Hope was a dangerous thing. With only a matter of weeks to go before I turned sixteen, I was becoming hooked on it. It was more intoxicating, more addictive than any of the drugs I had been messing around with. It was also more fragile. It was a constant tease; easing me into calmer dreams at night, and then awaking to hold my hand again when the morning arrived. As Anthony put in extra hours at the pub, and Michael started a weekend job at the McDonalds on Somerley road, I felt the soft fingers of hope caressing me at every turn. Still, I was holding back from it all of the time, afraid to give in to it, afraid to believe in it or let it carry me away. I stopped buying uppers and downers from Jaime and started shoving all of my record shop money into a sock which I kept hidden at the back of my wardrobe. I made sure to take a deep breath of fresh hope every day, and I felt my mind getting clearer and my heart stronger. There was a chance, at least, I told myself. A possibility. If we could get out, if we could get away without them knowing, then that would be it, wouldn’t it? It would all be over.
I sensed a new tension breeding at home. It seemed to seep from the very walls, permeating the very air around us. I felt Howard watching me closely; a million dangerous promises paused behind his thin lips. He had a mobile phone. This sleek black brick he punched his demands into. I took deep breaths whenever I could; otherwise it felt like I would suffocate. I felt like all I had to do was make it to my birthday, survive that long, and I would be free. I had started to sort out and pack up my belongings in private. Throwing things I didn’t need into the rubbish when no one was at home. I packed records and tapes up in bags and scurried over to Michael’s with them. They were packing up too. Slowly, but surely, peeling themselves away from their old lives.
I was in a daze one day at the dinner table. Headphones on, until Howard came to the table. I need to wash myself again, to hide all the dirt and pain, Thom Yorke whined into my ears, while my eyes fixed on the knife and fork that lay on the table before me. My mother buzzed around the kitchen, with an oven glove on one hand, and a cigarette in the other. She had just returned from the hairdressers; her stiffened waves now a startling shade of gold. I felt the barrier between us, and an immense sadness drooping on top of me as I sat there in my bubble of music. ‘Cause I’d be scared that there’s nothing underneath, but who are my real friends? Have they all got the bends? Am I really sinking this low? Howard stormed in, reaching automatically for my headphones, but I was faster, ducking away and pulling them off myself. He narrowed his eyes, grunted and slumped into the chair opposite me.
“He’s up to something.” He picked up his fork and waved it menacingly from side to side. My mother placed the food on the table; sausage, chips and beans. She sighed softly and slipped into the third chair. I just looked down at my food, and tried to be invisible.
“Okay honey,” she said, in the soothing voice she used for him when he was in a rotten mood. “I know you’ve had a bad day, but please don’t start this at the dinner table. Danny’s been no trouble lately. You were saying it yourself the other day.”
Howard simply ignored her. His piggy eyes bore into me as I tried to eat. “Just so you know,” he said, through a mouthful of sausage. “I know you’re up to something, alright? She may like to live on another planet these days, but I know alright?”
I continued to eat in silence, pushing my food around the plate so that it would look like I had eaten more than I had. I hated eating in Howard’s presence. Every mouthful felt like I was chewing on glass, every untasted lump of food slipping down my throat and threatening to stick. “Can I go?” I asked. I couldn’t bear to have to look at him any longer, knowing what I knew. I couldn’t bear his eyes on me. I felt my body twitching to escape. My mother nodded at me.
“Course you can love.”
“Have you done your jobs?” Howard barked. I pushed back my chair and stood up.
“I’ve been at my job.”
“Job?” He rolled his eyes and laughed at me. “That’s not a job, you idiot. You don’t get fucking paid yet do you?” I breathed in, bit down on the words that filled my head, and forced a smile.
“What do you want me to do?”
Minutes later I was pushing the lawnmower up and down the back garden in the heavy August sun, while Howard sat on the doorstep watching me suffer. My mother had gone to answer the phone. His greedy eyes followed my every move. I kept my head down, watching the grass as the lawnmower teeth devoured it in stripes. I could feel the small hand of hope slipping away from me then, to be replaced by the familiar chill of dread that clung to my spine, crawling up to my neck and flicking the hairs on end, one by one. The oppressive heat burned down from a stark cloudless sky, yet the skin on my arms had broken out in goose pimples. I lifted my head when movement caught my eye. Howard had risen from the step. He looked over his shoulder, into the kitchen, and then he came towards me. I pushed on, keeping my eyes down as I heaved the lawnmower forward. He fell into casual step behind me, still puffing lazily on his cigarette. I longed so badly for hope to return and take my hand again, but she had gone, she was hiding.
