He broke my fucking headphones! Fuck! Fuck him! I just had to take it. I just had to get on my knees and clean the stupid fridge, with broken headphones dangling around my stupid, dirty neck. I could feel it. I could feel his imprint on my skin, I could feel the coating of dirt he had given me, and I longed to scrape it away, I longed to tear at it with my nails. Instead I cleaned the fridge, and then I cleaned the oven, while he sat at the table, drinking his tea, smoking his cigarettes and gloating. I bristled, and shivered, and I had to find somewhere to put the anger, I had to push it down, contain it somehow. It was black and ugly and trembling to life within me.
When he said I could go to the shop, I took the money and ran. I did not feel my body start to shake until I had rounded the end house, and pressed my back into the wall there. Then it came like an explosion; nerves rattling to jittery life throughout my limbs, and as I looked up at the Andersons house I couldn’t help laughing at myself, picturing how I must look, all red faced, and shaking like a leaf. I lifted a shuddering hand to my neck and brushed away the dirt I could still feel there, the dirt from his fucking boot. I laughed out loud, because I had to. I felt like just curling up into a small ball and crying my eyes out, but what good would that do me? I laughed at how insane and ridiculous it all was, but I was also laughing in fear, and the fear was escalating along with the physical reaction, my heart pounding so hard I could feel it vibrating in my eardrums. I fumbled clumsily for the cigarette in my back pocket, found it and promptly dropped it. I picked it up with useless shaking fingers and tried to light it. It suddenly seemed imperative, life and death even, that I light the cigarette and smoke it. Finally, I cupped my hands around my mouth long enough to get it lit, and pulled away from the wall. I made the best show I could of walking, no, marching across to Michaels house. I put my heart and soul into it, if you can believe that. Threw my shoulders back, held my head high and as I walked I smoked, and as I smoked I felt better, and a kind of vicious, energising anger railed violently through me. One day, I thought, I am going to get that son-of-a-bitch, I am going to make him pay, I am going to make him sorry.
“You’ll have to go without me,” I told Michael when he answered the door to me. “He’s onto me. Won’t even let me go to work and back on my own.”
I watched his face fill with dismay. “No!” he argued, kicking at the door. I shrugged and started to turn away from him.
“Can’t risk it.”
“We’ll meet you at the record shop,” he called after me urgently. “The fat man will cover for you if he checks!”
I looked back at him, smiling as the relief washed over me. “Okay. I’ll meet you there.”
I had a plan then. A filthy little conniving plan. I got the things he was too lazy to get himself from the shop and carried them dutifully home for him. I found him settled in front of the TV, a cigarette on the go and the phone pressed to his ear. He lowered it to his chest when he saw me lingering in the doorway with the shopping bags. “Talking to your mum,” he told me, flashing a friendly smile which at best just confused me, the way he could change like that. “Just dump those in the kitchen.”
I took a breath and braved the question; “Can I go to record shop? He’s expecting me.”
Howard made a face and checked his watch. “Okay then,” he agreed. “I’ll pick you up from there later.”
Another breath. “I can go to Jacks right after if you like. You know, see how he is.”
He nodded. “Alright then, I’ll get you from there when I’ve finished at the club then.”
He put the phone back to his ear and I legged it. Dumped the shopping on the kitchen table, flew out of the door and ran. It felt like I had air beneath my feet, lifting me up as I tore around the corner back to Michaels. It felt like I would be able to fly, if I stretched my arms out far enough. The man had two personalities, I mused, as I went. There was the psychotic side, the side that gave me nightmares, the side that had me constantly believing I was about to die, and then there was that side, the almost normal one. I would never understand it. The way he could be standing on my neck and threatening to kill me one moment, and then smiling casually as if nothing had ever happened the next.
Michael and Anthony slipped silently out of the house after I knocked. I told them my plan, and we caught the bus into town, and hopped off outside of The Record Shop. I ducked my head around the door, and saw Terry in his usual place, in his usual position; head lowered into the pages of a magazine, while a mug of tea steamed on the counter. He looked up when he saw me. “You’re not due in,” he said.
“I know, can you do me a massive favour Terry?”
He looked instantly unimpressed. “Depends what it is.”
