The custody sergeant was a man in his fifties, with dazzling white hair, and a handlebar moustache to match. I found myself gazing at him in wonder, while he took down our names and addresses. He reminded me of Captains Birds Eye. He just seemed bored, I thought, bored of his day, bored of life. We were taken through to be fingerprinted, which I assume they did on purpose to shit us up a bit. It worked on Higgs, I can tell you. By the time they were done, the angelic faced shit was a blubbering mess of snot and tears. I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t been feeling so sick.
We had to sit and wait on a hard bench, where the custody sergeant could keep his weary eye on us. Officer Heaton made the calls and then came to stand in front of us to give us a stern talking to. Michael and I gave well practiced nods, kept our expressions solemn and ashamed, and called him sir. Higgs sat and sobbed noisily the whole time. Luckily for him, his parents arrived first to pick him up. They stormed through the double doors, the mother all small and nervous and wringing her hands before she dragged her child away from us to wrap her arms firmly around him. The father, who looked uncannily like his son, was nothing less than outraged. I thought he was going to explode, or have a heart attack or something. He was shouting and swearing and gesturing pretty violently towards Officer Heaton. Michael and I looked on in vague amusement. He was the colour of beetroot as he exploded in front of us all. “Those thugs are bullying my son! Targeting him! Why the hell have you arrested him, when it’s them attacking him!” Officer Heaton took him aside in the end. I wished we could have heard what was said, but when Mr. Higgs emerged, sweating under the arms of his short sleeved shirt, he merely stalked rigidly past us, and stormed out through the doors, with his wife and child scuttling after him.
The sick nerves kicked in after that. I felt worse than ever. Sweat had broken out in a slick sheen across my forehead, and between my shoulder blades. I was starting to shit myself about all of it. Getting picked up by the police again. Pissing my mother off. Howard. Michael and I had to sit and wait on that bench for another agonizing fifteen minutes after Higgs left. I sat and considered the passing of time as nothing less than cruel torture. It was almost a relief when Mrs Anderson, in all her shrew faced glory came strutting hen like through the doors, with Howard just behind her. At least the waiting was over. There was a sickening twist of nerves in my gut though, making me gag once more, making my skin crawl. The moisture evaporated from my mouth, and I could not look at Michael, as I knew the fear would be stamped all over my face.
“You might think it’s just boys being boys,” we could hear Heaton telling them at the desk. “But it keeps being the same boys, and I’m sick of the sight of them to be honest. One more offence like this and they’ll both find themselves up in front of the magistrate.” He turned his eyes on us then, as we sat on the bench with our heads hanging, both of us unwilling and unable to meet their eyes. “Is that what you want?” he asked, and we shook our heads in unison. “I suggest you stay away from Edward Higgs, including at school,” he went on, sighing loudly. “I don’t want to see any of you back here a third time.”
“It won’t be happening again,” Howard assured him then, his smile broad and enticing. He stood with his feet spread and one hand resting lightly on his hip. He gestured towards me with his other hand. “Things have been a bit unsettled at home, you know, with moving and everything. I’m not making excuses of course, but hopefully this was just a silly moment of madness. Things are more settled now. Hey, how’s the sale on the house going anyway? Meant to ask you the other night.”
I shifted my feet on the floor, looked up through my hair and saw the two men standing with relaxed poses. I felt Michael jab me urgently with his elbow, but I was still not able to look at him. He got up reluctantly when his mother stormed past him, shoving her way viciously out of the doors. He trailed after her slowly, his feet dragging. Howard came towards me then and gestured for me to get up, so I did.
I was staring in a half day dream, my eyes fixed on Michael, up ahead. I saw his mother grab him by the back of his shirt. She was squawking in that awful desperate voice of hers, the one that made her sound like she was close to killing herself. I felt Howard slip his hand around the top of my arm as I remained still and staring. “When will you ever fucking learn?” Mrs Anderson was screeching.
“Let’s go,” said Howard, his tone light and playful, his eyes on me.
“Where’s mum?” I asked then, as we went through the doors. I was annoyed at how my voice came out, all strangled and weak like a fucking baby’s.
“Working her arse off, where d’you think?” he answered sharply. “They called the house, and lucky for you, I was in.” I looked up, but not at him. I kept my eyes on Michael just ahead. I felt strangely like I would be okay, as long as I could still see him. As we walked towards his car, I felt his grip on my arm tightening. I pulled back, but he tightened his hold even more, sending short bursts of pain up and down my arm, so I took a breath, forced my teeth down over my tongue, and said nothing. He led me to where his silver Mercedes was parked, and the grip on my arm was growing tighter by the second, and as we reached the car, I gasped and winced, and I knew I was in trouble alright, and I remembered my face against the table that night and I felt this terrible panic roaring up inside of me. Howard unlocked the car and finally opened the passenger door for me, and then I was sick. It came out of nowhere. Just frothed up over my teeth and landed on my boots. “Fucks sake!” Howard cried, stepping back from it. I just stared at it miserably, my shoulders sagging and my breath hitching. There was no more. Just that one puddle of pale cream sick steaming at my feet, the end result of too much vodka and too much sun. “Get in,” he hissed, so I did. He slammed the door, walked around the bonnet and climbed in the other side.
