John phoned to say he would not be home for Christmas. The news made my mother distraught and tearful, but I was not surprised in the slightest. He had a new girlfriend and was enjoying his course, and getting on with his dad. I knew all this because he wrote me letters once a month which I never replied to. As much as his absence and his wonderful new life enraged me privately, I still couldn’t exactly blame him. I sneered in the background at my mother’s obvious distress. She didn’t need to worry. I’d been right about Howard smoothing things over for her. Sometimes he behaved more like her father than her fiancée. She didn’t need to work, he told her. He earned enough for the both of them. As if to prove this fact he showered her constantly with nice things; shopping trips, visits to the hair and nail salon, meals out at swanky restaurants. I couldn’t help but notice that her main objective in life now seemed to be looking as good as possible. It made me wince at times. Watching her swan about in new clothes, and flash jewellery. I wanted her to know that I found it vulgar. I did this by becoming as scruffy and dirty as I could get away with. It didn’t matter to me, you see, all that stupid shit. New clothes and the latest styles, and price tags. It seemed like the more expensive something was, the more Howard valued it. It turned my stomach. To really appall them I started buying clothes from the charity shops when I needed something. I took genuine pleasure in the way they rolled their eyes and wrinkled their noses when I walked into a room.
I watched them from the background, from the sidelines, where I lived, the invisible kid, the good boy. I saw another side of her when she was alone. Sometimes I would discover her, sat by herself, and just staring into space, as if she had no idea what it was she was meant to be doing. She’d sit for hours, flicking through glossy wedding magazines. She had a whole pile of them stacked up on the coffee table in the lounge. If she was happy on the inside, in those moments, it was impossible to tell. She didn’t look it to me. When Howard was around, she altered. She seemed childlike and gushing, like a little girl. She would wrap herself around him like a purring cat, appearing small, and coy and fragile. I sensed that he liked her this way. He would pick her up and carry her about. Fawn over her and spoil her. He would massage her feet and her shoulders, and paint her toenails for her. They became one person, instead of two. I found myself wondering time and time again, what love was. Was theirs some great love story? Was that how they saw it? What did they talk about when they were alone? It intrigued me as much as it disgusted me. Because when she was alone, she seemed scared and unsure. She looked haunted and uneasy.
As for me and Howard, well, I did what I could to stay on his good side. I did what I was told, when I was told, without comment or complaint. Wash the dishes. Go to the shop. Clean my room. I did it the way I was supposed to. Without even a roll of the eyes or a curl of the lip. This seemed to work for a while. This seemed to appease him and puff him up. He would pat me on the head and tell me he was pleased. He would have long conversations with his father on the telephone during which he would talk about how well he and I got along. But I knew I wasn’t wrong when I sensed something quivering under his surface. He could play the good father as much as he liked, but I knew the truth, I knew what lay underneath. Sometimes, usually when I had been sipping vodka or whiskey in private, I felt the destructive urge to test his control. I’d find myself looking at them, regarding them with nothing less than cold loathing. I’d toy with the idea of flinging my dinner to the floor or telling them both to fuck themselves, or just reaching across the table and sticking my fork into one of Howard’s beady little eyes.
Sometimes I would try it. I would taunt him, just a little bit, in front of my mother. With a drink stoking the whirling mess of emotions in my belly, I would wonder if rocking the boat and provoking him to violence was my last hope. It was a fine line to tread though. If I pushed it too far, played the joker too long, or risked giving him a dirty look, then he would merely fall silent. He would refuse to take the bait, instead just staring back at me with dead and hooded eyes. There would be a reprisal when I least expected it. A blow to the back of the head when I passed him on the landing, a kick to the shin when my mother got up from the table to wash the dishes. I bit down on hatred and violence and said nothing.
