I put the phone down and turned towards the kitchen, where my toast was still under the grill. There was a sudden knock at the door behind me, loud and intrusive, so I growled under my breath and spun back around to answer it. I wrenched it open and these two little pale faces peered back at me cautiously. Two of those twat faced kids. The tall skinny one again, and the short ginger one. They both jumped back a little when I opened the door. They were all nervous and twitchy. “What now?” I snapped at them.
“Calling for Danny,” the tall one said, scratching at his skinny neck. “For school.”
“Oh he’s not going to school.” I watched them eyeballing each other in confusion.
“Is he here then?” the ginger one questioned.
“He’s here, and he’s not going to school,” I told them, before taking a long drag of my cigarette and puffing the smoke out over their heads. “You know when you were looking for him yesterday?” They both nodded silently. “You know where he was?” They looked at each other again, frowning, and then turned back to me and shook their heads, no. “He was riding his bike along the cliff top. Doing stupid stunts on his new bike. Drunk or something. Taking stupid fucking chances, trying to be cool, and the stupid prick rode too close to the edge and fell off. Took a nasty tumble down. He’s too banged up to go anywhere for a while.” They stared at each other and I watched their eyes growing wider, their mouths tighter. They didn’t believe me, I could see that, but I also knew that it didn’t matter one bit. I held onto the door and shrugged. “Stupid eh?”
“Well can we see him then?” the little one asked quickly, wiping his nose on the back of his hand. I rolled my eyes and grimaced.
“No chance,” I laughed at them. “He’s banned from seeing you lot.”
“Why?” the tall one demanded.
“Because I just found out what the other ones brother has been up to over there, that’s why!” I was enjoying myself now. I relished the dumbstruck looks on their dopey faces, and the guilty way they shuffled backwards and looked at their feet. “Got arrested for drug dealing yesterday didn’t he eh? You know that already right?” They nodded miserably, unsurely, and shuffled back even more, now they could see this was getting them nowhere. “Had his own little cannabis farm I heard, right there round the corner, that’s what I heard. Did you know about that? Course you did you skanky little pot heads. So Danny is keeping away from all of you from now on, you got that? So stay away.” I leaned out towards them, and dragged my eyes slowly across both their faces. Then I stepped back and slammed the door on them.
After all that annoying shit, I took a good amount of time making my breakfast. I went for the full works to prepare me for the day ahead. Three fat sausages, four rashers of bacon, two fried eggs, beans and toast and mushrooms. I washed it all down with a huge mug of strong tea, and sat for a while at the kitchen table, my legs stuck out, my hands resting on my full belly. I felt like a new man that morning. I was looking forward to meeting Jack at the club later and having a chuckle about it all. I felt calm, clean and energised. I felt like I had never slept better, or woken up more assured.
When my food had gone down, I got up and cleaned up the kitchen. Everything in its place and a place for everything. Clean, tidy, in order. Kay would be impressed when she returned, and we hadn’t even really got started yet. I could have filled a skip with the pointless crap floating around in that house. When I felt in the right mood, just cool and calm and together, I picked up the toast I had left to go cold on the side, and carried it up the stairs. I pushed open his door and walked into his room breezily, whistling to myself as I crossed the room and placed the toast on his desk. I pulled the curtains back, cracked open a window and turned to look. The place was a shit tip. Clothes on the floor and on the back of his chair. Stacks of magazines sliding out from under the bed. Loose socks, and random shoes. Books on the floor, books on the desk. I shook my head at him, as he moved and stirred beneath his covers. I just breathed for a moment. I could smell his shitty pissy smell, and I could feel his fear coming in waves from the bed, and I wondered if I could smell it too, rising up and tingling my nostrils. Thick, pungent waves of fear, and grime.
