We’re Proud of You, Darling

We’re Proud of You, Darling

It’s cold against my temples, its corners sharp. It’s riddled with little overlapping brown and red splotches of rust. That subtle metallic smell that you’d swear you could taste. Like biting the inside of your cheek too hard. Like licking a battery. I take the handle of the vice and turn it clockwise. It’s so close to my eyes it’s out of focus. The screw turns a little and the sliding jaw presses against the left side of my head. I breathe out as much as I can in one go. I hold the nothing as long as I can before I breathe in again. It’s part of the ceremony. Borderline superstition, really. It’s nothing. I’ve got the shutter open tonight. The yellow metal’s cradled in the horizontal door track. The street’s empty. It’s just me and the vice. It’s better in the cold somehow, exposed. It’s like I’ve placed a menthol cigarette in my frontal lobe and lit it with a shaking hand, and something that is not quite myself takes a starveling’s drag. The Hartleys have left their curtains open, I can just make out Michael and Marsha watching TV. I’ll make sure to look away if we make eye contact, lest they think the neighbour with his head in a vice is some kind of pervert. I grab the handle again and lift it up, now the hole in the screw is aligned vertically and the handle drops back through. The microscopic vibration travels through the metal and into my head. I can feel it inside my teeth. I’m one turn from my current record. I can only articulate the pressure in an inscrutable language of frequency. Every electrified nerve in my skull, imperceptibly narrower, deliciously void. I breathe in.


The first time was smaller. Two rotations. The children were brandishing fire. The air was thick with the methane that will slowly kill them all. You can count on one hand how many of these kids will need to use a bunsen burner in their adult lives. The same is true if you are handless. Oscar Tomlinson had set fire to his notebook and had to be sent to the gym hall with the other problem kids. Jess Holford had run off crying when reprimanded for aiming the business end of her bunsen burner towards Claire Lowdron’s hair. The headaches were worse then. After weeks of waiting lists and appointments and scans and blood tests a doctor half my age had used terms I had a vague appreciation of: psychosomatic. Unconscious emotions. Erectile dysfunction. Then he had spewed the kind of words a PGCE in chemistry doesn’t prepare you for. Somatoform. Thanatophobia. Alexithymia. In short, he prescribed exercise, rest and Paracetomol. The stuff that doesn’t require a doctor’s prescription at all. The stuff that isn’t morphine. The stuff that leaves the beehive in your head right where it is. The bell had rung, aggravating the bees and vanishing the children. I took off my jacket and rolled up my sleeves. I marched around the rotten egg gas chamber and choked down the pain pills. I had papers to mark. I threw the papers on the desk and took a few more laps and let my mind wander as far as it could from the acidic barbed wire nest it sat in. Then I stopped in front of the desk. The papers on the left, the vice on the right. The image rose through the pain like a sentient fog. I weighed up my options. I found myself placing my head in the vice, my hand gripping the coarse metal of the handle. After the first rotation the air was grainy. After two my thoughts were the consistency of vaseline. A child’s painting of a rainbow filled my vision. Drooling, I forgot my children’s names, I forgot there was an election, I forgot the word ‘election.’ I found myself in the place religious zealots kill for. I had to crawl my way out of that first reverie. My limp hand flopped against the handle and on the third attempt the jaws of life relented their grip. I collapsed in a heap on the dog food coloured tiles and felt the microscopic debris of the class cut into my cheek. When I could finally bring my lips together I spoke aloud.

“Yoga can go fuck itself.”


The school isn’t a nice one. I was able to unscrew the vice, carry it to my car and blame its absence on the kids. I set it up in the garage that night and concealed it like an extramarital lover. When Harry and Petra found it, I told them it was to make an anniversary gift and to keep it quiet from their mother. Naturally, Jeanie knew the same day. Now when I slink off into the garage at night, she gets this coy look on her face and doesn’t ask. It’s as if I’d planned this feat of deceitful engineering. The cost of this lie? I have to learn to whittle, quick. If we’re both doing our part for this marriage Jeanie needs to learn to manage her expectations. This isn’t her strong suit. She still thinks Harry’s going to be a doctor and last year I found him stuck in the washing machine with his dick in his hand. We seem to have an unspoken agreement, I’ve never asked, and as far as I’m aware he is no longer trying to fuck the white goods.

I’ve tried to start. I’ve had a beginner’s tutorial open on a laptop on the desk. I’ve had this hunk of driftwood in my hands. Then I open the vice and the inevitable happens. The well meaning, immaculately bearded, plaid wrapped carpenter becomes a watery fog of pink and purple pixels and I hear distant singing.