My mother hated me smoking. I was bored on Christmas Eve, when they refused to let me go over to Billy’s for a get together. We were sat in the lounge watching The Generation Game. I’d already sat there for so long, sat on my fucking hands so that I didn’t use them to rip my own ears off, or gouge my own eyes out, that I was starting to tremble. I’d had a few swigs of vodka up in my room earlier, and the heat was building in my chest and in my brain, as I glanced over at them, entwined on the other sofa. I watched them pick up their cigarettes from the coffee table. Howard lit his, and then hers. They puffed quick bursts of grey out across the room. I dug around in my back pocket, found a squashed roll up and stuck it between my lips. I’d lit it up and taken at least three drags before their eyes turned on me. My mother, her mouth hanging open, her own cigarette dangling. Howard, his eyes bulging, his lips taut and white. “Excuse me?” she said, blinking rapidly. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
I made a face like I didn’t understand the question. Howard got up then. Stormed right over to me and plucked the cigarette from my lips. “Always with the jokes, eh?” he growled, sitting back down and stubbing my smoke out in his ashtray. “What a funny boy you are!”
I got up. Walked in a leisurely fashion across the room to the door. “I’m sorry,” I told them. “I got it wrong. I thought you wanted me to be just like you.”
Christmas morning was a horrible piss take from start to finish. I lay in bed for as long as I could, refusing to open my door every time my mother knocked on it. She kept making these hopeful and depressing little trips up and down the stairs, knocking politely on my door to ask when I wanted to come and open my presents. I let her know how hilarious I found this by laughing out loud and turning my music back up. Just because you’re paranoid….don’t mean they’re not after you! I sung to myself, sitting up on my bed and dragging out my little tin. I winked at Kurt up on my wall. He knew what it was all about, I could tell. A little slug of whiskey here and there. Gotta find a way, to find a way, when I’m there…gotta find a way, a better way, I better wait! I rolled a joint, got dressed and smoked it out of the window, and tried to work out the best way to escape. Escape was something that appealed to me more and more as the days wore on, as life dragged out, limp and dull and pointless and cold. I dreamed up elaborate ways to achieve it, but I hadn’t got much further than that yet. I would need plenty of money for one thing, and saved as much as I could from the club, stuffing notes and coins into a sock I kept at the back of my drawer. But the problem was, I liked my music, I needed my music, and that cost money too. It also kept me sane. Like the grass, and the whiskey as well. I needed it.
It was cold outside. Cold enough to snow my mother kept saying. The sky had a stark and vast greyness to it. It looked heavy and silent. I glanced down at the street, already full of the sounds of squealing children, trying out brand new bikes and scooters. I rolled my eyes in disgust and shook my head at them. “All pointless, waste of time and money,” I scowled at them. I stubbed out the joint, tucked the butt safely away in my tin and shoved the tin back under my mattress. I left the window open and pumped a generous amount of vanilla air freshener around the room.
The next knock on the door was no so polite and did not belong to my mother. I felt my shoulders bunching up protectively and I glanced once more out of the window, thinking about escape, and running, running far away from this soulless pretence of a day. I opened the door and Howard jabbed an angry finger into my chest. “You’re taking the bloody piss!” he growled and steered me firmly out of my room. “Your mothers’ gone to a lot of trouble, and as usual you’re up here being moody and ungrateful! There’s a bloody breakfast going cold for you down here!”
I hurried down the stairs, away from his awful clawing hand, and ducked quickly away from the kiss my mother attempted to greet me in the hallway with. She followed me desperately into the kitchen, holding out a wrapped gift. “Happy Christmas honey,” she gushed behind me. “You’re probably getting too old for all this now aren’t you? Do you want to just open this later? There’s more in the lounge!”
I slipped into the chair by the back door, and took the package from her. “Thanks mum.” I put it to one side on the table and watched her smile struggling. She was red in the face from cooking, wispy bits of hair floating around her face. She was wearing a tight black dress and stupidly high heels. “I hope you like it, I did try my best, there’s lots more under the tree! Do you want some breakfast?” It was too late to argue as she was already piling food onto my plate. Howard sat back down opposite, and I felt my stomach curl up in protest. The sight and the stench of it, and the view of Howard, plucking pieces of sausage out of his tightly rammed together teeth. I swallowed and pushed the plate away. She sighed instantly, her shoulders sagging. Howard put his knife and fork down slowly. “No, it’s alright,” she said to him quickly, holding up a hand before she reached for her wine glass with it.
