Dear World, when I get home I go straight back to my room. I think my mum must be at work. The house is silent as I climb back into my bed. I am just so, so tired. I wonder helplessly if this is normal. If I am a normal teenage girl, or just a complete freak? I put Bob back on and this time he is singing ‘Positively 4th Street.’ I listen to it under the duvet, the irony of the lyrics not lost on me at all. Weirdly, it is probably my favourite Dylan song. It makes me think and wonder about Marianne. Who is she really? Is she my friend or my enemy? I don’t particularly feel like seeing her again, but I know I need to speak to her. Maybe it will straighten things out in my own head, if I speak to her, maybe I will feel better. Or maybe she will be the way Joe sees her, and I will end up feeling even more confused.
I drift into sleep for a while, and when I wake up my headache is even worse. Mum has been at work all day, so I have not eaten lunch. I sit up in bed and hold my head in my hands for a while, just letting it drum, feeling it throb. It is like humming waves of pain that make me want to close my eyes. I have no idea what time it is, and as usual I experience no desire to find out. My mouth and throat are incredibly dry, so I decide what I need is a big drink of squash, most likely followed by a large coffee. I get slowly out of bed, taking no pleasure in feeling just like a little old lady. I hobble to the door and go out onto the landing. I listen there for a moment, in case anyone else is home, but the house is still quiet, so I go slowly down the stairs, holding onto my head as I go. I stumble weakly into the kitchen, ignoring Gremlin as he trots out from his bed and tries to greet me. I make myself a pint of blackcurrant squash, and put the kettle on. Shit my head is really spinning. I sit down at the table when I have made my coffee, rest my forehead in one hand, and take slow sips of the coffee.
I only realise what time it is when the key turns in the lock and mum comes in. She smiles at me gently as she comes through to the kitchen. “I stopped by to see Sara,” she tells me brightly. “That’s why I’m a bit late from work.”
“Oh. Is she okay?”
“Oh same as ever,” mum sighs and drops her handbag onto the table. “Fighting with Rich. Had a good moan!”
“Did you enjoy your walk with Joe?”
“Um yeah. We’re meeting for another one later.”
“Another one? Why’s that?”
I think fast. “Well it was too hot for the dogs, so we didn’t keep them out long. They didn’t run around much. It’s cooler later.”
“Oh lovely,” mum smiles, and goes around the kitchen, opening and shutting cupboards. She is trying to decide what to cook for tea, I can tell. She has a very thoughtful look on her face, and shoots the odd glance my way, and pulls at her bottom lip occasionally with her finger and thumb. I decide to make it easier for her.
“Can we have chicken salad or something?”
She looks at me quickly. “Is that what you want? We could have that.”
“Les won’t mind?”
“No he won’t be home. It’s just us love. Just you and me. Chicken salad it is then. That will be nice and quick and easy anyway!”
I relax for a bit then. I even go in the lounge and watch a bit of telly with Gremlin stretched out on my legs. I look down at him, twitching restlessly in his sleep, with his tongue lolling dramatically out of the side of his mouth. He is knackered, and I feel a little surge of guilt about my lie. He’s got to go back out and run around with Rozzer again, the poor mite. My mum makes the salad and brings it into the lounge for us to eat. She put a plate loaded with buttered granary bread on the coffee table between us. “This is nice, isn’t it?” she questions, forking a cherry tomato from her plate. “Us alone? Having dinner in here?”
“I suppose so,” I force a smile at her and eat some lettuce leaves. “How are things with Les?” I don’t ask her this because I really care; I just want to deflect the attention from me before she starts it up again.
“Oh fine, I think, fine,” she replies breezily, and grabs a slice of bread from the table. “Have some bread Lou. Salad alone is not enough unless you have bread.”
I sigh in misery and pick up some bread and drop it on my plate. “So has he moved in for good then?” I ask her, trying again to get her mind off my eating.
