Read You Against Me Online

Authors: Jenny Downham

You Against Me (3 page)

He tried not to breathe in the stink as he swilled the mop under the tap. He tried to remember that one day he’d be worth more than this. He’d live in London, maybe get a place in Tottenham, where his mum grew up. He’d have a chef’s job and earn tons of cash. He’d get season tickets for Spurs and invite Holly to all the home games. He tried to believe it as he put everything back in the cleaning cupboard and washed his hands with soap from the dispenser.

He needed a fag. Surely Sue wouldn’t moan at him for that? The bogs were sparkling. Outside, it was raining hard, a sudden rush dumping from the sky. He liked it. It matched his mood.

He stared at the cars parked by the harbour wall, their windows steamed up, the people inside waiting for the pub to get its act together and serve them lunch.

The door swung open and Jacko came and lit up a fag next to him. Together they watched a girl walk past, hands in her pockets, shoulders shrugged against the rain. Jacko sucked his teeth. ‘I love the way every single one of them is different.’

He was always coming out with mad stuff. It was comforting. With your oldest friend you should be free to say what was on your mind.

‘Bail today,’ Mikey said.

Jacko nodded. ‘I saw your mum in the pub last night. She reckoned he’ll definitely get it this time.’

‘The cops made some deal with his lawyer, that’s why. Soon he’ll be running about like he did nothing wrong.’

‘What’re you going to do?’

‘Dunno. Got to do something though. Karyn says she’s never leaving the flat again.’

Jacko looked at Mikey long and hard. ‘You serious?’

‘I told her he wouldn’t be allowed near her, but it made no difference.’


Mikey nodded, knew Jacko would understand. ‘I went by his house again. I wanted to get him, but he wasn’t there.’

‘You went solo?’

‘I got mad. I had to do something.’ Mikey threw his fag end into a puddle, listened to it hiss. ‘Anyway, you were at work.’

‘I’d drop everything.’ Jacko slapped Mikey’s back with the flat of his hand. ‘You should know that.’

Mikey told him the whole story then – the spanner, the journey to the house, the party to celebrate getting bail. It was good standing there talking about it. It warmed Mikey up.

‘They’ve got caterers and everything. I met his mum and sister and they thought I was a mate of his, even invited me to the fucking thing.’

Jacko whistled. ‘Man, that’s mental!’

‘Imagine telling Karyn that. Imagine how that’ll make her feel.’

‘Don’t tell her, it’s too harsh.’ Jacko chucked his rollie stub into the puddle at their feet. Two soggy cigarette butts floating together like a couple of boats.

A plan began to form in the silence. It was a crazy plan, and Mikey tried to push it away, but it kept building. He thought of home, told himself he should have a kick-about in the courtyard with Holly to make up for not taking her to school, told himself he had to get some shopping in case Mum forgot. But the plan wouldn’t go away. His family would have to manage – he couldn’t look after them all the time. ‘You busy tonight?’

A slow smile dawned on Jacko’s face. ‘We’re going to crash the party?’

‘I promised Karyn I’d get him. Why not get him on the night he least expects it?’

‘You want me to call backup?’

He meant Woody, Sean, Mark – the lads they’d gone to school with, the ones they’d fought side-by-side with through years of playground scraps and teen battles over territory. They still met up for regular games of pool and a pint, but all of them had moved on. Woody was married now, even had a kid on the way. Sean and Mark were apprentice brickies. The night Karyn came back from the police station, they’d been solid when Jacko called them. None of them would forget the anger they shared that night, but it wasn’t fair to ask them again. Karyn was
sister, this was

‘We’ll get noticed if we go team-handy.’

Jacko nodded. Mikey could see him running over the basics in his head – tactics and plans for intel kicking in. In school fights, Jacko had been strategy king. His hours on the Xbox proved useful in the real world.

Sue came out then and tapped at her watch.

‘There’ll be loads of people there,’ Jacko said as they followed her back through the bar. ‘But we’ll have darkness as cover.’ He held the door to the kitchen open. Dex had the radio tuned in to his usual country station, where the songs were always about divorce and heartache and preachers. He waved the peeling knife at them.

‘My boys!’ he said.

Jacko leaned in to Mikey. ‘You want me to drive?’

