I stayed as invisible as I could for the rest of the school term. I was rarely seen anywhere, and I liked it that way. It was safer for everyone. I felt I had well and truly burned my bridges with Lucy, and on the rare occasions that I did make it into school, I ducked my head and looked the other way if I saw her coming. “You’re being an idiot,” Michael told me angrily whenever I was around him long enough to listen to him speak. “She just wants to talk to you! Why are you pushing us all away?”
“She’s better off without me,” I replied coldly, and walked away from him. The only thing that kept me going, the only glint of light on the horizon was going to Chaos on a Friday night. If music was my religion, then Chaos became my church. I went every week without fail. I went with the others, and I went on my own, it didn’t matter to me either way. I went high and I went straight. As long as I went, as long as I made it to Friday, then there was some joy and some pleasure, and the adrenalin from a happiness that eluded me the rest of the time. I felt like a different person when I was on the dance floor, or when I was sat in the corner, just listening to the music thumping through the walls and up from the floorboards. I felt the music beating in my veins and I remembered that I was alive, and that this was a life. Friday was my day, my only day. I would meet with Jaime first, if I had the money. Sometimes he would come to Jack’s flat, sometimes he would meet me in the alley behind The Record Shop. I never offered speed or anything else to Michael again, and he never asked me for any.
Anthony strolled into the record shop one day, wearing what looked like chefs whites under his big winter coat. I felt the childish urge to laugh at him, and right away, he was smiling at me, with this mischievous sparkle in his dark eyes. We looked at each other and it was like we both wanted to smile and laugh, though I had no idea why. He gestured to himself and did a little bow. “What d’you think of the threads? Pretty cool huh?” I just nodded and grinned, and he came up to me and patted my shoulder. For some reason the gesture, and the weight of his hand on me, made me want to cry.
“Jaime said you had a job,” I said instead.
“Oh yes. Working man of the house I am these days mate. Mum’s done a runner, it would seem. I am the proud father of a sixteen year old boy!”
We both laughed, and he patted my shoulder once more and then took his hand away and stuffed it into the pocket of his coat. “I’m sorry Danny,” he said then, and I could see it, the awful regret behind his eyes. I shook my head at him. “No really,” he insisted. “I didn’t mean what I said to you that day. I would never do that, you know that right? We’re mates. More than mates. You’re family. Yeah?” He was staring right into my eyes, millions of unsaid things passing easily between us, and so I smiled at him and nodded, and watched the relief fill his face as his shoulders sagged with it. “I mean it,” he told me. “You’re family.”
“Hey I deserved it,” I told him. “I’m sorry too, yeah? I wouldn’t, you know, ever do that again. I haven’t.”
“I know that stupid,” he grinned and winked at me. “But hey, I am working on things, just so you know. To help you out, I mean. I haven’t forgotten. It’s just taking longer than I thought that’s all.” I nodded and waited for him to say more, but he didn’t, so I had to assume that he would explain all to me when he needed to. “You’re alright though?” he asked me. “You’re doing okay?”
“I’m okay,” I told him, and he looked relieved.
I worried about it afterwards though. I worried about what he was working on. What did that mean? What was going on between him and Jaime? Did Anthony trust Jaime? Was that a good idea, or an incredibly dangerous one? Since as far as Howard knew, I had nothing whatsoever to with Mike or his brother, he had left them both alone. But how long would it stay like that? If Howard got a sniff of anything, if he even got an inkling that people were up to something behind his back….It didn’t bear thinking about. What would happen to Michael if Anthony was sent back to prison? They had no idea where their mother was. The thought sent a shiver down my spine. So when I saw them coming, I did my best to hide, and avoid them. And when they showed up at Chaos, it was fine, because it was our world, and we were safe from view, and we were all united and full of hope and life, but then when it was over, I would go home alone.
