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The curtains were still drawn, the bed was made, the photograph of me and Steven outside the laundrette was still gone, along with the only gold ring that she had left. I still expected her to be lying in bed painting her nails.
The wardrobe doors were open, revealing her row of black dresses and pile of shoes at the bottom.
Her three perfume bottles were clustered on one side of the dressing table; two were small, square and empty. The apple-shaped bottle had a centimetre of liquid left. Holding it in front of my neck as I’d practised, I sprayed once, twice, shivered. Her red lipstick lay on its side in a black case; I’d worn it down to a stump. I dragged it across my bottom lip.
In the darkness of the mirror my eyes seemed to glow white. My bottom lip appeared swollen as though filled with blood. The brown line around my neck was getting thicker, the skin below my eyes sagged and my spots had started to spread over my cheeks, towards my ears. My underpants were yellow against my pale, goose-pimpled body. I stared so long that the image blurred and I was only aware of my eyes and lips.
The baby started crying again. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and ground the lipstick hard into the dressing table.
On the landing I looked at the locked door behind which the baby must have been writhing in its cot.
In the hall the postman had added to the pile of red envelopes. I went into the living room. The orange curtains were closed but they didn’t quite reach the bottom of the window and the gap created a stretch of wintry light on the opposite wall.
Steven, also in his underpants, was astride one of his biggest boxes, digging his heels into the cardboard sides and saying ‘Yeeha!’ He had a Morning Flakes box on his head. His greasy blond fringe stuck out from under it. Two empty Marlboro Red packets were tucked into either side of his underpants. He whipped gun-shaped hands from them.
‘I’m a cowboy!’
‘No, you’re not.’
I twisted the skin of his right arm between thumb and finger. He squealed. I leant back in the armchair and put my feet firmly on the floor.
‘Will she come back today?’ he asked, quietly.
‘Probably not.’ A spring poked my bum. I wiggled to get comfy.
‘But she might do?’
I picked at holes in the chair’s arm.
‘Maybe she’s gone to get the telly back?’
‘She said she would so that we can get a Wii.’
‘She left because you’re annoying.’
His bottom lip wobbled. I beat the chair with my feet. ‘Want to make a fort?’
‘But she’s coming home soon and we’ll be in trouble.’
‘Don’t put on that baby voice, you’re seven.’
‘You’re only twelve so don’t pretend to be a grown-up.’
‘Older than you.’
‘You don’t even have a girlfriend.’
‘Yes I do.’
‘Rosa Next Door.’
‘She’s way too old.’
‘Let’s just make a fucking fort.’
‘Fucking fort,’ he sniggered under his breath.
‘If we turn the sofa over we can put it where the telly used to be.’
With a little difficulty I turned the sofa upside down. Steven helped me push it into the corner of the room. There was a round scab on his hand just below his thumb. I crawled inside and lay back. My ankles poked out the end.
Steven hesitated. ‘It’s dark.’
‘Since when were you scared of the dark?’
He giggled and crawled up my legs and chest, collapsing on top of me. I didn’t know if it was the sofa or Steven but there was a strong smell of piss. The darkness was hot and growing hotter. There was nowhere else to put my arms but around his body; his back was damp with sweat. The baby’s cries had quietened to thick, breathy sobs.
‘I wish we still had the stereo,’ I said. ‘We could turn it up really loud.’
‘You smell of her,’ said Steven.
I woke. Steven was wriggling. The baby was quiet.
‘I’m too hot,’ said Steven, crawling backwards.
He sat on top of the sofa. ‘I’m hungry.’
I got up to go to the kitchen.
‘I want crisps!’ he shouted.
I turned around and pushed him backwards off the sofa. There was a satisfying crack as his head hit the wall.
The last bag of sugar was in the cupboard above the sink. I pushed the baby bottles aside and they clattered against the plywood. I swept them up and put them in the bin.
‘Only four spoonfuls,’ I warned Steven who had clambered back on top of the sofa.
I sat next to him.
‘Can we sleep in the fort tonight?’ he said.
‘Not enough room.’
‘I hope she comes back.’
I went to punch him in the arm but I noticed another perfectly round scab on his right shoulder.
‘I didn’t do that.’
A man came up to the window.
I pulled Steven down behind the sofa. He dropped the bag of sugar and started scooping at the carpet with cupped hands.
