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Authors: David Belbin


BOOK: Student
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by David Belbin

Published in 2012 by Five Leaves Publications

PO Box 8786, Nottingham NG1 9AW

© David Belbin, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-907869-67-9

Five Leaves acknowledges financial support from Arts Council England

Cover photo by Izza Marie Angeles

For Sue, again and again.

Waking Early, West Kirby

I have a hangover but that isn’t what’s stopping me from getting back to sleep. It’s remembering. I go back over everything I did last night recalling pretty much every word said to me, every word I said back, to make sure I didn’t make a fool of myself.

Only when I’m certain I did nothing stupid do I look at my watch. Half past five. I’ve slept less than four hours. Outside, the sun is beginning to bleed across the clear sky. I go downstairs, not caring how much noise I make. Every night, Mum takes two sleeping pills and is dead to the world until at least nine.

I scare my mother. She can’t wait for me to go to university, presuming I get the grades. Then she can screw married men, sleep all day and drink a bottle of gin every night without anyone to answer to. I scare my father, too. He’s had me to stay once since the divorce. I scare my friends, but at least they tell me why, some of them. I am too articulate, they say. I have this look that freezes them out. I take everything too seriously. I always have to be in control.

I scare myself sometimes. Lighten up, Mark says to me. You need to lighten up. He acts like he cares, but that’s probably because he wants to sleep with me. This is something my friends and I used to discuss a lot. How boys only act interested because they want sex. Why did we stop talking about that? Too obvious? No. Everyone states the obvious, all the time. It’s because we’re all sleeping with our boyfriends now. Except me.

I smell of smoke, sweat and stale perfume. Later, when the water’s hot enough, I’ll have a bath. In the meantime, I dress and leave the house, walk up Beacon Hill and cross the road into The Common. It’s my favourite part of this place, The Common. If you walk far enough, it takes you to the sea.

Earlier in the summer, I’d take my books and walk to the part where the trees are at their densest, nearly blocking out the sky. I’d find a hollow to burrow into and I’d read, read until I couldn’t absorb any more. Then I’d go to the beach and walk up and down until my head was clear and I was ready to revise again.

The Common is the quietest I’ve ever known it. Too early for the dog-walkers, even. There’s a sea breeze and I feel stupid for wearing only a short-sleeved T-shirt. I go down the hill and decide to sit for a while, think. I find a familiar hollow and curl up in it. A sharp stone pokes my thigh. I move it. Then I think about sex.

I wouldn’t mind doing it with someone, just to get it over with. But the only boy I feel safe asking is Mark, and we have history. If we had sex, it wouldn’t be casual. This is the wrong time for us to get serious. Mark’s going to Cardiff. I’ll be in Nottingham. They’re too far apart. So we’ve agreed to split up, even though we never really agreed that we were going out. Thinking about this gives me a dark, heavy feeling at the back of my head. Within minutes, I’m asleep.

I’m woken by heavy footsteps, close by. I check my watch. Quarter to seven. Who walks at this time on a Monday? This isn’t a short cut to anywhere. I don’t hear a dog. Still, if I have a right to be here this early, so does the walker.

The hollow I’m in is on one of two overgrown slopes, facing each other, with a path running between them. A man is coming down the path very slowly, clumsily. I recognise him. His name is Bob Pritchard. He went out with my mum a few times. I go to the Grammar School with his daughter, Zoe.

Bob weaves in and out of the trees. He’s drunk, I figure, and hasn’t been home yet. He stops to relieve himself and I look away. I realise I’m hungry and thirsty and the water’s been on for an hour, so I can have my bath. As soon as Bob leaves, I’ll go home. But Bob doesn’t seem in a hurry to go. He’s leaning on a tree. As I watch, he begins to bang his head against the bark, slowly. I think he might be crying. I watch him do this for a long time then think sod it and get up to go. I’m sure that Bob won’t notice me, but he does.

‘Hey!’ His voice is loud, authoritative. ‘I want to talk to you!’

Bob, no longer so clumsy, is pushing branches aside, coming up the hill. This ground isn’t made for fast escapes. There are big bushes and trees and pitted earth between me and the ridge. Before I can decide what to do, Bob’s in front of me.

