“First of all you need to listen to all this old stuff,” Billy told me, emptying the contents of his school bag onto my bed. I watched in awe as an endless stream of cassettes and vinyl poured out.
“Wow, thanks,” I said, but then I thought of something. “I don’t have a record player though.”
Billy fanned the music out with one hand. “What about your mum?”
“Nope. She doesn’t listen to any music.”
Billy made a disgusted noise, curled his lip and sat down on my bed. “Typical,” he said with a roll of the eyes. “Okay, not these then. I’ll get my dad to tape them for you.” He scooped up the vinyl collection and deposited them carefully back into his bag. I sat down and started to look through the tapes in amazement.
“Your dad must have a huge collection,” I said, admiringly.
“Massive,” he sighed. “He’s obsessed. He’ll tape you anything you want, and probably a load of stuff you don’t want too.”
“Old hippies,” Michael commented lazily from the window. He was perched on the windowsill, with a lit cigarette between his fingers, and his eyes on the street for my mother. Jake was sprawled in long legged fashion in the chair at my desk, a bored expression almost constantly on his lean face. I started to sort the tapes into piles, my excitement building with each one I handled. I felt a little stab of awe which I tried to squash down. They were my friends, which was cool, but I didn’t want to be in awe of anyone. Still, I had to admit it felt pretty good, having them lounging in my room after school, while my mother was out pounding the streets job hunting again. Billy was the livewire of the group, I had noticed. He was always positive, always cheerful, always looking for the humour in a situation. He had no interest in school, often being hauled to detention for messing around and being disruptive, but he was serious when it came to music. I could empathise with this.
“You’re insane if you’ve not listened to these yet,” he said the, hurling The Stone Roses cassette at me. “Because for one, they are important, and for two, they are British. Put that on and be blown away mate.”
“You listened to Bleach yet? Nevermind?” He had already taped these for me, and at the mere mention of what had now become my two favourite albums of all time, my heart accelerated a little, and my mouth dried out in anticipation of all the words I wanted to spout about them. I nodded, wide eyed and he grinned knowingly. “Blows fucking Guns and Roses right out the water, doesn’t it?”
“Thanks Billy,” I said, because I didn’t know what else to say.
“No problem. Come over to mine anytime. My dad will love it. His record collection is an education in itself.”
“You passing that on or what?” Jake said with a yawn, directing his question to Michael, who turned and handed the cigarette down to him. I liked Jake a lot. Contrary to my initial beliefs about all of them, he had no aggression within him whatsoever. He was the calm, quiet one, I suppose. Long limbed and lanky and always yawning as if life bored him immensely and he was only here because he had to be. He only spoke when he needed to, and when he did, he often said something worse listening to.
“You sorted things out with Eddie Higgs yet?” Michael asked me then, slipping down from the window and booting his own school bag across the floor. “Fuckinghell I hate that kid.” He was referring to a boy in our class. A boy who had challenged me to a fight at the beginning of the week. This presented an awkward situation for me. Normally I would have loved to oblige, but I had my bargain to keep with mum you see. I had explained this to the others, who seemed to understand, but the problem was escalating daily. Higgs now thought I was a wimp who wouldn’t fight him, and I couldn’t let that go on much longer. So I just shook my head in misery at Michael.
“It’s killing me,” I complained. “I need to find a way to beat him up without getting caught.” The others laughed, so I smiled back happily. “What is his problem anyway?”
Michael dropped onto the bed beside me and crossed one leg over the other. “Me and him go way back,” he explained. “Hated him for years.”
“Yeah, but why?”
“You know those kind of people?” Michael said urgently then, leaning forward, light and intensity leaping into his dark eyes. I smiled, recognising the look. “You ever meet those kind of people, and within seconds of meeting them, you want to punch their face in?” He looked around and we all nodded in agreement. “Well he’s one of those, isn’t he? Slimy, smarmy faced little posh boy cunt. Can’t stand him. And he’s got it in for you Danny, ‘cause you’re with us. That’s all it is. He comes from a posh family though. You should see where he lives! And plus, his dad owns that big shopping centre outside town? Or he manages it or something, I dunno. Anyway, all the other kids suck up to Higgs, so he doesn’t pick on them. ‘Cause that’s all he is at the end of the day. A bully boy.”
