Dear World, when I am finally allowed to see my best friend again, it is not a reassuring sight. Neither is it the happy reunion I expect it to be. Instead, Joe slouches out of his house, Will and Tommy flanking him on either side, and Rozzer on the lead. He gives me a look, which tells me this has been his existence for the past fourteen days, and I swallow and grimace, and the words I hope to find to make light of it, do not come. He comes out of the front door stony-faced and dark eyed. Despite the heat wave, his face looks pale, with large dark shadows hanging beneath each eye. “You look like shit,” I tell him bluntly, hoping to raise a smile. He takes the strain as Mick’s dog launches into his panting, heaving death walk, and does little more than raise one eyebrow at me.
“Haven’t had a smoke in two weeks,” he grumbles, yanking Rozzer back on his lead, to no avail. “Leon won’t risk giving me any. Fucker.”
“That’s why you look like shit?”
“Can’t sleep,” he snaps at me. “I was always having a quick one before bed. It was nice.” He walks along, with one arm stretched out in front of him, and the gasping, lurching dog on the end of it, half strangling itself. Tommy and Will walk politely behind him, as if sensing how unwanted and begrudged their presence is. I glance back at them in guilt. They are holding hands, and talking to each other. Tommy has a little plastic truck clutched in one grubby hand. We head silently to the park. All the things I want to say to him, to ask him, I cannot say in front of a three year old and a seven year old. The atmosphere is heavy with Joe’s anger and resentment. I am so relieved when we make it to the field, and he unclips Rozzer from his lead. “Go on then fuck off!” he shouts to the dog, as it races off across the grass, barking at nothing. “Bloody thing, bloody hound from hell,” Joe mutters in disgust.
“I should have brought Gremlin,” I say, watching as Tommy and Will run on their little legs towards the park. “They would have worn each other out.”
“Can never wear that bastard out,” Joe spits. “Take him out all day and he’s still a bloody nutter at home. Stupid thing.”
“So how have you been?” I ask, now that the little one are out of earshot. I look at him and he shoves his hands into his pockets and walks along to the slide. He sits down and I join him. I look back, inside the hut, and remember how we had stretched out there after our smoke that day, after I’d thrown up. Joe just sits and glares out at the world. I feel like I am walking on eggshells with him. I feel like everything I want to say is going to annoy and enrage him, and this upsets me. This is not the Joe my mum and me were talking about yesterday. He looks both haunted, and rigid with rage at the same time. “Joe?” I say softly, prompting him. He does not look at me. “Are you okay?”
“Just brilliant,” he replies, his tone cold. “Had a brilliant two weeks thanks. Haven’t left the fucking house unless it’s to come here and do this. Fun times.”
“But it’s over now,” I remind him, “we can have fun times now.”
“How?” he asks, glaring at me. “I’ve still got them twenty four fucking seven. I’m still being punished.”
“They can’t make you have them the entire summer!”
“They can,” Joe disagrees, “They’ve both taken on extra hours at work. They say they need the money.” I look into his eyes then, and all I can see is the pain and the fury that has been spinning in his mind for weeks. I swallow quickly and I drop my hand onto his arm.
“Look, it’s okay,” I tell him firmly. “Okay, I’ll help you. We’ll do it together okay?”
“Push me on swings!” Tommy is yelling suddenly. We both look up at him. He is over at the baby swings, clinging onto one with all his might, legs dangling and kicking as he tries desperately to propel himself into it. I feel Joe tense and stiffen beside me. “Joe push me on swings!” Tommy yells again.
Joe tries to ignore him. He looks down at the ground and digs the heel of his trainer into the dirt. “I’ve been so bored,” I tell him, trying to lighten the mood. “Had Marianne round a bit. Mum likes her! Thinks she’s sensible or something.”
“Oh yeah?” Joe snorts with vicious laughter. “Sensible hacking her arms to bits eh?”
“Well obviously she doesn’t know about that.”
“Push me on swings Joe!”
“Fuck off,” Joe hisses under his breath.
“She’s been cool though,” I go on, although I am horribly aware that anything I say could push him over the edge. He is glaring down at the dirt and taking deep breaths in and out. “I feel bad actually,” I witter on, “you know, ‘cause we never really like include her or anything. She’s been really cool.”
“Good. Brilliant. Any other news?” Joe is still staring at the ground.
“Push me! Push me! Joe push me on swings!”
“Well, sort of. Mum is going to tell dad the truth about Les. At some point. Kind of a good idea I think.”
“Have you seen much of Leon and Travis?”
