The Boy With…Chapters 18&19

18

 

 

            It felt like I was lying on my bed for hours.  Hours and hours.  I must have listened to at least three albums back to back, before my bedroom door began to open slowly.  I sat up abruptly, and turned the volume down a bit.  I was listening to Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, by The Smiths.  It was on this amazing mix tape Billy’s dad had made me.  He had written all the songs out carefully in blue biro.  Janis Joplin singing Piece Of my Heart and The Clash Someone Got Murdered sandwiching the song nicely.  It was John.  He sort of shuffled in cautiously, his brow deeply furrowed, his eyes troubled and restless, and with this huge shuddering sigh leaking out of him as he sat down on the edge of my bed.  I stared at him blankly.   I wanted him to see how little I cared.  I wanted him to see my dry, staring eyes, my slack mouth, my empty heart.

“Well you got someone on your side, at least,” he said after  a moment.  I didn’t know what he meant.

“What?”

“Billy’s dad,” he replied, smiling at me ever so faintly.  “You wouldn’t have heard the phone ringing constantly, with your music on so loud, but he’s offered to send his brother, the solicitor, to speak for you?”

I frowned slightly. “Really?”

“Yeah.  He says he can put pressure on Mr. Higgs to drop the assault charge or he’ll make a fuss about him firing me for no reason.”

“Really?” I said again.  John nodded.  He sat with his hand hanging limply between his legs.  To be honest, he looked exhausted.  His shoulders were weak.

“Yeah. Just waiting to hear back now.  Next time you hear the phone ring, you might want to turn the music down and listen.  It’ll be your future one way or the other.”

I made a face and crossed my arms over my chest.  “Well that was nice of him.”

“Yeah like I said, someone on your side.  Billy must have gone home at lunch and called him, eh?” He looked down at his hands.  “Look, about mum.”

“I hate her.”  The hatred in my voice surprised even me.  It seemed to come from deep down inside, this voice, like it had crawled up my windpipe and spewed itself up and over my clenched teeth.  John looked at me.

“You’re angry,” he said. “She shouldn’t have done that.”

“I hate her,” I said again, and this time I said it as if it should be obvious, as if I was just stating that the sky was blue and the grass was green.  “She’s a total bitch and I hate her.”

“Danny, you shouldn’t have attacked that kid, and everything else…you’ve been driving her mental!”

“It doesn’t matter!” I cried then, bringing up my knees to lean forward over them.  I could feel myself starting to tremble with it again.  I saw that hand flying towards my face, and I saw Higgs and his smug expression, taunting me day after day. “I was defending her!  I was defending you!  But I won’t bother anymore!  I’ll let them say what the hell they want about her! They can call her a slut and a whore every day and I’ll just let them!  ‘Cause that’s what she is anyway!”  John looked at the ceiling and blew his breath out slowly.  I hugged my knees with my arms.  “You’re leaving soon,” I reminded him. “I wish to God I was too.  As soon as I’m old enough, I’m getting out of here, and away from her.”

He blew his breath out again, and got to his feet.  He sort of slipped his hands into his pockets and just stood there in my room, like he knew he ought to say something else to support or guide me, but the truth was, he was all out.  Or he didn’t care.  I couldn’t blame him really.  Mum had been shoving him into the fatherly position for years, and he had never found it comfortable.  “You do understand why I’m going early, don’t you?” he asked me.  I rolled my eyes.  I got off the bed and went to the window.

“Fucks sake John, I don’t give a shit.  Go, if you’re gonna’ go.”

“It’s just I feel like I’ve been refereeing you guys my entire life.  I can’t do it anymore.  I just want my own life.”

I pushed back the net curtain and glared out at the street.  “I get it,” I told him, just to let him off the hook.  “I’d do the same, okay?  I’d do exactly the same if I were you.”

I heard him sigh and walk to the door.  He sounded relieved. “You’ve just got to stop getting in such a mess all the time,” he said to me.  “Stop getting in trouble and driving her mad.  It can’t be that hard.”  He pulled the door open and we both heard the phone ringing loudly in the hallway.  He lifted his eyebrows at me.  “Hope it’s good news.”

