Authors: Berlie Doherty
Berlie Doherty is a distinguished writer for young people, twice winner of the prestigious Carnegie Medal. A former teacher, she has worked in schools' broadcasting and adult education. She has also written for adults, and writes plays for radio, theatre and television. She was born in Liverpool and now lives in the Peak District.
Some other books by Berlie Doherty
DAUGHTER OF THE SEA
THE SAILING SHIP TREE
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published by Hamish Hamilton Ltd 1991
Published in Puffin Books 2001
Copyright Â© Berlie Doherty, 1991
All rights reserved
The moral right of the author has been asserted
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Maybe we all want to burn off across the horizon, into space, perhaps, to take off into some unknown territory and meet ourselves out there. This book is a kind of journey, but I don't know yet where it's all going to end.
It all began last January, on a dark evening that was full of sleet. Funny, it's not long ago. I was just a kid then. But today is October 2nd, and this is where I begin to write, where I open a door into the past. It leads into a room in my own house, in a back street not far from the city centre. From the window I can see the lights of thousands of houses that dot out the contours of the hills and valleys of Sheffield. This is my bedroom, full of all kinds of things: my model railway packed in boxes under my bed, my posters and photographs looking like bleak little flags of childhood on the walls. When my wardrobe door swings open it shows just a few tee-shirts, a jumper that's too tight, my old trainers. Already it feels like somebody else's room.
I had finished packing my rucksack, ready to take to Newcastle the next day. I took it downstairs and propped it up in the hall. I felt restless; it was too early to go to sleep, but there was nothing left to do to fill in the massive gap between that day and the next: my old life and my future. In a way I was dreading it, leaving all that behind, knowing that nothing would ever be the same again. I hated the thought of saying goodbye. It would be so much easier to just go, just walk through my bedroom door and find myself in a student's room with my posters already on the walls and my guitar by my bed.
At about eight my dad came upstairs with a parcel for me. He stood in the doorway, looking round at the room with its open, empty drawers.
âAll packed, Chris?' he said.
Most of all I hated the thought of saying goodbye to Dad.
âLooks as if you'll have to open it all up again. You've got a goodbye present.'
He touched my shoulder lightly as he put the package on my bed. I knew it was going to be hard for him, too. I listened to him as he made his way downstairs, leaning a little on the banister because of a slight limp he has, his hand making that familiar squeaking sound on the wooden rail as he took each step. When I looked down at the parcel I recognized the handwriting on it straight away. It was Helen's. Now I could remember the last time I'd seen her; her face then, the misery I'd felt. I opened up the parcel and shook out the contents over my bed. It was just a pile of letters. I picked them up one by one, not understanding what it was all about. They all began the same way. Dear Nobody. I sat there feeling bleak, with a growing kind of grief in me. Once she and I were the most important people in our world. Is this what I'd become to her? Nobody? I began to read them, in order, trying to make sense of what she was saying in them. They took me back to January. As I said, that's where this journey really begins.
Late January. The sort of day that never really starts, when daylight hardly happens and night folds in by mid-afternoon, hushing everything back to sleep again. I was at Helen's house, and we were alone together, lounging back in the big comfortable settee, reading and listening to music, kissing a lot. Helen said she wanted to go upstairs for something and she stood up, trailing her fingers out of my hand, smiling down at me. I didn't want her to go away from me for a second. I followed her up and put some music on in her room, very softly. She has flimsy blue and green silk scarves trailing down the walls; they billow out with the slightest breath of air, as if they were birds drifting. Whether it was the choice of music, or the strange dim light in the room with the curtains still open and these long mothy scarf wings fluttering; or whether it was the way she looked at me, questioning and smiling, when she came to me, I don't know. Maybe it was that something we had never dared talk about had been building up in us for weeks and took us by surprise and storm. It certainly wasn't calculated, that was for sure. Neither of us had known it would happen. But that January evening when the house was empty and a pale and watery moonlight cast the room into white ghostliness, and our favourite music was playing, Helen and I touched each other where we had never touched before and made love.
Afterwards I found it impossible to look at her without smiling. Her mum and dad came back from the shops arguing about which of them had been responsible for forgetting to buy something for that evening's meal, and Robbie came home wet and hungry and was told off for being late. Helen and I sat in the kitchen drinking coffee and touching hands, trying not to look at each other.
âI wonder if they can tell?' I mouthed at her. She looked away from me with a glimmer of laughter in her eyes and stood up to help her mother to unload cleaning powders and unsweetened grapefruit. I watched her stacking things up on the draining board. I could see her reflection in the window, two Helens coming together and separating as she moved backwards and forwards from table to sink, together again, and apart. I wanted her to turn round and smile at me. She knew I was watching her, just as I knew that she was holding me snug in the middle of her thoughts, in spite of all her chattering. It was while I was watching her that I realized that the focus of my life had shifted. For years Dad had been at the centre of everything. Now it was as if he had suddenly turned away in that thinking way he has, his hand just touching his mouth, remembering something that needed to be done, and Helen had stepped smiling into his place.