‘I’m not an idiot,’ he whimpered. His ears turned pink and he began to stand up. I pulled him down again.
‘There’s a man outside,’ I hissed.
Steven stared at me.
The man tried the bell. He rattled the letter box.
‘Miss Brice?’ His voice had the same nicotine croak as Tony’s. ‘Chelsea Brice, I am a County Court Bailiff. I am here to talk to you about the repayment of your debts.’
The letter box banged again and again.
‘What else can they take?’ Steven clutched the elastic on my underpants. ‘What if they take the fort? You won’t let them take the fort, will you, James?’
I pushed him away. The letterbox banged rhythmically. The baby cried.
‘Will you do something?’
I stared at Steven and spoke through clenched teeth. ‘Before you came along we used to lie in her bed all day. We watched cooking programmes and danced to Eric Clapton. We had two orange bean bags down here as well as the sofa and armchair. We sat in them and ate scrambled eggs.’
‘Miss Johnson, open the door or I will have to return with a magistrate’s warrant and gain entry by force.’
‘Then Tony started coming round. She stopped sitting on her bean bag. Tony took her out for dinner and she didn’t want scrambled eggs any more.’
I pinched his arm and held it, twisting the skin between my fingers.
‘The day she came home with you she put you on my bean bag, told me to watch you and went upstairs for a long time.’
I put my face so close to his that I could smell his unbrushed teeth.
‘We didn’t have to steal anything before you were born. On the bus to Dolster Park car boot sale last Christmas she said that two kids are more expensive than one.’
‘We’ll play it your way, Miss Johnson, I’ll be back.’
‘What about three kids?’ said Steven.
I gave him the last fifty pence to get sugar. I was hungry and wanted him out the way. I’d taken it from her purse two weeks before. He was still blubbering when he left in his pyjamas instead of his uniform.
The baby’s crying had developed into a raspy scream and I worried that Rosa Next Door might hear. I pushed some stuffing from the arm chair into my ears.
I wanted to get a good stint on the wall before Steven got back. I ran upstairs as fast as I could and closed her bedroom door behind me.
A pair of red knickers fell out of the bedside table drawer when I opened it. The material was see-through and covered in small black roses. I rolled my underpants to the floor and pulled on the knickers. The knickers were tight against my willy. The roses pressed in, squeezing bobbles of skin out of the tiny holes. I stroked my bobbly willy through the netting.
The clasp of the matching red bra wouldn’t catch behind me. I tied the back of it in a knot and pulled it over my head, putting my arms through the arm holes. Her red blouse was tight around my stomach but hung loose at the top. I unravelled black leggings up my legs and wrapped my chest in her purple jacket with the grey fur hood.
I sprayed the apple bottle all over my face and neck. I rubbed it on my hands and through my hair, scratching it into my scalp. I sprayed until there was none left and my skin stung.
My face pulsed pink and raw in the mirror. Lipstick was smeared from my lips half way up my cheek. I zipped the jacket up to my chin and pulled the hood up.
Cold rain blew diagonally across the yard. Crisp packets and beer cans had collected with a yellow plastic bag in the corner. I climbed up on to the bin then on to the wall, straddling it like Steven straddled his box. The damp soaked through my leggings and knickers and my bum felt numb but I was snug inside the fur hood, invisible.
Through the big kitchen window I could see her sitting at her table in a white dressing gown, drinking something from a mug and flicking through a brightly-coloured magazine like the ones we had around the house.
On the other side of the window above me the baby probably still screamed. A slow train rattled down the track at the far end of the street. I held my breath for a while until I had to let it out in a whoosh. I imagined Rosa’s breath, the rhythm of it, the heat, the taste of her coffee. I imagined it was coffee. Espresso. She looked up from her magazine and spoke to someone. A man came into view wearing only tracksuit bottoms. He leant over and kissed her hard, holding the back of her head. He pulled her out of her chair and pushed her backwards on to the table. She slid her right hand down his back and into his tracksuit bottoms. I put my hands up inside my jacket and slid my flat palms up and down my back.
The back door squeaked. Steven stood on the step in his blue space rocket pyjamas, his ankles glowing red above his trainers. He had opened the sugar and was dabbing his finger in the bag.
‘What are you doing in her jacket?’