I hung back, waited for his footsteps to descend, and then crept out of my room and took up my spying position on the landing.  My mother had picked it up first.  “Thank you so much,” she was saying, breathlessly. “I can’t thank you enough, and I promise, this sort of thing is never happening again.  I can assure you of that.”  She said goodbye and I heard the phone click back onto the receiver.

“Good news?” John asked her.  She made a noise that was half a sigh and half a sob.

“Yes.  Not that he deserves it, but whatever Billy’s uncle said to Mr. Higgs has convinced him to drop the charges.  It’s over.”

“Bloodyhell,” said John. “What a relief.”

“Yes.  I think I might owe Mr. Madison a drink.  Both of them.”

“You gonna’ tell Danny or shall I?”

“Oh not me,” she replied haughtily.  I heard her stalk back into the kitchen. “Not me,” she said again, while I strained against the banisters to hear her.  “I’m not going near him for the time being, not until we’ve both calmed down.  Don’t tell him yet anyway John.  Let him stew for a bit.  Goddamm kid gets away with everything.”

I stood up and leaned right over.  They had pushed the kitchen door to, but it was not shut.  I heard one of them pull out a chair to sit at the table. “He gets in trouble standing up for you,” I heard John say.  I was surprised to hear him say it, and to be truthful, it made me feel a bit lighter then.  I was on tiptoes, leaning over to hear them.  The smallest smile tugged at my pursed lips.  “Don’t look at me like that,” John warned. “I’m not making excuses for what he did, I’m just trying to say kids his age are cruel, they’ll pick on you for anything.  And moving schools at that age is no fun either.  I’m just trying to get you to see it from his side, just a bit, that’s all.”

“John!”  My mother did not sound impressed.  I could picture her standing in the centre of the room, hands on hips, head thrust forward while her eyes glared.  “It’s not just today and you know it!  It’s the other fights, it’s the constant lying and stealing, and damaging Frank’s car, and the rest! You know what I’ve had to put up with, and I can tell you now, I only have so much more I can take John.  That’s it.  He can only push me so far, and I don’t know what will happen then.  Send him to bloody care or something.”

I pulled back then, my spine reeling me backwards, my neck wanting to pull into my shoulders.  “Mum,” John complained. “For God’s sake. I was only trying to say maybe both of you need to see things from each others points of view.  There’s no need to say things like that!”

“There’s too much seeing it from his view!” she shot back icily.  I could hear her rummaging, and wondered if she was packing a bag or something.  Maybe mine.  “That’s the whole problem, and God, do I realize it now.  Even you used to say I was too soft on him John!  Even you.  That I gave in too easily, I let him get around me, I wasn’t tough enough.  I know it’s true.  So it’s my fault.  It’s my fault he’s like he is.  That boy has got away with bloody murder from the day he was born!  All that blonde hair, and blue eyes, and butter wouldn’t bloody melt!  And being soft on him has got me nowhere!  Look how he’s turned out!”

“Mum, look it’s just harder on him, not having his dad around.”  I could tell John was trying his hardest and I was grateful to him for it, but I knew as well as he did he was wasting his time.  “He worries about the guys you attract and you can hardly blame him after that James fiasco.”

“Frank was nice!” she said in a shrill voice. “He chased him off with his disgusting behaviour!  He wants me single forever!  Well I’m not standing for it.  Not this time.  I’m going out John.  You’ll have to order some pizza or make toast or something.”

I heard my brother breathing through his teeth. “Where are you off to?”

“To meet Lee.”

“And who is Lee?”

