Dear World, it feels very strange, walking over to Joe’s with Lorraine. Like fraternising with the enemy or something. I am wondering as we walk, what age you have to get to before you start to feel on an even level with grown ups. Seventeen? Eighteen maybe? I must be immature for my age. Well, I know I am. I just have to be near an adult to start feeling like a shy little kid again. Or maybe it is just that the adults I know have that effect on you. Lorraine certainly does. She has an amazing knack of making you feel about three years old. She clips along the pavement in her red patent high heels, clutching her handbag, and looking sideways at me. I am surprised she doesn’t fall over, because I bloody would if I wore heels and looked sideways. She must be an expert. Finally she breaks the tense silence.
“What do you think of Les moving in then?”
I am surprised by the subject matter she has gone for. She has never asked for my personal opinions on family matters until now. She is from the ‘like it or lump it’ school of parenting. “I don’t know,” I tell her. “Sara’s moved out.”
“I know. Your mum said. She’s in bits about it.”
“She’ll be back. Probably. She likes to throw a tantrum.”
“But not you, eh?” I look at her and she gives me a little smile. “Just give Les a chance yeah?” she says then. “He’s a nice bloke, I can assure you of that. I wouldn’t let your mother anywhere near anyone who wasn’t decent.”
I just nod silently, but inside I am both raging and laughing at her. Raging, because what right has she to tell me to give him a chance? As if I wouldn’t? If she knew anything about me at all, she would know that I am the least likely to person to even give my mother my opinion, let alone throw a fit like Sara has. He could be a fucking axe murderer and I would just keep my thoughts to myself. And laughing, because does she honestly think her statement is reassuring? Considering that she married a bloke who is one step away from a Neanderthal and who treats her three sons like second class citizens compared to Will and Tommy? Christ!
Thankfully we are soon at her house, and that is when the nerves start to kick in big time. Honestly, it is a feeling ten times worse than before an exam. I think of Joe and feel sick. I think of Travis, and him trying to kiss me, and I am very nearly close to vomiting. I keep my eyes down and my head low as we walk up to the front door. Mick is in the front garden, bent over a car again. He looks up and wipes his hands on his green overalls. Lorraine stops next to him, and lights up a cigarette. She waves her hand at me. “Go on in, he’s in there somewhere.” I go on towards the open front door, and hear Lorraine say to Mick. “It’s all right, it’s all right, they’re just staying in. She’ll keep him out of trouble.”
I have to step over Tommy in the hallway. He is still wearing his Thomas The Tank Engine pyjamas, and has red jam smeared all over his face. He is lying on his belly, brooming toy cars up and down the hallway carpet. I glance into the lounge, which is darkened, with the curtains closed. This is because Leon and Travis are sprawled out on the sofa next to each other, with the TV on. They have closed the curtains so they can see the TV properly. Leon is smoking, with an ashtray on his lap. He is bare chested, and just wearing tracksuit bottoms. He barely looks at me, but Travis looks scarily like he is about to get up to greet me. “Joe upstairs?” I quickly ask, pointing weakly to the staircase.
Travis nods at me, and his expression is hard to read. “Yeah,” he says, and sinks back into the sofa. I nod and hurry up the stairs. I find myself then taking deep breaths outside my best friends bedroom, and wonder how the fuck it has all come to this. Finally I reach out with my clenched fist and rap on his door. “Who is it?” he calls out gruffly.
“Me. Your ex-best friend.”
I hear him snort. “Get in here bitch.”
I feel a sense of relief and open the door, but my relief turns to concern when I see what he is doing. Joe is sat up at his window, which looks down onto the back garden. He has the window wide open, and is sat there smoking a joint. My brow creases in confusion. “What are you doing?”
He lifts the spliff to his lips and takes a drag. “What does it look like?”
I close the door, remember that they have no locks, and lean against it instead. “Are you insane?” I hiss at him. “Your whole family are in!”
“I’m nearly finished,” he shrugs. “You want some?”
“No I don’t. I’m in enough trouble as it is, and so are you! Where did you get that from?”
