A short story by Maggie Sawkins.
The police came the other day. I knew they were coming. That’s one good thing about living up here. You can see what’s going on. They wanted to know why I hadn’t been to school. I heard my mum say, ‘He’s sick, been sick for days.’ That threw them. The tall one, the one with the bulgy eyes like Freddy Kruger, didn’t believe her. I could tell by the way he looked. ‘Where’s he now?’ he said. ‘At the doctors,’ she said, ‘went about an hour ago.’
She can be all right sometimes, my mum. But mostly she’s a miserable cow. Dossing round the flat all day in her dressing-gown. About the only time she gets dressed is when she goes out for a bottle. I can’t get it for her because I’m not old enough. I tried once and the sad git in Alldays threatened to get the police. Skeggsy was hanging about outside so we got some fags, and six boxes of Swan. Skeggsy looks older than me – he gets away with it. I told her I got happy-slapped on the way home. She didn’t believe me. But I don’t care.
Skeggsy’s just texted to say the police turned up at Milton Cross. There’s been another incident. Only this time it’s the flats in Paradise Street. The whole place had to be emptied. They wanted to know where everyone was on Monday morning. I told Skeggsy I was at the arcade trying out my system. He thinks I’m gonna tell him how I do it. That’s why he’s creeping.
I’ve got something to show him when he comes round next. I caught it last Saturday outside the Co-op. It’s there in the matchbox. Wrapped up in cling-film. They reckon they can survive anything, even nuclear attacks. I’ve given it a week.
Everything looks smaller from up here – it’s like living in Toytown. It doesn’t matter being nearer the sky – when you look up all you see is black. They reckon you can’t see the stars in the city because of all the street lamps and the rest of the crap. We went to St. Ives once, when I was a kid. They had millions of stars there. Stars so bright they burnt pissholes in the sky. My dad bought me a hotdog from the van and we got a blanket out the car and sat on the hill. I saw two shooting stars. It was like watching fireworks. On the way back to the caravan I asked him if I could have a telescope for Christmas. He said he’d think about it. That’s what they always say.
My mum’s had a ‘phone call. It was some bloke. ‘Can I speak to Dawn, please?’ – he sounded a right sicko. She was on there for ages. I went in to see what was going on but she told me to clear off. Then she started whispering. Don’t know why she bothers. Her last one was a right screwhead. Mick Maloney. Mick the Moron, more like. Spent all the time in the gym, trying to build up his muscle. Except when he wasn’t here, strutting around. She thought I couldn’t hear them. But I could. I could hear everything. She couldn’t understand why I didn’t like him – what you need’s a bloke about the place, that’ll sort you out – then he lost it. She had to wear sunglasses for two weeks, even when it was raining. She didn’t go out much after that.
I’ve found out his name – it’s Bernie. He’s ‘phoned up three times today. I pretended she’d gone to the shops. When she woke up she asked me if anyone had rung. She looked dead miserable. I felt a bit sorry for her. Then she started drinking again.
It’s been nearly a week now. It’s had no food, and no air. And it’s still alive. I unwrapped a bit of the cling film last night and poked it with a pin from the corkboard. I thought it was gonna jump right out of the box, but I shut it quick. I’ve decided to call it Bernie. Also I’ve decided I’m not going back to school. Only got five months left, so what’s the point? Shakespeare and poets, that’s all they teach you. They don’t even speak English. The only good bit was in the film, when Macbeth got his head chopped off, and one of them witches did a moonie. Anyway I’ve got my system. I made fifty quid in three hours the other day down the pier. Next year I’m going to Brighton. There’s loads of machines there. Then I’ll get away from this dump.
I don’t know what’s up with her. She’s acting mega strange. She got up early this morning. Got out the dusters and the polish. Went mad, cleaning everything, even the pot plant on top of the telly. Then she tried to get in my room, except she couldn’t get past the door – I wouldn’t let her. She said, ‘You could at least open the curtains and empty the bin.’ Then she gave me a bag of old bottles. Told me to dump them down the chute.
Just after I got there I noticed the warden hanging around. He wanted to know what I was doing with the matches. ‘Having a fag, what d’you think?’ I told him. He’s a right smeg. The way he looked at me – as if I was crawling. ‘We’ve had enough trouble round here with the likes of you,’ he said, ‘now sod off.’ I dumped the bag of bottles at his feet and went back to the flat. Next time, I thought. Next time. I read once that one day the sun’s gonna explode. Then there won’t be nothing left. No flats, no school, no insects, no screwheads, no nothin’. All that’ll be left is sky.
