At the end of October Michael held a Halloween party at his house, on the very same day that he turned fifteen. I’m not exactly sure how he managed to persuade his mother to go away for the weekend, but I don’t suppose she needed that much convincing to leave him all alone. Through the grapevine I had heard that Anthony had been sentenced to another eighteen months in prison. It was soul destroying to even think about it, so I tried not to. I tried to keep my distance. I kept my head down and full of music. He invited a houseful of people and lit a bonfire in a metal bin in the back garden, which they all ended up dancing around. My mother let me go out because I told her I was sleeping at Billy’s house. I had bought a small bottle of whiskey from Jack Freeman, and the only way I could summon up the courage to go over there was by taking several swigs of it before I left. Then I walked out of the house with my eyes watering, and I felt like I was dicing with death with every single wobbly step I took towards Michaels’ party.
That night, fuelled by the whiskey in my pocket I put on a fine show of being one of them again. I ignored the concerned looks they gave me. I steered them away from conversations I did not want to have. I chattered on endlessly about the record shop and the music I had been discovering there. I pretended that everything was fine, that everything was the way it should be, and that there wasn’t this great awful unspeakable thing hanging between us all.
“Are you all recovered from your accident now?” Jake decided to ask me in the kitchen, when we were both searching for more to drink. I could have laughed at the careful, hesitant way he placed his words. I chuckled and slapped him on the back.
“Nothing is an accident in this life, Jakey-boy!” I told him, while he frowned down at me.
“Are you alright?” he asked me then, not smiling. “You seem pretty wasted. Maybe you better slow down a bit.”
I took a moment to look him up and down. He was wearing a pin striped suit and a black trilby hat. “What have you come as?” I asked him. “Your fucking dad?”
He lifted his hat off his head and held it unsurely in his hand. “No, I’m a gangster.”
Michael appeared behind him then, his face plastered in white paint and decorated with bright red slashes of fake blood. I shook my head at his make-up, grinning recklessly and unsteady on my feet. I downed the last of my whiskey and slammed the bottle onto the side with a bang. I wondered if I ought to tell them where the real horror show was, where the real monster lived, back at my house, curled up on the sofa with my mother and a cup of tea. Instead I rolled my eyes at them and tried to slip away. Michael put his hand out and caught my shoulder. I was in such a state that I couldn’t even allow myself to look into his face. Why would I want to? When all I would find there would destroy me even more?
“You’re like the invisible man lately,” he said to me, a brief smile touching his lips before fading away again. I felt his eyes searching my face, and shrugged under his hand. “Always got something on, eh?” I nodded.
“Yeah, you know, homework, and stuff…”
“Just hope you’re not out doing stupid stunts on your bike, that’s all…”
I stood there for a moment, while the hurt spun through me, making my lips tremble and my hands close into fists. I heard him sigh, and his hand fell from my shoulder. I swallowed, looked ahead and walked away. I felt shit after that so I found Billy and told him if he took me back to his house now I’d let him share something cool with me. Looking intrigued, he nodded his head and we left the house.
I felt drunker when we walked out into the night air; it was like the whole bottle of whiskey returned to smack me around the head, and Billy automatically slung an arm around my shoulder to steer me in the right direction. We went into his house the back way, and I got the giggles when he started shushing me, as we crept up to his room. He pushed me inside and closed the door, and started to organize blankets and pillows for me. “Where’s your brother?” I asked.
“His mates house. Shh, I said! I don’t want my folks to see how wasted you are.”
“Don’t worry about it Bill,” I murmured, finding a wall and propping myself against it as wave after wave of giddiness washed over me. “I’m a good boy now you know? Did you know that Bill? I’m really good!” I attempted to walk over, got my foot stuck in a blanket and landed in a heap on the floor. Billy frowned down at me anxiously.
“Says the boy who’s completely hammered. Just shh will you. You’ll get me in trouble.”
“I’m still good!” I insisted, wanting him to know this. I rolled onto my back and pointed up at him. “I’m a really good boy I am Bill, not doing nothing wrong!”
Billy sighed, chucked a blanket on top of me and climbed into his own bed fully clothed. “What’s this thing you’ve got to share then? What’s so important?”
I pushed the blanket off of me and sat up urgently. “Bill, Billy, don’t go to sleep yet, that’s right, wait a minute.” I hiccupped, smiled a drunken smile and patted my shirt pocket.
“Secret surprise Bill!”
“Well come on then, I’m knackered.”
“Don’t go to sleep, don’t go to sleep, not yet, hang on.” I shoved my hand into my pocket and tried to pull my tin out. It was jammed and I couldn’t quite get my fingers in to grip it properly. “Oh fuck it, where is it? Come on then, come on.” I finally got a hold and tugged it out to show him. “Here it is Billy, I’ve got it now.” I crossed my legs, picked up a magazine from the floor and set it on my lap.
“What you got?” Billy asked, wrinkling his nose.
“It’s grass. Give me a second.”