Things were steady between Howard and I while my mother was away. I sensed his calmness, his sense of control over me restored by the electric cable lashing. He had me right back where he wanted me, and he knew it and he fucking loved it. It gave him a smug fat look upon his dour face, and it made him relaxed, and it made him laugh. He made me go about with him, as if I were his little pet. In the company of other people, he would sling a fatherly arm around my shoulders, and tell them how I had got myself a job in the record shop. He liked to keep up these false pretences and it made me wonder what his motives were underneath. Did he hate me or love me? Did he loathe me, or did he want me as his son? There were times he appeared so reasonable. Times he would join Jack and I in the flat, laughing at the TV, engaging in conversations, trying to coax me out of myself, trying to let me know how far we had come. And then there were times he would grind his lit fags into my skin just for the hell of it, just because it made him feel good, and there were times he would stare deep into my eyes and say; “how much pain can you take eh? Tough little fucker. How much can you take?”
“This is all wrong,” I would tell him. But he didn’t understand. I didn’t know what he understood, or what motivated him, and I didn’t think I ever would. There were times I lay awake for hours dreaming up intricate ways to murder him, and there were times I just wanted him to be nice to me. Things changed again as soon as my mother returned from Leeds. Figure that out. He gets his precious Barbie doll wife back and goes all aggressive again. He went back to complaining about me quitting the club to work in the fat mans shop instead. He seemed constantly on edge, and he seemed to direct it all at my mother, as if my failings were all her fault. He was quick to temper, and his expectations grew increasingly unrealistic. Was he trying to push her away? Would she finally get to see the real him, the monster he had kept under wraps for her for so very lon? Or did she already know? I would lie on my bed, staring at the cracks in the ceiling and listening to them arguing downstairs.
I wondered how long before he let it come down on her. Before she felt the force of his feet, or his fists. I felt like it was coming, or something was. It felt like things were unravelling faster and I didn’t know whether I ought to welcome it or fear it. I did everything I could to avoid the man. Disappearing out of the back door if I heard him come through the front. Leaving Jack’s flat if there was any hint of Howard coming over. I did whatever it took to remain off his radar, to not get on his nerves with my existence. But when Howard became fixated on something that irritated him, he was like a rabid dog attacking a bone with no meat on it. He wouldn’t let it go.
With my mother back, I started going to school again. She was in a constant nervous state about my attendance and my grades. If I didn’t go, the school would phone her, threatening all sorts, winding her up into meltdown about my future. She would cling all teary-eyed to Howard, as if he had all the answers, although she obviously had no idea what his answers usually involved. So I would go back to school. Trail my way through days of misery and boredom, just to please her, and she would go overboard with the praise and the encouragement at home. Making me special dinners. Buying me CD’s she thought I would like. It was as if she had suddenly remembered my shadowy existence, and thought she ought to be nurturing it in some way. She would be oblivious to the darkening rage on her husband’s face. She did not seem to see the massive fists clenching and unclenching as she babbled on about how proud of me she was. It was a no win situation. Didn’t matter what I did. Either way I would be pissing one of them off.
But then the answer hit me right between the eyes one afternoon when I was at school, sat slumped at my desk, while the children around me scribbled frantic notes in the margins of Hamlet. I glanced around at them all; as usual unable to concentrate on anything for very long, the remains of last night’s highs giving me an ear bashing of a headache and a dull, sick feeling in my belly. Being close to my peers just reminded me of the distance between us, how I was not one of them, and never had been. I sat there, feeling the urge to escape building stronger and stronger inside of me. I realized that I was trapped on a never ending roundabout of despair, unable to ever please anyone, least of all myself. I suddenly started thinking about what Mr James had said to me once. Something about having a hard job keeping me in this school if my behaviour continued. The answer hit me then, and it was so easy and simple, it was almost beautiful. There would be repercussions of course, but it would be worth it, just to be free of this place, this chain around my neck. I smiled to myself and started to kick the chair in front of me, the chair occupied by Edward Higgs.
He turned to glare at me, and I stared back, my expression blank and uncaring. I noticed how grown up Higgs looked these days. He was so much taller and broader, and when I looked down at myself in comparison I felt stunted and fragile, and a surge of hatred rushed up from my guts. I kicked his chair harder and harder, knocking him forward and into his desk. “Idiot!” he hissed at me, before flinging his arm into the air. “Mrs Baker! Danny Bryans is kicking my chair on purpose!”
