Dear World, it is far easier than I imagined sneaking out at night! Ha! Makes me wish I had tried it before! I had been getting worked up about creaking stairs, and shimmying down drainpipes and the like. But in the end, all I do is come out of my room, creep quietly down the stairs and go out of the front door. Mum and Les are still up. I can hear the TV on in the lounge, and the door is shut. Brilliant. Easy.
I walk quickly down the road, past the shops and on to Joe’s house. He is already there and waiting for me on the corner of his road. He looks pleased to see me, and a huge grin envelopes his face. We link arms automatically and you know, I just feel good again, despite what we are doing. The nerves and the tension are gone from my belly. My face just wants to smile. “Well that was piss easy!” I tell him with a giggle. I feel wired. I feel alive, and brimming with fear and excitement. He looks at me, still grinning.
“Told you. Piece of piss. Parents are too wrapped up in their own lives to notice half the stuff that goes on.”
“Everything okay at your end when you went home?” I check. He grimaces.
“I copped it from Leon. He was majorly pissed off after babysitting the brats all day.”
“He can’t fucking complain!” I argue, amazed at his audacity. “You’re doing this aren’t you?”
“I know. I did remind him of that before he could lay me out. Seemed to work.”
“Fucking dick brain.”
I laugh at him. “Useless twat faced moron.”
We carry on like this for a few minutes, before it occurs to me to ask where the hell we are going. “Just the bridge,” Joe says, his arm still through mine, and his hands in his pockets.
“The bridge to school?” I ask, and he nods. Our estate Herton, is separated by a dual carriageway from the Somerley estate, where our school is. Somerley is next to Redford, and the kids from all three estates go to Somerley secondary. We have to cross the pedestrian bridge over the carriageway to get to school each day. “Why there?” I wonder.
“Just easy,” he shrugs. “It’s not near anyone’s houses, or shops. Police aren’t likely to spot you up there, are they?”
“I suppose not. Bit creepy though.”
“Oh this guy is okay,” Joe reassures me as we walk on through the night. “He’s like Leon’s age, or whatever. A real stoner. Bit stupid actually. It won’t be scary I promise you.”
“Hey,” I dig him in the ribs. “I came to protect you remember?” Joe laughs.
“Oh yeah, I forgot. My bodyguard right?”
“That’s it. I’m coming every time from now on.”
“Why not?” I reply. “Who cares?”
“My thoughts exactly,” says Joe, with a nod.
Five minutes later we start climbing up the steps to the bridge. I squint into the darkness and can just make up the figure of a man, loitering up there already. I know Joe said he was okay, but I can’t help looking down at the road beneath us as we climb higher, and imagining how easy it would be for a psycho drug user to hurl us to our deaths. I swallow and cling to Joe’s arm, and up we go. The cars roar by in the darkness under us. We approach the man casually. I try not to look at him. I try to look unconcerned and bored; as if this is the kind of thing I do every day.
“All right mate?” the guy calls out in a gruff voice, as we get closer. “Brought a friend?” I look at Joe in fear. He seems relaxed.
“My bodyguard,” he says, and the guy laughs out loud.
“Oh right yeah! I get you!”
We stop in front of him, and it is all done very quickly and politely. Joe hands over a small taped up package, and the guy, who I can just make out, has long blonde hair under his hood, hands Joe a note, and that is it. “See you later man,” the guy says, and slopes off towards the other end of the bridge. Joe pockets the money, turns around, and back we go. I look up at him and feel a weird, unexpected surge of pride.
“Well that was easy.”
“Told you. That’s it.”
“You are kind of cool, you know.”
“What?” Joe looks at me, wide eyed with disbelief. “What did you say Carling? Was that a compliment?”
I lean into him and punch him in the arm. I want to tell him I love him, you know, as a friend, like girls tell each other all the time, but I can’t really do that, when he’s a boy can I? It would sound wrong. “You’re just cool,” I say instead. “The way you deal with everything. I’m proud of you. I like you being you.”
“Oh okay,” Joe smiles at me and laughs as we walk along. “Whatever that means!” I want to tell him it means that I can only really be myself around him. That I feel different around everyone else, like I have to watch what I say, and think about what I do. Not with him. I’m just me. He’s just him. Why can’t it be that easy with other people? “Anyway,” he says then, breaking into my thoughts. “Thanks for coming. It was nice to have the company.”
