I cycled home from Cedar View, sweaty, grass stained, and with a ten pound note clutched in one hand. The smile on my face made my cheeks ache. Michael had been right, didn’t you know it? He had forced us on, knocking on door after door, dazzling people with his bright smile and knowing eyes. I don’t know how so many resisted him, to be honest, but it was Lucy’s dad, Mr. Chapman who gave us a break. The best thing was though, not only had Mr. Chapman let us mow his lawn, but his neighbour, Mr. Wilson had wandered over and asked us to do his as well! I had pushed the lawnmower carefully up and down Mr. Chapman’s lawn, with Michael’s words ringing in my head; prove them wrong, prove them wrong, make them think well of you. It made sense. It was sort of lovely.
I slammed my bike down in the drive and sauntered into the house, wearing this huge lazy grin on my face. My mother was in the lounge, sprawled in front of the telly with her dressing gown on. There was a little bundle of white tissues on the arm of the sofa beside her. She wiped her eyes when she saw me, and I proudly walked right up and pressed the ten pound note into her hand. “What’s this?”
“I’ve been cutting lawns,” I told her, throwing myself onto the sofa beside her. “On Cedar View Hill. I told John I could get a job too!”
She closed her hand hesitantly over the note, and half smiled, half frowned at me. “Well done,” she said. “That’s really good. On your own?”
“No, with Mike. Loads of people said no at first, but then some said yes. We kept trying.” I was basking in my own glory at that moment, I have to admit it. I felt great. I lifted my aching ankles onto the coffee table and crossed one over the other. She was turning the money over in her hand, no doubt questioning whether I had just stolen it or something. It didn’t matter to me though, whether she doubted me or not, I just felt like I had got one over on her, and on John, and that was enough. In your face, I wanted to shout at her. Michael had been right, I reflected, it did feel good proving people wrong.
“I’m pleasantly surprised,” my mother said slowly, as if she were picking her words very carefully. She spoke to me like that a lot. It was either that, or the anger. I wondered if she had ever truly felt relaxed around me. “And you were right this morning, as it happens,” she went on, not meeting my eye. “I am worried about money at the moment. Housing are taking ages to sort my claim out, and I’m not getting the extra hours I was promised at work so…” she trailed off for a moment, seemingly distracted by the frayed sleeve of her dressing gown. I waited, sensing more. “To be honest, things have been a bit strained lately, between Frank and me. You know, us grown ups and our complicated lives!” She laughed a short hollow laugh, and looked back at her sleeve. “But anyway, I’m going to look for another job as well, you know, to help make ends meet.”
I wasn’t sure exactly what she was saying to me. I didn’t want to push it and ask for more, so I just nodded and smiled at her, appreciating her honesty. I felt rather grown up then, sat there beside her, with money I had earned in her hand, and her telling me what was going on. I had to read between the lines, of course; things were obviously not great between her and Frank, but that was her business. If it was fizzling out, then great. I could forget about the whole Project Sleazebag thing.
Just then, we both jumped at the sound of the front door bursting open and then slamming again in the hallway. John appeared, red faced and breathless in the lounge doorway. “John?” my mother asked automatically, as he stared in at us wildly. She got to her feet and positioned herself between him and me.
“You!” he shouted, pointing a finger at me. I got up slowly.
“What’s the matter?” mum asked him. His chest was heaving up and down so fast, I wondered if he had ran all the way home from work, and if so, why? I didn’t think I had ever seen him look like that before, like he wanted to kill me. He normally just viewed me with distain and disinterest.
“Him!” John shouted, throwing the finger my way again. I threw up my hands in response.
“What have I done?”
Mum was looking from me to him, her brow heavy with a worried frown, her arms sort of half spread out, as if keeping us apart. “John calm down,” she told him. “What’s happened?”
“I just got fired, that’s what happened!” He finally lowered the accusing finger and placed both hands breathlessly on his hips. He was glaring at me, eyes dark with anger, and chest still rising and falling rapidly. “I just got fired from my job, because of him.” He fixed me with a rigid stare.
“What?” my mother cried.