“Well we haven’t really discussed it in depth,” my mum says, her eyes moving between the telly and me. “I suppose we should. Your dad has been a bit funny about it again though, that’s what worries me.”
“Why what has he said?”
“Oh you know, the usual. Moaning about how much this place costs him, how it’s bleeding him dry and he’d be better off if he could sell it. You know.” She raises her eyebrows at me and I nod. I do know. And I do appreciate the fact she never really slags him off or runs him down to me. She could, if she wanted to. It would all be true, and I would even join in. I feel no loyalty towards him whatsoever. I could care less if I never saw him again. But she always bites her tongue and keeps it in, whatever she really thinks about what he did to her. I look down at my food and poke it around a bit, trying to break up the chicken so I can flick little bits onto my lap for Gremlin. I realise this is probably the first time I have looked at life through her eyes. My mum. When he left I was shocked and disgusted and angry, but I was also relieved. We had never got on, and it was a relief to see him go. I had never considered it from her point of view, because as I remember, she had really loved him. They had rowed loads, but it was always him starting it, it was always him having a go at her and her just defending herself. I wonder how it must feel to love someone so much, that you will take anything from them, let them treat you like dirt and then have them just walk out on you. Just go off with someone else like you don’t matter at all. Just grind your heart into dust and spit on it.
“Maybe you and Les could buy it off him?” I look at her and suggest with a shrug. “If you two are serious, that is.”
“I’m not sure about that,” she answers with a thin smile. “I would rather keep renting. Neither of us earns very much darling.”
“Why don’t you rent another house then? Be out of dad’s control.”
“Yes, there is that. We could do that.”
“Talk to Les then,” I tell her. “I won’t care.”
“We’ll see what happens,” mum says, and I know that means she does not want to talk about it with me anymore. She still sees me as a child, I think, a child that needs protecting. “What do you really think of Les then?” she looks my way and questions.
I lift my knee a little so that she can’t see Gremlin snuffling up bits of chicken. I take one bite of the bread just to please her and console her. I wait for it to go down, which seems to take forever. “He’s okay,” I say. “He doesn’t talk much. He doesn’t have conversations with me or anything.”
“He’s very aware Lou,” mum says this slowly and carefully, her eyes on her plate as if she is trying to choose her words wisely, “of, you know, being my partner, and not your dad or anything. He is very aware that he has no children of his own, so no experience with kids. He doesn’t want to overstep the mark, if that makes sense.”
“Well he is allowed to talk to me!” I say with a laugh. “I don’t bite!”
“I know, I know, but he is a shy man Lou. He is a gentle kind of man. He feels very awkward really. Moving in here. He is very aware of how it could make you feel.”
“Well that’s nice of him but he doesn’t need to worry. Tell him to stop worrying. I don’t care he’s here, but it’s weird him not talking to me.”
“Okay,” mum smiles at me warmly. “I’ll tell him.”
“Apparently Lorraine is his biggest fan. Joe says.”
“Oh yes, you know Lorraine, she had to check him out for me. She thinks he’s lovely. We’re all off out on Friday by the way. Me and Les, and her and Mick.”
I try not to smile or smirk, and eat some more lettuce instead. “I can’t imagine Mick and Les getting on.”
“Well you know,” mum laughs. “Men just play darts and drink don’t they? Talk about the football and all that!”
“Did you hear what Joe did that morning Lorraine brought me home?” I put down my fork and ask her then. I think this is probably the longest, and most adult conversation we have ever had. I am very aware of how easily it could slip into misunderstandings and an argument, so I pick my words carefully too. I am curious to know what, if anything Lorraine has said to my mum.
Mum wipes her mouth on the tea towel she has on her lap. She looks at me for a moment, and then picks her fork back up and stabs it into a chunk of warm chicken. “Yes, she did say something about a fight between him and Mick.”
I feel slightly triumphant, on Joe’s behalf, although I have no idea why. “He punched him in the nose,” I say. She nods, and looks uncomfortable.