“What are you doing?”

The singing’s gone, the headache’s back.


Drooling. I throw my numb arm at the crank, I miss the target.


He’s laughing now, lining up his phone.

“Mum! Petra! Come look at Dad.”

I get him a new phone for christmas and this is how he thanks me. The little bastard’s filming me in digitally optimised 4K.

“Look at my dad. He’s only gone and got his head stuck in a bloody vice.”

He’s talking to his phone, his auditorium of followers. An accident. I got my head stuck by accident. I slipped and then…

“Dad, why have you got a boner?”

Rock hard, if you must know. It’s not about that, but it happens. The only thing that’s worked since my late 30s. If you must know.

“You have! Look at my dad’s boner.”

I swing my arm again and hit the handle, the jaws open up enough for me to scrape my head out.

“Son!” I place my hands on my hips like a father from a catalogue. Then I wipe the spit from my face.

He laughs and runs away.

Jeanie and Petra are in the doorway.

“Petra, go to bed.” She says.

“Mum, it’s literally not even nine.”

“Just go to your room. Please.”

She gives that breed of eye roll exclusive to teenage girls before she peels away.

Jeanie stands in silence, with a quick glance down she confirms what Harry was screaming about, then she meets my eye again. The world’s still coming back into focus and the blood’s still screaming in my ears. I try my best to construct a sentence that will explain all this away.

“Accident.” I say. “Present. For you!”

I crack my winning smile, a bloody thread of spit pours out from between my teeth.


There’s an email I’m ignoring. Subject: My Office.

I swear the kids today haven’t learned a single thing about haemoglobin. They’re checking their phones constantly.

“No phones, please.”

Nothing. Just the thinly veiled hysterics.

“Is this really you, sir?”

Callum Becker points his phone screen at me. I admit the vice experience is significantly less beautiful from the outside. An overweight, middle aged man bent at a right angle. A long trail of saliva brushing the garage floor. All the facial features smushed unflatteringly together. Except the eyes. The eyes are somehow further apart. Little moving graphics surround me. One of those crying laughing emojis I’ve only ever seen used maliciously. #Dadboners

“Are you really Dadboners?”


One of the janitors comes in with his toolbox, it makes an over saturated rattle as it’s placed on the desk. He calmly removes a screwdriver and begins godlessly removing the vice. The kids are just about ready to explode. Then the tannoy pushes them over the edge.

“Mr Hockney, please report to the principal’s office.”


Three of us sit in the little anaemic room. It’s like we’re observing a silence. His analogue clock’s a real chatterbox. Mr Marten idly fiddles with a pen while the video plays on his laptop. We both wince when the line happens: “Dad, why have you got a boner?” He hits the spacebar like it’s responsible.

“Why indeed, Mr Hockney?”

The stranger doesn’t say anything, he shoots stoic looks between us.

“I can explain, it’s a misunderstanding really, it was an accident.”
“That must’ve been some series of events, Matthew.”

“I’ve been learning to whittle.”

“Nice to have a hobby.”

It was.

“I’m making something for Jeanie, our anniversary is coming up. I slipped on some oil and-”

And then what?

“It doesn’t matter. The children have all seen it now. We’ve seen it. The parents have seen it. This is your workplace environment now. Adults and children, man and beast, have seen you with your head in a vice with, I must say, a rather prominent erection. Is that what you want? Do you want this to be your workplace environment? Do you honestly want to continue to see these people daily?”

“I admit it’s not ideal.”

“It’s not, is it? Far from it.”


“Can I take this conversation to mean you’re leaving quietly?”

“Leaving? I need this job. I’m a good teacher.”
“Well, we all know that. No one works for free.” Marten looks shocked by his own remark. “…and your classes usually get excellent marks. But you’ve got to admit you’ve been slipping.”


“You’ve been losing control of the pupils for some time, coming in late, the case of the missing vice. Well I suppose that’s solved now, isn’t it?”

I look at the stranger. He’s comfortable looking me in the eye, more comfortable than Marten. The edges by his eyes are cracked, deep wrinkles trail like branches towards his temples. I think he’s the oldest man I’ve seen in terracotta spray tan. His teeth aren’t his own, but they’re all there. Immaculate white and disturbingly big. For a moment I’m uncertain if this constitutes as a police matter.

“Ah, yes.” Marten says. “The solution to all our problems. This is my good friend, Jack.”

“Pleasure,” he says. “Big fan of your work.” He extends his murky orange hand to me.

“My work?”