“Just a friend,” she said curtly.  I heard the back door snap open.  “For now.  Don’t wait up.”  There was the predictable slam and shudder of the glass.  I turned quickly and went back into my room.  I didn’t let myself think about any of it.  I just got back on my bed and turned the music back up.  I closed my eyes and listened to The Clash, which was followed by The Beatles, Tomorrow Never Knows.  I thought, Donald was right about music, and being open minded.  There was once a time I listened to nothing but Guns ‘N’ Roses because I had found something angry and loud that pissed my mother off, and that was as far as it went.  I didn’t look for more, because I didn’t think I needed more.  But now I knew different.  Now I knew that there was never going to be enough time in my life to listen to all the music.  That was a fact.  I would just have to do my best, soak it up whenever I could, remain open and ready for all of it.  I lay on bed and thought about that, and just had the calm sense of waiting for the next thing to happen.

Well, what happened next was I got suspended from school for two weeks, and grounded as well.  I had no choice, and no room to complain, so I got on with it, and spent the time rewriting a short story Mrs. Baker had given me a merit for at school.  I paid lip service to the other subjects I had been instructed to keep up with, but I saved my genuine concentration and passion for the story.  I stayed in my room as much as possible.  Loneliness, I had decided, was preferable to mixing with my family.  Mr. James had been pleased about the charge being dropped.  He had phoned to talk to me.  “You need to use this time to reflect on what you did and how it could have turned out,” he told me, his voice sounding even deeper and throatier as it came to me down the phone lines.  “You need to think about choices Danny.  We all have choices.  Those choices can affect your entire life sometimes.  You can choose to punch someone in the face when they upset you, or you can choose to use the talent you have, and write about it instead.”

I took his advice on board.  Why not?  My mother had nothing to say to me, and John was just killing time, and packing his bags when she was not at home.  I was not allowed any friends over, and I was lucky if I managed to get to the phone before her.  The only one she would let me speak to was Billy, and this was only because she felt in debt to his father.  I got the feeling she was grateful to him for stepping in, but also resented the fact I had gotten away with it.  There was nothing but vitriol and poison between us, so we kept our distance.  I lingered in the background like a ghost, like something that had been and gone, but was not yet quite forgotten.  I had a sense of her moving on without me.  I felt heavier and heavier as the days wore on, imagining myself as the baggage around her neck, the chain upon her shoulders. I felt like the later she stayed out, and the gigglier she was on the phone, was all part of her trying to shake me off.

I listened endlessly to music.  Devouring everything and anything.  Sometimes I would lie on the floor and arrange the speakers on either side of my head.  This way I would not miss a single drum beat, a single tingling guitar riff.  I closed my eyes and I was somewhere else then.  I didn’t exist.  I had no body, only this light and joyous soul that floated above it all.  I absorbed the lyrics, sometimes scrawling them out in my notebook, whenever I heard something that resonated or meant something to me.  Jim Morrison’s haunting vocals, into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown, that was one I liked then.  That was how I felt.  Not born, but thrown.  Hurled and suddenly existing, though it was obvious pretty much no one wanted me to be.  I soaked them up, the words, and the whispers, and the growls, and the shrieks and the screams, and I shivered with them all, and when I listened to The Doors, I was Jim Morrison, and I understood what he was saying, and when I listened to Nirvana, I became Kurt Cobain, and I sensed his sadness and his despair and his rage.   It felt like each and every song added to me as a person, somehow helped me to grow, helped me to become more me.  I couldn’t explain these things to anyone without sounding insane, so I wrote it all down, day after day.  I’ve found myself in music, I wrote one day, is that possible? And what happens next?

The background of my house and family became some sort of cold and arid wasteland, and the strangest thing was watching my mother push John away.  Slowly but surely, she detached herself from him.  Maybe he was relieved, I don’t know.  As usual he remained calm and steady, and grounded.  He told me one day he would be gone within a month, and I stared back at him, thinking, and what will happen then?

In the background, where it was safe, I witnessed her guard slipping.  Her voice would grow louder on the telephone.  “Oh God, he’s nothing like Frank!” I heard her squealing to someone one day.  “Frank was just a fling really.  He was like a boy, for goodness sake.  Said all the right things, but always had his eye elsewhere, you know what I mean?  God no, Lee is different, total opposite in fact!  I only just realized Sandra, he is exactly what I have been looking for for so long.  He’s different.  He’s got that…air about him?  That confidence, without being arrogant or showy.  And oh god, he is sexy!”

