The Boy With…Chapters 32&33

32

 

            I got ready for the party up in my room.  I’d had my outfit planned out for days.  My favourite black jeans, with the ripped knees.  My baseball boots.  My new Nirvana top, and a faded checked shirt chucked on top.  I didn’t brush my hair.  I had thick tangles all over it, and a couple of really hard knots at the back underneath.  I didn’t care, I liked it.  The more Howard moaned on about my hair, the worse state I wanted to let it get into.  I sat on my bed with my hair tucked behind my ears to roll a few smokes.  I waited until About A Girl had ended, then slid the smokes into my back pocket, took out the cassette and slipped that into my other pocket.  Before I left my room I paused to look in the mirror and smiled at the cut to my lip.  It made me look tough, I thought.  Like I’d been up to no good.  Fuck it.  I was going to have a hell of a night and not give a shit about anything.  I wasn’t going to be afraid, not once.  I wasn’t going to hide.

Down in the hallway my mother came from the lounge and buzzed around me as if she were excited on my behalf.  She frowned at my lip. “How did you do that?”  Howard had reared up behind her, seemingly from nowhere, filling the hall with his arrogant bulk.  He rolled his eyes as my mother turned her face up to him.

“Mucking about doing stunts on the bike,” he said with a chuckle. “Isn’t that right Danny?  Being a bit silly wasn’t you?”

I didn’t answer him.  I pulled from her fussing hands and opened the front door.  “Listen,” she said, touching my shoulder. “Absolutely no drinking at this party okay?  Are you sure Michael’s dad is going to be there?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll be popping over later to check,” Howard announced then, a flicker of a smile on his face as his eyes met mine.  “You know, just to be on the safe side.”

“Don’t let him do that!” I said in exasperation to my mother, as I wrenched the door open and stepped out into the evening.  “Tell him to mind his own business!  You said I could sleep over there!”

“Yes, yes I know, alright,” she said hurriedly as she ushered me out. “Just have a good time but behave yourself, and we’ve got a deal. Okay?”

“Okay.  Thanks.” I stalked away before either of them could change their minds and turned the corner to head towards Michael’s house.  The front door was open, music spilling out onto the street, and I could already see Michael on the doorstep, smoking and laughing with some older boys.  He threw down the butt and cried out when he saw me.

“Whoo hoo he’s here!  The birthday boy is here!”  He reached out and grabbed me into the house, pushing a cold bottle of beer into my hand.  The house seemed impossibly full of people, and the music was thumping from the top to the bottom.  “Hey, hang on a minute,” he said in the hallway, his eyes frowning as his smile fell away from him.  “What you done to your lip?”

I lifted the beer and downed nearly half of it without stopping for breath.  My eyes were on Michael, and on the inside I was telling him, I was saying the words for him to hear and to know he did it, Howard did it, what should I do?  Mike waited, and his face was angry, as if he could somehow hear those words in my head, as if he already knew.  I lowered the beer, laughed out loud and clapped him on the back.  “Nothing!” I yelled over the music. “Who cares? Let’s get wasted!”

Michael just nodded at me.  I grinned carelessly and pushed my way through to the kitchen.  There was long limbed Jake, sat up on the side, swigging beer and swinging his stick like legs back and forth. “Danny boy!” he cried out, reaching behind to grab a white plastic bag, which he held out to me.  “Happy birthday mate!”

I took the bag and pulled out a quarter bottle of Bells whiskey. “Nice one Jake! Thanks!”

“Nice top,” Billy told me with a curt nod of his head. “Come and taste this first.  Been working on this for ages, just for you.”  He had taken over the entire kitchen table with a selection of spirits and mixers, and was stirring the contents rhythmically in a large plastic bowl.  He thoughtfully spooned a cupful into a waiting plastic beaker and handed it to me.  “Tell me what you think.”

I sipped the drink cautiously.  It was sour and extremely strong, and I coughed quickly, forcing it down before it came back up again.  I shook my head, my eyes watering as I handed the cup back to Billy. “More juice or something,” I spluttered at him. “Too strong! You’ll kill someone!”

“Okay, okay,” he said, nodding as he went back to his bowl and started to pour more liquids in randomly.

“Hey the birthday boy himself!”

I spun around to see Anthony thrusting his way through the people towards me.  He cut a distinctive figure, as his bare, toned torso slipped between the other kids, his dark eyes bright and alert and fixed entirely on me.  He had a drink in one hand, and draped his other arm around my shoulders, which for that moment made me feel like the most important person in the room.  “Hi Anthony!” I grinned up at him. “Great party already!”

“Happy birthday to you mate, you got a drink?”

“I got this!” I showed him the whiskey from Jake.  He nodded and looked around at all of us.

