Read You Against Me Online

Authors: Jenny Downham

You Against Me (2 page)

‘What about Holly? She can’t walk to school on her own.’

‘Then you’ll have to take her. That’s what parents are for, isn’t it?’

She shook her head at him. ‘You know what’s wrong with you, Mikey?’

‘No, Mum, but I bet you’re about to tell me.’

She took up her fag, knocked off the ash and took a last deep drag, blowing the smoke right at him. ‘You’re not as tough as you think you are.’


Down the stairs, two at a time. Past graffiti walls –
– and out the main doors into the street. Mikey swung a left, avoiding the takeaway wrappers and beer cans strewn round the bus shelter, dodging two old blokes with their shopping trolleys taking up all the room on the pavement, and started to run. Away from the estate, past the crowd of kids outside Ajay’s with their breakfasts of crisps and Coke, past the butcher’s and the card shop, towards the high street.

The sky was flat and grey. The air smelled of diesel and fish. He ran through the market. The stalls were going up, the crazy colours of the fruit and vegetables all chucked together. The usual group of lads hung about on the benches. He ran past a girl with a pram, a woman counting her change outside Lidl, an old man with a walking stick, an old woman clutching his arm, both tiny and hunched.

He was going to keep running until he got there. He was going to mash Tom Parker. Tom Parker would never grow old.

At the traffic lights, a bloke leaned out of his car window and whistled at a girl. ‘Smile for me, baby.’

The girl gave the bloke the finger, then saw Mikey and waved. ‘Hiya, Mikey.’

He jogged on the spot as she crossed the road towards him. ‘Hey, Sienna. I can’t talk now.’

She pressed herself close, gave him a quick kiss. ‘You’re all sweaty.’

‘I was running.’

‘Away from me?’

He shrugged as if that was too complicated to understand. ‘I need to go.’

She crossed her arms and frowned at him. ‘Will I see you later?’

It was like the world got bigger or louder or something, pressing in on him and asking for stuff. He looked right at her, tried to feel what he’d felt only a minute earlier when he saw her waving, some sort of warmth.

‘Meet me at work,’ he said. ‘I don’t mind.’

‘You don’t mind? Well, thanks very much!’ She wrapped her arms around herself, didn’t even look back at him as she walked away.

He wasn’t good for her. He wasn’t actually sure he’d ever be good for anyone. He couldn’t be bothered most of the time. Girls asked too many questions, and they always expected you to know how they were feeling, and he was always getting it wrong.

He’d lost minutes now, lost momentum. He started running again. Away from the high street, following the curve of Lower Road. Groups of kids walked slowly in the same direction – a gathering, a building up. Karyn should be with them. He ran in the road to avoid them, past the teachers’ car park, past the gates.

He stalled when he saw some of Karyn’s mates on the bridge, four of them huddled together looking down at the water. One of them spotted him and nudged the others and they all turned round.

He was supposed to stop, he knew that. He was supposed to go over and tell them how Karyn was, to pass on her thanks for the notes and little presents they kept sending. But he knew what would happen if he did – they’d ask questions. Like,
When will she see us?
Why won’t she answer our texts?
When’s the trial?
Do you think she’ll ever come back to school?
And he’d have to tell them that he didn’t know, that nothing had changed since the last time they’d asked.

He snapped on a smile and waved. ‘Can’t stop.’

Dodging cars, faster now, over the junction, past the station and up the Norwich Road. One foot in front of the other like a warrior. He thought of Karyn as he ran. He was the only brother she had and it was his job to take care of her. He’d never felt that before, the terrible responsibility of it. He felt adult, male, purposeful. He could do this, he really could. It’d be easy. He checked his pocket for the spanner. It was still there. It felt right and good.

His legs burned now. He could taste salt on his tongue, like the sea got caught in the air on this side of town. It was fresher here, wilder. There was more space for things. Here was Wratton Drive, Acacia Walk and Wilbur Place. Even the names were different, the trees taller.

He slowed to a jog. Here was the lane, like something from a country magazine. Here was the gated entrance. And behind it, the house with its lawn and windows, its shine and curtains and space. There was even a Jag XJ sparkling in the driveway.

Mikey heaved himself over the gate and walked in a straight line up the gravel drive. Things would never be the same after he knocked on the door. He knew it like it was written down and stamped with a seal. He was going to mash Tom Parker and watch him leak all over the doorstep.