Joe finds a stick lying in the dirt and picks it up. He holds it by one end and stabs the other end back into the dirt. “Swings!” Tommy is now yelling at full volume. There is a mother near the swings, pushing her toddler in a buggy. I see her looking awkwardly at the hanging Tommy, and then over to us, as if expecting us to do something about it. “Joe swings!”
“Hang on a minute Tommy!” I call out, more for the mothers benefit than Tommy’s.
“Just ignore him,” hisses Joe. “And no, I haven’t. They’ve been busy.”
“I bet they have.”
“Don’t start,” he sighs at me, dropping his head into his hand.
“Joe, I could have fucking killed them that day,” I tell him, glancing up at Tommy, who has fallen back from the swing, and is now sat on his bottom on the ground, wailing angrily. Will hovers near him wondering what to do. “The way they stood back and let you take the blame.”
“It was my blame to take though.”
“But they gave you the weed! It was their fault too.”
“No point us all getting in trouble.”
“So what do they ever do for you?”
“Oh shut up, forget about it, shut up,” Joe looks up then, and catches sight of his two half-brothers, one crying in the dirt, and the other stooping down to comfort him.
“Push me on swings Joe!” Tommy wails again.
“No I fucking won’t!” Joe screams back at him suddenly. I am shocked. The mother with her toddler is shocked. Even Tommy is shocked. Because he stops asking, and shoves his thumb into his mouth to stop himself from crying.
“I will Tommy,” I say then, getting up. I do not look at Joe as I walk away from him, over to Tommy. Will scuttles off. The mother with her toddler has unstrapped him from his buggy and hauls him into one swing. I pull Tommy up to his feet and lift him into the one next door. He stops crying and sucking his thumb and starts to giggle in hysterical contentment. I stand there and push Tommy back and forth in the swing, while Joe sits and sulks in the hut.
I don’t look at the mother with her child, as I push Tommy on the swing, because I know that my cheeks are red with embarrassment. She looks well dressed, with poker straight blonde hair, and subtle make-up on. Her little boy is clean and wearing expensive Clark’s trainers. I sigh, and imagine she comes from Marianne’s side of the fields. It seems like I have only pushed Tommy for a few seconds, before he changes his mind and starts demanding to get out. I stop the swing and lift him out and he runs over to where Will is climbing up the ladder to the slide, right above Joe’s head. I drop my shoulders as I walk slowly back to Joe. He looks bored and angry. He does not even thank me for pushing Tommy. I sit back next to him.
“Have you still been helping them?” I ask softly, meaning Leon and Travis. Joe stares at the dirt and does not look at me.
“Sneaking out when they’re all asleep.”
“You’re insane,” I tell him, shaking my head. “Can’t they do it themselves now? Haven’t they got you into enough trouble?”
Joe shrugs at me, uncaring. “Think I would go crazy if I didn’t get out the house anyway,” he tells me. “I don’t mind doing it. I need the money.”
“Joe, how are you going to explain to your parents where you got the money for a drum kit from?” I wonder what the hell he is thinking. What the hell is going through his head right now. He looks up, past me. Tommy is wailing again, this time because he is in pain. It looks like Will has given him a pretty hard shove down the slide, and he is now lying face down in the dirt at the bottom. Joe stands up, huffing with frustration. He goes to Tommy and wrenches him up by the arm.
“Did you shove him down?” he demands, looking up at Will who is just about to come down the slide. Will lifts and drops his hands apologetically.
“He wasn’t going down! He takes too long!” Will slips slowly down the slide towards Joe, just as Tommy’s wailing reaches a painfully high pitch in his ear. Joe lets go of Tommy and grabs Will by the neck of his t-shirt. I can only stand and watch in horror as Joe punches Will in the head, just as Mick had done to him that day.
“Joe!” I practically scream at him. He doesn’t look at me. Will starts to cry and tries to pull away.
“You’re mean! You’re mean!” he yells. I look up helplessly. The mother by the swings is staring at us with her hands over her mouth. Joe does not see. His face is ruined by rage. He looks like he wants to kill his brothers.
“Joe, stop it, stop it,” I tell him firmly, and I reach for Will and grab his arm. Joe swats at him again as I pull him away, catching him on the ear. “Joe no!” I shout, and I pull Will and Tommy away from him, and the staring, horrified mother. I pull Will to my side and wrap my arm around his shaking shoulders. He has balled his fists up into his eyes and is really sobbing. Tommy is just screaming for the sake of it. It really is a horrible grating sound. “Get the dog!” I hiss at Joe as he glares at me silently. “Get the dog, we’re going!”