I gazed vacantly out of the window then, and I saw Michael getting into his mothers’ beaten up old Escort, and she was still screaming at him from the drivers’ seat, and when he said something back to her, she lashed out and slapped him across the back of the head. The door closed on him and our eyes met.
Howard ignited the engine. “Let’s get you home little man,” he said chirpily. I could feel the top of my arm throbbing and burning.
“It wasn’t our fault,” I said then, my eyes still on Michael, as both cars drove away.
“Oh well of course, you would say that wouldn’t you?”
“You can’t do anything to me, it’s not your right, if you touch me even one time I’m going to tell my mum.” I said it all so fast it was more of a jumble of words without spacing, without breaths taken in between, and although I was shit scared I forced myself to look up at him, to let him know how serious I was. A small and knowing smile appeared on his face, as his eyes flicked calmly from the road, to me, and back again. I examined the outline of his face from where I was sitting. His beard and moustache, so painstakingly trimmed and groomed. His large, straight nose was a dominant feature, as was his broad forehead, sloping back into the receding line of hair. He held the wheel with one hand while he dug around in the side of the door and retrieved a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He dropped the pack between his legs, plucked one out and lit up.
“Well aren’t you the little tough guy then?” he said to me, raising his eyebrows and looking strangely delighted with this. “Giving me lip like that. No one asked you to speak you know.”
“I mean it.”
“Oh you mean it, do you? You mean it? Well let’s get you home and have a little chat, then we’ll see what a tough guy you really are.” His smile faded slightly now, and I sensed the atmosphere grow colder. I turned my face to the window and watched the outside world, which suddenly seemed so far away, rush by in a whirl of colour and activity. Howard drove smoothly through the town, and smoked his cigarette silently. As we drove over the two bridges, he finished it and tossed the butt out onto the road. “You’re really quite something, you know?” he said to me then, his elbow hanging out of the window. “I mean, I know your mum warned me, but it’s just one thing after another, isn’t it? So what’s it all about then eh? All this getting in trouble and being a smart alec? What’s the problem? All this dressing like a hooligan and listening to creepy music and giving your mother cheek? You like being a troublemaker do you eh? You like being mister tough guy and getting into fights?”
I stared out of the window as we sailed on towards the roundabout that would take us back to the estate. I felt the sun beating down on my lap through the windscreen, warming the legs of my jeans. I could smell my own vomit, somehow cheesy and dusty, wrinkling up my nostrils. “I’m talking to you you miserable little shitbag!” Howard barked at me suddenly and aggressively, punching the steering wheel and making me jump. He sounded anything but playful now. “I asked you a question, don’t you dare ignore me! I asked if you like getting in fights!”
“Sometimes,” I answered quickly, my face trembling. “But it wasn’t like that. They just chased us.”
“Yeah right,” he sneered. “That’s why the police picked you up and took you in, because it wasn’t like that, because it wasn’t like that! Bullshit you little liar. And what about the drink then eh? Sitting on the beach boozing with your friends were you? I thought I had a conversation with you about toeing the line and behaving yourself. Do you even remember that conversation? Answer me dummy!”
“Yeah I remember. And it’s nothing to do with you, what I do or…”
“Didn’t take you long to forget then did it?” he said, talking over me as he sped us towards home. I glanced at him and saw his eyes were narrow and cold. His face muscles twitched, and there was this weird unsettling energy about him then. “I’m starting to think you didn’t listen to a word I said,” he growled, as he sped the final distance towards home and skidded the car to a halt in the driveway. “Right then,” he snapped. “Out you get. Looks like we’ve got some more talking to do little man.”
My heart was beating so fast, so hard, it was painful. I thought about running, as I climbed warily out of the car, but he was already behind me, shepherding me quickly, urgently towards the house. He seemed to block out everything, even the sun. As soon as we were behind the house, and out of view, his hand was on my neck. I was appalled and enraged, and sick of it, and I twisted sharply away from him, spinning myself inadvertently into the back door and pointing a warning finger his way. “Get your fucking hand off me! You’ve got no right!”
“C’mere,” he snarled, reaching behind me to unlock the door. I tried to duck under his arm, but he was too quick, kicking the door open and shoving me through it at the same time. I stumbled into the table, and he was in, closing the door behind him and looking at me with glittering eyes.
