When the lectures were all over, I slunk on up to my bedroom, which was starting to feel less and less like it belonged to me. I closed my door on the murmurings that continued downstairs, and sat on my bed for a few strange minutes, staring at the door, the floor and the cracks in the ceiling. I stared at these the longest. I could identify with these. Eventually the silence started to hurt my ears so I leaned over and pressed play on the stereo. I smiled a little when the music started. It was The Doors Strange Days album, one of my oldest tapes. I could still remember where I bought it from. A car boot sale back in Southampton, and I must have been about twelve years old. It was definitely one of the very first albums I ever bought. I’d gone back week after week with John. I’d bought music; second hand Guns ‘N’ Roses and The Doors. He’d bought clothes, trying to compete with his friends. Listening to The Doors now felt sort of disjointed and nostalgic. It was like being able to see through a window to a younger me. What I remembered most was how angry I had always been back then. How I’d watched my mother, spinning recklessly from one stupid boyfriend to the next. How John had just rolled his eyes and ignored it all, letting it all wash over his head. He should have paid more attention, I found myself thinking now. Mum and I, locking horns over every little thing. My smile faded when I realized that both of them were gone now. I’d lost them both. And a spiteful niggling little voice at the back of my head told me that this was all my fault, that I had pushed them too far too many times and this was why I was now all alone.
I took out my tin and rolled a quick joint. I wanted to relax. I wanted the pot to fill my head up with warmth and fuzz and detachment from everything. I wanted to lie back on my bed and drift into heavy sleep, not thinking or feeling anything. I wanted the fingers of fear to stop scrabbling inside of me. I got on my bed and smoked, and thought about the scene which had just transpired downstairs. The farce of care that I’d found myself surrounded with. My mother, distraught and tear stained, wringing her hands constantly, looking at me as if I had just been diagnosed with a terminal disease. Howard had done really well. The man deserved an Oscar, the way he played the over protective, slightly stressed out father, with a constant look of strain etched upon his face. I felt like applauding him at times. I had to put an end to it as soon as possible. I admitted I had tried a few things. I told them how awful it had been. I told them it was really stupid of me and I would never be doing it again. They believed me. I told them I was going to buckle down and do better at school, and stop skiving off with faked sick notes, and they believed me again. My mum even reached across the table to squeeze my hand as I babbled on. It didn’t really matter what I said, as long as they bought it. As long as they believed me and let me go.
Back in my room I took deep satisfying drags on the spliff and reminded myself that it was over, and I was safe. I was not being shipped off to care any time soon. And that, I reasoned, was what it was all about at the end of the day. Staying safe. Whatever it took. Doing what they wanted, so I would be left alone. I felt bad about running out on Anthony and Michael, but I would go to school in the morning and explain it to them.
I fell asleep for a while. I woke up briefly when my mother called up that they were going into town, and then I drifted off again. I woke up a second time because someone was banging on the front door. I sat up in bed, rubbing my face awake. I’d done a really stupid thing and fallen asleep with the ashtray and half smoked joint on my lap. I made sure it was out and placed the ashtray down on the floor. There was another knock at the door, followed closely by a female voice, which called through the letterbox and trailed up the stairs to greet me. “Danny? Danny! It’s Lucy!”
What the fuck? I laughed a little and headed for the door, shaking my hair from my eyes and wondering what the hell she was doing here. I appeared on the landing and could see the letterbox pushed open in the hallway. “Lucy?” I asked, coming quickly down the stairs. I pulled open the door. “Hiya’!”
She grinned in relief and stepped quickly into the hallway. She was still in her school uniform, with her bag upon her shoulder. “Anthony’s been looking everywhere for you!” she told me. I closed the door and shrugged apologetically. “He sent me over to see if you were here. To see if you were okay.”
“Will you tell them I’m fine?” I asked her. “I had to come home and get cleaned up and stuff, then I had a teacher and the truants officer come over to see me.” I made a face and she made one back.
“What did they say? What happened?”
“Oh I did most of the talking,” I shrugged. “I’ll be back at school in the morning. You can tell Mike that as well. I’ll be there. Tell him I’ll meet him out on the main road.”
She smiled and her shoulders relaxed with it. “Well that’s a relief.”
I placed one foot on the stairs and smiled at her cheekily. “You want to come up and listen to music with me?”
She looked surprised for a moment, her head moving back slightly and her eyes flashing. “Okay then,” she grinned. “Why not?” I took her hand and walked back upstairs, with her following behind me. Inside my room, I closed the door and she stood beside the bed, her school bag dangling at her ankles. She stared around, sort of frowning and smiling at the same time.
“What?” I asked her.