‘How long were you watching me?’ His voice is slightly slurred.

‘I haven’t been watching. I’ve been asleep.’‘Aah. Out for the night, were you?’

I don’t reply.

‘You’re Kathy’s daughter.’

Reluctantly, I nod. He smiles lecherously. ‘Do you take after your mother?’

‘Go away,’ I mouth, but no words come out.

‘I’ll bet you were a bad girl last night.’

When I reply, I sound like Mum: ‘Ask your daughter. She was there.’

And she was the one being the bad girl, though I don’t say this. Bob’s still blocking the way down to the path. I decide to brazen it out, walk past him.

As I come towards him, Bob makes a whimpering noise. ‘She threw me out last night,’ he explains, almost pleads. ‘I had to spend the night here.’

Close up, Bob reminds me of my father, a seedy, middle class, middle-aged, middle-management man. He probably got thrown out for fucking around once too often, like my dad did.

‘Go home,’ I say. ‘She’s probably changed her mind.’

Bob gives me a sickening smile. ‘You’re a kind girl,’ he says. ‘You do take after your mother.’

Out of some polite habit, I smile, then try to pass him. That’s when he grabs me. A moment later I’m on the ground, pinned down by his heavy body.

‘You’re a kind girl,’ he repeats.

I try to kick him but can’t move my legs. Bob uses his free hand to grab at my jeans. I cry out. It’s more like a yelp than a scream, but there’s nobody around to hear me anyhow. That’s when Bob punches me in the stomach, hard. Then, while I’m winded, he pulls up my T-shirt, ripping it. He pushes a wad of T-shirt into my mouth and I think—he’s done this before.

We’re in the hollow where I was asleep. What’s happening can’t be seen from the path below. With one hand, Bob holds me down, while the other tugs at my jeans until they’re around my knees. Bob grimaces, realising that he needs both hands to unbuckle his belt. In this fraction of freedom, I reach for the rock I moved earlier, the one that was digging into my thigh.

‘You’re going to enjoy this,’ Bob pants and, before he can press down on me again, I smash the rock against his head. Warm blood splashes my cheek and shoulder. His head flops sideways, above mine. Bob doesn’t move. I realise he’s unconscious. Now I need all my strength to push him off me. I take the torn T-shirt out of my mouth before looking at him. He’s on his side, not breathing.

I start shivering and pull up my jeans. The T-shirt is hanging off my chest, exposing my left breast. Bob still isn’t moving. The bloody rock is by his head. A half bottle of whisky pokes out of his jacket pocket. I think about all the questions I will have to answer, all the things that people will say. What was I doing on The Common at seven in the morning? How well did I know Bob Pritchard? How long have I been seeing him?

The pool of blood around Bob’s head is growing. I do what they taught me in Brownies. I look for his pulse. I think I find one, but it’s very faint. I don't have my mobile with me. There’s a phone box fifteen minutes walk away. Ten if I run. But then the questions will start.

This decision will affect the rest of my life. It’s not deciding whether to get off with someone you only half like at a party. Whatever I choose to do, I’ll go over my motives and my reasoning again and again. And the decision has to be made now. Someone might come along at any minute. Part of my mind is numb, in shock. Another part schemes.

The only thing I’ve touched is the rock. I pick it up and look around, making sure I’ve left no traces of myself. Then I hurry down to the path. I walk fast, keeping to the side so I can duck behind a bush if anybody approaches. I pass the tall black beacon that gives my street its name. Now for the difficult bit. My left hand is on my shoulder, holding my T-shirt in place. The right holds the rock, beneath the T-shirt, over my belly. I leave The Common looking like a pregnant urchin.

My luck holds. There’s nobody on the street. The milkman’s been and gone. I let myself into the house, where I put my T-shirt in with the wash, turn the machine on. I rinse the bloody rock in hot, hot water and open the back door. I hurl the murder weapon into the rockery. Then I run myself a bath. It’s not quite as deep as I like, because the washing machine has already used a lot of the hot water. But by the time I get out, all the evidence is gone. I’m clean.

