Dear World, those bastards! For the last two weeks they have refused to let me see, or speak to Joe. I can’t tell you how evil this is, I can’t begin to explain how depressed it makes me. He is about the only one who keeps me sane World! I feel I am falling apart without him, and I am not joking about this. Those evil hypocritical bastards have not allowed me to even phone him, or text him. They took my phone away and everything. The same goes for him. Our parents have got together and decided on this forced separation themselves. Tough love they call it, the idiots! After I admitted to smoking weed too, they pretty much all lost the plot. They can’t quite decide who the bad influence is among us. None of them think to look any further than Joe and me. One of us led the other one into it; they just can’t work out whom. I hear layers of shocked and outraged conversations between them, where none of them actually go as far as to point the finger at the other parents, but the insinuation is there all the same. The fact is, neither Joe nor myself have done anything to outrage or upset them before now, and they don’t know quite what to make of it. In truth, the fact that we have barely focused on their radars before now, seems to make them come down on us even harder. It feels like they already have Sara, Leon and Travis to lose sleep over, and they simply will not entertain the idea of Joe and myself adding to it. It’s just not going to happen. My dad tells my mum not to buy me any more new clothes, and my pocket money is suspended.
“I’m not having it,” I hear him hiss his opinion, when the four of them are huddled in our kitchen one evening, no doubt sipping wine and beer and flicking fag ash all over the place as they discuss what do to with us. “Drink is one thing, that’s one thing! I can handle that. We all did that. But drugs! Smoking weed! I don’t bloody think so, I’m not bloody having that, that’s bloody disgusting behaviour that is.”
I am listening on the landing. They may be aware of this, but it does nothing to stop or hasten their enraged discussions. “Leads to more of it, more drugs, that’s what happens!” my mum is freaking out about this. The opinions of others and the newspapers she devours have convinced her that next week her youngest daughter will be smoking crack cocaine, and most likely be injecting heroin by Christmas. “It’s a gateway drug,” she informs the other three adults. “That’s what they call it. A gateway to harder things.”
“Well I’m not bloody having it,” my dad says again.
“Never even had this from Leon and Travis, did we Mick?” That’s Lorraine, obviously. I can hear Mick grunting. I can just picture him screwing up his face and squaring up the way he does, even when there is nothing and no one to square up to.
“They’re spoilt and lazy, that’s the truth of it,” he huffs and puffs in my kitchen, and the others murmur in agreement. “I had a bloody job at that age, I bet we all did! They just lie around all day with nothing to do, that’s the problem.”
“Well Joe’s on babysitting and dog walking duties for the rest of the summer, isn’t he Mick?”
“Too bloody right he is!”
“And no band practice either. We’re coming down tough on this, Michelle, and we think you two should as well.”
“Oh we are, we are, aren’t we?” my mum says quickly. “Well, I’m letting her have Marianne over, because she’s such a sensible young girl.”
“Is she?” Lorraine does not sound so sure.
“Oh yes, oh yes, have you seen where she lives? Her parents are very well off you know. She’s a lovely polite girl.”
I don’t know about Joe, but I get through it by keeping a low profile. I stay in my room, I go out jogging, or I take the dog for long walks around the estate. I avoid my mother; because I do not want to have another drugs conversation with her. Les is still living with us, if you can call it that. He still has to run and hide every time my dad shows up. I am relieved that I am allowed Marianne over, or I would probably go insane. I soon learn that Joe has not been allowed the luxury of other friends at all. Josh and Ryan are banned, and Joe is under house arrest. He is forbidden from leaving the house at all. I think that if they are deliberately trying to drive him crazy, they are going about it the right way. Marianne comes over nearly every day during this punishment period. It amazes me that my mother has no qualms about this at all, based solely on the fact that she comes from a big house and her parents have good jobs. She has no idea that Marianne is so fucked up she slices into her own arms most days! She has no idea that Marianne was getting into the weed as much as us.
“Do you think they would let me visit Joe?” she wonders, when we are up in my room kneeling on my bed and gazing out of my window. I sigh, feeling like a prisoner in my home. I am wondering how the hell Joe is surviving it. At least I’ve got relative peace and quiet. He’s got those bloody kids!
“I doubt it,” I tell her, watching one of the neighbours little girls ride her bike up and down the road. “But you can try asking if you like. He must be going out of his mind by now.”
“You can’t even phone him?” she shakes her head incredulously.
“Nope. I did try on the landline. Mick answered and went mental. It’s not worth it. They’ll just add another two weeks on.”
