Mr Archibald Lever was a modest man. Unassuming, even. He had the semi-detached house, the two point four children, the Nissan Micra. He was a thirty-year man at the bank, a job he’d had since he’d left school, and he had a dutiful wife by the name of Audrey.
He was happy. Pretty much.
But something bubbled within him, something dangerous, something ugly. A pus-filled boil, a silent river of rage. And by the nature of these things, it was only a matter of time till it burst.
It was a Thursday evening. Audrey had gone to the bingo, and Archie was left alone with the children – Becky, twelve, David, seven, and Rachel, two. And they were fighting, as usual.
‘Dad, David won’t tell me where he’s put my homework!’
‘Ouch! Dad, Becky just pushed me!’
‘Dad! I didn’t touch, him. David, just give it back, will you!’
‘Dad, David just pushed Rachel over!’
Dad. Dad. Dad.
Archibald, sitting at the computer, trying to get a report done, held his head in his
Dad. Dad. Dad.
And the rising began. He felt it first in the pit of his stomach, a sort of nauseous unravelling in the blackness. He clenched his eyes shut and gritted his teeth till he thought they would break. Anything to keep it down. Anything.
Dad. Dad. Dad.
This had been going on for hours, this arguing, this interminable noise. If he was honest, it’d been going on for years, since the eldest was born. In truth, though, it had begun long before that.
It wasn’t that he was a bad father. Not at all. He did his bit. Brought in the money, paid the mortgage, supported his family. But he always felt a distance when alone with the children. Ill-equipped. Impotent.
‘STOP IT!’, he roared, jumping to his feet. ‘STOP IT! STOP IT! STOP IT!’
And the children did. They stopped their fighting and their bickering and their insidious whining, and they stared at him. All three. Wide-eyed. They had never seen their father like this before, this face, this voice. And as for Archie, if his eyes had lit upon a sharpened axe just then, there’s no telling what he might have done.
Instead of an axe, however, his eyes lit upon a little bunny, a soft toy Becky had when a baby. No more than two or three inches tall, the little bunny lived on the desk, by the computer, and played a bright tinkling tune when its tummy was pressed. Archie picked up the little bunny, and examined it closely. From its round, hopeful, eyes to its wide, beaming, smile, it exuded calmness and hope. He held the little rabbit to his ear, and pressed its tummy. The little jolly tune flowed through him, hushing the screaming inside.
And he had an idea.
‘Children. Line up.’ he said. ‘I need to tell you something.’
Too uncertain to do otherwise, the three children formed a line before their father.
‘Children, this arguing has to stop. Becky, David, you are old enough to know better. And Rachel, Rachel, come back here.’
Rachel had got bored, as youngsters are wont to do, and had wandered out into the hallway.
Becky noted a fleeting grimace flash across her father’s face, and thought it prudent to fetch her little sister. Lined up once more, Archie continued with a smile.
‘Now, children, I am fed up with it all. I can do no more. You will not listen. You pay no attention. I therefore hand over all my duties to . . .’ and here he held up the little bunny in his left hand, ‘the Argument Bunny.’
David grinned, Becky tried not to laugh. And Rachel’s eyes shone like moonbeams.
‘From now on,’ Archie continued, ‘if there are any disputes, any arguments, any differences of opinion, the matter will be resolved by the Argument Bunny. Isn’t that so, Argument Bunny’
Archie squeezed a tiny voice from out the corner of his mouth.
‘Yes. For I am the Argument Bunny, and you will all do as you are told, won’t you children?’
Becky, David, and Rachel laughed, forgetting what they had been fighting about, delighting at the change in their father’s new-found ways. And in their joy and their laughter, they failed to notice their father slip the Argument Bunny into his trouser pocket.
You see, the discovery of the Argument Bunny had been a revelation for Archie. Never one able to deal with conflict, it was a veritable godsend. And he began to carry it wherever he went – around the house, to work, the shops. Everywhere. After all, it was but a small and harmless toy, harmless in and of itself, but there is no doubt Archie began to depend upon it more and more as the days and weeks and months of his life went by.
The dutiful Audrey asked Archie about the Argument Bunny once, finding it in his trouser pocket prior to washing. Archie said he didn’t know how it got there, but the look in his eyes, a mixture of shame, elation, and a flash of pain, told Audrey all was not well.
But on the outside, life was good. Archie was more settled. He was a joy to be around. No more the tetchiness when he came home from work, the snapping at the kids, the moroseness of a Sunday morning filled with moaning about the state of the country. Audrey knew better than to interfere. But her sense of foreboding ran deep. Deeper than it had ever done. She saw him in his quieter moments, when the children had gone to bed. Talking to himself, murmuring through gritted teeth.
Archie kept things together at home, mostly. Work, however, was a different matter. Work was hell. The pressures of the economic downturn had hit the bank hard. Rumours of redundancies, even closures, flew like poisoned arrows from desk to desk, counter to counter. And for the first time in his working life, Archie feared for his job. The tension among the employees caused constant disagreements, catfights and dogfights, storms in tea-cups. And amongst all the turmoil, unnoticed by all, were Archie’s increasing trips to the men’s room, to the middle cubicle. It was here, he would lock himself away from the world, lock himself away from the rage boiling within, and hold the Argument Bunny to his ear. If the middle cubicle was occupied, he would skulk by the urinals, pressing and unpressing the end of his Schaeffer ballpoint, wondering what it might feel like to thrust it into a man’s throat.
Life drifted precariously on for Archie. He brought none of the tension from work home, though. Why should he? It would all blow over. After all, he was a mainstay, a thirty-year man. But in these times, especially these times, even a thirty-year man could not be sure of being safe from the falling axe.
