Authors: Rachel Ward
THIS IS FOR OZZY, ALI, AND PETE —
WHO HELP TO KEEP MY HEAD ABOVE WATER
top. We need to stop. That’s it, everyone — we’ve done our best. I’m calling it. It’s four seventeen.”
I open my eyes. A raindrop hits my left eye, dead center. I shut both eyes quickly. Careful now, I squint out. The rain keeps coming. Water-bombs dropping out of a gray sky. There’s muck in my mouth. Mud. Gravel.
I turn my head and spit.
There’s a face two feet from mine. Hair plastered onto his forehead in glistening snakes. Mouth, thin lips slightly apart, a trickle of water spilling out of the corner. Pale skin, streaked with mud. Eyes closed, stunted eyelashes forming two stubby lines.
It’s my face.
Something buzzes from his feet, up his legs, past his waist, up to his shoulders. The hand tugging on the zipper pauses for a second and then finishes the job, closing the bag all the way up. A sleeping bag. They’ve put him in a sleeping bag, ’cause he’s asleep. But there’s no gap in this bag. They’ve sealed him in. How’s he going to breathe?
They’ll do me next. I know they will. But I’m not asleep. I’m awake.
Don’t zip me in
. I can hear the words in my head, but my lips aren’t moving.
Don’t zip me.
My voice, trying to get out, strangled in my throat.
Someone grabs my legs. Someone else grabs my arms. It’s my turn. They’re going to put me in a bag. They’re going to zip me in. I try to put up a fight, but my arms and legs are just too heavy. I can’t do a thing. Can’t move, can’t speak, can’t think straight.
I’m on some sort of board now, being bumped off the ground and into a van. The doors slam shut. We’re leaving him behind.
But no, the door’s yanked open again. That’ll be him now. Footsteps, grunts, as they lift him in. I look across. If the bag’s still done up, I’ll try to find my voice, ask them to unzip him a bit, so I can see his face. My face. So he can get some air.
But it’s not him. There’s a girl in here now. She’s looking right at me. Her makeup’s smeared down her face from her eyes, like she’s melting, but her lips are blue, her arms are covered in goose bumps, and she’s shivering. She’s staring, too, staring at me, then she blinks — once, twice — and starts screaming.
he woman who says she’s my mum gets a cab to take us home. She sits on one side, I sit on the other side, like we’re clinging to the windows. Fifteen inches of plastic seat between us. Seat belts on.
The smell in here keeps catching in the back of my throat. Smells like plastic and polish and vomit all mixed up. There’s a little blue tree dangling from the front mirror. It’s got
NEW CAR SCENT
printed on it. If that’s what a new car smells like, you can keep it.
Home. I can’t picture it, but I know that I don’t want to go there. I want to go back to the hospital. That nurse was kind to me, not like the woman on the other side of this car, the one in the shiny tracksuit that’s too big for her, who looks as though she’s cried so hard she’s worn herself out. She doesn’t look like she wants to be with me any more than I want to be with her. She can hardly look at me, and she hasn’t said a word, her lips clamped shut, locked together in a grim, thin line.
I’ll go back. Should I? Should I do it? Yank the handle and kick the door open? Jump out and start running? Too late. The cab turns a corner and accelerates, and the hospital’s gone.
I press my forehead against the window. It’s cold against my skin. I like the feeling, it’s soothing. I roll my face forward, pressing as much of it as I can onto the smooth, hard glass, squashing my nose sideways so my mouth and chin can make contact. I press harder, my lips spreading like two slugs. The woman glances at me with red-rimmed eyes.
“What are you doing?” she says. “Stop it, Carl, for goodness’ sake.”
She reaches across the gap and tugs at my arm. I resist. She lets go and slaps me hard across the back of my head. The force of her hand makes my face skid forward on the spitty glass, smearing my cheek. And instantly I get echoes of all the other times she’s hit me, stretching back like a hall of mirrors. She retreats again to the other side of the cab, tears running down her face. And I know it’s true, what they’ve all been saying. She is my mum. My stomach falls down inside me as broken memories cartwheel through my head. Her hair scraped back. The smell of beer on her breath. The sting of her hand on my skin. Raised voices. A man shouting. A woman screaming. Slamming doors. Other memories, too, a whole mess of them I can’t get hold of yet. But one thing’s certain.
She’s my mum. She’s the only one I’ve got. I don’t know if I love her or hate her, if I’m scared of her or sorry for her.
I move away from the window and wipe my face on my sleeve.
“Look at the mess on there. Chrissake, how old are you? Your brother’s just died. Can’t you have some respect?”
How old am I? I don’t even know that.
She scrubs away her tears. “Fifteen-year-olds don’t do that sort of thing, for God’s sake.”
I shake my head, trying to shake away the tears of my own that are threatening to spill out. And now I hear a voice in my head, saying over and over:
Don’t let her see you cry. If she sees you cry, she’s won. Boys don’t cry, Cee.
I blink hard, bite my lip, and turn away from her toward the window.
