Dear World, I am sprawled on the sofa, with Tommy nodding off on my lap, and Will snuggled up next to me, when the front door opens, and Travis and Leon come in. I narrow my eyes at them as usual, wondering where they have been, what they have been doing, who they are. Will yawns and rests his head back on my shoulder after looking up to see who is home. It is nearly five o’clock. I was really hoping it would be Lorraine or Mick back, to take over. I am shattered. Utterly exhausted. My mum was right when she said having kids is not easy. It fucking isn’t. I’m never having any, if this is what it is like. I have spent the last three hours running around after them, telling them off, distracting them and tidying up the mess they make. Why anyone would want to do that in life, I have no idea.
Leon walks through the lounge, barely giving me a look, and disappears into the kitchen. Travis lingers in the doorway, looking confused. “Before you ask,” I say to him, stifling a yawn. “Joe is out and I have no idea where. I got asked to baby-sit these two by Mick.”
“Oh right,” Travis shrugs, smiling slightly, before looking confused again.
“Joe broke my fort,” Will announces, his eyes on the TV, his little body loose and relaxed next to mine.
“Yes and daddy paid him back for that, didn’t he?” I say, looking back at Travis. Travis raises his eyebrows in question. “Mick trashed his CD collection,” I inform him. “Stamped on them all.”
“Fucking prick,” Travis says under his breath, and I have no idea if he means Joe, or Mick.
“I have to go home,” I say, and start to ease Tommy from my lap. He is nearly asleep, and rolls onto his side to bury his head in a cushion. Will moves slightly as I get up from the sofa, then leans back and yawns again, eyes totally fixated on the TV.
“Quite a day then?” asks Travis from the hallway. I approach slowly.
“You could say that.”
“Things have been tense round here lately. To say the least.”
“Joe’s a mess,” I say, sinking my hands into the back pockets of my shorts. I yawn, and glance at the kitchen, where I can see Leon at the back door, smoking a cigarette. “He’s not himself at all. He was vile to these two today. That’s not like him.”
“Yeah, he’s been stuck with them constantly,” grimaces Travis. “That’s probably why.”
“Still doing his little trips out for you two though, hey?” I ask, dropping my tone lower and looking quickly at the back of Leon again. Travis looks at his feet, crosses his arms over his t-shirt and shrugs his shoulders.
“Nearly there,” he practically whispers. “Honestly.”
I step closer, and Travis looks at me, his eyes slightly alarmed. “For some reason,” I say very quietly, looking up at Travis, who is at least a foot taller than me. “Joe is incredibly loyal to you two. Like you’re the only real family he has, or something. I just hope you two are worth it, that’s all.” I step carefully around him and slip out of the door.
I get home. I feel totally wiped out physically, like I need to sleep for a week to recover from babysitting. Mum meets me in the hallway. “Tonight is the night love,” she tells me, hanging onto my arm and squeezing it.
“Les is working late. Your dad is coming over. I’m going to tell him.”
I pull away from her and head for the stairs. I can’t think about this now. I am still trying to digest Joe’s kiss, and everything else. “You are pleased aren’t you?” she says, sounding desperate.
“I don’t mind,” I tell her, one foot on the bottom stair. “Just don’t involve me, okay? Don’t go calling me down, or sending him up or anything. I don’t feel very well.”
“Why? What’s the matter? Have you been with Joe? Have you two been behaving yourselves?”
I pull away from her incessant questions. I try to plant another foot on the stairs, but all of a sudden, the staircase is moving and blurring, and I can feel my head, somehow it is falling past me, it is like I can see it going, I can see it plummeting like a stone towards the stairs. There is nothing I can do to stop it. I am going down.
I think I am out for a matter of seconds, if that. Mum is freaking out big time. She tried to grab me and stop me going, but I hit my head on the stairs anyway. She gets me up to my room, practically drags me there. “You’ve never done that before!” she keeps saying, as she sweeps back my duvet and pushes me into my bed. I fall in easily. The mattress sags under my weight. I sink into my Lou sized hole and want to smile. My head hurts. Everything still seems fuzzy, like when you are pissed. She plants a firm hand across my forehead. “You’re not hot,” she tells me. “Do you feel sick? What happened Lou? You’ve never fainted before in your life!”
