Dear World, I spend the rest of the evening sending frantic texts to Joe and to my mother, and neither of them get back to me. Later on, up in my room, I am dozing in and out of restless sleep, when I suddenly sit bolt upright in my bed, tangled in my duvet and sweating profusely. My door has opened a creak, and there is a shadow peering in. “Lou, are you asleep?” It is my mother. I throw back the duvet and leap out of bed, running to the door to tear it open. Joe is standing just behind her. He looks awful. He is trying not to cry. “Joe is going to stay with us for a few days,” my mum informs me in hushed tones. “Until everything settles down again at home. Can you make him up a bed on the floor if I grab the blankets?”
“Course,” I say. I grab his arm and pull him in. I have never been so glad to see anyone in my entire life. My mum gives us a sort of withering, concerned look before hurrying off to get blankets from the airing cupboard. Joe hovers in the middle of my room. I want to throw my arms around him, but I don’t want my mum to catch me, so I don’t. I just stare at him. He is wearing the same Radiohead t-shirt he had on days ago, with a checked shirt on top. Most of the buttons are undone, except for two in the middle. The cuffs are undone as well. There are mud and grass stains on the knees of his jeans, and a smear of dirt under his chin. He folds his arms around himself and shivers, and stares at the floor. He looks thoroughly beaten and disgusted with himself. I search for the anger and the pride he had that morning he got into my bed with me, but can see no trace of it. I look at his face as my mum goes back and forth dumping piles of blankets inside the door. His bottom lip is cut and swollen, and there is another thin trail of blood coming from his ear.
Finally my mother stops fussing, and stands in the doorway releasing a massive sigh. “I hope you two understand how much trust I am putting in you by letting you stay in here,” she tells us sternly and we nod at her. “I am putting trust in you when neither of you has done anything lately to deserve it.”
I want to tell her we are just bloody friends, and can everyone stop assuming that we want to get into each other’s knickers constantly, but I bite my tongue and just look at her apologetically. “Things are too tense at home for Joe to stay there,” mum looks at me and says. I wonder if I can detect something in her eyes. Something she is trying to tell me. She does not take her eyes off of me. “So I intervened and brought him here. Putting my friendship with Lorraine at risk in the process,” she adds angrily, as if this is somehow our fault. I just nod again.
She finally turns to go. “Get some sleep,” she sighs. “We’ll all talk in the morning.”
When the door is closed, I look at Joe. “Sit down,” I tell him, nodding at my bed. “I’ll make these up for you.” He moves slowly, unsurely and sits on the edge of my bed, while I wrestle with the blankets on the floor. “Are you okay?” I look up and ask him gently. “Why are you bleeding?”
“Had a fight,” he croaks, staring at nothing. “Me and Mick.”
“While my mum was there?”
“Yeah,” he nods. “She stopped him.”
“Jesus Christ Joe. What the hell happened tonight? I had a little visit from your brothers, once my mum had shot off to your house!”
“Oh. What did they say? I haven’t seen them yet.”
I stop making the bed up and frown at him. “You haven’t seen them? So much for them sorting things out for you! That was what they said! They made me promise to keep my mouth shut while they sorted things. Fucking shitting scumbag liars.”
Joe says nothing. He is sitting on the bed with his hands hanging limply between his knees. He looks like he is maybe in shock or something, but how would I know? I shuffle forward on my knees until I am right in front of him. He is just breathing very fast. He looks so pale. His eyes are full of tears, and as I pick up one of his hands and hold it gently between mine, the tears line up and fall one by one. I watch them skidding down his white cheeks, over his cheekbones, and down to his chin. “What happened?” I ask him. He sniffs loudly.
“Don’t know. Police suddenly appeared when I was up on the bridge with the bloke. They must have followed me. They must have seen me before!”
My eyes grow huge. “What?”
“Was so scary,” he whispers. I hold his hand tighter and rub it between mine.
“Oh, Joe. How much did you have on you?”
“Just one of them little bags Leon makes up. Twenty quid’s worth.”
“Shit. This is bad.”
He lifts his other hand and wipes the tears away, but fresh ones line up to take their place almost instantly. He nods miserably. “Was so horrible Lou,” he whispers croakily. “They put handcuffs on me and everything. I was so scared.”
“Oh fuckinghell mate. What’s going to happen?”
