If I took pigeon steps, it might take that bit longer to get home, as it was I ended up strolling quickly up the stairs of the block of flats, mainly because I was thinking of Kayley in that flat and because of the wretched stench in the stairwell.
I could even taste it in my throat, even before I got there, the chip fryer and stale waft of cigarette smoke, with other things I can’t really mention were all oozing from the flat we lived in as though there had been an explosion in a chip shop. The problem wasn’t just the smell it was what I would probably find when I got in there.
I floundered for a moment, putting my hand in the graffiti which hung sadly against the walls and door frame of the flat door, where mum had previously annoyed someone and who had then enacted revenge on the door. I didn’t want to go in. I hesitated again as I opened the front door, which was slightly ajar, because there was a loud commotion coming from the living room.
The roaring music made my ears thunder along with the snide laughter and vulgar conversation. That wasn’t what bothered me. It was my little sister Kayley sitting on the living room floor crossed legged. Her head hung with her black bobbed hair covering her face, which was ashen and blotchy red at the same time. About six men and a woman sat round on the sofas, pestering Kayley to perform a song for them. I was disgusted with them all because she sat there shyly, embarrassed by the whole rotten affair.
When I came in they all turned round. Mum was at the centre of the attention as usual, her bleached blond hair scattered erratically over her once pretty face, which was now hidden by two scars and heavy lines. However she was laughing too loudly and too much. She tried to get up too quickly and fell awkwardly on her thin, spindly elbows, still laughing like a small child, and she greeted me in too steep a voice, showing off to her cringy, vile mates. They were lapping it up like sponges, except the woman who was squeezed in between two large men and looking very sheepish. I stared hard at them as if to say get out my house, but they just stared back ignorantly, smiling creepily through their coarse stares. I hoped that they would notice how much I hated them at that moment. I threw my school bag hard on the dirty, threadbare carpet, they didn’t seem that bothered that I was giving them the foulest glares ever, except for one man who had caught me doing it and didn’t look happy. His mouth was too smiley as he grinned back at me and his bright blue eighties shell suit was too tightly fitted on him. His long black greasy hair fell scruffily over his face baring too many of his black and decaying teeth. He continued to grin menacingly at me. I spun away from him, uncomfortably, but he was starting to follow me into the kitchen. He went to grab me by my shirt, mum did nothing, however he didn’t reckon on falling over my school bag, which had got nicely in the way. This made him even madder, mum then dissolved the situation by calling for me.
‘Danny, come ere lovey, want some nice chips for your tea?’ Said Mum, farcically suddenly deciding she was going to act like a doting mum in the midst of this chaos, I wasn’t sure if it was for our sakes or a performance for her ‘friends’.
‘It’s okay, I’m fine’ I lied, aware of the watching audience, although my tummy was rumbling so hard I could swear everyone could hear it and my mouth was so dry I could taste the nervousness. If the free school meal voucher we got at school was worth more it would have been okay, but at a meagre two pounds, it was nowhere near enough to cover breakfast club and break and dinner. They all looked surprised, when Kayley who was looking more uncomfortable than ever, was lifted up by me, dragging her out of their watching eyes, while she in turn readily took my hand and I led her safely away into the kitchen. It was awful, it hadn’t been touched at all since yesterday, slimy plates stacked up on the side that you could imagine walking themselves around the kitchen they were so alive with mould and rubbish piled up in the corners were festooned like a great piece of disturbing art, but this was our home.
’Are you alright? She nodded, but appeared subdued. ‘Want something to eat then?’
‘yeh.’ She said meekly.
‘Why you not at school today? I thought mum was taking you’
‘I didn’t want to go in, Mum said to stay off, because I had no clean clothes to wear. She thought the teacher might say something’ I could see exactly what she meant.
I glanced down at my own unkempt, holey clothes, my shirt was erring on the side of a dark shade of grey rather than Persil white, as pointed out to me by the kids at school and a few uppity teachers, while my black trainers had a gaping gash of a black hole in the top and my toe tried to escape and wriggle its way out like a worm. I had tried to wash our clothes once in some washing up liquid in the bath, in cold water, it wasn’t the best advert for washing clothes and with no steaming hot water and no washing powder, I managed single- handedly to flood the bathroom and half the living room. Then the neighbour below us complained of drips coming though her ceiling and I stupidly turned everything into a blue soppy mush, it meant I had to chuck everything away, Mum gave me a right clout for that.
Kayley moaned about the other children saying nasty things to her about her clothes and had refused to go to school that morning. I looked at Kayley she was still wearing the same too small yellow mottled school dress from all week. That was one thing mum was right about, it was pretty dire, except I was powerless to do anything about it, I didn’t have the stuff.
It was all I could do to make myself look acceptable for school. When other kids avoided me because I apparently smelt, I chose to hold my head up high, telling myself firmly that I was at least cleverer than them, anyway that’s what some of the teachers said, especially Mr Johnson, who told me that I was bright, but some of them would shake their heads as they said it and sigh muttering it was a crying shame.