‘You’re up for it?’

‘Course! I’m here for you, man. I’ll do whatever you need.’

Mikey smiled. It was the first time anything had gone right for days.


Ellie Parker sat on the patio steps and waved her arms like antennae at the sun. It was strange, because as she did this, the whole garden fell suddenly silent. She held her breath because she didn’t want to spoil it, it was so beautiful. For a moment, it was as if she was controlling the universe. Then the catering woman clunked past carrying a stack of boxes, and her mother came up with her clipboard and said, ‘Thank goodness that rain’s stopped.’

Ellie tugged a leaf from the bay tree and broke it in half, smelled it, then ripped it to shreds. She scattered the sharp pieces over the steps. She ripped another and another, their green turning bruised and ruined in her hands.

Her mother sat next to her and leaned in close. ‘Stop worrying, love. Your brother’s safely in the car on his way home.’

‘What if the police change their minds?’

‘It’s been through Crown Court. There’s no going back.’

‘What if they suddenly get new information?’

Mum shook her head, smiling confidently. ‘Dad’s got everything under control and we’re going to get through this, you wait and see.’

Ellie wanted to believe her, but sometimes when she closed her eyes she saw things that felt impossible to get through. She saw Tom taken in for questioning, pale and scared as they led him away. She saw the van parked in the driveway with
written on the side, and the scene-of-crime officers in their black clothes walking out of the house with Tom’s laptop, his bed sheets and duvet in plastic bags. Then there were the lads in the car who watched everything from the lane, so you just knew it would be all over town by morning. She saw the officer put a padlock and tape on Tom’s door and heard him say, ‘Don’t tamper with it, please, this room is a crime scene now.’ And Dad said, ‘Surely we have rights in our own home?’ Mum sat on the stairs and wept. Tears washed into her mouth.

Ellie concentrated on trying to calm the nerves in her belly. It was as if something was stuck there and needed to come out. She looked around the garden at the empty tables and stacks of chairs, at the boxes of lanterns waiting to be hung, at the ladder leaning against the fence, and she wished more than anything that it could be just the four of them tonight – back in their old house, miles from here, with a takeaway and a DVD.

Mum nudged her, as if reading her thoughts. ‘It’ll be fine, Ellie, really it will. We’re getting our Tom back. Let’s try and be happy today.’

Ellie nodded, but couldn’t quite look her in the eye. ‘Mum, can I tell you something?’

Her mother’s smile died at the corners, her whole body stiffened. ‘You can talk to me about anything, you know that.’

‘Karyn McKenzie’s not taking her exams. In fact, she’s left school.’

They sat in awkward silence for a minute. Ellie gnawed on her lip. She should have kept quiet, but it was hard holding on to so many things. Sometimes the smaller ones slipped out.

‘I had a friend,’ her mother said, ‘who got attacked by two men and dragged into a car. She didn’t make it up, it really happened. It was terrible and brutal, but she used it as a turning point and changed everything about her life.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘It means,’ her mother said, standing up and brushing nonexistent fluff from her trousers, ‘that you make your own luck. Now I’m going to talk to the marquee man. If you hear the car, shout for me. I want to be there when he arrives. And if you’re stuck for something to do, put some balloons up.’

Sometimes Ellie imagined Karyn McKenzie as monstrous – cloaked and hooded and laughing maniacally as she clawed Tom down into a sulphurous pit. In real life she knew she was tall and skinny with long dark hair and she lived on a housing estate across town. She fancied Tom, had done for ages apparently. She was clearly desperate for him to notice her that Saturday night, with her red-hot nail varnish, purple lipstick and flaming orange mini-skirt stretched tight around her thighs. At school she had a reputation for being good at Art and pretty much crap at everything else. It did seem crazy to give up your exams though – even a few GCSEs could lead to college and maybe a career of some kind. If you gave up in Year Eleven, then the whole thing slid away from you for ever.

A girl walked by carrying two silver tea trays. She was Ellie’s age, maybe a bit older, dressed in a black skirt and white shirt. She stopped in front of Ellie, said, ‘You’re the sister, right?’ She leaned forward conspiratorially. ‘What’s it like then? Must be weird for you.’ She was wearing a lot of make-up.