“Don’t you dare!” I heard myself squawking at him. “You dare touch me! You dare touch me!” He threw back his head and laughed at me.
“Or what? You’ll tell your mum? You really think she’d believe a word you said, you stupid little twat? After all the lies you’ve told her!” He shook his head and was laughing so hard his eyes watered a bit. “She never believes a fucking word you say! She told me herself! Everything that comes out of your mouth is a lie or a story. She’d think you were just trying to split us up again, that’s what. She’d think it was another one of your pathetic schemes. Anyway,” Howard stretched himself tall and looked as if he had news for me. “She told me to help out with you, you know that? Yeah! She told me not to take any shit off you!”
“You’re lying,” I said, my eyes searching for a way out. He was stood in the gap between the table and the sideboard, and the only way out was the door. I edged towards it, my hands sliding out behind me, searching for the handle. “And she would believe me. She’s only just met you. She’d believe me over you!”
He snorted at me. “You believe that if you like little man, but you haven’t heard the conversations we’ve had about you lately. She’s at the end of her tether with you. Can’t stand you most the time.” He placed his hands on his hips and thrust his face towards me. “And besides that, don’t you forget who’s in charge around here now mate. Who pays the fucking rent and bills! So if I tell you to do something, you fucking do it, and if I tell you not to do something, you fucking don’t, get it? Or is that too complicated for you to understand?” He stepped closer then, his small round eyes hard and shining in his swarthy face. He pushed his face right up to mine. “Is that too hard?” he asked me. “Shall I spell it out to you? You…do…what…I…say, okay? All right? Can you get your head around that?”
I stared back into his eyes. I did not flinch, or move back, or look away. I met him. And I swear to god, for just a moment, and most likely fuelled by vodka and adrenalin, I felt no fear. I mean, really and truly. There was no fear because for just a moment, as I stared back into his eyes, I forgot I was younger, and smaller, and I was expanding instead with hot red hatred that seemed to fill and swell within me. “Why don’t you just fuck off?” I asked him. He looked surprised. He pulled his head in and his eyes grew rounder.
“What did you just say?”
“Just fuck off,” I repeated, through gritted teeth. “You’re nothing but a bully, and me and my friends are gonna’ find out all about you and get you the hell out of here, just you wait!” My heart was still hammering like crazy, but the anger was intense and delicious, and I meant it, and I thought about Michael and his plans, and Project Arsehole, and I clung to it, I clung to any fucking thing that would summon anger in place of fear.
“Say that again why don’t you,” Howard invited, rocking back on his heels. “Tell me to fuck off again.”
I ran my tongue over my dry lips. “Fuck off you fucking piece of shit bully, go and fuck yourself!”
Howard made a noise then. It was like an excited growl that squeaked at the end, and his right hand shot out and grabbed my face. Those huge meaty fingers dug deep into my cheeks, and I tried like hell to wrench free, but he pulled me forward, then slammed me back into the door, and the back of my head bounced against the glass window. I blinked, tasting blood as the insides of my mouth mashed against my teeth, and a spiralling shock of pain reared up in the back of my skull. He held onto my face, squeezing so hard I thought my bones would collapse and crumple in on themselves, and then I felt the other hand, the impossibly huge fist, as it ploughed into my belly. He let me go, and down I went, spluttering, gasping, retching for air that would not come. I went down onto my knees and there was no pain at first, just no room to breathe. It felt like I was drowning, and my lungs stretched and begged for air, and then his face was right in mine again, and it was a horrible, twisted, hating thing. “Do you want some more you little prick?” he was bellowing at me. “Come on, you like fighting so much, get up and show me! I got some more for you here if you like it so much! Come on, you like fighting so much, you fight with me! Come on you big girls blouse! Get up and take a shot!”
I couldn’t speak, or breathe. The room was swimming before my eyes, but I put one hand onto the floor and used it to push me up, while my other arm wrapped around my middle, where it felt like my guts had exploded and died. The pain was hitting now, pushing insistently through my punished organs, making my stomach heave again and again, and the back of my throat taste of vomit. Howard was getting impatient, hopping about from one foot to the other. “Come on, come on,” he kept saying to me. “Get the fuck up and show me what a tough guy you are! Come on! Show me what you got! I’ll give you one shot at me mate, one shot to show me.”
He had to wait, his barrel chest rising and falling as his breath arrived short, and excited. I fumbled for the door handle and used it to pull myself up. I started coughing, and taking huge breaths to refill my lungs with oxygen. “Come on, come on,” Howard was urging me, his tone softer now, his eyes almost dreamy. “That’s it now,” he said as I straightened up the best I could. “That’s it, come on, come on, you know you want to. Think how good it will feel. You can do it. I’ll give you one shot to show me how tough you are.”
