They were not happy about me seeing her. None of them were. None of them, except Anthony. He didn’t say much about it, but I got the feeling that he was the only one who sort of understood it. He never gave me any grief about it anyway, never tried to talk me out of going. “Shittinghell, not again,” Michael would roll his eyes and complain every time he found out I had been to see her. I didn’t tell them when I was planning it, but they always knew by the time I returned. “You’re insane,” he would tell me, shaking his head. “And why the hell do you have to be so secretive all the time? It’s like when you were on drugs, only I think I preferred that!” I’d shrug my shoulders, keep my thoughts to myself, and allow him the opportunity to do the same. “How do you make sure it’s safe?” he would ask me sometimes.
“I go when he’s at work,” I told him simply. “We sit by the window, so we can see if his car comes. I’d run out the back.”
“He’s gonna’ find out,” Michael gripped my arm, and his dark eyes searched mine, pleading with me. “One way or another, sooner or later, this is gonna’ backfire.”
“He’s old enough to make his own decisions,” Anthony spoke up for me from across the room. Michael glared at him, and Anthony returned his glare with a patient smile. “It’s his business if he wants to help her Mike.”
The very idea seemed to enrage him. He stood up from the bed, his feet hitting the floor with a bang. He looked between Anthony and I accusingly, as if we were in on this together, just to infuriate him. “Why bother?” he demanded to know. “What has she ever done for him? One day, that psycho maniac is gonna’ catch on, and then they’ll both be dead meat!”
It was obviously an idea I had entertained myself, many times. But nothing ever happened. Howard remained what he had been for almost a year now. A gruesome and somewhat ghostly figure from the past. We still hurried out of Redchurch after a certain time, and life went on. I visited my mother when I could, which was usually once or twice a month, and I said very little about it to anyone. I still didn’t fully understand it myself, so what was the point in trying to explain it to the people who hated her? The thing was, every time I saw her, she seemed stronger, more like the old her. It made me smile, you see, when I saw her like that. I remembered some good times we had shared, in between annoying boyfriends. Her, John and I, muddling our way through together. There had been good times before, before everything happened, and it felt nice to remember them. She would sit and stare at me with this shininess to her eyes, telling me about funny things I did and said when I was a little kid. She had the old spark back, maybe. That fire in her eyes, and instead of clashing, we were meeting somewhere in the middle, as friends. She had confided in John to a certain extent. Told him that she wanted to leave Lee, and set up on her own. He was prepared to help her when the time came. He had opened a bank account in his name and posted her the debit card and the pin number. She could put money in whenever she wanted, save up for her escape, and Howard would not realise a thing.
I would go and see Lucy afterwards. I’d be a bit high on the adrenaline of it all. She would look at me the same way Michael did. Fear and reproach in her eyes, and every word she spoke, picked out cautiously, just in case. “I feel better,” I tried to tell her. “I can’t explain it. It doesn’t mean I’ve forgiven her, or we’re all okay, it’s just I feel better when I talk to her. It’s helping me understand stuff. I can’t explain it to you any better than that.” She would just slip her arms around me, rest her head down on my shoulder and hold me tight. She wouldn’t say anything about it unless I pushed her.
“I’m just scared,” she would say, a flicker of a smile dancing on her lips before fading away again. “Silly me. I’m sure you know what you’re doing.”
They were more on edge than I was. I don’t know why. One night we were mucking about at the back of the disorderly crowd that queued to get into Chaos, when Michael became utterly convinced he had seen Howard’s car. One moment it had all been laughing and joking, pushing each other about, and ruffling Billy’s new haircut, and the next, it all changed. Michael, his face as white as a sheet, his hand reaching and clinging to his brothers arm, while his other pointed down the road, to the fast disappearing brake lights of a low, silver car. Anthony slapped him on the back and told him to get his act together. “Millions of cars like that about,” he moaned, rolling his eyes at me. “For fucks sake Mikey. Don’t give us all the willies when we’re here to have a good night.”
The atmosphere had changed completely. Before Michael got scared, it had been electric, pumped full of joyful apprehension and the sense of belonging. “Sorry,” he started mumbling, when we all looked on uneasily, shuffling closer together, our hairs on end, our good feeling dead inside of us. I didn’t blame him. I couldn’t count how many times I had felt my heart stop at the sight of a silver car. But I had learnt to live with it. What else could you do? I looked at my friends then and felt like a shit who didn’t deserve them. They were all tense, forcing smiles, while their eyes flitted about nervously, and their imaginations worked over time. I felt a guilt so heavy it made it difficult to breathe.