“I know. It makes me sick. The fuckers.”
“You could have landed his brothers in it too.” Marianne looks at me sideways. I stare dismally down at the street. Her younger brother has joined the little girl from next door. He still has stabilisers on and can’t keep up with her, so he is crying and calling after her, but she won’t stop, she won’t slow down for him.
“I nearly did,” I tell her. “But it’s up to Joe really. They’re his family. Apparently he’s saving up for a drum kit. Leon reckons he would rather keep making money than drop them in it.”
“Insane!” Marianne breathes, her eyes growing wide. I nod in agreement with her. “So is he still sneaking out for them then? Is he still, you know?”
“I’m not sure,” I admit. “I wouldn’t risk it if I were him.”
“Oh my god,” Marianne smiles. “Crazy!”
She pulls back from the window and lies flat on her back on my bed. She is wearing a long black skirt today. Her pale little feet just barely poke out the bottom of it. I look back out of the window, as my neighbours little boy crashes his bike spectacularly in his efforts to keep up with his sister. I watch him sprawled out on the concrete, knees bloodied and face wailing. I should feel sympathy but I don’t. I look at his sister to see what she does. She stops her bike and turns it around. Then she looks up at her house to see if anyone is coming out yet. She makes no effort whatsoever to go to her little brother, or to help him. He just wails at the indignity and the unfairness of it all, as he clambers onto his shredded knees and throws back his head to the sky. Finally their mother, who is very overweight and always wears bright pink tracksuits, comes waddling out of the house. She shakes a finger and says something to the older girl, who just looks back at her blankly. The mother drags the little boy up from the ground, slings him onto her hip and grabs his bike with her other hand. I watch in awe as she staggers back to her house with both. He must be about five, and the bike looks heavy. I think to myself, well there you have it. Children are cruel. Siblings are born to outdo each other and tear each other to pieces in the scramble to be the best. Parents are simply adults who have been bumped to a higher status merely because of the fact they are physically able to have sex and squeeze out babies. This all becomes clear to me from my window. We live in a merciless world. This life is full of people who want to stamp you down into the ground to stop you getting past them. That is what it feels like World, at the moment. I am torn between wishing I was a child again, not having to worry about anything, except being allowed to play out, and wishing I was old enough to leave home like Sara, just pack my stuff and get the hell out.
I sigh again and look down at Marianne. I realise she has been a good friend to me this summer. I used to view her with suspicion. She intrigued me, but I did not trust her. I found her hard and abrasive, lacking in warmth. I could never tell if she meant the things she said. I could never quite work out if she actually liked me or not. But I feel differently now. She must like me, and Joe, otherwise what the hell would she be doing with a pair of rejects like us? I feel bad too. I feel bad because she was right about us always being joined at the hip. We don’t always think of her. We don’t always think to ask her along, not unless we need something from her.
“You’ve been a good friend,” I tell her then, surprising her with a rare compliment. She even sits up and gawps at me. “What?”
“Wow. It’s just unusual to hear you say something nice, or positive!”
“Yeah. But I can’t talk. I’m the same. What makes you say that?”
“Just, you know,” I slump back against the wall, under the window and shrug at her. “You’ve been keeping me company and stuff. Me and Joe probably leave you out a bit, usually, don’t we?”
“Oh I don’t mind that,” she grins, waving a hand at me. “I know what you two are like. I’m used to my own company anyway, remember?”
“Well yeah, but you know,” I shrug again. I am not comfortable with praising someone. It never sounds genuine, does it? It always just sounds like you are sucking up to them for some reason. “I’m sorry,” I say instead. “If we have left you out ever. That’s all.”
“Forget about it!” Marianne laughs at me. “Don’t be silly. Hey, when this punishment is all over, I’m getting you both over to mine for a piss up. And Ryan and Josh too. They can bring their instruments!”
“Your parents won’t mind?” I feel brighter now she has said this.
“Course not. They like me having people over, because I’m an only child and all that. Anyway, we’ll do it when they are out. It’ll be brilliant. We need some good nights don’t we? Before we go back to school and everything.”
I groan at the thought. “Yeah, we do. Definitely.”
“I bet you can’t wait for the stick insects at school to see you.” I look at her, and she is smiling a devilish smile at me.
“Oh yeah,” I murmur. She stifles an excited little giggle.
“They probably won’t even recognise you Lou. You’re gonna’ blow their tiny little minds. They’ll be all over you like a rash.” She leans forward then and puts her hand on my arm. “I think you’ve done amazing, by the way. Really amazing.”
