© Susan Howe
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(a short story)
Rough brick cut into Billy’s cheek and warm blood trickled down his neck. Fire and ice chased through his veins as he struggled to stay upright. A single thought penetrated his fear.
Mum’ll go crazy.
Billy’s mum was at home in their fifth floor flat on the Turnbull Estate, believing her fourteen year old son safely in bed wrapped in the protective green arms of the Incredible Hulk. She leaned in to the TV so she wouldn’t miss any detail of the latest teenage stabbing on the city streets. It wasn’t her own city, though that fact had been swept away by the stream of similar news items that poured from her screen every day.
Paula tried to swallow but her throat was too dry. She reached for the mug of tea Billy had made two hours before and took a swig.
She pulled a face as the bitter skin coated the inside of her mouth, but her eyes remained fixed on the images. She tilted her head, trying to catch and separate the sounds, as broadcast sirens merged with those outside, creating an eerie stereo.
'Michael Warner was walking home from football practice with his friend Kevin Holmes, when they were attacked by a group of four youths, aged between fourteen and eighteen, armed with knives,’ the newscaster said. ‘Kevin pulled himself free and ran into a shop, leaving Michael to fight for his life. By the time Kevin returned with help, Michael lay bleeding from a chest wound and died on the way to hospital. His parents.....'
Panic engulfed her. She hauled herself out of the sagging armchair and clutched her knees, drawing ragged breaths until the thumping in her chest eased. Holding the furniture for support, Paula threaded her way through the cluttered room, thanking God her boys had been spared for one more day.
She pushed open their bedroom door and the buzzing of Jamie’s nasal breathing drew more lines of worry across her pasty, indoor skin.
‘That cold isn't budging. He should see the doctor.’
She shrank from the thought, holding his small white arm against her for a moment before tucking it under the safety of Tyrannosaurus Rex. The snoring reached a crescendo.
‘It’s a good thing Billy can sleep through anything.’
Smiling, she reached up to pat the shape in the upper bunk. There was no resistance as her hand sank into the mound. She pushed again. Nothing. Pulling the duvet to the floor, she climbed the ladder, scrabbled at his sheet and cried out. She ran between the four small rooms, willing him to emerge from behind doors, blinds or walls.
Wrenching open the outside door, she almost toppled over the threshold into the freezing night air. Startled by the sudden change of temperature she swung inside, slammed the door and slid to the floor.
It was almost a year since Paula had dared leave the safety of her home; since Cameron fell asleep in front of the television and failed to wake up. A cerebral haemorrhage. It could have happened to anyone, the doctor said. But Cameron wasn't anyone. He was her husband, the father of her children. Her last outing had been to his funeral before loneliness settled around her, separating her from the life she’d had and the one she faced alone. Despite her children’s pleas the flat had become her retreat and her prison.
Cameron had found the flat. It was cheap and run down, nothing like the neat, three-bedroomed house they’d lost after he was made redundant. He’d promised it was only a stop-gap while they found their feet; until he landed the job that would turn their fortunes round.
‘This is it, Paulie. A new start. We’ll soon be moving up - you’ll see.’ He’d caught her hands, singing, ‘Ain’t no stopping us now,’ spinning her round the pile of boxes in the living room. She had joined in, giggling helplessly as he dragged her in and out of the drab rooms before pushing her down onto the bed and taking her in his arms.
She shivered with cold and the sweetness of the memory. What wouldn’t she give just to feel the warmth of his breath on her cheek and hear him whisper her name once more?
A sharp rap on the wood behind her head jolted her heart into frantic activity. Her hand flew to her mouth as she heard the dreaded words.
‘Mrs Patterson. This is the police.’
Billy couldn’t help being angry with his dad. As if bringing them to this dump wasn't enough, he'd gone and left them with nothing. Both boys begged to move nearer their old home, but their mother sat in her coffee-stained dressing gown, dead eyes glued to the television. She wouldn’t wash, get dressed or go out. Billy carried on for the sake of his little brother. If only his Gran were still alive, she would have known what to do.
He got Jamie and himself ready for school each day, packed homework, supervised teeth-cleaning, and collected shopping on the way home. He hid his mother’s debit card in the lining of his jacket. Several times an hour he poked his fingers through the hole in his pocket to check it was still there, reassuringly smooth and cool. Running his finger along the sharp edge, he reminded himself of the danger of discovery. He daren’t carry cash. Kyle Ricks and his mates had already had his lunch money twice.
Every afternoon, after he collected Jamie from the Juniors’, they walked the mile to the cashpoint outside the supermarket. On the bus home Billy prayed that someone older would get off at their stop so they didn’t have to run the gauntlet of gangs by themselves. He’d seen the glint of blades, barely concealed up sleeves, and recognised the attitude that told him they couldn’t give a damn.