These were not words I wished to hear her saying, but I was unable to tear myself away from her telephone conversations.  He was big and rough and sexy, she said.  He worked at Nancy’s, the club in town.  He told her she was classy and a one off.  He took her out to fancy restaurants and refused to let her pay for a thing.  They took long walks down at the beach afterwards, walking arm in arm, while she confided in him, while he listened to all of her troubles.

I would return to my room, crushed with nerves, and chewing at my nails.  I was desperate to see the gang again, to share my fears with Michael, because I knew he would understand, I just knew he would feel what I was feeling.  He would know what to do about it.  I sat in my room, feeling like a prisoner, and unable to shake away the building fear that something was rumbling to life all around me, something that was bad, and dark and brewing just beyond my reach.  Suspension and grounding had rendered me helpless and out of touch.  The time could not go fast enough.

19

 

 

            When I finally returned to school, I pounded the corridors with a grim and determined look on my face. But my target this time was not Edward Higgs, it was Mrs. Baker, my English teacher.  I found her in the staff room, and when she shuffled out in her flat court shoes to see me, she was cleaning her glasses on the edge of her cardigan.  Mrs. Baker was one of those women who could have been thirty five, or fifty five.  She had neat dark hair, shot through with wisps of grey.  She did not wear make-up, and her clothes were billowing and floral.  She loved her subject though, anyone could see that.  She often left her chair, came around her desk and perched on it in front of us, hands clasped together under her chin, glasses on the edge of her nose.  She was surprised but pleased to see me.  I gave her the story I had rewritten and asked her if she would consider it for the school newspaper.  She took it gently as if she was handling something precious and rare.  She made a little gasping sound, and touched a hand to her chest.  “Danny, thank you so much!” she said to me, before I ambled away again. “I can’t tell you how excited I am to read this!”

Those words stayed with me for the rest of the week because I needed them to.  I released my breath whenever I was in her class.  I didn’t say much, but when I did speak, she gave me this look, her tilted head, and warm eyes, and I felt like she knew something about me that the rest of them didn’t.  And I needed those words, and the warm glow they created inside of me, I needed them more than ever that week.

The first time I saw Higgs again was in the corridor.  Someone tapped his shoulder when I was walking past, and he turned to look at me.  He had this piece of plaster over his nose, and it looked distorted and swollen.  His eyes appeared bruised underneath.  There was a collective holding of breath, but I just walked on, and said nothing.  I ignored the whispers and the complaints that followed me wherever I went.  Who let that thug back in here?  That kid is mental.  It all washed over me.  I wasn’t going to fight any of them anymore, and part of me wanted to tell them that.  “They’re gonna’ try and wind you up,” Jake took the trouble to warn me one day, and I just smiled at him.

“I know.  It’s okay.”

“Your mother is a slut,” Higgs hissed at me the next day.  We were in the canteen, standing in the queue.  I was in a semi-trance, watching the overweight dinner lady splat ladles of baked beans onto the plate of the girl in front of me.  Every time she flung them onto the plate, the juice sprayed back on her apron, but she didn’t seem to notice, or care.  I heard Higgs and turned to him wearily.

“I know,” I told him.  “You’re right.  Whatever.”

The goading went on, pushed through teeth in hushed tones.  Behind my back in class.  In notes that were thrown at me when the teacher was not looking.  In sing song chorus style in the playground.  I didn’t rise to it, not once.

“You’re doing really well,” Lucy told me at the end of History one day.  She had an armful of books, and was struggling with her school bag slipping from her shoulder.  I caught it and took it from her, and she smiled, but I could see the difference in her smile, and I guessed I knew what it was.  It was friendly, but also guarded, cautious, like she had been warned about me, warned to stay away.  Her eyes told me one thing, and her body language told me another.  She was nervous in my company, her eyes flitting about, her gestures stiff, and her cheeks constantly red.  It wasn’t until later that I found out her dad was golf buddies with Mr. Higgs.