“Made you some toast little man,” I announced then, retrieving my pack of cigarettes from my shirt pocket and plucking two out. I stuck one between my teeth, yanked back his covers and tossed the second one at him. He didn’t move. He just stared back at me through his bruised eyes and I looked him over and I nodded, and I thought, you’re fine, you’re okay. “That’s for you as well,” I said, nodding at the cigarette that had landed on his pillow. “But not until you’ve got out of bed and had a fucking shower.” I lit mine and nodded at his silent, staring face. “That’s right fella, you heard me. Up out of bed, come on now. Out of your pity pit now, time to get cleaned up. We’ve got a lot of work to do. And you fucking stink.” I wrinkled my nostrils and pulled the duvet right off the bed. It would all need washing. He’d been laying in his own piss all night, the vile little bastard. He stared back at me, breathing heavily through his nose, his legs curled up to his chest and his arms wrapped around them. “Come on,” I said, breathing a fast puff of smoke into the air above his bed. “I’m not joking, come on, up you get, get moving. Come on tough guy, show me how tough you are now eh? Stop being a fucking baby and get out that bed!” I waited, smoking my cigarette, and when he started to move, I felt this rush of joy and warmth and I smiled down at him. “Wha-hey! That’s the ticket! Go on then!”
My smile soon faded when I was forced to witness his agonizingly slow progress. He was inching towards the edge of the bed, grunting and groaning, refusing to look at me with his hair all over his messed up face, moving as if every bone in his body was broken. I was disgusted, and my patience ran out when he just sat there on the bed, his feet on the floor, and his head hanging. His face was screwed up, and he was breathing too fast. I let out a growl and snatched him up by his arm, forcing him onto his feet. He cried out in pain, his mouth stretching open, and I dropped his arm in disgust and peered into his face as his head drooped down again. “Fucks sake!” I hissed at him. “Stand up and be a man for once in your life! You like to make out you’re such a little tough guy, you fucking show me then! It doesn’t hurt that much, so don’t you dare make out it does! I went easy on you, you little shit stain! You ought to thank your lucky stars you’ve never run into my old man! Now come on, move it, I want you cleaned up, the smell of you is making me sick!”
I jammed my cigarette back between my teeth and gave him an encouraging push towards the door. He got going then, wincing and hissing and moving like an old man, while I followed hungrily from behind, resisting the urge to just shove him down the fucking stairs and be done with it all. “Right, in the shower,” I told him, outside the bathroom. “And chuck out your clothes, I’m putting a wash on and stripping your bed. Once you’re clean and dressed you can put it all back together again with clean bedding, and then I want you to clean and tidy your room. I’ll bring all the stuff up and put it in your room for you. I am talking hoovering, dusting, proper tidying, everything in the right place, yeah? The windows, the skirting boards, the lightshade, the fucking works! It’s like a bloody little rat infested pit in there and I’m not having it anymore.”
I stepped back and let him shuffle on into the bathroom. He closed the door behind him, and I waited out on the landing, smiling and tapping my foot, and revelling in the obedience I had waited all fucking summer for. I was pleased when he opened the door a few minutes later and tossed out his filthy stinking clothes. “Good boy,” I told him, and picked them up and took them downstairs with a spring in my step.
We were alright for a couple of days, like that. He was really good for me. I watched him, time and time again, biting down on the pain, biting down on the urge to rebel, and he did everything I asked. That morning he worked on his room, slowly and methodically, and when I was finally happy with it, I made him lunch and let him have another cigarette. We sat at the table in the kitchen together, eating scrambled eggs on toast, and then we smoked in silence, and there was a sort of knowing peace and understanding between us. He was clean for once. He had fresh clothes on. He had washed and brushed his hair. I let him sleep for a bit in the afternoon, and then in the evening I took him to the club with me. I repeated the story wherever we went. People looked at him and laughed and rolled their eyes and asked him if he had learnt his lesson. He was polite, and said that he had. He washed up some glasses in the kitchen for me, and he mopped and swept the floor out there.
The next day we went to work on the rest of the house. Room by room we hit them all. We scrubbed and polished and sorted through. We filled black bin liners with crap and rubbish, and it was so satisfying to me, getting rid of it all. The house smelt fresh, from top to bottom. Every surface shone and sparkled. There were no more piles of crap because everything had a place. The satisfaction spun through me, making me feel taller and prouder and lighter.
The only wobble came when the police knocked on the front door one day. I was pissed off. No one had warned me. I didn’t have time to speak to Danny. I just had to let them in. “Is it about the neighbours?” I asked them as they sidled graciously into the hallway. Officer Heaton sort of shrugged and scratched his chin and looked a bit awkward. The other fellow, Osbourne was his name, said nothing.
“Sort of,” said Heaton. “It’s awkward really. The younger brother has been making a total nuisance of himself down at the station, and at school too by the sounds of it.”