“Got to go to court,” he shrugs and sniffs again. “They questioned me for ages. Wanted to know who I was running for.”
“Let me guess, you didn’t say?”
Joe just stares at me for a long, torturous moment. Then he drops his head into both of his hands and I watch his shoulders shake as he sobs into them. He shakes his head at me. I get up and sit next to him on the bed and slide my arm around his trembling shoulders. “Oh Joe,” I murmur, resting my head against his other shoulder for a moment. “You idiot. You are such an idiot. Why didn’t you say? You have to say. You can’t take the rap for them, you just can’t!”
“I need to talk to them first,” he sobs.
“But why? I told you what they said already.” I lift my head to stare at him. I keep rubbing his other shoulder with my hand, pressing his body into mine. “They said it was okay for you to take the rap, because they’ve both got previous and they’d get sent down, but you won’t. That’s what they think Joe. They’re quite happy to let you take all the blame.”
“I won’t go to jail will I?” he asks suddenly, turning his tear stained face to mine. I swallow and fight the urge I have to wipe his tears away with my thumb.
“God knows Joe! How would we know? I have no idea! Did they get you a solicitor or something?”
He nods, frowning in confusion. “The duty one.”
“I don’t know, I don’t know, I can’t remember…” Joe covers his face with his hands again. I hug him close.
“What happened with your mum and Mick?” I ask quietly. I feel his entire body shudder next to mine then. I feel the tremor of pain and shock and disgust twist right through him as he relives the memory.
“Just…” he shakes his head very slowly, staring through his fingers. “Just…really…fucking mental.”
“Well my mum must have thought so, to bring you back here.”
“They packed all my stuff,” he says through his fingers. His voice sounds hollow, shocked to the core, devoid of emotion or belief. “They packed it all up and chucked it out the door.”
“Oh my god! Joe!” I put both my arms around him now. I wrap them right around and hold him so tight while he shudders and sobs. I kiss the top of his head, and then the side of his face, and I taste his salty tears, as he must have tasted mine that night in his bed. “Joe, oh Joe. The bastards. All of them. Fuck them! They don’t deserve you Joe. They never have. You can just live here with us then. Mum will adopt you. They don’t deserve you!” I keep my arms around him and rock with him back and forth. “Don’t you worry,” I tell him, and plant another firm kiss on the side of his head. “Everything will be okay. We’ll tell the truth Joe, that’s what we have to do. We have to tell my mum the truth, about everything. Fuck Leon and Travis. Let them get arrested. It’s their bloody mess.”
“I don’t know,” he murmurs then, lowering his hands and sniffing loudly.
“In the morning,” I tell him. “Sleep on it. You can’t take the rap for them Joe, you just can’t.”
“Why not?” he asks, looking into my eyes and lifting his shoulders in a tired shrug. “I don’t even care. I won’t have anything to do with any of them after this. But I won’t be a grass.”
“Oh Joe, no.”
He gets up then and rolls his head on his neck, then shakes out his arms and legs. His jeans are getting too small I notice then. Creeping up his ankles. He drops down and gathers the blankets around him. He looks exhausted. He looks broken. I want to kill them all. I want to steal his perfect goodness away from them, and make it mine, keep it all for me. They never saw it, never nurtured it. They don’t deserve him. That is all I keep thinking. They don’t deserve him. He is a good apple among a rotting bunch of fetid cancerous bad ones. I watch him crawl in among the blankets, and I watch the sobs that still shake him as he tries to control himself. Finally he lays his head on the pillow and stares nakedly up at me. I want to cry.
“Thanks Lou,” he says hoarsely.
“I hope you got a few good ones in with Mick,” I reply with raised eyebrows. He does not even smile. He just closes his eyes. I get back under my covers and let him go. I seem to lie there for ages, just listening to him breathing.
At some point during what is left of the night, I hear him crying silently under his blankets, and I just cannot bear it. I get out of bed and slip in beside him. I pull his head into my chest and stroke his hair, and rub his back, while he just lets it all out. Neither of us speaks.
In the morning, I untangle myself from Joe and get to my feet. He just sleeps on. I look at my bedroom door, slightly panicked, while memories of the last time we were caught together in bed career through my mind. I lean down and cover him up and sneak quietly out of the room. I know that my mother is going to be in the kitchen, sat at the table with her hands wrapped around a steaming cup of tea, and a tea towel lying on her lap, or maybe on the table next to her cup. I know that she is going to look at me in that way, the way she always does lately. Like she does not recognise me anymore. I know that she is going to want to know what I know. I know that Joe will not grass his brothers up, but I have not yet decided if I will or not.