Billy was silent then, just watching me. I couldn’t quite make my fingers work properly, so it took longer than I would have liked, rolling the joint, and while I was at it, Billy got bored and leaned over to press play on the stereo. He turned the volume right down, and Nirvanas Pennyroyal Tea rolled out gently from the speakers, filling the room instantly with a calming kind of sadness. I nodded from the floor. “I fucking love this album Bill.”
“Me too. Got it on constantly. My mum doesn’t approve of Rape Me though.”
I rolled my eyes. “She’s not getting it. It’s not like he wants to rape anyone for fucks sake, it’s not about that. It’s like fuck you, isn’t it? Like come on, do your worst, I can take it!”
“I know, I told her that,” Billy agreed. “I’m not the only one….ahhhhh, I’m not the only one…I don’t want to be sick again,” he said then, watching me. “I don’t think it agrees with me. Who’d you get that from anyway?”
“Well what friend?”
“You don’t need to know everything Bill,” I laughed at him, finishing it off. He shrugged from the bed.
“Well you never tell us anything these days Danny. You’re hardly even with us most the time. You don’t hang around us.”
“Yes I do, I see you every day at school.”
“No not like that,” he argued, his expression unhappy. “I mean properly, like friends, like a gang.” I lit the joint and puffed a slow smooth stream of smoke up towards the ceiling. “Mike really misses you,” he said then. “You’re meant to be his best friend. But you never seem to want to be with us…” I looked at him for a moment, taking a second drag, and he held my gaze, frown lines on his forehead. “He really tried to help you, you know…I mean, he’s really worried about you Danny. He doesn’t know what else to do.”
I took a third drag and passed it up to him. He took it with a wince, as if he didn’t really want to. “I know,” I sighed. “But the thing is, I’m just trying to stay out of trouble.”
“Well it’s not the same without you.”
I rested my head back on the edge of his bed. “I just wreck things Bill. You’re all better off without me. That’s what it is.”
“Don’t be stupid,” he said, passing back the joint. “Don’t talk like that. That’s bollocks mate.”
“It’s true,” I said, shaking my head at him. “You don’t know…you don’t even realize.”
“Tell me then.”
“Nah,” I shook my head sharply and offered him a grin. “Forget about it Bill. I’m here now aren’t I?”
He crossed his arms over his belly and grimaced. “Feel sick.”
I laughed. “You twat.”
“Just say you’ll hang about with us more then.”
I laughed again, smoked the spliff and closed my eyes. “See what I can do…” I murmured. We didn’t talk again after that. Just passed the joint back and forth and then tumbled down into sleep, the sombre music still playing on, framing our moods.
After Michael’s party I did my best to please them all, and became an expert at putting on a brave face, a show, to keep them all happy. It was an interesting thing, manipulating the truth, and sometimes I found myself questioning just exactly what the truth was. Sometimes I found myself wondering where I was…But let everyone else think that everything was okay, and it was easy for them to believe, because they wanted to. Let Howard think that he had won, that the fight was over, and he would believe it too, because he needed to, because it suited him to. Let them all think whatever the fuck they wanted to think, and they would leave me alone, not actually knowing the truth about anything. Everything was just fine. Fuck it.
The only person I found myself wanting to share some small element of truth with, was my mother. This was mostly because she was too thick skinned, too delusional, too wrapped up in her own little bubble of a world, to even notice half of the time. It was rare that I would come across her without Howard, but when I did, I would do my best to grate on her nerves. If I found her alone, I’d experience this putrid rush of hatred for her, and it was a black and ugly thing. I’d want to hurt her, both physically and emotionally. When she was alone, she looked different, I thought. She appeared weaker, and thinner, fragile and transparent. She looked like decent sleep mostly eluded her, and she would chew and worry at her nails, fretting about stupid things, like her job at the Co-Op. Apparently her boss was being an arse about her three week absence, and was not giving her the overtime she was used to. “Don’t worry about it,” I felt compelled to hiss into her ear when Howard had left the room. “He’ll take care of it for you, won’t he? You don’t even need a job, do you? Just let him control everything, yeah?” She would just look up at me, her expression totally dazed, as if she had no idea who I was, or why I would speak to her so viciously.
On occasion I would come across her at the kitchen table, head in hand as she chain smoked her cigarettes. To see her stressed or concerned made me want to scream brutal laughter right into her face. What the fuck did she have to worry about? I would see her rub her temples as if a headache threatened, and I would start to slam the cupboard doors and bang things about on purpose just to get a reaction out of her. She would stare at me as if I bewildered her, as if she could not believe what she was seeing and hearing. “Why are you making all that noise? Why are you doing that? You’re doing it on purpose, I know you are!” And I would laugh at her, laugh and curl my lip and walk out of the room, wondering if she knew why, wondering if she knew anything at all.
