Dear World, I am sat at the kitchen table in my house. I am staring at the fish and chips on my plate. It stares back at me, all fat greasy and pale. I am trying to figure out in my head how many calories there are. I am guessing maybe at least a thousand. Les has bought the fish and chips. Mum is gushing over this, as if buying fish and chips is the most admirable thing a person can do for you. I wasn’t even allowed to go to my room with it. I could have taken Gremlin and fed the greasy shit to him. But no. I’ve got to sit at the fucking table, with my insane mother and her weasel-eyed houseguest, watching them swap loving looks with each other. I present them with a steely silence that I am childishly determined not to break. My mother utters empty words about us all getting along nicely, and pretends not to notice the filthy looks I give her. As for him, I do not look at him at all. I am not going to be a stroppy bitch like my sister, but I am not going to fawn all over this stranger either. As far as I am concerned, he is a cheeky bastard, and no good is going to come out of any of this. What is she going to do when dad shows up? Hide the bloke under her bed?
I feel resigned to living with this joke of a situation, and push my fat wet chips around my plate with my fork. I am not going to eat any of this shit. I can hear Les gobbling away, and when I inadvertently glance up, I see he has chip grease smeared on his chin, and he laughs at something my mum has said, which is not funny, and he leaves his mouth open when he laughs, and I can see all the chewed up food in his mouth, and I want to kill myself. I get up abruptly, screeching back my chair and walk out of the room.
A perturbed silence follows me up the stairs. I go into my room and close the door. I feel sullen and angry and spiteful and irrelevant. I think of my mother, and I almost wish for dad to find out about Les. To stand back and watch it all explode around her. To laugh in her face. But the prospect of dad finding out is actually quite scary. I shiver and throw myself face down onto my bed, and I close my eyes and in my dark mind I can see Joe, and his fucked up eyes. Even though it is completely insane and dangerous, the more I think about it, the more I can understand what he is doing and why. His brothers have never asked for his help before. His brothers have never asked anything of him before, except for him to fuck off. Leon, especially, has never needed or desired Joe to exist. Now suddenly he does. He needs him. He asked for his help. This proves to Joe that on some level, Leon trusts him, maybe even values him. I am concerned about him, but I can understand why he is doing it. I am not going with him obviously. I am too chicken, too scared, too childish and afraid. Joe is not afraid of anything, and I don’t know why, or how that can be. Look at him. Throws himself at his older brother for a fight he would not have won. Sneaks out from a grounding, risking round two with his mum and Mick, to deliver Class A narcotics to a complete, and undoubtedly shady stranger. It is insane, I think, my face still pressed into my duvet. But he’s not afraid to do it, is he? Why isn’t he?
Then I think about the way he has been brought up. Lorraine is not one of those cuddly, touchy-feely mothers and she never has been. It has always been fend for yourself in their house. She has always worked, so she has always had to rush out of the door, leaving the kids to it. Secretly, I think she just wanted to get away from them for a few hours. When Joe was little, Leon and Travis would be left in charge. You can imagine the insanity that would follow. She would come home to chaos and a wrecked house. I can remember sneaking quickly out the back door more than once, so that she would not know I was involved. You could hear her shrieking half way down the street. That was her way. Scream, shout, smack, wallop. I have seen my own mother wince on more than one occasion when witnessing Lorraine chastise her sons. Luckily for me, neither of my parents has ever raised a hand to me, or to Sara. People are all different, my mum will repeat this every time I dare to question Lorraine’s parenting skills. People are all different, and they all lead different lives, and you cannot hope to understand a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes. That last bit always makes me choke. I don’t know how Lorraine manages to walk a mile in her own shoes, let alone me trying it.
