Read You Against Me Online

Authors: Jenny Downham

You Against Me (10 page)

Jacko lit a fag as they waited for the lights to change at the junction. ‘You go anywhere near that girl with your dick, Mikey, and hell is going to suck you under.’

‘I’m not going to shag her, I’m going to find stuff out.’

Jacko shook his head. ‘You won’t be able to help yourself.’

Mikey ignored him, texted,
When
?

The reply came flying back,
Now
.

‘That’s a bad sign,’ Jacko said.

Mikey texted,
Where
?

Again, the text came straight back:
Cemetery
.

Jacko frowned. ‘It’s a stitch-up. She knows who you are.’

‘No way. How could she?’

‘I’m coming with you.’

‘No, she’ll freak if she sees two of us.’

Anyway, the cemetery was fine, nobody would be there, no chance of being seen. She might not know who he was, but plenty of people round this part of town did. It only took one person to say something careless and she’d never open up.

Jacko riffed on about rubbish all the way there, told him that when Tom Parker had his way with Karyn he’d broken every rule in the book, which meant his blood relations were tainted by evil. Complained that he could have had a lie-in if he’d known Mikey was going to abandon him. Grumbled that his mother had offered to cook him a slap-up breakfast and he’d turned it down. Told him they should have contacted Woody, Sean and Mark, because Mikey would never dare duck out of a co-op mission.

By the time he’d pulled the car in to the side of the road near the church and put on the hazards, he was in a right sulk. ‘Just so you know,’ Jacko said, ‘I have a very bad feeling about this.’

‘I’m getting that. But trust me, I know what I’m doing.’

‘If you were capable of getting information out of this girl, you’d have done it already.’ Jacko checked his watch. ‘I’ll give you an hour. That café we passed – I’ll wait for you there.’

‘You’re gonna wait?’ Mikey leaned back and peered at Jacko. His work shirt was hanging over his jeans like always, his jacket, with its strange checked pattern, looked as geeky as ever and the expression on his face was only a fraction away from grumpy. But he was a true mate. Mikey wanted to give him something, but apart from a rollie, he didn’t know what.

‘I appreciate that,’ he said. It was all he could think of.

Jacko smiled reluctantly. ‘Go on, get out the car. I want my breakfast.’

It felt like a loophole in time opened up as Mikey walked through the wooden gate and into the churchyard. The lemon light seeping over the grass made him feel slightly sick, but this was a good plan.

It was an amazing plan, in fact.

Thirteen

She heard him before she saw him. The click of the gate, the swish of shoes through grass. She opened her eyes, dazed for a moment by the sun’s glare. He was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, a battered leather jacket. He walked towards her, grinning, side-bent, hands in pockets, maybe shy.

He said, ‘You’re here.’

‘Looks like it.’

‘I wasn’t sure you would be.’

‘Me either.’

She tried to sound casual, as if arranging to meet boys in a churchyard was the sort of thing she did every day, but her heart was speeding and her voice sounded young and high. As he stood there looking down at her, she tried to breathe slowly, tried not to blush.

He looked as if he was trying to work something out. Then he said, ‘It’s good to see you, Ellie.’

He’d remembered her name. That meant he liked her.

‘You want to sit down?’ She tapped the space next to her on the bench.

He sat on his hands, leaned forward and looked around at the bleached stones and the lopsided graves. He didn’t say anything and she liked that, that he was thinking about things, admiring the place. They were the only living ones here. It was exciting. The wind moved slowly through the grass, the sun made patterns on the graves.

‘I didn’t think you were ever going to text,’ he said.

She shuffled her shoes on the grass, squashing it flat.

‘I decided if you didn’t text me by tomorrow, I was going to come round your house.’

She shot him a glance. ‘Seriously?’

‘Yeah. I wanted to see you.’

He felt absolutely present sitting there looking at her. And that made her feel absolutely present too, as if she’d been hazy before, or only half seen.

And then his phone rang. It startled them both. He fished it out of his pocket and checked who it was. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I should take this.’

He walked off a little way, but she could still hear him. She wondered if he knew that. He listened for a minute, then he said, ‘Calm down. It’s OK, it’ll be OK.’