“Why you giving Jack the cold shoulder?” Howard was walking close behind me, following my every step, sounding cocky and full of it like he always did, every word he spoke soaked in a snort of ridicule. I leaned forward, pushing the mower and shrugged.
“Don’t just say ‘what’! Turn the fuck around and look at me when I’m speaking to you!”
I stopped walking. I killed the mower and turned slowly to face him, pushing my sweaty hair out of my eyes with the back of one hand. The glare of the sun bounced into my eyes from behind him, so I had to raise a hand in order to see the face of the man who towered above me. A shark like smile gleamed upon his face. “Why does it matter to you?” I asked him. “What I do, or where I go?”
He puffed his smoke right into my face. “Don’t answer a question with a question shit for brains!”
“I’ve been busy, how about that?”
I watched him sucking up his breath, the great inhalation puffing up his chest and increasing his height. “Sarcastic little motherfucker,” he said softly. He cocked his head, and ran his eyes slowly up and down my body as if inspecting me closely for lies. He ran a sluggish tongue across his lower lip. “See, that’s how I know you’re up to something. ‘Cause you’re not going round to Jacks. You’re up to something. I can feel it. I know it. One minute you’re all over Jack like a fucking rash, the next you’re nowhere near the place.”
I shrugged at him, and glanced at the kitchen door, wondering how close mum was to finishing her phone call. I was brimming over with defiance, if you want to know the truth. Oh how much I longed to spit in his face, or stamp on his balls. It was all I could do to contain the sneer in my voice, or the loathing in my eyes as I spoke to him. “You really shouldn’t worry so much,” I said to him, catching the sudden shadow of my mother making her way briskly and urgently through the kitchen. “I’m not doing anything wrong, just got bored of going there that’s all. Can’t stand the guy to tell you the truth.”
Howard had no time to respond. “Lee!” my mother cried for him, as she appeared weakly in the doorway, stopping there and clinging to the wall. A steady flow of tears marched down her cheeks from her panic stricken eyes. Her whole face seemed twisted with grief, or shock, or something. Howard did not move.
“What is it baby?”
“My mum,” she whimpered in reply, covering her face with her hands, her big blue eyes staring out from between her fingers. “My mum, she’s died.” With that, she turned suddenly, and stumbled away from us, back into the house. Howard turned his head and gazed down at me. A thin and malicious smile spread out across his face. We could hear her distressed sobbing coming from beyond the kitchen. I swallowed, looking away. I felt cold, and alone. I felt like the only person in the world. I felt isolation swirling around me like a mist. I felt trapped and lost, and when I looked back up at him, he was grinning. His eyes were laughing at me as he reached out, and circled his hand around my wrist. Right there, in the middle of the sun baked lawn, he lowered the cigarette from his lips and pressed the glowing butt into the palm of my hand. I stiffened, hissing pain through my teeth, and then it was over. He walked away from me. He swaggered, strutted, and whistled. He didn’t look back because he did not need to. He went into the house and called out to her.
I stood in the middle of the garden for what seemed like a long time. I used my thumb to rub gently at the burn, hushing it, while my shoulders hung and my heart burned. I stood and I listened, my breathing fast and shallow. I listened to the crying and the wailing and the murmured words of comfort. I listened to Howard on the telephone. I listened to footsteps hurrying up and down the stairs. I imagined bags being packed, and wished that they were mine. I made myself move then. I walked slowly around to the front of the house, and then as the howl of protest began to build up at the back of my throat, I picked up my pace and I ran. I found myself at Michael’s front door, leaning into it as I banged upon it, looking back over my shoulder and doubting every shred of hope I had believed in before.
Anthony let me in and bopped me cheerily on the head with a rolled up newspaper. “Been phoning up about places,” he said, closing the door. “Want to come and see a few with us tomorrow?” I nodded in silence, as the burn pulsed within my closed fist. Anthony frowned at me. “You okay?”
Michael appeared in the lounge doorway, a piece of toast in one hand. “This can’t happen soon enough,” I told them both. “Mum’s going away again. Right now, she’s packing. My Grandma just died.”
Michael made a face. “Shit. Sorry mate.”
I shook my head at him. “I’m scared guys. He knows something is up. He wants to know why I’m not round Jacks anymore. He’s getting paranoid and worked up, and now she’s not gonna’ be around again…and….” My voice had faded down to nothing, my throat tight and dry. Anthony was looking at me gently.
“Hey. It’s alright mate, don’t panic. Soon enough he won’t even know where we are. You’ve just got to hang on a bit longer, yeah? We’re moving as fast as we can.”
I looked down at my hand. I uncurled my fingers and held out my palm. “It’s gotta’ be faster,” I told them as they gasped. “Or I’m fucked.”