Most of the time I couldn’t stick school, but it was a way out of home for a few hours, that’s when I wasn’t bunking off. The last time I did skip school had been quite productive, having decided to stay at the local park all day, I had built myself a den of sorts, which hid me from the outside world, foraging bread off the ducks and grabbing left overs at the café.
I heard mum cackling again in the living room, unaware of the anxiety we were both going through, some men were egging her on to drink more. I wanted to grab them all and throw them all out, but I was powerless to intercede and they kept on and I kept quiet, hating, seething. There was two slices of bread in the bottom of the packet. I buttered them, with what butter we had left, for Kayley and I, I took her hand protectively and led her into my bedroom.
We sat there solemnly, nibbling, eating, while the noise was roaring louder and louder and the worry in my head was roaring louder and louder, making my head feel fuzzy. Music began to rock the walls violently, I was worried for my mum and when I heard a ferocious banging on the flat door I got butterflies in my tummy, I peeked my head out and saw one of my friend’s mums who was our neighbour, irate, fuming, complaining about the noise and I wanted to shut it all out.
‘Keep the bliming noise down, you’re a disgrace! I’m going to report you to the council!’ There was a scuffle.
I hid embarrassingly behind the rickety door, watching the scene playing out before me. Mum was raising her fist at her angrily, just missing her nose whilst the neighbour frightened scurried back to her own flat obviously afraid of her, mum being volatile and angry was her best talent, now mixed with six bottles of tequila and other things, she was a law unto herself. Why couldn’t she be normal? I felt the tears stinging my eyes like needles, now the mates were getting excitedly involved, shouting abuse and obscenities at the neighbour. I couldn’t face Matthew tomorrow, deciding resolutely to skip school, I then remembered I was supposed to be reading my essay at school, encouraged by my form tutor. I didn’t want to miss it. Kayley stood anxiously behind me, she was shaking uncontrollably, it was all I could do to hold her reassuringly, she didn’t realise that it was actually me holding her.
It took a moment for mum to regain her composure, the laughing had shifted to despondency, contaminating the group’s mood, they became irritated with her and each other, I tried to stop Kayley running up to her, I didn’t think she deserved her sympathy.
‘Mummy, can we have our dinner now.’ She asked hungrily.
Mum looked round at the others and picked her up in her arms and then seeing she had willing spectators, showed off again, by swinging her round and round, catching Kayley’s long hair in her button.
‘Ouch mum.’ Said Kayley hurt.
I wanted to scream at her when she threw her down impatiently. Kayley landed with a squeal and a hard bump loud enough to make the neighbour below bang the ceiling.
‘Oh bog off then.’ Her mood quickly turning sour. I wanted to shame her.
‘Mum what’s for dinner, we’re hungry!?’
‘Stop! I’ll get you something in a minute, now come on lads, Iris, you’ve all got to get lost now, my kids need feeding.’ Although she was laughing, and then she slapped one of the men on the bottom, he returned the favour.
They all trailed out the flat grudgingly, eyeing Kayley and I like we were to blame for interrupting their party, my mum followed them out, although she was still staggering and subsequently knocked her head against the door frame, making her stagger even more.
They’d finally gone, it didn’t mean anything, if anything the flat looked more sombre and sad, she looked sad, Kayley looked sadder. Mum wobbled as though she was doing a dance towards the kitchen to retrieve the chip pan from under the dirty plates, but ended up stumbling awkwardly, sending her headfirst into the kitchen side. When she began to cut up the potatoes they looked more like boulders than chips, but she continued to mutter that she was a good mother and she was making her kids a good meal.
‘You’ll all be alright in a minute, a nice home cooked meal’ she said slurring cheerfully.
I knew her home cooked meals well, often and invariably consisting of a few burnt chips and if we were lucky an egg on the side, maybe a fried tomato, representing one of our five a day or fried anything, it was our staple diet.
I tugged at my homework in my bag, attempting to spread it where the mates had been, cigarette butts littered messily over the cluttered coffee table, a half drunk lager can and a half eaten kebab lay stinking undisturbed on the rancid carpet. I don’t know why I bothered with homework, it was too difficult to concentrate here, however it did take my mind off things for a bit, so while Kayley played with her Barbie dolls, opposite me, dressing them making them pretend homes with some of my text books, I began my story, Mr Johnson in English had admired some of my imaginative stories I’d written in class, for homework we had to write an imaginary fantasy story, I so wanted to do my best for him, he believed in me. Every time I looked down to write my dirty uniform caught my eye, it was dirtier and more rancid than ever, should I broach mum about it? Why not.
‘Could you wash my uniform tonight?’
‘Oh Danny, you know I haven’t got any washing powder, my money don’t go in till tomorrow’ that was that then.