Joe takes another drag, considers the joint done, and stubs it out on the windowsill. He then takes the butt and hurls it as far as he can into the garden. I just watch and shake my head, mesmerised by the insanity of him. He slips down slowly from the window, smiles lazily at me and climbs onto the bottom bunk bed, which is his. There are dirty clothes and cds and magazines in the way, but he swipes a hand at them and they all hit the floor. He lies on his back and laces his hands behind his head. “You are seriously freaking me out,” I tell him, finally deeming it safe to come away from the door. I sit on the edge of his bed. I suddenly feel the urge to touch him. To hold his hand or something. To tell him how sorry I am. He is just smiling at me, and his eyes look fucked. His right eye is a little bruised and swollen, and there is another, bigger bruise on his forehead. “Where did you get it from?” I ask him again. I am thinking maybe Ryan; because it was he we smoked pot with once before. And I mean once. At the park no less, with our bikes dumped on the ground around us.
“Leon,” he tells me.
“Owed me,” Joe shrugs at me, still smiling sweetly. Oh Christ. I should have known.
“I ought to go down there and tell your mum and Mick!” I say haughtily, and instantly see the alarm jump into his eyes. He sits up and grabs my hand.
“Don’t you dare.”
“I’ve told her it was Leon and Travis that asked us to the party,” I inform him, in case he doesn’t know. “I’ve told her about all the booze they let us have. They can’t just get away with things all the time. Arseholes.”
Joe lets out his breath and lies back down again. “It’s gonna’ kick off down there in a minute then,” he sighs. “I would say let’s go, but I’m fucking grounded.”
“How’s your head?” I give him an apologetic smile, which he returns wryly, as he gently fingers the bruise on his forehead.
“Fucking Mick,” he says softly.
“I’m sorry mate. I didn’t know what else to do. Leon was just standing there, just encouraging you both. No one else cared.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he tells me, with a yawn. “You probably saved me a trip to the hospital.”
“Well I’m still sorry.” I look around at his room, how he keeps all his things on one side, as if trying to create a physical barrier between him and Will. All his teenager things on one side, and all Will’s kid things on the other. Will has a wooden train track laid out across his side, and the top bunk bed is covered in soft toys. “Your mum said you had a bad hangover,” I say.
“Well I did. Until, you know.” He means the joint. I nod.
“Oh. I see. I’m surprised it doesn’t make you sick.”
“Must be getting used to it.”
This is a comment I really ought to pick him up on, but the time just does not feel right somehow. I think of mum and Les, and Sara, and experience that immense and heavy sadness again, like falling into a pit. We both jump when we hear the front door slam downstairs. Moments later Lorraine starts screaming. I look at Joe and he shrugs. “Your fault,” he tells me, and I am not sure if he is joking or not. I feel strange and uncomfortable, and I have never felt like that around Joe before. The silence between us is weighted with the one word we have not said. Travis.
“Travis was just pissed,” I say, hardly able to look at him. “He was just pissed and being an idiot. You didn’t need to worry.”
“I saw him kiss you.”
“He didn’t really. Well, he did. But I was just taken by surprise. And anyway, he was just pissed and I don’t know why he did it.” I lift my hands and drop them uselessly back in my lap. I feel like crying. Joe seems so distant, so cold to me, and I don’t like it, I don’t understand why. I have this overwhelming urge to lie down next to him and curl into his side, but I can’t can I? I can’t.
“I don’t know why I went for him,” Joe says then, and I look at his face, and he is frowning, but not looking at me. His eyes are focused firmly on the wooden slats of the upper bunk bed. We hear Mick join in the shouting downstairs. “You can do what you want,” he says. “You can let him kiss you, or whatever.”
I don’t know what to say to this. I don’t want to say anything that might hurt him. I don’t know why he attacked his brother either, but I just feel so sorry that I was the cause of all this. “I’m never going to do anything that upsets you,” I say quietly, staring at his face, and I mean it. His eyes flick towards mine. He says nothing. I feel tears flood my eyes. My lip is trembling. I simply cannot bear him to be angry with me. Not now.
“You stupid twat,” he says with a sigh, and I laugh and cry at the same time. I give in to the urge to be close to him, and pull myself up onto the bed, and lie down next to him, still crying. He drags one arm out from behind his head and wraps it around me, and I cry harder. “What the hell are you blubbing about woman?”
