Three weeks after she left to care for my Grandma, my mother returned. Howard informed me on Sunday night, that she would be back in the morning, and that I could go back to school finally. The coincidence of this was not lost on me obviously. It would give them the entire day alone together, plenty of time for Howard to work his charms. That night I’d laid awake for hours and hours, my guts churning at the thought of returning to school. As strange as it may sound, I’d fallen into a sort of routine with Howard during those weeks, and I suppose I’d got used to it. He’d been right really. It was simple if I followed his rules. He was nice to me I suppose, in his own way. With my friends out of the picture, with no distractions or rebellions, we had come to an understanding of sorts. He seemed happy, when I look back. He would try to engage me in conversations. He had even started to ask me what music I thought would draw people in at the club. The night before my mother came home I lay awake, thinking about it all. I thought about what I’d been for three weeks, what he told me I was; a good boy. I thought about carrying on, keeping it up, staying in line and playing along with the twisted version of happy families he had constructed so violently in my mothers’ absence. Let him win. Just live with it. And then I would take the knife out from under my mattress and feel the weight of it in my hands.
Holding it like that made me think about fighting back, and made me think about Michael, and Anthony, and war. I pictured his big face, and the way his little eyes glowered and glared, and I imagined sticking the knife right through one of them, right up into his brain. I’d hack his balls off and sling them around his neck. I would feel something; this little shudder of fire within me, this hardening, and I would tap the knife against my other palm. I could make life difficult for them forever, I would think. I could be the thorn in their side for as long as I liked.
But then my mind would take me back, whether I wanted it to or not. Take me back to scenes that made my body want to shrivel up and wither away. I would remember the view I’d had from the floor, of the carpet, and the wall, and the piles of magazines under my bed. I’d remember seeing his boot coming in and going out, as I tried to cover my head with my arms, and my body would tremble and moan at me, and remind me how small and vulnerable it really was, how fighting back was for idiots and suicides. It floored me with shame and guilt, but I never wanted to find myself in that place again. So there you have it. I was a coward at the end of the day, and it was a shock even to me. My best friends’ brother was in prison, and it was my fault. You can’t even imagine the weight of guilt that settled upon my shoulders every single day upon waking.
I came down the stairs cautiously when I heard her in the hallway. She dropped her suitcase, pushed her loose hair back behind her ears and held her arms out to me. Howard was right behind her, arms crossed, shirtsleeves rolled up and a warm and confident grin dominating his face. I glanced at him, wondering whether I would be able to detect just the tiniest bit of guilt or fear, but there was nothing. He seemed pleased to see her and keen to show off how hard we had been working in her absence. “All better I see?” She asked, throwing her arms around me on the last step. I winced and pulled away, and heard her click her tongue at me and laugh nervously. “Oh sorry I forgot, too big and cool for a hug these days.”
I looked at her, saying nothing. I looked into her face and tried to recognize her, but three weeks was a long time, and my entire world had changed. I was not the same boy anymore, and I eyed her warily. “He’s a teenage boy, what do you expect?” Howard laughed and pulled her into him. She melted against him, wrapping her arms around his thick middle and shaking her hair back again.
“Well I’m just glad he had you to look after him honey,” she said, and I wanted to vomit, so the best thing to do was get the fuck out of there. I picked up my schoolbag, slung it across my chest and opened the front door. “Your Gran is fine by the way,” my mother said then, when I was half way out. “Thanks for asking.”
“Ah teenagers,” Howard joked again, his chin on her head and his eyes on mine. “Don’t be too tough on him babe. He’s been an excellent help to me at the club.”
Her eyes widened. “Really? That’s brilliant Danny! Well done.”
“Yeah,” Howard went on, rubbing her back with one hand in a circular motion, as his eyes remained on mine. “Been earning himself a bit of money helping out. Might even get him involved in the music side of things, you know. He certainly knows his stuff.” He gave me a wink over her head that chilled me to the bone, and I looked once again at my mother, and the way she buried her face in his chest, sighing and closing her eyes as if she had never been more satisfied or at home.
“I’ll be late,” I said gruffly, and pulled the door shut behind me. The morning was chilly, the grass on the front lawn dusted with sparkling frost. I folded my arms over my school blazer and started walking fast. Get through it, I told myself as I stormed along towards school, just get through it. I felt pretty grim and nervous to be honest, as I walked along on my own. The only way I could make one foot go in front of the other was by pulling on my headphones and pressing play, and thinking about what I had planned after school. It was a treat really. Something I had been promising myself ever since I had discovered it.
Down the road from the club was a little record shop. It hadn’t been there long. I had to walk past it to get to the post box when Howard sent me out to post letters. It was small and narrow, and I couldn’t see much just walking past, and a lot of the time it said closed on the door, but I’d promised myself after school, I’d go there. Alone. I’d push open the door and wander in and I’d take the money I had saved up from helping at the club. It was enough. It would get me through the day. It was something to look forward to.