I felt the eyes of the class turn upon me in hungry wonder. Mrs Baker rose slowly from her desk, a fidgety look on her face. She placed her hands on the desk and peered over her spectacles at me. “Danny, what on earth are you doing? Stop that please, there is no need to be disruptive.” But disruptive was exactly what I planned on being. I kicked the chair harder, and harder, until Higgs gave up and got to his feet, holding up his hands in a gesture of frustration for the teacher. “Danny!” she barked at me. She left her desk rather reluctantly and approached mine, fat hands fluttering around her hips as her long floral skirt swishing around her ankles. “Danny, that’s enough, what on earth are you playing at? That’s enough I said! Quite enough!”
I stopped kicking and stared up at her, narrowing my eyes. “Fuck you.”
A collective gasp of horror arose from the class, followed closely by an expectant silence, as they all stared at Mrs Baker, wondering what the hell she would do now. I thought she looked confused. Hurt even. She shook her grey perm at me. “What did you just say?”
“I said fuck you,” I told her with a shrug. “What are you deaf?”
“Get out of my classroom right now!” She spoke through her teeth, and pointed a slightly shaking hand at the door. “Go to Mr James’s office right now!”
I got up and said nothing as I walked casually to the door, enjoying the stunned silence that followed me. I closed the door behind me and traipsed down the corridor, trailing one hand lightly along the wall as I walked. As I went, I inhaled all of the usual school smells for what I hoped would be the last time. Blackboard dust, disinfectant floor cleaner, and canteen chips. I arrived at the heads office and opened the door without knocking. This was going to be fun.
Mr James was on the phone, and stared at me in surprise as I sauntered on in. “Let me call you back,” he said, and hung up on them. He was frowning at me as he nodded at the chair opposite his. I slumped into it and stared back at him. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” he asked me. “First you grace us with your presence at school, and now I am honoured with a personal visit!”
“Just came to tell you what I told Mrs Baker,” I said to him, and as I said it, I lifted my feet and planted them down on the edge of his desk. He stared at me in total horror. He looked like he had just been punched in the mouth or something. His hands spread out slowly across the desk and his lips pursed tightly together, allowing no sound to come out. “Go fuck yourself,” I added with a shrug. “Both of you.”
“I beg your pardon!” he roared at me then. “And get your damn feet off my desk!”
I yawned. “Are you gonna’ make me?.”
He looked like he was for a second. He shoved back his chair and got violently to his feet, and pointed his finger at me. “Get your feet off my desk right now young man, or I’m phoning your mother to come and get you!”
“Do it. I don’t care. Call her. Call the bitch.”
He shook his head. He looked dazed and baffled and saddened and furious all at once and I really wanted to laugh at him. “You don’t care? What the hell is wrong with you boy? You’re never at school, failing nearly every subject, and when you are here you are disruptive and rude! I told you before young man, I do not have to tolerate this kind of behaviour in my school!”
“Good, cool, throw me out then.” I got to my feet and walked around the chair. Mr James shook his head at me.
“What is this about? You want to be expelled? I don’t understand you Daniel.”
I walked around the edge of his office slowly, taking it all in, the filing cabinets, and the pot plants, and the framed pictures of his family that he kept upon his desk. “You warned me once, if I kept it up, you’d throw me out.”
“I did Daniel, but there is no need for this. I don’t want to see you expelled. I don’t want to see you ruin your life.”
“Too late for that,” I muttered in reply. I was bored. This was taking too long. I picked up a large spider plant from one of the filing cabinets and held it in my hands.
“Too late? What does that mean? Why don’t you put that down and talk to me properly Daniel? Tell me what is bothering you. Whatever it is, we can sort it out, you know. We can help you.”
“Help me,” I said, with a laugh. “Throw me out then. That would help me a lot right now.”
“Well I won’t do it,” he told me adamantly. “This is ridiculous and childish. You have everything ahead of you, and you are a smart young man Daniel. I don’t understand what this is all about. What is wrong with you?”
“Dunno,” I said, and let the pot slip through my fingers. It crashed to the floor, the terracotta plant pot cracking open to spill the black soil out across his carpet. “Oops.”
“Oh get out!” he yelled at me then, pointing at the door. “Go on get out! Get out of my school right now!”