A similar thing happened just a few weeks later. Enough time had passed to convince us to breathe again, to relax our shoulders, and go with the flow. We came out of Chaos at two in the morning, sweat shining on our foreheads, our eyes alive with the music that still pumped through our veins. As usual, I felt on top of the world. I was right up there, right up there in the sky, pounding my feet upon the earth, shaking it up. I had one arm around Lucy as we drifted down the road and towards the takeaway place on the corner. We were craving chips and kebabs, followed by a smoke and wind down music back at the bed-sit. They’d played my Smiths request just before we bustled out, and I was still singing it in a loud and drunken voice, as we bundled down the road together. Lucy clung to me, and smiled as I sung; “And after all this time, they don’t want to believe us…and if they don’t believe us now, will they ever believe us?” I looked at Lucy, kissed her forehead and she laughed at me. “And when you want to live, how do you start? Where do you go? Who do you need to know?”
“You’re nuts,” she told me, wrapping both arms around my middle. I could feel the sweat on my back drying in the night air. “But I like it when you’re nuts,” she added. We had reached the shop, and we piled noisily in through the double doors, leaving only Billy and Jake outside to finish their cigarettes. Anthony was ribbing Michael about some girl he had pulled.
“Old enough to be your fucking mother,” he was laughing as Michael viewed him with cool distain.
“Just jealous,” he responded calmly. “I saw you giving her the eye.”
We ordered our food, laughing and talking easily, with sleepy eyes and groaning bellies. We were heading back towards the doors, when Jake pushed them open and scuttled in, Billy at his elbow, both of them wide-eyed and alarmed. It was Anthony they went to. I saw Jake grab his elbow, pull him close, and all at once I felt like the floor of the kebab shop had turned to mush beneath my feet, and I was sinking, sinking slowly down. “What is it?” Anthony was saying, maintaining his cool exterior as always, holding the door open while we pushed cautiously back outside. “What? What did you say?”
I hung back, my hands warming under the white polystyrene container that held the kebab I now did not have the stomach for. I felt Lucy slide her arm through mine. I saw Michael sidling anxiously to his brothers side, while Jake spoke to him, in hushed, earnest and slightly panicked tones. “Swear to god,” he was saying, leaning in to him, pointing with one hand out towards the narrow alleyway that ran between Boots and Woolworths opposite the kebab shop. “Over there. Billy thought so too, didn’t you Billy?”
“Stop panicking, everyone, stop panicking,” Anthony told us, shoving his kebab and chips at Jake. “Hold this.” We all watched breathlessly as he crossed the street, and sauntered over to the mouth of the alley. He was swallowed by the blackness, for just a second, and then reappeared, holding up his hands and shrugging. “Nothing there,” he said, running back to us. “No one there. You sure you saw him?”
“Dunno,” Jake shrugged his shoulders and glanced sheepishly my way. “It was dark. There was someone there, right Billy? We saw a face when he lit up a fag.”
“Was a big fella’,” Billy nodded, swallowing nervously. “Same kind of build. Not much hair.”
“Could’ve been anyone,” Anthony said, taking back his food and heading around the corner, towards home. We scuttled after him, looking back over our shoulders. Jake was looking very confused, and scratching at his neck.
“It was really dark,” he said, looking at me. “Probably wasn’t him…Sorry everyone.”
“You obviously thought it was him,” argued Michael, catching him up. “Or you wouldn’t have looked so panicked, and told Anthony. I thought I saw his car weeks ago.”
“Calm down, calm down,” Anthony was telling us all. He reminded me of a sheepdog then, herding us all back home, munching sporadically on his chips, while he lingered at the back, his eyes moving restlessly across the darkness. We scurried on, and he held the door open while we piled into the dank, foul smelling hallway of our building. I watched him close the door slowly, sticking his head out for one last scout of the area before he let it slam heavily behind him. He turned and exhaled in relief, and saw me staring at him, as the others started up the stairs. “It’s alright,” he said. “Take no notice. They’re jumping at shadows. It was nothing mate.”
“Yeah, I know,” I told him. “I’m not worried.”
“Good,” Anthony started up the stairs beside me. “Let’s not let it ruin our night.”