I shook my head and looked at them in pity. “Oh no. Well that’s to be expected I suppose. Not too happy with his brother being carted back off to jail eh?”
“No, funnily enough, he’s not. Is Daniel in Mr Howard? I’m afraid we have to talk to him for a moment, in private. The Anderson boy has made some complaints, and we have to obviously do our jobs, and speak to him.”
I frowned and gestured to the lounge where the boy was seated, with a cup of tea. I felt irritated beyond belief then. I hoped to god they weren’t taking that Anderson scroat seriously. The kid obviously had it in for me, and was looking for someone to blame now his brother had been banged up again. I felt desperate to tell them this, and I felt desperate to tell them how much progress I had made with the boy. He wouldn’t be taking up any more of their time, that was for sure. He was on the straight and narrow now, with me. Doing as he was told and being good. I was doing a great job taking care of him, I wanted to tell them, as they pushed open the lounge door and piled in. I’d made him nice meals, and everything. Jesus fucking Christ.
I had to wait in the hallway. I hovered around the door, listening in. I hoped he would remember what I had told him that morning after his shower. I hoped it would ring fresh and clear in his little head. “Your friend Michael has asked us to come and check on you,” I heard Heaton saying to him. “He seems to think you didn’t get hurt on your bike.”
“What’s happened to Anthony?” I heard the boy ask quickly, and my back went up, and the hairs on my neck bristled and stiffened. Why was he asking that for? Why did he fucking care? I stepped closer to the door, my lips pressed tightly together, my hands closing into fists behind my back.
“Anthony Anderson was arrested for suspected drug dealing last Sunday,” Heaton was saying to him. “He’s in remand at the moment, awaiting trial. Do you know anything about any of that?” There was silence, so I was forced to assume the boy was shaking his head at them. Heaton cleared his throat. “Well, Michael Anderson seems to think you didn’t get hurt falling from your bike. Can you tell me yourself how you got injured Daniel?”
The answer was quick and firm. “Fell off my bike.” I sagged against the door in relief, before pulling myself together and backing off a little way.
“You’re sure?” Heaton was asking. “There’s nothing you want to tell us while we’re here? Nothing at all? Michael seems to think Mr Howard is to blame.”
“Fell off my bike,” the boy said again, even firmer this time, as if he even believed in it himself. “Being stupid at the cliff.”
Good. Good boy. It was a relief in more ways than one. Not only did it shut the Andersons up, it satisfied the police, and it made me feel at peace again inside. I appreciated his loyalty and his common sense. I would reward him for it later. Give him some money for helping at the club. He could save up for music he wanted then, I thought, nodding to myself in the hallway.
That afternoon the three boys rolled up on their bikes after school. I saw them from the lounge window. The other two hung back, but the raven haired Anderson boy was like a little ball of fired up rage and frustration. He started yelling up at the windows. “Danny! Danny! He won’t let us see you!” He had his hands cupped around his mouth. “Danny! Are you alright mate? Danny!” When there was no answer to his calls, he started picking up stones and rocks and hurling them at the windows. I didn’t bother answering the door or speaking to them. I just picked up the phone and called the police. The other boys had dropped their bikes and were trying to pull the Anderson kid away, but he kept shaking them off and pushing them away. “Danny!” he kept yelling. “I need to talk to you! Danny! I need to tell you what happened to Anthony! It’s all a set up Danny! You have to listen!”
I had no choice but to sit and listen as the stones clattered endlessly against the house. For some reason it made me feel under attack. I was actually relieved when I heard the police car squeal into the close minutes later, to take Michael away. I dropped my head into my hands and closed my eyes. I was glad Howard was keeping them all away, I didn’t want to see them, any of them. Once they had all gone, silence followed. I sat and waited to see if Howard would come up or not. Just waiting, started the fear chain reaction off in my body. It was one thing after another, and always began with a drying mouth and the urge to swallow repeatedly. The hard knot in my stomach which had become a permanent fixture, would start to quiver and writhe into life, and the knot would grow fingers, and those fingers would flex and claw inside of me. My hairs would stand on end, and my breathing would become fast and shallow and panicked, as coldness seemed to spread to every nerve ending. The dryness in my mouth made me lick my lips a lot, and it felt like there was something alive, and creeping in my stomach. It was like there was an invisible weight hanging over me the entire time, pressing down on me, making it an effort to even breathe. When he did not come up, I lay down on my bed and stared at the ceiling.