“Just all this,” I manage to tell him, holding one hand over both my eyes, trying to halt the leakage. “And bloody Les has moved in. And Sara has left home. And I thought you hated me. You should hate me.”
“You haven’t done anything wrong, twat-face.”
My shoulders shake against his arm with laughter. We lie still for a few moments, listening to the row downstairs. It is mainly Lorraine and Mick, screaming and bellowing in turn. “You’re skating on thin ice with me!” we hear Mick shout. We cannot really hear either Leon or Travis, but they must be arguing back.
“Don’t you dare speak to me like that!” Lorraine screeches. Joe pulls me closer and closes his eyes. I rest my face against his t-shirt and inhale the sweet smell of the weed he has smoked.
“One step away from throwing you out!” comes another classic from Mick. How many times have we heard that one since he moved in?
“This is the thanks we get!” Back to Lorraine. I am cringing now, and wanting to get out of this crazy house. I have caused this. I should have kept my stupid childish mouth shut. I prop myself up on my elbow and look at the door. The front door has slammed again downstairs, but I have no idea who has stormed out. I glance down at Joe and see that he is asleep. Or passed out.
There are sudden, steady footsteps on the stairs and they are coming towards Joe’s door, and I feel a panic seize my heart, because I fucking know, I can fucking sense who it is. The door opens and they both walk in, Leon a scowling dark faced menace, and Travis looking stressed and pissed off, and jumpy all at the same time.
“Well isn’t this cosy?” Leon hisses at me. I scoot away from Joe, who opens his eyes groggily, but does not move. I lower my feet to the floor. Travis sinks his hands into his pockets.
“Thanks a lot kids,” he says to us, but his eyes are on me. “You dropped us right in it there.”
“That was my intention actually,” I tell him, standing up and crossing my arms. They look at each other in surprise.
“Why?” Travis asks me.
“Because you’re a pair of fucking arseholes, that’s why. I don’t see why we should always get the blame.”
They look at each other again. Leon is frowning so deeply I can barely make out his eyes. He spreads his legs a little; his defiant stance, and his eyes shift to Joe, still lying on his bed. “You going to let your little girlfriend talk to us like that eh?”
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Joe yawns in reply. “And she can say what she likes.”
“Last time we invite you losers to a party,” Leon says. “You’re obviously still just a pair of little kids. Go running to mummy over nothing.”
Joe laughs at this. He folds his arms back under his head and giggles away. Leon glares at him silently. Travis is still looking at me. “It was him that attacked me actually,” he sees fit to point out, nodding towards Joe.
“Yeah, because he was hammered.” I sit back down on the bed then. I don’t like the look on Leon’s face. I feel the urge to stay close to Joe in case something erupts again. I think, that should be it, they’ve aired their grievances, now they should go, but they don’t, although I can tell that Travis wants to. His gaze keeps shifting sideways to Leon, and then jerking back to me. He is frowning, and seems fidgety. “Is that all?” I ask finally, shrugging at them.
“No that’s not fucking all,” Leon snaps at me. “I need a word with my brother alone, if you don’t mind.” He nods towards the door, suggesting that I leave. I raise my eyebrows at him, and glance at Joe.
“I’m not leaving,” I say.
“Look, I’m not asking you, I’m telling you,” Leon says, sounding frustrated. I realise this is probably the longest conversation he and I have ever had. “We’ve got important things we need to talk about. Mick has gone out. Now is the time.” His eyes are boring into Joe when he says this. I watch Joe struggle up into a sitting position on his bed. He folds his arms over his chest and smiles pleasantly at all of us.
“I’m not leaving,” I say again. “If I leave you’re just going to beat him up or something!”
“Christ, I’m not!” Leon says with a heavy sigh. “Joe will you tell her?”
“Let her listen,” Joe shrugs, “I don’t care.”
“Don’t be stupid, idiot.”
“You best go,” Travis tells me gently. I wonder if they have all gone mad or something! What the fuck is going on?