“I don’t know, do I? Can I go to sleep now?”
“I’m so worried about you,” she goes on. “I think you’ve not been eating enough darling, that’s what it is. You can’t keep this diet up anymore Lou. I’m serious.”
“I have been eating,” I lie easily. “I ate loads today. I’m just not feeling well. I need to sleep now.”
“I’ll let you sleep,” mum nods at me. “But then I want a serious chat with you young lady.”
“Not another one,” I groan, closing my eyes against my pillow. “There’s nothing to chat about. I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine to me. You have never done that before!” She shakes her head. She looks like she is cross with me, though I have no idea what I have done wrong apart from keeling over when she wanted my attention and approval. I close my eyes, and she finally leaves me alone and closes the door behind me. I am left alone with my dark mind, my headache and my pleasantly empty belly. I think to myself, I don’t care what she says, I don’t care what anyone says, I am not stopping my diet and getting fat again for anyone! Because that is what will happen. If I go back to eating like that, if I stop jogging, I won’t be slim anymore, will I? I’ll get fat again, World, that’s the thing. That’s the fear. But they won’t understand that, will they? I’ll be the little porker again. I’ll be that person I despise, the one that no one noticed, the one that lived in the background. It’s not like that now I am slim, is it? I smile a triumphant smile to myself, while I curl my arms around my body, and place my hands over my ribs, ribs that never used to be there. No, I think, it’s not like that now you are slim. Travis notices you. Travis tried to kiss you. Joe tried to kiss you. I am, for a sick little moment filled up with self-satisfaction and vanity. I have never had the luxury of either before. The thought of them both wanting me, of fighting over me, over me, is kind of funny and delicious and sexy all at the same time. It’s wrong. But fuck it, I think. I have lived my life the right way for too long, trying to please them all, trying to be good. This is way more fun. This is dangerous and scary and wild and wrong, but this, all of this, is way more fun.
I must sleep for a while, because it is the familiar old sound of my dad raising his voice that brings me out of it. I sit up slightly and listen. I have no idea what time it is, or how long they have been talking, but it sounds like my mum has finally told him about Les. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to know about it. I pull the duvet over my head and disappear into the dark. That is their world, I think. This is mine.
I sleep again. I really sleep. I sleep like I have never slept before, and it is wonderful. I drift in and out of dreams that run away from me every time I creep close to consciousness, and then I feel myself go back under again. It’s amazing. I never ever want to leave my bed and face the world again.
Great World, listen to this. My mum wakes me up in the morning by telling me that she has made me breakfast. I am gutted. I had every good intention of grabbing my usual coffee and an apple and going over to Marianne’s. I need to talk to her about Joe. But my mother has other ideas. She has the fucking table laid out and everything. Tablecloth, full English breakfast, and huge mugs of tea. My stomach does a little nervous flip just looking at it all. “Mum,” I protest. “I’m never really hungry in the morning, you know. I can’t eat all that.”
Mum is sat at the table with Les. He has a newspaper, and does a good job of hiding behind it. Mum is frowning at me, so I slip into a chair and pick up half a slice of toast. For fucks sake. I hardly ever eat bread these days. Doesn’t she realise? I feel a surge of panic then, which confuses and alarms me, because I have never experienced it before, but I know it is panic about the food, which is really stupid if you think about it World. She expects me to eat all that. She wants me to eat all that crap! She wants me to get fat again, I think then, glaring back at her. That’s what this, I know it. I’ve been in too much trouble since I got thin, got too cocky, eh? Now she wants to fatten me up and shut me up again. I take a bite of the toast as my anger and paranoia intensify. “You need to eat properly,” she informs me curtly, and I want to throw the toast at her. “I’m not having you fainting on me again!” She looks at Les, disguised as a newspaper. “She scared the life out of me, you know!”
“I told you, I was ill. I slept for ages, now I’m fine.”