My heart sunk like an leaking ship, an idea came to me, maybe I could borrow some from one of the neighbours, I sauntered out of the flat wondering which way to turn, Matthew’s mum was out of the question, she’d tell me where to go, maybe the old man across the way would give some to me. I’d often seen him hobbling along the halls, avoiding the footballs flying, faltering on the stairs when the lift was broken and stumbling across the square where the rough gangs hung around like hordes of ants and besides he looked friendly enough.
With trepidation I knocked at his door, there was a distinct smoky smell coming from the flat, but unlike the smoky smell from our flat, this was more musty, more refined and old. He opened the door from behind a latch and chain suspiciously contemplating me, scanning me up and down, then realising it was just a skinny boy he fumbled around the chain with long bony fingers, opening the door wider so I could see in his impeccable hallway. He leant on his wooden stick cautiously wobbling slightly to and fro. His surprising look told me that he was clearly not used to having many visitors and he became agitated and indignant when I asked for the powder.
‘Sorry to bother you….we um live over the way…. um would it be possible to borrow some washing powder please?’
‘What, why can’t you get your own? Are you the ones making the racket earlier?’
‘Yes, umm no…I’m sorry… it’s okay.’ I backed away shamefully, but instead of slamming the door on me, he chose to beckon me in.
‘Wait young man, it’s alright.’ He walked off, I wondered whether to follow him in.
I didn’t want to, I didn’t think I should and I knew I shouldn’t go in strange men’s houses, especially those that lived alone, but I needed that powder, it was a matter of desperate measures, and anyway he seemed harmless enough.
It was such a well ordered flat, in deep contrast to our own, that I felt immediately out of place, the pictures of war over the walls in old brown frames made me feel dizzy with awe, whilst a solitary photo of a young man and his wife sat perched on top of the television, clearly in pride of place. The television resembled those I’d seen in a museum visit with the school, one of those with a massive brown box. It was all so unlike anything I’d seen and while I was gazing around curiously, he shouted that he was making some tea.
I noticed there were some war medals hanging proudly in a display cabinet, it was hard to describe how much I wanted to hold them in my hands and feel them. It wasn’t just the neatness of everything and how prim and proper it was, it also felt peaceful here. It seemed enormously out of place in such a grim block of flats, where graffiti hung like pictures adorning walls and the unyielding stairwell, where people were unsympathetic and rude and if you looked at someone the wrong way you were for it. The harmony of this flat emanated a radiant calmness where plants filled the windows and colourful flowers tipped over, infiltrating his place, where home really meant home.
He came out after a while with a pile of cakes on a plate, a big brown steaming teapot and a plastic bag of washing powder, his hands clutching the tray as tightly as he could. His flecked, gangling hands shook the tray as he struggled to balance it, while it snagged against his paper thin skin on his arms, which looked as transparent as water, they were small details because his eminent height and poise defied his age and made him look grand and dignified.
‘Want a cake lad?’ he pressed, his cloudy eyes glance at me.
‘Um yes please.’ It was awkward, but it also wasn’t as I sat shyly on the edge of the seat, it had been drummed into all of us since infant school, never get into strangers cars or talk to strangers, now here I was sitting in a strangers house eating cake and drinking tea, guzzling some very large angel cake, and some pink and yellow Battenberg and feeling very guilty that Kayley wasn’t here too.
I tried to put Kayley out my mind who was back at the flat with her greasy chips for tea. We sat there in silence, we didn’t have to say anything, the old man looking solemnly down into his own cup of tea, looking as though he was waiting for it to jump up conveniently into his mouth, while I sipped mine politely in tiny sips, trying not to slurp.
The stillness was only broken by some shouting from the square down stairs, but even that was dimmed gracefully into the background. He politely didn’t refer or mention the state of my clothes and I was grateful for that. Sipping his own tea, he stared into the walls, as though he was imagining himself somewhere else. We’d hardly said a word to each other for the half hour I was there.
‘You better be off then son. Your mum will be worried.’ He said frailly in the quietness, I very much doubted that.
I knew she wouldn’t be worried, but Kayley would, when I got up I accidently knocked the coffee table and spilled the contents of the tea and crumbs, it was instinct to back off, thinking he might lash out, but he just went out and came back with a cloth.
‘Never mind, accidents happen.’
‘Thank you.’ I said appreciatively, he shook my hand with a sturdy, firm grip, then trailed me out into the hall, holding onto the railings to push himself along.
‘Come again son.’ He said gently as I waved happily back to him, clutching the carrier bag. He liked me for me, I was sure of that, it was an unusual feeling, but it felt nice.