“Yes, I know. And obviously I do not need to tell you that is no way for Joe to be treating his step-father.”
“You called him a special boy this morning,” I remind her. “Saving the day and all?”
“I know,” she says tightly. “And I meant it. He is very good to you and always has been. But he cannot punch his step-dad in the nose! Poor Lorraine, she gets enough grief from the other two!”
“Well that’s not Joe’s fault, is it?” I try to point out to her. “He can’t be punished his whole life because of what Leon and Travis are like. And also, why is it okay for Mick to punch him in the head then?” I look at her, waiting for an answer, a reaction. I wait for her to defend this man she thinks is so great, this man she is going out for drinks with on Friday. Her lips get tighter and she forks more chicken.
“I don’t know anything about that,” she says, not looking at me, and I feel the anger then like a fucking wave washing over me. I wanted so badly not to row with her, but I had no idea the anger was there like that, lurking and hiding, ready to unleash it so readily. I bite down on my lips and try to think before I speak.
“I know about it mum,” I say through gritted teeth. “That’s what I am telling you. I know because I have seen it a hundred times. Some people would call it child abuse, you know.”
She looks at me in amazement then, her shoulders drop and she huffs and puffs and rolls her eyes and clicks her tongue all at once. “Lou!” she says this in her scolding voice and I want to laugh out loud at her. “Don’t be so ridiculous! So melodramatic! It is not child abuse! It is nothing of the sort! Lorraine and Mick love those boys to death, I know they do, because I have to sit and listen to all her fears and worries about them!”
“Punching kids in the head is not child abuse?” I question, my tone rigid yet calm. She sucks in her breath. “And Mick loves his kids, mum. His kids can do no wrong. You just have no idea.”
Mum shakes her head. She is really pissed off, I can tell, and this in turn pisses me off. How can she be so fucking blind? She puts her plate down on the floor and wipes her mouth again with the tea towel. “Lou, things are never as black and white as you think they are. Now, Lorraine is my best friend and has been for years. I will not sit here and listen to you accuse her of child abuse! For God’s sake!”
“Not her, him.”
“Lou, he tries to help her. He tries to back her up. Those boys would be the death of her otherwise! The older two have been running wild for years now. God only knows the truth of what they get up to! Now I know Joe is not like that, I know he is sweet and gentle. I know that Lou.” She has turned herself towards me. She is leaning forward, trying to get me to look at her. I am staring at my plate. “But if Mick and Lorraine left him to it, and didn’t try to guide him, he would probably end up like the other two, wouldn’t he? They would lead him astray. They are probably extra strict on him for his own good love. They want to keep him nice!”
“You have no idea,” I say softly. She blows her breath out this time.
“What does that mean, I have no idea?”
I look up then, right into her eyes. I am thinking about Travis kissing me, and Leon doing coke with Marianne, and Joe and me up on that bridge and the madman that almost threw him over. “You have no idea about anything,” I tell her and put my plate on the coffee table.
“I don’t want to argue with you Lou,” she sighs, and presses her hands to her face for a moment. “God knows I don’t know what I am doing with you either at the moment.”
“Joe just stood up for himself for once, that’s all.” I push Gremlin gently from my lap and stand up. “He’s been pushed around by all of them for years. The little ones wreck his stuff then tell tales to Mick if he tells them off, and the older two treat him like crap, and Mick and his mum just come down on him like a ton of bricks every time he does even the smallest thing wrong!” I have moved just in front of her. She remains sitting and I am staring angrily down at her.
“I am sure it is not quite that bad an upbringing for him,” my mum says, attempting to remain calm, attempting to smooth things over. Expecting me to back down and agree with her. “I know for sure that it’s a much nicer upbringing than either Mick or Lorraine had, I can tell you that young lady.” I roll my eyes. I am not interested in that. I am sick of always hearing things like that. We don’t know how good we’ve got it, in their day children were beaten with sticks, or whatever.
“Do you want to know what he said to me once?” I ask her. She looks irritated and glances over at my plate.