“If my step-dad comes in here looking for me, can you tell him you sent me home with a bad stomach ache? I was like green and sweating and everything!”
He rolled his eyes at me and picked up his tea. “Go on then.”
“Thanks Terry! You’re a legend!”
Michael, Anthony and I spent the next few hours trailing around the dingy back streets of Belfield Park’s least desirable quarters. We viewed bed-sits that turned our stomachs and put us off getting any lunch; each one more dirty, dark and depressing than the last. The final one on the list was situated at the very top of a four storey, red and white Victorian building. It jutted out from the corner of a road, almost opposite the lane that led down to Chaos. I couldn’t stop smiling at this point, and Michael and Anthony smiled too, knowing why. I had to keep turning my head just to catch a glimpse of my Friday night heaven. The man from the letting agency was about Anthony’s age, and dressed in a smart dark blue suit. He held a clipboard under one arm, and smiled at us constantly. He unlocked the large metal door at the front of the building and gestured for us to go in first.
We swapped amused looks with each other as we began to climb the stairs. The walls were dank, grey and peeling, covered in ancient spray painted graffiti. The acrid stench of fresh urine offended our nostrils. At the top of the stairs, we came onto a small landing, where we stood upon a threadbare red carpet and gazed at a large, red wooden door. The paint was flaking and patchy, and the glass window gone, boarded up with MDF. The young man used his key to open the door and ushered us through. “It’s very spacious inside,” he gushed excitedly, as if about to show us a magnificent space with sea views. “It has one of the largest living spaces,” he added, and as I walked in, I could see he was right. The main room was about three times the size of the other places we had looked at, and there were large sash windows going all the way around. The ceilings were very high, and the walls had been recently painted with white emulsion.
I went up to one of the windows and pressed against it, feeling instantly how thin it was. I chuckled to myself as I gazed down on the rabbit warren of alleys and streets below us. It would feel like living at the top of the world, I thought, and I liked that. Like we would be living among the clouds, up and away from all the shit. I could even see part of Chaos, poking around the corner, its dark eyes closed, its drumbeat silenced. I held a hand to the cold glass and willed it to wake up, to wake up and shine…
I turned around to see the agency man attempting to show Anthony how easily the double bed pulled down from the wall, and nearly crashing it into both their heads in the process. He blushed, grimaced and lowered it to the floor, giving the sagging mattress an encouraging pat with his hand. He then stepped around it, pulled back the beige beaded curtain and demonstrated the tiny kitchen. “Compact,” he quipped brightly. “But meets all your needs. Oven and grill. Fridge with ice box. Storage.”
Anthony stepped briskly to the door on the right side of the bed. “This must be the loo then?” he asked, pulling the door open. Michael and I both laughed when he hastily slammed it again. “Compact,” he said. “Meets all our needs.”
“You mean we can shit in it?” I laughed.
“The shower was just replaced,” the man from the agency piped up, offering us his brightest, most engaging smile. He looked to Anthony who had crossed his arms over his chest. “So, what do you think?”
Anthony looked at us, and all three of us nodded and grinned in unison. Anthony strode towards the agency man, offering him a hand to shake. “We can give you the deposit today,” he said.
We caught the bus back to Redchurch, our spirits high, and a celebratory drink in mind. I sat next to the window on the way back, and I could not stop smiling, because I could feel that hope had crept back in to hold my hand again. I could feel her there beside me, as we hopped off the bus and stole around the back way to their house, and I wondered if hope was really a dangerous thing, as it seemed so transient, so fragile. One moment it was there, and the next it was gone again. But with the deposit down, and the paperwork underway, there seemed genuine cause to breathe another sigh of relief. “I’m going to call Lucy later,” I announced, when the three of us had been settled in the back garden for a few minutes, with beers in hand. Michael just laughed out loud and clapped his hands.
“About fucking time!” he bellowed at me as I blushed.
“You’ll be lucky if she gives you the time of day,” Anthony told me with a lazy grin.
“I’m gonna’ tell her everything,” I went on, almost gritting my teeth as I talked, and staring down at the grass, as it pieced and pulled together inside my mind. “All of it. And I’m going to say sorry to her. And then, I’m going to kiss her.” I nodded, and looked up at them, as they exploded into laughter.