And, Archie, bless him, had not been quite so discreet with the Argument Bunny as he had first thought. You see, it had become so much a part of him, his comforter, his friend, he hadn’t realised the increasing number of occasions where he would settle a dispute by the unveiling of the little rabbit. It got a laugh. At first. Good old Archie. Funny old Archie. But on the phone, to irrate customers, it didn’t go down so well.
The situation came to a head in an important meeting, a meeting with the area manager, when Archie gave his balanced opinion speaking almost exclusively out of the corner of his mouth, through the medium ofthe Argument Bunny, waving the little rabbit in his hand whilst doing so. Everyone thought it, at the time, a little odd.
And in consequence, Archie was summoned to the office of Mr Thomson-Tuffington, the Branch Manager.
‘Archie,’ Mr Thomson-Tuffington began. ‘Take a seat.’
And Archie did, hand in pocket, the river boiling up.
‘Ive been hearing things, Archie,’ Mr Thomson-Tuffington continued. ‘Bad things, things that concern me.’
Archie had no idea where this was going. What this man was saying. Who this man was.
‘Archie, are you listening?’
Archie’s glance had settled upon a photograph of Mr Thomson-Tuffington’s wife and his children. Two young sprogs and a wife as pretty as cherry blossom in Spring.
And out came the Argument Bunny.
Mr Thomson-Tuffington was an old friend, but, to be fair, he had little choice in the situation. It was clear Archie had ‘problems’. The branch was not a ‘loony bin’, as he put it. It could not afford to accommodate the likes of Archie, even if he was a thirty-year man. At first, Archie was offered the opportunity to ‘take a break’, ‘put his feet up for a while’, ‘recharge the old batteries’. But when Archie, or to be exact, the Argument Bunny, responded by using language rather unbefitting of a thirty-year man, Mr Thomson-Tuffington dismissed him on the spot. Through it all, through the shouting and the swearing and the procedural formalities, Archie saw merely shadows. Inside and out.
He didn’t tell Audrey when he got home. He didn’t need to. Mr Thomson-Tuffington had saved him the trouble, phoning Audrey whilst Archie was being dragged from his office. So it was, when Archie walked through the door, Audrey threw her arms round him, tears running down her face. And Archie stared over her shoulder, with the face of a man on his way to the gallows.
In the immediate days following his dismissal, Archie sat alone. In his chair. Staring out the window, the Argument Bunny clutched in his hand. Audrey told the children their father was ill, that he’d be better soon, but for the moment he needed a bit of peace and quiet. Being good children at heart, they complied with their mother’s request, and kept their distance. But although Archie seemed still as the grave, the river raged within.
Archie would spend long moments, the Argument Bunny pressed close to his ear, sometimes the bunny nodding, sometimes Archie. At the end of these ‘discussions’ Archie would press the bunny’s tummy, as if signalling the end of the meeting, and ask Audrey for a cup of tea, a deadness in his eye.
Two weeks later, two weeks after he’d lost his job as a thirty-year man, he walked into the bank and up to one of the counters. The cashier, Lisa Robinson, poor old flustered, Lisa Robinson, eyed him. Terrified. Everyone in the bank, from Slough to Inverness, had heard the story of Mad Archie Lever and his Argument Bunny, and the last thing Lisa Robson expected before going for her break was to see him walking up to her counter, bunny in hand.
‘Mr . . . er . . . Lever,’ she gulped. ‘Er, what can I do for you?’
A smile appeared on her face like someone had slashed her across the mouth with a breadknife.
Archie put the Argument Bunny to his ear, then held it up to address the stricken cashier. And in a high-pitched, nasal tone, like a bad ventriloquist, Archie squeezed the words out of the corner of his mouth, waving the Argument Bunny in time.
‘He says give him the money. Give him the money.’
Archie brought the Argument Bunny to his ear once more, as if there was something more he wanted to add.
‘And,’ the Argument Bunnny continued, Archie waving it in time, just as before, ‘he’s got a bomb.’
Lisa Robson screamed. Then screamed again. Archie stood. Motionless. Holding the Argument Bunny. Waiting.
‘He’s got a bomb!’ screamed young Lisa. He’s got a bomb!’
And within seconds the customers ran, the screens came down, and the light went out in Archie’s world.
It didn’t take long for the sirens to sound. Archie slumped to the floor. What had he done? What on earth had he done? But there was nothing left of him, nothing left of his mind to debate such a question at this time. The river had burst its banks and he was drowning in the depths of his own rage. And through it all, through the drowning and the bleeding and the gasping and the screamin, he thought about his children.
A voice, firm and efficient, sounded through a loud speaker.
‘Mr Lever. This is the Police. Come out with your hands up.’
Archie had no idea where the Argument Bunny had got that idea about the bomb from, but it had certainly done the trick. Scared them all, didn’t it? You should’ve seen her face.
The loud speaker again.
‘Mr Lever? Mr Lever? Please. Make it easy on yourself. We can help you.’
Help? Help? When had anybody helped him? Did anybody help him when his dad ran off with that woman from the supermarket when he was thirteen? Did anybody help him when his mum took her own life or when his beloved little brother was diagnosed with leukaemia at the age of four and died in his arms. Did anybody help him then? Did they? Did they?
Something broke off inside, and Archie let himself go limp. He curled up in a ball on the floor of the bank, and put the Argument Bunny to his ear.
And pressed its tummy.
Ian Ayris is a part-time careworker and part-time house-husband, carrying out these duties with varying degrees of incompetence. He is also a a qualified counsellor, and has five published short stories to his name. He has just completed his first novel.