“How is that my fault?” I asked. “I didn’t do anything!” But even as I spoke, I remembered Eddie Higgs, at the bottom of the steps to the cinema, his face crushed and his dream in tatters, and then I knew, then I knew exactly what this was about. I took a sort of sliding step towards the door. I wanted to be gone. I closed my mouth, felt my throat grow dry, and tried like hell not to let my guilt show.
“Why on earth would they fire you?” mum begged, her hands covering her mouth, her eyes burning desperately into Johns. “Why would they do that?”
“The manager called me in to see him,” John told her, wiping his shining brow with the back of one hand. “The manager of the whole centre, is Mr. Higgs, in case you didn’t know. Whose precious son, happens to be classmates with him!” The accusing finger was back again, heading my way. I felt like ducking and diving from it, refusing to accept that it was mine. “He tells me there’s been a lot of bother with some kids, bullying his son, and he has to let me go.”
Mums increasingly desperate eyes now swivelled to meet mine. They were colder now, and they challenged me. “Oh God, what have you done?”
“Danny and Mr. Higgs’ son, have been having some kind of war,” John went on, and as I looked at my mother then, I could see it hitting her, wave by wave, as her expression changed from concern, to shock, to knowing dread. “Apparently Danny and his mates have been playing cruel tricks on his son, I have no idea what, but the man is pretty pissed off about it and doesn’t want me there.”
I took another step towards the door and crossed my arms. “He can’t fire you, that can’t be right. He can’t fire you because of what I did.”
John came into the room, almost as if he sensed me moving closer and wanted to be away from me. He stalked up to the window and he was shaking his head. “Well guess what? He did!”
“But he can’t…you didn’t do anything..” I started to protest, but then I stopped when I saw the looks on both their faces. John was just glaring at me. His hands were on his hips, and his breath was coming out short and sharp from his nostrils. My mother stared at me and then advanced on me.
“No but you did!” she screamed, losing it then, the way I had seen her do a thousand times before. If she had been holding anything, she would have smashed it against the wall, but all she had was her dressing gown and her hair, and her hands moved frantically from one to the other, gripping at the top of the gown, and then raking across her scalp. “What did you do? What the hell did you bloodywell do? What did you do to get John fired? Oh my God Danny!”
I bit my lip, and looked out at the stairs. I swallowed the lump that had taken over my throat and scratched at a mosquito bite on my elbow. “Nothing,” I murmured, eyes down. “It was just a stupid prank, a joke. He does stuff all the time…they didn’t have to fire John over it!” I should have kept quiet. Played it dumb and shuffled off to my room. My mothers’ eyes were on fire. She walked quickly around the back of the sofa and gripped the back of it, as if she did not trust her hands to be anywhere near me.
“Danny!” she shrieked in this horrible fishwife tone. I winced. She was so angry her face was shaking. “John,” she said, not taking her eyes off me. “It will be okay. This must be some kind of mistake, it must be. I’ll get dressed and go down there. They can’t punish you for what your brother gets up to!”
“Don’t bother,” John said, turning to the window, and scratching at the back of his red neck. “There’s no point. I can’t work there now. I can’t work somewhere the boss has it in for me.”
“Danny can go down there and apologize,” she said then, her fingers white and splayed against the back of the paisley sofa. “That’s what he’ll do. He’ll grovel and say sorry and promise to make it up to his son!”
I shook my head at her. I think I might have smiled. “No way.”
“Get to your room,” she said it like her mouth was full of grit, like her throat was stuffed with disappointment. She didn’t look at me then. Her eyes were swimming in her pale face. I took a deep breath, and walked out of the room. I ran up the stairs, and as I did, I kind of wanted to yell back at them. I don’t know what. Anything. Anything that would make them understand, but I knew it was pointless. So I stomped up the stairs, followed by their silence. I opened and closed my door without going in, and squatted down on the landing to listen instead. The first thing I heard was my mother’s gasping sob.
And then John said; “Mum, I’m going to Leeds earlier than I planned.”
Shocked silence. Nothing. Me breathing. The smell of washing detergent coming from the open airing cupboard door. “What?” My mother sounding small and cold and afraid. “You can’t. You can’t!”