“It’s not alright,” he disagreed, his tongue doing circuits around his pursed mouth, as he rooted out the pieces of food that always seemed to get stuck between his teeth. His eyes locked with mine. “He should eat the food Kay. It’s common courtesy. He always does this. Refuses to eat meals, or pisses around with it, then raids the cupboards later. I’ve told you a million times that’s what he does.”
I stared back blankly, refusing to flinch. I was thinking about getting the hell out of there. I was thinking about doing whatever I could to avoid spending the day with those fuckers. “Come on, it’s Christmas,” my mother was urging us, her wine glass pressed to her lips as her eyes darted nervously between us. “No arguing from you two.”
“I’m not arguing,” I said evenly. “I didn’t say a word. I just want to be left alone.”
“Just open the bloody presents and stop being so rude,” Howard snapped, picking his fork back up and stabbing viciously at half a sausage. “Your mum went to a lot of trouble for you, not that you care. Did you even buy anything for her?”
“Rubbish!” he snorted. “What do I pay you then? You’ve got money, you’re just too selfish to spend it on anyone but yourself.”
“Come on, that’s enough,” said mum, eyeing the unopened gift on as if this alone was the source of all the tension. She lingered at the side of the table, too restless to take a seat, too jittery to eat anything. She clung to her wine glass with one hand, to the back of Howards chair with the other. “It’s fine, he can open presents later. He’s never liked opening them with an audience, you know!” She gave a little laugh and looked at me. “Have you Danny? Not even when you were small.”
“Always take his side,” Howard muttered, shaking his head in disappointment and dabbing at the corner of his mouth with one of the napkins she had laid out. “Always make excuses for him. You don’t even realize you’re doing it half the time, you do it so much. Then you wonder why he’s such a fuck up. You wonder why. When you just go and undo everything I’ve done, all the rules and whatever. I don’t know why I bother.”
She lowered her eyes, drank the last of her wine, and pulled her hand away from his chair. She walked to the sideboard and grabbed the open bottle of wine by the neck. “Hey can I have some of that?” I asked brightly, my eyes never leaving Howards. I watched his thick neck growing crimson in colour. His shoulders lifted and bristled, his head lowered, and his eyes burned back into mine. I knew exactly what those eyes were telling me, but I didn’t care. I wanted to get out of there. I wanted him to drive me out.
“Oh I don’t know about that love,” she said, glancing at Howard in case he knew the answer. Howard shrugged his big shoulders while his face looked like he was chomping on glass.
“Why the hell not?” he replied churlishly. “You let him do everything else he wants.”
She sighed before picking up another glass and filling it half way with wine. She placed it on the table and I picked it up and downed it before they could change their minds. Howard glared at my mother and shook his head at her anxious expression, letting her know she had failed again. I wiped my mouth, pushed back my shoulders, braced myself for war and asked her for another glass. Alarm leaped into her eyes then, as if she had suddenly worked out exactly what I was playing at.
“Don’t fucking push it,” Howard warned me through a mouthful of food.
“I’m bored!” I cried out then, shoving back my chair and leaning forward with my hands on the table. “You’re allowed to drink on Christmas day for fucks sake!”
“Watch your mouth.” The words, spoken through grit, each one a warning, each one a promise. I smiled at him, tasting the violence. I pushed my face towards him.
“Why don’t you go fuck yourself ape-man? Why don’t you go drive your piece of shit car right over the cliff top? Why don’t you talk with your mouth full and choke on your fucking sausage? Why don’t you…” I didn’t get to finish because he tore the words from my mouth with an open palm. It nearly sent me to the floor, but I caught my balance, and staggered towards the door. I heard my mother gasp in horror. I heard Howard’s chair legs screech against the floor. I held onto my face and left the room. Howard’s mad babbling started to fill the silence behind me.