That’s how boys often sounded when they were talking to girls – as if they were in charge, as if they knew best. Maybe he had a girlfriend.

He said, ‘It’s probably some religious nut, or someone selling dusters. Don’t open it and they’ll go away.’ He looked over at Ellie. She stared at her shoes and pretended not to be listening. How long was he going to give them? She had all day. All night too, in fact.

He said, ‘Well, I expect she’ll come out when she gets hungry and at least you get to choose what’s on TV. Listen, I’ll call you later. I can’t think about this now.’ He ended the call, rolled his eyes. ‘Sisters.’

Well, that was good. Not a girlfriend at least. ‘How many have you got?’

He stuffed the phone back into his pocket and looked around. He didn’t answer. He appeared not to have heard.

She stood up suddenly. ‘You want to do something?’

‘Like what?’

‘I know a place we could go.’

She didn’t wait for a reply, just walked away from him and headed down the slope. She didn’t even turn to see if he was following. The grass was longer here and smelled damp from the river. It was as if the boundaries of the town got smudged and everything became wilder.

He jogged up behind her. ‘Where are you taking me?’

‘Trust me.’

She didn’t know why she’d said that, but it sounded cool, as if she knew exactly what would happen next. She felt as if she’d been given a break from the real her – as if she could reinvent herself with this boy, say anything, be anyone.

She led him up a track, towards a cluster of oaks and beeches. They grew close together, their branches cutting the sky. The path became tangled and thin.

‘Are you sure about this?’ he said.

‘Through here.’

She picked a daffodil and twirled it. She picked another and threaded it in her hair. A bird flew from a branch and startled her. She watched it flap away until it disappeared against the pale sky, her breath coming quick and shallow.

The spaces between the trees began to stretch. Sunshine danced again through the branches. The mud path turned to grass as they came out of shadow and into a glade that sloped gently down to the river. On the other side were fields and above them a faultless sky.

‘Is this it?’ he said.

‘Yeah.’

She sat on the grass and looked down at the river. He sat next to her. She wondered if he was disappointed, if he’d been expecting a fairground or something.

‘I didn’t even know you could get to the river this way,’ he said. ‘It’s pretty.’

It was. And it was slightly warmer away from the trees. Sitting here with him reminded her of the night of the party, looking across the train track together. She wondered if he was thinking that too, but she didn’t ask him in case he said no.

‘I used to come here a lot,’ she said, ‘when we first moved from London.’

‘You used to live in London? My mum’s from there.’ He blinked at her as if he couldn’t believe it. ‘Why would you ever move?’

‘My gran and granddad lived round here and they got sick. My mum wanted to be closer to them and the timing suited my dad. He works in property and house prices in London were sky-high, so he sold our house, changed jobs, then bought a house twice as big here when the prices fell. He often does stuff like that. I can never work out if it’s clever or not.’

‘Sounds pretty clever to me.’

‘We had to leave all our friends behind and then my granddad died as soon as we got here and my gran freaked out and had to go into a nursing home. It all seemed a waste of time after that. My dad was the only happy one.’

There was something solid about the way he listened to her. It encouraged her to ask the question that had been troubling her for days.

‘Why did you knock on the door and pretend to know my brother?’

It seemed to surprise him, because he actually blushed. ‘What makes you think I was pretending?’

She laughed. ‘Something to do with you not recognizing each other?’

He pulled up a handful of grass and chucked it towards the river as if he wanted to feed the water. He pulled up another handful and laid it next to him. ‘I don’t know him, you’re right, but there was a rumour going round that he was having a party and I wanted to blag an invite, that’s all.’

She was relieved. It was such a simple answer. If he was lying, surely he’d think of something more complicated.

‘I don’t mind,’ she said. ‘I thought it was funny. But you do realize I don’t even know your name?’

Again, he blushed.

‘Is it Rumpelstiltskin?’

‘What?’

‘From the story. You know, the one about that little bloke who gets the queen to guess his name?’

He shook his head – obviously didn’t know what she was talking about. She felt foolish suddenly. Other girls didn’t talk about this crap. She should have kept her mouth shut.