I straightened up a bit more. My belly was a roaring fire of agony, and the taste of bile in my throat was getting stronger. My stomach felt like it was in my back, crushed and whimpering, and I still had to take these huge long sucking breaths to recover, but as I did, I kept my eyes on Howard, and thought about where to hit him. The eyes were too small. The mouth had teeth. I wanted the nose. Like with Higgs that time. I recalled the feeling of my fist smashing into the bridge of his nose, and I was decided. I hung onto the door handle with one hand, and curled the other into a small, tight fist.
“Come on then you little shit stain,” he was sneering at me goading me into action. “Take your best shot tough guy. Come on.”
Okay, I thought then, okay I will. Fight back. I’d fight back. I would smash him right in his arrogant face and see how he liked it. I didn’t know if I could do it. I was just used to fighting kids my size, in scrappy little playground scuffles, with fast punching and kicking. There was that worried, nagging little voice at the back of my head again then, telling me that this was all bizarre and wrong, that adults didn’t do this, that all of this was leading somewhere darker. I leaedt back against the door briefly, as the pain ripped and shredded through me, but I still felt the anger, it was still there, growling back into life. That fucking bastard!
I made my move with the intention of catching him off guard. I lunged at him suddenly, throwing my fist into his face with as much force as I could gather, ramming it into his nose. The second I made contact, I felt the sharp pain careering back down my wrist, and I cried out, pulling my arm back into my chest, shrinking back against the door with it. Howard had rocked back ever so slightly with the hit, but he was laughing at me. He shook his head and a thin smile stretched out across his face. “That’s the best you got? That’s really the best you’ve got mister tough guy?” he asked me. “That was pathetic! C’mere!”
He grabbed me away from the door and threw me down onto the kitchen lino. Before I could get up, or roll away, he placed his boot on my chest, and pressed down, applying just enough pressure to keep me down there, squirming under his foot. Tears sprung into my eyes, and I used my hands to shove and pull at his boot, but it was useless. I had no breath left in me, you see. I could barely breathe with him standing on me like that. “Listen here, you listen here now, you little shitbag,” he was growling down at me, and as I stared madly up at him, he looked like a giant, like a mutant of a man, his head touching the ceiling, his limbs like tree trunks, and I wanted desperately to call up, this is not fair! “Who’s the strongest eh?” he was asking me in amusement, his top lip rumbling up and down as he spoke. “Who is the real tough guy here eh? You or me? Come on, answer, I want you to tell me, who is the strongest?”
It took nearly all of my remaining strength and rage to force any words out with his foot crushing down on my ribcage like that, but just staring up into his leering face, made this intense rush of anger scream through me yet again, and I wanted to kill him, and that my friends, was the first time, and the first of many. I wanted to be as strong and as big as him, I wanted to surprise him with superhuman strength and power. I wanted to pick him up with one hand and squeeze the evil stench of life right out of him. I punched at his boot, again and again. “Fucking piece of shit bastard!”
Howard giggled down at me. His sloped forehead creased slightly. “Do you want to say that again?” he asked me.
He looked surprised, and then annoyed and pushed down harder with his boot, until I could feel the rest of the air within me being squeezed out. “Repeat it,” he dared me. “Call me a piece of shit bastard again.”
“You!” I gasped up at him then, because I had no choice. “You….the strongest!”
He laughed in sheer delight, rolled his eyes up to the ceiling and smiled back down at me. “You are so funny,” he told me then, and finally lifted his foot away. He stood over me then, one foot on either side of me, and I could only lay there, fighting for breath. “You really make me laugh. I see this fiery thing about you, and it really amuses me. It’s not going to get you anywhere though, just so you know. I’m here to crush it right out of you every fucking time. You got that?” He stepped over me then and walked over to the fridge. I watched with disbelieving eyes as he pulled open the door, grabbed a cold beer and slammed it shut again. “Now listen,” he said to me brightly. “What do you say to this? I got a deal for you. You don’t tell you mum about our little wrestling match today, and I won’t tell her you got picked up by the cops for being drunk and fighting. How about that? That sound good to you? That sound fair? Because believe me mate, you really don’t want her finding out about that. If she found out about that, believe me, you’d be on a one way ticket to fucking care! I’m serious. Is that what you want?”