I roll over onto my back and stare at the ceiling. I can hear the murmur of chat and laughter coming from downstairs. I try not to think anymore about Joe. My mind, and its obsession with potential violence and gore, wants to think up all the many ways this could blow up in his unassuming face. Such as the stranger being a psychotic who takes the drugs, refuses to hand over the money and beats Joe to a bloody pulp when he protests. Or the true owners of the drugs catching up with him, mistakenly thinking this skinny young kid is the one who stole their goods. I press my hands against my eyes, willing away the images of fists and feet and weapons putting an end to my best friends short existence. I am going to have to talk to him again. I am going to have to spell out the dangers to him, the ‘what ifs’ he obviously has not thought of himself. How long is this going to go on for? How long does it take to get rid of that much cocaine? How the fuck are they doing it? Oh Christ, I feel sick just thinking about it.
If I had any kind of mother I would go downstairs and ask to speak to her. I would probably cry in her arms and tell her about it, and she would comfort me and then do something about it. She would sort it all out. But I am beginning to realise that adults are not any better at sorting things out, than we are. In fact, dear World most of the time they seem to be even worse at it. I mean, why doesn’t my mother speak to my dad honestly about bloody Les? Why doesn’t she offer him more money for rent if Les moves in? It’s not so much him moving in that enrages and appals me, it’s her stupidity and cowardice in not telling my dad. This is his house. He bought it from the council, so he likes to tell anyone who will listen; he bought it from the council. Yay, I feel like saying when he tells this story. Well done. Really proud of you dad. Now he technically has two houses anyway, I bet he tells everyone he fucking sees in the street about it. He moved in with the woman he cheated on mum with, Maria. She already owned her house, so the greedy bastard bought in with her, and now owns half of that one as well as ours. Why does he need two houses I ask you? Why does anyone? Greed and stupidity. I am surrounded by greed and stupidity dear World. You and me both know it.
Anyway, just because he owns our house, and mum pays rent to him, he thinks this gives him the right to show up whenever he wants to. He will never ever phone first. Bastard. I have told mum a million times that he can’t do that. He can’t do that as our landlord and he can’t do that as our father. He just can’t. When he left, he was all, oh we’ll sort something out about the kids, see them every weekend, have them at ours, all that worthless shit. That didn’t last long. I’ve been to Maria’s house three times in three years, and I wouldn’t go again if you fucking paid me. You would have to tie me up and drag me by the hair. So he shows up here whenever he feels like winding up mum on the pretence of caring about his daughters.
Right, I’ve had enough of this. I am so wound up I want to punch the wall. I want to pick up every single object I can see in my room and hurl it at the floor. I look at the desk and wonder how it would feel to just swipe it all right off. I have never done that before, but I bet it is fun. I jump off the bed and look at myself in the mirror. I turn sideways, and then I turn the other way. I decide there and then to go for a run. It will make me feel better in so many ways. So I get changed into my jogging trousers, sports bra and t-shirt and drag my trainers out from under the bed. I do a few stretches, and then go downstairs.
My mum comes out of the kitchen automatically, tea towel in hand, hopeful expression on face. I totally blank her and go out of the door before she can even think to ask me to take the dog. I start running right away. I used to get embarrassed when I first started. I used to think people would laugh at me, so I would either get up early and run, or do it in the evening, just before dark. I don’t care now. Now you can see I have lost weight, and I feel proud of that, proud to show it off, and proud to show them how I have done it. I am still doing it. I get to the fields and run around the perimeter. The whole field is empty. The park is deserted. There is no one in sight, and this feels wonderful. I feel the freedom lift my vile mood slightly. It feels good to be running, to be charging along, my feet hitting the earth, totally and utterly alone. My mind starts to clear. The clutter starts to drop away. I lift my knees, and embrace the earth, my feet pounding on it, my arms pumping, my hair flying back from my face. Until I started jogging, I never understood how exercise could make you feel better. It seemed a bizarre concept to me. But I get it now. You feel kind of in tune with your body, with your physical self. I think I’ve always been ridiculously in tune with my emotional self, but not the physical, not until now, not like this.