“He can’t get away with stuff like that! There has to be a line Kay! There’s got to be a limit! We can’t just stand back and take that from him! You saw him goading me! From the moment he got up! And you let him drink wine for gods sake!”
It went on and on. I didn’t know how she could stand it. I didn’t know how she couldn’t see him for what he was. Why she didn’t fight back, scream at him, tell him he was wrong and out of line. I ran up the stairs, two at a time, flung myself into my room and gathered everything I would need; Walkman, tapes, vodka, tin and jacket. I shrugged it on and dashed back down the stairs. “There’s only so much I can take, and I’ve told you that before!” he was still ranting on in the kitchen. “Only so much I can take Kay! Wedding or no wedding!”
I slammed the door behind me in triumph and marched away from them. I imagined them as ghosts as I walked away, transparent and fading until they simply ceased to exist. I didn’t allow myself to think of later, of revenge, I just hurried on, hurried away from them. I lit a cigarette and wiped the blood from my nose and scurried over to Michael’s, with a plan in my head. I rapped twice on the door before Mrs Anderson opened it in a frilly red apron and leopard print dress. She held a metal spoon in one hand, and the smells of a roast dinner underway wafted down the hallway to my nostrils. “What?” she barked at me, her lips a permanent red scowl.
“Quick word with Mike?”
He appeared behind her, still in his dressing gown and tightening the belt as he walked up. He was frowning at me. “You okay mate?”
“Michael,” his mother turned and addressed him sternly. “You are not going anywhere. We are visiting your brother at twelve o’clock!”
“I know, I know, just give us a minute.”
She clicked her tongue and stalked briskly back into the kitchen, holding her spoon aloft. Michael came up to the door and tugged his dressing gown up to his neck as the cold air swirled into the hallway. “You sure you’re okay?” he asked me darkly. “You’re bleeding.”
I wiped my nose along the sleeve of my jacket. “Oh yeah. Stupid bike. Look, I know you’ve got stuff to do, but I’m heading to the base for the entire day. Got booze, got smokes, got weed. I’ll be there when you can get away. Call Billy and Jake too.”
“Nice one,” he nodded at me. “I’ll be there. Soon as I can.” I smiled in relief and started to walk away. “And get a fire going yeah?” he called after me. I nodded back at him, shoved my hands into my pockets and got walking.
When I got to the base, I stood for a moment outside the caravan. My shoulders relaxed and my spine tingled with something pretty close to excitement. I took a quick gulp of the vodka in my pocket and then got to work building a fire. It took a good hour, just walking in and out of the woods dragging logs back with me. I enjoyed it though. I even worked up a bit of a sweat underneath my clothes. I smoked a cigarette after that and wandered about in the trees collecting as many sticks and twigs as I could to build up a supply. When I finally got it going, when the flames really took hold and warmed my face, I jumped to my feet and whooped for joy. I felt really fucking good. My cheek and nose stung, but even that was good, even pain was good, everything was fucking good! I was warm with vodka and throbbing with a reckless kind of joy. I got wrapped up in one of the blankets we had stashed in the caravan, and sat on a log, poking at the flames with a long stick. I felt good, and I felt even better as the skies darkened around me. I felt a long, long way away from my mother and Howard. I considered staying there forever. Never going back. They didn’t know about the base. Didn’t have a clue about it. They would just think me missing, gone. I could see out the New Year too, out there on my own. I could keep the fire going, night after night and just sit about in a dream, drinking and getting high and not giving a shit about anything.
My mind drifted back to escape. Running away. Stealing their money, packing a bag and just going. Just walking out of the door and not looking back. Maybe I would hitch my way up to see John. Maybe I would go back to Southampton and try to track down my dad. I imagined myself with a bag on my shoulder and money in my pocket, and I imagined them opening up my room and finding me gone, forever.