“Has it been really tough?”
I shrug. I am not sure. I have not really thought of it that way. “Not really,” I tell her. “Once I made my mind up, that was it.”
“So many people fail, don’t they? Fat people, when they try to lose weight. They can never do it normally. But you did!””
“Yeah,” I say slowly, frowning slightly at her delighted little face. She seems particularly hyper today, I have to say. “I did, didn’t I?”
“You should be extremely proud,” Marianne insists. “You’ve totally changed your body you know. All by yourself! No one helped you.”
“You’re right about that.”
“Yeah, I know. Amazing. Really amazing.”
I have to admit, as odd as she is at times, I do enjoy Marianne’s enthusiasms over my weight loss. It’s really kind of her, I think, to encourage me all the time. Makes me feel less alone. She seems to notice every pound that I drop. Bless her.
I consider telling her how odd it seems to me that I never feel hungry anymore. That I really, truly cannot recall the last time I felt hunger. I did at the start. Bloody hell it was nothing less than torture at the start! I would find myself staring longingly at the food my mother and sister stuffed into their faces. The silky smoothness, and overpowering sweet scent of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate; my mum’s favourite ‘sin’. But I don’t do that now. I don’t look at food like that anymore. In fact I kind of see it the opposite way, if that makes sense. I see the fat content and the spoonfuls of processed sugar. I see the fat beneath my skin swelling and growing with every mouthful that I allow to enter it. It’s great though, I think. It’s great not feeling hungry anymore. It makes it so much easier to eat less.
I don’t share this with Marianne. Probably because she might think I had lost the plot a bit. I don’t know. I don’t tell her about the photos my mum took of me recently either. I hate having my photo taken World. It does not matter what you dress me up in, or what you do with my stupid hair, or whatever, I still don’t photograph well. I am not, what do they call it? Photogenic, that’s it. I’m just not. Never have been. Well my mum has this old camera she’s had for years. She must be the last person on earth to still take rolls of film to Boots to be developed, bless her. I keep telling her just to get a camera phone, but she seems to think the two things should be separate. Sometimes there is just no telling grown ups. So anyway, she was snapping away over my birthday, like she always does, then rushes off to get them all developed. Shows me. Fuck me, I wanted to cry. Oh look, oh look darling, she waffled on, going all teary like she always does when one of us is a year older, oh you look so grown up, so pretty! I don’t know what she sees when she looks at photos fof me World, but it sure as shit isn’t what I see! Would you believe World, even after all this effort, I still looked fat? I was all ewww in those photos. Really. I wanted to shout bollocks and screw them up, but she whisked them off to send them to obscure and uncaring relatives. So I don’t tell Marianne this, as she already knows I always look down or cover my face when any of my friends snap me with their camera phones. But I do make a promise to myself to treat her more like a friend from now on, and not just an acquaintance, someone we call on from time to time. She deserves more than that after all.
After Marianne has gone home, my mum comes up and sits on my bed next to me. She has her hands in her lap, between her knees. There is no tea towel. She seems lost and weary and I almost consider putting my arm around her shoulders and giving her a hug. I don’t though. I don’t know why she has come up here, and my cynical suspicions are aroused. “I have decided to tell your father about Les living here,” she sighs eventually, and confirms that I am nearly always right. I nod, and wait for more. “You are right, Lou. I can’t live my life for him anymore. He left me didn’t he? He went to her. I should be over it by now. I should move on. And Les is a good man, isn’t he? What do you think?”
“Well,” I say, thinking on it for a moment before replying. “I haven’t seen that much of him, seeing as how he’s mostly having to hide under your bed, but apart from that, he does seem okay. I mean, he talks to you nice. Not like dad. He talks to you like you’re a human being, not a piece of shit.”
My mum looks at me with a stern frown. “Lou!”
“What?” I shrug at her. “It’s true. Dad talks to nearly everyone like they’re shit. Especially if they are female. Can’t believe you’ve never noticed.”
“Well, actually I have noticed. I was married to him, you know.”
“When are you going to tell him?”
“I don’t know. Give me time. It takes courage to work up to these things, you know Lou. Even when you’re an adult. Life doesn’t stop being scary. I’m not looking forward to it.” She looks back at her knees and takes a deep breath, before exhaling again, as if to give herself some strength. “I will do it though, I promise you that. No more lies and secrets. Everything out in the open. Maybe Les and I will be happy.”
