I woke up with The Doors in my ears, and old Jim Morrison was right. Strange days had found us. I got dressed and left the house before either my mother or John could wake up. I cycled slowly towards Michael’s house. My head felt bogged down with it all, making my limbs slow and lethargic. The bike seemed too big, too heavy. I wanted to throw it down and walk. I wanted to sit down and sink. Just sink. I had my headphones on, my Walkman attached to the waist of my jeans. I dropped my bike at the end of the alley and approached the Anderson’s house with my arms hanging weakly at my sides. I wanted to tell Michael all about it. How Higgs had fucked us over. How John was going to leave, and my mother and I would be left alone, with each other. How joyless and endless this felt inside of me. How she had come home drunk last night, falling over her heels in the hallway and clattering noisily into the hall table. How John had carried her up to bed, while she giggled and lolled upon his shoulder, her make up smeared as she rattled on about her new job in the Co-Op.
There was a thick set and bare chested man sat in the Andersons kitchen, forking eggs and bacon rapidly into his open mouth. I approached the back door with caution, and as I got closer, he turned and saw me and grunted through his food. “Who’re you?”
“Danny,” I mumbled, pausing in the doorway. The house had that smell again, I thought, my nostrils twitching in protest. Beneath the smell of burnt bacon, slunk the low sweet smell of last night’s booze.
“Mikey!” the man yelled out suddenly, making me jump. I gazed at him long enough to determine he was Michael’s father. He had the same hair, so black it looked like shining oil, and he had the same, straight broad nose. But this man sat hunched over a gut clad in a stained white vest, looking like a hog guarding his slops. Michael appeared quickly, seemingly out of nowhere, in this great hurry, his eyes wide, his mouth taut. He took my arm and spun me away from it all. He did not speak until we were at the other end of the alley with our bikes, and then he breathed in, made a growling noise in the back of his throat and spat on the ground in front of him. I felt sad then. Sad for him; always hurrying me away from his house and his parents, with this dark and quiet look upon his face, and sad for me, and sad for everyone. I couldn’t imagine ever feeling light, or hopeful again. We both looked up and back down the alley when we heard their voices rising behind us.
Michael rolled his eyes and started to hurry away, faster and faster, until we reached a place where we could not hear them anymore. And then he lowered his head and stood up on his pedals, and tackled the hill to the park silently. We rode on until we reached the bench, and then we slammed our bikes down in unison and climbed upon it. Michael sat on the back, his boots on the seat next to me, and searched his pockets for cigarettes. “Neighbours called the cops on them last night,” he finally said, when he had found the smokes and passed me down one. I shifted to look at him.
“Usual,” he shrugged, lighting up and flicking the hair from his eyes with a toss of his head. “Too much noise. They thought he was killing her.”
I lit my cigarette and handed him back the lighter. “Shit. Really?”
He shrugged again. “Nothing new. “
“Nothing. She’ll never file a complaint against him. Just blames it on the drink.”
“I’m sorry mate.” It was all I had to say, and it was pretty crap. “Will he go again soon?”
“Looks like it. Anyway, what’s up with you?”
I frowned. “Huh?”
“You. You look like someone pissed on your fireworks.” A slow grin appeared tentatively on his face. I smiled back, and puffed smoke up to the sky. I took another drag and thought about everything that had happened and I wanted to laugh.
“One good thing actually,” I said. “It’s all over between mum and Bradley.”
Michael’s mouth fell open. “Oh really? Nice one!”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “But now she’s had to get another job or something, and John is leaving early. I mean, really soon.”
His face grew sombre again. “Why?”
I made a face. “It will make you want to get violent if I tell you.”
“John got fired yesterday,” I swivelled around on the bench, and sat with my legs down through the back. “You know who his boss is yeah?” I watched Michael’s jaw snap shut. His eyebrows came down over his eyes and he pushed breath out through pursed lips. “Yeah well, Higg’s dad was a bit pissed off about our little prank the other night. Sacked him.”
“You better be joking me.”
“Nope. John can’t be bothered to fight it, and he’s pissed off with me and mum fighting, so he’s leaving for Leeds now.”
Michael shook his head slowly from one side to the other, and took a long, deep drag on his cigarette. “Shittinghell.”