His little family lived on pies and sandwiches, which Billy stuffed with fresh tomato using his mother’s trick of hiding it in the slick of ketchup his brother adored. Afterwards he made Jamie eat a piece of fruit.
‘You don’t have to watch me,’ Jamie said, turning his back on his brother. ‘I’m eating it, see?’
Billy sighed. Why did kids have to make everything so difficult? He didn’t want anyone getting ill before his mum was on her feet and looking after them again. He missed her very much. She’d always been so full of life it was hard to believe that shrunken figure, silently chewing her toast, was the same person. He was sure she'd soon be back to normal. It was only a matter of time, he told himself, crossing his fingers. No need to involve Social Services yet.
Once a week he dragged a sack of dirty clothes down to the damp concrete basement and used one of the rusting washing machines to lighten the stains. Then he hung them over a line in the bathroom where they absorbed the pungent smell of mildew that speckled the walls. He sniffed the air around his brother as they walked to school, hoping it would fade before they got inside.
‘Give up, Billy,’ Jamie said, pushing him away. ‘People are staring.’
Billy didn’t know them so he didn’t care. It was the kids at school who mattered. Especially Kyle Ricks. You couldn’t get anything past him without a fight.
Eventually there were bills to pay and letters Billy didn’t understand. The telephone had already been cut off and the electricity would be next. He frowned as he spread the assortment of mail across the table.
On the television news was unfolding of another attack and the camera lingered on a dark patch in the road. Determined to get her attention, Billy folded his arms and planted himself in front of his mother, blocking her view of the screen. Her unwashed head bobbed from side to side as she strained to see past him but he stood firm.
‘Mum,’ he said, taking her hands.
She stared down as though seeing them for the first time. At last she raised her eyes. He watched as they narrowed, widened, and flickered into life.
‘Mum. You have to help me. I can’t do everything by myself.’
Tears spilled down her cheeks as she pulled his face down to hers.
‘I know, baby, I know.’
He let her cry on his neck, soaking his shirt, until she was exhausted. Then he drew back, wrinkling his nose.
‘Can I tell you something, Mum?’
‘Course you can, sweetheart.’ She smoothed the thick, blond hair, so like her own, off his face.
‘OK then. I’m really sorry but you stink and I’m going to run you a bath.’
Paula began a slow recovery. She gave Billy a daily list of shopping, letters were written and bills paid. She cooked their meals and cleaned the flat but they still couldn’t persuade her to go out. She clung to them each morning despite their attempts to convince her they would soon be safely home again.
Every afternoon she watched for her sons through the bars outside the window, turning frequently to keep track of the latest news. She chewed her nails, feeling her chest tighten until she saw them enter the car park. As they came in, she flung her arms about them, covering them with tears and kisses until Jamie shrugged her off.
‘Geddoff, Mum.’ He’d wipe his face on his sleeve. ‘You’re too soppy!’
She’d smile and ruffle his curls. ‘And you’re growing up too fast.’
He was beginning to look so like his father with his wiry frame, red hair and blue eyes, she did a double-take each time she saw him. While she tried not to let Jamie see her reaction, she knew Billy had noticed. He was such a good lad. Most boys his age wanted to be out with their mates but not her Billy. She wanted to do something for him but he was so capable and self-contained she didn’t feel she had anything to offer.
‘Why don’t you ask a friend round after school?’ she said as he unpacked the shopping. ‘You could do your homework together and play on the Playstation.’
‘I told you, Mum. They all live miles away and the buses are crap.’
‘Maybe their dads could collect them?’
‘No mum. It’s OK. The games are too old and besides, we’re not really sorted yet, are we?’
Paula looked around. He was right, it was awful. She’d have to do something about it. She smiled as she realised that’s exactly what she could do. Make her boys a decent home they could bring their friends to. Excitement brightened her eyes as she imagined their surprise.
Billy knew that if his mother guessed his plans it might push her over the edge and start something he wouldn’t be able to stop. Attract the kind of scrutiny he’d heard about. That broke families up and ruined their lives. So he kept them to himself. It wasn’t like he was doing anything wrong. For most kids Saturday night at the bowling alley with their friends was a regular thing. Lee and his mates had asked him before but Billy had made excuses why he couldn’t go. He liked them and knew if he turned them down, they might not ask again.
When he went shopping that Saturday morning he got himself some extra cash. He’d been careful with the money so there was a bit left over every week. His mum said he and Jamie could split it between them. He’d saved up until there was enough to have a couple of games and a burger, maybe even for a taxi home. His stomach turned over whenever he thought about it; going to bed early, waiting ‘til Jamie was asleep and his mum watching something lame on television; sneaking down the stairs and dodging the shadows. Some girls were coming too. There was one he liked and, he wasn’t sure, but he thought Lauren might like him too. Sometimes he looked up from his work and caught her watching him through her long lashes. And she smiled when they passed in the corridor. His heart flipped over. It was only one night. He just wanted to do something normal.