I finished my smoke and flicked the butt into the fire. The trouble was, in reality, a strong fear gripped me every time I seriously considered packing a bag. A fear that shook the breath from me and at the same time a lonely sadness would wash over me, and I knew that I wouldn’t do it. In reality, I would talk myself out of it every time. Now that I knew that monsters like Howard existed outside of scary movies and books, it was easy to believe that the world out there was full of them. And I would remember what I really was at the end of the day; just a stupid frightened kid. So I would tell myself to wait, wait until I was older, and bigger, wait until I had the answers.
The last light of the day was dwindling by the time the boys made it to the base, and the sky was streaked with darkening clouds. A warm spray of pink and orange was just visible through the trees, where the sun was slipping down onto the ocean. I looked up with a lazy grin, when they came traipsing through the undergrowth, all dressed in new clothes. Billy was proudly carrying a brand new portable CD player under his arm. “You’re gonna’ love this!” he told me insistently as he set it down. Jake dumped a four pack of Carlsberg beers on the ground along with a massive bag of crisps. Michael did a twirl, showing off his new leather jacket. I was happy and relaxed, jabbing at the fire with my stick and sparking up the spliff I had rolled in anticipation of their arrival.
“So what did you get?” asked Billy, pressing play on his stereo and perching on a log. Michael tightened his scarf around his neck and sat down next to me.
“Didn’t hang around to find out!” I laughed, holding up my vodka and joint. “Got all I need right here!”
Jake sat down on the other side of the fire, ruffled a hand through his hair and yawned. I thought they all looked the same then, weary eyed and full of warmth and dinner. “Where the hell are you getting all this from?” he asked me. “Every time we see you, you’ve got booze and grass.”
“Secret supplier,” I grinned.
“Secret friend?” Michael asked.
I shrugged. “Suppose so.” I passed the joint to him and he took it and pushed something back into my hand. “What’s this?”
“It’s from Anthony. Read it later mate.”
I turned the envelope over in my hand, before sighing in defeat, as all the guilt and sick disgust came flooding back. I pushed the envelope inside my jacket and stared at the fire. I watched the angry flames licking and rolling, and they reminded me of people, fighting and lashing out, before recoiling and preparing to strike again. Anthony was a subject Mike and I never touched on. He was the unspeakable thing that rested like a weight between us whenever we were together. I honestly had no idea why Michael still wanted to be my friend, knowing what he knew. It still kept me awake at night. Thinking of him in his cell tortured me and gave me nightmares. I didn’t know what to do. So I just kept on doing nothing. And when I could drink, I drank, and when I could get high, I got high. And sometimes, when Howard lost control and lashed out as he had done earlier, I felt a stab of satisfaction, because it was all I deserved for what had happened to Anthony. The letter lay like a dead weight of guilt inside my jacket.
Michael released this long, drawn out sigh, and when I glanced his way, I could tell that he hadn’t had the best of days either. “Really would like to know where you’re getting this from,” he said.
“Why do you care?” I shrugged.
“Because I do. I just do. Because I’m your friend. Who’s giving it to you? Or are you buying it? How do you afford it?”
“It’s just this guy I know.”
“He’s called Jack.”
“So how do you know him?”
I smiled awkwardly, and lifted my vodka to my lips. “He’s a mate of Howards.”
Michael stared at me angrily. “Shittinghell!” he cried at me. I swallowed my vodka and my guilt and stared back at him, with a tentative smile.
“Oh Christ, just shittinghell, that’s all Danny. What are you thinking? Are you insane?”
“Why the hell is a friend of Howard’s supplying you with grass and booze?” His eyes were too close I decided then. Too close and too dark, and too full of the truth of it all. I shifted away from him ever so slightly and drank more vodka.