“No problem. I want to be the first to listen to you when you get this fucking drum kit, you know.”
We walk on in comfortable silence together, arms linked. Joe tries to give me some of the money when we get back to his, but I refuse. I don’t need it. He does. He needs his bloody drum kit, doesn’t he? We say goodbye and I head home, feeling better than I have in ages.
Dear World, it’s my mum doing her bloody tap tapping at the bedroom door that wakes me up the next morning. I am rolled up in my duvet, warm and snug. I do not want to move. “What?” I call out to her.
“You mobile keeps going off! It’s Marianne! Did you leave it down here on purpose?”
“Oh Christ.” I close my eyes for a moment, and wonder why my guts clench at the thought of speaking to her. “Okay coming.” I throw back the duvet, my feet hit and floor and I open the door. Mum is on the landing, holding a cup of tea, and my mobile phone.
“I made you this.”
“Have some toast or something with me in a minute?” she asks hopefully, as she goes into the bathroom. I nod at her and go downstairs with my phone in my hand. I am starting to wish dad would kick off and give her some grief. At least that would get her off my back for a while. I go into the kitchen with the phone.
“Good morning Lou,” Marianne sounds as cheerful as ever. “I don’t suppose you are off out for a jog yet are you?”
“Just got up,” I tell her, with a yawn. “But probably soon I will, why?”
“Thought I could come with you?”
I am perplexed. “Why?”
“For exercise,” she replies chirpily, “and for fun, and for company! I thought you might get lonely on your runs. Or do you prefer to be alone? Just say if you do, I won’t be offended.” She has given me a chance to say no and get out of this, but I am too groggy and heavy headed to work it out.
“No it’s okay,” I tell her like an idiot. “You can come. Shall I meet you on the fields then?”
“Yes, what time?”
“What time is it now?”
“Bloody hell. Okay. Say eleven fifteen then?”
“Brilliant!” she cries happily. “See you then!”
“Okay. Bye Marianne.”
I chuck the phone on the table and sit down with my cup of tea. Just then Les shuffles in, hiding behind his newspaper. I wonder if he is ever going to have the guts to speak to me. “Morning?” I say to him. He lowers his paper hesitantly and looks at me as if he is surprised to see me, or hear me there. He tucks the paper under one arm and gets a cup down from the cupboard.
“Morning Lou,” he says, flicking back his hair. “How are you today?”
“Wonderful,” I tell him dryly, and he smiles, and turns his back to make his tea. What a great conversationalist he is! Incredible. I am blown away by his social skills, and I’m a teenager for fucks sake! What is his excuse? Luckily mum reappears then, or the silence would have become unbearable. She starts making me toast. Does she never go out anymore?
“What did Marianne want?” mum asks me.
“To come for a run with me.”
“Oh. Right.” Mum is silent for a moment, while she scrapes margarine and marmite onto my toast for me. She turns and places it in front of me, with this strange pinched look on her face. She looks tired I think. “But she is so skinny!” she says then, clasping her hands together under her chin. “She doesn’t need to lose weight either!” Oh God, now she probably thinks we are in a strange pact or something, a twisted version of weight watchers.
“Mum, running is not just about losing weight. It’s about keeping fit and healthy. Keeping supple.”
“Oh,” she says unsurely. “Okay.” I see her eyes flick down to my toast. I shake my head. I pick it up and eat the lot. Every fucking crumb. Just for her. It’s okay, I tell myself as I chew it down. I will do a longer run. I will show Marianne what I am made of. She has no idea what a fucking machine I am.
“Can you take Gremlin when you go for your run?”
“No mum. It will kill him. I’ll take him out after.”
An hour later I am on the field, doing my stretches as I wait for Marianne. I see her walking slowly across the field towards me, and when she sees me she lifts one hand in an excited little wave. I just don’t understand her.
“Ready?” I ask her when she gets to me. I am thinking about that toast. I can see it sat in my stomach, starting to digest.
“Oh yes, I’m ready,” she enthuses. She is wearing a tight pair of immaculate black jogging trousers, and a tight fitting black vest top. “Can we talk and run at the same time?” she asks, as I take off. I nod at her. She can talk if she wants to talk. “How far do you normally go?”