I nodded. “And now mum’s not speaking to either of us. She got slaughtered last night. Obviously it’s all entirely my fault. Now we’ll be stuck with each other, when he goes.” I closed my eyes briefly and leaned over the back of the bench. I dropped my cigarette to the grass and watched the red end glowing on the dead grass. I felt deflated by it all, but as I sagged, Michael grew rigid, and got onto the bench on his knees.
“Jake was right!” he cried. “He didn’t waste any time getting us back did he? You know they can’t do that, right? That’s fucking illegal or something! We’ll go and speak to Billy’s dad, right now, fuck it.” He jumped down from the bench.
“It won’t do any good,” I told him. “John won’t go back there. He’s leaving and that’s it.”
“We have to do something!” he said, fists briefly curled at his side, before he spun around and snatched his bike up from the ground. “Come on! You can’t let them get away with this Danny!”
I pulled out my legs, turned around and stood up. I licked my lips while he shook with anger, and I pushed my sleeves up to my elbows. “Don’t worry,” I assured him calmly. “I’m not gonna’ let him get away with it. I’m gonna’ get him back the next time I see him.”
Michael looked unconvinced. “How?”
“Gonna’ beat the hell out of him, that’s how.” I shrugged and picked up my bike. “Got nothing to lose, have I?”
We cycled, grim faced over to where Jake lived. A desolate silence hung between us on the way there. He lived in a block of flats, just ten minutes from the sea. There were three blocks, arranged in a semi-circle, with a flat green out the front, and a small dark wood out the back. Beyond the wood, there was a road, and on the other side of the road a path that led down to the sand. When we arrived, we dropped our bikes on the grass, but Michael did not head towards the doors. Instead he started looking around on the ground until he found a couple of suitably sized stones, which he then began to hurl up towards a first floor window.
“We’re not going in?” I asked.
“Are you joking? I never go in there. It stinks.”
“What? Jake’s flat, or the whole building?”
“All of it. It’s like curry mixed with piss. Horrible.” He hunted down another stone and aimed it at the same window.
“I wanted to meet his parents,” I said, watching.
“You don’t want to do that either,” advised Michael. “His old man would just bore you to death…and his mum, well, it’s just embarrassing for him mate.”
“I heard she’s a bit fat.”
“A bit? She’s like a whale mate. Can’t hardly walk.”
“I’ve heard Higgs call her a few choice names.”
Michael growled and held up his hand. “Ahh don’t, Christ, don’t even mention that turds name in front of me.”
The window was finally flung open then. Jake squinted down at us, gesturing with his hands. “Okay, you can stop throwing stones at my window now. What’s going on?”
“Come on we need you!” Michael yelled up at him. “Now!”
Now a trio, we cycled over to Billy’s house. As soon as we arrived we nodded at each other; this had been a good decision. The Madisons’ had a barbeque in full flow. We arrived in the middle of a procession of auburn haired siblings dutifully carrying plates of food out to the picnic table. Small yapping dogs tore in and out of their legs. June was organising the table, receiving the plates and platters from the kids, and setting them out. She threw back her head and laughed when we shuffled in. Her pale blonde hair was in a loose plait which hung over her shoulder. “Your timing is inexplicable boys!” she said, and beckoned to us with her free hand. “Come on, don’t be shy, you all look half starved, come on in. There’s plenty. Billy! Bring out some more plates please!”
Billy had just arrived at our side. He rolled his eyes, and hissed; “sorry there’s no meat!” before scampering off inside the house. Michael walked right up to Mr. Madison, who was at the barbeque, turning over vegetable burgers. June took the plates from Billy and filled them up for us. We all sank down onto the grass, and found our laps soon full of small wriggling dogs. “I think I’ll just move in here,” I sighed, and grinned at Billy. He shoved one of the dogs from his lap and winced when it bit his thumb.
“Ouch! No you wouldn’t say that if you knew what it was like. Mad house!”
“I’m serious,” I told him. He grimaced, trying to balance his food on his lap while holding off the little Jack Russell who was determined to get his needle sharp teeth into something. I put my plate down and grabbed the dog. “You’re so lucky. I always wanted a dog, but my mum always says no.”
“Comes from Zoe. Her uncle had a litter. My mum is the opposite, can’t say no to anything!”