I heard the chain being put on the door securely behind me and I stood there for a few minutes, not wanting to rush back to our flat, despite it being a few yards, I savoured the smell of cigar before I went back but was eliminated almost immediately by the stagnant smell that was still obstinately wavering in the grimy air of home. Mum was disinterested in us as we sat at the table in the kitchen, while Kayley nibbled her chips, mine looked unappetising on a separate plate, I didn’t care that mum was looking at me despising my every bone, while I started to fish out the burnt ones. I didn’t feel at all hungry, but she watched me closely making sure I appreciated her efforts.
‘Where you been then?’ she enquired shortly.
‘I wanted to pop out for a bit.’ knowing she wouldn’t have appreciated me going begging for stuff, she’d probably get angry and have a go at him, anyway it wasn’t her business.
‘Danny I’m going out tonight, Lancy has a gathering over at his place, if you look after your sister for me I’ll bring you back a McDonald’s later and you know you’re good at babysitting.’ Did I have a choice? I needed someone to look after me too, it wasn’t worth mentioning that, however I was glad she was going out, while Kayley got upset, then she left us to it while she busied herself to get ready,
‘Please don’t go out mum, can you stay in tonight please, please mum.’ Said Kayley begging. I gave mum an annoying gaze, she didn’t register it at all and carried on despite Kayley’s whining I couldn’t bear to see her like this.
‘Kayley can you quit making me feel guilty, I NEED to go out if you know what I mean, my benefits have dried up this week, we need to eat.’ She exclaimed, however she used this excuse most nights and the cupboards still remained bare.
I suddenly knew what she meant, and shut it fast out of my mind, picturing my own mother out there, not acting like she should, sick rose in my throat. I wanted her to go out quickly, so Kayley and I could be left to our own devices. The benefits also hadn’t just dried up, they had gone up in smoke literally. I hated her, no I loved her too, she was just too unreliable, we couldn’t count on her, we couldn’t count on anybody but each other, the only one we thought we could count on had disappeared years ago, he’d dumped us like discarded rubbish. I could use the time while she was out to try and wash our clothes in the bath, I’d also abandoned any thought of using the washing machine, and it lay hopelessly unfixed in the kitchen as with many things in the flat.
We watched her get ready to go out, she put her best red heels on, some bright pink lipstick on her thin lips, brushed her long blond hair and put on her fluffy, silky blue dress, her thin arms looking like twigs on a tree and her blue veins stuck boldly out of her neck like giant blue streams. Kayley stuck close to her, which annoyed me and which also irritated mum, she kept impatiently shoving her aside whenever she got close to her. I scowled at her behind her back, and she caught me in the mirror, pulled me over to her and clipped me on the ear.
I wriggled free from her clutches, she was our mum, when she decided she wanted to be, a dim reflection of what she could be like. I knew how other mums acted, from watching and seeing them at the school gates, accompanying their children lovingly and responsibly to school, holding their hands firmly, safely, I’d seen their lunch boxes full up, mouth-watering, delicious sandwiches filled with enviable kinds of healthy and inviting things, apples, bananas, chocolate bars, tomatoes.
It didn’t seem fair that I had to sit with the school dinner group, unreasonably segregated and herded like sheep into the group that was different. Once I tried to tag along after school with one of my school friends and his mum, hoping, my unsubtle presence hinting for an invitation back, it didn’t come, it never would, his mum looked at me up and down and pulled my friend even closer, a distinct threat to her son and politely waved me away, muttering they had to be off somewhere. Some friend I’d thought, when he didn’t even turn round.
Thankfully mum left some loose change on the side as she left us carefree out of the flat, waving back to us jauntily, leaving Kayley and I alone. It wasn’t particularly distressing , but we looked at each other knowing the routine all too well, not only would she be back very late and very drunk but I’d probably have to help her into bed, then she’d be sick and I’d have to clean it up. Tonight I thought I’d pretend to be sleeping.
‘When will mum come back?’
‘I don’t know, later, she’ll be home before you know it’
‘What are we going to do Danny? Can we go down the park?’
I thought this was a pretty good idea of hers, it was still daylight and it was going to be a dull evening if we stayed put, I got Kayley to change into some cleaner jeans and a t shirt, but these seemed more grubby than her dress, If I put mine and her school uniform into the bath before we went, then filled it up with warm water and poured some washing powder into the bath they might just be clean by the time we arrived back, I swished it round and it foamed violently up, and I got worried, but I left it to soak, fizzing like a washing soup, hoping for the best.
We left the flat, careful to leave the door on the latch, the rec seemed the best place to go because it was where everyone and anyone on our estate went for leisure or to be entertained by arguments or the police making raids, while it was still quite light we had loads of time and the clocks had just gone back, we would have all evening to play out, that was at least one advantage to having such a free rein, there was no mum calling us in when we wanted to play out late. However it did get a bit desperate and lonely when other mums called their children in and we were often left outside alone, which was the difference between us and them, then there would only be the older kids hanging around, though they generally ignored us.