“Two or three times around the entire field, depending on how I feel. Was aiming for four times today actually.”
“Don’t know. Just to push it.”
“Oh, I see. Hey guess what?”
“I’ve sorted out a party! We are having a party!” I look at her sideways and frown. She is bursting with this, I can just see. She is extremely pleased with herself.
“My house! Like you said! My parents are away next weekend, from Friday until Monday. They’ve said I can stay in the house, as long as you keep me company.” She flashes me a secretive smile. “And if we behave ourselves too, of course.”
“Oh right. I see. Bloody hell.”
“So we have this week to organise it,” she goes on breathlessly. So far she is doing a good job of keeping up with me, which is pissing me off. “It’s got to be the best party ever. It’s going to be amazing.”
“Brilliant,” I say. “Can’t wait.”
We are on our second loop. I don’t talk to her, because it gives me a stitch to speak. She carries on though, nattering on about this party of hers, and whom she is going to invite, and what music they are going to have. She seems to think Josh and Ryan can play their music for us. Hmm. I just smile and run. I run faster. God damn it, she is like a fucking robot. Keeping up with me on her tiny little matchstick legs, chatting away, barely breaking a sweat. Unbelievable. On the third loop I really go for it. I think of the stupid toast and I picture me as a size eight, and I run faster and faster. I would normally collapse by now, when I am alone. Three loops equals a forty minute run nearly. But I keep going. “Round again?” Marianne questions. I look at her long enough to see the sweat shining on her forehead. She runs neatly, I think, little arms bent and pumping up and down, little legs hammering along. Her black hair tied up in a high ponytail.
“See if we can,” I mutter, and press on. Marianne keeps up with me. At one point I swear she even tries to overtake me. I don’t let her. I keep up the pace; upping my speed every time I think she is getting ahead of me. This is madness; I realise and grimace as I run. We must look like lunatics. Why are we doing this?
“Oh I give up, I give up!” she finally cries out, and stops running. She leans down over her knees, hair hanging. “Christ Carling! You’re trying to kill me!”
I run on a bit longer, then turn around and run back. She has plonked herself down on the grass, and is panting heavily. “Sorry,” I shrug at her. She grins.
“Bit of a pro these days, aren’t you?” she says. “Not like at school. You really hated P.E, didn’t you?”
I sit down next to her, red faced and sweating intensely. “That’s different.”
“Can’t wait for this party,” she says, pushing her damp hair back from her face. “How cool is it gonna’ be?”
“Your parents will go mad if the house gets wrecked.”
“It won’t get wrecked. I’m gonna’ lock loads of the rooms.”
“We’ll have the lounge and dining room, conservatory and garden. That’s plenty. Want to come to town with me and buy some decorations?”
I shrug. “Could do. Have to bring the dog though. I told mum.”
“How are you going to get booze?”
“Parents have loads,” she says. “And don’t you think Leon and Travis would get us some if we paid them?”
“You’re going to invite them?” I ask her.
“Of course,” she laughs, looking me in the eye. “Wouldn’t be a party without them, would it?”
Is she insane? Is she?
I watch her curiously as she lies back on the grass and folds her arms behind her head. “Need to make a list,” she says, eyes closed against the sun. “List of food, you know, party nibbles and stuff, drinks. Probably need paper plates and cups, because I’m gonna’ lock all mums away.”
“Good idea,” I say, and lay down next to her on my belly. I pick a piece of grass and stick the end in my mouth for a chew. “What about big burly men to do the door?” I ask her, my tone serious. She snaps open her eyes and frowns at me.
“Are you serious?”
“Depends who you’re inviting,” I shrug at her. “Depends if things kick off. You saw what happened at Hogan’s party.”
“Yes, and we all know whose fault that was, don’t we?” she smiles at me, licking her lips, as her eyes narrow to slits. I roll my eyes.
“Ha fucking ha. I did nothing wrong.”
“I am only joking,” she giggles, touching my arm briefly. “I won’t really need security will I?”
“Just call the police if things get out of hand,” I suggest. “Or have a word in Leon’s ear if you’re so determined to invite him.”
“Oh yes I am,” Marianne rolls neatly onto her side, props herself up on one arm, and grins at me. “Well you can, can’t you? You can tell him, or get Joe to tell him. They’ll all come won’t they?”