I feel and hear my heart pumping, my breath forced around my body, blood careering through my veins. I think about my body as a machine now. I do not accept that my knees ache. I do not allow myself to consider that once around the field is enough. I want to control my body and make it do what I want. It is not going to let me down anymore. I force it on because I own it. I am in the driving seat. I am operating the controls. This brings a crazy smile to my face as I start to run around the field for the third time. I am amazed at how my body does it. I make it do it.
I only stop running because I trip over a fucking brick and go flying into the ground. I am fine. I am worried about twisting my ankle, or some such thing, because if I had to stop jogging for a while, then I would have to eat even less, wouldn’t I? But I am fine, and nothing hurts. I sit back on my arse and look wonderingly at the brick, and look around to make sure no one saw me fall. There is still no one in sight for miles around. I am panting and my chest is heaving quickly up and down, and now that I have stopped, I can feel a tight gripping pain down the right side of my chest. So I sit back and just breathe, and stare up at the sky, and think okay, maybe that will do. Of course, there is a part of me that says it will not do, so get the fuck up and run on. But the pain is getting worse, and I know I can’t.
I do feel better though World. It was like every negative thought, every tensed and angry muscle, every piece of sadness, started to fall away as I ran. They just drifted away, they fell off me, they fell out of me, they backed off. I breathe in lungfuls of summer air scented by cut grass, and think about going home. Not an attractive idea, but the alternative is staying out here on my own. Could get depressing.
I haul myself to my feet and walk slowly towards home. I am thinking about a large mug of coffee, followed by some mints. I have recently discovered that having packs of mints around when you are dieting is really handy. Next to no calories, and they give you a little rush of energy and make the thought of food go away again. I think about Joe, in his bedroom. I wonder how he is feeling, what he is thinking. I wonder what has been said, if anything, between Travis and him about me. My cheeks flush with warmth automatically at the thought of Travis. I have not really let myself think about what happened at the party. It still scares the shit out of me. I can strongly picture Travis and Leon talking and joking about me. Maybe it was a dare from Leon. I wouldn’t put it past him. I shudder. That horrible bastard.
When I get home, my dads work van is in the driveway.
I want to laugh. I really do. I want to throw back my head and roar with laughter right out there in the street. Okay then. Here we go. Here we go. He must be on his lunch break. He’s a painter and decorator and has a couple of lanky lads working for him. I don’t want to see him but I have to see this. I just have to.
I open the door and go in, and there is my dad in the kitchen, mug of tea in hand, wearing his paint splattered work trousers and shirt. I look at him and he looks at me, and I wonder as usual what he thinks, or feels when he sees me. Because I am sixteen years old and I have yet to work out exactly what I think or feel about him. The only answer I can give you World is not much. Not much at all. When he lived with us, he made me feel small, so I kept out of his way if I could. After he left, I started to feel increasingly shy and awkward at seeing him. Now I realise that I have always felt this way around him, my own dad, like he is a stranger. Like he is a distant relative who shows up from time to time, and isn’t really interested in kids, but has to make small talk with you to be polite. That’s how it is. He is someone I am perpetually too shy to approach or talk to. He is someone who cares too little to ever ask me what I am doing, what I am interested in, or what I want out of this life. So we skirt uncomfortably around each other, and it is all an avoidance tactic.
“All right?” he says to me with a wink. He always winks. What does this mean? That we are somehow close, or share a secret? It’s laughable.
“All right,” I say back, and that is usually as far as it goes. My mum is leaning against the kitchen cupboard, with her cup of tea. She gives me a strained, wide-eyed look, that I can only imagine is her way of begging me not to drop her in it. I look around and vaguely try to picture where Les could be hiding. It makes me want to laugh. I kick off my trainers, and make a fuss of Gremlin, because my dad hates dogs, and would never let us have one when he lived here. I stroke and fondle his long ears, and even go as far as planting a loving kiss on his squashed up nose.