“I dunno,” I admitted, and this was true. I really had no idea why Jack Freeman seemed to be on my side, or why he sometimes gave me drinks, and cigarettes. I didn’t know why he’d suggested I buy a bit of grass from him if I wanted. The thing was, I liked it too much to question it. Like booze, I liked the feeling it gave me; of drifting away from this boring, tedious disappointing life. It pulled my mouth into a smile that was real, and it made the music sound even better, and it relaxed by bones, and my churned up gut, and it made my thoughts run and twist and dance, and it helped me to fall asleep. So I didn’t question it. Not really. At first it had felt a little strange, a little dangerous. I’d wondered helplessly if I was being set up somehow. But nothing happened. Howard did not know. All that happened was I nearly always had booze and fags and grass when I needed it, and I thought that was pretty cool to be honest.
Michael was staring at me as if he wanted to hit me. “You’ve not even thought about it?”
“No, not really.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Don’t want to.”
“What is wrong with you?” he fired at me then, his voice rising and causing Jake and Billy to stop mid-conversation and stare at us.
“What’s wrong with you?” I shouted back at him. “You’re fucking smoking it aren’t you?”
Michael breathed slowly through his nostrils and passed the joint on. “Not anymore,” he told me. “Not if it’s gonna’ get you in trouble. I need to meet this man.”
“Why do you?” I was getting angry now. I suppose it was the vodka. It would make me feel all dopey and happy as long as life stayed that way around me. But if things kicked off, it made me want to as well. I glared right at him then, and if truth be told, I quite fancied the idea of fighting him. “You’re not my fucking keeper Michael! You don’t need to know everything, and you don’t need to worry about everything!”
“I’m just trying to get you to think about it. I’m just trying to look out for you.”
I hung my head and clutched at my hair. “Ah no, just stop it, just stop it.”
“You’re pissing me off,” I looked up and told him. “Just stop it, stop being like the fucking dad or something. Just forget about it. Just have a drink, have a smoke, have a laugh. Have some fucking fun.”
He was quiet for a moment. Billy and Jake looked on nervously, and then they rolled their eyes in relief when Michael nodded at me in agreement. “Okay then,” he said stiffly. “Alright. I will. We’ll have some fun. Whatever you say mate.”
I gave him a brief smile and a thankful nod. I sensed that he was angry with me though. He wanted to say much more, but he had stopped himself, probably as worried as I was, about where the argument would lead us.
Later that evening, when I was sure that no one was watching or wondering, I tugged out the letter from Anthony and read it. Hi Danny, how the hell are you? How is everything? I mean, really?? Really hope you are okay, but Mike is worried about you the whole time. I can’t do anything in here, but don’t worry about it, I’ll be out in no time. I think that guy is dangerous Danny. If there is any way that you can get away from him, or move out, I think you should. You’re a nice kid Danny and me and Mike think a lot of you. Don’t let anything get you down. Stick with your friends! They are there for you. One thing I’ve learnt in this life is you have to fight back mate. Like I did with my dad. One way or another, any way you fucking can. There will always be some cunt trying to keep you down, keep you under control, but don’t let them, don’t let them win! Don’t let them keep you down. Fight back any way you can. Hold your head up high because none of this is your fault. I know what you’re thinking but you’re wrong. Fight back and stay strong and I’ll see you as soon as I’m out, and if he’s still around, I’ll sort the fucker out. See you soon mate. Get your fucking hair cut! Your friend, Anthony.
It was awful, I thought desperately. Fucking awful. I felt like crying, and I wished that Michael had never given me the letter. Tears stabbed at my eyes, and the guilty sickness rolled into life in my belly, turning and writhing until I had to get up and run into the bushes to vomit. I didn’t know what to do. I leaned weakly against a tree, clutching the letter in one hand, sweating and dry heaving. What should I do? Fight back? What did he mean? Get my fucking head ripped of more like. Get myself killed. I was drunk and stoned, and suddenly so deeply depressed by it all, that the only thing that made any sense was the pain I felt when I smashed my fist into the nearest tree.