âI'm starving,' Robbie said. âWhat are we having for tea?'
âNothing,' Mrs Garton said grimly. âAll your father was interested in buying was bottles of Newcastle Brown for his blessed band practice.'
âBogroll,' said Robbie, emptying a carrier bag. âBleach. Windowcleaner! I'm famished!'
âDid you write your letter, Helen?' Mr Garton asked suddenly, and Helen flushed and put her hand to her mouth.
âOh no! I forgot!'
âYou forgot!' He raised his voice with disbelief. âYou forgot!'
âWhat's she forgotten now?' Mrs Garton demanded.
âOnly the most important thing in her life,' Mr Garton told her. âHer acceptance. How on earth could you have forgotten, Helen?'
Helen looked at me quickly, a tiny glance of accusation, and away again. âI'll do it now,' she said. âThere's still time.'
âWhat's the matter?' I asked. All I knew was that Helen had upset her dad, that he was visibly shocked and disappointed in her, and that for some reason it was my fault.
âNothing at all,' Mr Garton said, tight in his throat. âThe girl gets a full offer from the Royal Northern College of Music to do Composition and she forgets to write back and accept it. That's all.'
âI'll do it now, I said,' Helen told him. She was nearly crying. âI've got till tomorrow, Dad.'
âI'd better go,' I said.
âI think you had,' said her mother, arms folded, looking from one to the other of us.
Helen came to the door with me.
âI'm sorry, Helen,' I whispered.
âIt's okay,' she said. âIt's just that it means so much to Dad. Nearly as much as it means to me.'
I put my arms round her. It meant that in October our ways would separate, mine to Newcastle, hers to Manchester. But October was a long way away.
âIt's raining,' she said. âDo you want a brolly? I could lend you the yellow one Nan gave me for Christmas. In fact, you can keep it. It makes me look like a daffodil.'
âNo. I love the rain.' I had to keep clearing my throat. âI love you, Nell.'
âHelen, shut that door! It's like a fridge in here!' her mother called.
Helen pushed me off the doorstep and pulled the door to behind her. She put her arms up and looped them round my neck. I could smell her hair.
âI want it to happen all over again,' I said. âNow.'
âYou'd better go.'
âI don't want to.'
âWe could stand out here in the rain all night,' she suggested. âBut my hair would frizz up and you'd go off me.'
âI know when I'm beaten. I'll ring you.'
I ran off, dancing backwards, as Helen raised her hand for a moment with the light of the open door behind her, framing her. It was like a pose for a photograph. I keep remembering it. Then she closed the door. It was full dark by then. The rain had sleet in it and slanted across the streetlamps like long glass splinters, separate and sharp. I unzipped my jacket and ran with it flapping loose and with my face tilted up and my mouth open. I had a sudden wild thought that I would like to run across the road into the park and stand naked in the sleet. I would keep on running as naked as a fish through Endcliffe Park and on up past Wiremill Dam and Forge Dam, and past
the swings and slides where I used to play when I was little, and on and on till I was right up on the dark moors.
âI'll take Helen up there,' I thought. âWhen it snows. I'll take Helen up there and we'll lie down in the deep deep snow and keep each other warm.'
A car pulled up beside me, whooshing spray against my legs. The driver beeped and I looked round, zipping up my jacket, cursing. She beeped again and leaned over to open the passenger door.
âGet in,' she said. âYou're soaked to the skin.'
I climbed in, glad now to be somewhere dry. âI'm not supposed to accept lifts from strange women.'
âI'd be hard up if I was thinking of abducting a skinny rat like you, Chris.' She looked in her mirror and edged out into the traffic again. It was the rush hour. Sleet fizzed against the windscreen, fracturing the dazzle of lights.
âYou mustn't go out of your way,' I told her.
âI wouldn't dream of it. I've got some manure in the boot to deliver to your dad. You can carry it home instead, if you like. It would save my petrol.'
I leaned my head back on the rest and closed my eyes. I had a sudden absurd desire to start singing. I would have loved to have told her about Helen.
âI think I should call you Jill now,' I said.
âI wish you would. I've always hated the “aunty” bit. I always feel as if an aunty should be knitting you nice jumpers and asking you round to tea.'
âI'm a deprived nephew, then. I knew there was something wrong with my life.' I gave a long, satisfied yawn. âI'm tired,' I murmured. My head was in a wonderful foggy sleepy spin. âReally tired.' I closed my eyes.
I rang Helen as soon as I had a chance to. I just wanted to hear her voice. I stood in the hall grinning and not saying anything and I could tell that Helen at the other end was smiling into the receiver.
âWhat're you doing?' I asked.
âI knew you were.'
âWhat're you doing?'
âHelen. I need the phone.' That was her mother. She does it every time.