I tried not to waste time torturing myself about it.  I remembered what Michael had said to me that day at the bench.  About people thinking the worst of you, judging you because of where you came from, and who your family were.  Prove them wrong, he had said, make them eat their words.  I wasn’t allowed to go and see Billy’s dad, so I wrote him a thank you letter instead and passed it on to Billy.  I still couldn’t believe the trouble he had gone to in order to get me off the hook.  I felt humbled every time I thought about it.  In return for the letter, he sent me back more tapes.  Billy had hurled them at me with a roll of his eyes.  “He’s doing it just to piss me off,” he complained.  The tapes were by two guys I had never heard of.  Tom Waits, and Neil Young.  To say they both blew my mind would be pointless and an understatement.  I couldn’t get my head around what I was listening to.  Right away I felt myself go off on another adventure.  It was Donald’s fault.  Now I would have to hunt down both their back catalogues.  It was never ending and blissful.

Things continued in the same frosty vein at home, and then one afternoon my brother said something that surprised me.  Mum had just got off the phone again.  Just listening to her girlish giggles had sent a trickle of resentment through me.  I was sat at the kitchen table, scratching my fingernails back and forth against the surface.  I was seeing how much crusty tomato sauce I could collect under my nails before she came back to serve up the dinner.  John had the air of someone hovering, and when she came back in and started to serve up, he cleared his throat and said; “would it be possible to meet Lee, before I go, I mean?”

She jerked her head up to stare at him.  So did I.  I stopped scraping at the table and pushed my hair back off my face.  I looked from her, to John.  He swallowed and forced a smile.  “What do you think?”

“What do I think?”  She shot a look at me so I dropped my head again, letting my hair fall back over my eyes.  “Well what do you mean?”

“I was just wondering, you know, if things are getting serious between you two, then maybe I could meet him.  He could come over to dinner or something.”  John tried a bright smile that did nothing to soften our mothers face.  Instead, she narrowed her eyes and went back to serving up the pasta.

“You want me to invite Lee here for dinner?”  She sounded like this amused her, like she was on the brink of nervous laughter.  John nodded.

“Yeah, why not?  He seems to make you happy.  Sounds like a nice guy on the phone.  Can’t we meet him yet?”

“I know what this is about,” she returned, and her eyes shot back to me again.

“This is my idea,” John told her.  “I want to meet him before I go to Leeds, that’s all.  You know, make sure he’s good enough for you.”

Through my hair I watched my mother stop what she was doing and cross her arms over her chest.  It was a stance I knew well.  She was poised to go either way.  “You really want to meet him?” she asked, and looked my way.  “Both of you?”

I nodded slowly.  She laughed a little then, and the sound of it made me want to drop my head onto the table and cover my head with my arms.  It was so cold and hollow.  It made her sound like she had given up.  “Okay,” she cried. “Okay.  I suppose I can’t put it off any longer anyway, and he keeps asking to meet you two.  Okay then, I’ll ask him to dinner so that Danny can be rude to him and start the pathetic business of trying to scare him off.  All right?  That what you want?”

There was nothing more to be said from any of us.  We ate yet another dinner in total silence, not meeting each other’s eyes, not seeing anything except what we wanted to see.  He phoned her again that night.  I listened in every time, pressing my face against the bars on the landing, resting on my knees.  I gathered what I could.  I wrote what I had in my notebook to show Michael.  I had his name;  Lee Howard.  I had his age; forty.  I had his occupation; club manager, or was it owner?  I wasn’t sure.  I had his looks; big and rough and sexy, whatever the hell that meant.  I had his taste in television; WWE Wrestling, Big Break and Londons Burning.  All shit.

“Sounds like a bastard,” Michael said when I showed him.

