Scarlett didn’t sleep a wink that night. After she’d consoled her brother and done her best to convince him that she was okay and that he needed to sleep, she’d snuck into the bathroom, locked the door behind her and climbed into the shower. It was here, with the water pouring over her, washing away the blood and the rainwater and the semen, that she allowed herself to be overcome by the horror and the pain she’d just endured. Her legs were still shaking from being prised apart and bruises were already forming on her thighs and wrists. She wept silently into the stream from the shower, her tears mixing with the lukewarm water and draining down into the plughole.
* * * * *
When morning arrived, Scarlett got herself and Jack ready for school in their rooms and left the house early. She couldn’t face breakfast in the kitchen. She’d steal them some food from the supermarket next to the school.
“Larly,” Jack said at her side, his bright cheery tone replaced with something darker, “what happened last night?”
Scarlett’s heart thudded in her chest. He was worried about his big sister. He was confused at what he had witnessed. How on earth could she hope to explain it to him?
Saved by the bell, Scarlett’s phone started to ring. She had left it in the front room last night when she’d rushed upstairs and only collected it this morning as she was heading out the door.
“What the hell happened, I’ve been worried sick!” It was Billy.
“I need to get Jack to school but I’ll call you later okay?” Scarlett hung up. Billy knew something was wrong but she couldn’t talk about it now. Jack had to be her priority, he didn’t have anyone else, he needed her to be strong.
They entered the Sainsbury’s near Jack’s school and wandered down the sandwich aisle. Her eyes darted up and down the aisle, she reached for a cheese sandwich and hurriedly stuffed it down the waist band of her plaid skirt, hiding it from sight with her navy blazer before grabbing Jack’s hand and hurrying them both out of the shop.
While Jack happily munched away on his cheese sandwich, Scarlett contemplated what might happen next. She would have to tell her mum what happened but she had no idea what her mum’s reaction would be. Whose side she would take. She could spiral even deeper into depression and addiction. Or perhaps this would be the wake up call she needs to finally be the mum Scarlett and Jack needed after all these years. More likely she would just pretend nothing had happened.
One they got to Jack’s school, Scarlett bent down so she was at eye level and tried to give her brother the most convincing smile she could muster.
“Everything will be okay, Jacky. I’ll be okay, I promise. One day soon I’ll be old enough to look after us both properly. I’ll get a job and we can move out to our own place with no mummies and no Dennises. Just me and you.”
“And Finn and Jake!” Jack added. They were his favourite cartoon characters.
“And Finn and Jake,” Scarlett smiled, ruffling his hair and kissing him on the forehead. She watched him run into the school. He was such a good kid, he deserved so much better.
Once Scarlett had dropped Jack at school she flicked through her phone until she came to Billy’s name, but something stopped her from hitting dial. She imagined the words coming out of her mouth as she told him. She imagined his reaction to what had happened to her. She imagined how it could change things between them forever. Her heart pounded in her chest as she allowed the feelings of loss and hopelessness to momentarily overwhelm her. She swallowed a surge of emotion and put her phone back in her pocket before heading to her first class of the day.
* * * * *
Scarlett felt like she was separated from her fellow students by a smog. A smog which dulled their words and made it hard for her to read their expressions. The world passed by her and she hardly noticed it. A few people made comments to her about the fight but she barely registered them. She wasn’t part of this world anymore. Something Had Happened. And nothing would ever be the same again.
Her second to last class was music - her favourite. She was classically trained on the piano, could play guitar by ear and was easily the best singer in her year. But it brought her no joy today and at the end of the lesson her teacher asked to speak with her.
“Scarlett, you don’t seem yourself today. Is everything okay?”
Scarlett felt her cheeks get hot. She had to get out of this situation. Mr Tadler was a great teacher and she liked him a lot but there was no way she could tell him anything. He would tell social services and then her mum would be in trouble again for her relationship choices and Nosy Nina would have another reason to threaten them all with seperation.
“I’m fine. Just a bit under the weather, nothing to worry about.” She made for the door but Mr Tadler stood in her way.
“Please move, Mr Tadler,”
“Scarlett, if something is happening you can tell me.”
He was tall and sort of handsome in a nerdy sort of way, he wore a dicky bow and round rimmed glasses.
Scarlett didn’t know much about her real dad but in her mum’s drunken rambles where she had blamed Scarlett for everything that went wrong in her life she’d let slip that he was a music teacher at her mum’s college. That the affair was highly illicit and most frowned upon. That afterwards she felt like she had been groomed and taken advantage off. Scarlett set her jaw and tried to move around him.
He put his hands gently on her shoulders to stop her from pushing him out of the way and Scarlett felt white hot rage emanate from where he touched her. Panic burst in front of her eyes and her brain filled with smoke and steam. She reeled backwards and began pummeling the air in front of her, her fists colliding with Mr Tadler’s chest, strangled cries leaving her mouth against her will.
A few moments later, after being restrained by several teachers who had heard the ruckus, Scarlett was sat back in her headteachers room, shaking, biting her lip and pulling at her clothes.
“What is the meaning of this, Miss Delaney!” Mr Broomfield’s voice roared.
Scarlett stared blankly ahead. She was done for. She’d attacked a teacher. She couldn’t hear Mr Broomfield as she shouted at her. The smog was back and she was numb again. But she did make out the word “expelled.”
* * * * *
Scarlett was early to pick Jack up but didn’t see him in the playground. It wasn’t until the last few children were filtering out with their parents that she was approached by Mrs Cranfield. She was accompanied by a large, male teacher who eyed Scarlett suspiciously.
“Jack isn’t here,” Mrs Cranfield spoke cautiously, as if frightened that Scarlett would rush forward and grab her again, “I would have thought someone would have contacted you to let you know.”