Some older teenagers sat drinking playfully on the kid’s swings and were climbing up onto the horizontal metal bar, and despite rushing past them, a bottle flew across the park smashing against the railings, almost hitting us, it exploded and the contents flew out erratically, splashing our clothes. If it wasn’t for me grabbing Kayley’s hand, we would be the next target. We ran on to the large fallen tree, this was where all the little kids mostly played. Sometimes it would be a train, other times a spaceship, today it was just a fallen tree to be sat on, often large gangs of young people drank there at night and the bark was decorated in tags and graffiti. I didn’t see them at first but Mark, Matthew and Leon were sitting perched on top, their legs were dangling freely over the edge and were chatting away, until they saw us, Matthew in particular looked coy .
‘Alright Danny.’ Said Leon.
‘Yeh, I spose, fancy going down the old industrial estate?’ I enquired longingly, hopeful.
The disused industrial estate was another play park for everyone, it was fine for us kids who explored, dug, played and demolished stuff there, but it was also where drug dealers made deals and gangs of older kids hung out and fought or the odd courting couple wooed each other.
‘Dunno, I’ve got to go in soon.’ Matthew answered but he then whispered something to Leon, they laughed, I got it, it was because he wasn’t allowed to play with me, which I though was pretty unfair on me, I hadn’t fallen out with anyone. Kayley climbed up beside them, ignoring the body language which was saying we don’t want you around, they moved swiftly up, I joined her too.
‘Hey did you see Mr Jenkins face today when you told him to mind his own business?’ Mark laughed.
‘Yeh, what a picture, he’s such an idiot though!’ I said trying to hide the fact that I was blushing. I hated Mr Jenkins, he’d had asked why I had a dirty collar right in front of the whole class and when I back chatted he I’d been sent me directly to the zone. Since being in year seven I had been in and out of the zone like a revolving door and Mr Jenkins seemed to seek me out, humiliating me at every turn, I couldn’t stick him.
‘Let’s go and knock on doors in the flats and run away.’ Piped up Mark.
‘I don’t know.’ Said Matthew, unsure whether he should be hanging round me. I shrugged.
‘It sounds fun, but it means going all the way back to the flats.’ Said Leon.
‘Okay’ I replied subduely.
We headed back as a group back towards the flats, it was Mark who suggested he knocked on the first one which was on the first floor, we ran towards the stairwell to hide, then up to the next one, and we sniggered gleefully when we heard shouts of ’I’m gonna kill em,’ echoing, we laughed, mine was more empty, we got to mine and Matthews floor, Matthew went to knock at the old man’s door.
‘No not this one!’ I shrieked at him.
‘Why not? My mum says he’s crazy, he deserves it.’ He said powerfully.
‘Shut up scruff bag.’ Retorted Matthew ignoring me.
Shoving him to make him stop wasn’t such a good idea because he fell against the door of the stairwell and started to cry, meaning one thing. His mum coming out to have a go at me.
‘Come on Kayley, let’s go’ I wasn’t waiting for Matthew to go and grass on me to his mum, so we cleared off back outside the block leaving the others, there wasn’t much else to do but use the change mum left to get something to eat just for something to do. Despite it being quite dark by now, we didn’t want to go home to an empty and grim flat just yet.
We headed towards the row of shops, both shivering now with our thin clothes on, although the gigantic purple bar of whole nut chocolate I bought went some way in cheering us up a bit, while Kayley chose some jelly wiggle snakes, sucking and slurping on them like spaghetti, while I devoured the brown bar, the sickly sweet taste filling some of the emptiness but not quite all.
I hadn’t noticed that we were now sitting in the dark, it came on all of a sudden and was now enclosing us like a black blanket, I could tell it was really late now and the sky was turning shades of red and orange. We waited for a bit because there was no particular rush and then started our way back. When I saw the old man at one of the windows as I looked up, I waved but he didn’t see me, he was gazing out, clearly trying to get a glimpse of the sunset sky against the grainy background of dim houses and buildings.
The flat had an air of strange freshness when we arrived back, like when sometimes when you go round other people’s house and it smells like fresh washing. However it was impossible to camouflage distinct smell of smoke and alcohol that was still lingering in the background too, but we climbed into bed, forgetting completely about the clothes in the bath and that I had to dry them. I wanted to wait for mum, but sleep took over.
When I woke early and shot up as I suddenly remembered the wet clothes in the bath, I wasn’t prepared for the water turning a mucky black, the sopping clothes dripped everywhere, Kayley’s dress had transformed into a dirty yellow and my shirt resembled grey instead of white when the colours had merged into each other. I put them over the living room heater, hoping they’d be dry enough.
Mum was snoring on the sofa and sprawled out untidily on her front, she looked vulnerable as I put a blanket over her, I tucked her in and then found the shopping bags by her side, it made a change for her to get some bread and milk and chocolate digestives, and I munched on them hungrily.