“I’m not worried,” I repeated, and he looked at me then, as if he did not believe me. At the top of the stairs, they all waited for Anthony to unlock the door and let them in. They looked shaken up, scared and huddled together. I couldn’t resist a look back over my shoulder as I came up behind him, my eyes staring into the darkness below, my ears straining for the sound of footsteps. Once we were inside the bed-sit, Anthony closed and double locked the door and then just stood with his back to it for a moment, just breathing, not looking at anyone. Lucy went into the kitchen and started to fill the kettle. Michael paced about, from window to window, rubbing his arms and staring out at nothing. Billy and Jake collapsed onto the bed, murmuring to each other, their foreheads creased with frowns. I felt like a massive shit. They were seeing shadows, freaking out at the slightest thing, all because of me. All because I was seeing my mum, stirring up the past, making them feel unsafe again. I decided I would cancel our next meeting. I would phone her in a few days and tell her what had happened. I felt Kurt’s tiny paws on my legs, and stooped down to pick him up.
“Better to be safe than sorry, eh,” I muttered, burying my face in the soft fur around his neck.
“Why do you only ever listen to ‘The Queen Is Dead’?” Terry was asking me, in what sounded like genuine puzzlement. I was crouched down next to the door, with a tower of cassette tapes beside me. A lady in her forties had just dropped a box of old tapes in for us. She’d spent a good twenty minutes telling Terry how her husband had been having an affair, so she had started dumping and selling all of his treasured possessions behind his back in revenge. She hadn’t wanted any money for the tapes, which was fortunate, because most of them were shit. I was busy shelving them, and as most of them seemed to be by Abba, I was knelt by the door, in the A section, shoving them in one by one. My facial expressions were changing rapidly from dismay, to disgust, to outright horror.
“Because it’s my favourite one obviously,” I replied to Terry’s question. “Why do you only ever listen to ‘Blonde On Blonde’?”
“It’s the best one,” Terry told me authoritatively.
“In your opinion,” I corrected him.
“But what you are forgetting,” he went on regardless, “is that The Queen is lacking the best song the Smiths ever wrote.”
I rolled my eyes. The man was obsessed. “’Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before’?”
“Exactly. Best Smiths song ever and it’s not on The Queen.”
“It’s still a bloody good album Terry. What about ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’? I love that song.”
“Not as good as Stop Me.”
“Isn’t it time we had a cup of tea?”
“I don’t know Danny,” he sighed, rising slowly from his stool. “Remind me who’s the boss again eh?”
I looked up in time to see him smiling knowingly as he headed out the back. It was his way of ending arguments about music that would have no ending, unless he reminded me who the boss was. That was how he won the arguments, you see. I’m the boss, it’s my shop, therefore I must be right about everything. He had asked me the same question this morning when I had turned up early for work. He’d shook his head at me, pointed at the kitchen and told me to get the tea on.
I went back to my work, dusting off a Dolly Parton cassette and shoving it ungracefully into the D section. ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’ was playing on the record player, so I started to hum along to it. I picked up the next tape, and rubbed it on my thigh to clean it off, and that was when I saw a shadow fall over me. I looked up at the door quickly, but the shadow fell away, and the sun blinded me, bouncing off the windows and the cars parked on the road, and whoever had stopped at the door to stare in, had moved away. It took a second for my mind to catch up with my body, and then I took a steadying breath, got to my feet, opened the door and peered out down the street. I put up one hand to shield my eyes from the bright morning sun, and I can’t deny, I had the sudden strangling urge to close and lock the door. I pushed it down though, because I had to, because I had seen nothing, heard nothing. I went back to the tapes.
Moments later Terry waddled back in, holding mugs of tea and sloshing them over his belly as he walked. I slipped the last tape, an Elvis compilation, into a space in the E section, and approached the counter for my tea, wiping my dusty hands down the legs of my jeans. Terry eyed me curiously. “What’s the matter with you? Seen a ghost? You’ve gone all pale.”
I could have gone home at threeish, but I’d just discovered I liked Johnny Cash, after getting into an argument about country music with a bearded man who was a regular. He was one of the very few customers that Terry allowed to hang around the counter, drinking tea and talking about music. He’d finally got tired of my smirks and sneers about country music and had demanded Terry put some Cash on the record player. I’d folded my arms across the counter, slipped into my own little world, and listened. Moments in and my foot was tapping, my head was nodding and I had to admit that I liked it. “The Man in Black,” the bearded man tipped his head at me and winked. “You cannot be a music fan and not appreciate The Man In Black.”