I looked up at him and saw him smiling delicately, with his head tilted gently to one side, as he took me in. His small eyes were full of it, I thought, loving it. “Do you want her to put you in care mate?” he asked from above. “Because let me tell you, once you’re in there, there’s no fucking way back out again, I can tell you. My little brother was like you once, you know. He was a naughty boy, so they sent him to care.” He nodded at me and drank slowly from his can. He lowered it and licked his lips. “True. Oh and the things that go on in those places,” he sort of grimaced and shook his head. “We never saw him again, you know. You want that to happen to you, if you keep being a naughty boy?” I saw no point in speaking, so I just stared back at him silently while his eyes burned down into mine. “So I’ll do you a favour shall I?” he asked. “I won’t tell your mum what you’ve been up to this time, and you won’t tell her we got a bit carried away with a wrestling match, yeah? Alright? Come on. Answer me. Show me some life.” I nodded at him once. “Good, thought so,” he said briskly as he turned away. “Good boy.”
I lifted my head to watch him saunter casually towards the lounge, still sipping from his beer. I watched the way he rocked from side to side as he swaggered, like a fucking caveman, the arrogant fucking maniac. I remained on my back for a while, just breathing. I heard the TV come on in the lounge and I thought to myself, okay, if I didn’t know it before, I fucking know it now; the man is a complete lunatic. I lay on my back on the kitchen floor while my mind travelled around the areas of pain in my body. My hand throbbed from hitting him. My head pounded at the back. My cheeks ached. I felt like I’d been run over, ploughed down and left for dead. I wondered what the hell to do, and I realized that they didn’t prepare you for this sort of thing at school. They didn’t have classes about situations like this. They didn’t hand out leaflets on what to do if your mum invites a deranged psychopath into your home. I forced myself to think clearly and saw that I had two options. Get to my room and lock the door, or just get the hell out of the house. I chose the latter.
I rolled onto my stomach and pushed myself onto my hands and knees, grunting quietly against the pain. I held onto my gut, holding it into place. I scooted on my knees to the back door, and used the handle to help me up again. I saw there was a long crack in the glass pane, where my head had collided with it. I rubbed groggily at the back of my skull and opened the door. Vomit rose up then, suddenly and without warning, as the sticky summer air met my nostrils. Another puddle of sick spewed from me, all across the doorstep. Walk, I told myself urgently, fucking move. I stepped over it, and although my legs had started to wobble, I made them move. I closed the door behind me. I could feel a splash of warm sick on my chin, so used the back of my hand to wipe it away. With every laboured step, the pain in my gut made me grunt and wince. I went to the only place I could think of.
When I kicked open his back gate, I saw Mike was sat out on his doorstep, smoking a fag. His dark hair hung over one eye, and one side of his face looked bright red and angry. I limped towards him, and felt his eyes wander over me curiously. “Shittinghell,” he said softly as I lowered myself down beside him. “You look awful! What’s happened? You been sick or something?”
“Few times,” I nodded, and looked at the house. “Is she out?”
“Yeah,” he laughed. “She gave me a lecture about behaving myself then went to meet her mates at The Ship. She has a quirky parenting style. What about you? Could’ve shit myself when Howard walked in.”
I shrugged and searched my pockets for a smoke. I came up with nothing so he passed me his. “Here. You look really awful mate. What happened to your face?”
“Huh?” I touched my cheek with one finger. “Nothing. I don’t know.”
“Did he smack you or something?” Michael was peering at me closely.
I rested my head in one hand and smoked. I felt old and faded and sickening. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. “Did he though?” Michael asked me again in a lower tone. “Because if he did, he can’t do that Danny. He’s not even your dad or anything. He isn’t anyone!”
“Just…” I scratched my head and struggled to find an answer, something that would make him shut up for a while. “Just a wrestling match,” I said finally and nodded. “You know what he’s like…trying to get me into it….so stupid.” Michael stared at me, his eyes narrowing slowly. “He’s obsessed isn’t he?” I said quickly. “What a wanker. I got him one good though. He thought I was just playing along, but I smacked him a really good one right in the nose.”
Michael laughed beside me. “Yeah? Did you?” I nodded, forcing my lips into a weak smile. I passed the smoke back to Michael, and he finished it off and hurled the butt into the grass. Our smiles had faded quickly. “He still shouldn’t do all that you know,” he said then. “Not if you don’t like it. Is he gonna’ come looking for you?”
“No way. I can stay over, right?”
He nodded. “Yeah, course you can. She’ll be too half cut to notice by the time she gets back. You sure you’re okay though? I mean…”
“Forget it, it’s nothing,” I told him, and started to get up. I tried to do it without giving away the grating pain in my middle. “Why don’t we have a drink or something? Cheer ourselves up. Everything always goes fucking wrong.”
Michael laughed cheerily and scrambled to his feet. “Are you nuts? Thought you’d just been sick!”
“I like your thinking. Okay then, fuck it. Come on then, let me be your barman for the day.” Michael hurried into the dark house, calling back over his shoulder. “What would you like, young sir? We have everything in stock!”