“I expect so,” I sigh. “And I expect you will end up regretting it.”
“No chance,” Marianne shakes her head at me. “Come on Lou, we need to get showered and changed and get shopping! So much to organise!”
That afternoon is a strange one, World. I meet Marianne again when we have both been home to shower and change. She is adamant that we do not invite Joe on our shopping trip. We are having ‘girly’ time apparently, whatever that is. We catch the bus with Gremlin, and spend the rest of the day traipsing around town. Marianne keeps her arm linked through mine the whole time, which I cannot help but find slightly unnerving. I keep thinking back to when we were all stoned. How her face changed when I told her Joe had kissed me. How sarcastic she was after that, going on about my diet and stuff. I can’t relax, as we shop. I keep expecting her to change again, and come at me with her smiling sarcasm. She doesn’t though. She is like the best girlfriend I never had at school. Friendly and attentive, excitable and genuine. I would have really enjoyed it if I hadn’t been so on edge the whole time. She buys paper plates and cups, tons of frozen pizzas and crisps and dips. I wonder where she gets the money, but don’t ask. I am just mystified by her as we shop. She even buys plastic tablecloths, balloons and bunting for fucks sake. I can see her having a career as a party organiser when she leaves school. She would be great at it. But I don’t like to tell her that the balloons and bunting will be totally lost on most of the people she is intent on inviting. Bless her. Let her discover that for herself.
Obviously it falls to me to invite Joe’s brothers. I have to break the news to him first, of course, which I do later that evening, when we meet up for another walk across the bridge. This time we have to go right across the other side, and knock on the door of the first block of flats on the Somerley estate. A skinny girl in tiny shorts and a huge hooded jumper, opens the door smoking a cigarette. She wears her hair in a high ponytail, and is plastered in makeup, but I have a horrible feeling she is actually about forty-five or something. She has vicious eyes, so I hang back behind Joe as he passes over the package wordlessly. She takes it, unwraps it, for fucks sake, right there in the doorway, sniffs it, and then stuffs it in the pocket of her jumper. She looks Joe up and down, and for a terrible moment I fear she is just going to slam the door in his face and not give him the money. “Bit young for this kind of shit, ain’t you love?” she asks him, as she presses the money into his waiting hand. “I got a boy your age. I’d have a fit if he was doing what you’re up to.”
Joe just smiles and turns away. “Night then,” he says to her as we leave. I try to stifle my giggle until we are far from the flats.
“Oh but it’s okay for her to be taking that shit?” I ask him, laughing, as we head back to the bridge. “Her poor kid!”
“She looks familiar,” Joe says with a shiver. “Bet he goes to our school.”
“Fucking hell. Hey at least our parents aren’t druggies Joe!” I am still giggling.
“There are many things they could be that are worse, I suppose,” he agrees, with a wry grin. “We should look on the positive side. Hey, how is the infamous Les anyway? My mum keeps raving on about what a gentleman he is!”
I snort with barely contained laughter. “That is so ridiculous. Typical of your mum. Anyone who is not a stocky dwarf with a smashed in face is obviously a gentleman!” We both look at each other and laugh again. “Oh he’s all right,” I shrug, when the hilarity has subsided. We are crossing the bridge again. “He just keeps to himself. He’s like the fucking invisible man or something. He has nothing to say. No opinions or questions. He just has the paper in front of his face the whole time.”
“Weird,” nods Joe, hands in pockets. “But he’s nice to your mum and everything?”
“If you can call being an utter dullard nice, yeah.”
“At least he stays out your business. He’s not trying to tell you what to do or anything.”
“Oh no. Think he’s scared of me actually. Think teenagers freak him out, or something. I should probably have some fun with him. Start telling him all my intimate problems, or something.”
Joe digs me in the side with his elbow. “What fucking intimate problems have you got Carling?” he demands. I look at him in mock anger.
“Oh you mean besides being a secret drug dealer, and having a best friend who may very well be my worst enemy?”
Joe looks at me, open-mouthed. “You better not mean me!”
“Course not dumb arse. I mean Marianne.”
“Oh right. Why? What’s she done?”
“Oh nothing,” I sigh, looking down at the bridge as we cross back over to our side. “She’s just hard to read sometimes. I can never quite tell if she is taking the piss out of me, or not. You know.”