I was relieved. I smiled and slouched over to the door. I opened it and looked back over my shoulder at him. “Can you call my mum and tell her I’m out, or I will come back and burn the whole fucking place down, and I mean it.” I walked out, leaving him in his stupefied silence.
I walked home slowly, hoping he would get right on the phone to my mum and Howard. I chuckled to myself as I walked. I could almost imagine how the phone call would go. He would tell my mum I couldn’t come back. He would tell her how strange and threatening I had been. He would suggest I still had a problem with drugs. He would say the school are not equipped to deal with such things. He would tell her I needed help, and she would believe it all, she would suck it all up like she always did, and I knew this was true, and I saw it all over her tear streaked face when I walked in through the back door. Here I was. Her druggy drop out son. Hurray.
She was at the sink, peeling potatoes. When she saw me shuffle in, she dropped the peeler and turned to face me, hugging her arms around her thin body as if to comfort herself. I viewed her coldly, and turned my eyes on Howard. He was sat at the table with a newspaper spread out before him, but he rose to his feet as I walked in, and all at once his body and his being consumed all of the air, and I felt like I was going to choke. He stepped behind her, took hold of her shoulders and kept her standing, while his eyes shot icy daggers at me. “Why did you do it?” she started saying, shaking her head and sending fresh tears flying all over the room. “Are you insane? Have you gone crazy? Why would you do such a thing? Why? What are you going to do now Danny? Don’t you even care about your future?”
I shrugged with my hands in my pockets and my eyes on hers. “Not really no. Couldn’t give a shit if you want the truth.”
She pressed a hand over her gaping mouth and wailed thinly behind it. “Why are you doing this to me? Why do you want to hurt me so much? Why Danny?”
“Because he’s a selfish little bastard who doesn’t care about anyone except himself,” came the slow, cold words from Howards mouth as he rubbed her shoulders from behind.
“Are you on drugs again?” She asked me. “That’s what Mr James thinks! He said we should get you some help…take you to the doctor…Lee,” she looked up into his face. “That’s what we need to do, the school said!”
“It’s up to you,” he shrugged back at her. “But I don’t know how we’d make him go. And what will they do anyway? What can they do about it? But it’s up to you, call them if you want to baby.”
I wanted to leave them to it, so I balled my fists at my sides and walked towards the hallway. “He just doesn’t want to go to school,” Howard snarled over her head then. “That’s what it is. Wants to spend all his time in that record shop. Thinks that’s where his future lies!” He laughed out loud at the very idea. I stared back, and felt nothing but numb hatred for the pair of them.
“You won’t have them bothering you anymore,” I said. “And if it makes you happy I’ll go and sit the exams in the summer.”
“Ha!” Howard cried in triumph. “See honey? He gets to do what he wants! You can see exactly what he’s playing at!”
I laughed over my shoulder as I trudged down the hallway. “Oh you’re so funny Lee,” I said to him. “If only mum knew the truth eh? If only she knew.” It made me chuckle as I walked up the stairs. I sniggered, remembering his jealous sulks every time mum praised my efforts to go to school. The whole thing was ridiculous. They had followed me out to the hallway, and were staring up at me, their matching expressions of disgust and outrage glowering up at me. In that moment, I saw them as one person, as one enemy, one monster. My mother looked and sounded like she had been devoured completely by Howard, like she had been absorbed into him, and even the eyes that stared out from her face were his, like he had crawled right inside her soul. That’s never happening to me, I thought, staring back at her, I would rather die first. She was clinging to his shirt like a small tearful child, and he was staring at me with stone like eyes, and a flicker of a smile upon his face.
“You really are the most selfish, unpleasant piece of work I’ve ever had to deal with,” he said, which was ironic really, if you thought about it. So I laughed. I knew I would pay for it as soon as she passed out, but in that moment I didn’t care. It was playtime. I could let him know what I really thought about him.
“You sound like you’re talking about yourself Lee,” I told him with a smirk. “Although I could add a few things to the list that mum doesn’t know about.” I raised my eyebrows, daring him to disagree.
“Danny go to your room,” my mother said then, pulling her wet face away from his shirt. “It’s best if we all calm down, then we can talk about this tomorrow and see what to do.”
