified the issue.”
“Sometimes I must,” Mr Lewis sighed. “I don’t like it anymore than you do. But punishment is punishment.”
“I’m going to tear out your tongue,” Sally’s father said. He had said these words once before, years ago, to his own father. He hadn’t acted on his threat then, but he was sure he was going to now.
“You’re an angry man,” Mr Lewis said, not unkindly. “I’m sorry you’re so angry. I see anger a lot, in the class room. You know, I used to teach in a high school. I taught English to a group of teenage boys. It broke my heart. It broke my heart to see how angry they were. I was trying to teach them the beauty of Shakespeare, of Poe, of Austen. But they were angry. Angry at me, and angry at William Shakespeare, and angry at Hamlet, and angry at the House of Usher. Always so angry. What do you do when they’re like that? When anger is already instilled in them? You can’t do anything.”
Mr Lewis spat his mouthful of gum directly onto the table, in front of Sally’s father.
“That’s why I quit that job. That’s why I came here. Here, I can get the anger out of them. I can work it out before they become adults. Before it destroys them.”
Mr Lewis reached across and touched Sally’s father’s hand.
“I wish someone tried to get the anger out of you, many years ago.”
Sally’s father grabbed Mr Lewis’s hand, more than ready to twist it off. But Mr Lewis just read out and patted him with his free hand, his face unmoved.
“Are you angry because your wife left you?” Mr Lewis asked. “I know you drink. I can imagine that makes you even angrier.”
“How do you know?” Sally’s father asked.
“Sally told me. She told me you drank last night, which I guess is understandable, given you were so upset about the miscarriage of justice. I will apologise for that again, but I don’t think it’ll do the trick. I feel like, if you’ll forgive me to jumping to conclusions, the anger in you is too deep-seated for mere apologies to absolve.”
“That’s…” Sally’s father looked away.
“That’s alright. That’s what it is, Mr Campbell. It’s alright. There is, in all of us, the capacity to feel that kind of disappointment – that kind of irritation.”
“It’s not irritation,” Sally’s father said. “It’s… Even ager doesn’t cover it. It’s…” He searched for the word. “It’s fucking rage.”
Mr Lewis withdrew his hand. He looked upset.
“Now, Mr Campbell, you swore again.” Mr Lewis looked up at the clock. “That’s supposed to be twenty minutes of punishment, but I’ll knock it down to ten for you.”
Mr Lewis stood up. He looked much taller than Sally’s father had first realised. And bigger too – broader around the shoulders. Sally’s father tensed up a little in his plastic chair.
“Stand up, Mr Campbell.”
Sally’s father shook his head.
“If you refuse, I will make it fifteen minutes.” Mr Lewis stared at him. “I’m trying to be kind here, Mr Campbell. Stand up.”
All of a sudden, without warning, Sally’s father felt something inside of him break. It happened just like that. This thing that he didn’t even know that he had – suddenly it failed; splintered. Sally’s father went weak. And Mr Lewis, sensing the change, took him by the hand, gently, and led him into the centre of the class.
“Down on the floor,” Mr Lewis said. Sally’s father lowered himself down, and lay prostate on the ground.
“Arms up,” Mr Lewis said. Sally’s father raised his arms above his head. Mr Lewis came down, sitting on him, his legs on either side of Sally’s father’s body.
“Look at the clock,” Mr Lewis said. Sally’s father looked at the clock. “Ten minutes from now. What time will it be ten minutes from now?”
“Three forty,” Sally’s father said through his tears.
“Correct. When it’s three forty, tell me, and I will stop.” And then Mr Lewis began.
For the first five minutes, it took Sally’s father all of his energy not to hit Mr Lewis. The tickling was much rougher than he expected. He could see how his daughter had been scratched. And through him flooded an anger like electricity – a terrible wave of it, pulsing up and down to his toes, and then back up to the very top of his head.
He was angry with Mr Lewis. Angry with his ex-wife. Angry with his fucking daughter. Angry with his dad. Angry with all of it – angry in a way that moved past red and landed straight in black; into this murk of cold, unceasing agony. And soon Sally’s father realised he couldn’t hit Mr Lewis even if he wanted to. All of a sudden, he couldn’t move. He was terrified, and heartbroken, and angry, all at once, and he couldn’t move.
After six minutes, Mr Lewis pulled off Sally’s father’s shoes and socks. And then the punishment really began. Sally’s father was more ticklish than he remembered. He writhed and spat, and giggled through his tears, and then he started laughing. Really laughing. Laughing more than he remembered ever having laughed before. He didn’t even notice the clock when it ticked over to three forty. Mr Lewis did.
He stood up.
“That’s it, Mr Campbell. Punishment is over.”
Sally’s father didn’t move.
“I want more.”
“A sucker for punishment?” Mr Lewis half smiled. For one hopeful second, Sally’s father thought he was going to be tickled again. But Mr Lewis’s face dropped.
“No,” he said. “Punishment is punishment, and you can’t get anymore.” Mr Lewis sat on his wheely chair. “You can however, sit on my lap, if you want.”
Sally’s father dived over to Mr Lewis. He climbed up and grabbed Mr Lewis around the shoulders, throwing his whole weight into Mr Lewis’ lap. Mr Lewis didn’t even wheeze. He just sat there, as Sally’s father started sobbing all over again, deeper this time, huge racking tears coming from somewhere lost and important in his body. Mr Lewis patted Sally’s father three times. One. Two. Three. And then that was it.
“Time for you to pick up Sally,” Mr Lewis said.
Slowly, Sally’s father climbed off Mr Lewis’ lap. He straightened himself out a little. He readjusted his tie. His nice shirt was stained with his own tears and snot, and he tried to rub the worst of it away.
“I’m quite a senior member of local parliament,” Sally’s father said, defensively, as he felt Mr Lewis looking at him.
Mr Lewis nodded. “I know, Mr. Campbell,” he said. “Go pick up Sally.”
Sally’s father walked slowly out of the room. He turned around only once, when he heard Mr Lewis let out a small snort of laughter. Sally’s father waved goodbye. Mr Lewis waved back.
When Sally’s father picked up his daughter from After Care, he saw the look of worry in her face – the look that said she thought he might be in the same rage he was in this morning. But he was far from angry. Rather than taking her by the hand, he picked her up and threw her on his shoulders, galloping his way to the car, hurling her into the front seat.
“McDonald’s,” he said. “We’re going to McDonald’s.”
As they were driving, Sally turned to her father.
“Mr Lewis punished Brodie as well today,” Sally said.
They kept driving. They drove into McDonald’s and then they drove to the park. Sally played with the other children. Sally’s father lay on the grass, and he felt it prickle against the back of his neck – every single blade.
Read another short story, The Intruder by Alice Hughes.