Read You Against Me Online

Authors: Jenny Downham

You Against Me (24 page)

‘What are you making, Mum?’

‘Batter for Yorkshire puddings.’

‘Why are you always making stuff?’

‘We’ve got to eat, haven’t we?’

‘But only like once a day or something. Does it have to be three times? Don’t you get sick of it?’

Her mum stopped whisking and looked down at her with a frown. ‘When you get married and have a family of your own, you can hire yourself a cook, but until then, can you keep your criticisms to yourself?’

‘I wasn’t saying anything bad.’

Her mum ground salt and pepper into the mix, covered the bowl with a tea towel and slid it to the back of the counter. She stood hands on hips for a minute, as if wondering what to do next, then took a bottle of wine from the rack above her head, opened it up and poured herself a very large glass.

She’s scared … and I’m about to make everything worse …

‘Would you like a drink before lunch?’ Mum said. ‘There’s some Diet Coke in the fridge, unless of course you’d prefer a double vodka?’

Ellie pulled a face and Mum half smiled at her. It had been days since the drinking incident and no one was letting her forget it.

‘What about a cup of tea then?’ Mum said.

‘No thanks.’

Ellie didn’t want anything to interrupt them, though she would actually have liked a drink.

The windows were steamed up and Mum opened the back door and stood on the step with her wine glass. Cold air shivered its way into the kitchen, bringing the smell of bacon and onions from somewhere. The dog snuffled in her basket, deep in a dream. Ellie wondered when Dad and Tom were going to get home.

‘I love this garden,’ Mum said, and she stepped right outside. Ellie followed her and they stood on the edge of the lawn together.

Mum said, ‘Sometimes I think it was a mistake moving here from London. Dad kept going on about what an opportunity it was, and being close to Gran made sense at the time. But it was this’ – she gestured with her hand at the lawn, the trees, the river – ‘this seduced me.’

She smiled at Ellie, and her face was so warm and open.
Say it, say it, go on. Give it to her. She’ll know what to do
.

Ellie bit her lip, words stuck on her tongue.

Her mum suddenly looked up, shielding her eyes with a hand. ‘Look at that. Isn’t it beautiful?’

Three geese flew across the sky in a straight line. Around them the clouds were swelling and darkening. There was a smell of electricity in the air. Even the birds rushing through the sky seemed aware of it.

‘See what I mean about being seduced?’ Mum said. She sighed then checked her watch. ‘Now, do you think Barry’s expecting food? I haven’t a clue. Dad’s invited him round to steady our nerves, but maybe he’s only expecting a glass of wine or a cup of tea. I don’t want to embarrass the man by offering him lunch. What do you reckon the etiquette is?’

‘I don’t know, Mum. I didn’t even know he was coming and I don’t know anything about etiquette when it comes to lawyers.’

Her mum smiled wearily. ‘No, I don’t suppose you do.’ She leaned against the door frame, the wine glass to her cheek, cooling her down.

‘Mum, there’s something I need to tell you.’

Her mother nodded, but she looked so tired. ‘You can talk to me about anything.’

Standard response.

One, two, three drops of rain, heavy and fat, splashing on the path. Ellie fiddled with a button on her dress – buttoning, unbuttoning it.

‘Karyn McKenzie is telling the truth.’

She could tell by the stillness and the sudden clench of her jaw that her mother had heard.

‘I suggest you think very carefully before you go any further, Ellie.’

‘I’ve thought carefully for weeks. I can’t stop thinking.’

Her mum shook her head very slowly, as if it was a physical thing Ellie had flung at her, a stick that was caught in her hair.

‘Tom’s whole future is at stake. Don’t make this worse than it already is.’

‘But I keep going over and over that night in my head and more stuff comes back to me, more things fit into place. I keep thinking about Karyn and how hurt she is and how it’s not fair if I don’t say what I know.’

‘Not fair?’ Her mother turned to her; wine stained the corners of her mouth. ‘Your brother’s reputation is in tatters. His A-level year’s been ruined, his confidence is at rock bottom. You think any of that’s fair?’ Her voice was tremulous, her eyes wide and fearful. ‘This isn’t the time for misgivings.’

‘So what am I supposed to do with the stuff I keep thinking?’

