Fall 2015, Volume 19

Nonfiction by Tanya Frank

Killing Bert

It was pissing down outside. At least that’s what Bert would have said about the weather. He was common like that—my stepfather—a cockney rebel who didn’t change his figure of speech for anyone.

But he wasn’t here to say it, and he never would be again. He was on display inside the chapel of rest, yellow and waxy and stiff in a frilly white gown that he would have despised. Mum and us kids were Jewish, and Bert didn’t really practice any kind of religion at all, so I’m not sure whose idea it was to have him exposed to the world like that. I leaned down to whisper in his ear, the lobe cold as it brushed against my bottom lip.

“I’m sorry, I know I killed you.” I told him.

I’d seen a dead body before, that of my auntie Frances. Her liver had failed and left her thin and jaundiced. I was sixteen at the time. Everything was different back then. You see I never kissed Auntie Frances’ corpse, or touched it. I didn’t whisper in her frigid ear. And it wasn’t my fault that she perished. Now I was twenty-three, with one child at my knees, and another in utero. I was a grown up, a mother, a giver and taker of life.


On the day of the funeral, when the burgundy velvet curtains closed around Bert’s coffin, I wept with such force I wondered if my womb might open three months early and purge me of my baby, there in the front aisle of the chapel, with my stepfather in a box on the altar.

“I wish you hadn’t come,” Mum said, as she rubbed my back. I couldn’t look at her, or indeed anyone. So conscious was I of the details of my crime, it was as if they had been needled on my forehead in indelible ink.

In the midst of all the stinking bouquets of lilies and the drone of the vicar’s words, I squeezed my pelvic floor trying to keep my son inside of me. I rocked in my seat and then I slumped forward, a dead weight, too heavy for Mum to move, so she stayed with me while everyone else journeyed to the graveside to witness the end, the finality of Bert’s coffin lowering into the earth.

“It’s best you stay put,” she said, and with hardly a breath between her sentences, she reiterated, “I wish you hadn’t come—especially in your state.”


On the day he died, Bert ate Mum’s minced meat stew that she had made for supper. He complained of being a bit queasy after the first couple of mouthfuls. Mum said, “Oh go on, finish it off, I made it special.”  

It was late July, still humid despite the sun having gone down. “It’s a bit hot for stew, Shirl,” Bert said, and as he bit into the soft King Edwards potato, he perspired and his face turned red. He mopped up the juice in his bowl with a slice of soft white Mother’s Pride, the thick end that we called the doorstep, and scarcely an hour later he keeled over and died on the living room floor.

When Mum called to tell me the news, I dropped the phone, left it hanging like unfinished business. I ran from my flat, one hand wedged underneath the swell of my bump, as if it might fall clean away from me. It seemed odd, running toward the scene of the crime rather than away from it. I knew I had killed him, but there was no way I could say it out loud, and so I ran, if you could call it that. My blood pumped with such vigour, I could taste it, rusty and thick in the back of my throat. With each clumsy stride the insides of my thighs rubbed together chapping and burning.

Bert was on a stretcher by the time I arrived at the door. The coroners were moving him gingerly through the air, like there was still hope. I could see the top of his head, as they passed me by, a few wisps of grey hair waving in the warm breeze. Quite a crowd had gathered with all the commotion. Bert always loved an audience, and it seemed such a pity that he couldn’t revel in the attention.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“He’s gone,” Mum said.

She looked at me gripping my belly, at the streaks of wet on the inside of my trouser legs. “Your waters haven’t broken have they?”

“No, I wet myself,” I admitted. 

Neither of us cried, although I know we both felt a sense of obligation. Perhaps we were in shock, stalled by the idea that weeping was for lesser things: a toothache, being sacked from work, or losing your purse on the bus. For Mum it was possibly too soon to shed tears over a man who had strayed from his role as protector, and molested his surrogate child—me.

Molestation—Such a grown up term. I wonder what I might have called it back then at the age of nine when Bert first took it upon himself to reach his lorry-driving hands down my knickers.

“Don’t tell your mother,” he told me. “Not now she’s preggers. She’ll go and do something silly like get rid of the baby. You wouldn’t want that would you?” 


Mum and I stood for a while looking at each other, and at the door from which Bert had exited, feet first on the stretcher. I put on a pair of her jogging bottoms and threw my maternity trousers in the wash basket.  Filling a bucket with Dettol disinfectant, she scrubbed at the spot on the carpet where my step dad had collapsed and died.

Don’t look,” she said.

The smell was thick, pungent. Something about it reminded me of the Beckton Abattoir when the breeze blew eastbound toward us.