Joe stomps away finally, swinging Rozzer’s lead in one hand. I have an arm around each boy, and start to lead them gently away from the park. I keep my back to the woman staring, but I can sense her accusing eyes on me. I feel red faced and ashamed and angry. I want to shout back at her, what are you looking at? It’s not his fault, that’s what they all do!
“He’s mean to me! He’s mean to me!” Will chants behind his leaking eyes. I have to keep my arm around him, as he is not looking where he is going. I pat his shoulder in a clumsy way. Part of me feels genuinely sorry for him. He is only seven, and he didn’t deserve that. But part of me feels more sorry for Joe. I don’t even like to think what will happen when Mick finds out. I almost want to tell Will and Tommy to shut the hell up and be good for once. I want to tell them how lucky they are, to have both their parents together, and on their side. I feel like telling them they will never understand how it is for Joe. But I say nothing, except for the odd pointless ‘there, there’ and ‘it’s okay’.
Joe has called Rozzer back and clipped his lead back on. The dog is not tired out in the slightest, and pulls and gasps the whole way home. We walk in a cold stony silence, Joe staring at the ground as Rozzer hauls him along. Tommy and Will manage to stop crying, and just utter the odd pathetic whimper instead. I decide to get them something to eat when we get in. Something they can go in the garden and stuff their faces with. Anything to keep them quiet, and out of Joe’s way for ten minutes.
We get back to the house. Joe drags out his key and unlocks the door. Will heads inside and disappears. Tommy immediately trips over the doorstep and hits his head and starts to scream again. Joe has no patience left to lose. He lets Rozzer go, and reaches out for Tommy. “Just fucking shut up will you!” he hisses at him, grabbing his little arm and pulling him to his feet. I see Tommy staring up at him, his face red and glistening with sliding tears. “Shut up for once! I’m sick of you!” Joe releases him, but can’t help giving him a little shove into the lounge. I’ve had enough. I follow Joe in and close the door, and I pull him back by his arm.
“That’s enough,” I warn him. “Seriously. They’re just kids.”
“They’re his fucking kids,” Joe corrects me, eyes blazing. “Spoilt little brats. They get away with everything. I hate them.”
“It’s not their fault, Joe,” I tell him, still holding onto his arm. “They didn’t ask to be born, any more than you did.”
“You’re just passing it on to them. Like Leon and Travis did to you.”
“Leon and Travis are my real brothers,” he says, and pulls away from me.
“This isn’t like you,” I say helplessly, following him through to the lounge where he drops down onto the sofa and sticks his feet up onto the nearest coffee table.
“Good,” he replies, “I’m glad.”
“Well I’m not! I like the old you better!”
“Tough shit,” he tells me with a shrug of his shoulders. “Don’t care.”
I can see that. They have done a good job on him all right, I think then, staring at him in disbelief. They have taken away nearly everything that he cares about, and ruined his summer by lumbering him with two whining kids and a dog that never tires out. And here is the result. He is acting scarily like Leon, I think, watching him. Blank and uncaring, simmering rage just under the surface, no empathy or concern for anyone. I lower myself onto the sofa, as he gets up and sets up the play station. I have no idea where the little ones have gone, but I don’t blame them for totally vanishing. I watch in silence, trying to find the right words to say to get through to him, as he plugs in the play station and starts to play a game, slumped back into the sofa, with his thumbs waggling the controls. His face goes totally blank, his eyes dead and unseeing. I get up with a sigh and go into the kitchen to make us both a coffee.
I find cups, and put the kettle on, and lean against the table while the water boils. I fold my arms around my body, and find the bumps of my ribs against the palm of my hand, and I find it comforting. There is a cardboard box on the table, full of broken biscuits. I smile slightly, remembering the excitement of broken biscuits, and I think, only poor people can find broken biscuits exciting. I find a clean plate and pile it with broken biscuits for the little ones, in case they reappear. I am just pouring the coffee, and starting to feel a little bit calmer, when I hear Joe start to swear in the lounge. “You little shit!” he is cursing. “I told you to stay out of my room! Damn it!”
I run in, holding the plate of biscuits. Tommy is standing in the middle of the room holding one of Joe’s CD’s. I think the kid must have a death wish. Will has reappeared too. But he is keeping his head down, and is crouched on the floor in front of the TV where he has his Lego spread out. It looks like he has been busy building some sort of fort out of Lego. There are heaps of little plastic soldiers mixed in with Lego, lying all over the carpet. Joe snatches the CD from Tommy and checks it over. It looks okay to me, but Joe is searching for a crack, or a smear, his face screwed up, his eyes scowling. “Just stay out of my stuff!” he growls. Just then Tommy picks up the play station control from the sofa and starts to press the buttons. “Get off that!” screams Joe, shoving him away. He loses his temper completely then. I have never seen him so wild, apart from when he attacked Travis, and then he had been very drunk. “Touch my stuff and I’m gonna’ touch yours!” he starts to yell loudly, and brings his foot down on Will’s Lego. Will moves back, eyes wide in horror.