“Cool,” I agreed with a smile. Terry merely groaned at me.
“See I’ve told you before not to be so narrow minded about music.”
I snorted in response. “Says he that sneers at nearly everything that’s been given the Brit Pop label!”
“I do not,” he argued back. “I was the one who told you how big Oasis would be! And I like Blur, and I think Pulp are amazing, among others. It’s all the other hanger-on’s I can’t stand, the bandwagon jumpers!”
“You’re scathing about it as a genre,” I reminded him patiently.
“Because I hate genres, because if you give something a name, or a label, or pack it away in a fucking genre then it’s far too easy to kill it or declare it dead. Look at your precious grunge sonny boy, what happened to that?”
I shook my head in despair. “You know what happened to that Terry.”
“Excuse me, a type of music does not just end because one singer tops himself!”
“I never said it had ended,” I argued back. “You’re saying that! I still love grunge. I love all music.”
The bearded man laughed at us, patted me on the back and finished his tea. He picked up his purchases and slipped them under one arm. “You do now kid,” he told me, and walked towards the door. I sighed and started to search the shelves for Cash records, while Terry sniggered at me from behind the counter.
“Here he goes again,” he chortled. “Walk The Line is the best one, you know.”
“In your opinion,” I replied.
We closed up at five, Terry shooing the last doe-eyed indie kid out of the door with a copy of Suede’s Dog Man Star tucked under one arm. Terry had spent the last ten minutes trying not to laugh at the poor kid, who in his khaki duffel coat and John Lennon glasses, had tried and failed to engage Terry in a meaningful debate about the next big thing. “Fucking Liam Gallagher wannabe,” Terry groaned when the door was locked. “Can’t anyone just be themselves these days? You don’t see me walking around walking with a bloody Morrissey hair cut do you?”
“You couldn’t have one anyway,” I told him with a grin as I fetched Kurt’s lead down from the hook out the back. “Your hairline is receding. You could have a Phil Collins.” My shoulders were shaking with giggles as I clipped the lead onto the dogs collar.
“Don’t ever mention that jumped up little bastards name in my shop again young man!” came his petulant roar from behind the till where he was stood cashing up. “I’ve warned you before smart arse! That name is not to be spoken in here, unless you want the sack!”
I opened the back door. “That, and Rod Stewart yeah?”
“Post The Faces, yes, that name is also banned!”
“I’ll have to make a list,” I called out. “See you tomorrow Terry!”
“See you tomorrow mate.”
I closed the door behind me and headed down the alley with Kurt trotting at my side. I stopped to locate my cigarettes, and light one up, thinking I would just about have time to smoke one before my bus arrived. As I cupped my hands around the cigarette, I heard a car purring softly up behind me, and without turning to look at it, I moved to the side to allow it to pass. It trundled slowly past me, as I puffed on my smoke and shoved the lighter into my back pocket. It was moving slowly, so I gave it a quick glance, and walked behind it. It crawled to a stop at the end of the alley, and just sat there, the engine still running. It was then that I saw the number plate, and stopped walking. I felt myself shrinking fast, mentally and physically. L-HOWARD. Howard’s car, it was his car, Howard, it was him. Howard. My eyes flashed up and down the alley, seeking a way out, as panic seized and crushed my heart, sending it beating into a wild frenzy that threatened to explode from my throat. It was suddenly hard to breathe. I stood in the alley, staring, one hand shaking with the cigarette, Kurt’s lead wound tightly around the other one.
Howard. I could feel it in every nerve and muscle in my body. The engine remained running, but the car stayed where it was, blocking my way out. I had to go that way. My bus stop was that way, out on the main road. If I walked back the other way, I would have to go all the way around and would miss the bus. I looked down at Kurt and the little dog wagged his tail back at me unsurely. I sucked in a lungful of air and hoped it would unfreeze my blood and give me the strength to keep walking. I looked over my shoulder again, back at the shop. I knew Terry would still be cashing up. I looked back at the car, and it was still there, still waiting. Long, and low, and silver, reminding me of a shark, circling its prey. Kurt shivered and whined on the end of his lead so I looked down at him again. “We want to go home, don’t we boy?” I said to him, and in response to my voice he wagged his tail so furiously that his entire body wagged with it. “About the only time I’ve wished you were a Rottweiler,” I murmured, and looked back up, back at the car, still waiting. What did he want?