It hurt too much to lie on my back for long, so I twisted onto my side and stared at the wall instead. I picked at a scab in my ear and felt vile, like a worm, a worm that had crawled into a hole. Because of me Michael had lost his brother. I still didn’t know exactly what had happened over there, and there was no way in hell I was going to ask Howard. But he was gone. They had taken him. It was my fault. Simple as that. It was my fault and I knew it, and I would know it forever. Because of me Michael had lost the only good thing in his life. I didn’t understand why he wanted to see me, except for to maybe smack me in the mouth. And Anthony…shit, I couldn’t even bring myself to think about him, I couldn’t even….
I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror anymore. I didn’t really care if I lived or died right then. I’d seen my face, that morning Howard had hurried me into the shower. I’d stood naked, in front of the steamed up mirror, waiting for the warm water to run in. I’d spread my palms out against the glass, rubbing away the steam to reveal who I was. What I saw there tortured and disgusted me. This wasted, ravaged boy, battered and bruised and smeared in his own blood and piss. His face distorted and swollen, his eyes blackened, his back a pulse of private agony. I got into the shower and washed myself with a flannel. I’d watched the blood running down. I stared at it in a horrified wonder, as it swirled in pinkish circles around my feet. I took a piss and saw that even my urine was tainted with blood. Every little movement was a lesson in pain.
He’d been waiting for me out on the landing of course, when I’d emerged, stiff and shocked, with a towel wrapped around my middle. He’d been smiling gently, while his small eyes seemed lively and excited. I could see the hoover already half in my room. “That’s more like it,” he’d said to me, with a brisk clap of his hands. “Don’t look so sorry for yourself now, see. That’s what being tough is all about.”
I’d stared at the floor. And then I had taken this big breath, and asked the only question I had for him. “How do you know I won’t tell what you’ve done?”
This electric silence had filled the small space we occupied together on the landing. He’d stepped up close to me, his eyes dark and loaded with warning. “How do I know?” he asked in hushed tones. “How do you know anyone would believe a fucking word you said? Your own mother doesn’t believe a word you say, so what makes you think anyone else would? I’ve already told her, you know, what a clumsy prick you were on your bike.”
I’d lifted my shoulders in a small, painful shrug. “Not all this would come from a bike.” It was true, and I should have clung to it tighter, but looking into his face then made me wish I could suck the words back in. He stepped even closer, with this sinister, almost tender smile stretching across his face. He’d taken my face then, and pulled it up to look at his.
“Do you like being fourteen Danny?” he’d hissed softly into my ear. “Do you want to make it to fifteen, or sixteen? If you knew how quickly and easily I could erase you from this earth, you wouldn’t dare to ask me questions like that. And what about your little friends eh? Do they like their little lives the way they are? Or should I fuck about with them a bit more eh?” His fingers had tightened on my cheeks, springing tears from my eyes. “You think about that for a moment Danny. You think about that. I can work my way through the lot of them if you want. If you want to make this their business, go right ahead. Join them in. I fucking dare you. Or you could just shut the fuck up and do as you’re told, and wouldn’t that be a better option for everyone eh?” I nodded, quickly and firmly under his hand. I just wanted to get away from him. I couldn’t bear the stench of him. You’re totally fucking insane, I thought in numb shock when I looked into his eyes, totally fucking insane.
I didn’t go to school for the next two weeks. Howard went instead, to pick up my work and fill them in on my progress. Some of my classmates had made me this huge get well soon card and signed it. He let me have it, only after he had checked that Michael’s name was not on it. My mother called a few times to let us know how Gran was doing. I spoke to her once. She asked about my accident and she sighed and wondered when I was ever going to learn my lesson.
The weird thing was, the more I repeated the story to myself, or others, the more I came to believe in it. It’s strange how your mind can play tricks on you like that. If I thought about it enough, I could almost see how it would have happened. I’d been zooming up and down the little hills, close to the edge of the cliff, getting closer and closer to the grassy edge, daring myself to go faster and faster. I’d looked away briefly, maybe distracted by a dog running by, or a kite in the sky, and my front wheel had twisted and slipped and down I had gone. I’d hit all these rocks on the way down. I was bruised and broken and jumpy and I wouldn’t be doing that again in a hurry.