“No!” he screeches. “My fort!”
“I’m gonna’ break all your stuff and see how you like it!” Joe is shouting, and now he is stamping again and again on the Lego. The fort is destroyed, and little pieces of coloured plastic start to splinter and fly about the room. Will covers his face with both hands and just sobs uncontrollably at the loss of his fort. When Joe has had enough, he sits back on the sofa, picks up the controls and goes back to his game. Just like that. I feel like I am in some kind of nightmare, where Leon’s warped soul has infiltrated Joe’s sweet one.
“I’ll help you build it again,” I say quickly, kneeling down next to Will and putting the plate of biscuits on the floor. Tommy sits next to me and helps himself to half a bourbon. I only look briefly at Joe, as I start to sweep armfuls of bricks towards me. Will takes a biscuit, but carries on sobbing. “We can build an even bigger, better one,” I try to tell him. “A massive one! One with towers and everything!”
Five minutes later, Joe is totally engrossed in his stupid football game, Tommy is eating his own body weight in biscuits, and Will is still crying about his fort. I am not that good at Lego. Everything I try to do just seems to make him cry more. He is still whimpering when the front door opens and Mick storms in. I stare up at him in horror, my eyes frozen on his heavily lined, boxers face. He slams the door behind him and squints down at his two little sons. “Daddy!” Tommy cries out gleefully, a biscuit in each hand. Will just stares up at him, eyes wet with tears.
“What’s the matter with you?” Mick asks, in that unbelievably soft tone he uses for his boys.
“My fort!” Will tells him, starting to really sob again. His whole face has gone red with the effort. I look apologetically at Mick.
“I’m helping him fix it,” I say uselessly. Mick frowns.
“Oh look at that!” he says, kneeling next to Will and stroking his back with one hand. “What a mess!”
“My fort daddy!” Will wails again, sobbing into Mick’s shoulder. And then I hear him say it; “Joe did it! Joe did it daddy!”
My glance flicks nervously to Joe on the sofa. His eyes register the accusation, but he says nothing, and keeps his eyes on the TV, his thumbs still waggling madly on the control. Mick’s face hardens and he gets back to his feet.
“Is that right?” he asks Joe, nodding at the Lego. “Did you break his fort?”
Joe does not answer. I watch as his bottom jaw juts out slightly in defiance, but he says nothing. “He stamped on it all daddy!” Will says, adding fuel to the fire. Mick’s eyes widen.
“Oh yeah? Is that right? Did you stamp on it? On purpose?” He does not wait for an answer this time. “Right, that’s it,” he snaps as he reaches for the control in Joe’s hand and snatches it away. He throws it down, and hauls Joe to his feet by his arm. I feel sick. I can’t look. But I have to. Mick holds Joe by the top of his arm and drags him towards the stairs. I see Joe resist slightly, but other than that he does not put up a fight, or yell, or even say a word. Mick drags him up the stairs. “Let’s see how you like it eh?” he is yelling furiously. I stand in the hallway, feeling utterly helpless, biting at the knuckle of one hand. I hear Mick kicking open Joe’s bedroom door. “Picking on little kids, are you? Let’s see how you like it!”
I can hear smashing. Stomping. Plastic splintering. Next thing I know Mick hurtles back down the stairs and seems to be shoving a ten-pound note at my face. “Bloody hell I only came home to check on things! I can’t trust him, can you look after these two?” he is saying to me. I just stare. He looks stressed out, running one hand back through his short hair, waving the ten-pound note under my nose. “Come on,” Mick prompts. “I’m desperate. I’ve got to go back out. You kids have no bloody idea the shit us adults have to put up with, you know. I can’t deal with this now. Please?” I have never heard Mick say please before. I take the note and put it in my pocket.
“Okay,” I say.
“Good. Great. Thanks.” He pats me softly on the shoulder and goes back out the door, slamming it shut behind him. I glance at the kids. Will has picked up the control for the play station. Tommy is on the biscuits again. I take a deep breath and head up the stairs to Joe’s room.