“It’s just…” She broke off and let the bag thump to the floor. Her eyes ran along the length of my desk, up to my shelves on the wall and down to my bed. “Wow. It’s just, so clean and tidy. I’ve never seen a room this tidy. You should see mine! My mum just closes the door on it. In fact, she tells me off if I leave the door open!” Lucy laughed rather nervously and sat down on the edge of my bed. She appeared unsure, and cautious. I didn’t exactly blame her. Looking around my own room gave me the creeps most days as well. The desk was all ship shape, the way Howard commanded it. School books in piles, stereo at one end with cassettes stacked neatly beside. The books on my shelves, organised in height order, with all of the spines turned outwards. My bedside set of drawers, set out neatly with reading lamp, alarm clock and one book. My bed, never a huddle or a mess, always made up and tucked in at every corner. No clothes or shoes lying on the floor. No piles of magazines or crumby plates, or half drunk cups of tea. Everything in its place and a place for everything.
I sat down next to her. “My stepfather is a bit of a clean freak,” I told her. Her smile faltered just a little bit. I wondered what, if anything, Mike and Anthony had told her. Did she know the whole sorry story, or did she just think I was a stupid druggy who took too much and practically had a breakdown on the beach? I looked at my hands resting on my knees and decided I didn’t really want to know either way.
“So,” she said then, looking away briefly as her cheeks warmed up. “You’re okay now then? You’re feeling better? You look better.”
“I’m fine,” I nodded at her. “I’m really sorry about all of that. I’ve been a complete idiot.”
“You don’t have to say sorry to me. I was just so worried, you know. Seeing you like that. You’re not going to do any of that stuff again are you?”
I shook my head quickly. “No way. Learnt my lesson. Promise.”
She didn’t say anything for a while. I was glad. I liked that about her. She didn’t feel the need to probe or lecture, or preach. You could see everything she was thinking and feeling, right there on her face. I leaned towards her ever so slightly, until our arms were touching. We were both staring down at our knees. The Doors were still playing. I found my feet tapping along to the music. Lucy giggled then, and her hair fell down over her ears and into her face. I giggled too, and bumped my shoulder into hers. I was grinning like a lunatic. I had the urge to grab her and wrestle her down onto the bed. Tickle her or kiss her, and try to make her giggle again. “Who is this?” she asked me.
“The Doors. You heard of them?”
“Sixties band,” I explained. “Used to be really into them. Haven’t listened to them in a while. “Do you like it?”
“Yeah, it’s good,” she nodded. “Sort of..haunting.”
I laughed softly. “Exactly.”
I moved back then, pulling my legs up onto the bed and finding the pillow with my head. I patted the bed with my hand. “Come on.” She stared, her hair falling back over her face, her smile widening shyly. Then she took a little quick breath and pulled her legs up too. It was awkward for a moment or two. You know how it is. Getting comfy. She was blushing like mad as she lay down beside me. And then I put my arm around her shoulder and she sort of snuggled into the side of me, and rested her head down on my chest. I wondered if she could hear my heart, going totally crazy. She seemed to fit in so nicely there, I thought, tucked under my arm, curled into me. My feet were twitching with the music at the end of the bed. She sighed. We lay like that for a long time. I thought it was the best feeling in the world. I leaned down and planted a clumsy kiss on the top of her head, and she sighed again, and giggled. Look up, I wanted to say to her, but did not dare, look up, and I will kiss you properly.
The next morning I met Michael out on Somerley road. He was smiling like a lunatic as I approached, hands in pockets and school bag across my chest. He slapped my back, bumping his body into mine, and then punching my shoulder while I laughed at him. “For gods sake,” I complained. “What you doing?”
“Ah it’s just so good to see you,” he told me, as we checked the road for traffic and crossed it between cars. “You know, properly. And being normal!” I grimaced in regret.
“Yeah I’m sorry about all that Mike. Haven’t had a chance to thank you and Anthony. You know. Everything you did.”
“No problem,” he shook his head. “Any time. Although not again in a hurry please?”
“No way. I was a complete twat. I shouldn’t have put any of you through that.”
“Shut up, it wasn’t your fault you idiot.” He gazed down at the pavement as he walked, and nudged me with his elbow. “Come on.”
“Yeah, Anthony said that too, but it’s not really the truth. No one forced me to take that stuff Mike. I could have said no.”
“Come on, seriously forget about it. You’ve had a crap year! Who can blame you for wanting to get off your face, right? Think I’d hit the hard stuff too if that psycho was my step-dad! Shittinghell. Anyway, listen, before we get to school, got loads to tell you. Anthony’s been a busy boy.”
I looked at him sharply. “What do you mean?”
“When he couldn’t find you, he went all over the place looking for you. Not just looking for you as it happens, looking for this Jaime bloke too?” Michael shook his hair from his face and glanced at me. I nodded at him, waiting for more. I started to chew at my lip. I was nervous enough as it was; heading back to school after everything that had happened lately, and now this. I hoped he hadn’t placed himself in danger again. “Well he found him. Jaime Lawler, whatever his name is. Bought a bit of weed off him to keep him happy. Poked around a bit you know? Went to school with his brother, so it was all pretty relaxed. They had a drink in The Ship together.”
