Read You Against Me Online

Authors: Jenny Downham

You Against Me (7 page)

‘Well,’ she said, ‘I better go then. I hope you two have a fabulous time with the barrister.’

She got a sad smile from her mum for that. ‘Come on,’ she said, ‘let’s get you out of here.’

As the car turned out of the lane into the main road, Ellie opened the window. There was a spring tang in the air, sunlight bouncing off everything. Primroses sprouted at the roundabout and in baskets at the bus stop. She liked this journey, down the side of the park, past the church. It was almost possible to believe she was going somewhere lovely and that good things might happen.

But the only good thing that had happened for days was meeting the gatecrasher. Ellie shut her eyes to remember him – his lazy smile, his swagger. She’d been angry all night about the stupid party, about getting into trouble for cutting Tom’s hair. Anger had made her confident, so when the boy came up to her, she hadn’t blushed or stumbled over her words, hadn’t minded about her scar. Standing in the half-light by the river, she felt as if new things were possible.

What was it Tom said this morning on the landing?
Be vigilant
.

But being so suspicious of everyone took all your words away. Now it was spreading to actions. Twice she’d written the gatecrasher a text. Twice she’d deleted it without sending.

‘Do you know,’ she told her mum, ‘even in my dreams I’m careful.’

‘What I
do
know is that I’m going to be late to see Tom and Dad off if I go round the one-way system.’

‘Aren’t you going with them?’

‘I’m not needed, apparently.’

‘What will you do all day?’

She shrugged. ‘Usual things – tidy up, think about dinner. I might go over to Gran’s and do a bit more clearing out.’

‘I’ll come. You’ve been asking me to help clear the cottage for weeks. We could go to the beach after. It’ll be fun.’

‘Nice try, but you’re going to school. Can I drop you here? Are you all right to walk the last bit?’

She pulled over on the near side of the river. Ellie watched the water for a minute. It was dark and barely moving. Maybe she could dive in and turn into the mermaid Tom had talked about. She could splash about until it was time to go home, surrounded by ducks and soggy bread.

‘Lunch money,’ Mum said, and handed over ten pounds. ‘And there’s enough for a coffee after school with your friends. I’m sure Dad will understand if you don’t come straight home and revise today.’

‘I’m sure he won’t.’

‘Come on, love, don’t be so hard on him. He wants you to do well in your exams, but he understands you need time for your mates too.’

Ellie wanted to explain that she had no mates, that fitting in at new school was more complex than her mum could ever imagine, that having your brother accused of sexual assault was not going to make it easier. But she also wanted to keep the hope alive in her mother’s eyes.

‘Well, if I’m late back,’ she said brightly, ‘you’ll know where I am.’

She opened the door. She had to walk along the side of the river to meet the bridge. The school was on the other side – three low-level buildings, all glass and angles. There was the playground, washed with light, the high tangle of voices as kids walked towards it from every direction.

‘You think everyone’s going to stare?’ she said.

‘Of course not. But if they do, tell a teacher.’

‘You think assembly will be cancelled, so I can be hot-seated in front of the whole school?’

‘Oh, love, I know this is hard, but you have to be brave. Do it for Tom, sweetheart. Keep thinking of him.’

She leaned across and kissed Ellie on the forehead. Maybe it shone silver, like the one the good witch gave Dorothy in
The Wizard of Oz
.

Ellie could do with that kind of magic.

Nine

‘Mikey, you awake?’

Holly stood in the doorway of his bedroom. He moaned softly, hoped it sounded like sleep. But she didn’t go away.

‘Mikey?’ She climbed onto the bed and lay down.

There hadn’t been a morning for weeks when he hadn’t woken up to some kind of crisis. He took a deep breath. ‘What’s up?’

‘Mum’s gone again.’

He struggled to sit up, rubbed his eyes. ‘Did she sleep in her bed?’

‘No.’

‘Did you look downstairs and out on the balcony?’

Holly nodded, curled her hand into his. ‘And I knocked next door.’

‘And they haven’t seen her?’

‘No.’

He sighed. He knew his mum was struggling with all this Karyn stuff, but it was only four weeks since the last time she’d done a bunk. He should have guessed last night, when she’d told him she was going to the pub for a quick one. Well, the quick one had obviously turned into something a hell of a lot longer, which meant she could be anywhere. With anyone. He fumbled for his mobile, but the only missed calls were from Jacko and Sienna. He scrolled through the contacts.

‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘We’ll call her, shall we?’

Holly snuggled closer to listen. The phone rang four times, then the message clicked in. Their mother’s voice apologizing for not being available.

‘Maybe she’s dead,’ Holly said, her voice quivering.

‘She’s not.’

‘She might be. You don’t know.’

‘I know everything, and she’s not dead, OK?’

He left a message, told her to ring and
let me know where you are and when you’re coming back
. Told her to
do it soon, please
.

‘That should do it,’ Holly said, like he could sort the world out that easily.

He turned to her, could just make out the shine of her eyes on the pillow beside him. ‘In five minutes,’ he said, ‘we’ll get up. Until then, you’re only allowed to think about nice things.’

‘OK.’ She craned her head to see the clock. ‘Can I think about football?’

‘Yes.’

‘I’ll do the alphabet game. I’m going to start with Ossie Ardiles, then Dimitar Berbatov, then Clemence, then Defoe.’

‘Great. Can you do it inside your head though?’

She lay there, her whole body flexing with thought. He could almost hear the calculations. And while she did that, he listened to his messages. Sienna sounding sulky:
What happened to you last night? You wanna come round and make it up to me, ‘cos I know it’s your morning off?
Jacko sounding urgent:
New plan! Let me know when you’re awake and I’ll come and pick you up
.

Mikey sank back into the pillow and wondered if his life could actually get any worse – Karyn assaulted, the bloke who did it still unpunished, Mum missing and now pressure from women and mates. He closed his eyes and tried to distract himself by thinking about London. He’d work in a hotel. He’d wear a full set of chef’s whites and have proper equipment – ramekin dishes, loose-based flan tins and specialist knives. He’d probably have other things too, things he didn’t even know existed.

Holly got stuck. He could feel it in her body, as if breathing was suddenly difficult to do. She turned to him. ‘Maybe Mum got hit by a car.’

‘She didn’t.’

‘Or she went in a boat and it sank.’

‘She didn’t do that either.’

‘Or a plane fell on her head.’

He told her to stop talking rubbish and get ready for school, she was already late. Then he took his phone to the bathroom and tried Mum again. Still no answer. He texted Jacko. He texted Sienna. Same message to both:
Totally up for it
. Whichever one got back to him first, that’s what he’d do. Runnings with Jacko. Between the sheets with Sienna. Let fate decide. He was sick of being in charge.

He stared in the mirror as he pissed. He looked angry. He washed his face with cold water, then brushed his teeth. The toothpaste had nearly run out and he added that to the list in his head.

When he came out of the bathroom, Holly was on the landing eating a packet of crisps. She was still in her pyjamas.

‘What are you doing?’

‘My clothes are in the bedroom and Karyn won’t let me in. I knocked, but she won’t answer.’ Holly stuffed another crisp in her mouth. ‘She’s probably dead too.’

‘Oh for God’s sake!’ Mikey rapped on the door.

He checked the time. School started at nine, which meant they only had five minutes to get there. They wrote your name down in a book if you were late.

He turned to Holly. ‘How much do you need the stuff that’s in there?’

‘A lot.’

He did a comedy knock to cheer himself up.
Tappity tap, tap, tap
. Then a police knock.
Wham, wham
, with a closed fist. He tried to sound like he meant it, but Karyn wasn’t shifting.

‘You could kick it down,’ Holly said. ‘You’re allowed to do that in emergencies.’

He smiled at her. She smiled back. He’d forgotten how beautiful her smile was and because he didn’t want it to fade, he tried
Open sesame
and
Abracadabra!
from the stories she liked. Then he pretended to be a wolf who could blow the door down.


Let me in, let me in, by the hair on my chinny chin chin
.’

It kept Holly smiling. But it made no difference to Karyn.

He leaned in, breathing on the paintwork. ‘Please, Karyn, talk to me.’

He told her he was her big brother and she should trust him, that he’d do anything to help her if only she’d open the door.

Holly hopped from one foot to the other and gave him the thumbs-up as Karyn dragged a chair from under the handle. It was hot in the room and stuffy. Karyn slung herself on the bottom bunk, face down, her head hidden in pillows. She still had her tracksuit on. She’d been wearing it for days, had obviously started sleeping in it as well.