I smiled and nodded, and picked up my vegetable burger to eat before the dog grabbed it. It seemed content to curl up in my lap now that it wasn’t getting shoved away, so I stroked it with one hand and ate my burger with the other. I felt a sort of tightness in my chest then, don’t ask me why, but it felt a bit like my chest wanted to cry, or something. My eyes were dry though, it was just my chest, clutching at me for some reason. I was watching all the chaos around me, and thinking about my mum still in bed, and Michael’s neighbours calling the police last night, and Jake’s mother being too overweight to leave the flat. I wanted to tell Billy how lucky he was again, but you can never really tell people things like that. People don’t really know how lucky they are. It just sounds childish and spiteful if you try to tell them too much.
I relaxed for the rest of the afternoon. I lay back and watched the madness unfold around me. Dogs nicking food and running off with it. Kids crying and fighting, and digging massive holes in the dirt, which they then aimed the hose pipe at until they were all drenched in mud. Billy’s dad bellowing laughter at everything, while June floated around in her own little cloud of calm contentment. I wanted them to adopt me. I wanted to have ginger hair and a stocky body, and green eyes and a dad who could play the guitar.
“I can’t afford lessons,” I told him morosely and he leaned back and patted his belly, and pushed his plate away from him. He wiped his beard and clasped his hands over his belly. “Mum says,” I added.
“I’m not much of a teacher, but I can show you the basics some time,” he offered. I grinned back at him, and he leant forward again. “Michael told me what happened with your brothers job? I can put you in touch with a fantastic solicitor if he wants to take it further? My own brother, in fact. He’s rather good!”
“Thanks Mr. Madison but my brother doesn’t want to complain or anything. He’s leaving soon anyway.”
“Well the offer is there if you need it. People like Mr. Higgs need reminding to be human every once in a while in my opinion. And hey, can you call me Donald please?” I nodded at him. “Good. People like that. Too much power and too much money Danny. Never mix well. Never done any good for the human soul.”
He tilted his chin, squinted up at the broiling summer sky and smiled. I was sat opposite him. I felt relaxed, and yet slightly unsettled, like I was going to start feeling sad again, and I would not be able to help it. I wondered why happy things, nice things, like Donald Madison smiling in the sun, his freckled hands holding his full belly, could make you start to feel sad. I felt a bit like I should creep away while he wasn’t looking. I pushed my hands down between my thighs and rubbed them together, and felt fidgety, like I was full of things I could not articulate or share. I bit my lip and chewed it with my teeth. I started to think he wanted me to go. I started to think it was time I slunk on home to lay on my bed and get lost in music. I was scrabbling around in my mind. Trying to think of something interesting to say, or ask. Something that would get his attention back on me. Something that would make him lean towards me again, and share his opinion with me.
“Billy said you and June went on protests in the sixties?” I blurted it out when it came to me, and I cringed when I heard myself. He rocked back to me though, and placed one hand on the table while he sighed with the fullness of his stomach.
“Yes we did,” he nodded. “When we lived in London.”
“Wow.” God, I sounded simple, I thought. Simple and small. “What did you protest about?”
“Well,” he frowned slightly and rubbed at his wiry beard. “It was mostly the war. The war in Vietnam? But it was other things too. You know, womens rights, gay rights, civil rights, things like that. Got quite caught up in it all really. It was a unique time.”
“Did your family hate you doing it?” I wasn’t even thinking before I spoke now. I was just firing pointless questions at the poor man in order to keep him talking to me. He grinned in response and yawned widely
“Well, sort of. They were a different generation, with different values. You know how it is.” He paused then, scratched at his beard and narrowed his eyes at me. “Well aren’t you the one for questions eh? Makes a change to have a young man interested in anything us old folk do.”
“Well you two aren’t old,” I said quickly, and I meant it. Old was the last thing they were. They were older than us, but in some ways, they were younger than us too. They weren’t jaded or sad or disappointed; how could that be? “I mean, you’re not like other older people. Not at all. You’re not boring.”
Donald laughed at me. He tipped back his head and roared, and reached out and slapped my knee, as he rocked forward again. “I’ll take that as a compliment!” he cried, wiping tears from his eyes. “And before you go, come in and look at the music again will you? What did you think of The Smiths?”
“Brilliant,” I beamed back at him, shaking my head. “Thanks so much.”
“What did I copy for you? The Queen is Dead and a bit of a mix?” I nodded enthusiastically. “Will do you some more,” he went on. “Got all the early singles, and stuff that’s not on albums.”
“Great thanks, so like what music did you like growing up? It wasn’t The Smiths was it?”