‘You’ve had every opportunity,’ Mum hissed. ‘You’ve been interviewed by the police and you’ve made a statement. You told the police everything that happened that night.’

Not quite. Not even the beginning
.

‘So, you’ve never doubted him, Mum?’

There was a pause. It had weight to it, like you could hold it in your hand, like a rock from the garden.

‘Answer the door, Ellie.’

‘What?’

‘That was the door. That’ll be Barry.’

‘But this is important!’

‘So we leave him standing on the doorstep, do we?’ Her mother’s lips were trembling as she knocked the last of the wine back. ‘Go on, go away if you’re not going to answer the door. And don’t bother coming back until you’ve learned to control yourself.’

Ellie’s breath came hot and quick as she ran across the lawn. She felt like she had a fever, like that time she had tonsillitis. Perhaps she was sick, properly sick, in her body as well as her head. Maybe this is what a nervous breakdown felt like – feelings spilling out of you. She sat on the bench under the walnut tree fighting back tears.

There was a boy in her school called Flynn whose parents had been woken by the police at three in the morning and told that their son had been arrested. They said there must be a mistake, he’s safe in his bed. But when they checked, he was gone. He’d climbed out of his window and gone tagging. He was caught with spray cans and a load of weed in his coat pocket.

Parents don’t know their children at all.

No one knows anyone, in fact. Her brother could be a rapist. Mikey could be a hero.

It was raining heavily now, splattering off the leaves above her. Even the grass, dark blue in the half-light, looked like water rippling. She pulled her knees up and hugged them, closed her eyes and tried to think of nothing.

It was only a few minutes later when Barry appeared on the lawn.

‘Mind if I join you?’ he said.

He had her mother’s little fold-up umbrella, which he closed when he reached the shelter of the tree.

‘I was given special permission to smoke in the house, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing that. You OK if I smoke here?’

Ellie nodded, too stunned to say anything. He pulled a pack of Silk Cut and a Zippo from his coat pocket and sat beside her. He lit up, and together they watched the smoke curl away into the rain. Ellie’s heart was beating fast.

‘I’ve just been talking to your mum,’ he said, ‘and she thought it might be a good idea for me to have a little chat with you about the court case.’

Hadn’t Mum told Ellie to shut up and stay away? And now she’d sent the lawyer out to talk to her. What the hell was that about?

He said, ‘I think the most important thing to remember, Ellie, is that you’re the expert. You were the only other person in the house when the alleged assault occurred, so you already know all the answers to any questions you’ll be asked in court. That might be a useful way of looking at it, don’t you think?’

She shrugged. She didn’t want to hear how easy it was going to be, or how she simply needed to stick to the truth. Those things wouldn’t help her at all.

‘What about if I fill you in on procedure a little bit?’ He tossed his fag end across the grass and twisted himself round to see her better, taking her silence as consent. He talked about her statement, which would be read out in court, about the witness box and how she’d have to stand in it, about the barrister and all the very easy questions he’d ask – who came back to the house, what time she went to bed, if she heard any noises in the night. As he spoke, his face faded to darkness as the sky got gloomier and the rain fell more heavily around them. It was like hearing someone talk through a fish tank. He said, ‘You simply have to repeat what you said in your statement, that you heard and saw nothing suspicious. That seems pretty straightforward. You think you can manage that?’

At the other end of the garden, through the window, she could see her father in the kitchen. He was standing by the sink looking out and his mouth was moving, like someone on TV with the sound turned down. Her mum was behind him with a pacifying hand on his shoulder. If Ellie was close enough, she’d be able to see the alarm in her mother’s eyes, her desperate need to make everything all right.
Let Barry deal with it
, she’d be saying.
Ellie’s feeling a bit nervous. No need for you to get involved
.

She thought she’d sorted it. She thought Ellie’s words were a temporary blip, that she merely needed a talk with a professional and everything would be fine.

Stamp it out, ease it down, glue it back together
.

‘It’s hard for you,’ Barry said, ‘we all see that, but it’s important for your brother that you help him. No one else can help him as much as you can.’

He was fiddling with his Zippo, running it up and down his trouser leg so that the little lid at the top opened, then shut again.

Ellie felt strangely calm as she turned to him. ‘I told Tom that Karyn was only fifteen.’