I didn’t want to look at Mum cleaning up the evidence of Bert’s demise, anymore than I wanted to inhale the rancid air, but want was out of the equation. I was responsible, so I squared up to the job. I got down on my hands and knees to help wipe up the mess. He’d lost everything in those last gasps for air, his strength, his bowel and bladder control, his very life.

Mum stood and opened all the windows. There were still people hanging around outside. “What do you want a fucking encore?” she asked.

Bert was only forty-seven years old, a man in his prime. He did sit ups, press-ups, and his own version of bicep curls, devised by hanging weights on either end of an old broom handle. When he first came to live with us his routine had demanded my participation. He lay on his back, gripped my hands, and lifted all four stones of me up on the soles of his feet. He called this move a flying angel, and pretended to get cross when I giggled.

“But it tickles,” I said.

I loved him so completely in those moments. It was a physical adoration, made stronger by the way his muscular arms and legs kept me suspended in the air, and by Mum’s expression as she appreciated the sight. She had found me a father, a good man, a provider. Second time around and I knew she was nothing but proud.

It didn’t last much longer than Mum’s pregnancy with my sister, this simple honest pleasure between my parents. I felt it erode like the white cliffs of Dover, until the two of them had drifted into what they were to each other, common law man and wife. Common, fed up, bored.

Bert began to eat his supper in silence off a tray in front of the telly in the living room, sitting close enough to the set to play around with the aerial.  Nothing about him shone anymore, apart from a perfectly round bald patch on the top of his head. 

 “Aren’t you going upstairs to do your weights?” Mum asked him each night as soon as he had swallowed the last mouthful of her cooking. “Of course love,” he replied dutifully, just as eager for the time alone. And that was their life together (or rather apart).

Between supper at six and bed at eleven, Mum played her opera arias loud enough to upset the neighbours and only turned the volume down if she happened to peek upstairs and see Bert pulling himself up by the bedroom doorframe.

“You’re getting filthy marks on the wall.”    

&“Well if it keeps the old ticker strong, what are a few marks?”


With my focus on the place where Bert had fallen, I moved the brush quickly in and out of the carpet fibers. Making the spot clean might bring him back, strong of heart and body, with a renewed vigor to lift me up into the air once again.

“I could have saved him,”Mum said. She bit at her bottom lip and tapped the toe of her Dr. Scholl on the carpet. “I waited until his ear turned blue before I called an ambulance. I watched him die. He deserved it.”

No I killed him. I wanted to say to Mum. The words were formed and in my larynx, but they stayed there, stuck in what my yoga teacher called the fifth chakra.

I bit at the quick beneath my fingernails, my stomach hard with pregnancy and self-recrimination.

Bert had molested me. But it had been so long ago and was so well buried. Was. Past tense. After a few counseling sessions I’d blurted it out, and here we were with Bert dead just a week to the day of the revelation. The death certificate would classify the cause as Myocardial Infarction, but I knew the truth, how it should have read, shocked and shamed to death after stepdaughter revealed that he had molested her.

The night that I told Mum what Bert had done, I had wanted to make light of it. Yet in the telling of the thing, of giving it words, the neatly folded accordion of secrets that had resided in my chest, broke open and was too unwieldy to contain. 

“I don’t want to cause a scene, it’s just that I’m a bit worried about Dale, and this one too,” I said pointing to my belly.  

Mum’s face grew serious. In those few moments she furrowed and crinkled and aged with the news. For as long as I stayed in her presence that night, she remained seated, but her angst flew in circles around the room. It gained momentum until I felt it like a sonic boom in our midst. I noticed she had goose pimples on her forearms from which an array of dark hairs stood to attention. I pulled a blanket from the back of the couch and draped it over her. She leaned forwards, my revelation provoking a rush of questions in her. Where, what, when, why? So desperate was she to know all the details.

“Where? Where did it happen?”

“In the lorry on the nights out up the road.”

“When? When did it start?”


1974 was the year Bert moved in, the year that Mum got pregnant with Zoë, the year that Zoë’s twin, a baby girl, was stillborn.  I was nine.

Mum retched a little. She reached for the brown glass bottle of Gaviscon that she got on prescription, and took a swig of the thick chalky mixture.

“What? What happened? What did he do?Did he ----?” she couldn’t quite spit it out, but I knew what she was getting at. Her left hand was clasped around her throat.

“No, he didn’t do that.” I said, and at that moment it was as if I had gained a few points back in a game of gin rummy.

“Well what then?What did he do?” she asked.

“He just fiddled around with me, that’s all.” I saw Mum loosen her grip upon her throat and swallow.

The throat. It made sense that Mum would feel the need to hold herself there. Always it was this part of our anatomy that we stroked, rubbed, wrapped protectively in a scarf. It plagued us, this seat of things unsaid. I knew only too well having suffered relentlessly with tonsillitis as a child. Mum rushed me to the doctor with each and every debilitating attack, and fed me copious amounts of tetracycline. The drug, unbeknownst to me or Mum or anyone at the time would stain my second teeth grey as they sat in my gums waiting to erupt.