“We need a fight,” Billy said then, with a firm nod. “It’s been ages. Us against Higgs and his pansy friends. I feel it coming.”
“Me too,” agreed Michael. I grinned.
“Outside of school,” I said. “So we don’t get caught, and I’m in.” I got up then, remembering my mother. “We better get out of here anyway guys. My mum will be back soon and she’ll go mental.”
We trotted over to Michael’s house instead, as his mother was never home. I had yet to meet her. It was nice having an adult free place to go to though. Michael passed around cokes from the fridge and lit another cigarette to share. We sat out on the doorstep, which was a relief, because I hadn’t quite got used to the sickly sweet smell of his kitchen yet, and some days it was stronger than others. “You’ve not heard from this stalker guy then?” he asked me out of the blue. I frowned at him. “You know, since you moved in? He hasn’t found you yet?” The other two were waiting and watching in interest, so I shook my head and shrugged casually. To be honest, the thought of crazy James following us here, or finding us again, had not occurred to me once. I wondered then if it had occurred to my mother, or had she totally forgotten about those last few months back home?
“He won’t find us.”
“How do you know? That’s what stalkers are good at. Finding people.”
“The police were involved,” I recalled brightly. “They warned him off. I bet he wouldn’t bother.”
“So like what did he even do?” Billy questioned. I shrugged again.
“Dunno. Just hung about. Followed my mum. Called the house all the time. That sort of thing.”
“Must have been scary shit,” Jake commented, taking the fag from Michael and drawing deeply. I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t actually remember being scared, to be honest, just fucking angry. Angry at everything and everyone. But that was all over now, wasn’t it? Me and my mum had our deal. “Where’s your dad?” Jake asked.
“What seriously?” frowned Michael. “You don’t even know?”
I grinned. “Where’s yours?”
“Buggered off for a bit. That’s what he does when him and mum fight too much. Then he comes back. He always comes back.”
“When did you last see your dad?” Billy was asking me. If anyone else had asked me so many personal questions, I would have got mad, I think. But they weren’t asking in a nosy way, or a judgemental way. They were just getting to know me, and I liked it. I didn’t mind.
I scratched my head and tried to remember. “Think I was about nine.”
“So what happened then?”
“Dunno really. Mum said he got into trouble and had to stop seeing me for a while. I didn’t see him much anyway, so it didn’t feel like a big deal at the time.”
“Interesting,” Jake said, nodding slowly at me. “You should try to find out you know. That’s your best bet of keeping loser boyfriends away from your mum. Your dad back on the scene.” I wondered if he maybe had a point. “Who’s John’s dad then?”
“He was her first love, her husband,” I replied easily, as I knew all the answers to these questions. I had heard it all often enough. “They had John really young and got married. But it didn’t work out. He saw his dad every weekend though, until he moved to Leeds. Then it was like a few times a year.”
“What a pain in the arse,” Michael was laughing then. “Families! Fucking mental, all of it is. I’m glad my mum is hardly ever around. We get on better that way. The only one worth anything to me is my brother.”
I looked up. Jake and Billy were nodding very seriously. “Anthony,” Billy told me.
“He’ll be out of prison soon,” Michael went on, and he had this huge happy grin plastered all over his face, as he lazed back in the doorway and blinked in the afternoon sun. I felt warm and happy just looking at his expression, and I already liked Anthony, even though I knew nothing about him. “He’s the coolest person you’ll ever meet, I swear. You’ll love him Danny. And when he gets back, it will be one big party in this house, I can tell you!”