I sucked in another chest full of air and started to walk. It felt almost alien, and totally wrong to be walking in that direction, towards that car. My movements felt stiff and uncontrolled like a robots. I kept telling myself that it was daylight, that there were people just around the corner, that there was nothing the bastard could do to me that he hadn’t already done. As I got closer, the drivers door was shoved open, and he stepped out, leaving the engine on and flicking a cigarette butt to the ground as he got out. I stopped moving. I lifted my own cigarette to my lips, sucked on it hard, my eyes narrowing upon him, my other hand tightening on the dog lead. There was a silence between us that took my guts and scrunched them up so hard they began to ache. There was the hand, once more, inside my belly, clawing at my flesh, sending warning signals all over my body. I lowered the smoke, breathed out slowly and waited to him to speak, waited for something to happen. He was looking at me with a very calm, pleasant expression on his big face, but there was no denying the gleam in his eyes, because I had seen it a hundred times before. Finally, his little thin eyebrows moved up and down rapidly and he spoke; “long time no see, eh little man?”
I realised that my feet were frozen to the ground. They felt like concrete all of a sudden, and this heavy, dragging feeling was spreading quickly through me. “What do you want?” I heard myself asking him, my voice just above a mutter. He cocked his head at me. He rested one arm along the top of the open car door, and then his other hand tapped the roof of the car, in quick succession, boom, boom. His eyes drilled into mine.
“Saw you walking there,” he said. “Thought I’d say hello. How are you?”
“Fine,” I told him.
“Your mum wonders how you are,” he said then, dropping his arm from the door and stepping away from the car. I felt small again, as the man from my nightmares approached me, his big arms swinging in short shirt sleeves. He stopped just in front of me, and his smile was radiant, and he seemed to inhale loudly, as if sucking up my fear through his flaring nostrils. I wondered if he had missed it. “She’s always asking about you, always wondering how you are. You look well. Off all those drugs now eh?”
I could not answer him. My throat had constricted, barely allowing me room to breathe, let alone speak. I just kept my eyes on his, trying to read them, trying to understand what this was, what this meant. He nodded his head at me calmly. “Well you must be,” he concluded. “You look so well. Feeling better these days, eh?”
“What do you want?” I asked him a second time. The alley around us had become nothing but a grey blur. It had ceased to exist. There was nothing in the world, except myself, and Howard, and whatever was going to happen.
“So suspicious,” he mused, allowing himself a soft chuckle. “I only wanted to say hello and see how you are. Your mum misses you, you know. It’s been so long since she saw you. You could visit her, you know. She’d like that.”
I was finding it torture, keeping my eyes on his, but I couldn’t risk looking away. I was faintly aware of my chest rising and falling rapidly beneath my t-shirt, as my body tried again to kick start me into flight. “I don’t think so,” I said. “Not while she’s with you.” I pulled my feet up from the ground, and they felt like they were being sucked down into it, and I had just managed to put one foot in front of the other, when he took hold of my arm. Just above the elbow, the grip was loose, but I froze, and it was everything in that awful second, as his power encircled my arm, it was everything, holding onto me, not letting me go, everything. It all came back, in a horrendous flush of images and memories that slayed me, and made my legs turn to jelly, and my eyes threaten to weep. I stared at the ground, because I could not bring myself to look back into that face while a thousand brutal images raced through my mind.
“Whoa, slow down,” came his whispered reply, slick with glee. “Why the hurry? Don’t you want to come and see your mum? I can give you a lift, right now, if you want.”
I shook my head. “No. She can come here, if she wants to see me.”
“Oh really? Okay, I’ll pass that onto her,” and just like that, the hand fell away from me. I stumbled forward, nearly tripping over my own feet in surprise, and I forced my legs on, forced my feet to keep moving on, not looking back. “I’ll give her the message,” the voice, thick with hunger, dripping with malice, followed me down the alley wall, echoing from the walls. “’Cause she hasn’t seen you in so long, has she? She misses you so much, you see. See you soon then, yeah? There’s a good lad.”
I walked faster and faster, breaking into a run at the end of the alley, dragging poor Kurt with me, scurrying out onto the pavement, barely remembering to look both ways before I dashed out across the road towards the bus stop. Seconds later the bus pulled up and I ran onto it, throwing down my money, yanking off my ticket and finding a seat at the back, where I sat and huddled with Kurt, against the window. I was shuddering violently, and felt extremely close to being sick.