Sometimes I mused about the stripes on my back, but Howard assured me they were nothing. They would fade and vanish. They were a lesson that I had learnt well, and that was that. He told me one day that his own father had kept several belts hanging on the inside door of their larder when he was a kid. All different lengths and thicknesses. Depending on the trouble Lee was in, depending on the crime, he would be ordered to go and fetch a certain belt for his dad. He’d smiled at me then and tipped me a wink that made me cringe. “See,” he seemed keen to point out. “Not as bad as him, am I? No way.”
Michael had stopped trying to call and shout at the house, but one day when I was alone there, I found this package on the doormat. It was addressed to me, naming me as Mr Daniel Bryans, and it had my full address written on it, but had not been stamped. I’d taken it upstairs and closed my door behind me. It was wrapped in brown paper and when I tore it off I found Nirvanas new album inside. There was no note, and it did not say who it was from, but I knew. I put the cassette on and sat and listened. I pulled out the inner sleeve and glanced through the lyrics. That was when I noticed what he had done. There was a song called Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, and Michael had underlined some of the lyrics before giving it to me. Hate, hate your enemies. Save, save your friends. Find, find your place. Speak, speak the truth.
It was….I don’t even really know what it was. It was amazing and touching and terrible and heartbreaking all at once. I didn’t know what to do. I felt a little bit better, listening to it, knowing he did not hate me, knowing he still wanted to fight back. But at the same time I felt wretched and pointless, and undeserving. I didn’t know what to do about any of it, so I did nothing. I did what Howard wanted me to do.
I’d started going with him to the club in the evenings. “We’ll find plenty to keep you busy,” he would tell me on the drive over. “That’s what boys your age need you know, to keep them out of trouble.” At Nancy’s he gave me jobs to do, like collecting and washing glasses, and changing the bins. It was strange being there. I felt on edge with nerves the whole time, yet sort of intrigued to be on his territory. It was like another world to me. The darkness, the flowing warmth from the bodies in the crowd. The thumping music that swept them all up and got them all going. The lolling bodies and leering faces, the couples groping in corners, the women throwing up in the toilets. It was fascinating to get a glimpse into the adult world, and into his. I could tell right away that everyone there respected him, feared him even. He was not one for joking around with the staff, or anything. He was one for getting the job done, and getting it done properly. I saw him fire two people on the spot while I was there. The rest of the staff kept their heads down, and I had the distinct feeling that they regarded me with pity.
I was allowed to perch at the end of the bar when the night was drawing to a close. The refit was all done, and everyone murmured that the place was unrecognizable. People remarked how swish it all was, how it was closer to an uptown London establishment than a dingy club in a seaside town. I didn’t get it personally. In fact I struggled to disguise my sneer when I looked around at what he had done to it. All the fittings were black and silver chrome, there were mirrors everywhere, and black leather stools lined up at the bar. In the corners there were soft black leather sofas. It all left me with a bad taste in my mouth, although I wasn’t exactly sure why. Somehow the place seemed to speak volumes to me about the kind of person Lee Howard was. It was confident, brash and swaggering. It commanded attention, dominating the end of the high street where once the place had sagged into oblivion. Now there were black and silver flashing signs that called people in from the street. The doormen wore sharp silver suits and black boots with steel toecaps.
Howard had installed a bigger stage, and talked about having theme nights, old school discos and tribute bands. He had just kicked off a student night every Monday, where people could buy a pint of beer or cider for just fifty pence, if they had their student union card with them. Down at the other end of the bar I would see Tony Phillips, sinking beer after beer with two old men. His bearded face appeared washed out and bloated under the harsh lights of the bar. It was beneath these same lights that I would also see Howard’s friend, Jack Freeman. He was there most nights.
He was a broad, shuffling man in a dark overcoat, his dark hair peppered with grey, was neck length but thinning on the crown of his skull. He was usually unshaven, and had a pudgy floppy look about his cheeks and lips. Some nights he would sit right next to me, and would buy me the odd coke, usually without saying a single word. Other nights I would spot him down the other end of the bar, conversing aimably with strangers. It was weird, but Howard seemed to really like the guy. He would ask his opinions on things a lot, and then laugh out loud at his answers. He often addressed him as D.I Freeman, which always made the older man erupt into phlegmy reams of laughter. I didn’t understand the joke.