I nodded and smiled, as the talk turned back to school, Higgs, teachers and girls. I sat back and listened, a swell of smug warmth filling me up from the inside. It was a nice way to feel for a change, and it was all because of them, and the way I felt, nestled there within their tight little group. I had envisioned and prepared for months of loneliness and scrapping, as I settled into the new town, but things were looking up. Michael was counting girls he liked off on his fingers, and the others were laughing and agreeing or disagreeing. I opened my mouth once, with the name of another girl on the tip of my tongue, but I closed it again and kept it to myself instead. Lucy Chapman, I thought to myself though. Lucy Chapman had nut brown hair that swung from one shoulder to the other when she giggled in class. It caught the sun from the window and dazzled my eyes behind her. She didn’t know I existed of course, but it wouldn’t stay that way forever. Lucy Chapman, I thought to myself, and said nothing.
When I got home I came face to face with a problem though, an issue, shall we say. One I had known would come eventually, one I had hoped we could delay as long as possible, especially if my mother genuinely expected me to avoid fights. She was in the kitchen with John and they were drinking champagne. Suspicion clouded my heart, but I had good reason to be cynical. She was dressed in a suit, with a tiny little skirt, and spiky heels. She was all made up, her face flushed and her demeanour giggly. I could smell it already; I could smell them. “I’ve got a job!” she beamed at me, gripping my arm with one hand and jumping up and down in her heels like an excited little child. I held on to the floor, already resentful of her cheer. I waited, while John looked on cautiously, inspecting my mood from behind. “You are looking at the brand new receptionist at Franks Cars!” she told me. She rattled on about it for a while of course, while I said nothing. I thought how young and girlish she looked when she was happy. “Hours are great,” she was saying. “Money is great! All the guys there are so lovely! Oh it’s such a relief to have something decent sorted!” I kind of nodded and stole past her. I suppose she was waiting for me to congratulate her or something, but there was a hard knot taking up the space in my belly, and I knew why. I made my excuses in a mumble and got up to my room. I slammed the door on her high pitched excitement. I stared at the door and longed to kick it. Was I the only one who could see where this was heading? Guaranteed, I was the only one with my heart ringing in my chest like a warning bell.
So it all kicked off after that, didn’t it? One way or another, if I look back now, that was the start of it all. She just didn’t want to learn her lesson, did she? I noticed things right away, things John would think nothing of, like how sharply she dressed for work. It was suit jackets and short skirts, and killer heels. She wore her hair up, I suppose to try to look elegant and classy, but she had the figure of an eighteen year old girl, so that was never going to work. It all set my teeth on edge, if you want to know the truth. It was bad enough that she was the only female employee at Franks garage in town, but men would have started sniffing around her if she’d been cleaning toilets in hotels, or sat on the till at Asda. Whatever. They would find her, but the deal was, no loser boyfriends, remember? No fights for me, no loser boyfriends for her. Well, I’d like it on record that it was she who broke her promise first.
One morning before school she asked John if he could keep an eye on me that evening, as she was going out for dinner. He met my eye awkwardly before nodding in reply. He didn’t even want to ask where she was going, or who with, you could tell, but I wasn’t going to let her off the hook that easily. “Where are you going then? Who’re you having dinner with?” The questions hung like ice in the kitchen around us. That was her guilt, right then, right there. It was in her face, her silence, the way she couldn’t meet my eyes, the way she started shoving things into her handbag so she would appear busy.
“Just to the seafood restaurant down on the quay?” she directed the answer at John, even though it was me who had asked the question. “Meant to be divine! Everyone raves on about how good it is!”
“Who with, I asked, who with?” My body language must have been quite aggressive by then, as John saw fit to give me a warning kick under the kitchen table. I ignored him. She didn’t want to answer, that was obvious. “Who with?” I asked again, my voice tight and low.
“It’s just Frank,” she said with a light hearted chuckle, throwing her bag onto her shoulder, and waving a hand at us dismissively. Her neck had gone all red though. “Just as friends. He’s showing me around, that’s all. Introducing me to people, that sort of thing. Right, I better be off boys…”
“You’re going to dinner with your boss?” I got to my feet and glared at her. She rolled her eyes, giggled and headed for the door.