“Yep. Anyway, turns out, Jaime Lawler is the errand boy for Freeman. He works for him. And Anthony reckons both of them work for Howard.”
“Oh,” I said, stopping and pulling him back by his sleeve. “That’s something I learnt too Mike. Howard knows Jack deals. He knows he deals to me and he doesn’t care.”
Michael stared back at me, his eyes penetrating with their intensity. He wettened his lips with his tongue and shook his head very slowly. “That bastard. That filthy lying drug dealing bastard. We ought to go right to the cops Danny. We should tell them everything.”
I smiled at him gently. He looked so fierce, I found it sort of touching. “I’ve thought about that a million times,” I told him. “Jack is a copper Mike. Or he was. I dunno. And Heaten, we already know he’s chummy with Howard. I don’t trust them. And you don’t even want to know what he’s threatened to do to you and my mum if we mess with them.” I swallowed the lump that had formed in my throat and started to walk on again. Michael nodded as he followed.
“I know Danny, I know, I get it. We’ve got to be careful. Anthony says. He says, if we be careful and tread lightly, we can trip them up somehow. We need proof. That’s what he said.”
“Billy and Jake,” I said, gesturing ahead. They were approaching the entrance to school from the other direction, pushing their bikes and talking excitedly. I smiled briefly at the sight of them. I thought how young and excited and innocent they looked. I tried to imagine what normal things they were discussing. Jake saw me first and did an instant double take, before punching Billy on the arm and nodding in my direction. We met and fell into step together, the four of us again, like old times, going through the school gates. I felt different though. I felt tired, and I felt older than them, and I felt a little bit like I wanted to cry, not because of everything that was happening in my life, but because of the looks on their faces. Because they were so full of hope and direction and promise, and I knew it wouldn’t stay that way forever, because that was impossible. I knew that some day, at some point, they would both face pain, and fear, and disappointment and desperation, and that was what made me sad. That they would change.
“Hi mate,” Billy said, his grin fading in and out as if he was not quite sure if he should even have one or not. “Long time no see, how are you?”
I gave him a courteous nod. “Good thanks. You?”
“Fine mate. Fine.”
“You’ve been like the invisible man lately,” Jake remarked, eyeing me sideways as he pushed his bike along. I couldn’t help but get the feeling he was giving me the once over you know, trying to determine if I was high or not. “We’d nearly given up on you.”
“Well not all of us,” Michael sort of snapped at him then. Jake did not respond. He just shrugged very slightly and kept walking.
“Turned over a new leaf haven’t I?” I told them all to shut them up. I don’t know if they believed me any more than I believed myself, but it closed the subject. Billy groaned at me.
“Got loads of tapes for you man. My dad’s been on one. Taping all sorts of stuff for you.”
“Oh wow. Tell him thanks a lot.”
“Why don’t you tell him yourself? Come over after school, yeah?”
I looked at Michael. He was smiling and nodding, so I did too. “Okay,” I said. “Why not?”
By first break I was already struggling. Double maths was no kind introduction back into school life. I abhorred the subject and always had done. Couldn’t see the point in it. Couldn’t get excited or interested in numbers. I fought for a while to stay with it, leaning forward over my desk, straining my ears to listen, scribbling notes as fast as I could to help me catch up. The monotonous drone of the teacher didn’t help, and I soon became horribly aware of how far behind I had fallen. My mind kept taking me off to other places, and I felt too weak to fight my way back. I found my gaze drifting time and time again to the world outside the window. The skies outside were pale and grey, promising nothing, and all of it, the sounds of the classroom, the thudding in my own head, filled me with a grating irritation. When the bell finally rang, I rushed for the door, with Michael at my heels. I was craving a drink, a cigarette, something stronger, and the privacy in which to enjoy them. Instead I found myself standing in line in the canteen, waiting to buy a crappy can of coke and a mars bar. I ate the chocolate and drank the coke, and tasted nothing. I followed my friends aimlessly around the corridors, reaching out with one hand to drag slowly along the cold beige wall, and I thought about cows, being herded in for milking, and I felt the narrow walls and the smell of floor cleaner crushing down on me, squeezing the life out of me and it was getting harder to breathe. I made an excuse and rushed to the nearest toilet.