The knocker was brass, a lion with a bushy mane and golden eyes. He banged it hard, three times. He wanted them to know he meant business.

Nothing. Nobody came.

There was a kind of hush instead, like everything suddenly shut up and was listening, like all the objects in the posh house took a breath and held it in. He touched the wall to steady himself, then knocked again.

A girl opened the door. She was wearing a skirt and T-shirt. Bare legs, bare arms.

She said, ‘Yes?’

He wasn’t expecting a girl. A girl the same age as Karyn. He could hardly look at her.

‘Are you with the caterers?’ she said.


‘Are you here to do the food?’

Maybe he didn’t have the right house. He checked the door for a number, but there wasn’t one. He looked inside the hallway, as if that would give him a clue. It was huge, all wooden floor and fancy rugs. There was a table, a bench, an umbrella stand, a place for boots and shoes.

The girl said, ‘Shall I get my mum?’

He looked at her again – the little skirt she was wearing, the blues and purples of her T-shirt, the way she had her hair in a ponytail that swung.

He said, ‘Are you Tom Parker’s sister?’


‘Is he here?’

She narrowed her eyes. ‘No.’

The sound of a dog barking inside the house. It stopped. Silence.

‘Where is he then?’

She stepped out, pulled the door shut behind her and leaned against it. ‘Are you a friend of his?’


‘Then you know where he is.’

He fingered the spanner in his pocket. ‘Well, I know the bail hearing’s today. I just wondered when he’d be home.’

‘We don’t know.’

Seconds went past, minutes maybe. For the first time he noticed a raw-looking scar running from the corner of her mouth down her chin. She saw him looking and stared right back. He knew about girls and she felt bad about that scar.

He smiled. ‘So, what’s your name then?’

She blushed, but didn’t look away. ‘My dad put a message on Tom’s Facebook page to tell his friends what was happening.’

Mikey shrugged. ‘I haven’t checked my computer for days.’

‘Do you know him from college?’


‘I haven’t seen you before.’

He thought of the college in town where he’d gone to ask about catering courses once, and held her gaze. ‘Well, I’m so busy studying, I don’t get time to socialize. I don’t want to mess up my exams.’

She obviously fell for it because her face softened. ‘Tell me about it. Mine start in May and I’ve hardly done any work.’

That was ages away, why was she worrying? But talking about it changed something in her. She leaned towards him a fraction, as if she’d decided to trust him. ‘Listen,’ she said, ‘we’re having a party later.’

A party? Because her brother was out on bail?

‘Come if you like. Tom could do with friends around him tonight.’

But before he could tell her what he thought of that, a woman came round the corner of the house, waving crisply at them. ‘At last,’ she called. ‘I was beginning to panic.’

The girl shot him a look of apology. ‘She thinks you’re the caterer.’

The woman came up, swinging a clipboard and looking at Mikey. ‘You’re with Amazing Grazing, yes?’

The girl sighed. ‘No, Mum. He’s not.’

‘Oh, who are you then? Are you the marquee man?’

He was supposed to answer. He was supposed to say no, but all he could think was that she would realize at once, that she wouldn’t be fooled like her daughter. She would call the dog, security guards, the police.

‘He’s one of Tom’s friends, Mum.’

‘Oh, I see. Well, Tom’s not due until later.’

‘I told him that.’

The woman turned to her. ‘It’s all right, love. Why don’t you get back to your revision?’

The girl gave Mikey a quick smile, then went back through the door and shut it behind her. He was left with the mother.

‘I hope you don’t mind,’ she said. ‘We really are very busy.’

He hated her. That she didn’t know him at all, that she dismissed him so easily.

‘Come back for the party. All Tom’s friends are welcome.’ She walked briskly away clutching her clipboard, her bony arse barely moving. No meat to her, no swing.

He stood there for a minute, wondering if it was all a joke.

He looked at the driveway, at the trees lining the fence, at the electric gate – so different from the estate, the noise of people living close together. Where were the cars, the yelling, the doors slamming, the sound of other people’s lives?

In his jacket pocket, the spanner hurt his ribs. He smiled as he walked round the Jag twice. Karyn said the bastard’s car was snazzy. Here it was – yellow as a canary and so clean it reflected the sky in its windows.