“Ah look at this,” says my dad to my mum. “The bleeding dog gets more affection than I do!” This is his little try at humour, so I smile dutifully and head for the stairs.
“Sara is at your dads,” mum says then. I stop and look back.
“Yes, you know, because me and her had that little fight?” My mum gives me that look again. Ah okay, I see. Dad does not know about Les. Even Sara, in her anger has not dropped mum in it. I can’t see her lasting long there though.
“Popped by to tell your mum,” dad shrugs at me, so I nod back.
“She’s getting skinny,” my dad says then to my mum, and looks back at me. I frown. This is what he does as well. Talks to you through someone else.
“She’s doing ever so well on her diet,” mum says proudly, smiling at me. “I can hardly get her to eat a thing these days! And look, she goes jogging too.”
“Bleedinghell,” laughs dad. “Who would have thought it? Right little porker she always was.”
“Thanks a lot,” I sigh, and start up the stairs.
“He’s only joking Lou!” mum calls up after me. “No one can call you that now, can they?”
I go into my room and resist the urge to slam the door. They can all fuck off and die. Seriously. Fuck off and die. I wonder if Les is hiding in her room, and I want to storm in there and shout at my dad to come and see. Why should I hide their pathetic secrets? I find I am now back at square one. I am seething with rage and indignation and hurt and I am mystified as to why. Why do I let their useless shit bother me? Why does Joe not care about anything? How does he do that?
I lie on my bed and close my eyes and let the anger fill me and consume me. There is no point fighting it, or denying it, so I just go with it. I think vile and nasty things about all of them. I imagine my dad’s brakes failing on his way home, and his van crashing into a wall, and his paint splattered body flying helplessly through the windscreen. Ouch. But eventually, inevitably I turn the anger on myself. I want to punch myself in the stomach, I want to smash my face into the wall and watch the blood run down. I slide my hands down onto my stomach instead. I search for the rise and the fall. I feel for my ribs. I calm myself down by thinking about fading away.
I hear dad go an hour later. He calls goodbye up the stairs. I think of Les, crawling out of his hiding place. Mum comes up to see me. She looks pained and anxious and guilty, and so she should. I give her a withering look. “It’s not for long,” she tells me. “I know what you are thinking, and you are right, I should not be putting you in this position. But Les has lots of places to look at, you know, new flats. It’s not for long Lou, it’s really not worth upsetting your dad.”
“Why don’t you just tell him? Why can’t you have a boyfriend move in if you want to?” I sit up and ask her. I have a blinding headache coming. “He left you for Maria mum. He cheated on you with her.” I see the hurt in her eyes, but I cannot undone what I have said, and for God’s sake, I cannot undo that it even happened, but it did. He did it. Plus, in case she has forgotten, he left her in the shit financially. I remember her sat at the kitchen table, head in hand, staring down at her own workings out on a notepad as she struggled to figure out how to pay all of the bills herself. I can remember us all hiding behind the sofa’s in the lounge, when the bailiffs turned up one afternoon. How can she have forgotten that? How can she not hate him like I hate him?
“Lou,” she says softly. “You know your dad.”
“No I don’t actually,” I argue with her. “I don’t know him at all. Never have.”
“What does that mean?”
“You work it out. Well if you want to live your life this way, with him controlling you, with him acting like you’re still his, when it was him that walked out on you, then that’s fine, you do that.” I lie back down and stare at the ceiling. “Just don’t expect me to congratulate you.”
“You think I should talk to him about Les?” She is leaning against the doorframe. She looks tired and old and frightened. I cannot understand how people can live their lives like that.
“Nothing to do with me is it?” I retort in anger. “None of you care what I think. Just do what you like.”
“Oh Lou, it is never as easy as that. I wish it was, but it is so much harder than you know.”
“I don’t know anything,” I tell her. “Hadn’t you better tell him he can come out now?” My mum sighs and goes out of the room, closing the door quietly behind her. I roll over and find my pen and start to spread swearwords and insults all over my bedroom wall.