Barry the loser

The first in a new volume of short stories by David Raven

Ted a seven-year-old Border Terrier played an important part in Barry Sharp’s life. School and work represented a challenge for someone with very poor communication and social skills. Living alone with his small companion Ted, in a rural town where everyone knew everyone, life had to be one of strict routine – that is until one day when it all changed.

Leaving each morning for Ted’s first walk at 8 o’clock not 7.55 or 8.05 but 8 o’clock exactly. In the neighbourhood, people could set their clocks by Barry’s routine, triggering panic in Catherine Taylor’s household. Seeing Barry, she would call out out to her daughter, “Iris, Iris, get your shoes on, Barry and Ted just went by, you will be late for school.”

Catherine knew Barry from her own school days; he was shy and often bullied. On one now regrettable occasion in Year 5, Catherine recalled a shameful moment sitting next to Barry to eat their packed lunch. Eating in complete silence her friend’s later teased saying, she was Barry’s new girlfriend. Catherine had responded calling him a weirdo and a creep.

His Victorian style terraced house at the bottom of a cul-de-sac had been home all his life. Inherited when his mother and father died, at least three generations of Sharps had lived there. When grandfather was alive, they had free-range chickens in a wire coup at the bottom of a long garden. Growing vegetables meant they rarely needed to buy anything. Unfortunately, Barry did not have the same ‘green fingers’ and the garden was wild and overgrown. “One day,” Barry would say, one day I will restore the house and garden like it was when mother was alive.”

Breakfast done returning from the first dog walk, it was time to start work on a new model aircraft. Barry was obsessed with aeroplanes spending a significant amount of money buying kits to add to his collection. At 12 midday, Ted was ready for walk number two and on this particular day, they made a detour via the Co-op for midweek groceries.  It was safe enough at the local branch of the small Co-op Supermarket to fasten Ted’s lead to a post outside the store while Barry picked up shopping.

Seeing Barry coming out of the store Ted, called out barking loudly with excitement. Ted’s barking also attracted the attention of other people in the area and one person in particular. Hearing the dog barking and seeing Barry, nemesis Gary James, swayed and stumbled in his direction, powered by breakfast pints of beer in the Star and Moon, Weatherspoon’s pub. Bullying Barry Sharp since Year 6 had been second nature to Gary, raised in a home where domestic abuse was normal.

Barry, hurrying over to Ted quickly unfastened the lead from the post began walking away not looking back. Clutching a bag of shopping in one hand and Ted’s lead in the other conscious Gary James was approaching from behind.

Slurring his words Gary called out, “What you doing Barry, what you got in that bag I’m hungry.”  Barry tried to walk faster but Ted dragged, looking back toward Gary. Now close up behind them as Gary James snatched at the shopping bag, Ted spun around biting him on his left ankle. Yelling, cursing loudly, Gary screamed, “Your bleeding dog just bit me, the bastard.” Kicking Ted with a blow to his side causing the little dog to yelp loudly. Barry came to an abrupt stop first comforting Ted and then in an uncontrollable rage lashed out with the lead hitting Gary’s face with the leads buckle.

Not wanting to risk being bitten twice Gary backed away; Ted would probably have had another go if he was any closer. Gary yelled, “I’ll bleeding kill you; just wait until I get hold of you Barry Sharp, that bleeding dog won’t save you.” Shasa, Gary’s girlfriend caught up saying, “Shut up Gary, you’ll end up back inside for breaching your bail terms.” Shasa eyed a police officer standing outside the Weatherspoon’s pub they just left. “C’mon Gary, let’s go back into Spoons and I’ll buy you a pint.”

He began walking away with Shasa and another man whilst keeping up a steady stream of obscenities saying, “Don’t think you’ve got away with it you weirdo freak I know where you live. You stupid freaking loser.”

Barry went straight home as quickly as possible reflecting on how long he had suffered at the hands of Gary James and a future when he no longer had to worry about his random violence and bullying.

At Infant school, Barry’s schoolteacher suggested to his mum she thought he was showing autistic traits and they should take him to see a specialist. Unfortunately, his father did not believe in mental health issues ignoring any suggestion of treatment for his son saying he would outgrow it in later life. Frank Sharp was already nearly fifty when Gary was born. After military service in the army, he settled back in the town where he was born. Working for a local farmer for the rest of his employed life, he was disappointed with Barry’s slow progress at school and intense shyness. When Margaret, Barry’s mother suggested they take him somewhere for medical assessment he got angry at the idea his kid had mental issues saying, “It’s probably your fault Margaret, you mollycoddle him too much. Let him be he will sort himself out, as he gets older. Barry’s just shy he would have benefited from a spell in the army. Our troop sergeant Fred McDonald would soon have him sorted out.” Barry could recall his dad laughing loudly when he talked about his old army days.