“Oh Danny, don’t be silly, please don’t start.”
“Are you serious? Your boss?”
“Oh don’t go all moody on me because I dare to have a social life!” she snapped back at me. “I haven’t been out in ages. You can think what you like.”
“Oh so will the whole town!” John kicked me again, harder. “Stop fucking kicking me!” I turned and snarled at him. Mum just shook her head .
“I’ve heard enough. I’m going to work.” She slammed the door behind her, so I directed all of my fury at John.
“Shut up idiot. She can go out if she likes.”
“Take her side as usual!”
He got up from the table and sighed. “Who cares? Whatever.”
“You don’t care? You really don’t care? She’ll be bringing home another loser before you know it John!” I was gripping the edge of the table with both hands. I was holding onto it for some reason. There were these tremors shaking through me, one by one, and I felt uglier by the second. John just shrugged at me.
“You don’t know he’s a loser.”
“They’re always losers John! Why the hell do you think we moved here? Have you forgotten the last one? What about the one before that? He was a criminal!”
“Oh Christ Danny, give it a rest!” John walked out of the room then. You can see what I had to put up with. All he cared about was getting away, getting to Leeds to live with his precious dad. I followed him, and found him at the living room window. I could see the boys arriving outside to call for me on their bikes.
“All you care about is yourself,” I told John in a hiss. “It’s okay for you. Off to Leeds with your dad. I’ll be stuck here with whatever idiots she lets in!”
“I’ll talk to her, all right? Tell her you’re worried. We’ll keep an eye on this guy.”
“We’ll do more than keep an eye on him,” I promised before I stormed out of the front door.
My rage intensified as the school day wore on. I pushed and shoved my way through it, handling it as if it were a battlefield surging with enemies. I stalked the corridors stiffly, realising that Michael had been right; the place was a shit hole and most of the kids were twats. Barely any of them, except for the gang, had bothered to make me feel welcome or get to know me. It felt like they had all made their minds up about me on day one, and that was that. I started to get paranoid as the day wore on, imagining that they all hated me because Eddie Higgs had been spreading untrue rumours about me and my family. I didn’t know this for sure, of course, but it seemed to make sense. I felt drawn to him in history. I couldn’t stop glaring at him, wondering if it was true. I stared and stared at his angelic face, which was perfectly framed by sleek blonde curtains, and felt more repulsed by the second. He had a very clean cut look about him, it had to be said. I couldn’t imagine him smoking behind the bike sheds, or stealing from his mother. But there was something unsavoury about him, all the same. I paid close attention to him that day. By the time we got to history, I’d seen enough of the way he operated. He slid through the school day, greasing his way with snide remarks and icy put downs. He looked down his nose at anyone who was less than perfect, while his own brilliance and self-worth shone in every classroom. The teachers loved him, didn’t they? They hung on every sweet thing he said. He was very informed, when he spoke. He knew a lot more than me, that was for sure. He carried with him the air of someone who never doubts himself, and finds everyone else somewhat lacking. He smelled of sea air and wealth and revelled in being pointlessly bitchy.
I finally caught his eye and mouthed the words I had been longing to say to him all week; “I want a fight.” He made a semi-interested look and sort of shrugged, and then nodded. It was on.
When the bell rang, we hurried from the classroom, bashing and bumping against each other, fuelled by the desire to maim one another. The nominated fighting place was behind the canteen, where the large industrial bins offered a kind of privacy. We were tailed enthusiastically by my friends, and his. I wasted no time, pushing my face towards his, wrinkling my nose as if the stench of him offended me, and then giving him a quick, hard shove. “Come on then dick face!” I invited him to come back at me. “Let’s go!”
“Hang on a minute,” the boy said, holding up a finger, and smiling widely. “There’s something I wanted to ask you first. Isn’t it your mother working at Franks garage?” I didn’t answer him, because I wasn’t there to have a fucking conversation with him. He rubbed at his chin in mock uncertainty. “I’m sure it is, you know. Have any of you lot been by there lately? You can see her when you walk by the window! My dad said he went in there to see her, you know. The cars are all heaps of shit, but he went in to look at her.”