I shuffled my way into the lounge behind him and dropped onto the sofa, while he began to root through his mothers’ drinks cabinet. Michael laughed, but I found the sound of it to be hollow, and anything but happy. We would have a drink or two and fall asleep, I thought then, and I watched Mike as he poured us a shot of whiskey each with a shaking hand.
I woke up the next morning wrapped in an itchy green blanket on Michaels bedroom floor. I seemed to be surrounded by rubbish and the messy teenage debris of his existence. Jeans he had stepped out of and kicked aside. Random socks with holes in them. Grubby trainers, crumpled magazines and discarded food wrappers. I stared at the yellowed ceiling and was immediately and miserably aware of the intense, cramping pain in my abdomen, accompanied by the urge to vomit. My mouth was running fast with saliva. My tongue wanted to loll, and my stomach was clenching. I could hear Michael snoring softly on his bed, as I lifted the green blanket away from me, peered down and pulled up my t-shirt. I gasped when I saw it; the perfect fist sized bruise, ugly and blackening. I felt a mixture of awe and revulsion as I stared down at it, and it seemed like a stain, an unwanted mark forced upon my skin by someone I loathed. It made me want to scratch it away. It made me feel like part of him was on me. I dropped my t-shirt back down and lowered the blanket. Tears pricked at my eyes and I wondered again, what the fuck to do?
I lay there for a while, in a depressed silence, trying to think, but every time I got a reasonable procession of coherent thoughts on the go, I would feel the blow to the stomach again, and see his face pushed into mine, and they would scatter, and fall away. I wanted to curl up and cry. I turned my head to look at Michael. He had kicked his covers away, and was lying on his back with one leg dangling to the floor, and one arm lying over his forehead. The side of his face turned to me, still looked a bit red. I swallowed and thought about telling him everything. Why the hell didn’t I? Why had I lied about my bike? Why hadn’t I told him about the tricks at home, and the nasty things Howard had been saying to me when mum was not around? Maybe Mike would want to know. Mike, he didn’t take any shit from anyone, did he?
I glanced at my watch. It was twenty past eight. I wondered how Howard had explained my absence to my mother. I thought only a little bit about telling her. I had this feeling that her not believing me would hurt a hell of a lot more than a blow to the stomach could. I kept hearing his words in my brain, over and over. She would send me to care. I would never get back out. Worse things happened there. I remembered her threatening it that time to John, when I had been on the landing, eavesdropping, and a tremor of fear shuddered through me. I felt cold all over, despite the fierce August sun beating through Michael’s open curtains.
I lay there with my eyes closed. I wondered for the millionth time what to do, what to say, how to say it. I was tired, so tired. The urge to be sick was coming back, and just as Michael began to moan and twist on his bed, I sat up quickly and reached for the bin he kept under his desk. It was so full of crushed drinks cans and screwed up paper, I had to push it all down with my hand so there was room for me to be sick on top. “You okay?” I heard Michael asking groggily, as I retched into the bin. There was nothing left to come up, just sour yellow bile. I nodded my head between retches. “Why you being sick?” I shrugged, wiped my mouth with my t-shirt and set the bin back down. “Do you want some water or something?”
“Something to eat?”
I shook my head and lay back down, trying not to irritate the bruise too much. Michael swung both feet to the floor and yawned and scratched his head. “Why don’t you tell me what happened with Howard?” he asked me then.
“Nothing.” I said it quickly, automatically, without thinking, and then I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t have to see the doubt in his. My head was pounding from the exertion of vomiting, and I knew then, why I didn’t tell him. It was simple really. I didn’t want him to know. I didn’t want him to see me that way, floored and beaten, flat on my back with the bastards big foot on my chest. I didn’t want to see myself that way; to me that was someone else, that kid on the kitchen floor, that wasn’t me, and I never wanted it to be me. That’s not who I am, I thought in confusion.
“What’re you gonna’ do?” he asked me then. “Go home and face your mum? You think Howard would’ve told her by now?”
For a moment I had no idea what he was talking about. I opened my eyes and frowned up at the ceiling, and rubbed at my temples with one hand. “Huh?”
“The cops,” he said, gesturing in impatience. “Think she knows?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” he said then, and he said it in this very firm, confident way which made me turn my head to look at him again. He pushed back his thick black hair and underneath, his eyes were fierce with energy. “Anthony will be back soon. And he’ll sort that fucking twat out for you Danny. I promise you.” I nodded and said nothing, but inside, I started to wonder, I started to wonder if this was a tiny fragment of hope I could cling to.
