He resisted a little, pulling back, out of instinct, and attempted to plant his feet solidly on the ground. But the might of Richard was so strong that Graham’s struggle went unnoticed by his father, and his feet swiftly buckled and began to drag through the soil.
As they got closer, the woman’s twisted features became more apparent, and the horror was to no end. Her face was pockmarked and consumed by the corrosive, which left craters in the shape of golf bunkers on her cheeks. Her flesh was raw and pink and sizzled in the sunlight. Her right eyelid had melted over and amalgamated into the skin above her malar bone, and her lips were swollen and discolored. Her hair was singed and sparse, and pus-filled blisters lay heavy on her scalp.
Graham felt his heart beating expeditiously, and his eyes began to sting as he glared more scrupulously at the woman. His mind was racing faster than he could fathom, and a bluster of conflicting thoughts began to meddle with his judgment.
On the one hand, he was terrified at the thought of having to face the woman, and look at her squarely in the eye, confronting evil itself. Knowing that every glance at each blemish, sculpted from perdition, would take a part of his soul, without recompense. On the other hand, Graham had great sympathy for the woman and longed to embrace her and free her from her own repulsion.
Overwrought with bewilderment, Graham began to shudder as he murmured sullen groans. He felt his throat tighten, and his eyes started twitching in a saccadic manner. Richard looked down at him with disgust before shoving him forward. Graham jolted onward and tripped over a piece of timber that lay dormant in the grass.
Graham, on his knees and hunched over like a wounded bird, was grateful that his fall allowed him a moment of reprieve. He clung on to the blades of grass for as long as he could before he was yanked back up to his feet. With his eyes fixed shut, he felt his shoulders lumbered by his father’s hands, and as he opened his eyes, he found himself standing directly in front of the woman and her dog.
“Now, let us stop all this melodrama,” scoffed Richard. “This woman here, despite the horrors that befell her, is a human being like me and you, and we shall look upon her as such.”
Graham’s eyes were now wide aghast, and he quickly became transfixed with the woman’s visage, spellbound as if he was under some grim incantation. The woman had not uttered a sound, and neither did she care to take heed of what was happening before her, but her expression was so piercing that Graham felt physically bore into.
“Excuse me?” uttered Richard with a self-assured tonality. “I’m sorry to bother you on this fine afternoon, but my son, you see, well, he’s a delicate young lad, and as his father, I see it as my duty to-”
The woman looked up at Richard with an unhinged scowl, momentarily throwing him off-guard and causing him to lose his train of thought.
Graham noticed that the woman had stirred up a sense of unease in his father, a nervousness that he had never seen in him before. Richard fixed his collar, cleared his throat, and before voicing another word, ran both his hands in a coiling motion through the last few strands of hair that remained on his craggy skull, as if to ensure that there was no likeness between his head and hers.
“I understand that you may find my approach a bit audacious,” continued Richard, “but I assure you that I come with the best intentions.” Graham witnessed his father continue to mumble and fumble through what he intended to be an edifying speech, but in effect one that even Richard himself knew he was losing grasp of. Graham winced at every note that escaped his father’s mouth and couldn’t quite figure out which emotion, whether it be humiliation or fear, was impacting him more at this point.
Despite this, however, Graham continued to observe the woman closely, and his father’s shaky tone began to gradually drone out. It was only Graham and the woman now; at least it only felt that way to Graham. He noticed that the woman’s hands were soft and elegant, and it occurred to him that she probably was once very beautiful. Every now and then, she would habitually form her palms together in a prayer-like manner, revealing her supple wrists which were porcelain in complexion. Her knuckles were smooth and florid, and Graham yearned to brush his cheeks across them and feel those even textures caress his skin, as if to know a mother’s touch.
Overcome with this fantasy, Graham stretched forth his arm in a bid to take hold of the woman’s hands. As he did so, he felt a viscous clump strike the back of his head, dizzying him momentarily, before hearing his father’s austere voice come back into the fore. “What on earth do you think you’re doing, you moron?!” yelled Richard with a shattering rage. “I’ve had it up to here with you!”
Graham fell to the ground and placed his hands on top of his head as a means to protect himself and to simultaneously gather his senses. Richard was hysterical, and his face had turned a ruddy crimson all over. Veins had started to pop out of his neck, and he began to froth at the mouth like a rabid fox.
Graham saw that the woman still remained unruffled, and he couldn’t quite understand how anyone could keep so calm amidst such a blistering frenzy. He looked up at Richard from the ground and saw his father’s bunyanesque hand looming down on him. Expecting the worst, Graham cleaved onto his father’s left ankle in an effort to destabilize him and thwart his attempt of landing another blow. “Oh, get off me, you imbecile!” shrieked Richard.
Graham saw that an assembly of onlookers had started to gather around. The crowd watched on with a beguiled look of wonder on their faces. Graham felt ashamed but hoped that the newly present audience would deter his father from inflicting him any more harm. “Is everything alright over there?” inquired one bystander cautiously. “Yes, everything’s fine, thank you. Go on with your day now, please, pay us no mind.” The bystander kept his eyes peered on the scene as he walked off with a rueful concern.
“Now look what you’ve done, you little runt,” hissed Richard. “Everything you do serves to make a fool out of me. Look! The whole of Wandsworth’s watching now. Have you no shame? Get up.”
Graham remained attached to his father’s leg and loosened not his grip. Richard, with haste, slammed his hand down on Graham’s buttocks and clinched onto his back trouser pocket to raise him back up to his feet. With a flash, the woman’s dog went for Richard’s hand, sinking its razor-sharp teeth deep through his flesh and impaling Graham’s rear in the process.
Graham and Richard both let out concurrent gasps of pain while the crowd looked on in amusement. Jeers from the gathering began to ensue as if the pair were the subject of some raucous pantomime. “I guess he fancied some good old rump,” sniggered one man. “Spoilt for choice!” heckled another.
Graham, anguished and exhausted, succumbed to let go of his father’s leg before managing to scurry free from the dog’s snare. Richard, not quite as fortunate, continued to hop and jerk around, trying his best to shake off the dog, cursing and blinding throughout the bustle. A cacophony of hyenic cackles continued to circulate amongst the crowd. This endured for a while before the woman decided to haul her dog back beside her.
A disdainful synchronization of boos and roars echoed from every which way. “Ahh, no fun woman! - Stick that dog back at him – Things were just getting started – He deserves it the miserable bastard.” Richard, bloody and frantic, held his wound which was yawning and oozing blood that was trickling down his forearm. He saw the onlookers’ baleful faces watching on with grimace and spite before turning to face the woman. “You bitch,” he snarled, panting with a beleaguered demeanor. “You did that on purpose, you intentionally let him at me.”
Graham looked up and saw that his father was conspicuously hurt. He had never seen him this way, prostrate and vanquished like a battered journeyman. Nor had he ever seen him show any sign of weakness for that matter. But there he stood, vulnerable and completely undone. There was no more action left to witness. Richard had visibly conceded.
But the crowd, discontented, huddled around with bloodthirsty eyes, provocative and raring to rekindle the violence they had just lost. Graham felt a sharp, aching pain infiltrate his lower abdomen as he tentatively watched the strange spectacle uncover. He saw his father, dazed and desperate, stumbling around like a playground target. The crowd continued to shout insults towards him with various degrees of severity. Some of them, seeing that he was weak and outnumbered, saw it as an opportunity to threaten him with further violence. Graham was stunned. Who were these people? Why were they acting so brutish? He supposed that his father had it coming to some extent and imagined that a stern tongue-lashing would have been appropriate enough. But this was absurdly undue.