On the way home from school one day, I nipped into the newsagents on Somerley road to buy NME and a can of coke. The guy behind the counter was this spotty faced nervous looking young man with thick black glasses. I waited until he was busy serving another customer, and then I slipped a miniature sized bottle of vodka up my sleeve, paid for my magazine and coke, and walked out. I had a feeling that even if he knew, he was not going to say anything, and I was right.
Outside I laughed to myself and pulled my headphones back on. Dumb, by Nirvana had just started, and the lyrics were beautiful in their simplicity, their impact hitting me right between the eyes and making me smile and laugh like a fucking lunatic. I’m not like them, but I can pretend, the sun is gone, but I have a light, the day is done, but I’m having fun, I think I’m dumb, or maybe just happy….think I’m just happy. I laughed as I walked because I was all of those things right then; not like them, dumb, and happy. I was happy, as I unscrewed the cap from the vodka. Nothing mattered anyway, I thought then, shrugging my shoulders at my own musings. Nothing mattered, and I felt happy because I had finally figured out the truth of everything, and the truth was that life was shit and had no meaning. I took a sip of neat vodka to toast this simple and undeniable fact.
When I walked into the kitchen, I saw my mother sat at the table, and when she lifted her head to look at me, I saw that her face was a mess of smeared make-up and running tears. She told me that she had been fired, and fresh tears spilled from her mascara smudged eyes. I dumped my schoolbag on the table and opened the fridge to see what I could get to eat. I could feel her eyes burning into my back. “Danny? Did you hear what I just said?”
“And what, am I meant to give a shit?” I slammed the fridge door and faced her with a shrug. “So what?” I demanded, the aggression sweeping through me as I stared at her shocked and hurt expression. “What’s the big deal? You hated that shitty job didn’t you?”
She blinked back at me, her blue eyes shining tragically from the circles of smeared make-up that surrounded them. “Excuse me, can you stop swearing please?”
“Why the fuck should I? They’re just fucking words. Get over it.”
“Oh okay!” she shouted, waving a hand at me and turning her back. “Whatever! You say what you like, go on, thanks a lot. Go to your room if you haven’t got anything nice to say.” I watched her rigid back as she picked her coffee up from the table and took a sip. “Of all the days to start being like that,” she went on, muttering to herself. “I’ve just been fired and you can’t even say anything nice.”
“What are you so upset about?” I yelled then, flinging my arms out to either side of me in pure frustration. “I don’t get it! Your precious boyfriend will sort it all out for you. You can be a kept woman or whatever! He’s rolling in money, he’s always going on about it, you don’t even need a job. I don’t get why you’re upset!”
“I shouldn’t expect you to understand,” she replied rather timidly, dabbing at her eyes with a screwed up tissue.
“I don’t even care!” I ranted on, getting into my stride now, as the vitriol ripped through me. I wanted to stand there and scream at her while I had the chance. I wanted to shock her, hurt her, wake her up. I wanted her to open her eyes and see me for once. I wanted her to know about me, I wanted her to know how fucked and twisted and frightened I was inside. I wanted to tell her. “He’ll sort everything out! He always does! He’s the big boss man, don’t forget! He’s the fucking king! He’s the fucking biggest bastard in the world!”
“He’s asked me to marry him.”
She did not get up, or turn around, or look at me. She just said the words with her back to me, with her hands around her coffee cup, with her shoulders bunched up to her neck. There was no physical or verbal indication whatsoever about how she felt about this statement. I was silent for a moment with my mouth hanging open. And then I felt this awful shaking laughter thrumming through me, and I closed my mouth in an attempt to suppress it, but that was futile. My shoulders started to shake with it. My eyes started to swim with water. So I gave into it. I laughed behind her back, I laughed loud and hard and long, and I walked out of the house and away from her, still sniggering and giggling and wiping my eyes as they ran. I walked out, back into the sharp coldness of the day, and I kept walking and I kept laughing.
I kept walking until I was at the beach. It was freezing cold. Icy winds whipped across the sand, spraying it into my face as I sat down hard. I laughed, and when I could laugh no more, I began to cry. There was no one around. So I let them come. I had not realized that I‘d still had hope inside of me. I had not realized that a big part of me had been clinging to the hope that Howard would get bored and move on, or that they would split up, and he would be thrown out, tossed aside, gone. But now I knew that there had been hope, as I felt it sink right out of me, right down into the cold wet sand. I had not known that it was a painful thing, when hope shrivels up and dies inside of you, and so I made a promise never to hope for anything ever again. I remembered the tiny bottle of vodka in my pocket, and my can of coke in the other. I opened them and mixed them up in the can. I drank it down in three hungry, sobbing gulps, and when it was gone I hurled the can and the bottle into the sand, and there was so much inside of me then, so much I could not contain, that I dug my fingernails into the palms of my hands, as hard as I could, hard enough to draw blood. I closed my eyes and claimed the pain, made it mine, my pain. When there were no more tears left to cry I started to laugh again. I looked at my hands, at the tiny crescent shaped cuts in each palm and I laughed until my stomach hurt.