Eventually I crept back home, and I was playing a game with myself, pretending everything was alright, and there was no crippling pain in my belly, and there were no hairs stood on end on my neck. I wanted to go to bed, listen to Nirvana and sleep. What I found when I walked through the house, was my mother and Howard, entwined tightly in the lounge with the TV on low. They both looked up and smiled at me as I passed by. I stopped, and felt for a second like I had accidentally stumbled into another reality. She tilted her head, her eyes were full of love, and she asked me how the sleepover had gone. I shrugged in dumb uncertainty. Howard squeezed her shoulder and winked at me over her head. “You look pale,” she said then, frowning a little. “Are you coming down with something?” I nodded, my expression vague. Howard’s eyes remained brightly on mine.
“Off to bed, I’d say,” he said then with a nod. I watched the way my mother looked back at him adoringly every time he spoke, and I watched the way her hands sought out his, reaching for them and bringing them down into her lap. I didn’t feel like I could ever tell her anything then. I just turned away from them and hurried up the stairs to my room. Howard had obviously kept to his side of the bargain, I thought when I found my bed, and my music. I wondered dismally what would happen if I didn’t stick to mine. It’s a test, I thought then, folding my arms behind my head. He’s told me to stick to the rules and now he is testing me. I felt weak then, too weak to fight back, too weak to complain, so I just stayed in bed and listened to Kurt Cobain proclaiming I’m a negative creep, I’m a negative creep, I’m a negative creep and I’m stoned. I decided I had no choice but to play along with things, and see what happened.
I tried really hard after that. I was nothing less than a fucking suck up. I did whatever they told me to, without complaint or attitude. My mother was in a constant state of shock about it. She kept widening her eyes every time I did what I was asked to do, she kept smiling inanely at me while my bruise changed colour daily, as it spread out across my abdomen like a violent rainbow. I couldn’t wait for it to just disappear.
When my mother was at work, Howard would start to grumble. He couldn’t help himself. He hated mess. It set him on edge, made him restless and irritable. He brought the vacuum cleaner up to my room one morning when I was still in bed, tapped on my door and stood out on the landing, smoking a cigarette. I opened the door and saw the hoover, and a whole bunch of cleaning sprays, and cloths beside it. I felt the urge to scream fuck you at the top of my lungs, but I didn’t. I just sighed and dragged the vacuum cleaner in through my door. “Good boy,” he announced in this overly enthusiastic tone that reminded me of the way people praised their dogs. He came forward, positioned himself in the doorway and frowned into my room. “Bloody mess,” he said, shaking his head almost sadly. “Don’t know how you can stand it. What is that bloody awful racket going on anyway?” I turned to my desk, picked up the Nevermind cassette and passed it to him without speaking. He turned it over in his hands, cigarette jutting from one corner of his mouth. “It’s too loud,” he declared then. “How can you understand what they’re saying? It’s just all noise and screaming!” He wrinkled his nose as if the cassette itself offended him. I took it back and chucked it on my bed. “Favourite band are they?” he asked me then, jamming one hand in the pocket of his jeans. I felt my cheeks getting warm. I felt my jaw stiffening.
He snorted derisive laughter at me. “ Yeah I can see that! Personally I think you look a right state dressing like that. And all that hair! You can’t even see where you’re going half the time.”
“Not your problem,” I reasoned, glancing at him briefly. I plugged the vacuum into the socket under my desk. He just leaned in the doorway, puffing his smoke all over my room.
“Bloody depressing shit, if you ask me,” he went on. “Well come on then. Get a move on. We can show your mum when she gets home. She’ll be well pleased.”
I stared back at him, not understanding. I looked behind him, wondering when he was going to leave. He didn’t leave though. He refused. He stood there the whole time, shouting out when he thought I had missed a spot on the carpet. Then he passed me the sprays and told me to clean the window and the walls and the skirting boards. I said nothing. What could I say? I just did it, vacuumed and dusted and cleaned the whole room from top to bottom, not saying a single solitary word, until he was finally satisfied. He gave it a once over, squinting and peering around, as if desperate to locate a speck of dust, or a rogue sock.
“All right,” he said then, narrowing his small eyes at me. “Good enough. But you’ve got to keep it this way, that’s the thing.” His thin eyebrows shot up into his shining forehead and a smile tugged at one side of his mouth. He looked at me as if he were waiting for something, and I thought I had an idea what it was. A fuck you. I had one for him, I had a million, but I clenched my teeth together so hard I made my tongue a prisoner. I kept my lips clamped down. I breathed heavily through my nose, and I smiled back at him.