I quickly dismounted the wall, knocking the bin over with a crash. Red and white envelopes, cigarette packets and dirty nappies spilled out. I pushed him into the house and slammed the door. I put the sugar on the top shelf.
Why are you wearing her clothes?’
My head was sweaty inside its fur pod. I stripped down to the underwear and threw the clothes at the floor.
Steven looked me up and down and giggled. ‘You better put her clothes back or she’ll tell you off.’
I scooped up the pile and walked heavily up the stairs.
‘James, what we do now?’ He waited for a response. ‘Let’s go look for her.’
The baby was quiet again. I went to her room, placed the clothes on the bed. Steven stood in the doorway. I folded each item of clothing carefully and put them neatly on the floor.
‘She might have gone to the Job Centre again or to the Benefit Office.’
Steven stood behind me in the mirror.
‘Or to get food off Gaz.’
I picked up the apple bottle and threw it at our reflection. There was a smash and glass flew out in all directions. The bottle was in bits on the floor. The mirror had splintered into a spiralling pattern like a whirlpool, with smaller pieces of glass in the centre. We both looked at the mirror; the image of two exploded boys in the darkness of their mother’s bedroom.
I sat on the edge of her bed, my face at Steven’s height.
‘She’s going to be so mad at you,’ he said.
I opened her bedside drawer and pushed my left hand into the pool of lace. With my other hand I touched my forehead where it stung; a little blood came away on my fingers.
‘The baby’s not crying,’ said Steven.
I thought about Rosa lying back on the kitchen table, the tips of her brown hair falling into her coffee, her white dressing gown slipping down her thigh as she brought her legs up.
‘That was really loud. Why is the baby not crying?’
I thought about her turning around, seeing me on the wall, smiling.
‘It might need something.’
‘Then it would cry,’ I said.
‘I just feel like we should do something.’
‘You want to go check on it?’
He looked at me cautiously. ‘Will you come with me?’
‘Then I don’t want to.’
‘Sure you do, come on.’ I grabbed his wrist, felt his child bones crunch.
‘No.’ He pulled his body as far away from me as he could. I dragged him, dangling from my hand, across the landing.
‘You go check on the baby.’
‘No, I don’t want to.’ He squealed and writhed, biting at my fingers. Blood dribbled down my knuckles and smeared over Steven’s lips.
I turned the key. Steven kicked at my shins. I held him off the ground, crying and sweating. I opened the door just a crack before he kicked me in my right hip and I bent double. I still gripped him.
Under his begging was the sound of small wheezing breaths.
As the smell of shit hit us, Steven grabbed at the banister but a broken rail came off in his hand. I threw him into the room towards the cot and he hit the floor with a thud. The room was dark, the murkiness was thick with the stench. He scrabbled towards the door. I slammed it and turned the key.
His screams were irritating and endless.
Trying on a black silk dress, I whistled Layla to myself. Before Steven and Tony came along we still had a stereo and we danced in her room while she did her make-up.
Steven punched and kicked the door.
Slipping on a pair of red heels that were cold and hard, I danced to my whistle, swaying side to side. The dress was ankle-length on me. It spun out like an umbrella. I pouted at one of the larger fragments of mirror. A line of blood ran from my forehead through my eyebrow and down my cheek, covering the lipstick smudge.
The rain got heavier. It spattered the windows.
I rubbed at the brown line on my neck, spreading a greasy smudge up to my chin. I squeezed a spot on my cheek. A thick yellow globule burst on to the mirror.
In the living room I picked at the lilac wallpaper, sucking on larger pieces and dropping smaller ones like confetti. I stopped to listen in the kitchen. Steven thumped the floor above me.
I climbed on to the wall and was angry to see Rosa had disappeared. The back door was open. She was singing a pop song. I recognised the tune. She floated into view in the white dressing gown, swaying to the rhythm of her own voice. Using a pocket mirror, she applied bright red lipstick and ruffled her hair, pouting.
I tucked my hands under my armpits. A train thundered along the track at the far end of the street; two women passed with prams, the wheels bumping noisily along the cobbles. There was a thudding on the window above me.
Steven’s hands were smearing the glass. I looked away. When I was his age I smashed that window with a football. Mum got double glazing.
Jess Green is a 22-year-old short story writer and performance poet. She is currently living in Leicester and working part time in a school library whilst pursuing a career in writing and performance. Her poetry collection I Won’t Share This City will be coming out in February 2012.