“Fair enough but go slow eh boys?  I don’t want any puking, fitting or collapsing okay? I don’t want any of your folks banging on my door ‘cause you got poisoning!”  We all nodded in dutiful reply.  Anthony still had his arm around me, and pulled me slightly to the side then, as if he wanted to confide in me away from the others.  I unscrewed the cap from the whiskey and sniffed it.  I was feeling better already. Better than I had in ages.  I was feeling like me again.  The old me, the not giving a shit, the arguing back, the snarling urge to scrap, was all seeping back.  “I got something to say to you mate,” Anthony was telling me, his tone lowered slightly.  He removed his arm from my shoulder then and placed a hand on the wall next to us, as if to steady himself.  Then he leaned down towards me, and I could smell the cheap beer on his breath.  “Mikey is worried about you, you know?  He seems to think this boyfriend of your mums is giving you a hard time.” He raised his eyebrows at me.  “Eh?  Is that right?  Is that how you hurt your lip?”

I lowered my eyes from his, while I struggled with the question he was asking me. I was going to say nothing, I was going to throw him off the scent, but then I looked up into his face and when I saw the look he had, I stopped.  He looked desperately concerned somehow, and I don’t know why, but it made me nod back at him.  I couldn’t take it back then.  I watched the anger fill his eyes and I watched his jaw tighten and his back stiffen up.  He glanced away briefly and then he spat on the floor and glared back at me with fierce eyes.  “I fucking hate that kind of shit,” he hissed, shaking his head at me.  “Bullies mate.  Listen to me.  Mike says you’re the best friend he ever had, so that makes you pretty cool in my eyes.  Let me tell you something Danny.  If that arsehole over there gives you any more shit, you just tell me alright?   I know plenty of people who will kick the shit out of him on my behalf, okay?  I only have to say the word.” He stared at me expectantly so I nodded in reply.  “I’ll tell you something else,” he went on.  “Our dad was like that when we were kids.  If you did anything wrong, or if he was just in a bad mood, he’d just smack you one, just like that.  But one day I got big enough you know?  Bigger than him.  I smacked him back.  Fucking knocked him right out.  Right down on the kitchen floor.  He never tried it again, I can tell you that.  He never laid a hand on either of us after that.  You’ll be big enough one day, you know that right?”  I nodded again but a little unsurely.  Anthony had obviously not seen the size of Howard, I thought.  “Go on then,” he told me. “Go and enjoy your party.  It’s what it’s all about mate.”

I nodded again rather uselessly.  I felt sort of dazed. “Okay,”I said. “Thanks Anthony.” I wanted to say more to him than that, but I realized right away that there were no words adequate enough to convey what it meant to me.

“Not a problem,” he said, moving away from the wall and swaying on his feet, though I couldn’t be sure if it was from the drink, or the music.  I remembered my new tape then and pulled it from my pocket.

“Hey I just got this today, can we put it on?”

Anthony took it and turned it over in his hands.  “Okay, alright, but we’re not playing rock stuff all night. Got to have the dance stuff too.”

“Thanks a lot.”

“You’re welcome.” He turned around and walked smoothly out of the kitchen with my tape in his hands.  I turned to find Michael hovering near by and I passed him the whiskey and grinned.

“Okay?” he asked me.

“I am now. Your brother just offered to kick Howard’s arse any time I want.”  Michael laughed, a huge smile instantly lighting up his eyes, as he punched the air triumphantly.

“Yes! I fucking told you didn’t I?”

My best memory from that night came early on in the party.  Billy got sick of Anthony’s dance music and snuck off to put Nevermind on.  He returned to us moments later, grinning fiendishly beneath his mop of red hair, already strumming his air guitar to the opening chords of Smells Like Teen Spirit.  We hooted and yelled, we jumped to our feet, we threw our arms around each other and thrust our drinks into the air.  Everyone stopped and stared, and I caught glimpses of their bemused faces, their rolling eyes, and it only made me love it even more.  Knowing they were watching us, knowing they didn’t like it, or they didn’t get it, or it wasn’t for them, just unified us even more.  We got off on it, we felt it explode inside of us, it was ours and we owned it.  We leapt up and down, headbanging, spilling our drinks all over the floor, screaming along, taking over the whole kitchen, taking it all with us.  We knew all of the words, but the bit that got to me the most then, as we clung to each other, as we stared into eachothers crazed and knowing eyes, was the bit that went; I’m worse at what I do best, and for this gift I feel blessed, our little group has always been, and always will, until the end. Well it was kind of beautiful, but I never would have said that to anyone.  We were just four scruffy grungey kids going mental in the kitchen, pissed off our faces, and they were all watching us and laughing at us and wondering what would happen to us.  “With the lights out it’s less dangerous!” we roared back at them, jumping, turning, gripping hold of ourselves. “Here we are now! Entertain us!”  I was inside a moment that I never wanted to end, the four of going insane, and I knew that if anything could set your heart on fire, it was music like that, moments like that.  I felt a descending sadness that the moment would inevitably end, just like the song would, just like the party would, just like everything would.

Antony humoured us with a patient smile for the next four songs, and by that time we were wiped out and shining in sweat, and we collapsed around the table together, our eyes meeting and gleaming with pride.  Anthony returned to the kitchen with a small tin in one hand.  He paused at the table, waited for the music to kick in and then held up a finger and nodded.  “Primal Scream,” he informed our waiting faces. “Believe me, you’re gonna’ love this.”  He gestured for Michael to scoot along the bench, and sat down on the edge. “Now boys,” he said, opening the lid from his tin.  I leaned forward slowly, my nostrils working.  There was a thick sweet smell coming from the tin. “We’re gonna’ calm things down a notch now, chill things out a bit yeah?” We smiled, and reached for our drinks but he shook his head at us. “Now hang on.  Wait for this.  No more to drink unless it’s water.”

