‘Admit you’re wrong,’ he said. ‘That’s all you have to do; it’s not hard.’
When you’re being held against a wall – feet almost off the floor and a hand gripping your throat - it’s always best to agree.
‘Yes, okay. You’re right, let go!’
The red face - spit round the mouth – came closer. Eyes squinted a hair’s breadth from mine, a horrible smell of stale beer bloomed in my nostrils, but it would be okay. He was right. I said it…
I walk fast, head tucked into the neck of my jacket like a tortoise. Adrenaline washes through me in a hot tide so I don’t feel the tang of ice in the sea-wind. The windows of the streets and squares glow yellow, and shop windows flicker to life as Brighton wakes. I hurry through it as though my feet are on fire, while commuters barge past me the other way, cups of stinking coffee held before them as shields. My heart surges in my chest and I don’t want to talk; I don’t want to be part of it. I just need to reach the sea.
‘Lying little moron,’ the voice sneers again in my head. ‘You don’t mean that. You think you’re so smart…’
Voices from the dead. At night the past spills over into morning and I wake thinking it’s now. I lie in the early light and remind myself it isn’t; it’s done. I tell myself this over and over, hoping that will make it true – that the memories will fade like the Shrink Woman tells me. It’s just that mine aren’t ready to leave yet and wake me with a slap each morning. Memories of my brother Sam, or at least what he turned into…
…The hand tightened on my throat. Black and silver stars exploded on the edges of my vision. ‘I’m wrong,’ I said, ‘Sam! I agree!’ I tried to make my voice as loud as I could, so that maybe someone upstairs would hear me and come down. He slammed my head back against the wall – again, then again.
‘I’m going to kill you,’ he said.
I’ve walked so fast, I’m already crossing Grand Junction Road. The long green railings and Pier entrance are ahead and after that there’s only the sky, streaked with orange and pink and no sound but the shush of waves washing lazily over stones. I hurry down the steps to the promenade, move the rucksack to my other shoulder and slow down, listening to the suck and blow of the water and the hum of the wind. It’s quiet now... calm… until suddenly a voice breaks in - shocking as a slap: ‘Oi…Girl… you – Girl!’
I keep moving, twisting my head to find the speaker, and then I see him.
Over the road, in the shadow of the tall arches, are two men. One lies on a bench but hefts himself up to stare at me, his face ghostly pale in the dimness, but it’s the shouter I fix my eyes on. He walks towards me with a strange scissoring stride - hair in a mad, red halo, his mouth a wet gape.
‘I saw God!’ he bellows, so close now, I can hear his breathing. ‘I saw God, and he had a message for you!’
His eyes are red-rimmed and crusty, eyelashes yellow with some gungy mess and the scent of him carried on the breeze is a ripe, biscuity stink. I look down and keep walking, my feet shooting in and out beneath me in a blur, but he keeps pace – one hand coming up to clutch my jacket.
‘You!’ he says again. ‘Girl…!’
The fingers catch and hold, tightening, before they are suddenly snapped away. The man with the pale face has him, his arm locked round the nutter’s neck, holding him back. For a second our eyes meet – his the colour of moss on stones – and something unspoken passes between us. He smiles at me even as the red haired man struggles and growls. I get away while I can, breath tearing out of my chest and sweat cold on my forehead. I run until I feel pebbles under my feet and I’m safe on the beach. It’s just me now, but for a single grey gull riding the air currents, and far in the distance a hesitant swimmer, stammering on the frozen stones. The day is full of madmen.
No one has followed me, but I keep moving all the same, hugging the rucksack close, not sure why I brought it. It’s an old bag – you can still see the faint printed outline of Barbie on one side – and it’s stuffed with emergency supplies for when I leave – change of clothes, map of London and a small knife from the kitchen. No money though which makes bringing it pointless. No money; no train.
After a while, I crunch my way back over the pebbles, then stop, letting the cold squeeze me. The end of the mini railway is in sight and with it, the end of the promenade. I don’t know where to go from there.
As I’m thinking, a blob appears and as it gets closer, I see it’s a lad wearing the same uniform as mine. He’s stuffing a sausage roll in his face and talking to himself. As he draws level and sees me, the talking stops and he blushes deep red. ‘Don’t keep on that way,’ he says. ‘There’s police.’
I ignore him and walk on, but he turns and follows, keeping pace and flicking glances from me to the road ahead. He has fluffy blond hair, an earring, and a dirty smear down his face as if he’s been crying. I wish he’d go away.
‘You should stop,’ he says. ‘Something’s happened up there.’
I walk faster. ‘Why should I care if there’s police?’
‘You’re meant to be in school right? Like me.’
‘It’s early – it’s not their business anyway.’
He blushes again, the hot stain washing up his neck and into his hairline.
‘It might be. They looked at me funny. There’s nothing to see, but you don’t want to draw attention. I’m going to warm up somewhere.’
Being warm sounds good, but I keep going until I see the cars drawn up in a tight circle. There are four policemen and a dog; I stop. The boy watches me and I notice that as well as the tear streak, there’s a line of dirt all round his chin. He looks as miserable as I feel. I decide to go with him.