I felt a little bit better when I stepped off the bus at the other end, and took another deep breath of relief, steadying my nerves. I let Kurt do his business outside, before we opened the door and went into the building. By the time I had dashed up the stairs and reached the bed-sit, I was worked right up again, my heart a monster in my chest, my mind questioning whether Howard would have followed the bus here. I went inside, and saw Michael lying on his belly on the bed, with a can of beer in one hand. I closed the door, locked it, then went to the window to peer out. Michael was watching me, already suspicious. “You okay?” he asked me, and I flashed him a quick, brittle smile, thinking to myself that he probably knew me better than anyone.
“Yeah, fine,” I told him, and went into the kitchen to put the kettle on. I filled it with water, switched it on to boil, and leant against the worktop with my arms wrapped tightly around my middle. I shook my head and swore at myself. Was I really going to do this again? Lie to him? Was I really going to be pretend nothing had happened and everything was fine? Where had that got me last time? I licked my lips, and stamped my foot and felt the frustration juddering through me. What the fuck was I doing? Before I could think twice, I stuck my head back through the curtains, and looked at Michael, still on the bed. He looked up expectantly. “Not okay actually,” I told him, and he was on his feet, and in the kitchen, and offering me his beer. I took it, and his eyes focused in on my trembling hands.
“Just saw Howard.”
“What?” Michael’s mouth gaped in horror and he stepped closer to me, his eyes bulging as I nodded back at him and leant back against the cupboard with the shivers twisting violently through me. I gulped the beer as he continued to stare. “Oh my fucking god. When? Where? What happened?”
“Outside the back of the shop, in the alley. He drove past then stopped his car, and got out.”
Michael covered his mouth with one hand, shook his head in misery. “Oh no. What did he do?”
“Nothing. Acted all friendly. Wanted to know how I was.” I lifted my shoulders and dropped them, and passed Mike back his beer. “Asked if I wanted a lift to go and see my mum.”
“Did he touch you? Did he do anything to you?”
“I started to walk away and he grabbed my arm, then that was it. He said what he had to say. Let go. I walked away.”
Michael swallowed beer and passed it back. “You think he knows? That you’ve been seeing your mum?”
“I dunno, he didn’t give anything away, but maybe he does. Yeah. I mean…that would explain it. Jesus Mike…” I sighed heavily, rubbed at my dry lips and then sloshed more beer down my throat. I was shaking hard, and it was getting worse. I wrapped my arms back around myself, trying to hold still, trying to calm down. Michael kept shaking his head, his dark hair hanging over one eye, while the other stared out, solemn and afraid.
“He knows Danny, he must do, he must have found out! I swear I saw his car at Chaos that time, then Jake and Billy thought they saw him in that alley…”
I nodded at him. “I know.”
“What’re we gonna’ do? He might have followed your bus here! He might know exactly where we live!” Michael leant in the doorway and took the beer back from me. He finished it off in nervous, little gulps. I stared at the floor and felt the strength leaving my legs, leaving all of me. I wanted to lash out suddenly then. I wanted to smash in all the cheap flimsy cupboard doors, and swipe my arm across the manky pint glasses collecting flies on the draining board. I clenched my teeth together and tried to hold onto myself. Michael was watching me. I felt my legs weaken further. Any minute now I was going to hit the floor. “Danny?” he asked me softly. “You okay?”
“No!” I retorted, quickly and fiercely, looking up. “He called me a good lad.”
“Good lad, he said.”
“I don’t know…” I trailed off for a moment, not sure of what I meant, or how I felt, or anything, and I covered my face with my hands, and suddenly my knees dipped, and I went down, my arse bumping into the floor and staying there. I buried my face in my knees, grabbed at my hair with my hands. “Fuck! Fuck!”
Michael came forward. “Mate?”
“Fuck I don’t want to be like this!”
“Like what mate?”
“Like what he makes me! A victim!”
Michael crouched down slowly. “You’re not. You’re not.”
“I am! I fucking am! That’s what he makes me! That’s how he makes me feel, now I feel like it all over again!” I rolled my head into the cup of one hand, and stared at the floor. My feet twitched at the ends of my legs. I was remembering things I had fought so hard to forget. I wanted to fight back, I wanted to do something, I wanted to kick the place apart.
“He doesn’t make you that Danny,” Michael was saying quietly. “You’re you, and he can’t touch you now.”
“He’ll do whatever the fuck he wants.”