“Well I hope so mum.” And I do. I mean it.
“I will tell your sister too. Next time I see her.”
“Okay,” I nod again. “Cool.”
“Lou, you’re not going to smoke that stuff again, are you?” She looks slowly at me, turning her head as if it pains her to do so. Her eyes are narrowed, like someone flinching from a smack.
“You mean, cannabis?” I ask her, and she physically squirms at the word.
“Yes, Lou. It’s time we had a proper talk about all that.”
“Course I won’t mum,” I tell her, with another shrug, that means so little, I wonder if she buys it any more than I do. How can she even ask me that, I wonder. How am I meant to know what I might do, or not do? The chances are slim anyway, so it seems easier to just say no. I don’t tell her that I would take being hammered over being stoned any day. Though that might actually be a relief to her. Obviously alcohol is a ‘safe’ adult approved and tested gateway drug. “I only did it to keep Joe company. You know.”
“Well no, I don’t know actually, but if you promise you won’t do it again…” she looks at me pleadingly.
“You were a teenager once mum,” I point out to her.
“And my mum would have clipped me round the ear if I’d even thought about doing something like that!” she tells me incredulously. “It was very strict. You did what you were told or else.”
“That’s not so different from today,” I mutter, thinking about Joe. Mum blows her breath out through her teeth, and lifts one leg to cross it over the other. She tugs her knee length skirt down towards her knee.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I don’t know really.”
“You mean us punishing you and Joe, don’t you?”
I shrug in reply. She puts her arm around me then, taking me by surprise. She wraps it around my shoulders and pulls me into her side, and I let her. I rest my head on her shoulder, and feel her hand rubbing up and down gently on my bare arm. “You two,” she says, and I can feel her smile. “You’re just like sister and brother, aren’t you? Always have been. Always been joined at the hip you two. Never seen anything like it. Me and Lorraine always say it, you know. The rest of the kids never bothered much with each other, but you two….You two are so sweet.”
“Mum, why are they so horrible to him then?”
“I don’t think they are horrible, Lou. They just think it’s best to be tough. To nip these things in the bud. Boys can be a handful you know. Lorraine was on her own for a while with the first three. I know how tough it was for her.” She is still rubbing my arm slowly.
“But mum, you don’t understand. When I was there, Mick just waded in and smacked Joe in the head. He has no right to do that!”
“Oh Lou, Mick is very fiery, he acts first and thinks later, you know that.”
“That’s no excuse. He’s vile to her kids! He thinks his two can do no wrong!”
“Well they are only little, darling. It’s different. Three teenage boys in the house is hard work for anyone. I don’t think I could do it!” She holds me a little tighter and leans in to kiss me on the top of my head. “I’ve always been glad I had two little girls, you know. But Mick cares about those kids really, he does. He wouldn’t do a thing if he didn’t care. He would let them do whatever the hell they liked, wouldn’t he?”
“Well I don’t like him,” I say, petulantly, and I pull away from her hug, dismayed at her allegiance to him, determined to not ever feel empathy for him. “He’s always horrible. Always has been.” I cross my arms over my stomach. Mum sighs a little and gets to her feet.
“You might understand more when you are an adult, and a parent Lou,” she says, looking down at me calmly. “That’s all I can say. It’s the hardest job in the world being a parent, and I imagine being a step-parent is even harder.”
“Okay,” she sighs, this time it’s a huge one, and she walks to the door. “I’ll leave you to it. You can go and see Joe tomorrow, okay? Lorraine said. But you two are on thin ice, remember? Best behaviour or else!”
I could say whatever again, but I don’t. I just turn my back on her slowly, making a feeble effort to hide my disappointment, and I lie on my belly on my bed. I hear her open the door. “Lou, I don’t want you getting any thinner either,” she says suddenly, and the way she says it I can tell it’s not just an after thought, but more like something she has been building up to saying. “You’re lovely as you are now okay? I don’t want you taking this diet any further.” I don’t answer her, so she goes out and closes the door behind her. I am left alone with my own jumbled thoughts. I lie flat on my belly and experience a whirlwind of contrasting emotions. I feel the familiar stab of pride at my weight loss. Even the fact my mum has mentioned it the way she has makes me feel proud and defiant. I feel excited and yet nervous about seeing Joe tomorrow. How has his two weeks been? What are we going to say to each other? I feel a little warmer towards my mum, and relieved about her telling dad the truth for once, but still….she always has to stick up for Lorraine and Mick, doesn’t she? Makes me sick.