“You dozy cunt!” yelled Anthony, shaking his head. Michael shielded his eyes from the sun with one hand.
“Well I better tell you mate, it was one of the things she complained about to me when I had that chat with her in the café!”
“Yep, she was really pissed off mate. Said you never once tried to kiss her and you only think of her as a friend!”
“You moron,” Anthony groaned at me, while I grimaced in shame. He was lounging in a rickety deck chair, stripped down to just his jeans. Michael and I were sat on the doorstep, grinning in unison. “Well that’s it now Danny my son,” he said to me. “You’ve said it, we’ve both heard it, now you have to bloodywell do it!”
I shook my head and laughed. “No not yet! I need another drink first. I need the courage!”
One beer later, and they watched me, their cheeks puffed out with restrained laughter, as I got up and disappeared into the house to make the call. It was quick. Done and dusted, and when I returned I could feel my cheeks burning with warmth, and my smile was starting to make my cheeks ache. “She said yes,” I told their expectant, wide-eyed faces. “She’s coming over!”
Anthony was on his feet, and spreading coals out onto the rusty old barbeque he had dragged out of the shed earlier. He beamed at me. “You jammy bastard!” I nodded in agreement. I sat back down on the step, just as the back gate creaked on its hinges, and Billy and Jake appeared in the alley way, their hands wrapped around the handlebars of their bikes, their faces twitchy, and unsure. “Alright boys?” Anthony called out to them, waving a set of tongs. “Looks like we got ourselves a little party here!”
I watched as Billy rolled his eyes in relief, sighed and dumped his bike inside the gate. He headed straight for the bucket of cold water Anthony had filled with cheap bottles of beer. “Thank god you called us!” he breathed out, helping himself to a beer and passing another one back to Jake, who was hanging back slightly, his hands in his pockets and his expression wary. “We were going out of our minds with boredom!”
“Well that’s your own fucking fault!” Michael retorted without sympathy. “You know where we are!”
“So what’s going on?” Billy asked, flopping down onto the grass with his short legs stuck out in front of him. “What’s the occasion? Why you three looking so pleased with yourselves?”
I took out a cigarette and lit it up. I had a fluttery light feeling inside my belly; nerves and excitement and fear. I felt light headed with it. I watched them all from the step, feeling myself drift back from them slightly, to the outside. I was uncertain of what to say, and how to say it. I tried to remember the last time I had spoken properly to either Billy or Jake, and I could not come up with anything. Even on the rare nights they had shown up at Chaos, I had been too out of my mind, too high on everything to really acknowledge them. In fact, I had avoided Jake like the plague, because his sombre eyes made me paranoid, and because he suddenly seemed so grown up, so mature and contained. He had even grown a little fluffy beard for fucks sake. He seemed old before his time to me. I felt like there was a giant chasm between us. Maybe he had been thinking the same as me, as he made his way awkwardly towards the back door, hovering there with beer in hand, drinking it in quick, nervous gulps. I looked up and smiled at him to break the silence. “Alright then Jake?”
He nodded, but remained unsmiling. “I will be. Once the bloody exam results are in. Can’t stand all this waiting around.”
I nodded, but I didn’t understand. I hadn’t thought twice about the handful of exams I had turned up to. I couldn’t give a shit. They meant nothing to me, and I had no idea why they meant to so much to him. “Well you know you’ll be fine,” I shrugged at him. “So why worry?”
“I dunno,” he shrugged back. “Born worrier I suppose. That’s what my mum says anyway.”
“Sixth form then?” I asked him, struggling to think of ways to keep the conversation flowing. “Like Lucy?”
“Yeah, that’s the plan, if I get the right results.”
“You’ll be fine,” I said, offering him a smile. “Smart boy like you. Don’t know what you’re worried about.”
Jake returned the smile a little stiffly. “So what about you then?” he sighed, as he lowered himself down beside me on the step. “You seem well. I mean, you seem better.”
“Not so bad today,” I corrected him with a wink. “You never know with me. Next time you see me I’ll probably be a fucking wreck!” I laughed, but Jake had trouble even smiling at my joke. He kept his eyes on me. They looked restless and troubled.
“Why?” he asked me. I could only meet his gaze for a moment or two before I had to look away. I shrugged and drank my beer.