Michael dropped his head into his hands. “Ahh!  I’m thirsty!”

“Water,” Antony told him unwavering.

“What’re you doing?” Jake asked him.

“Calming things down a bit.  Hang on.”

We were all quiet then.  We watched him sprinkle tobacco onto a large cigarette paper.  Then he took some musty green leaves from his tin and sprinkled them on top.  I was hot, hot all over, I felt like my brain was going to explode inside my skull, I was so hot.  It wasn’t just the heat, or the music or the dancing, it was everything; the here and the now, us.  I watched Anthony rolling the paper up, sticking a roach into one end and screwing up the other and I knew that any of us would have done anything he asked right then.  That was how it felt.  I understood why Michael wanted to be like him.  I did too.  I wanted to be him.  We watched, our mouths hanging open, our eyes wide and absorbing, as he lit the joint and inhaled.  He then smiled and held it across the table to me.  “Have a go on that birthday boy,” he said to me, as I took it carefully in my fingers.  “First time?”  I nodded.  His smile widened, touching his eyes.  He patted the table and stood up. “Well take it easy then.  No puking on me.  And if any of you do need to puke, do it outside yeah?”  He laughed at us softly and walked out.

“Wow,” was all Billy could breathe when it was his turn.  His green eyes were fixated on the joint as he examined it between his fingers. “My parents used to smoke pot in the sixties.  Maybe we’ll turn out like them!”

We laughed.  Before long all we could do was laugh.  Our eyes watered.  Our stomachs ached.  We couldn’t string sentences together without crumbling into giggles.  I found myself drifting backwards, towards the wall behind.  Once my head found it, I became stuck there.  I could only swivel my eyes from one side to the other.  My mouth was fixed in this permanent dopey smile.  Eventually I became aware of the sound of Billy throwing up somewhere, and Jake, laughing and laughing and laughing.

Anthony, in my eyes, the hero, the saviour of everything, arrived just in the nick of time with an armful of delivery pizzas.  They were the most delicious things I had ever smelled in my entire life.  He gave me a friendly shake of the shoulder. “Tuck in lads,” he said. “Then you’ll be raring to go again. And hey, look I found outside!” He stepped back so that we could see Lucy and Zoe standing nervously behind him.  Zoe had a bottle of wine swinging from each hand.

On some level, at least at the back of my muddled head, I understood and accepted that the party was going to end in carnage.  One way or another.  I had a deep seated feeling that there was shit to yet hit the fan with Howard, and I considered this in a rather detached way, as I floated in and out of consciousness some hours later.  My head was resting on my arms, which were folded on the table top.  I could hear Michael talking close by.  He sounded like he had a sore throat.  Billy was asleep on the table and had been for some time.  He lay completely stretched out, his head thrown back and his mouth a gaping hole of emerging snores at one end, his tatty trainers dangling off the other.  I lifted my head to gaze at him, and had a fuzzy memory of Anthony carrying him in from the garden.  What crossed my mind then, as the full impact of the drinks that had gone before began to hit me, was the memory of Howard saying he was going to check on us.  Had he?  Had he been and gone?  Had my mother kept him away like she’d say she would?  Or worse than all of that, was he still to come?

I groaned a little and shifted back on the bench, suddenly realizing as I moved, that someone was leaning on me.  Oh yeah, I remembered.  Lucy.  How long had she been there?  What had we been talking about again?  I yawned and stretched out my arms.  “Lucy?”

“Mmm?” She opened her eyes and smiled up at me. “Was I asleep?”

“Think we both were.”

“Oh my parents…they’ll murder me.”

“Thought you were sleeping at Zoe’s?”

“Oh yeah.  You’re right.  I am aren’t I?”

“So no need to worry.”

“No need to worry,” she echoed. “But maybe sobering up a bit is a good idea, if I’ve got to get Zoe home. Have you had a good party Danny?  A good birthday?”

“The best,” I told her, and I meant it.  I slipped my arm around her shoulders without even thinking about it.  She didn’t object though.  She just wriggled into me and rested her head down upon my chest.  I sort of missed a breath then, and stared down in awe at the back of her head, at this shine of nut brown hair.  I stared at it and thought about kissing it.

“Where does your dad live Danny?”

The question caught me off guard, coming out of nowhere.  It was just the sort of question Lucy would ask though, I realized.  I glanced across the table at Michael, who was attempting to roll a cigarette with Zoe asleep on his lap.  “I don’t actually know,” I told Lucy with a little shrug.

“Really?” she asked, while her arms snaked slowly around my middle.  You wouldn’t believe me if I said it, but the crush of her slim arms against my mottled middle was the best feeling in the world ever.  A pain that took my breath away. “You really don’t know?”

“Haven’t seen him in years.”