“I have to mum, I have to. I can’t stay here anymore.”
“But don’t be so silly, I need you here!”
“Mum, I’m going soon anyway, what difference does it make if I go sooner? I just want to get on with it now, you know? Get there and get settled.”
“Things are not good at the moment John…” She was sniffing, and clearing her throat. I heard him sigh, and he didn’t sound impressed or concerned.
“You’ll work things out with Frank.”
“It’s over between me and Frank. I need to get a new job.” Her voice broke then, and the sobbing commenced. I pushed my face against the railings to hear more. Their voices had softened, now that I had gone.
“Well mum…” John sighed again. “You’ll find one.”
“It’s not just that…” she wailed at him. “It’s the money, it’s this house and it’s him!”
“Well he’s right in a way. They can’t fire me for what’s gone on between him and this boy. But I can’t be bothered to fight it mum, what’s the point? I might as well just go now, just go and get settled.”
“I don’t want you to go John…I can’t…I can’t do it on my own.” Her voice had dropped to a whisper now. I imagined her hands, covering her face, her long delicate fingers shielding her frightened eyes. Her neat red nails creeping into her hair line.
“Mum, for God’s sake…” He sounded like he was trying to be patient. I heard his voice get closer to the lounge door. “I need my own life. I need to get out on my own. I can’t do all this anymore. Do you know I’ve felt like an adult since I was a child? Sorting you out when things go wrong, trying to stop you two from killing each other. I need my own life.”
She gave him nothing but silence. He waited, and then he sighed softly and his footsteps trod a heavy retreat into the hallway. He came up the stairs and I ducked back into my room, but not before he saw me. He put his hand out and stopped the door from closing.
“You heard all that then?”
“Should have known. You’re always creeping around.”
“Only because you guys never tell me anything.”
“You’ll have to behave better when I’m gone,” he said shortly, before turning away. “Or God knows what’ll happen to you.”
I didn’t expect her to call us down to dinner, but she did. I left my room reluctantly, irritably unable to shake the unsettling weight of guilt from my shoulders. John and I tiptoed down the stairs together, each feeling sheepish for our own reasons. She had made us sausage and mash, but she had no intentions of joining us. She was looking strangely upbeat and serious in a navy blue knee length dress, and leather boots. John coughed as he slid into chair at the table. “Off out?” She would not look at him as she checked her handbag over the sink. I could feel the hostility coming from her; it was like a flood of ominous vibrations, and I did not want to get in the way of them. I slunk to my place and kept quiet.
“Going to look for a better job,” she said, seizing a lipstick from the bag and slashing it angrily across her lips. “Have no choice do I? And then I’m going to meet some friends for a drink or two in town. If that’s okay with you lot. About time I let my hair down and had some fun for a change. Don’t wait up.” With that, she dropped the lipstick into the back and strolled briskly from the house. I looked up, and could not resist smirking at my brothers’ bereft expression.
“Ahh, pissed off with you too, that makes a change.”
He grunted and picked up his fork. “Tough. I’m going anyway. Soon as I bloody can.”
“I got a job today. Cutting lawns.”
“Good for you.”
We ate the rest of our dinner in silence.
At last, she came in alone. She didn’t have to say anything, she didn’t have to explain this, or say a word about any of it. She came to the bar cloaked in a confident sorrow. Her eyes were like a warm summers day framed with butterflies. I wanted to hold her with my hands and lick her from her toes up to her skull, and then let go of her again. It was exactly the way I had known it would be. I went to her. I drifted from one end of the bar to the other, because that was exactly the way it was meant to be. I did not smile, because I did not need to. She could see it all in my eyes, just as I could see it in hers. This was the beginning.
She cocked her head a little, and her stark blue eyes dropped to the bar, before rising again, swimming up liquidly to meet mine. I held her gaze and did not release her. Her shoulders were defeated. Her arms crossed wearily upon the bar, but her eyes were hard like mine, hard with knowing, and wanting. She smiled, a drifting delicate smile, which tilted her expression upwards, ironing out the worry lines. “I need a gin and tonic,” she purred. I lifted my eyebrows in question. “Actually, make it a double,” she said.