“No, no back then, it was everything, like now, I mean, I’ve always been really open minded and just tried everything. Soul, folks, rhythm and blues, pop. Whatever. Loved The Beatles and The Stones obviously back then, and Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and people like Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. Talking Heads, later on. The Clash.” He stroked his beard as he talked, and he gazed off, his lips pushing out through his beard as he thought. “Even country music. There’s not much I don’t like Danny. Think that’s the best way to be.” He came back to me then, slapped his hand on the table and grinned. “Unlike my son, who despite his upbringing is the most narrow minded person I know when it comes to music!”
“He just likes Nirvana,” I nodded. “That’s pretty much it at the moment.”
“Fair enough, and so he should. They are brilliant.”
I couldn’t help grinning from ear to ear. To hear an adult say the music we liked was brilliant, was just amazing to me right then. It was the way he was looking at me too. His head slightly lowered, his eyes smiling yet serious, his smile inevitable. “They are,” I was nodding as I spoke. “I have to listen to them every day. Every day.”
Donald laughed, but got slowly to his feet, still rubbing at his belly as if in discomfort. I tried not to let my disappointment show on my face. “They’ll go far,” he was nodding. “If they can hold it together. They make me jealous of you kids, you know, having something like that, that’s yours.” He smiled down at me and I couldn’t believe he got it like that. I could only smile then, because I had nothing left to say. I was afraid that if I opened my mouth, something pathetic and embarrassing would fall out of it. “You’ll have to excuse me,” he said, covering his mouth and burping into his hand. “I think I’ve overdone it and might need to lay down for a bit. See? Old!” He laughed, and sort of ambled up towards the house, still rubbing at his belly and holding a hand over his mouth. When he was gone I found the others, just lying on the grass under the sky, their arms over their faces, murmuring about Higgs. I lay down next to them and said nothing. I liked the way my body felt heavy then, like the earth was holding me down. Like I was a part of it. I closed my eyes against the steely blue sky and thought about Billy’s dad, and solictors, and record collections. I wondered whether it was possible to always hold onto something nice like that, and keep it glowing inside of you, so that you could carry it about with you, from one day to the next.
I rode home after that, my belly fit to burst, my pockets stuffed with cassettes, and I found John alone in the kitchen, frying sausages. I shook my head, patted my belly and went into the hall to answer the phone. “Hello?”
There was a pause, before a voice answered me. “Hi. Uh, is Kay there?”
“I dunno,” I said, trying to place the voice. “Hang on.” I held the phone to my chest and called out to John. “Is mum in?”
“No,” he called back. “Got all dressed up and went out again.”
I put the phone back to my ear. “No, she’s out, can I take a message?”
“Uh, yeah,” the voice replied. I frowned, trying to gain meaning from it. Whoever he was sounded sort of gruff, sort of serious about things. “Yeah, I might run into her anyway as it happens, but if you see her just tell her I called. Tell her Lee called okay?”
I didn’t like his tone. I sneered at his tone. It reminded me of a teacher, one of the grumpy ones who never really wanted to be a teacher. It sounded like one of them, getting all shirty and snappy with you because you didn’t do something fast enough. “Yeah right whatever,” I said and slammed the phone down.
My body reacted with bristling energy as I stalked into the kitchen and tugged at Johns’ sleeve. He frowned down at me. “What? Who was it?”
“Weird guy,” I said. “New guy. After mum.” And as I said the words, they tasted like poison, like something foreign and unwanted within my mouth, and I felt my mouth getting dry, and yet I wanted to spit. John didn’t look at me. He just went on frying his stupid sausages.
“You don’t know he’s weird.”
“Yes I do. He was weird. Called Lee.”
John shrugged. “Never heard of him. Did he leave a message?”
“He said he would probably run into her anyway, but to tell her he called.” I licked my lips and stared up at my brother. I was desperate to see a flicker of concern on his face, but he remained impassive, and I felt like kicking his shin. “She’s got another guy after her,” I groaned, nudging him. “And you’re going off to Leeds and leaving me to it!”
I saw him swallow. His jawline was tense as he poked at his sausages. He wouldn’t look at me, and I knew why. Because if he had looked at me then, I would have seen the guilt in his eyes, and he would not have been able to hide it. He was running away from it all, and he knew it.