“It won’t hurt you to eat a proper breakfast for once, young lady. This is all healthy, good food. Let me get you some sausages and bacon?”
“No, I only want toast.” I turn and look at the front door at the end of the hallway. I feel the longing to run out of it. I use my fingers to tear another piece of toast off and put it in my mouth. It feels so stodgy and hard to swallow. I try to remember if bread always felt like that? I can feel it slipping slowly down my throat, even though I have chewed it for bloody ages. I want to be sick. I drink some tea to wash it down. “Mum, I have to go out now,” I say then, pushing back my chair. She looks alarmed and reaches out for me.
“But you haven’t eaten much! And I want to tell you how it went with your dad!”
I hold the toast, so it looks like I am going to take it with me. “Is he going to throw us out?”
“No, of course not. He was actually very reasonable in the end.”
“Great. That’s all I need to know. See you later.” I turn and head for the door. I hear my mum shove back her chair and race after me.
“Okay, okay, I’ll take the dog.”
“No, it’s not that. Where are you going?”
“Oh okay.” She has no choice but to let me go. I slip out the front door, holding toast and I am gone.
I am going to Marianne’s, but I cannot go without checking on Joe first. He has not text me or called me, so I just want to see if he is okay. I kind of want to see him, but don’t want to see him at the same time, if that makes sense? Luckily for me, he is not even in. Leon answers the door with a face like thunder. “You seen Joe?” he barks at me before I can ask him the same question. I take a step back. I always have the urge to move back, to move away when I am near him. I try to peer around him to see if there is any sign of someone else, anyone else inside.
“I came to see him,” I say, feeling lost. “Where is he then?”
“Wouldn’t be asking you if I knew that, would I?” Leon snaps back, looking bored now.
“He ran off yesterday, after Mick trashed his CD’s,” I explain. “He didn’t come back after that?”
“He came back,” Leon nods. “Then he left again, and he’s meant to be grounded and looking after the brats. Guess who’s got stuck with the brats now?”
I have to stop myself from smirking. “Oh,” I say instead.
“He’s got his phone turned off. They’re gonna’ kill him when he gets back. You’ve no idea where he is?”
“No idea,” I say, honestly. “But I’ll look for him.” I step back and turn to leave.
“Hey, wait a minute,” Leon says then. “Any chance you could take the brats with you? I’ll pay you.”
“No chance,” I tell him, and walk off smiling.
I stroll over to Marianne’s house, feeling full of myself again. I sent her a text to let her know I am on the way. Fuck Leon, the stupid nasty bastard. See how he likes looking after those annoying kids all day. Hope he has to walk the fucking dog too! It is only when I knock on Marianne’s door that I remember Joe is missing, and I start to worry. Why is he doing this? Why is he getting himself into even more trouble? I don’t understand it, and wonder where the hell he is. Marianne lets me in. “Got so much to tell you!” I exclaim breathlessly as I jump into her hallway. She closes the door, smiling calmly as always. “You’re not gonna’ believe what happened yesterday! Plus Joe is missing! Just saw Leon and they’re all going insane!”
“It’s all right, it’s all right,” Marianne says then, placing a soothing hand on my arm and leading me through to the kitchen. “He’s here. He’s in the summer house.” I am stunned.
“What? Why? Since when?”
“I don’t know, I only just discovered him there this morning. Think he slept the night or something. Come on.” She opens the French doors and goes out into the garden. I feel a sickness in my belly then. A nervous ache that starts to spread. I had not planned on seeing him yet. I wanted to talk to her first. And why do I feel a sharp stab of what I can only describe as jealously, as she leads me down to the summerhouse?
I say nothing. I try to work it out, as I follow her down. Why did he come to her, and not to me? Marianne stops outside the summerhouse, looking as calm and relaxed as ever, and I wonder if she still looks that calm and composed just before she cuts herself up. I bet not. I can see Joe inside, and he looks up from where he is slumped in a deck chair with a cup of tea in his hands. “Is it okay if I talk to him alone for a minute?” I ask Marianne, guiltily.
“Course it is. I’ll go and make you a tea, or coffee?”