I wasn’t expecting mum to appear at the door, this time she was smiling at me, as I put the kettle on, in her sleepiness and disorientation she brushed her hair back from her face, revealing black make up smears and marks and a pale white ghost face. The lipstick had gone and she looked smaller somehow.
‘Hiya Danny boy.’
’I got some money last night, I’ll make you a nice tea tonight, what do fancy?
‘I’ll try.’ I knew what her try meant.
The two large black circles round her eyes, made her look like a panda, she drew on her cigarette, and I noticed a purple bruise on her upper arm.
By the time we got ready for school, Kayley’s dress was still damp and she was complaining bitterly about it all the way to Barkside primary, my own trousers were wet from the knees down. I’d made up my mind not to go to school that morning so once I’d dropped Kayley off I was going to take off into town or the park, whatever took my fancy, but unfortunately I caught Mr Johnsons eye in his car as I met the road, he’d wound the window down and said he would looking forward to reading my essay.
Matthew dodged out of my way me when we got into form, making sure I’d see his evil stare as I walked past, it was wasted on me, I couldn’t care less about him, however when I brushed past his desk, he stuck his foot out, I went headfirst into Cara Davies bag.
‘Oi tramp, mind peoples stuff.’ Matthew responded spitefully. I went to go for him, but the teacher walked in.
Cara looked at me sympathetically for a split second, I wanted to lay into him at lunchtime, but thought better of, I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, teachers were already questioning me about stuff, stuff I didn’t want to talk about or think about. My first rule to self was never give anything away and I’d drummed that into Kayley too. The trousers felt even wetter than ever, but by English I had my essay open ready to read, the heads of year were coming in to listen to the essays that had been specifically chosen. Mr Johnson had chosen me, I could feel the class eyes stuck firmly on me, but they were looking at my clothes, I spoke up clearly and talked about ‘My dreams’. The words flowed easier than I thought, despite the initial stutter. I was trying to avoid looking at Matthew, but when I glanced round the room, I caught him looking slightly impressed, by the end, no one was looking at my clothes and they were really listening, I’d carried it off, it was a success!
By the time the bell went for home, I felt so happy and I didn’t want going home to spoil it. Mr Johnson took his glasses off at the end of class, rubbed his bald head, which had gone bright red and told me I was very talented. I shined all day after that, I listened to lessons, did my work and even put my hand up in Mr Jenkins class, this was despite Matthews eyes boring their way through me all day.
It didn’t last, when I picked Kayley up, her teacher wanted a ‘quiet’ word.
‘Your Kayley’s brother aren’t you?’ she seemed nice.
‘We’ve tried ringing home, but we can’t get an answer, we need to speak to your mother.’
‘She’s at work.’ I lied thinking on my feet.
‘The thing is we need to talk about some things Kayley has said, it’s very important, can you tell your mother to contact us.’
‘Yes definitely.’ Definitely not!
I took her hand, desperate to question her, but waited till we were out of sight.
‘What have you said?’
‘Nothing, miss wanted to know why I never bring in my pe kit and was asking me questions about mum.’
‘Hope you denied everything’
‘Yes course, just like you said.’ She said obediently.
By the time we got home, my eyes felt droopy and my legs like pieces of lead and I couldn’t find my key. I knocked, mum said she’d be home cooking our tea, no answer.
‘Oh no, she’s not in, Kayley.’
‘She promised she’d be home.’
‘How we gonna get in?’
We sat there our backs against the door wondering what to do next, I threw my tennis ball against the wall, counting the catches, after about twenty minutes we were still sat there, when suddenly a door opened at the end of the landing. It was the old man. Kayley had never really seen him before and looked at me worriedly.
‘Hello young man, you locked out?’ While he stood there awkwardly on his walking stick, I noticed how neat and dapper he was.
‘Umm we’re just waiting for our mum.’
‘Do you want some lemonade?’
Kayley shook her head at me silently, but I whispered that I knew him.
‘Yes please.’ Kayley followed me closely in, not leaving my side.
However worried I’d been when I first came into his flat, it now felt like it was normal. Kayley’s big brown eyes browsed around like moving saucers, she was taken aback by the pictures of soldiers, if anything else she seemed to find them interesting and colourful, because she kept touching them with her fingers. He disappeared into the kitchen, leaving us hanging around in the hallway. Kayley shifted from one foot to another.
‘Come in then, sit down.’ He shouted, and as before he then bought out some fruit cake and two glasses of clear fizzy lemonade. We sat there politely, while he rummaged around in a draw.
‘Now I have something here, would you like it, hang on, maybe your mother wouldn’t like you to have it?’ He pulled out what I’d seen in books as a Swiss army knife. ‘I have no need of it, you know I used to belong to the boy scouts and it was given as a gift over seventy years ago, but I have no one to pass it on to, so here have it.’ He held out his hand with a shiny vintage knife in its palm.