` “So are you a policeman or what?” I asked him one night. The man blinked and turned his head to look at me in surprise, as if he had gotten used to me never speaking. He grinned at me then, this lip curling toothsome grin, that crinkled up the saggy skin around his eyes.
“Oh yeah course I am mate,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. “You bet.”
I frowned in suspicion and curiosity. Well was he or wasn’t he? I glanced around the club, which was emptying out slowly as closing time neared. There was a group of young men in checked shirts and trainers at the other end of the bar, holding beer bottles by their necks and laughing raucously with two girls who looked like they had had too much to drink. A woman around the same age as my mother had just staggered up to the bar, slammed her shiny red handbag down on the top and demanded a final vodka and coke. I watched Howard appear out of nowhere to serve her. I watched the smile he used with them all, this terribly fake one, the one he showed to the rest of the world, and I watched her lap it up, like they all did. I wondered if that was how he had snared my mother. I watched him in bewilderment, shaking my head slightly. It was eerie to witness. This well spoken, gracious man, flirting gently with the punters. I watched his face behave in an ordinary, pleasing way, and I could barely believe it belonged to the same man who had talked so casually about cutting me up and throwing me out with the rubbish.
“Have you been friends with him long?” I asked Freeman then, and again, he turned to look at me as if he had forgotten I was sat there.
“Oh yeah,” he nodded. “We go way back. I knew his dad. His dad owned a gym you know. Trained up boxers.”
“Great,” I said, raising my eyebrows and looking away. “That explains a lot.”
“I get the feeling you’re not his biggest fan?” Freeman inquired, a teasing smile on his rubbery lips. I glanced at him unsurely. I thought about how dishevelled he always looked, always wearing the same heavy dark overcoat, and loose grey or blue trousers, with a white or blue shirt, open at the neck with no tie. He looked like shit and yet he drove this smart new BMW car. I shook my head at him, and he made a face and shrugged his big round shoulders. “Oh well fair enough, but I think he’s got your best interests at heart, you know.”
“Really,” I said and wrapped one hand around the tall glass of coke before me. I wondered what he would say if he knew about the stripes that decorated my back, or the crusts of scabs that pinched and wept every time I moved.
“You don’t think so, obviously,” he nodded.
I stared ahead, at all the bottles of wine lined up in the racks on the other side of the bar, waiting for their turn to flow. “I think he’s fucking mental,” I replied softly, so softly that he had to lean closer to me to hear. “I think he’s an evil motherfucker.” There was a moment of silence between us and then Jack Freeman snorted loudly and patted me on the shoulder. I winced and shook him off. I wanted to sling my coke in his fucking sloppy old face.
“I like you mate,” he told me when he had finished chuckling. “You make me laugh, plus, you’ve got balls, which I like. Hey, you want some cigarettes?”
“Cigarettes. You smoke?”
“I got a load you know. Went on this booze cruise to France last month. Bought loads for my old mum. Got back and she’d passed away while I was gone, can you believe that?” He grinned at me as if waiting for an answer, so I just shrugged. “Anyway, they ain’t my brand, can’t stand ‘em. You want some? Look.” He pulled back one side of his long coat, displaying the inner pocket. He plucked out a pack of cigarettes whose brand I did not recognize and passed them to me. I took them fearfully, warily, my eyes shooting around for Howard, my mind in a sudden muddle. “Take ‘em,” he laughed. “You look like you need ‘em more than me!” So I took them. I folded my hand over them and pushed them deep inside the front pocket of my jeans. Then I went back to drinking my coke in silence until it was time to go home.
Some hours later I was lying on my bed in the darkness, my hands folded on my chest, Nirvana’s new album playing softly beside me. It was strange and unexpected that the tap on my window came just as Radio Friendly Unit Shifter had begun. I sat up in confusion and just stared at the window for a moment. I was sort of frozen and stiff, hardly breathing, not understanding. Then the tap came again, gentle, yet urgent, and I made myself move, and I crossed the room like an old man, and pulled back the curtains and there was Michael. I gasped in surprise and slid the glazing back. What the fuck? I mouthed at him, as a huge and wicked grin leapt across his face. He mouthed shh at me and started to haul himself up onto the ledge. I peered out to see how the hell he had managed it. I could see his bike propped against the porch and worked the rest out from there. “What the hell are you doing?” I hissed as he practically threw himself through the window and landed in a heap on the floor.