“Lou, you’ve hardly eaten a thing! Look at your plate!” Her voice is exasperated, panicked even.
“Mum, do you want to know what Joe said to me recently?”
“Lou, you cannot keep doing this! I made you a salad, a healthy salad, and you won’t even finish that!” She is stubbornly ignoring my question, and won’t look at me either. Instead her gaze is fixated on the bloody plate and the fucking salad. “You’re going to kill yourself or end up very ill if you keep this up young lady!”
“Mum!” I yell at her. “I want to tell you what he said! About Mick!”
“I’m calling the doctor in the morning, that’s it young lady.” She gets up, grabs my plate and hers and marches from the room. I follow her into the kitchen where she slams down the plates. “I’ve had enough. I’m calling her in the morning and that is final.” She spins around to face me, her hands on her hips. “I’m not joking Lou. Maybe the doctor can talk some sense into you!”
“Mum, I am trying to tell you something!”
“You are fading away before my very eyes!” she wails then, and her face crumples with the tears that spring into her eyes. I guess I am meant to feel sorry for her or something, and beg for forgiveness or say the right thing, to calm her down. She is trying to make me feel guilty, and I won’t let her.
“Joe said they’re lucky he doesn’t do what that kid in Redford did all those years ago!” I shout at her instead, because I just want to shock her out of her stupidity, I just want something meaningful and important to break through to her for once. She looks at me as if I am insane. “He said if they’re not careful he’ll just snap one day!”
“Lou stop it!” my mother points her finger at me and warns. “That is enough! How can either of you say such a thing?” her eyes are confused, her brow furrowed, her mouth wide open. “That is….that is just…that is horrible Lou Carling! That is truly horrible!”
“I’m just telling you what he said,” I say calmly and turn around. “Just so you know how much they get to him.”
“That is meant to be some kind of sick threat?” she questions, her voice high and shrill. I go out of the kitchen and head for the front door. “That is disgusting! What happened over there was completely different and you know it! You bloody kids! You think you know all the answers don’t you? Just you wait till you are parents! It’s the hardest job in the bloody world!”
I slam the front door behind me.
I am staring down at the ground as I walk across the front garden, and then I bump right into Marianne. I look up and stare into her wide green eyes. Jesus Christ.
“Hi!” she says in amusement. I don’t know what to say. I just stare at her. My brain has taken up its drumbeat again. My brain is killing me. “Are you okay?” she asks me, frowning slightly now. “Where are you going? You look like shit!”
“Sorry, but you do! What’s wrong?”
I start to walk down the pavement, no idea where I am going or why, and she falls in step beside me. “Had a bad few days,” I shrug. “And my head is killing me.”
“Oh. Well have you taken anything?”
“No. I keep forgetting to.”
I look at her in annoyance. “Thanks again.”
“Look, you’ve been avoiding my calls, so I decided to come and see you.” Marianne has this kind of khaki satchel on her shoulder, and she shifts it to the other one and looks at me sideways. Her hair is down, and seems impossibly black and shiny, like ironed out oil, gleaming down her back. “I wanted to check you were okay. Why wouldn’t you turn on your phone?”
“I told you, I’ve been ill. I’ve just been in bed.”
“That’s not what your mum said.”
I shoot a look her way. “What did my mum say?”
“She said you were in bed, refusing to get out, refusing to eat. Just all depressed and stuff.” She lifts and drops her tiny shoulders, and shakes her hair back over them. “I just worried about you, that’s all.”
“I’m fine. Totally fine.”
“It wasn’t anything to do with me then?” she asks carefully, as we walk along. I don’t even know where we are going. “With the party, I mean? It was pretty wild in the end, wasn’t it? A night to remember!”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
“So you just ran off…”
“I was hammered Marianne,” I tell her with a sigh. “I was probably the drunkest I have ever been in my stupid life. I didn’t know what I was doing half the time. Forget about it.”