“Well I think she’s a nutcase. She gives me the creeps half the time.”
“She’s got some sort of crush on your brothers,” I tell him then, nudging him with my own elbow. He frowns down at me in confusion. I nod, giggling stupidly.
“She’s having a party,” I tell him. “On Friday night at her house, and it is her explicit instruction that I invite you, and you bring your brothers. Her explicit instruction I tell you.”
Joe is frowning deeply at me, walking along with his hands deep inside his pockets, and shaking his head at me in disbelief. “That’s insane,” he reasons. “Why the hell does she want them at her party? Is she mad?”
“She’s intrigued by them, apparently,” I tell him with a shrug. “Don’t ask me Joe, I have no idea what goes on in her mind. I only know she’s having a party and she wants them there.”
“She’s asking for trouble,” he says then, looking back at the bridge and the steps as we approach them. “One way or another.”
“It’s up to her. I have tried to warn her.”
“Who else is she inviting?”
“Well us, and Josh and Ryan, and people from school I suppose.”
“Hmm. Should be interesting. Okay, I’ll tell them. Count me in. Definitely count me in.”
I nod okay, look forward to telling Marianne, and we go down the steps on the other side. “This must be nearly over by now?” I ask Joe then, looking up at his face in the moonlight. I have stopped growing, but he is getting taller. He makes a face.
“They say so.”
“But what does that mean? Like, how many more trips?”
“I don’t know Carling. You don’t have to keep coming you know.”
“I like coming, stupid.”
“Well they say it’s nearly all gone.” He lifts and drops his shoulders before releasing a huge yawn. “So it must be. Then that is that. Thank fuck.”
“Will you miss the money?”
“Nah. I’ll get another job.”
“Will you miss them needing you? Being nice to you?” I smile wickedly at Joe as he glares sideways at me.
“They don’t know how to be nice to anyone Carling,” he reminds me. “So don’t worry about that.”
“It’s not really their fault,” I tease him. “They weren’t brought up properly. They can’t help being total turds. Blame your mother.”
“Oi what? It’s true! People are not born bad you know. We all start off the same. Innocent babies.”
Joe snorts at this. “Mum says Leon was never innocent. She says he had an evil glint in his eye when he was a baby.”
“I can believe that actually. So anyway, what was all this crap you were saying before, about them being your real brothers and that?”
“Well they are,” Joe shrugs. “They are my real brothers. The others are half brothers.”
“So what though?”
“I just meant that if I had to choose one pair over another, I would choose my real brothers.”
“Even though they’ve always treated you like shit?” I ask incredulously, unable to understand how he could choose two thugs over two sweet little boys.
“Yeah but they’re my real brothers,” Joe says again, as if it is not getting through to me. “They might be horrible, but they are my real brothers.”
“Yeah but Tommy and Will are just little kids,” I argue with him. “They’re sweet, and innocent and all that.”
“No they are not!” Joe cries back vehemently. “They’re just as vile Carling! Just because they are little does not make them sweet and innocent. They’re conniving little shits! You have no idea. They’ll do anything to get us in shit, I’m telling you.”
“All right, calm down idiot,” I tell him, grinning, but I reach out and touch his arm as well. “You don’t need to tell me.”
“Sometimes I think even mum would wish us older three away so she can just have her nice new family,” Joe says this sneeringly, and I feel awkward, and get the feeling he has thought about this a lot over the years. “She says she can’t wait for us to move out, often enough.”
“She doesn’t mean it, you idiot,” I say, shoving my arm through his and leaning my head on his shoulder. “She loves you really. Come on, cheer up. Think about this party on Friday!” I jog him and he looks down and rolls his eyes at me.
“Ah don’t even…that party is going to be a fucking nightmare.”
“It’s going to be hilarious Joe,” I tell him, resting my head back on his shoulder. We are nearly home. We have walked past his house, as he insists on walking me home first. He is silent and subdued, his hair hanging down over his eyes, as we stop next to my front garden, and I pull my arm free from his. For some reason then, I just cannot bear the sad look on his face, so I reach up; I go up on tiptoe, and plant a kiss on his cheek. He looks instantly embarrassed and shocked, so I turn quickly, smiling, wondering what I have done. “Night Joe,” I say, and he says nothing. Just stands and watches me go in quietly through the front door.