The bullying began early in his school life often prompted by teachers themselves. Even when Barry knew the answer to a question, he simply froze unable to articulate and answer. By Year 6, the bullying began in earnest. Gary James and his gang would routinely steal his lunch money or lunch pack without any recourse from teachers or staff. Barry became expert at avoiding them changing his route to school staying out the way and resulting in no real friends. After leaving, school the bullying continued just as much in the workplace. He showed real promise in learning computer code and engaging in tasks that were routine, able to maintain concentration for longer periods than his peers did. Despite this, he was unable to interact with colleagues due to a lack of basic social and communication skills, the kind gained in childhood. Years of bullying and abuse crushed Barry’s self-confidence to the point he was unemployable.

Later on that same day after putting the altercation with Gary James behind him, Barry prepared for their final walk. Afternoons and evenings were longer, although not yet spring; flowers were already in bloom making the evening walk across their local park enjoyable. Soon reaching the park it did not take long to recognise a familiar figure about 200 metres ahead of them. Slowing their pace, letting Ted have a good sniff at the edge of the path, Barry watched as Gary James stumbled alone toward the housing estate where he lived on the far side of the park. As the distance between them narrowed, Barry could see he was carrying a bottle taking a swig every few paces. All of a sudden, Gary lurched off the path into a clump of bushes, now completely hidden from view Barry assumed he needed to relieve himself urgently.

At the spot where he lost sight of Gary, peering into the now fading light he listened for movement from within the wooded area. Completely silent Barry tried to imagine what Gary was doing and for some unknown reason felt compelled to investigate. There was no one else around at this time and despite feeling very nervous pushed his way through the undergrowth made up of small trees thick bush and long grass. Finding Gary lay on his back unconscious making a strange gurgling noise in the back of his throat. In order to help him breath Barry moved him on to his side. Almost immediately, a flood of vomit spewed out comprising that full days drinking in Weatherspoon. Seeing the beer bottle had broken probably when Gary fell down, a piece of glass jutted out of the flesh soaking his leg in blood. Using Ted’s lead as a tourniquet, he pulled it tight around the top of Gary’s thigh. While Ted rooted about in the bushes pleased to have some freedom, Barry managed to lift Gary clear off the floor pushing his way out through the scrub placing him down on the pathway. With impeccable timing, walking toward them was a familiar couple Mr and Mrs Thomas, regular dog walkers who had known Barry since he was a small child.  Jane Thomas called out to Barry asking what happened while her husband was on his mobile. In what seemed like a few minutes, a first responder arrived on a motorbike then soon after an ambulance crew was on the scene. As they loaded Gary into the ambulance, a paramedic complimented Barry saying his actions saved his friends life. Barry wanted to shout aloud he was not his friend anything but instead he held back accepting this rare compliment. The drama subsided, when the ambulance crew left and he finished telling Mr and Mrs Thomas what happened. Ted was not far away and quite oblivious to the spectacle simply enjoying the opportunity for unrestrained sniffing. Barry had the dog lead returned to him and together they finished their walk.

Finally home Barry could not stop thinking about the very unusual day they had, first, the argument with Gary followed soon after with saving his life. For as far back as he could remember Gary James had tried hard to make his every day full of fear and misery. Stealing his money, taking sweets and food, embarrassing in front of Gary James’s so-called friends, nothing was off the hate list. On one occasion, asked to spell a simple word, Barry of course knew how to write it down but could not find a way to vocalise in the classroom. To make matters worse he was sitting next to Catherine Taylor who looked so sorry for him. Gary James however, used this new thread to taunt him in the playground, chanting Barry the loser. So why did he save Gary’s life? It would have been very easy to walk away leaving this violent, sick species of a man to rot in the leaf mould, shrubbery enveloping his body. He would have died quickly; choking on the beer flavoured vomit or perhaps bled to death first. Who would have cared? Mulling over the events Barry considered perhaps he made a mistake, simply prolonged the agony of Gary James in his life. Then came a change of heart. For the first time in his life, Barry began to feel different. What was Gary James to him now? Would he re-emerge the monster who preyed upon him or that near death figure he plucked from the dirt and rescued, not just saving his life but also his very soul? Like melting snow turning to water taken by the sun, Barry felt the evaporation of his own fear and inhibitions. A realisation he did not have to fear Gary James or anyone else for that matter. He proved that when it really counted, Barry, Arthur Sharp, was as strong, clear headed as the next person was.

When Catherine Taylor caught up with the gossip outside the school gate, she was shocked to hear Barry Sharp saved Gary James life. Having a soft spot for Barry, going back to when they were children, confused by a feeling of pity and affection especially when he struggled so hard to communicate. Sitting with him in classroom groups, she knew he was intelligent and more capable than he appeared to be in public. Seeing him struggle made her angry and emotional at the same time, silently pleading for him to find the voice she knew was in him.