I politely took it in my own hand, admiring it, it was pristine, shining silver, I felt all the gadgets in it one by one, manipulating the different parts, my smile said it all, it was one of the most lovely gifts anyone had ever given to me.
’Who is this? Said Kayley and she pointed to the picture on the television.
‘That’s was my wife and me when we got married sixty years ago.’
‘Do you have children?’
‘Kayley, don’t ask that!’ not wanting to pry.
‘It’s okay, no we couldn’t have children. It was the one thing Gladys was ever sad about. She would have made a wonderful mother. No we only had each other.’
‘Did she die then?’ Kayley enquired.
‘It’s okay, yes about ten years ago, you know we lived here together in these flats for over forty years.’
‘Are you sad?’ she asked
‘A little, it can get a bit lonely sometimes.’ I knew how he felt. I also knew we couldn’t stay here all night, we had to get back, or did we? He started attended to some of his flower boxes, I helped him with the green plastic watering can, which he was struggling to grasp.
’These are gladioli, I used to buy them for Gladys, her namesake, I water them every year and they come up blooming every time, as though she’s watching over them, these others are pelargonium, come out lovely they do, even in this polluted air we all breathe in. These over here are petunia ‘Marshmallow, they come out a beautiful pink’ it was hard not to catch his enthusiasm, ‘here give this to your sister’, he handed me a stem with a marshmallow pink flower, Kayley came over and I put it in her dark bobbed hair above her protruding ear.
‘They’re lovely;’ I said sincerely, tucking the army knife in my pocket, ’I’m sorry, I don’t even know your name.
‘Well my name is Mr Smith, plain old Mr Smith.’
‘I’m Danny and this is Kayley.’
While Kayley was happily hoovering up the remnants of the cake, I decided to find out about the war medals.
‘Did you fight in the war?’ there was an awkward pause, where he faltered for a minute.
‘I was only a young man, but I retired from it some kind of hero….. I managed to ward off a group of Germans and saved some lives.’ He said humbly.
‘You’d better see if your mothers back, now Danny. We can’t be sitting here all night boring you with my stories’
‘No way are they boring, I love them.’ Although I wasn’t stupid enough not to take the hint.
I didn’t want to leave and I had to practically drag Kayley out who decided she was quite happy where she was.
‘Bye.’ We said simultaneously.
The door was slightly ajar when we got to our flat, there was some bellowing and shouting coming from the living room, I didn’t want to go in there at all, but we cautiously drifted in to find mum in obvious pain and being held by her wrists by a largely built man, his stocky shoulders were larger than his whole body with his equally stocky head slapped on like a brick with a blond crew cut, I couldn’t see the rest of his face but his chin stuck out like a chiselled boxer. When he looked round at the two of us, he let go of her swiftly, he didn’t stop to say anything and quickly left the flat, shoving us aside in his haste, while mum was frantically trying to compose herself, dusting herself down. Instead of reassuring us she just shouted embarrassingly.
‘Get lost both of you!’ I wish I could have.
We scuttled away into my bedroom wondering whether we would ever just come home and it be normal, I had to wipe Kayley’s tears away while they fell silently and we stayed well put until we thought it had all calmed down. I was scared to ask, but it was tough, we were both hungry. So I approached mum.
‘Mum, who was that man?’ She looked up, her eyes glazed over.
’It’s just like, my boss.
‘Do you have a job?’ I asked not sure if I wanted to listen to the answer.
It had only been a niggle and an uneasy feeling, now I truly did understand.
‘Mum what’s for dinner?’ Said Kayley innocently
‘Look in the cupboard, I’m sure there’s a tin of beans at the back.’
‘But mum, you said you would make dinner.’ I said disappointedly.
‘Don’t cheek me you little whatsit’
I couldn’t win, the beans looked utterly pathetic in the saucepan, I managed to retrieve some old bread from the bin, it had a touch of mould on the edges, but I cut them off, wondering if it would do any harm and stuck them in the toaster, making a cheerful pattern for Kayley with the toast so it looked like two boats, with the beans as the sea. I tried not to think about it being in the bin and the mould and ate it hungrily, then there was nothing else to do but go to bed.
The rest of the week was pretty much the same, except that mum was home later and later, and was leaving us with less food as the week went on. I couldn’t understand how if she was working, that she didn’t do any shopping. We popped in to see the old man after school sometimes, where he’d give us the lowdown on what particular flowers were in and what flowers were the best for growing indoors, and which ones smelled the nicest indoors, I took note of that, thinking I could get one for our flat, but when we went the next day he produced the most fragrant plant I’d smelt, giving it to me in a small pot.
‘That’s Arabian Jasmine.’ He said, instructing me how to look after it and when Kayley complained, the next time we went, he gave her a Stephanotis plant, all for herself and told us how to look after them. We put them on our bedroom window so they would get lots of bright light and watered it every day. Then when we went over to his next time, he told us he’d been down to the garden centre to collect a flower that had been on order and planted a very special plant in honour of someone very important, he showed me to the window box, and there on the tag was ‘Danny boy rose’. I was so touched that he would think of me that I wanted to cry, I was right up there next to Gladys gladioli.