“Coffee please. And sorry Marianne. I did come here to see you, really.”
“I know,” she grins as she turns away. “We’ll catch up in a bit.”
As she heads back to the house, I open the door and enter the summerhouse, pausing to close the door softly behind me. “All right?” I say to Joe, and he nods at me in reply. He looks thoroughly miserable. Part of me is relieved though. At least he’s not brimming with rage anymore. I sink into the second deck chair, with my hands in my pockets. “Just saw Leon,” I tell him. “He’s not happy.”
“None of them are ever happy,” Joe sighs, truthfully. I swing my legs back and forth under the chair. All I can think about, all I can see in my head, is his tear streaked face coming towards mine. The surprising touch of his lips against my lips.
“So what are you doing here?”
“What did you do, sleep here?”
Joe leans back in his chair and runs one hand back through his hair. His eyes lift to meet mine briefly, then hit the floor again, as if he is finding it difficult looking at me. “I was out anyway,” he says. “You know.”
“More or less. I got a bit freaked out. This one guy was a bit funny with me.”
“He just started getting angry about the price. He said it was meant to be less, but it wasn’t. I didn’t know what to do.”
“Another good reason why you need to stop all this Joe,” I say, leaning forward in concern. “You’re gonna’ get yourself beaten up, or worse.”
“I know,” he sighs again, “I had to let him have it cheaper in the end. I wasn’t going to argue with him.”
“So that’s why you didn’t go home? Because Leon will be mad?” Joe meets my gaze again and nods slowly. “Fuck’s sake Joe,” I complain bitterly. “What the hell is wrong with you these days? Are you purposely trying to fuck your life up or something?”
“I’m trying to save up for a drum kit,” he murmurs, looking down.
“You idiot!” I say, and I really do feel close to smacking him one. “Why don’t you get a fucking paper round of something, you retard? Anything but this!”
“It’s nearly done,” he says, and I am getting so sick of hearing that from all of them. I growl and throw my hands up in the air, then drop them back into my lap, shaking my head at him and his unique stupidity.
“So you’re gonna’ keep doing it? You’re gonna’ keep risking it?”
“What am I risking, Lou?” he looks at me then, frowning.
“More shit with your parents!” I cry in exasperation. “Getting thrown out by Mick! Ending up in the hospital or worse!”
“Those things are nothing new,” Joe replies, his eyes still on mine. “I was living with those things anyway, if you hadn’t noticed.”
“Don’t be so dramatic!”
“It’s true. I was just going along with it all. Like you. Like you do with your fucked up family.” He sits forward again now, elbows on knees, hands on either side of his face. “Just taking it all. Taking all their shit. Doing what I’m told. Never causing a fuss.”
“I know that Joe,” I tell him. “I feel the same but…”
“Well why should we? What do they do for us? They fuck things up, that’s what they do!”
“I don’t know Joe, I just think…”
“If they’re not careful they’re gonna’ drive me insane,” he says then, closing his eyes tightly for a moment, before opening them and staring right at me. “I’ll end up doing what that Danny kid did over in Redford, if they’re not careful.”
I am silent for a moment, licking my lips slowly. He keeps his eyes on mine and I do not look away. “Don’t even joke,” I tell him softly. “That was different. That kid was tortured for fucks sake. And he went to jail for years!”
“Just don’t blame him, that’s all,” Joe shrugs at me. “If people push you that far…”
I remember Joe had been very interested in the story the first time someone told us it. Back in 1996 or something, it was, a boy from Redford, which is the estate on the other side of the bypass, stabbed his stepfather to death in his own home. It’s become one of those myths I guess, an urban legend, told and retold so many times in the area, the truth of it was probably distorted long ago. He went to the same school as us. Apparently there is graffiti on a bench in Redford, his name carved in a bench or something. It made the national news, and everyone at school; all the teachers were up in arms at the time. Some of them took time off work they were so traumatised by it. It was all over the newspapers when it went to trial, and in the end the boy got ten years in jail, even though it came out in court that his stepfather had been beating him up for years.
“He must be out of jail by now?” I ask Joe and he nods.