He sat himself up, his back against the wall and pressed a finger to his lips. His eyes shot to the door, and so did mine. We held our breath and listened, but all we could hear was the TV buzzing downstairs. When nothing happened, Michael let his head drop back onto the wall and breathed out in relief. “That was easier than I thought,” he said.
“Michael…” I started, but when I saw him gazing at me, I stopped, mainly because all the words I wanted and needed to say to him sounded so pathetic and inadequate inside my head. His own smile had faded as his eyes ran over my face.
“You’re a hard man to find these days,” he joked, forcing another smile that did not touch his eyes. “This is fucking messed up mate…”
I just shook my head, and I couldn’t even look at him then. I just crouched in front of him and stared at the carpet. “Mike,” I started again, quietly, uselessly.
“Sight for sore eyes aren’t you?”
“Yeah, and you.”
Michael sat forward slightly, looking me over. “Fell off your bike did ya’?”
“Bollocks. It’s okay.” He leaned forward then, closer to my face. His eyes were angry as he stared into mine. “It’s okay, it’s me.”
“Where the fuck is your mum?”
“With my Gran. She had a fall.”
Michael shook his head and rolled his eyes. “Fucking unbelievable. She goes away and leaves you with him? Fucking brilliant.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It does matter,” he responded angrily, hissing the words through his clenched teeth. “It fucking matters.”
I sat back on my heels, raised my eyes from the carpet and looked him in the eye. “What happened to Anthony?”
He rolled his eyes again and plastered a fake smile across his face for me. “He’ll be okay. You know what he’s like.”
“But what happened?”
“Forget it,” he said, shaking his head, so that his hair toppled back into his eyes. “You don’t need to worry about that…It’s not your fault Danny.” I said nothing to this. There was nothing I could say. He swallowed, glanced away and ran a hand back through his hair, sending it back over his forehead. “Howard set him up,” he said then, curling his top lip ever so slightly and shaking his head quickly. “I mean, I can’t prove it. But I know it. And he won’t let us in, he won’t let us anywhere near you. He says you don’t want anything to do with us now, that’s not true is it?” He caught my eye and I frowned and shook my head at him. “I know,” he went on, speaking softly yet viciously, directing his intense gaze down onto the carpet. “He’s lying, like he’s lying about everything. We came back from the base Danny, and there were cops everywhere, and they were dragging Anthony out of the house, yeah? Took him away. Busted, they said. Someone tipped them off.”
“Busted for what?” I asked, my voice a strangled croak.
“Dealing cannabis,” he shrugged, breathing out through his nostrils. “But it was a set up Danny, a fucking set up. Listen to me.” He swallowed again, and leaned towards me, shaking his hair from his face and looking me right in the eye. His head was lowered, his eyes piercing. “They busted the house and found an ice cream tub in the bathroom, you know in the toilet cistern? Wasn’t ours Danny. Never seen it before in my life. Anthony has a little box you know. You’ve seen it. A box he keeps in his room. He only smokes enough for him, and that’s it. You know that right?”
“Course I fucking do,” I sighed, my head dropping forward into my hand.
“Well it was a set up,” he continued. “Someone broke in Dan. Broke in and put it there and called the cops. I know it. I’ve tried to tell them, but no one will listen will they? ‘Cause of Anthony’s history. He wanted him gone, didn’t he? Howard? He wanted Anthony gone, after he threatened him. You know it Danny.” He was staring at me intently and I knew what he wanted; a reaction, anger, a plan, anything. I didn’t give him any of those things. I gave him a blank face, impassive eyes and silence. He sighed and licked his lips. “Danny, I sent the police round. I badgered bloody Mr James until he listened to me and called them. No one believes me about Howard. Why didn’t you tell them?”
I couldn’t bear the look in his eyes then. It was terrible, the confusion and the pity and the anger, and I couldn’t look at him so I rolled my eyes and pushed myself up from the floor. I walked stiffly to my bed and sat down on the edge, pressing my hands to my face and yawning behind them. “Danny?”
“Mike, I fell of my bike yeah?”
“What? Bullshit, and we both know it. Why are you protecting him?”