I creep in, feeling sheepish and young. She just looks at me, and I can’t decide if it is disappointment or pity that I see the most etched on her face. Maybe a good deal of both? I slip into a chair at the table. “Joe’s still asleep,” I say, not looking at her. She drums her fingers gently against the teacup.
“Do you want some breakfast?”
“Egg and soldiers? Used to be your favourite once. When you were a little girl.” There is a note of terrible sadness in her voice that I can barely stand. I force myself to look at her long enough to smile and nod in recognition, but that is all I can manage. She slides out from the table and puts a small saucepan of water onto the hob to boil.
“How long can he stay?” I ask her back. I watch her sigh.
“As long as he needs to, I suppose,” she replies. “I’m just going to have to be careful not to get involved, if you know what I mean. Not take sides.”
I am not sure what she means. “Sides?”
“Yes. His side or theirs, I mean.”
I still don’t know what she means. I watch her turn the grill on, and slap a slice of wholemeal bread under it. “Mum, what happened at their house? I mean, why did you bring Joe back?”
She turns to face me, and folds her arms across her breasts. “Look,” she says slowly, and I can tell that she is thinking in her head, trying to work out the best way to say something. “I don’t know what all this drug dealing business is about. I didn’t ask Joe, and I don’t plan to right now. I only know he has always been a lovely, decent boy, and I can only suppose the older two have roped him into something unsavoury?” There is an undeniable question mark at the end of her sentence, but I pretend not to pick up on it, and just stare up at her expectantly. “Anyway,” she goes on. “That’s none of my business, because at the end of the day it’s for the police and the courts to decide what’s gone on. But I cannot justify, or make excuses for the way I saw….” She breaks off now, swallows, coughs, and then turns her back to check the toast and the boiling water.
“Saw?” I question, prompting her.
“The way I saw the adults in that house treat him last night,” she finishes, and on the last word I hear her voice crack, and I see her lift one hand and drag it across her eyes. I watch her trying to compose herself.
“You mean, like the stuff I tried to tell you?”
“I suppose so yes. They just totally lost control. They were wild. Like animals. I kept telling them to calm down, calm down, leave it till the morning, let him go to bed, that sort of thing. They packed up all his stuff from his room and started throwing it out of the door.”
“They’ve got vicious tempers,” I say morosely. Mum shakes back her hair and stands over the hob, watching my egg as it bounces around it the pan.
“Well, I just didn’t like what I saw,” she says. “And I know Lorraine is my friend. My very old friend. And she has always been tough on her boys. Lord knows, the older two needed it, but Joe…” she trails off again, shaking her head slightly, as if she just can’t fathom any of it. “He was just so pale, and frightened and so sorry, he was so sorry. He just kept saying sorry, sorry, over and over. They wouldn’t even let him speak. I found myself stood in front of him Lou. I had to shield him. I had to get him out of there.”
“You did the right thing mum,” I say then, and get up from the table. “They don’t deserve him. I know he’s in trouble, but it really isn’t all his fault you know.”
“Well if you know anything Lou….” She turns and looks me in the eye.
“I need to speak to Joe.”
“Then I have to trust you’ll do the right thing,” she says, her eyes burning into mine. I feel such a wave of compassion and gratitude for her then, that it actually overwhelms me. I sort of stumble into her arms, and slide mine around her body, and end up with my face pushed up against her breasts.
“I’ll do the right thing,” I tell her. “Because you did. Thanks mum.”
I feel her playing with my hair, like she used to do when I was small. She wraps it around her fingers, and then unwinds it again. She presses her head down onto mine and breathes in. “You kids,” I hear her mumble. “It still takes my breath away you know, when I see how quickly you’ve grown. You know what parenthood is Lou? It’s not enough time. Not enough time to hold your children near.” She kisses me twice on the head. “One minute it’s all changing nappies, and rocking you to sleep, and holding your little hand, and then, in a blink of an eye….”
I squeeze her tight. In my head, I can just see her at Joe’s house, scared and confused, standing in front of him, trying to tell Mick to calm down. I squeeze her again. “I love you mum,” I say. “I love you so much.”