Whoever he was, she was on the phone to him the next morning. I came down, dressed for school, with this heavy pulling feeling in my gut that made me want to sit down. She was in the hallway, twisting the telephone cord around her fingers. She didn’t see me at first, and that’s the first time I knew it was trouble. It was the look on her face. Whatever it was, whoever it was, it was eating her up. From the inside out. She looked ravenous to me then. She clung to the phone as if she desired to eat it. Her smile was secret, not meant for me to see, not meant for anyone to see but him. And when she saw me, she looked scared. Her eyes shot wide open. Her smile sucked inwards. Her hands shook. I felt fear and anger and loathing vibrating through me. I didn’t even want to speak to her.
It wasn’t exactly a conscious decision to pay her back. But that was what I did. When I look back now, it becomes another of those moments I wish to erase. I see myself as I was that Monday. Riding to school, with this set look on my face, my guts all in a twist, the others riding in this solemn, eerie silence behind me. I want to reach out and yank myself back by the collar, or something. I want to tell myself not to do it, because every little layer of trouble I got myself into was building this weapon against myself. I couldn’t see it then, how could I? I had no idea. It’s painful to think of it now. How I passed him the ammunition, day by day. Not even knowing that was what I was doing.
I found Eddie Higgs at his locker. He was with another boy who floated away as soon as he clocked the look on my face. I felt my fury escalating the closer I got to Higgs. I felt it tumbling down over me, like some red hot cascade of hatred, like some dark cloak, and I saw myself reaching out to him. I felt my hands twisting in the soft wool of his school jumper, and I was shouting something at him, but I don’t remember what. I saw his face but I gave him no time to react. I yanked him forward and then slammed him back into his own locker, and this loud clanging noise echoed up and down the corridor, and if people had not been watching us before, they were now. I shouldered him into place and socked him in the stomach with every ounce of strength and power I possessed. I heard the air come out of him. I saw his eyes bulge out as his head came down, and then I saw my knee coming up, too fast, too hard, the momentum of rage propelling me along, my entire body now out of my control. I felt my kneecap smash into his nose, and I heard the horrible crack, and so did the staring eyes of the corridor, and red was flying about suddenly, red was spraying everywhere, and people, girls, were screaming and gasping.
I felt hands pulling me away. I struggled against them. I heard Michael telling me that was enough. I looked at Higgs, and as he looked back up, there was this awful fear in his eyes, and in that moment, he thought I was going to do more, he thought I had not finished, and I wondered dimly, if I had. He had both hands over his nose, and blood was bubbling through his fingers. Michael was really pulling at me now. He practically had me in a head lock, and when I turned around I could see that it was already too late. A teacher had been called, and Michael let me go and closed his eyes tightly for a brief moment. “Shit,” he said through his teeth.
The look on Mr. James’s face was difficult to read. He was sat at his chair on the other side of the desk to me, with his big hands clasped together over his mouth. I tried not to look at him, but when I did, I found his eyes narrowed and searching. The look on his face was depressing; not least because it reminded me so much of the way my mother always looked at me. He couldn’t figure me out, couldn’t figure any of it out. He didn’t know what to say, or do. I sat slumped in a chair, picking at some chewing gum that had got stuck to the bottom of my shoe. Outside his office, a commotion was going on. For a long time I could hear Eddie Higgs wailing and crying, and his father shouting furiously, among calm female voices that attempted to soothe. Mr. James stared at me all this time. Eventually, the noise out there died down, and Mr. James released this long whistling sigh through his fingers. He cleared his throat. “Your mother is on her way,” he told me. “So are the police.”
That was it. The thing he had been trying to say. The thing that was making him uncomfortable, and confused. Maybe he had never had the cops in his school before, who knows? A silence dragged out between us. I didn’t know what he wanted me to say, so I said nothing. Finally, he cleared his throat yet again, and shifted slightly in his chair, as if he had been still too long, and his backside had fallen asleep. “What do you think about that?” he asked me. I wondered if he really wanted to know, or if it was a question merely to fill the time, and the silence. I shrugged, and kept picking at my shoe. “A shrug,” he said. “That all you got?” I nodded. He shook his head. “Shall I tell you what I think?”
“I think it’s sad.”
It wasn’t what I had been expecting. I met his eyes briefly before looking back at my shoe. The gum was pale pink and had lodged itself in the grooves under my heel. Every little bit I pulled off, I rubbed into a ball between my fingers before flicking away. Mr. James shifted again, and laid his hands down on the desk. “I think it’s sad that you don’t seem to care, or have anything to say for yourself or your behaviour, and I think it’s sad that you continually seek to solve things with your fists. Do you know what happens to people who make a habit of that Daniel? In the long term?” I half nodded and half shrugged, imagining that he meant prison. “They go to jail,” he informed me. “Because that’s where people like that belong, young man. Is that what you want for yourself?”