The world we’re driving through looks so normal. There are shops and houses and cars and people. I don’t recognize any of it. We pass some big houses and I wonder if any of them is ours, but somehow I know that they aren’t. Why can’t I remember? Out of the town, we pass villages strung out along the road and then head into another, smaller town, going by a big brick factory on the outskirts. I look glumly at the takeout places and consignment shops and boarded-up windows along the main street. There’s a sandwich board on the sidewalk beside a newsstand. We pass too quickly for me to read the first side, so I crane around and catch the words on the second: LAKE TRAGEDY: LATEST.
An old woman pushes a cart past the sign. She’s wearing slippers.
“Nearly there,” Mum says as we turn off the main street and into a housing development. Three minutes later we’re turning around the back of a parade of shops and coming to a halt. The meter’s showing £12.60. Mum gets her wallet out of her bag. She finds a tenner and then digs about for the coins.
“There’s one, two,” she says, “and twenty, thirty. Christ, I can’t get my fingers on the bloody things.” She’s down to pennies now, scrabbling in the wallet’s lining, taking her hand out, examining the coins, and digging in again. And now I notice the tip of the little finger on her right hand is missing. No fingertip, no nail — it just stops at the last joint. And I know she wasn’t born that way, but I can’t remember how she lost it. Someone told me once … someone told me. “Forty-two. Forty-four.” She’s not got it. She’s not got enough.
The guy looks at her without emotion. He’s just waiting for his cash — anyone can see she’s not getting there — but it’s like he wants her to say it. And in the end, she has to.
“I ain’t got it,” she says. “Twelve forty-seven. That’s all I’ve got.”
He looks at her steadily for a minute and then decides he’s better off without us. Suddenly he can’t wait to get rid.
“Just give it here,” he says, and holds his hand out.
The car’s already moving as I’m closing the door. The tires squeal as he makes his getaway.
“Now I’ve got to find my bloody keys.” Mum’s rooting about in her bag again. We’re at the bottom of some concrete steps. “You go up,” she says. “I’m right behind you.”
I look up at the short flight of steps that leads to a walkway. A picture flashes into my mind: a boy who looks like me clattering down the steps and vaulting over the wall. And someone else, waiting where I am now — a girl with long dark hair. I play the scene over and over, see him flying over the wall like Batman,
see her looking up, see the smile playing at the side of her mouth. She’s trying not to show she’s impressed, but she is. The boy. The girl. I know them, but it’s not all slotting into place. He must be my brother. Must be.
The pictures in my head are like cobwebs strung across the steps. Fragile. I don’t want to walk through and break them. I don’t want them to go. I want to stand here and watch until it all makes sense. Until I feel it. It’ll come, I know it will. It’s there, like a word on the tip of my tongue. If I just stand and watch …
Mum barges past me.
“Found them,” she says. “Come on. I need a drink.”
I’m still staring at the steps, but now Mum’s on them, walking up slowly, and the spell’s broken. Her sweatpants are too long, the hems scuffed where they drag on the ground. She turns around at the top of the steps.
“Get up here, Carl.” She jerks her head to emphasize her words, and then stands staring down at me. She’s waiting. “Carl?”
“Mum, I …”
“What’s the matter? Get up here. Let’s get inside. Have a drink and forget this God-awful day for a bit.”
I drag myself up the steps toward her. She’s playing with the keys in her hand, looking at them instead of me. I’m here now, but she’s not moving.
“Mum,” I say.
She still doesn’t look up. Her head is down, straggly bleached hair falling on either side of her face. Her part is a zigzag, startlingly pink against dark roots. Something splashes on her
fingers. And again. She makes a strangled noise in her throat. Oh God, she’s crying again. I try to say something to make her stop.
“Mum. Don’t. It’s all right.”
Somehow it was easier when she was shouting at me. This is worse, much worse.
I’m not tall, but I’m taller than her. I could put my arm around her shoulders, but all I can think of is the slap she gave me in the taxi.
Her tears are dropping onto the concrete now. She’s just standing there, small and alone, fiddling with her keys, crying. And it’s awful, just awful. I’ve got to do something.
I shuffle closer to her and lift my arm up. I keep it hanging in the air, a few inches away from her, then I gently bring it down to rest across the top of her back. I curve my fingers around so I’m holding her shoulder. At first she doesn’t react and I feel stupid, awkward, but just as I’m about to move my arm away, she tips her head sideways toward me. Only a little bit, but the top of her head touches my jaw. I don’t know what to do. I let go of her shoulder and pat her back a couple of times.
She moves her head back and sniffs hard.
“You do it,” she says, her words all blurry so I can only just make them out, and she hands the keys to me. They’re all wet from her tears. I wipe them on my T-shirt and set off along the walkway. Each apartment has got a fenced-off bit between the walkway and the door, like its own little yard. There’s a couple of rabbit hutches at number 1, bright plastic toys scattered all
over the place, a trike on its side. Number 2’s got nothing, just one bin in an empty space. The next one’s got as much rubbish on the ground as in the bin: bottles, a couple of them smashed, cans. There’s two plastic chairs, which I’m guessing used to be white, one of them with a wonky leg, and an old armchair with the stuffing coming out. There are flowers as well. Heaps and heaps of flowers in plastic wrappers, piled up by the door. That’s how I know it’s our place.