She looked up then, and her face was so close to mine, I could have stuck my tongue out and licked the tip of her button nose.  “Well when was the last time you saw him? You don’t mind me asking do you?  Everyone tells me I’m too nosy.”

“I don’t mind,” I shrugged. She grinned, and her eyes looked all dewy and sleepy.  Her head went down again, bumping against my rib cage.  It was funny, how her doing that made me feel bigger and stronger, like a man almost.  I hugged her to me and stroked the round of her shoulder with my hand.  “It was when I was about nine,” I told her. “’Cause I remember he turned up for my birthday and took me to McDonalds.  Then it sort of faded out after that.”

“Do you know what happened to him?  Do you know where he went?  Or why?”

“Not really. All mum says is he got in trouble.  Had to go away.”

“But hasn’t he ever like phoned you?  Or written to you?  Or anything?”

“Nope.”

I heard her release this massive sigh.  She was totally relaxed against me.  Almost asleep again, I wondered, stroking her shoulder.  I could feel one of her hands playing with my t-shirt, rubbing the material between her fingers. “Awful,” she sort of shuddered. “I can’t imagine that.  I mean, I know I’m lucky my parents get on so well, but if they did ever split up or something, I know my dad wouldn’t just vanish from my life.  I know he wouldn’t.”

“It is a bit shit if you think about it,” I agreed.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t mean to upset you on your birthday.  Just tell me to shut up.”

“No it’s okay, I like talking to you.”

“Did he look like you?  Was he anything like you?”

“Hmm, mum says he was nothing but trouble.  Everyone says I look like my mum though.  She says he was fine for a while and then he just got bored.”

“That’s not very nice!”

“Nah.  I don’t think I’d get bored of having a kid.”

“God, me neither!” She tightened her arms around my middle then, just for a second, but it was enough to squeeze the breath out of me again, and I winced above her head. “Do you know what my mum says?” she asked me then, lifting her head and turning her face up to mine again.  I shook my head, smiling.  “She says children are the most precious thing in the world to you.  That when you have them, you realize what love means.  What do you think of that?”  My smile stretched.  I wanted to laugh at her and her drunken, wide eyed face.  I wanted to hold her face and kiss it.

“I don’t know,” I told her. “Maybe that’s how it should be?”

“That’s how I’d feel,” she said, defiantly.  I picked up a strand of her hair and watched it slip through my fingers like silk. “Do you think you’ll ever try to find your dad Danny?”

“I dunno.  Maybe.  One day.  If I feel like it.”

She was staring at me with this really dopey look on her face.  She was frowning a bit, but smiling madly, and her eye makeup had smudged around her eyes, making them look even bigger and browner.  Anthony’s music was pulsing through the walls again, and the music was a swelling within me, of so many things, love and lust and energy. I stared at her and she stared at me as if she were examining me, figuring me out.  I stroked her hair back from her face.   I felt like I was in a scene from a movie, or something.  We were lost for a moment.  Just the two of us, in a bubble of life swept up and intensified by the music.  The song was incredible.  I later found out it was called Come Together, and I later found out that Primal Scream were pretty fucking amazing to play at parties.  “You are so sweet Danny,” she said then, and she pressed her finger against my cut lip.  I winced a tiny bit and then kissed the tip of her finger and grinned hungrily, wanting more. “And one day, I think, I am going to marry you.”  She was moving off me as she said it, and it made me laugh out loud the way she said it, all matter of fact and prissy. I wanted to tug her back down onto me.

“Really?” I asked her.

“Yep,” she replied firmly, using my knee and the table to help herself struggle up from the bench. “But right now I really, really have to get home…get Zoe home I mean.”  Michael took the cue and pulled Zoe up from his lap by her arm.  She stared around at us in a confused, blinking daze.  Lucy limped around the table, and slipped her arm around Zoe’s waist, and with Mikes help they hoisted her to her unsteady feet.  We watched them go, just smiling.  A few moments later Anthony poked his head around the kitchen door.

“Think I better walk those two home,” he said, and was gone again. I looked at Michael and we grinned at each other. For once, his face appeared peaceful and calm, as he lit the cigarette he had taken ages to roll and blew smoke swiftly across the table.

“You should have kissed her,” he said to me after a time.  “When are you two going to get it together anyway?”

“Patience,” I said, running my tongue slowly over my lower lip, savouring the taste of her finger that lingered there.  “When I do kiss her, it’s going to be special.  It’s going to be just me and her, and it’s going to be special.”

Michael was shaking his head “You soppy bastard.”

33

            “Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be…” It seemed important to murmur along with the music, as Michael and I sat on the back doorstep side by side, soaking up the last remnants of the party.  We had both been sick at some point, Billy was still snoring, Jake had disappeared somewhere, and we were sat shakily on the step, our sweaty faces turned upwards to receive the cool night air.  We were passing the last of the whiskey back and forth, taking the tiniest sips each time, grimacing every time the liquid scorched our throats.  It was nice sat like that, my elbow banging into his every time we passed the bottle back.  “As a friend, as a trend, as an old enemeeeee…” The music was lower now.  People had dispersed home, passed out, or coupled off.  I liked the feel of the summer air on my bare arms, and the way the slight breeze lifted and rustled through my hair.  Every now and then I just inhaled it all, sucking the sweet smell of damp cut grass into my lungs, absorbing the melodic beats that soothed my ears from inside the house.  Anthony and the remainder of his friends were gathered in the lounge; we could hear the gentle murmur of their conversation punctuated with laughter.