He should have been happy. He should have known when he had things easy, shouldn’t he? Well, later on today I guess I’ll find out if he’s as capable of regrets as I am, but somehow I doubt it. So you see, I did try. I did try to play it his way. I did try to toe the fucking line he laid down for me. But as that week wore on, it became more and more obvious, that the man had standards I would never be able to meet. As the days tumbled by, I became so disgusted, so enraged, so bottled up with blood red mist and dark, dangerous thoughts, that I could barely even breathe in the same room as him. My mother had nothing to say whatsoever. Howard barked his orders from morning until night. He handed out chores and jobs as fast as he handed out criticisms. One thing he became particularly adept at, was handing out arduous tasks when he saw I was about to go out. Suddenly the washing machine would need emptying, or the whole house would need vacuuming from top to bottom. I realized I was still being tested, and it grated at me daily. I felt like my nerves were being shredded, peeled away, one by one. If I washed the dishes, he would say they needed doing again. If I tidied my room, he would say I couldn’t go out until he had checked it. He freaked out if he found even the tiniest speck of dirt or grit on the carpet, and he leapt about like a girl if his bare feet ever came into contact with crumbs on the kitchen lino.
He started playing the victim around my mother. Another cunning stroke in his master plan, I guess. He would get out his pack of cigarettes and then frown at them. “Oh that’s funny,” he would say. “I’m sure this was a full pack earlier.” Her eyes would meet mine, dark with disapproval. He did the same with his beers and his whiskey too. He was always certain some was missing, but he never liked to make a fuss about it, of course. It was okay, I heard him say, maybe I miscounted, maybe I’m wrong, just forget about it. Bullshit he wanted her to forget about it, that was the real truth. Bullshit, because everything that came out of his thin lipped mouth was utter bullshit, he just didn’t want her to see it. I knew exactly what the fucker was doing on a daily basis; turning her against me, not that there was a lot of turning left to do. I wondered every day, what would happen if I told her the truth? Would she believe me? Would she believe the colours on my middle? After everything that had happened between us, would my word really mean a thing to her? Sometimes it felt like both her and I were living in the palm of his meaty hand, and I could feel him squeezing us tighter and tighter, until one day there would be nothing left of us, nothing but empty shells, puppets.
On occasion I thought about calling John. I even stood in the hallway once or twice, staring at the telephone in a sort of trance. But then I would start to think about how it would sound. Howard makes me tidy my room. Howard thinks I steal his cigarettes. Howard insists I behave myself, so I am. Want to hear any more brother dear? I could see Johns face, joining up the dots, thinking well, you bring it on yourself Danny, that’s the thing, and besides, it’s about time you calmed down. Would he come running back if he knew? I didn’t think so. Then I would picture him, safe with his precious dad at the other end of the country, enjoying his course, meeting girls, having fun, and it made this fiery ball of hatred leap into life in the pit of my stomach.
I lay awake night after night, contemplating how normal life was unravelling fast. That was the sensation I had. Reality was changing. The ground beneath my feet was shifting, become rocky and untrustworthy. I realized that I didn’t feel like anyone else. When I looked around me, I didn’t recognise them, and I didn’t recognise me either. I didn’t know where I had gone, but the boy I was turning into was no one I cared to be. He was a boy who took these things. He was a boy who did not fight back, or complain. He was a boy who clung to the unrealistic hope that the dark things around him were not really real, were not really happening, or would simply go away one day. He would wake up in the morning and everything would be back to normal. He would know who he was again. He would know what to do. On the day that Howard used the inside of my arm to stub his cigarette out, I lay awake even longer, contemplating the nature of violence. The burn was a perfect little circle of violence. I could not take my eyes off it. The memory was already unclear, fogged around the edges, dulled by shock. No words had passed between us. He had taken my arm as if it belonged to him. He had smiled a sinister smile, his lips parting slowly to reveal the tiny row of teeth. His breath smelled of the peppermint mouthwash he used. It felt like he was giving me an injection. A moment of sharp, breath hitching pain.
Violence. In the dictionary it described it as a rough, or injurious physical force, action or treatment, an unwanted exertion of force or power. I thought about it every day, what it was, what it meant, and why. Like the marks on my stomach, I felt like the circle stained and marked me. I worried that it could somehow seep through my skin, his violence, seep through and reach me. I wondered if in time I would become infected by it; if the raging blood of his violent nature would run alongside my own, changing who I was, and who I would become. The small things you see, the small things always add up to more. They pile up on you, day after day. That was what he was doing then, and it was working, as I felt the shame weighing me down, diminishing me. It now horrified me to think of telling anyone. The gang, for instance, they thought of me as a fucking legend; I was the new boy who had started school with a fight, and got arrested for breaking Edward Higg’s nose. They thought I was tough, like them. Michael thought I was tough. What would he think of me if he knew the truth? If he knew that this man who was barely more than a stranger could take my arm in the kitchen and press his cigarette into my skin, and that no words were spoken, that I didn’t even cry out, or make a sound? He would look at me differently, that was for sure. Did I want to fight back? Yeah, more than anything. I just didn’t know how. I felt like I had totally disintegrated since Howard had arrived in my world.