She’s finished cleaning at last. The whole place stinks of polish and disinfectant. Now she’s having a bath. I can’t even get in there for a piss. She’s definitely up to something.
I can’t believe it. I went in to watch the telly while I was waiting for Skeggsy and she’s sitting there all dressed up. Black skirt and tights and the leather jacket she got off the catalogue. The one she paid eighty five quid for and never wore. And she had lipstick on. ‘What you gawping at?’ she said. ‘I’m going out – it’s about time I went out.’ I thought she was gonna cry. She put her hand in her purse and pulled out a fiver. ‘Here, love, get yourself a MacDonald’s.’ I sat there watching, couldn’t take my eyes off. Then the buzzer went and she jumped up. ‘It’s for me,’ I said, ‘I’ll get it.’ I beat her to the door. But when I answered, it was his voice. Bernie’s.
After she’d gone I went out on the balcony and looked down. They were walking towards a car. It was black with a sunroof. He looked quite old, about fifty, grey hair. He opened the door for her and she got in.
She’s hid the photo. The one she keeps by her bed. The one they had done in the club, the one where my dad’s got his arm round her. When we got back off holiday my dad started acting strange, dressing up, going out. Then one day he said he’d been robbed and they had a row. After he’d gone the electric went and there was no money for the key meter. We had a house then, with a real fire. When he came back it was dark. My mum and me were on the settee watching the flames. Then he came over, tried to kiss her. She pushed him off and they started shouting. My school photo fell in the grate. There was a big crack right across my face. My mum said he hadn’t been robbed – he’d spent it all on the old scrubber. Then she took her ring off. Threw it in the flames. In the morning I came down and poked around a bit. That’s when I found it – covered in ash. It hadn’t melted at all. I picked it out and took it up to her. I thought she’d be pleased. But she told me to get lost and started crying again. My dad didn’t come back after that.
I went into my bedroom and opened the window. There wasn’t a single star in sight. No sign of Skeggsy either. That’s when I looked up at the calendar on my corkboard. At nine o’clock it would be one week, exactly. I got the matchbox out of the drawer and opened it up.
It was lying there, dead still, all wrapped up in the cling film. I got the pin and poked it. It didn’t move. So I poked it again. A bit harder this time, and it shot right up the end of the box. I shut it again quick. The bin under the window was empty. I thought the nosey cow must have got in and emptied it. I tore some pages out of my maths book and put them in the bottom. I put the box on top. I got the Swans from under my bed. ‘Let’s see how you get out of this one, Bernie baby,’ I said. Then I lit a corner of the paper. It was just beginning to catch when the buzzer went. I leapt up and looked at my watch. If it was Skeggsy, he was fifty-five minutes late. Fifty-five minutes too late. I waited for the buzzer to stop and went to look over the balcony. But it wasn’t Skeggsy after all. It was the old bill, the one with the bulgy eyes like Freddy Kruger. He was walking towards his car.
When I got back to my room the paper had gone out. I picked the matchbox from the bottom of the bin and shook it. They reckon they’re the masters of escape, that’s how they survive. But it was still in there. I could hear it rattling. I put it back quick. I looked under my bed and found some old magazines, ripped the pages up, more this time, and placed them in layers on top of the box. Then I got the matches and lit them, one by one.
I could hear some kids messing around down by the garages, so I shut the window and lay on my bed. The flames were beginning to lick the top of the bin. I started thinking about St Ives again. I closed my eyes and it was just like I was back there on the beach, with the sky and the sea almost the same colour, and the seagulls screeching in my ears. I’m helping my dad build a sand castle, running up and down, collecting water in my bucket. It’s so hot I can feel the heat on my face, and there’s my mum sitting on the blanket next to us, in her black leather jacket. Then she gets up and starts dancing, right there on the sand, and everyone’s looking. And the sun’s above us just like a balloon, a bright orange balloon, and it’s growing bigger and bigger. I want to catch hold of it and I try to run. But I can’t.
First published in The Frogmore Papers.
Photography by Richard Williams.