“Coming right up,” I replied calmly. I held her gaze a little longer, cementing our agreement, our quest, before turning away to make her drink. When I turned back, she was looking over her shoulder, and had climbed onto a stool. Her hair was swept up and clasped loosely at the back. Her neck was this silent, tender thing, watching me. She sighed, not knowing I was there, and her whole body shook in the little blue dress. I cleared my throat and she jerked back to face me, and the smile whipped across her face, and she laughed.
“That was quick!” She beamed, and unclasped her purse. I shook a hand at her.
“On the house.”
She closed the purse slowly, her expression coy. “Really? Are you sure?”
“It’s a new tactic we’re trying, sort of like a reward system,” I shrugged, placing my hands down on the bar. “We like to encourage people to come back.”
She giggled, and those amazing black lashes batted accordingly. She was beautiful. A class act. “Well thanks,” she smiled. “Everyone kept saying to try this place out. They said it used to be rubbish, but now it’s on the up?”
I nodded. “That’s what they’re all saying. Place is rammed most nights.”
“And so, you’re the? Manager?”
I folded my arms on the bar, leaning down towards her. “Co-owner,” I corrected her, and then I stuck my hand out. There was no time to waste dicking around. I had waited for her long enough. Patience had run its rightful course, and the moment had come. I always knew when the moment had come, and I was never wrong about it. “Lee Howard,” I told her. She laughed, tilting her chin up as she did, giving me another flash of still, cream neck.
“Kay Bryans,” she said, shaking my hand. “Nice to meet you. And thanks for the drink.” She picked up the glass with her other hand and held it up to me. I nodded graciously and gave her hand the smallest of squeezes. It was not intended to hurt, or shock. It was just a little message, and as I had known it would, I saw it register in her eyes. They widened just briefly, in a tiny second that erupted inside her with lust and fear. Colour stole into her cheeks. She sipped from the drink, and I lowered her hand.
“Good to meet you,” I told her, with a wink, before I walked away and left her to it.
I had things to do out the back. The office was still a mess, so I closed the door behind me and proceeded to get on with it. I made myself a strong cup of tea and sat down behind the desk. As I worked, I thought about my patience. I thought about waiting. I saw life simply. It was arranged in steps. Blocks. Blocks of life. Life is a pavement, or a wall, moments stacking up upon each other to build something complete. You start with nothing, and you end up as something, if you stack it right, if you build it well. You only achieve that with patience and care.
When I returned to the bar, with my shirt sleeves rolled up above the elbows, the club was full. A sea of people rocked and writhed before my eyes. Men in shirts held pints of beer above heads, and slid their hands around the waists of women they did not know. Women danced and cackled, and reached up to chain themselves around mens necks. The music pumped and throbbed. I had no interest in what it was. I paid someone else to worry about that. I surveyed it from the background. I felt like I was standing on the edge of my own kingdom. Everything I could see, at some point soon, would belong to me.
She was still sat at the bar. Alone. There were men all around her, young and old, grotesque and beautiful, and all of them were trying to catch her eye, but none of them dared reach out to her. She sat at the bar, alone, a beauty trapped by its own rarity. Like something sacred and unique and dangerous. She held her head up and smiled courteously. I appeared in front of her, and pushed a rum and coke into her waiting hands, and I watched this small, flickering smile tremble across her face. “I’m on a break,” I leant in and shouted above the music. “Fancy having a drink with me and telling me why you look so sad?”
She pulled back a little, laughing, one perfect hand hovering below her neck. Then she leant forward and I felt her breath on my ear. “You might need a long break if you really want to hear all about it,” she warned, and sipped her drink.
I nodded to a cluster of chairs in the corner, and she had to raise herself up on the bar stool in order to see where I meant. Then she grinned and nodded, and slipped down to the floor with her drink in one hand and her purse in the other. I met her in the crowd, and placed my hand firmly on the small of her back. I could feel the curve of her lower spine, rising up into the arc of her backside. She smiled up at me, and slipped her arm through mine, and that was it. Just as I had known. Just as I had planned. We were linked.