I spend the next four days waiting for someone to say something about Bob Pritchard. The local paper isn’t out until Friday, so I start listening to Radio Merseyside news bulletins. Nothing. Maybe they haven’t found the body yet. I think about walking across The Common, checking whether Bob’s where I left him. But that would be stupid: the killer returning to the scene of the crime. I daren’t ring Zoe Pritchard, either. We’re not that good friends. To phone out of the blue would be suspicious.

Thursday is the day of the A-level results. You can turn up at school from midday onwards and get the results in person or have them posted to arrive the next day. Mark rings and I agree to go with him. We wait until one, hoping to avoid the queue, the crowd.

I get the grades I need, Mark doesn’t. On our way out, he begins to chatter about what a wonderful time I’m going to have in Nottingham. I want to go to bed with Mark right this minute, I’m so sorry for him. Then I see Zoe Pritchard. She’s on the street with a bunch of people who are discussing their results. And she’s crying. The guy she was with last Sunday night tries to comfort her but Zoe brushes him off. I’m the only one who knows: it isn’t her grades she’s crying about, it’s her dad. For the first and last time, I feel guilty about what I’ve done. Not for hitting him, I had to do that. But I should have called an ambulance.

Zoe’s mum gets out of the car and goes over to her. Mrs Pritchard looks heartbroken too. They hug each other. I ought to go over. I ought to say something, though I’ve no idea what. I hang back, watching Zoe and her mum return to their car. Mrs Pritchard gets into the driver’s seat. Zoe tries to get in the back, finds the door locked. An arm reaches back to open it and I realise there’s somebody in the front passenger seat.

Bob Pritchard kisses his daughter, who is careful not to make contact with the big bandage covering the back and side of his head. As she’s doing this, Bob looks over his shoulder and sees me. Before our eyes can meet, he turns back.

Then his wife drives away.

Christmas Eve

‘Why haven’t you been back before?’ Mark asks. ‘Everyone else has.’

Half the students I know go home every weekend. They eat well, get their washing done, see friends. But most of my West Kirby friends have just started university, so won’t be around. My mum’s not much of a cook and the journey home takes four hours. I explain some of this.

‘You could have come to see me,’ I conclude.

‘It’s not so easy.’

Since I left West Kirby, Mark works most weekends at the golf club, even in winter. This allows him to attend college, prepare for retakes. But he could come to see me in the week. I suspect Mark thinks he’ll feel out of place at uni. I do. I like it best at weekends, when none of the lecturers are around, and there are far fewer students. Mostly it’s overseas students and misfits like me, people with nothing to go home for.

‘I’m here now, anyway,’ I say. ‘Miss me?’

‘What do you think?’ This should be the point for a hug, but I don’t get one. My fault. We finished our on-off thing because it wasn’t fair to tie each other down when we were going to be apart for three years (though Mark could have applied to go to Nottingham, too. Or Leicester, Loughborough, Sheffield, somewhere within easy reach. But he chose Cardiff, a ridiculous distance away. Then he didn’t get the grades he needed anyway.)

Mark gives me the hangdog look that made me go out with him in the first place. I kiss him, a gentle peck on the cheek. That’s when he tells me.

‘I’m going out with Helen.’

‘Helen Kent?’ Pause. Polite reaction. ‘Right. Good for you.’

Helen was in the year below me at school. She’s tall, an Amazon, the sort of girl other girls were always getting a crush on.

‘She’s out of my league, really, but she’s into golf and, you know, I started giving her lessons.’

‘Nice,’ is all I can think of to say.

‘I reckon the two of you will get on.’

‘Uh huh.’ We’ll have to, if Mark is to remain my best friend.

‘I’ll make some coffee.’

Mark leaves me in his purple walled bedroom. All over the world, I reflect, students are coming back from their first term at university and dumping their hometown boy or girlfriends. For a moment there, I’d meant to do the opposite, tell Mark I’d seen the competition and it was him I wanted, with his shaggy hair, dopey smile and comfortable, reassuringly male odour. But he has snagged Helen of Troy.

BOOK: Student
3.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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