She took off her shoes and wiggled her toes on the grass, but stopped when she saw he was looking at her and covered them with her hands. She thought of Stacey and her mate, of all the girls at school, who if they saw her now would be amazed that she’d walked out and texted a boy and brought him to her secret place. It made her feel strong thinking of them.

She took off her coat and flung it on the grass, stood up, unzipped her skirt and let it fall to her feet.

‘What are you doing?’ he said quietly.

‘Taking off my clothes.’

‘Why are you doing that?’

She took off her cardigan and tights, but left her underwear and shirt on. She tried not to think about her fat thighs, but was really glad she’d shaved her legs the night before.

She turned to him. ‘You fancy a swim?’

He looked astonished. ‘In the river?’

‘Why not?’

‘It’ll be freezing!’

‘Are you scared?’

‘No, I just haven’t got swimming stuff.’

She waved a hand at herself. ‘Neither have I.’

He frowned, pulled his jeans down an inch, as if he was checking to see if, by a miracle, he had swimming trunks on. She saw the top of his boxer shorts. There was very fine hair at the bottom of his belly, gathering to shadow. He caught her looking, and to stop herself blushing, she said, ‘I dare you.’

He stared back at her for a moment, and then he laughed.

‘Well,’ he said. ‘If you’re going to dare me.’

He kicked off his trainers, pulled off his jacket and unbuckled his jeans. Ellie couldn’t look, didn’t want to melt. She turned away and walked down the slope towards the water. The grass ran out near the edge, turned to mud pocked with gravel. It sucked at her toes.

She doubted herself now. She’d done this loads of times before, but it looked dark in the water today and so murky that anything could be hiding. There were weeds at the edge and rushes gripping the side of the bank. But she couldn’t show him she was afraid. She needed to keep being interesting to hold his attention.

She didn’t even look as she jumped. She knew if she did, she wouldn’t be able to do it. Instead, she screwed her eyes shut and leaped into the air. The cold shock of the water was crazy. It was like falling from a plane, plummeting somewhere so alien-cold that ice might gather on her outstretched arms.

‘What’s it like?’ he called. He was hugging himself on the riverbank. He looked old-fashioned standing there in his underwear.

She couldn’t answer. She had to keep moving it was so cold. She swam breast stroke to the opposite bank, then front crawl on the turn. She loved that feeling – swimming without thinking, celebrating the water like she owned it. She enjoyed the rhythm and discipline of it. When she’d been a member of the swimming club, she’d swum forty lengths every morning and come out feeling brain-washed, clean, alert.

‘Coming in,’ he shouted. He sounded as if he was trying to convince himself. It made her smile. She recognized that male bravado from Tom, convincing yourself at the same time as you convinced everyone else. Her dad did it with maps.

He tucked in his knees and jumped like she had. He yelled, all arms and legs, and a splash so big she had to turn her face away. When she looked back he’d disappeared beneath the water. She watched the bubbles and waited.

He came up gasping for air. ‘God, it’s cold.’ He looked as if he was crying as water clung to his eyelashes and dripped down his cheeks.

‘Feels good though, eh?’

‘It’s freezing!’

She swam to him, smiling. ‘Can’t you handle it?’

He splashed her. She splashed him back. He tried to dunk her, but he didn’t know she was fast and could get away from him easily. She let him almost catch her, then sank beneath the surface, came up behind him and dunked him first. She swam away laughing. She floated on her back and looked at the sky. She hoped she looked thin and in control. The way her lungs stretched and accommodated made her feel like an athlete.

She grabbed hold of a low branch and watched him swim up to her. He grabbed hold of it too and they hung there together. When they didn’t move, the river lay smooth, the water cloudy and dark.

‘What happens if you drink it?’ he said.

‘You die.’

He looked startled. ‘Serious?’

She grinned. ‘No, it’s Grade B, which is pretty clean. About three miles further along it spreads out into creeks and goes through the salt marshes. You wouldn’t want to swim in it there.’

‘Why not?’

‘It’s tidal by then, so you never know what the depth is. There’s loads of sinking mud too.’

‘I like how you know things,’ he said, and he looked right at her.

‘You do?’

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