“Where is he?” Scarlett blinked.
“Nina collected him. I think she’s taking him somewhere, grandparents maybe. She said he might not be coming back to school?” As the words left Mrs Cranfield’s mouth, she took a step back, fearful at the reaction she would provoke.
The ground came up to meet Scarlett’s knees as she fell onto them. Heavy realisation of her worst fears swam in front of her eyes. He was gone. He was gone and it was all her fault. If she hadn’t swung the first punch yesterday. If she hadn’t been in the front room last night when...
She’d heard Nina the social worker warn her mum time and time again. Said that Jack had grandparents in the countryside who could take him in on a special guardianship order, his dad’s parents. She said that if she didn’t work hard to improve Jack’s life she runs the risk of losing custody.
The words rang in her ears now. She’d failed. She couldn’t protect him. And now they had come and spirited her baby brother away from her for good. She had worked so hard to hide the mess than was their lives from the prying eyes of teachers, neighbours and social workers but she’d failed.
Pictures of concerned faces swam around her field of vision, disembodied hands grabbed her by the elbow, words rang in her ears asking over and over again if she was alright. She shook them off, got to her feet and ran out of the playground. She ran down the street, she ran and ran and ran until her lungs were hot and painful, until the tears ran dry on her face. She recognised a house ahead. Her friend Sasha would be there. She pounded on the door.
Moments later she was shaking and settled in Sasha’s kitchen with a cup of tea, her breathing hard from running, unable to slow due to panicking.
“What are you doing to do?” Sasha asked, her dark eyes wide. Her hands planted on either side of her coffee coloured face in concern. She was wearing her work uniform - Sasha had decided to leave school after her GCSE’s and got a job selling electronic goods.
“I’m not going to a hostel, that’s for sure.” Fear pricked at her heart.
“You can stay here if you want?” Sasha offered. But Scarlett knew their home was full. Sasha had 4 siblings and her older sister who was still at home had a newborn baby.
“Thank you, but I can’t do that,” Scarlett took a furtive sip of her tea, her heart rate slowing just a little, “I was thinking of going to visit Billy in London.”
“You can’t just run away, Scarlett! You can do your A Levels somewhere else and there’s always a chance that your mum will get Jack back!”
Scarlett hadn’t told Sasha what Dennis had done to her. Of course she didn’t understand why Scarlett had to leave. But she’d already made up her mind.
“Please, Sash. I need to do this. Can you help me?” She took Sasha’s hand in hers, a plea in her eyes.
Sasha sighed heavily, “I can lend you some money and some clothes. But you better not leave me forever!”
Scarlett lunged forward and took her best friend in her arms. Her and her mum had been Scarlett’s guardian angels her whole life.
An hour later, and Scarlett was sat on a train, hurtling towards her new life at 100mph.
* * * * *
“I’m not saying it’s not a good surprise, it’s just a surprise!”
Billy held her tightly in his arms on the platform at Kings Cross, lifting her off the ground.
“You just didn’t sound as happy as I thought you would, that’s all,” Scarlett pouted looking up at her boyfriend. He had sparkly grey eyes which always twinkled conspiratorially and his good nature shone through his slim, pale face. A shock of light brown curly hair on top of his head hung in front of his eyes as he smiled down at her.
“I said you could visit and I meant it! Just would have been good to give the guys a heads up is all. You know I’m sharing with four other people.”
The pair walked towards the tube station with their arms wrapped around each other. Billy stopped to give a pound to a homeless person.
“Do you think your housemates will like me?” Scarlett pondered.
“I ’m certain they’ll love you just as much as I do,” Billy replied as the pair bundled into a tube heading east towards Shoreditch.
Scarlett had visited London plenty of times, it wasn’t too far away from the small town her and Billy had grown up in. Ever since she was a child it had always seemed such a huge, uncompromising, unapologetic beast of a city where you either sank or swam and there would be no apologies or excuses for either. You could either achieve all of your wildest dreams or be a complete nobody, forgotten and washed up on the banks of the Thames. It was scary but thrilling at the same time.
She looked at Billy now. He seemed different, like living here for a few months had already changed him. His clothes were different and the way he stood, slightly slanted lazily to the side was different. But when he looked at her and gave her that lopsided grin she saw he was still the same boy she used to bunk off school with.
Billy had gone to the same school as Scarlett but he was a scholarship kid too, he was exceptionally talented at music and was studying it at Goldsmiths University. His family wasn’t quite as dysfunctional as hers but coming from a single parent family, he ticked the diversity boxes at Stannisfields School of the Performing Arts and was allowed to attend the school for free.
“So when are you going to tell me what happened last night?” He said over the rumble of the tube, concern clouding his eyes.
He had been there for Scarlett since he was 14 and she was 12. They had banded together like scholarship kids did and soon became thick as thieves. It wasn’t until they turned 17 and 15 respectively that Billy announced his feelings for her and they had become even closer, sealing their bond with a kiss.
“Not now,” Scarlett shrugged, watching the dark walls of the tube zoom by outside the carriage.
They filed off the tube and up the road towards Billy’s halls, stopping on the way to buy some cider and some cigarettes. Scarlett lit one and dragged deeply from it as she scanned the East London horizon. The sun was setting behind a row of terraced houses. The streets were still full of people coming and going from off licenses and chicken shops. Getting on and off buses. Some kids laughed loudly in a nearby park.
Billy threw his arm around her shoulder and planted a soft kiss on her cheek. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, leaning into the comfort and familiarity of his touch.
Maybe she could start fresh here, in this hard, impenetrable city. Maybe her and Billy would live happily ever after. Maybe everything would be okay.