The police don’t notice us anyway. They’re clustered opposite the big white ruin I call ‘The Mansion.’ Its peeling paint and the darkness of its door-less front seems to be bothering them. One of the policemen comes out, talking into a radio and we turn our backs, walking with the wind behind us.
‘Good decision,’ the boy says. ‘It’s nicer to have company don’t you think? I fancy a latte, how about you?’
I make a face. ‘A latte? That’s what my mum drinks.’
For a moment he just looks at me – eyes wide as marbles. There’s a faint stubble round his mouth so he must be older than I am, but he’s going red again, like a little girl.
‘I have expensive tastes,’ he shrugs. ‘You may have a Coke if you like, but I shall have a latte.’
He’s odd, but for some reason I like him. He smiles, lights a cigarette and offers me the packet. I shake my head and we go on in a burst of smoky scent, not even talking, like we’ve known each other for years and before I know it, we’re back with the tramps.
The man who saved me is sitting up, head in hands, fingers rubbing at his temples with slow concentration. The shouter is glaring up and down the seafront, waving a can around and muttering. Any hope of slipping past is gone, when he sees us and steps into the road.
‘Hey,’ he croaks, hoarse now. ‘You found a boy! Is he a good boy? Everyone should have a boy…’
The ‘boy’ glances at me and grins. ‘Friend of yours?’ he asks.
‘Don’t answer,’ I say, ‘he’s nuts.’
The man sways over to join us, eyes fixed on me. ‘Tell her!’ he croaks, ‘Tell her I got a message from God.’
‘You tell her,’ the lad says, and I dig him shuttup in the ribs.
‘Oh, don’t be mean,’ he says. ‘Even nutters need friends.’
‘You have him then. Personally, he’s not my type.’
As soon as we reach a busier part of the promenade the madman stops as if at an invisible checkpoint. He stands muttering, and then the mutters turn to shouts and the shouts into shrieks as we pull away. I think I still hear them long after we’re gone, like the howls of a beast. At last we reach La Gigo, where my ears are soon burning in the warmth. I wonder if the boy has noticed, but he brings our drinks then sits, sweeping spilt sugar into a heap and tweezing it up with his fingers. When he’s done, he looks up and smiles. ‘I like to be tidy,’ he says, ‘don’t you? How old are you by the way?’
I tell him I’m just sixteen and he raises an eyebrow. Then, to my horror, pushes his chair back and shakes his head. ‘Sorry,’ he says. ‘Way too young for me. I really can’t be seen talking to you.’
He turns away, and I can’t believe it - until I see the smile on his face and realize he’s joking.
‘You have a weird sense of humour.’
‘Have to,’ he says. ‘Otherwise I’d go crazy.’
I start to laugh, but his face is so serious, it dies halfway. He sits down again, picking up the free biscuit that came with his coffee. It’s some buttery, almond thing and I watch him bite into it undercover of my fringe. Tiny crumbs of sugar stick to his lips and his tongue comes out to catch them. While he’s looking down, I tuck the stray hair behind my ears and wipe at my face.
‘You look fine,’ he says. ‘I like your hair, though I bet you hate it. Girls always want what they don’t have.’
He’s right. I don’t mind the colour, which is what they call auburn but ‘You’re right,’ I say. ‘I’d rather it was straight.’
I lift a curl and twirl it round my finger, but he’s gazing out of the window where the sky is white and cold. ‘How come I’ve not seen you around?’ I ask. ‘At school I mean.’
He stares at me and sighs. ‘I only came this September. And I haven’t seen you either.’
I wonder where he was before. He has such a fancy voice I’m sure it was a private place but I daren’t ask because I don’t want any questions back. He’d think I was madder than the tramp if he knew I was seeing a psychologist. People always do even if they don’t say so.
He must notice my hesitation though, because he sits forward and smiles. ‘So,’ he says, ‘why are you bunking off?’ and something strange happens, because I find myself talking as if it’s nothing to do with me at all. ‘It’s my brother,’ I tell him. ‘He died. Everyone thinks I should be over it by now, but I’m not. They think it’s because I miss him, I suppose, but I don’t. They’d think I was evil if I said so, but I just don’t.’
‘Oh,’ he says and waits for me to go on, but it’s more than I’ve admitted to anyone before. I feel the panic rising and it must show in my face because he shakes his head. ‘Forget it,’ he says. ‘If you don’t want to talk about it that’s fine. Leave it.’
We sit there avoiding each other’s eyes, but just as it’s getting awkward, he asks for my number and email address and we leave, walking through the town in a warm silence. When we reach the bottom of my road, he stuffs his hands in his pockets and grins again. For a boy who looks like he’s been blubbing, he smiles more than most people.
‘Goodbye then,’ he says and goes ten paces before turning back and calling out. ‘Oh! How stupid – I don’t know your name. Mine is Joe. Joe Steen.’
‘Coo,’ I say, ‘at least that’s what everyone calls me.’
‘Coo....’ says Joe. ‘Cooo. Like a dove. I like that.’
I stand and watch him till he disappears. He’s wearing a long coat over his uniform and his blond head seems to shine. For the first time in ages, I reach home without thinking how much I hate it there, though it’s not the place itself, but the silence; especially the silence in Sam’s empty room.