“Shut your face,” I warned him. There was a redness in my mind then, pure blood red clouds spreading across my vision. If he wasn’t careful he was going to get himself killed. He ignored me, chuckling for the benefit of his sniggering friends, and licking his lips as he nodded appreciatively.
“She is well sexy,” he informed them all. “Like a model or something! A really slutty kind of model though.”
That was enough for me. I didn’t want to give him the chance to speak again so I smacked him in the mouth. He went down, the crowd went ooh and ahh, and I landed on top of him, punching as hard as I could, seeing nothing but red mist, red clouds. I didn’t even hear them yell teacher. I didn’t see any of them running away. I just felt the hands grip me under the arms and haul me away from Higgs. The mist cleared long enough for me to see him wailing and crying like an infant, as he scrambled onto his knees. I didn’t care. I walked away with the teacher, feeling calmer by the second, like those punches had put things right. I breathed in and out slowly, and concentrated on the rhythmic throbbing of my knuckles. I felt all their eyes upon me as I was marched away, so I held my head up high and was glad. None of them would mess with me now. A part of me wished my mother could have seen me then.
She drove me home in silence. I’d said nothing in reply to the sermon the head teacher had delivered to me in his office. What could I say? I suppose I could have tried to enter into a dialogue with him about it. I could have asked him if he had ever seen red mist like that, if he had ever longed to punch someone’s face in. I could have tried to explain it to him, I suppose. How the feelings had built up in me all week until I just couldn’t stand it any longer. I could have asked him what he really thought about cherubic faced, acid tongued Edward Higgs, but the truth was, I didn’t care. I felt better, but it would have appalled any of the adults to know that. I was in detention for the next two weeks. Mr. James had given my mum a good dressing down about my behaviour so far, how shocked he was by the start I had made in his school. He had given her plenty to think about, that was for sure.
In the kitchen, I waited for her to let rip. I felt the familiar urge to laugh, which was pretty dangerous territory to be in right then. She was looking at me like she wanted to kill me. She looked even younger when her face was all flushed and furious, which made it even harder for me to take her seriously. “You’re trying to spoil things for me Danny,” she said rigidly, her eyes unable to meet mine. She seemed out of breath, as if her anger was making it difficult for her to breathe properly. Her eyes skirted the room, hitting the ceiling, the floor, the walls, anywhere but right at me. “My first week at work, and I already have to leave to come and pick you up from school, for yet more fighting. You’re trying to make me look bad and spoil things for me, I know it. I know exactly what you are doing. I knew it this morning! I just knew you were going to do something to drive me insane!”
“Do you even want to know why I hit him?” I asked her, and watched her eyes grow wider and her mouth fall open. I crossed my arms in defence.
“No I do not want to know why you hit him! Are you insane? What is wrong with you? I already heard it all from Mr. James thank you very much! I had to stand there and take a bloody parenting lesson from him! A complete stranger telling me I need to be tougher on you! Well he’s not the first person to tell me that, is he Danny?” She had crossed her own arms now, and stuck out one bright red shoe to tap against the lino. Her lip pouted while her tenth clenched. “Exactly what my own mother has said to me from day bloody one! Too bloody soft, that’s what she’s always said, isn’t it Danny? She said I would regret it one day, and she’s bloody right isn’t she? Beating up another kid! For nothing!”
“There was a good reason,” I told her. “Do you want to hear it?”
“No I do not want to bloody hear it!” she screamed this at me, thrusting her face towards mine, before shaking her head dramatically, and raking both hands back through her hair. She spun away from me then, as if she could not bear to be near me a second longer. “I can’t do this, I can’t do this right now, I have a bloody job Danny! I’ll deal with you later, and don’t you even think about leaving this house!” She slammed out of the door for the second time that day without looking back at me.