Inside the building, I felt like a ghost as I slipped along the corridor. Maybe there was something about me that let me go unnoticed, or turned people away from me, but it felt odd, like I was not really there. I kept close to the wall, my eyes down, my pace hurried and anxious. The first person I saw that I knew was Lucy, pushing her hair behind her ears as she walked along towards her form room with Zoe. She caught my eye, stopped in her tracks, but do you know what I did? Looked the other way. Let my hair cover my face and walked on. I had to go and see Mr James after registration, which seemed a strange and pointless thing. I sat on the other side of his desk, eyes down, and thinking about the last time I had listened to him speak; that speech he had given us about potential, the words that had got me fired up about joining the school paper. He watched me carefully and asked me if everything was alright at home. I nodded. He watched me again and asked me if I had recovered from my accident okay. I nodded that I had. “I hope you’re keeping up the writing,” he said then, smiling this tentative smile at me. “Try out for the school paper again?”
I got up, crossed the room and opened the door. I didn’t have to sit there and listen to shit like that. His words stuck in my throat, making it difficult to breathe. “Better get to class,” I mumbled and walked out.
I scuttled about, avoiding everyone, not saying a word. Leave me alone I wanted to tell them all, keep away. It was better like that. Safer. When the bell rang I went out a different way and headed into town with my hands in my pockets and my eyes on the ground. I didn’t lift my head until I had walked past the club, and when I did, I could see the guy from the record shop, and it looked like he was closing up early. He was very overweight, and was struggling to haul in his advertising sign from the pavement. He had one foot inside the shop, holding the door open, while he tried to wrestle the heavy sign in at the same time. I flicked back my hair and approached slowly. The Record Shop it said in bold black print on the sign, Vinyl and Cassettes, bought and sold. The man nearly had the sign through the door, so I broke into a run then, desperate not to be shut out, and grabbed hold of one end for him.
“Let me help,” I said. He looked at me like I was mad. He blinked at me in hostile surprise.
“I’m closed,” he said, taking advantage of my assistance for a moment to smooth back his long thinning hair, which he had pulled into a low ponytail. He had a scruffy blonde beard and moustache and was wearing a Bob Dylan t-shirt with a brown stain on the front. I was trying to peer around his bulk into the shop. I could smell it already, even out there on the pavement and it sent a tingle down my spine and made me think of Donald Madisons music area. The smell of dust and vinyl and obsession.
“I’ll give you a hand,” I enthused, lifting my end of the sign up from the ground.
“Alright,” he relented, picking up his end and shuffling backwards until we were inside the shop. “But I’m still closed. I’ve cashed up and everything.”
“It’s not even four o’clock,” I told him. He shoved the door shut behind me and turned the sign around to ‘closed’. “I didn’t even know this shop was here until the other day,” I said. The man paused with one hand on the door handle. He looked like he was a bit out of breath, as his big gut heaved up and down. I took a moment to run my eyes all over the shop. I was mesmerized. In a dream. I felt the tension of the day dropping out of me, all of it, all of everything. So much music. There was so much music! The narrow length of the shop was packed, floor to ceiling with shelves, shelves jammed with records and tapes. What little wall space remained was covered in posters of all the greats. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and The Smiths, Hendrix, Dylan, Neil Young, The Sex pistols, The Clash, even Nirvana! I could have done a little happy dance when I spotted the Nevermind poster with the swimming baby up on the wall behind the counter. I must have looked a bit weird, stood there in his shop with my eyes glazed over and my tongue lolling. He sort of cleared his throat to get my attention and when I looked back at him, he had his arms folded and was tapping one foot.
“Not been here long,” he said to me then. “Won’t be here much longer neither if business goes on the way it has. That’s why I’m closing at four smart arse. I’ll save money if I close.” I nodded, and smiled at him. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay in there forever. So I smiled. I think I had forgotten how to smile until that moment. Maybe it was an extra special smile because of that, who knows, but it worked. He smiled back at me, although his eyes narrowed in his doughy face. He had features that reminded me of Father Christmas. A broad nose and full lips, ruddy cheeks, and that scraggy bushy beard. His eyes were chestnut brown and looked me up and down as he rubbed at his beard. “Oh let me guess,” he was saying. “Going by the state of you. Grunge fan. Nirvana?”
I nodded and grinned at him, beaming ecstatically. “Yeah! They’re the best!”
“Like Neil Young do you?” he asked me, this slightly snide tone creeping into his voice as he opened the door again. I shrugged.
“Sort of. Just getting into him really.”
“Hmm. Like the Pixies do you? Sonic Youth? Dinosaur Junior?”
I shook my head. I had heard of Sonic Youth, but not the others. He laughed out loud at me then, he slapped his thigh and it wobbled under the loose linen trousers he wore. “Call yourself a grunge fan then?” he said, his shoulders shaking. “Jumper of bandwagons! Go on with you. Go and do your homework before you tell me you’re a grunge fan.” He ushered me out onto the pavement and I tried to protest, tried to resist, tried to tell him that I had money I wanted and needed to spend on music, but he wasn’t having any of it. He was still laughing when he closed and locked the door on me.