“Your brother is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” I told Michael, passing him the bottle and pulling out the last of my roll ups.  I lit it, and shoved the lighter back into my pocket.

“I know, I told you.”

“How did he end up in prison then?  He just seems so good.”

“He was worse than us at our age,” Michael explained with a shrug. He passed me the bottle and I passed him the smoke. “Always in trouble, he was.  They had to send him to jail in the end. This was his first time in adult jail though.”

“Maybe he won’t want to go back then,” I mused.  I shifted my arse on the cold step.  The thought of what he had said to me in the kitchen made my stomach suddenly feel alive with butterflies.  “I really really don’t want him to.”

“Me either,” said Michael, his voice low.  I looked at him and he was squinting into the darkness at the end of the garden.  We swapped the bottle and the smoke back over.

“And I swear…that I don’t have a gun…no I don’t have a gun,” I sang along softly, until he nudged me.  “What?”

“Shh a minute.  Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“Shh.”

I followed his gaze, my heart already starting to thump into action, but all I could see was a mess of shadows and darkness.  Maybe the creak of the broken gate in the breeze.  Mike nudged me again.  He pushed his elbow into mine and kept it there. “I heard something.”

The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. “Like what?” I whispered.  Michael shifted forward, tipping his head from one side to the other as he tried to make sense of the jumble of shapes.

“The gate,” he murmured, and we both stared at it, and as we stared, we both heard it.  The gate creaking, and the creak growing louder and louder.  The creak then tapered off, and was replaced by the sound of approaching footsteps.  I felt my stomach shrivel up inside of me.  I felt my entire body becoming drenched in cold.  We looked up, both of us, we stared in horror as Lee Howard’s impossibly large figure seeped out from the shadows.  I felt Michael’s body freeze beside my own.  Our elbows remained locked together, two sharp points trembling against one another.  Howard approached us in a jaunty manner, like a friendly bear, swinging his chunky arms, while a sly smile slid across his face.

“What we got here then eh?” he asked. “Couple of little smart alec gay boys sat out on the step?” He laughed at himself.  Actually threw back his head and guffawed at us.  He stopped right in front of us, towering over us like something from a horror film. We could see all of his small, straight teeth gleaming in the moonlight.  “No one answered the front door kiddies,” he told us, his hands settling on his hips.

“What do you want?” Michael demanded, and I could tell he was trying to make his voice sound tougher than he felt right then.

“Came to check on things like I said I would,” Howard replied, self-satisfaction curling up his lip as he spotted the bottle between Michael’s hands.  Mike realized too late and tried to hide it behind him, but Howard leaned down and snatched it from him.

“Hey!”

“Hey what?  You boys aren’t supposed to be drinking!” He eyed us smugly, pushing the bottle into his back pocket.  I fixed my eyes on the ground then.  The urge to be sick was coming back.  My stomach was turning over and over as cold waves of nausea hit me one after the other.  Howard lifted one foot and placed it on the step in between us. I stared at it in revulsion.  The shiny black leather.  The little heel.  The pointed toe.  “Whiskey, my little friends, is for adults,” he said, leaning down over his knee towards us, bringing his big face just inches away from ours. We both shrank back automatically and as we did, his smile lengthened.  His eyes found mine. “Your mum sent me over in the end Danny. I didn’t even have to insist pal.  She was getting worried about the noise coming from here.  Worried someone might call the police, and you and me know you don’t need any more attention from them, don’t we?  So I said I would come over and check.  I told her you were probably all fine.  But best to check no one’s letting underage kids drink, eh?”

“We only had a sip,” Michael spoke up rigidly. “No harm done.”

“Well I’ll be the judge of that thank you,” Howard said, his eyes flicking up and into the kitchen. “Looks like you’ve had more than a sip anyway. And who’s that on the table eh? Passed out from drinking is he?”

“No, he’s just asleep,” said Michael.

Howard looked back down at us.  He sniffed loudly, and then again. “You know what else I can smell? Pot.  Weed.  Can you smell that?  Go on, take a sniff.” He made an awkward face and scratched his beard. “God I hope no one’s been a naughty boy and brought illegal drugs to the party! Wouldn’t that be silly? That would be unbelievably silly wouldn’t it?  Boys already in trouble with the police smoking weed at a party!”

“The party’s over,” Michael informed him coldly. He kept his voice steady, but I could feel the cold tremor in his elbow.  “You can go now. We’re all just gonna’ go to sleep.”

“So where’s your dad?”

“Huh?”

“Your dad.  Your dad dummy.  Danny said your dad was going to be here the whole time, to keep an eye on things.  So where is he then?” He tipped his head in sympathy. “Or was that just another lie Danny? Because you’re pretty damn good at lies aren’t you eh?”