“Bet he wouldn’t come back here though. Not this bastard place where no one helped him.”
“You shouldn’t say things like that Joe. Mick may be a stupid cunt, but it is different. That boy ran away from home and everything to get away. I think in his own way, that Mick cares about you.”
“I’m just saying,” Joe shrugs again. “People like Mick should watch out. Bullies.”
“Look, I know he treats you like shit compared to his own kids, but he’s no worse than your mum, is he? She’s just as tough. Maybe he just follows her lead.”
“Yeah, they’re all fucking scumbags,” he says bitterly, folding his arms across his chest. “And now they’re wondering why I’m playing up. Makes me laugh.”
“Well just calm down,” I tell him, pleadingly. “Just relax. You’re scaring me lately, you know. You’re like a different person. You don’t want to end up in fucking jail too, do you? What kind of life would that be?”
“I’m sorry about yesterday,” he says then, and I frown at him, not knowing if he means the way he treated the little ones, or the fact he tried to kiss me. I cross my own arms, mimicking his defensive stance.
“What part?” I ask cautiously.
“All of it. I was a twat.”
“What does ‘hmm’ mean, Carling?”
I can’t prevent the small smile that pulls at the corners of my mouth. “’Hmm’ means you were so retarded you tried to kiss me.” I let the smile run. I grin at him. He grins back, and his cheeks immediately redden.
“Sorry Carling. I won’t do it again.”
“Too right you won’t. I was so shocked I didn’t have time to punch you.”
“Sorry mate. I was…I don’t know what I was.”
“So why did you do it then? I need to know.”
“I don’t know,” he shrugs. “I was sort of thinking about Travis kissing you at that party. That pissed me off.”
“Why did it?”
“Because you’re my friend, not his. He doesn’t even know you. He just suddenly likes you now you’re all skinny. How fake is that?”
“I don’t know,” I laugh, my mind whirling.
“Well it is,” insists Joe. “He never noticed you before did he? He really likes you apparently. He wants to ask you out or something.”
“No fucking way!” I explode, and laughter seems to be my only chance of saving face. “Shut up!”
“I’m not joking, it’s true. Just wait and see.”
“Would you though?” Joe looks serious again for a moment. “If he did ask you out? Would you? If he tried to kiss you again, would you let him?”
“Course not!” I tell him, although I am not entirely sure if I am lying to him or not. It just all seems so ridiculous. I want to change the subject. I put my hand on Joe’s arm and give it a squeeze. “Look, you retard, you are my best fucking friend in the world, right? I never want to do anything to upset you. I’m here for you whatever shit happens. I’ll even start helping you get shot of those fucking drugs if you want.”
Joe’s eyes widen in disbelief. “Carling, are you insane?”
“Probably,” I shrug. “But two things just occurred to me. One, if I help, you’ll get rid of them quicker, then this will all be over, and two, you are right. You are right about everything.”
Joe grins the kind of grin I have missed on his face. His hazel eyes shine with warmth, and all the anger seems to vanish. “You’re a legend,” he tells me. “And I am right, aren’t I?”
“Well not the bit about wanting to stab Mick to death and go to jail. You can forget about that.”
“Okay then,” he laughs. “I will.”
When Marianne comes back with the coffees, we are smiling and laughing, and all sanity seems to be restored. I feel like I have my friend back again, even if he is in a shit load of trouble. Marianne sits herself down on the floor between us, and is smiling knowingly as she pulls something out of her back pocket. “What’s that?” Joe asks, leaning forward. She is holding a little metal tin, like the one Joe has.
“Anyone fancy a smoke?” she asks us, placing it on the floor in front of her and tapping the lid with the nail of her index finger. Joe and I exchange amazed looks.
“Where did you get it from?” Joe breathes softly, his eyes widening in hunger.
“That’s for me to know,” Marianne replies with a trace of smugness.
“You’re a fucking legend!” he tells her, and I look at him and think, hang on, that was me a minute ago. But it does not matter. We are soon pleasantly removed from our troubles and giggling on the floor, with a cloud of smoke swirling gently above our heads.