To her surprise, Barry smiled. ‘Is that what’s been bothering you – that Karyn wasn’t old enough to give consent?’

‘He’s going around saying he thought she was sixteen.’

Barry’s face fell into something she recognized from her father when he wanted to explain a concept she might find particularly complicated. ‘Ellie, people often forget things they’re told, especially when it’s late at night, or they’ve been drinking. It was noisy, the music was loud, it’s not impossible he didn’t even hear you.’

‘He definitely did.’

‘Well, he clearly has no recollection, so I think we can safely rule it out as a piece of evidence.’

‘You mean, let’s pretend I never said it?’

‘It wouldn’t stand up in court, Ellie. You’d get a grilling from the prosecution for no reason. Tom would simply say he didn’t remember you telling him, and anyway, unless Karyn can prove he forced himself on her the age difference is so small between them it becomes immaterial.’

There was something in his eyes, a way of looking at her blankly through a smile, as if he was adapting what she said to suit him. She hated him suddenly.

‘Karyn was really drunk,’ she said. ‘She was so drunk that when the boys carried her upstairs between them, she couldn’t even speak. Did Tom tell you that?’

The solicitor frowned. ‘Carried her?’

‘And shoved her on Tom’s bed.’

‘Do you mean the other witnesses, Freddie and James?’

‘Yeah, them. James had the stick that opens the blinds and was lifting her skirt up with it. She was completely trashed and the three of them stood around laughing and taking pictures of her on their phones.’ Ellie’s voice sounded loud – the rain didn’t dampen it, but made it ring clear. She wondered if she could be heard from the house. ‘I told them to leave her alone.’

She felt Barry tense beside her. He leaned forward and stared down at the grass, as if something amazing had appeared there.

‘Freddie and James went home, but Karyn was too drunk to move, so we left her on the bed and Tom went downstairs to sleep on the sofa.’

She wanted Barry to react. She stared at him, willing him to understand that Karyn couldn’t possibly have consented to what happened next. But instead, he turned to her, a tight smile on his face.

‘This is obviously quite an awkward situation for me,’ he said, ‘so I’m going to stop you there.’ He stood up, hands in pockets, a shadow between her and the house. ‘I don’t want to be getting information from you that could compromise your brother’s position.’

‘So I can’t talk to you?’

‘Why, was there something else?’

Her hands on her lap were startling, not quite her own, lying there so passive while her head was whirling.

‘There’s a lot more.’

‘Ellie, you told the police you saw and heard nothing all night.’

‘I didn’t want to get my brother into trouble.’

He sighed deeply. ‘Then I suggest you seek legal advice.’

‘You mean get my own lawyer?’

‘I think that would be a good idea.’

‘But you asked me to talk to you. You came out here and asked me questions.’

‘I’m your brother’s solicitor and I can’t get into any situation where it looks as if I may have advised you.’

‘So, you’re not going to do anything?’

‘I’m going to talk to your brother. Then I’m going to advise the barrister we don’t call you as a witness.’

Hot waves of fear broke in her chest. ‘You mean you don’t want me going to court in case I blurt all this out and Tom goes to jail?’

‘I mean I’m your brother’s solicitor and I have to look after his best interests. There’s no way we’ll call you to the stand under these circumstances.’

She nodded dumbly.

‘I’m going inside now, Ellie.’

She wanted to stop him, to force him to listen to the rest of it. But she didn’t move. What was the point? Instead, she watched him stride back across the grass, go through the French doors and wipe his feet on the mat.

Let’s just forget it
, Mikey had said.
No more texts, no more anything
.

Help me, Mikey
, she wanted to say.
I’m afraid. More afraid than you’d ever believe
.

And he’d take her hand and they’d fly across the rooftops and up into space and sit on some planet and watch a double sunrise or maybe a star being born or some other event that no human had ever seen, her head on his shoulder, his arm around her. And she’d tell him everything.

Her mother appeared on the step. She had her gardening shoes on and the same umbrella she’d loaned to Barry. She picked her way across the grass as if the sky was about to fall on her head.

‘What did you say to him?’ she said when she got close enough. ‘He wants to talk to Tom alone in the study and even Dad’s not allowed in.’ Her eyes clutched at Ellie’s. ‘Did you tell him what you told me?’

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