It was easy, like running a pen across paper, and so satisfying to know how expensive it would be to fix. He let the spanner find a route, let it zigzag across the door, scratch a dented path across the wheel trim and over the bonnet – like a tin you could open if you cut all the way round, then ripped off the lid. The only thing missing was blood.

He’d come back for that later.


There’s a way of slicing the skin from an orange that means none of the bitter white stuff gets left on the fruit. Mikey didn’t use to know this. Dex had taught him. It was hypnotic, seeing if he could peel the whole thing without the skin breaking once, coils of bright orange trailing to the floor. He liked his fingers being sticky. He liked knowing that when he’d peeled the whole lot, Dex was going to show him how to make a brandy glaze.

There was peace at the pub. Routine. Jacko poured peas and sweetcorn into saucepans of hot water. Dex scrubbed potatoes by the back door, his bare feet in the rain. Mikey had sorted the salad bar like he did every morning – prawn cocktail, egg mimosa, coleslaw. They were OK, the three of them. Everything was as it should be. It was easy to forget the world outside.

‘You two boys are quiet today,’ Dex said. ‘You got girl trouble again?’

Mikey shook his head. ‘Not the kind you mean.’

‘I have,’ Jacko said. ‘I can’t get one.’

‘Sienna’s got a sister,’ Mikey said.

‘What’s she like?’

‘Dunno, never met her.’

‘How long you been seeing Sienna?’

‘Two weeks.’

Jacko laughed. ‘Well, introduce me to her sister quick, ’cos that’s a world record for you.’

Dex waved the peeler at him. ‘If I had daughters, you two would terrify me.’

‘It’s Mikey you want to be scared of,’ Jacko said. ‘He can get any girl he wants, I swear it. Hey, Mikey, tell Dex about your first time.’

‘With Sienna?’

‘No, your
first time.’

Mikey grinned. ‘I’m not telling him that.’

‘She went down on him,’ Jacko said. ‘Met her in a bar, never even knew her name and she went down on him.’

Dex tutted. ‘That stuff’s private. You shouldn’t be talking about things like that.’

‘Can you believe it?’ Jacko said. ‘That any girl would do that?’

‘I can’t believe half the things you two get up to,’ Dex said.

Mikey wondered what Dex would think if he knew about Sienna crying into her pillow the night before. How he hadn’t wanted to kiss her, how he couldn’t be bothered to undress her, how he’d almost changed his mind about the whole thing and then crept home in the middle of the night.

He stared at Dex for a bit, trying to work him out. He had a shaved head and a mad French accent and he looked like he’d thump you if you eyed him wrong, but Mikey had never heard him raise his voice, never seen him lose his temper. He had tattoos on his hands that he did himself with a pin and a bottle of ink –
spread across his knuckles. He did stuff for her too – fantastic grub after hours, presents when it wasn’t her birthday. He even wrote her a song once. Jacko said he was a doormat. But maybe that was love?

The door swung open and Sue stood there. She folded her arms and looked the three of them up and down. ‘I need a cleaner. Someone chucked up in the bogs last night.’

‘You’re looking at chefs, mon amour,’ Dex told her, without looking up from his peeling.

She snorted, took a step in and tapped Mikey on the shoulder. ‘You’ll do.’

Mikey shook his head at her. ‘I’m about to make a flan.’

‘It’s a pub, not a Gordon bloody Ramsay restaurant. You’re here to pot-wash, and you’re here to clean the toilets if that’s what I want you to do. Come on, we open in twenty minutes.’

He took the plastic apron she offered and tied it over his jeans. He followed her through the bar to the cleaning cupboard. She handed him a mop, a bucket, a bottle of bleach, then led him to the toilets. ‘And make sure you wash your hands after.’

As he threw buckets of hot water and bleach into the bogs, Mikey felt a heaviness settle over him. It was all right if he was in the kitchen, or out with Jacko. Even with a girl it went away a bit. But these last two weeks, whenever he was at home or just by himself, it crashed back. As he washed down the walls with a mop, he thought about where he’d be in a year, two, five. He counted out ages. In five years Karyn would be twenty. Holly would be thirteen. His mum would be forty-two. He’d be twenty-three. He shrugged the numbers away in irritation. It was the kind of calculation kids did. Go too far with numbers like that and you ended up dead.

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