“Jack saw your video too, and had quite a novel response to it. See, Jack owns a shopping centre.”

“The Glades. Biggest in town.”

“He thinks you’d make rather a good attraction. What, now you’ve gone viral, as the kids say.”


“You don’t know?” Jack says. “You’re gold dust. Views in the millions. They’re even parodying you.” He fiddles with his phone, he taps the screen with the tip of his index finger the way old people do. “Get your eyes on that.”

He flicks through a stream of videos. A long stream of attractive people bent over next to tables. They recount the lines verbatim, mocking my slurred speech.

“This accident of yours might not be such a bad thing after all.” Marten looks pleased with himself. He even drums his fingers on the table.

“So, what do you think? We no longer have a head of science that is a famous deviant, you get a steady new job, and Mr Jack gets himself a new attraction.”


“Attraction?” she says. This is the closest we’ve come to talking about it.

“I told them where they could shove it.”

“What did he even want you to do? Just shove your head in a vice in the middle of The Glades?”

“Exactly that.”

“Why would anyone want to see that?”

I see the incident in the third person again. That ugly drooling man.

“I have no idea.”

Petra’s hardly left her room since the incident and Jack’s hardly been home. Every time he does show up he’s waving goodbye to a new entourage and carrying a hoard of shopping bags. My little mishap has made him rich.

“I won’t find work,” I say. “Background checks. This is my teaching career finished.”

Jeanie puts her hand to her mouth and leans back on the kitchen counter.

“You need to fix this.” She says. Her eyes scan the tiles, then her whole body jolts and she starts crying.

“What is it? Is it a sex thing?”

It’s not.

“No. It’s not. It’s—”

“Do you want me to do it to you? Do you want me to turn the crank?”


“No. No it’s not like that.”

“Would anal help?”


“Is someone else doing it for you? Is that it?”

“No. I promise it’s not remotely sexy. It’s…the headaches.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“It is. I can’t explain it. It’s as if it squeezes them out or something. It just. It makes me feel—”

“What? Feel what?”


She looks at me in a way she’s never looked at me. Like I’m a serial killer. It’s like we’re strangers. Maybe we are. Maybe we all have our secret vices. Then my phone rings. Unknown number. I hold a finger up to Jeanie.

“Mr Hockney.”


“Look, it’s Jack. I know you’re not interested, but at least come see me. See if I can’t change your mind.”

I look at Jeanie. She’s shaking her head.

“Look. Just meet me at the Glades at eight after we close. Just do me that one favour and you’ll never hear from me again.”


An orange hand on a red satin sheet. It clashes under the over-saturated white of the fluorescent lighting. His teeth are like high beams. He rips the sheet away and the conspicuous shape makes sense. The bastard knows what he has.

“It’s called the Zeus Omni-Grip.”

Red metal alloy, platinum white edging. I could fit my whole damn skull in that thing.

“The manufacturers saw your video too. They claim it can turn a bicycle into a sheet of paper, not that I’ve tried.”

Despite myself, I’m running my fingers along the edges of the static jaw.

“I wanted you to be the first to operate it. Quite a piece of machinery, isn’t she?”

I still haven’t said anything, have I?

“Only the best at The Glades, Mr Hockney, and well, I thought we could maybe give you the Hollywood treatment too.”

I can’t look at him. The screw is reflective, almost iridescent, over the curve my reflection is a Picasso.

“Hollywood treatment?” I sound sedated. I sound like a sitcom character perving on the neighbours.

“The video is, indisputably, a masterpiece. But you must admit the angle is less than flattering. And that name that’s going around, ‘Dadboners’, it’s not exactly family-friendly, is it? I was thinking something classical. We’ll make you out as a modern-day strongman.”

He hands me a piece of paper, his orange fingerprints so clear at the top I could place him at a crime if I wanted to.

“My assistant has printed out all the gods associated with tools.”

Hephaestus, Vulcan, Ptah, Kothar-wa-Khasis, Yoruba, Kagu-Tsuchi, Vishvakarman, Goibniu, Lugh, Tlepsh, Svarog, Thor, kurdalægon.

“Some catchier than others, eh?” He says. “And if we go with Thor we’re sure to have some disappointed children.”

Every second reading is spent looking away from the mammoth device.

“The first one.” I say, I hand the paper back to Jack.

“Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, please welcome the biggest star of the smallest screen, Hephaestus!”

He chews his lip and surveys his glass and neon kingdom.

“Yes.” He says “Yes. That has a ring to it, don’t you think?”