It was Mum who argued for me to be seen at Great Ormond Street Dentistry, where my stained teeth would be filed down to stumps and I would be fitted with a set of shiny white caps. All of this was proof of my mother’s love and attentiveness, was it not--the long journeys into the city for the appointments, the coppers that she saved and housed in the kitchen drawer to pay the tube fares, the discussions with the dentists. Why then I begged the question, in the light of such diligence had she failed to detect my abuse?  

“Why? How could he?” Mum said.

 I looked at her. She was exhausted. It was way past her bedtime. She wasn’t done though.

She shook her head over and over until just watching her made me feel dizzy. She slouched forward after a time and dug her fingers into the velour cushion covers, making thin tracks in the pile.

“Please don’t say anything,” I said.

“You have my word,” Mum answered. I searched her face, her bottom lip bitten and raw, and her eyes, disconcerting, defiant. I wasn’t sure what to believe, Mum’s words or her eyes. Such incongruence made me turn away.

“It’s late,” I said.

“Yes, get that baby and yourself home. I heard there might be a summer storm coming up from Cornwall.”

She was right, there was a storm, but I didn’t notice it. I understood afterwards that it destroyed the balcony of the flat next door to mine and caused a mini tornado in the neighbor’s living room, and that it left puddles on the ground that were so deep there was no way to step around them.

Mum confronted Bert the very next day as soon as he returned from his long-distance lorry driving. He denied everything.

What he did and didn’t say on the matter I was never privy to. Nor did I know if he grew red in the face or hot under the collar, or whether Mum let him into her bed that night and touched him, even inadvertently, as she turned over in her sleep.

I came face to face with Bert the day before he died. The subject must have been on his mind. As he passed me to go upstairs to lift his weights, he turned to me, his breath came fast and his eyes darted nervously around the room. “What did you have to go and say something for after all these years?” he whispered.

The shock rendered me speechless, a silent victim once more, but then I drew a deep breath, ordered my words and told him. “I had to protect my sister, and my son, and this one.” I patted my large girth.

He looked incredulous, as if Mum’s paring knife—the one she used to peel the spuds—had been picked up by own hand and plunged straight into his solar plexus.

“Tan, you’ll finish me off talking like that.”

His staccato breaths were replaced by his loud footsteps, then quieter ones and finally a silence as he left me alone with my unsaid reply.

I didn’t know then that I would kill him, my stepfather, the man I had loved as if he were my blood, and that Mum would help me by watching him take his last breaths on the living room carpet under the window, just a few short strides from the front door. It would take many sessions with Coleen, a Gestalt therapist to believe otherwise.


Coleen was blonde and she had a Yorkshire accent. Paid for by the National Health Service, she taught me how to scream and hit cushions with a baseball bat.

Together we set up chairs to reenact what I would say to my stepfather, if I’d had the chance. What we didn’t discuss, though, was what I might say to my mother, who was still very much alive. Left with the burden of being the “wife” of an abuser, her eyes had grown a darker shade of basalt, and her shoulders rounded under the weight of such knowledge. Sometimes I looked at her and longed to dissect who she had been to this man, Bert, the biological father of my stepsister.

Was it because of her life as an orphan that my mother hadn’t learned how to parent, how to protect her offspring? Was it because she stopped being a “good” wife that I took her place? Was I temptress or victim? Was I precocious or vulnerable? Was I all of these things? I loved my stepfather, and my body gave in to his attention, that I cannot deny.

Who would we all have been to each other if I hadn’t spoken up? Would I still be hitting cushions or suffering from bulimia, or hiding my naked body from my lover? Would I have resented my mother more or less? Would I still be wondering if my sister had suffered the same fate, and scorning myself for not asking, for not intervening?


Finally, and it really was finally, when my children had grown up and Bert was a fuzzy memory of a man that had once been, I realized neither Mum nor I had killed Bert. Bert had a heart attack from driving a lorry day after day, and eating greasy food at the transport cafes, but most of all Bert died from what he had done, from keeping the shame inside of his chest. Sooner or later it would have exploded along with his heart.

It was just a matter of time.




BIO: I am a recent MFA graduate of the University of California, Riverside. My work has appeared in Fiddleback, KCET Departures, Lumina The Literary Journal of Sarah Lawrence, and Role/Reboot. I am a two time recipient of a creative non-fiction scholarship from Marcia Mcquern, and was awarded a fellowship to attend the summer session at Squaw Valley 2012. I am short-listed for the Djerassi Artist Colony this year, where I hope to be accepted in order to work on my memoir.