“Do you want to tell me why you did it?”
“It’s a long story.”
“I don’t think the police are going to be interested in long stories.”
He made an exasperated noise and pushed his chair away from the desk. He got up and planted his hands on his hips. “Look at me.” I looked. The worse thing was, he was shaking his head at me in this really sorrowful way. It was awful to see. A big man like that, looking so dismayed, over me, of all people. “Such a shame,” he said. I wanted him to stop. I hoped the cops were close. “Well I hope it was worth it, this long story of yours. This row with Edward. I hope getting arrested at aged thirteen is worth it. Are you proud of yourself?”
I shook my head and peeled the last bit of gum from my shoe. I wondered if I ought to tell him how I felt right then. How I started the day off screwed up tight with anger, and how the anger had gone as soon as my fist had collided with Higgs. “It’s a shame,” he said again, still shaking his bloody head from side to side. “Because Mrs. Baker has so many positive things to say about you in English, did you know that? Everything she says about you Daniel. Hard working, inquisitive, helpful and cooperative, and how your understanding of the texts is above your age. Sounds like she is talking about a totally different boy than the one I keep running into. You know you’ll get expelled if this continues?” I nodded. I wanted it to be over now. I was bored. I wanted to skip to the part where I had to face my mothers fireworks. At least that would be interesting. “Sad,” he was saying. “Very sad. Mrs. Baker sees talent in you and wants you to join the school paper. Yet here you are, consistently using violence instead of words to solve your problems.”
Silence consumed us again, and I twitched with it, feeling hot faced and ashamed under his never ending stare. I was almost relieved when I heard the voices and the flurry of footsteps outside the office. I was all right about it, until the door opened and I saw the two police men, with my mother behind them. Their faces were grim, and I felt this stab of fear shoot through me as I got weakly to my feet. I shot one curious look at my mother and all I could see was how pale she was, and how dark the circles beneath her eyes. She looked tortured with shame and was struggling not to cry. “Your mum’s going to follow us down to the station,” one of them said to me, gesturing for me to move. “Come on then.” And in that moment, as I moved my feet, one after the after, I felt like the bottom had fallen out of the world. I could not look at any of them, despite how desperately I wanted to remain defiant and careless. I didn’t even recognise my own feet and every pathetic step they took.
They dealt with me quickly and smoothly down at the station. A weary faced officer sat in a room with me and my mum and explained that Mr. Higgs wanted to press assault charges against me. “What will happen?” My mothers voice arose strangled and small when he had finished talking. Tears shone in her eyes but she did not let them fall.
“It’s his first offence,” the man sighed. “He’ll probably receive a caution if it makes it to court. Let’s just hope it will teach you a lesson, eh young man? Make this your first, and your last offence.” I was staring at the blue tiled floor and thinking about the cops in The Bill and I wanted to ask him if I could spend a night in the cells instead of going home with my mother.
We drove home in silence. She drove with her hands gripping the steering wheel so tightly her knuckles turned white. I stole one look at her, and that was enough to keep my eyes straight ahead. Her whole body appeared bunched up and rigid with rage. It was all there, shaking within her. Her mouth, a hard straight line as she glared down the road ahead. When we arrived home, we met John pacing in the kitchen, chewing at his fingernails. He stopped and stared at me, shaking his head slowly just as Mr. James had done. “You stupid, stupid…” he trailed off, but continued to shake his head at me. Mum slammed the door ferociously behind her, making the glass in the square window rattle in protest. She found a cigarette and lit it, staring right at John.
“Assault charge, no less,” she reported, in a brittle, nervy voice. She puffed on her cigarette, and her hand was shaking. “Probably going to end up in court. He broke the kids nose!”
John reacted by dragging his hands down the sides of his face and groaning loudly. “What the hell were you thinking?”
“I was paying him back,” I muttered, leaning against the kitchen table with my hands behind me, holding onto the edge. “For getting you sacked.”
“That’s why you did it?” he sounded incredulous. My mother stalked the room, one arms wrapped tightly around her middle, as she smoked her cigarette.