“Now as for the look. The costume shop has some roman outfits, I was thinking a leather skirt, reflective plastic chest plate. Maybe a few sessions in Ra’s Sunning Workshop in unit 5a, get you looking a bit more exotic. Between you and me it shaves the years off, and the pounds, you’ll look the image of health. A hero the people can cheer for.”

The edge of the jaw is sharp enough to draw blood, I wince and pull my hand back.

“Sure.” I say.

“I thought perhaps a winsome little thing could operate the screw for you, like a glamorous assistant! Young Klara who works in the Chickentopia is a fine specimen.”

It has to be me.

“No. It has to be me.”

“You haven’t seen her.”

Won’t be the same.

“Safety,” I say. “Accountability.”


The Glades are closed but the lights are all on. Every shaking orange fibre of me reflects the ghastly white. The first night is ticketed. There’s a crowd outside, they’re all the other side of the sliding glass doors but I can’t see them. Just my ghostly reflection. The vice. A red pillow beside it. We decided it was more flattering if I were kneeling, more flattering than the right angle at least. Jack’s the real showman, he says it looks almost reverent if I’m kneeling. Someone from the local paper took photos of me posing beside it all, now he’s somewhere talking to Jack. Jeanie said she wouldn’t come, and that she’d disown the kids if they did. She’s not happy about it but the mortgage speaks for itself. As does the orange stained cheque coming our way. I allow myself a dry run, kneeling on the cushion I place my hands on the outside of either jaw, the way a younger man might place his hands on a pair of thighs. I burrow my face between the alloy jaws. I can feel them outside, watching it happen. I haven’t turned the screw yet, I won’t touch the rubber lined ergonomic grip handle until the crowd is inside. But I could. Just knowing that is enough. The nameless spectral pressure in my head eases up a little. Just the anticipation is its own high. Through the gap in the jaws, I see something extends from the reflective indigo floor to myself. I’m drooling already, muscle memory. I grab enough of myself back to notice my pupils are crawling their way to the back of their sockets. Those possessed eyes I must get before they’re all mushed out of place by the vice.

“Not giving them a free show, I hope?” A big orange hand clamps my shoulder.

I look up, the drool follows me. I wipe it away but not before he’s seen it.

“Any moment now, Haphaestus. Sold out, you might like to know. The press were jolly well interested in what it is we’re doing here. I think we can expect front page tomorrow, yes sir.”

Perhaps in the heat of it all he’s forgotten this is the same newspaper that usually has a school fete on the front cover.

“Front page.” He says again. “‘Local businessman redefines entertainment!’ Or something like that. Thanks to you The Glades will have the ear of the world tonight. We’ve set up our CCTV as pay-per-view on the computers! Is that what they call it now? Pay-per-view on the computers?”

“I believe Harry calls it a live stream.”

“Golly. Live stream. How futuristic.”

I look out to the crowd. The glass is still a blurry black screen. The bleary iridescent spectres of Jack and myself stare back.


Backstage he calls it. A breeze block corridor littered with safety signage and oversized cleaning equipment. I’ve been pacing since Jack put me here. He’s placed a cardboard star on the fire exit. My name scrawled with a black marker. Well, not my name. Hephaestus. The nerves are getting to me, but the spray tan doesn’t run. The sweat seems to build up underneath it and coagulate. In the mirror I look wrong. Back when Petra would speak to me with polysyllabic words and make eye contact, she brought my head home from art class and placed it on the kitchen counter. Jeanie grabbed me as soon as I got home from work and told me not to laugh and not to ask what it was. She told me it was me and to act like that was evident. Apparently both Jeanie and Harry had laughed to the extent that Petra had cried and locked herself in her room. This was the last shot at instilling a joy of art in our only daughter.

Upon seeing it I wasn’t sure why Jeanie had expected me to laugh, my animal instinct was to scream. Vast asymmetrical eye sockets. A round jaw that veered so far to the right the mouth curved over the right hourglass-shaped eye. Something approximating a cheekbone strayed in a ridge stretching from the mouth through the left eye.

“Petra, I love it!” I yelled. Her voice muffled through the door.

“Shut up.”

“I mean it! It’s just like me.”

“No, it’s not.”

I ran upstairs and knocked on her door.

“I mean it. I love it.”
“Go away, you have to say that.”

Henry’s young pudgy face appeared from his doorway, smirking.

I gave him the death stare that used to keep him in line, long before he leaked the compromising footage.

“I mean it.” I said. “I’m flattered you chose me, you could’ve made anyone.”

The sound of the latch.