“Well we’ll find out soon,” I told him.  “He’s coming for dinner tomorrow night.”

Michael gave me a look that told me he had bad news of his own.  We were sat up in my room.  My mother had finally ended the cold war of silence between us earlier that day.  It was a reaction to me showing her my story in the school newspaper.  Page Four.  The Dark Star, by Danny Bryans.  It had made her smile.  I mean, really smile.  She had held the paper in both hands, and she had looked like she was trying not to smile at first, like she was trying to hold onto being angry and disappointed with me.  But she caved in the end, and the smile she gave me lit up her face, and mine too.  She stood in front of me and read the whole thing from beginning to end, while I fidgeted and chewed at my nails beside her.  “It’s amazing,” she had said then, lowering it and reaching out to ruffle my hair.  Her touch had taken my breath away for a moment.  I’d shrugged, like it was no big deal.  “Thanks for showing me. And I mean it.  It is amazing. Just goes to show what you can do when you keep yourself out of trouble eh?”

She’d agreed to let Michael come over after that, but his face was grave when he arrived.  He sat quietly and solemnly while I showed him the things I had written about Lee Howard in my notebook.  “You’re meeting him tomorrow?” he asked me, when I closed the book up and shoved it back under my mattress. I nodded. “Well I’ve got something to tell you.  I don’t want to freak you out or anything, but you said you need all the ammunition you can get, right?”

I got to my feet then.  I made out it was just to check the door was shut, but really it was because I was unable to sit still any longer.  He was making me nervous, and I didn’t like it. “Spit it out Mike,” I urged him.  He looked down gravely.  He was holding a lighter and sporadically flipping up the flame.

“Well, Billy mentioned your mum’s new boyfriend at home, and his sister Mary-Louise piped up that her boyfriend Steve works at Nancy’s.”  He met my eyes and grimaced at me.  I was holding the door slightly ajar, and looked from him out onto the landing and then back again.  “Anyway,” he went on.  “I just came from Bill’s and Steve was there, so this information is straight from him, okay?  No Chinese whispers or anything.”  I nodded urgently, desperate for him to get on with it.  He tossed the lighter onto the bed behind him and clasped his hands morosely between his knees. “Well, Steve says this guy is quite new there.  He’s the manager, but also the co-owner.  He bought into half of the place just recently.”

“Okay.  What else?”

“Well, the rumour is the guy is loaded, has loads of money.  Drives all these flash cars and stuff.  He’s already made loads of changes since he’s been there.  People think he wants the original owner out.  This guy called Philips.  Anyway, the gist of it is Steve pretty much thinks he’s a bastard.”

“Okay,” I said, blowing my breath out quickly. “He’s bound to think that though isn’t he?  Everyone thinks their boss is a bastard.  Or is it something else?”

“Well yeah, he said he’s pretty tough and that.  Gave him a bollocking for being like three minutes late or something.  A bit of a control freak by the sounds of it.  But you don’t know Steve Danny, he’s one of these people that likes everyone you know?  He said the guy gives him the creeps.”

My mouth fell open a bit then and my stomach hit the floor.  I just stared at the carpet and felt horribly depressed.  Michael was on his feet instantly, socking me playfully in the arm.  “Don’t freak out just yet,” he was saying. “We’ll put together another plan, like with Bradley. That worked didn’t it?”

I heard the front door open downstairs.  “A plan?” I murmured.

“Yeah! A plan to get rid of him.”

“Danny!” My mother yelled up the stairs.  “Come out here a minute!”

“Jesus Christ,” I moaned and went out to the landing.

“Down here a minute,” she went on.  “I’m off out with Lee now, and he’s just popped in to say hi to you.”