It was on the Friday that she left twenty pounds on the cabinet as she went out, this time with no explanation of when she’d be back and what she was doing. We welcomed the money because by this time we were relying on the free school meals and getting scraps any which way we could.
One afternoon after school, I managed to swipe some noodles and some currant buns off the local shops shelf, paranoid I was going to get caught, I ran and ran round the corner and realised with relief that nobody had followed me. Result. That night we had a strange mixture of super noodles, bread and butter and toasted currant buns, it was a feast compared to the other nights. Again our clothes looked grubbier than ever, Mr Johnson tried to have that conversation with me, clearly concerned, but I fobbed him off, telling him the washing machine had broken down again and mum was on to them, some of the teachers glanced knowingly at me as I walked past, whispering comments to each other, the other kids blatantly said what they thought, without worrying whether they would offend us. Matthew stayed well away from me now, his mum gave me filthy glowers in the flat corridor, but said nothing, although her stares bore through me like an electric drill.
I thought we could go out for the evening and nip down the chip shop, but it was pouring with rain and I had no coat. Still it had to be better than the flat, so we went anyway, the packets of fish and chips didn’t just represent food they felt good and warming. The bus shelter seemed as good a place as any to eat them, we ended up watching people go by, families walking together, laughing, having fun, while we tried to convince ourselves we didn’t care, others smiled us at us sympathetically, that was worse.
The water was dripping off our noses by the time we got grudgingly back to the flat. It was looking worse than ever, there was nowhere to sit that was not covered in clothes and other stuff, while everywhere else was more grubby than us. I couldn’t and didn’t want to stay there, but didn’t know what to do.
Then as we’d done all week, we decided to visit Mr Smith, we specifically left the door on the latch, Kayley took her teddy, as she was feeling upset that night, she’d been picked on at school and her teacher had told her off for the state of her socks, she’d cried from the bus stop to home. The thing is I couldn’t change anything, it was all getting too much, for both of us.
I knocked hard on the door, waiting longer than usual, it seemed ages before we saw the chain and the door slightly opened, he peered out and then quickly opened the door when he saw it was us, after fumbling around with the latch.
‘Hello you two, how can I help you tonight?’ he looked tired, older than usual.
‘Can we come in for a bit, we’ve been locked out again?’ I lied.
Rather than hesitating politely when we came in, this time we came in like it was home. He could have just been our granddad, if we pretended hard enough.
‘Fancy a game of chess lad?’
‘I’ve never played.’
‘Come on, I’ll teach you’ He retrieved a large wooden chess board from the cupboard and set them up, explaining what pieces did what and where they went, I felt the chiselled wooden pieces, they were almost perfect in condition. Kayley sat and watched Dilly’s kitchen on his old television as he guided me through the game.
After that we went out onto his balcony and watched the sunset over London, he smoked his cigar and he showed me his war medals. I couldn’t get enough of how he talked of battles fought and camaraderie and reiterating how he was just a mere teenager when he went to war, but came back a man. He told me about how the Danny boy Rose got its name and how to take cuttings from other plants. He told me all kinds of things that I didn’t know.
‘You know I’m eighty seven next week.’
‘Really?’ I hated that he was so old, I needed and wanted him to be around forever, but I wasn’t that naive.
I kept doing things to put off going back to the flat, the prospect of seeing mum sparked out on the settee or the flat being empty and dark wasn’t attractive, however Mr Smith wasn’t rushing us out either so we stayed longer, putting off the inevitable, helping him with his plants, bantering on about everything and anything, and it wasn’t awkward. When he disappeared into the kitchen and we smelled sizzling bacon emanating from the kitchen, we knew he was making us some food to take home, he gave us two packets of bacon sandwiches on tiger bread and some corned beef sandwiches, for later, he added.
WhiIe it was becoming a regular habit going round to his flat, we still had to come home sooner or later but it never changed, we’d more often than not arrive home, find mum either out or sparked out on the sofa, then we’d plod on over to Mr Smiths, we played long games of chess, watered his precious balcony plants or watched the television. It was always the same old routine, our homework got done, while he provided sandwiches and tea. I also discovered that he was a great source of information for modern History, he elevated himself talking about the Second World War, coming alive at every stark memory. I’d now given up on our clothes, attempting another wash proved disastrous, when I’d shrunk all my school jumpers, and I never mentioned visiting him to mum, who at any rate was only concerned for herself, I thought perhaps she’d get annoyed with him and start shouting at him, calling him terrible names, and I didn’t think everyone would entirely understand. Then something awful happened, things changed dramatically and we were left with nowhere to go and nowhere to turn.