“You’re not taking the piss?”

“I love it because you made it. What do those two know about art anyway?”

She opened the door and smiled the way she used to before the phone, before the harsh cocoon of secondary school.

“Why don’t you show me how you made it?”

It was a sweet moment, and its horrifying totem has pride of place in the attic. If we lose the mortgage I can take solace in the knowledge that my severed malformed head will give an estate agent a heart attack.

Now it’s staring back at me in the mirror, I’d love to smash that fucking thing to pieces.

“Full house, Hephaestus. It’s show time.” It’s a girl in a red sequin dress, I haven’t seen her before. She can’t be older than Petra.

“I’m Klara.” She says.

“Nice to meet you.” I say. “Don’t lay a damn finger on that vice.”


The voice of the crowd is one uniform roar. It travels through the air and reaches me as the purest white noise. Jack’s words through the microphone hardly cut through, a deep and phlegmy mumble. It sounds like when the dial on the radio is somewhere in the no man’s land between stations. I think ‘Haphaestus’ warbles through the small amplifier next to him, then the white noise is louder. Kara gestures vaguely at both me and the Zeus Omni-Grip. I can’t bring myself to look at the crowd. Jack picks up the slack and channels his inner carnival barker. I can’t hear a word he says but those enormous alabaster chompers don’t stop moving. I kneel on the cushion. The jaws stare back. The vastness of the chasm between them. The tantalising and simple offer: crane your neck, turn the handle, and you can surrender to reality. Just like the unending cold of the cosmos, a place to become truly, irreversibly lost. Beads of sweat hit the floor as I place my head where it was born to be. The fuzzy static of the crowd rises. I place my hand on the rubber grip of the screw handle. The crowd simmers. A few nervous giggles and whispers as I make the first rotation. This is entirely performative, the sliding jaw hasn’t made contact yet, but I can hear my breath get shaky. One deep breath out before the next turn. I can feel first contact, a gentle dent across the length of my face. Jack’s improvising.

“This moment takes pure concentration, folks. Please remember boys and girls this man is a consummate professional and has spent decades training. Safety is paramount. These feats of daring can be performed by no ordinary man, only Haphaestus!”

The next rotation. Jack’s words are just a variation in the fabric of the air. I look to the crowd and they are now a blurry wave of flesh. The buzzing in my head is further away. My arm judders as I go for the next rotation, the body taking commands from a distant ego that is no longer certain it exists. It doesn’t feel like my arm that labours, but I can feel it. A floppy rubber glove filled with ice water. The pain evaporates, the grey matter that cradled it replaced with jubilant goo. The indigo tiles fluctuate and spasm. Angels whisper in my ears. They sing in golden vowels yet to be discovered. I skip through a lavender field with Albert Einstein and Buddha. The black syrup that keeps the stars afloat rushes into my mouth and tastes like caramelised sugar. Somewhere back on Earth a ghost’s arm is touching something cold. It smiles as it rotates celestial machinery. My vision is now technicolour nothing. Colours that don’t have names writhe in microscopic solar flares. I become the first living being to feel a synapse fire. All of them. My thoughts condensed and overlapping, the compressed neurons like a billowing field, their tender convulsions possible only in a land where physics ends, here in the throbbing gallery of imaginary numbers. I’m a safe distance from the breathing apparitional fire, it informs me through a series of unknowable rays, that a cluster of its infinite tongues is wrapped around something cold, something rubber, it expends its last energy to send me a coded message, “It is rotating.” A sound pierces through from my former life. It sounds like bamboo snapping. A gasp. I feel the vibrations in the air as it is sucked into the lungs of an endless watching choir. Then I hear the wet machinery that powers the meat beast. Its small soft pieces now misplaced. The foggy sinews of thought snapped and dangling. Then the world hurtles towards my protruding eyes. The crowd have evaporated. There’s just a man from ancient rome staring at me, his unnatural narrow tubular face wedged into something beautiful and red. His forehead has taken the shape of sourdough. His lower jaw appears to be facing the opposite direction to the rest of him. We communicate telepathically. We know each other’s secrets. We’ve both seen the other side of the shimmering veil. Three angels stand around him. One places a glowing hand on his back and speaks honey into his ear. I can hear it too. She says, “We’re proud of you, darling.”



About the Author

Jake Williams is a short story writer based in London. His work also appears in Archetype, Roi Fainéant, Bruiser, Purple Wall and Orchid's Lantern. He's currently stood right behind you and you should follow him on Twitter at @jakewilliamspen


Image by MITCH WRIGHT from Pixabay