“We won’t let him. We’ll call the cops. We’ll tell them everything.”
I just glared at the same grubby spot on the lino, until my eyes moved out of focus, and I was not sure whether it was tiredness, or tears that blurred my vision. In my mind I saw myself crushed down into the floor, a boot grinding into my neck, pushing me down, holding me in place, taking everything away. “That’s not who I am,” I murmured to myself. “He made me like that, and that’s not me, that’s not me. I won’t be like that again.”
“No way you fucking will be, I told you. Come on mate, up you get. Anthony will be home soon. He’ll know what to do.” Michael nudged me, got to his feet and held his hand out to me. “Come on,” he urged me. “You’re you. You’re not whatever he thinks you are.”
“Good boy,” I muttered, distastefully, taking his hand and letting him haul me back to my feet. I held onto my head with one hand, followed Michael through the curtain, and plonked myself down onto the bed. The springs sagged and creaked beneath my weight. Michael started to walk in small circles.
“We’ll find another place to live,” he was saying quickly. “We need to move again, that’s what we need to do. Get out of here.” He stopped circling and looked at me. “And please, please do not keep seeing your mum!”
I nodded silently from the bed. I had already decided that much myself.
“He’s trying to scare you,” Anthony told me firmly, when he had arrived home and been greeted with the news. He carried some bags of shopping into the kitchen, put them on the side and strode back out again. He regarded Michael and I, sat shivering on the bed, with a stern expression. He kicked off his shoes and cracked his knuckles. “Looks like he’s succeeded too, so he must be one happy motherfucker about now.” He placed his hands on his hips and looked at us, shaking his head. “Look, he doesn’t know where we live, that’s why he went to your shop. He’s just trying to scare you. Don’t let him.”
“He must know I’ve been seeing mum,” I spoke up dryly. Anthony nodded.
“Yeah, probably. Or he’s just bored and felt like stirring things up again.”
“But why now?” Michael questioned helplessly. “It’s been like ten months or something!”
Anthony shrugged at the pair of us. “Who knows how his sick mind works? Maybe he does know about Danny seeing his mum. Danny, you should call her. See what she says.”
“What time is it?”
“Okay, pass me the phone.”
Anthony grabbed the phone and chucked it at me. “I’m putting the kettle on, and a shit load of chips, anyone in?”
“We’re both in,” said Michael. “D’you buy any fish fingers?”
I dialled the number and got up from the bed. I stuck one hand into the pocket of my jeans and stalked restlessly around the room, while it rung. It seemed to ring for a torturous eternity before finally she picked it up. “Hello?”
I stopped next to one of the windows and pressed my forehead against the cool glass. “Mum, it’s me.”
“Danny! Are you alright?”
“Mum, listen, does Lee know anything? About us meeting? Or about you trying to leave him?” I gazed down at the street below. I watched a trio of young girls, dressed to kill and tottering on high heels towards the high street.
“Why?” her voice immediately lowered and hushed with fear. “What’s happened?”
“I just saw him today,” I told her, feeling the give of the glass under my head, knowing I would only have to apply a little more pressure before it cracked against my skin. “He was outside my work. He spoke to me.”
“Oh my god honey! Oh god I am so sorry! As far as I know he knows nothing! But maybe he does….oh shit, how would he know?”
“I dunno,” I told her tersely, wanting to hang up on her now. “Just wanted to warn you. I won’t see you again for a while mum. I can’t.”
“Okay, honey, I understand. Maybe we could arrange to meet somewhere else?”
“No. Not at the moment. I’ve got to go.” I hung up on her and turned around. Anthony was in the doorway, watching. “Says she doesn’t know anything,” I told him. “I told her I won’t be around again.”
“Fair enough,” he nodded “But you see what he’s done here, don’t you? He’s left you alone for nearly a year, let you settle into your life, and relax. It’s almost like he wanted you to relax and enjoy yourself, ‘cause then it’s all the more fun when he pops back up again! He’s messing with your head mate. Just don’t let him.” With that, he ducked back through the curtain, and I was left staring. Easy for you to say, I almost called after him. Instead, I went back to the bed and lay down with the dog. My eyes jerked towards the door every few seconds. The spike of fear was sharp and turning within me. That night I drifted in and out of restless dreams, one half of me convinced that Anthony was right, that nothing was going to happen, and the other half of me dismally certain that Howard holding onto my arm in the alley way, was just the beginning.