I went up to my room after she left and put some music on. I felt sort of down and deflated, but I didn’t understand why. I lay on my bed for a while, just staring at the ceiling and listening to The Stone Roses tape Billy had leant me. It irked me a bit that she hadn’t wanted to know why I had punched Higgs, but I knew it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Part of me wanted to tell her, wanted her to know how well I had defended her honour in the school playground, but another part of me never wanted her to find out how Higgs had spoken about her. The more I thought about it all, the warmer my cheeks grew. My legs and feet twitched on the bed, as the anger resurfaced again. I nodded along to the music, and tried to concentrate on that, and in the end the words all got too big for my head, so I had to roll over and drag my notebook out from under the mattress. I sang as I wrote, my head resting in one hand, while my other hand moved rapidly across the pages. I can hear the earth begin to move, I hear my needle hit the groove, and spiral through another day, I hear my song begin to say… I smiled, and you wouldn’t believe how much better I felt just purely from having that tune in my head. I was beginning to realise that music was so much more than just noise, or singing. It was more complex than that. It was the way it made you feel. Why did one song make you feel one way, and another song make you feel the opposite? Was it the lyrics, or the topical content, or was it the melody, the key changes, the chorus? I didn’t have a clue, but it was like being on some sort of journey, the way I felt about music then. I couldn’t get enough of it. I had even begun to leave my music on when I went to sleep. I’d plug my headphones into the stereo and sleep with them on, so that I could drift away with those amazing spiralling guitars thrumming through my dreams. I heard the phone ringing then, but I finished what I was writing first, and to me it was the perfect summing up of how I felt about my mother right then; kiss me where the sun don’t shine, the past was yours, but the future’s mine, you’re all out of time. I threw down my pen, laughed in triumph and ran for the phone.
It was Michael. “You’re a legend mate!” he told me exuberantly when I picked it up. I rolled my eyes and grinned stupidly, leaning back against the wall in the hallway.
“Yeah you are! Higgs was fucking crying mate, crying!”
“Yeah well, good, I hope his nose is broken!”
“His face wasn’t looking too pretty was it? You got quite a punch on you for a little guy! Bloodyhell!”
“Thanks. Well, he asked for it, being a snide little dick all the time, saying things about my mum…”
“Too right he did! Little bell end. You showed him. What happened with Mr. James though?”
I sighed rather dramatically, my mood perking up even more now that I had Michael’s attention. It was probably fair to say I was basking in my own confidence right then. “He flipped. Sent me home. Had a right go at mum! Got detention for two weeks.”
“Oh crap. Bet your mum went mental on you though.”
“She didn’t have much time,” I told him with a giggle. “Had to rush back to work and her precious boss. The one she’s going out to dinner with later.”
“She’s really going out with him?” Michael questioned curiously.
“Yep. Gross isn’t it?”
“Have you met him yet?”
“Nope. Why?” Already my suspicions were aroused. It was the way he put the question you see, it was the tone. I liked to think I was pretty good at picking up on the way people said things, often being a clearer indication of what they were really trying to say. Michael paused before replying, and again, even his pause was a concern for me.
“Ah well, it’s just I hate to be the one to tell you, but he sort of has a bad reputation around here, that guy.”
I felt my whole body stiffening. My skin prickling. My blood turning to ice. “What do you mean?” I asked him.
“Well, you know, with the ladies and that. He has a bit of a reputation.”
“What do you mean?” I asked again, because I honestly did not know what he was getting at.
“With the ladies,” Michael said again. “You know. Sorry mate.”
I bit down on my lip and dragged my teeth across it. “I told John,” I said after a few moments.
“John. My stupid fucking brain dead brother! I told him! I told him this morning. Another loser. I just knew it.”
“Well don’t freak out, he’s a nice bloke and everything. Just really friendly with the ladies that’s all. Why don’t you tell your mum what I said? I mean, it’s not just me saying it Danny, like everyone in town knows he’s a heartbreaker. You should warn her mate. She’d appreciate it.”