Ellie said, ‘Haven’t you got work to do, or something?’ Then she stood up and walked round the side of the house to the driveway.

Sometimes it felt physical, as if walls were moving slowly towards her. Sometimes it felt psychological, a strange panic in her brain, which meant if she had to live in this nightmare for one more minute she’d self-combust. The only way she knew to deal with it was to switch off and think of something else, which was becoming increasingly difficult. Walking away was a whole lot easier. She didn’t go far because she didn’t have a coat on, just up the gravel drive to the electric gate. She pressed the button, waited for it to slide open and stepped through. The lane was churned to mud and patched with dirty puddles, the first few daffodils trembled on the grass verge. The gate shut behind her.

This was the lane she watched from her window every night, wondering when Tom would come home.
Trust me
, his letter said. She’d wanted the words to take off from the page and circle the sky. Bold, neon words swooping low over town, skimming shops and houses before sweeping up the coast road to hang permanently above the sea.
Trust me
. And everyone would read the words and have faith. The court case would be dropped and they’d all go back to normal.

But faith was hard to hold on to. After twelve whole days and nights, Ellie was unravelling. She couldn’t sit, couldn’t stand, found it difficult to concentrate on anything. The day was moving quickly, every minute hurtling forwards; even the hours she’d spent doing revision had rushed by.

A cloud passed the sun then, and darkness came skimming down the lane, creating a dark pool of shadow at her feet. A dog barked from some neighbour’s garden and almost immediately the cloud shifted and the world glared so brightly that she had to shield her eyes. When she could see again, her dad’s car was cornering the lane. And, like a magic trick, Tom’s face was at the window, grinning at her.

Ellie whooped. She couldn’t help it, it came bursting out of her as the car drew near.

‘He’s here!’ she yelled, and her mum must’ve been close by, because she came running round the side of the house waving her clipboard.

‘Open the gate, Ellie, let them in!’

Here he was, like the Pope, stepping out of the car and into the garden. Mum ran to him, laughing, and he opened his arms to her. They swayed together for a moment as if they were dancing. Ellie was surprised at how tender it was.

She felt strangely shy of him as he looked over their mother’s shoulder and smiled at her, as if she’d become an adult in the last fortnight and this was her house and he was the guest. He looked different – thinner maybe.

Ellie said, ‘They let you out then?’

He laughed as he ambled over. ‘The police wanted to keep me, it’s true, but I told them I missed my sister.’ He put an arm round her and squeezed her for a moment. ‘You OK?’

She smiled. ‘I am now.’

His eyes slid back to the car, to Mum heaving his rucksack out of the boot, to Dad unloading the suitcase. It was the case he’d taken skiing. Strange to think it had been in an aeroplane and all the way to the Alps as well as to the young offenders’ unit in Norwich.

Dad wheeled it towards them. ‘Take a look over there, Tom, at what your sister’s done.’

Ellie felt embarrassed as her dad pointed out the banner strung along the fence. It had taken her three afternoons, but it seemed a bit cheesy now. She’d painted the four of them under a rainbow with a giant heart around them. At the top, she’d created a family coat of arms with the motto
. But the whole thing was beginning to rip at the corners where she’d tacked it to the fence. It looked more like a tatty old bed sheet than something she once cared about.

‘Took her hours,’ Dad said, and he gave Ellie a smile. It was the first time he’d looked directly at her for days.

Tom gave her a nudge. ‘It’s sweet, Ellie, thanks.’

Mum came up with Tom’s jacket in her arms, stroking it, smoothing it flat. ‘There’s a bit of a surprise round the back too,’ she said.

‘What kind of surprise?’ Tom looked suspicious and Ellie felt her pulse race. This hadn’t been her idea and she knew Tom might hate it.

‘Let’s get it over with,’ she said, and she led him round the side of house.

A marquee had blossomed on the lawn. The tables inside were lit with heaters, their chairs neatly placed around them. Plates, glasses and cutlery were stacked on a trestle table. This was where the food was going, and already the waitresses were laying out tablecloths and napkins. Up in the walnut tree, Chinese lanterns gently swung, and on every available fence post, strings of balloons tugged in the breeze.

Ellie watched Tom taking it all in. ‘It’s a party,’ she said.

He ran a hand through his hair. ‘I gathered that.’

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