“I’m not going,” I tell them for the third time, and I stare back at Leon and I do not flinch, and for the first time I think to myself, you’re not so tough after all, you’re just a nineteen-year-old thug who thinks he’s a hard man. You’re just a kid, still living at home with your mum, even though you hate it. You’re nothing. I watch his shoulders drop and he rolls his eyes up into his head. “So you either carry on with me here, or you talk to each other after I’m gone.”
“Are you sure?” Leon asks, but he is asking Joe, who just shrugs at him in reply. “Okay then, but don’t expect her to be very impressed with you.”
“She won’t tell anyone,” Joe assures him. I frown at him.
“No,” he tells me seriously. “Swear whatever we say in this room now, you won’t repeat to anyone again ever in your life, or me and you can’t be friends, okay?”
I am open mouthed and hurt and intrigued all at once. I blow breath out and shake my head at him. “Okay I swear,” I tell him. “I’m just gonna’ sit here and say nothing. Whatever it is has nothing to do with me.”
“She won’t tell,” Joe tells Leon again, and I can see something between them, something that has never existed there before. Almost a kind of mutual understanding, not quite respect, but something more than the sneering resentment and annoyance that had always passed between them before. Travis just looks resigned to whatever is going on, and he leans against the closed bedroom door and keeps his hands in his pockets. I try hard not to look at him at all.
“Right,” Leon says with another sigh. “I’ve got another address for you.” He pulls a scrap of paper out of his back pocket and passes it to Joe. I watch in silence as Joe looks at the paper, nods vacantly, then pushes it into his own pocket. “About nine o’clock tonight, okay?”
“Okay,” Joe nods again, and looks briefly at me. I sense he is enjoying this, this secret that they have between them; this new elevated position that he suddenly has with them. Me, I just feel a warning bell of churning dread within my empty belly.
There is an awkward silence, as Joe looks at Leon, and Leon looks to Travis, and Travis looks at me, as if he wants to say something, but can’t. I just look bewildered, and wait, saying nothing. “Okay,” Leon says heavily, and drags something else out from his pocket. It is a small wrapped package and he passes it to Joe. Joe takes it quickly and puts it into his pocket with the piece of paper. Slowly but surely things are starting to add up for me. Not exactly quick, am I World? I give a slight nod of the head, bite down on my lower lip, and wait. “Cool,” Leon shrugs at us all, as if we are all on his level now, whatever that is. He looks momentarily relieved, and almost smiles as he stuffs his hands in his pockets, and shrugs his wide shoulders. “Cheers,” he says, supposedly to Joe, and then he turns to go and nods at Travis. I watch them leave and close the door behind them, and then I turn my steely gaze on Joe, and expect him to shrink and simper beneath it, but he does no such fucking thing.
“Worked it out yet smarty-pants?” he laughs at me, sinking slowly down on his bed again, his eyes partly closed. I shake my head at him. I want to be angry, I want to be dismayed and horrified and disappointed. I stare at him in silence, wanting to feel all these things. I wonder miserably if I even know him at all. I consider simply standing up and walking out of there, not saying a word.
“Not really,” I say instead, deciding to play dumb. “Why don’t you spell it out for me?”
“Fuck you,” grins Joe. “You’re not going to tell are you?”
“I think you are insane. I think you have lost your mind completely.”
“You don’t want to make some money then?”
“Come with me. Go halves.”
“You’re fucking joking me. You’ve fucking lost it!”
“I’m not joking you. It’s up to you. Come with me and make some money, or just forget all about it and don’t fucking tell.”
“Don’t tell anyone my best friend has turned into a low-life drug dealer?”
“More like a low-life errand boy actually,” Joe corrects me with a self-satisfied smirk. I want to hit him.
“Who are you trying to impress?”
“Why then? Why do you want to be their errand boy for fuck’s sake? Are they forcing you to do this, or something? Haven’t you got any dignity?”