I didn’t say anything. My guts felt black and solid and unmoveable. I was staring at the carpet and not seeing anything. My mind swam with red again, in and out, like a bloody massacre in the ocean, in and out, in and out.
“I’ve got to go. My mum is home. You want to come and call for me later? We haven’t shown you our base yet.”
I was confused. “Base?”
“Yeah. Call for me about six, and I’ll show you. It’s so cool.”
“Okay,” I said numbly. “Okay then.”
I struggled through the next few hours, pacing the house, returning again and again to the window to watch for her car. Michael’s information trembled within me, making the palms of my hands slick with sweat. Maybe I was making a big deal out of nothing, but all I could think about then was crazy James, and her fucking promise. When she finally came home she swept through the house with very little time to get ready, and very little energy to deal with me. I followed her up to her room, chewing at my lip, feeling like a little child again for some reason, running after her skirts. I watched her tearing through her wardrobe like a fiend, dragging clothes out and slinging them down again in distaste. I glanced around at the dull magnolia walls and remembered that she had painted them all pink in the old house. Pink walls, pink carpet, pink curtains. “Mum?”
“No. I’m not in the mood to speak to you right now Danny. Out.”
I watched her hold a lilac coloured dress to her body. She turned to one side and then the other in the long mirror, but her face was crumpled up with disgust and she quickly hurled it to the floor, even though I thought it looked amazing on her. “I need to talk to you mum.”
“Not now.” Her tone was clipped, and cold. It was the worse tone ever. It was the tone that made me resort to childishness in a bit to get her attention, it was the tone that made me feel about five years old again, whining and sobbing and yanking at her dress.
“It can wait.” She strode towards me then, her eyes down, her lips taut. She slammed the door in my face. I remained on the other side of it for a few moments. I felt the hot red anger creeping back into my cheeks. The heat was steadily flooding my body, tingling violently through every single nerve until I could bear it no longer, and marched stiffly back to my room. I lay slowly down on the bed, pressed play, and stared at the ceiling until I heard her leave the house. Then I ran from the house, ignored John yelling out that I was grounded, grabbed my bike and was gone. Fuck them.
I dumped my bike in the back alley and called for Michael. This small framed, and scowling woman answered the door to me. She had the same dark hair and eyes as her son, but that was where the similarities ended. He obviously didn’t get his robust build from her, I thought. She looked tiny, like she hadn’t grown past age twelve or something. Her hair was curled and shiny, and rigid with hairspray. Her eyes were mean, her expression pinched, and she looked worn out, and at the same time, gagging for an argument. “Who’re you?” she barked at me, fag in one hand as she looked me up and down. Michael appeared quickly behind her, rolled his eyes at me and squeezed past.
“This is Danny, mum,” he told her. “He’s new round here.” He motioned for me to get moving, so I did. The woman teetered slightly on her heels as she watched us go.
“You don’t wanna be hangin around with my son!” she called after us in a shrill voice. “Nothing but trouble, the pair of em!”
I waited until we were out of the alley, and on our bikes, before I let myself grin at him. He looked stressed, but amused. “Nice to meet your mum,” I said, and gave him a punch on the arm. He laughed instantly.
“Nice isn’t she?”
We rode off towards the park, side by side. I couldn’t stop grinning for some stupid reason. I felt a bit like me and him were in a special club together. Boys against their mothers, or something. Michael didn’t speak then; he just led the way. Up the hill and across the field, towards the woods. After a bit the undergrowth was too thick to ride through, so we dismounted and pushed our bikes along. Eventually Michael pointed to a building ahead, that could just be glimpsed through the trees. “That’s it,” he said. As we got closer I saw that it wasn’t a building, but an old rusting caravan. It looked like it had been stuck out there for years. The exterior was green and mossy, and covered in thick tangles of brambles and nettles. The rood had caved in slightly down one end, bent in from the pressure of the ivy that choked it. I copied Michael and threw my bike down next to Billy and Jake’s. Michael was grinning as he knocked twice on the door, paused, and then knocked twice more. He winked my way. “Secret knock.”