“It’s not him I’m protecting,” I whispered hoarsely, my eyes shooting towards the door, and what I knew lay on the other side of it. Michael got angrily to his feet and gestured at the window.
“Come on, let’s just get out of here.”
“Just don’t,” I said with another yawn. “I’m fine. I’ll be fine. Stop worrying.”
“Yeah?” he demanded then, hands on hips. “And what if you fall off your bike again?” I glanced up and he held my gaze, his eyebrows rising up under his hair and his foot tapping softly against the floor. “What if you get really hurt next time?”
I sighed again, looked away from him and climbed into my bed. “You better go Mike. You don’t want him to catch you here.”
“I’m not going anywhere if you’re not coming,” he replied adamantly and stalked across the room to the light switch. “You better shift over,” he said to me then. “You take one end, I’ll take the other.”
“Mike, you can’t.”
“Fucking can,” he sat down on the bed and pulled his boots off. “I’m not leaving you here alone mate, I don’t care what you fucking say. I’ll be like the invisible man, I promise.”
I shook my head at him but I was too tired to argue. I couldn’t stop yawning and my head felt groggy with it all. I lay back on my pillow and he turned off the light and crawled into the bed at the other end. We were silent for a moment. I had forgotten about the music, but it was still there, Kurts soft words were still rolling out into the darkness, and we listened for a while, lying like statues under the duvet; I wish I was like you, easily amused, find my nest of salt, everything is my fault, I’ll take all the blame, aqua sea foam shame, sunburn with freezerburn, choking on the ashes of her enemy….all in all, is all we are…all in all, is all we are…
“Thanks Mike,” I said to him when the song had finished. My voice was tight. My emotions as ever intensified by the music, sponging off it, soaking up the sadness.
“Best mates?” he asked hopefully in the darkness.
“Best mates,” I told him.
He poked me in the morning, and I woke up suddenly, horrible images filling my mind, and leaking from me as my eyes flew open. I took a huge breath, and my hand went to my neck. Michael was pulling on his boots, his face flushed and concerned. “Got to get back to Bill’s,” he was mumbling. “I’m staying there while they find my mum. Have you still got your knife?”
I was muddled from sleep and shook my head at him. “No.”
“Here take mine,” he growled and threw one at me. I hid it under the duvet and watched him walk to the window. It was barely even light outside and I wondered what had woken him up, and got him moving. “Can you come to the base?” he whispered back to me. “About twelve ish? We can talk properly there.” I watched his eyes travel nervously to the closed bedroom door.
“I dunno,” I shrugged at him.
“He can’t keep you locked up forever,” he told me, pulling back the curtain and the glazing. “Tell him you’re meeting Lucy or someone like that.”
“I’ll try Mike. Hey, Mike?”
He had swung himself up onto the ledge, and in the darkness all I could see of him was a silhouette and two shining eyes. “Yeah?”
“I’m sorry. About Anthony.”
“Shut the fuck up,” he laughed at me. “You didn’t do anything. Just get yourself to the base, that’s all you have to do. The war isn’t over yet you know Danny. He hasn’t fucking won yet.”
I lay on my bed for a long time after he left, and all I could see in my head was his face, and his carefree grin, and the confident way he had told me Howard had not won. I felt his desire not to let Howard win, and I understood it. Anthony was the only decent thing he had in his life; something worth fighting for. It totally crushed me when I thought about him, locked up in some cell somewhere, not knowing what would happen to him, and tears would run down my face every time I pictured him there, stuck, imprisoned. Look what he had tried to do for me and look where it had got him. I felt wrecked as I lay there, like a person who was incomplete, shattered. I felt like I would rather die than be alone again, but at the same time I could not face the idea of seeing them all at the base, meeting there with them, as if nothing had ever happened, as if everything being destroyed was not down to me.
I knew what I had done. I knew the mistake I had made. At the party, when Anthony asked about my lip, I should have said I had fallen over, or walked into a wall. If I could have gone back in time to change it, I would have done. Anthony would not have tried to help me, and Michael would still have his brother. Twelve o clock came and went, and I had not moved. I could not face them. I couldn’t let Michael do it. In Utero played endlessly beside me. Every time one side finished I would flip it over and play the next, again and again and again. It was almost as good as having Michael there beside me.