I sat on the loo with my head between my knees. I scooped in several long breaths of air and told myself to calm the fuck down. Beads of sweat had marched out across my forehead, and there were damp patches emerging under my arms. There was a prickle of panic, coursing through my veins, and I hated myself for it. I pulled myself together in time for History, taking my old seat at the back of the class, hoping I could just slump down, become invisible, get through it. But every time someone looked my way, or whispered to the person next to them, I became convinced they were aiming it at me. It became a battle just to keep my backside in the chair. My arse kept shifting. The chair was made of stone. My legs twitched because they wanted to get me out of there and my feet tapped restlessly, wondering where the music was. I just became overwhelmed and bogged down by this feeling that I was in the wrong place, that I shouldn’t be there, that I did not belong. I looked at the other kids and I felt nothing like them. I didn’t care about the stuff they cared about. Truth was, all I cared about, all I really wanted right then, was music and drugs.
I emerged from History, sweating and wanting to kick something. Michael walked alongside of me, asking tentatively if I was alright, and I couldn’t even bring myself to answer him, that was how bad I felt by then. I kept staring at the exits every time we passed one. The temptation to walk out was getting stronger and stronger. And then I felt this light little arm slip through mine, and I looked down, and it was Lucy, smiling in that giddy way of hers. Her cheeks were already warmed with dusky pink, and right away, I felt myself relax. I remembered us lying on the bed together yesterday. I remembered all the Sundays we had spent at the beach, talking, and not talking. I put my arm around her and pulled her close, resting my cheek against the top of her head for a moment and breathing in the smell of her. There was something between us that needed no explaining or defining.
“How’s it going?” she asked me. I sighed.
“Better now I’ve seen you.”
“Been that bad?”
“Worse than I thought,” I said honestly. “Much worse.”
“Come on, you can do it,” she told me with a smile that believed I could. “It’s only school. And it’s nearly lunch time. Half way there.”
“Can’t concentrate on anything. Too much in my head.”
“Don’t worry about concentrating,” she laughed at me. “That will come later. You only have to be here in person, right? To keep them off your back?” I nodded. “Well then, that’s all you have to worry about then. Just be here. And if you want help catching up, I’ll help you after school. Any time.”
“Thanks Lucy. You are very wise, you know.”
“I know I am,” she grinned. “You should listen to me always.”
Her words, and her smile kept me going, through English and towards the end of the day. She sat next to me for English. She gave me fierce smiles whenever Higgs whispered or giggled or passed a note. She squeezed my knee under the table, and winked at me when I looked her way. I tried to keep my head down. I tried to pretend I had not seen the watery pitying smiles from Mrs Baker and I tried to push out how sickened, how low and fragile I felt inside. I gazed out of the window again. I doodled in the margins of my rough book. I knew what I was doing; just killing time, and I didn’t know if I could do it again. Life is killing time I wrote on my paper. Lucy peered at it, and then put a line through it. Life is what you make it she wrote underneath before looking at me expectantly, as if daring me to disagree. Higgs and his friends sniggered throughout the rest of the lesson, and although it occurred to me that I had proved his original opinions of me totally true, I clung onto Lucy, onto what she was telling me. If she hadn’t been there, anchoring me in place, I would have got up and walked out by then.
At the end of the day, the plan was to go to Billy’s to listen to music and do some schoolwork. Michael and Lucy linked arms with me and led me there. I didn’t want to go. Not one bit. I felt exhausted, and desperate for a smoke, but I was too weak and shaky to argue. I let them all sweep me along, because it was making them smile, and I did not want to let them down again.
Up in Billy’s room, he closed his door on his parents and switched on the music. I could have laughed then. Laughed or cried, or both. I was just so relieved to hear some music, and there was this huge collective sigh in the room, and we all just dropped and sprawled and spread our bodies around the room. I ended up with Lucy, curled up together in Billy’s battered arm chair. I let my head fall back into her shoulder and just listened as the others began to dissect the school day, as they scattered their text books and papers across the floor. I possessed no more energy to join in, or to laugh or comment, but it was comforting enough just listening to them. There was still a certain level of tension though. You couldn’t escape it. It was there in the way that Billy and Jake glanced at each other a lot, as if passing messages not meant for me. It was there in the way they seemed to pause or hesitate before they spoke, as if fearful of saying the wrong thing. Their laughs seemed planned, and hollow. Michael was tense for different reasons, I realized. Because he was desperate for things to go well, for us all to get along, for things to be as good as they used to be. The only one who seemed truly and totally relaxed, was Lucy. I held onto her tightly and she held me back. When Slide Away came on, I squeezed her tighter and whispered the lyrics into her ear, making her giggle and blush; now that you’re mine, we’ll find a way, of chasing the sun….let me be the one, who shines with you….in the morning we don’t know what to do…Two of a kind, we’ll find a way, to do what we’ve done…oh let me be the one who shines with you and we can slide away….She laughed and she kissed me on the cheek, and we were shut off from the rest of them then. “You’re crazy…” she breathed into my ear. I grinned. Pressed my lips up to her ear.
“Don’t know, don’t care, all I know is that you take me there!”
“Me too,” she whispered. “Me too Danny.”