Holly marched straight over. ‘Why did you lock me out?’ She nudged at her sister with a bare foot. ‘It’s my room too. Just because something bad happened to you doesn’t mean you can do what you like.’

Karyn rolled over. She looked startled, like someone blinking into light after hours shut in the dark. ‘What did you just say?’

Mikey intervened. ‘All right, all right! Holly, get your stuff and go and get dressed.’

Holly gave Karyn a final shove, then picked up two school shirts from a pile of dirty washing on the floor and sniffed them. ‘They’re smelly.’

Mikey grabbed them from her and sniffed them too, checked them for dirt and passed the cleanest one back. He added washing powder to the list in his head.

Holly walked really slowly to the door, where she stopped, her hand on the door handle.

‘Get dressed, Holly!’

He knew she hated him shouting, but it made her speed up. She stuck her tongue out, slammed the door, thumped all the way down the hallway to the bathroom and slammed that door for good measure.

Mikey pulled a chair up next to the bed and sat down. ‘So, what’s up?’

Karyn looked at him, her face smeary with tears. ‘Mum’s gone.’

‘Yeah, I’m sorry.’

‘It’s me, isn’t it? I’m freaking her out.’

‘You know what she’s like – it doesn’t take much to frighten her off.’

‘It’s definitely me. She’s been drinking more since this happened, have you noticed? And sleeping loads.’

Behind her, through the window, he could see grass, litter, other flats. Weird to think that people with other lives were still under their duvets, pressing the snooze buttons on their alarm clocks and snuggling under for a few more minutes’ escape.

Karyn ran a hand across her face, wiping away fresh tears. ‘I’m trying to help as much as I used to, but I can’t seem to hold it together. Holly wanted her hair plaited just now and my hands were shaking so much, I couldn’t do it. How lame is that? I only shut her out so she didn’t see me upset.’

He checked his phone. No messages. Maybe he’d go round to Sienna’s anyway. She was always up for it.

‘You don’t want to listen to me, do you?’ Karyn said.

‘I don’t mind.’

‘You’re bored, I know you are.’ She pulled her knees up and hugged them. ‘Sometimes, I wonder if you even believe me.’

‘I’m going to get him for you, aren’t I?’

‘So you keep saying. Whacking him doesn’t prove anything though.’

‘It proves he can’t mess with us.’

Holly came back in and sat on the rug. ‘What’s going on?’

Mikey turned to her. ‘Holly, what the hell are you wearing?’

‘The other stuff was stinky.’

‘You can’t wear your Tottenham kit to school.’

‘School’s shut. They just said so on TV.’

He laughed. Holly laughed with him.

Karyn stared at him with dark eyes. ‘If you beat him up, you’re going to get in trouble. How does that help anyone?’

He gave her a look that was supposed to tell her she shouldn’t be talking about this in front of Holly. An eight-year-old would never keep her mouth shut. He was angry now, could feel it building inside him.

Holly blinked up at him, puzzled. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘Nothing. It doesn’t matter.’

‘But I want to know.’

‘Please,’ Mikey said, ‘go and get dressed properly.’ He rubbed the back of his neck. He was beginning to get a headache. ‘I tell you what, if you’re dressed in school uniform and back here in five minutes, I’ll play footie with you in the courtyard later.’

‘That’s a bribe.’

‘Yep.’

She scowled at him. ‘Well, it’s not big enough.’

‘Maybe she should stay here,’ Karyn said. ‘That’d be easier for you.’

He wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic or not. Maybe she just didn’t want to be alone.

‘I don’t mind,’ Holly said. ‘I can do drawing if I stay here. And we can play football.’

Mikey sat with it for a moment. They had to keep being normal, didn’t they? Holly had missed loads of school recently. If they didn’t keep up some kind of routine, wouldn’t everything collapse?

‘No,’ he said, ‘this is how it’s going to be. Holly’s going to get dressed in proper clothes. I’m going to see if there’s anything in the kitchen to eat. Holly and Karyn are going to have breakfast, then I’m taking Holly to school and we’ll put our names in the late book. Karyn will stay here and do tidying and sort food out for dinner, so when Holly gets home there will be something to eat.’

Karyn shook her head. ‘She can’t go to school if there’s no one to collect her.’

It took a beat to sink in. Mum usually collected Holly, but Mum had gone. Karyn couldn’t go out, so that left him. His shift finished at nine, so unless he blagged time off, it was impossible.

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