Just then the battered old door, which looked slimy with mildew, was flung energetically open, and Billy greeted us by thrusting a can of beer into our faces. “Share it!” he barked at us. “Jake sneaked two out his dad’s store cupboard!”
Michael took the beer, and I followed him inside. We were stood in the kitchen area, complete with sagging worktop and cracked sink. The floor felt bouncy beneath my feet. Jake sat down the other end at the table. The roof above him nearly touched his head. It looked like the seats or sofas had rotted away long ago, so the boys had fashioned benches out of upside down paint cans and planks of wood. It worked. Sort of. I mean, actually it was all kind of disgusting, and it had a really offensive wet smell about it, but it was somewhere to go, wasn’t it? “What do you think?” Michael asked me, as he sat down on the other side of the table and looked proudly around.
“So cool,” I told them all. “Brilliant hideout. Does anyone else know about it?”
“Not so far as we know,” replied Michael. “Come on in. Have a seat.”
Before long it was dark outside, and I knew my mum would be back, and probably going mental, but I was reluctant to leave. The thought of them still being there without me, and the fun and the conversation carrying on in my absence, was almost too much to bear. It was strange, I guess, how quickly I had felt at ease with them all. I felt like I was one of them, and I didn’t have to try too hard, or pretend to be something I wasn’t. They seemed to like me exactly the way I was, and it was nice like that. Michael was sat hunched over the remains of the beer we had shared. “My mum is pissed off with me already,” he was telling us with a sigh. “Think it has something to do with me existing.”
“Come and stay at mine,” offered Billy, lighting a cigarette. “My mum will love it.”
“I’d swap your mum for mine right now,” I told Michael. “I mean it. I’m serious.” He smiled back at me easily.
“You have no idea what you’re saying mate, but okay then, it’s a deal. At least yours is hot! And she stays put.”
“Yeah, stays put and attracts losers,” I reminded him with a frown. I watched the boys swap amused looks with each other. Of course they knew all about her dinner date with the famous Frank Bradley. “It’s not funny,” I warned them. “This is exactly what she always does, and she promised me she wouldn’t. I’m not taking it you know. I’m not letting her get away with it.”
Jake laughed at me good naturedly. “What the hell are you gonna’ do? You can’t do anything!”
“Oh yes I can. I will. I told you, I’m not taking it this time, I’ve learnt my lesson, unlike her. Look what happened last time! Guy turned out to be a fucking maniac, dribbling at the window! You think I’d trust her taste in men ever again?”
“So how?” Billy was giggling at me. “What are you gonna’ do?”
I shrugged. “Come up with a plan. Stop them. Split them up.”
“Hey I like the sound of this,” Michael said then, straightening up in interest. “I like the way your mind works! We’ll help you!”
“Yeah! Hell yeah, what are friends for? We’ll come up with a plan, we’ll call it Project Sleazebag after Frank Bradley and his sleazy ways!” Michael was getting excited now, practically wriggling on his seat with it. “We’ll teach him a lesson, how about that? Teach him to stay away from people’s mothers!”
We all laughed. I could have hugged him, to be honest. I wanted to thank him, but in front of the others it would have sounded wet. I had already decided I wasn’t going to stand back this time. I wasn’t going to let another stream of stupid bossy men worm their way into my house and my life. They were all the same, because she didn’t have a clue. As long as they were good looking, that was all she cared about. I’d been there before, but it didn’t have to carry on, did it? I wasn’t helpless, for fucks sake. We left the caravan shortly after the plan was agreed on, and we rode home together, with smiles on our faces and the wind in our hair. I felt terrific then. I felt like finally, I had people on my side! Finally, I was going to do something, I was going to be in control and stand up. In a way, it was that attitude, that plan, forged with new friends in a rusting and mouldy old caravan, that led me to where I am now. In many ways, I wish to God we had never started it.