So I went back the next day, straight from school, and he laughed out loud when he saw me coming. “I’ve got money,” I said to him, helping to grab the sign and carry it through the door again. “If you’ve got anything by the Pixies or Dinosaur Junior I want to buy it.”
He laughed and laughed, and locked the door behind me and waddled up to the counter, where he had just started to cash up the money. I followed eagerly, a ten pound note clutched tightly in one hand, my eyes already climbing the walls and scanning the shelves. He had a record player behind the counter and it was on. I recognized the song instantly. It was There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, by The Smiths. I nodded at the fat man as he sidled around the other side of the counter, still grinning away. “I’ve got this,” I told him eagerly. “Though it’s not my favourite one on the album.”
He stared at me shrewdly. “What album?”
“The Queen Is Dead,” I told him, and his eyebrows shot up. He made a face and nodded and went back to his money.
“Oh yeah. I like anything. I mean everything. I mean most of everything, anything that’s good, I mean, not shit like Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston, or fucking Meat Loaf.” I stopped myself before I could spew on any longer. I slipped my hands back into my pockets and waited for him to respond.
“Hmm,” he said, picking up a stack of two p’s and sliding them into a money bag. “Music fan eh? Is that it?”
“Yeah,” I nodded enthusiastically, and stepped closer to the counter. His brown eyes narrowed, scrutinizing me. I bit my lip and pulled my ten pounds back out to stare at.
“Tom Petty or Tom Waits?” he shot at me then. I blinked.
I thought for a moment. “I Don’t Wanna’ Grow Up!”
“Beach Boys, Beatles or Stones?”
“God Only Knows.”
The fat man nodded, and tapped his fingers against his mouth. “Hmm. Sex Pistols or Clash?”
“Way more music. And Joe Strummer. And White Man In Hammersmith Palais.”
He tipped his head slightly. “That’s your favourite?”
I shrugged. “At the moment.”
“Hmm,” he said again, stroking his beard. “Final question. Best Bob Dylan song and why.”
I breathed out. “Positively Fourth Street. Because it’s just one giant fuck you isn’t it? I like that.”
“Hmm,” he shrugged. “I’m gonna’ make myself a cup of tea to drink while I cash up. You’ve got about ten minutes to find a record that will change your life. Go!”
I ended up with Dinosaur Juniors Where You Been and REMs Automatic For The People on cassette, and a vinyl copy of Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box. He didn’t say anything when he bagged them up and took my money. He just had this smile on his face. So of course I went back, whenever I could. I went back whenever I had money, or whenever I just wanted to become lost within the walls of the shop. Because that was what happened to me once I was inside. I would feel like I had stepped into another world, where there was peace and solitude, and a comforting musty smell that cloaked me when I walked in and lingered on me for hours afterwards. I would feel like I belonged, that was the simplest way I could articulate it. I felt like I belonged there, and I was a part of it all. The fat man, who I later found out was called Terry, would speak to me when he felt like it, and grunt at me the rest of the time. He was always sat on a stool behind the counter, a cup of tea on the go, and his head in a music magazine. If I was lucky he offered me a roll of his eyes or an amused chuckle.
The record shop filled my mind, when I was at school, or at the club. I loathed being near Howard, but sometimes being at the club was actually okay. Sometimes I almost found myself enjoying it. I was lost in my own head of course. Collecting glasses while I thought about the dusty Neil Young record I had discovered that afternoon, or the copy of Nirvana’s Blew, with the full version of Love Buzz on it. I’d be so gone, wandering around in my own mind, nodding my head to a beat no one else could hear, that half the time my fear would drop away and leave me alone. Howard was always up to his neck in it anyway at the club. I’d catch glimpses of him rushing about, or yelling down the phone. It looked like chaos to me at times, but he seemed to thrive on it, always storming about with his shirt sleeves rolled up and a slight frown creasing his large forehead. I stayed out of his way and did as I was told. The Friday night dj was a hell of a lot better than the Saturday one, who only played popular cheese. The Friday played a bit of everything, so if I was lucky I got to hear Smells Like Teen Spirit every once in a while. Jack Freeman was always there. Sometimes he would be with other people, drinking and talking, smoking endless roll ups. Sometimes he would be sat alone, looking like he preferred it this way. I watched him, but I couldn’t work him out. I thought back to the conversation I had overheard between him and Howard that day, the day it had all gone to shit. But I was no closer to understanding what ‘work’ he did for Howard, or what his ‘links’ were. He seemed harmless though. Sort of bumbling and apologetic. He reminded me a bit of that TV detective, Columbo, the one who always shuffled around looking like shit. Sometimes he would lean over, pour a dash of his whiskey into my coke and tip me a wink.