“He went out,” Michael said quickly. “He had to go out, but he’ll be back in a minute, won’t he Danny?”

I looked at him in bewilderment, my mind vacant and frozen.  He nudged me again with his elbow.  My cigarette dangled, forgotten from one hand.  “Ah,” said Howard, leaning forward and plucking it from my hand.  He dropped it and ground it to dust beneath the heel of his cowboy boot. “Looks like Danny’s lost his tongue as well as his mind here tonight. Come on then little man, let’s get you home eh?”

I felt the panic sweep violently through me then, and I knew it was partly because of the drink, and the weed, but it was suddenly so all consuming, it was horrible and I could barely breathe.  I stared right at Michael and opened my mouth.  I wanted to scream out to him to do something, to help me, but nothing would come out, not one single fucking word.  A hot trail of sweat snaked down from behind my ear to my neck, and somehow, sensing all of this, Michael’s hand clamped heavily down on my arm and held on tight. “You’re not going anywhere,” he told me.  “You’re staying the night remember?  Your mum said.”

“Yeah and she also said no drinking!” Howard barked then, his voice going up a level and making us flinch, as his forehead came crashing down over his stone like eyes.  They burned angrily into me, and I looked away, down at the ground, transfixed by the way it suddenly seemed to be moving and shifting beneath my feet. “Do you remember that eh?  You remember what she said to you before you left the house? Eh fuck brain?  She said no drinking, didn’t she?  As per fucking usual she trusted you and you blatantly lied to her face.  Now I’m not pissing around here mate, get the fuck up and come back home now, or I’m really going to embarrass you in front of your little friend!”

“You’re not gonna’ fucking touch him right!” Michael yelled then, his grip tightening painfully on my arm.

“Hey what’s all this then?” Anthony.  It was Anthony.  I looked over my shoulder to see him striding through the kitchen.  I closed my eyes and dropped my head.  Thank fucking god.  He stood in the doorway behind us, his head cocked to one side in curiosity. “Hello, who’s this fucker boys?”  A group of his friends had appeared behind him.  They stood, solemn faced and cross armed.  I desperately wanted to move, to get up and scurry inside the house where it was safe, but I was afraid my legs were too weak to hold me and I would simply fall to the ground in front of them all.

Michael climbed to his feet though, dragging me up with him.  “This is Lee Howard,” he told his brother. “The guy I was telling you about.”

Anthony stepped forward quickly then, a gleam of delight leaping instantly into his dark eyes.  “Oh yeah?  Really?  Is this him?  Come to pay us all a visit?”

“Who the fuck are you?” Howard growled in reply.  I felt brave enough to check his face then and what I saw surprised and pleased me.  The taut expression was one I had not seen before.  He looked angry and embarrassed, unsure even, pissed off he had been caught.

“Michael’s brother,” said Anthony, his tone flat, his face cold.

Howard hitched his thumbs through his belt. “Oh the one just out of prison?”

“That’s me.  So anyway what’s going on boys?  This fella’ trying to ruin your fun?”

“He’s trying to take Danny home,” Michael said in disgust. “And he doesn’t want to go with him.”

“Ah no, that’s not on is it?” said Anthony, shaking his head.  “Coming and upsetting him on his birthday?  Ah that’s not nice.  He’s staying here with us mate.”

“He is not supposed to be drinking!”

Anthony ignored him and looked at us. “Go on in boys.  Get your heads down.  Party’s over.”

Michael wasted no time pushing me through the door and past Anthony’s friends.  Neither of us dared to look back.  We hurried through to the lounge, where we discovered Jake, fast asleep and curled up in an arm chair.  I plonked myself down on the sofa.  I was shaking.  Michael turned the music off and looked at me.  “It’s all right,” he said, sounding uncertain.  “Anthony will scare him off.  He’s been gagging to get the chance.”  I nodded back silently, pulled my legs up onto the sofa and wrapped my arms tightly around them.

Just moments later Anthony appeared calmly in the doorway.  “It’s alright,” he told us with a shrug.  “He’s gone.  Said you could stay the night.”

I released this small, nervous laugh as Michael crossed the room to slap his brothers hand.  I felt stupidly and deliriously drunk and happy and relieved all at once.  “God.  Thanks Anthony.”

“You were quick,” said Michael. “What did you do?”

“Do?”  Anthony turned to go.  “Didn’t have to do anything Mikey.  He wasn’t gonna’ take on three of us was he?  I told you. Fucking bullies man.  Fucking hate them.”

When he was gone Michael fell onto the sofa beside me, pressed his hands to his face and giggled in nervous relief.  “Shittinghell,” he said behind his hands. “I’m sorry mate, but there’s something about that fucking man…Jesus Christ, I was shitting myself.”

“I feel such a dick,” I said then.  He dropped his hands and glared right at me.

“Fuck off!  Don’t be stupid mate.  Seriously.  It’s all cool.”

I nodded.  Okay then.  I let my head drift back.  I closed my eyes.  I felt safe, and yet not safe.  Two hours later I woke up suddenly, bathed in sweat and threw up violently, all over the lounge floor.  The room was black and silent. The walls heaving, the shadows alive with evil.  Everything was fucking horrendous.