“It’s just that Joe called me. He was really angry with me. You know, because I tried to explain why I cut myself?” I look at her for a moment and all I see is this tiny, pretty girl, with jet-black hair and big green eyes. She is wearing black three quarter length trousers, a purple vest and a long black cardigan. I try to read her, to find her, to trace any sign of that wild girl with the glass.
“Don’t worry about Joe,” I tell her, and she smiles and looks visibly relieved.
“Okay, well good. I know how protective he is of you, and that’s fair enough. But the thing is, boys will never understand something like that, will they? Boys have it so easy!” She looks at me with a broad smile. I just look back down at the pavement disappearing under my feet, while my head feels like someone is kicking it repeatedly. “They have nothing to worry about, compared to us girls, do they?” she goes on.
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“Anyway I tried to explain to him that I didn’t exactly attack you or anything! I think that’s what he has envisioned! Funny boy. I was drunk too, right?” She keeps looking my way. I have no idea what she wants me to say, so I just shrug. I can’t actually concentrate on any of this while my head hurts so much. “I was trying to explain it to you, that’s all, you know, the best way I could.”
“Look forget about it,” I tell her. We have ended up at the shops and I suddenly realise that I can go in and get some painkillers and a drink. What a fucking fantastic idea that is. “We were all pissed and stupid. We all did stupid things. Don’t worry about it.”
“But I just really needed to know,” Marianne persists, and she reaches out and touches my arm softly. “I needed to know you were okay, and you weren’t upset because of me or anything?”
“Course not. It’s not you.”
“Well what is it then? You don’t seem yourself at all.”
“I don’t know,” I say, and go inside the shop. I pass Lorraine on the till at the door. She is packing an old lady’s bag for her, but watches me pass by with narrowed eyes, and a tight mouth. I get the feeling she is still coming to terms with Joe’s newfound courage. Maybe she blames me, who knows? Marianne traipses behind me as I locate the paracetemol, and then grab a bottle of water from the chilled drinks cabinet.
“Is that Joe’s mum?” she whispers from behind me as we head for the till. I nod at her.
“Sight for sore eyes,” Lorraine announces when I drop my tablets and water on to the counter before her. Her eyes regard me with suspicion. “Your mum has been in a right state about you!”
“Can’t help being ill,” I shrug, not looking at her as she scans my things.
“Hmm,” she says in reply to this. “Do you need a bag?”
“No thank you.”
“You kids,” she practically snarls at me as I pay her and leave. Outside I pause by the doors to chuck a pill down my throat and wash it down with water. Marianne is leaping about from one foot to the other, trying not to laugh. Finally, I shove the rest of the tablets into my back pocket and we head off again.
“She’s lovely!” Marianne exclaims when we are around the corner. I nod at her.
“Oh yeah. She’s priceless. Now you can see why Leon has such great social skills.”
Marianne laughs, and swiftly slips her arm through mine. “Oh he has some very interesting social skills all right,” she giggles. I am not sure I wish to know. “So where now?” she asks me. “What shall we do?”
“What time is it?”
“About half five, quarter to six?”
“I’m meeting Joe at seven.”
“Oh right. Well I will duck out of that if you don’t mind. I don’t want him having another go at me. Maybe once you’ve explained it to him properly?” She looks at me pleadingly and I force a weak smile in response.
“Want to get stoned somewhere?”
“I’ve got weed,” she says, and pats her bag. “Where shall we go?”
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea really,” I say and stop walking for a moment. Marianne smiles good-naturedly and cocks her head to one side.
“Come on, why not? It’ll be fun. I don’t want to smoke it all by myself, do I? That’s no fun.”
A thousand questions pile up behind my lips. Who did she buy it from this time? Leon, or Ryan again? Has she slept with any of them again? How many times has she slept with them? Who else has she done it with that I don’t know about? What did Leon think about her scars? I rub my head and let my shoulders drop. What does it matter, I ask myself, what does it matter?
“Okay,” I give in. “What the hell. Come on then.”