His door is open, so I walk in. He is lying face down on his bed, sobbing into his pillow. When I step forward my foot crunches on something on the floor, and I look down and see his CDs in a smashed up pile there. Mick has thrown them down and it looks like he has stamped on them repeatedly. There are pieces of broken plastic and snapped CDs all over the place. “Oh Joe,” I say quietly, looking back at him. He stays on the bed, and tries to control himself, tries to stop crying. I am heartbroken. I cannot remember the last time I saw Joe cry. We must have been very little.
I go over to the bed and sit down next to him. I place my hand on his shoulder, and he lifts his head and looks back at me. “You can’t say anything, you can’t do anything, in this house, they don’t let you!”
“You can’t do anything…”he says over his sobs. “They don’t let you! You can’t even breathe!”
“Joe, I’m so sorry, we’ll try to sort them out, they’re probably not all broken. I’ll sort them out for you.” I squeeze his shoulder and he sits up suddenly then, turning towards me, and wiping with his hands at his eyes, wiping the tears away. “It’s okay,” I try to tell him, even though it so obviously isn’t. I don’t know what else to say, I really don’t. I don’t want to make things worse, I am scared of saying the wrong thing, so I just wrap my arms around his shoulders instead, and I pull him in for a hug. He lets me, and he rests his wet cheek on my shoulder and I feel and hear him sigh heavily, a juddery shaking sigh, his final sob. I am rubbing his back and telling him it will all be okay, when suddenly he pulls back, looks at me strangely and then kisses me on the mouth. I am so shocked that I automatically pull back away from him, and I straight away see the hurt in his eyes, and before I can stop him, he jumps up from the bed and runs from the room. “Joe!” I cry after him, but all I hear are his footsteps thundering down the stairs, and the door slamming after him.
I sit on the bed in stunned shock for what seems like an age. I try to take in what has just happened. Every time I try to figure it out, the shock just smacks me in the face again, and my jaw hits the floor. Part of me wants to laugh out loud; it’s so strange, so crazy. Part of me wants to run out after him, grab him and tell him to stop being so fucking stupid. Part of me wants to run home and hide in my bed, and stop being sixteen, with all this confusing shit going on all the time. I am shook from my daydream by the sound of Tommy and Will fighting downstairs. I get up, step over the broken CD’s and yell out at them; “stop fighting, and I’ll be down in a minute!”
I can’t leave Joe’s room without at least trying to sort out the CD’s, so I kneel down slowly and pick up the nearest one. Radiohead, ‘OK Computer’, one of his favourites, smashed to pieces. The case is in three pieces, and the CD itself in split right down the middle. I put it to one side. Oasis ‘What’s The Story, Morning Glory’, the case is split, but the CD inside is okay, or seems to be, so I put it to the other side. I should have reminded him that he can just download them again, but it probably would not have made him feel any better. Joe loves his music. He downloads stuff, but he loves buying old CD’s and records just as much. I dread to think what would have happened if that bastard Mick had got his hands on his vinyl collection. The anger trembles through me then, as I find his Black Keys albums and try to locate their cases in the mess. This isn’t the same as breaking Lego, I want to shout out to whoever may be listening. Lego is just fucking bricks! You can make it again, for Christs sake. Just then Will appears cautiously in the doorway. “What you doing?” he asks me. “Where did Joe go?”
“He got upset because your dad smashed his CD’s,” I reply, not looking up as I examine a Bruce Springsteen CD he got off ebay only last month, and was so chuffed about. It is so smashed it is almost in two pieces. The same goes for Amy Winehouse, another one of his favourites. Totally fucked.
“Joe smashed my fort,” says Will, hanging onto the door with both hands.
“I know,” I say. “That wasn’t very nice of him. But Lego can be put back together again. CD’s can’t.”
“Where did he go then?”
“I don’t know Will. He’s not very happy at the moment, living here.”
Will leans down and picks up another CD. The case is hanging open, slithers of see through plastic hanging off one side. He takes out the CD and it is all in one piece. “Put it with that one,” I tell him, and he does. He chews at the nail on his thumb for a few moments, watching me while I sort them out. “Are you looking after us now then?” he says eventually. I sigh, thinking of the tenner in my pocket.
“Looks that way.”
“Can we have something to eat then? Can we have some crisps?”
“In a minute,” I tell him. “When I’ve done this for Joe.”
Will seems happy with this, and goes away. When I have finished cleaning up the mess, the ruined pile is twice the size of the okay pile, and I feel devastated for Joe, looking at it all. I would want to kill someone if they did that to my music. I remember his money then, for the drum kit, and go over to his drawers. I open the top one and feel around until I find the fat sock at the back. It is even fatter now, jammed tight with ten and twenty pound notes. I hope it will be okay there, and close the drawer again.
I wonder where he is.