The morning brought sunlight, mercilessly bright as it exploded through the gaps in the curtains, and attacked my aching head.  I woke up to head pain, creeping nausea and a mixture of emotions.  I was going to be sick, so I had to make myself move, and weave my way through the sleeping bodies in order to reach the downstairs toilet on time.  I puked and heaved until my guts strained with the effort.  When I sat back on my ankles I saw the crusty splatters of sick that had dried on the legs of my jeans overnight.  I dropped my head into my hands and moaned.  I guess it was my first proper hangover, and it was vile.  My brain felt like it was going to implode inside my skull.  It hurt even just opening my eyes and looking at things.  My mind swam with memories from the night, but I latched onto one and clung to it, refusing to examine anything else that wanted my attention.  Lucy.  Her finger on my lips.  Telling me she would marry me one day.  I tried to hold onto her, but my mind jumped to Howard, reliving the way he had emerged from the shadows like some kind of horror show.  I stared at the lumpy yellow sick in the toilet bowl, and already, there was this little ball of fear tying itself up tight in the pit of my belly.  I breathed out, and thought about Anthony stepping in and helping me, how amazing that was.  But I still had to go home at some point.

I put if off for a while.  I sat in the kitchen and listened to the house come alive with the sounds of groaning, and vomit splashing into the toilet bowl.  Survivors grouped together in the sunlit kitchen, our faces pale, our smiles weak.  I had that feeling again, despite the pain and the nausea and the fear of going home, I had that feeling of a moment being intense and beautiful.  Of belonging.  The radio was on.  Meat loaf was telling us he would do anything for love…but he wouldn’t do that, and we were swapping looks, sniggering.  Anthony, the star of the show, made us all coffee and handed out painkillers like sweets.  Jake declared rather unhelpfully that he had peaked too soon, slept through most of the party and as a result felt just fine.  Billy on the other hand, could not stop throwing up.  “I’m poisoned, I’m dying,” he said on return from the toilet. “I need my mother.”

“Your mother doesn’t need you!” joked Anthony shoving a cup of strong coffee at him.  “Get that down you.  No one is going home until they’ve stopped puking.”

I sat and listened, breathing it in, as stories of the party were swapped and shared.  It was unanimously declared to have been the best party ever.  “Wait til you’re my age,” Anthony laughed at us, shaking his head.  “You guys haven’t seen anything yet.  Makes me jealous actually.  You’ve got it all ahead of you!”

Michael laughed at his brothers words, and I again I noted the loving admiration in his eyes, and it made me smile despite the horrible banging pain in my head.  I knew I had to stop delaying the inevitable, and get on home.  I nodded to myself when I recalled Anthony’s words, his promise.   When the day had slid casually into afternoon, I slid out from behind the table where a card game had started, and I announced flippantly that I was off home.  I felt the silence of them behind me, as I headed for the door, and my cheeks flushed.  “Thanks guys,” I told them. “Best party ever.” I stepped out into the day.  I meant to go quickly before any of them could say anything terrible like good luck, and I nearly made it, but then Anthony spoke, quietly and firmly, looking up from the card game.

“Remember what I said yeah?”

I nodded thankfully.  “Yeah.  Thanks Anthony.”

After that I trudged slowly home, with the sunlight hammering my head.  I pulled back my shoulders, clung to Anthony’s words, and swallowed my fears.  I could have sunk to the ground in relief when I saw my mothers’ car parked in the drive behind Howards.  I found the back door open, and the pair of them sat at the table, smoking and drinking coffee.  There was a brief stab of concern in my mothers’ eyes when she ran them up and down and took in the state of me, but that was quickly replaced by exasperated anger. “Well look at you,” she said, in this hard flat voice.  “You certainly look and smell like you had a hell of a night.”

I looked down at my vomit splashed boots.  “Okay,” I said. “We had some drinks.  We shouldn’t have.  I’m sorry mum.”  I gave a little shrug of my shoulders and hoped I looked as pathetic as I felt.  “I’m paying for it now, believe me.”

I raised my eyes long enough to see hers staring at me, narrowed and cold.  “I hope you don’t expect me to feel sorry for you.”

“No.  Was just saying sorry, that’s all.”

“Lee came to check on you because I asked him to.  I was getting worried about the noise.  He came to check on things and found you and Michael drinking whiskey, already off your faces!”  I nodded in reply, letting her know I did not deny it.  “He gave you a chance to come home and sober up, but you wouldn’t come.”

“He shouldn’t even have been there!” I cried then, finally allowing myself to look at him.  He was sat in the chair the way he always did.  Leaning right back, his big thighs spread wide open, one hand curled around the coffee cup on the table and the other cupped around one knee.  “It’s nothing to do with him,” I tried to point out. “If you were worried you should’ve come over! We were fine!”

“Fine?” My mother snorted in disbelief, got to her feet and began to stalk around the kitchen as if her anger made it impossible for her to remain still any longer.  “I’m going to ask you something now Danny and for once in your life I want you to tell me the truth.  Lee was worried it smelt like pot over there, like cannabis.  Now you look at me and you tell me the truth young man, were any of you smoking cannabis over there?”