“Complicated. Home stuff. Shit stuff. I dunno. Sometimes it’s just easier to get wasted and forget about everything.”
“Well it’s a shame,” he told me with some certainty, as if he had been thinking about it a lot. “Because you’re nice guy, you know, you always have been. And you’re clever. You probably don’t realise it or whatever, but you are. You could be like a real writer or something one day. “
I laughed . “I doubt it!”
Jake smiled tentatively. “How about the record shop anyway? You are so lucky he gave you a job there like that!”
“I know, I know,” I grinned. “Terry is a lazy arsed, opinionated rude fucker, but he don’t half know a lot about music. We argue all the time. It’s hilarious.”
Jake grinned at me and nodded. “I bet it is. Well done. I mean, I’m glad for you. I hope it all works out. Good luck with it.”
I looked at him sideways, and thought that saying good luck was as close to saying goodbye as you could get without actually saying it. I didn’t know why, but a kind of sadness washed over me then, and I felt heavy with it, and wanted to run away from it. I thought about the different paths our lives would take, and how it was inevitable, that people would come in and out of your life, all of the time, moving on when things changed. All those kids at school, I thought, most of them won’t stay in touch, they won’t stay friends. It will all fade away. Like nearly everything does. Some would go one way, and some would go the other. One day they would pass each other in the street and not even recognise each others faces. Jake would get into the sixth form and then he would go away somewhere to a University, and he would meet serious, sombre faced people like himself, and he would do well, he would do really well, and he would have a good life, an honest life. “And you,” I told him warmly. “Good luck with everything. And hey, I’m sorry, yeah? About being a total prick most of the time lately. Hopefully things are looking up now anyway.”
“I’m sure they are,” he agreed, holding up his bottle to clink against mine. “Definitely. Cheers mate.”
“Yeah. Cheers Jake.”
It was a different story when Lucy turned up. It was more like saying hello, then goodbye. It was like saying hello for the first time, it was like seeing each other properly for the first time. How can I explain it? I felt this forceful and urgent desire, this need to be near her, when she arrived through the kitchen, bright eyed but hesitant. I did not hand around or hang back or hesitate. I did not hover in the background, or wait shyly for her to come to me. I got briskly to my feet and walked away from Billy in mid-conversation, to meet her in the house. Then we moved soundlessly back towards the hallway together, and through to the lounge. I took her hand into mine. Girl From Mars by Ash was playing on the radio, and I thought, if this goes well, I am going to remember this song forever…
“I’m a twat, and I’m sorry about everything,” I told her. I searched her eyes with my own. I looked into her face and all I could see was goodness, and all I could see was a future, a good future. Every part of my body seemed to tremble with longing and I felt like my entire heart, my entire life lay right there in her hands. Her fingers moved, entangling with mine, and my heart lurched violently within my chest. She moved nearer to me. Her hair smelled like the beach.
“I’m a twat,” she said, with a teasing kind of smile that sparkled in her brown eyes. “And I’m sorry about everything too.” A raise of her eyebrows, and her hand tightened on mine. I swallowed, leaned forward, and kissed her cheek. I heard her sharp intake of breath, so I stepped back and looked into her face. I felt like everything was happening, everything was clashing together right in front of my eyes, and I felt like life was an amazing, wonderful thing, and then she reached up, her hand sliding slowly up to caress my neck, on the very spot Howard had placed his boot just hours earlier. I closed my eyes, leaned in, and found her mouth with mine. Just the sensation of her lips, pressed against mine seemed to send my body into overdrive. I felt myself harden down below. I felt like a man, like someone who had finally grown. Her hands linked behind my neck, under my hair. I had never felt anything like it before and it was setting me on fire. She was kissing me back, and we kissed for a long, long time. I never wanted to let her go again. It had been such a long time coming, and now my body ached with a desire I never knew it possessed. My heart had flooded with joy. I kissed her passionately and forcefully, I held her tightly to me, and I wanted to tell her everything, I wanted her to know about it all, I wanted her to know me and see me totally, as I really was, and I wanted her to stand by my side forever, just radiating warmth into my life. I ran my hands back through her hair, and I could barely believe that I was almost sixteen years old and had never truly felt alive, until that moment.