“Do?” I cried back at her, incredulous. “We’re not going to do anything mother, so don’t stand there trying to make out you give a shit about me. We all know you don’t and you never have!” I stomped up the stairs, but she called out to me.
“Danny!” I paused and looked back at her, and I wondered what she really saw when she looked at me; something evil? Something damaged and broken, something she had never really loved? I searched her eyes with my own, begging her to see the truth, pleading with her, but then I saw her hands rising up to find Howard’s again, and I saw the way it was always going to be. I nodded at her.
“Just leave me alone. Before you know it I’ll be out of your hair for good.” I turned and ran swiftly up the stairs. I closed my door, sat on my bed and pressed my hands together between my steadily shaking knees. I squeezed my eyes shut and let the waiting begin.
I waited in my room for hours. I waited for the thing to be over. The knot of dread and fear inside my stomach increased in size like a bad tempered tumour. I moved restlessly around my room in an attempt to shift it, but it clung to me wherever I went. I thought I would vomit if it went on much longer, so I took a deep breath and pulled the chair out from where I had wedged it under the door handle. It was close to midnight and I was desperate for a piss. I had considered aiming it out of the window, but what was the point in delaying the inevitable? Might as well let him get it out of his system now, before it built up any longer. I reminded myself that once it was over, it was over, and another day would begin. I swallowed dry air, opened the door and dashed to the bathroom.
He pounced on my way back. I heard the single creak on the stairs that gave away what would happen next, and then he loomed up like a horrific shadow out of the dark chasm of the stairs. I tried to run, but he pinned my arms to my sides and when I opened my mouth to scream, he slapped his hand over my lips before any sound could be made and hauled me roughly back into my room. He kicked the door shut behind us and hissed into my ear. “Don’t try pulling that stunt again shit stain! She won’t hear you anyway! She’s out cold!” He pushed me down on the bed, twisted my right arm up behind me and planted his knee into the small of my back. I grunted in pain and there was no escape. “I’ve just about had enough of you,” he was snarling and dribbling over me. “You still don’t learn do you? You’re still not doing what I say in my own fucking house! Thought you were clever eh? Getting kicked out of school so you can hang about in that shop all day! What’s it gonna’ take eh? What’s it gonna’ take to get you in line and keep you there?” He pulled back a knee and looped a hard fist into my kidneys. “More of that?” he asked breathlessly, pressing his cold thin lips to my ear every time he spoke. Another fist thundered in, hitting the same spot and opening up the pain again, making my body want to weep and bleed. Break me, I thought to myself, with my face pressed into the duvet, my eyes closed tightly as another fist smashed into my ribs. Break me all apart, do it, do it, break me all up, do it, just fucking do it!
He stopped punching then and leaned down into my ear. “You think your mum can hear anything?” his voice rasped and licked against my skin. “She can’t hear a thing. She’s fucking comatose on sleeping pills” He put his hand around my neck then, holding me down, while his other hand was doing something, wrestling with something. “So don’t bother calling for her this time little man, because she won’t fucking come, and she wouldn’t fucking come even if she could hear you, do you know that? Do you know she wishes she had aborted you? Yeah! Did you know that, did you? She’s told me a thousand times little man. She even went to the clinic, that’s how close she came, that’s how much she never wanted you! So call her if you like and see if she cares! Because no one cares Danny! No one cares about you, except me, so I don’t know why you keep fucking me off all the time and making me angry! I don’t get why you keep messing with me, you little fuckbag, why do you do it? Why do you want to wind me up all the time? You’re still not the good boy I told you to be, are you? You’re a scruffy little fucked up dope head, that’s what you are! So what’re we gonna’ do about that then eh?”
He was tugging at something and when he got it free he held it down in front of my face, and I opened my eyes to see his belt doubled over. “You asked for this yet again,” he told me in a hoarse, choked voice. “Yet again you pushed me to it. You never fucking learn. When will you fucking learn you won’t win Danny? You won’t ever win!”
The first strike sliced into my clammy skin and I wanted to scream, so I wriggled enough to get one of my hands up to my mouth, and I pushed it right it, crammed my fist right back against my teeth so that I wouldn’t. Because I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. I crushed the pain down with my teeth and waited for it to be over.