“No,” I said it quickly and firmly, staring back into her eyes. “It was incense.  He smelt some incense burning.”

My mother reached for me then. “Come here then, let me smell your clothes, I’ll soon be able to tell!” She made a grab for my new top but I sidestepped her and swiped her hand away from me.  “Come here!” she cried in anger, reaching for me again.  She got hold of my arm, pulled me to her and sniffed my clothes.  “Stinks!” she yelled in triumph, looking at Howard, who merely rolled his eyes and gestured with his hands as if to say I told you so.  I tried to wrench free, but she held on tight. “Don’t you lie to me! Lee came to see if you were okay and you repay him by letting Michael’s brother threaten him!  Did you know about that, did you?  You’re lucky we didn’t call the police ourselves!”

I waited until I felt the grip on my arm lessen, and then I tore myself away from her and headed into the hallway.  “You lied to us!” she called after me.  “You said you wouldn’t drink, and that was a lie, and you said Michael’s dad would be there and that was another lie!”

“Yeah, so what I lied?” I turned around and shouted back at her.  I threw my arms out to either side of me. “I just wanted to have some fun for once!  Then he has to turn up and ruin it all as usual!”

“He was looking out for you! I asked him to check on you!”  She sounded weaker now, I thought, close to the tears of desperation I had seen her cry so many times over me.  Sensing this, Howard rose from his chair, stood behind her and began to massage her shoulders.  I watched the way her small body leaned back into his, and it was like all of the fight and fury leaked out of her and she just sagged against him.  It looked like she was being slowly eaten alive by him and in a way I realized that she was.  She shook her head at me, and tears shone in her eyes.  “Danny we let you go to that party in good faith.  You said there would be no drinking and we believed you.  How can I ever believe a word you say?  All you’re capable of is lies!  And Lee said you’ve been horrible about your bike!  What is wrong with you?”

I curled my lip at her.  “Yeah ‘cause I don’t want it. I don’t want anything from him ever!  So tell him not to bother!  Take it back to the shop or burn it, I don’t care!”

“How can you say that?” she wailed at me, raking her hands down her face. “How can you be so ungrateful?  And what on earth did you say to your Gran yesterday?”

“What?”

“Your Gran Danny!  She called me last night in a right state! What on earth did you say to her about Lee?  She’s a frail old woman for gods sake!”

“I told her you ought to be careful,” I replied shrugging defiantly.  I pushed my hands into my pockets and felt my legs shaking down below.  It wasn’t fear though, it was nothing like that, it was anger, black and thundering, rolling through my body, causing all of my limbs to vibrate violently.  “I told her the truth, that you know nothing about him!”

From behind her shoulders, Howards eyes stared into mine.  They appeared dull and lifeless, inhuman as they watched me trembling with rage.  I stared back at him, and I could feel the anger behind my eyes, thumping and clawing to get out.  “You wouldn’t know the truth if it hit you between the eyes!” my mother cried at me.  Howard nodded at this.

“I spoke to her to smooth things over,” he announced then, in this very calm and reassuring tone, as his fingers flexed and curled over her thin shoulders.  He winked at me.  “She’s quite excited to meet me now isn’t she honey?  Think we’re going to go and visit her soon.”  She nodded in reply, and fuck I felt it then, the rage as it escaped and rolled over me in snarling vicious waves.  My breath came sharp and shallow.  I felt like I would erupt from the inside, and spew my blackness right across the kitchen.  I pulled my hands from my pockets and pointed at my lip.

“He did this!  He did this!  Not the bike!  Him!”  I was trembling so hard my legs felt weakened, and I had to lean against the wall, as I pointed at Howard, and he stared back at me, his eyes deadly and his smile thin.  “He slapped me mum!  It’s the truth!  Yesterday morning!”

She was shaking her head very slowly and her colour had drained.  She looked me up and down, and she frowned, as if she had no idea who I even was.  Then she folded her arms tightly around her body and clutched herself, while Howard’s arms remained draped over her shoulders.  I could see it, right there in her eyes, and it was like being smacked in the face all over again, but worse, far worse, it was like I was drowning in pain, and I started to pull back, to retreat.  “I don’t even know you,” she said, and her voice was dry and rasping. “The lies that come out of your mouth Danny, the lies! How can you even stand there and….” She trailed off, her mouth too dry to finish the sentence.  I watched her struggle to swallow, struggle to work her tongue, and I looked above her head and he was encircling her from behind, closing her off, and he was smiling at me.  The lips moved to reveal the teeth and the thin eyebrows shot up then down in a smirk that made me tear myself from the wall.  I blundered heavily down the hallway, my eyes filling with stinging tears, the walls and the stairs blurred as I rushed up them.

I locked my bedroom door behind me and fell onto my bed.  I covered my face with my arms, and choked on sobs.  I felt like I was falling.  I was gripping and clawing and snatching out for something to hold onto, but there was nothing and I was just falling, faster and faster.

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