Catherine focussed on her career working for a major building society before becoming a Mum. Her life changed following a crazy hen party weekend in sunny Malaga. Traveling with a group of eight noisy girls, headed for fun, sun and sangria. Staying at the Palacio Solecio Hotel, some point in the evening, Catherine paired off with a good-looking man who claimed he had a yacht in the nearby Malaga harbour. Agreeing to go and check it out she went aboard what appeared to be a super yacht. His cabin on the boat was nice but modest given the size of the boat; at best, she decided he was part of the crew. It did not matter since they were all drunk and the other girls were making up their own stories. Next day Catherine began the walk of shame back to her hotel after realising she did even know the name or nationality of the man she just slept with. Laughing hysterically with the other girls over breakfast – several of whom had spent a similar wicked night out. Travelling home, getting back to work Catherine soon began to feel changes taking place in her body and correctly feared the worst.  Taking tests and a visit to the doctor, confirmed the pregnancy.

Sharing her baby news with best friend Sadie, they agreed an abortion was a realistic option. Sadie said, “Let’s face it Cat, you don’t even know the man’s name, what if he has any health issues or stuff we don’t know about. You cannot take the risk.” Catherine was still undecided at this point saying, “I haven’t told Mum yet and Dad will probably go ballistic.”

Eventually plucking up enough courage she did tell her parents who were very understanding and only concerned for her health and safety. Diana, Catherine’s Mum said, “Darling, if the baby is deemed healthy and you are healthy, it seems wrong to have an abortion. What if this is meant to happen – you are 30 years old now, there won’t be many more opportunities to have a baby.” Catherine argued strongly this was ridiculous saying, “Mum for God’s sake women have children into their late 40’s I’m hardly over the hill just yet.” One thing Diana had said did strike a chord with Catherine, ‘What if this is meant to happen?’ she was not religious but sometimes fate did deliver choices and with all decisions come consequences. What if Catherine thought, she had an abortion and then was unable to have another child, would she regret this for her entire life. This then is what tipped the balance and despite some of her friends thinking her crazy, she went ahead with the pregnancy. After medical checks and professional advice, Iris was born, the love of her life and the most beautiful child any mother ever produced; together Catherine believed they would conquer the world.

Consumed by a busy working life men did not feature high on Catherine’s list of priorities. This made it even stranger why she kept fixating on Barry Sharp. On numerous occasions quite out of the blue, he would come into her mind and it did not make sense. Geoff Lawrence a supervisor at work was hot and he definitely made a lot of sense so why was Barry Sharp of all people dipping in and out of her consciousness?

Unable to find an adequate explanation for her feelings Catherine made a decision to visit Barry and see how he was getting on. She had been to his home several times when they were all younger as her mother was a family friend.  Arriving at the small terrace, knocking not too loudly Catherine was relieved when Barry swung open the door and with a large grin, invited her inside. Whilst removing her jacket, she made up a little lie, saying she was in the area and thought would call in to see how he was. Sitting on a 1980’s style settee, taking in the surrounds her past memory was a gloomy but tidy lounge. However, today the room looking amazing she had to ask, “Have you been decorating Barry, everywhere looks really beautiful.”

Barry laughed quite loud before saying, “I think you mean it is a lot cleaner – but thanks anyway. Come and see the garden.”

Jumping up Catherine followed Barry into the kitchen. Swinging open the outside door, proudly gestured to a now very tidy garden. Catherine scanned the kitchen saying, “I’m very impressed Barry, you have been working incredibly hard.”

Admitting he had help from a local decorator and gardener, this new Barry demonstrated he was very capable and in control of his life. Money was not an issue for Barry. A family solicitor had power of attorney over a trust fund setup by his parents and money inherited from an uncle. He received a regular allowance and the solicitor settled all his domestic bills.  Catherine had not spoken with Barry for quite some time and struggled to take in the different Barry Sharp. His posture made him look taller, clear voice and an ability to hold eye contact, gone was shyness and poor communication skills.

Jumping in with more questions Catherine asked, “So Barry what else have you been up to, surely no more surprises?”

He grinned saying, “Well, just one more surprise I have a new job. I am starting work for company in the town. Its temp work to begin with as I don’t have a CV, but they have said it could be full time if everything works out.” Catherine had witnessed a dramatic change in Barry’s personality. The little boy with poor communication skills she knew as a child had gone transformed into confident and capable adult.

Later that day at home, Catherine could not stop thinking about the change in Barry Sharps personality. Learning that people with social interaction and communication problems, repetitive behaviour and anxiety, affected one in fifty nine children under eight years of age, Barry ticked several boxes. It was like a miracle and she needed to know how it occurred. With a strong interest in psychology there had to be, some explanation and one particular theory by a highly respected neurologist seemed to summarise Barry’s transformation.

From the time Barry was a small child and told he may be autistic, he could have trained a small part of his brain – bit like an athlete – to activate nervous, flight responses when called on to communicate in public, turning these neurons into a kind of muscle-memory. Barry was skilled in fear – an expert in shyness, an attraction for bullying and abuse by weak individuals like Gary James and his friends. After discovering his own ability to protect his dog Ted and save the life of his biggest adversary, the section of the brain trained in fear had no future role. The sad lonely bullies were no longer a threat brain space reconfigured to receive messages of positivity. That afternoon as she got ready to leave Barry’s house he said to Catherine, “I’m no longer afraid of being bullied by Gary James or anyone else. As my old Dad used to say, every dog has his day.”

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