Joe sits up then. He sits up hard and fast and thrusts his face towards mine, and his hazel eyes are so intense, so fired up so suddenly that I draw back from him instinctively and yet at the same time, if you can believe this, I feel the undeniable dual urge to both hit him and kiss him. What the hell is that about World? Wanting to hit your best friend at the same time you want to kiss them? “Why not?” he spits at me. “Why the fuck not eh? What else is there in life eh? You’re always saying it yourself smarty-pants! Maybe I want to make some money! Maybe I want to have my own money for once, so I don’t have to go begging to mum and Mick every time, and they always fucking say no, because they need all the money for fucking Tom and Will! Maybe I want my own money. What’s wrong with that?”
“You know what’s wrong with it,” I tell him softly.
“It’s not forever,” he says, lifting his hands and dropping them. “That stuff they had in the bag. It’s a one off. They’ve never done it before and never will again. But we’ve got to get rid of it somehow. What are you going to do? Throw it in the river and pretend nothing happened? Or try to make some money out of it? Some serious fucking money.”
Joe sighs slowly and lies back down again. I feel like the room is crashing down around me, like the walls are tumbling, brick by brick, such is the heaviness and the suffocation that surrounds and overwhelms me then. I think about the words Joe has spoken, and I think, those are not Joe’s words, that is not Joe speaking. It is like Leon has crept inside his soul.
“You don’t need to impress your brothers Joe,” I tell him, watching his face closely as he shuts his eyes and screws them up tight. “You don’t need to be like them. You never have before. You don’t need to impress anyone Joe. You’re amazing the way you are, don’t you know that?”
“Go and look in my sock drawer.”
“Just do it. Go on.”
I wonder if this fucker of a day can get any worse. I get up from the bed and my limbs feel like clogged up pipes. I go to the bedside table and yank open the top drawer. There is a pile of tangled and mismatched socks, but at the back I can see one black sock that is bulging. I pick it up, part of me not wanting to know, part of me utterly hooked on the adrenaline that is swirling through me now. I only have to glance inside the stuffed sock to see that there is a lot of money there. More money than I have ever seen. I look at Joe and he is defiant.
“Plenty more where that came from,” he says. I swallow. My throat feels like sandpaper.
“Oh Joe,” I say. “I don’t want you to do this. I really don’t.”
“Don’t be such a wuss,” he rolls his eyes at me. I stuff the sock back into the drawer and shove it back into place. He reaches out and closes his hand around my wrist. “Think about it,” he says then, speaking very carefully and slowly. “What the fuck have any of them ever done for us Lou? Think about it. Your family. My fucking family. This shitting place. We can have some fun. Some real fun for once. If anything goes wrong, its Leon and Travis that get caught, not us. It’s them that go to jail, or whatever. All we are doing is delivering a parcel, yeah? Delivering a parcel to an address and getting paid. We have no idea what is in that parcel, do we? We’re just doing a favour. We’re just taking back something for us, for once.”
I want to say I have no idea what he is talking about, but the sad thing is I understand every word he has said. It is all up there on my bedroom wall. He is right about two things, I realise that right away. He is right to question what the fuck any of them have ever done for us, because it has always been me and Joe, at the bottom, ignored, patronized, put down, pushed aside. Because we don’t argue back, and we don’t cause scenes, and we don’t make trouble for anyone. We just fucking take it, don’t we? We might as well be fucking prostitutes the amount of shit we fucking take. And he is right about us having some fun, for once.
“How are you going to do it?” I ask him. “You’re grounded.”
“Sneak out,” he shrugs simply. “You up for it?”
“I’m not even grounded.”
“Will it be dangerous?” I cannot believe I am even asking this. I cannot believe I am even anywhere close to considering this utter madness.
“Not at all,” he grins at me. “You just knock on the door, or meet them somewhere, and give them their parcel. They give the money. That’s it.”
“How many times have you done this for Christ’s sake?”
“Just once,” he says. “Just yesterday. Well, twice technically. There were two places yesterday.”
“Why don’t they want to do it themselves?”
“They are. Some of it. They just want rid of it as quick as possible. Three of us is quicker.”
I bite my lip and sigh. “Where did they get it from in the first place?”
“I don’t even know that,” replies Joe. “I think they stole it or found it, but they won’t say.”
“There must be someone out there somewhere who wants to kill them.”
“I suppose.” Joe looks at me expectantly. “You want to make some money then?”