I was scratching my neck, letting this unexpected information sink in.  I didn’t look back at Michael, wide eyed in my doorway.  I didn’t think I could bear to see the look on his face. I came around the banister and peered down the stairs.  I felt my mouth grow dry at the sight of my mother stood there, grinning keenly up at me, in her best dress, with her hair all fresh and bouncy.  I breathed out slowly, my eyes moving from her, to the new enemy, who was stood just behind her.  The first thing I noticed was how big he was.  He was so large, so broad and tall and filled out, that he made her appear like a little girl.  I was so confused for a moment just staring down at them.  His arms were around her middle and she seemed to just disappear among them.  She looked tiny, like a little bird being eaten alive.  As I stared, the man pulled back, straightening up, growing even taller in the cramped hallway, releasing her middle, but sliding one arm around her shoulders instead. It lay there like a thick snake, I thought, waiting to devour her should she make one wrong move.  I caught the look in her eyes, and although her expression was calm and open, there was an undeniable challenge in her eyes.  She had thrown a tornado at me and was waiting to see how I would handle it.

I came slowly down the stairs, and I felt studied by the pair of them as they watched me come.  She looked up into his face. “Lee this is Danny, my youngest.” She blinked back at me. “Danny, say hi to Lee.”

I stopped on the second to last stair and examined the hulk of a man before me.  It seemed to me that he was too big to come into our house.  He took up all the space in the hallway, and consumed all of the air.  He wore these awful stone washed jeans, with brown cowboy style boots, and a slim fitting white t-shirt that wrapped snugly over the bulging muscles of his arms and chest.  My gaze travelled slowly up to his face.  His hair was light brown, very short, and thinning on the top of his skull.  It was receding too, making his forehead look like it went on forever, and when he moved his head I could see the light from the window bouncing from it.  He had a neat beard and moustache, and when I looked at him, I thought he reminded me of someone on television, some wrestler or something.

His confidence expanded at me in the small hallway.  I felt blasted by it, shot down.  His feet were spread slightly, his legs apart, his chest puffed and ready for war.  I felt my insides shrivelling up as I stared at him.  I felt them rolling over and dying within me.  I sensed right away that he was nothing like Frank Bradley, nothing like anyone.  He stood in the hallway as if he owned it.  He was smiling broadly, the skin around his pale blue eyes wrinkling, and he gave off the air of a man who has never doubted anything in his entire life, not a thing.  I couldn’t imagine he had ever been scared, or unsure, or embarrassed or fragile.  I felt a bit like I ought to drop down onto one knee.  I had never met anyone that exuded that much confidence without even speaking before.

He kept his arm around mum, and they presented this united front to me, the enemy.  I could see it in their faces.  We were two sides, two opposite sides, and I had a deep and dragging feeling that I would not be winning the war this time.  I felt like the stranger then, the outsider trying to get in.  I was suddenly overwhelmed with all these thoughts and feelings that made me want to turn and run back up the stairs to Michael.  Michael, who as far as I knew, was frightened of nothing.  The man rolled his eyes a little, and thrust his hand out towards me, as if suggesting this was the gesture I should have been capable of.  “All right Danny?” he was asking.  “Good to meet you.”

I found myself staring dumbly at his hand, and all I could think about was how massive it was.  I was loathe to place my hand in his, in case it should swallow mine whole.  Lee Howard shrugged his shoulders and withdrew his hand, and my mother made an exasperated noise. “Danny for goodness sake! Sorry honey, he has no manners.”

“Teenagers eh?” the man replied, and she rolled her eyes knowingly.

“Don’t I know it. What’s the matter with you Danny?  Lost your tongue? Can’t you even say hi, nice to meet you?”

“Sorry,” I mumbled then, and I had to push the word out, over my tongue which seemed reluctant to cooperate.  I retreated slowly, one stair at a time.  She grabbed her coat and opened the front door.

“God I should think so too,” she sighed, with her back to me. “You two be good all right?”

I went back up the stairs, but paused and looked back one more time.  That was when I saw him staring up at me.  I frowned slightly.  My hand stole out towards the handrail.  I wondered if something passed between us then, me and him.  Some silent, knowing thing.  Something that made my heart beat faster under my skin, and I gritted my teeth against it, whatever it was, and the anger swirled to life inside my belly, and then he winked at me.

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