“Well now he’s gonna’ pay you back even more, isn’t he?” she practically screamed. “You stupid little boy!”
John placed a hand on her shoulder, steadying her. “Calm down a minute,” he said, his eyes flicking to me.
She slapped his hand away from her. “Calm down? Calm down? How the hell am I supposed to do that John? I’m at my shitty job, trying to avoid my ex-boyfriend of a boss, when I get yet another call from that bloody school telling me my stupid, stupid son is getting arrested!” She shook her head, and he held her shoulder again, and under his touch she suddenly seemed to go limp, leaning back into him as the tears finally began to flow. “I can’t cope with this, I can’t cope with this,” she said, pressing her hands over her face, her cigarette still burning between two fingers. “Oh God, if he had a bloody father around I’d send him to him! I’ve had enough John, I’ve had enough!”
I should have stayed quiet while she fell apart. Better still, I should have been really smart and slunk off to my room. But somehow I felt glued to that table, and my feet felt cemented to the floor. “He did worse to me,” I said, for some reason desperate to bring things back to Higgs, the cause of all this. He seemed to have been completely forgotten. “He beat me up, at the park, and none of you believed me, none of you cared! He called mum loads of names! He does it every day!”
I felt their eyes back on me, staring me down, making me feel heavier and heavier, as if the table and the floor were sucking me down. “Just shut up, shut up,” she started saying, the anger rising in her voice again, her shoulders lifting once more, stiffening with it. “You’re so stupid, so stupid! Just shut up!”
“This is serious Danny,” my brother saw fit to tell me over her head. “You’re thirteen and you’ve been arrested. You know it goes on file? You know that will be on record for the rest of your life?”
“Goddamn it,” mum said then, wrenching free from him and seeming to come undone all over again, as she took up her stalking. “Are you trying to drive me insane? Are you? Is that it? Is that your master plan eh? Because you’re going about it the right way, you really are, you’re really close to achieving it Danny! Since we moved here you’ve been nothing but trouble! You’re a disgrace! I can’t even look at you that’s how ashamed I am of you!”
“Well I’m ashamed of you too.” I shouldn’t have said it. I should have kept my mouth shut and took it. But that wasn’t the way it went between us. That wasn’t the way it worked. Okay, smashing Higgs nose and getting arrested was probably the worst thing I had ever done, but that didn’t change the history, the tradition. She screamed, I answered back, she screamed and so on. It was what I was used to; what I had come to expect.
She stopped pacing. One hand dangled with the cigarette. Dangled in mid-air. The other rose slowly and waveringly towards her hair. “What did you say?”
John was shaking his head at me. “I said I’m ashamed of you too.” I was feeling it now, as I stared back at her, and all the reasons I could think of were flocking viciously to my mind, all the things she had done. “It’s not just me who’s a disgrace,” I said, my voice shaking just a little, my hands tightening on the table behind. “What about you? You and Bradley at it in the lounge! Then it’s over, and some other prick is calling you up! Who the hell is he? Most of the fights I’ve been in have been over you, me defending you when they call you a slut! Am I supposed to just ignore it if someone calls you a slut?”
The hand had found the hair. It rested there weakly. The fingers curled slowly into the scalp. She squeezed her eyes tightly together and then shrieked; “Just shut up! I don’t want to hear another word come out of your mouth!
“Just go upstairs,” my brother warned me then, looking really nervous. I took a deep breath. I shook my hair out of my eyes. I thought about her in the hall that morning, twirling the phone cord around her finger, while her body looked fluid and weak with something inside that caused me nothing but alarm.
“Who’s the new guy?” I asked her. “When you gonna’ start bringing him home?”
She now had both hands in her hair and they were clawing and scraping, and the cigarette fell from her fingers, and lay smouldering on the lino. “I’m warning you…”
“I need to know,” I said. “I need to know who the next twat is! Before long he’ll be walking all over my house and Higgs’ll have even more reason to call you a slut!”
I glanced at John, so her hand, coming for me, had a head start. I didn’t get the chance to duck or dodge it. She slapped me hard across the cheek, so hard I sort of fell back onto the table, and my school bag slithered from the edge and slumped onto the floor. For the smallest and strangest of moments all three of us just stared at the floor, at the bag and at the cigarette, lying where they were not supposed to be, and I wondered what we were supposed to do, or say now. Then she put her hands over her mouth and made this gulping sound. I swallowed my own tears and walked quickly out of the room.