But when he got home from the supermarket he found his mother waiting, eyes wild with terror, inside the door. She dragged him through to the living room and pushed him in front of the TV, pointing wordlessly.
‘We have no details yet of a double murder in the Hillside district of the city,’ the reporter said, as images of the entrance to a passage, between the backs of houses and a factory wall, hovered on the screen. Yellow tape fluttered like bunting across the alley, a blank-faced policeman at each end.
Backs of heads blocked the view but even so, it was familiar. The water tower in the background, the orange shop sign Billy passed every day on his way to school. He looked again at the crowd and a shock of white, straw-like hair caught his eye. Kyle Ricks. What was he doing there? Billy’s guts churned as he realised he might even know the victims. His mother clutched him, pinching him through his sweatshirt, and he pulled away. She grasped at his hand but he shook her off.
‘Mum, look.’ He spread his arms and turned round. ‘It isn’t me. OK?’
She looked him up and down and then let her hands drop.
‘I’m sorry Billy, it’s just...’
Tears rolled down her cheeks. Billy pulled her into the chair and switched off the TV.
‘I’ll make us a sandwich,’ he said.
All afternoon Billy fretted about the evening. One minute he was going, the next he wasn’t. He hadn’t seen his mother in such a state for weeks. What if she found out? But then, why would she? Once he and Jamie were in bed, that was it. She took a sleeping pill and nodded off on the settee with the telly on. He usually had to get up and switch it off. No, it was safe enough and he’d be home by midnight. There would be extra police around too, because of the murders. He hadn’t known the kids after all and the reporter said it looked like the result of a turf war.
He thought of Lauren, the way she laughed and flicked the hair out of her eyes, and the back of his neck prickled. He made a decision.
He gave his mother her pill and kissed her goodnight, got changed, arranged his bed so it looked as though he was under the cover, tiptoed through the darkened kitchen and let himself out. The steps were quiet and creepy as a solitary bulb flickered on an upstairs landing. A couple yelled at each other in a ground floor flat as he ran through the car park. Once he was out on the street he relaxed. The lights were bright, sparkling off the frosty pavement. He broke into a trot and the air-cushioned soles of his trainers puffed and wheezed as they hit the ground. His ears were cold but it felt good to be outside, free of worry, the promise of something new and thrilling pulling him on. He speeded up, rounding the corner towards the leisure complex where the others would be waiting.
He stopped, skidding on the slippery surface. A group of lads, leaning against a wall, turned as they heard the grit crunching under his feet. He closed his eyes, trying to force his brain into action. Should he go back or walk on? He heard a murmur among the group and took a step backwards. They moved towards him, casually, as though they needed a light. Maybe that was all it was but the blood pounding in his head told him otherwise and he took another step back. Then they were round him, looking him up and down.
‘Well, look what we’ve got ‘ere,’ said a familiar voice.
Kyle Ricks. The last person Billy wanted to see.
‘Got any gear?’
They sniggered, punching each other on the shoulder.
‘No,’ said Billy, straining to keep his voice steady.
‘Nah, course not!’ said Kyle. ‘Got any cash then?’
‘No.’ Billy’s left hand tightened round the contents of his pocket. He’d worked hard for it and he wasn’t giving up so easily.
‘Well, let’s see, shall we?’ He got hold of Billy’s jacket. ‘Get ’is legs, lads.’
Billy wriggled and kicked as they tore his clothes.
‘Hold ’im still,’ said Kyle.
He prised open Billy’s fingers, pulled out four five pound notes and, grinning, waved them in front of his face.
Billy stared at the blurred notes. An unfamiliar force welled inside his chest. His right hand burrowed through the hole in his pocket, into the lining. It was still there, smooth and cool. He ran his finger along the edge.
‘You’re not having it,’ he heard himself say. ‘It’s mine.’
The boy holding his other arm lost his grip as Billy jerked his hidden hand with all his might, thrusting it at his enemy. Kyle’s pale eyes widened, his knees buckled, and he sank to the ground. Tiny spots of red flecked his jacket as he knelt at Billy’s feet and the money he had stolen fluttered from his grasp.
Teeth chattering, Billy held Kyle against him long after the others had melted into the night. Sirens wailed, brakes screeched and feet pounded towards him, grabbing, thumping, tugging his legs apart, shoving him against the wall. His body gave in but his brain struggled on, fighting to understand what had happened. An image swirled and sharpened amid the chaos.
By the faint orange glow of the city lights he saw the gleam of the knife on the kitchen table, a hesitation and his hand, reaching out. He was never going to use it. It was only for show. Just in case.
A howl of despair erupted from his throat as he realised what he’d done. That he wouldn’t be going home to his own bed. A vision of his mother, her fist to her mouth, flashed before him.
For the first time since his father died, he started to cry.